~There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.~
The sun was beginning to set as the girl perched on the sill of the castle's solitary window. One leg dangled over the edge, brushing against the warm stone wall. Fresh, warm air hit her nostrils and she inhaled deeply. A smile played on her moist lips as the wind blew through her long auburn hair. She looked up to the sky, her eyes darting rapidly to follow the flight patterns of the creatures that soared in the sky. A mated pair of hawks darted and swooped, hunting one last time before night fell.
The girl's heart began to race as she watched the majestic animals. "I wonder if I could join them. I wonder if they'd share their freedom," she murmured to herself. She didn't even glance at the rocky ground hundreds of feet below her. She could only focus on the sky as she slipped her other leg out the window. Her tawny wings unfolded slightly, as if they too wanted nothing more than to jump, feel the wind ripple through her feathers, feel her muscles coil and pull and lift her into the sky, struggle with the wind, and finally fly. Just fly.
"Lady Alida, didn't you hear me calling earlier? Dinner is ready," came a voice from the doorway.
The girl jumped back into the room quickly, trying to land without a sound. Yet even her best effort was still audible.
"M'Lady, please stay out of the window. You know how upset the master would be if he saw you doing that again," said the servant urgently. Her words were supposed to sound reprimanding, but when they were spoken, they sounded apologetic, even sad. She was a small furred creature, with a bright red pelt, nimble paws, and large, dark eyes. However, her eyes were not bright and alert. They were dull and cloudy, and they didn't follow the girl's movement.
"I know, Malura, I'm sorry," answered the girl. She crossed the room, her bare feet quiet on the cold floor. She bent down in front of the servant and stroked her furred head. Her sunset colored eyes were filled with sorrow. Yet the servant's dark eyes didn't see her sadness. Those eyes had seen nothing since the day the servant was born. "I don't mean to upset you again and again. But the fresh air is just so pleasant."
"I understand, Lady Alida. Please try not to upset Master, though. He has seemed very distracted lately," said Malura, waving her scarlet tail from side to side. "Now come and eat your dinner before it gets cold."
Alida twined her fingers with the servant's paw, and together, they walked down from the room with the window. Despite her blindness, the ranta only stumbled once on the winding stairs, and even then, her red, tufted tail and the girl's strong grip kept her upright.
"Good evening, Alida, Malura," greeted the master of the castle-like home. He glanced up from his folded hands to meet their eyes. His dark hair hung around his face, shadowing his crimson eyes.
"Good evening, Master Riven," responded Malura with a polite bow, her squeaky voice kind.
"Would you care to join us, Malura?" Riven asked the ranta servant. "I'm sure my cooking is not as good as your own, but feel free to join us."
Malura smiled in the direction of Riven's voice. "Thank you for the invitation, Master, but I've already eaten for the night." With that, she grinned one last time, showing her small, pointed teeth before scurrying off to tidy the near deserted castle.
"I'm sorry to make you wait, Riven," said Alida as she sat down next to the dark-haired man.
"Don't worry about it," he said, picking up his fork. As he moved, his white wings stirred, filling the quiet hall with a quiet clicking sound.
Alida looked at his wings, mentally comparing them with her own. Her wings were very small, and covered with plush, dark feathers. Riven's, on the other hand, were much larger. However, his wings had no feathers, or even flesh. His had a strange structure that formed the shape of a normal pair of wings, but were formed of pure bone, held together by something unseen.
"What is it, Alida?" Riven asked, catching her curious gaze.
"Nothing important," she replied, turning her attention to her plate of slightly cold food. She stabbed at the juicy stew absently, her mind focused on the smell of fresh air, the sight of the circling air. She wanted to be in the sky with them.
Her eyes looked toward the doorway, looking over it with their burning orange gaze. The door had been heavily bricked over since before she had arrived. Other than the window she had been looking out earlier, there was no way to get to or even see the outside world.
"Alida, what's wrong? You haven't even touched your food," said Riven again, glancing at the younger woman with concern in his fearsome eyes. With deft, slender fingers he brushed a few strands of dark hair away from his fearsome eyes.
"Nothing, Master," she answered again, her sunset eyes refusing to meet the older man's gaze. Instinctively, she hunched her shoulders, leaning away from him. Her hand traveled to her right shoulder, tracing the shape of a mark that patterned the skin beneath her clothing.
"Please don't call me that," he said, plucking at the hem of his luxurious shirt. "I'm not your master."
"Then why do you keep me locked away in here?" the girl answered quietly, anxiously chewing on her thumbnail. "Why won't you teach me to fly?"
Riven sighed, and his haggard face went even paler. He pushed his plate away, burying his head in his hands. "Alida, how many times must you ask me those questions? You know that my answers have not changed. For now, the world outside this castle is not safe for you. That is all I can tell you, please believe me. And as for your other question, it's too soon. Your wings aren't ready to bear your weight yet. How many years has it been since they budded? Eleven?"
"That's right," Alida said. "I was seven years old when they budded, the same year that you brought me here. Please, are you sure they aren't ready? Look at them!" She jumped up from the table, knocking over her chair in her hastiness. She unfurled her wings, sending a few loose reddish, downy feathers flying into the air.
Riven looked as if he were holding back a laugh. "Alida, look at them. Do you really think they can carry you through the sky? Wait. You will know when they're strong enough."
The castle's master stood up and stooped to pick up one of the fallen feathers and tuck it under the fabric of his jacket. As he straightened up, he extended his own wings, but Alida looked away. "Don't mock me," she growled.
"I'm not mocking you, I promise," he said gently, his rough voice quiet. "Just look at me, please."
She did as he said and looked up, taking in his wingspan that was over three times as broad as her own.
"Enjoy your beautiful wings while you can," he said sadly, plucking another downy feather from the ground. He folded his wings again, and the grate of bone on bone could be heard clearly.
"You're talking like an old man, Riven," said Alida, her expression falling.
He smiled faintly, although his red eyes were dull. "Once you Stop, it's hard to know how much time has passed. Yet, although your body refuses to continue aging, the world around you does. It's a difficult concept to live with."
For a minute, everything was silent. Then Riven turned around and left without another word. Alida hesitated for a few minutes. Her eyes were lost as she stood in silence before going to her windowless bedroom for the night.
* * *
The sun was high in the sky and the sky was a brilliant shade of blue, but for once, the girl's eyes were turned toward the ground. A crumpled form lay on the stones far beneath the window she sat in. One hawk circled low to the ground, screeching and diving at the unmoving bundle of feathers. The other hawk lay still, its neck twisted strangely.
Alida leaned forward, her eyes widening. She needed to help the hawks. After watching them every day for years, they were like her companions.
She unfurled her wings and slid both legs over the edge. Her scarred fingers clutched the stone wall as she hesitated. The breeze blew at her bare toes, carrying the hawk's frantic screeches with it.
"Alida, what are you doing?" asked Riven as he came through the doorway, his eyes immediately traveling to the girl who sat in the window.
Briefly, she glanced back, catching him in her orange gaze. Then, she threw herself forward.
Wind whipped through her auburn hair as she plunged toward the ground. Her small wings pumped and strained, trying to keep the girl aloft. Every muscle in her body was alive as she fought the strength of gravity, her eyes tightly closed.
She was falling, plummeting, racing toward the rocks beneath her. Yet she had no regrets, no fear. She felt like she was flying. The wind made tears stream as she opened her eyes, ready to meet the ground that rushed to embrace her.
Suddenly, strong arms were around her, and she was falling no longer. Now she was really flying, soaring up along the castle walls. She stared into familiar eyes, now a brilliant blue, mimicking the color of the sky. With every beat of his bone wings, he carried her higher into the sky. His wings pumped and they raced toward the sun, before turning to dive back to the ground below them.
Carefully, he alighted on the rocky ground, setting the girl gently on her feet. Tears were streaming from her eyes, and she wasn't sure if it was because of sadness, happiness, or simply the wind.
Before Riven could even speak, she was moving to the edge of the jagged rock they stood on. The stone felt warm and unfamiliar under her bare feet. She could see the fallen hawk many yards away, and she could hear its mate's frantic cries.
"We have to help it," she murmured urgently, looking for a way to climb over to the still bird.
"Wait here, I'll get it," replied Riven, carefully nudging the girl back against the castle wall. With a few strokes of his white wings, he lifted into the air. Quickly, he darted to the rock where the hawk lay, landing back on his feet. He bent to pick up the hawk, but as he did so, its mate screeched its fury. The fierce bird dove at the dark-haired man again and again. Its talons raked across his shoulders, his face, as he held the fallen bird to his chest and leapt into the air again.
In seconds, he was at Alida's side again. He extended his wings around her like a strange cage of bone, defending her against the panicked hawk's assaults. Yet the hawk couldn't reach them without risking crashing into the castle wall. After a few failed attempts, the hawk soared into the sky again, circling above them and screaming its terror.
"Can you save it?" asked Alida, looking at the broken body in Riven's hands. With a trembling finger, she stroked its feathered head.
Riven shook his head, his dark hair falling over his eyes. "It's already been dead for a while. And even if I'd gotten to it while it was still alive, I don't think I could've saved it. Its neck is broken. It must've ran into the castle while it was hunting. Animals like this don't always know to stay away from potentially dangerous places."
"What can we do?" Alida whispered, her orange eyes wide. She drew her hand away from the dead bird, as if she would be the next to lie on the ground, unmoving.
"Nothing," said Riven simply.
"Can't we bury it?" the girl asked, looking into his tormented eyes. Blood was running down the side of his face from a wound caused by the hawk's frantic mate.
"I'm sorry," he said, his fast downcast. "There isn't anywhere nearby that I could bury it," he continued, gesturing to the jagged rocks that completely surrounded the castle.
"So we just have to leave it here?" she asked, her voice rising.
He nodded, and quickly leapt into the air, his bare, bone wings somehow keeping him aloft. He respectfully laid the dead bird's body on a stone a few yards away, then flew back to Alida's side.
"Let's go back inside," he said, wrapping an arm around her waist. Without waiting for her answer, he stroked down with his wings, lofting them into the sky. He flew through the stone window and landed on his feet, safely inside the castle once more.
He turned to face the window again, keeping his arm wrapped around Alida. She buried her face against his warm chest, inhaling his earthy scent. Yet even the sound of her sobs and his reassuring whispers couldn't block out the other hawk's cries as it again tried to rouse its fallen mate.
* * * *
Night had fallen, but the girl still sat in the window. Her keen eyes could see nothing, yet she still sat, enjoying the breeze and the sweet night air. Weeks had passed since the hawk had died, and now its mate hunted alone each day. It had long since forgotten that the bleached skeleton that lay on the rocks below once had any significance to it.
The moonlight illuminated the sadness on Alida's freckled face. Since that day, she hadn't tried to fly, although something in her still wanted to jump from the window and spread her wings. Yet each time she closed her eyes, she remembered the strange feeling of plummeting down, of falling.
"Alida, is everything alright?" Riven stepped into the room, but the girl didn't even jump at the sudden sound of his voice. It was night, and his eyes shone a deep blue, barely distinguishable from the black of his pupils. They were flecked with tiny specks of gold and silver, mirroring the stars and moon that hung in the sky. "I stopped by your bedroom to tell you goodnight as usual, and when you weren't there, I counted on finding you here. Is something bothering you?"
She shook her head, turning toward Riven. Her face was pale and lined, but she managed a smile for him. "I was just having trouble sleeping, so I thought the fresh air might help. I'm sorry to worry you."
He nodded in understanding and brushed back his onyx hair sleepily. The wound from the hawk had long faded into a narrow white line, adding character to the unmarked skin of his handsome face.
Quietly, she crossed the room to stand by his side, glancing up at him with kind, tired eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, but suddenly, pain lanced through her facial features. She reached out to clutch Riven's sleeve, and he managed to grab her before she collapsed onto the stone floor.
She drew her eyelids closed, her fingers digging into Riven's arm. She cried out weakly as pain shot through her body, making sweat bead up on her forehead.
"Alida, what's wrong?" asked Riven, struggling to keep the whimpering girl upright. He noticed the way her wings trembled and twitched, as if they were following a will other than Alida's.
"My wings," she managed to say through tightly gritted teeth. "I feel like my bones are trying to tear out of my skin."
Riven's face was filled with realization as he realized what was happening. "Malura," he called, his voice echoing through the silent castle.
In seconds, the small ranta was at his side, helping him support the feverish girl. "Stay with her for a moment," he told the servant as they lowered the panting girl to the ground. Riven managed to pry Alida's fingers from his arm, murmuring that he'd return shortly. Spreading his bone wings, Riven glided down the stairs, then dashed to his bedroom. He grabbed his padded mattress and carried it up the stairs and into the windowed room, laying it carefully on the floor.
As he and Malura moved Alida onto the mattress, he brushed back a few strands of sweaty hair back from the girl's face.
"You're going to be fine," he reassured Alida as he sat on the mattress beside her. She reached for him, her lips quivering in pain and fear. He took her hand and laid his other on her forehead, feeling the feverish skin beneath his palm.
"Talk to me," Alida managed to say between moments of intense pain. "Tell me stories, help me keep my mind off this pain."
Riven smiled at her, his night eyes lined with pain, then slid down so that he was reclining beside her. She pillowed her head on his shoulder, rubbing her face against the skin of his neck like a tired child.
"I can still remember the day I found you," he began, talking in hushed whispers. Malura curled up beside him, her tufted ears twitching as she listened to his rough voice.
"I had been alone so long, searching for another who was like me. I found you wandering the streets. You were a young slave girl, and your parents had most likely been killed for what they were. The moment I saw you, I felt it. You must've too, considering the way you ran to my arms and threw your arms around my neck." Riven remembered other things as well, things he didn't speak of. A knife in her hand, blood, bandaged wrists, a branded shoulder, tears, screaming, fear, pain, years of silence.
The girl's face twisted into a cross between a smile and a grimace. When she spoke, her words were tinted with agony, and it took effort for her to even speak. Riven waited patiently, the gentle smile never leaving his tortured, torn face. "I can almost remember that. I can still recall your voice when you told me my new name. 'Alida,' you said. 'It means little winged one.' I don't remember anything else you said that day, but I knew I would be safe with you. But how did you know I was like you?"
He laughed quietly, sliding his hand to cup the Alida's cringing face. At his touch, she relaxed slightly. "How do you think I noticed?" he said with another chuckle. "It was obvious the moment I saw you."
"I suppose it was," murmured the girl, closing her eyes and falling into a plagued, painful sleep.
The next morning, the girl's feathers began to fall out. She watched in horror as the tawny, glossy feathers tore free from her skin, falling to the mattress in thick clumps. She said nothing, but began to cry as she saw the reddened skin beneath. Wordlessly, Riven rose to his feet and began to gather up the discarded feathers, dropping them from the window. They fell like gossamer tongues of fire to the obsidian rocks below, where they lay like pools of blood.
By evening, all the beautiful feathers were gone, leaving Alida with wings of pale, ugly flesh. She cried against Riven's sturdy chest, and Malura stroked her hair. Yet despite her pain, her high fever, she insisted on looking out the window as she always did. Riven had his arms around her waist, supporting her as she watched the hawk circle in the sky.
She suddenly slumped in his arms, her eyes drifting closed. Riven looked to her face in concern, but realized she had merely fallen asleep. He easily lifted her into his arms and lay her carefully on the mattress.
The second day, Riven's face was pale and gaunt. He hadn't slept for the past days, instead, he stayed awake to watch over Alida. He ignored his own tiredness and plastered a smile on his face the moment Alida regained consciousness, but it was quickly replaced with a look of pain, of fear.
Alida screamed out Riven's name as her wings convulsed, straining against the confines of her skin and muscles. She reached for him and he let her hold him, even when her fingernails dug into his back, deep enough to draw blood beneath his shirt. She muffled her screams in Riven's shoulder as Malura brought a basin of water to wipe away the girl's sweat and tears.
"My wings are ripping! Riven, help me," she'd whimper and howl, but he could do nothing to relieve her pain. As her pain grew worse, she began to scream, tearing at her hair in agony. "Master, I'm sorry! I'll be a good girl, please don't hit me! I won't overcook the food again, I promise. Just don't hit me." Riven flinched as her words, the memories she was reliving of times before he knew her. But still, he could do nothing.
Finally, as the afternoon turned to night, the girl finally breathed a relieved sigh. Warm blood dripped from the tip of her wings, and a tiny sliver of bone and muscle could be seen emerging from the torn skin. Suddenly, the tension, the pressure at her wing tips was gone and she sunk into unconsciousness, listening to the sound of Riven's heartbeat.
The third day brought the most agony. The bones and muscles in her wings were growing and expanding, but the bare skin remained the same size.
Riven woke from his state of near-sleep to the girl's fingers digging into his skin even more tightly. Her eyes were wide and unseeing from the intensity of her pain. Slowly, muscle and bone began to emerge in more places, tearing free of their prison of skin.
Riven stroked her drenched, matted hair, murmuring to her, promising it wouldn't be much longer. Slowly at first, her blood began to dye the mattress and their clothing red.
"I'm dying," she whispered through gritted teeth, her eyes taking in the blood that was staining her skin. She glanced to her wrists, taking in the unbroken skin. She seemed surprised, but not afraid as her blood continued to drip from her wings. Riven's eyes followed her gaze, and he flinched when he saw the old, puckered scars on her wrists.
Throughout the day, the skin on her wings began to rip away, falling to the ground sickeningly. Yet as each piece fell, the pain subsided a little as the pressure was removed.
Evening fell, and finally, the girl lay quiet. Her pain was finally gone. With sane eyes, she looked up at Riven, who was sitting beside her protectively. He had long since stripped off his blood-soaked shirt, and for the first time, Alida noticed the chain that must've hung underneath his clothing. He wore the slender chain like a necklace, but instead of a charm on the end, one of her lustrous red feathers was threaded onto it.
With weak, hesitant fingers, she reached up to stroke that last feather.
Riven touched the feather himself, his cheeks flushing with embarrassment. "I knew this day would come, so quite some time ago, I kept one of your feathers," he explained sheepishly. He rose to his feet to find some fresh clothing, but Alida reached for his hand and tugged on his fingers.
"Stay," she whispered, her eyes half open and still glazed with pain and fear. In all eleven years he had known her, Riven had never heard her say anything with such emotion.
"Alright, Alida," he conceded and lay down next to her. She nuzzled against his collarbone, sighing with relief and happiness. He twined his arms around her to hold her close, and Malura curled up against Alida's back.
For the first time in three days, all three members of the silent castle fell asleep.
The girl didn't wake until the next evening, and then, she staggered to her feet and looked in the mirror. Her small, downy wings were gone. Now, her wingspan rivaled Riven's.
Her wings were an artist's dream. Made of pure muscle and bone, with every tiny movement, the anatomy of her wing and the way it worked were clear and obvious. Thick, red muscle covered the bone in most places, but in some, bone jutted out to form the structure of the wing. Her wings were the same shape as they had been before, but feathers were replaced by shards of bone and strips of muscle.
"I'm hideous," she said simply, looking at the raw ugliness of her strange new wings.
"No, you're Alida," Riven said, standing behind her. He stretched out his wings as well, and they looked at their reflections for a long moment. "I think they're beautiful," he said after a moment, and gently touched the exposed muscle.
Alida twitched at the strange sensation, but she didn't pull away. "You only say that because yours are just as bad," she said quietly, glancing down to the floor.
Riven's eyes flashed with hurt, but Alida didn't see. He cleared his throat, and when he spoke, his voice was calm once more. "Don't you know what this means? You've Stopped. You won't age any longer. You're an adult now."
She nodded, but the happiness she thought she would feel at such news never came. She would be in the body of an eighteen-year-old for the rest of her life, just like Riven.
"Alida," Riven whispered. The gentle, familiar sound of his voice was all it took. Alida turned to him and buried her face against his bare chest, her salty tears leaving trails down his muscled torso. As she sobbed for everything she had lost and gained, he remembered the time he had Stopped. His parents had been alive then, it was before they'd been hunted. Yet even with their support, he'd been unable to look at his hideous wings for days.
For a long moment, Riven was torn. He wanted to tell her the last thing that went along with Stopping. With a few words, he could ensure that she stayed by his side for the rest of their lives, or he could give her freedom and risk her leaving him forever.
"You can fly now," he whispered after a moment. His voice was rough, as if telling her pained him.
Alida froze, and after a few seconds, her tears stopped flowing. She looked up at him, her sunset eyes filled with hope and wonder. "Are you telling me the truth, Riven?" she whispered, as if saying it too loudly would make him take back the words he had spoken.
He nodded, his eyes the exact same shade as Alida's. "I told you that you would know when you were ready to fly. That time is now. Don't you feel it?"
She closed her eyes, a smile appearing on her face. She felt as if her blood was singing, telling her to leap from the window and soar. She wanted to join her hawk.
Silently, as if in a trance, she walked to the window, being careful not to wake the dozing Malura. She sat in the window, dangling her legs as she always did. But for the first time, she felt hesitant, unsure. Her old wings had looked and felt like they could bear her weight, but there was no logic, no physics to support Riven's assurance that she could fly.
"I'll catch you if you fall," Riven whispered to her. "But you won't."
She nodded, and threw herself into space.
For a moment, she was falling. Yet as the ground rushed closer, something in her seemed to awaken. She hunched her shoulders and threw her head back. Her wings snapped open wide and somehow, she was gliding through the air. She could feel the wind skimming off her muscle, her bone. With each powerful stroke, she rose into the air.
The girl couldn't help laughing aloud as she spiraled and dove, quickly understanding what precise movements could send her dancing through the air like an acrobat. The lone hawk entered her vision, and with a few powerful strokes, she was flying alongside it. Yet it didn't seem nearly as majestic as Riven, who had leapt into the sky after her. He twisted through the air like a river otter, seeming as much part of the air as a gust of wind.
The wind tangled her ruddy hair as she flew toward the sunset, loving the feel of her powerful wings, the way her muscles stretched and pulled, somehow keeping her aloft.
She heard the familiar grate of bone on bone, and she looked over her shoulder to see Riven soaring above her. He dove and twisted through the air, and she mimicked his movements in a strange aerial routine, part dance, part battle. Finally, they came back to their original position, with Riven flying so close over Alida that she could feel his bone wings gently flicking hers with each stroke. His face was alight with happiness and pride as he beamed down at her. In midair, Alida flipped so she was flying with her stomach facing up toward Riven. She reached for him and pulled herself close enough so she could tuck herself against him, trusting him to carry her weight as her wings hung limp beneath them. He held her tightly as he climbed higher, and it wasn't the wind that made tears stream from both of their eyes.
As he carried her through the sky, circling their castle below, they both knew that the bond they had formed was more powerful than anything that a pair of hawks could ever form.
* * * *
The girl leaned back against the window, letting her wings linger outside, enjoying the last bits of warm air before the sun set and turned the world cold.
"Riven, what's the outside world like?" she asked after a moment. Her eyes, steadily darkening as the sun set, were trained on the man standing next to her. Since she had Stopped, her eyes too had started changing color with the time of day. It was as if, since they didn't age visibly, their body needed some way of keeping time.
Riven shrugged. That was the question he had been dreading. He had hoped that flying everyday would sate her urge to explore, to fly, but she had just proved him wrong.
"You must know some things about it," Alida urged. "I mean, when you found me, we were both in the outside world. That means you must've been there before."
"I don't want to talk about it. If you hear about the outside world, it will consume you. You won't be satisfied with life here anymore," growled Riven, his voice rising dangerously.
"Riven, please," she encouraged. "I can only remember this castle. I want to know what the outside world holds. But I would never leave you, or this castle. I have everything I need here."
"Shut up! You may figure out that everything you need isn't nearly enough. I'm not going to answer your foolish questions," shouted Riven, his wings snapping out in his anger.
The girl flinched at his voice, drawing back instinctively. "Yes, Master," she murmured, her eyes immediately falling to the floor. Her voice was respectful, timid, and full of fear. She spoke as if she were a slave girl again, and her hand traveled to the brand on her right shoulder.
"Master Riven, Lady Alida, dinner is ready," said Malura, poking her furry head into the room with the window.
Before Riven could say anything, Alida bolted down the stairs, her shoulders hunched and head held low. Cursing under his breath, Riven dashed after her. He caught her by the hand as she tried to duck into her bedroom.
"Alida, I'm sorry, please," he started, but she slipped from his grasp and locked the door behind her.
Riven ate his dinner in silence, and Alida didn't appear for the rest of the night. He went to her room again, but even when he pleaded with her to let him speak with her, the only thing that answered him were her strangled sobs.
That night, the sound of his door opening alerted Riven to the girl's presence. She slipped under the blankets and burrowed into his side, partially his Alida, and partially the frightened slave girl he had found in the outside world.
"Master, tell me about the world outside of ours," she said again, her voice quiet and meek.
"Alida, I'm not your master. Remember me, I'm Riven," he encouraged.
Her dark, almost black eyes lit up with understanding. "I'm sorry, Riven," she said, meeting his eyes once again. "Tell me what it's like outside this castle. Please. There is nothing I want or need. I'll never leave you, don't be afraid," she whispered, wrapping her arms around his neck and leaning her forehead against his. Suddenly, it seemed as if she were the one comforting and reassuring him.
Both of them knew that she was using his earlier fury against him. She was manipulating him, guilting him into telling her about the tantalizing world outside the stone walls.
Riven gave in with a sigh, lifting his hands to stroke her reddish brown hair. "Don't leave me, Alida. I can't let you leave me too. Promise me you won't leave me for it."
"I won't," she promised, and she meant it with every part of her soul.
"The world outside is as dangerous as it is beautiful," Riven began, his rough voice rumbling in Alida's ears. "The people outside try to hunt us for being what we are. They don't understand the way we Stop. They fear us as much as they hate us. Yet they have invented many beautiful things. They have weapons that can kill by flinging small bits of metal at very high speeds. They have devices that can be pulled by horses, and even some that can roll along by them self. There are motors and factories in some towns, and tall buildings that stretch toward the sky..."
Riven continued to speak throughout the night, his rough voice spinning tales of things Alida couldn't even imagine. Even in her seven years in the outside world, she had never been to places like the ones he'd described. She listened, rapt, until Riven finally drifted off to sleep, his hands hopelessly tangled in her hair. Even then, the girl lay awake, her mind filled with the strange, beautiful, fearsome picture he had painted of the outside world.
* * * *
The girl stood at her window once more. She leaned out, folding the jacket she held in her arms. On the stones below lay the other hawk. Alida knew it was dead. The bird was old, it must've just died of natural causes. But strangely, its body lay where the body of its mate had lain months earlier. It was as if somehow, the bird remembered the resting place of its companion and wanted to stay with it even in death. Its broken form made something inside of Alida break, and she felt tears stab at her eyes and threaten her composure, her determination.
She had thought she told the truth when she told Riven she had everything she needed right here in this castle. She could live out the rest of her days in peace by his side. But something in was not satisfied. She felt like there was something important she needed to do. She had thought she had freedom now that she could fly, but she realized that it had only extended her prison, not destroyed it.
She sighed, and her face was lined with uncertainty, fear, and regret. Yet she felt like something was calling her. Ever since Riven had told her about the outside world, it had hung in her mind. It corrupted her thoughts and tantalized her in her dreams. She couldn't ignore it any more.
"Are you leaving?" came a voice from the doorway.
Alida whipped around, but it was only Malura who stood in the doorway. The ranta's eyes were focused on Alida's face as if the servant could see her.
"Yes," said the girl, knowing that Malura's sensitive hearing would be able to detect a lie easily.
"I had the feeling you were going to," answered the ranta. Her ears drooped and she scurried over to Alida, taking the girl's hand in her paw. "Master Riven will be very upset. You gave him your word, didn't you?"
"I know. Don't think I haven't thought of that," answered Alida. "But I'll be back soon. I just want a taste of the world, that's all. Don't let Riven worry about me." With that, she dropped a kiss on Malura's furred forehead and leapt out the window.
Her powerful, atrocious wings carried her through the air, far away from the broken body on the rocks below. She flew in a straight line from the castle, watching it fade into a speck in the distance. She had to do this. She needed to see the outside world again.
She flew high in the sky until she saw a difference on the ground below. There was a large village, perhaps even a city coming up. It stood out among the rust-colored rocks that covered the rest of the land.
Alida landed a few hundred yards away from the city, and pulled the slitted jacket that she had taken from Riven's room over her shoulders. She folded up her wings so tightly, and in a strange miracle that went against her anatomy, she managed to hide them beneath her bulky jacket.
Alida took a deep breath and strode to the village. As she grew closer, cows, pigs, and other animals she hadn't seen in over eleven years lowed and squealed as she walked by their pens. She looked about with a wide smile, feeling as if she was seeing everything for the first time. After years of stone floors, the dirt felt strange beneath her bare feet.
Then, Alida saw something that made her heart seem to stop. Another human was walking a few yards in front of her. From his back jutted two ebony wings. Long, curling feathers extended in cascades from the muscled flesh of his wings. Some feathers were so long, they brushed the dusty ground as the man walked. Alida gasped in awe. They were the most beautiful things she had ever seen.
"Can I help you, miss?" asked the man, turning around at the sound of Alida's gasp. Despite the clear blue sky, his eyes were a dark brown. He looked older than Alida, and she was surprised to see that he hadn't Stopped yet.
"No, I'm fine," she said, turning her face to the ground. Quickly, she shuffled by the man, keeping her eyes low.
As she walked through the village, she marveled at everything she saw. Horse-drawn carriages rolled by, and an occasional motorcar as well. The first time Alida saw a motorcar, she had jumped in fear, her eyes widening in awe. People walked through the village, and each of them had beautiful wings with luxurious feathers. The girl felt humiliated, and kept her own hideous wings carefully out of sight. None of the people she saw had color-shifting eyes, either. After she saw the tenth person with dark brown eyes, she kept her own gaze trained on the ground. None of the people in the village had Stopped, despite their age. And from what Riven had told her, Alida knew that the things that set her apart from the others were a potential danger.
Yet despite the strangeness of the people, the unusual technology, and the secrets Alida had to keep, she was entranced by the strange outside world. Something about it held her curiosity and kept her fascinated. The first night, she slept in an open field, sleeping without a roof over her head for the first time in years.
The next day, Alida walked to another nearby village. Her wings felt cramped, and she longed to extend them. However, they were radically different from he wings of everyone else she had seen, so she kept them safely hidden and walked on foot from town to town.
The next town was bigger, and Alida came face to face with something that made her blood seem to freeze in her veins. A slave trader waltzed through the town, leading a train of fifteen shackled boys and girls behind him.
Alida clapped her hand over her shoulder as if the people could see through her clothing to the brand beneath her skin, the same brand that marked these children. But no one suspected a thing.
As she followed alongside the children for several steps, few even dared look up at her, and the ones who did had fear in their eyes. They were weak and haggard, but the slave trader, a burly, bristly man trudged on, practically dragging the children behind him.
Alida followed the slaves from a distance, digging through the pockets of her jacket. Yet the few coins she had stolen were only enough to pay for her meals for a few more days, not enough to buy a slave.
The girl continued to follow the slave trader and his merchandise. All thoughts of curiosity and exploring the strange world were erased, followed by a simple desire to help the slave children.
The trader brought the children to a large city. The second Alida entered the city, it took her breath away. Riven hadn't been exaggerating when he told her the sheer size of the buildings. They towered nearly as tall as the highest turret of Riven's castle, yet they were made of wood and steel.
"A-Alida?" came a shocked voice, and a familiar hand grasped the girl's shoulder.
Gasping in shock, she whirled around and stared into a pair of grayish eyes, reflecting the clouded sky above.
"Riven," she breathed, and he wrapped his arms around her, squeezing her so tightly that the air escaped from her lungs in a breathy wheeze. "How did you find me?"
"This is the busiest city in the world, I knew you would end up here soon," he answered.
"Riven, I-" Alida began, but he cut her off.
"Never leave me like that again," he was saying, over and over. His voice had a chilling note of panic that Alida had never heard before. His gray eyes were wide with fear, making him look young, childlike. He gripped her arms tightly, leaning his forehead against hers. "They already left me, all alone. You can't do it as well. Please, Alida."
"I'm sorry, Master," she whispered, glancing toward the ground. She clapped a hand over her branded shoulder and flinched, as though expecting a strike. "I'm sorry."
"I'm Riven, Alida," he reassured her, stroking her auburn hair. His tone of voice quieted, and he sounded calm once again, although the pain was clear in his voice. "I would never hurt you. I'm not who you think I am."
Her eyes lit up with recognition, and she twined her arms around his neck, briefly playing with the dark strands of hair at the nape.
"Riven, you have to help me," she murmured close to his ear.
"What is it?" he asked, drawing her closer. He could hear the urgency in her voice, and he knew it was something important.
She pulled away from him and gestured up ahead where the slave trader was leading the children through crowds of people.
"I want to help them," she said quietly, as if finding the words was difficult. "I want to free them, before what happens to me happens to them."
"Of course," reassured Riven. He dug in his pants pocket until he pulled out a roll of bills, handing them to the girl. "I have no need for money anymore. This should be enough to buy them all. Then you can free them. We could maybe even take care of them back at the castle." Riven's eyes were filled with hope, and with each word, Alida seemed to grow more calm.
"Thank you, Riven," she said, then turned and strode purposefully toward the slave trader. She had no fear, no hesitation as she approached him and held out the roll of bills.
"Is this enough to buy all the slaves?" she asked, carefully avoiding the bristly man's dark eyes.
"Yes," he said, snatching the money from her before he even had a chance to count it. His eyes were wide with greed. He stuffed the money into his pants pocket and pulled a ring of keys from his other. Slowly, methodically, he began to unshackle each child.
Alida knelt next to each child, looking each of them in their dark, frightened eyes. "You'll be okay," she whispered, cupping their small, dirty faces in her hands. "Riven and I will take you somewhere safe. You don't have to be scared anymore."
She went to the last child, a tiny, terrified young girl. Alida crouched to be at eye level with the girl. "Don't worry about anything anymore," she murmured, tousling the girl's blonde hair, stroking the brand that marred her shoulder. "You won't ever have to see this man again," Alida whispered, glancing at the cruel man as he unshackled the girl.
Clouds rolled across the sky and uncovered the sun, making the sky shine a brilliant blue. The girl's eyes went wide, and Alida realized too late what was going on.
"Lady, your eyes are changing color," exclaimed the child, her sunset eyes wide with wonder. "My mommy's can do that too, and so can the rest of my family," she whispered, but Alida didn't hear her.
The shackle fell, unchained, to the ground. The bristly man straightened up, looking down at where Alida knelt. He looked at her eyes, the way they were shifting from gray to blue.
"Atrocity," he shouted, his booming voice carrying over the din of the busy city. "There's an Atrocity in the city!"
"Run." she shouted to the children, her voice loud with panic. They scattered, and she whirled and sprinted toward Riven.
A strong hand caught her by the wrist and threw her to the ground. She sprawled and tried to struggle to her feet, but the burly slave owner was already standing over her. He kicked her in the ribs, and she grunted in pain.
He bent to pick the girl up by the throat, his meaty hands ready to choke out her life. "Master, don't hurt me," she shrieked in terror, but before he could close his hands around her throat, Riven's fist collided with his face at high velocity.
The big man collapsed to the ground, and Riven extended a hand to Alida and pulled her to her feet.
"We need to run," he urged, but she hesitated for a moment.
"What about the slave children?" she asked, searching the city for them. They had already dove out of sight, disappearing into alleys as if they knew the city by heart.
"We can't help them anymore," said Riven, then he leapt into the air. Alida followed him, and they snapped open their malformed, powerful wings. The crowd below shrieked in fear, and some threw rocks into the air, aiming at the two escapees.
"Why aren't they following us?" Alida asked, glancing over her shoulder as they flew away from the violent city.
"They can't, not now," said Riven. His face was pale, and his eyes lacked their usual spark. "But they will soon. They can track us easily once they find us."
They flew on through the day until their muscles could carry them no farther. Then they circled and landed, taking shelter in a clump of small trees.
"News travels quickly in the outside world," Riven said as he collapsed onto the ground, his sides heaving with exertion. "We won't be able to pass through anywhere unnoticed anymore."
"I'm sorry," Alida murmured, laying beside Riven. She nestled against his side, breathing in his scent.
"Just promise me one thing. Don't leave my side again. I understand why you did it before, but please, don't do it again. It frightens me," said Riven, his voice hushed. He threw his arm over the girl's waist, holding her close to him.
"I won't leave you again," Alida promised, her dark eyes wide with emotion. "I shouldn't have done it before, my decision was wrong. And now you're suffering because of it too. But I won't ever leave your side."
"Thank you," murmured Riven. "I was so frightened when I thought you might leave, and then when you actually did..."
"Did it remind you of your parents?" asked Alida, sudden realization filling her voice.
He nodded, closing his eyes. "I had just Stopped, and I wanted new clothing since this would be the age I stayed for the rest of my life. They agreed reluctantly, but they made me stay behind. They flew off to the city to buy my clothing, but they never returned. They left me alone, in a castle full of dried food to last the rest of my life, but nothing else. I was alone, all because of my selfish wishes. Years before that, they'd told me if anything ever happened to them, they wanted me to find others like me. But my parents knew it would be difficult. Our kind is being hunted. I'm not sure if there are any left other than the both of us."
Alida said nothing, but simply looked up at the starry sky above her. "Will the people from the city chase us?" she asked after a long pause.
"Yes," answered Riven. "They will hunt us like animals. They'll bring horses and cars and guns and swords. They won't rest until we fall, or until we escape."
"Why didn't they just fly after us today?"
Riven sighed, tangling his fingers in her warm hair. "They aren't the same of us. They sacrifice our gift of flight and the way we Stop in exchange for beautiful wings and the ability to age."
"They can't fly? Ever?" Alida asked, her voice confused and shocked.
"That's correct. They've forgotten how. And they're bent on killing all of those who still know how to fly."
"Then, if it wasn't because of my wings, how did you know I was one of your kind?" asked Alida, yawning.
"Your eyes, of course," replied Riven. "The ones who don't have the knowledge of flight are born with dark eyes. But the ones who haven't forgotten are born with eyes the color of the sunset. I'm surprised no one noticed yours sooner."
"I was a slave. I wasn't allowed to look anyone in the eye, and no one ever did that to me. Not until you." Alida trailed off, and for another long minute, everything was silent.
"Is Malura alright?" she asked after a moment.
Riven nodded, burying his nose in the girl's auburn hair. "I took her with me when I left the castle. She already found a new job before I left her. She wanted me to send you her best."
"Why didn't you have her stay at the castle and wait for us?" Alida asked, stifling a yawn.
"I wasn't sure if we'd make it back," Riven murmured, his voice sad.
For the next few minutes, everything was quiet and calm.
"You know," began Riven, his rough voice suddenly even more so. "When my parents said they wanted me to find someone else like me, I never thought I would. But then I found you. And I'm so glad I did. Alida?" He looked down at her, but she was already asleep. A smile flicked across Riven's face, and he closed his eyes and fell asleep.
* * * *
The girl's window was unoccupied for the first time since she had come to the castle. Outside, a new hawk circled, moving in on the no longer claimed territory. It screeched out a lonely hunting cry as it wheeled through the cry, searching for prey and a place to roost.
The lack of trees made it difficult for the bird to find a place for a nest, but it finally settled on the window's stone sill. Painstakingly, the bird and its mate built a nest of sticks, brush, and tawny feathers that had scattered over the ground. The birds huddled in their nest as a fierce wind whipped around the castle, but they were safe in their new roost.
"Alida, come on, we need to get moving," said Riven as he hauled the girl to her feet. His eyes were still dark, and she realized that it was still night time.
"What is it, what's wrong?" she asked urgently, her dark eyes darting about.
"They've caught up to us already. Their motor cars are very fast. Now come on, we have to fly."
Alida heard it then, the low growl of a motor. Riven grabbed her by the hand, and together, they leapt into the sky.
As they rose higher, Alida could see the three motor cars following behind them. Their tires kicked up dust on the ground, and they were gaining quickly.
The girl pumped her wings as quickly as she could, but no matter how much her muscles strained, she couldn't keep up with Riven. His wings were still larger, and he'd had more experience flying.
Riven glanced back over his shoulder, and his eyes caught Alida's determined gaze. He braked for a moment and darted back to her, wrapping his arm around her waist. He kept her back tucked neatly along his stomach as they flew, rapidly picking up speed.
"It'll go faster this way," he reassured her, although his eyes were hiding fear and sadness. He held her in his arms as he sprinted through the sky, his bone wings filling the air with their unique grating sound.
Alida glanced to the ground from her safe haven of Riven's arms. She saw one of the men in the motor cars lift up a strange contraption. It looked like a narrow, rounded metal tube with a strange bulky part at the end that the man held on to. He trained the weapon on Riven, aiming carefully.
"Riven," Alida called in fear. At the tone of her voice, Riven folded his wings and they plummeted toward the ground just as a massive explosion rang in Alida's eardrums.
"What was that?" she asked breathlessly.
"It's called a gun, and it's very deadly. Alida, hold on to my hand, please," said Riven. He was trying to disguise the despair in his voice, but Alida picked upon it. She reached for his free hand and entwined her fingers tightly with his, squeezing so tightly she feared she might cut off his circulation.
"Riven," she cried again as the man on the ground raised his gun again, taking aim.
Riven pumped his wings and they rose quickly as another explosion filled the air.
"Are you alright?" asked Alida, keeping her eyes trained on the man below. He was reloading his weapon again.
"I'm fine," assured Riven, his voice coming out rushed, as if there wasn't enough time. "Now, Alida, you have to listen to me. No matter what happens, don't let go of my hand, not until we're on the ground. Okay? Can you do that?"
"Of course I can, Riven," she replied, her eyes brightening despite the situation they were in.
"Thank you, Alida. Now just hold on to me. Alright? Hold on tightly. Are you holding on? Alida?"
"Yes, I'm holding on," she assured him again. "Don't worry about me."
"Alida, thank you for everything."
The girl's eyes widened as she saw the man in the car raise his weapon again, but before she could cry out, he had already squeezed the trigger.
A shot rang out, and a shudder passed through Riven. Suddenly, he wasn't flying anymore. He was falling, plummeting toward the unforgiving ground below.
Alida's eyes went wide as she looked at what remained of Riven's left wing. The bullet had struck it near the base, shattering the fragile bone and destroying his beautiful wing.
"Riven, your wing," the girl murmured, unsure of what else she could say.
"I know. Alida, hold on to me. Don't let go, okay?" he said again, then rolled onto his back so that when she looked down, she only saw his calm face, not the ground rushing toward them.
Another shot pierced the air, and a shudder passed through Riven's body. His eyes went wide in shock, and suddenly, his hand was limp in hers.
"Riven," the girl screamed, seeing the way his eyes went dull. "Riven, no!"
They slammed into the ground with enough force to break Alida's bones, but Riven absorbed most of the impact. She landed on top of him and rolled to the side, her hand still tightly grasping his.
She clasped his hand to her chest, leaning over him frantically. "Riven!" she shrieked, seeing the crimson blood that spilled out around him. "I'm still with you! I didn't let go!" her voice sounded almost happy as she leaned over her companion.
"Come on, Riven, get up! They're coming soon," she said, tugging on his hand. "Riven, come on, we don't have time." Her voice was exasperated, panicked. "Riven, I'm not going to leave you here. Come on, let's go."
When he still didn't stir, she threw him over her shoulder and looked around, searching for any shelter. Her eyes quickly zeroed in on a small alcove carved into a tall boulder. It would be the perfect place to hide while Riven regained his strength.
She half carried, half dragged the man over to the alcove, carefully laying him down on the ground. Blood continued to seep from the gunshot wound on his back, staining the dirt around him.
"Riven, remember when I was hurt? You did this," the girl said, tearing off strips of fabric from the hem of her jacket. She struggled to bandage his wrists without letting go of his hand, and when she was finished, she smiled down at his eyes. They were a beautiful shade of oranges and blues, the color of a perfect sunrise.
"Do you feel better now, Riven? I did, when you bandaged me like that. Are you ready to go now?" She shook his shoulders gently.
Minutes passed, but Riven didn't stir. Minutes lapsed into hours, and the girl continued to talk to the man, always expecting an answer.
After a few hours had passed, his hand tightened on hers. Her face lit up.
"Riven, can you hear me? Squeeze my hand again," she encouraged, but the man was still. The rest of his muscles began to stiffen.
"Come on, Riven, don't give up on me," she whispered, her face falling. She squeezed his hand, her knuckles white form the effort. "You have to get up, so we can keep going. We can go home, back to the castle. I don't need the outside world.
"Please, Riven. If you don't get up, or if I leave your side, Master we'll be angry. He'll hit me again. So get up, so we can go hom."
"She's in here," came a whispered voice, and Alida looked up just in time to see two men with guns enter the alcove. Their dark, beautiful wings seemed to fill the small area.
"You've got to help Master," she said, looking relieved by their presence. "He's hurt, and I can't get him to wake up. I promised I wouldn't leave him." She lifted his still hand as if in proof of their contract. "If I stay with him, he'll say I'm a good girl, and he won't hit me anymore."
One of the men raised his weapon, and the girl smiled happily, although her eyes remained on the ground. "Will that help him? Please, see if you can get him to wake up. Master! Master!"
When the men did nothing, the girl looked to them with saddened, confused eyes. "Why aren't you doing anything? Help me wake him up! I think he might be dying. Master! Get up!"
One of the men raised his gun and aimed it at her chest. He pulled the trigger.
Blood blossomed across the girl's chest, but she felt nothing. "I'll be okay," she said, looking at the blood that flowed from the wound on her chest. "Riven can fix it. He fixed me a long time ago. That's why I can't leave him now. I promised him." She looked at the body on the ground, carefully touching his shattered wing. "Riven? Why are you lying there? Master is the one who's dying, not you! Riven, wake up, please! Riven!"
One of the men grabbed the girl by the arm, but she refused to be dragged away from the body on the ground. She held his hand tightly, tears streaming from her eyes. "No! I can't leave him! Riven! Master! Help me! Don't let them take me away from you!"
Blood was spilling from her chest, but she didn't fall, even as the men tried to drag her from Riven's side. They were speaking, but she didn't listen to them, not even when they turned and walked away. She was waiting for the man on the ground's answer.
"Why is everything getting darker, Riven?" she asked quietly after a moment. She fell to her knees, leaning over the man on the ground.
She collapsed on top of him, her ear pressed to his chest. "Why isn't your heart beating, Riven? What's wrong? Can't you get up?
"It's okay, Riven," she said, sudden realization flooding her face. "I think I'm dying, but that's okay. I'm here with you. I promised you, right? I said I'd never leave you again. I feel safe now. Master can't hurt me here, not when I'm with you. I should've realized that a long time ago.
"Goodnight, Riven. Thank you for everything. Maybe this world doesn't need Atrocities like us anymore. Maybe it's time we give in. Now isn't the time for us to teach the world to fly again. But you already realized that, didn't you?" She struggled to open her eyes, looking at the face of her friend. "Yeah, you're right. Goodnight, Riven. I promise I'll keep holding your hand. I won't leave your side. I have everything I need right now. I don't know why I didn't see that sooner."
The girl's breathing shuddered to a halt, and her sunrise colored eyes were staring into Riven's. She was Alida, an Atrocity, a slave no longer. In that moment, she was complete, she was free.
[A/N: ... My first short story. Let me know what you think. I'm not even sure what I think... huh. ~DarkHawk]