I took a deep breath to steady my nerves and narrowly avoided retching from the sharp, well-known stench that surrounded me.
The smell of hot avian blood spattered on the stones, and cool serpiente blood that seemed ready to dissolve the skin off my hands if I touched it. The smell of burned hair and feathers and skin of the dead smoldered in the fire of a dropped lantern. Only the fall of rain all the night before had kept that fire from spreading through the clearing to the woods.
From the forest to my left, I heard the desperate, strangled cry of a man in pain.
I started to move toward the sound, but when I took a step through the trees in his direction, I came upon a sight that made my knees buckle, my breath freezing as I fell to the familiar body.
Golden hair, so like my own, was swept across the boy's eyes, closed forever now but so clear in my mind. His skin was gray in the morning light, covered with a light spray of dew. My younger brother, my only brother, was dead.
Like our sister and our father years ago, like our aunts and uncles and too many friends, Xavier Shardae was forever grounded. I stared at his still form, willing him to take a breath and open eyes whose color would mirror my own. I willed myself to wakeup from this nightmare.
I could not be the last. The last child of Nacola Shardae, who was all the family I had left now.
I wanted to scream and weep, but a hawk does not cry, especially here on the battlefield, in the midst of the dead and surrounded only by her guards. She does not scream or beat the ground and curse the sky.
Among my kind, tears were considered a disgrace to the dead and shame among the living.
Avian reserve. It kept the heart from breaking with each new death. It kept the warriors fighting a war no one could win. It kept me standing when I had nothing to stand for but bloodshed.
I could not cry for my brother, though I wanted to.
I pushed the sounds away, forcing my lips not to tremble. Only one heavy breath escaped me, wanting to be a sigh. I lifted my dry eyes to the guards who stood about me protectively in the woods.
"Take him home," I ordered, my voice wavering a bit despite my resolve.
"Shardae, you should come home, too."
I turned to Andreios, the captain of the most elite flight in the avian army, and took in the worried expression in his soft brown eyes. The crow had been my friend for years before he had been my guard, and I began to nod assent to his words.
Another cry from the woods made me freeze. I started toward it, but Andreios caught my arm just above the elbow. "Not that one, milady."
Normally I would have trusted his judgment without question, but not here on the battlefield. I had been walking these bloody fields whenever I could ever since I was twelve; I could not avert my eyes when we were in the middle of this chaos and someonewas pleading, with what was probably his last breath, for help. "And why not, Andreios?"
The crow knew he was in trouble the instant I addressed him by his full name instead of his childhood nickname of Rei, but he kept on my heels as I stepped around the slain bodies and closer to the voice. The rest of his flight fell back, out of sightin their second forms--crows and ravens, mostly. They would take my brother home only when it did not mean leaving me alone here.
"Dani." In return, I knew Rei was serious when he lapsed into the informal and used my nickname, Dani, instead of a respectful title or my surname, Shardae. Even when we were alone, Rei rarely called me Danica. It was an entreaty to our lifelong friendshipwhen he used that nickname where someone else could hear it, and so I paused to listen. "That's Gregory Cobriana. You don't want his blood on your hands."
For a moment the name meant nothing to me. With his hair streaked with blood and his expression a mask of pain, Gregory Cobriana could have been anyone's brother, husband or son. But then I recognized the stark black hair against his fair skin, the onyxsignet ring on his left hand and, as he looked up, the deep garnet eyes that were a trademark of the Cobriana line, just as molten gold eyes were characteristic of my own family.
I did not have the energy to rage. Every emotion I had was cloaked in the shield of reserve I had learned since I was a chick.
Evidently the serpiente prince recognized me as well, for his pleas caught in his throat, and his eyes closed. I stepped toward him and heard a flutter of movement as my guards moved closer, ready to intervene if the fallen man was a threat.
With all his various scratches and minor injuries, it was hard to tell where the worst of the damage was. I saw a broken leg, possibly a broken arm; either of those he could heal from.
What would I do if that was the worst? If he was hurt, but not too hurt to survive? This was the man who had led the soldiers that had killed my brother and his guards. Would I turn my back so the Royal Flight could finish what all these fallen fightershad not?
For a moment I thought of taking my knife and putting it in his heart or slitting his throat myself and ending the life this creature still held while my brother lay dead.
Despite my guards' protest, I went again to my knees, this time beside the enemy. I looked at that pale face and tried to summon the fury I needed. His eyes fluttered open and met mine. A muddy shade of red, Gregory Cobriana's eyes were filled with pain, sorrow and fear. The fear struck me the most. This boy looked a couple of years younger than I was, too young to deserve this horror, too young todie.
Bile rose in my throat. I loved my brother, but I could not murder his killer. I could not look into the eyes of a boy terrified of death and shaking from pain and feel hatred. This was a life: serpiente, yes, but still a life; who was I to steal it?
Only as I recoiled did I see the wound on his stomach, where a knife had dragged itself raggedly across the soft flesh, one of the most painful of mortal blows. The attacker must have been killed before he could finish the deed. Perhaps my brother had held the knife. Had he lain dying alone like this afterward?
I felt a sob choke my throat and couldn't stop it. Gregory Cobriana was the enemy, but here on the battlefield he was just another brother to another sister, fallen on the field. I could not cry for my own brother; he would not want me to. But I foundmyself crying for this hated stranger and the endless slaughter that I had almost contributed to.
I spun on Rei. "This is why this stupid war goes on. Because even when he's dying, you can only feel your hate," I spat, too quietly for the serpiente prince to hear me.
"If I was in this man's place, I would pray for someone to kneel by my side," I continued. "And I wouldn't care if that person was Zane Cobriana himself."
Rei knelt awkwardly beside me. For a moment, his hand touched my hand, unexpectedly. His gaze met mine, and I heard him sigh quietly with understanding.
I turned back to the serpiente. "I'm here; don't fret," I said as I smoothed black hair from Gregory's face.
His eyes filled with tears and he muttered something that sounded like "Thank you." Then he looked straight up at me and said, "End it. Please."
These words made me wince. I had been thinking the same thing just moments before, but even though I knew he was asking me to stop the pain, I did not want mine to be the hand that ended another's life.
"Dani?" Rei asked worriedly when a tear fell from my eyes onto Gregory's hand.
I shook my head and wrapped my hand around Gregory's cool one. The muscles tightened, and then he was gripping my hand like it was his last anchor to earth.
When I drew the knife from my waist, Rei caught my wrist and shook his head.
Quietly, so Gregory could not hear, I argued, "It could take him hours to die like this."
"Let the hours pass," Rei answered, though I could see the muscles in his jaw tighten. "Serpiente believe in mercy killing, but not when it's the other side who does it. Not when it's the heir to the Tuuli Thea who ends the life of one of their two survivingprinces."
We sat in the field most of the day, until Gregory's grip on my hand loosened and his ragged breathing froze.
As I had often done for dying avian soldiers, I sang to pass the time, and to distract him from the pain. The songs were about freedom. They were about children, able to play and sing and dance without worrying that they would be harmed.
The song I loved most of all, though, was the one my mother used to sing to me when I was a child, before I had been given round-the-clock nurses, maids, servants and guards. It was from long before my mother had become a distant queen with too much dignity to show affection even to her last remaining daughter. I would have given up all the pampering and all the respect I had earned those past few years if I could have climbed into her arms and gone back to a time when I was still too young to understand thatmy father, my sister and now my brother had been butchered in this war, which had been going on so long nobody could tell anymore what it was about or who had started it.
I had heard of avians and serpiente who had lived five hundred years or more, but no one did that now. Not in a time when both sides slaughtered each other so frequently, and so efficiently.