Softly, a single feather fell from Mattias’ right wing, and drifted across the room in a light breeze from the doorway. It lay on the floor, glowing faintly. The woman stopped crying, and slowly approached it. Making sure that he was not looking, she bent and palmed the feather. She stood for a moment stroking its warm softness, her face lit by the glow, gazing in wonder at the object of her desires. Then, carefully, she placed the feather in a small chest squatting in the corner of the room, closing the lid firmly.
She went outside into the bleak day to search the traps for more game. It may take awhile, but she could wait. It was Juliet that couldn’t. She would read her another story that night, like the one with the princess and the pea. They both liked that one. There were no monsters in it.
Mattias was agitated. The woman was sitting, reading one of her tattered books, and throwing the occasional inquisitive glance in his direction. This should not be happening. At first he had thought it was a result of his frantic trauma, a few feathers dropping away here, another there. It was not unusual. What was disconcerting was the way it had continued. Weeks had passed, and the shedding had shown no sign of abating.
Initially he had not noticed much, as he had been totally engaged by the woman’s attempts to communicate. He had feigned a degree of ignorance and simplicity of nature, yet over time they had both acquired a basic knowledge of the other’s language. Nevertheless, he had been reluctant to part with any information, a fact that clearly vexed the woman. Her name was El’nor, and she was a wise woman of some sort. He still referred to her as the woman. She, in turn, had not been forthcoming as to the means by which she was able to cripple him with pain. All in all, an impasse had been reached, and the information exchanged was often so vague as to be useless.
Much was to be gleaned through simple observations, however. The woman and child lived alone in the cabin. The child was apparently ill, and he had yet to see her. She remained bedridden. Apparently the woman had been mated, but had been deserted. He could sense the bitterness in her voice when she spoke of him, and he could but wonder why the mate had left. The woman seemed perfectly able of managing things alone, though she was often exhausted at the end of the day. Each morning she produced some meat, presumably gathered from some snares near the cabin, and spiced it with a touch of her blood. He was so hungry, the scent drove him close to the edge of frenzy, overcoming even the all pervading reek of the cage. It was simply not enough sustenance, however. As the days passed, he could feel his body slipping further and further into torpor. His race performed an act similar to the hibernation of lower beasts when food was scarce. Soon he would barely be able to lift his head to look about, and after that… The woman seemed concerned, but he could not establish the reason. After he had attacked her, he could not work out why she kept him alive. Except, perhaps, to watch him suffer.
She was a cold bitch, there was no doubt of that. Maybe that was why her mate had left her. Many hours had been spent in regret for his foolishness. He should simply have completed the fall, either the first or second time. As it was, he had been unable to do it. This was his punishment. Day into night, night into day, hours of misery in this cramped space…
The creature was crying again. It was always strange to watch the black liquid oozing down its cheeks. They fed upon blood, as her books informed her, but these black tears were never mentioned. There was also the matter of its toilet. Like the owl, it regurgitated waste in a small package, but unlike the owl, the package was a glob of some vile slime. When she cleaned it away each day she had to remind herself that she was in a privileged position to observe it at such proximity. Whenever she felt sorry for it, she would recall her purpose. The book dictated,
‘Taketh also the means of flight from a winged devil, making sure to preserve the light of life within, and stew with the bones of a young raven and a sprig of the vixen’s glove until the soup turns black. Strain before drinking. This is a sure means to banish the gout, whooping cough, and devil’s chill.’
How anyone had come by such a recipe she could not begin to imagine.
She had been feeding it with game soaked in the prescribed mixture of fat and wyrm’s tongue, and the feathers had fallen out as promised. As it slept she quietly gathered them and placed them carefully within her mother’s chest. She was inwardly thankful, for it was her mother’s books that revealed the path to her, and showed her the means of curing Juliet. It was unfortunate that the creature should lose its wings in the process. Even now they were tattered affairs, lacking the pinfeathers necessary for flight. Eleanor moved into the bedroom, and rested the back of her hand gently against Juliet’s cheek. She always seemed cold, despite being wrapped in blankets. This time she felt positively deathly. She ate very little, but frequently asked for water, and slept like she was already dead. The thought sent a wave of nausea through Eleanor. Often, when she woke, she would be confused and afraid, uncertain where she was. It broke Eleanor’s heart to feel so powerless, as she had felt when the previous cures had all failed. Hold on Juliet. Just hold on.
The feathers she had gathered would have to be enough. She would start brewing the remedy tonight. With a brief touch to Juliet’s brow, and a minute adjustment to the bedding, Eleanor went out to gather more kindling for the fire, rubbing the ring on her finger like an itch.
He finally stifled his weeping, with a stern admonishment. His family would be ashamed of him. So would Lianne. Mattias was never one to accept pity from another. He watched the woman re-emerge from the adjoining room and fetch an axe from the far corner of the room. He barely noticed her leave. The removal of the axe had revealed what looked suspiciously like an iron key ring, visible to his acute perception. With a sinking feeling, he realised there was no way of reaching it. His freedom sat there, in plain view, taunting his impotence. He refrained from trying to bend the bars, as he had tried so many times beforehand. All it had gained him was bloody palms, just as futile screaming had granted him a hoarse throat. He returned to rocking, back and forth, planning all the things he would do to her if he escaped. The cage began to creak, slowly, grating away at his thoughts.
The woman returned, and set about lighting the fire. As she did so, she cast a long shadow in the twilight, dark and twisting across the clutter. Mattias’ eyes were tiny pinpoints of hatred, an unholy red, glinting in the light struggling through the doorway panes. Night into day, day into night…
She worked for hours in the firelight, beads of exertion adorning her forehead. Various ingredients were measured out and tossed into the pot, a shadow play of dancing shapes on the opposite wall of the cabin. All the while she chanted something repeatedly, a language unknown to Mattias. It was strangely soothing, and he was asleep before he knew it, his tattered wings draped uselessly about him.
Eleanor was caught up in the ritual. Stepping lightly over syllables, she added the appropriate herbs and items whilst describing the appropriate mental diagrams. Lines branched and entwined in her head, dancing to the rhythm, rapidly coursing along the practiced patterns. Circles within circles, angles and symbols woven into an intricate skein of baffling complexity. Eleanor had prepared for a whole week, hours poring over the ritual, finally coming to fruition.
Time drifted without meaning as she stirred the mixture, words and shapes tumbling through her mind, fatigue close at her heels. She was scarcely aware as she strained the soup, a sickly sweet aroma in her nostrils, and poured it into a wooden cup. With a great effort of will, she stepped across the undulating floorboards towards the bedroom, and with her last ounce of strength she cradled Juliet’s head as she fed her the mixture. Eleanor barely noticed the empty cup rolling across the floorboards as she fell unconscious, slumped against the side of the bed.
Hours passed, and the light of dawn began to permeate the cabin interior. Birds were starting to sing. It was going to be a glorious day.
Mattias woke to the sound of a child’s voice, gentle and urgent. He was so tired, the world a fuzzy blur before his eyes, the rank smell of iron and old body fluids flooding his awareness. He coughed, his throat dry, and moved slightly. The voice stopped, and presently there came a gasp. He blinked once, then again, and focussed on the slight form of a child. It seemed female, and…yes…he could just make out the scent amidst the familiar stench. It approached in a small white shift, then stopped, feet from the cage. Mattias smiled, the child taking a step back at the sight of his teeth. Then, using the last ounces of his strength, he began to Sing. The Harmony was weak, feeble, but the child was so close, and so young. As a rabbit frozen in the predator’s glare, so the child was still. Slowly, with the barest of movements, she came closer. Closer…
With no room to consider the consequences should the woman awake now, Mattias looked deep into the child’s eyes. They were brown, with flecks of amber, set in a small wan face. She resembled her mother, and would have grown up to be much like her. Both were locked in that gaze, and, gradually, they imprinted.
At his urging, the girl walked slowly towards the corner of the room, almost as if she was sleepwalking. She bent, silently picked up the key, and turned. She lifted her arm, holding out his freedom in the palm of her tiny hand. At his mental bidding, she walked towards him, small feet picking their way carefully across the messy floor. Step by step. Closer…
She was smiling now. Her face was an image of joy, her head tipped slightly to one side as if listening to a distant melody. He never knew what the victims saw or heard during the last moments of ecstasy. He took the key from her tenderly, and careful not to drop it, unlocked the cage. Mattias slowly stepped out of the cage, limbs aching wonderfully with the freedom. Slowly he stood. He brushed the child’s face with his dirty hand, leaving a streak of dirt across the pale features, and she held it close to her face. As he passed the table, his left hand casually picked up a knife, and the child emitted the faintest sound of ‘Daddee’. Together, both moving with a stiff gait and holding hands, they walked out into the watery light of the autumn dawn.
Days later, and a disheveled figure in a dirty travelling cloak stands by a well traveled dirt track. The sun shines off white feet and hands, protruding from the dirty garments. Just once it reaches behind as if to touch places on its back, just behind the shoulder blades. Then it stops, and folds its arms again as a wagon draws near. The driver is heading north, to the city, where he hopes to sell his load for enough to survive the coming year. Full of optimism, he happily grants a lift to the beggar, who clambers up onto the back of the wagon. It starts rocking beside the sacks of harvested grain, trying not to remember how the knife cut through the remnants of its wings, and how it is going to survive unnoticed. It feels totally alone.
He tries to imagine what the woman will do. Will she scream and wail, or simply kneel beside her daughter’s bloodless corpse and rock, much as he is doing now, until she can pluck up the strength to end it all? He finds only bitterness in his vengeance. Then again, such things must fade with time. There is always plenty of that. Perhaps someday he will have the courage to pass the final veil. Someday.