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by Marlena Frank

Her large leather boots crunched down onto the gritty earth. Saira could taste blood in her mouth from where the beast had slammed her into one of the rocky cliffs earlier. She held her breath, and lifted her eyes skyward, pushing her blonde hair aside and shielding her eyes from the glaring sun above. For a moment she saw nothing, but then the dark shape appeared over the rocky outcrop. The giant bird’s wingspan easily blocked out the sun as it flew through the clear blue sky.

She let out her breath slowly, fighting off the cold terror in her chest and gritting her teeth in determination. She had thought she’d lost the fearsome creature known as Rajani, but as she watched its giant form tip in the sky she knew it was coming back around. For her. Saira moved quickly down the rocks, tiny pebbles skittering away from her feet. She could do this; it was what she’d been trained to do: fend off the Giant Ones such as Rajani. But in training they’d only been a fraction of her size and not nearly as clever. A single blast from the Power Crest would frighten the little ones off easily, but not the mighty Rajani. Saira doubted that even three blasts would prevent her from being torn asunder by the bird’s giant claws.

Her left hand was shaking, clutching the large ruby of her amulet as she scaled down the cliffs. It was absorbing the energy well, but it had to be stronger if she had any hope of scaring Rajani away and she was running out of time.  In front of her the giant shadow swept across the canyons and Saira heard herself whimpering with every breath. Rajani was moving closer, her wings slicing through the air above.

Just as the shadow came within meters, Saira leapt over what she thought was a stony crag. As she flew over it, she realized with drowning despair that the crag was actually a gully. There were many strewn across this desolate place, but she hadn’t seen any as large as this one. Her brown eyes went wide as she started to fall into a dark pit far away from the sunlight above.

She pulled her left hand away from her chest and flexed the fingers out before her. “Carpo!” she cried, her shrill voice bouncing off the cavernous walls. Then a dark ruby light erupted from her palm and black hungry tendrils flung out into the walls all around her, securing themselves into the rocks. Her body was suddenly pulled to a halt and she blinked in shock as she realized what had happened. Her heart was still pumping madly in her chest, but the Power Crest had saved her. She started laughing to herself amid giddy gasps for air. What might have been her doom, the pit base, was far beyond the long reach of the sun; there was no telling how long she would have fallen before slamming to her death.  The sides were craggy and the soil dark, meaning it had been here for some time. She looked back to the tendrils of the Power Crest, still gripping firm into the rock. They were strong but she wasn’t sure how long they would last. Then the light within the tunnel was darkened, and she looked up already knowing what she’d find. Beyond the gaping opening she saw Rajani’s huge form moving back and forth in front of the entrance.

“It is I be laughin’ now, child!” Her deep voice flittered down on a breeze as her orange eyes narrowed. “You sure be a fool for comin’ here – into my very home!” Rajani lifted her beak to the skies and let out a horrid screech to the winds. She pulled her massive body up and flapped her wings down at the cavern. Saira was bombarded with a wind so powerful that the tendrils were stretched taut against it. She looked helplessly to the anchors within the walls, but they held firm. She only hoped they would stay.

Finally Rajani relinquished her assault and crouched low. She poked her long beak slightly into the crag’s entrance. “I be stayin’ here all night, child. Just for you. And next when you plannin’ to escape, I’ll be waitin’ right here!” She cawed into the blue sky, her eyes wide with glee and excitement. Saira could feel her own hot tears pouring down her cheeks before she knew she was crying.

“Please Rajani,” Saira’s voice sounded small and meek compared to her tormentor’s. “Great ruler of the skies – please, I meant no harm!”

“No harm! You takin’ Rajani for a fool?” She preened at a few stubborn breast feathers. “I do not believe in such lies. ‘Specially not from a scrawny child come to steal my precious babies!”

Saira shook her head. The Giant One was right. She had attempted to steal an egg. One of the precious few that Rajani would create all year. But she had to think of something to tell her. Eventually the tendrils of the Power Crest would give out and she’d fall to the bottom of the gaping pit.

“Rajani, I did not plan to take your babies. In fact I was trying to save them.”

The great bird had been pruning her tail feathers, but turned again to look at her prey with its lantern eyes. “Save them? From what? What could possibly kill them with me here?”

“Something you could not see even with your great sight, though you might be able to catch it without knowing.”

Rajani blinked, “What? This be a riddle of some kind?”

Saira kept her eyes steady and watched the Great Rajani falter ever so slightly in her calm arrogance. “Sickness and disease, Rajani. Surely these things are familiar to you?” The look within Rajani’s eyes told Saira that she was correct. “We’ve seen many Giant Ones fall to its will, mighty ones whose shadows far surpass yours, Rajani. We’ve watched them fall from the highest peaks, plunging weak and helpless to the ground.”

Rajani shook her feathers, “This be a joke of some kind. We don’t fall from skies, child. We rule them.”

“But it doesn’t end there,” Saira wouldn’t be cut off. “Only rarely do they take the larger ones. Usually they prefer them smaller, more helpless.”

Rajani became perfectly still, watching Saira’s eyes closely as fear crept into her own.

“Children, babies, even … unborn ones. Yes, for they are the most helpless, and certainly the easiest of your kind to kill.”

The great bird’s feathers were ruffled all around her neck now as she bobbed her head, horrified by the girl’s words. “But – but how do you know?”

“Surely you’ve noted how much your kind has dwindled, Rajani. Why do you think that is?”

Rajani’s eyes narrowed but she didn’t speak. She didn’t have to.

“My babies…” she whispered, her feathers moving slightly in the breeze.

“Go look for yourself, Rajani. Check each of your babies carefully and listen for their tiny hearts beating. You’ll find that one has already been taken.” Saira locked her pale blue eyes with Rajani. It is said that few warriors are capable of withstanding the gaze of such a beast. Most men end up cowering beneath them, and though Saira shivered from head to toe as she hung by one arm above that black pit, she kept her eyes locked and stern.

Rajani turned away finally and began pacing back and forth above the cavern, her giant claws dropping bits and pieces of debris down the chasm. Saira blinked at an annoying bit of dirt that got in her eye, but she kept her aching arm still and waited. At last, the giant bird turned her amber eyes into the cavern, studying her tiny prey carefully. “Alright, scrawny one,” her voice was filled with more venom than a serpent. “I’ll check them. But don’t be gettin’ any ideas now,” and she took to the skies in a great rush of wind, the sky momentarily blocked by her pale white underbelly.

Saira released the breath she’d been holding, and turned her eyes to the tendrils still clinging to the walls. There wasn’t time to be frightened. She had to move quickly knowing how fast Rajani could fly. “Escensi!” She whispered, and slowly the tendrils started to climb, yanking one slick black limb from a hole and dragging it upwards before working on the next. Her arm throbbed painfully as each limb moved, but Saira knew she had to keep quiet. The nest was not that far away and the Giant Ones had excellent hearing. It was a frustratingly slow process, but eventually the octopus tendrils had climbed her to the top of the pit, and Saira swung her body over to a ledge. The black ropelike pieces recessed back into her palm, and as soon as her dusty feet hit the earth she was running again through the cliffs. Up ahead were some tall jagged ravines through which she could pick her way, the width was perfect for a travelling group perhaps even a small pack of warriors. Rajani wouldn’t be able to fit her large body within them to find her. Many of the passages were underneath rocky outcrops and were mazelike in design. A single path could diverge greatly beneath the rocky land above, so even Rajani’s keen eyes wouldn’t be able to locate her. In fact, by the time Rajani found out what had truly happened, Saira would be long gone.

Just as she reached the entrance to the rocky shelves, Saira heard a screech fill the skies. She ducked inside quickly and had moved several yards before deciding she could chance a break. She examined her hand first, which was covered with the remnants of the black tendrils. It was very stiff and was now throbbing to the beat of her heart, but she knew that a few days’ rest would have it ready for battle. She wrapped it cautiously in the fine white linen gifted to her before her departure. That would mask the scent of the Power Crest while she was out in the Wilds. She couldn’t risk attracting any hunters while carrying such prized cargo. Until then she’d have to rely on her wits and her speed to get home. She pulled out the dagger from her belt and smiled into the writing that was inscribed on the small blade. “Looks like it’s just the two of us then, Talis. Think we can handle this?” The dagger hummed slightly as though it was thrumming for battle. “I thought so,” she smiled, readjusting the sheath to be more accessible now that she wasn’t running for her life. Then she turned to the prize.

Saira opened the leather pouch on her side and smiled at the giant egg that lay within. The magical charms would keep it warm until she was able to get back to the village – and the charmed rock she’d placed in Rajani’s nest was an excellent idea, even if it was a little impromptu. She guessed Rajani must have been fooled for a little while, just long enough to allow Saira to get to safety. She pitied any who became the mighty one’s prey this day, for her anger would know no bounds.

Patting the warm egg gingerly, she hummed the song of the Trainers, the victory song they’d sing upon her return. The most difficult part of her journey was over, but the journey back had its own difficulties. But soon she would be granted the title of Clawbinder, finally proving she could be a trainer and tamer of the skies. She had succeeded where few others had, and in the years to come she would raise this bird to be her own. One day she would ride him through the clouds high above the crags and gullies of this barren waste. They would be as one: Rider and Roc.



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