Copyright 1990 & 1995, Sarah Hartwell
This tale is based on several dreams and some idle musings (following a balloon trip over the Valley of the Kings, Egypt) which I tried to weave into something vaguely coherent
I had been meditating in my tent as befits a serious flier; meditating and fasting so that I did not become too corpulent for fast or long flights. Inside the striped woolcloth tent the air was close and warm and the harsh glare of sunlight was filtered to a dim yellowness by the canvas roof. Outside in the bright unfiltered light the air would be arid and still. Mercifully the dust-storm season had finished so that we could take to the air without protective gauze wrapped around eyes, nose and mouth. The sandstone plains reflected the heat, turning the air into an oven and the treacherous sand dunes, which looked like solid rock but could suck down a man in seconds, would be dangerously still with not even a dust devil dancing on their undulating surfaces to warn the unwary.
Unwelcome noises filtered through my meditations and I recognised several of my sisters calling in agitation. I stood, rubbing the cramp from my legs, and pulled aside the doorcloth. Sunlight streamed into the interior of my tent so that I was temporarily blinded and it took several long seconds for my eyes to adapt to the sudden brightness. There were three or four fliers aloft, circling in the heat eddies high above me and making it hard to count them. I made out the wing patterns of two of my sisters first, then the colours of a junior girl not long grown into her first full-sized wings. The fourth set of wings were dead black, the wings of Tiercel, the Crow. He circled lazily about the three women and always one of my sisters moved between him and the youngest flier.
The younger children had sensed trouble brewing in the skies and had reeled in their bright manoeuvrable kites which taught them so much about flight. The elder adults, whose years of flight were over, watched from awnings, shading their age-weakened eyes with deeply tanned hands or fastening thin light-filtering gauze scarves about their eyes. Where Tiercel flew, trouble followed.
I grabbed my own set of wings from the soft cushions on which they lay, forgetting in my haste to thank the gods for the gift of the skies and the knowledge of flight, and shrugged into the leather flying harness leaving the wings draped unopened on my back. Once through the awning where two of my blood-kin sat chattering like sandbirds and bemoaning the vertigo which denied them their wings, I sprang up the launching ladder of my tent, two rungs at a time. As soon as I had reached the top rung, I hauled the light wings forward and allowed them to telescope out to their full span, locking them rigid with a flutter and a shake. A heat eddy caught them at once and the photosensitive dyes changed from dull brown to my personal colours as the strong sun caught the spread surface. I was aloft, glorying in the warm drifting air and the freedom of the skies and the winds. There was no time to swoop and play and dance aerobatics in the air; my sister Teeka had signalled that there was trouble.
Janni, the youngest of the fliers aloft, in her youthful ignorance, had challenged Tiercel, the black flier and was likely to lose. Tiercel demanded tribute from those he defeated and Janni was too young to suffer his demands. My sisters, Teeka and Lia, drifted in circles around her so that Tiercel could neither answer the challenge nor claim forfeit. The young flier looked belligerent, but she knew nothing of Tiercel's price if he should win - which he would.
Tiercel was notorious among women - what he did not win by his not inconsiderable arts of seduction he claimed from those who challenged him and lost and he claimed his prizes roughly without thought or gentleness. If the challenger was male then Tiercel claimed his prize from the wife or sister of the loser. Janni was too young for either the rigours of a challenge flight or to satisfy Tiercel's demands when through inexperience or lack of stamina she lost.
I had flown several errands already since morning and one of those had been hunting the Sandbuck as they migrated from oasis to oasis, and transporting the carcass of the man-sized ruminant back to Tent-home. The muscles of my back and arms ached at the memory of steering my doubly laden wings. The emergency supply of medicines I had carried to Sands-Eye had also weighed heavily and I had drifted home afterwards, my arms hanging as I trusted the rigid wings and the flying frame to respond to the rolls and turns of my body while I tried to rest the over-used arm muscles. Yet here I was aloft once more because a fledgling girl had challenged the Crow.
Teeka and Lia explained the situation in swift hand signals punctuated by few words. The girl had tried to withdraw her challenge but Tiercel refused to be 'dishonoured' by accepting her withdrawal. Most likely Tiercel had not had much luck with women lately. I aimed myself straight at the black flier like a living dart, both to drive him back and to speak with him for he would close his eyes to handsigns. He flew effortlessly, as though he had been born in the air, and circled in frustration at not being able to fly the challenge. His anger had not yet mastered him - then his flying was not merely brilliant it was touched with genius.
"Leave her, Tiercel, she's only a girl. She had no idea what she was doing!" I shouted at him.
He circled round to face me, his features marred by a savage scowl, and shouted his retort, "She knew enough to challenge me. Either we fly or I claim forfeit!"
"She's too young for you, Tiercel, forget it!" I screamed, "Leave her alone!"
"She's old enough," he spat back as he circled away. The scowl had been replaced by an expression of malicious anticipation.
Tiercel, who also was called the Crow, The Black Flier or The Dark Flier was a predator who did not deserve the honorific nickname of Hawk. His wings, his eyes, his expressions and garb were always dark, his heart, however, was black. He took what he wanted regardless of the feelings of others. When women rejected him he took them anyway if the mood took him. How many fledglings had he sired? How many would inherit his genius and how many his moods? And how many would ever know the truth of their siring - that they were Tiercel's get? Janni was too young to be involved in any of this.
His tent was below us in Tent-home, a brooding presence of black and old-blood red. Its pennant drifted slightly in the air currents and I stooped on it like a hawk upon prey. I banked within arm's reach of the fluttering pennant and released one wing-grip to snatch the proud cloth from its pole. It ripped away easily and I rose again to the main currents where Tiercel still circled his prey, frustrated by the older women's protective circling. At the sight of his pennant he tacked towards me, swearing and unable to refuse such a blatant challenge to his honour. His face was a mask of dark anger as he swept towards me. I barely heard his "I accept" as I turned upon a wingtip to lead him away. I hazarded a glance behind me and saw my sisters guide Janni down to earth; she was weeping and tired and I hoped she had seen the sneer on Tiercel's face or the blackness of his soul visible in his eyes. She needed to learn that Tiercel was not one to challenge playfully.
I tacked back and forth to catch the rising currents, first swooping to gain speed then turning into a rising eddy. Tiercel banked sharply to follow, losing speed badly and climbing clumsily in pursuit. I let go of his pennant which fell like a tattered rag to the sandstone desert below and grabbed my wingtips firmly, flying for my life. Other fliers might choose to reclaim the pennant as it spiralled downwards, but not the Crow. He was a predator.
Our shadows rippled across the fossilized dunes, their edges frayed by heat and rippled by air currents as they slid across the dusty yellow surface. Tiercel's shadow was larger, diminishing as he climbed. The landscape undulated, carved into waves and ripples by the constant scouring action of wind and grit. Slowly the solid sandstones of the desert were being eroded into the dangerous shifting sand which looked so deceptively solid until a flier tried to land on it. Sometimes the stinging grit was carried high into the air in the season of dust-storms and fliers had to cover every part of them so that the flesh was not scoured from their bones.
Ahead of me rose the three cones of eroded volcanoes, their tops flat and lichenous and inviting as resting places. My tired arms longed to let go of the wings, but I dared not drift - this was a challenge flight and speed and stamina were all that counted. If the Crow forced me to land ... I cut the thought off. I swung away to the left to avoid the cold spot above the cores and Tiercel turned too, gaining a little by turning earlier. Sand Hawks scattered as we disturbed their hunting flights and then regrouped further off as if deciding whether to mob us. Below me a Sand Buck caught in my shadow fled to the forest which nestled between Three Cores. Striped tents had been set up in the little oasis there; a fracture in the land's crust seeped water from the underground rivers. Stairways had been cut into two of the ancient cores, leading to launching ledges. It was a tricky place to launch from, you had to avoid circling back over the cooler air above the oasis. I saw one man holding half-furled wings in indecision. As soon as he realised it was a challenge flight he re-furled his wings and turned his face away.
For a while the Crow merely kept pace, letting me tire myself out so that he could harry me down to land. He had been in the environs of Tent-home all day and must have been fully cognizant of my exhausting flights earlier in the day. Perhaps he would throw a tow-line down to me as I tired, hooking it onto my flying harness so that he could tow me back to Tent-home or to the flat top of one of the Three Cores or some other cliff or core that rose out of the yellow sea of sand. He had been known to leave his challenger stranded on a core and fly back to Tent-home carrying their wings. Then a friend or blood-kin would be despatched to find the hapless loser.
The Black One was a name he had earned on such an occasion. No-one reached poor Rek in time and he died of thirst and heat exhaustion. That was why the women hated Tiercel, Rek had been a popular man who had sired many youngsters in several settlements. Rek had been kind and gentle and always done his share of hunting and he had hoped to defeat and exile The Crow. The Crow, Dark Flier, Black One - Tiercel deserved all these names and the others we called him. Rek had been the only flier with comparable skills and he had been defeated. There was no-one able to exile Tiercel and I was a fool.
The land dipped away in a deep dry gorge and sandy cliffs rose either side of the chasm. Some long-ago river has carved its twisting path between these cliffs and in my weariness I had flown between them. Tiercel flew above and behind me, above cliff level but forcing me to follow the twists and turns of the gorge with all its unnerving cold spots. I cursed my tiredness and inattention and concentrated on navigating the winding path. Other gorges broke away from this one, tributaries which trickled only sand into the deep crevasse.
Tiercel's shadow passed over me as I was forced to fly the twisting course and he drifted a straight one, resting on the wing. I could try a tumbling turn to reverse direction but I would lose height and be forced to land. The chasm deepened for a stretch and I sank on the cooler air before it grew shallower and warm again. Catching a freak air-current I shot out from beneath Tiercel, like a plump sandbird from right under the Sand Hawk's claws, and let the eddy carry me upwards. Behind and below Tiercel cursed; his straight course had missed the heat eddy altogether.
Far below, at the end of the chasm was Rift-Home where the sail-cloth was woven on solar looms. Huge airy "Sailbirds" flew by night in the chasm and wove their gauzy webs and nests and fabulous curtains of filament which was harvested and woven into the fine, light-as-air sailcloth for wings. the plants that yielded photosensitive dyes grew in natural dew-traps beneath the towering cliffs while metal from Three Cores, and other volcanic relics, was smelted, wrought and sent here. Sandbuck leather, tanned by numerous settlements for domestic use, was also sent to Rift-Home where it was combined with telescopic supports and struts and the gossamer cloth to make the wings on which we depended. The wings came in all shapes and sizes; mine - like Tiercel's and my sisters' - were made to measure and dyed in our personal colours. Janni's wings were borrowed as she had not earned herself a pair in her chosen colours. Surplus sailcloth was turned into kites or mixed with other coarser fibres to give them strength.
Tiercel's dark wings cast a shadow above me as he surged forward and I doubled back, passing over Rift-Home's solar looms once more. He's trying to force me back into the gorge, I thought as he kept his position above me. I did not look up to where he would be smiling darkly as he waited for me to land.
My muscles burned and I risked time and height by releasing the wing-holds long enough to massage the over-used muscles. I stalled and lost stability and Tiercel sped past me. Seeing him ahead ready to block me I turned on a wingtip, seeking the heat eddy which had carried me out of the gorge before. I struck away from Rift-Home, slightly to the left of it and out towards open desert. The hot air lifted me and with my muscles somewhat eased I sped forward catching drifts and currents as they rose from the sun-scorched rock and sand below. The hot air snapped and rippled noisily in my wings, drying my eyes and throat. I chanced a look back - Tiercel was struggling to catch up and I took the chance to drink and splash my face with water from my belt flask. The tepid water was refreshing but dried too quickly to cool my skin. I saw Tiercel's face was also damp, with water not perspiration, so for a moment at least there had been unspoken truce and he had not taken advantage of my weakness.
A long way ahead lay the cliffs of Desert's Edge, forming a dark barrier between the desert and the dead glittering plains of ancient lava beyond. The lands beyond glittered in the merciless light, their glasslike surface reflecting unremitting heat at any flier foolish enough to fly across that endless lifeless expanse.
I had flown over the high lava plateau before, in early morning before the sun was high enough to cook me, the flows stretched away in a featureless arc until they joined up to enclose the sandstone desert in an inescapable embrace. The petrified desert nestled in the bowl of an extinct, earth-shattering volcano which had spewed forth magma during the very founding of the world. Three Cores was merely a babe in the arms of this father of all volcanoes. As far as any flier knew, there was no life on those glasslike plains save the insectivorous birds which nested on the cliffs or in ripples in the lava while flesh-eating plants which gained moisture and nourishment from their prey clung tight to the sides and reached out their delicate, deadly fronds to trap unwary bats and birds. The flasks of those plants tasted foul but were edible if you were a starving ore-collector.
Below me, stone desert and sand holes rippled in the heat haze. Tiercel would chase me across the lava flows to appease his desire for supremacy. The heat between the sun and the glassy surface would be unbearable and I risked losing distance by turning to fly parallel to the cliffs which separated sand and sky with a widening band of blackness. Tiercel was gliding easily now while i was aching after a day's errands and then this challenge flight - all because of one over-confident air-struck youngster.
The Oasis of Green Top was below me and almost without thinking I was spiralling into a landing curve. Trees swayed and domestic ruminants bleated as they scattered under my shadow, Wings rustling, Tiercel was above me, his laughter hollow and booming. Colourful houses of wood, not cloth, were dotted along the three mile length of river where impervious rock forced it to the surface. A shoal of silvery fish flitted beneath the water's surface, barely visible through the reflected sky. A single-sailed skiff skimmed in pursuit.
I was gliding now, close enough to make out upturned faces of villagers who made signs to ward off the evil that rode Tiercel's slipstream. I scudded across the turbulent mixture of hot and cooler air with Tiercel hard upon my wing-tails. Green Top itself, a volcanic core, marked one end of the valley oasis, its flat top green with moss grass which somehow withstood the scorch sum and clung to tenuous existence sustained by dew. The sides of Green Top were scalable with care so even if Tiercel stole my wings I could clamber down to the village and borrow a pair. I would not, however, foist my ill luck upon the village, nor would I allow them to witness my defeat and humiliation at the hands of the Black Flier.
I rose out of my spiralling descent, which had taken me too low for a clean landing, and tilted my wings back to bring me above the high platform. Seeing this, Tiercel hung back to allow me to gain the necessary height. My heels skidded on the mossgrass as I braked and my wings collapsed with a rustle of cloth. Tiercel's wings snapped and billowed as he landed behind me, out of my sight.
I left my wings folded neatly on the short turf of parched moss and sat cross legged on the uncomfortable surface to meditate; to gain some inner peace before ... I shuddered, remembering a time when I had succumbed to his honeyed words. I was lucky - I had known men before and known that not all were like him. Janni had taken no lovers to her tent. He would have destroyed her. I heard the gossamer rustle of folding wings, then the scrunch of turf as Tiercel sat. For a few long moments there was silence as he turned his burning gaze upon my unresponsive back.
"Why did you do it?" he asked unexpectedly.
"Fly? Janni didn't know what challenging you means - she doubtless thought of a friendly race to Three Cores and back," I retorted without bothering to look at him.
"She'd have learnt," came his lofty reply, "And learnt to be less impetuous."
"And learnt the worst side of men before she learnt the good in them - and hated all men because of you."
I turned to face where he sat; he raised one dark eyebrow quizzically as he conceded, "Maybe, but even she knew of my reputation." He was silent for a while, his hawklike eyes watching me. "But you have flown several times already today. Why not Teeka or Lia or one of the men?"
"I was the only other experienced flier there and the least afraid of you," I replied without meeting his black gaze, "The men are not willing to pay with their sisters' and wives' honour."
He laughed, but it was a laugh without even a vestige of humour. I contemplated making a break for my wings and taking to the air, but knew it to be foolhardy and the sort of thing Tiercel would love to punish. Already he was unwinding his towing line from his waist. A challenge was a challenge and he would not fail to claim his reward, however tired he himself might be.
"You know what I want," he said as reached for my britches.
He had gone. My wrists hurt from rope-burn and my stomach hurt with revulsion at his fetish, but he had gone and for that I was grateful. My breasts were stained with red where his bites had drawn blood to the surface, but the stains on my soul were the ones that would endure long after those other marks had healed. My groin was sticky with his drying juices, but the dirt I felt in my heart would be there long after my flesh felt clean again. The musk of his sweat clung to my skin to keep the memory of him still vivid in my mind.
He had tied my wrists and held my fists away from him as he had forced my legs to part for him, he had intruded into a body which was not ready for his entry so that, even through the rag in my mouth, my screams pierced the long dusk and the villagers below had stopped up their ears to shut out the noise of my humiliation. He had raked me with teeth and nails and screamed in dark triumph as his perverse passions were satiated then he had dressed silently and left me wretched in the night. After that timeless period of hatred and humiliation, my despair and his domination, he had flown, leaving me wingless and beaten on this night-darkened islet in the dry desert sea. I huddled into myself, naked under the moons and stars, trying to erase his pleasures from my mind.
I lay a long while in the darkness, listening to the rustle and chirp of the desert's night life and letting the cool air wash away some of the inner anguish and pain to leave only an iron-hard core of resentment and vengefulness. The night chill was invigorating and I dressed quickly before I became too chilled in this world of extremes.
I pushed all thoughts from my mind, closing it behind walls of concentration, as I contemplated the long climb down the weathered core of igneous rock. I wound my towing line, stained with my own blood, belt-fashion around my waist. I tore up the dirty scrap of gauze with which he had stopped my mouth and offered the floating threads to the night breezes to dispose of as they wished. The few careful sips of water from my flask nearly choked me as my body was jolted awake and my knees trembled so badly that for a while I lay belly down on the damp moss and watched the winking village firelights. Pipe music wafted hauntingly up towards me, plaintive and clear, drawing me down like the thread on a kite.
The climb down into the oasis was easier than I had expected; the dewy rocks were only slightly slippery and there was no lack of crevices and fissures for my hands and feet. Several times I lost my grip and kicked my feet into cracks to steady me. Bats chirruped past me on membranous wings, scolding me for being where I was not wanted. Their wide-eyed, gape-mouthed offspring stared owlishly at me, their furry faces turning to follow my halting downward progress. At one point, a large silent-winged desert owl stooped past me to snatch at one of the flittering bats. Bats, chittering adult and chirruping offspring, exploded in all directions, confusing the predator and making me press close to the rock face until the panic died down and the great silent predator made off with its prey.
The thin clear light of early morning appeared above the lava cliffs. At this time of year the nights were short and cold; the days long, hot and dusty. Goats bleated sleepily in their pens and the far-off boom of the rutting sandbuck drifted in on the morning breeze. In one of the houses children chattered, ever the first risers. It was the village children, dark-haired and liquid-brown-eyed who found me shivering at the base of Green Top, too tired - and possibly too humiliated - to walk into their village and ask for hospitality.
"Did you stay out all night?" they asked, "Didn't get cold out here?", "Did you hear the vampyres come to steal our souls?", "Did you see a vampyre?" The questions were direct, naive and too many to answer. They seemed a little disappointed that I was not conversational, then one of the older children took control and told his juniors that the lady was probably too cold and too frightened to answer any questions until after morning-meal. I was grateful for his intervention, then I saw the perceptive look he gave me and hoped that none of the children had made a hero out of Tiercel.
The gaggle of children took me to the house of the midwife, a short, dumpy woman, sand-skinned and dark-haired with eyes of deep violet-brown and mobile features. She shooed the youngsters out, telling them wait until after breakfast before returning, and gave the smallest ones sweet biscuits as a bribe. A Drift Cat yawned and stretched in the main room before sauntering out into the sunshine. The midwife nodded in mute understanding of my ordeal then vanished through a small door into her cooking area. She returned a moment later with herb tea, fermented goat-milk and cous-cous porridge. The herb tea disguised a contraceptive draught, that I knew, and after breakfast she treated my visible wounds, plastering salve onto the rope burns and tutting over the abrasions I showed her. She asked nothing of their origin for Tiercel's perverse pleasures were legendary.
She was a woman of few words and those words were mainly for children. The youngsters returned to her door after my meal and made a great show of fussing the Drift Cat while giving me sidelong glances full of childlike curiosity. The midwife, Mistress Paxsin, told them I had been carried here by a vampyre too horrible to even describe during the night, but I had escaped and the screams they had heard were the angry cries of the soul-thirsty undead who stalked the desert at night. Well pleased, the children's questions ranged from "Were you very frightened?" to "Don't you carry charms to ward off vampyres?" which were not too embarrassing to answer. Mistress Paxsin seemed to know just how their young minds worked and how to sidetrack them.
Thanking her for her kindness I sat outside on a striped durrie in the golden light of full morning. For a long while I meditated, asking the Gods' guidance on matters of vengeance, but the Gods' did not seem to be listening that day so I sat enjoying the sun and the undemanding company of the Drift Cat. The sandy-tawny feline was knee-high if one included its dried-blood-red ear tufts. Its tail was as long as its body and was ringed in cinnamon and spice reds and browns which matched its spice-colour paws and the red-brown stencilling around its eyes and on its cheeks. They were useful in areas afflicted by yellow Sand Murids and other small rodents. Some oasis dwellers also kept them for company.
Desert fowl pecked at loose threads trailing from the durrie before moving off in search of more likely food sources. In the oasis the fowl were muddy green and brown as well as the more usual white and straw yellow hues. A large cock lauded it over his harem of hens, driving them away from the perceived danger of the cat. A tame sandbuck with a copper bell tied on a thong around its neck walked lazily down the dusty path in front of the midwife's house. It was an ancient animal with misting eyes, which was more useful as a live lure than as smoked meat. The older boy, the one with the perceptive gaze, drove the goats after the sandbuck. He played a long bone flute which doubled as a prod to keep his charges moving when they stopped to snatch herbs from the midwife's garden. It could have been his piping I had heard in the night.
The younger children, once they had stopped pestering me for details of vampyres or offering me secret charms to keep vampyres away, flew kites or played hopscotch in the hard-baked dirt. I tried to remember myself being their age. The oasis was a strange merging of desert and lush forest; it was a long narrow strip of fertile land rich with river silts and lush with ripening crops along the irrigated river banks. Well tended trees were already heavy with sweet fruits: tangy orange-fruit, palm-apple, fig-vine and date, and also with the oil-rich olive bushes. The air was fragrant with flowers and with the thick rich local nectar stored by insects in their pyramidal, man-made hives.
By mid-morning I was ready to fly; I was still tired and aching but mentally and physically refreshed enough to limp back to Tent-Home on borrowed wings. Around me, children squatted on their sandalled heels, silently watching the stranger in their midst and resorting to barely intelligible village dialect as they whispered to one another. My clothing looked out of place among their baggy ankle-gathered trousers and bright shirts; my pale linen suit was adapted for flying, fitting close to the skin so that it would not flap in the wind. As soon as I stood and stretched my leg muscles the children scampered off chattering like desert sparrows. Before I had finished my stretching exercises they had returned, dragging an older villager in tow. The older man looked at me and held out a carefully pleated and strapped parcel in both hands, reverently offering me my own wings. My own wings!
"The Dark Flier left these with me last night after moonset. He hammered at my door until I dared not ignore it though I would not have let him in willingly," his brows were knitted into a troubled expression at the memory of Tiercel's lack of common courtesy. "He said you would wish to collect them some time in the morning." His liquid brown eyes were depthless and spoke of great mental anguish at his contact with Tiercel. "I did not offer him the courtesy of a cot or even a meal ..." he sought my approval with his troubled face.
"You were right to do so," I answered, almost ritually, "Tiercel is not worthy of honour."
He nodded. I knew how torn he felt, torn between the desire to honour a challenge-winner and the desire to shun the Dark Flier. I thanked him profusely, calling the blessings of the gods and his ancestors upon his household as I received my wings with as much solemnity as I had when I received my first full-sized pair.
"Do you fly?" I asked, already knowing his answer. So many non-fliers regarded us with awe born of wistful longing.
"No, I suffer from the height-sickness and became a craftsman instead."
"I make pots of clay," he replied, his face breaking into a huge grin at my interest.
I let him show me his painted vessels and bargained for several to take home to Teeka who loved such trinkets. I would return for them later, bringing him some pots of photo-sensitive dyes in return. I wanted to return home at once, but he persuaded me to give lessons to some of the children who hung around us. As soon as I agreed they scattered like fowl before a hawk to borrow wings.
The knot of children, none of them over eight years old, dragged me away from the potter and showed me their landing spit. The village was surrounded by sinking sands and flight was the only form of communication and trade for the pleasant oasis. Some of the villagers, like the old potter, had plainly never left their own village to visit other oases or the caves carved into the cliffs around the desert's edge.
Once aloft I felt happier, safer and more alive. I circled above the oasis while the youngsters took off somewhat clumsily from the stone spit which rose from the baked ground like a jagged tooth. I series of steps had been carved into it and a platform smoothed so that a flier could take off over the hot sand rather than the turbulent, erratic air above the oasis. The currents were friendly with no wild buffeting or airborne grit to spoil the simple pleasure of flight.
"A race!" they called, "a race!" but I had no stomach for anther race and their eager young faces dropped in disappointment.
"Let's fly round the oasis together and you can describe what we see - we can practise flying slowly and turning accurately," I suggested knowing that they could race any time you like.
"Don't you want to race?" one crestfallen little lad asked.
"I'm still worn out from escaping from that Vampyre - and I've got fly a long way home," I said gently.
"Is it very far?" he asked, his eyes sparkling at the thought of faraway places.
"It's miles and miles over hot desert rock, so I mustn't tire myself out too soon," I told him.
"What's it like, your home?" they asked, "Has it got a fishing lake?" "Do you go out on boats?" "Are there wooden houses like ours or do you have tents?"
Flying gently around the oasis, I described how Tent-Home was dry and waterless while they pointed out sights that were mundane to them but marvels to my eyes. I had never really looked at Green Top oasis in such detail before.
We flew three times around the valley while each child pointed out his or her own home and told me tales about the village and how important it was. They pointed out the ceremonial fire-pit where Anu, the potter (and village shaman it seemed), would burn goat's blood to appease the soul-hungry Vampyres. They named each crop field and who farmed it, told me who owned the fishing rights to each stretch of water and named each type of fruit tree in the orchards. Watermills dotted the lower river beyond the fishing area, there cloth was woven and grain was ground down into flour for baking. The children knew which mill made blanket, which made tent-cloth and which made linens for wearing; soon my head throbbed with information.
On the second circuit they told me the names of each grain crop and the breeds of animal in the pastures. The strips of dusty green and yellow crops looked much the same to me but they could identify rye, oats, chosen, wheat, sempal and maize merely from the shade of green or the way it bent before the breeze. Cotton-weed grew like desert scrub where the fertile land gave way to sand. On the third pass they identified the villagers going about their tasks. many non-fliers came to live here, borne in passenger cradles from places like Tent-Home. By the time we were above the landing spit I wanted to return to Tent-Home as soon as was politely possible. The youngsters flew partway into the desert with me and I was starter for their race back to the spit.
I flew home by a different route to avoid the chasm and the oases I had passed over the previous day. My memories were still too raw. I drifted lazily, glorying in the rising air, torn between the need to hurry home and the pure, unadulterated joy of being aloft and alone in the hot air. News of my defeat would have reached Tent-Home with Tiercel who would have ordered my pennant lowered to signify my defeat. He might stay a few months, deflowering the local girls until he flew off for better sport elsewhere and I could once again raise my pennant with pride. Most victors only requested a temporary lowering of pennants out of respect for their victory - Tiercel demanded a loser's pennant remain at half-mast as long as he remained in the village. He would soon grow bored of strutting and crowing in Tent-Home where his posturing would be largely ignored and would pack his tent onto a kite to be towed elsewhere.
Swearing and calling the Gods' wrath on his name, I unsheathed my belt knife and nicked the fleshy part of my hand just below the sun-browned thumb. As the small garnets of blood dropped down to the sands below I swore blood vengeance on Tiercel and swore that I, not he, would triumph at the next challenge - the challenge that I would call once my muscles and my mind had recovered.
I flew over Tent-Home early in the long afternoon. My pennant was not merely lowered as was the custom, but gone altogether and the new one on Tiercel's tent flew high and jaunty, snapping to attention in the light desert breeze. Teeka was in the air, apparently about to depart to The Chimney, a sluggishly active volcanic stack to the west of Tent-Home, and on seeing me she turned neatly about to fly level with me.
"He left you your wings then," she stated and I could tell that there were other things she wanted to tell me.
"How long has he been back?"
"He flew in during the night ... and this morning he burnt your pennant."
That was it then. He had called feud. "He won the challenge, why call feud?"
"Because you deprived him of easy game?" she shrugged causing her wings to shudder and lost height. A moment later she rose back level with me and glanced at the small wound on the ball of my thumb. "I see you claim feud too," she observed, "I'm not surprised."
Below us, Janni and Lia were strapping on their wings. Lia extended hers with the grace and fluidity of movement of an experienced desert flier. A moment later, Janni was shakily aloft and the pair gained height in a wide circle over the sunbaked desert, the sailcloth of their wings snapping and rustling. Janni was ashen faced, aware and ashamed of what she had done and she hung back as Lia took position at my other wingtip.
"Tiercel came back for Janni," she said as quietly as she could over the rustle and flap of sailcloth, "He said it was Janni who had issued the challenge and you flew as proxy. He claimed forfeit from Janni as the original challenger!"
"How is she bearing up?" I asked equally quietly.
"As well as anyone after Tiercel's been with them. It was worse for her though - she's never been with a man before and Tiercel's not gentle."
We circled, the three of us in straight line formation, for a while with Janni slipstreaming us.
Lia said "She's packed her belongings onto a kite and we're flying over to the women's camp at South Cliffs where she'll be away from men for a while. Have you ever been to South Cliffs? They build their homes in the cliff-faces like bat-birds and fly from the ledges!"
"But they pay the price for that seclusion - there's no water there. They have to fly for water each day." I replied. "I stayed there for a while when my bleedings began. When did Tiercel call feud upon my tent?"
"Sometime during the night, the pennant was down at dawn and the charred scraps of it were scattered in you awning. Don't rise to it, Sill, he'll leave soon - he always does."
"I've already declared blood vengeance, I made up my mind on the way back from Green Top Oasis," I told her grimly, "I mean to have the Crow exiled - or dead."
"Dead would be better for us all," Lia said approvingly, glancing back at Janni, "Will you come to the South Cliffs with us - give yourself time to think before confronting the Crow?"
"I had plenty of time for thinking on the way back from Green Top. The more I think, the more I want to do something to the bastard - something permanent."
Teeka made her apologies and broke formation, heading west to The Chimney on some errand. Janni took up the vacant position at my right wingtip and I could see her eyes were dark rimmed with sleeplessness and pain. Protective numbing cream covered the long scores made by fingernails in her cheeks - Tiercel's in pleasure or her own in anguish? She wore long sleeves to protect her young skin from the sun and the scouring winds but I could still see the linen bandages at her wrists and purple bites and bruises adorned her neck. In her grief she had cut her hair short - a sign that she was a girl and not a woman, not for now at least and maybe not ever again. Perhaps at the women's camp she would discover pleasures given to women by women and prefer that way of love.
"I'll fly with you until the next oasis is in sight," I offered, "but then I want to return to my tent and meditate - and eat." I laughed as my stomach rumbled audibly, the fermented goat's milk was still fermenting in my gut.
We flew the several miles from Tent-Home to the next oasis. A group of drovers were herding goats and other ruminants across the sandstone towards Tent-Home. They had packed their tents onto large sand-coloured beasts, walking behind the surly creatures with sticks to keep them moving. Goats bleated and their neck-bells clunked dolefully as they snatched at scattered plants whose roots reached through the porous rocks to underground rivers. The elderly, the small children and the women to heavily pregnant to walk far, rode with the rolled tent-cloths or on runnered sleds hauled by the large, sturdy pack animals.
A herd of Sandbuck skittered across the desert beneath us, the horned males harrying their harems before them. Fleet footed fawns kept pace with their mothers on stilt-like legs, sometimes snatching at a convenient udder for a drink as they cantered. Some way behind them was the cause of their agitation. A family group of tawny-furred predators drank at an isolated drinking hole where, for a few days at least, water bubbled to the surface before sand choked off this spring. The predators' close dense fur protected them from both the searing heat of the sun and the scouring blast of sandstorms and made excellent blankets against the chill of the long nights of the winter season. The drinking hole they had found would soon be visited by other desert dwellers: feral goats and foraging sandbirds who would not see the pale tawny hides against the golds and reds of the desert.
The next Oasis south from Tent-Home was not used as a permanent dwelling place. The migrant drover tribe had left behind a litter of animal bones, latrine pits and domestic waste which were being picked over by dark winged crows and Sandjackals. Within days nothing would be left; the scavengers and the all-consuming shifting desert dunes would remove all sign of habitation. A moving dune was rolling slowly towards the little oasis, sand from its windward edge being lifted and deposited at its forward edge. For a year or more it would cover the small green island up to tree-top level before the winds of autumn, chill winter and blustery spring pushed it into the desert beyond where it would fray and break up under the erratic gusts of the open expanse of sandstone. During that year the drovers would be forced to choose a different route across the desert. The shifting dune had exposed two cloth-wrapped objects; buried bodies which had been mummified by the desiccating heat of the loose desert sands. A few crows were attracted by the loose ends of binding cloths and they quarrelled over the shiny glass beads and metal grave goods, but they would leave the dry mummified flesh and in time the desert would claim that too.
Lia and Janni flew on and I turned lazily, swooping down to scatter the crows before picking up speed and height and heading home. Behind me, the crows began their harsh clattering again and a lone pair of Sandjackals whined and murmured, wondering what they were fussing about.
Home, a vista of multicoloured tents sheltered by a shelf of sandstone. No-one looked up as I landed above the tents. A man and a woman chattered as they drew water from one of the wells and a group of children in bright clothes and mirror-worked headscarves played among the goats and semi-tame hens which pecked for seed among the dust stirred up by the goats hooves.
Door-cloths had been drawn aside and a good many people were sitting in their awnings talking over their work. Handlooms spewed bright carpets of dyed goat's wool or cotton headscarves while a neighbour spun the new-shorn wool into yarn. The craftsmiths carved wood into cunning figures or household items; others carved hard stones brought back from the cliffs or cores, sharpened knives and tools, or hung butchered carcasses to dry in the arid air. I folded and strapped my wings for storage and trotted down to the tents. A few looked up at the sound of my jogging steps, most did not.
Apart from the half-burned pennant my tent was as I had left it - soft cushions stacked against a side-post, the cloth partition drawn back to make a single large room. my sleeping roll was still neatly folded, the tawny skins which had been payment for some errand years ago were heaped on top of it. A small decorated hardwood chest held clay and metal cookware, spices and dried herbs. Wrapped in wax cloth inside the chest was bread, goat-cheese, nuts and fruit.
My stomach reminded me that I had barely eaten that day and I tore off a soft hunk of bread, pasted on a liberal amount of the soft, pungent, pale cheese and sprinkled on herbs. This I ate under my awning, leaving the door-cloths drawn shut behind me. Seeing me sitting out as though not shamed by defeat, some of the villagers walked by to talk, offering me a share of the Sandbuck I had helped hunt the previous day. The meat had been seasoned with desert sage and cut into cubes which were threaded on skewers with pieces of vegetable and fruit to make a meal which could be eaten in the middle of herding or crafting.
Tiercel, so they told me, had strutted ostentatiously out of his tent late that morning and strutted about the village of tents before flying off, vowing to return later. Janni had crept from his tent shortly after he had flown. There was no need for them to ask me how the challenge had ended, their only curiosity was where it had ended.
I flew no errands that day and as evening closed in the drover tribe reached Tent-Home and set up camp among the date trees. They traded metalwork and skins, precious and semi-precious stones and gossip and what they could not acquire by honest trade they won by gambling. They joined our feast at dusk, slaughtering one of their own tough goats and we laughed and sang bawdy songs together around the fire. Tiercel returned after sunset and stalked to his tent with barely a glance at the revelries. I retired to bed after moonset, but the sounds of wild dancing, of pipe and skin-drum filtered into my dreaming as the partying continued through the dark of night and into the dawn.
The drovers left at midday two days later, laden with carpets we had given in trade and with items people would later discover missing. There were never any lasting hard feelings about the pilfered goods as the drovers brought much-needed gaiety and gossip to Tent-home. A pregnant drover woman stayed on with us, her man setting up an opulent tent for her next to the midwife's home. She would rejoin her tribe next time they passed in a year or two by which time she would have more than the one child she was expecting. Several of Tent-Home's restless young adults packed up their tents to join the migrant tribe. They too would return - with families and possessions, or they would settle with women at another oasis or die during their adventuring. Tiercel watched this coming and going through shadowed eyes; the drover women avoided him, the men eyed him with silent hatred. The tangle-haired drover girls held his unfathomable gaze as they moved among a haze of coloured silks, loading the packbeasts. One or two eyed him shyly, but those who knew of him explained who he was and his would-be admirers turned away.
Tiercel had traded fresh pelts for strong cords on the second day of trade and it was grudgingly admitted that he was skilled and brave in hunting the tassel furred Sandcats which could easily knock a flier to earth with one swipe of its huge, clawed feet. He had borne the carcasses back to tent-Home alone, another feat of skill and strength, and traded them unskinned for the pelt-value - a sign of someone who cared little for personal wealth for the flesh of the huge carnivores made good journey rations. Scowling, Tent-Homers had needed to trade with the grinning drovers for the creatures' huge ivory fangs and shining claws. Tiercel did not join the eating of one of the carcasses but accepted the parcel of sun-dried meat strips left in his awning of his tent by fair-minded drovers.
The drovers' entourage left amid dancing and singing when there were no more goods or tales to be traded. Lia and I flew above them until they reached the open desert while Teeka scouted ahead for possible hazards.
"How's Janni?" I asked as we flew high above the caravan of goats and packbeasts.
"Better, much better," Lia called back, "They gave her a draught to ensure that there would be no child. I stayed for a day, but felt the need for male company so I left as soon as I could. I missed Kell, the old bugger, and my presence kept reminding Janni of what had happened."
She laughed as she mentioned Kell; he was younger than her but unadventurous and fussed for her safety when she stayed overnight at other oases. Some called him jealous but he was not, he let Lia visit other men when she chose - as long as he knew she was safe.
"I'm going to challenge tonight," I called to her as we swung for home, "tonight for an early morning start."
"You're not worried he'll force you to fly overnight?" Lia asked in concern. Even quiet Teeka cocked her head in surprise.
"I challenge on my terms - a fair start tomorrow from the shelf above the tents and if I win he will be exiled from all settled oases. I'll make the challenge over the fire in front of everyone so there will be no argument over terms."
Lia spat in disgust and Teeka snorted. Wings rustled behind me and I turned, expecting to see one of the others who had seen the drovers safely into the desert. Behind me flew Tiercel, silent and scowling.
"And I'll accept - in front of everybody so there can be no argument over that. If you're fool enough to make such of a gift of yourself to me ... "
We wheeled above the shimmering sands waiting for him to depart. Tiercel wheeled with us, silent, but his very presence was ominous.
The normally silent Teeka finally spoke to him, "Can't you get a woman by normal means, Crow? Is claiming forfeit the only way you can find a bedmate?"
Lia and I laughed deliberately, she was taunting him, knowing he daren't challenge her having already accepted my own challenge. He would have to depart before he foolishly did challenge her. Tiercel did not deign to reply to her taunt.
"And what sort of forfeit do you claim from men, Tiercel?" Teeka asked, though we knew well that he claimed his prize from a male challenger's kin, "Maybe you like boys like old Hori likes his goats?"
Hori was as notorious for his strange passion for goats as Tiercel was for his sadistic, twisted desired. Hori however loved his goats as though they were people while Tiercel care nothing for companionship.
"Yes, Tiercel, how did you come to be so bitter?" Lia stooped on him like a sparrow mobbing a hawk, "Your mother feed you soured milk?"
"I heard it was your father dipping you in bitterlime that did it," Teeka replied
"No, Teeka, he swallowed that root the midwife gives me for period pains - or other pains in the butt-end," Lia retorted, circling above the scowling Crow.
"The one that's bitter enough to make you prefer the pains?" Teeka asked innocently.
Verbally abused, Tiercel finally spiralled away to the village leaving us to sport in the air before the serious side of life intervened in the form of errands. I chewed at my lip thinking of the feud declared between him and I, the exile that I wanted imposed upon him or of his price if he won. I dared not lose this challenge for Tiercel would demand that I was disgraced at Tent-Home among my own people and kin. He could have me exiled, burn my tent and possessions or claim them - and me - as his own property.
Lia and Teeka and a new flier, a boy I knew by sight but not by name, flew errands that day; taking woven rugs to Three Cores oasis in return for glass pieces for Harald the glass-smith who no longer rode the winds. Some of the younger children took to the air above the desert, practising turns and manoeuvres under the watchful eyes of adult fliers not on errand trips. I kept my joints loose with exercise and my mind free of all thoughts but one: Tiercel must go - forever.
Evening arrived in a rose glow of desert sunset which stained the dusty desert sands rich bloody red. With evening came my challenge in front of all the dwellers in Tent-Home. The feud was made known, the challenge noted in minds and hearts and accepted by dark-hearted dark-winged Tiercel who attended evening meal only long enough to accept my challenge before return to his tent to eat alone. The rest of the evening passed in merry chatter and laughter although the laughter died when I was spoken to or when I spoke so I retired early and slept badly while bets were made on the outcome of my challenge.
Before the sun had even risen above the cliffs Tiercel and I stood upon the launching ground. We stood in silence facing the horizon as the sun clawed her way into the sky to dispel the tenebrous night and burn off the few clouds that scudded sheeplike from horizon to horizon. Beneath her steady gaze the sands began to warm quickly, glinting as the sunlight toyed with chips of sand. Once the sun had cleared the far cliffs and was into open sky we would depart. Patiently, silently we waited.
Tiercel stood with regal poise, looking out over the oasis as if appraising what were his by right. His wings were extended but not locked into position and they spread cloaklike behind him, a dark shadow. I let my wing supports spring out to their full length and twisted them into a locked position. Exposed to the morning heat and light the dyes began to brighten, turning red, gold and white. Silently the Crow set his own wings into position. The dark cloth remained ominous black, unrelieved by photosensitive dyes. With the village watching we launched from the ledge, not a leisurely take-off into the already hot updraught, but a full-flung launch as we threw ourselves into the all-embracing warm air.
I circled slowly, feeling the friendly air currents support me. Tiercel turned and twisted like a carrion crow then dived from above, kicking down on my wings with his heels. Off-balance, I slewed in a descending turn before recovering and catching again the updraught. Tiercel's face was grim as waited for me to lead - this challenge was a formal test of endurance and I as the challenger had the right to choose a path. This was no chase of hunter and hunted like our previous flight, this was feud.
I struck away westwards to the nearest part of the lava cliffs which surrounded the desert. I would see that predator exiled if I had to lead him to exile myself. Automatically I checked my belt for water and the pouch of dried food - meat strips cut into bite sized morsels, nuts, dried fruit and spiced biscuit, a towing line and pouches of salves for protection against the sun and wind and a veil for protection against windborne dust. Tiercel had taken only water, he had no inkling of where I would lead him on this challenge chase.
I flew steadily westward towards the place where the sun set each night. Behind me that blazing orb rose higher into the sky and I felt as if I was flying forever away from both Tiercel and from the sun, both of them chasing me forever towards the sunset. I would fly in eternal daylight, the sun always just behind me as it drove me on until as a wizened, mummified husk I flew forever across the endless lava plains beyond the desert, chased onwards by the sun. Neither Tiercel nor that sun would ever catch me and I would be legend.
For a long while, the desert stretched away endlessly below, the sandstone carved in curves and ripples by the scouring action of windblown dust and grit. Low outcropping of more resilient rock stood like weird statues, carved into contorted shapes like tortured souls, the red, green and grey strata like the stripes on a fabric weaver's loom. One long, low formation looked like a pipe of ruddy rock. End-on it looked like the letter "C" with its upper lip curving inwards. Other formations looked like huge petrified mushrooms, the caps of harder, more resilient rock topping eroded stalks. In places the mushroom's caps had fallen from their thin stalks and the scouring wind had begun to carve the fallen boulders. These formations were, according to children's tales, the discarded toys of the gods.
The carved stack of The Chimney passed beneath us, on of its fumaroles smoking slightly at the foot of its parent cone and a pool of sulphurous water boiling noxious fumes off into the morning. The tough cones were weathered far more slowly than the god's contorted, colourful toys which lay among the dunes. A gobbet of ash spurted from the mouth of another of the many vents which hissed steam and smoke from the very belly of the world. No lava flowed now, nor did the earth shake. The gods reminded us of our place with steam, ash and smoke and lent us the earth's fires for metal smelting. Once the ground had bucked and writhed and the ground had been riven and split, but the gods were quieter now. The smelting works, reliant on volcanic heat, produced more smoke than The Chimney's smoking mouths as the furnaces below ground melted the metal-bearing ore and the lighter metals floated to the surface to spill over the lip of the furnace pit into stone crucibles ready to be refined further.
The Chimney was surrounded by slate and flint so that it resembled a huge hearth with a gently smouldering fire beneath its vast rocky stack. The smelters and metalsmiths relied on trade for food and water, the water in the bubbling pools was sulphurous and foul smelling. The Chimney and its settlement passed like a dark blot, a blemish in the gold and pink desert. As the metallic clinking of hammer striking anvil faded behind me, I wondered what Tiercel was thinking as he passed over the great volcanic stack.
Tiercel steadily kept pace with me, waiting for me to tire. He would not push me while I was still fresh but would bide his time, waiting for me to show signs of weariness before challenging my lead. Other oases, bright with striped tents, came and went, their pools glinting in the strong sunlight like sapphires surrounded by dusty emeralds all girded about by the dull desert gold.
The cliffs loomed up ahead of me, no longer a mere dark line between heaven and earth. Tiercel rose above me, to force me to turn or descend. I slowed and let him pass then tacked to the north and swept out from beneath his shadow, finding a riser which lent me speed and fast height. He turned more slowly, found the same warm, fast current and tried again to send me back into the desert. I smiled, realising he had guessed my plan and again I slipped from under him, moving westwards again. He anticipated my move and committed himself to tacking west, but I corrected, gained height and drew near the cliffs which bounded the desert in their rocky embrace. Below me, Tiercel's dark wings snapped and rippled as he sought the warm current again and, finding it, rose in pursuit. Too late! I thought, as I passed from the pale desert hues to the ashen grey of the lava plains. By feud, Tiercel was committed to follow - only now he would tire himself out trying to drive me back.
I thought of Tent-Home, the sound of hens, the bleat of goats and the smell of warming bread and I nearly turned back on myself by the image of Janni's ashen, scratched face strengthened my resolve to exile the Crow. Checking that Tiercel was still with me, I searched for faster currents to carry me further into the scintillating, glistening plateau and resolutely he kept pace, but was unable to overtake me and turn me back towards the dusty yellows of the desert and familiar ground.
The sun had risen well above the horizon as I passed beyond the desert; the lava reflected the unmerciful, impartial heat but I was prepared and Tiercel was not.
The lava glittered as though frosted after a long, chill night; its congealed glass surface reflected the sun's light from a hundred thousand facets where the natural volcanic glass had splintered as the magma beneath had cooled and contracted. The heat was incredible, I was suspended between the solar heat above and the reflected glare from below. My eyes watered although I was used to the desert light twinkling from mica particles; this was one huge sheet of blistered, reflective surface. I let go of both wing-grips and unstoppered a pouch of salve. I liberally smeared the protective grease onto my face; it would stop my skin from drying out in the sun - or it would fry me.
I wound the veil about my face to filter out the glare which came from below as well as above; Tiercel in his confidence in early my defeat had not prepared for this, I thought smugly. Before dawn, I had oiled my skin more thoroughly than normal to prevent it from drying out in this oven-heat. My clothes covered me from throat to ankle and I had chosen cord-soled boots to protect against the heat and splinters in case I had to land upon the glassy plains. My hands, though toughened by exposure to the sun and heat, were protected by pouches I had sewn onto my wing-grips. Tiercel, as far as I knew, had taken only the minimum preparations and carried only water.
Releasing one wing-grip, I dug out a meat-strip and sucked on it. This was followed by dried fruit and washed down with a bare mouthful of tepid water from my pouch. I ate only enough to sate my appetite, not enough to risk flying cramps then fumbled at my clothing flaps to relieve myself in mid-air. Finding Tiercel had closed on me, I took firm hold of both wing-grips and returned to serious flying, rising high above the sparkling plains.
When evening closed in, I led by a wide margin and still felt fit and only slightly tired. Tiercel was eking out his water and had no food with him - he would tire soon despite his great stamina. No-one could fly for long on an empty stomach and without water. He showed not outward sign of weakness yet, but I was fit to fly a long, long way.
For the early part of the night, the moons reflected enough sunlight to turn the grey lava the to the colour of sandstone. The buttery light was less harsh than the daylight glare and it was as if I flew over another desert, this one featureless and inhospitable. The air grew chill when the sun set and I chewed meat to keep my teeth from chattering. My hands were warm in the pouches I had made but I knew Tiercel's would be freezing as he grasped the leather wing-grips.
In the night there were no warm risers and I was slowly losing height. I sought a suitable current of warm air flowing from the heat-retaining desert sands across the rapidly-cooling glassy plains and I dozed slightly, flying by instinct, subconsciously aware of the shift in wind and height and of the need for strong, steady flight. When moonset came I used the stars to guide me westward. At that time of year the nights, though chill, were mercifully short. Even in the near darkness, Tiercel could track me by the snapping sound of wing fabric.
When at last the bright sun rose at my back and the night-darkened wing-cloth brightened into my personal patterns and colours, I was nearly frozen through despite the spiced biscuit which heated me inside. Behind me flew Tiercel, his face written over with weariness and grim with determination. I could turn for home and defeat him somewhere on the way eastward, but he deserved exile. I hoped he would drop to the grey plains below out of exhaustion and thirst and I rejected the idea of towing him back. No, I would throw my water flask down for him, picking up water at the nearest oasis, and wait for him to return, blistered and beaten, to Tent-Home and a sentence of exile. Or perhaps he would not return. No-one would look for him, one person in the vast expanse of grey would not be easily found. But he stayed stubbornly airborne - for now.
The lava plains began to change in character with rivulets of green among the glassy splinters. Stunted hardy plants grew in dew traps and I passed mile after mile of verdigrised plateau. Tiercel had begun to falter. When I looked back he up-ended his water pouch to indicate its emptiness, but I turned my face to the west and flew on, more determined than ever.
The sun scorched my back, but below me the green began to dominate the grey and the air felt, tasted moist. Tiercel was suffering at last, his dark hair was plastered against his scalp and bare neck and he bobbed and drifted drunkenly in my wake. Ahead of me I saw an oasis, but one such as I had never seen before: acre upon acre of verdant greens above which steam shimmered and multihued birds soared and called. A vast thunderhead hung above the equally vast oasis, its tattered base reflecting the tattered treetops which stretched away beneath it for countless miles. Where the cloud stretched across the plateau it thinned as though it did not have the will to continue. I soared and swooped at the sight, carefree and careless in my aerial acrobatics.
I looked back, to see if Tiercel saw it too, or whether it was illusion. He was far off, fluttering like a broken winged bird and descending towards the green-streaked plateau. I swung away from that marvellous oasis and soon reached him. He hung limp below his flying frame, like a corpse on a kite, and merely lifted his head as I shouted then slumped again. He was in no condition to be a danger to me so I unwound my towing line and dropped it down to him. Understanding that I knew he was defeated, he managed to grab it and hook it onto his harness above his head. With him in tow like so much baggage, I made a gradual descent as the plateau fell away beneath me to lose itself in the vast sea of shimmering green.
Below me something whooped and howled and went crashing away among the branches. Unseen birds sang liquid melodies while the bright-hued, long-tailed one croaked raucously as the flew. I wondered where I could land in that steaming world of noise and splendour. A bright-billed bird mocked me with its laughter while a long limbed creature, lithe as a child, swung through the topmost branches howling and hooting.
There, like an island of rock, stood the twin of Green Top. Larger and with its feet among trees, not sand and scrub, it rose above the trees, offering a large landing surface. I towed Tiercel over it - the vanquished should be the first to touch land. Knowing this, he touched down, staggered under the sudden weight of his frame and fell full length on the rough grass. I unhitched the towing line and let it fall then turned and landed neatly despite the numbness and cramp in my limbs. I felt weary but well and I passed my partly emptied water flask to Tiercel who had made no effort to unstrap himself from the encumbering harness before gulping down most of the remaining water.
I collapsed my wings and strapped them into a neat bundle which I strapped to my back where they felt familiar and reassuring and were safe from any underhand tricks. Tiercel finally freed himself and stood swaying among his tangled air-harness and the limp towing line. The cocky Crow had evaporated somewhere over the glassy lava plateau and an ill, pale, frightened youth stood before me instead of a confident sadist. I felt exhilarated at this world beyond the lava cliffs. I calculated that it was at the same altitude as the desert floor but that the lava rim, yes the rim of a vast volcano born of the earth's birthing throes, and the inhospitable lava plains kept the greenery at bay and forced the clouds to deposit their precious load of water in order to rise above the cliffs.
Our desert, where water was so precious, was just a sunken crater, isolated from this vast abundance of greenery! A ribbon of blue threaded its shimmering way between the huge trees, glimmering here and there where they parted to let it pass - a huge river of unlimited, unrationed water. Maybe we were just a sandy pimple in a green, green world - one of how many such pimples, how many isolated peoples? A crater with unweatherable walls, filled with ancient sandstone with this oasis just out of sight. My heart leapt and my mind circled outwards to encompass this unimaginably huge oasis. Tiercel merely flopped down on the grass. I knelt and shook him by his sweat soaked shoulders.
"Tiercel, there's a world of green, an oasis bigger than Green Top and all the others together!" I gabbled, "We can take news of it home - a new world with water and rivers which run overground. Think of it Tiercel, a green world!"
Whatever my feelings towards Tiercel the pervert, I could not easily hate Tiercel the defeated and I handed him the remains of my carefully rationed dried food. I would hunt food for the return journey later. I had the notion of returning him to Tent-Home and leading the desert dwellers to this new world so that he was exiled wingless in the desert having seen and smelt the lushness of this land beyond. He could have the supremacy of the desert lands which he always had desired. I saw him though, saw his frightened eyes; the fear of the revenge which had finally caught up with him and I discarded that notion. I could do that to no flier, not even Tiercel the Darkhearted.
"I could leave you here wingless amid plenty, Tiercel, or I could accept your oath never to demand forfeits or take your perverted pleasures and let you return with me bearing this news. What is it to be?"
"You'd trust me to keep an oath?"
"Even you have a code of honour. Besides, I'd kill you in your sleep if you didn't."
"With my own cords no doubt," he said wryly, "Yes, Sill, I will swear such an oath" and he did.
I allowed him to finish his meal in peace while I paced the edges of our landfall. Below us birds as bright as drovers' silks screeched and clattered heavily through the canopy of leaves and furry creatures swung by their arms from branch to branch. The air was warm and moist, redolent with the smells of life and growth. Water condensed on the cliff face below and dripped down into the vast oasis. A flock of the bright, long-tailed screechers clung to the cliff face, chipping at it with their thick curved beaks.
"Why the ropes anyway?" I asked when he had swallowed the last of my rations,.
He noted the tone of revulsion and quirked one eyebrow before replying, "Supremacy. Power. A need to claim by force - to tame. Like hunting, like challenge flying only no-one has ever been a worthy opponent. Until now." His face was grave, as though this was the first time he had stopped to analyse his motives. "I wanted everyone to recognise my superiority; no longer the scrubby little kid who got picked on, but Tiercel the king of the winds who could demand his rights of any woman, I wanted everyone to know me and know I was better than them!"
His voice cracked with the passion of his speech. Before me was Tiercel the child, the one who was bullied by the bigger children. Only his flair and skill set him apart. Then he was Tiercel the man, forever set apart by his craving for power, his need to feel assertive. I pitied him, with his warped personality.
"But the hatred it caused, Tiercel, they don't respect you - they despise you," I told him, "You proved yourself better then you set out to make everyone hate you, avoid you."
"Only the defeated need allies, someone to tow them in when they have over-reached themselves. Friends want you to care for them, they make you hurt inside, feel their pain. I don't need that! No-one ever wanted to care for me so why should I try? I was the lofty hawk above the mob of crows!"
This new world would tame him, he would blunt his anger trying to tame this alien landscape into a home. It was a challenge worthy of his pride. And maybe, just maybe, when he returned from taming such a world he would find a welcome at our cooking fire and the respect he wanted.
"I will hunt," I said after a long silence.
"Take my wings then - yours are folded," he said simply.
No-one but Tiercel had ever flown those black wings, he had finally made the first step back towards friendship. My own wings were tied tightly; I donned Tiercel's flying harness and left my own behind. He was too exhausted to fumble at my tight, precise knots. When I dived from our landfall the moist air enfolded me and screechers scattered. Wheeling, I looked back to see Tiercel, white-faced and alone, praying perhaps that I would return for him and not leave him there on that pillar of rock. And yes - I would return. The news of a green world was too weighty for my shoulders alone.
Tiercel's wings felt very different to my own and after casting off from the rock stack I swooped and banked several times to become accustomed to them. His wingspan was allowed sharper turns and the greater manoeuvrability needed for competition flying. The rock soared above the canopy of trees and I circled it several times to make sure that I could climb it if necessary. I would have loved to see what was below, on the invisible ground beneath the thickness of tree branches, but a flier cannot take off from beneath trees. Like Green Top, the rocky column had ledges and appeared climbable. Birds nested on the ledges and large rodents scurried about in the wide cracks. A livid green snake fled as my shadow passed over its sunning place. Plants festooned parts of this stack, lush plants with deeply serrated leaves and bright swords and spikes of flowers. Small jewel-coloured birds darted from flower-spike to flower-spike, sipping the nectar with impossibly long curved beaks.
I landed on one of the wider ledges, causing a flock of red screecher birds to explode into the sky and squawk in agitation. With my belt and some of the loose pieces of rocks I could fashion a crude slingshot and hunt some of the hare-sized rodents. Some of the shrubs which had rooted themselves into deep crevices bore fruit which I recognised though the fruit was larger and more plentiful than that which grew in any of the oases. Perhaps their seeds had travelled over the lava plains and rooted in the oases giving us scrubby little versions of these abundant trees. I bundled up Tiercel's wings, picked up some stones for my sling and went hunting.
It was several hours later when I cast off from the ledge. A pair of the hare-sized rodents hung from my belt and my shirt was stuffed full of fruit and some edible tubers. Mist from the trees had condensed in shadowed crevices and I had filled up a waterskin. I circled a few times, alarming the bright screecher birds before finding warm currents to lift me to the top of the stack. I thought about catching one of the birds for Teeka, who loved pretty things, but I had no net and I doubted the birds would have survived in the arid desert.
Tiercel looked pale and ill; he had not expected to be beaten. No doubt he still wondered if I was going to leave him stranded here. With so many new plants and animals, some of which were probably poisonous, and without wings, he would die just as Rek had died when Tiercel had left him wingless after a challenge. At least he had made a small fire and by the look of it he had climbed down a little way find dry sticks from birds nests for fuel. He looked relieved to see me land with his dark wings unscathed.
"I can build a spit for those," he said, seeming pleased to have something mundane to do.
"They need cleaning first. You can stuff them with these if you want." I told him, emptying the fruit and tubers from my shirt.
We ate in silence, avoiding looking at each other.
"It would be suicide to set off for home so soon. We need to rest here tonight and find more water for the flight back." I said.
Tiercel nodded. I had beaten him in a feud flight; it was my right to give instructions. If I wished I could leave him here in exile, return him in chains, demand his life or, as fitting punishment for the reason we had feuded, geld him. I intended none of these things. In place of the arrogant and cruel Tiercel I had challenged, I saw a beaten man. I had flown the wings off him, forced him to analyse his motives and so far not demanded tribute. This world was different from our familiar desert and it needed men like Tiercel; men who would channel their anger and pride into carving a place in this green wilderness.
"Do you think this goes all round the desert?" he asked, making a sweeping gesture to encompass the expanse of trees below.
"Maybe we are a little dry, yellow oasis in a world of green," I laughed, "We could fly and find out."
"Maybe," he conceded, "But I'm not ready to fly again yet."
It was the first sign of weakness that he had ever shown, the first sign that he was as human as the rest of us and needed rest. He had been ill-prepared for our long flight across the glittering plain and it had left him dehydrated and weak. He had been so sure of his superiority that he had not bothered to take enough supplies. Midday had already passed and I would be spending the night here with the Black Flier. I did not relish the thought. I might have to tie him up overnight, something that was against my nature. We would need water for the long return journey over the lifeless glittering plains which had once been considered endless. This time we could at least stop at an oasis instead of making an unbroken flight to Tent-Home.
To pass the time while we rested I unstrapped my own wings and checked them. A strut needed repair, but it would be safe enough for the flight across the plain if I bound it a thong. The leather harness needed oiling, but that would have to wait. Satisfied, I strapped on the harness. It felt good to be wearing my own familiar wings as I took off from the side of the stack.
Below me was an endless vista of green. Not the sandy, olive green of desert trees, but lush verdant greens, a multitude of greens. Steam rose from the trees and the air felt moist and thick, full of strange scents and the smell of new growth, moss and damp earth. Birds flapped about among the branches and I wondered how far down it was to ground level. How could anyone navigate above this featureless expanse of green. There were no landmarks like oases to guide a flier. As I circled slowly above the stack where Tiercel sat checking his own flying gear, I scanned the horizon for landmarks. The steam made it hard to be sure, but I noted distant rocky stacks sprouting above the dense vegetation, some thin spires of rock and others bigger than the one I circled.
I flew slowly above the trees, checking frequently that I could see our own landfall behind me. I flew towards the grey lava plains, noticing how the trees thinned out into scrub and then a strip of open grassland closer to the lava. A herd of Sandbuck, or at least something which looked very much like the desert's familar Sandbuck, grazed on the scrub and smaller goat-like animals picked their way across the sharp lava to nibble at plants which grew in the cracks and fissures. The scrub would be a good place for a camp; there was game and even flowing water.
A dark shadow swept across the grassland below, sending the Sandbuck fleeing into the denser trees. Tiercel swooped from above until he flew wingtip-to-wingtip with me.
"People could live out here," he said.
Ahead of us in the distance a wide watercourse looped among the trees, too far away for us to investigate before sunset. We flew above the grassland at the edge of the lava plains until the slowly lowering sun made us turn back for our landfall. We would need to refill our waterskins and maybe find food for the long flight back into the desert. This place was full of life, so much of it unfamiliar, but the desert was home - arid, often sterile, but familiar.
"Do you think they would come?" I shouted to Tiercel.
"Some would," he replied, "It's a new challenge."
"Even those who didn't come would pay dearly for feathers and furs from here."
"Some would prefer to stay where they are. Life in the desert may be hard, but the dangers are familiar. Here, who knows what dangers are lurking."
"We would never be able to get the caravans or livestock across the plains. Would you stay here?" I asked, "You would never find a greater challenge in the desert."
Tiercel did not answer. Shortly afterwards we made landfall again.
I made one more short flight before sunset and that was back to the ledge where I had found dewtraps. I filled our waterskins and caught an unwary rodent which was dozing among rocks. Some cooked meat would be good to chew on the way back to Tent-home.
We cooked our meal as the sun slowly set. Mist boiled up from the trees as though the sun was quenching its fire in a green expanse of water. As the sun set, the air grew colder and the mist turned into a light, short-lived rain shower which doused our fire. I propped my wings open to make a shelter; Tiercel did much the same but as far from me as it was possible to get. I slept uneasily, my hand on my knife and with Tiercel's now confiscated knife in my belt.
Some time during the night I became aware of Tiercel's presence near me and tightened my grip on the knife. Perhaps I should have tied him up with the towline after all. I could hear him breathing steadily and waited for him to make his move, then I would kill him and not risk making the same mistake again. When he did not move I turned over to look. He was sitting a few feet away, gazing out over the moonlit trees, his folded wings at his feet.
"I never realised how beautiful life could be," he said when he noticed me watching him, "I've never wanted to be alive as much as I do now." He turned to look at me, "I've always lived to take what I wanted by right of challenge, I don't think I've ever really looked at the world around me. If things had been different I might have appreciated it sooner."
I said nothing and he paused to take a deep breath of cool damp air.
"My mother was a flier like you; she died when an air vortex flung her into a rocky outcrop. My father never got over the shock, he only ever flew once more and that was to go into self-imposed exile. He left me with an aunt and her brood. I was the smallest and since I wasn't her child-by-birth I was pretty much ignored. The other children tormented me. If my father hadn't chosen to abandon me I might have been able to ignore their spitefulness. I wanted to be something and be noticed."
"So you flew."
"And they laughed at me, saying a runt like me ought to become a goatherd. I decided I would be the strongest flier, so they would have to admire me. And all they did was turn away saying I was a show-off. I beat them all in competition flights and they hated me for it. The losers were more popular than the skinny lad who could outfly anyone who dared fly against him."
I still wondered why he had demanded forfeits from the women when he could have demanded hospitality or gifts from the fliers he had challenged and beaten. Even in the moonlight my puzzlement must have shown. When he spoke, his voice was faltering.
"There was a girl in my home village, a pretty girl with eyes as black as coals and hair so dark it shone blue. I gave her gifts brought back from long errand flights until she gave in to my persistence. I had never been with a woman before. Soon the whole village knew of my fumbling inexperience. She told her friends that I was a gelding. Some of her girlfriends were fliers. 'Poor Tiercel,' they'd say, 'the only thing he can get up is his wings.' They challenged me, said if I could catch them I could take them, thinking they were safe because I was some sort of eunuch. I made sure they never made that mistake again - and I began to enjoy the power it gave me. None of them tormented me again, even in their hatred they held my in something like awe."
With his shoulders slumped he looked like a child again. The Black Flier had been powerful, an arrogant strutting cock-of-the-dungheap who would rather rape than woo. When the arrogance was scoured away, Tiercel was a child still hurting from the loss of his parents and the unfeeling taunts of his age-mates. I reached out and held his head against my shoulder and because I had always thought Tiercel incapable of feelings it was a long time before I realised that he was not shivering with cold but was sobbing silently. I had broken the proud, cruel Tiercel and only hoped that I could build something less cruel from the scared young man I found myself comforting.
We broke fast as the sky lightened, before the sun itself broke above the treetops and the steam began to rise from the endless oasis around us. Sometime during yesterday Tiercel had collected a number of feathers from the bright screecher birds which frequented the ledges of the stack.
"I thought we might trade them for food at one of the oases, along with any fruit we have left," he said as he laid the red, yellow, blue and green feathers before me.
I picked one up, turning it over in my hand. It was as red as any of the photo-sensitive dyes on my wings.
"May I?" I asked.
Tiercel shrugged. As he cut strips of cooked meat from last night's leftovers I braided the red feather into my hair. The sun had still not risen when we unfurled our wings and began to ride the winds home.
With full waterskins, the flight over the sparkling grey plains was less arduous than before. Without the adrenalin in my veins, though, it seemed more monotonous. As morning wore on, the reflected sun began to scorch me and I wound gauze around my face to protect my skin. We had last flown across these plains in darkness, in daytime the heat was blistering and even through layers of gauze the light was blinding. The thermals were amazing; heat rose from the baked lava making me more buoyant than I had ever felt. We began to take turns at flying one above the other so that our shadows provided at least temporary relief. When, after hours of flying we saw the first sign of yellow sand beyond the glittering grey vista it was a huge relief.
As we soared over the great cliffs which hemmed in the desert the familiar scent of dry sand filled my nostrils. It smelled different after breathing the moisture-laden air above the trees, but it smelled of home. An oasis nestled in the desert some way before us; a cluster of striped tents around a pool like a winking eye in the face of the desert. The trees around it were scrubby with dull grey-green leaves and goats grazing around them. We touched down outside the wooden stockade which surrounded this particular settlement and folded our wings into neat bundles before walking through the open stockade gates.
Village elders glared as walked between the tents and sandstone dwellings towards the pool of water. They would not stop us, water was a precious thing in the desert and open to any who needed it. Mothers shooed their children into tents and doorways, staring with hostility at Tiercel before closing their doorflaps. One of the men met us in the open area which served as a market when trading caravans visited the oasis.
"We know you Sill, and you are welcome. You brought us seed from the other oases. But him ..." the villager hawked and spat in the dust as he glanced at Tiercel who stood several paces behind me, "he can fill his waterskin, but he cannot stay here."
"I'm escorting the Dark Flier, back to Tent-home," I said and the village man nodded in understanding.
So, said the man's eyes, the Dark Flier has been disgraced in a challenge. "What will you do with him?" he asked quietly, "Keep him hooded and jessed like a hawk?"
"He is under oath to do what I tell him, until I decide what forfeit to exact from him," I replied.
"Oath!" spat the village, hawking into the dust once more. "Drink, fill your skins and leave our village. We want none of him here, oath or not."
There were a number of fliers at he oasis, mainly on errand flights. Some I knew on sight and we waved a greeting. Most made warding signs against evil and turned away when they saw Tiercel. Only one approached us; he was a young man who held himself in high esteem. He walked over and stared at Tiercel who lowered his gaze.
"What, no challenge, Crow?" asked the flier, "I have already outflown every other flier round about."
"He can't accept your challenge ..." I struggled to remember the man's name, "... Kale. We've just returned from beyond the cliffs. I am escorting Tiercel." I emphasised that it was I who was doing the escorting and that, for now, the Crow was under my protection.
Kale looked both relieved and disappointed. I recalled that he had no sisters to suffer Tiercel's attentions. Several other fliers had heard that we had been beyond the cliffs and came over to demand more details. They gaped in disbelief at my description of the endless oasis of trees, water that ran in wide ribbons overground and birds as bright as desert flowers. Some scoffed until Tiercel produced the bright feathers from a belt pouch. Others demanded more details and directions - westward into the sunset - and forgot their hatred for the Black Flier as he told them of the hours-long flight over the glassy plains and the tall pillars of rock surrounded by a desert of green foliage. For a short while even Tiercel forgot the enmity between himself and other fliers, enjoying the sudden popularity as he described our epic flight and the sights beyond the grey plains. As we filled our waterskins I saw fliers climbing the ladders to take off from rooftops and carry news of the world beyond to other oases.
The flight back was leisurely. We stopped at two more oases before reaching The Chimney to find that word of a green world beyond the plains had preceded us. The settlers living around The Chimney stared as Tiercel walked behind me, as though I had tamed a wild Sand Cat and trained it to walk to heel. From The Chimney we flew over the weird stone formations that lay wind-carved in the sand; the gods' playthings thrown to earth. Finally the familiar sights of Tent-home and its launching ground appeared before us.
I could see people milling about and looking skywards as we drifted in to land. The few fliers in the sky manoeuvred out of our way as they saw Tiercel's dark wings. They floated above us as we landed; unwilling to land and learn that Sill had been beaten a second time. The news had evidently not reached Tent-home. Only one of the fliers, my sister Teeka, landed. She stood with her wings drooping in the sand, glaring with undisguised hostility at Tiercel. Lia emerged from her tent and glared balefully. Other girls vanished into their tents while several of the menfolk picked up their staves and spears.
I folded my wings and Lia ran over to hug me.
"Are you all right?" she asked in a hushed voice.
I nodded; my throat was too dry and gritty from the sand thrown into the air by my landing for me to talk immediately. Lia handed me a gourd of water and I gulped the tepid liquid gratefully. Teeka was finally furling her own wings, but Tiercel stood like a statue, his dark wings drooping. I thought he was expecting to be repelled by force if my kin thought he had beaten me again and wanted to be able to launch immediately. Then I followed his gaze. Where his own black-and-rust tent had been pitched there was only cinder and charred remains. A flier's tent is sacrosanct, however unpopular its owner. Tiercel was gazing numbly at the ruins of his home.
"We thought he had killed you," Lia said huskily, "When neither of you returned we burnt his tent and everything in it. We left yours untouched, just in case."
When a flier fails to return his tent should remain untouched for several weeks in case he limps home on damaged wings or returns wingless with a caravan. I understood that anger had made them destroy not just Tiercel's pennant - a grave insult - but also his tent. With no tent and no-one willing to take him into their own tent, Tiercel had lost everything. I had stripped him of his pride, now he had lost his home and possessions. He was shaking, but not with anger and desire for vengeance as most of my companions believed, but with grief. I wondered what precious mementoes of his parents had been among the burnt possessions.
"I won this challenge," I told Lia, but loudly enough that others heard it too.
There was a ripple of hushed talk among those gathered, but instead of tasting sweet, my victory felt hollow. Whatever Tiercel had done, it was no reason for the rest of us to abandon our codes of honour and destroy his belongings without giving him the prescribed length of time to claim them back.
"Is this true?" asked one of the older men.
"Yes," said Tiercel and then said it louder so that that everyone could hear, "Yes. Sill won the challenge. The blood-feud is honoured. I would pay my debt, but ..." he shrugged and everyone knew he referred to his destroyed tent.
Several of the assembled people hissed. Even those who had hidden in their tents came out to see what was happening. Normally Tiercel's arrival would be greeted with noisy catcalls and jeers and sometimes sobbing from the loser or the loser's kin, but never with the near-silent hatred. Someone flung a stone in his direction; an unheard of thing since fliers are always treated with respect.
I was angry at what they had done. I knew that behind his warped ambitions, Tiercel was a person with feelings who had repaid the injuries and indignities life had dealt him by hurting those around him so that they could never hurt him. Teeka's, ever-perceptive gave me a look which said she disagreed with the tent-burning.
"He is under my protection," I shouted, "It seems he cannot pay his debt in goods, so until then he will be under oath to do my bidding until I decide on a suitable forfeit."
There was general hissing and not a few calls for him to pay his debt by being gelded with a hot knife. A few families were heard to offer to do the deed themselves and I had no doubt that if I had not claimed him to be under my protection there would be little of him left by the time the offended parties had finished with him. Such violence is almost unknown, feuds and disputes are dealt with through long-established rituals of challenge. In the desert everyone must pit their energies against the environment and fights are normally short-lived hot-headed brawls which end with a broken nose, loose teeth and maybe a cracked rib. Usually the brawlers can be seen working good-naturedly together a few days later, having resolved their differences.
"Fold your wings, Tiercel," I ordered, "You can have the use of my tent. I will move in with Teeka for a while." Teeka nodded in agreement.
The crowd did not disperse until they saw me carrying my wings, clothes and few personal belongings to Teeka's tent. Lia, Teeka and I ate together, along with some of Lia's age-mates and a flier called Darnall who was paying court to my quieter sister, Teeka. We talked about my epic flight and the promise of a green land where water and game was abundant. Throughout the meal, fliers came and went, no doubt to pass on the news of an oasis huge beyond imagination. Later, Teeka silently handed me a plate of food which I left in the awning of Tiercel's temporary home.
By the following morning when Tiercel went to sift through the ashes of his own tent most people had lost interest in him and did no more than glance in his direction. No-one offered him dishes or cushions to replace what he had lost as they would have done to any other flier who had lost a tent through misfortune.
"What will you do now?" I asked him as he grubbed about in the cold ashes.
"Go to the green land beyond the lava plains, I suppose. There's nothing left for me here."
"Did you lose much?" Iasked. The only home a flier has is what can be carried about with him, or what can be left with non-flying kin and no-one really knew what Tiercel kept in his tent aside from the items he traded with drover caravans.
"Most can be replaced - furs, rugs, dishes. The things my mother gave me are gone forever though."
It was odd. No-one had ever thought of Tiercel carrying around mementoes from his childhood. Most felt him to be a prideful young man with no room in his black heart for childhood memories, just a huge capacity for causing pain to others. In his ash-stained, travel-worn clothing with his smutty face and ash in his hair he did not look like the Black Flier who brought trouble in his wake. I realised that he probably had no change of clothes. Teeka's suitor was about the same size and build; I could probably trade something for any spare clothing he had.
"When will you leave?" I asked him.
"I can't, remember? I'm under oath to obey. Until you release me from that, I have to stay here."
I could keep him here indefinitely, to suffer the humiliation of defeat. Fliers from other camps would come to torment him with their jibes. If I allowed that, the cold-hearted Tiercel of old would reappear. Only the public witnessing of his oath and the need to replace his belongings kept him here - he had seen the cold look in people's eyes and realised that he was safe only as long as he remained under someone's sworn protection.
"I'll see you at your tent - my tent - in an hour or so," I told him. He was oath-bound to be there though he no doubt resented the constraints imposed upon him.
I traded some of my trinkets with Darnall for items of clothing. Teeka had always coveted some of those trinkets, so Darnall was more than happy to trade, if a little puzzled. Darnall and some of his friends were already talking of the possibility of setting up a camp on the far side of the grey plains and deciding what they would need to take there with them. As fliers came and went on errands between the settlements, they took the news with them so that the whole desert would soon be buzzing with rumours and plans.
Tiercel was already back at my tent when I delivered the fresh clothing. He was sorting through the few things which had survived the fire - a metal ring, some eating irons, crossbow bolts and metal fittings, the hinges and clasp from a small wooden chest.
"You know you can't keep me here forever, Sill," he told me, "Sooner or later you'll have to let me leave."
I laughed, "I don't intend to keep you as a pet, Tiercel, but if you want to go beyond the grey plains you'll need a tent and supplies. You've nothing to trade, nowhere to live and nothing to hunt with. You don't even have a carrying kite. I'm sure even you can see the sense in staying at Tent-home until you can accumulate supplies to take with you. "
"If I had a bow I could hunt enough Sand Cat to trade for new supplies and pay off my debt. Now that I'm merely a laughing stock I might as well exile myself away from the desert."
"It was only a matter of time before people turned on you," I told him, "or broke their codes of honour to protect their own."
He did not reply, considering my words.
"I've got a bow and a kite. We could hunt Sand Cat." I told him.
Finally he snapped. "I can't stand this," he shouted, "Why are you being so reasonable to me?" A flash of the old arrogance showed in the set of his shoulders and his expression.
"I had every right to kill you ..."
"And you chose instead to humiliate me and parade me around."
"Or leave you out there ..."
"So you bring me back to show your friends 'look how mighty Tiercel has been beaten, he's as tame as a Sandbuck gelding'"
"But I would still have owed your kin your worth in goods to compensate for your loss."
"Since I don't have any kin to be compensated it would have been a cheap option."
"But I didn't see any reason to kill you. You are prideful, ambitious, you have been cruel, you are driven by the need for revenge. You are also courageous and daring, an experienced hunter and flier without equal," he snorted at this, "and we need those qualities if we are to settle in a strange land. That's why I didn't kill you or abandon you there. But if you want to set your tent in that green land, you'll need belongings and since you've no kin to be compensated, the victor's duties are owed to you. And whether you like it or not, you need help since no-one is going to give you things."
He nodded, understanding.
"You don't want friends because friendship is a mutual thing." I told him, "That's fine by me because I'm not after your friendship. I'm not even after your humiliation. You've always been Tiercel the predator, you have a chance to be Tiercel the explorer, Tiercel the adventurer who carved his name in a new world. The name of the Black Flier will be forgotten within a generation, but the name of Tiercel the explorer would be revered. There's no challenge here as great as taming that world outside."
"Perhaps we'd better go and hunt Sandcat. The sooner I can trade, the sooner I can leave," he said, with a tone of resignation.
We both launched from my ladder and swept over Tent-home in large circles, gaining height for expedition. Below us, people watched wondering about our strange partnership. They imagined Tiercel to be a hawk, kept chained and hooded in my tent until I chose to fly him at prey.
Sand Cat were known to lair among a tumble of rocks a few hours flight from Tent-home. There was a small spring and enough coarse vegetation to support wandering Sandbuck, hares and a few feral goats, but not enough to attract a settlement. The great cats had been known to rear up and knock a flier from the sky as he skimmed low over the sand in pursuit of game. Their size, ferocity and camouflage made them dangerous prey. Tiercel carried my bow, I had borrowed a bow from Darnall, since Teeka's bow was too light to use against the powerful cats. A rolled kite was tied to my centre strut so that we could tow home our kill.
There were no Sandbuck around the rocky tumble, only a few chittering desert sparrows squabbling over blades of dry grass for their nests. The absence of game might mean that one of the great cats was around - or that the cats had moved elsewhere in pursuit of a herd. Tiercel whistled to attract my attention and made hand-signs telling me to look over to one side of the heaped rocks. A male Sand Cat was dozing in the sun, its eyes half-closed, but its huge tufted ears alert. So far it had not heard us and we armed our bows and began to drift quietly into position. We needed to aim at the head or the great sandy-tawny pelt would be damaged. The snapping of wind in our wings alerted the great cat. Its normal form of defence was attack and roaring in anger it sprang from rock to rock, following our path.
Tiercel signalled that I was to distract it. He would move in to shoot the beast. It was risky, the Sand Cat's powerful hind legs allow it to leap incredible distances and pull a too-low flier to the ground. I flew low enough to attract its attention, but not so close that it could spring at me. As the cat snarled and tried to measure the distance between us, I heard Tiercel's bolt sing through the air. Too low, it caught the great cat in the shoulder. Enraged, the Sand Cat stood on its hind legs. I was too intent on manoeuvring to shoot its exposed throat and Tiercel's aim was blocked by my wingtip. Suddenly his dark wings flipped to one side and he darted beneath me, perilously close to the Sand Cats extended claws. As he banked and the cat pivoted to face him, he managed to loose a bolt into its throat. For a long moment the cat stood transfixed, still measuring the distance between the impudent flier and itself, then it keeled over, twitching and snarling in impotent rage.
I glided closer to the carcass. It was a fine adult male with tasseled mane and ears and an unscarred coat. I heard Tiercel shout out and then my wings flipped over. As I struggled to right myself, a heard a low snarl. The Sand Cat's mate had emerged from her concealed position, rearing up to slap at my wings and bring me down like a bird. Having unbalanced me, the cat was bunching her hindquarters ready to spring. Her claws embedded themselves in a padded section of leather harness and the added weight of the female Sand Cat, as big as a man, pulled me onto the rocks.
For a long moment the Sand Cat breathed hot breath into my face and her amber eyes, their slit pupils contracted against the desert glare, stared at me. Long canine teeth shone white in a red maw and a low rumble issued from her throat. Like a domestic cat with a rodent, she waited for me to move.
How convenient for Tiercel, I decided in that long moment. If I fell to a Sand Cat he was freed from his oath. No doubt he hovered above the rocks, waiting for the beast to finish me off before he shot it down. Then I heard him call out, dipping one black wingtip hazardously close to the she-cat. The cat turned and snarled at the intrusion, stretching out a powerful paw to bat at the suspended flier. Tiercel's bolt took it in the throat and the great cat fell heavily across my legs.
Tiercel landed lightly close to the male Sand Cat's body. Sand Cats hunted in pairs, it was unlikely that there were any more close by, but he kept the bow ready while he checked. Finally he hooked the bow into his belt and unstrapped his wings before stepping lightly over the rocks to where I was pinned down by the she-cat's body.
"Need my help?" he asked casually, bending over to check that the cat was dead.
"It would be appreciated," I replied, trying to wriggle free of my wings.
"You spared my life, I save yours - all debts paid?"
What he asked was fair. I wasn't going to argue with him while my legs grew numb under the cat's weight.
"Just get this thing off of me," I grunted.
He pulled the cats body clear of me and to my annoyance began to check the pelt for damage, leaving me to extricate myself from my wings. To my immense relief none of the struts were badly damaged and the few tears in the wings' fabric would not hamper my flight home. Tiercel had his own wings and a kite, I knew what he would rather tow back to Tent-home. The cats would command a high price in trade.
He assessed the condition of the skins, teeth and claws of each cat before tying each one up for transport back to Tent-home. In silence he lashed one heavy body to his borrowed kite.
"Can you manage to tow that one back or should I carry it?" he asked, indicating the she-cat by my feet. He knew how good he was - few other fliers could manage to carry a Sand Cat as well as tow one on a carry-kite.
I shrugged. "I can manage. Thanks"
We flew slowly back to Tent-home with the Sand Cats tied to kites behind us. There was great excitement at the sight of two of the great creatures. The pelts alone could be traded for a simple tent. The teeth and claws were highly prized for weapons and ornaments and the meat was a welcome change to Sandbuck, chicken and stringy goat. From one hunt, Tiercel could equip himself for a journey into exile beyond the desert, if he still wished it.
I felt cheated that I did not get to trade one of the carcasses, but it had been Tiercel who had made both kills. My wings needed attention and a Sand Cat would have more than paid for repairs. Even those who normally despised Tiercel were more than happy to trade for parts of a Sand Cat. I sat outside Teeka's tent, making temporary repairs to my wing struts when a shadow fell across me.
"I believe these should be yours," Tiercel said grudgingly, flinging down the cleaned daggerlike teeth of the big male Sand Cat. "They should pay for new wingcloth." Before I could thank him he had gone again.
Freed from any oaths, Tiercel appeared as aloof as ever. Only his zest for challenge and for women seemed subdued. The frightened Tiercel I had towed away from the grey plains had gone; the hard Tiercel of old had returned.
I reclaimed my own tent the next day. Tiercel had pitched a small tent close to the ashes of his former home. A black-and-rust pennant fluttered from a pole and people muttered as I passed, murmuring that I should never have brought him back. That evening, as I enjoyed the luxury of being back in my own tent there was a scratch at the doorcloth. I pulled it aside, expecting to see one of my kin, but instead the Black Flier crouched outside.
"Can I come in?" he asked curtly.
"I suppose so," I replied, equally brusquely, moving aside to let him inside.
He looked nervous, wringing his hands as he spoke.
"I'm not good at thanks, but I should thank you for your help," he said.
"I should thank you for killing that Sand Cat before it killed me," I responded.
"If I'd let it kill you, your kin would have killed me, honour-code or no honour-code," he explained. "I'll be leaving the day after tomorrow. There are a good many people planning to make the journey, I should go and find my own place while I can."
"The desert will be a strange place without you."
"A better place no doubt," he murmured.
"A quieter place," I said softly.
"They won't miss me. As you said, in a generation they'll have forgotten. The Black Flier will be nothing more than another Vampyre story to frighten children."
"I think you will be missed," I told him, smiling wryly and thinking: If only for the wrong reasons. "What will you do out there?"
"Fly further than any flier in our history - if there is a green world beyond our desert, what is out there beyond the green world? Hunt creatures no-one here has ever seen and trade their skins." Then he added quietly, "It will be lonely, but I'm used to being alone."
An admission from stubborn Tiercel that he needed the company of people, even if all he did was aggravate them? Perhaps he had grown so used to solitude that he accepted it as his lot, whether or not he wanted to be alone.
"I've been alone, more-or-less,since my parents went. I'm used to it. Besides, I don't make good company," he admitted. Then he made as if to leave, "I've cleared my debts, I see no reason to stay here longer than I need."
Something in his tone of voice suggested he expected some response. I reached out and caught him by the shoulder. "I don't think you enjoy your way of life as much as you thought you did. You've always needed to prove something to people and set yourself apart. Now they aren't afraid of you any longer, you don't know what to do anymore."
He stared at me and I could see I was right. Fliers would no longer let him take whatever forfeit he chose. If he tried to force a woman, her kin would stand against him. The old honour-codes no longer held where Tiercel was concerned. He started to say something, but no words came. All his life he had made himself strong by making others feel weak. I realised that however hard he tried to be the aloof, arrogant Black Flier, it was an act he could no longer maintain. When his poise and bravado were stripped away, I could see the frightened young man again and pulled him closer. No matter what he had done to me and to others, I still had compassion for an injured creature. All Tiercel's scars were on the inside where no-one could see them.
"You've cleared your debts, Tiercel," I spoke into his hair, "I can't make you stay, but I can ask you to stay. You're not the person you used to be and until you work out who you now are, you wont make it alone out there. Find out who you really are, then go - if you still want to."
He looked up and in the light of my oil lanterns I could see tears streaking his face. "All the anger, all the hate, it isn't there the way it used to be. I used to despise people for being weak so that I could take what I wanted. Now they pity me instead."
"Hush, hush," I told him, rocking him in my arms like a child. Had anyone ever tried to comfort him when he was hurting from his mother's death, his father's abandonment? I doubted it. I was comforting Tiercel the child, the wounded and confused part of him he had tried to bury beneath pride and ambition.
"I wanted to leave you to the Sand Cat. Why should I care if someone was careless enough to be pulled down? After I helped you, I didn't know what to say to you. You've been the only person who tried to understand me, even after what I did to you, and I've never had to deal with that before."
I sat holding him for a long, long time, trying to ease an inner pain that had gone untended for many years. The angry Tiercel with his ropes was a lifetime ago. Somewhere in there was a capacity for caring for others, but I doubted that those who had known Tiercel the swaggerer would accept it. They would bruise his fragile ego until he built up that wall of pride and fear to protect himself again. That was why he wanted to return to the land of trees beyond our desert, to protect himself and escape the insults which would be casually hurled in his direction.
"Stay here tonight if you want," I told him, "I think you need company more than you realise."
"You're not afraid that I might harm you if I stayed?"
"I don't think you can do anything to harm me anymore," I told him, "but being alone right now might harm you more than you think."
That day we had forged the beginning of a strong friendship that would see us both into the green land. By not using his weakness against him I had shown him that it was sometimes necessary to trust others rather than trying to have power over them, but because other desert dwellers could not see past Tiercel the bully and braggart we decided to leave the desert behind. Lia and Teeka were dismayed when I left for the green land with Tiercel, but they respected my decision.
Over the years, miners from The Chimney and the various cliff-face mines were flown over the plain. They had a vision of cutting a path through the lava so that people could move freely between forest and desert. They have made good progress and a road wide enough for caravans and wagons is laboriously being carved through the grey rock, but it will be some years more before they finally break through the cliff face and into the desert.
Although we still fly over the treetops, most travel is now done on foot. It is impossible to fly beneath the tangled tree branches. When we fly it is usually to make the journey between forest to desert or for pleasure. Fruits and seeds from the forest have been traded with desert people. Pelts of the great spotted cats of the forest command a high price. In return we get worked metal for axes and saws to cut wood for our buildings. The first settlement was of tents, enclosed by a wooden stockade to protect it from the spotted cats, but most of those tents have since been replaced by log buildings. There is plenty of fertile ground for raising crops and no shortage of water. Crops have flourished, grown from seeds brought with us from the desert.
Outside my open cabin door I watch my three children playing. They have all inherited their father's dark hair and eyes; from me they have inherited laughter and compassion. Their father plays with them; his arms outstretched, he pretends to be a hawk chasing sparrows. He plays with them in a way that his father never played with him. Although he is reserved with the others who came from the desert, with his family he laughs readily and shows tenderness. At first he was worried that his children might suffer the stigma of being "Tiercel's get' but his worries proved unfounded. With his energy and foresight, he has probably done more than anyone to make this new world a home for us all. Even the desert dwellers respect him, despite their residual suspicion. The tale of how Tiercel and Sill discovered this new land is fast becoming part of our oral tradition, but according to the version told amongst the children, Tiercel and Sill found this place when flying their bridal flight and not because of a feud. The past is the past; I think this is how Tiercel would like to be remembered.
(Dedicated to the real Tiercel - whoever he may be)