97 A.B. (103 Years Before the Story of Behemoth)
17th Bird Dynasty
"My Lord!" came Marlon's cry across the empty hall. The old manservant's hobbled footsteps made their way across the vast marble , his bright ruby wings pumped backwards in a vain effort to keep his balance He fell to the floor at the feet of Arnout Nassau, Head of House Juliana and Lord of Clan Bird.
"Rise, good sir," Arnout Nassau said loudly, his own wings fanned out behind his chestnut chair on satin cushions to keep dust from gathering between their sable feathers. "There you are, sir. Now, what matter has brought you tumbling into my presence during the scant spare time?"
"Lord Nassau," Marlon's urgent voice hissed secretly through the chamber, he brought his wings in close to his body for fear the words would be trapped in their folds. "Swift news has come from Dutsh in Hawk, sir. The Master of the Saber Ranks is nearing the capital!"
Nassau leaned forward in his wooden throne, his wing bones stretching as they sought to remain in their comfortable position. "The Master of the Saber Ranks?" he pondered. "What purpose could he have for coming to Diurn?"
"For what other reason would a sell-sword approach our capital, my Lord?" Marlon asked, his wings flinching agitatedly.
Shaking his head, Nassau reached for a document black with scribbled notes. He examined it briefly, only to toss it aside in frustration. He seized another, scanning for something he would recognize when he saw it. Tossing another aside, and another, until he found a document similar to the others. Its sheet was no less heavily laden with notices and percentages, but it also held the answer.
"The fifth of the month," Nassau muttered. With more force, he said to his manservant, "Call Lady Beatrix down from her chambers, I wish to confer with her. As well, send a messenger to intercept the Master of the Saber Ranks to inform him that we will meet him in the usual place if he will stay out of the capital."
"Sir?" the servant asked incredulously
"Do not 'sir' me, Marlon. I know full well why the good Master is here, and it has little to do with you. Or I, for that matter, but still it is my responsibility to accompany the man."
The servant Marlon bowed of the chamber, flapping his wings for momentum and running as fast as his old legs would carry him to the chambers of Beatrix Adelheid.
In the mean time, Arnout Nassau busied himself with preparing a carriage to carry himself and his consort to the usual location, wherever that may be. The mode of transportation was no small affair for the Lord Bird. Special attention had to be paid to the width of the compartment for the room necessary so a servant could hastily don jewelry across Lord and consort's wings during the journey. Additional carriages would follow behind them to carry the necessary personnel so they would be prepared for any occasion of weather. Nassau would much rather stretch his wings and fly to the location, but it wasn't expected of him.
"I thought you said the man kept to a schedule," Beatrix Adelheid said wearily as she climbed into the lead carriage.
Nassau shook his head. "He mentioned once that the calendar he followed varied from ours so it would be difficult to set exact dates."
"But what about patterns," Beatrix asked. "He does this every few years, surely he must follow some sort of regular pattern, like coming every three winters or something of the sort."
"Truly, I believe he does whenever he feels guilty."
"Guilty?" Beatrix exclaimed. "The man has nothing to feel guilty about. The act was done by his predecessor, not the man himself."
"Indeed," Nassau agreed. "But I can understand his thinking in a mad sort of way. As I am Clan Bird, he is the Saber Ranks, with all their history. Perhaps he holds himself accountable for the sins of the Ranks?"
"He is in love with guilt."
Nassau twined his finger around hers. "Indeed he is, but the history of Saber Ranks and Bird met at this particular point, and it is appropriate that neither of us forget our sins."
"Ah," Beatrix laughed, "So your man is not the only one in love with guilt."
He smiled. "The Saber Rank's Master does not have a monopoly on it."
"Speaking of monopolies," Beatrix began. "I read through your proposal for the trade negotiation with Dragon. You said that House Juliana would start it."
"Yes, as we should. My House has the appropriate backing that some of the lesser Houses do not have, or are not willing to risk in such a venture."
"Oh, I agree husband. My problem comes in that House Juliana is set to move, though when my father suggested this proposal it was thought that House Adelheid would be the name that started the deal, not Juliana."
"Dearest, can we please not argue. It will be another day before we arrive and I do not wish to bicker endlessly over minute details for the entirety of the journey."
"Minute details?" Beatrix demanded. "You're deliberately cutting off revenues to Adelheid while Juliana's profit skyrockets! You might as well be cutting off our heads."
"Don't you 'my sweet' me, Arnout Nassau!" she hissed venomously. "You claim to represent the Clan when the only part of who's interest claims you is your own House Juliana! Even Crow-Raven comes second!"
"What do you want me to do?" Nassau raged. "Do you want me to give up my claim on House Juliana? Fine, I'll do it. Get me a document and I'll officially write it up. Will that make you happy? You weren't so adamant against my hold over the House when your father brokered our marriage."
She raised her hand violently, only to force herself to lower it. With an angry fist she punched through the thick silk curtain that shielded their eyes from the sun. Not a word escaped her lips for the next hour.
They switched out horses in a small town named Dresberg near midnight. Nassau stretched his legs and wings, taking a short flight around the starry skies. His dark wings bled into those skies like a bitter wraith, soaring invisibly to the naked eye. Arnout Nassau, the Lord of Bird of the Seventeenth Dynasty missed civilization. The rural area did nothing to satisfy his hunger for tall buildings one could dive down to lower residences. Before inheriting the throne he and his younger brother had played many a game between mountains of adjacent towers and layered buildings. He had seen Onnos, the war-torn capital of Feline, and recognized the difference in the two cultures of Bird and Feline. Bird strove for new heights. They easily forgot the past in an effort to reach the sun. Such had been a key reason in why he ruled over the Seventeenth Dynasty.
By the time his joyous flight had ended, the replacement horses were saddled and the chauffer was ready to be on his way. It would be another six hours before arrival, and another three after that till the man from the Saber Ranks arrived.
Silence was Nassau's main companion during the journey. Beatrix had yet to forgive him for what she perceived as transgressions against herself when he only meant her House harm. Juliana was by far the more profitable House, Adelheid simply refused to move along and give up its seat of power.
At long last they had arrived at their destination.
By now the ruins of the ancient city were nearly a familiar sight. Nassau remembered making the same trips with his father and hating the tedious ride. He still did. Though it was all worthwhile when he was able to play amongst moss covered pillars and explore stone buildings that still stood after a thousand years of being ignored. Largely, at least. The man from the Saber Ranks came every so often and invited the Lord of Bird to come as an escort.
The old moss covered pillars he had played around as a child still stood, ignorant to the dozens of revolutions that had occurred, oblivious to all the kingdoms that had fallen.
After an hour of leisure, he sat down beside Beatrix beneath a royal pavilion while a gentle fingered girl from Robin worked in delicate threads of gold and silver to their sable wings.
Swallowing his pride, Arnout Nassau spoke first. "I'm sorry," he said. "You were right, and I'll make the change as soon as we return."
She remained silent, staring out into the ruins of an past kingdom.
He sighed. "And I'll proceed with denouncing my rule over House Juliana."
Her eyes glanced at him. "You're lying, but we can talk about this later."
Nassau knew he wasn't lying, and that is was useless to try and prove his innocence. He'd show her when they returned to Diurn that he could keep his word.
As the sun neared its peak, a tired man riding a tired horse rode into the broken city. Dust shook itself clear of him as he dismounted, and it followed in his path when he walked.
Nassau watched the dirty clouds drift lazily to the ground while the man conferred with one of the guards accompanying him. In turn, the guard would make his way to Nassau telling him what he could already guess: The Master of the Saber Ranks had arrived.
They arrived a quarter of an hour later with the open plain behind them. Three men, two pairs of wings, black and white, on two backs while the third walked naked, bound forever to wallow in dust.
Suppressing a grimace, Nassau rose to his feet, his fingers slipping away from the comfortable grasp of his Beatrix and into a tight fitting glove. He'd done this half a dozen times since becoming Lord of his Clan, more than that when he had accompanied his father on these same journeys. Always to meet the same man.
"Lord Soth Maore," Arnout Nassau said with a slight inclination of his head. He spoke to one of the winged men. As Lord of Bird, Nassau knew he could claim the man as a subject, but only half of him. Soth Maore's pristine right wing was that of a Bird Clansman, giving Nassau half the lawful right he needed. The second half of lawful authority belonged to the Lord of Clan Dragon and their black, scaly wings.
"Lord Nassau," Soth Maore countered. "It is a pleasure to greet you once more."
"As it is for me," Nassau said with another slight incline of his head. Soth made no such gesture.
"Shall we proceed, sir?" Nassau inquired. "All the preparations have been made." He indicated a modest banquet set for five.
Soth looked upon the food with distaste. "As usual, Nassau, it won't be necessary."
"I can always hope, my Lord."
"Hmmm." He dropped his pack near a large rock that could have been anything once upon a time.
Soth Maore, master of the Saber Ranks, wandered to the ancient entrance to the city. His hand touched the old pillars and crumbling walls as if he knew their secrets. They had fallen long before he was born, yet he caressed them intimately.
Nassau had often wondered what Soth Maore saw when he looked upon that sight. Did he see the same ruins that Nassau himself saw, or did he see the city in its glory as he imagined it to be?
Soth continued his walk amongst the lifeless city alone. Even his two guards didn't venture in to walk by his side. One was so audacious as to walk over to the banquet and seize an apple for himself and for his partner.
All Nassau could do was wait. As a child, his father had been careful not to let Soth Maore know that he had let his son play in the solemn, sacred place. The man with white and black wings walked through those ruins without need for company, simply touching everything he could find, absorbing it into his memory until it would become impossible to forget.
At last, Soth returned to his men. Wordlessly, he shouldered his pack.
"Have you ever wondered," Nassau asked, "what it looked like?"
Soth Maore looked at the ground in shame. "It was beautiful. Far more than anything your Diurn could ever hope to achieve."
Nassau's wings perked at the slight.
Laughing, Soth continued. "It's funny, in a sad sort of way. The Saber Ranks have worked hard to make sure we don't forget what happened here. We've worked for despicable Clans just to read their old histories in hope of finding even a trickle more of information about the people we killed.
"They built it during the Second Dynasty. No, they were the Second Dynasty, and the Sixth. They built the city, and invited artisans and scholars to come and build upon its aura of intelligence and majesty. Tall towers filled the city up while graceful statues showed all the skill those artisans had. The denizens of the city were happy, bathing in baths of marble. Great universities and school opened to educate the world. It was a beautiful city. An immortal city.
"During the Ninth Dynasty it became warlike and aggressive," as he spoke he unsheathed his sword. "It turned from scholars to warriors, mastering that craft like had all the others. They dominated the battlefield while their culture was completely changed. They bathed in blood instead of marble baths, turning out weapons while sacrificing all their knowledge. Heroes were born in the flame and died in the earth. They'd rise again so long as they had but a single breath in their body. It continued this way up to the Eleventh Dynasty.
"During the Eleventh Crow-Raven formed. It was the great civil war of your Clan where your ancestors, the Nassaus made their first bid for power only to have this city and its people turn against it. Hundreds of years of studying the art of war kept Crow-Raven at bay until your family was doing nothing but throwing away lives. So your ancestors hired the Saber Ranks, sell-swords and mercenaries. You hired us to eliminate your problem and we did." He waved his hand across the broken city. "Completely."
Soth turned to face Nassau. "You told us to kill them. So we did. We poisoned their water, slaughtered their livestock, and sowed their fields with salt. We trapped them here and killed every last one of them till there was no one to claim membership of this forsaken Clan."
"I didn't command you," Nassau protested softly. "I can't be held responsible for the actions of my predecessors."
Soth turned away from the city, unable to bear its gaze any longer. "You're right. You're not responsible. I am."
The two men with him stood stock still, sensing something not far off.
"We destroyed a Clan, utterly and completely. There's no forgiveness for that, and the only person with the power to forgive wouldn't. Since most people don't even remember this culture, we've tried everything we can to keep it alive in ourselves."
He shook his head sadly before bursting into mad laughter. "You know how easy it is to kill someone? Pretty much all you have to do is want it enough, and you can do it. We wanted to kill them , and they wanted to survive."
He looked back at the city with an horrified grimace spanning across his face. "Guess who wanted it more?" Soth shouted out into those desolate ruins. Without a word, he fell back to the ground and cried softly as the echoes of his voice faded into the silence.
"They're all dead," he sobbed. "Every last one of them.
"Except for me," he said angrily. "I'm the only one that remembers. How ironic is that?"
Arnout Nassau tucked his wings in tight to his body as Soth Maore sat there in the presence of the dead.
With a sigh, Soth rose to his feet and dusted off his wings.
"My Lord," Nassau said softly. "Bird has been having some difficulties with a neighboring Clan."
"And we were wondering if you would be willing to hire yourself out to Clan Bird. We'd be willing to pay generously."
The mercenary chose his words carefully. "The Saber Ranks served your ancestors in the Eleventh Dynasty. Which Dynasty is it that you rule over?"
"The Seventeenth, my Lord."
Soth turned to face the man with rage painted across his face. "Then as I told your fathers, the Ranks will not serve Bird until ten dynasties have come and gone. Contact me after your dynasty falls and three more after it. Then, maybe we'll be willing to bloody our swords for you again."
Nassau seethed but was unable to vent his anger on the man. "Would you have me revoke your political freedom in Bird, good sir?"
Soth drew his sword, sanguine in the setting sun. He asked, "How many men do you have with you?"
Briefly, Nassau recalled all the stories his father had told him about Soth Maore, the Master of the Saber Ranks. That he could defy death and conquer an army. That no man could overcome him, no matter how many he had at his back.
"Forgive me, my Lord," Nassau whispered. "It was impolite of me to speak in such a manner on such a hallowed ground as this."
The three men left the city-wide mausoleum with their swords sheathed and clean. The man bound to the earth regretted the blade's unsoiled nature.
"Four dynasties to go," Soth muttered to his travel companions. "I should have said one hundred."
A man of pale complexion with dark, scarlet wings landed softly in the middle of the ruins. He held a stiff spear loosely in one hand while an empty sleeve hung loosely at his side. Across his back a fag was tied tightly between his dark, scarlet wings.
He had come here many times before, for a similar reason as that of Soth Maore. Both men mourned the lost Clan. The man of pale complexion mourned it in a different way. A ceremonial way that only people dead for six Dynasties would recognize.
The man untied the knots that bound his load together and set about making a fire to last the night long in that place desolate and dead. The fire was tall, taller than he. He could have burned himself alive in such a pyre.
The moon was low in the sky by the time he had completed his task and the fire was hot enough to melt bone. A glimmer of sunlight filled the horizon, and the fire shone brightly in that time between night and day.
The man with red wings shed his clothing, folding it neatly beside the fire. Coals spat out of the raging heat, licking the air with its hellish tongues and grasping the safety of its logs with no regard to the speed in which it burned away its life.
With but a step, the man offered himself as fuel to the mighty blaze. He clenched his teeth tight as the flames licked his skin, caressing it with its heat. His jaws forced themselves tighter and tighter till he was afraid they might break. The fire burned hotter still as blood turned to steam, leaving only a dark stain where it had burned away. Heat strong enough to melt bones did so. The man screamed a bestial noise, though no one was there to hear it. Smoke flooded his lungs, giving him brief reprieve from the pain till the fire seared his nerves and felt nothing at all.
His body burned away till there was nothing left but ash.
The fire simmered as it consumed more and more of its precious nourishment. A foul stench hung about the area as a reminder of what the man had sacrificed.
Lower, the fire burned, till at last nothing was left. Only ash and that sickening smell of a body burned. The man's ashes mixed with the ashes of the timber he had brought with him.
A gentle cry chimed out through the silent air. A gust of wind sent fragile filigree of ash tumbling out of the funeral pyre, revealing a small head.
The baby cried out once more, begging for help as its small, weak arms tried to lift itself out of its ashy crib. He fell, his strength collapsed, only to rise again as he reached for the clothing he had shed hours before.
By the time his clothing was within his grasp he was a child no more. In but a few meager steps he was as he had been. A man of pale complexion with dark, scarlet wings.
He held his stiff spear lightly in one hand while he flexed scarlet wings. The last echoes of his screams faded from the air as he took to the sky on bloody wings.
Like a Phoenix, he had risen from his ashes.