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Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

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Chapter 7: Castle of the Sabre

part 2

Later, a maidservant scurries in carrying a tray of food. There is something mouse-like about her. Brown hair scraped back, pale eyes, a faded third-hand robe. She might be pretty if she were not so painfully thin.

The tray she carries seems to be too heavy for her. There is a sealed flask, bread and cheese. My eyes follow the tray as she presents it to Vitor. He jerks his head, indicating she should bring it to me. I see terror in her face.

‘I won’t hurt you.’ The words are out before I can check them. I hold out my hand and she kneels on the floor, sliding the tray towards me.

‘Thank you.’ She lifts her head and stares at me as if I’m a snake poised to strike. Whatever message I might read there is swallowed up by fear. ‘It won’t poison me?’ I say it gently to reassure her. She flushes crimson and flees.

Vitor stands over me and for a moment I think he’s going to kick the tray away. Instead he hands me the bread and opens the flask for me, pouring a cup. The flask contains wine, not water. I take advantage of what I hope may be his good mood. At least I pretend I take his consideration for kindness. ‘She was terrified. Please don’t force her to serve me again.’

He waits, impassive until he sees me drink from the flask. Then he nods once and resumes his watch over me.

As the day wears on, the shadows lengthen. For a while I torment myself, wishing I could fly after the queen. The circlet glitters in my mind’s eye. I reach out, but it slips away from me and rolls down a hill into shadow.

I give up, and when I open my eyes the room is almost dark. Servants bring lamps and light candles. Our vigil goes on and no one speaks to me.

I have plenty of time to muse on the encounter in the dark. I’m beginning to fear that I’ve lost more than the circlet, that I’m losing my mind. My eyes are heavy. I can’t tell if I’m awake or dreaming. Something feels wrong. It is not poison, or I’d be dead. There was something in the wine that dulls my mind and makes me dream that day away.

The chain is silver and as the pale moon rises in the sky it begins to burn like fever. Shapes alter in the dark, but I am held down in this helpless form.

Finally, when the stars are out, there is a cloud covering the window, a drift of feathers like snow and the queen stands before me, my circlet in her claw. I reach for it, and she knocks me back with a beat of her wing. ‘No.’

‘Please...’ My throat is dry.

‘Take it.’

My hand is a paw, and I cannot grasp it. I growl, showing my teeth but the queen merely smiles at me. I cannot reach her.

‘Wait for the morning.’ With a swish of her robe she is gone, leaving me to stare through the gateway to the night-darkened plains far below.

The chain holds me. I try to worry at it with my teeth but cannot shift it. The guardians remain with me, masked faces hide their eyes. They do not sleep. Finally, I hold up one hand, one paw in surrender, and then curl my arms around my face.

When the moon sets, there is a glow in the east. Then as the sun rises, I feel a sharp pain as the paw shifts to a hand.

I wake. My hand is numb where I have slept with it curled under me. I drive my nails into my palm hoping the pain will help me know I’m awake. Once again, I feel the breath of the night goddess touch my face while she holds me in her rigid embrace.

* * *

In the morning Vitor brings me the tray. I smash the flask and plate, scattering the bread over the floor. I’d rather live with a hollow belly and keep my mind my own.

For a moment I think Vitor may force the crumbs down my throat but Lia smiles at me. ‘He’ll eat when he’s hungry.’

I have a feeling I may wait a long time before they offer me food again. No one is fat at this court, and Lia and Vitor are lean, like wolves in winter. Neither has eaten in my presence.

The great doors open. The queen comes in with her counsellors. One of them looks and smells like a day-old corpse. He places cold hands on my shoulders, and I turn to face him.

‘Kyran Shade, the kin slayer.’

‘This runaway slave is truly Kyran Kinslayer?’ I do not blame the queen for the doubt in her voice. Murderer though I am, it seems that only children and servants fear me.

‘You killed your brothers.’

It is not a question, and I bow my head without answering. The young princes were in my charge. In every way that matters, the guilt for their deaths is mine.

The corpse backs away from me, murmuring an invocation against evil. ‘There is one way to be sure. Throw him off the rock!’

‘If he is the cursed one, the fall will not kill him.’

It doesn’t seem like a fair trial to me. But then I hardly deserve better. I’d rather die at the hand of strangers than go home to face my father.

I walk towards the sky gateway, as far as the chain will let me. There is muttering from the counsellors. ‘If you want me to accept your test willingly, then you must unchain me.’

I have time to consider there is no ‘must’ for rulers before she meets my eyes and says to Vitor, ‘Release him.’

Vitor unlocks the chain from the iron around my wrist. They clear a path for me as if a plague I carry might taint them.

I stand on the edge watching the clouds beneath my feet. I cast one last look back at the queen. I know she will pursue me. It will almost be worth it not to fly alone. Then I turn and step off the edge.

I plummet like a stone, and the wind funnels past me, ripping my rags away. I scream, closing my eyes and see the dead faces of the children, spilled hair on pillows and a dark stain at their mouths.

I spread my wings and soar and hear shouts coming from a great distance. An arrow grazes my wing, a sharp sting but they will never catch me now. Or so I tell myself, knowing that I lie.

There is a river beneath me. There are dots before my eyes. I’m losing height, my tattered wings slow my fall but cannot save me. The tips of my wings crest the surface of the water, and I come to a staggering halt as I hit the ground hard.

Maybe the soldiers below were stationed there to retrieve my corpse. Maybe the queen was just being cautious. Maybe her castle is always surrounded by armed troops. These are troubled times with the empire looking to expand. The last small kingdoms fight among themselves for scraps of free land and trade that the empire has yet to seize.

Maybe I’m vain to think they were waiting for me, my three captors from the village, though they should know it won’t take fifty soldiers to subdue me. The troops in the queen’s livery are well-armed and well-disciplined and they close in on me as if mopping up a spill on the palace floor.

Surrounded by spears, I’ve proved my guilt. If I were innocent I’d be dead. Moreover I can’t complete the shift. One broken wing trails loose where my arm should be.

The queen alights beside me in a flurry of feathers. She blurs and shifts with a speed and grace I could never emulate. I suppose she was reared free in the wild while I was bred in captivity and always had to hide who I was. Her eyes are wide. ‘Did you think you could break free?’

I shake my head.

‘Falcon and wolf. The stories are true, then.’

I push my hair back from my face with the one hand I can use. ‘The stories were true once. I might have served you then. I wish we could have flown together, before...’

‘Before you betrayed your father and killed his children?’ The words fall from her pale painted lips like shards of ice, chilling my heart. Foolish to think I’d found someone like me.

Somehow, hearing myself condemned by her, I finally understand what my grief blinded me to. I’ve been asleep since that night when the children died. She has awakened me. Now I know that whatever I do, however I seek to atone for a murder I never intended, I am forever outcast.

Trailing feathers, I lunge for the nearest spear and wrest it from the young guard. He loses his nerve and lets it slip from his hands. I suppose he knows I’m going to kill him. Only proving myself a murderer can somehow assuage the rage and despair that spins me in its vortex.

The thread of my fate unravels. Maybe the red goddess reaches out a hand to save me from her dark sister. Maybe seeing myself a killer in his eyes gives me that one chance to stop and let the spear fall.

It is the hardest thing I have ever done.

I’m ashamed. Only the ignorant believe that shapeshifters rend human flesh and kill without cause. I came close to betraying my kind and myself.

In sparing his life, I suppose I save my own. His comrades seize me and drag me before the queen.

She reaches forward and pulls a single feather from my broken wing. She smoothes the twisted quills between her fingers and lays it to her lips. ‘Strip the remaining feathers from his wing and burn them,’ she says. ‘This feather and the circlet will be my bride gift to the king.’

She watches as her sentence is carried out.

Proceed to Chapter 8...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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