by Sarah Ann Watts
Kyran, a king’s son, has been disinherited and exiled to a remote temple. One snowy morning, a messenger arrives to recall him to court, where he is to serve as governor of the king’s other children. Kyran is a seer and a child of the Falcon, but his paranormal abilities do not protect him from court intrigue. He must ultimately set out on a quest to find the Winter Ship and its destination.
Chapter 20: Fly Away, Little Bird
Razvan is the one who says it to my face at last. I can’t pretend I’m surprised. All my life I’ve been alone with the whispers. I’m still trying to take in what Razvan said about Kras, that he is a created life, child of the pleasure city, expendable. Now it seems they think the same of me.
Kras said his people age and die. I guess after a while we all outgrow the limitations of our creators, just as children outgrow their parents. Our flaws are all too human, and these ‘Guardians of the Temple’, as the Immortals call themselves, are not above reproach.
Meanwhile I’m lonely for Kras and tired of talking. I bow to Razvan. ‘Give me leave, My Lord,’ and he nods curtly. Going up on deck into the mists of morning, I have the impression that the ship is adrift like those who sail in her. We sail through uncharted waters.
When I reach Kras’s nest of blankets, there is one stray feather. Fear grips me. Maybe returning and not finding me, he has left. Gone is gone forever. I smooth the feather and place it close to my heart. I have two now, and I wonder: will I ever have enough for a quiver? Is it with feathers like his that they fletch the barbs of the god of love?
Naraya, Lorcan and Daan are in a huddle at the stern. I’m no longer afraid and cross the deck before I know it.
‘Where is he? What have you done to him?’
Each of them holds a grey feather and there are spots of blood on Naraya’s face.
‘Where is he?’
Lorcan tilts his head to the mast, and I see broken wings snared in the net and I cry out and the deck tilts beneath my feet. I throw myself at Daan, fighting with the tooth and claw and talon I no longer have. Rage possesses me. I’m winning, and for the first time I have strength to defeat him.
I might have killed Daan, but Razvan intervenes and they restrain me.
I hardly care, thinking Kras is dead. They drag me towards the spread-eagled form in the net. There is still life in his eyes, but they are cold. Razvan urges me to talk to him. I know Kras will not talk to me now. They are desperate to know where he has been. It seems so stupid, that they maimed the one person who could help them.
Then as they talk I begin to realise that it is I who have been stupid, not them. Kras stole my soul: he shifted and became like me. Now he is trapped in my image, held there by the tear in his wing, and they can use that to control me.
When Kras sheds his cloak of feathers, they will gift it to me. I will regain the powers I lost and scout ahead for them, but I will never be free. The price is clear: if I don’t obey, Kras will die. I fear he will die anyway.
When they offer him food and water, he tears at their hands and will take no healing for his hurts. I have no choice but to submit. I have to watch as the feathers fall from his cloak, to ensure they will not be stripped by force. There is nothing I can say, and I know that if I dare approach, he will break my neck with one blow from his broken wing.
The feathers are slow to fall, and I move to gather them, thinking none should touch them but me. On the deck the Guardians heat wax to bind the feathers, harvesting candles from the hold.
It seems they took on supplies in Keroessa, and I wonder what else they bought with the gold they didn’t pay Kras for me. No wonder they took such care not to break the bond between us. All Razvan had to do was to leave a door unlocked and threaten to set Kras adrift. I should have let him go.
They said Kras could not die. I know they lack the skill and facilities to tend to him on board this ship. He may choose not to live. His face is twisted with pain, and when he opens his eyes he looks on me with the hatred he has for the others, and the pain twists my heart. The bond is broken between us now.
* * *
The Guardians take me below to a cabin in the bow and give me a draught to help me transform. I watch as Naraya blends it and I make no complaint when she nicks the vein on my wrist and lets three slow drops of crimson blood fall. Daan winds a silver chain around my wrists, light and strong like wire, to bind me in my altered shape.
They tell me I will sleep and, when I wake, I will have made the change. I see their anxious glances and I think, If I wake. They don’t know what they are doing. These immortals play with us like dolls and, when we break, then they will buy others.
Still I have given my word and, at night, when they place the cup to my lips, I drink. There is honey in it to mask the bitterness and the taste of blood. Razvan flicks my face with the silver chain, and when I blink they add my tear to the mix.
Vapour rises and I see my face reflected. Then as the drug takes hold, vision blurs and it is Kras’s face I see, and his eyes glint golden, and there is nothing human in them. So I imagine the gods look down upon man.
I grow tired and sink down on the bunk. Someone stirs in the shadows and draws a rug over me and briefly clasps my hand. There is the scent of honeysuckle in the air. Naraya tends me. My grip tightens on her arm, and my fingers shift into talons. Red streaks her wrists. I feel her flinch, but she does not cry out.
I try to speak to her, to tell her I am sorry, but my human voice is gone. There is sharp pain as the feathers burst through the skin on my back. I feel my spine alter and twist and I scream. My voice is the high shrill keening of the falcon.
I had forgotten how much the change hurts and now it is worse: these feathers are not mine. My body fights to reject this alien shift in my flesh, to cast it out. Naraya holds me, tries to soothe me, her image grows dim as my eyes change. I’m hurting so much: flames of pain lick my broken skin and, in a way, I welcome it, seeking expiation.
I can’t believe they used Kras to alter me like this or that I agreed to it. I think this horror will make me mad, if the pain endures; but even as I thresh and fight against it, the drug takes hold, pushing me below to a world of flickering shapes.
They have driven my soul out of my body, and I flit like a ghost through grey shades until they call me home.
For the first time I begin to understand the purpose of the silver chain, to tie my soul to this world lest I choose to escape them forever. It holds Kras, too.
I fly over an endless ocean drifting ever closer to the waves. It is my heart weighing me down, and the chain that links me to the ship and my captors.
* * *
When I wake, I am lying curled in the bunk, and all my muscles ache. My eyes are sore, and the silver has dug grooves in my wrists. I can see nothing but mist beyond the porthole. This pale light could be morning.
Raising my head, I’m shivering. I’m hungry and thirsty, the silver hangs loose on my wrists. I wonder how long the transformation endured. On the pillow there are shreds of grey. At first I mistake them for dust or fragments of ash moths. But no, they are leaves, grey and sere as they look to me.
I must have been successful in my mission. If I found land, why can’t I remember? As for Kras, I dare not think. I feel no ghost of his presence in my mind, and I’m fearful to search for him. What will I do if I can’t find him?
My head is swimming; focusing my thoughts makes darkness fill my eyes like ink. My head falls back on the pillow. Even as it hits, I go on falling.
I suppose perhaps I sleep, shutting out fear, fear of finding nothing but a void where Kras used to be. When I next come to myself, the light has altered again, shadows of evening. I’m hungry and my throat burns. The silver holds me and, when I try to rise, I fall back on the bunk. I have no strength to stand.
As it grows darker, I’m afraid, not knowing how much time has passed while I was under the drug, cast out in another form to fly and search for the Immortals. They have taken little care to tend me. My hands are filthy, my nails are broken, as if I have been digging with my hands.
No one comes to find me. I listen and can hear nothing. The ship is quiet: no sound of voices on deck. It is only later that I realise there is no sound at all; the ship is not moving. Then I hear the creak of the anchor chain like the cry of a gull, and I think of Kras.
Dazed as I am, I have been slow to realise that the ship rests at anchor. That does not explain the silence. Even if the Guardians have gone ashore, they would not leave the ship untended.
It is so dark. I should see the glow of the starboard lantern but, beyond the porthole, everything is dark: no stars; a pall of cloud or smoke hangs over the ship. I wonder where my so-called friends have gone. I try to work my hands free. If the ship sinks, I will go down with her.
I huddle there, feeling there is no one left in this world but me. I am waiting for morning to come. There is no food or water within reach. I can only hope that someone is left alive to return to me. It occurs to me that perhaps the Winter Ship has been driven ashore, that she rests a broken hulk on some beach, and my companions are dead or have fled.
I can’t stay here forever. The thought skims through my mind like a pebble thrown over the waves. I feel like that pebble, I have bounced from wave tip to wave tip, a stone thrown by someone else. Yes, I am weary of this flight from nowhere to nowhere, but I am not ready to sink.
The door is locked. I reach for the cloak of feathers they have woven for me. One way or another, I will break out. The porthole is small but I can smash the glass and then, if I can shift form, if there is enough of the drug left in me, maybe I can fly. It is dangerous, but this time I will try the change myself.
I break the glass and let the light of the moon play over my face like a lover’s touch. Then I close my eyes and I dream of flight. The pain when it comes is sharp: an inner tearing and shifting, and the feathers erupt in agony. I know that later I will pay, that I cannot sustain it for long. The change will give me a couple of hours, no more.
The physical transformation is easier this time, but I need to remember who I am and where I’m going. I can’t let the drug blank out knowledge and fly like a drone. There are feathers missing, but I think this strength will serve.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts