Cyclones churned the battlefield, kicking up sand to hide the enemy. The hundred-strong wing of Akeled war eagles wheeled, but the wind caught them up like dry leaves, cascading the mighty birds downward in a sickening red swirl. Scores of eagles, wings broken, plummeted to earth. The rest vanished, carried away, obscured by howling columns of sand.
Ayet! Rimmon frantically sought to link with his eagle but encountered only vision-flashes of confusion, pinions, and swirling debris. The roar of wind filled his ears. He hooked a scarf over his nose and mouth to block out the sand, raising his gauntleted left forearm against his brow to shield his eyes. Blinded by dust, the horses pulling the chariot trumpeted fear and battled to kick over the traces.
His childhood friend and now his driver, Xarek, fought to control the beasts, to keep the scythed wheels of the vehicle from making contact with other units.
Though he had been training to be an eagle warrior for four of his twenty years, Rimmon had only engaged in battle twice. Both times he had flown Ayet in reconnaissance against smaller enemy forces, easily overwhelmed by his battalion’s veteran eagles and warriors. This time was different.
Now at last they had met the Iron Horde’s main army, commanded by its demon princes: one of lightning, one of water, one of wind.
“This is the work of Ekari!” Xar thundered, naming the demon to blame. Brown hair littered with dust plastered to his forehead, Xar’s strong arms bulged with muscle as he fought to govern the horses. “This is a demon’s wind!”
Whether it was the spirit of battle, or the activity of the wind, Xar looked magnificent. He possessed a warrior’s confidence, and the beauty of one of the gods of the plains come to life. Rimmon had loved him from the day they met and loved him still, though Xar had chosen another.
In the distance, unnatural lightning struck the earthwork walls of the city the Akeled soldiers defended.
The wind shifted, a sudden gust driving directly into the chariot-mounted unit. Hordish arrows, a hell of spinning broadheads, descended upon them. Xar staggered, releasing the reins. Rimmon lunged for the leather straps, half-falling over the front brace before grabbing them up, slick with blood. Looking around, he saw Xar’s hands groping at a fountain of red where an arrow had torn away the side of his neck. Red spurted in great gouts, spraying Rimmon’s right side and face as his friend gurgled and struggled for breath. Though he controlled the horses, Rimmon could do nothing for Xar except watch him slump to the floor, dying with terror on his face.
The chariot units had been instructed before battle to jettison corpses, get rid of dead weight. Rimmon rebelled. He would not kick his friend’s body out onto the sand where it would be pickings for Hordish slaves.
The battalion commander, his red crest just a suggestion against curtains of wind-driven dust, signaled retreat. Glazed with Xar’s blood, Rimmon hauled hard on the reins, but the chariot swung wide before he succeeded in turning the horses. He had only just succeeded when the flying sand to their left gave birth to a cyclone that slammed into the wing, sending his chariot crashing into a gully. He flew through the air and landed in a fury of breaking wood and screaming horses; he heard before he felt the sickening snap of his leg. Pain cracked through his skull and ribs. The demon wind ripped at his clothes and skin, then moved on, and the battle moved with it, leaving him lying amidst wreckage. One of his chariot’s four horses thrashed nearby, its deep chest impaled upon the blades of a scythed wheel. All around him lay other horses, other chariots, and other men. A few more horses, ghost-like, galloped off into the gusts of sand, dragging their traces.
Pain stabbing his every breath, Rimmon struggled up onto one arm. His left leg twisted unnaturally above the ankle, and his left side and upper arm bled where one of the scythes had gashed him deeply through his leather armor. He looked up the incline of the gully into which he had fallen, knowing his problems were not over. The enemy would descend soon, following the wind in search of fallen soldiers, trophies, and gold. Teeth clenched, Rimmon tore off his sash, heavy with golden eagle medallions, and tossed it aside along with his gold-covered helmet and bracelets of rank. Shining things would just glint and give him away. On arms and knees, even though his left leg dragged and the pain soon made him vomit, he crawled along the gully’s course until he was as far from the carnage as his body would take him. When at last his strength gave out, he rolled into a hollow beneath some heavy brush, where he clutched his dagger against discovery and waited until nightfall.
Night provided cover, so Rimmon risked moving again. The gully had opened onto the lowlands, and the wails of men crying for help faded behind him. Most cries were quickly silenced. Drums loudly heralded the Hordish presence, coming nearer at one point but then retreating. Though he stopped often to rest, Rimmon crawled toward the river, hoping to find water and the reserve units commanded by his brother. Had any of his family survived?
As dawn cleared the mountains and long-toothed shadows of pale rose covered the now silent land, Rimmon gained the protection of an eroded outcrop within a half-league of the river. Keeping to the shelter of the outcrop’s weathered brown rocks, he sought higher ground from which to survey his situation. It was midday before he managed the clear the rise, his body scraped by rock, his lower left leg swollen to grotesque size and pounding with pain.
Across the trampled plain loomed the outer crags of the Akeled capital of Kossa. Great gouges blackened the breached walls. Fires burned in the city, spilling smoke into a sky barren of eagles. Black-robed Hordish invaders covered the plain like a creeping flood.
He was a dead man.
His mother and father, his brothers and sisters… the Horde would show them no mercy. Their demon king, Sarduk, had slaughtered the royal families of every domain he had conquered.
An ear-piercing shriek split the sky overhead, echoing off the stones of the outcropping. Heart leaping, Rimmon looked up, reflexively holding out his leather-gauntleted left arm. His eagle! Pain ripped through his side from the motion, but he kept his arm extended. A shadow descended upon him swiftly, covering him, darkening the rocks to either side. Air pushed by powerful red wings fanned his face just before golden talons longer than his fingers gripped his hand and forearm. The eagle’s weight, that of a two-year-old child, awakened fresh pain in his wounded arm, and he lowered both gently to the ground.
“Ayet,” he whispered, overjoyed. He’d thought her killed by the wind! With pain blunting his mind, he had not been focusing on their bond.
The war eagle cocked her head at him, scrutinizing him with a tawny eye. Rimmon stroked his ungloved right finger over the gritty feathering of her throat while Ayet stretched her neck. So much sand!
“Are you all right, girl?” he asked. His right hand skimmed her wings, seeking out broken bones or damaged feathers. Ayet had only a few of the latter. She extended her head toward him, her great curved beak gently nipping his earlobe, letting him know she was hungry.
“You’ll have to hunt.” He had lost his sack of reward meat on the battlefield.
It would be dangerous to send her out even to hunt. The Horde army still in the field would shoot war eagles on sight. Perhaps, if he sent her across the river….
Rimmon urged Ayet off his arm and, bracing his right foot against a boulder, angled to hands and knees. Wincing against fresh pain awakened by his movements, he crept around the side of the outcropping, being careful to stay low and out of sight until he could look down upon the reed-lined bank of the river. Winter snows could not have so frozen his blood.
Hundreds of soldiers, thousands, wearing the black robes of the Horde that made them look like vultures, gathered at the water’s edge. Avenues of war tents lined the bank, red as the sea of blood their occupants had spilled across the lands under the Known Sky.
Melkor squatted to wash his hands in the icy water of the river. He had never known colder water;a bright, clear stream out of the snow-capped mountains that encircled this arid but beautiful land. His brother, Sarduk, had been adamant about taking this mountain stronghold of Ake. The small but ancient kingdom sat astride important trade routes—and, more vitally, the mountain passes Sarduk required if he were to conquer the distant and surpassingly wealthy empire of Irup.
A pity they chose not to become allies. Instead, the proud Akeleds had placed their faith in the strength of their mountains and the legendary prowess of their eagles.
A pity they chose not to believe the tales told by the conquered.
But then the conquered told many different tales. Refugees told of blue-skinned demons with black tongues and fiery eyes, wearing crowns of bones. They told of rains of toads, and of armies and fleets swept away by towering waves and raging rivers. The Akeled king, secure in his steep mountains, had boasted he did not fear floods. Salt, the greatest empire under the Known Sky, had fallen to curtains of fire caused by demon lightning. The Akeled king had retorted his desert would not burn.
No, the Akeled army had fallen to wind. Two days ago, the red-clothed army had perished to the last man. Now Sarduk and his officers plundered the Akeled king’s conquered city.
Melkor looked across the stream to where an eagle perched on a large rock, dipping and shaking something in the water. In all his thirty-two years, he had never seen such a magnificent bird—its wingspan greater than the arm spans of two men standing fingertip to fingertip, russet feathers glinting with golden highlights in the sun—even the creature’s talons and beak appeared to be of purest gold.
“What do you think?” Bodhan asked. The man with the dark eyes and curling black beard was his court physician as well as his friend. “Might it be one of their fighting eagles?”
The eagle flew off, bearing away in its beak whatever white thing it had been washing.
“It has the look of one. I can’t believe we killed them all.”
“You mean you killed them all,” his friend corrected. “You turned the battle by summoning the wind.”
Melkor nodded. He was the youngest of three brothers, all born in the same hour, gifted at birth by their goddess mother with command of the elements. Sarduk’s gift was lightning. Belaam commanded water both heavenly and earthly. Melkor was the Prince of Winds. Until this conquest, his gift had been little utilized except to propel Hordish ships. Yesterday, however, Sarduk had acknowledged his contribution before the entire Horde and promised his brother a great reward: a boon of his choosing from among the spoils of conquest. He had not yet decided his choice.
Much as Melkor celebrated the Horde’s march through the continent, the riches gained for its young empire and the weakening of their divine enemies, the destruction saddened him. Leaving nothing behind that could rise up against him, Sarduk had leveled cities, kingdoms, entire civilizations. Bloodlines had been extinguished, never to bear fruit. How much history, how much knowledge, was being lost?
Those gorgeous eagles, for one, commanded by men who were no more.
Movement alerted him. The eagle had returned. He nudged Bodhan. “Look,” he said.
“Another prey?” The eagle raised its head from the water, something long and white dripping from its beak.
“It looks to be the same object. I don’t think it’s a catch.”
The eagle launched again into the air. This time Melkor watched where it went. The outcropping. “Follow me,” he said to Bodhan.
In the several minutes it took Melkor and Bodhan to reach the outcropping, the eagle flew out once more. By the time it returned, they had established a vantage point from which they could survey the shadowed recess the bird frequented. Closer scrutiny revealed the half-hidden but recognizable shape of a man’s torso and head.
With a snap of wings, the eagle returned again, landing upon one of the boulders. It dipped its head toward the man, placing the limp, dripping thing in its beak upon the face. They watched in amazement as a hand rose to grasp the wet cloth, which they now saw it to be, and squeezed it so a stream of drops fell.
“The creature’s bringing him water!” Bodhan whispered. He stared, fascinated, at the scene.
“An eagle warrior, perhaps injured.” Melkor made the logical leap. He had never heard of a raptor caring for a human, but some of the advance scouts had told tales of an uncanny bond between an Akeled warrior and his bird. To his friend he said, “The fishing boats just south of the camp—”
“Yes. I remember.” As ever, Bodhan grasped his direction.
“Go back, bring some men and any nets you can find.”
“Only if you promise not to attempt something foolish. Those birds are killers.”
“I know that. I won’t engage them. Just come back quickly.”
He watched Bodhan until his friend had made a clean break toward the river. Only then did his fingers relax about the stone he’d found. Throwing a stone at an eagle was not the soundest of plans, but he had only that and a dagger as weapons. Of course, he also had the wind. He held his gift upon his tongue, tucked against the edge of his teeth.
The eagle launched again, abruptly, this time with nothing in its beak. With powerful beats of its wings, it swiftly cleared the river, headed toward the wild flats where no soldiers roamed.
It’s gone to hunt, Melkor realized. Surely it would be gone long enough for him to get a better look. Staying low, he crept through the grasses to the boulders concealing the man. Mindful of the eagle and that the man he approached would be armed, he closed his fingers about the hilt of his dagger and stopped every few steps to look toward the sky.
Moving around a boulder baked hot by the sun, he looked into a hollow that afforded enough shade for a man. He saw a pale foot sandaled in sturdy brown leather, attached to a bare-skinned, scraped, and swollen leg. From ankle to knee, the flesh showed an ugly purple, the bone beneath it distorted. Broken, which explained why this Akel had not fled to a more promising location. Making sure to keep more than an arm’s length from his quarry, he stepped forward to see more.
The eagle warrior was young and covered with blood. Even filthy and battered, he was beautiful. Soft waves of short red-gold hair, weighted by dust, clung to creamy skin shadowed by bruises and days-old stubble. That amazing coloring only enhanced the way chestnut eyelashes fanned upon a bloodstained cheek favored by a straight nose and pale lips so perfectly formed they begged to be kissed. Melkor stood motionless in pure admiration, appreciating why his cock swelled with interest. He had a longstanding weakness for exotic beauties. Even half-dead ones, apparently. Slowly, he lowered himself to crouching. The youth still clasped the wet cloth in his left hand, holding tightly to what his eagle had brought. Tucked against his arm was a gauntlet of thick black leather with a wide cuff of red snakeskin stamped with a gold medallion, from which dangled a gilded, red leather tassel.
Suddenly, the young warrior’s hand snaked forth. A dagger flashed in his fist. Melkor, having anticipated the attack, caught his hand by the wrist and stared, utterly arrested, into eyes of glorious deep violet-blue laced with shots of gold. The boy even had beautiful brows, shaped like the wings of his eagle.
“You are mine,” he murmured, his cock instantly erect.
His captive’s breathing quickened, hard with fear.
“I will not hurt you,” Melkor assured him. He pried away the dagger and tossed it a short distance into the rocks as the Akel strove against him, wounded but strong. He was glad to hear voices and the sounds of disturbed stones below, his men arriving at a run.
The youth’s perfect lips parted over white, even teeth. “Ayet!” the young man hissed. Triumph gleamed in narrowed eyes.
A feral shriek split Melkor’s eardrums. He ducked as a furious ball of red feathers and extended golden talons bowled him over. Sharp agony raked his upraised arm and shoulder, tearing through the fabric of his robe, giving birth to fountains of wet heat. Blood flowed freely down his arm to bathe his ribs.
“Throw it!” Bodhan’s cry accompanied a fluttering whoosh and another scream from the eagle. The weight abruptly left Melkor’s body, followed by shouts from his men. Looking beneath his arms, held crossed over his head for protection, he saw three soldiers wrestling the netted, thrashing, and screaming bird.
Beside him, the young warrior yelled loudly and lurched toward something on the ground. One of Melkor’s men raised his sword.
“No!” Melkor cried. Sa’uffuuu! A wind leapt from the outcropping, catching the soldier’s garments and spinning him around. Diving at the Akel warrior, Melkor grabbed him about the waist and rolled him over, even in battle savoring the arching of that hard young body under his. Another soldier, coming to his aid, pinned the Akel’s legs.
A scream of raw pain broke from the captive’s throat just before he collapsed, fainting on the sun-hot stone.