From the author: Sometimes what we need, is what we can give.
Aderyn swept on snowy wings across a moonless sky, where aquamarine fire hung in folds like finest silk. Below her, black trees limned in snow rose up from white ground like twisted hands. But no humans seemed to dwell here, in these lands of endless night.
At first she’d rejoiced at the desolation around her. I’ve strayed far to the north, she’d thought. Far from the hands of kings and lords, to lands free from machinations and betrayal. Even the dead trees cloaked in snow had a kind of sere beauty to them, but after days passed, and she’d flown over many ruined clusters of huts, all roofless and sheathed in ice, she began to worry. She’d seen no smaller birds, no hares or squirrels. Not so much as a mouse scampering under the snow.
Horns blew in the distance—the first sign of human habitation she’d perceived here. Hungry but still wary, she drifted in the wake of a hunting party. Eyes night-keen, she noted the ribs and hips of the horses jutting against their dull hides, sure sign of famine. The heavy armor of the men. A war-party, a patrol, not hunters. With whom are they at war? With winter itself, perhaps?
And yet, even in this death-cold, no breath-clouds warmed the air with white. Prickles of unease lifted her feathers from her skin. No food to be found here. And men and war are no longer my concern.
Aderyn turned to swoop away, but her movement must have caught their attention. A thrown net folded her wings to her body, and she plummeted to earth.
She flung off her cloak of feathers, revealing skin as she struggled with the strands that trammeled her. No, no, no, she thought, desperate, incoherent, but the riders closed, catching her with chill hands, chaining her with cold iron bands. “Let me go!” she cried, dread rising in her. Not a prisoner, not again!
To her surprise, one of them showed enough compassion to take the tattered cloak from his own shoulders and drape it around her to ward against the frost-tinged air. “Where are you taking me?” she demanded, trying to remember the language that men of the north spoke. Trying to remember the tones of command she’d once used, when she’d ridden to war herself, on an iron-shod steed, with a cohort of steel-clad men around her. Her second skin they’d been, protectors assigned by a king to defend his loyal court mage on the battlefield. Before feathers had replaced them as her defense.
For an instant, she remembered their laughing voices on the wind. Recalled their faces and smiles, the feeling of camaraderie. Dead, all dead now, and some even at my hand when they turned on me. Grief assailed her—vivid and sharp as a knife, in human form. Owl-shape, owl-thoughts usually blunted it. And yet, how could they not turn on me? The evidence was overwhelming . . . .
But these men, unlike the ghosts of her memory, never spoke as they took her to their gray-walled fortress, past abandoned farms long gone to ruin, under the eternal night of their northern sky.
Inside, their leader waited, silent and indifferent in a throne room that seemed little different than all the others she’d stood in before. Yet in spite of being in the safety of his fortress, he bore arms and armor, like his followers.
“Lord Faris, a trespasser found in your lands. She wore this, and flew as an owl.” Her captor’s voice echoed like an empty room as he displayed her feather-cloak, the white curls of it lifting up around the black-enameled mail of his gauntlets like a living thing. “We smelled pine sap and oak leaves. Southern magic—fire and earth. Heard her heartbeat, if not her wings on the wind. And captured her.”
Faris, Aderyn thought, her hungry stomach twisting. A northern king’s family once bore that name and stood as enemy to my lord’s house. But none from the roof of the world have fought in the alliance against the southern lands in hundreds of years. The rest of the words washed over her, pulling her into the silence that now lingered like a wave drawn back from the shore. They heard my heartbeat? What manner of men are these?
From under the lord’s visor, no glitter of eyes; his voice a breathless whisper: “Those who trespass upon my lands forfeit their lives, owl-woman. Explain why you should not die.”
“I did not willingly set foot upon your land,” Aderyn replied, shaking in the chill of the air. Feeling the cold rising up from the ground through her feet, leaching the life from her. “I flew above it till your men forced me to the ground.” A pretty technicality, I’m sure.
His hand rose. Through gaps in the mail, she spotted shapely bones, and shuddered. Dead. They’re all dead men. Ghosts that have more voices and will than the ones that dwell in my memory . . . but they’re dead still. “Then you may live, owl-woman. But you may not leave.”
The fetters fell from her limbs at his gesture. Northern magic, ice and wind and steel. “Let me have my wings, and I will fly from here.” Her voice sounded thin to her own ears. “I will trouble you not at all. You have my oath on it.”
“Wings or not, you are as trapped as we are. Such is the curse upon my land.” His head turned as if to study her.
“Curse?” Aderyn asked, swallowing. “Who set it? I’ve felt no magic in this land.” And I would have. Should have. Unless I’ve abandoned myself so deeply into owl-shape that I haven’t paid attention to what my other senses have told me . . . .
She stepped closer as Faris unfolded the tale: “Two centuries ago, my men and I pledged
to protect this land and our people to our last human breaths, against an enemy formed of and armed by southern magic.” A pause. “Magic like yours. Creatures built of stone and fire, and trees uprooted from the earth to fight us.”
Aderyn nodded, memories surging. Working in the castle forges to animate the statues chiseled from stone by skilled masons. Manning the bellows to pump living fire into their bellies, leading the incantations that would bind it there. Riding out alongside the host of golems that she and the other castle mages had built. Hundreds of stone feet slamming against the ground in lock-step, implacable. Impenetrable. Lifting her hands to weave fire from the air, and rain it down on her lord’s foes. “The southern way of war has not changed since those days,” she whispered, her lips dry. “Except that they’ve turned upon their own.”
A pause, and then he stood from his cold throne and advanced. Unclasped his cloak—just as tattered as the one already wrapped around her shoulders by his men—and offered it to her. “Take this.” He gestured to his men, who took jingling strides to other rooms, and returned with armloads of damp wood to pile in the empty hearth at the end of the long hall. A snap of his fingers lit the blaze, and she huddled close to it. In spite of its heat, she could still feel fingers of cold pressing against her back.
As the golden glow of the fire stretched through the dark hall, she noticed that somehow, the light seemed to avoid Faris. His black armor should have shone with it, reflected it, gleamed; instead, the light faded around him. Dulled. Muted. He stood beside her, silent for a long moment, and then finally asked, “You said their way of war. Not our. Why?”
“Does it matter?” Aderyn closed her eyes. “Were we not discussing your curse?”
“My curse is old tidings to me. What curse do you suffer under, owl-woman?”
Old loyalties clung to her lips like cobwebs, but a dead northern lord had extended her more courtesy, more honor, more hospitality, than she’d encountered in a dozen years. She stared into the fire. “My lord had enemies within his own court. His first wife bore him only daughters. His second wife had a son when she came to him, and she was ambitious for her child. When she, too, gave him only daughters, she began to plot for her son’s advancement.” Dull words, as if recited from some ancient chronicle. “She needed the castle mages out of the way—we were all loyal to her husband, and to his nephew, who would inherit when our lord died. And she needed someone to take the blame for their deaths. She had all the others besides me killed. Poison in their cups. Poison in my lord’s food.”
She could see it all again in memory’s glass. A whispered word, a gesture, and the flames leaped and curled, becoming familiar faces. A masque put on for the benefit of the dead man beside her, a puppet-show of the deaths of those once so dear to her. Mathos, one of her fellow mages, laughing and performing little illusions to delight the company, until he frowned and reached for his throat. Swallowed hard. Began to choke for air. To her left, Hamilax, leader of the mage-guards, pushed back from the table, gasping, his big shoulders heaving. Fighting an enemy his sword couldn’t reach. An enemy lodged inside his own body.
She closed her eyes against the memories. Reaching out for Hamilax, who’d shared her bed on campaign and off. Aware of the surge of bodies around them as the others surged to their feet, knocking over the benches as they did. “Can’t breathe,” Hamilax choked out, and she reached for a knife. Shoved him back onto the table as if he didn’t weigh half again what she did, and pressed the knife into his throat with shaking hands. Rummaged in her belt for a scroll, filled with the magic words used to give the golems life. “Live,” she shouted at Hamilax, as if her will could make it so.
She ripped at the useless parchment with her knife, rolled it into a tube. Tucked it into the gash she’d made in his throat, her fingers red with his blood. Clutched his hand as he took one labored breath. Then another, as people fell to the floor around them, bodies arching, convulsing. She took her eyes from her lover’s only once, to gaze up the table to where Lord Abimilki sat, face purple and swollen, gasping for air. Reaching out a shaking hand for his wife beside him, who sat motionless in her tall chair. Untouched. Untroubled. Unpoisoned.
Lady Shakheto regarded him expressionlessly as he died. As men died all around her. Aderyn turned her gaze back towards Hamilax in time to watch the light die from his eyes, locked on her face as they were . . . .
She held up her fingers, stopping the flow of images in the fire, spilling from her mind to be wrought fresh in the flames. “I tried to save my beloved, and not my lord. That was wrong of me. But even in that, I failed. There’s no healing in these hands.” She looked down.
“Did you not kill her?” her host asked, his voice cold and remote.
The very chill of him braced her. “I tried,” Aderyn replied, feeling her lips tighten. “The other guards of our company entered on hearing the screams. Saw my dagger, red in my hand. Saw Ha—“ Her throat tightened around a name she’d been unable to speak for over a decade. “Saw their guard captain’s throat cut. Saw their lord dead, and me throwing fire at their lord’s wife, as she dove under the table to hide from me. They saw me betray my liege-oath to try to kill her.” She closed her eyes again, and added dully, “One of them struck me from behind. When I awoke, she’d told them a pretty tale of how I’d been bought by one of their lord’s enemies, and had killed everyone in the room besides herself. That she’d been too ill to drink the wine, and only that had saved her.”
“And they believed her?” Faris’ voice held disbelief.
A hand touched her shoulder, the cold of it burning through two layers of thick cloth. “But she did not execute you for your crimes.”
Aderyn shook her head. A bitter half-smile touched her face. “She had killed all the castle mages but one. She could not make the golems march without me. Could not give the living fire to new ones. She needed me alive until she could recruit new mages. Buy their loyalty. She imprisoned me within a tower, and told me I’d walk free if I swore loyalty to her and her son, and worked my magic for her.” Foolish woman. With such lies as she told about me? I wouldn’t have walked free more than a day before someone loyal to her husband and the others gutted me with a knife.
“Did you swear that oath?” Simple, bare words.
“No.” The word twisted her lips. “I worked for my escape, my freedom. Owls nested near the tower. Their feathers, my freedom. And on the night that I flew from her tower, I saw that her enemies had come for her. My lord’s nephew and his allies. Ready for a full year’s siege, their campfires red in the distance, their engines dark skeletons of wood against the horizon.” She relived the memory for an instant. How she’d exulted, seeing the downfall of Lady Shakheto moving slowly, inexorably towards the keep. Though her defeat would surely mean the deaths of many more within the keep. And likely the death of her son, who was blameless in all of this. “They had a host of siege golems with them, where she had none that she could command.” Aderyn shrugged. She hadn’t stayed to watch the siege, but she knew how it would have progressed. Golems to carry the huge battering rams to bear down the gate, arrows and flaming oil raining off of them harmlessly. Smaller models, sheathed in iron and heated to forge-glow by magic, to scale the walls and clasp the defenders in red-hot embraces. The largest to lift stones and hurl them with all the force of a catapult, or to tear at the walls with their huge clay hands.
She swallowed. “Her enemies might have freed me. They might have believed me loyal to her, and executed me. Either way, I was done with all of them. And I did not wish to wait and watch as those in the keep whom I had sworn to protect, died.” Even if they chose not to believe me, they didn’t deserve death. They didn’t deserve the iron advance of the golems, the fire of the war-mages. They didn’t deserve the destruction I wrought so often at my lord’s command.
Aderyn raised her eyes now, weary to her soul with the retelling. “So yes. I say them and not us. I have nowhere and nothing and no one to whom I belong.” Exile, she thought bitterly. It’s so much easier as an owl. They aren’t social creatures. Even now, after just a few minutes in human form, I already feel the longing to be a part of something creeping into my soul with the cold. To be warmed by more than fire. But there’s nothing here for me but death of another sort. “What cursed your land?” she asked, her voice empty.
The lord stood motionless. “As I said, we swore that we would defend these lands to our last human breaths. The gods heard vows made in good faith.” A sound that might have been a bitter laugh. “And ensured that we would not fail them—for our last breaths lie locked within us.”
“Then the gods brought destruction to this land?” Shock and consternation warred within her. The gods of the south have been silent for generations. Are the northern gods more active? Is that why their lands have not fallen before the golem-armies?
“Not them alone.” Faris shook his head, his visor swinging. “Our enemy tied the land to me, cursing the realm to darkness until I die. Bound my people here with me.” She watched his gauntleted fingers clench into fists. Watched frost trace its patterns across the metal, die into liquid as his hands strayed near the fire . . . only to be born again as he shifted away. Nothing but death and cold and starlight here. “I watched my family, my servants, my farmers, everyone die. Some of starvation, some of lost hopes. Except my faithful soldiers, trapped here with me.”
Some instinct made her reach out her hand, blindly. Perhaps the accursed need to touch, to offer comfort and accept the same. She caught his hand in hers, feeling a shock of death-chill with in the metal. Metal and the clay of the body beneath. I used to bring life to golems made of little more than he is now. His life has been trapped within him for centuries. What separates him from a golem now, but his suffering?
He tried to pull away, but she held tenaciously. “It’s a hard thing,” Aderyn whispered, her eyes burning, “to watch all that you love suffer and die.”
Silence, but for the crackle and pop of the fire. After a moment, Faris admitted, “At least I have had company in my suffering. You have not. Still, I long for death, for a dawn which will never come.” He turned his hand, clasping hers now. She could barely feel it through the spreading numbness of the cold of him. Needles of pain as the blood in her fingers fought to flow. “And the worst of it is, that in spite of your compassion, in spite of your own curse and pain, I will watch you, too, die. I wish this were not so.” Aching regret tinged his words.
A jag of anger and pain passed through her, but she left her hand where it was, in spite of the bone-deep chill. “Can you not let me go?”
He knelt beside her. “Even flying creatures cannot escape. My men have found their bones all along the borders of my realm. I watched my people claw their fingers bloody on empty air, trying to pass the borders. Some turned on me then, but could not kill me.” His visored head lowered. “I stripped off my armor and let them try. Under this armor is a ruin. They used blades. After a time, I threw myself into a pyre. To no avail. My men and I have been alone here for many years. Any human trespassers, we bring here so that they will at least not die alone. In the wilderness. With none to mark their passing.”
“And as penance for yourselves.” It wasn’t a question.
A faint nod as he raised his free hand to gesture at the fire. “What little comfort we can offer before your end . . . is yours, my lady.”
Aderyn’s eyes stung. “How often have you had to offer this comfort? How often have you watched people suffer and die in this way?”
“Too often.” Emptiness. Emptiness that echoed with centuries of loss.
“Then let me see if I can offer you respite. Southern magic might abate a southern curse.”
“But not a god’s blessing twisted.”
She shook her head. “That which has been twisted can be set straight.” I have to believe that. I must. If I don’t, then to what purpose do I still live? “Lift your visor.”
Faris hesitated but obeyed, revealing sunken, dull eyes, a skull wrapped in dried skin, blackened in places. It wasn’t beautiful to look on, but any smell of decay had long since left him.
Aderyn hesitated in turn. The wording of the curse seemed clear: to his last human breath. She could erase that humanity—but at great cost to herself. “I couldn’t save Hamilax,” Aderyn admitted, the name halting on her lips. “Or my lord. There is no healing in my hands; I was trained to end life, and manufacture its similitude.” She swallowed. “But I think, perhaps, that I can offer you something else.”
“What could you bring, that time has not?” Faris asked.
She turned her head, catching sight of her feathered cloak, which had been folded and draped over a decrepit chair. She reached out and caught it, the milk-white feathers curling around her hand like a caress. Familiar. Comforting. The path to escape, and an escape in itself. A refuge from herself, a way of being that required nothing from her but survival. No connection. No belonging. No hands to hold, or to hold mine in turn. “This took me two years to weave,” she murmured. “I twisted my blood into the thread of its net. Collected the feathers night by night. I made it of myself, of my need to escape where I was prisoned.” Prisoned, as he and his are.
A hint of hope in a dust-dry voice: “Then you could make such for us?”
“Not before I starve to death.” Her stomach clawed at her innards in reminder.
His head lowered. Resignation. “We can offer you a dagger, to make the end quicker, if you wish. Though . . . I have enjoyed hearing a new voice.”
“I will not be a memory with which you will flay yourself in the night.” The words felt like glass in her throat. “I will free you, Lord Faris.” Once, I escaped using these wings. Now, I must escape by giving them up. And . . . he and his deserve to be as free as I have been. Free to live. Free to die. I can always other wings for myself, in years to come, twisting them out of my own life-essence. If I still feel the need to escape from the past. From the world. From myself.
So she stood and wrapped him in her wings, pressing her lips against his bare chops, breathing her life into him. Felt him sigh his last human breath against her lips in grateful release. Felt his skin smooth and soften under her lips, before soft feathers caressed her face. He rose on snowy wings, uncertain, unsure, landing on her bare arm as his men fell in clatters of armor and bone all around them.
And as she caught him, the first of his feathers fell to the ground at her feet, and the sun rose.
This story originally appeared in New Myths.