Wednesday, September 13, 2017

In Distant Days (A Stormbird Cycle Short Story)

The storyteller made herself comfortable under the balsam tree, her soft black wings wrapped around her like a cloak. She smiled at the kits that played at her feet. “In those distant days, 
in those far-off nights, 
the sons of Sea began it…”

Imdugud tacked across the wind with a tilt of his wings, the rich red of the sunset fading behind him. Ahead the sea-cliffs rose, the battering waves throwing spray high enough to wet his furred belly. 
The fish in his net wriggled, and he clenched his paws tighter. 
“Not far now!” his sister called over her shoulder. Her own load of fish was heavy, and she sank slowly toward the ocean.
Imdugud flicked his whiskers in amusement. “Lazy—” he began.
No warning. A vast shape surged up out of the waves, the red light gleaming on its algae-clad scales, and snatched Imdugud’s sister from the sky, net and all.
It was hours later when Imdugud Stormbird returned through the mists to the Double Mountain. Wings rimed with salt, he dropped blindly onto the entrance ledge, then crawled into the cave like an unfledged kitten. “Help,” he rasped, his voice broken from keening.

Soon all the children of storm sat in council.
“You went too far out onto the deeps! You must have angered the sea-monsters!” old Shimlil hissed to Imdugud, her wings raised aggressively.
“The spray of the waves on the reefs was wet on my fur,” Imdugud protested, lashing his tail.
“We should send a messenger to the sons of men,” another insisted. “Ally with them against the children of the Deeps!”
“Pfft! Men are wingless fools—let them build their towers and leave us in peace!”
“But we do not have peace!”
“Enough of your squawking and squabbling.” Father Anzu spread the feathers of his mane, then paced slowly forward to rest his forehead against Imdugud’s. “We need no help but the Windmaker’s. I will speak to Rahbu, the eldest of the sea-children. If he will pay the blood-price, well.  If not,” he bared his fangs, “we will avenge my daughter by force.”

The wings of the stormbirds beat like thunder as the clan rose from the Double Mountain. Straight through the cloaking Mirage they flew, passing in an instant between Mountain and Sea.  Gulls scattered from their rocky nests as the winged ones settled on the cliff tops.
Imdugud settled beside his brothers, his claws gouging deep scars into the wet stone.  Their fur would not lie flat, nor their tails stop lashing; the sky rang with the music of their growling.
Father Anzu perched on the highest rock, white wings stretched menacingly. “Rahbu Thrice-Armored!” He roared like the lion he resembled, and the wind rose, lashing the waves to a frenzy. “Come up and answer for my daughter’s death!”
Imdugud’s mane whipped about his face. He glared at the roiling sea. “There!” he hissed.
A dark shape rose ponderously out of the Double Deeps. Rahbu, oldest of sea-monsters, surfaced with a belch and a ten-thousand-toothed grin. “Anzu Sky-knower! What nonsense is this?”  His voice creaked like the felling of the Tree of Death.
“My daughter went out to fill her net with fish, and she did not return.”
“Children will go their own way.” Rahbu blinked his orange eyes malevolently.
“One of yours ate her! Snatched her from the sky!” Imdugud shrieked. “I saw it!” He lunged off the cliff, only to be knocked off-course by his father’s pounce.
The old stormbird cuffed his ear. “To your place.” He settled back on his rock and smoothed his feathers. “Rahbu, deliver up the murderer for justice.”
“War between us, until the debt of blood is paid.” Anzu blinked golden eyes, and lightning stabbed the sea.
The sea-monster chuckled. “Then call on your god, Fate-thief. For there shall be war!”
Howling, Imdugud and his brothers launched themselves downward. But Rahbu coughed oil onto the water and ducked below, leaving the sea on fire behind him.
Anzu gathered his singed sons. “We cannot search the Deeps for them, so we must bring them to us.  A single captive is all we need.”
“We cannot bring up my sister’s murderer,” Imdugud snarled bitterly.  Who knew how many monsters swam in the Deeps?  To catch the right one would be a miracle.
“Perhaps not—but Rahbu is their king.  If he will not give up the murderer for justice, he must pay the price himself.  Hear me!  This is what we will do.”

As the sun dropped, the clan scattered to the four winds—some to catch tender lake fish, some to seek bronze in the cities of the Fallen.
It was evening, it was morning—and the clans returned. The stormbirds were clever and filled with rage. It did not take them long to set their father’s trap. Now Imdugud flattened himself against a sea-slick rock and watched a net of fish swirl in the ocean. Though he and his brothers were hidden in the rocks of the beach, they were careful to keep their paws out of the water. A single feather dipped, and the sea-monsters would taste it.
Water rippled—a young sea-monster nosed up to the net.  Then he swallowed it in a single gulp.  The stormbirds let out a collective hiss. Imdugud peered into the mist, one foot resting lightly on a great bronze chain.
The monster twitched, then began to thrash. Along with the fish he had swallowed the hook!  
“Rise and pull!” Imdugud ordered, grabbing his chain and beginning to backwing as hard as he could. Two of his brothers seized the same chain as Imdugud lifted it out of the water; all around them, dozens more rose into the sky, clutching chains of their own.
The sea-creature twisted and bucked, but cubit by cubit the sky-clan dragged him forward, until he was beached on the rocks. “Hold him there,” Anzu roared from atop the cliff. “Remember your places!” Two-thirds of the stormbirds secured their chains and rose unencumbered into the sky while the rest held the captured monster in place.
Rahbu’s response came quickly. The Eldest surfaced well out to sea, his bulk not suited to shallower waters. “What madness is on you, sky-knower?” he bellowed, eyes glittering fiercely. “Release my kin!”
“Blood for blood! Give me my daughter’s murderer, and this one shall go free!”
Imdugud rose high into the sky. Even great Rahbu dwindled to the size of a tadpole, but Imdugud could still see the gleam of his wicked eyes. His father believed that Rahbu could yet be made to give up the killer, but Imdugud did not believe it.
“Worthless thief! Give me what is mine.” Rahbu choked burning liquid onto the water, then surged forward, oil coating his scales and giving him a fiery aura. His wake formed waves that grew as they raced toward the shore. Rahbu would not need to beach himself to kill the chain-holding stormbirds; his fire and waves could do that.
Imdugud folded his wings and dove. The sky itself tried to hold him back, but he narrowed his eyes and continued to drop. The monster grew larger.
Imdugud stretched out his claws.
It was a raking strike made at blinding speed, even as Imdugud threw out his wings and sheared away. One leg broke with a crack, and he wobbled and nearly fell into the sea. Behind him, Rahbu roared. Then Father Anzu was there, catching him, carrying him toward the rocky beach.
Imdugud looked over his shoulder to see the monster, one eye extinguished, lunging after them—but his brothers attacked in a mob, long spears in their claws. Anzu blinked, and lightning stung the creature’s massive tail.
With a scream of frustration, the Eldest began to swim for deeper water.
 As one-eyed Rahbu sank beneath the water, he cursed the children of the storm:
“By Grandmother Sea I declare it! 
One day the ocean will cover all the land—
and then you will have no place to rest your feet!”
Father Anzu was not afraid, but answered and said, “The Windmaker writes all fates! One day there will be no more sea—and then where will you hide?”
But young warrior Imdugud did not think of the future—he roared triumph, even as he wept tears as bitter as the sea.

The story-teller flicked her tail and purred. “And that’s the end of the story.”
“Did Great Rahbu die?” asked the nearest kit, leaning eagerly against her cloak of wings.  His eyes were large and greener than a hurricane sky.
            “I did not say so,” said the story-teller.
            “Then we’re still at war with the litans?”  Another kit shuddered.  “I’m never going to fly over the sea ever!”
            “One day I’ll have wings like Father Anzu’s, and I will make the monsters so scared they will never come out of the Deeps again!” glared the green-eyed kit, stretching out his small wings.
            “The Windmaker will write your fate, Ningzidarum,” the story-teller said repressively.  “To bring down Rahbu would be a deed for a great hero.  Now come—it’s time to go home.”
            They set off toward the Double Mountain like a flock of strange birds.  Behind them, the clouds darkened.  A storm was coming.

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