In the Overlord’s all-seeing eyes, such men are like unto murderers and idolaters,
less to Him than a mote.
– The Tanlin, 241.14
Snow-clad and ice-bound, the two peaks opposite rose in ragged splendour to pierce the egg-blue sky of dawn. Wisps of cloud gusted and swathed about the rock formations, occasionally obscuring the chasm far below. Scattered on narrow ledges and precipitous ridges, thousands of drab-clothed men stood or crouched, waiting.
Wrapped in an inadequate fawn-fur cloak which freezing gusts of air threatened to whip from him, General Foo-sep braced himself and, his clean-shaven chin set with annoyance, looked down upon his suffering men. His gums ached dully with the insidious cold, yellow teeth chattering. In vain he rubbed fur-gloved hands together.
An entire toumen! Ten thousand men! And they were to take orders from an accursed civilian! He seethed, casting an embittered glare to his right, at a black-clad man of slight frame, parchment-coloured skin and ebony pebbles for eyes.
The wind slapped at the man’s fur cloak and whistled over the bare out-jutting rocks nearby.
Wind-howl was deafening on the outcrop up here, yet only a step back into the shelter of the overhang no sound penetrated; and from here the entire range of the Sonalume Mountains seemed enveloped in this same eerie stillness.
“They will be along soon,” said the civilian, visibly tensing as he leaned over the sloping ledge. His bear-hide boots crackled as he moved, shifting ice from the soles.
Below – a dizzying drop that had claimed too many men already – the bottom indistinct in a slithering purple haze.
Foo-sep discerned the tiny motes of black in the sky and, as the shapes approached, he was struck by their immense size. Framed by the two grey-blue peaks, the birds were coming; he had to admit, grudgingly, as predicted.
“Now!” howled the civilian.
Hoarfrost encrusted brows scowling, Foo-sep lifted his arm and signalled to his men on both sides of the wide, gaping chasm.
Soundlessly, with military precision, the prepare signal was passed through the dispersed ranks.
Foo-sep raised his eyeglass, careful lest he touched his skin with its icy rim.
Stern-faced with the cold and, at last, a sense of purpose, his loyal soldiers were now unfurling nets and arranging stones for quick reloading of their sling-shots.
Foo-sep slowly scanned across the striated rock face.
Abruptly, the birds leapt into focus, their presence taking away his breath in cold wisps. Such an enormous wingspan! And red, O so red! He hesitated at the thought of the task ahead.
His momentary indecision must have been communicated to the other, or perhaps the civilian possessed even more arcane powers than those with which he was credited; “The King desires it,” was all he said.
Foo-sep nodded and moved the eyeglass across to the other rock face where the remaining soldiers were trying in vain to keep warm, quivers ready, bowstrings taut and poised.
Now the birds were entering between the peaks.
Foo-sep waved to a signaller who blew three great blasts on his horn. The sound echoed among the peaks.
In a constant flurry, ice-coated nets looped out, a few attached to arrows, entwining many of the creatures’ wings. Some birds swooped beneath the heavy mesh then swerved, talons raking the men responsible. Others used their wings to sweep soldiers from the ledges as though dusting furniture. Stones hit a few on their bright red crests and they plummeted, stunned, to be caught by outstretched nets beneath; nets that were slowly filling up, straining at their supports.
Watching through his eyeglass, Foo-sep was amazed at the weird silence of the birds: only their frenetically beating wings generated any sound; all other noise originated from his yelling and shrieking soldiers as they flung nets and stones or were dragged from precarious positions. He scowled as a group of fools forgot to keep clear of their own nets; entangled, they were wrenched to giddy, plunging deaths.
Pacing from side to side, Foo-sep watched helplessly as his beloved toumen was decimated. And for what? A few hundred birds!
His attention was diverted to an uncannily large specimen ensnared in nets, its feathers flying as it clawed at two soldiers on a ledge while they loosed sling-stones at the creature.
Yet the missiles had no effect, and the massive curved beak snapped through the brittle mesh as though it was flimsy plains-grass.
As the bird looped, Foo-sep noticed a distinctive marking none of the others seemed to possess – a white patch on its throat.
The civilian must have observed it also, because at that instant he gripped Foo-sep’s arm, lips visibly trembling, black pebble-eyes shining. Then, in desperation, the idiot shouted an order that made no sense at all: “Let that one go!”
Numb with cold, bitterly aware of how many good men had suffered already at the talons of that gigantic bird, Foo-sep steeled himself against his better instinct and cupped gloved hands round his mouth.
“Let that one go!” he called.
And the words echoed, mocking: “Let that one go!”
[From Floreskand: Wings, pp3-5]
The midday sky was brimful with red tellars. The entire populace of Lornwater seemed to be out – on the street, rooftops, city walls or at windows – looking at these mystical creatures.
Even Ulran’s height was dwarfed by the bird’s wingspan. With bristling carmine red feathers, yellow irises and darting black slit-pupils, the red tellar appeared a formidable bird, predatory in mien, an aspect completed with lethal talons and huge curved beak. And yet not one living soul, Ulran included, had once reported seeing a red tellar eat. To compound the enigma surrounding them, they were rarely observed landing anywhere. And apart from the muted whisper of their wings, they created no sound at all – unlike the local avians that infested most eaves, lofts and trees in the city.
Ulran burst out onto the inn’s flat roof as a shadow darkened the area.
A solitary red tellar broke formation and dived down from the main body. Ulran instinctively glanced back at Aeleg and Ranell; but Scalrin’s sharp eyes had spotted them and he veered over to the opposite side of the roof.
A slight crack of mighty wings, then the bird was down, talons gripping the low wall by a shrine to Opasor, lesslord of birds.
Ulran motioned for the others to stay where they were.
Aeleg and Ranell stared, as if thunderstruck that a red tellar should land on their roof.
Recognition flickered in Scalrin’s eyes as Ulran knelt before the bird’s great feathered chest. Without hesitation the innman reached out, gently stroked the upper ridge of the bird’s beak and smoothed the silken soft crest.
In answer, Scalrin’s ear feathers ruffled and he settled, pulling his greater wing coverts well into his body.
The innman exhaled through his nose, then relaxed, steadying his breathing till it was shallow. Ulran closed his eyes and slowly outstretched his hand again, palm flat upon Scalrin’s breast. A rapid heartbeat pulsed under his palpating hand and transmitted sympathetic vibrations through his own frame.
Their rapport created a bridge and across this span came primitive communication, sense-impressions. Ulran gathered that something was seriously amiss in Arion.
Something terrible, something concerning Scalrin.
Ulran opened his eyes, surprised to discover moisture brimmed his lids for the first time since his wife Ellorn’s death.
Then Scalrin was gone, powerful primaries lifting him up to the vast multitude of his brethren. As far as the horizon they still flocked.
But what did it portend?
“Trouble in Arion?” the stranger enquired as Ulran stepped from the stairs into the passage.
Ulran did not show the surprise he felt at this disclosure.
The wiry stranger was evidently chagrined at the innman’s negative response but, poise quickly regained, explained, soft spoken, “I walk with Osasor.” An offered hand.
Ulran’s enfolded it completely: a gentle, yielding handshake. Not the usual type who would follow the white lord of fire, the innman thought.
“Cobrora Fhord,” the stranger made the introduction, dressed sombrely in a grey cloak, charcoal tunic and trousers, colourless face angular and thin. “I can enlighten you a little on the behaviour of the red tellars. And I would like to join you on your journey to Arion.”
Ranell appraised the stranger with quickened interest; Aeleg stared at Cobrora shrewdly.
Ulran, unblinking, said, “But I haven’t mentioned that I’d go – though I was considering it.”
Cobrora nervously stroked long lank black hair. Ulran noticed the glint of some kind of amulet beneath Cobrora’s grey cloak. Big brown eyes suddenly evasive, Cobrora Fhord murmured, “My – er, properties might prove useful – should you decide to go.”
In preference, Ulran always travelled alone, in this way being responsible for himself and nobody else. But, this Cobrora presented a conundrum. The roumers regularly and swiftly carried messages along their established routes complete with staging posts, unmolested by villains and Devastator hordes, but even they could not have carried news of Arion’s dire affairs in such a short time. And, as conclusive proof of this psychic’s ability, Cobrora knew of Ulran’s intentions to travel to Arion. It was just possible that the strange powers of Cobrora’s spirit-lord could be of some use on the long trek.
“All right,” said Ulran decisively. “But first we must arrange equipment.” And, looking at Cobrora’s thin city clothes, he added, “We must dress you properly for the long journey ahead. It may be summer – but the nights are harsh and the mountains will prove inhospitable.”
[From Floreskand: Wings, pp34-36]
Thus begins the quest to solve the riddle of the red tellars. Ulran discovers he must get to Arisa within seventy days and unlock the secret of the scheduled rites. He is joined in his quest by the ascetic Cobrora Fhord, who harbours a secret or two, and also the mighty warrior Courdour Alomar, who has his own reasons for going to Arisa. They learn more about each other – whether it’s the strange link Ulran has with the red tellar Scalrin, the lost love of Alomar, or the superstitious heart of Cobrora.
Plagued by assassins, forces of nature and magic, they cross the plains of Floreskand, combat Baronculer hordes, scale snow-clad Sonalume Mountains and penetrate the dark heart of Arisa. Here they uncover truth, evil and find pain and death.
Paperback & e-book from Amazon here
330 pages (complete with maps, indexes and a glossary)