When we talked earlier, Jahangir had described himself as a man driven by regret. I asked him to tell me his story, but it is not one person’s tale.
Two of his daughters helped with the narrative.
Jahangir strolled through the dusty marketplace, stepping around shoppers and merchants wrapped in rags, thawb and mishlah. His long red robe flapped in the ever-present wind blowing across the desert. The mage glanced at a stall selling dried herbs and spices in clay jars, nodded congenially at the merchant, and kept moving before she could rub any of that disgusting tsaspo salve into his skin. It may keep dust from clogging pores, but it smelled like a long-dead cactus worm.
Jahangir’s trek brought him to a stall selling dried flowers and ornate feathers, where the tiny, wizened merchant had plumage from every imaginable bird available as hat trim, headbands, brooches and armor decoration. He spent several minutes looking everything over while the tiny vendor chatted with other customers and kept looking back at him. Finally Jahangir picked out two clusters of red and yellow feathers on wrist bands, and fished some coins from a purse.
“They’re for my daughter,” he said to the merchant, “she’s a dancer.”
“I’m sure they’ll look very good on her,” the merchant replied with bored insincerity.
Jahangir hid the feathers in the sleeve of his cloak, bowed to the merchant and stepped back out into the market crowd. He crossed two rows of stalls and stepped carefully over a broken wagon with a broken wheel. Jars of baka had spilled and cracked open, filling the area with the heady aroma of fermented honey yogurt.
A crowd had gathered in an open square in the marketplace, to watch a performing dancing girl and a seated drummer. They whistled and applauded as the dark-haired beauty spun gracefully, holding out a red gossamer silk wrap tied to her elbows and wrists, the fine fabric flowing like wings. She chimed the zills on her fingertips in time to her steps, spun another pirouette and let the midnight-blue shawl slip from her body. The crowd cheered as she twirled more quickly, her finely woven trousers joining the shawl on the ground. The girl flicked them up in her toes and draped them across the face of a blushing young boy who was enjoying the show, to the delight of his adolescent friends.
Down to a thin black halter and a long sash around her waist, the girl spun a finishing dance, closed her silken wings around her body, bowed gracefully to her drummer and knelt to collect a small wicker basket. It had acquired a handful of coins during her dance - not a lot, but enough to buy a meal.
Jahangir stepped forward from the crowd to greet his daughter.
“Daddy!” she said happily, “I didn’t see you.”
“I was lost in the adoring crowd, Scirocco,” Jahangir said, “and I stopped off to buy you these.” With a flourish he presented the brightly coloured feathers, which Scirocco accepted with glee.
“Oh thank you! These will look so good! As fans, maybe? Or on my wrists? Just there?”
“Fans, I think,” her father said, nodding, “then you can gesture with them too.”
“No, one fan is better, maybe,” the dark-haired dancer said, "I need one hand to unfasten the fabrics. One hand and one fan. We’ll see."
Jahangir nodded as he led his daughter by the elbow. She kneeled to scoop up the basket and her fallen silks, then joined him out of the marketplace.
“I’m worried that Msallata is becoming more dangerous, Scirocco,” he said in a hushed voice, “it might be safer for us to leave. I’ll tell your sisters. But since you’re the oldest, I wanted to tell you first.”
“Bandits? I’ve been seeing more of them,” she replied.
“Yes, and undead. Necromancers are becoming more active, and it makes me nervous.”
“Oh, I don’t like that. Skeletons and things best left in the ground.”
"Right. And Msallata, the area around here, has tombs eight, nine hundred years old. Who knows what they’ll dig up."
Jahangir paused to buy a panka root from a stall. He broke it in half and gave half to Scirroco and they chewed on the moist root while they walked.
“So, caravans from the East,” he said, “tell of foreign lands with orange-haired beast-man and people covered in fur. Sure north of here, a week’s journey, mountains and castles. Further north, lands of ice and stone.”
“You’ve been doing some research, then,” Scirroco said. She brushed a stray hair from her face and waved enthusiastically. “There they are! Sunbird! Sharan!” The eldest of the three sisters dashed ahead and the three dark-haired sisters embraced. Sharan, the youngest of the three with a winsome smile and catlike eyes, held Scirroco’s hand out to admire the feather bouquet.
“Nice! You have such a gift for dance! It’s the wind in you, you flow like a summer breeze.”
“You should join me! Both of you. ‘Scirroco and her Sisters’ we’ll call it.”
“Pah, no good,” Sharan giggled, “I’m as clumsy as a drunk toad and Sunbird’s always so serious and gloooooomy!” She mimed the middle sister, stalking about with a dour expression.
“I am not!” Sunbird said, slapping her sibling playfully, “I just, don’t see life as one big joke!”
“Girls, girls!” Jahangir said laughing, “I have an important announcement.”
“You found someone!”
“You’re getting married!”
“You’re growing hair!”
“No, no, and no,” he said, laughing aloud. “Nobody could replace Jassa. And nobody could grow anything on this head anyway.” He rubbed his bald scalp with one hand and plucked an imaginary leaf while the girls grinned and waited for the big news.
"No, I’ve thought about it, and I don’t think Msallata is a safe place anymore. So in a couple of weeks I’m leaving my magical training and we’re going to live far away.“
The girls stood in silence for a moment, then Scirroco and Sharan hugged and cheered while Sunbird, as usual, took the more serious approach
"Dad…” she said slowly, “are you sure? We’ve lived here forever. Will you find a magical college somewhere else?”
“We’ve lived here our whole lives, Sunbird, but I don’t want to die here. Things are getting more dangerous, I want you to grow up somewhere safe. And yes, I’m sure we can find a place where I can teach my fire mastery anywhere.”
“And I can practice my wind magic!” Scirocco said, "without always getting sand in my teeth…"
Sharan laughed aloud, her eyes twinkling. “You blow them around, Daddy sets them on fire, I hold them in place with an arrow and Sunbird will heal them back so they can do it all over again! And maybe Sunbird can climb one of those mountains north, and you can blow her around like an eagle!”
A week later, Jahangir and his three daughters had their few possessions packed up and waiting for a caravan headed north. They’d decided to investigate the Elven lands, Larith’lien, and see where their future lay.
Jahangir had his few clothes and his magical supplies and books; Scirocco had her sizable collection of scarves and silks, zills and tambourines and drums, and some heavier clothes. Sunbird had packed three cases of medicinal supplies ‘just in case’ and her practical, no-nonsense wardrobe. And Sharan, the youngest of the sisters, had her bow and arrows, her case filled with wishing stones and talismans, and a few cloaks in case of cooler weather. Even though her developing talent seemed to be healing, she didn’t bother with supplies because she knew Sunbird had more than enough.
The family loaded everything onto one of the wagons in the caravan, sold what they didn’t need and bought two horses, and waited for the caravan to get moving.
Scirroco danced for some of the merchants and traders while the caravan finished loading, letting her skill of wind magic create whirls in the sand and suggestively blow silks from her body while she danced. The sudden audience - one always appeared when she performed - cheered and whistled appreciatively.
“That’s your little girl?” one of the men whispered to Jahangir.
“My eldest, yes, that’s Scirroco.”
“And she has sisters,” the man whistled. “It’s a good thing you’re traveling with us then - if you were going alone, bandits would have you in a flash, and in three days she’d be someone’s toy. Safety in numbers.”
“That’s my thinking too,” the bald mage said with a nod.
The caravan they joined was forty wagons, with merchants, travelers, armed men, camels and horses. Some of the wagons carried gold and gems, others fresh fruit and spices. The fruit merchants were eager to get going - each day’s delay meant another day of ripening and a day less on the market stall.
The caravan train finally loaded and started moving by dusk, and driver passed word that he had decided to move through the night; there was word of a sandstorm on the horizon and he didn’t want to get caught in it.
“Driving all night? Is that wise?” Jahangir asked, “I understand we’re at our most vulnerable when we’re moving.”
“Against bandits, yes. Against sand - Jallal watches the pious.” The man made a gesture with his hands and nodded to his deity.
“Harib!” another man called to the driver, “better to stay in Msallata, no? Wait it out?”
“Look at the sky, my friend,” Harib said, pointing, "that red haze? This is going to be a bad one, and Msallata is right in its path. Jallal knows when it’ll reach us, but if we wait we could be another four days, or more. We wait, our merchants lose their profits and I lose my reputation."
Harib returned to the head of the caravan, and after another few minutes deliberation, the convoy of wagons, animals and men began its slow migration north, hoping to avoid the sandstorm.
Darkness fell as the caravan plodded north - twenty wagons, as many horses, mules and camels, two dozen armed men, merchants and servants. People kept looking Eastward to see how bad the sandstorm would be; the red cloud was moving like a wave across the evening sky, its turbulent hand engulfing everything in sight. Harib urged the caravan to move faster, and soon every wagon was bouncing and jostling as the horses were going faster and faster.
One of the wagon hit a boulder and broke an axle, spilling fruit and jars of spice all over the ground. The merchant wailed and yelled at Harib to slow but the caravan abandoned him in its flight, leaving the unlucky spice merchant to face the oncoming sandstorm alone.
“I really don’t like this,” Sharan said to her father nervously, "I think maybe we should have waited a few days?"
Jahangir nodded and wrapped his arms around his younger daughters. “You could be right, little one. Jallal knows our fate.”
The caravan had been moving quickly to outrun the storm, but Jahangir and the girls looked up inside their wagon when the movement slowed considerably.
Jahangir opened the flap to their wagon and peered out, then turned and faced the girls with a look of concern.
“If the risk of sandstorm wasn’t enough,” he said, “bandits!”
“Bandits, attacking when there’s a storm coming?!”
"Best time, if you think about it. We can’t outrun them, if the storm hits it leaves us weakened. If they grab just one box of anything they still come out ahead."
Scirocco placed her hand on her father’s wrist.
“I know you don’t like using your fire magic for harm,” she said, “but this is serious. Between my wind magic and your fire, we could make a difference.”
"I – " Jahangir paused, trying to think of something to say to change her mind. The wagon was suddenly rocked by a body thrown against it, and the sound of a dagger finding its mark. Jahangir’s eldest daughter threw the flap open and leapt from the wagon. “You coming?” she demanded.
The eye of the sandstorm was probably still dozens of miles away, but the sand whipped around them as soon as they stepped down. Jahangir could see figures moving through the darkness, and a lifeless figure at his feet. Scirocco was out and standing in the open, her arms outstretched, reddish mist radiating from her hands. As he watched, the mist swirled around her like a tiny hurricane, then spiral out from her toward the bandits. They all paused rubbing their eyes and one staggered and fell as a spear of wind-driven sand tore through him.
Jahangir saw three black-clad figures attacking someone three wagons up, raised his hand and launched a ball of fire which struck one of the bandits. The man screamed and fell back writhing in the sand, his clothes ablaze. The others avoided the burning man and one quickly threw a series of small knives that lanced across the fire mage’s cheek. He readied another fireball, aimed and threw and another bandit fell away.
Scirroco summoned another gust of wind as four more bandits emerged from the darkness. One stumbled and fell with an arrow in his hip and Sharan nodded to her father, her cat-like eyes blazing.
“Father!” Scirocco said, “Vortex! Like we practiced!” Jahangir nodded and waited as his daughter readied another blast of wind and sand. Just as she was about to throw it he pumped a blaze of fire into the swirling torrent, and a horizontal tornado of whirling flame and burning sand tore across the desert to immolate two bandits at once. In seconds their flesh was burned from their bone and they fell, charred and lifeless to the ground.
“Another!” Scirocco said, “I can do one more!”
Jahangir glanced at the approaching bandits, nodded and waited for his daughter’s cue.
She summoned a whirlwind around her while the men came closer, waiting for the pivotal time to launch a vortex of fire and wind.
One of the men raised his hand, a tiny, wicked throwing dagger poised between two fingers.
Scirocco held her breath, waiting one more second and Jahangir held his flame to ignite the wind.
The man flicked his fingers and the silvery knife spun through the desert air.
Jahangir saw his daughter nod, and pumped another fireball into her swirling wind.
The attacker’s knife sliced through the fire and wind, piercing Scirocco’s elbow.
Her concentration broken, the summoned windstorm spun around her, tearing into her, an unharnessed maelstrom of wind, fire and agony.
Jahangir watched in horror as his flame whipped around his daughter, the scorching, windblown sand tearing the flesh from her face. She screamed as the flaming vortex consumed her, fingers grasping at the air as flames sucked the air from her lungs, devouring skin and shredding flesh. She fell to the ground writhing, gasping, and in a flash Sunbird was by her side. The serious, no-nonsense sister was screaming Scirocco’s name, desperately trying to put the flames out, heal her sister, ignoring the fact that her own clothes were burning, fire scorching her flesh. Sunbird’s hair ignited, creating a halo of auburn and magenta as she clung to her dying sister.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jahangir saw two of the bandits moving closer, ignorant of the sudden tragedy. He turned and howled his rage at them, fireball after fireball blasting the rogues where they stood. The bald mage yelled inconsolably and hurled a barrage of fire until he was too exhausted to move, too numb to think. For a brief second in the desert evening air, a blast as bright as the sun shone through the caravan of wagons and screaming horses.
Finally the mage’s fury ebbed and he fell to his knees on the sand, cradling his stomach as he cried out inconsolably, his elder daughters dying on the parched earth. Behind him in the wagon, Sharan clutched her sides screaming and rocking back and forth, trying desperately to pretend that none of this was happening.
Sunbird usually kept her opinions to herself. The middle of three sisters, she often thought that Scirocco was too confident and Sharan too flighty, and only she saw things as they really are. She adored her sisters, especially Scirocco, and couldn’t imagine life without them - wise, tall Scirocco, with the faraway eyes and slender hands; and her baby sister Sharan, nimble and slight with catlike, evocative eyes and an infectious laugh. Jahangir was a well-meaning but clumsy and easily distracted father, who did all he could for his girls since losing their mother. Sunbird thought of herself as the voice of reason for her small, loving, dysfunctional family. And along with her grim awareness of reason and reality, Sunbird had developed a sixth sense, an ability to tell when something was going to go wrong.
She had watched the bandits approach as the sky darkened, and wondered if the wagons racing to outrun the storm could outpace the thieves. But as opposed to a train of loaded wagons and pack animals, the bandits were quick, mobile and determined. She heard the cries when they attacked, and knew that it would just be a matter of time before they reached Jahangir’s rented wagon. She expected a small fight and readied some healing magics to use if it was needed.
Scirocco’s enthusiasm and Jahangir’s noble nature drew them outside, and Sunbird watched through the canvas flap as her sister summoned wind and her father hurled fireballs at the bandits. She’d seen their vortex stunt only once before, and remained impressed by the growling tunnel of wind and flame that left its target scorched and immolated.
The notion of a second vortex had Sunbird worried, she knew how much that kind of work took out of her older sister. She sat quietly and wished for the attack to end soon, so she could have her sister back.
The whoosh of flame was a familiar sound when one’s father is a fire-adept, but the young woman’s strangled cry sounded all too familiar. She dashed through the canvas doorflap to see Scirocco, writhing in a tornado of will and flame, her skin and her clothes erupting and burning away. Sunbird threw caution to the wind and raced to her sister’s side, healing magics ready. But the intensity of the flame was too great, she could only hold her sister as the flames consumed her, engulfing them both. In the back of her mind she heard herself screaming her sister’s name but it sounded so far away.
She knew, somewhere, that she should step away from the flames. She knew she was going to be seriously burned, injured. But her sister, the beautiful wind-adept Scirocco, needed her now more than ever. Sunbird held her sister’s body, squeezed her eyes shut and let her spirit bird carry them to safety.
The huge bird, wings the colour of rays of sunlight kissing the new dawn, flew down from her roost beyond the clouds. She saw the caravan, the people, the smoke and flame and commotion. And at the eye of the storm, she saw herself crouched over Scirocco’s body. She flew closer, her wings buffeting the canvas of the wagons. Talons as big as swords opened and gently, gently, gripped the wailing girl as she clutched her dying sister. The smell of charred flesh assaulted her nose as she carried them high above the desert sand.
Cool winds above the clouds caressed the pair, one dead and one barely clinging to life, as the enormous bird sailed over the horizon. She flew for hours, days, not stopping to rest or eat, while the living girl sang her grief for her burned sister. She saw herself again from high above, pounding her fists into the sand, screaming Scirocco’s name as her father poured blast after blast of flame into the bandits.
With distant grief, Sunbird saw the entire caravan train engulfed. Flame leapt from wagon to wagon; panicked horses broke from their ropes and fled. Men threw boxes and bails onto the sand to escape the blaze, and at the center of the confusion a man and a young girl held each other in grief-stricken silence while another pair on the ground smoked and charred.
The bird flew on, through cloud and starlit sky. Sunbird dozed in her grasp and when she was awake, she wept, still clutching Scirocco’s body. Hours after the blaze, high above the universe, Sunbird felt her sister’s body turn to ash and slip from her grasp. She screamed in silent grief as Scirocco fell away from her forever, leaving her clutching a handful of feathers.
A daydream later, Sunbird felt herself slipping from the huge bird’s grasp and she knew her burns were too great, her injuries too severe. Her time was ending. She closed her eyes and breathed her last, and a tear spilled from her cheek as the giant bird, wings as bright as the sun, opened her talons and let herself fall.
She fell through the clouds, through the mist and the night full of stars. She felt weightless, calm, empty of grief. She imagined herself floating in the liminal space between now and forever.
And the moon watched her with calm serenity as she floated weightlessly through the void. In between life and death, the girl who had been Sunbird felt herself scooped up in the claws of another bird while the moon watched. A hawk of immense size, feathers red and grey, her eyes shining against the black. The bird’s curved beak silhouetted against the stars, She felt herself carried back across the universe, down to the desert, and slipped gently back into her own body.
Endless time, and dreaming
"Daddy!! Daddy, she’s awake! Oh Sunbird!!"
I opened my eyes, blinked at the sunlight. I was laying on a mattress of silk and straw. I turned to the voice - Sharan’s beautiful face, her dark hair and high cheekbones, her cat-like eyes. My beautiful sister.
“How long --” I gasped. Sharan turned and fetched a flask of water and I drank as if I’d never recover from thirst. Finally I recovered some strength and sat up. My ribs ached, my shoulder was in extreme pain, my body was bandaged. Red welts and burns blistered on my arms, but they were healing.
“Five days. You’ve been asleep for five days!”
“The caravan?” I asked, “and Scir–” I paused. I didn’t want to say her name aloud. Not yet.
“She died in the fire,” Sharan said quietly. “You were dead too, the healer says you were dead for about two minutes. Then this big hawk flew overhead and you started breathing again.“
I nodded and lay back for a moment. Did I dream the giant hawk? Was it real? I didn’t know. I remember seeing - I thought I saw - the caravan in flames, animals fleeing. Was it real?
”…and the caravan?” I asked.
“Burned,” Jahangir said, joining the conversation. “The flames burned half the caravan. They were able to move some of them away, save what they could but a lot of it…” he just shrugged his shoulders. "Everyone saw, the bandits, my girls - they don’t blame me. Everyone lost something, food, goods, but we lost… so they don’t blame me. They went on, without us, left is in this village. We’ll survive."
The three of us sat in silence a while, then I looked up at my father.
“What now? Sci - Scirocco dead, our future ruined, I’m going to need a lot of healing…”
“We talked about it,” Jahangir said resting a hand on Sharan’s shoulder, “we need a purpose. There’s a - further north, beyond Larith’lien, there’s a military base. Best healers around, and they may need a fire adept. And a healer. A couple of healers, Sunbird, if you’re --”
“I’m not Sunbird,” I said abruptly. There was a silence, and I continued. “Sunbird died with Scirocco. I’m… I saw things while I was…” I looked down at the bandages around my ribs, and at the feathers I’d held onto. I remembered the journey, the big bird, the moon, my - my rebirth. I died and I was reborn. Phoenix? No. Moonhawk. Hawkmoon. And I would wear feathers, to honour my sister Scirocco and my own rebirth. And claws, talons, as a totem of my spirit bird.
“Call me Hawkmoon,” I said.
Sharan leaned close and hugged me tightly, tears on her cheeks.
“Welcome, Hawkmoon,” she whispered, “my sister.” I kissed her cheek, and reached up to let Jahangir take my hand.
“Tomorrow is a new day. Let’s make it one Scirocco would be proud of.”