The city of Blackwall’s guardian is eternal and eternally unthanked. Shalaya, the first and last eagle.
She has stretched out on thermals, languid and watchful, for centuries past. She will for untold ages to come, until she is no longer needed. As far as she knows, the day will never come.
Below, Blackwall, a city as old as the world itself, older by far than the span of the pale, featherless innocents currently scurrying within and without its basalt walls, walking its stone streets worn smooth with the traffic of a dozen species. These ones, who call themselves “Ferem” in the whispers rising on warm currents from the surface to Shalaya’s ears, do not remember the ones who lived in Blackwall before them. Those were lizards, she remembers, with mottled scales of olive and lavender, who wrote poems about the clouds and the stars, but never a word about Shalaya.
The clouds in the west have become bruises on the dusk sky these last few weeks. The season is turning, the nights becoming shorter. Winter is not far away, and with it the time of greatest danger.
Shalaya wonders whether they will come again this time? They did not come last year, nor the year before, crawling from their dark corners beyond the sky and stars. Perhaps they will not, but she knows another year without the burning streaks in the twilight sky means nothing. Many times, in the past, fifty years and more have crept by, silent and untroubled. They always return, eventually.
Shalaya is always waiting.
Tonight, the Ferem are celebrating, fires and songs to commemorate some long-dead queen or long-past conflict. The embers of their bonfires rise into Shalaya’s sky, guttering and fading like stars at dawn. They sing of the Blackwall they have always known, severe and resolute, a bastion between the the plains tribes of the east and the scavenger beetles who scuttle about their mountain slopes. The Ferem know nothing of the Blackwalls of their pre-history; centres of culture and learning, trade and invention, religion and revolution.
Each Blackwall fell, in its turn.
The songs of the Ferem reach Shalaya. In her unwavering vigilance, she does not grasp their meaning at once. She knows the words; she always knows the language spoken in Blackwall, no matter what it may be. At first she is content to bank and wheel, echoing the crescendos of the Ferem voices. But as the singers become suddenly hushed, she understands the purpose of the song.
For the first time, for as long as Blackwall has existed, its people sing to Shalaya.
Shalaya’s heart breaks. She is moved not by their show of recognition, nor of the overdue acknowledgment. The Ferem are crying out to Shalaya for help. They have seen their doom approaching, as their predecessors never have, and they understand what the others have not. Only Shalaya can protect them.
Shalaya turns her head to the skies, already knowing what she will see. Ribbons of flame twist from the hazy sky like threads lowered by hunting spiders.
She rises the intercept the lowest thread. It twists away from her like an exposed snake. In its way, it is beautiful. There is a grace to its sinuous movement, and its surface glimmers like a flaming mirror. But though it is lithe, it can only fall with the pull of the earth, and Shalaya has no such limitations. She dives, an arrow with a head of beak and talon. She catches the pillar of flame in her claws and snaps it in half with her beak’s razor edge.
Below, the Ferem cheer. They do not understand.
Shalaya trails smoke and the scent of burned feathers as she circles toward her next target, and the next. Every thread she hunts, she destroys. She destroys a dozen, a hundred, and the Ferem sing in praise of Shalaya.
The flames continue to fall, in ever greater numbers. Too many for her to catch them all, too many even to see them all. They begin to slip past her. They fall to the streets of Blackwall, and at last the Ferem know that Shalaya can do no more than delay the inevitable.
Shalaya doesn’t need to see what happens next. It has happened before, every time. A fire thread, as tall as the tallest Ferem, slithers through the streets until it finds a victim. Someone screaming, frozen with uncomprehending terror. Still alight, it wraps itself about its prey, spreads itself flat to engulf the unlucky Ferem, until it too is enveloped in flames. Horrified friends and onlookers may try to prise the thread off, to pull the victim free. They suffer deep burns and achieve little else, until at last the heat forces them back. They give the victim up for dead; nothing can survive so fierce a flame.
More threads fall. More Ferem are trapped, mummified in fiery ribbons. Then one cracks open like a shell, sloughing off the brittle scorched remnants of the expended thread. Something new stands in its stead.
Now Shalaya glances down at the streets of Blackwall. She grieves for the Ferem, but she is curious too. She doesn’t know the shape of what is to follow.
Something new stands. A hairy creature, hunched and long-armed, with pointed canines. The Ferem who bear witness to the birth of this monstrosity give in to their terror. They throw stones, bits of wood and whatever they can find. In a moment the creature is dead, bleeding from a dozen wounds and a crushed skull. But as it falls, another emerges from its cocoon, then another and more.
Shalaya sees most of the Ferem have been caught. She abandons her defence. The threads continue to fall. One for every remaining Ferem.
Soon no Ferem remain.
Shalaya returns to her sky as Blackwall is reborn anew.
I’m away on holidays in Tasmania this week, where phone signals and reliable wifi are things of myth and legend, so whether this story posts on time or at all are matters in which I can invest little other than blind faith.
The story this week was inspired by the photograph I took of a statue at the Clover Hill vineyard, and the small riverside village of Blackwall, near where my family and I stayed for a few days.
By the way if I haven’t responded to your emails or social medias this week, that’s why. I’ll get back to you soon!