They sat in the Eyrie until daybreak. The Red One smiled. The Black One wept. The Twins braided the dead soldier’s hair. The Red One stopped smiling at this, but the Black One refused to scold her children. They were only young, after all. Their wings were still soft with nestling down. Sorrow was still a stranger to them. They had never learned how to mourn.
Sorrow was not what drew her closer to the soldier now. The Black One knelt beside him and struggled to remember his name. So often she had forgotten, but he had always reminded her. No more. Holding her breath, the Black One reached to pull the soldier over. Perhaps a glimpse of his face would remind her of the name. Perhaps she could see his smile one last time. He had worn it for her, at the end. Unshaken and gentle his smile had been, a beam of heaven piercing through the cold starlight. And she had smiled back—
“Oh, stop,” the Red One sighed. “That isn’t something that the fledglings ought to see. I threw him well across the Eyrie. The rocks will have left little of his face.”
The Black One hesitated, fingers knotting around the blood-stained cloth of his shirt. “Children,” she said quietly, “wouldn’t those plaits look prettier with something to bind them? Go fetch some ribbon, and a fresh tunic as well. We will be saying goodbye to the soldier soon. Best to fit him well for his journey.”
Reluctantly, the girls stood and left. The Black One noted tears shimmering in their eyes. Perhaps they were not such strangers to sorrow after all.
“A pity they must see death so early in life.” There was no scorn for once in the Red One’s voice, but the Black One could not answer. She reached down and rolled the soldier over.
Nothing of his last smile remained. There was blood, too much of it. Redder than the Red One’s hair but lacking its beauty. The Red One was beautiful despite being terrible. This was just terrible. It was true that the rocks had ruined the soldier’s handsome face, but his eyes were visible through the mess of red. Vacant and open, they stared up beyond the dawn-broken sky. The Black One sobbed and covered them with her hands. “I’m sorry,” she moaned. Her words crooned into a mourning song as the sun continued to rise over the Eyrie.
The Red One watched her silently. Finally, she asked, “Do you hate me?”
“You weren’t yourself,” the Black One whispered. “It was a clear night, even though the moon was full…” She shivered, hunching over the corpse between them. “But—why, Seva?” Grief shook her voice. “Why?”
There was an army behind him. He ran, not for his life but for the small scroll hidden in his bag. He had long since abandoned his livery, and days of creeping through bogs and forests had given him more the appearance of a scoundrel than a soldier.
The ladder seemed more like a dream than hope. It hung in front of a sheer cliff wall and shot up into the low-lying clouds, a destination unknown. Still, he found the sturdy condition of the rope and wood comforting. After only a moment’s pause, the soldier lashed the bottom rung to his ankle and began to climb, taking the ladder up with him. The first threatening echo of footsteps was clattering through the valley. His exhausted muscles protested, but the soldier climbed madly not daring to look back. He would climb only as far as the clouds, he thought. There he would wait until the danger was past.
But the first cool kiss of the fog seemed to drive all strategy from the soldier’s mind. He did not stop climbing. He could not. Hand over hand he continued, untouched by pain or by fear of the immense height. His palms never blistered, and his lungs never starved for air. He might have climbed days and nights on end, or possibly for a single hour. The blanketing fog seemed to stifle time itself, creating light that was neither a clouded day nor a full-moon night.
The soldier did not remember when he reached the top. He only knew that the stone beneath him felt more welcome than the most royal cushions. Unable to move, he closed his eyes to the sunless sky. Surrounded by the echoing silence of great heights, the soldier slept.
When he woke again, there were voices.
“You cannot take it, Grisca! It isn’t yours. Mother will be angry.”
“Oh no, noooo Irne. I just want a piece. Don’t tell Mama! Just a piece…”
Remembering his scroll, the soldier sat up with a gasp. The same face swam twice before his eyes. He blinked and realized that the children were twins.
“Oh,” said one. The other sang, “Hello!”
The soldier tried to stand, his limbs traitorously leaden. He stumbled but managed to cover the scroll with his left hand.
One of the girls stood, dragging the other with her. “We didn’t mean to scare you,” she said.
The other shook her head vehemently. “I only w-wanted a b-bit of your hair.” She clasped her hands together. “It’s p-pretty.”
The two were unnervingly similar. Both had dark hair and eyes that seemed to pop from their thin, pale faces. Often even their expressions tended to mimic each other. But it was the identical pairs of wings that caught the soldier’s eye and held it. They were covered with gray adolescent down, still awkward and stunted like a fledgling crow’s. If it were not for these wings the girls would be quite normal. He would try his luck with them. The soldier cleared his throat.
“Am I still in Jirastraad?”
To his consternation, the girls fell into each other’s arms and shrieked with laughter. The soldier tried again to stand, but the stuttering twin leapt forward.
“Don’t! Irne says you haven’t eaten in d-d-days.” A hiccup followed by more giggles. “I’ll f-fetchh f-food. Irne’ll f-fetch M…M-m…” She screwed up her face. “Mother.”
They ran away, winglets struggling to flap against their slender backs. The soldier allowed himself to fall backwards onto the stone. The sky above was gray but seemed to have shadow and light mixed in. The soldier closed his eyes. Maybe he had died. Perhaps angels were like mortals and needed time to grow up.
He had always imagined death would be more comfortable. As the fog lifted, the soldier could only see barren rock. His immeasurable climb had led him to a large, jagged plateau of stone. Bald granite shelves of rock climbed upwards to form walls all around. It was as if a giant had laid an egg and whatever hatched from it had long since crawled away. If this was the afterlife, it was drearier and less green than the land of the living.
By the time the twins returned with their mother, the soldier had come to weary terms with his circumstances. He still could not help but stare when he saw the woman. She wore a black gown that was too elegant to be mourning wear. Her hair was a floating cloud around her shoulders, blacker than sea stones on a cold beach. When the soldier met her eyes, he found them bruised with sleepless nights. But her gaze was depthless, a gray ocean without waves. He was swimming, sinking into deep places of peace.
The woman took his hand and he was awake.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Names mean nothing to me,” she replied. “Why are you here, soldier?”
“Ah, I am called—”
The woman shook her head. “Names mean nothing,” she repeated. “Even if you told me, I would forget by next sunrise.” She bowed her head and wept.
Speechless and stricken by her tears, the soldier dared not pull away. He studied the delicate hand holding his own. It was curiously black from her mid-knuckles to her fingertips, as though she had dipped her hands in twilight.
Uncomfortable with their mother’s sadness, Grisca and Irne soon crept away. The woman cried silently until her raven hair was wet with tears. The soldier yearned to tuck it behind her ear, but such familiarity seemed uncouth.
“How did you know I was a soldier?” he asked at length. “I lost me blade some days back. Hope it’s not the face what told you. My sister always said I’ve got a peaceful man’s eyes.”
Though the woman did not look up, her sobs quieted. The soldier continued. “She didn’t want me bearin’ a sword at all. Lost ‘er husband to fever three harvests back and her eldest boy hasn’t his wits about him. ‘Twould lose her a hand around the home, she says, if I was to die in some fool lord’s war.”
This time the woman did look up at him. “‘Course she was the first to see me off and the last to stop wavin’ the banner.” He smiled ruefully. “I guess she was proud of me, in her way.”
“Did you want to be a soldier?” the woman asked.
The soldier shrugged. “I wanted to live a long life in me father’s home. Wanted to keep Eila’s boy from accidentally killin’ the chickens, to bounce her littlest girl on my knee ‘till she got too big. Maybe I wanted to be a fightin’ man and protect my home, but I ne’er wanted to leave.” He looked down at his scarred and roughened hands, so different from her stained smooth ones. “War steals you away from life, even if you survive it.”
“I have never seen a war.” The woman pushed her sodden locks back. Her hair was deeper than black, like the many layers of a night sky. The soldier folded his arms, wanting again to touch it.
“You’re lucky,” he said.
“No.” She returned the gesture, looking up at the sky. “I am alone. There must be people for there to be war…or peace.” The soldier could not answer; she was right. “My name is Reme,” his companion said at length. “Will you remember it?”
“Reme,” he repeated, the syllables foreign but pleasant to his lips. “Aye, I’ll not forget it.”
“Thank you,” she whispered. Wiping her eyes, she added, “Your tale is a sad one.”
“Life never promised to be kind.” The soldier rubbed an aching brow. “I s’pose the gods have their own way in the end. You’d know better than I though.”
“Wouldn’t I?” Reme asked, bemused.
“I mean—” He cleared his throat and gestured widely at her. “You and your bairnes seem—you look like…”
“Oh.” Reme shook her wings out, a glorious expanse of midnight. “I am no angel.”
“Then this is hell?”
She shrugged. “It is not dissimilar, and there is no path to lead you back.”
“What?!” True enough, the ladder was gone. The soldier cursed bitterly and began to search frantically for another way down.
“You waste your strength, soldier.” Another woman had arrived, walking to join them with a tray of food. Her fine hair was the color of dying roses, and the plunging gown she wore of heavy crimson. When the soldier looked at Reme, he imagined a dream-filled night sky. This woman was like an open wound.
“I waste nothing!” the soldier retorted. This woman stirred fear in his heart, the type to be covered with anger.
She lifted her chin. “You cannot fly, and the Eyrie is tall.”
The soldier balked at this but threw himself at her feet. “Then carry me!” he begged. “I am bound to a cause of urgency.”
Reme pressed her hands to her mouth, but the red woman was unmoved. “Reme and I are trapped as well.”
“But your wings—!”
“We cannot use them!” she spat. “These wings are a curse, and this Eyrie is the cage that holds them inside. You were foolish enough to stumble into it.”
Indignant, he replied, “There was a ladder!”
“It is a trap,” Reme said quietly. “The people of this land know the Eyrie and teach their children to fear that ladder. There are those who climb it as an attempt for glory, others out of curiosity. None return to the ground.” She took his hand. “I’m sorry.”
“What’s done cannot be undone,” the red woman said. “Here, soldier.” She placed the tray on a stone in front of him. “I’ve brought meat to return your strength. There is bread as well, albeit a few days old. You may want to keep it for tonight’s stew.”
The savory smell summoned a wave of hunger. “Thank you,” the soldier mumbled. The meat was gamey, seasoned heavily with bitter herbs. It caught in his throat, but Reme was already holding out a tankard of water when he began to cough. The red woman knelt to join her on the ground and they watched him. The soldier finished the meat, but took the red woman’s advice on the stubborn hunk of bread. To break the silence, he asked, “Are there only women then, in this ‘Eyrie?’”
“We cook the men,” the red woman replied. “He was well into his twilight years.”
Aghast, the soldier kicked his empty tray back.
“Seva!” Reme scolded. The red woman smirked, a humorless expression. “Seva loves her jokes,” Reme said apologetically. “We four are here alone. Some have survived the climb and stayed, but I do not remember them. It must have been decades since we last had a guest.”
Seva added nothing, staring off beyond the cliff’s edge. Relieved, the soldier mulled over this new information. The children made it clear that he was not the first man to enter this place, but it seemed uncouth to ask Reme about their father.
A cooling wind swept away the clouds to reveal a sunset. Brilliant orange light adorned the walls around them, bringing color and heart to the landscape. Settling his back against a boulder, the soldier looked at the sky with fresh hope. Come morn he would look again for some way down.
Seva and Reme were becoming restless. Their wings rustled, their eyes shifting between the soldier and the sunset. The soldier did not ask what worried them; he wanted to enjoy this briefly found beauty. However, Reme stood and said that it was not permitted to be outside after nightfall. She would lead him to the hollow.
The hollow was Reme’s humble title for the caverns that pockmarked the Eyrie’s western half. They were deep and damp, toothed with great stone columns on the ceilings and floors. Water dripped constantly from above, echoing throughout the caves. Some rooms had even collected shallow pools. With no breeze to move them, they became mirror-like, reflective illusions of vast underwater cities.
Reme led the soldier to a wide room. It was warmer than the rest of the caverns, with a ceiling so low he had to bend double to enter. Four nests encircled a dark bubbling stream, each filled with moss, feathers, and blankets. The twin girls, Irne and Grisca, were already curled around each other in the far most nest. They did not wake when their mother bent to kiss them.
“This will be yours now,” she said, pointing to another nest. “I built it should the girls need time apart, but they are inseparable.”
The soldier sat gingerly on his new bed. “Goodnight to you, then.”
“Goodnight…soldier.” Her voice broke in the darkness.
“You are quick to weep,” the soldier said softly.
Reme sighed. “Seva is always telling me so.” The soldier felt satiny feathers brush against his knuckles as she sat next to him.
“I am so sorry that you are here,” Reme whispered. Her breath on his cheek was warm, but it smelled like raw meat. Shocked, the soldier pulled back.
“Your instinct serves you well.” Her voice was sad. “I am not of your kind. Many have called me a beast. You might even have hunted me for sport under different circumstances.”
“Nae,” the soldier denied. “I never took to huntin’. There’s no thrill in it for me, spillin’ blood for sport.” Perhaps this had been of little comfort “I am an outsider,” he continued, “an extra mouth to feed in this barren land—but you have been kind to me. I do not mind your strangeness.”
“Thank you,” she whispered. Her feathers were still tickling his skin. The soldier dared to take one gently between his fingers.
Reme asked, “What is your name?” He told her. “I’ll have forgotten it by tomorrow,” she said unhappily.
“I’ll remind you,” the soldier promised. Spurred by the darkness and the secrets it kept, he took her hand and kissed it. Her fingers smelled better than her breath, the skin well-worked with soap and scalding. “Every morrow I’ll remind you.”
Reme did not answer, but as she took the shuttered lantern the soldier could briefly see her smile. The warmth of it wrapped around the soldier’s heart as he slept, whispering dreams of hope.
Much later in the night, he awoke to the gentlest footsteps and a presence at his side. He stretched out his hand, hoping Reme might catch it.
“It is I.” Seva’s voice was thin. Remembering her distasteful joke, the soldier turned his back. Unbothered by this, Seva spoke:
“You are beautiful, strange soldier. You enchant the Eyrie with your kind heart and your gentle eyes. Be so very careful, soldier. Do not make Reme smile too much.”
Her footsteps began to fade towards the entrance.
“Do not make the Eyrie love you too much.”
Two summers passed in the Eyrie, and the soldier learned many things. No food could be grown or bred here, and no birds flew near enough to be hunted. Despite this, there was never a danger of starving. Every fortnight, offerings appeared where the ladder ought to have been. A good portion seemed to have been prepared by hand: the dishes were ample, served on fine platters. Stews, cheeses, savory pies and sweet breads that could melt one’s mouth. Everything else was the work of harvest or hunting, tied neatly into bundles and set apart from the meals. Beans and grains were left in giant kegs, fresh and salted meats lying nearby in abundance. It was a bounty indeed, but as a man under the service of powerful lords, the soldier knew a tax when he saw one. What prompted the givers to offer so much, so often? He could never fill his belly without a sense of unease.
Seasons did not make an exception of the Eyrie, and the soldier was grateful for the sense passing time. He busied himself making a forge. Retrieving ore from the deeper caverns was good, heavy work. Building tools and crafting weapons, although neither would be useful, provided a sense of purpose. Many mysteries surrounded him, but he sensed they were not questions meant to be answered.
For the first year, the soldier ignored them. He still had his own cause. The sealed scroll buried under his moss nest could yet meet its purpose. Time had not run past him yet.
Then the dreams had begun.
On the night of winter solstice, the soldier had woken thinking he heard shouts. They were hoarse—the unmistakable cries of a man. The significance of the voice had torn him from his bed: he was not alone. Enemy or friend, this man could have brought the ladder back into the Eyrie.
Frantically, the soldier raced through the caverns. Then he heard Reme wailing, her cries full of fear and pain. The soldier forgot all else and ran desperately to the nearest entrance.
Seva was barring his path, her magnificent wings spread to their full length. She was naked, and the strange red skin that usually only covered her fingers had spread all the way up to her neck. When the soldier looked at her face, she smiled. Her teeth were dagger-sharp.
Then the soldier had woken in his nest. It was high noon, and his body ached fitfully. Reme was at his side, offering him a gentle warm broth. She had heard him crying out in his sleep…perhaps he had seen nightmares? Settled by how well she seemed, the soldier had rested throughout the day and slept well the next night under a draught of dusk wort.
Without that draught, the nightmares began to plague him nightly. Voices of women and children joined the men, screaming pleas. Always Seva waited at the hollow’s mouth to stop him from going to their aid. If he looked behind her, the soldier would sometimes dream of Reme, free to fly at last beneath the stars. Despite her beauty, the sight always turned the soldier’s veins to water. He would wake covered in sweat, calling her name. Dusk wort was his only reprieve from these sweat-sodden nights, but Seva forbade him from using it too often.
Just when the soldier had thought he would go mad, the dreams began to fade. By mid-spring, they had stopped entirely. But he could not forget them, nor ignore what they implied. Something terrible happened in the dark cover of the night; the soldier refused to ignore it any longer.
“Soldier, watch me! M-my f-f-falling is slower today!”
The soldier had watched Grisca practice her fall many times already, but he smiled and endured once more. His heart never failed to seize up when she and her sister hurled themselves off a tall-standing stone or ledge. Their wings were less scrawny now, but the wispy feathers blanketing them still did not seem up to task.
Hands intertwined, the twins leapt, taking the soldier’s heart with them. The girls’ wings stretched and strained at their full length, still only half the span of Reme’s or Seva’s. Gradually the girls began to glide. Irne landed gracefully on one knee, while Grisca toppled over her own feet. She jumped up instantly, squealing with mirth. Irne fixed a reproving stare on the soldier.
“You were worried for us,” she accused him.
The soldier grunted, not to be shamed. “I’ll ne’er know what it’s like to have wings. You will not know what it’s like to worry about someone fallin’ off a cliff.”
Irne’s eyes lit up. “Perhaps I could.” She seized the soldier’s hand, but her fingers were too strong for a normal child. “I could throw you off next. It would be so funny to watch you fall.”
The soldier smiled tolerantly as Grisca intervened. He had long since learned that there was no venom behind the bairnes’ threats. Like the blood on Reme’s breath, they were merely symptoms of the Eyrie.
As with any sickness, the soldier did not know why or how the Eyrie had come to be. He knew only that it was wrong. It was a thing that came out in the darkness of night, its evil masked for a time by the sun. Like the sweats and bloodied coughs from his sister’s otherwise hearty husband, like the quiet sleep of her youngest bairne that replaced healthy wailing. The Eyrie was a disease that killed. The soldier did not know why. He did not know when.
“Are you sleeping? It’s barely midday.” The soldier started, almost falling into the shallow pool he was sitting beside. Irne and Grisca were surely still looking for him, but he had wanted to think in quiet. He had not noticed Reme enter the nesting room.
“Nae,” he replied, “but I was dreaming.”
“Dreaming without sleep,” Reme mused, sitting on the slim ledge beside him. “What do you dream of during the daylit hours, soldier?”
True to her word, Reme had forgotten the soldier’s name every morning. He tried teaching her once to spell it, but the Eyrie’s strange witchcraft made writing impossible. Ink slipped off paper and bled into cloth; no metal or rock could make a scratch on the Eyrie’s stone. Still, reminding Reme had become a fond habit, and hearing her repeat his name with fresh delight stirred a thrill in him each time.
“I dream about the Eyrie,” the soldier said.
Reme froze. “You should not.”
“Now you’re soundin’ like Seva.” He dipped his fingers into the small black pool. “It feels like we never really wake up here, do you understand? You, me, Seva—your little ones. We’re all dreamin’ in this Eyrie, no matter where the sun stands in the sky.”
“Or when the moon comes to blind the stars’ shine,” Reme added softly. “Perhaps that is why I forget. Memory fails in the land of dreams.”
“There now.” The soldier took Reme’s hand. This was his solution whenever she began to cry. He would hold her hand and wait. The tears would pass and she would soon be smiling again.
“There now,” the soldier said again. “You’ve never once forgotten Irne and Grisca.”
Reme tangled her fingers with his. “No,” she murmured. “I know my children.” She looked up at him. “And I know your face. When we break our fast, it does not feel like I am eating with a stranger.”
“See?” The soldier pressed her hand. Reme smile, an expression so sudden in its radiance that he felt breathless. “You know me,” he said, and leaned down to kiss her knuckles.
She laughed. “Do you know me?”
Remembering his nightmares, the soldier sighed. “I don’t forget anything.”
Reme lifted his face gently. “Forgetting can be better.”
Her palms were rough but her touch was feather-light. The soldier closed his eyes. “I wish I could.”
“You can.” Her words were warm against his skin. She was so close. He could see each of her lashes, how they clung to each other with leftover teardrops. “We can forget together,” Reme whispered as she kissed him.
They swayed in the uncertain lowlight. Lanterns flickered as Reme’s wings broke free from her dress. She pressed the soldier down into the nest, her feathers covering them in soft warm darkness. “No dreaming,” she whispered in his ear.
The soldier knew Reme there, knew her sorrows and her fears. He knew the wishes she couldn’t bear to voice, the hopes she awoke with every morning and forgot as the night grew cold. These secrets, blossoming moonflowers in the darkness clung precariously between his skin and hers. They quivered like a heartbeat, begging the soldier in a language he couldn’t understand.
“Who fathered the bairnes?”
Seva did not turn. “Why not ask their mother?”
The soldier frowned. “I’ve done that once.”
She looked up from the forge. “And?”
“The despair on her face wounded me.” He returned to hammering his iron.
Seva spat into the fire. “Reme must forget every night she spends in the Eyrie, be it terrible or pleasurable. It is a small price to pay.”
“You sound almost jealous.” Anger curled in his belly. “Reme mourns every forgotten moment. She yearns to remember as you do.”
Seva took the hammer from him. “She is a fool,” she said, smashing a dent into the metal. “Night is a curse to those who can’t sleep.”
It was true that Seva the same dark circles that Reme had beneath her eyes. They only seemed to sharpen her constant expression of fury.
“You do not sleep?” the soldier asked.
Seva ignored him. “Irne and Grisca’s father died.” She plunged the hot iron into water. Steam snarled around her bare arms. Seva did not flinch. “He climbed up to the Eyrie years before. He was smitten by Reme, took her every evening and was forgotten every morn. When he passed, she had nothing to remind her. She even forgot that she carried his children…until the day they were born.”
The iron was long-since cooled, but Seva did not bring it up from the water. “Reme came to me one morning in the throes of childbirth. She was covered in her own blood and trapped in pain she could not understand.” She closed her eyes. “Twins are a difficult birth. I almost lost her.”
When he tried to approach her, Seva drew the sword on him. “I have only known Reme once,” the soldier said softly. “I would have her leave this cursed place.”
“Would you?” Seva advanced, her bare arms deathly pale against the red gown. She pressed the sword to the soldier’s throat. It burned against his skin, but he refused to step back.
“Always you threaten and follow me.” His voice was tight against the steel. “If you would have me dead to defend your sister, best do the deed now. Do it! Or leave us be.”
“You think I am protecting her?” Seva turned the sword, thrusting the handle at him. “Plunge this blade into your belly. You must not die too soon, soldier. Crawl across the Eyrie. Leave plenty of blood, or its appetite will remain. That is the price you would pay to have your dream secured.”
“My life would buy Reme’s freedom?” The soldier examined his new sword. He ought to have made it shorter.
“Your life given willfully. Your death…delivered mercilessly.” Seva pressed her lips thin and turned away. “But what of your precious message, soldier? You cannot deliver it if you die here.”
Startled, the soldier looked at her with new eyes. When had Seva noticed or cared about his mission’s silent desperation? But her face remained the same: a smile made of hate more than humor and eyes colder than steel.
“Seva,” he said, “Why do you not use your wings? You could easily fly away from here.”
Unflinchingly, she reached to her right wing and tore a quill from its glorious expanse. Her eyes shone in the firelight as she burned it, but her teeth were bared and bitter.
“They do not belong to me.”
Spring arrived early one day, bringing unseasonal warmth into the Eyrie. It’s five denizens rested in the shadow of the western wall to watch the sunset. The soldier sat with Reme, holding her hand. Her air of abstract distress was stronger than usual this evening. She gripped his fingers tightly enough to bruise.
Stars were beginning to peer into the pastel sky, preceded by Mindras, the southern star. She was the brightest star in the night. When the soldier had been running from his enemies, Mindras had been his guiding compass. Now when he looked at her, he felt lost. Dread wrapped its arms around his heart and with it a yearning to escape into sleep. He stood, knowing that they would be ushered into the hollow quite soon anyways.
Grisca and Irne made to join him but Seva took them by the shoulders. “No.” Her fingers looked like claws around their small arms. “Tonight you will watch Mindras dance.”
Uncomfortable, the soldier turned to Reme tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. “Goodnight, my summer night sky.”
Usually this would be enough to tempt even a small smile from her. Tonight, Reme only pressed her cheek against his open palm. Her skin was wet with silent tears.
Insides writhing against the urge to stay, the soldier reluctantly headed toward the hollow. It felt suddenly as though he were turning his back on an execution.
“Soldier!” Grisca’s voice was shrill with fear. “I do not want to watch the stars,” she whimpered as the soldier went to her. “Seva has always says they are too b-bright, that m-my eyes will b-b-burn!” Beside her, Irne’s quivered as she stared at the soldier.
Desperate to comfort them, the soldier took Grisca’s hands. “’Tis a warm spring’s eve. I’ve snuck out to see the stars in warmer nights. The warmth softens that night sky; the stars’ light will be weak.”
Grisca threw her arms around the soldier’s neck, and Irne took his hand. Seva nodded, her expression vaguely grateful.
“The soldier speaks wisely,” she told the children. “It is because the stars are weakened that you will watch them. You are ready for this night.”
Grisca lifted her chin, and Irne balled her hands into fists. They looked like small warriors. As he walked away once more, the soldier’s heart wound tightly with worry.
How the slumber took him he could not fathom. Perhaps it was the brook, the alluring bits of light that danced and dazzled across it. Maybe the soldier had forgotten to put new wick into the lantern. More likely it was a more malicious force. The soldier woke with a start and spat a curse against all magic.
Grisca and Irne must have returned without his notice. They were already awake and sitting up in their nest, wings folded around each other. Their feathers more lustrous than usual. The wingtips were sharper, more mature—but as the twins raised their faces to look at the soldier, their eyes were shrouded in dark circles. It was as though their hearts had been stolen from their eyes along with a sweet night of rest.
They looked like their mother.
The soldier ran from the room. He found Reme in her kitchen. She was cheerily baking, as was her tendency in the mornings.
“Reme!” the soldier burst urgently.
She turned to face him, her smile radiant. “Good morning, soldier.”
Many days the soldier woke early simply to see Reme’s morning smile sooner. She was lighter than a spring breeze, joyful and new in a way that he yearned for at dusk. But today the price of her smile was too steep.
“Something’s amiss with the girls.” Her hands powdered white with flour as he took them. “Your daughters have the eyes of the dead!”
Reme frowned. “Seva told me they were out with her after stars’ rise. Perhaps they’ve taken chill.” She reached up absently to caress the soldier’s cheek. “I cannot remember last night any more than I can my dear soldier’s name,” she murmured.
For a moment he was unable to wrest himself from her gaze so bright and unveiled by sorrow. Her eyes were so beautiful. He wanted to smile at her, to see them glow. Reme’s pain took her farther away the lower the sun fell in the sky. But now, in the forgetful morning…
Then he remembered the children’s eyes and pulled away. “Make them something hot,” he whispered.
Grisca was standing when the soldier returned. “What are you doing?” she asked softly.
The soldier settled into his own nest. “Going back to sleep.”
“You’ll be awake at n-night then.” She folded her arms, a ghost of her old nature breaking through. “The m-moon will laugh at you.”
He forced himself to smile. “I am tired, Grisca, and so are you. Come get some rest.”
She did not hesitate to curl up beside him. As she slept, her flickering lashes leaked tears. “Get some rest,” the soldier whispered, “for the night is a hungry beast, and you must be ready for it.”
As he stroked Grisca’s hair, the soldier became aware of her sister’s gaze piercing him from the other nest. Irne’s voice was hollow, a stranger’s whisper as she said:
“Be careful, soldier, or the hungry night will eat you too.”
Again the evening came. Again the Eyrie dwellers basked in the sun’s farewell show of coral pink and royal gold. A sweet breeze swept through the Eyrie, ruffling Irne and Grisca’s new feathers. Rest had revived the girls; they played in puddles leftover from a recent storm, splashing and laughing.
Reme and Seva were watching them, holding hands in a rare moment of familial bonds. They looked stronger than any army against the magnificent sunsetting glow. The soldier clutched his small, weathered scroll. Tonight he would leave it in the kitchen for Reme to find. Morning Reme. Hopeful Reme.
He hoped to leave before the stars’ rise, before anyone could notice his absence. But Reme saw him. “Why do you retire so early, my soldier?” she called.
Lying to Reme was distasteful. Her vacant memory left her with so much unbridled trust. The soldier struggled to remain truthful. “I would be alone with my thoughts tonight.”
Reme slipped from Seva’s grasp. “Save them for a different night. The sun is singing for us, soldier. Come and share in its song.” Then, more pleadingly, “Share your thoughts with me.”
He desperately wished to stay. The soldier took her outstretched hand and kissed it. “These thoughts might cause you pain,” he said gently. “No, Reme, you do’na deserve such a burden.”
Reme closed her eyes. Relieved, the soldier turned back towards the hollow.
“Yehil!” All breath was torn from his chest. He gasped, tasting salt on his lips.
“Yehil,” Reme said again. He could hear the smile in her voice, the surprise. “You are not my burden; you are my joy.”
He wept then, but there was no sorrow in his tears. Forgetting even to wipe them, he turned back briefly. “Goodnight, Reme.”
“Goodnight,” she said, but as the sunset’s chorus of orange, pink, and gold crowned her beautiful smile, the soldier heard, I love you.
Strength greater than any he had known rushed through his veins. He knew in his heart that this had been the last sunset he would ever see. Reme had made it perfect. She had remembered his name.
No matter what it cost him, the soldier would set her free.
Seva was waiting for him in the hollow. The soldier was only surprised at how quickly she’d gotten there. “Did you not tell me you couldn’t fly?” he mused.
Seva’s teeth glinted in the lowlight. As always, her smile was an inexplicable thing.
Undaunted, he said, “I’ve a favor to ask of you.”
“Can I trust you?”
Her smile widened. “You have no choice, soldier.”
Spreading his hands, the soldier sighed. “Aye, I’d not be here otherwise. Damn it all, and you for that matter.” But the words were empty of resentment. He did not hate Seva—at the moment, she did not seem to hate him, either.
Reaching out her hand, she said, “I will keep it safe.”
He had to smile. “All this time you’ve watched me. ‘Course this was no secret to you.” He held out the scroll.
Seva took it. Were her hands trembling? “You are not my enemy, Yehil,” she said quietly. To hear his name from her lips was a shock, but she spoke again quickly before he could address it. “I must read it,” she said.
He froze. “The seal hasn’t been broken in…”
Seva said nothing, allowing the pause between what he knew and what he didn’t to sink into his heart. Unnerved, the soldier took a step back.
“You don’t know.” Sadness welled in Seva’s voice where he expected scorn. “Of course you don’t. Do you even remember who charged you with carrying it?”
The soldier swallowed. He could not answer.
“The Eyrie’s curse is strong,” Seva said softly.
“How long?” he whispered. His throat was too dry. How much time had slithered past him in this cursed place?
“It doesn’t matter,” Seva said. “I must read the scroll. You have no choice but to trust me, and I cannot be trusted without knowing what it says.”
The soldier gave in with a groan. Seva nodded. Her fingers trembled as she broke the scroll’s waxen seal.
Silence followed, threatening to strangle them. “I—actually don’t know meself what it says,” the soldier admitted at length. Seva’s expression quickly quenched his curiosity. Never had her eyes seemed so dark and empty. When she finally rolled the scroll up and tucked it away into her bodice, though, a grim flicker of triumph lit her face.
“The cost is high,” she stated. “The Eyrie’s curse, Reme’s soul, your message—all can be made right. But the cost is very high, soldier.”
Relief spread wings within him. “I will pay any price.”
“Of course you will.” Ever so briefly there was a hint of her old anger. Then Seva closed her eyes. “The price is your life.”
He had suspected this. “I was always ready to give it for her.”
“I know.” Seva turned away. Her next words came slowly, as though she were weighing each with painful care. “Your only part in this is to offer your life willingly.
“Reme must be the one to take it.”
The moon was new. The soldier could feel her absence. Stars’ rise brought unnatural chill to those who stayed awake too long in the Eyrie. The moon’s presence usually gave some warmth against it, but she had been full and glorious last night. There would be no moonlight to ease the stars’ harsh shine tonight.
The hollow was empty as the soldier passed through. No sounds or smells, no rustling of life could be found. Even the drippings into cavern pools seemed quieter. He quickened his pace.
Only starlight waited for him at the entrance, a curtain of cold silver across the bedrock. Mindras shone brightest in the midnight sky, undiminished by the moon. A prickle of dread rose on the back of the soldier’s neck. He drew his sword and prayed for hope.
A scream pierced the Eyrie, and the soldier forgot the moon, forgot hope and what was hoped for. It was Reme’s voice that bled through the night, raw and filled with an animal terror. Reme’s voice, that only hours ago had softly called his name.
The soldier ran into the Eyrie.
For a moment, Mindras blinded him. It seemed impossible that a single star could shine so brightly. Then the soldier saw the Eyrie’s children.
They were naked, but their skins were stained like those of plucked crows. The girls were gray, Seva was red. In place of feet they had grown cruel talons. Their wings gutted the night. Vast in span and wicked, they seemed to move of their own accord. Grisca and Irne were borne high into the air and dropped as though for sport. They would fall, tumbling through the air towards the rocky ground. Only at the last moment would their wings beat almost gleefully—only to bear them upwards and drop them again. The girls were wailing, their voices piteously small in the great Eyrie. Each time they fell closer to the ground, upon which a small figure was crumpled. The soldier’s heart froze. It was a child, a girl near their own age.
Several other people lay unmoving along the Eyrie floor. But the soldier could spare no further thought for them. He had found Reme.
She stood in the center of the Eyrie with her wings spread wide. In her arms was a naked man, his body beaten and torn. Blood covered Reme’s breasts, glistening against the unnatural blackness of her skin. She raised her face to the stars and wailed,
“No more, I beg you! Take my life, take my children—take my soul! But I beg you, no more!”
As if in answer, her black wings lifted, feathers arching to the heavens. Reme sobbed as her head was forced forward by a force merciless and unseen.
She sank her teeth into the man’s throat.
The soldier understood Reme’s grief now, the elusive and ghostly shadow that had haunted her every morning. Her tears in the night, her smiles as she forgot them in the sunrise, her exhausted distress as the sun plodded inevitably towards star-filled nights. Day after day, night bled out into horrific night. How many times had she offered everything to the uncaring sky?
It was unbearable.
Driving his sword into the ground, the soldier let out a battle cry.
All wings ceased their movement and silence fell upon the Eyrie. The man tumbled from Reme’s grasp as her eyes latched on the soldier. Her gaze was rent, her mouth a gaping wound of terror.
The soldier smiled. He wanted only to calm her.
Reme’s wings, ferociously black and bristling with dagger-like feathers, were already poised at the soldier. A serpent ready to strike.
Instinct pounded in his veins, begging him to run. But the soldier left his sword in the ground and took a step forward.
“My summer night sky,” he said gently. “Come to me.”
“No,” she moaned.
The soldier raised his voice to the walls around them. “I am here!” he cried. “I am willing, you cursed an’ unnatural pit! Take me!”
The wings lifted her from the ground, rustling and humming a hungry chant. Hanging helpless between them, Reme covered her ears. “Please!” she howled. Then she surged towards him.
The soldier saw death. It did not frighten him, but he agonized over the thought of Reme’s guilt. He spoke, his voice growing ever urgent as the distance closed like a set of teeth.
“It isn’t your fault, Reme! The Eyrie has taken the father of your children and the memories of the time he loved you. It has taken tears from your eyes and sleep from your nights. It has taken the light from your heart. But it will not take me. I offer myself. Reme!”
The black wings were almost touching him. For a moment they paused, taken for the briefest moment by their host’s will. Straining, they reached and brushed malicious feathers against his cheek. The soldier did not move. He was frozen by the cold light of the stars, by the unveiled face of death—by Reme’s sad brown eyes. He wished to see them shine one last time, to warm away the starlight’s chill. He reached out, touched her pale, blood-stained cheek.
“Yehil,” Reme whispered.
Smiling, he opened his mouth to say her name.
Talons tore him up from the ground, puncturing his heart. Gasping on the dregs of life, the soldier saw crimson blotting out the night. Seva look down on him, her face empty and unsmiling. Bending down to wipe the blood from his lips, she whispered in his ear:
This is how it ends.
The soldier died.
Drawing herself up, the red woman called to the sky. “O Mindras, hear me! We, your helpless, your hopeless, offer you the blood of war and passion! It is given willingly and spilled without mercy.” Her wings, lustrous in the moonlight, howled around her. Seva was unmoved. “Feast,” she spat, and smote the soldier’s body upon the Eyrie floor.
Fierce winds wailed through the Eyrie. They carried clouds and covered the stars in blackness. Cut off from the silver light, the Eyrie dwellers’ wings withered. Their voices stilled. Their feathers became soft and blunt once more.
The moon rose, defying nature and time. Its light caressed the wounded villagers who had been torn from their homes, and kissed tears from the cheeks of their reluctant kidnappers. Most tenderly did it rest upon the soldier, although he had fallen face-downward. His sword, embedded in the stone, reflected a pearl-white path across his broken body, as though to lead him home.
One by one, the villagers dragged themselves to the hollow. There they would find blankets, bandages, and the food that their villages had been sending every fortnight to ward off the women who had brought them here. Eventually they would dare to step once more into the Eyrie. A ladder would await them, offering escape down to the mortal world.
As for the Eyrie dwellers, they sat together in the Eyrie until daybreak. Seva smiled. Reme wept. Irne and Grisca braided the soldier’s hair. Seva stopped smiling when she saw this, but Reme did not attempt to scold her children. They were only young, after all.
Seva watched as Reme knelt by Yehil’s side. “Oh, stop,” she said when Reme made to roll him over. As always, scorn was her shield from the chill of heartbreak. “It’s not something that the fledglings ought to see.”
Reme sent Grisca and Irne away. Seva yearned to follow them. She did not want to see this face, this man who had only known her hatred and her claws. But she could not leave Reme now. He would not have wanted her to.
Yehil had died with his eyes open. Reme sobbed when she saw this. Every human who came to the Eyrie had died violently at her hands. Mindras was a demanding queen; her minions, the feathered beasts upon Reme’s back, always thirsted for blood. Every new moon night or wintery eve, Reme would wail when she woke to the sight of wide-eyed corpses. Now they were blind in the afterlife, she would sob. Their souls would never find the way to higher halls.
But Seva knew better. Yehil had seen Reme before he died, and Reme was his paradise.
As dawn broke, Reme mourned openly. It was only to be expected. Daylight had always been her escape from Mindras. A risen sun meant that memories dark enough to drive a normal person mad would be gone forever. But Yehil’s blood had broken this blessing of a curse. Reme saw Yehil. She knew his name. She remembered his love.
It was unbearable to watch. Seva tried, she did. “Don’t you hate me?” she demanded, preferring Reme’s anger to her pain.
Reme shook her head. “Why, Seva?” she whispered. “Why?”
Seva closed her eyes. Tears burned on her cheeks, crystalline salt after having been held away for so long.
Reme seemed baffled by Seva’s tears. An understandable reaction, but painful nonetheless. Seva knelt beside her and pointed to the soldier.
“Do you know this man’s name?” she asked.
Reme’s lips trembled. “Yehil,” she whispered.
“Yehil,” Seva repeated. The name was a strong one, her favorite. If she ever dared to have children, she would give it to her firstborn. Reaching into her satchel, Seva pulled out the scroll.
“The only thing Yehil cherished more than this,” she said, “was you.”
Reme flinched, but took the scroll.
“He left it to me,” Seva continued. “He had made up his mind to die for you, but he feared for this scroll’s fate. I have watched over him many nights while you were in Mindras’ grasp. Even in his dreams he would worry over it.”
Reme looked at the small thing with dread. “I cannot open it,” she admitted.
“You must,” Seva persisted. “So you can understand.”
Slowly, Reme unrolled the paper and smoothed it out. She gasped upon reading it, dropping the scroll as though it had burned her eyes.
“Who was he?” she demanded of Seva. “Who are you?”
Seva understood her shock. She had felt the same when she first broke the seal and read those same words, penned inexplicably in her own hand:
To Yehil, son of man:
Stay far from the Eyrie.
And from the daughter of the stars.
Though you love her evermore.
For only by your death
Can I unlock the door.
I, born of Midras and of Earth
Only I can break this curse.
Kneeling to lift the paper, Seva answered, “I must have been no older than Irne and Grisca. The memory of writing the message is missing from my mind, and I have never been able to write on any paper, stone, or wood since. Mindras’ work, I imagine. I must have written it as a warning, but he never thought to read it. Like you, Yehil would forget.” She laid the scroll on Yehil’s chest, her touch lingering before she turned to Reme.
“Yehil was my father,” she said. Reme fell back, her face pale. “As for me—who am I, Reme?” Seva took Reme’s hand, cold and shaking as it was. “Did you never find my touch familiar?” she continued. “Who am I to you? The answer is in your heart, between your fingertips and mine.” Please, she added silently. If Reme couldn’t remember, it would all be too much.
For one awful moment longer, Reme’s face was blank and fearful. Then, the dawn that Seva had yearned for since childhood rose in her eyes. Recognition.
“You are…my child,” she whispered. “My firstborn.”
Unable to contain herself, Seva fell into her arms. “Yes,” she said softly. “I, born by the Eyrie’s child but not under the Eyrie’s curse. Like Grisca and Irne, I feel the stretch of time.” She drew back, wiping an answering tear from Reme’s cheek. “We grow and live, while you linger in forgetfulness.”
“How can it be?” Reme sank to Yehil’s side. “Neither of us have tasted the years you took to grow.”
Seva shook her head. “There’s no time.” She looked at Yehil. “We must move quickly if…if we are to take him with us.”
They burned him at midday. Glorious sunlight weakened the pyre, but the four Eyrie stood transfixed. No song or mourning wail escaped them. Theirs was a vigil of haste. When the fire dwindled, Reme and Seva poured what ashes they could into an old herb box. Dry sweetened vapors from the wood mellowed the acrid ash for a time. Irne and Grisca each took a bone from the soldier’s fingers, refusing to let go of the strong hands that had given them comfort and guidance.
The ladder waited at the Eyrie’s edge, but Reme shook her head. “We do not need it,” she said, and opened her wings. Hesitantly, the children followed her as she leaped into the air and dipped below the clouds. Seva remained, remembering the ravenous clutch of her own wings. Foolishness, she chided herself. The minute Yehil’s body had broken upon the Eyrie, she had felt their power over her wither. And yet…
Even when the sun reigned in the skies, Seva was afraid.
Yehil. His name was all Seva had. There were few fond memories between them. He had always raised her sisters and poured his love upon Reme. Seva’s role had been to protect him, to be harder, colder and sharper than the steel he used to live by.
Wind shifted through her feathers, and for the first time in her life she could feel it as she did on her skin. “Father,” Seva whispered, but that truth had long been twisted. Always she had called him soldier and acted as his foe. Perhaps she could never call Yehil what he was. She would still be a coward if she remained trapped despite his sacrifice.
All she had to do was jump.
Seva closed her eyes and fell forward. Layers of vapor and clouds buffeted her lids, stinging her cheeks. She was falling. With a gasp, she opened her wings and…
Her heart remained her own. Seva sobbed, opened her eyes, and flew.
Reme was waiting at the bottom, face drawn with anxiety. Seva’s sisters were rolling in the first grass they had ever experienced. Their cries of delight rang in Seva’s heart as she bent to touch the soft green. So sweet and fresh, more silken than the mosses of the hollow. The sky towered above them, too many distances away to make sense of. Seva shielded her eyes as she peered up, but the Eyrie was beyond sight and reach from them now.
She wanted to get even farther away.
Reme seemed to share this opinion. After ensuring that Seva was unhurt, she called Irne and Grisca. The four of them began walking towards the sun. Yehil had told Seva that he was running westwards. Whether or not there were any in his hometown who still knew him could not be said, but Reme was determined to bury him where he belonged.
“Perhaps we could even stay,” she said, eyes on the plains beyond them. Seva nodded but wondered how accepting a small village would be of women like themselves. Winged, broken-hearted, and fatherless. Still, it was better not to crush her mother’s small hopes. Reme would never sink into despair again if she could help it.
“I can tell you now,” she offered. “About your soldier, about your children…about you.”
As they travelled across the wild and strange land, Seva did just that. She explained the bitterness of Mindras’ curse, how the wings latched to their backs hungered for human flesh. Once a fortnight, the people from towns below would send up offerings to the southern star, hoping to be spared from the culling that came when the stars were brightest. Summer brought reprieve, both to the people and their unwilling oppressors, for the heat of the sky would mask Mindras’ light. Winter, though, was a harbinger of torment; Mindras’ light was brightest in the frozen clear nights.
Reme, the daughter of Mindras. Yehil, the soldier cursed into timelessness by his love for her. Seva shed tears long held at bay as she told how many times Yehil had died, always at Reme’s hands or his own, hoping to buy her freedom. But every morning after, his body would vanish from the rocks. Time would turn back and plod on. Yehil would come up the ladder once more.
“He could never remember the children he fathered,” Seva said as they held Grisca and Irne by the light of a small fire. Night had fallen, with Mindras nowhere in sight.
“Yehil always loved you ardently,” Seva said quietly. “He would die loving you, and return loving you. He loved the girls, too, although they always forgot him. Only I could remember—perhaps by the same curse that made you forget.” She shivered. “I feel so much older than you ever will. How unfitting for a daughter.”
Reme shifted Irne to her other arm, reaching out to take Seva’s hand. “You think it is impossible for anyone to love you,” she said. “But I loved you as my sister. I will love you as my daughter too, Seva.”
Unable to look her in the eyes, Seva turned to the sky. “Mindras would taunt me in the night watches,” she whispered bitterly. “She promised our freedom with a willing sacrifice.” A tailed star streaked above their heads. “I took too long to realize that it was my sacrifice she spoke of. Yehil, the only person I ever wanted—the only person I could never keep. Ever since I was smaller than Grisca and Irne. I used to pray to the moon that he would climb that ladder and say my name. Even when he didn’t, I was still so happy to see him. He was—” No words were fitting. Grief bowed her over, but the tears would not come. They were long since spent.
“He was your father,” Reme finished. “If he had known, it would have brought him nothing but pride.” She took Seva’s hand. “I am proud, Seva. You do your father honor. You fulfilled his dearest wish.” Her voice was gentle, sad but free of tears. Leaning over, she laid her head on Seva’s shoulder. They stayed awake together through the night, marveling at its sounds and scents and secret beauties.
Reme remembered her daughters’ names as the sun rose. She remembered their father, remembered why nothing remained of their father but scavenged ash and finger bones. She felt the warmth his final gifts to her: a final smile despite the starlight, and the timid flicker of life within her. Smiling through tears, Reme let her hand wander over the small swell of her belly. Then she roused her twin daughters and embraced her eldest. Though free at last to fly, the Eyrie’s children chose to walk. They walked with their backs to the sunrise, heading towards the horizon as they carried their soldier home.