Novels by Douglas Egan
a short story
Patience was their business – these two skeletons perched in the dead tree above the soldier and the horse. Victor and Vanessa, a pair of vultures in bald head and black feather dress, hunched against the bleeding eye of the sun.
Vanessa sidled down the branch, stretched her long neck and raised her wings into the air before shaking herself and settling, once again motionless.
Victor listened to her sand-caked eyes click. He scanned the landscape, the brush and rock and sky, but saw no competition, except of course the flies. Always the flies.
They danced and pranced around the dead soldier’s face, explored the dried blood on his sword and the arrow through his neck, the point of which had exploded from his throat and was surely the cause of his demise. Victor watched the flies pad across the dead man’s open eyes.
So here was food for starving vultures. Yet – was it safe?
Sky creatures, they could glide endlessly, riding curdled columns of hot air rising from the bleached rock below. It was their domain.
But the dead soldier was on the ground.
Inevitable, to feed, the predicament became terra firma – the big gamble. Aloft they were graceful, freewheeling. But grounded with folded wing, they became clumsy, stumbling lumps, exposed to all manner of big cat and yellow-fanged dog.
And now this complication.
The soldier’s armour would pose a challenging barrier to the softness underneath, but no more than, say, the hardened welt worn by the pachyderm. Victor’s hooked beak, as sharp as polished granite, could slice through the toughest hide. This was not the problem.
The problem was the horse.
When the soldier had fallen his foot had become entangled in a long strip of leather that was connected to the saddle. Despite being a very loyal creature, the first instinct of the horse was to free itself from this burden and it had begun to walk, leaving behind a long furrow in the dry earth created by the dragging corpse. Unfortunately the corpse was captured by a root protruding from the ground. Now the root held the corpse, the corpse held the horse, and Death held them both.
A cruel embrace sure enough, more so with the sweet scent of water close by. Victor could smell the water, as could the horse no doubt, and from this high perch saw the glittering surface of the meandering stream.
The horse’s eyes flashed at the vultures -- a pair of predators close to death themselves. They had not eaten in so long that the pain of an empty gut had been filled with a clawing need to act, to swoop down and gorge on the dead soldier.
But the horse stood guard, rigid in armour plates streaked black with dried battle blood.
The sun set.
The moon shrugged aloft, bloated yellow, content to linger the cold night away while pins of light pocked the night shroud. The moon waned in the coming dawn, the frost sparkled, and small birds laughed having survived another night of slithering snakes searching for nests.
The branched creaked beneath the vultures. The bloodbuzz of flies returned to the corpse, urged on by the relentless heat.
Victor listened to Vanessa cough. Her beak opened and snapped closed. She was worn thin. Beneath them the horse remained on guard.
Victor surveyed the land. Past the wandering stream, in the far distance, he saw the encampments of two huge armies, one on either side of the valley. The dead soldier belonged to one of these tribes.
Skirmishes had erupted recently, but with few casualties, and the bodies and been taken away. The two vultures had been waiting for the final cataclysmic battle that would turn the soil black with blood, but this had not happened. The armies were waiting, testing Victor’s resolve.
He leaned forward and fell into space. Spreading his wings he dropped, landing a short distance in front of the hulk. The animal snorted and pulled back. The leather cord tethering the horse to the corpse hummed under the sudden strain.
For a moment they simply watched each other; then the horse surged forward. Victor gambled, held his ground. He had to force this beast to break the leather binding. There was no food. The warring armies were at a stalemate. Just dropping from the tree to this spot in front of the horse had exhausted Victor. Options were thin.
Free the horse from the corpse.
Victor waddled from one clawed foot to the other. The horse’s haunches quivered.
Above, Vanessa, usually loud and vocal, watched silently, a gust of wind pulling at feather tips.
Victor approached the horse in a halting hop, skip and jump.
The horse grumbled.
Victor hopped closer.
The horse snorted, spinney hairs twitched around its flared nostrils.
Beside the horse now, in its shadow, close to the dead soldier’s corpse, Victor slowly reached for the leather thong.
The horse watched, the whites of its eyes tinged red, its breath reeked of dust.
Victor took the tether in his beak and began to saw. It tasted of salt. The motion thrummed along the thong to the saddle and down to the corpse making a low, throbbing sound that seemed to settle the horse. It watched patiently, its sharp hoofs so close to Victor he could smell the gold paint that adorned them. If the horse wanted to crush him Victor could never be fast enough to escape. His beak cut slowly across the leather cord.
The horse’s flanks quivered. The leather cord strummed and hummed and snapped.
The horse staggered back taking its shadow with it. Victor hopped away, over the top of the corpse, through a curtain of flies, flapping his wings heavily until his claws scrapped the ground one last time and he gained the air. He remained airborne for a time before landing beside Vanessa, the branch bouncing.
The day became a ghost. The smell of water from the tiny stream grew strong. Yet the horse remained. It did not move. It stayed with the soldier.
Night followed the day as it always does. Music and song filled the darkness and drifted from the encamped armies in the valley. “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die.”
Sunrise the following morning, Victor raised his head from his shoulder, saw the horse still at his post and screamed down at the animal. Victor and Vanessa scolded the horse for its stubborn loyalty, but the horse ignored their dry rasping, the leather thong hanging limp from the empty saddle.
The sun reached its zenith – mercilessly heat.
The horse suffered in noble silence, head bowed and shoulders hunched, cooking alive in armour that shimmered in the blaze. The corpse beside it relaxed in a blanket of flies.
Vanessa perched beside Victor, beak open, breathing shallow, her blistered eyes empty and dull. Victor was watching her, worried, when he saw the change, a veil lifted from his mate’s narrow back.
Her head twitched; the alarm sounded.
He turned his head in the direction of the sound, all around, in the air, in the ground, vibrating through the dead tree into Victor’s aching body.
Hyper alert now the two birds launched into the air together. Victor climbed beside Vanessa, and despite their weakness found a renewed strength when they saw the valley.
The two armies had charged in the drumbeat; the battle had ensued. The middle of the valley was slowly growing into a tormented mass of man and beast. Arrows volleyed through the air, first in one direction and then the other. Men screamed. The vultures caught the boiling thermals from the valley floor and sailed above the carnage. Smoke and dust coiled skyward. As the day marched forward Victor sensed the blood.
The valley walls embraced the battle and amplified all that there was. From the distant horizon Victor saw the V shapes growing larger. The clan grew, turning the sky above the battle dark with patient, waiting wings.
The sun crossed the sky and the battled ebbed and flowed. Some vultures began to land. By day’s end the battle was mostly over, save for the victorious soldiers moving through the battlefield performing the coup de grāce.
Victor and Vanessa landed near dusk, but not before circling above the horse as it stood by the small stream, drinking water, having finally abandoned its dead mount.
It was a full moon that night. The valley floor was alive with the black feather clan going about their business. And then for a moment they stopped and stood silent. They all heard and felt the same, the sound beyond the mountain range to the adjoining valley, where yet again, armies gathered to fight, as they had done so many times before.
|©2014 Douglas Egan. All Rights Reserved.
Last update October 2014