Under his wings, the plain is an expanse of cinders and grey ash.
He circles, looking for a sign of life, however small, wondering what had happened here. Far away, at the very limits of distance, the sun is rising, a ball of ruddy fire. But its redness does not touch the plain with colour.
Here and there, wisps of smoke still rise from the plain, and an ember or two glows a dull red. It was not too long ago, then, that the plain was burned, he thinks, and in the thought he has an inkling of what might have happened here.
Fear begins then, inside him, struggling, contending for dominance with anger. Fear, because he is afraid of what he must do, and anger, because he feels compelled to do it despite his will. For a while longer, he circles, mulling turning away and returning to his distant mountain home, still shrouded in the western night. But he knows that’s impossible – when he left, he knew he could never go back there again.
At least, he can’t go back there without doing what he’s come to do.
Resentment burns inside him now, at the thought of being forced to this, at last. But he has no choice in the matter, not really, and never has.
The sun is higher now, no longer red, and the last wisps of smoke no longer stain the air. It’s time to go.
Dipping a wingtip, he banks sharply, flying due east, directly away from the peaks which had been his home for so long. His great wings beat, faster and faster, driving him up into the upper air, from where the plain fades to a grey smear, from where he can almost see until the end of the world.
He follows the track left by destruction below, the charred plains and valleys following one another, like an arrow pointing to the direction he must follow. By now he is sure what has happened, and the anger and fear have given way to frustration, because he knows this was all done for his benefit, to draw him on – and he knows he has no choice but to follow it to the end.
It’s evening by the time he begins to descend. All day he hasn’t seen anything else in the air, not a bird or a balloon, even as a speck on the horizon. And of course he won’t be able to see his quarry – not until he is allowed to. He knows that, but knows it won’t be too long now.
All day, the sun has been raining fire, like the heat of the fire rising off the plain. Like all his kind, he feels no discomfort with heat. But now, in the cooler air of evening, his wings have begun to grow heavy, and he needs somewhere to spend the night.
All day the land has been rising, the plains having given way to eroded plateaus fissured by twisting valleys, and the burning has been fresher, spouts of orange flame still rising, topped with greasy plumes of black smoke. He has a feeling it will happen tonight.
He dislikes the night, because at night his blood is sluggish with the cold, and after flying since the previous evening his energy levels are low. He needs to save all the energy he has, to keep it for the morning, but if it happens tonight he won’t have that luxury.
He comes to earth on a spire of rock above a stony valley. It isn’t quite dark yet, and he can see a small village down below, little houses of mud bricks held together with lime. He can see the people moving around, and the barking of a dog sounds faintly. The village and the dry, dusty fields beyond haven’t been burned yet. He has caught up at last.
Now he knows it will happen tonight, without a doubt, and with the realisation he feels almost relieved. Crouching on the spire of rock, he begins to prepare himself, feeling the glands release the chemicals into his blood, his muscles leaching away the tiredness of his long flight. He doesn’t know how long he will have to prepare, and when it happens, he needs to be ready.
He tries not to think of what lies ahead. It’s always better not to think. Plans don’t work in this situation, because plans bind the planner to a course of action, and he can’t afford that. When it happens, he will have to react instantly and as best he can. There will not be time to adapt a plan to suit it to circumstances.
Instead, he thinks of his home, so far away to the west, the mountain crags where he has lived for so long, almost as long as he can remember. If he hadn’t received the summons, the call in his blood, he would have been there now, happy in his familiar world of evergreen forests and tinkling little streams. When he half-closes his eyes, he can see the shadow of drifting mists among the hills. He can almost taste the longing to be back there, but he does not know if he will ever see them again.
His thoughts are abruptly interrupted. For a moment he thinks this is it, but it doesn’t happen this way, not with voices, human voices and the flicker of torches.
By now, darkness has fallen, and the villagers have come up the valley and are gathered below him, looking up. The light of the torches glimmers in their eyes. Two men step out of the throng. There is a girl between them, clad in a rough grey shift, her hair hanging loose over her face and her limbs bare. She’s young, her arms bound with ropes, and they push her forward, not particularly gently. The girl cries out, stumbles and falls, tearing her skin open on the stones. He can smell her blood.
“She’s a virgin,” one of the men calls up to him. “Take her, and spare us.”
“Yes,” the other man says. “Spare us from the burning.”
He arches his neck, studying them, studying the girl. She’s kneeling where she fell, looking down at the stones, submissive in her terror. He can smell her fear now, as well as her blood, and knows that she’s waiting to feel his talons in her back. From the crowd he can hear a quiet sobbing. A parent, perhaps, or a sibling.
The burning is not my doing, he wants to say, to their upturned faces, patches of white in the flickering light of the torches. And I can’t accept your sacrifice, because...
And then he grows aware that the darkness is dissipating, that it is giving way to a golden glow, and he turns away from them, flexing his wings. They no longer matter. It is about to begin.
She is here.
She rises from behind the spire of stone, so gigantic that the sight of her sucks the breath away, the torches flashing fire from the plates of her flanks. Her wings beat slowly, distilled sheets of golden sunlight, sparks flying from them at every beat. Her great antennae twist back and forth, questing, ready to flick out like whips and strip skin and flesh from bone. Her eyes are seething pools, glowing red like molten rock, her tail like a pillar flung over heaven. She is beautiful and terrible, and awful to look upon.
She throws back her head, roaring a challenge audible only to him, like a peal of thunder racing across the sky.
He roars back, his wings thrashing, bearing him up off the crag, his steel-blue form dwarfed by her glowing gold. He’s always known she’d be bigger than him, but he’d never have believed she would be this much larger. It’s going to be much more difficult than he ever imagined.
He flies straight at her, aiming at her underbelly, reaching forwards with his talons, slashing, but she’s already gone, sideslipped with a speed and agility incredible for her size. She slaps at him with a gigantic wing, catching him a glancing blow and sending him tumbling earthwards. Even that blow is so strong that it numbs him momentarily, and he only manages to right himself an instant before he impacts the rocks, the flattened tip of his tail brushing them before he can climb again.
She is there, up above, waiting, her wings beating, keeping her in place. Her jaws are open, the sparks from her wings lighting her great teeth, her antennae whipping back and forth. She hisses at him contemptuously.
I can crush you easily, she tells him, the thought ringing clear in his mind. Did you really think you were worthy?
You thought I was worthy enough to call me, he replies. You burned the plains so I had to come.
It will all be wasted, anyway, she responds, because you will never defeat me. He sees her draw her neck back and knows what is to come. Just in time h throws himself to the right, closing one wing and extending the other so that he falls out of the sky in a spin, the blast of fire passing harmlessly by – yet near enough to singe him.
Opening both wings wide, he angles them so that he breaks out of the spin and rushes at head-height above the plateau, zigzagging between rocks and protuberances, doubling back twice on his own path to avoid more of her fiery blasts. Then she swoops on him from above, claws extended to catch hold of one of his wings and twist it off. He zigzags, but she’s got the advantage of height, and can cut him off whichever way he goes. There’s only one thing to do.
Closing both his wings, he lets himself fall like a stone.
He drops like a stone past the plateau edge, between the parallel walls of a ravine, into the darkness. Twisting, he grabs for the wall with his claws, finds a toehold, hangs on. Far above, she screams in frustration, and fires another blast into the ravine. A shelf of rock protects him, and she’s well off target.
There’s no time to lose.
Back in his mountain home, he has learned to crawl up vertical rock surfaces using only his claws, but that was in daytime, when his energy levels were high and when a moment’s miscalculation would not mean fiery death. But there’s nothing for it – he scrambles frantically for the top, keeping in the shelter of the rock shelf for as long as he can, and pulls himself to the top of the plateau.
And then he stops, confused. She should have been waiting, ready to blast him, but he can’t see her anywhere.
For a fraction of a second he considers the possibility that she’s gone, back into hiding, but she can’t do that. Once she’s shown herself, she has to play it through, all the way. She can help it no more than he could help following the trail of burning she had left for him.
Something catches his eye, then, a golden glow on the rock. She is there, behind and below him. She’s dropped past the plateau edge to look for him, as he was climbing to the top.
Turning, he cranes his neck past the edge – yes, there she is, below him, dropping down in slow circles, her head extended downwards to look for him. He won’t have a better chance.
He dives off the edge of the plateau like a plummeting hawk, wings held close to his body, steering with the tips only, coming down hard on her shoulders. He grips tight, digging his claws between the plates of her skin, his jaws closing on the base of her neck.
She fights, of course, like a thing demented, thrashing frantically, turning her head to snap with her immense jaws, but he knows he’s won. She recognises it too, her wings opening wide and flapping to lift them over the plateau. Silently, she comes down to earth, and there they lie, trembling, together. His tail twines round hers as she claws at the earth.
Later, after she has flapped off, weary with her new burden, he flies down to the spire to rest. The villagers have long since fled, but the girl is still there, lashed to a post with ropes, lying curled up in the dust. At first he thinks she’s dead, but then he can hear her breathing, and smell her fear. She’s conscious and aware of him.
He’s desperately weary, needs rest, but there’s something he must do first.
Wings spread to the maximum size, he lets himself drift downwards, gentle as a feather, until he stands by the girl’s side. He can feel her tremble as he uses the tip of a claw to cut through her bonds and set her free.
Slowly, as though waking from a nightmare, she moves, trying each limb, unbelieving of her freedom. She looks up at him. Under her fringe of hair, her features are smudged with dirt and tears, but not uncomely. She may be a beauty in a few years, if she survives.
Holding on to the post, she pulls herself up, whispering something that he can’t hear. With a tentative finger, she reaches out and touches his near wing, and instantly snatches the finger back, as though she has been burned.
“Thank you,” she whispers again, and this time loud enough for him to hear. “Thank you for my life. And thank you for chasing the other one away. Thank you for all our lives.”
There’s no need to thank me, he wants to tell her. I did it as much for myself as you. If I had lost, I would have been consumed, and you too. If I had lost, then I would have proved myself too weak, and she would have looked for someone else. She would not have stopped till she found one strong enough to beat her, for only such a one is worthy of giving her his seed.
Tomorrow, he wants to tell her, I will go back to my mountains, which I had not thought to see again. As she has gone, to wherever her home is, to hatch her eggs. The burned plains will heal, the green come again on the land. And, when her children – our children – grow mature, one might come this way again, burning fields and villages, questing for a male who can beat her in combat. For only the strongest win.
But until that happens, you will be safe. Go and live your life, and be happy, for it will not happen in your lifetime, or that of your grandchildren’s grandchildren.
All this he wants to tell her, and more, but he does not have a voice to speak with, and though he can think his messages, she does not have the ears to hear.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012