When I said we had started into fan-ficcing our game, I was not kidding. Although one could argue whether or not this all constitutes “fanfic” since each story technically becomes canonical once it is written….
Anyway, what follows is a story not by me, but by Jason. I challenged him to do something that talks more about Marcus’s backstory, and he came back with exactly that, but from an unexpected point of view….
Her first memory is of the Small One watching her.
He comes, when he comes at all, after the sun sets. When the twilight is gone and the stars are out and the wind has gotten colder but not yet cold enough to send the men to their wooden caves. He stands in one place, alone and quiet, and he watches them, all of them, everyone, standing still like the men of stone and pretending that nobody can see him. Maybe nobody can, but she sees him. All of the birds see him. And they don’t like him. He smells like carrion and cold and the chill feeling of predators creeping near. She doesn’t like him, and she shouts at him to go away. Sometimes the men see him too, but they don’t smell the predator-scent on him, and they walk past like he isn’t even there. Like he’s another one of the man-chicks who run and call all day between the caves of stone and wood scattered all about. But he isn’t one of them, and she knows it and the others know it too, and they cry, but he doesn’t leave.
For three nights he has come, she remembers that far back. She doesn’t remember much of anything before that, just hoods and perches and dried strips of flesh from a man’s hand. She isn’t upset by not remembering more, there isn’t anything else to remember because why would there be? But she remembers him coming three nights ago. She doesn’t like remembering and wishes that he would go away so that she wouldn’t remember anymore, but he won’t. She knows the predator look, whether from a man or a man-chick or from another bird. Before he was looking at all of the birds, but tonight he’s watching her, and she’s afraid. So she puffs out her feathers and preens and tries to look big and maybe he’ll get scared and go away.
But he doesn’t go away. He walks towards them all, sliding around all the other men like a hare moving through the brush. They don’t see him, even when they do, because he looks like one of their hatchlings and men are too stupid to smell the predator on him. She sees him coming and she calls and flaps her wings and pulls on the strip of skin that the large man put around her leg, but it doesn’t release her, even when she pecks at it until the large man strikes her perch with a stick and calls at her in a low voice like a bear’s.
Now the large man sees the Small One and he turns towards him, looms over him like a deer over a mouse, and they call to one another for a while. The large man barks at the Small One with the high, rolling bark he uses to scare other men away, but it doesn’t scare the Small One, who extends one featherless wing, and gives the man rocks, many rocks, small and round and shining in the light of the torches. The man takes the rocks, rubs them together and places them one by one on the stone block beside him. And then he turns and takes her, roughly pinning her wings and slipping the black hood over her eyes. She feels the strip of skin being jostled, wrapped around something else, and then she’s perched upon something tough and yielding. She digs her talons into it, and tries to get free, but the skin is wrapped around her legs, and she can’t see to fly. And then she’s moving, somewhere, sounds of men and horses and other beasts passing her by. She doesn’t know where she is or where she’s going, and usually that doesn’t matter, but now she can smell the predator-scent all around her, and she calls, softly so as not to draw the predator’s attention, calling into the darkness because she doesn’t know what else to do. But no sooner does she do so than the movement stops, and the other noises fade, and before she can get her bearings the hood is pulled off, and there he is.
She’s perched on plumage, rough, black plumage stretched over the outer half of the Small One’s wing, and the strip of skin that bound her to the perch before is wrapped around the Small One’s wing like a snake. He’s standing in between two mighty caves of man-stone, alone but for her, his wing extended and staring at her in silence. She wants to flee, to fly, to scratch at the skin strip or the Small One’s wing or face until he lets her go, but she doesn’t do any such thing, for his eyes, black pits of absolute darkness that undulate within irises of dazzling white, his eyes hold her fast, and she stares into them the way she has seen mice and rodents stare down the eyes of other predators. She can feel his stare, direct and unyielding as the sun itself, boring through her own eyes like the beak of a vulture, until she can take it no longer, and ducks her head beneath a wing like the meanest thrush or seagull, hopeful of nothing more than to be slain quickly by the predator before her.
And yet no blow manifests, no quick strike to the throat or braincase, and after a minute she feels his other wing, the one without plumage of any sort, gently raising her head to look at him once more. This time his stare is different, his eyes less ferocious, and he inspects her the way she has seen men inspecting other birds, other horses, even other men. What he seeks she does not know, nor whether or not he finds it, but at length the soft mandibles that serve him in place of a proper beak twist in some strange fashion, and part, revealing teeth as sharp as razors. He calls to her then, a soft, thin sound, like the whistling of wind, and yet she knows, as clearly as she knows anything, that he is telling her not to flee, even as he reaches down and undoes the strip of dried skin that binds her to his arm, and tosses it aside. She remains still a moment, tests her grip, extends her wings and retracts them, and for a moment she considers fleeing, but some compulsion keeps her where she is, and before she knows it he is moving again, carrying her with him, back through the canyons of stone and wood to a large, crumbling cave. Only once they are inside does she feel the compulsion lift, and she takes to flight, circling up and around the shadowy cavern, disturbing bats and pigeons in the nest of perches overhead.
She has only just finished exploring her new environment when she hears his call again, louder this time, but without coercion. She knows what he wants, for her to come down, and she considers, briefly, ignoring it, remaining up here, out of reach, and letting him call what he would. Far below she sees him watching her, his pose wary, uncertain, like a creature in unfamiliar territory. For a moment she sees his eyes flicker to the entrance to the cave, open and with wind whistling in, but he makes no move to close it, nor could he reach it before her even if he did. He calls again, and this time she smells the worry in his call, the expectation of something cold and painful, as though he is afraid that she will devour him, and not the reverse.
She circles down, above the Small One’s head, watches as he sheds the dark plumage of before and extends one wing out, as if it were another perch. Once more she thinks of escape, but turns away, and lands, feeling the Small One’s wing take her weight. He does not hiss or cry as she clutches his plucked wing with her talons, but simply watches her, as though she had done this of her own accord and he had not cried at all. Once again she stares at him, but this time there is no predator in him, just another hatchling, and a series of expressions she does not know the meaning of.
With his other wing, he holds up a dead mouse by its tail, and extends it to her. She plucks it from the air and gulps it down, relishing the taste of the rodent, a richer taste than any she has felt before. A warm, fiery feeling sinks deep into her chest as she swallows the mouse, an enrapturing feeling, enervating and soporific all at once, and she is so consumed by it that she does not react when he reaches over and strokes the plumage of her head and neck. And when she looks again, his face has parted once more and she can again see his teeth.
He emits another call, and she knows it to be an important call, but does not know what it means, a soft and delicate thing like a puff of wind.
They are in a large cave, towering and hewn smooth by men, so vast that even the faintest calls are echoed up through the heights to the perches above, where bats and owls dwell in nights other than these.
The Small One stands before other predators, larger predators, for all of them are larger than he, and they are calling to one another in low, quiet tones, the tones she knows they use when they do not wish for still more predators to hear them. She circles around the columns and stalactites that festoon the cave, and every so often, one of them glances overhead, either to be certain that she is still there, or perhaps to ensure that she is not about to dive upon them. There is fear writ upon the Small One’s face whenever he looks, not the great fear that drives even predators to flee or fight, but one of the smaller fears that men and predators are masters of, the ones that she does not understand no matter how often they arise. What he is afraid of, she does not know. She does not think it is her.
She does not think the other predators are afraid of her either, even though they might be, for she is no hatchling eaglet any longer but a great bird of prey, larger than the largest hawks who ply the skies above the forest of man-caves. Still, she does not mistake the predators for prey, not after all she has witnessed from them before. She has seen predators who could melt from view like fish darting down beneath the dark waters, or move with the speed of fleeing hinds. She has seen some who could break stone and wood with their wings or claws, and others whose very bodies seemed to molt and swell before her. It is these last that the Small One calls to now, one of whom is molting even as she watches, his body a riot of flesh and bone, like a thousand creatures merged into one. She does not like this predator, nor most predators, but the Small One suffers its presence, and so she circles, waiting.
At length she hears the special call, the Small One’s call which is for her and her alone. She folds her wings and dives, slowing before she strikes the ground to land beside the Small One, and lifts her head, high enough to peck at the Small One’s ear should she wish to, though she knows that he does not wish for her to, and so does not. Instead she stands, and waits, and watches as the Small One calls to the others, a long, endless series of calls, like the chirping of songbirds in the spring. One of the other predators extends a bare, featherless wing towards her and she shies away from it without thinking. It’s not until the Small One calls to her and beckons that she suffers the predator to stroke her head. His touch is cold and clammy and she ruffles her feathers and gives a short, sharp cry, enough to get him to withdraw. The predator calls once more to the Small One and he to the other for a time, until finally the Small One turns and beckons for her to follow, and she does.
Out and into the night air they go, and she takes to wing as soon as they do. He looks up at her once or twice, not as often as he used to, just sufficient to ensure she hasn’t lost him. Through the herds of men he walks, wrapped in his own affairs, for what need has a predator to be watchful when wandering among the prey herds? For a time he walks, and she flies above, unperturbed in her turn by anything conceivable, until the sound of a shrill cry from some other creature draws his attention, and by consequence hers.
Ahead, beside one of the mountains of wood hewn and erected by men, a man stands with a strip of dried skin in his wing. Again and again he swings it down, lashing like the tail of a scorpion at a man-hatchling half his size, who is crying distress to all the skies. Instantly, the Small One stops, tests the air, listens to the cry. She sees him tense, his demeanor shifting from that of a hatchling to a predator in the blink of an eye. A glance up to ensure that she is watching, and then he is gone, disappearing into the shadows between the mountains, so soft and hidden that even she has trouble following. Yet there is no cause to worry. She knows where he is going. She knows what he will do there.
Predators must feed. It is a fact of nature so profound that she would never stoop to call it a law, not even if she knew what a law was. She watches nonetheless as he stalks his prey through darkened crevasses, how he waits until no other prey are watching, and with what speed, blinding even to her, he strikes. The prey is twice his size, and the strip of skin he holds can slice flesh like a bearclaw, and yet there is no drama or question as to what must happen here. He is on the man before the man knows he is being hunted, knocking a leg out and hurling him to the ground on his back. And then he is atop him, literally atop him, staring him in the eyes and uttering that terrible, unearthly cry, the one that is as soft or as loud as he wills it to be, that reaches out through the endless black of his glistening eyes and into the depths of his prey. She watches the man’s will die, watches his wing fall and release the skinstrip, watches as the Small One releases him only for the man to rise obediently to his feet and follow him into the depths of the darkest crevasse around. And a moment later, she does the same.
The hatchling has long-since fled, the few other men about hustling by unconcerned as to the fate of one of their number. In the darkness of the crevasse, nothing else stirs, not rats, not mice, not birds nor dogs nor anything else, not even insects, for the Small One is a predator, like the others, and none will stand before him when he takes his prey. None but her, for she lands on the ground and watches as he throws his prey down and opens wide the toothed maw that serves him in place of a beak. His teeth plunge through the man’s skin and he drinks, for the Small One subsists on blood, as a bat or leech or mosquito might. This too is simply the way of things, and she watches impassively as he drinks his fill, before letting the wing of the man he has fed upon fall to the earth.
It does not occur to her to wonder if the man is dead. It does not occur to her to wonder many things. It no longer even occurs to her to flee the presence of this predator, as once she might have, and when the Small One finishes at last, he turns to find her there, watching and waiting for him to finish, with no greater thought as to what has just transpired than he likely would after watching her devouring a mouse or hare. There is a flash of something, something man-ish in his gaze when he sees her, but only for an instant. As there always is. But then his face moves in that strange way she knows it does on the occasions when she has pleased him, and he extends his wing towards her, and she hops over, ducking to let him run the tip of his wing over the feathers of her head and neck. She does this because she likes it. She does this because she knows he wishes her to. It does not occur to her to wonder if he likes it as well.
“Aquilifer,” he calls, that strange call that is hers, and then they turn to go.
The mountains are burning, burning like all the fires of all the world combined together, so much flame that it bucks and twists as a living thing might. To her it is living, and it does not occur to her to think that it is not.
She fears the flames, as all things that live do, but she knows that the Small One fears them more, and so she does not flee, for to flee would be to abandon him to the flames and to the other predators that stalk between them. She can see him now, though smoke and ash choke the air around, for her sight is greater than it was before, and it does not occur to her to ask why that is. Not in times of peace, and not now, in times of danger and fear.
The Small One is below, and he is fleeing, from what she does not know, but something terrible enough to warrant flight. She sees him looking up, searching for her in the thick clouds, and she ducks down beneath them, low enough that her immense form is visible against the brown vault of the sky. The fear in his eyes does not disappear, but it does abate, and he turns back to his own escape, racing along paths choked with burning ruin as the mountains of men crumble to ash around him.
But it is not the fire he is fleeing, but other predators, terrible ones, infesting the land around the burning mountains and hunting for prey, and he has not yet escaped the flames when two of them appear, twisted, misshapen creatures part man and part not-man, whose very forms drag frantic cries from the core of her being. She knows the call for such things as these, the low rumbling growl sound, like a bear stirred to anger, but the knowledge is no comfort, not as one of the creatures leaps at the Small One, while the other circles to look for an opening. He does not think to look up. They never do.
She dives, dives like the kingfishers and falcons she has seen over the harbor, though she is many times the size of either, and by the time the creature sees her, she has extended both feet towards it. Talons strong enough to crush a cow’s leg-bone fasten themselves to the creature’s face, and bite deeply, scoring the predator’s face to the skull, enucleating an eye and sending it screaming backwards, away from the Small One. And then she is on the ground, wings gyrating wildly, feathers puffed out like the leaves of a tree in the wind. She cries anger at the creature, anger and commands to begone and return no more, but predators do not obey the commands of any other, and it lunges at her with unearthly speed, claws the size of boar’s tusks extending from one wing and slashing through the air towards her. She leaps up and back and beats the air with her wings, and the slash misses short, disturbing a few feathers on her underside, no more.
She expects that it will follow up, strike at her again, leap or sprout wings and fly as the predator man-beasts sometimes do, and so she rises, letting the wafting heat of the burning caves lift her up and away. But when she looks back to see what form the man-beast’s attack will take, she finds that it has done nothing of the sort, and giving up on pursuing her into the skies, it has turned back to the Small One, across the canyon from him with his back turned. The Small One has ducked down onto one knee, letting the man-beast’s counterpart slash at the air above his head, and with one wing he extends the glistening stone-claw which is sometimes on his back and sometimes on his wings, the one that is as long as a hind’s antler, and sharper than a shark’s tooth. He leaps now, up and across, slicing open the man-beast’s body with a gash that could fell a raging bear, though it does not fell the man-beast, for predators do not fall to such things. Still the man-beast staggers back, and cries in agony and anguish, his limbs splaying wantonly in every direction as the Small One lands and steadies himself, and steps forward to strike again. She does not know that the cry of the wounded man-beast and the roar of the flames have smothered the sound of the second predator’s attack, and that the Small One has not heard his approach. She does not know that the second predator means to strike at the Small One’s head, and slay him instantly. She knows only that there is danger, and then she is there.
She does not remember diving. She does not remember striking. She does not remember moving at all, only a hot spike, like a burning branch swallowed whole and igniting all within her, and then suddenly the distance between them is gone and she is on the second man-beast, clawing and pecking and beating it with her wings as she cries thunder and rage down upon it. She hears its cry, hears panic and outrage and feels, dimly, the slashes of claws as the man-beast-predator tries to throw her off. But she is no crow or seagull, but a mighty thing, proud and strong and unafraid of this predator and his death-scent, and she does not relent, but strikes on, gashing and gouging until finally the predator’s cries are silenced all at once as the Small One’s stone-claw splits its neck from behind, and it falls dead at her feet.
The Small One stands before her now, his plumage matted and torn, open gashes sliced across his face, and yet he does not cry, but simply stands, watching her, the blood dripping off his claw. There is blood all over her as well, she feels it running down her feathers and over her eyes, and she sees a look of fear, small or great she cannot say, come over him. She does not know why this look appears, but she ducks her head and folds her wings so as not to indicate aggression, not to the Small One. And then he approaches, his claw retracted, and lays his hands on her shoulders and looks over one flank and then the other, though why he is doing this, she does not know. Only when he has found or not found what he is looking for does the fear pass, and just for a second, he squeezes her wings with both of his own.
“Aquilifer” he calls, and there is more than that in his call, but that element is the only one she knows. Still, when he turns to go, she knows that he is pleased, and her happiness at knowing this is such that when she takes to the air once more, she forgets that she is afraid of the fire.
They’re in an immense cave, greater than any she has seen before, lined with man-stone, and filled with predators. The predators are calling to one another in a vast, formless cacophony gathered around immense blocks of stone, sitting atop other ones, calling softly to their neighbors or loudly to those across the cave. Every so often, one of the predators stands atop their stone, and calls to the others with force and volume, gesturing with their wings in various directions. Sometimes the other predators leap to their feet and call back, gesturing in their turn, or call to one another with calls of anger. Sometimes their calls are happy, and they strike their wings together or slap them against the stone blocks beside them, sending peals of thunder cascading around the cave. But mostly they are quiet, watching the caller, calling softly to their neighbors but otherwise listening like predators seeking the sound of prey.
The predators are all bedecked in brilliant color, plumage of every hue spread about them. Even the Small One, whose plumage is always dull and plain, bears crimson and purple on his feathers now, his claw ringed in something shiny, a stone of deep black affixed to a chain around his neck. He stands, rather than sits, atop his stone, leaning forward on the larger stone between him and a dozen other predators, for he is smaller than every one of them, and even standing, only the upper half of his body can be seen. She watches him carefully, for the room is filled with predators, and some of them she recognizes, by sight and scent.
There are others here too, wolves and bats, horses and men, fantastic creatures of unknowable provenance. They sit or stand scattered about, ignored by the predators, for these creatures are not mere prey. Each one belongs with one of the predators, belongs to one of them. It does not occur to her to extend that notion to herself. It would not occur to her to object even if it had. Most of these other beasts are on the ground, but some are up here, with her, on the perches and belfries that cover the ceiling of this immense cavern, watching intently or waiting to be summoned to their predators’ sides. None share her perch, for she does not permit them to, and while she is not the largest creature here, her cries are mighty, and her talons splinter the wood beneath her whenever she needs to demonstrate her sincerity.
The Small One is afraid, another small fear that she does not understand, but he is excited too, energized, she can tell as much from the movement of his wings and the way his eyes dart from place to place. Every so often he spares a glance upward, seeking her shadow, and on finding it, she tenses for the command that must come, but does not. On and on the other predators call, one after the next, until finally, at length, there is a pause, a minor break in the endless cycle of calling, and just then, before any other predator can seize the attention of all the others, the Small One acts. And so does she.
She dives from her perch, opening her beak wide and calling to the skies, a loud, piercing call, like that of the hawks that dance in the mountains to the north. Ringing and clear, the call fills the cavern, silencing predator and beast alike as she turns and glides around the cavern’s perimeter. Two full circuits she makes, and then she descends, and lands atop the block of stone beside the Small One, the block he has stepped up onto, the better to see all those arrayed before him. She calls once more, and then lands, folding up her golden wings and standing beside and just behind the Small One, as he instructs, though why she must do this she does not know.
And then he calls, and his call is loud and forceful, a clattering, crashing call like the clashing of cymbals or the waves breaking over rocks. Up and down and through it flows, capturing the attention of every predator present. Twice, other predators call back angrily, raise clamors and beat their claws on the stone to drown him out, and each time she opens her wings and screams a defiant cry to silence them, that he might continue. He gestures with his wings, he extends his ringing stone-claw, he stands as tall as he is capable of and stares his counterparts in the eyes, the light flickering around him in manners devious and dour. She watches the predators as they watch him, sees the decisions to cry, to be silent, to obey or to defy. And from the corner of her eyes she sees the Small One, who hides so quickly from sight most nights, standing before it all, and she can see the radiance beaming out of him like light, as at long last he can stand without a shadow and be seen.
At length he reaches the end, and raises his stone-claw to the ceiling, crying out with all the force he can muster. He does not ask her to do anything, but she acts nonetheless, opening her wings and rearing back her head and crying of her own volition, a surge of energy coursing through her as though emanated by the Small One’s presence. The force is irresistible, and the predators erupt as one, crying and striking their wings, stamping their feet and brandishing claws. Other predators leap atop their own blocks of stone and produce calls that she does not understand, but knows that the Small One is pleased by. And then pandemonium descends, as predators rush about, touching and calling to one another. A score throng about the Small One, seizing his wings with theirs, calling to him, pressing small sticks towards him and unfurling the woven fibers that he will use the sticks to smear dark fluids upon. Close round they ring him, but not too close, for she is there, and she is watchful, and she will not be displaced by a hundred screaming predators. Not, that is, until she sees him turn to her, his expression joyous, and he touches her lightly on the shoulder with his bare wing.
“Aquilifer,” he says, a warm tone that means all is well, and she ducks her head and leaps up, flying above the tumult, circling overhead as she watches the Small One stand amidst the vortex below, a rock within the storm that she somehow knows he has unleashed for all time.
The night is bitterly cold, winds howling from all directions at once, seemingly, so powerful that she cannot fly higher than the trees and must duck and weave around them, striving to keep the Small One in sight. Even for her it is difficult, for the snow screams into her eyes, flurries washing out the world around, and every so often she loses sight of him entirely, a wall of white blocking him out, and she must find him once more, frantically, for she knows that other things stalk the woods this night, and they are hunting him.
He is down below, foundering through the deep snowpack, forcing his way through it like the vessels of men over water, plowing on through snow that reaches his waist, for there is little else to do. Before he had other options, servitors of undulating shadow to clear the way or the bursts of supernatural speed that he can initiate at any given moment., or even herself, hauling him up and above the snow. But the shadows have fled and the speed is exhausted and so is she, barely able now after hours of battering her way through hurricane-force winds to keep herself aloft, let alone the Small One, for small though he may be, he is still added weight, and stubbornly unable to fly in his own right. Right now though, frustrations at the Small One’s inadequacies are the last thing on her mind, for something hunts them both through the trees, something large and dark and twisted.
She has no name for these things, she who still has difficulty grasping the concept of a name, but if the Small One is a predator then these are greater predators still, creatures of fur and and claw and anger so violent and terrifying that nothing can stand against them. She hears their howls sifting through the wind, their footsteps crunching through the snow, the ravenous jaws as they snap shut again and again, and knows that they are coming. The Small One knows it too, and he is afraid, but there is little he can do but continue, and hope for succor, a hidden crevasse in an upthrust rock, or a fallen tree to crawl inside, but no such place appears, just more snow, and trees, and the omnipresent wind.
She feels the danger closing, feels it breathing down her neck as though it is hunting her instead of the small one, and despite her exhaustion, she dives through the wind, to try and haul him up above the snow again. But as if in response the wind becomes a scream, hurling at her from every direction at once, and she can get no purchase on it. She manages to flounder to within several feet of the Small One, but before she can land, or take hold of him, it strikes.
What it is she does not know and does not want to, a riotous assemblage of limbs and terror, howling like all the wolves of the world assembled into one, slavering jaws closing over anything in sight. The Small One is half the size of most Predators, but this thing is easily double that, a towering force of impenetrable rage, its cries shaking the snow from nearby trees. The Small One has time only to turn as it leaps, and behold its terrible visage, the grandeur and horror of its full, eye-watering form, and then the wind dies as if by divine fiat, and all is lost in madness and death.
She sees little enough of what transpires next, just flashes of light amidst deep, muffling shadow. Of sound there is plenty, cacophonous and horrible, and her own cries are lost amidst its howling. There is the strike of claws against flesh, the howls of rage, denied or vented, she cannot tell, and a sick, sizzling sound, like that of flesh placed by men over a fire. She tries to intercede, braving the shadows and the rage, but the wind resumes as if it had never left, battering her away from the combattants, and she cannot intervene. And as she is forced back, the shadows give way as well, and she sees them.
The contrast is extreme. A towering black form, slavering and brandishing claws the size of goat horns, standing towering above a small, shivering thing, alone and helpless-looking, even if she and the monster both know how untrue that is. His stone-claw is in his wing now, and coated in blood, and he stares up at the horror that assails him like he might a moving tree or mountain. She hears him calling softly, not to her nor to anyone else, the calls he makes when afraid, the ones that seem to address no one. His side is torn open, the black carapace he has wrapped himself in shattered by three deep gouges. Yet even now, the monster hesitates, circles, growing and hissing calls that she can derive no meaning from but rage. Perhaps it fears the Small One’s hidden strength, the cobra-speed of his strikes or the auroch-force with which he delivers them. Perhaps it does not know how to approach something this small, all teeth and claws in a compact form. Perhaps it simply wishes to savor the fear of its prey, as some predators do, and what could this be but an arch-predator?
It lunges at last, leaping and striking with a thousand appendages at once, lashing out with force enough to simply shatter the Small One should it strike. The blow gouges a furrow in the snow deep enough to expose the dirt, but the Small one is not there to receive it, leaping back and slashing in his own right at the claw that did the damage. In and out he ducks, trying to keep himself away from the hammer-strikes of the towering beast, but his blows, strong enough to crack a mountain, seem to have no effect, gruesome injuries sealing themselves up before her very eyes. He slides and rolls and evades blow after blow, but he cannot evade them all, and each blow leaves him slower and weaker and more open to the one to follow. It seems a hundred days, as she cries and beats her wings against the whirling vortex that encircles her, but before long the Small One can barely stand, wings drooping, head bowed, doubled over with pain and exhaustion, the his carapace hanging in shreds off his form, until he can barely grip the claw at the end of his wing and barely stand to see the final strike the monster is preparing to unleash.
And yet she does not panic, scream defiance or take some other rash action. For in that instant she sees a thousand things, details of posture and gesture and expression on the Small One’s face, all of which add together to tell her exactly what is to happen next.
The monster leaps, aiming a killing blow, one strong enough to tear the Small One’s head clean off, but his aim is spoiled by his expectation that the Small One will be there to receive it. He is not, and with the speed that he has artfully concealed until this point, the Small One stoops and jumps forward. Before the monster can recover or even determine where he is, he piles all of his remaining strength into the tip of his stone-claw, and drives it up through the monster’s chin into its brain. And then the monster is down, crumpled to the snow-covered forest floor, extinguished like a smothered flame, and beside it slumps the Small One, utterly spent.
She redoubles her efforts, landing and forcing her way through the wind by main force, step by ponderous step, but she has barely even begun to approach him when he wearily lifts his head, as though seeking answers from the storm. What he detects, she cannot tell, the screaming storm is blinding and deafening, even to her, and she cranes her head in all directions, seeking for the source of the danger, until finally she hears him call.
There is desperation in his call, and fear, and pain, and she turns her head and sees him propping himself on the fallen body of the monster. Dark shapes are materializing all around him, and he turns to her, drawing himself up at cost incalculable, and stares her directly in the eyes, the way he always does whenever he is about to issue a command.
‘Flee,’ he commands her. ‘Flee as far as you can.’
And she does.
She cannot act otherwise, so powerful is his command as to warrant no alternative, a law of nature as absolute as gravity or the behavior of insects, and she is fleeing before she can even consider her actions, an instinctive flight that conjures forth new reserves of force she did not even realize she possessed. Already he is a speck beneath her, periodically obscured by a wall of windborne snow, and she screams a cry into the violent air. Far below, the Small One lays spent atop the corpse of his would-be-predator, and all around the margins lurk other things, closing at a dead run, their howls so piercing that they reach her even here. Yet before they can reach him, something else reaches him first, as the shadows that ring him rise as one in a mass, and break over him like an ocean wave, and recede. And in their place there is nothing, not a feather or a claw, no trace that the Small One was ever there save for light footprints on the surface of the crimson snow.
A thousand disparate desires explode into her head all at once, all at a rush, half of which she has never experienced before, not in centuries of ceaseless life, and she knows not what to do nor where to go. Her wingbeats falter, and the wind takes her, spinning and twisting through the air, scattering over the trees. And yet before her at all times is the overriding command to be elsewhere, to flee with the speed of a swallow and be somewhere else, anywhere else. And so in obedience she goes.
She flies on and on, until the storm has abated and the clouds have cleared, until the darkness is banished by the sun she has not seen in countless years. She flies on as the sky warms and the diurnal creatures of the mountains take to wing and hoof. On and on she goes, over the wooden caves of men clustered in patches of the forest, over the paths they carve across the land and the fields they labor in to bring forth the plants they desire. Nothing bars her path, not the hawks that ply these skies, not the other eagles that seek to mate or defend their territories by force. Not the men far below, some of which see her and direct their wings skyward, crying to one another and staring in terrestrial impotence, not even the predators she finds once the sun finally sets again and permits them egress from their caves and burrows. Nothing dares interrupt her, not until at length, with the sun hidden anew and the stars overhead, she alights, exhausted, on a tree branch, too spent to go any further, and only then does she begin to cry.
Her cry is a terrible thing, loud and piercing, a keening wail like every eagle in the world assembled together in a chorus of agony and despair. It echoes over vales and around mountains, shattering the night stillness like the wail of some otherworldly spirit, the type she has seen enough times to merely regard as another normal thing, a facet of the world she inhabits. But now, this night, alone in the cold wind, she hears the reflected echo of her own lamentation, hears it as the other eagles must hear it, and for the first time she listens to it as something more than a mere echo to be discarded. She hears the terrible power in it, the volume and pitch and timbre that rolls through it, an alien thing, and for a moment she forgets that it is her own voice, and freezes, her instincts disabled, if only for a moment, by the onslaught of something she does not know how to characterize.
And so it is that, for what must be the first time ever, she realizes that it is not normal.
It is not normal, not for a bird such as her to produce a cry such as this. It does not sound like an eagle, does not contain the information that such cries always contain. It is too loud, too potent, too filled with pain for it to be normal, and she realizes all of a sudden that she does not understand it, not instinctively, would not understand it, were she other than the one who had produced it. And with that realization comes other thoughts, ones she has never considered, not once, that there are other things that are not normal. It is not normal that every other eagle, even ones whose cries proclaim themselves the lords of creation, are scarcely half her size, and a bare fraction of her strength, that her claws can sunder stone and crush an ox’ skull while those of her fellows cannot. It is not normal that she can outfly the fastest swallow or swiftest hind, that the claws of wolves and bears and even men falter against her feathers, that the light bends at her approach when she has been commanded to approach with stealth or produce a show of force.
It is not normal that she has flown with the Small One for countless eons, seen generations of eagles and men and beasts hatch and live and die, crossed continents and seen the passing of so many winters that she has no conception of their numbering, and yet not once has she grown old, or sick, or faltering. And neither has he.
She sits on her perch, in a nameless tree in a nameless forest, and thinks on these things, things she has never before thought on, never before even considered that it was possible to think on. She thinks on herself, and on the Small One, and on all that it could mean to her, she who previously did not comprehend the concept of meaning. And all the while she feels a terrible pain, not like an injury but not unlike it, one that grows and does not dissipate, the more she thinks on such things. She cries again, sharp, angry cries, as though to banish the thoughts from her mind, but they will not leave her, not now, like a parasite fixed on her brain. And she dwells on conceptions that she does not understand, half-comprehended visions of what has been and what might come that assail her from every direction, so many and so relentless that she cries once more, screams, slicing the night apart, and grinds the very branch she sits in to splinters beneath her over-strong talons. She still feels the compulsion to flee, the one set down in iron and stone atop all instincts she might have to the contrary, but these new thoughts are not instincts, and they do not bid her obey, she who never once before considered that disobedience to instinct was something that existed. She does not understand what is happening, and the confusion breeds fear, and the fear desperation, and before she knows what she is doing, she is flying again.
But not away.
She flies back, back the way she came, and it isn’t until she feels the thunder of compulsion within her head that she even realizes that this is what she is doing. But she does not turn back, not when her own wings try to force her to, not when she hears the cry of the Small One echoing through her mind like a stroke of thunder, not even when she feels a pain she has never felt before, and knows it is the result of the Small One’s disappointment, not even then does she turn back, for something drives her on beyond such concerns, a desperation to find the Small One irrespective of hazards, issuing from whence she does not know, and it does not occur to her to wonder if it is her own volition, for she does not understand what it is to will.
A hare darts past below her and she is upon it before it can lift its head to wonder at the sudden eclipse of the moonlight, snatching it up and devouring it on the wing as she flies on, ever on, regardless of what compulsions her instincts seek to use to drive her back. Back, past the frightened men and the terrified livestock, through the void of birds that she realizes only now she is generating with her very presence, above the shafts of wood hurled aloft by the men below, whom she realizes only now are as confused as she is by her own existence, on she flies, defying wind and rain and cloud and sun, on and on until she reaches the place from whence she began.
There is nothing there, not even the fallen form of the super-predator that the Small One slew with his claw, just a depression in the snow where something large and bulky was dragged away. But for that, there is no sign that ever something stirred in this place, but she knows it to be the place regardless, and she descends and lands on the ground, for she knows now, if not before, that no creature of the forest will molest or even approach her here, and neither will any man, for they do not understand what she is, and they are afraid. None will come but other predators, and those who prey upon them, and there are none others within range of scent and sight.
She lands in the snow, where the Small One stood not three days earlier, and searches for any sign and does not find it, nothing but the faintest scent to mark that once he had passed. Standing here, at the epicenter of the place she was commanded to abandon, his cry rages at full force, like a storm at sea, commanding, compelling, pleading and screaming at her to be elsewhere, to obey and submit to his command. But she does not flee, nor turn, nor cry anew. She ducks her head instead, veiling her eyes with one wing, and digs up the snow with her talons, and finds nothing, as she somehow knew she would, but still she does not leave, as if by not leaving she can somehow bring the Small One back.
She does not leave. Not this night, nor the day that follows, nor the night and day after that. Sometimes she digs at the ground, brushing away the snow that fills the depression she has excavated. Other times she hunts, from obligation as much as anything, seizing field mice and squirrels and smaller birds who are hidden well enough to fool an eagle but not her. But most of the time she sits in one of the trees that ring the area, letting the snow drift down upon her, talons clamped around a branch like the roots of a gnarled tree, and she watches. And even as she does so, every single second of every hour of every day and night, she hears and feels the command to leave as though being screamed into her ear by a tornado. Every second she feels and hears it, until she awakens from brief stretches of sleep to find that she has taken to wing and begun to leave, until she must anchor herself to the tree by main force, until she has to choose trees hardy enough to bear the strain of her talons gripping them. There are not many. Still she will not leave, not as one day runs into the next, turning back again and again whenever she finds herself in automatic obedience to a command riven through every part of her body, until she is so exhausted that she can barely see, until the sun no longer warms and the moon no longer illuminates and every shadow seems to contain a pack of super-predators here to finish what they began, not even then does she leave.
Until at last, one night, countless eternities after her vigil began, she finds what she sought. One night, as she sits on the branch as she has for endless, soul-sapping nights, one night she sees the shadows return, seeping up out of the ground in a bilious mass, form up into a larval cocoon, and then open. And at her first sight of the Small One, all compulsion vanishes like smoke on the wind.
She is on him in an instant. Before he can lift his head, before the branch behind her rebounds from the weight, even before the shadows can dissipate around him they are torn to shreds by wings and talons flaying the very air in frenzy. Before he knows what is happening she is on him, pinning him to the bare ground, nestling atop him, rubbing his featherless head with her own, preening and crying a hundred cries she has never uttered before, cries she does not even know the meaning of. For the longest time he cannot find the wherewithal to push her off, whether from exhaustion or confusion or mere astonishment at returning to this place and finding her still here, defiant and yet dutiful, in panic and jubilation in equal measure. And while she does not know or understand what he is thinking, she knows that he does not know how it is that she can still be here.
She also knows that he is pleased, and does not wish to reveal it, and reveals it anyway.
“Aquilifer…” he says. And for the first time she understands that he is not calling to her, but to himself, repeating a call that refers to her for his own purposes. She wonders for a moment if he understands all of this any better than she does. And then she settles atop him and decides that it does not matter.
They’re deep underground, so deep that she can practically feel the walls pressing against her, despite the immensity of the cavern that they reside in, lined with man-stone and illuminated by roaring fires. For what purpose the men have carved out this cave, she does not know, for men are strange, even now, after so much time, and their motives mercurial. She does not ponder this but merely sits where she is on the soft fur covering draped on the stone ground, beside the immense man-object of wood and plant fiber, on which the Small One is seated, and watches him dying.
He does not die easily, nor quietly, and as always, she knows he is dying before he knows it himself. Bent over a massive object, a series of woven cloths of plant fibers bound together within a framework of tanned skin and bearing strange markings stained into it by dark fluids applied with a thin instrument, he is scanning his eyes over it, seeking for some kind of meaning. By now she understands that there is meaning, calls held within these fibers and stains, locked away through some means apparent to the Small One and not to her, but then that’s a small matter.
The weight of the chamber seems to close around her, despite the size of the cavern, large enough that she can fly and circle its confines, and she doesn’t think the Small One knows that she knows he selected it for that purpose. Yet for all that it is still within the earth, and though the Small One tries, he is often here from dusk to dawn, as other predators, weaker, less dominant predators, come to him with sheets of woven fiber or with calls that tell him many things. One such thing he is being told now, and yet despite his hurry to complete the scribbled call and understand its meaning, she knows that he will not succeed in mastering it, for she knows he is already dying, even if he does not yet.
She has seen a great deal of death, in her centuries of existence, animals, men and predators all slain, most violently, some at her beak or talons, and she does not think much of it, for death is a facet of existence that she would never consider questioning. And yet by far the most death she has seen is the Small One’s death, a death repeated endlessly, hundreds of thousands of times. She can see it coming over him in the paleness of his skin and the gradual lassitude in his form, like an old or wounded creature that can no longer escape its predators. By degrees it creeps up on him, until he notices it as well, and as he has so many thousands of times before, he growls and clenches the ends of his wings around the bound fiberweave, as though he can force death back through act of will. And sometimes he can, albeit briefly, driving it away as he might another predator, when the need is great or the urge strong, but she knows he will not manage it tonight, not this time, though she gives him some time to try regardless, for the Small One can never die without at least some show of defiance.
At length his efforts flag, and his strength drains, and she, recognizing the imminence of what must come, calls softly and spreads her wings, hopping up onto side of the man-object built for men or predators, many times too large for the Small One. Gently, so as not to lacerate the dried skin that covers it, she creeps onto its padded surface, her bulk displacing the small one and pushing him gently towards the other side of the massive object. He protests, of course, as he always does, pushing her away with one wing that no longer has the force it normally does, and she pays him no mind, reaching down and fussing with her beak at the fur that he and men and predators all have atop their heads in place of feathers. The bound pile of woven fibers slips off his knees onto the ground, and his head falls to one side against the side of the object he sits within, and his wing to his side, and she sidles up to him with a soft, gentle call.
“Aquilifer…” he calls, but the call is muted, a weak, mumbled death-rattle from lungs that can no longer seize the air, and then his eyes slide shut, and the Small One is gone, not asleep but dead, a difference she sees anew every morning, when the sun threatens at last to rise. She ruffles her wings once more and settles them, gently adjusting the small one until he is pushed down in the corner of the immense object, nestled tightly between her and its back, and then she too is still, closing her eyes to sleep and wait for the dead to rise again.
They are inside a cave of stone, but it is like none she has seen before. She who has an expert, jaundiced eye for such things, can only stare and shiver. It towers above her, towers above the level at which she would normally fly, a belfried monstrosity of riotous stonework, far beyond any place she has been. It is not easy, after endless centuries of existence, to present her with a new sight, but still it can be done.
The Small One is not admiring the stone, nor woven fibers that adorn it. The Small One stands in the midst of the titanic chamber, and looks, even to her eye, utterly dwarfed by its immensity. He who, so conscious of his inferiority in size, can alter his bearing to make predators three times his mass feel smaller than he, he is crushed by the very scale of the place. She knows that the predators who created it did so for that exact purpose, that anything who stood where the Small One stands might seem small, and weak, and afraid. The Small One is not weak, she knows this better than any living thing, but right now he is very small, and despite every effort he can make to hide it, he is afraid.
And he is indeed making every effort. His plumage, so drab at most times, glistens with silver and crimson in the flickering light. His stone-claw is not hidden beneath the feathers on his back but sits openly at his side, the way other predators carry their claws of shining stone, but never he. For the Small One is a chameleon at heart, and though he is not young, he adopts the plumage of men’s young wherever he goes, as most other predators adopt the plumage of men. Not so now. His plumage is such that even she has seen only rarely before, in times when he must cast aside his customary demeanor, and seek to overawe the predators around him by main force. Shadows dance around him in undulating rhythm, designed, she knows, to cast the light upon him in the sternest possible fashion, to accentuate his own shadow to monstrous dimensions, and to make him seem greater than he otherwise would be. And yet it is not enough, not this time, not enough to mask his fear or strike awe and hesitation into the ranks of his enemies, and how it is that she can judge this is something she has long-since ceased to question. Moreover she can tell that he knows it is not enough, if for no other reason that, for once, he has not commanded her to attend him from above, or from a remove, but has permitted her her head, to stand nearby, just behind and to one side, where he can hear her breathing and the shift of her feathers. Perhaps he hopes that her size will add to his in the eye of his enemies, and for this possibility she puffs herself out, immense and strong, and stares steel defiance at the ranks of eyes before them. Or perhaps it is because they know her, all of them, and know that she is his, as plant fibers can be woven to spell out sigils and pictures that belong to other predators, and for this possibility she tries to remain still and rigid, like the carven figures of stone that men and predators use to adorn their caves, for she knows this is how he would prefer she represent him. But she also thinks perhaps that it is none of these things, that perhaps he does not command her to leave because here, in this terrible place, before the ranks of his enemies, he simply desires someone nearby who is not. And for this possibility she lets her talons scrape, as quietly as she can, over the bare stone of the ground, just often enough to remind him of her presence.
If the predators before them are intimidated, they give no sign. They sit in ranks, swaddled in plumage of unmarred sable, and regard her and the Small One with cold, savage eyes, eyes which fill her with the desire to flee, and which she cannot imagine fill the Small One with anything else. But he does not flee, as she knows that he will not, for even she knows that there is nowhere to go, that the sides of the cave are lined with other predators, other men, other things whose natures it is best not to dwell upon. They are shrouded in darkness, but she can still see them with her faultless sight, poised like other raptors waiting for the ones before her to give signal. But the ones at the side are no concern, servants of the masters who sit before, and it is to these the Small One directs his attention.
They call to one another, the Small One and the predators before him, clipped calls riven with fear and uncertainty. The Small One’s fear is apparent, to her at least, and she thinks it is apparent to the others, but there is fear within his enemies too, doubt and confusion, and while she does not what their calls mean, she does know that they are the sorts of calls predators use when they seek to deceive their listeners as to their true intention. Here, in this place, where every call sounds like the growling of monsters, the deception is strained to the utmost, and if the Small One cannot hide his fear, neither can his counterparts disguise their own, though what they fear, here amidst a horde of their packmates and others inclined towards them, she cannot tell. Back and forth the calls erupt, harsh, barking calls, descending from all sides, and she semi-consciously sidles closer to the Small One, her own bearing regal and stern, or as least as close as she can manage.
The calls grow louder, angrier, openly hostile, and the Small One stands his ground and returns them, his small voice floating above the assembled mass and crying what she can only assume to be defiance or challenge. At length, two predators break forth, storming down into the immense chamber with hatred and murder written in their eyes. By now she knows how to read the intentions of predators, whose disguises are nowhere as complete as they believe they are, how to comprehend the import of the claws extended openly from their wings and the purposeful gait they adopt as they approach. The Small One hesitates at their approach, barely enough for her to detect, but enough to show his confusion, and without a second’s pause, she throws out her wings and puffs her chest, stretching her head back and screaming a challenge to the skies, loud enough to quiet the din and echo around the cave of cold stone. So loud, so forceful is her cry, that the predators falter, and pause, and look to one another and to the dark figures behind, like hounds seeking their master’s signal, and even the Small One is astonished enough to turn his head back in surprise.
But even she cannot deflect a predator for long, and before the echo of the cry fully fades, they have resumed their approach. The interval has allowed the Small One to recover his equilibrium, and he responds in kind, extending his own claw to the end of his wing with the ringing sound of shining stone on shining stone. Behind, the shadows pool together into a black mass, seeping in fifty directions like an amoeba, and she forces herself to remain still as they flow past her and onto the Small One, oozing over his body and solidifying into a crystalline carapace of absolute darkness. Small though he is, the manifestation gives the predators pause once more, and they stop at the edge of claw reach and snarl and bark, hurling bundles of woven fibers bound together with beeswax at his feet, but they do not attack, for some force still holds them back, compulsion perhaps or simple fear as to the outcome. But it cannot last long.
At this distance she can smell the predators, see their every intent carved upon their faces like a blazing scar. And all of a sudden she realizes that she has seen them both before. A hundred thousand nights and more it has been, and yet she knows them, remembers them, she who once remembered nothing and now cannot help herself. She sees herself in another cave of stone at another time with another group of predators once more, remembers these faces from the cave, who called then to the Small One and were cried down by the tumult of their fellows. No tumult arises this time to cry them down, and without even considering the Small One’s wishes, she takes its place, hurling threat and promise of violence at them with the force of a howling gale. But these are no scared sheep, these predators, these conjurations from a time long-past. Her cry fuels their fear, as she intends, but they do not quail. Instead, as the Small One turns to face one of them, his calls bitter and angry, she sees the other, out of the Small One’s sight for just an instant, tense his wingtip’s grip on his shining claw, sees the decision explode across his face, watches his muscles and tendons as they enact the motions she has been waiting to see since first they approached, and then she strikes.
She strikes like a bolt of lightning. Like an avalanche of stones and snow plummeting over a cliff. So fast that the world washes out and she does not even feel the air pulse beneath her wings, just a raging, burning fire deep within her, and then a scream, as her talons rend skin and flesh, and her wings sunder bone like the branches of great oak trees splintering a willow. She strikes, and the world fills with the sound of her strike, of her cry of outrage and anger as she tears at her foe. Yet her foe is a predator himself, not some man reeking of alcohol or desperation, and before she can strike home he is something else entirely, his form rippling and exploding threefold into a hideous monster, with claws and wings and horns and a carapace of ridged bone, tough as granite, sharp as a serpent’s tooth. It roars, and its roar is a hideous thing, that chills the very blood in her veins, and saps the strength from her wings and talons, and as she tries to push away, it lunges at her with blinding speed, slicing and rending and screaming a cry too horrible to contemplate. Pain, stabbing pain, and flying blood and feathers, and she screams in turn, this time in fear as much as anger, raking the horrid creature with her own weapons. It holds the beast a moment, but then it brings about its own stone-claw, a claw long and hard and pitilessly sharp, and with a motion so rapid that she cannot actually see it happening, he drives the claw straight through her like an egret stabbing a fish.
She feels the bite of the claw, feels it bite deep, very deep, hears the sound of her own flesh parting, sees the glaring eyes of yellow hate that bore into her like concentrated flame. But she sees and hears and feels these things only for a moment, a lengthy, horrible moment, because in the next moment she hears and sees something else altogether.
There is a cry, and it is not louder than the creature’s cry, although it seems it, a cry that does not contain fury or hatred or excitement or anything else, a cry of purified violence bereft of thought or intention, and though the throat which emits it belongs to the Small One, it is not the Small One who utters it. It is not the Small One who hurls the other predator aside like a twig, who leaps through the air like a lunging cat, who strikes a creature six times his size with the force of a raging cyclone. The other predators see the Small One performing these actions, hurling these cries, but she does not, for as she lands on her side, blood coursing over her breast and down to the ground beneath, she sees not the Small One but a screaming, hideous monster, imbued within the form of the Small One, and she is afraid. In all the endless eons of existence, she has seen this creature only a handful of times, and each time it was as the ending of the world. Each time it was as watching the Small One consumed and swallowed whole by a formless incarnation of bestial anger, one set loose to vent ruin and slaughter upon the universe entire. It was thus in the great stone fastness on the mountain the night the rocks sang with sorrow and betrayal, and the blood ran ankle-deep within the caves the Small One had helped to craft. It was thus in the caverns of darkness, when the Small One faced the creature of shadow whose scent resembled his own. It is thus tonight, and she can do nothing but lie on her side and cry, for any who might hear, a lament.
The creature who stabbed her knows none of these things, and it cries in its own turn, and strikes at the Small One’s tiny form, but there is no blow it can muster that will tell against this horror. The Small One’s carapace shatters before a rain of blows, his skin parting and his bones snapping beneath strikes that could split a tree of a hundred years’ growth, but he does not even acknowledge the reality of such things, and with both wings he hurls his foe to the ground with such force as to shatter the stone beneath him. He strikes with his claw, his cruel claw of bright stone, and when the creature finally knocks it aside, he strikes with wings and teeth and incarnated darkness, with the shadows that dance to his volition and now obey the thing he has become. The creature screams now, in pain and horror, as the shadows descend upon him, as the Small One seizes a wing with his own and rips it off, casting it aside in a spray of blood and viscera before descending to vent more pain. The shadows form in a mass, heedless of the commands of any other predator who might lay claim to their allegiance, and swelling around the Small One like a living thing, they surge over both him and his prey like an ocean breaker, and swallow them both in a towering mass, one which seethes and roils like an angry sea.
Pandemonium erupts in its wake. Predators are crying, calling to one another in tones of anger and outrage, erupting from the sides of the room, casting plumage and claws to the ground, standing and pointing wings at one another like beasts challenging for dominance or food. In vain, the black-plumed predators at the far end of the cave bark and clash stones against one another. In vain, their arrayed servants rush forward to quell the disturbance. The chaos is too great to stem, and there are predators of power in the other ranks too, predators who care nothing for what threats or sounds might be emitted by their fellows, who hurl calls she knows to be challenges back at the others. Talons grasp her, huge talons of immense strength, enemy or friend she does not know though she thinks the former, and pull her one way and then another, but she cannot resist them in any event, for there is no strength left in her. Soon there are predators everywhere, angry, concerned, calling, barking, struggling with one another, and she has not time to discern who they all are and what they are doing before the shadow mass collapses.
It collapses all at once, like a soap bubble bursting and vanishing to nothing. And inside its hollow concavity stands the Small One, his form mutilated and crushed, appearing like nothing but the corpse he becomes when the sun rises and the life ebbs away from him. But there has been no ebbing this time, despite all the hideous damage, for he stands like an old-growth tree, soaked in gore, his stone-claw dripping with dark red blood. About him are the remnants of the carcass of the predator he struck, ripped apart as though by a wolverine, but he pays them no mind, any more than he pays mind to the legion of predators that fill the formerly-empty space around him, the ones now recoiling in horror or shouting angry challenges in their turn. His eyes, feral and wild, scan the assemblage in search of something, passing over predator and horror alike. With all the strength she has left, she emits a soft cry, plaintive, almost despairing, but he hears it, and he turns and his eyes find her. And then he is there.
He moves like lightning, not navigating the predators that now stand between them but appearing before her without traversing the intervening space, sliding to a panicked stop before her, taking everything in. He place a hand over the terrible wound, grips her feathers with the other, panic and terror writ like sigils on his face. Predators cry at him, calls echoing into a cacophony, and she sees past him as several more advance towards him, but he hears them come, and rounds on them with such ferocity of movement, cry and stare, that they are struck still like carven images before his incandescent fury. Bloody cries explode from his throat like volcanic gasses, so loud that his voice distorts with rage and his entire form shakes like a tree in an earthquake, and he stamps his foot to emphasize some point with force enough to crack the flagstone beneath him. His stone-claw flies into his wing, and he directs it at the predators in turn, bellowing a challenge like a raging bull, all fear evicted from his person by the flames consuming him from within. And as the predators about him fall silent, he turns back to her, and runs the edge of his claw over the tip of his other wing, opening a new wound on a small form already encrusted with them, kneeling down before her and gingerly cradling her neck with his uninjured wing as he extends the other to drip blood into her beak.
She can see the fires still blazing within him, see them in his eyes like sparks in the night, beating like a raging beast against a cage of stone. And yet it does not emerge, and gradually the tremors subside, as he forces the hideous rage back down wherever he keeps it stored, and heedless of all else, holds her as carefully as he can, even as she feels a warm fiery force flowing through her, and a dull ache as the sharp pains of the terrible wound she has suffered begin to recede.
Darkness descends, unavoidably, blocking out all else, but before it closes over her entirely, she hears him call to her in a voice terribly mutilated, but at last, recognizably his own. “Aquilifer…” he calls, and what else he calls she does not know, for then there is only darkness.
They are underground, she thinks, though she can’t be certain, for she has been many places in the last few days, and none of them were places she recognized. These nights they travel more often than they once did, to strange places with strange predators and stranger birds, but she does not mind. Not usually.
The chamber is small and smells strange, as many places do now, a bevy of smells she cannot identify, and must take on faith mean nothing or at least no harm. This is sometimes easy to do and sometimes hard, but the Small One is as dislocated as she is, she knows, and so she does the best she can, but right now it is hard, very hard, for the Small One is in the corner, and she cannot go to him.
Two nights before they stood on a hill covered in trees. Other predators were there, not enemies but others, predators she had met and scented, predators the Small One knew and called to and did not fear, not even the one who mimicked a bird and tried to alight upon him. That one smells like death and pain and she does not like him, but there are others, ones she does not mind as much, who were also there, the ones she had to go with when the great lizard came. The Small One bade her leave, as once he did before, so long ago that she cannot count the nights, but with no less command, and she did, evading fire and death despite herself. She could have not gone, as once she did before, defy his command at whatever cost and remain, but she did not, for she felt the fear in his command, and left, and did not return, trusting to the implied promise that he would come back. For two days and nights she flew, sometimes with one of the other predators, the large one with the claws and plumage of dark, cured skin, and sometimes alone, calling every so often in hope that she might receive an answer. Until at last, moments ago, she received it, and felt the pull, and was brought to this place.
The other predator is here, the one she was with for a time, and the Small One calls to it, with authority, and it to him, with deference. What they sing for, she does not know, but there are bits of his call she understands, fragments of it that are familiar to her, though the calls change with the seasons and the audience, but some calls remain constant. One in particular riven through their song is as familiar to her as her own feathers.
She cannot sound this call, for it is a man-call, or a predator-call perhaps, for predators are like men, save that they die on periodic occasion instead of once and for all, and they become stronger with age instead of weaker. Men and predators have many songs, songs of many things, and most she cannot call, though the Small One has learned some of her calls and she some of his despite. She cannot understand the Small One’s calls when he sings to the predators, not precisely, but she knows his mind regardless, and she knows they are singing of her, though she does not know why.
She does not know why many things have happened, why she is here when all the other birds who sat in the cages of the large man died so many centuries ago, why she lives on and they do not, though she thinks that is the Small One’s doing. Why the Small One has done it she also does not know, nor why he is here, or what he wishes to do in this place. So much time, and yet the business of predators is still opaque to her, who can see a field mouse at the edge of the horizon, and hear the rustling of a grass snake through the howling of a hurricane. The Small One is still strange to her, and perhaps he will always be, though her sense of such concepts as ‘always’ or ‘forever’ is still hazy.
She wishes to go to him now, after their forced separation, to nestle on top of him and peck him on the head for having commanded her to leave, but she does not, for she knows, without him having to command or even gesture, that he does not want her to do this, not now, and while she does not always heed such concerns as these, this time she does, for she knows that the Small One too is confused and afraid at times, even now, after thousands of seasons and hundreds of thousands of nights. She has heard him call out to no one, seen him shudder before things that she cannot see, felt the pressure forming up within him of the fire-volcanic that seems to dwell perpetually within and even seen it erupt. She knows what he is capable of.
She does not care. It does occur to her that she might, but she does not.
At length the other predator leaves, withdraws in deference and leaves the small cave that they are in, the portal to which shuts behind him. Her inclination is to leap from the perch she is on and smother the Small One, but no sooner does the portal close than he slumps like a crushed beetle against the cave wall, his wings trembling as they drop to his side. His plumage is torn, and though the flesh beneath is whole and unblemished, she knows that this means nothing.
Carefully, she hops down from the perch, landing on the floor of the cave and walking awkwardly over to where he leans, staring at him with unblinking eyes, a predator in mimicry of a hatchling, and occasionally the reverse. She reaches him, inclining her head, silent because she knows she has no need to call, and she waits for him to recover enough to lift his head. When he does, his eyes are ringed red with blood, and whatever lies his face tries to tell her, he for a moment he looks as old as she knows he is, worn almost shapeless by a thousand matters chronic and acute, by thousands of seasons of ceaseless toil, and by the last few nights drenched in fire, blood, and fear.
She calls to him.
It’s a soft keen, quiet and deep, and what she means by it is impossible to translate into the calls of men, and yet he understands, or at least she thinks he does, for he smiles, twisting his soft features, and smears away the blood with the back of his featherless wing. He strokes the feathers of her neck and does not push away when she picks at his pale head-fur with her beak, and she is still debating whether or not she should sit on him or if that might make him annoyed, when all of a sudden he falls.
He falls forward, all at once, like an old tree whose roots will not bind it to the earth any longer, all strength leaving his limbs as he collapses down. But he does not fall to the floor, for she is still standing there, and for all the terrible force he can muster when necessary, force enough to crush a tree or smash a stone wall or lift one of the living, snarling chariots of these nights over his head, he is still smaller than she is by weight. He lands against her with a soft thud, his wingtips weakly gripping her feathers, and she lowers him gently until he is seated against the wall.
“Aquilifer…” he says, quietly, through clenched teeth and shaking wings, and she sidles up to him, letting him lay his head on her shoulder, moments before she reaches out and awkwardly wraps his miniature form in her own wings. His featherless skin is cold, and she feels neither heartbeat nor breath, but this is the nature of predators and of the Small One, and it does not occur to her to question it.
Nothing occurs to her, not in this moment, not even as he repeats his call, over and over, for what purpose she does not know, but she can guess. She listens in silence as he calls to her, the same call she has heard for a hundred thousand nights and more, the one he created just for her. And finally, as his song falls silent, she replies, with the one she created for him, so long ago now that she can no longer remember when.