CYCLONES churned the battlefield, kicking up sand to hide the enemy. The hundred-strong wing of Akeled war eagles wheeled, but the wind caught them up like dry leaves, cascading the mighty birds downward in a sickening red swirl. Scores of eagles, wings broken, plummeted to earth. The rest vanished, carried away, obscured by howling columns of sand.
Ayet! Rimmon frantically sought to link with his eagle but encountered only vision-flashes of confusion, pinions, and swirling debris. The roar of wind filled his ears. He hooked a scarf over his nose and mouth to block out the sand, raising his gauntleted left forearm against his brow to shield his eyes. Blinded by dust, the horses pulling the chariot trumpeted fear and battled to kick over the traces. His childhood friend and now his driver, Xarek, fought to control the beasts, to keep the scythed wheels of the vehicle from making contact with other units.
Though he had been training to be an eagle warrior for four of his twenty years, Rimmon had only engaged in battle twice. Both times he had flown Ayet in reconnaissance against smaller enemy forces, easily overwhelmed by his battalion’s veteran eagles and warriors. This time was different.
Now at last they had met the Iron Horde’s main army, commanded by its demon princes: one of lightning, one of water, one of wind.
“This is the work of Ekari!” Xar thundered, naming the demon to blame. Brown hair littered with dust plastered to his forehead, Xar’s strong arms bulged with muscle as he fought to govern the horses. “This is a demon’s wind!”
Whether it was the spirit of battle or the activity of the wind, Xar looked magnificent. He possessed a warrior’s confidence and the beauty of one of the gods of the plains come to life. Rimmon had loved him from the day they met and loved him still, though Xar had chosen another.
In the distance, unnatural lightning struck the earthwork walls of the city the Akeled soldiers defended.
The wind shifted, a sudden gust driving directly into the chariot-mounted unit. Hordish arrows, a hell of spinning broadheads, descended upon them. Xar staggered, releasing the reins. Rimmon lunged for the leather straps, half falling over the front brace before grabbing them up, slick with blood. Looking around, he saw Xar’s hands groping at a fountain of red where an arrow had torn away the side of his neck. Red spurted in great gouts, spraying Rimmon’s right side and face as his friend gurgled and struggled for breath. Though he controlled the horses, Rimmon could do nothing for Xar except watch him slump to the floor, dying with terror on his face.
The chariot units had been instructed before battle to jettison corpses, get rid of dead weight. Rimmon rebelled. He would not kick his friend’s body out onto the sand where it would be pickings for Hordish slaves.
The battalion commander, his red crest just a suggestion against curtains of wind-driven dust, signaled retreat. Glazed with Xar’s blood, Rimmon hauled hard on the reins, but the chariot swung wide before he succeeded in turning the horses. He had only just succeeded when the flying sand to their left gave birth to a cyclone that slammed into the wing, sending his chariot crashing into a gully. He flew through the air and landed in a fury of breaking wood and screaming horses; he heard before he felt the sickening snap of his leg. Pain cracked through his skull and ribs. The demon wind ripped at his clothes and skin, then moved on, and the battle moved with it, leaving him lying amidst wreckage. One of his chariot’s four horses thrashed nearby, its deep chest impaled upon the blades of a scythed wheel. All around him lay other horses, other chariots, and other men. A few more horses galloped off, ghost-like, into the gusts of sand, dragging their traces.
Pain stabbing his every breath, Rimmon struggled up onto one arm. His left leg twisted unnaturally above the ankle, and his left side and upper arm bled where one of the scythes had gashed him deeply through his leather armor. He looked up the incline of the gully into which he had fallen, knowing his problems were not over. The enemy would descend soon, following the wind in search of fallen soldiers, trophies, and gold. Teeth clenched, Rimmon tore off his sash, heavy with golden eagle medallions, and tossed it aside along with his gold-covered helmet and bracelets of rank. Shining things would just glint and give him away. On arms and knees, even though his left leg dragged and the pain soon made him vomit, he crawled along the gully’s course until he was as far from the carnage as his body would take him. When at last his strength gave out, he rolled into a hollow beneath some heavy brush, where he clutched his dagger against discovery and waited until nightfall.
NIGHT provided cover, so Rimmon risked moving again. The gully opened onto the lowlands, and the wails of men crying for help faded behind him. Most cries were quickly silenced. Drums loudly heralded the Hordish presence, coming nearer at one point but then retreating. Though he stopped often to rest, Rimmon crawled toward the river, hoping to find water and the reserve units commanded by his brother. Had any of his family survived?
As dawn cleared the mountains and long-toothed shadows of pale rose covered the now silent land, Rimmon gained the protection of an eroded outcrop within a half-league of the river. Keeping to the shelter of the outcrop’s weathered brown rocks, he sought higher ground from which to survey his situation. It was midday before he managed to clear the rise, his body scraped by rock, his lower left leg swollen to grotesque size and pounding with pain.
Across the trampled plain loomed the outer crags of the Akeled capital of Kossa. Great gouges blackened the breached walls. Fires burned in the city, spilling smoke into a sky barren of eagles. Black-robed Hordish invaders covered the plain like a creeping flood.
He was a dead man.
His mother and father, his brothers and sisters… the Horde would show them no mercy. Their demon king, Sarduk, had slaughtered the royal families of every domain he had conquered.
An ear-piercing shriek split the sky overhead, echoing off the stones of the outcrop. Heart leaping, Rimmon looked up, reflexively holding out his leather-gauntleted left arm. His eagle! Pain ripped through his side from the motion, but he kept his arm extended. A shadow descended upon him swiftly, covering him, darkening the rocks to either side. Air pushed by powerful red wings fanned his face just before golden talons longer than his fingers gripped his hand and forearm. The eagle’s weight, that of a two-year-old child, awakened fresh pain in his wounded arm, and he lowered both gently to the ground.
“Ayet,” he whispered, overjoyed. He’d thought her killed by the wind! With pain blunting his mind, he had not been focusing on their bond.
The war eagle cocked her head at him, scrutinizing him with a tawny eye. Rimmon stroked his ungloved right finger over the gritty feathering of her throat while Ayet stretched her neck. So much sand!
“Are you all right, girl?” he asked. His right hand skimmed her wings, seeking out broken bones or damaged feathers. Ayet had only a few of the latter. She extended her head toward him, her great curved beak gently nipping his earlobe, letting him know she was hungry.
“You’ll have to hunt.” He had lost his sack of reward meat on the battlefield.
It would be dangerous to send her out even to hunt. The Horde army still in the field would shoot war eagles on sight. Perhaps, if he sent her across the river….
Rimmon urged Ayet off his arm and, bracing his right foot against a boulder, angled to hands and knees. Wincing against fresh pain awakened by his movements, he crept around the side of the outcrop, being careful to stay low and out of sight until he could look down upon the reed-lined bank of the river. Winter snows could not have so frozen his blood.
Hundreds of soldiers, thousands, wearing the black robes of the Horde that made them look like vultures, gathered at the water’s edge. Avenues of war tents lined the bank, red as the sea of blood their occupants had spilled across the lands under the Known Sky.