The Illuminator’s Shadow III

Arrows pelted the sky when we approached a town I suspected was known as Goldenseal. We’d come up on it without warning, just flew over a cliff and there it was adhered to the wall with heavy stones and motar, ladders running up and down the levels, stairs  or slopes covered the major roadways. I pressed my dove faster, up from the steady pace we’d been traveling all morning at. We had the fortune of still flying into the sun, so the archers’ aims were skewed, but not nearly enough.

A stray struck my dove in the breast, a splinter to her body weight, but still she drooped, catching wind  in her wings to steady us. We were out of reach of most of the towers now, and my arms and legs ached from being unaccustomed to flight, so I let our speed flag too soon.

Something hit my arm, a hard impact I thought would be the worst bruise I’d ever had. Initially, I ignored it and spurred us back up to our fleeing speed. But my arm wasn’t right; wetness soaked my sleeve and chilled in the rush of the air. I was bleeding. I was hit and I was bleeding. I refused to look at it. I couldn’t look at it. If I looked at it, I knew there was a good chance I would faint and fall from the sky to the trees below. We should be close to the border. I wasn’t sure what was on the other side; I had never been told. During childhood, the adults, specifically government officials, had told me stories about the terrible men who lived outside our country. As I was an older child when the new regime came into power, the stories I was told were graphic, gruesome, and all had morals about only trusting “our” people.

But in the washrooms, I’d learned differently. I’d learned that no man should be given trust. He needed to earn it, and a woman needed to test him thoroughly before she decided he was worthy of her affections. These tests had not been needed before my generation, or so Mother had said. She never spoke of Father. I never asked.

I swayed, snatching my bird’s feathers in a healthy fistful to keep from tipping. She squacked. A feather came loose in my hand, and I looked at it as it went from a soft gray feather with tiny ribs and hairs to a blob of melted charcoal-colored lard that ran through my fingers and dripped down her back. Peering over her, I saw where large drops of black blood tumbled to the ever-closer earth.

She was no longer beautiful, no longer a piece of art. She was an amorphous blob, a thing dripping from being deformed by the wind and rain. And like a basket with a hole, she was draining her magic drop by drop. My gut wrenched, knowing I’d brought this creature to life, and I was now losing her, and I had no choice in the matter.

We landed in a bush, my bird staining the white flowers gray. Holding her face in my hands, I stroked her head and crooned soft words to her, words that were plain and human, forgettable words, but words that soothed her to close her eyes and let out one last breath. Her body fell away to a dark smudge on the ground, as though I’d done a painting, washed it up, then left it to dry in the sun. With imagination, you could see one tail feather sprawled out, a wing, the curve of her belly, the arc of her head. With lots of imagination, you could see this past the stones and leaves and brushes.

The sun was high overhead now, working its way through dancing trees to light the path I walked on. I think it was a game trail. It was narrow and wound through brambles, switchbacked up a mountain, every step nicely concealed from easy view. Letting myself cry a little at her loss, I made my way panting up the mountain. When I reached the saddle, cowering in fir trees, I dried my eyes and stared blankly at my arm.

The fluff of fletching emerged from the back of my arm, and a metal point stuck out the front. I was dizzy just looking at it. Our neighbor had been the local healer, but I’d scarcely entered her house, and I never stayed longer than needed to deliver her weekly loaf. To say I had no clue about what to with the arrow was a gross understatement. The world spun just by looking at it.

Steadying myself, I reasoned I should do what I knew how to, and leave the arrow be for now. I wasn’t bleeding anymore, and I thought that must be a good thing. Surveying the valley before me, I spied a river. Boundaries, I knew, were usually formed following natural lines such as mountains and rivers. With a throbbing arm, I staggered down the trail–which, if possible, was more strenuous than it had been to climb up. Twice I fell, and once I broke off the fletching of the arrow. It made my arm start to bleed again, and it hurt worse than the initial blow had. When I reached the river, the sun was low, but I still had an hour or two of light.

Deciding it was best to cross now rather than in the morning, a decision I should have considered when I was less exhausted, I found a log on the shore and clung to it, kicking my legs to push over the calm part of the river. I wasn’t counting on my boots and clothes becoming so heavy, and in the middle of the river my efforts moved me minimally. By the time I sloshed to the other shore, I was significantly downstream and the sun had set. Shivering, I plodded into the woods, looking for a dead tree to start a fire, except every dead tree appeared to have been chopped up and packed away, or was too rotten to be of any use. Thumping on a stump, I tried to warm my fingers in my armpits, but even they seemed ice to the touch.

I heard laughing.

I smelled campfire.

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