In Alex London’s Red Skies Falling, the thrilling sequel to Black Wings Beating, twins Kylee and Brysen are separated by the expanse of Uztar, but are preparing for the same war—or so they think. Available September 3rd from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Kylee is ensconced in the Sky Castle, training with Mem Uku to master the Hollow Tongue and the Ghost Eagle. But political intrigue abounds and court drama seems to seep through the castle’s stones like blood from a broken feather. Meanwhile, Brysen is still in the Six Villages, preparing for an attack by the Kartami. The Villages have become Uztar’s first line of defense, and refugees are flooding in from the plains. But their arrival lays bare the villagers’ darkest instincts. As Brysen navigates the growing turmoil, he must also grapple with a newfound gift, a burgeoning crush on a mysterious boy, and a shocking betrayal.
The two will meet again on the battlefield, fighting the same war from different sides. But the Ghost Eagle has its own plans.
Brysen followed the signs in the fading daylight. The snag of fluff on mountain hawthorn, the spot of blood speckling the jagged shale of a cliff face, the nervous cries of displaced crows as they burst from a copse of chir pine.
A hawk was near.
He looked out from the rocky slope where he’d crouched and saw a huge murmuration of starlings whirling against the pale pink sky. As the sun dropped behind the far mountain range, red coated its peaks, like teeth gnawing the horizon raw. The black cloud of birds oozed sideways, then spun straight up, a single mind in a thousand feathered bodies. They rose in a vortex, erupted apart, then merged into one mass again, undulating higher and higher, inventing new shapes as they flew. Augurs read fortunes in these shapes, saw the unfolding of fates, but Brysen had never had an interest in augury and tried not to think too much about fate. His had never been promising.
He knew that a solitary predator like a hawk wouldn’t risk diving into the middle of a large flock of starlings, but any starling that strayed too far from the group’s center might become a target. Surely the hawk he was chasing watched this aerial display from some hidden crevasse, waiting for a chance to strike. If Brysen could think like a hunter on the wing, he could find where his quarry hid.
He scanned the rocks, looking for the shape of a bird of prey, one that looked much like any other but that he would know from every other.
Shara. His hawk.
Falconers lost their birds all the time. Raptors weren’t like house pets, whose affections bound them to their masters; their hungry hearts didn’t love the way a person’s did. They stayed close when it suited them, flew to the fist for their own reasons, and could leave for even the smallest slight: an up- raised voice, a paltry meal, an angry gesture, or a shock of fright.
Shara had flown off to escape the ghost eagle; he’d sent her away. It had been the only way to save her, but the wind and the sky didn’t take intentions into account, and gone was gone no matter the reason. Any decent falconer would count Shara as a loss, and move on to trap and train a new bird. Brysen, however, was not a decent falconer. He was a dreamer; he counted on his dreams to lead him where past experience and the sum of expert opinion refused.
Shara knew the way home. Most hawks were territorial to some extent and preferred to hunt in familiar places. Brysen knew Shara would return, the way mountain laurel knows to flower when the wind begins to warm. He knew it because it simply had to happen. There was no him without her.
He also knew that was a load of birdbrained scuzz, but longing didn’t care for logic, and he was allowed to believe things in the quiet of his mind even when he knew them to be lies. Without those quiet lies, how could anyone dream?
Nearly every day since losing his hawk, his boyfriend, his best friend, and his sister, he had gone up into the mountains to search for Shara—the only thing he might actually get back.
There! Hunched on a pile of boulders—looking like a boulder herself—he saw a mottled gray goshawk of Shara’s coloring and Shara’s size.
He whistled to his hunting partner, Jowyn, who crouched below him on the rocky slope under a grass-strewn blanket. Brysen could just see the boy’s face, smeared with mud to obscure how pale it was—an unnatural white from seasons of drinking the sap of the blood birch forest. It camouflaged him perfectly in the snow of the high mountains but made him stand out brightly in the brown and gray foothills during the snowless melt-wind season.
Jowyn prepared to move, but before Brysen could signal him or take the first quiet step toward the hawk on the boulder, the huge flock of starlings turned and rushed straight for the mountain, screaming their skin-shaking shrieks.
Brysen had to duck as a thousand birds sluiced up the slope and flew over the ridge above him, making for the distant peaks and the frozen void beyond. For this season, that was the wrong direction for a flock to fly, but birds had been doing it for weeks. Every day now, huge flocks of every species imaginable surged across the smoking plains and up over the mountains. The skies were clotted with finches and chickadees, magpies and mallards, crows and ravens, geese, pigeons, and starlings.
Birds of prey hunted them all.
“The flocks are a bad sign,” people in the Six said. “Nothing goes that direction over the mountains,” they said. “Not in our lifetime. Not in a hundred lifetimes.”
“It’s that gray-haired fledgling’s fault,” they said, meaning Brysen. “Never should’ve gone after the ghost eagle.”
They didn’t care that it was his sister who had the ghost eagle’s attention, that it was she who’d spoken to it, who’d led it to the Sky Castle. The only thing Brysen had done was get betrayed by the boy he thought he loved and abandoned by the bird he thought would never leave him.
Not that these facts mattered. When people were scared, they looked for someone to blame, and Brysen, a half-Altari orphan with sky-blue eyes, prematurely gray hair, and a less- than-soaring reputation, was a fine target for blame.
“The flocks are fleeing the Kartami, nothing else,” his friends tried to argue on his behalf, and that was probably the truth of it.
The warriors in their kite-driven barrows drew closer by the day. The flocks were fleeing them, and because of that, the falcons and hawks that hunted the birds were plentiful in the crags and crevasses of the mountains above the Six Villages. He’d trapped a few over the weeks of searching for Shara and sold them fast. He had a few others ready to sell in his mews at home right now, just as soon as he had the time to take them into town. First, though, he had to try for the one bird he actually cared about trapping, the one he had no intention of selling.
When he looked back for her, he saw she’d left her boulder, startled by the huge flock of starlings, and was winging her way across a small gorge. It was her! He’d know her crooked-winged flying anywhere.
He ran after Shara, fully in the open, hoping her keen eyes would see him and she’d return. He slid down into a small meltwater stream, soaking his boots and pants halfway up his calves, then began to scramble on all fours up the loose stones toward the gnarly tree where Shara had settled, his eyes more fixed on the bird than on his handholds.
The loose rock gave way under him, and he slipped, scraped his face, and skittered on his belly back to the melt- water. The noise scared the hawk, and she launched herself from the branch, wings bursting open with power, legs thrust out, then tucked underneath as she flapped and turned, vanishing up and over the ridge in the same direction the star- lings had flown.
“No,” he whimpered after her in a tone that made him cringe at himself. Though his face stung, losing her when he’d been so close stung more. He knew he should probably give up. He should go home and sell the birds he’d already caught, but he had enough bronze these days thanks to the surging prices of raptors now that everyone feared there would soon be none left to catch. For the first time in his life, business was booming, and he couldn’t have cared less. All he wanted was his old hawk back.
Bronze can buy fine birds and fare,
Homes well-furnished anywhere.
But what I need no bronze can earn,
My heart’s repair, my love’s return.
Brysen lay where he’d slid and felt sorry for himself, remembering bad poetry he’d heard Jowyn singing. He’d been so close, and yet, he’d failed. Another almost, another not- quite. Another failure in an oh-so-long line of failures.
Even in capturing the ghost eagle, it’d been his twin sister Kylee who’d triumphed; Kylee had caught the great bird’s interest and gone off to the Sky Castle to master it. She might be the salvation of Uztari civilization, while Brysen, without the slightest gift to command a hawk in the Hollow Tongue, was still just some Six Villages kid, passing his days trapping raptors and plucking out a living from whatever bronze he could get for them, just like his dead scuzzard of a father before him.
He groaned and rolled onto his back to stare up at the pitiless half-blue sky that looked down on him, the sky that saw all his faults and all his pain and never intervened.
“Some help you are,” he grumbled at the air.
For all he knew, Shara would fly over the plateau, summit the great mountains that ringed Uztar, and vanish into the frozen steppes beyond. This might’ve been the last glance he’d ever get at her, looking at her tail feathers as she flew away. He got that view of everyone he ever loved eventually. He’d watched them all leave.
“Story of my life,” he told the empty sky.
“Hey. Are you all right?” Jowyn squatted beside him, assessing Brysen’s bloody, scraped face and knuckles. Brysen pushed himself up slowly, glad for the blood and gravel on his face. It might hide the blush that was rising. He’d forgotten Jowyn was there while he’d been muttering at the sky. “Most people climb down a slope on their feet, not their face.” Jowyn grinned at him. There was no dark mood that the unnaturally pale boy didn’t try to lighten with a joke. He offered Brysen his kerchief to wipe the blood from his face.
Jowyn’s exile from the Owl Mothers was changing his appearance, if not his personality. He was still snow-owl white, but his hair had grown back in, just as white. In the mountains, drinking the sap of the blood birch forest had not only paled him past any shade of human skin but also made his skin nearly impervious to the elements and extremely fast-healing. The longer he spent without the sap, the more those properties faded. Just two full moons into exile and he’d started to show the first signs that he was as human as anyone else. The day before, Jowyn had lamented a bug bite, which Brysen had to point out was actually a zit. This upset Jowyn even more.
The tattoos that ran up his left side from his toes to his neck had darkened, showing black and ochre calligraphy in astonishing detail, beyond the skill of any Six Villages artist. To avoid questions about them in town, he’d taken to wearing tunics with long sleeves and high necks, as well as tall boots that he’d had to learn how to walk in. When he’d been in the Owl Mothers’ covey, they’d always been barefoot. Only on the mountain, alone with Brysen, did he take off his shirt and shoes again, although even in the warmer air of the melt-wind season, he’d been getting cold. Goose bumps rose on his arms and across his chest. He shivered but would never actually admit to being cold. He never gave any indication that he missed the Owl Mothers, or the strength the blood birch sap had given him, or the forest he could never return to again on pain of death.
His eyes now were soft only with concern for Brysen, who looked away.
“I’m fine.” Brysen sighed, letting Jowyn help him up. “Shara was here. She’ll come back. And I’ll come back until I catch her.”
“Well, maybe she’ll fly all the way back to—” Before Jowyn could finish, a scream echoed around them, followed by laughter. The scream was human, the laughter more like a blade dragged across a tongue. Both boys looked up toward the sounds. They were coming from the other side of the ridge Brysen had just slid down.
“Come on!” a voice shouted, thick with malice. “Acting like worms’ll get you eaten like worms!”
The boys nodded at each other and, wordlessly, crawled up to the edge of the ridge, Brysen more careful with his footfalls this time. They looked into the gully below and saw the scene that had produced the screaming.
There was a blanket laid out on the ground. The contents of a traveler’s pack had been spread out over the blanket— bladders of water and fermented milk, hard meats, and flat breads, but not much of anything else. It took Brysen a moment to see the people, because they’d backed all the way into the far shadow of the mountain with no way out.
There were two old men—one had a baby in his arms— and an old woman with a sturdy build. All three of the adults had surely seen better seasons. The baby cried while the man tried to shush it, and the old woman stood in front of him, thrusting her body between him and the huge griffon vulture, which had its beady eyes fixed on her.
The vulture was on a rough leash, and the man holding the other end had the top of his head shaved to the scalp in a twisted mirror of a vulture’s pate. When he jerked the leash, the vulture snapped its beak, and the man laughed his knife- blade laugh.
He had three companions, who’d shaved the tops of their heads, too, and they echoed his laughter at the terror the big carrion-eating bird inflicted. Though they all carried them- selves like vultures, the other three had hawks on their fists and curved bone-handled blades in their free hands. Brysen noticed a copper band on the ankle of one of their hawks, and even from a distance he could tell it was one from his shop, Skybreaker Falconry. He’d clamped it onto that bird’s ankle with his own hands, but he hadn’t sold a bird to these bandits. This was a stolen hawk, and that put what passed for law in the Six on Brysen’s side no matter what he decided to do next. “Huh? Huh?” the one with the stolen hawk teased, shoving his fist forward, toward the captive group, and turning his hand to make the bird rouse. It stood tall and opened its wings. It had to do this for balance, but it looked terrifying to those who didn’t know how a bird behaved on the fist.
The trio flinched, even the woman in front, who tried not to. They were Altari—had to be. Only Altari would be this afraid of a trained bird, as terrified by the threat of violence against their bodies as the threat of violence against their souls. The Altari believed birds of prey were sacred and that to harm one was as great a sin as training one to do harm. They wouldn’t defend themselves against these attackers even if they could’ve, and the bandits knew it. These scum were just the sort who preyed on Altari fleeing for their lives across unfamiliar lands.
Someone should teach them a lesson.
“Don’t like birds, do you, glass grinders?” the bandit sneered. “Maybe you shouldn’t be up in these mountains then, huh? This is our land, not yours.” He roused his hawk again. The man with the vulture kicked it forward so that it charged on its leash, a huge bird held back by a tiny strip of leather. The baby wailed, and the bandits laughed.
“What are you afraid of?” the vulture keeper cawed. “She only eats babies after they’re dead! Don’t Altari want sky burials, too?” He spit a thick green wad of hunter’s leaf on the ground at their feet. The bandits were jacked up on the leaf, and likely on foothill gin, too, which would give Brysen an advantage if he cared to take them on. It could also make them more dangerous. That was the problem with facing off against drunks. Sometimes you could get away with a nimble step and their resolve collapsed. Sometimes any resistance to their whims incited more violence. The scars all over Brysen’s back and sides read like a catalog of a drunkard’s rages.
“Mud below,” he muttered, thinking on his scuzzard of a father. He focused again on the drunks.
Could he take them? He was birdless. Could he face four men with hungry hawks and a massive griffon vulture?
Jowyn, sensing Brysen’s intent, put a hand on his shoulder, shook his head no. Brysen nodded his head yes. Jowyn frowned. The pale boy hated violence. Before running away to the Owl
Mothers, he’d been the youngest son of the most brutal family in the Six Villages, and he’d decided never to give in to that part of himself. He was a gentle soul in an ungentle world. Jowyn could always make Brysen laugh, but at that moment, it would’ve been nice to have a friend by his side who was good in a fight—someone more like Nyall. Then again, Brysen didn’t feel any need to protect Nyall, whereas the thought of keeping Jowyn safe made him glad. He liked having some- one around who he could look after. Nyall didn’t need him, but Brysen liked to think Jowyn did. A boy who wouldn’t fight needed someone around him who would. That was just the way of the world. Predators and prey.
Brysen knew which one he wanted to be.
“Stay here,” he urged his friend. “I’ll handle this.” He drew out his curved black blade—the only thing beside his sky-blue eyes that his father’d left him—and pulled away from Jowyn.
“Bry, don’t,” Jowyn whispered.
“Just watch my back,” Brysen replied as he slid quietly over the lip of the ridge, plotting on his way down which of the vulture-faced thieves’ throats he’d open first.
By the time his feet hit the ground, he’d decided to let his black-talon blade do the choosing.
Excerpted from Red Skies Falling, copyright © 2019 by Alex London.