“Come along, girl,” the gray-haired cadger said, carrying the T-shaped stand into the mews. He blew a whistle and the tiny bell on the falcon’s leg jingled as she swept through the air and hit the perch. Her beak then shredded a chunk of meat dangling from the cadger’s gloved wrist while he tied the jesses over the falcon’s talons to keep her perched. “The young master’s going to war and he’ll be wanting us along behind him.”
The falcon didn’t believe in masters, but she believed in the hunt. War was a good time for hunting in the desert. The enemy would send messenger sparrows that needed killing, run with dogs that could be crippled, and ride horses that could be blinded by sharp talons. When the war was done, the carrion would come, and while they feasted on corpses, she would feast on the feasters.
Blackness took the falcon’s sight as the cadger fitted a small hood over her eyes and she lost her most powerful sense. She felt the desert sun’s heat across her black body, the shrill wind through her feathers, and the blowing sand on her legs, but these were only the elements in their calm state. They couldn’t frighten her. Her hood was removed at night and she found not the places where she perched near the stone palace, but desert dunes stretching as far as her eyes could see.
She saw Danen, the warlord’s youngest son, the man called “master” by many. She didn’t believe in masters, but she believed in strength. Danen was the strongest among many men, but he had no need to prove it on such a calm and uneventful night. The falcon slept here and there, eating meat given by Danen and the cadger, and the hood was returned to her head by morning.
She heard disturbing sounds during the next day. The sun’s harshness lessened, but the wind grew worse, as did the sand scraping her legs. Men cried out now and then, and some of their cries faded quickly as if she was ascending swiftly, though she couldn’t leave her perch. The wind settled by the second evening when the cadger removed her hood, but a few less men made up the camp.
Some were left behind, the falcon reasoned, and she understood this. She believed it was the destiny of the weak to die. The whispered concerns of the men in their dusty camp told her that more would die before Danen led the army to the war, wherever it was.
“We’ve angered a desert demon,” the cadger told his master. “Or some djinni.”
“We’ve come across some bad weather,” Danen said. “Nothing worse than that.”
Whether its source was magical or earthly, the weather grew worse the next day. Sand flew so thickly that the falcon buried her beak beneath one wing and grains swept through her hood, stinging her eyes. The wind grew terrible, nearly knocking her off the perch, and the cadger seemed to have trouble holding the stand at all. Men’s voices drowned beneath the noise. The winds didn’t vanish at dusk like on the previous day, but swelled into a sandstorm, dividing the army.
The falcon felt the stand tremble, and then it fell away from the cadger’s hand. She dropped to the sand and pressed herself close to the shifting ground, while something larger and heavier thumped into the dust next to her. The hood was meant to calm her, but being blind in the middle of a storm brought only fear.
When the hood finally whipped away from her eyes, it wasn’t the cadger’s hand that returned her sight, but the fiercest of the winds. Sunlight told her she’d survived the third night, but sand continued to swirl around her and she found only two men as far as her eyes could see. One was Danen, standing stiffly ahead of her, and one was the cadger, not moving at all, lying face-down in the sand.
Danen knelt next to her and lifted the stand. The falcon flew up to perch again, following her leg restraints so they wouldn’t drag her along. “The cadger said I’m to drink your blood if I’m thirsty and eat your flesh if I’m hungry,” the man said somberly. “We’ll have to find the others soon.” Strong winds continued to plague him, swirling as if hungry for his clothes and flesh, but he strode confidently onward, alone but for the falcon.
She wasn’t confident they would find anyone else. If Danen was the strongest among the men, and the weak were destined to die, then he might have been the only man to survive such a vicious storm that hadn’t even ended yet. From her vantage point at his arm level, she couldn’t see much beyond the rising dunes ahead of them.
Water was needed first, but the flying sand had turned Danen’s waterskin into a bag of sludge. He looked intently at the falcon, but went on walking without drinking her blood. After an hour, Danen’s belly grumbled, as did the falcon’s. Neither had eaten since before dawn the previous day. Still, the young man went on walking without eating the falcon’s flesh.
The desert’s heat swelled and as the falcon’s legs grew tired of gripping the wobbling perch, Danen’s legs grew tired of walking at all. He went on for hours, only resting a few minutes here and there. The falcon’s balance shook now and then. Neither ate the other to gain a little moisture or strength.
At the top of the next dune, Danen began to shout. He called for his servants, his officers, his soldiers. He called every name he knew among those in his army, while the falcon waited stiffly beside him. She wished she could see voices, so she’d know if Danen’s shouts had even crossed the sandstorm and its winds.
The shouts erupted into a short, sudden scream and Danen nearly dropped the falcon’s stand as he stumbled forward. He turned back slowly, and the falcon followed his gaze with a quick jerk of her neck. A serpent slithered in the wind and dust, barely visible even to the falcon’s brilliant eyes.
Danen shook his head and went on walking. Standing still in the desert was a good way to die. He traveled down the slope, occasionally glancing back to see if the serpent had followed, and to check his leg. The back of his pants had been torn, revealing one calf, but the flesh was barely scraped and no swelling had formed like usually came with venomous snake bites.
Yet at the top of the next dune, Danen’s knees buckled, and his legs crumbled beneath him when he tried to descend. The stand dropped from his hand as his arms flew forward to break his fall and the falcon spread her black wings briefly to keep herself from crashing into the sand next to him. The stand was heavy, but she managed to right herself and land next to Danen without injury. Her hunger dug at her guts like a rival bird’s sharp beak and she wondered if Danen was dead after all, a man free for feasting.
Danen shuddered after a moment and lifted his front half on his hands. “Perhaps the serpent poisoned me after all,” he muttered, looking back. The leg still showed no swelling, but the flesh had turned gray and hard as stone. The man’s eyes widened and the falcon hopped back from him, struggling to escape, but the jesses caught her legs and pinned her to the stand next to him.
The falcon knew of the creature that had caught him. Half-rooster, half-serpent, the cockatrice turned a man to stone with its serpent head’s venom and then pecked the statue apart, eating the pieces with its rooster beak. Danen knew what had happened to him as well. His eyes grew wide and watery, and he could barely drag himself any farther down the sandy dune.
Nothing could be done, the falcon reasoned. He might have been strong in the face of all his men, but the desert was stronger. To the land, he was weak, and destined to die. The falcon spread her black wings and tried to fly, but the stand dragged her down, as heavy as a man’s armor. She pulled at it again, moving it barely as far as Danen’s fingers could reach, and then she hit the sand again. She wasn’t certain she could even fly if the jesses released her, not with the pain in her gut and the weakness in her wings. The desert was stronger than her as well. She was destined to die too, it seemed.
“You’re weak,” Danen said with a dry, cracked voice, as if to rub it in. One arm bent stiffly to his side and returned with a knife. The man looked thirsty, and hungry, and the falcon reasoned that he might’ve wanted one last meal in his last moments, until he dug the blade into his own fingers. His teeth clenched and a pained screech tore from his throat, and then two severed fingers fell to the sand, wet with blood and thick with flesh. “Take them, girl. They won’t turn into stone now. Be strong.” His uninjured hand stretched out, still clutching his knife, and he cut the bell and jesses from the falcon’s legs, freeing her and silencing her flight. “Find the men.”
The other men were dead, the falcon was certain, and now the last man would die as well. Her talons hopped close to him, and then she plucked up each of Danen’s severed fingers, stripping the flesh in a blink. The meal was small and short, but it took away the pain in her guts, and strength surged through her body. She could fly again. Spreading her black wings, she tensed against the sand and then tore off into the sky. The man’s belly would soon turn to stone, ending his hunger, and his tongue would follow, ending his thirst. The cockatrice itself would deal the final blow, pecking him to pieces and having itself a feast on his petrified remains.
The stormy desert winds carried the falcon higher and higher, above the swirling dust, until she could see the desert far and wide like she was used to when hunting. Her eyes instinctively scanned for small creatures, which she spotted, and she forced herself to find something that stood motionless. She soon spotted a dark splotch on the desert’s golden surface and dove shrieking, as if her newfound prey would shudder in fear or run scurrying away.
Her talons dug into cluster of fruit hanging from a short tree, one of many bunches of dates. A few pieces fell from her grip, but most of the bunch held together as she flew on without stopping, swerving in mid-air and turning back in Danen’s direction. Her black wings rode the harsh desert winds again as before, sending her soaring high in the bright sky, above the sandstorm. She spotted Danen, lying where she’d left him, but she needed to seek movement this time, as her eyes were used to doing. Small creatures burrowed and tiny birds flitted in search of insects, but her gaze narrowed on a larger beast, slithering in Danen’s direction.
Stiffened desert rats sat around the cockatrice. It was waiting for Danen’s petrification to finish and had begun dining on smaller prey in the meantime, breaking their little bodies into rocks and pecking at them fiercely. The cockatrice’s beak was strong enough to tear a hole through the falcon’s chest, but worse was the serpent head, as agile as any cobra, and the only cure for its special poison lay within the monster itself. Both sides of the creature were strong, perhaps as strong as the desert.
The falcon shrieked as she dove again, catching the cockatrice’s attention, and her talons shoved forward, still clutching the bunch of dates. The serpent head reared up, its mouth opening wide to snap after the bird of prey. Odds were that the cockatrice rarely ate predator birds. The falcon didn’t intend for this to change. Her talons loosened, releasing the bunch of dates, and the fruit cluster crashed into the snake’s jaws. The tiny dates petrified almost the moment they touched the serpentine mouth, weighing the head away from the descending falcon with a mouthful of rocks.
She crashed into the cockatrice’s feathered body at the next moment, her emptied talons raking the monster’s flesh and digging at its guts. The rooster head twisted around, as if it had a serpent’s neck itself, and bit into the falcon’s leg. She cried, releasing the cockatrice briefly, and then sank her talons into its rooster head and the neck beneath, soaking the creature’s feathers in dark blood. The half-rooster, half-serpent was weak after all, regardless of its terrible mouth and beak, and it seemed destined to die. Talons loosened as the falcon hopped to the cockatrice’s other side and she ripped through the monster’s scales, splitting the snake head away from the body. It rolled down a slope in the sand, still weighed down by the stones filling its mouth.
The falcon’s beak then tore into the cockatrice’s chest with her beak, digging until she found the creature’s heart, and took as much of the blackened flesh into her throat as she could, letting it digest inside for a few moments. She took to the sky when ready, passing over the slope to where Danen lingered, and she landed heavily next to him, her beak stained with dark blood.
He could barely move now. His hand no longer bled and looked like the limb of a broken statue. Gray flesh climbed up his neck, closing over his chin and open lips. The falcon leaned close, her head sliding between Danen’s teeth, as far towards the back of his throat as she could reach, and then she spit up the cockatrice’s black heart in a chunky stream, as if she were feeding her own chick.
Within moments, Danen’s face showed signs of his natural tone again, shedding the gray stone. His elbows twitched, the blood again flowed from his mutilated hand, and his legs kicked without the weight of stones hugging them to the desert’s surface. He cringed, gripping his wounded hand and groaning as if feeling the pain for the first time.
The wind picked up around the two, but the falcon waited patiently as Danen tore away a shred of his pants where the cockatrice had first bit him and tightened the cloth around the stumps left behind by his knife. “I’m glad I didn’t eat you,” he said softly. “Did I help?” Black wings spread and the falcon shrieked harshly, her cry piercing the winds around them. “I hope so. We’d best find the army or it won’t make much difference.”
The falcon didn’t believe the men were alive, but she didn’t cry out again, only perching on Danen’s thick glove when he offered it to her. The men were dead because they were weak—that was their destiny. She couldn’t exactly reason whether she and Danen were strong, having needed each other’s strength to survive. They certainly couldn’t be weak. After all, they were alive, and if they could catch the desert’s small prey, reach the date tree, and find water, they could stay that way.