Desert Sapphire

Eight

For the remainder of the week, Raqif’s day remained much the same. From dawn until midday, he would sit by the Ra-Lin, his eyes constantly scanning the sky for any sign of the legendary bird. After several fruitless hours of watching and waiting, he would return to the house and help to pay his way with whatever task his hosts set for him, after which he would return to the river until well into the night, each time making his way back to the house, disappointed.

Kyril, the man who had first greeted him, had tried to convince him to give up his search, but nothing would sway Raqif’s mind. He had even spent the last of his coppers on a silver yrae necklace at the dock. When the time came, he would replace the worthless blue-coloured stone held between the sculpted bird’s head and tail with a real yrae stone.

As he stared off into the sunrise on his ninth day in Ni-Yana, he caught sight of a black shape against the pale morning sun. His heart skipped a beat as the shape flashed for barely half a second before his eyes, and he sat bolt upright in his viewpoint on the river.

Without wasting any further time, he grabbed his bow and arrows and dashed off over the bridge that connected Ni-Yana with the desert in the direction of the cliffs. Even as his eyes were fixed on the horizon, he kept telling himself that there was every chance that the shape wouldn’t be an yrae, but he couldn’t suppress the excitement and adrenaline that flowed through his veins with more ferocity than the most dangerous parts of the Ra-Lin.

His feet pounded rhythmically against the red dust as he flew through the desert. The visions of himself spreading his wings and taking to the skies played vividly in his mind. With them came equally realistic images of his family and the other villagers of Ni-Horia when he finally returned. Their looks of astonishment and delight gave extra urgency to Raqif’s thumping feet.

When he reached the base of the cliff, there was no hesitation as he threw himself against its vertical surface, scaling the rocky face with the sure feet of a goat. He reached the top, panting heavily, and scanned the surrounding desert.

Several hundred paces to his right, he spotted the beautiful creature, its strong, eagle-like beak tearing away flesh from its unfortunate prey. It tossed its head back, displaying its long, graceful neck as it forced the meat down its throat.

Raqif grinned hysterically, pausing to catch his breath before getting himself into a position within firing range. He crouched down, carefully fitted an arrow into his bow and brought it to his shoulder, sighting along the arrow towards the yrae.

But he didn’t fire. Instead, he lowered the arrow and returned the slack to his bow, frowning at the creature before him. It had occurred to him that the bird’s plumage was much more dull and drab than he had imagined from his mother’s stories, but what struck him most was the absence of the long ribbon of an yrae tail. The bird’s pear-shaped body tapered off to a broad-feathered tail more commonly seen on the simple geya, a bird commonly mistaken for an yrae.

Raqif’s heart sank as he stared dejectedly at the grey-feathered geya devouring its prey, quite oblivious to the highlander’s presence. Who was he to think he would be able to wrap his fingers around the most valuable stone in Raykin? It was a stone made for kings, not for a poor boy from the Hills.

It took all the strength he had left to replace his arrow in his quiver and hook his bow over his shoulder. He took hold of his yrae necklace, fingering the stone in its centre. It was more of a grey than a blue really. It was a geya stone, nothing like the true yrae stone for which he had been searching all his life.

He didn’t know how long he stood there for, or how many tears of salt water escaped his eyes. The geya had taken off long ago, displaying its stumpy tail in mockery of Raqif’s dreams.

Eventually, he turned away from the desert and back towards Ni-Yana. The city seemed so much less golden and promising than it had when he was standing in this same place nine days ago. He sighed miserably at his last view of the desert before making his way back down the cliff.

As he carefully picked his way down the crumbling rocks, he thought he heard a soft coo from atop the cliff, but only really paid attention to it when he heard it a second time, confirming that the wind hadn’t been playing tricks on him. He swung himself nimbly back up the cliff to investigate, and nearly fell backwards at the sight that met his eyes.

In stark contrast to the geya, the descriptions Raqif’s mother had given him since he was but a child paled greatly in comparison to the yrae that towered over him as he gripped the edge of the cliff. The brilliant blue plumage that covered its head and neck shone out against the sky, making it seem almost grey. Three feathers of midnight adorned its tapering head; two slicked back from its beady black eyes and a third from the top of its strong, lilac-coloured beak.

The yrae cooed again, a soft, gentle sound that sent pleasant shivers over the highlander’s skin, and spread its magnificent wings, each feather like starlight dipped in midnight. With a single, effortless flap of its enormous wingspan, the yrae took to the sky, its shimmering midnight blue tail rippling behind it. The sapphire that adorned its tip sent out a myriad of every shade of blue, bouncing off the rich red desert sand as it fluttered out behind the stunning mythical creature.

Raqif blinked as he watched the bird fly away from him, shaking his head to bring himself back to reality. He scrambled up the cliff and dashed after the yrae, frantically grabbing at an arrow and fitting it into his bow as he ran. No matter how fast he ran, the regal flight of the yrae was faster.

The bird cooed a third time, giving new life to Raqif’s gait, but still the bird sped away from him.

The highlander slowed to a stop, his eyes still focusing on nothing but the magical creature. He had been searching for too long to give up now. He took a deep breath to calm himself and raised his bow once again, aiming slightly to the right of the yrae to account for the wind. After another deep breath, he let go of the bowstring and watched breathlessly as the arrow sailed through the wavering air.

Never had an arrow’s flight seemed so slow to Raqif. He wondered if this was how King Yan had felt as his own arrow flew agonisingly slowly towards the yrae.

After arching around with the wind as Raqif had hoped it would, the arrow finally found its target, causing the bird to cry out like any other bird would. It flapped desperately, but the arrow in its wing made it rapidly begin to lose altitude until it flopped down into the sand, still flailing. It let out one final screech that filled Raqif with guilt, then exploded in a flash of light brighter than the sun overhead, leaving no trace that it had ever been there but for the single most precious stone Raykin had seen in two millennia.

Raqif slowly let out the breath he had been holding since he had first set up his shot, and lowered his bow. He somehow felt as though he had something else to prove before his fingers were allowed to touch the magical sapphire that would give him flight, and he walked with more than a hint of apprehension towards it.

Breathing deeply, he bent down and picked up the cool, smooth, dewdrop-shaped jewel, turning it over in his hands and marvelling at the blue light that reflected off of it.

It was only then that he realised nothing was happening. Beautiful as it was, the stone sat in his palm as any other. There was no tingling sensation in his shoulder blades, as King Yan had felt. He couldn’t even feel the searing pain Haela had experienced. Something was not right.

Gripping the yrae stone firmly in his right hand, he pulled his shirt over his head, hoping that it might trigger the wings to grow, but still nothing happened. He closed his eyes tight, imagining himself with a broad pair of black wings, like King Yan, but to no avail.

He tried a different approach and attempted to perform some magical feat by lifting a small pebble from the ground with his mind. Again he was disappointed. No matter what he tried, the supposedly magical stone reacted in the same way any other stone would.

Raqif glared down hard at the sandy orange pebble he had tried lifting, kicking it with great ferocity over the cliff and screaming his frustration so loud that several people in Ni-Yana must have heard. Discovering that the dream that had been with him for at least seventeen of his twenty years of life was nothing more than a useless rock was the worst pain he had felt yet. Brushing death at the hands of the desert sun paled in comparison to the grief he felt now.

Still trying to squeeze some form of magic from the stone, he made his way back to the city and lay down on the bed, staring forlornly out the window at the sky he would never reach.

“Another unrewarding expedition, I take it?” Kyril was leaning against the doorway, arms folded in conceit.

Raqif sighed and lifted the stone to examine it. “You might say that.” He could see the shock that registered on Kyril’s face out of the corner of his eye.

“Is that…?”

Raqif cut off the man’s question with a crestfallen nod and tossed the stone over to him. “It has no effect.”

Kyril frowned and peered at the glittering sapphire before returning it to its owner. “Are you quite certain this is indeed the stone from an yrae’s tail?”

“Yes,” Raqif answered, “The bird fell by my own arrow.” He glared at the stone where it lay on the bed, then returned to staring out the window. “I think I shall return home tomorrow. I have no further business in Ni-Yana.”

Nine