Chapter Seventeen

Taja awoke from her sleep with a start. The blood in her veins was pounding in her ears, and her skin was stinging as though she had just been dumped into a vat of boiling water. Fearfully her hand fluttered to the tight space beneath her collar bone to feel the pounding of her jumpy heartbeat.

Her flesh was clammy with sweat, and she could taste salt when she licked her lips. She took a deep breath, trying to calm herself but when none of the pain or awkwardness in her body subsided she began to panic.

Jascha was asleep on the other side of the bed; he had returned from the forge late and he hadn't woken her. She could hear his deep and even inhales and exhales, and she crawled away to the foot of the bed hoping that she had not disturbed him. She ached all over, the pain intensifying when she tried to scurry away.

She let out a hiss of distress, the pain was so great, but fearing that she would awaken Jascha she clapped a hand over her trembling mouth quickly. The sound was a shaky instinct, but it still felt unnatural as it slithered through her teeth. Taja slid of the bed, cowering further away. Her bones felt like jagged rocks, poking and scratching against the underside of her flesh, and her blood was thick and cold as ice. She shivered, her teeth chattering loudly, and she moaned from fear. Her legs were as useless as water trying to hold her up and her spine felt like it had been twisted like current over a rock.

Reaching her hand around her to touch her back she hoped that she could pinpoint the source of the pain but her arm would not twist high enough and her shoulder felt like it was broken. Taja balled her hands into tight fists, and tried not to scream, taking slow and deliberate breaths. Kneeling, she pulled her shoulders forward, hoping to stretch out the pain like a kink in a leg muscle, but it did nothing to abate the stinging feeling.

Cowering further away through the room she lost her footing at the edge and almost fell forward but her aching fingers caught the side of the ladder before she tumbled down. Her hands were still coated with sweat and her grip was loosening. Swinging her legs around, she righted herself. She ached from having to suppress the scream that was lingering dangerously in her throat. Clutching her arms around herself she hobbled from the ladder to the door, catching sight of Linza and her grandmother asleep by the hearth, and quietly burst free into the cold night.

It was raining and the wonderfully cool water fell onto her face in delicious relief and ecstasy. Her flesh still felt like it was crawling over her bones but the rain cleaned her of the thick layer of grimy sweat that had covered her before. Her knees cracked like an old woman as she walked away from the house, her thin chemise clinging to her as she continued her way deeper into the open and wet night.

There was nothing but darkness around her; a thick soggy night with no stars. The village was silent, ghostly; she felt like she alone was left to this world.

The space made her feel better, although at first she did not understand why. She reached her arms up and then back, and although there was still pain she could feel the agony of it slipping away, like the dream she had been having before she awoken.

Flexing her fingers out she tried to feel her way across her back, her elbow bent at her neck while she reached as far down as she could.

It felt like her skin had been punctured but she felt no wound, and with the rainwater it was unclear if she was bleeding. When the wind cut across her skin it felt like muscle and bone were exposed, but she felt nothing out of the ordinary. She reached farther down with one hand, and tried to feel lower along her spine with the other. The wind howled around her and she felt something snap behind her like a rock plummeting into deep water. As the wind screeched again she heard another snap, only this time pain accompanied it, and she let out a bursting scream.

The sting was so sharp that it made her knees buckle and she feel forward. Her hands were still searching her back and finally, having reached as far as her extremities would allow her she felt the bubbling of her skin slightly below her shoulder blade. Moving her fingers out she felt the cold veins bulging just slightly underneath the skin, almost like a second heartbeat. Taja could feel the bones jutting up from her back where there had been no bones before, and she continued to reach up, feeling her way along a limb that she had not had before, and bones that burned to the touch like a new born recently freed from the confines of a womb.

The wind broke again and again she heard the snap, accompanied by a sharp ache as it rippled through her body. She turned her neck, craning it as far back as she could and through the weary night she could see, rising above her, one black wing. It erupted up from her back and had caught in the wind. She could feel the weight of it, and the pain of it. Flexing her muscles she watched as it twitched downward in accordance with her movement but the action pained her and she cried out again, letting it fall back limp and lazy and upright in the wind.

Feeling the other side of her body and turning her head the other way she noted that there was only one wing— not two. It rose above her several feet, almost the height of a man. Taja shivered, suddenly feeling the rain and the wind and the mud all around her, but she did not cry out again.

This is not mortal, she thought bitterly, yet this is not dragon, either.

When the wind picked up again it slashed at her wing, pushing it backwards with the force of the wild gale. She felt her skin and muscles flex backward with the motion, stretching and pulling at the skin across her back, and the pain was overwhelming. She knew she had to stand up; it was the only way to end the discomfort. The mud was thick all around her and pushing herself up was difficult; her hands were coated with it and slipped under her weight.

She could feel the chain of the pendent Wylliam had given her cutting into her neck, while the pendent, lost somewhere underneath her burned red hot against her heart, defying the freeze of the elements all around her.

There was no purchase to be had from the ground, so rather than standing she did her best to crawl forward, trying to stay as low to the ground as she could. She had wondered closer to the boarder than she originally thought and was surprised when her outstretched fist gripped the truck of a large tree. She used the bark to rake the med from her fingers and her palms and pulled herself up, using its heavy weight to sustain her. She was out of breath, but the tree shielded her from the wind and she felt her wing slacken and fall against the back of her calves.

The muscles in her back were raw with discomfort but she managed to squeeze and pull the wing back into a fold across her back. It folded like parchment, into three thick folds across her upper back. Feeling around with her arm she touched the tip which was resting against the back of her neck. It felt remarkably like her own human skin, but she could feel the scales and indents that marked it as being different from her own. Despite the darkness, she was sure that it was black.

Not red as her Irisa kin had been—not red as Avviḙa's was with her etched portrait hanging in the loft where Jascha still sleep; in the house where her sister and her grandmother slumbered.

It wasn't Sayb, as Jascha's kin was. The tip wasn't smattered with silver or any other alternating coloration.

It wasn't dark blue like the Miam; the color changing with the alterations of dawn and dusk.

It was Black. Black, like the legend that her grandmother had so often spoken of. Black, like the Sheyla Meydala of the old prophecies.

When the wind picked up again Taja clung to the tree; it crested over her skin, but this time she felt very little pain, she was all but numb to it. She could smell winter coming with each new gust. Above her the sky was alive and chaotic; she could see the dark night clouds wind and knot themselves into strange shapes. In her mind she could almost taste the heavy ice of the clouds in her mouth. Thoughts whirled in her head—about how she felt sky-fated, as though at any moment she could extend her rumpled wing and soar as her ancestors had, despite the fact that she wasn't sky-born.

Out of the corner of her eye she could see the shape of two glowing eyes keenly watching her from inside the woods. Bending her head down from the cloud cover she rested her forehead against the tree and watched the Nymphling slither toward her. At first the only thing she could see in the darkness was the glittering green eyes darting ahead of her. First low to the ground as though it were crouching and them high above her as it darted onto a tree limb. It was so close now that she could reach out and touch it.

Wylliam's pendent around her neck burned her skin, and when she looked down she could see that it was glowing a fiery red against the iridescent glow of her milky skin.

The Nymphling parted its thin brown lips and coughed a wet hiss at her.

Taja cupped the glowing stone in her palm; the glow was so strong that she could see how the mud had dried in caked layers against her skin and darkened her chemise. When she pulled it away from her skin she noticed that it left a chaffed red mark, but the burn didn't hurt. With each new breath she felt more numb.

"I'm not afraid of you." It was the quietist of whispers, all but lost against the current of the howling wind.

Taja took a small step forward. The Nymphling snarled; she could hear its teeth grinding.

"I'm not afraid of you."

She took another step forward, crossing the border for the first time in her entire life and holding the pendent up as a charm to ward off evil. It was the only weapon she had ever had.

Taja felt the Nymphling turn toward her—as though the creature were a part of the wind itself, she could feel the vibration of its body moving through the air toward her. She still wasn't afraid and this time when she said it, it was a scream, loud and taunting. She waited to feel the curl of the creature's long bony fingers around her neck or its hot breath against her cheek but she felt nothing. Her skin prickled and her wing, so new and tender to her body, reared up in alert. It was a protective stance that somehow stalled the creature before it could attack her.

Turning her head, Taja could see that the Nymphling was beside her but it had fallen into a sad crouch, all but harmless beside her bare feet. It looked defeated, almost human to Taja's eyes, and for the first time she felt sorry for it. She wondered if it too, like herself, was trapped her.

She let the pendent fall free from her palm and let it dangle back against her stomach. She looked around at her surroundings wildly, ebullient and triumphant. When she turned she studied the sight of her village from the outside looking in—something none of them had ever been able to do before. She saw the row of houses aligned in a semi-circle, and how they seemed so small from this far off distance.

When she turned back around to face the vast forest all around her she could see more Nymphlings, dozens of them by the count of their angry green eyes in the darkness but for the first time Taja truly was not afraid of them.

A mocking yelp escaped her lips, and she barked it to all directions ahead of her before breaking into a run. Her legs burst and pulled at the muddy ground beneath her, darting forward past the trees, further into the darkness. She let her hands loose at her sides to feel the coarseness of the trees on either side of her—trees that she had never touched before, and so many steps she had never taken. The Nymphlings all cowered away from her as she ran, and she remained untouched. Their angry eyes shimmered on all sides of her but which each new one she passed they melted backward into the night; eyes drained of the terror that had always taunted her.

Taja ran until her muscles ached and all around her was complete darkness; she could no longer make out the openness from the trees and she had to push her arms out to feel her way onward. When she turned back to where the village had been it was gone. The pendant around her neck still glowed but it was dimmer now. Taja clutched it in her palm, the warmth of the red heat giving her comfort. She didn't feel lost so much as too adrift for her own liking. Never before had she wandered so far away from the place she had always known.

Moving back to the border was arduous, but she took her steps more methodically and careful now. Her feet were precise on the muddy ground, watching out for dips and valleys and roots that were now exposed from the rains. With a sudden weariness she realized just how wet and cold and dirty she was. A long-dead muscle in her back twitched and her wing slowly unfolded from her back until it was draped, somewhat awkwardly across her shoulder and arm to keep some of the chill away. With her other hand she felt for the trees to keep her way straight. Her fingers could feel the sharp indents from where the Nymphlings had crawled and clung for so many years in their effort to frighten them and keep them at bay. Each tree was scarred—scarred like Wylliam's branding across his chest. The very thought of someone being in so much pain made her stomach roll.

It took longer to get back to the tree line than it had to wander too far away into the woods but once she made it back she turned from the open grass to stare at the darkness beyond her again. Another Nymphling appeared close to the edge and snapped its angry teeth at her as though she had not just returned from their domain.

The sight of it, so territorial, and aggressive again gave her pause. She wasn't sure if it was the wing or the pendant that had granted her safety through the woods.

Taja's wing was still outstretched and it flapped against the wind again. The Nymphling spat a wet hiss at the sound.

Either way she had to be sure.

She kept her wing upright, and with shaky hands removed the pendent. The glow had returned to its brighter varnish and when she let it fall into the grass she knew it could easily be recovered.

Taking a step closer to the border the Nymphling clawed at her; thin and pointed nails plunging dangerously close to her cheekbone and neck. Raising her foot for the last step she made sure to not close her eyes as she placed her big toe against the dirt on the other side—

The impact of the Nymphling was instantaneous. She didn't even have time to breath before she felt long claws dig into her arm and pull her in farther. Out of the corner of her eye she saw eyes suddenly sparking into alertness, the frightening green was all around her again.

She struggled against the hold that the Nymphling had on her, but its grip was relentless. Already she could feel the red drip of blood twisting down her elbow and wrist from where the creature had grabbed her. Taja outweighed it, and when standing she towered over the creature by more than a foot but she could not break free from its hold. It yanked her again, deeper this time and she lost her footing, falling hard against the soreness of her back and pinning her wing underneath her. The creature slashed at her legs and she felt more blood bubble up from her flesh, but before it could latch onto her ankles and pull her further into the darkness she twisted away from its grasp and kicked at the creature's chest to push it away. In a single terrified moment she flipped onto her stomach and with both arms and both legs flailing pushed herself in three long strides back to the border. Her stiff fingers clutched at the pendant still glowing in the grass and she pulled it quickly back over her neck.

She was out of breath, panting, fearful, wet and cold. She wanted to be far away from this place, yet the thought of being alone in the woods again sent a shiver of fear through her that she had never known. Collapsing against the ground she let the night stretch out all around her; she was glad that no one would see her like this, so undone, and so unfocused.

Taja wasn't sure how long she lingered in that position, curled as she was against the wet grass with the wind ripping above her. She may have fallen into an exhausted sleep but she did not dream and when her eyes focused on the present again she was still alone.

In the corner of the sky she could see dawn cresting in sharp shades of indigo against the midnight black that she had wandered into.

When she stood her body shook with fatigue and her muscles twitched and rippled underneath her skin. With difficulty she kept close to the border until she got to the small stream that ran across one end of the village. The water was icy when she dipped her hands into it, but she had to get the filth of mud and blood off of herself before she went back home.

She had no idea how she could tell her family about her wing. She felt neither human nor dragon now, but rather some strange deformed revision of the two. She didn't even feel like her core was dragon any longer or that the only thing holding her against the ground was the weight of her human-cursed flesh and blood.

Walking back into the cabin, Taja was startled by how quiet it was—it was unearthly and strange after the wild wind and the drumming of her heart in her ears as she ran through the greenwood. The heat of the inside hit her clammy skin like a slap. Fatigue all but overwhelmed her. Both Linza and her grandmother were still asleep; their bodies spooned together with their heads toward the dying hearth fire.

In the light of the embers she could really examine herself. There were cuts and scrapes along her arms from where the Nymphling grabbed her and dried mud was caked across her chest and chemise. Her wing was only partially folded, with the tip high and exposed over her shoulder. Gazing at it for the first time in the dim light she could see that it truly was black. Black like the curl of her hair, and the knot of the ribbon she used to tie it back at the nape of her neck.

She folded the tip of her wing inward when she was finished examining herself. The muscle was still tender but the pain was less. She felt across her shoulders and tried to see if the wing could be exposed from the front view, she didn't think so but she would still need to conceal it.

Fear crept across her skin like gooseflesh. She still had no idea what this was. Was she human still? Or something else entirely?

Climbing up the ladder to the loft exposed the ache across her back again. She had to bite her lip from crying out.

Jascha was still lying in the bed. One arm slung over his eyes in a futile attempt to block out the slivers of sun bending in through the shuttered window. His other arm had fallen onto the empty side of the bed where she had slept beside him earlier in the night.

It felt like a lifetime ago.

Taja tried to make as little noise as possible as she moved across the room. She and Linza had learned where the floorboards groaned when she placed her naked toes upon them and she was careful to avoid those areas. When she got to the old trunk underneath the drawing that her grandmother had done of Avviḙa in her dragon form she lifted the lid carefully. The stretch of her arm moving upward made her hiss with discomfort.

She pulled out a long cord from the piles of winter clothing and stood up. She was afraid of her back twitching, as it had started to do when she got back inside, and was afraid the wing would involuntarily flutter open. The cord was long and gritting her teeth she reached it around the small of her back and tied it, along with the bent wing, around her waist.

The skin of the wing was tender, and it chaffed against the winding cord. When she stroked the base, low against her back, it felt like human skin, only much thinner, and unblemished like a newborn.

Taja moved with difficulty now due to the increasing sensitivity throughout her body, but she managed to reach back down into the trunk and pull out one of the older grey cloaks that had once belonged to her mother. She took the clasp to the base of her throat and locked it, letting the material bellow out over her shoulders and conceal the bulge that the wing created.

Jascha stirred in the bed as she did this and his eyes found her in the corner of the room when they blinked awake.

He grinned at her, and she laughed unexpectedly from his boyishness. "The sun has risen," she spoke in whisper. She could tell from the silence below that neither Linza nor her grandmother had awoken.

"So I see." Jascha pulled his hand over his eyes again, blocking out all other light from view.

Taja sat at the edge of the bed, away from him. She was afraid to speak. She was sure that Jascha would admire her wing, but she was afraid to speak of it. It felt like a secret that only she should hold. Finally she said, "You should get up." She kept her voice light and teasing, she did not want him to worry that anything was wrong. "Your father and brothers will be hard at work before you can even make it downstairs."

"Yes, yes," he said, a slight annoyance forming in his voice. "The forge," he went on sleepily, "no need to nag at me, little wife."

Taja smiled at his joke. "You should rise, it is already late in the morning."

Jascha rose up from the bed and walked a few stumbling steps toward her. He kissed her on the cheek, leaving a slight trail down to her chapped lips. "Are you cold?" he asked. He stroked his palm against her shoulder and she hoped that he attributed her trembling to the cold rather than the sensitivity of his touch.

He turned away from her to dress and did not wait for her to answer. "I am away," he went on, pulling his shirt over his head.

"Be well," Taja spoke.

He smiled at her before leaving, and kissed her again lightly on the lips. He lingered longer than was necessary, and she found herself glad of it. His mouth was so warm that it sent shivers down her spine, and when he breathed out against her neck she could feel the heat of it all the way down to her bones.

When Taja was alone she wrapped the cloak tighter around herself. She had to concentrate on taking deep breaths and ignore the ache that she now felt so keenly.

She did not go down the ladder again until she heard the clatter of Linza and her grandmother waking.

Corinne eyed her cloak suspiciously when she went down. "Taja, are you cold?"

"Yes, gran. Just slightly."

Corinne approached her and placed her hand on Taja's brow. "You feel a bit warm."

"Please, gran." Taja pulled Corinne's hand away from her. Just the slightest touch made her fearful that her knees would give out from the discomfort. "I am fine."

Taja's tone and frank words did not disuage her grandmother. "Taja," she confronted. "Are you with child?"

Taja rolled her eyes at her grandmother's concern, exasperated with so much attention being placed upon her. "No, grandmother. Jascha has not even lain with me. He merely holds me in his arms while we sleep."

Across the room Taja and her grandmother heard a clatter when Linza dropped the stirring spoon over the hearth stone's while she prepared their first meal. She had clearly overheard Taja's outburst. When Taja looked over she could see a blush of red spilling across her sisters pale cheeks.

"I am sorry, grandmother," Taja recovered carefully. "But please, it is nothing, just a chill." She sighed, hoping to show how tired she really was. "I think the storm last night has crept into my bones." She started to pull the cloak tighter to her arms, but then stopped, fearful that it would cause too much attention.

"Yes," Corinne agreed sparingly, although she cupped Taja's cheek again, trying to uncover the secrets behind her dark eyes. "You do look flushed. You should go back up and sleep. Linza and I will attend to your chores."

"Alright," Taja agreed. The thought of removing the cord around her waist and climbing back into a warm bed brightened her spirits.

With aching arms Taja pulled herself up the ladder into the loft again, carefully untying the cord around her waist, though she left the cloak on to conceal her wing incase Linza or her grandmother came upstairs. She was painfully tired, but sleep would not come to her.

Downstairs she could hear Corinne and Linza moving around, their voices low, and the simmering smells of the breakfast that they were cooking on the hearth.

Her memory crept back to the night before. Of being able to run, truly for the first time in her life, across the vast terrain of the forest that had always winked, forbidden and dark all her life. The thought of her wing, now stretched out and tender under the blanket made her heart race, keeping sleep at bay.

She had to tell someone. But who?

Taja worried that Linza and her grandmother would not understand, and her father was out of the question.

Wylliam came to mind—he had given her the pendent, and she couldn't deny that she felt a strange pull to know more about the stranger who had stumbled into the village such a short time ago. She remembered the ballad he had sung for the village and how he knew—at least one version—of her own story.

Behind her eyelids she could taste the daylight as her ancestors had when they soared above the clouds.

Taja remembered the other village and Theo; her kin, her people.

She knew she had to do.

A/N: This is the first "Taja" chapter and I'm curious to know what you think about her at this point...

All work by D.J. Wilson (FictionPress id. 350994) is copyrighted under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.