In this first young-adult fantasy novel in a trilogy, Alex London launches a soaring saga about the memories that haunt us, the histories that hunt us, and the bonds of blood between us.
The people of Uztar have long looked to the sky with hope and wonder. Nothing in their world is more revered than the birds of prey and no one more honored than the falconers who call them to their fists.
Brysen strives to be a great falconerwhile his twin sister, Kylee, rejects her ancient gifts for the sport and wishes to be free of falconry. She’s nearly made it out, too, but a war is rolling toward their home in the Six Villages, and no bird or falconer will be safe.
Together the twins must journey into the treacherous mountains to trap the Ghost Eagle, the greatest of the Uztari birds and a solitary killer. Brysen goes for the boy he loves and the glory he's long craved, and Kylee to atone for her past and to protect her brother's future. But both are hunted by those who seek one thing: power.
Praise for Black Wings Beating:
*An NBC Today Show Book Club Pick!*
*A Seventeen Magazine Best YA Book of 2018!*
*A Kirkus Best YA Fantasy Book of the Year*
*A We Need Diverse Books 2018 Must-Read*
"Epic thrills, heart-punching romance, and a marvel of a hero." Adam Silvera, New York Times-bestselling author of They Both Die at the End
"Black Wings Beating gives us irresistible, complex characters in a propulsive, adventure-filled story, pulling off the rare trick of leaving its readers satisfied but undeniably excited for a second volume." NBC's Today Show
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It was the day before the Hawkers' Market, and Kylee found her twin brother exactly where she had hoped not to find him: at the battle pits.
Brysen stood in a throng of the usual battle boys, his sleeveless vest buttoned to the neck, his long goatskin jacket on the ground at his feet. There was a coil of battle rope around his shoulder, and he had on his elbow-length leather glove. His hawk, Shara, stood perched and hooded on his fist, tethered by short leather jesses to the forearm loops on the glove.
Brysen was easy to spot in the crowd. His storm-cloud-gray hair spiked out in all directions like a hatchling's fuzz, and his lower lip bulged with a wad of hunter's leaf. When he turned to spit, he saw Kylee at the gate, met her eyes between the jostling shoulders of gamblers and spectators.
But for his hair, Kylee and Brysen were the mirror image of each other. Hers was still black, like his had once been, but they had the same elk-brown skin as their mother, the same ice-blue eyes as their father, bright as cloudless mornings. They were the kind of eyes that held windstorms. You'd be blown away if you looked too long.
Folks in the Villages thought Brysen's prematurely gray hair made him look wild and dangerous, like a haggard falcon, and he did his best to encourage those ideas, used them as a shield against other people's pity. Kylee couldn't have cared a puke what other people thought of her.
She opened her palms toward him, questioning what he thought he was doing there when she needed him working. This was the most important market of their lives, and he knew it. Brysen turned his attention back to the battle pits.
"Dirt-biting scuzz-muncher!" Kylee cursed.
After her morning climb up the knife-edge ridges, she'd come home to find his bed empty and had made her way down the rocky slope from their house, over the rickety bridge that crossed the meltwater river — the Necklace, as they called it — and into the Six Villages. Just a few weeks earlier the Necklace had been solid, shining ice. The Six Villages were strung like beads along its bank, more one town than six separate townships.
There was no formal date in the Uztari calendar for the Hawkers' Market, but the thawing of the Necklace told the time. When the Necklace flowed knee-deep, the tents began to rise along the road. When it rolled waist-deep, the market opened.
There was no announcement, either. Spies simply watched the river and sent pigeons back to tell their masters, who were traveling along the haulers' routes from the Sky Castle in the north to the Talon Fortress in the south.
Everyone knew who the spies were, of course, and for whom they spied. Spying was a Six Villages tradition, passed through families for generations. The more prestigious the noble family, the more prestigious the village family who spied for them. There were no secrets in the Six Villages, after all. With the surety that ice turns to water and back again, when the river ran, the customers would come and the spies would buy the first round at the Broken Jess.
Her brother couldn't resist. Kylee watched, seething, as Brysen laughed with the other battle boys. The current fight drew to a close, and two of the youngest boys swept up the footprints, blood, and scattered feathers from the pit.
Running off to the battle pits the day before the Hawkers' Market was the kind of recklessness for which their father would have beaten Brysen breathless. Then again, their father had never needed an excuse. He seemed to enjoy the sport of hurting her brother the way a hawk enjoys stunning a mouse.
Good thing Da's dead, Kylee thought, and spat once on the ground, then stomped the spit into the dirt to keep him that way. Mud below and mud between. The dead can't rise to a sky unseen. It was a superstition but a satisfying one. Some men didn't deserve sky burial.
Travel across the plateau was becoming dangerous, and prices for Six Villages birds were soaring. From one end of the steppe to the other, everyone knew the Six Villages offered the best birds of prey — for hunting, racing, fighting, or companionship — and the market was the only time the best buyers would risk traveling all the way there. Word was that this would be the last good market for a while. Word was that war was on the wing.
What "word was" didn't concern Kylee, but she knew that if they could sell off all the birds Brysen had trapped and trained this year, they could finally pay off their inheritance: gambling debts their father had racked up at the Broken Jess. After three seasons of desperate scraping for every last bronze they could get, Kylee and her brother could break even and close the business; they could be free of falconry.
Not that Brysen wanted to be free of the profession. But Kylee did. She could finally be free.
Already the roads and inns sparkled with throngs of eager village visitors. Even Altari holy men crawled in, the backs of their sunburned necks shining angrily up from knee height. One of them bumped his head against Kylee's leg as he approached her on all fours at the gate of the Broken Jess.
"Alms for your skyward sins," he groaned through the din of the growing crowd, lifting one dirty hand at her without looking up. The Crawling Priests had bloody knees and hoarse voices from shouting doom upon the falconers' craft, but they kept their eyes fixed firmly on the dirt. They believed the Uztari training of birds was blasphemy and that only the ancient Altari cult of reverence for the wild and untamed sky was the true faith. They saved their harshest words for Altari who left the religion and became Uztari, with a bird on the fist.
They were, however, happy to beg for Uztari bronze.
"Go away," Kylee grumbled.
"It is not too late for you to repent," the man cried, gripping her by the shin so hard that his knuckles went white. "Repent the wicked wind you worship and accept the true faith of our land. Repent and be saved from the coming destruction and — ooof!"
His face bit the dirt when a foot swept his other arm out from under him.
"Suck a vulture's toe," Vyvian Sacher laughed at the Crawling Priest as he pushed himself back up on all fours. "Get out of here!"
"Your kind brings the curse of the Kartami upon us," he growled at her, and lifted his head to look Kylee and Vyvian in the eyes. "None shall be spared."
Vyvian raised her rolled-up umbrella and the Crawling Priest winced, then looked down and crawled away, leaving the rough crowd of the Broken Jess behind.
"You believe that cockatoo?" Vyvian scoffed. "Threatening us in our yard."
"It's the usual nonsense." Kylee shrugged. "Not even half as bad as the stuff my ma says."
"Yeah, well, your mom's a fanatic," Vyvian said, running a hand through her long, dark hair and tying it back into a knot. She wore black-and-brown leather pants and a long feathered robe, and the way she stretched looked more like preening than working out a kink in her neck. Vyvian wanted to be seen, which was why she carried an umbrella to protect against bird droppings but never opened it. Only the truly wealthy actually opened their umbrellas, caring more for their fabrics than the view other people had of them. Vyvian aspired to riches but had a long way yet to go. She did love market days, though.
When they were little, before she'd taken up the family business, she and Kylee would play bone dice underneath the market stalls. These days, both of them were too busy when the market came around; Kylee hustling bronze and Vyvian hustling secrets. Her family spied for one of the kyrgs at the Talon Fortress, so she usually knew what was happening on the rest of the plateau before most Six Villagers. "Your mom has the sense to do her ranting in private. This priest doesn't have the right to spread panic at the Broken Jess. People are nervous enough about the Kartami already."
"Do you think it's true?" Kylee asked. "Are they coming?"
The Kartami — also called the shards — were a roving band of religious fanatics who lived in the farthest reaches of the Parsh Desert. Even the Crawling Priests were too moderate for them. While the Altari believed that humans taming birds of prey was a sin, the Kartami believed that the birds themselves carried the sin. The Altari looked away from the sky in awe; the Kartami looked directly at it with disgust for what it had become. Where one group prayed to repent, the other prayed for annihilation.
In the Six Villages, the Altari were moralistic scolds, while the Kartami were merely a distant threat that parents used to scare their children: Eat your greens, or the Kartami will steal your songbirds while you sleep. Clean the mews, or the Kartami will steal all the birds from the sky. But the Kartami had been growing bolder, attacking closer, cutting roads between settlements, and cutting the fists from every falconer they found. Minor Altari nobles — those who had been pledged to Uztar — had begun to surrender, committing their souls to the Kartami faith, their bodies to the Kartami cause, and their resources to the Kartami war machine. The Council of Forty urged calm throughout Uztar as towns and villages begged for the Sky Castle's protection.
Now that the thaws of the ice-melt season had come, rumors of Kartami advances flew as fast as sparrow hawks.
Vyvian shrugged at Kylee's worried question. "You know my family doesn't give out information for free. What kind of spies would we be if I didn't make you pay for it?"
"An old friend?" Vyvian frowned, and Kylee rolled her eyes. "I don't spend bronze on rumors."
"Who said anything about bronze?" Her friend turned back to the battle pits, raised an eyebrow at Brysen on the edge. He was talking to his trainer, Dymian. They were leaning in close. "I can take all kinds of payment."
Kylee groaned. "Even if I were the kind of sister who'd sell you her brother, you are singing to the wrong bird." Brysen had his fingers laced between Dymian's, his lips whispering against the older boy's ear.
"It's a tragedy," Vyvian sighed. "The things I could teach your brother about a body ..."
"I'm just saying, if he ever stops preening for Master Birdnester over there, send him my way."
The trainer, Dymian, had taken his own falcon from a nest he'd found when she was still a baby eyas. Someone who took eyasses from their nests was called a birdnester, but Kylee was pretty sure that wasn't what Vyvian meant by it. Dymian was a few seasons older than Brysen.
"You can't see it because he looks like you, but with that hair and those eyes ... your brother's keener than a prize peregrine. And you're not such a plain pigeon yourself."
If Kylee could've rolled her eyes straight out of her head, she would've.
"I'll take a fight!" Brysen shouted over the crowd, and the rough boys around him cheered and patted him on the shoulders, ruffled his thunder-struck hair. Dymian squeezed their interlaced fingers.
The Broken Jess had been a temple in ancient times, of what kind no one knew. Like most sacred things in Uztar, it had been put to more human uses than its founders could have imagined. All that remained of its sacred past now was a big stone sanctuary that housed the pub, piles of random stones scattered about its yard, and a great rock painting of two falcons in combat that decorated the cliff face behind it.
Below the sheer cliff face and the hawk mural were the battle pits. There were three pits around the edge of the property and one large "show pit" in the center. Brysen was at the smallest pit.
The pits were about as deep as a sinner's grave but wide enough for two people to circle each other. The sides sloped up, wider at the top than at the bottom, and spectators sat and stood around the rim, crowding, shouting, and cheering the fighters they'd bet on. Brysen had begun his climb into the pit when a man slid down the edge opposite him.
What was Brysen doing? They did not have time for this!
His opponent wore the pale tunic and loose pants of a long-hauler. Not master of a convoy, but someone higher up than a driver. His red beard was thick and full, bejeweled with colorful desert glass, and his copper hair was hidden under a flat white hat that was also dotted with more desert glass.
He removed his tunic to show a pale, muscled chest covered in long-hauler's ink. He had markings along his collarbone for every journey he'd made across the Parsh Desert, ornamented text of a hauler's prayer to the flocks scrawled up his side, and, across the rippling expanse of his back, a colorful scene from the Epic of the Forty Birds. The tattoo was filled with symbols whose meanings were known only to long-haulers, but he showed it off now to make one thing clear: His back had never met the whip.
Had Brysen ever taken his shirt off in public, his back would tell a very different story.
The long-hauler's companions whispered to one another, laughing beneath their colorful round umbrellas, which cast their faces in shadow. The man in the pit had a female kestrel, square- tailed and brown-striped, that sat steady on his glove. He removed her ornamented leather hood, and the teardrop eyes in her white face fixed on Brysen and his hawk.
Brysen swiped Shara's plain hood off, revealing her bloodred eyes. The pupils were so wide that the red barely ringed them, two blazing eclipses held afire inside a bird's skull. When she saw where she was, she shrieked and spread her wings, clutched her talons around Brysen's wrist, footing him hard. He whispered something to her. The bird calmed.
Shara was a goshawk — far bigger than the kestrel but far moodier, too. She had a crooked wing and a nervous temper, was prone to fits of brutal violence and days of sullen pouting. The two of them weren't so different, Brysen and Shara.
She shifted her weight nervously on his fist. His thumb rubbed one of her talons.
"Here's some news for free," Vyvian whispered in Kylee's ear. "That long-hauler's nickname is the Orphan Maker."
"Don't do this!" Kylee called to Brysen, shoving her way through the crowd to the edge of the battle pit. Brysen's ambition in the pits was not always matched by his talent. He always tried to take on the biggest opponent with the longest odds. When he won, he won big, but when he lost, there were scars.
"The challenge is accepted, Ky!" Nyck, one of the battle boys, called across to her. "He can't back out now."
"Don't worry about it," Brysen shouted up. "When I win, I'll buy us all lamb leg for dinner."
He smiled but not at her, then unhooked the short string that tethered Shara to his glove, unwound the battle rope from his shoulder, and, with one hand, tied the split end to the jesses around her ankles. The rope had a clasp on a swivel below the bird's ankles, giving Shara a free range of movement while keeping her attached to the glove. They were bound to each other in the battle, tethered from wrist to ankle, from earth to air.
Mud below and mud between.
"Wish me luck," Brysen said.
"When have you ever had luck?" Kylee asked.
Brysen scowled, then drew his black-talon blade.CHAPTER 2
Her brother turned to face the Orphan Maker and gripped his knife in the fighter's stance. The curved black blade mirrored the brutal beak of a hawk, and Shara's eyes glanced at it unsteadily.
The knife was old, but how old they didn't know. It'd been inscribed with symbols their father had always said were in "the Hollow Tongue," the ancient language of the birds. But their father was also easily deceived and might've just convinced himself that was true to avoid facing the fact that he'd been ripped off for a fake antique. No one could actually read the Hollow Tongue or even knew for sure what it would look like in writing.
Regardless, it was the only thing they had left of the man, and Brysen had wanted to keep it. He had scars on all his fingers from where their father missed whenever he played a drunken game of pinfinger using Brysen's spread hand pressed against the table. Why Brysen clung to it puzzled Kylee. Strange magic bound a blade to the wounds it made.
Brysen crouched, arm across his chest, resting the base of the knife handle on the middle of his gloved forearm and forming a T with the blade as its base.
The Orphan Maker assumed the same position, and Brysen's eyes fixed on him.
Shara saw the other blade and the other falconer and the other bird. It was a familiar sight, surely, but not a comfortable one. She shrank back into herself; this was a bad time to show fear.
A frightened goshawk perched with its talons tucked under its tail feathers and its head pulled back is a ridiculous sight. They're big birds but stubby, shaped like a thumb drawn by a child, with the beak an angry V in the center of the face. And Shara, who perched with a slight tilt to the side, looked more ridiculous than most.
Her chest was striped gray and white in a herringbone pattern, and her red eyes were hooded with black. The rest of her feathers were a mixture of grays, which helped camouflage her against the rocky terrain of the foothills but stood out brightly against the lush green grasses down in the Six Villages as the melt came on.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Black Wings Beating"
Copyright © 2018 Charles London.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
An Impossible Bird,
Brysen: The Widening Gyre,
All Things True,
The Dirt's Mercy,
Brysen: Different Veins,
Kylee: The Hollow Tongue,
The Sapling Forest,
Brysen: Winds and Wounds,
Feather and Ash,
About the Author,