The kheiron flew west across the desert with a human boy on his back.
Kheirons, dear reader, are half man, half horse, but don’t equate them with centaurs. With few exceptions, a centaur’s nature is more beast than man. Kheirons pride themselves on being what they choose to be at any given time, retaining the best of both natures. Through the power of silver and stone, they can morph from equos—pure horse—to humos—pure man. Or they can rest as kheiros—the half-and-half form which appears like a centaur. And if you dare to say they look like centaurs, their wings will unfurl from their backs and they will take to the skies to educate you on the matter.
The kheiron in the sky above the desert was in humos, his human form. He’d lost the magical moonstone that allowed him to shift between man and horse. Abducted from his father’s war camp and unable to outrun the enemy on two legs, he was sold as a slave and lived in captivity the past two years.
But he was free now.
Almost, he thought, as his wings sliced through the night sky, moving in a gentle cadence on either side of the boy clinging to his back. The boy was twelve, dressed in the rough clothes of a slave. The mark of his master was branded into his neck, the seared flesh not yet healed.
The kheiron had known two masters, so he bore two different brand marks on his neck. Both had long turned to raised, pink scars in his tanned skin. He was free now, and he was exhausted. The years in captivity had stripped him down to wiry, lean muscle over bone. The stress of planning this escape had shredded his nerves to a trembling fringe. Carrying the boy’s extra weight cut miles off the distance the kheiron wanted to cover. The sun would rise soon and it would be too dangerous to travel in the heat of daytime. They’d need to find shelter. And a well. They fled the slave compound with just one waterskin between them and a third of it was gone already.
One more mile, he thought, looking back between wingbeats to check the streak of pink at the eastern horizon. Solos, the sun god, hadn’t climbed above the edge of the world yet. He had a little more time.
He flew west while the boy slept on his back, arms wound tight around the kheiron’s chest, their fingers entwined. Below them undulated the desert floor, sapped of her daytime heat and rolling like an endless field of snow under the moon’s waning light. The kheiron followed the old caravan route through the desert, straining his eyes for any sign of scrub or vegetation where there might be water. Any crumbling caravanserai remains where they could take shelter for the night. Most of all, his gaze squinted ahead, looking for the shape of the Altyn Mountains. Not until he put that range between himself and slavery would he even consider the idea of relief.
One more mile, he kept thinking. One more behind us is one closer to freedom.
His back and abdomen ached with the effort to hold his body parallel to the earth, stay tight and streamlined and let the wind carry him like an arrow. Flying long distances in human form was impractical. His four equine legs would’ve provided additional power and thrust, letting him literally gallop across the sky. If he hadn’t lost his moonstone—You fucking gave it away, remember?—he and the boy would be over the mountains by now. But the stone was gone, along with its power to let him shift. The bell couldn’t be un-rung and at least he had his wings and he only needed to put one more mile behind them…
“Can I give myself a new name?” the boy asked.
“Good idea,” the kheiron said. “New names for our new life.”
The boy rubbed his brow along the back of his steed’s neck. “What will you call me?”
“Why am I picking?”
“Because I want you to.”
“All right,” the kheiron said. “Your name is Alon. Do you know what it means?”
“It’s a giantsword, right? It’s what they call a lark.”
“Yes. Larks bring souls to newborns. And you, my friend, are newly born. You are the lark bringing your own soul to yourself. It’s never been done before. You’re the first to ever do it.”
Alon laughed, his cold hands squeezing. “I like it,” he said. “What’s your new name?”
A long silence, save for the wind whistling through the kheiron’s feathers.
“Fen,” Alon said. “Your name is Fen.”
It was the giantsword for finch. Finches returned the souls of the dead.
“I see,” Fen said slowly. “Am I a goldfinch, who returns the souls of the righteous?”
“No,” Alon said. “You’re a redfinch.”
“They return the souls of the damned.”
“Yes.” The boy tightened his arms around Fen. “They’ll tell stories about you forever. Any slaver who crosses your path is damned and doomed. You’ll get them all, Fen. You’ll never let anyone do this again. Not to anyone…”
Fen ate and drank the prophetic words. Damned crunched between his teeth, splintering like bone. Doomed burst on his tongue, liver-rich with a rusty edge, like biting a sword still hot from battle. Get them slid deliciously down his throat. Never again warmed his belly and numbed the pain in his back and shoulders. Stories stirred up his strength and forever shone ahead, pointing the way. At his temples pulsed Fen, Fen, Fen like a bell tolling in a chime that could never be un-rung. As he chewed on Finch and let the juice run down his chin, he imagined his old name was a shell encasing the past two years. He cracked it, felt the broken husk fall away beneath him. A delicate puff of sand rising as the name Tehvan il-Kheir was swallowed by the desert, dead and buried and forgotten.
I am Fen, he thought, putting the miles behind him. I am the finch. Cross my path and you are damned. None will escape. Never again.
They found shelter in the remains of a caravanserai whose well, thank Gods, was full. A stubborn fig tree gave them a bit of breakfast before they lay down in the shadow of a broken wall and slept the day away. As Solos the sun god began his descent to the west and the sand began to shiver, Fen filled the waterskin, lifted the boy on his back and took to the skies once more.
They flew west, the finch and the lark. Through the hot days and cold nights, Alon seemed to grow quieter and weaker while Fen, fed on a diet of revenge and legacy, only filled with a greater resolve.
“There,” he cried on the third evening, when at last the shape of the Altyn range began to bulge from the horizon. “We’re nearly there, Alon. Through those peaks.”
Alon only sighed against Fen’s back. His body was icy deadweight. His slack arms stayed wound about Fen’s waist because the cold had frozen them there. The only active part of him was the hand curled around Fen’s left index finger.
“We’re almost there,” Fen said. “Hold on just a little longer.”
“Will they want me back?” the boy said.
The cadence of Fen’s wings stuttered. “Who?”
“My family. Will they even want me back, knowing what I was doing?”
“You weren’t doing anything,” Fen said between gritted teeth. “Things were being done to you.”
“I know. But…”
“Don’t talk anymore, I need to think.”
The updrafts grew colder and sharper as they began to cross the peaks. Gusts knocked Fen sideways and his body howled as he righted their course again and again.
“Hold tight,” he kept saying, an ugly panic boiling up from his stomach. “Alon, you hold on. Don’t you fucking let go now.”
“What if they don’t want me back?”
“They want nothing more than to have you back,” Fen said, gasping. “They’ll tell stories about it forever.”
He was so tired, he felt outside himself. Here and not here. First the cold shocked him awake, then it lulled him to the edge of sleep. But his wings kept moving. His body zigged when the wind zagged. He mastered the dance of the updrafts and let the gusts partner him instead of pummel him. Nearly there. One last ridge. He could see the Old Forest now. A swath of bare trees like a hundred witches’ hands reaching to the sky. Dead, all of them, but their skeleton branches magnificent against the grey skies.
“Look,” he said between heaving breaths. “These were the tallest spice trees that ever grew. See the platforms built in the upper canopies? Those were harvesting stations. They built houses in the trees, Alon. They’d live up there weeks at a time, picking the spice flowers. Lowering them down in big baskets on pulleys. Did you ever think you’d see something like this?”
“You won’t forget,” Alon said, barely audible above the wind.
“See those birds circling the treetops? They’re called caracaros. They’re a kind of falcon and they won’t nest anywhere but the spice trees. They’re the best messenger birds in the world but they only live up here in Altynai. Do you see them? Look. You’ll get home and tell all your friends you saw caracaros. They’ll drop dead of jealousy.”
“You’ll tell this story,” The fist tightened, white-knuckled around Fen’s finger. “Won’t you?”
“Forever,” Fen said. “They’ll write songs about us. Epic poems. How the lark and the finch escaped from—”
The boy slid from his back.
“No,” Fen cried over the empty tree tops. He pulled up short, life and death separated by one small fist clinging to his finger. His wings pounded the air to a fury as his legs reached long, trying to snag Alon between his calves and haul him in close.
“Hold on. Alon…”
But the boy’s eyes were closed and his little fist was sliding, wrenching Fen’s knuckle in its socket until, with a smooth tug, the silver band on his index finger slipped free.
The scream of the caracaros tore the sky open and echoed off the mountain peaks.
Absolute power doesn’t exist, dear reader. All creatures of the gods have their frailties and limitations. A kheiron’s wings are bound to the nine silver rings he wears on his fingers. All nine must be present for flight. One left off, lost or stolen, and his wings will not extend.
Fen’s master knew this, and took the rings away the day he bought Fen at the slave market. It took two years for Fen to buy them back.
On my face, he thought in a split second that stretched into infinity. On my knees. I bought them back with my mouth and my body. Two years as a whore to buy back what was mine.
The ninth ring he stole from the master. Or rather, Alon stole it, earning himself a ride to freedom on Fen’s back.
What if they don’t want me, knowing what I was doing?
In that elastic moment, Fen hovered over the dead forest, watching with incredulous detachment as Alon fell away from him like a forgotten name, Fen’s ring still in a fist. A hot, liquid rush down his back as his wings began to retract beneath the skin. Instinctively he threw his human arms out, as if they could take over the job.
We were nearly there…
Tehvan il-Kheir, now renamed Fen, was only fifteen. Not yet fully grown. His wingspan was nowhere near the epic proportion of his father’s. Still, it took time for nine feet of tiered feathers to shrink, fold down and pull within. Time enough for him to glide a small, silent distance, reflect on how close he’d come and wonder who would tell the story now.
Then the wind filled his ears as his body plummeted through a wheeling cauldron of falcons and into the upraised hands of dead spice trees.