Jihad

Irene Heron

Nothing is the same since the humans came to our KinLands. As I watch them scurry, humans and their false kind and the ever-busy hardskins that serve them, there is a frost in my heart that suggests nothing will be the same after they are gone, either. This is the Time of Wind, and wind is always changeable.

Humans are unpleasing to Kin eyes, with no feathers to turn against the rain, neither beak nor talon nor wing, and little voice for song. They are neither hunter nor prey, and their lack of function puzzles us. There is little we understand about these humans - where they came from, why they are in the KinLands, why they ally with unliving servants - except the one thing that matters. We understand humans are like the great storms that glide behind the gentle breezes of the warm seasons, full of unpredictable fury that leave death and destruction in their wake, even if that is not their purpose. Our oldest songs counsel of humans and their servants, banished long ago. So long ago we had nearly forgotten the songs and their prophecy of return.

If I could, I would summon the winds to take the humans and their servants away as quickly as they came, but such is beyond even a KinWarrior. Indeed, there is no reason to do so, for the flying hardskins defy the elements at will. We cannot fight the hardskins themselves, a lesson learned through bitter loss.

Winter of the spirit does not alter my purpose or what I must do. I am Rudk, a warrior of the gods. Declared so by the WarMother after the games of endurance and blessed by the songs of our KinFathers. Like my sisters, I drank the blood of purity from the youngest sacrifices, tore flesh from the strongest of our vanquished opponents, and purged my body of all mortal weakness in the Cave of Fire.

We are the chosen ones, beloved of the gods, and our cause is righteous.

I am in the nest humans carved from the skin of K'uz'iz, and know the humans and their false kin hear not His cries of pain. Deafened by the noisy hardskins, they do not know how to listen. They see, but their eyes are blind to the glory of the true way.

Blind also to my presence here in their midst, when they should tremble in fear. Humans and hardskins pass all around me, and do not notice. They have many flaws but this one dooms them. They are arrogant, confident of the magic that binds others to them, and so they do not see danger within their nest.

Before me looms the bulk of the hardskin flier that bore the first of the humans into our KinLands. From afar we heard its roar, so loud it drowned out our songs. K'uz'iz quaked under our nests when it passed overhead and blotted out Da'ka'ar's light. Never before had we met such a bold foe to challenge us on the very spine of K'uz'iz. We rallied and struck against the intruder, seeking without success the soft underbelly of the beast.

When the flier landed and spit out the humans, only then did we remember the old songs, though there seemed little to fear from the humans themselves. Still, I wonder. There is power within the one we call first speaker, the one who somehow knew the difference between warrior and WarMother and made the signs of respect and surrender without instruction. This power is of a kind I do not understand, but it exists. I feel it. This is not the magic that binds false kin and hardskins to the humans, but something much vaster.

The first speaker, small beside the flier, does not notice me. It is intent upon its companion. All humans have strange eyes, but this one mocks the gods with eyes the color of Da'ka'ar's home above us. Eyes as endless and far-seeing as the skies themselves, I suspect, so that only the WarMother was able to meet that gaze without flinching.

Now it is the companion who meets that gaze, attentive in a way both familiar and unfamiliar to me. This one's eyes are darker, sometimes the color of late leaves on the great trees, sometimes the color of the bark. Changeable, like the seasons.

Despite the distracting odors of so many hardskins, I distinguish the scents that belong to first speaker and its companion. Although human scents are not like Kin scents and I cannot be sure, there is a fierce tenderness between them, a song of heart-mates.

Only Kin alone of all those under Da'ka'ar are granted the blessing of heart-calls, but now I look upon first speaker and its companion, and I wonder.

Da'ka'ar is cruel, to demand that so rare a song be stilled, but I bow to Her will and know it is wisdom. I taste a bitter cry of caution in my throat and swallow it back. I think of my own heart-mate and our precious nest, and silently pledge to these humans that neither will long suffer the silence of their broken song.

Of the humans, these two are most like Kin. Only first speaker seems to value the stillness that Kin prize above all else. In stillness we are One with Da'ka'ar and K'uz'iz. I have seen first speaker command lightning and move with a grace and speed rivaling that of our WarMother, yet even then there is a core of stillness within its heart. What does it hear, in stillness? Is it One with its own gods?

Its companion also knows how to be still, but in a different way. It could be a watcher were it Kin. It too wields power, not the least of which is the power to make first speaker listen.

Suddenly K'uz'iz shudders beneath me and I shudder with Him. My talons skid on this hard, cold surface, finding no purchase. Two of the winged hardskins raise their blunt beaks to the sky. They shriek louder than a hundred hundred warriors on an attack dive and there is no wind, nowhere for the screams to go but inside me, for I am hollow with sorrow. I feel blood seep from my ears and a cry rises from my chest. To acknowledge pain is to dishonor Da'ka'ar, and I clamp my beak shut against such weakness.

I watch the hardskins to see which direction they take and feel twisting heat, like the gouge of an enemy's talon, low in my breast. They will fly over our KinLands, where we have built our nests for many generations. My mate will protect our nest with all the skill and courage he possesses, but with these hardskins, skill and courage may not be enough. When they pass overhead there is little we can do, for the tumbled winds in their wake are greater than any wind sent by the gods. Gr'rk's proud head still droops with grief over the loss of two eggs, bearing the shame of failure. He spurns the comfort of my preening and turns his tail feathers to me, his heart-mate!

Two of the hardskins pass in front of me. One is shaped like a human. I think this is the same hardskin that sang for first speaker and named the wingless flier. Kin. WarMother declared that heresy, for there can be only one Kin, and even before we knew of the destruction of our nests, I scented the breath of war.

The smaller hardskin sings softly to itself, but I do not understand the song. The blood of the hardskins lacks the heat and richness of life. Foul though they are, I watch them. A human, undersized even for these small creatures, commands the hardskins. I sense a kinship between it and first speaker, even though this one looks very different. It must have some value then, but if my nest hatched one so small and fragile, the WarMother would drop it from the nest without hesitation.

Though I do not understand human-speak, which is so very different from Kin song, something in this one touched me that first meeting. It saw the wreckage of our nestings, the broken shells and hatchlings that would never draw breath, and I knew it grieved for our loss. In my turn, I grieve for what I must do.

I believed first speaker when, through the hardskin that sings badly, it promised to stay away from our lands. But more humans followed with their own hardskins, and they care nothing for the Kin and our nests. They brought a human war with them, one Kin do not understand, although we knew first speaker had to choose. Flee, refuse to fight and thus face extinction -- or join battle. It chose to fight, an honorable choice, and for reasons I do not understand, my heart swelled with pride, like watching a hatchling stalk and kill its first prey.

After all, survival is something Kin do understand. It is why I am here now, in the humans' nest.

Another human jostles me as it passes, unaware of the insult it has rendered. One does not touch a warrior except for mating or in battle. The human does not know our customs and I would forgive its ignorance if I could. But I am here for combat. The insult will soon be avenged.

I look again at first speaker and its mate, and wonder where the other companion is, the one nearly as large as Kin. It is in thrall to these humans, bound by some means we cannot understand. It must be Da'ka'ar's will that the beast is not here now, Da'ka'ar's will that it be freed from human magic in order to open its ears and heart. And then it shall be a worthy opponent and its meat will be flavorful and strengthening for my hatchlings.

By order of the WarMother who gives voice to Da'ka'ar, we will not feed the humans to our nestlings, for tasting their blood would only dilute Kin strength. It is her judgment that humans are weak. Corrupt. Evil in their hearts. I do not think humans are corrupt or evil. I think humans bring destruction with them through no fault of their own. It is their nature, just as it is Kin nature to have dominion over K'uz'iz.

We will rend their flesh and leave them exposed to Da'ka'ar's merciless anger. The other humans and all the hardskins will leave then, and K'uz'iz will be cleansed.

It is not the place of a Warrior to question, but I cannot stop the dizzying rush of confusion. I, alone of the Kin, have tasted the blood of humans, that of first speaker's mate. I can summon the memory of that taste at will, pulsing with life, not as hot as Kin blood, but with a rich strength that still brings a thrill of startlement.

After the falsely-named hardskin vomited the humans to the surface of K'uz'iz, I claimed my right to first attack. First speaker's mate did not flinch as I tucked my wings in and dove directly toward it. It faced me as bravely as any warrior, daring me. No prey had ever behaved thusly before, and so I only pecked in passing, to sample the flavor.

Am I still Kin, or some kind of changeling, to have so many doubts of the righteousness of our cause? Is a drop of human blood so potent that I now have the power to see into their hearts?

Warriors do not fear, do not hide, yet I crouch motionless in the shadows and shiver. I begin to pray.

Great Father on whom we nest, I ask for strength. Mother of us all, shine your light even here in this unholy nest and guide my path.

I see in first speaker's body an abrupt tension and alertness, almost as if I had directed my prayer to it instead of my gods.

No matter.

It is time. I rise to my full height and spread my wings. Now the humans notice me. They cease all movement; their heads turn toward me. I tip back my head and shriek my battle cry, and hear it echoed by other Kin waiting for my signal.

I look only at first speaker and its mate. They will understand the necessity of what I must do, and know that I understand what they must do. They will defend their kin and nest, just as I defend mine.

And when this is over, my heart-mate and I shall sing counterpoint to the KinFathers' songs of victory, and teach our nestlings the truth about humans.

Such is the will of Da'ka'ar.

End

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