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Untethered Sky

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Untethered Sky

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Author: Fonda Lee
Publisher: Publishing, 2023

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Book Type: Novella
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Dark Fantasy
High Fantasy
Avg Member Rating:
(13 reads / 9 ratings)


Ester's family was torn apart when a manticore killed her mother and baby brother, leaving her with nothing but her father's painful silence and a single, overwhelming need to kill the monsters that took her family.

Ester's path leads her to the King's Royal Mews, where the giant rocs of legend are flown to hunt manticores by their brave and dedicated ruhkers. Paired with a fledgling roc named Zahra, Ester finds purpose and acclaim by devoting herself to a calling that demands absolute sacrifice and a creature that will never return her love. The terrifying partnership between woman and roc leads Ester not only on the empire's most dangerous manticore hunt, but on a journey of perseverance and acceptance.


Zahra was her name. When the crate opened, all I saw at first were her eyes, the largest of any living creature, enormous golden orbs fixing me with a raptor's murderous glare. She was a year-old fledgling taken from the nest, already lethal and immense. I was a woman of eighteen, small, wounded, over-anxious. Sweat coated my hands and lathered my body beneath heavy leather work gloves and a tarnished scale vest. Ruhkers have been killed on the first day. If it happened to me, another apprentice would take my place.

Zahra stepped calmly into the mews pen without coaxing. Babak and the gathered ruhkers watching from behind the bars nodded approvingly. The fledgling hadn't hunched in the crate in fear, nor exploded out of it screaming with rage. She was healthy, calm, and brave--the most anyone could ask for. My excitement ran like a fever--the blood hot in my head, my fingertips tingling and swollen. I was thrillingly, terrifyingly aware of my fragility. A roc could knock me down in a single blow. With one massive taloned foot, she could crush my head like a ripe apricot and tear out my entrails before anyone could make a move.

I loved her with the gravity of a stone sinking into a pool.

A fully grown female roc stands a head taller than most men. Fully spread, her wings reach as wide as three people lined up fingertip-to-fingertip with arms outstretched. Rocs aren't the impossible size that storytellers and artists would have you believe, but nevertheless Zahra loomed over me. She made the falcon I'd flown as a girl seem like a toy.

I began to speak quietly, murmuring my admiration for her as I picked up the butchered hind leg of a boar, careful to use my non-dominant hand as I placed it on the wooden perch. Zahra's head jerked, staring first at me, then at my offering. A moment of fateful decision--one that felt to me like the judgment of God--before she hopped onto the perch as if she'd done it a thousand times and began to tear into the meat.

Audible sighs of relief escaped those watching. I backed out of the mews, opening and closing one barred gate and then the other, my knees weak. Babak was counting out a fat purse of silver for Gazsi, the roc hunter. He handed over the payment grudgingly but without complaint. As Master of the Royal Mews, Babak was responsible for ensuring that the king's rocs and the ruhkers who handled them were maintained at full roster and in good condition. Gazsi charged a fortune for a captured fledging, but as one of the few reliable roc hunters, he could do so.

Gazsi sauntered past, whistling and swinging the bulging bag of coins. He paused beside me. "She was second to hatch." The roc hunter's voice was gruff, but had the singsong quality of a man from the mountain tribes. "Her sister tried to kill her, to push her out of the nest, but she hung on. I was going to take the older chick, but then I saw this one start to fly. She flew farther and faster than the other one. Was the first to hunt, the first to make a kill."

He seemed almost teary-eyed--an incongruous sight, as Gazsi was a lion of a man, with a mane of wild hair and so many roc-inflicted scars that he looked as if he'd been flogged in a dozen dungeons. Roc hunters are even more demented than ruhkers. Gazsi spent months scaling the steepest peaks in search of roc eyries. If he found a nest, he camped in hiding nearby, watching the ugly white chicks until they grew into sleek dark youths and could fly and hunt on their own. Then he set a baited net trap in hopes of capturing and subduing a fledgling while its parents were away or not paying attention. So many things could go wrong: The trap might fail, leaving him with nothing to show for the season. The angry, trapped roc might kill or maim him. The adults might discover him and tear him to pieces, feeding him to the same chicks he'd watched hatch and grow.

Gazsi looked down at me, his nostrils flaring. His expression suggested he didn't think I was worthy of the roc he'd risked his life to bring to the mews. Perhaps he held that opinion of every new ruhker. "Camel meat is her favorite. Liver especially." He jingled his bag of money and strode away.

"Ester!" Nasmin came over and embraced me. When she pulled back, she kept ahold of my shoulders, her eyes dancing with excitement and the covetousness that every ruhker has when a new roc arrives. Ruhkers can't get enough of rocs. Even with their own to occupy them, they can't help jealously admiring new fledglings. "She's splendid," Nasmin declared. "I can't wait until we're hunting together. I'll bring you all the choice bits from Azar's kills during your dark days."

I nodded in wordless thanks, relaxing a little into her optimism. Most ruhkers paid little attention to the apprentices, but Nasmin was one of the younger women in the mews and one of the few who'd been kind to me when I'd arrived a year ago. The simple knowledge that I had a friend who'd gone through what I was facing and was confident in my survival made it much easier to not think about the alternative.

Babak handed me a canteen of water, a sack full of raw meat, and a blanket for when night fell. The Master of the Mews was nearly forty, a veritable ancient by ruhkers' standards. His face was square and sun-leathered, his beard closely trimmed, and he spoke with gestures, grunts, and frowns more than words. Babak never treated me better or worse than any other apprentice. Only competence and dedication to one's bird meant anything to him.

When a ruhking apprenticeship opens, each satrapy in the realm is required to submit the name of one candidate between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two, with talent in hunting, tracking, riding, and falconry, among other qualities. When I'd presented myself in the governor's receiving room to ask for the nomination, Governor Govad had frowned down at me with grandfatherly bewilderment and concern. "Ruhking is no fit life for a young woman." Govad had tugged doubtfully on his thick beard. "If you succeed, you won't be able to come home. If you fail, you certainly won't be able to come home." In the end, however, he nominated me, perhaps because I continued to plead my case no matter his attempts to dissuade me. Or perhaps there were no better or more willing candidates.

Out of every five apprentice ruhkers, two will be killed or crippled, two will leave or be sent away, and only one will ever fly a roc. And the dangers do not diminish after that. Babak had seen apprentices come and go. He would place no odds on my success, yet his equanimity was an odd comfort, because I shared his blunt assessment: Either I would become a ruhker, or I would die trying. I would train and care for Zahra, yet she could never belong to me. In name, she belonged to Antrius the Bold and the Kingdom of Dartha, but even that was not true. A roc is always a wild thing, always God's monster alone.

"Five days dark, then hood her," Babak said. "I want her up in the air by next month, which means no time to waste backtracking on training if you make mistakes. Do it right."

I tilted my face toward the sky, trying to soak in enough sunlight to carry me through the days to come. Then I went into the pen to join my splendid monster in darkness.

Copyright © 2023 by Fonda Lee


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