Faded Plumage

Smoke rolled into the sky the morning Naroko went north. The savannah near the den had been set aflame. While the rest of the Pack either extinguished the fires or hunted for the perpetrators, the Alphas saw her off. Both plucked a feather from their own crests for her. “The wind blows colder in Andarra,” warned the Patriarch, holding out his token.

“Be stringent with trust.” The Matriarch fitted hers into Naroko’s plumage. “But aim to earn it.”

The first part came easily once she reached Andarra. Her host’s den was a mountainous tree hollowed into a vast dwelling. The porous floor warmed Naroko’s feet, but its coppery scent was strange to her. Worse still, the Alphas chose her to go. Her thoughts seldom strayed so far as Andarra. Why ponder the horizon when trouble brewed at home in Rushakar? Going there also seemed counterproductive. This was, after all, Andarra’s fault. It was a wonder the guards who found her at the border wall hadn’t attacked on sight. A Rushakite looked, to them, like a huge feathered lizard. They asked her business—to see their Count—then brought her to a room in the den-tree.

Worst of all, she wasn’t the first courier to go north. Gulma had embarked some weeks ago. Naroko’s mission was to follow up on his, but the guards in Andarra insisted she’d been the only Rushakite they’d seen in months. The Count—Countess, rather—certainly hadn’t spoken with any. Fatigued by a week of travel, she curled into the round palm of her bed. The fan of feathers which tipped her tail hung over the side.

The opposite wall cracked open like a mouth, and an eagle helm poked its iron beak in. “Come,” said a nasalized accent—a guard. Naroko followed. Unease trailed like oil behind him. Back home, she had little way of knowing her people’s reputation abroad. If rumors of northern packs raiding Andarra were true, it couldn’t be good. In rusted Andarran Naroko asked, “The Countess’s den is large. Is she very influential?”

“Fairly. Her family built the Bird Cage.”

Naroko tensed at the border wall’s moniker, and thought the Andarran looked like a hairless pale ape. “She helped build it?”

“Her family did.” He stopped to slip a key from his belt into a knot in the wall. The wood yawned, and mint seared into the musty hall. Hand on the pommel of his sabre, he waved Naroko in.

Within the chamber, roots and vines ran down the walls to weave into vague shapes, sprigged with mint leaves. Beneath the tapestries sat the Countess at her desk, regarding Naroko enter. Her golden eyes blended with her deep tan and the yellow of her hair. An onyx spider was pinned to her vest.

“You tread softly,” she observed, accent less loose with the consonants. “So, speak.”

No rolling the bones around. That held promise. “Rushakar nears calamity,” Naroko began. “Prey and nesting space grow scarce, and the Packs now look at each other with killing eyes. Most such eyes fall on those who supported Andarra during the occupation.”

“This includes your Pack?” the Countess guessed.

“We lived on rats before Andarra came. All that was asked for trade and protection was to be shown a safe way into hostile territory.” Naroko figured it imprudent to mention Andarra’s sudden eventual abandonment. She’d hatched a decade afterwards, but by most accounts their departure was even worse than their arrival. The towering dead trees they’d left littering the savannah stood testament to that. “We’d come to rely on the trade.”

“Then I’ve reason to hear you,” the Countess agreed. “But raiders from Rushakar heckle my border. You understand I’d appear to be aiding a nation that’s attacking me.”

Naroko’s crest quivered. “These raiders steal from your land because they can get nothing from ours. If the region is stabilized, they will stop.” She told the guard she needed something from her satchel. With his permission, she retrieved a jagged clump of raw silver. “I come to tell the Emperor’s court that we, Pack Eltiv, wish to open trade with Andarra again.”

The Countess straightened her back. Coin eyes scrutinizing. “What’s your name?”

Hope kindled in her heart. “Naroko.”

“Only Naroko?”

“Naroko Eltiv, I suppose.”

“Naroko Eltiv,” the Countess repeated. “Call me Lemosia Nothunder, Keeper of the Border. Tell me more.”

~

During the following talks the Countess asked to see a Rushakite’s hunting prowess firsthand, and invited Naroko to the next morning’s hunt. They embarked at dawn to a spot of barrens an hour away. Naroko surveyed the flayed dirt of the outback, tasted the dry salty air. Insects sang a scraping chorus. Three guards knelt behind her, draped in red cloaks to match the soil. Countess Lemosia sat beside them, plucking the string of her bow like a harp. “Have you no weapons?”

“We’re born armed,” answered Naroko, flexing the scythe talons on her feet. The dagger on her belt was a utility. “Most Packs use external weapons, of course.”

“The Eltiv not among them, I gather.”

“We are now.” By now only the most deprived or fanatically opposed to the empire didn’t. The Eltiv, at least, weren’t the latter.

Countess Lemosia changed subject. “You said you’re the second courier. The first was a friend of yours?”

To be sure, Naroko had asked her last night if she’d seen any sign of her brother. Again, nothing. “Gulma was more than a friend. The Pack shares its meat, its air, and its will,” she answered. “His wants and fears were ours, and ours his.”

“Is there no privacy?”

“The Pack builds strength through intimacy.” For instance, the Patriarch had once been to Andarra and shared his findings with her, particularly the need for camouflage. Her garnet scales matched the soil, but her tawny plumage stuck out. She wrapped the feathers in red cloth.

The Countess set down her bow, as though to remove any superfluous noise. “How well did you know Gulma personally?”

“He was our swiftest scout, hence why he went first. The thought of capture didn’t perturb him. His duty to the Pack outweighed fear.”

“Is that all?” the Countess asked, brows raised.

Naroko thought she needn’t know Gulma better. He did his needed part for the Pack. Naroko herself would have refused this quest had she not had such an obligation. The Pack was the sun and the soil. But now that she was pressed, she had nothing else.

“It’s headed north,” one of the hunters said.

Naroko flickered her tongue. Something like burnt hair clotted the air, yet she saw no fires. The plain appeared dead until she squinted. Faint puffs of dirt, kicked up in a swift pattern away from them. Back in Rushakar, an antelope in sprint made much the same trail. Naroko fell into pre-run crouch – and flinched as an arrow shrieked over her head. Countess Lemosia, bow in hand, followed with the hunters. She led them down into a ravine that exhaled rot. In it laid a body like a gazelle woven from smoke. Blood darkened its thin neck where an arrow skewered it. “Not much meat,” Naroko observed.

“We’d have to be desperate to eat it.” Countess Lemosia slid down into the ravine and grabbed one of the animal’s spiral antlers, then drew a serrated knife and began to saw it off at the base. It sparked, smoke cold and electric like a thunderstorm. The smell was new to Naroko, but she could guess what it was. Magic. How else had the creature been invisible? Once done, Lemosia dropped the antlers into her satchel. “Come along.”

Naroko huffed.  “You’re leaving it?” Any wasted meat was an ounce of sin.

“As I said, we’d have to be desperate,” the Countess said as she climbed out.

Naroko blinked after her, appalled at this wastefulness. Skinny or fat, all animals were useful in death. This one could feed a lone hunter, at least. A pair, if rationed. She hefted the corpse onto her shoulders, found it heavier than it looked, then followed the smell of mint.

Flies clouded the carcass by the time Naroko reached the manor walls. The sun-bleached wood gaped open to admit her to the courtyard, where the ground was rough green bark. Spots of it were dead and grey, curled like nail clippings. In its center the courtyard sunk into a wide pit, wherein lounged a pair of lanky dingoes. Nothing else to be done with it, Naroko dumped the carcass in. The dingoes perked up as it fell and were on it at once.

Wood creaked from across the pit. Naroko looked up to see a guard in the manor’s doorway, eyes hidden beneath the rim of an eagle helm. “Countess’s been waiting on you,” he growled. “Get in.”

~

“My time is valuable,” said the Countess, grinding what remained of an antler with a curved stone into a bowl on her desk. A silvery pallor hung in the air. “It mustn’t be wasted.”

“The animal you left to rot was good meat,” Naroko argued. “Many will go hungry in Rushakar tonight.”

Countess Lemosia raked her tool down. Blue sparks lapped the stone. “With my help, no one will starve. But you must do your part. That starts with punctuality.”

“Why hadn’t you said this?” Naroko recalled no schedule being imposed on her.

The Countess crooked her lips. “You assumed you weren’t on my time? Your only option is to trust me.”

“I could also leave.” Naroko’s patience had started crumbling.

“But you need my help.”

“We need the Emperor’s help.”

“You’ll only get that with me.” Cold eyes glared up from beneath a bladed brow. “I can spare men to defend your territory, and I can scry to offer guidance and assistance as needed.”

Naroko’s crest jumped up with indignation, and she smoothed it back down. “But we only want trade, not a cradle.” Pack Eltiv had plenty of fighters, but ran low on food and equipment for them, as most other Packs did. The Alphas were confident they could at least secure their own lands if they had more resources. She’d told the Countess all of this just last night.

“So you’ll put pride over your well-being?”

Naroko bit her tongue, realizing she’d lost herself. “What did you need?”

Countess Lemosia grinned. Too tightly, like a stoneworker’s error. “Your ears are dull, but your nose and eyes are sharp. I could use that in hunting animals like the one we took today.”

“Will we use more than the antlers?”

You may,” the Countess said with a pointed look. “Only their antlers have worth.”

This sat like cold mud on Naroko’s shoulders. “You must understand that’s criminal.”

Countess Lemosia set her tools aside. “Not under imperial law. Whether or not it is in Rushakar will be irrelevant.”

The Alphas sent her to stop violence between the Packs, not to wrench out their claws and pluck their feathers. “But we don’t want to rejoin the empire, only to trade with it.”

Countess Lemosia gripped what remained of the antler and tapped it on the desk. “I can get you to the Emperor by next week.”

“Next week?” That was sooner than expected.

“Yes,” said the Countess, “But I need eyes in Rushakar to assess the situation.”

“I can tell you anything right now.”

Her smile widened, bearing broad flat teeth. “Not everything.”

Naroko’s tail whipped behind her. Condescension stung, but distrust bit. “That will take weeks we don’t have.”

“It will take longer to petition the Emperor on your own.”

“I could still do it.”

“Naroko,” said the Countess, tone deliberate. “You have my protection and support, but I need your co-operation.” She stood as though to scold a child. “You need only say ‘yes’.”

The Rushakite’s bristly crest fanned out, and she let it. “I don’t feel I need protection.” She approached the desk. “I think you hoard secrets from me, and one who hoards secrets will abuse trust.” As her nostrils flared, they caught a speck of rot. Dead mint leaves littered the desktop, fallen from above. Overhead, the vines greyed and wrinkled. “What is that?”

“It’s irrelevant.” Countess Lemosia held her voice and face level, but she couldn’t hide her scent. Musty nervousness.

“I’ve seen this rot in Rushakar, but only around those giant trees you left behind.”

“You just said we haven’t time for this.”

“We don’t have time for you dodging every question I ask.” Naroko levelled her snout with the Andarran’s flat face. “If I can’t place my trust with you, I can’t place my Pack’s lives with you.” Very slowly, like drawing thorns from her tongue, she asked, “Can you get me to the Emperor?”

Countess Lemosia’s copper mask face held no answer. Fear stunk like rain on her breath.

Disappointment congealed thick in Naroko’s throat. “Then we are finished.” She turned away.

“You do need protection,” the Countess snapped. “Few in Andarra have seen a Rushakite.”

“They will.” Naroko thumped on the wall and it split open. “They’ll hear me, too.”

“The hell they will,” the Countess laughed. “Bandits roam with blade and magic. Guarded caravans aren’t safe from them, much less a lone bird.”

She flinched as much at the slur as the threat.

“When these men catch you,” Lemosia continued, “They will not kill you gently.”

Naroko glanced back. The Countess stood from her desk, straight as driftwood. Quiet settled like ash between them. “I’ll wait until morning,” Naroko conceded. Then she stepped into the dark artery of the hall.

~

Morning came with a thump on the wall. “Sun’s up,” barked a voice in the hall. Naroko stretched before she rose. She’d slept on the floor, finding the bed ill-fitted her. Her satchel and dagger were returned in the courtyard by another guard as the gate opened to an enflamed dawn.

The outback’s flatness proved an ally. Naroko could see and smell for miles around, the meek breeze no hindrance. If something approached, she’d have ample warning and could sprint at full tilt. At least this went in her favor.

Around mid-afternoon pale towers cut the horizon. No, not towers. Naroko could taste their decay even from this distance. Rotted foliage. Grey wrinkled earth around their feet. A dead and immense forest, trees perhaps sixty feet tall. Just like the ones back in Rushakar. Like the rot spreading through Countess Lemosia’s manor.

By evening she reached their knotted roots. Entering tongue-first, she found no metal or Andarran flesh. Vast plates of fallen bark littered the forest floor where scrawny rats took shelter. Naroko devoured three, then began up a tree. The fissured skin gave her claws ample footholds, and she nestled onto a branch halfway up.

Now in relative safety, Naroko could fume. Such gall Lemosia had, dancing around every question! How much more would the Pack suffer before Naroko could reach the Emperor herself? Heat itching her throat, she leaned back. Her shoulders fell into a wide opening, too precise for natural decay. The bark had been stripped in a clean rectangle, a small puncture in the center. Drawing her dagger, she slid it into the wound. A pearlescent fluid trickled out. It smelled of storm.

Magic.

At once, conjecture began to swim in her head. By the look of the opening, someone made it to get at the magic syrup. So these trees were grown to have their magic harvested, but wouldn’t that take just as much magic as it produced? Land around them greyed as well. Perhaps the trees drank magic from the earth itself. When there was no more, they died. No doubt Countess Lemosia’s manor was starving. So Andarra needed magic. Why hadn’t Lemosia, damn her title with her deceitful heart, said so? They might have found middle ground were they both open with their desperation. From a part of Naroko’s mind too battered for optimism came a possible answer: The Countess didn’t just want to sustain herself. If the rest of Andarra was drained like this, she would’ve had to share. She wanted monopoly. When Naroko came to plead, all Lemosia heard was that Rushakar was ripe for harvest.

~

Naroko woke to midnight cold and an acrid smell below. Steel. Leather scraped against wood up the trunk. Awareness ignited her nerves. She scrambled to her feet. Blinking through darkness, she sought a new perch. Another branch reached out from a neighboring tree. She leapt across to it, bark nipping her feet, just as the stalker reached her previous perch. A grey cloak dulled them to a vague smudge in the night. A whistle closed in from the right. Naroko stepped back, but not before a hot tongue licked her ankle. Hissing through pain, she peered down; another assailant trained a bow upwards. A silver mask scowled beneath the hood. It fired again, and she hardly ducked beneath it. But fear hit dead on. One foe above, one to her right, possibly more she’d yet to notice. There would be no escape until she gouged one out for herself.

As the assailant drew another arrow, Naroko drew a sharp breath and leapt for the foe’s branch. Male musk permeated through the cloak. Steel shrieked as the assailant drew his sabre and slashed. Too slow. Naroko lunged under the weapon and got him in a cinch. She kicked up into his gut and scissored her talon in, splitting him open. Sweet viscera doused her foot in warmth, and she threw the stiffening body off the side of the branch.

Then a flash. Breath scorched from her lungs. Muscles locked. She toppled from the branch. Weightlessness. Then, impact. Pops and flashes in her sinews. Boots crunched bark. Metal whispered. Naroko struggled through stiffness to breath, sit up. An arm viced around her neck, squeezed her throat shut. A shift in the attacker’s chest indicated their other arm was lifting. Asphyxiation prickling her face, she caught the enemy’s wrist. The blade only fell slower. The night melted into oil.

With her free hand Naroko drew her own dagger, and sunk it into the shade’s knee. The assassin grunted, grip loosening. Air – she gasped in a mouthful, then twisted the blade, made the foe hiss violence. The grip weakened further and she rolled out of it to clamber to her feet. The enemy, a phantom writhing in ink, tore the dagger out and lunged. Careless. She let them come, then inhaled and spun into a roundhouse. Impact shuddered up her ankle as the blow stopped the assassin, talon buried in their throat. Naroko snapped her leg back. The neck became miasma, and they twisted down like a felled cactus. Then, adrenaline breaking, she collapsed next. The shade’s blood filled her nose for some time before she noticed another scent beneath it.

Mint.

She couldn’t help a honk of laughter. Of course it wouldn’t just be bandits. She lifted some of her scorn from the attackers and placed it on their Countess.

Quiet settled among the trees. Naroko tried to rise. Her leg flared in protest. Hissing through it, she crawled to a trunk to help herself up. At its roots, she paused.

Nestled in the dirt was a pair of feathers, slicked brown with grime. Preening them clean, she found one feather long and faded violet, the other shorter and pale. Realization pierced like thorns. These feathers came from the Alphas. Had she lost them in the struggle? She felt her crest, and there they were. The only other way these could have gotten here was if Gulma had lost them. Gulma would not have lost them. They would only have fallen from his fallen head. But he was fast, fearless.

Slitting through bark and blood came steel. Instinct took over. Pain chewed her nerves, but Naroko rose. Her ankle burned, but she walked. It became a rhythm of feet on glass. If she broke it, she’d fall. From behind came shouts. The forest thinned and the trees parted into outback. Mouth dry, she panted as if to drink air. The barrens stretched on, dark and bristled like a beast’s hide. Behind, did they have more bows or magic? Ahead…

A topaz eye winked. Another to its right. More and more sparked in the black. She squinted. Domes framed the lights. A town.

No matter how battered and exhausted, a Rushakite’s legs were strong. The night thickened with sweet floral aroma as she pressed on.

Hope broke at the town’s border. Where she expected tents or huts, Naroko found dark mushroom caps as large as boulders, traced with luminous veins. She smelled Andarran on them, but couldn’t find any openings. Stumbling on, she reached a clearing lined with rows of moss-curtained tree stumps. That was where her knees buckled. Fire flashed in her ankle, then earth thumped her face.

Nearby, a splash. Naroko looked up, her neck the only part of her not yet aflame. Over the caps ahead stood a boat mast. She squirmed on to find a low pier upon a pocked red shore, the water beyond oily and dank. A boat rested at the pier’s end, but she smelled no one around it. Grabbing one fungus-house’s sides for balance, she heaved herself up, snapping at agony. She limped, hoping her tracks wouldn’t be too visible. At the pier, she fell to her knees and found just enough space beneath the boards. All grace gone, she nestled in among the weeds and shadows. The river spoke in rolling tongues. Heavy boots thumped the sand. Naroko held her breath. Moments passed. Finally, the boots stomped off down the shore. Once they were out of earshot, she could breathe.

As the high of survival cleared, safety offered no reassurance. Naroko was now alone. Not just without the pack; she doubted she’d see another Rushakite again for some time. Every face she’d meet would be flat and without scales, all eyes distrusting. What was more, she was a loose end, and Lemosia didn’t seem like one to let those dangle. Did the Countess wait for a Rushakite who would serve her to come along, disposing of those who declined?

A hiss escaped Naroko’s throat, low with despair. She snaked her head out to check for further danger. The village stood in edgeless silhouettes. She was alone. Alone as Gulma had been. Why hadn’t the Alphas sent a companion with him? Why hadn’t they sent someone with her, given their last envoy had vanished unaccompanied? What did the Pack do for them then? It demanded their lives, their minds, and hearts, but what did it give back? It had given her brother death. Who had he been in life? She scoured her memory and recalled nothing but his proficiency as a hunter. Like a dirt blown into her eyes she realized the Alphas were either incompetent or careless. What did she really owe the Pack? At least, what did she owe such leaders? Worse, what was she without them?

Alive. Without the Pack, Naroko was alive. Without Lemosia, she was alive. Rushakar bore her into violence and poverty. The Pack chained her to itself to serve its own ends. Lemosia had attempted the same. But now Naroko could choose, and the choice was startlingly clear.

Crawling out from beneath the pier, she leaned on the wood and rose. However harsh the road would be, she’d walk it to the Emperor. Whatever song he sang, she’d dance to it to win wealth for her family, and in time stability for Rushakar. In that stability, her people would no longer need to carve their lives from dust and bone, living and dying by a collective which treated them as tools to serve only itself. Step after labored step, Naroko started up the shore.

Once the strife was ended, all her people would have a choice.

Kieran McKiel

Kieran McKiel

Kieran McKiel is from Yellowknife, NWT, where there was little to do but read Wells and Bradbury and watch old monster movies. He is currently in his last year studying writing at the University of Victoria. He awaits the colonization of space and plans to move to Mars as soon as possible.
Kieran McKiel

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