Tathar rose in the early light of dawn and sat on the edge of his bed. His chambers were austere and cold in the predawn chill, for unlike most of his brothers he had not moved down from the high eyrie and into the more sumptuous accommodations of the palace. He kept to the old ways, and he lived a life of war and preparation for war, and there was no place in his life for softness.
He looked at the small table where his sword lay sheathed, and then he took it up and drew the dark blade. This was the weapon he had taken from the warlord Shath, and he had never carried a finer one. It was made from the light, unbreakable metal forged by the ancients in their days of power, and it lay in his grasp like a hunting hawk, eager to be loosed. He wondered what forgotten tomb or ruin the barbarian had unearthed it from, and how long it had lain unblooded.
He felt a weight inside him when he bore it, because he had not won it fairly, not truly. The emperor had worked some spell upon the barbarian lord to bring him low, and so the victory was unclean in his mind. He thought upon the new emperor and cursed low under his breath.
He put aside the sword and dressed himself, drawing on his leathers and then his light, beautiful armor. Tathar had worked all through his youth to become worthy to be called a Skylord. He had apprenticed and trained, learning the ways of the great eagles, learning to navigate from the air, and to wield the deadly thunderlance. When he had been given his own lance and bird, he had thought he would never want anything else.
Now the old emperor was gone, and he served another. Tathar had never given any thought to what would happen if another came to hold the throne. He had believed, in his close-held honor and dedication, that any man called to the office would hold it in as high regard, and carry out his duties with respect. Now he saw it was not true, and it ate away at him inside. He belted on his sword and saw in his mind the barbarian brought to the great hall for torture, saw him forced to crawl and cut off his own sword-hand. He saw the concubine Ashari fleeing through the trees and closed his eyes, remembering how he had let her go. He was not even certain why he had done it.
He left his rooms, hearing the sounds of the eagles awakening from their night’s sleep. He went down the narrow halls of the eyrie, down the stairs to the great hollow spaces where the birds nested. He loved the smell of the straw and the smoke from the great chimneys that kept the place warm in the night. The great birds had their own smell, acrid and not easy, and he loved that as well.
There were fewer Skylords than he was used to, for more and more of them chose to sleep in the palace where they could rest on silken cushions and bed down with their slavewomen. It rankled, but he knew the emperor was pleased by it, so he did not argue. He was first among the lords, but it made him only a first among equals, not a commander. The emperor himself gave commands to them, or no one did.
Zakai was his own bird, and Tathar heard him already chittering and grating as he woke and began to feel hungry. He stepped into the immense chamber that served as his lair and smelled the hot copper smell of the beast underlaid with the acrid stink of his spoor and the slightly rotten odor of the carnivore. Zakai was a deep red, touched with black on the edges of his collar and the tips of his wings, and his eyes were a savage gold that seemed to pierce through matter and flesh.
He saw his rider and croaked, opening his immense beak, and Tathar went to him and touched his great head, stroked his feathers and soothed him. Bred for war, the great eagle was always eager for blood and the killing swoops of battle. It was not always easy to keep him under control. More than one Skylord had been torn apart by his own steed. Zakai had slain his old master, and so he had passed to Tathar, for the birds were too valuable to sacrifice no matter how feral they became.
He had heard the tale that some wild ones still existed, out in the wide world, and that there was an island to the south where wild men rode them and lived on high cliffs. Sometimes he thought it would be far better if the beasts were set loose, and not caged in these stone halls their whole long lives. Zakai was over a hundred years old, and would outlive him many times over; he always wondered who would ride after him, and what kind of lord they would be.
Now the eyrie was coming awake around him, and the apprentices began to come with the carts full of fresh meat strips to feed the eagles. Tathar took the wooden fork and began to toss food to Zakai. Not enough to sate him, just enough to keen him for the hunt. The emperor had kept them in the skies the past four days, seeking any sign of Ashari or the escaped barbarian. He did not expect today to be any different.
He heard footsteps and turned to see another rider, Skarl, cast his lean shadow through the doorway. “We take to the skies again,” he said. “The emperor calls for us – he says he has a special duty for us today.”
Tathar kept the displeasure from his face. He was the First Skylord; the emperor should speak to him before any others. He had wondered if the others being housed in the palace would lead to this, and now he saw it had. “The emperor has given me no orders as yet,” he said, not looking at Skarl. “And I do not take yours.”
“Say what you wish,” Skarl said. “Only be ready for the sky.” He turned on his heel and left, and Tathar was left with bloody meat and smoking anger.
They gathered before the emperor by the red sun of morning, the black sky beyond the towers slashed by falling stars. Kurux appeared, wrapped in his ebon robes glittering with jewels, long points of black metal on his fingers, and a mask covering his face so that he seemed less a man than an idol of some lost age. His crown stood high and jagged, the tines like daggers.
The twelve of them bowed to one knee, hands on the hilts of their swords, and he let them remain there for a while before he bade them rise. “You are my angels of war, those who have received the highest honors. You cut the sky itself at my will and show to all the power I hold over life, and over death.” He paused, his mask implacable and unreadable. “And yet now you make mockery of me with your failures.”
Tathar set his teeth hard against each other and made no outward sign. It was unheard of for the sovereign to speak to the Skylords in such a manner, but it was not his place to remonstrate, certainly not in front of the others. He simply went stiff and sharp, like a blade held so tightly it might cut.
“You have scoured the lands for the barbarian who escaped me, and found nothing,” Kurux said. “You learned nothing of who was responsible for his escape. It was I who uncovered that it was the slave Ashari who set him free, and yet she was able to escape my justice as well.” He looked at them, his eyes only half-seen behind the eyes of the imperial mask. “You sought her, and found nothing. What use my eyes on the wind if they cannot find what I seek? What use my lances of thunder if they do not strike what I wish?”
They did not speak – they never spoke to the emperor when so gathered. Their silence was like a chill in the air, and Tathar held himself rigid and watched the others to be certain none of them gave way and made him look foolish. Behind their helms they were as blank and faceless as the emperor himself, but he could see them shift, hands tight on their lances.
“Tathar, come forward,” Kurux said, and he held himself even more stiffly. He stepped nine paces forward and then saluted with his lance held upright. The emperor looked at him, and he could feel his attention on him like an insect.
“Today in the great plaza of my city there is gathered a great horde of malcontents and traitors,” Kurux said. “Today I ask you to seek nothing, to find nothing. I ask you to go forth and fall upon them and scour them from the earth. Slay as many as you can, and do not withhold your rage. I wish to see them chastised most thoroughly.”
Tathar felt a coldness within him. He had heard there were some assemblies of the discontented, but nothing serious, and he did not wish to kill the helpless, but there was nothing to do but obey. He would have spoken, but he did not dare to. The bonds of tradition and loyalty were too strong upon him. He remembered the old emperor with a cold lurch of regret. Such an order would never have come from him.
“You hesitate,” the emperor said. “I can feel within you the desire to defy me, but I assure you it would be futile.” He held up one hand, the metal tips of his fingers clicking against one another, and Tathar suddenly felt a pressure on his mind, a power than fell on him like a tide. “You cannot go against me.”
Tathar gritted his teeth, willing himself to make no sound, to give no sign of the terrible weight that dragged at his mind and heart, that made him feel as if he could not bear to stand upright for even another moment. He felt his pulse beating in his head, behind his eyes, louder than thunder, and he gripped the haft of his lance and forced himself to remain upright. Just as he was certain he would lose the battle, the power released him, and he nearly staggered from the sudden surcease from pain.
“Now you know the consequences of failure,” the emperor said, his voice a rasping whisper. “See that you do not forget. Go, and articulate my displeasure.”
The wind cut cold over the city as they took to the sky, the twelve of them on their gleaming birds of war, lances glinting in the red sun, frost upon the hard steel of their armor as they banked out over the sea and then turned inward, dropping lower towards the tangled streets of the city itself. Zur was ancient, and some said its foundations had been laid before the breaking of the world. It rose on the hills beside the sea in coils of streets and avenues, the plazas filled by markets and traders. Nearest the palace was the court of the fallen kings, and it stretched wide and open, now swollen with people gathered before the palace gates, raising their voices and their fists against the new ruler.
Tathar signaled his riders, and as one the great birds turned and angled downward. They spread out in a long line, so that one after the other could blast the earth with lightning and not fear to strike the others. He saw the great seething mass of people gathered there. Men and women, children and the aged, all crying out for justice. He lifted his lance and hesitated, hearing only the wind.
The towers of the high city swept past them on either side, close and dark, and he saw the street ahead snake out like a river of nothingness and then he saw people, so many people, and in his hand the power to kill trembled to be unleashed. He lifted his arm, and then held it still. He swooped low, Zakai shrieking his fury, and he saw faced upturned, saw the knots and masses come apart as people scattered into doorways and side streets, as though burst apart by the eagle’s deadly shadow.
He drew back on the reins and his steed banked upward, sweeping past the palace walls, and then he winged over and flew north along the ramparts, the guards below looking like ants upon the stone bastion, and he knew he would not obey the command he had been given, and he knew what that meant.
A blue-black shadow paced him, and he looked to the side and saw Skarl there upon his blue-steel bird, eyes watchful behind the mask of his helm, and he saw the other rider lift his lance in a different kind of salute. Now the challenge would come swift, and there was no denying it. He would not give the command to kill, and so there would be a test of leadership.
Tathar pulled on the reins and drew Zakai into a steep upward spiral, Skarl following, matching him. They would need height for this kind of battle, and below them the other Skylords spread out and flew in a wide circle, watchful, giving the two room for their contest. The rituals were ancient, and even the will of an emperor was put aside for what each man knew must happen.
He watched as Skarl drew to an even height, and together they arced inward, their beasts lashing the air with their vast wings. Tathar lifted his lance and felt the power in it thrum and shiver down his arm to his shoulder. The clash of lances was a devious thing, and it had been a long time since he had fought this way. He saw Skarl point his own lance, and then his blue eagle rushed ahead, screaming its wrath.
Lightning scarred the dark sky, and Tathar thrust out his own weapon, catching the blue-white bolts and feeling the energy arc down the haft and shiver in his armor. He twisted his lance, angling some of the energy lower, sending it arcing around Skarl like a cage, but the other rider parried the clawing, hissing bolts as well. The eagles flashed past one another, and the blue electricity coiled between the lance-tips, snarling in the air like the voice of a demon before they drew apart again and the arc shattered with a peal of thunder.
Zakai screamed and fought to turn back, but Tathar forced him higher before he turned to go after his opponent. Skarl was coming quickly, struggling up from beneath, his bird’s wings thundering as they churned the air. Tathar sent another bolt of lightning down to meet him, and he watched as the claws of blue-white fire blazed against Skarl’s upraised lance.
He urged Zakai down to the attack, and the great bird screamed and dove, claws splayed and gleaming like swords. Skarl’s bird twisted to try and evade him, and they passed close enough to buffet their wings against each other in a sudden storm of thundering strokes. Tathar stabbed his lance out, and the blazing lanceheads almost met, white lighting thrumming and snapping between them. He felt the force repelling them, the power that pushed the weapons apart even as they seemed chained together.
Deftly Tathar turned his weapon, and a tracery of lightning clawed along Skarl’s side and turned the bright armor black, set it smoking like burnt bone, and the rider screamed and stabbed his own lance out, searing a line of fire along Zakai’s neck.
Infuriated by pain, Zakai clamped his claws on Skarl’s blue eagle and then they were locked together. They began to fall, tumbling over and over, the wind roaring around them. They shrieked and snapped at one another, their dark beaks clashing like great swords, striking sparks in the tumult. Golden eyes glowed like suns as the birds grappled with their deadly talons.
Tathar thrust his lance into the blaze of lightning, and he felt the glowing points clash against one another. Power coursed through the air and snapped and crawled along his armor. He felt the heat building, making his armor smoke and buckle as it darkened, felt the pain as lashes of lightning snaked through and scored his flesh. The tips of the eagle’s wings began to blacken and smolder, and he knew that in a moment one of them would make an errant motion and draw down all the power caged around them.
Skillful, Tathar shifted his seat and drove his shoulder against the haft of his lance, and the points shifted and flashed apart. There was a moment when he saw Skarl there as within a cage of fire, his armor turning dark, his face hidden even as smoke began to seep from the edges of his helm. And then Tathar’s lance-tip pushed past and touched his breastplate, and the lightning suddenly poured through him like a river.
Light seemed to blaze from every joint and gap in his mail, and then his eagle tore free, screaming, smoke billowing from its feathers as they burned. He saw Skarl fall from his saddle and drop through the sky, his lance tumbling after him, trailing smoke like an ember. The blue eagle fought to stay in the sky, but its wings were burning, and Tathar felt his throat go tight as he watched it. The fire crawled over those beautiful feathers, and then there were not enough to keep it aloft and it fell toward the city below, spinning down like a leaf.
Zakai screamed in feral triumph, but Tathar knew the fall of the eagle was the mark of doom. It was the one immutable law of the Skylords – the eagles were sacrosanct. He had seen them die before, but never like this, and now he was the author of that destruction. He had defied the emperor, and that could not be forgiven, but for the death of Skarl’s eagle he could not forgive himself.
Looking down, he saw the others beginning to gather, flying faster and closer. Soon another one would rise, ready to challenge him, or perhaps they would all come to drag him down as the traitor he had now become. He felt Zakai tremble beneath him, ready for another dive and the fatal rush, for blood and fury and death. He touched the great neck, seeing the feather tips darkened from the fire, and he chose.
He gave a last look down at the palace. Here he had been made a man, a lord, a warrior. Now it was poisoned by the unclean power of one he could only call usurper. If he fought against that power here, today, he would fall. So he turned away.
He pulled hard on the reins, and Zakai reluctantly turned from the promise of battle and banked to the south. Along the coast, far away, there was said to be an island of men who rode wild eagles. Perhaps he would find it. He set in his heels, and his bird spread his wings and flew. They were far above the rest of the riders and could transform that height into speed. They would easily outpace the others, and would be out of sight by the time they flew high enough to see. The palace rushed past beneath him, and Zakai lifted his lance in a promise of vengeance before they flew into shadow, and vanished into the dark skies above the fading empire.