by Dan Hiestand
When the Birds Fly South
When the Birds Fly South
“This entire continent, and all of the nations on it, are amid a storm centuries in the making.”
Beyond Westwood Forest
Diamond (April) 26, 2013
Cold clouds hung low in the sky as Malcolm emerged from his tent to find the page awaiting him a few yards away. Her hands were clasped before her and her head bowed slightly as if in prayer; he watched, without her knowledge, as she shifted to hold her hands behind her back.
Parade rest, almost. To his eyes, it looked like she was playing at being a soldier.
She looked ornamental. He couldn’t say why, but the thought disgusted him.
It was full night, and all around them the braziers of camp blazed with their defiant flames. There were more of them now than there’d ever been in the old camp. One victory, it seemed, had not chased away the memories of how things had been – at least, not at night.
Cleo was gazing into the fire directly across from her. Malcolm grunted in frustration.
She turned to him, eyes wide—
But he passed her by without a second glance.
“Malcolm,” she called, jogging up to his side. “Got everything you need?”
“Define everything,” he said, tone flat as he looked down—
To the little gray shadow that was now darting here and there between Cleo’s feet.
“What?” said Cleo. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
But Malcolm didn’t look up: He stared at the cat until it settled at the girl’s ankle.
“That little runt is yours?”
“It does the same thing you do,” he spat. When she pointed a questioning look at him, he tilted his head one way, then the other in exaggerated tics – widening his eyes like an owl all the while. He turned again, barely glimpsing the pink that dusted Cleo’s cheeks.
They passed the rest of the journey back to the convoy in silence.
Malcolm could hear Cleo behind him, hear her dragging her feet now and then or stopping to scratch behind the cat’s ears. If he tried – really tried – he could even hear its paws scamper on the path. It was not a full-grown hunting cat, but old enough for its tail to swing low in the dirt.
Even he knew it was not a breeding flaw; the perfect way to wipe out others’ trails behind it.
When Malcolm crested the ridge to peer down upon the convoy, Cleo finally reached his side.
Jaden was standing by the magnificent wagon, talking low and close with General Creed. One Outrider – Malcolm had to think twice to remember it was Ferris Lang – was joking with the coachman. At length, the window slid open, revealing Aleister Duchenne, who joined in.
Darvin Nash was nowhere to be seen, nor was any suggestion of his family.
“Nonsense,” Malcolm said to himself, but Cleo took the invitation to answer.
“She’s a good woman.” His sharp glance back to her stopped her only as long as it took her to flick her eyes away from his. “Everything the general told you is true. Before she came here, she was corresponding with the First Consul. She would have gotten here sooner, but the danger—”
Malcolm leaned over the ridge to spit and Cleo froze, terrified someone would look up.
“We owe her a lot, Malcolm.”
Malcolm shifted the bundle that held his new bow.
“It’s gonna take more than praise from the likes of you to make me believe that.”
Cleo turned to him, her lip jutting out a touch.
“If you were more than some wannabe aristocrat – if you were out in the field, I dunno, ever – you wouldn’t be so shocked to learn that someone like me might hesitate to trust a wizard. For all the information you seem privy to, that much is still way over your head. Isn’t it?”
“I’m sorry,” she started, “have I – are you trying to imply something?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, princess. Just saying that if you play with fire, you might get burned.”
With that, he settled the bundle carefully on his shoulder and jumped from the ridge, leaving Cleo to guide her cat around it and down the path. When he straightened up, all eyes were on him – even, he sensed, those of the politician in the far wagon.
For Malcolm, eyes on you meant danger. And he was beginning to feel it.
The general broke the silence with a boisterous call—
“Malcolm! We’re about ready to go here!” Coming up fast, Creed slapped him hard on the shoulder and nodded to the shrouded bundle in the young man’s arms. “I trust it meets your approval. I only wish there had been due time for you to get to know it better.”
Malcolm’s grim smile met Creed’s own.
“There’ll be plenty of time for that soon enough, sir.”
Even the Outriders seemed dwarfed by Creed, now arrayed in ceremonial armor that made him bulkier still. It took Malcolm a moment to notice Jaden staring: Her gaze didn’t relent even when he met it. Shaking his head slightly, he bent down and began to ready his bow.
Creed went on his way around the other side of the convoy, unnoticed.
His focus didn’t waver for an instant until he heard the high-pitched noise—
Malcolm bounced to a standing start, letting the ancient bow tumble to the earth. His gaze traced left to right until it fixed, instinctively, in the direction of the sound. His hand was already on the knife at his belt; he took a step back, planning to leap.
It sounded off again, and he stopped himself at the last instant.
Darvin Nash had just arrived from around the other side of the convoy, cradling his little girl in his arms. Father and daughter looked into each other’s eyes as the man twirled a circle one last time before setting his child safely on the ground.
“That sound,” Malcolm said. Then, to himself: Make it stop.
“Normal people call it a giggle,” Cleo answered behind him.
Malcolm swung to face her, the knife still in his hand. She didn’t even have time to back down—
The look in her eyes seared itself into his memory, but he could not back away.
The cat had positioned itself between them and now let out a soft hiss.
Malcolm forced himself to look at it, then lowered the knife and replaced it in the sheath.
“I didn’t even h—” Malcolm started; then began anew: “Don’t sneak up on me like that.”
Noticing Malcolm from a few paces away, Ferris Lang spoke up:
“Right on time,” said the Outrider. “Wanted to give you a little heads up before Jaden goes on with the briefing.” He paused a moment, quirking his eyebrows to be sure Malcolm’s attention was on him. “In a minute, you’re going to get your own map of the valley. I want you to pay very close attention to a particular mark. A circle The Librarian made in red. You know about red.”
“Yes, sir,” went Malcolm – feeling adrenaline still radiating through his body. “Red is dead.”
“There’s a cavern entrance there, understand? I don’t expect it to be an issue. Your mission has nothing to do with it. But, just in case, there is something – something you should know ...”
Nash’s voice trailed off, and it took Malcolm a long moment to realize he was looking down to where Malcolm was flexing his fist open and closed without realizing it. Finally, the Outrider lifted his eyes to hold Malcolm fast with a slow, pointed look. It smoldered.
Eyes on you.
“Eager to get started, sir,” Malcolm said.
“Yeah – that’s good.”
Malcolm wasn’t sure Nash would let it drop. It was all he could do to not look away.
And then it was over.
“Anyway, listen very closely. Do not, under any circumstances, go into that cavern.”
“What’s in there?”
“Something you don’t want anything to do with. The less said, the better.” He sucked in a big breath; Malcolm expected a sigh, but got a smile instead. “There are hundreds of caves in that area, so if you need to use one, pick any of the others. Literally any one. Do you hear me?”
Malcolm looked off, nodding – a response that didn’t satisfy Ferris Lang in the slightest.
“Do you hear me, Senior Bowman? This is no joke.”
“Yes, sir,” Malcolm said, making eye contact. “I hear you.”
Ferris held his stare for a second longer, then smiled anew.
“You’re the best shot I’ve ever seen, kid. I mean that. Just relax and do your thing.”
With that, Ferris Lang was off to his station on the lead wagon. When Malcolm turned back, he saw Jaden, Creed, and – much to his surprise – Cleo waiting. No one spoke; for a few minutes the party, even the wizardess, seemed each one alone in private thoughts.
Thoughts that were interrupted by Creed’s booming voice as he returned to them—
Gripping Malcolm by the shoulder in a way that reminded him of being thrown.
“Ah, the man of the hour stands ready. I’ll see you this afternoon.”
Malcolm shook the general’s hand and offered his salute.
Behind him, Cleo climbed into the carriage, giving the driver a winsome smile as she did so. One slender arm was looped gently around the cat, who dangled lovingly. Malcolm watched the page until Creed tapped him on the back.
“I mean it, son. I’ll see you this afternoon. That’s an order.”
“Understood, sir,” the bowman said.
“Good luck,” Creed said, and turned again toward Jaden.
Malcolm peered into Jaden’s carriage, knowing full well Cleo was gazing out the window on the opposite side to avoid seeing him. He also knew that he was meant to ride in the same carriage with Jaden. This is going to be fun.
“What’s goin’ on, Malcolm?” Creed asked, and Malcolm turned to see the general beside Jaden, quite obviously waiting for him to get aboard. “Taken a sudden interest in the outside of carriages? If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, I’d say. Best be getting on.”
“Yes, sir.” Malcolm smiled awkwardly, then did the only thing he could: He turned and boarded the coach, slumping heavily beside Cleo. The cat was balled up in her lap now; she made it a point to slide that little bit further away from Malcolm as he settled on a crimson cushion.
Beneath them, Creed and Jaden were still talking—
It dawned on Malcolm slowly. He was surprised to realize that Creed looked happy.
But that intermission was drawing to a close. Creed took the woman’s hand in his huge, rough one and kissed it in the most chivalrous fashion that could be imagined, a gesture that brought a sudden knot of disgust to Malcolm’s stomach. A clammy sweat broke out on his brow.
He must have shuddered in his revulsion, because Cleo looked his way.
She was endlessly stroking that cat. The cat, in turn, glared at Malcolm.
“What’s his name?” Malcolm asked gamely.
“She,” said Cleo. “People make that mistake a lot. And it’s Pudrei.”
“Sounds like a dessert topping,” Malcolm said.
Cleo let out a little huff. The cat’s eyes drifted sedately closed. Its black-tufted ears lowered.
Presently, it – she – began to purr.
Malcom said: “You’re not gonna, like … stab me when I’m not looking or something, are you?”
Cleo rolled her eyes. “Yes, Bowman Hawkins,” she deadpanned. “I’m a legendary assassin.”
Malcolm turned back to survey the view. Creed drummed his knuckles on the window of the other carriage, and its shadowed occupant offered a few words, which Jaden leaned in to hear. Creed’s scowl would have been visible even if Malcolm was perched on the opposite hillside.
Time passed and the pair approached; soon, near enough to be heard clearly.
Jaden was smiling warmly.
“Well, General Creed. This seems the end of our collaboration.”
“To the contrary, Shepherdess,” said Creed. He took her hand again as she stepped up to board the carriage – it seemed a tiny, porcelain thing in his rough grasp. “I believe it has just begun.”
Jaden lowered her arm back down and slid gracefully into her seat.
“May we see each other’s eyes once more in times of peace,” she told him.
He nodded and closed the door, a last look lingering warmly on her.
Once all were inside, Creed took a step back and signaled the driver of the foremost carriage, who let out a loud call. It was followed by the second beside; and the third; and fourth. Soon, the small convoy was rumbling past him. He raised his arm in a final salute.
The general stood and watched as the convoy dwindled into the distance over the flat, grassy plain. He found that moment a sort of confrontation, hearing his own thoughts for the first time in a long time. There was nothing left to orchestrate, nothing left to prepare for.
His arm slowly dropped to his side, and he let out a contemplative hmm of his own.
There was nothing left to do but hope, and the night seemed to get a little bit colder.
“You look tense,” Jaden said to Malcolm.
It was the first time she’d spoken since leaving the camp; she had seemed content to observe his awkward interactions with Cleo in silence. The wizardess had sat with perfect poise, willing him to pet the cat, but he would not. Now, he winched his gaze up—
Eyeing her slow as molasses, as if she’d just told him he was heir to a duchy on the Red Moon.
The wizardess nodded.
Cleo kept her eyes on the window, staring out at the rugged terrain.
“Must be the feeling of being the only one on this convoy who doesn’t know what’s going on.”
Jaden seemed amused, a fact that didn’t lighten Malcolm’s load at all.
“You know the mission of this convoy is to make it to Sindell, and the only route connecting the two nations is through Bryce Valley.”
“What you don’t know is that without you, we have no chance of getting through.”
For the first time, Cleo diverted her attention from the window. She was careful not to look at Malcolm, but the cat glanced his way. Jaden paid no heed. “As I’m sure you’re aware, the outer provinces of your Republic are largely occupied by ...”
“Your people?” Malcolm said. But the woman would not rise to his provocation.
“This,” Jaden said with a nod, handing over a worn parchment, “is the Sky Gate.”
Malcolm leaned forward and took it, staring down: A meticulously detailed drawing of a colossal structure that blocked off the far northern end of the valley where it opened into the Kingdom of Sindell. It was, without question, the work of a master engineer. Possibly the life’s work.
“Looks like a dam,” Malcolm said, turning it sideways for a different perspective.
“In many ways, it’s exactly that. Only instead of holding back water, it’s designed to hold back everything else.” Jaden waited for Malcolm to study the diagram before adding, “Your point of interest lies at the top. A pulley mechanism that provides the Gate's function.”
Cleo shifted in her seat, trying to get a better look over Malcolm’s shoulder.
“Right,” Malcolm said, finding it.
“Your task is to shoot away the rope that connects the lever to the weight system.”
Malcolm followed along on the diagram with his finger. “Mmhm.”
“The system itself is advanced,” Jaden went on, “but it is completely dependent on that single connection. Once it is severed, the effect will be the same as ...”
“Pushing the lever to open it,” Malcolm said, but then he looked up from the map. “Why can’t we do that, then? Climb up there and push the lever, I mean.”
“A logical question with a simple answer: Outriders have already tried. You see that scaffolding leading up to the operator’s platform?”
Malcolm nodded, looking down again.
“It isn’t there anymore. Demolished by whoever closed the gate to begin with.”
“Maybe it was the King of Sindell who ordered it.”
Jaden shook her head, but it was Cleo who offered the explanation.
“Before communication with Sindell ceased, the Senate received an emergency request for aid,” Cleo said. “A call for military assistance to help defend their capital against winged ... creatures that had poured into their lands from points unknown in what seemed like a coordinated attack.”
Malcolm looked up from the map, his face hardening. “Winged creatures?”
“You find that hard to believe?” Jaden asked.
Malcolm sighed. “Well,” he started with a shrug, “when you consider that no one in Veil’driel ever heard of a wizard before a year ago, I guess I shouldn’t.” He took another moment to reflect. “But … winged creatures? You mean, like ... evil birds or something?”
“I mean like demons,” Cleo said with some annoyance. “It’s no coincidence the enemy would send creatures blessed with flight to attack a nation of airships. They have never been forced to fight defensively in the air – they were completely unprepared for the onslaught.”
Malcolm had only begun to glance toward Cleo before Jaden was speaking again.
“This entire continent, and all of the nations on it, are amid a storm centuries in the making. Getting through this valley is only the beginning for us. The real danger lies beyond, where the night waits to fall from the sky.”
Malcolm sat motionless, listening to the cold air carrying a gust of noise around the carriage.
“In any case,” the wizardess went on. “It is highly unlikely that Sindell would ask for aid—”
“... and then close their doors on it,” Malcolm concluded. “Fine. Tell me about these caverns.”
Jaden handed him two more maps, the first of which outlined a path through the caverns. The second was a geological survey of Bryce Valley laid out in exacting detail. The first thing Malcolm noticed was the bright red circle around a cavern entrance near the Sky Gate.
The sight made him frown. Jaden went on:
“These caverns run throughout the interior walls of the entire valley. We will drop you near one of the entrances, which you will see clearly marked on the map. Miss Bright will accompany you there and remain outside after you enter to ...”
“Report if I get killed?” Malcolm asked, still concentrating on the map.
“Support you if something goes wrong,” Jaden said. She twitched her wrist and two thin leather straps fell out of her sleeve and into her hand. At the end of one was a sapphire. On the other, a crystal of indeterminate kind. She handed both of them over to Malcolm.
“What’s this?” Malcolm asked, taking one in each hand.
“Why don’t you touch one and see?”
Malcolm laid the crystal down next to him on the seat and touched the sapphire, his eyes widening when it began to glow. He squinted, staring at it. “What the?” His words echoed all around the carriage. “Um,” he said, looking around as that, too, was heard twice more.
Cleo and Jaden had taken their own sapphires out; each held her stone balanced in her palm. Both of the gems shone with the same arcane inner light, splashing the faces of the page and wizardess with a subtle bluish glow. Jaden looked even more otherworldly than before.
“Tap it again,” Jaden said, her voice reverberating.
When Malcolm did, the sapphire went dormant.
With the light gone, it looked once more like a simple precious stone.
“It’s a form of communication,” Jaden said. “You see, all objects transcend their mere physical existence.” She watched with interest as Malcolm concentrated on the sapphire, swinging it back and forth before his face as a mesmerist might do with a watch. “So is true of these stones ...”
Malcolm tapped it again and all three sapphires sprang to life.
“—which have a special purpose beyond—”
Her words echoed just as before. Malcolm tapped the sapphire again.
“... what meets the eye,” Jaden finished. “Soon, all of the Veil’driel military ...”
Still fascinated, Malcolm touched the gemstone yet again. The blue glow and Jaden’s voice resonated from the sapphire dangling before Malcolm’s face – as well as the one held by Cleo.
“—will be trained to use them to—”
“Could you please stop doing that?” Cleo yelled.
Malcolm jumped, startled. He tapped the sapphire a last time and the glow was gone.
He looked up to Jaden, who in turn glanced to Cleo. Fuming, the page nodded.
“If you would be so kind as to take your arm from your cloak,” Jaden said softly.
Cleo leaned across Malcolm’s lap, plucked up the crystal on the leather string beside him, and snatched the sapphire from his hand. Pudrei swatted half-heartedly at the crystal, sending it spinning through the air, and the sorceress gave a laugh—
Then nodded to Cleo, an unspoken understanding between them.
The page began tying the leather strings around Malcolm’s right arm. When she was done, Cleo sat back, and Malcolm raised the arm to look oddly at where the strings hung from his bicep. The cat followed his gaze but did nothing more, settling under Cleo’s renewed attentions.
The little beast’s eyes were at half-mast by the time Jaden spoke up again.
“After you’ve disabled the gate, you’ll simply use the sapphire to alert us.”
“At that point we’ll make our way through the valley. You, in turn, will return through the caverns and meet with Miss Bright. Together, the two—” Mrow! “—I am sorry, the three of you will report to the rendezvous site.”
“Which is where, exactly?”
“Not far from the valley. We’ll pass it en route and I’ll point it out then.”
“And after we get there? What then?”
“You or Miss Bright will use your sapphire to contact General Creed, who will dispatch transportation to return you to the camp.” Malcolm nodded, closed his eyes, and leaned back against the wall of the wagon. “You have no more questions, I take it?”
“Nope. That’ll do,” Malcolm said, reaching down for his bow, which had been leaning against his lap all along. With his eyes still closed, he picked it up and slipped it over his head so that he was wearing it like a necklace. “Wake me when it’s time.”
“That doesn’t look very comfortable,” Jaden said.
“Can’t sleep any other way outside my tent,” Malcolm said simply.
Cleo shook her head disdainfully as she watched Malcolm doze off, wondering how anyone could sleep at a time like this. For a bit longer, she just stared at him. She was finding herself, strangely, where they had begun: Malcolm sleeping in her presence.
Then, finally, she looked back out the window at the countryside flying by.
Jaden took both of them in, her gaze bouncing from Malcolm to Cleo.