Fantasy Romance demons gods feelings

On Falcon's Wings

By R. K. Duncan
Nov 15, 2019 · 5,984 words · 22 minutes


From the author: Alssia and Idris must venture into the Demon Wastes to capture a new god for the city, but will she lose him again, forever this time, when he binds himself to the new god?


 

Alssia saw Idris for the first time in three years against the whitewashed wall of the temple. The first gleam of dawn made his skin shine like polished rosewood. In his hands, the new idol, a tangle of flutes and chimes, bells and reeds and rattles. Every breath of wind woke soft sounds from it, music for an enchanted meeting. Old Qadim ruined it. He scuttled from the temple before either of them could speak, his eyes like shattered glass, glistening even as he kept in shadows, where the sunlight would not weigh him down. The old man was breathing ragged and clutching the absence of a wound in his belly.

Inside the temple, his god was dying. The black bull of Belhadid had broken him. Three days ago, when warriors from the iron city came with battle, Siad-Amak had met them, and when the foemen loosed their god, he had raced to meet it, cast his net about it, pierced its side with his bright spear. The bull had been too strong. It tore the starry net, and scorched the sky with its burning breath, and ripped his belly with its horns. He had fallen, but the bleeding bull ran wild from the field, and half the raiders ran after it. Alssia had been the in the front rank as they routed the rest, and brought their broken spears and cloven shields into the temple, but the fisher of the skies was still dying. He lay in the temple, too broken even to return to his idol-cage of mirrors and prisms.

Idris was red-eyed and limp from working through the nights to finish his new idol, and now Qadim told her that she must take him deep into the desert, into the demon waste to trap a thing of wind to be Belmaladh’s new god. The old man pressed amulets of polished shell and sea-glass on them, to guard them from the demons and bid them go quickly. Siad-Amak would not live past the sunset.

Alssia wanted to speak, to tell Idris, to ask if he still thought, but the moment was more broken than the priest. Instead, she led the way south in silence, past the fields inside the rampart, and past the olives on the first ridge, out into the wastes. Her spear rested easy on her shoulder and a sling hung at her belt. Idris followed her, cradling the new idol like a child, stroking it with his long, clever fingers. He blinked long lashes at the glare when they stepped into full sun beyond the ridge.

The air turned hot, without the breeze off the water that kept the city cool. Idris was sweating before they left the empty lands, close enough to the city that Siad-Amak had emptied them of demons. She kept an eye on Idris as often as she could. He was not used to walking in the waste, and every misplaced step and grunt of effort made her hunting senses twitch. Her eyes lingered on him each time. She had seen too little of Idris since he went to be old Qadim’s apprentice and craft his idol in the temple, and she liked looking.

She shook her head to clear it. She needed to focus on keeping them safe, not on Idris’ bright eyes and his smooth skin. The first demons had started buzzing around them, pleading on the edge of perception for worship and tribute and strength to grow. A little patch of dust shaped itself into a man and raised its fist to rail at them, then fled a salamander of smoke with a burning ember at its heart that dug its way out of the soil. Jeweled birds and winged women, all small as pinheads, danced in the air. These were only midges, fragments of hunger and power sifted from the wind. The strong ones that might be worth trapping lived farther into the waste, where there was no risk of angry gods. She felt the ragged pulse of Siad-Amak’s heartbeat in the trinket at her throat. His power was still on them, to blind and warn away the greater demons. There should have been a score of hunters and warriors to guard Idris, and the other five apprentices, in case he could not hold the god alone, but only a trickle of power still flowed with that ragged heartbeat, only enough for two. Without a ward, demons would tear apart a hundred warriors, just like they would strip Belmaladh without a god to guard it.

She had to break the silence, drown out the ragged echo. “We should try and keep out of sight. It’s dangerous farther in.”

Idris was staring ahead blankly, plodding, sweat drenching his skin. He flinched at her voice and struggled to focus on her face. She almost laughed. He looked like an owl startled from its burrow into unaccustomed sunlight.

“The amulets should still protect us. This will only draw the right sort of demon. The kind we want.”

She tried to turn her snort into a polite throat-clearing. He had not learned much of the land beyond the walls while he made his idol.

“There’s more in the wastes than demons, and most of it can see us. We’ll keep to the valleys and work our way south. You need a high place, right?”

He nodded, smiling a little. Because she had listened and remembered Qadim’s instruction? Because she made him smile?

“Yes, a high place where we can catch the wind from all four quarters.”

His eyes unfocused again, thinking of gods and demons and the binding instead of the ground under them. She pulled him along, keeping to valleys and ravines where she could. The hills ran across their path south, though, so they crossed saddles and ridges quickly, bending low to keep from sight, half sliding back to the low ground in their haste. It was hotter in the valleys, even in the shade. The hills on either side stilled the wind so that they walked through parched, dead air, like an oven. Idris sweated and puffed. Alssia was comforted. The valleys were safe from prying eyes, and safe from hunting beasts too, if they kept to dry ones. The rains that had wept at Siad-Amak’s fall were over and sunk into the dust; no floods would sweep down the narrow valleys, and no hunters would come without a stream to draw prey. The baking air was a blanket, wrapping her in comfort like a mother’s arms.

Alssia felt the raiders as Idris struggled up the slope behind her, a harsh screeching note, like metal against metal, sounding in her spirit, from the demon they carried. Idris felt it a moment later, more sharply. He nearly reeled back down the hill, clutching his head. A quick glance showed her the flash of eyes and a raised hand. They had been seen.

“Run. Now.”

She sprang forward along the ridge, and Idris stumbled after her, idol jangling. They needed speed now. It might only be two or three raiders on whatever errand had brought them here, and running would make them follow instead of gathering the rest for a sure kill. Small hope; the raiders would have felt Siad-Amak’s fall and seen the sky weep for him. They knew Belmaladh needed a new god. Very likely a whole raid was waiting, ready to take blood and spirit for their demon.

Idris slowed her. Alone, she might have outpaced the raiders and left them to search for easier prey, but he was no hunter, no fighter. Her instincts screamed at her to run faster, as fast as she could. She felt the demon’s breath like a hot wind on her back.

There were five raiders, weathered men decked in mismatched finery, stained silks, chains of coins, hacked and broken chunks of silver. They wore all that would have gone into a temple if they had a god instead of kneeling to a demon. It rode them, fed on their treasures, sipping lightly at their spirits. It was not real, yet, but the shadow of a stone lion, with sullen flame glowing from its mouth and cracked skin, paced alongside the men.

Alssia stopped, but waved Idris to run on. He skidded into her, nearly threw her to the ground.

“What are you doing? Come on, we have to run.” Fear made his voice harsh, not the soft, rich bell it should have been.

She didn’t push him away. “Go on. I’m faster than you. I’ll catch up, but I want to try and slow them.”

There was a moment’s hesitation, where he still half-held her, but then he let her go and ran. The absence of his arms was cold, despite the sun.

She readied her sling and spun it until it whistled around her head. She let fly straight at the leader’s face. The stone lion leapt into the world and caught the shot in its mouth. It coughed out slag and contempt. Now that it was manifest, she heard its growl like the grinding of stones. Its feet tore the ground as it ran, as though they fell with the force of great hammers. The voice at the back of her mind screamed louder, telling her to flee. Her sling was useless against that. Her spear was no better. She looked around. Was there anywhere they could lose the raiders?

There, the slope of the next hill south was steep, and it looked loose. Maybe they could scramble up it where the heavier raiders couldn’t. She ran after Idris. It didn’t take long to catch him. He was flagging, breathing raggedly and starting to stumble. She pulled at his shoulder to turn him.

“Come on. Up that slope. Maybe they can’t follow us.”

He had no breath to speak, but he lowered his head and followed doggedly. They slid and stumbled down from the ridge. Idris landed awkwardly on his backside. She pulled him up, and they ran for the slope. The raiders came down behind them. This was nearly a cliff; they climbed more than they ran, and Idris still had one arm taken up with the idol. She had to drag him up by shirt more than once, and she nearly fell half-way up when she missed a handhold looking down to help him. Idris lost his hold completely and grabbed her ankle just as her hands reached the top. It felt as though her foot would rip off where he held her. She tore her nails scrabbling at the rocks, but she managed to keep hold and pull them both up. She lay on the ground for a moment, panting, and the world beyond the slope in front of her returned. She felt the sweat trickling down her skin, heard the raiders shouting from below, half taunting, half baying like wild dogs. It didn’t sound like they were climbing up.

Idris gasped. The ground shook loose a skitter of stones. She rolled up to look over the edge. The demon was tearing at the hillside. It finished carving one ledge and stood on it to reach higher. The raiders would have a stair soon, and Idris was in no shape to run and leave them. She barely was herself. She struggled to her feet and readied her sling again, but before she could load and loose, Idris was standing beside her, fouling her swing. He whispered, but not to her, and there was a strange, grinding undertone to his voice. A web of fine cuts opened all over his skin. Smoke trickled from his mouth.

“No. Why wait? …take them now…blood there, spirit and treasure. Feast now… don’t need them… Feast now!”

He roared, and the stone lion leapt up the cliff. It covered a quarter of the distance in one bound and sprang again, but the hammer-blows of its paws cracked the stone, and it landed askew on a patch of loose earth and little pebbles, and went tumbling down, along with half the hillside. The raiders’ laughs and taunts turned to screams as the rocks broke and bloodied them, and the demon roared its joy as it fed on their dying.

Idris put his hand on her shoulder. The cuts had closed ugly and black, like char. “Come on. We should go. It will come after us if we’re still here when it’s done with them. Demons are never full.” His voice was still too deep, grinding, hungry.

Alssia took the lead again. It was easier to think about finding a path farther up than about what Idris had done, how much he had sounded like the stone lion, speaking the demon’s thoughts to make it jump. Were his footfalls heavier than they should be?

She was bleeding. When the fear of the chase was still pounding in her, she’d thought it was only sweat, but now that fear was faded to bitterness in her throat and a throbbing in her jaw, she felt the sluggish, sticky flow down her leg. She’d cut herself climbing and not felt it. It was barely bleeding anymore. She tied it off. Idris made a wincing noise and held out his hands to help, but she waived him away. She would love to feel his fingers on her, but not while those black scars were still fading.

She could still keep up a better pace than Idris, even with the pain stabbing at her ankle. Blood was dangerous in the wastes, though. Demons and their servants weren’t the only things hunting here, and Siad-Amak’s tokens wouldn’t cover their scent. She pushed it to the back of her mind and walked on. She needed to get Idris far enough into the heights to catch his god.

The jackals were better hunters than the raiders had been, but Alssia was more alert now. She had grown accustomed to Idris beside her, was no longer so distracted thinking of how his smooth skin and clever fingers would feel if she reached out and touched him. She heard their eerie, coughing whine when it was still soft with distance. Idris didn’t. No point saying anything yet. Her limp would mark her as prey when the jackals saw it. Maybe they would lose interest when they saw she wasn’t alone.

It was noon now, no shadows anywhere. She felt the sun like a giant’s eye, pinning her down and showing her up. She needed somewhere to hide. The jackals were louder now. Idris heard them.

“They’re following us, aren’t they.”

“They can smell the blood. It means something’s weak. That’s what they like.”

She paused a moment to scan the hills ahead.

“There, do you see that flat-topped hill, just away to the left?”

He followed her pointing finger. “I see it. That will do, yes.”

“I’ll stop at the next good spot and deal with the jackals. You get on with the binding. I can catch up, or you can come back and find me once it’s done.”

He stopped walking and looked at her. Really looked at her. She felt his bright, eager eyes studying her like they never had. She clamped down on a shiver, on the urge to pull her hair back over her ear. She saw him thinking, and still not understanding why she wanted him to go on.

“There’s half a dozen of them at least. I can help. I’m not leaving.”

“You don’t know what you’re doing. You’ll just get in the way, and you’ll be in danger. We need a new god. You have to get there and catch one.”

She had to get him away, out of danger.

“Then you can protect me. If it’s that dangerous, you’ll die alone, and if it’s not, there’s no trouble and we can go up together when it’s done. Either way, I’ll stay with you.”

He had always been able to talk circles round her. She’d forgotten that, forgotten how stubborn he could be.

He broke a branch from one of the lonely cypresses that dotted the hills as they walked, and, a little later, there was a patch of steep slope that would give them a wall to put their backs against. As good a place as any. She set her spear ready, and drew her sling again. Idris put the idol down and stood in front of it, holding the cypress branch awkwardly. He still didn’t understand the danger.

“If I go down, take that thing and run. They won’t follow.”

He didn’t answer, just looked at her with those big, bright eyes and shook his head. She should make him go. The city needed him. She could die alone. If he died here, could any of the other acolytes trap a god in time? Belmaladh might die with Idris. Still, there was a warm feeling that he wanted to stay. She hadn’t known how he felt, since he went into the temple.

They had a clear view of the jackals, in the bright sun. It sent a cold finger trailing down her spine. They were too tall, four feet at the shoulder at least, and their tongues were dark and long and never swallowed. There were seven.

“They’re demon-touched.”

Idris realized it too. They had to be, made by one of the stronger demons, or fed on blood from a dead one.

They loped closer, casual, playful. She wanted to think they were intelligent, toying with their prey. They didn’t recognize any threat as she whirled her sling around and sent a stone into one. It took the jackal in the lower jaw, left it hanging by a rope of gristle at one side. The jackal fell, gushing blood, and the rest scattered, yipping and coughing. They did not flee, and now they wove behind rocks and trees and kept her from another easy cast. She loosed a few more stones, but hit nothing, and the jackals laughed at her failure. She threw down the sling and set her spear. Idris was shaking, only a little, but she could hear his foot grinding on the loose dirt. She hoped he could see her eyes pleading with him to go when she looked, but she couldn’t speak. Her mouth was dry. Sun and fear beat on her like a hammer, tightening her muscles until they were wrung-out and weak. She tried to relax, tried to be the serpent, cool, loose, coiled ready for her prey to come in reach.

They sprang across the last yards all at once. Alssia snapped her spear out, quick as a viper, and pricked once, twice. They skidded to a wary halt and she drew back for a stronger thrust. Idris’ scream drove a knife into her gut. One of the jackals had gotten under his club and closed its jaws around his leg. He’d stumbled left, away from her, too far for a quick thrust. She spun on her back heel and threw the spear. It took the jackal through the neck, perfect as a dream, and then the others buried her. They smelled of blood and dust and the scorched heat of the waste. She fell backward, flailing her legs to keep them from biting and tearing. One landed on her chest and she fought to hold it away from her throat with one arm while she fumbled for her knife with the other. Her arm buckled for a moment. It lunged. She got her arm between its jaws and shoved it back. Then her knife was out and across its throat with a spray of blood that covered her face and chest in crimson stickiness.

She kicked again and rolled to get a little space, trying to come up into a crouch, but something gave in her injured leg, and she fell awkwardly to one knee. One jackal was quicker than the other, diving for her weak side. She lurched into it and pulled it close, rolling with it, holding it round the belly and plunging her knife into the back of its neck again and again, until the paws tearing at her belly spasmed and stilled.

She finished the roll on top, and a third jackal landed on her back, biting for the junction of shoulder and neck. She was no gazelle. She caught it by the scruff and swung it over her shoulder onto its back, then opened it from neck to tail with one long pull.

She leapt up. Idris was fending off the last two jackals with wide, wild swings of his cypress branch, but they were baiting him, darting in to nip him and dancing away before he could hit them. His legs were bathed in blood from knee to foot, and she could hear his gasping breath from here. She ran toward him. One long pace, two. On the third, her leg gave out again and she pitched forward, trying to turn it into a dive. She landed tangled in the nearer jackal’s hind legs. It twisted round to snap at her. Idris bellowed and charged at it, swinging the branch down heavily, but he left himself open, and the last jackal sprang onto his back. He went down under it, and there was blood. She pulled the one Idris had stunned closer and put her knife through its eye, snapped it back, and threw. The last jackal must have heard it whistle through the air. It snapped its bloody muzzle up and caught the knife point first in its open mouth, then fell, and did not move.

She dragged herself to Idris and shoved the jackal off him, wadding his already torn shirt to press against the wound. She wished she could pray, but god was dying already. She felt herself weeping, tears pulling themselves out despite how much the wastes had dried her. There was so much blood; she couldn’t tell how much came from his wound as she packed more and more of his shirt against it. She tried to quiet her ragged gasping. She couldn’t hear if he was breathing.

And there were his hands, his strong, warm, clever hands, wrapping around hers where they were pressed at the hollow of his shoulder. He reached a bloody finger to her face to wipe a tear, and they both collapsed and buried their faces in their arms and laughed. They were alive, and in a moment they could go on, and that was enough for joy overflowing.

They were both shirtless and wearing trousers torn to loincloths by the time their wounds were bound. His leg was the worst, and his shoulder next, but her ankle would not take her weight. They broke her spear in half for walking sticks and struggled on. Idris was pale from bleeding, and she felt no better, but there was no way home but on. Alone, she might have made it back by nightfall. With Idris, only a god could bring them safe through the waste.

They didn’t speak, not more than to point to the next task. She had seen his eyes when the jackal went for her, and that made it easy to imagine what he had seen in hers. He was as sorry they were parted as she. It didn’t change a bit of what they had to do for Belmaladh, of what it would take from them.

They were safe from men and beasts, this far south. Only demons lived so deep, and Siad-Amak’s amulets still hid them, as long as they stayed far enough from the great demons and the way the world twisted round them. The slopes were steadier as well, and Alssia kept them on the easiest course for the hilltop she had chosen. They wound around the hill three times instead of taking the straight way up. Halfway along the first turn, Idris broke the silence.

“I know what you think. That this means we have to be apart.” She looked over to him. He was staring studiously forward, face and voice stiff. “I’ve known you thought so since I went to the temple, and you never visited.”

He was right. She tried to see behind his face, to see what he was thinking, but it was a beautiful mask, and he was breathing in the calm rhythm of temple meditations. It made his words sound like prayers, broken into verses by the rhythm of his breath.

“You’re wrong, though. It doesn’t need to be that way. You’ll always be welcome in the temple, when I’m priest, and just because Qadim never took a wife, it doesn’t mean…”

“I’ll be welcome, but you’ll be gone.” That was enough to make him turn and look at her. “I’ve seen Qadim, how he shies from the light, sees things that aren’t there. Being a priest makes you something else. You won’t be you after you do it, after today.”

He looked angry now. She could hear him struggling to keep his voice measured, not to shout. “It’s not like that. Binding a god changes you. It will change me, but I’ll still be me. I’ll be better, stronger, with the god to help me.”

“I never needed you to be stronger.”

He stood there, staring at her, so full of pride, so eager, so much like the young warriors, beautiful and fierce. Broken, now. They were silent again, climbing.

The sun was starting to sink noticeably when they reached the hilltop. People in the city would be worrying, glancing to the south and shaking their heads. Alssia and Idris should have returned by now, if all was well. The council would be meeting, except for Qadim, to think what they would do if Idris failed. How they could find another god for Belmaladh before Siad-Amak died and left them open to whatever came from waste and wave to break them. Alssia had no answers to whisper to the desert wind. The ground shook under them. An obsidian giant, taller than a tower, strode across the plain, shaping it new with every footfall. A few hills east, a great pine with silver needles and a trunk skinned with silent, screaming child faces sprouted to the sky. She felt it watching her, spreading out her mind like a parchment to read, felt scratching fingers across the inside of her skull.

Idris hands shook her back into her skin. She was safe. The tree was rooted. It could not come, even with its branches stretched toward them. But the amulets were failing.

“Do it. We need to get out of this place.”

Idris took up the idol, and readied to play. It wrapped him from shoulder to hip in a cage of bone and silver. He blew into one reed, and then another, and he swayed in the breeze that sprang up with the music. Chimes rang and jangled, and reeds whistled and moaned. The sound seemed small, lost in the emptiness of the rising hills and the coastlands spread below them, and smaller still when a demon came near to listen.

A wind from the blazing desert beyond the hills blew up in an instant and nearly slammed Alssia to the ground. It screamed past her and whirled around Idris, spinning up dust-devils as tall as she was and making the idol clatter and scream. Idris spoke.

No, something used his voice, but made it harsh and rasping, nails scraping gravel in his throat. The dust around him spread into great wings and the air rippled with a wall of heat between them.

“Kneel! Offer me blood or burn beneath the winds. I will strip your meat and make your bones sing for me.”

The voice broke off in a snarl, and Alssia saw Idris’ eyes narrow. His fingers shifted, and the tunes the idol played shifted with them. He spoke again, in his own soft voice. Small and frightened after the wind’s scream.

“Name yourself.”

That was the first test. Qadim had forced a little wisdom into his mutterings when he sent them out. Only the strongest demons made names. That was the first test to be a god.

The desert wind growled with Idris’ throat again. A little softer now. It was learning to use his mouth.

“I am Harmattan. Kneel and weep.”

Idris was calmer the second time, but his voice was raw, harsher, more like Harmattan. The dust danced to it. Heat haze clustered on him like a cloak.

“Name your virtues.”

That was the second test. Demons were born in hate and hunger. Ones that lived long and grew strong enough had virtues they claimed, as well as vices they despised.

The burning wind wrested Idris’ voice from him again, but it seemed softer this time. Perhaps Alssia was only becoming used to its harshness, but it seemed to her that already Idris and Harmattan were growing together, becoming something else, killing her sweet, soft boy with clever fingers and inquisitive eyes. Her skin crawled, trying to pull her eyes away from looking.

“Who dares command me? Kneel, and offer blood and weeping and I will spare you. You are bold, at least.”

She could barely hear the change when Idris spoke again, only see it in the way his eyes re-focused, as though he had been out of his body altogether while he let the wind speak through it.

“I will kneel if you are worthy. Speak your virtues. What is best in you and in mortal men?”

Why was he still dealing with it? It was only rage and hate and death. It knew nothing of fair winds to speed a ship or rain for fields and orchards. What could it give Belmaladh but blood and fire? Was he so lost already that he couldn’t see?

The rasping scream cut the air again. It hurt her ears. It stabbed hot fingers down her throat into her lungs.

“Fury is best, fire is best, rage and blood and burning. Kneel before me or feel them all, but wait; I like this toy that you have made to give me voice. I will keep it, and you will carry it. We will eat the woman. She is only a worthless worm.”

The wind redoubled, and it hammered into Alssia’s chest like a doubled fist. She stumbled back. Idris opened his mouth, but all that came out was a strangled croak. The burning wind Idris had raised wrapped around her and lashed her with oven-hot sand. Idris looked at her, eyes pleading. He saw something in hers that made him harden. His hands danced on the idol, and he clenched his jaw. The music changed, a rolling counterpoint to the howling of the hot wind. For a moment, bands of wind and sound played over her, hot and screaming, cool and musical. Then, Idris seemed to become somehow more solid, more real, to step from somewhere else and stand heavily there on the hilltop. He bent himself to one of the idol’s many mouthpieces and blew a deep, loud horn blast. The cool wind shredded the hot, and Harmattan faded to a whistle on the breeze and dwindled down to silence.

Idris set the idol down, gently as an infant, and came to stand over where she had fallen while the winds whipped her.

“Are you all right? Did he hurt you?”

“Not worse than I already was. Did you mean to call that… thing?”

“It doesn’t work that way.” He stepped back half a pace. “The idol calls spirits that fit. I made a prison for the wind, but any wind can feel the pull.”

At least he had the grace to look sheepish, after what he almost become. He understood how clear his lie about not changing showed now. His face squeezed the way it did just before he said something sweet and clever to charm her, but she never heard it.

The air screeched loud as thunder and sharp as needles. Great waves of wind swamped the hilltop. Idris ran to take up the idol and play again. Alssia looked up and saw the demon like a shadow of mist across the sky. A great falcon with wings that reached the horizon, the sun its blazing eye. The greats wings beat with a wind to send ships speeding across the wave, or to shatter them with its strength.

Idris began his music again, but it sounded tiny, lost in the falcon’s whirlwind. Still he challenged it.

“Name yourself.”

The wind’s reply cut her ears like a knife of ice. This demon did not use Idris throat. It spoke from the idol like a choir of glass tongues and metal teeth. “Bash-Irem.” A woman’s name.

She heard Idris’ voice shaking now in answer, as humble as she felt beneath the demon’s gaze.

“Great lady, speak your virtues. What is best in you, and in men and women below?”

“To see the truth of what must be and swiftly make it so: just rewards and swiftest retribution for injustice; never to delay when they must act.”

The falcon’s voice was fierce and huge, but it felt clean, not hateful like the desert wind had been. Alssia could hear its wisdom. Belmaladh needed the virtues it named. Siad-Amak had been careful and he had made them over-cautious. Never had they sailed back to Belhadid or Belrustam to recompense a raid and make them fear to come again.

Idris spoke again, his little voice against the wind. “Come then, and take the gift I have brought for you.”

Now was the contest. Gods and demons could feed on crafts and treasures as they did on blood and life, but they must encompass each thing to grow from it. The idol had to shift and change enough to trap the demon and tame it for a god. Idris’ fingers danced, and his lips went from pipe to pipe as he played a riddle of music for the falcon. Bash-Irem screamed louder than before, and Alssia felt her passing as a river of wind. The falcon made a faster, sharper music of trilling flutes and ringing chimes, and it cut through the overlapping horns. They buzzed and sighed against each other for a breathless moment, but then the idol screamed. There was a crack, and Idris was thrown away and tumbled to the ground. The idol hung on the wind and played a fierce exultant music for Bash-Irem.

Idris fallen, and the demon about to break the idol and depart unbound. She should have been terrified, but Alssia found that she knew the tune. It was the pounding blood of the strike that ended the hunt, the moment when all of mind and will and body were united in a single perfect release; the thrust of the spear, the flight of the stone. Without thought, Alssia ran to make the kill. She seized the idol and felt out the holes that would channel the falcon’s song and confuse it, and she found a harmony with the demon of the hunting wind. Idris came up, and his clever fingers guided hers to play the notes that caught Bash-Irem in the chimes and reeds, still restive, like a hunting bird testing its jesses, but bound in earnest. She felt her limbs lighten, like a bird. It was a strain to focus on his face, but she could see every leaf on the olive trees outside the city. They made music together, the ones who had been huntress and acolyte, and she knew that they must do so again. The two of them had caught this god, and both of them would be what it made them.

She thought of the long road back, the road she had been dreading as they climbed. She laughed, and felt for the stops she needed, and they rode back to Belmaladh on falcon’s wings.

This story originally appeared in Shards anthology.


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R. K. Duncan

Fantasy with darkness and a sharp edge of hope.