Some say that the world is an anvil, and we are put on it to find our shape, to be forged or broken. But the world is not some block of metal, lying inert to be struck. There is no hammer come from the sky to smash us into shape. We are tested by living in the insuppressible radiance of the Furnace, of flourishing in the heat of too much love. To not yield to that dire, unconstrained ardency, to spite it, to struggle with the world and not against it, is how we forge not just our lives but our spirits. And yet, that love makes demands that sometimes we must embrace, take in even as we are made into cinders by it.
My grandmother taught me how to look at the sun through a cairnskill’s feather. You still ended up dazzled before long, but you can see the patterns of light shift, imagine the endless imp-dances across the face of the great orb. Its passionate brilliance is broken up between the barbules and does not strike the center of your eye directly, which is how the sun pierces the heart of your eye and seduces it into depriving you of vision. The cairnskill, so adept at plucking the last vestiges of life from a corpse, knows how to misdirect the sun with its feathers and thus disperse its blazing attention from the theft the raptor commits as it pecks flesh and anima from its victim. But nothing escapes the furious, just glare of the sun forever; someday even the center of the world will burn away in the light of the Furnace’s uncaring ardor. The cairnskill teaches us how to put off that dreadful day, how to look at things properly.
I had assassinated my first cairnskill just two rises after the start of the withering season. I had taken one of its largest feathers (an unbloodied pinion) and was sitting on the great flat stone that marked the approach to our tiny settlement, staring through my trophy at the Furnace in the early morning, just before the first scorch, wondering when it would beguile my eyes into betrayal. I was so fixated on this pursuit that my ears refused to tell me that someone was walking down the gravelly path from the east towards our settlement. The sun had just taken my vision when my ears picked up the scrape of leathery heel on packed shale.
All I could see were sparks and a moving shimmer, like someone had rubbed glaze across my eyes. As I rubbed at the foolish things to clear them I heard the apparition stop, and it spoke in a clear, hawkish voice.
“Child,” it said, “what town is this?”
I squinted, hoping to squeeze the excess light out of my eyes. Now a bit worried at hearing an unfamiliar voice, I replied quickly. “Who comes? The sun is barely aloft and....”
“Child, do not speak a challenge to me. Only answer. What town?”
The shimmer was now humanish, distended by cloak and plume. I swallowed a curse and replied between clenched teeth: “I am not a child, and I say again the sun is....”
The next noise I knew quite well; a sword drawn through a belt-ring. This time I let the curse pass my lips, a wish of ill-fortune on a wasp nest near the mossing cave, and my sight cleared. And there stood a small man, lost in a vast feathered cloak-and-cowl with a great ash-roc plume curling up from a thick combed headband, pointing a long needle of steel at me, his arm shod in small quills like an ant-hunter. I swear I heard a tinny, whistling call as my eyes took him in, and I wished that I had stayed blind.
A peregrinator had come to our hamlet.
He prodded me down the path to the village mercilessly. It was difficult, because I had taken my sandals off to feel the warming of my stone perch, and in his indecorous haste he had made me lead him forth without my footwear, or, more importantly, my water bladder, which made me angry. It would certainly dry up in the sun’s first scorching and I would have to find another. Giddy auks are rare and furtive, and they dislike those who try to take their bladders.
Every time I opened my mouth to protest this treatment, he dug his prod into me and muttered a slippery epithet that turned my words into plaintive birdsong. I wondered what poor dying bird was being robbed of its final warning or dirge. We trotted towards the village entrance, my feet aching as hot stones scorched and bruised them. But I did not fall down, for with the Furnace moving fully into the sky I would suffer more than sore feet. My arms knew this, and kept me balanced, for which I was grateful.
Down the little slope, around a few bends, and we entered my home ravine. It is not deep but well-shaded with purpling goliath-sage, scrappy diggerroot, and somber fan-palms growing from the upper walls. The houses, rammed by hand and gargoyle-fist, are pushed hard against the sides and partly buried, and the Furnace bakes the main street and the plazas into dusty hardness. Most folk were in their homes preparing for bed, and it was quiet, with door-webs fastened, chip-chips and woeful tanagers settling into doorway nests to keep watch. A dust-whisk or two blew by, cleaning the street or singing the proper lullaby for the day.
“Call them out,” the peregrinator growled as we came onto the street. I began to keen “Cry for an Unexpected Visitor.” Doors unhitched and snapped back, and as people emerged from their homes I led our guest to the main square, which was actually a circular plaza for the small bastion built into the wall at the center of the ravine, under a buttressed overhang frilled with lacywhips and dotted with skitterdrake holes. Neighbors and family, some with parasols, others wearing tahori wraps, quickly converged on the plaza. We were then a village maybe twenty spider-feet in number and could fill the plaza. But they all kept their distance from the peregrinator, who had brought me inside the cobblestoned center of the area, which the Furnace was rapidly turning into a baking-slab.
After a moment the crowd settled, and my third-aunt took a few steps towards the feather-shrouded man. She gave him the proper greeting, trying not to rush it but giving me a concerned eye in-between stanzas. She had a lovely embertine Elder Frond bending over her conspicuously bare, shaven head; it sighed in appreciation as she chanted the salutation. A thin smile cut across the peregrinator’s sharp face. He watched her like a raptor and seemed unconcerned that I was sweating heavily and already starting to gulp in the heat. I focused on the cairnskill feather, remembering that day when I was shod in muddy coolness with a dangerous prey awaiting to test me.
There was a lengthy silence when she finished the greeting. I took a step, but our guest snapped the back of my knee with his needle and it buckled; I fell to a crouch and did not cry out, not wanting a dry half-croak to emerge, and pressed the feather against my forehead, its slight grim chill giving me a breath of respite. With the needle still touching my leg, he looked about him and cawed “People of the Red-shaded Bluff, I bring you good news from the Nine Kings! I have traveled long across the steppes and the Flashing Wastes, flying like the blood-taloned hawk and the rainbow crane, running like the velox and the adzebill. I have eaten the shield-shell and the rifting serpent, crested the Sea of Motes, and paid homage to the Face of the Last Mountain. And now I stand before you, to give you the words of your kings!”
My twelfth-cousin stood beside my third-aunt and cleared her throat; on her tahori she wore the buckle of a myrmidon, passed from her father and to him from his mother. Besides myself she was the only one who had left the ravine and returned. She had lost an ear in a border dispute on the northern edge of the Waste. Her skills at warring were not great, truth to the sky, but she was harder-skulled and meaner than the oldest shield-shell. I remembered the last time she had cuffed me and smiled through my sweating.
“The last I had heard there were Six Kings,” she rasped.
The peregrinator cocked his head in her direction. “And now there are Nine. As they say in the Great Howdla, ‘all with stalwart blood must lead.’ In these times of portents and woe, the greatest of us must bind their strengths together, to bring peace to all.”
“We’ve no need of peace to be brought to us,” my aunt replied, “as we have it in abundance.” She raised her arms briefly to indicate the ravine. A few birds nested atop the bastion screeched, just to annoy her, I’m sure.
The peregrinator sighed; his ash-roc plume bent sorrowfully. He switched to Proclamation Cant. “Yours is a hollow peace, of hiding away. You must help bring this...” he waved his hand at the quietude (now disturbed by the muttering of translation) around us, “to the lands of your liege.”
Who hides from the Furnace? I wondered. My aunt’s eyes narrowed, her Frond curling protectively around her shoulders. “Tell us your meaning.” I looked at his profile more intently; his gaze did not waver. It was too cool, too well-prepared.
“By order of the Nine Shining Diadems, alight with the gratitude of the people of the Germane Lands, warmed by the blessed fury of the Aurulent Furnace, you will grant them your thirty fittest for the augmentation of the realm in the south, where once again we are called to extend the benevolence of the Nine Kings to those who dwell in ignorance of their endless bounty and profound guidance.”
I rolled my eyes at the ground as I crouched there, panting. I had heard a speech like this once before, as had my twelfth-cousin. She had left with ten of our kin on a kings’ errand and was the only one to return. I looked sideways towards her and saw even through her hood the clenching of her jaw. Mine did the same in solidarity. The pinion shivered, just for a few heartbeats, in my hand.
My aunt shook her head, touched her left hand to her chin. “This is not part of the accord, peregrinator. ‘A spider’s feet and clutching jaws’ is the agreement.”
That cutting smile again. “That was under Six Kings. Nine Kings demand far more of their subjects.”
The silence was now disturbed by hubbub and some muttered invective in our own tongue, harsh enough that the whisks and pebblesmugs underfoot fled from the crowd, trying to avoid unintended dissolution. My aunt spoke over the noise. “We have not been given these new terms....”
“I give them to you now,” he said. “The threat is greater than before, and requires more of you who lounge in the protective embrace of the Nine Kings.” I stifled another moan, and a curse as well. No one lounges in the gaze of the sun, except those who refute it. The Furnace seemed to glare down more vivaciously upon my back, emblazoning it with more passion that it, or I, could endure. I bent lower and hissed my moan into the calescent dirt.
“This is not how these things are done,” my aunt replied. “We are allies, not subjects. Not kin.”
The peregrinator looked up at the sky. “Those terms have changed as well.” He unfurled his great cloak of feathers. “I have come to ensure that you will grant your lieges their due.” The feathers quivered all along his garment. “I will do what I must to see that you consent, or extract another greater cost for your refusal.” At that, I moaned, as my softness could not bear the caress of the Furnace much longer.
The murmurs rose, and my aunt let them decry our guest. My cousin folded her arms and shook her sleeves a bit. The action was not lost on the peregrinator, who let his cloak fall and raised his needle towards her. “You will find honoring this new arrangement less burdensome than the alternative.”
“And what is this new arrangement?” my aunt said, her sleeves shaking a bit for a different reason. “That you come when you wish and take our hunters, our long-walkers, our pathfinders, our sisters and uncles, with no promise of anything in return other than your wrath if we refuse?”
“Yes,” he said. “That is the way of things now.” He was perfectly still now, proudly unaffected by the intensifying scorch from above.
At those words several people broke from the crowd and advanced on him. Yes, I know, a terrible breach of etiquette. He ruffled his cloak and a flurry of feathers burst from it, flying towards them. The feathers cut them like blades, slicing through tunics and tahori to rip open arms and legs and cheeks, and the screaming of eagles came from their mouths, and they clawed at their wounds and tore them open further in agony. Others came forward to help them, to stop them from injuring themselves further. With another flick of his cloak the peregrinator sent a cloud of down at them. It stuck to their clothes, and then their raiment frayed, and when the down touched skin it turned dry, and then red, and then cracked. Quickly the square filled with howls of pain and anger. I let out one of my own in chorus with my kin and neighbors.
My cousin leapt forward. Her adzebill gutter appeared in one hand, her steel talon in the other. The peregrinator waited until she was a few steps away, and flicked his needle across her eyes, drawing a line of blood out of her hood as it exited. She stumbled; he moved to the side and tripped her as she went by. She swung up with her talon as she fell, and she sheared a thick clump of feathers from his cloak, but they popped like knots in firewood and shot sparks that burned into her clothes. A poke to the back of her knee with his needle buckled it as she tried to right herself. She crashed to the ground; blood dripped from her hood as she tried to raise her head and the smell of sizzled skin wafted from under her ruined garments.
My aunt had not moved, but her face was scarlet with anger and sorrow, like a ravine-wall at highsun. Her frond was fully extended over her and quivered. “You... you would strike us down and kill us like bothersome, oathless wasps?”
The peregrinator frowned, most insincerely. “Kill you? No, elder one. My hand cannot end a life; that is, and must always be, part of the agreement.” He gestured at the people on the ground, whom the rest of the village stared at with wide eyes as they whispered entreaties for protection. “I just... take what protections you feel entitled to, give you fair trade for what you try to give me, for breaking your own oaths to the Kings.” His feathers ruffled as if in a strong wind. “You dwell here in peace, unmolested, by their leave. If you wish that to remain so, give them what they ask.”
The peregrinator looked at me. I was now parched and red, the rich brown of my skin broiled crimson by the unforgiving Furnace above. I could feel the dizziness brought on by its growing intemperance, as it strove to strip away my mortality to reveal the truth that only radiance can discover. My limbs and my senses betrayed me, allured by the Furnace’s love. I felt light and dazzled by its ministrations. The feather felt heavy in my hand, its calamus bonded to my fingers.
“The child is in the grip of the Furnace,” he said, looking at me with scorn, “and is being judged for your actions.”
I realized that he was right; I could not move my legs. I shook and felt my throat turning into a gritty maw. I looked about, even though I could barely see. My kin and neighbors stood immobile too, watching all of the suffering before them. Had the peregrinator brought this, or had we drawn it to us?
I spoke an oath under my dusty breath, one of the first we took when we came here from gentler lands. The harshness of the Waste was its temptation. We came to be judged by the Furnace, and by those already here, the creatures and plants, the spirits of dust and scirocco and shadow. We took leave of the verdant and plentiful realms far away, so bound to duty and servitude. We flew like birds from fat predators to find a fairer sovereign. Here, we found the oath and the curse to be more honest than the bent knee or the levy. Here there was no illusion; death was all about, exposed and immanent, inescapable. Here, where I stood, feeling as if at any moment I would turn to ash, as if all I was pressed through my skin to escape my form.
Was the peregrinator’s scorn justified?
I asked. Answers came from all around. I felt the weight of the curses we had laden, and the vitality our oaths had given. And I remembered stalking the cairnskill, clad only in a sage-leaf hood and sanctified mud. No promise or curse could touch it; some things resist both. It gave nothing, took what it could. But even it feared the sun’s love. I nodded.
I asked again, this time for a bequest, and felt a surge of life within me. I felt grief for those who gave it to me, from dung beetles who thrived on our feces to a ravening drake whose wing we had healed long ago. If I had any moisture to spare, I would have cried. Even as I felt invigorated and rose, I was saddened. My limbs all thanked me, my eyes became small Furnaces, my other senses faded, jealous.
I raised the cairnskill feather, looked at the peregrinator through it. He became that shimmer again, indistinct but present. “Peregrinator,” I rasped, “the judgment falls to you now.”
When he smiled, I felt his fear vibrate through the feather. When I took a step towards him, he snapped his cloak open and a storm of pinions erupted from it, screaming towards me. I raised the cairnskill’s feather, and a sudden zephyr whirled about me, catching the pinions and pulling more from him. He tried to close his cloak, but the wind rose, and even as I felt my skin begin to crack I held on to the pinion, let my gaze flow through it, let it take from the peregrinator what my people could not. In a few breaths his cloak was a thin, bare swatch of skin. The wind died, and the feathers settled to the ground, already toasting in the full scorch of the Furnace.
With a squawk, he lunged at me with his needle. I grabbed it, smoke rising from my palm as I did, pulled him to me, and kneed him in the groin. He coughed and sank to the ground. The cloak was already beginning to shrivel, making his unworthiness obvious to the world. The sunlight flared brighter, I thought, eager to shower its love upon someone who had denied it for so long. He pulled his steaming cape over his small form and began to cackle.
My kin and neighbors came forward to their fallen loved ones, the feathers that had harmed them now as useless as the others. Some of my folk were already reddened by blood and the Furnace’s caress. But I knew none would perish; we had been granted that. The proper sacrifice had been given. My cousin was helped up by her children and borne into the coolness of her home. I turned my back on the chirping, shivering peregrinator and raised my face to the sky, looking at the Furnace through the cairnskill feather. And then, of course, I fell to the hot ground, but I was caught by swarming kinfolk, who held me up even as their hands smoldered, and I gave myself to the forging.
I am an oath sung in the shear of wings, whispered in the skitter of beetles, keened across rocks by the wind. I am the sound that sunlight makes when it enters an eye for the first time. I am one with everything that makes darkness flee and death step back in admiration. I have more love than the sun, and now it is jealous of me, yet sated and adoring too, eager for me to reflect its affection back to it, which may be all it ever wanted.