‘On Your Wings’, Omi Wilde

Illustrations © 2017 Rachel Linn

 [ Vultures, © 2017 Rachel Linn ] Above, in the blinding blue, the vultures slice lazy pirouettes through the wind currents. Below, the stranger wakes. He retches the water from his lungs with a feeble violence that convulses his slight form. He is naked, but for a delicately wrought circlet still tangled with the thick sodden mass of his hair. The sun glints on the gold of the circlet and the lighter gold of his broken and battered body. He lays half in the froth and thunder of the river, half thrown out onto the jagged grey blue boulders. His body is covered in purpling bruises and his skin is ripped and torn deeply. His one leg is a bloody mess, gleaming white bone cracked and protruding through the flesh.

It could be considered a miracle that he is alive at all. It is not, perhaps, a miracle he is very appreciative of, but the instinct of survival persists and he slowly attempts to rise. He vomits with pain and falls back against the rocks. He stays there, but his dazed and bloodshot eyes warily take in the river bank and, above, the tall thin pines, burnt gold grass and scrub. He glances downstream. He doesn’t remember why—and his mind is both drawn to it and recoils from it like a tongue probing the space where a tooth should be—but he knows he cannot seek refuge in that direction. Knows instead that he must continue upstream.

The stranger believes himself alone. The children watching him are quiet and well-hidden, though they seem almost to vibrate with excitement and fear. There is a whispered argument—a clamour of questions all directed at the tallest child, who stays motionless, pressed into the rocks and watching the stranger intently.

One child tugs at his sleeve and asks “Do you see anything else?”

Another child, smaller and shyer, suggests “Maybe it’s the gold on his head. Maybe that’s what we were sent to find?”

Yet another, decisively, “We should just take the gold. Push him back into the river.”

Finally, the tall boy speaks, “No. We take him to Meri. The river brought him to us, and look —” He points up.

The others still. They watch the vultures wheel and glide above the stranger and wordlessly acquiesce.

The stranger has also stilled. The blood from his wounds has pooled on the boulders and his face is ashen. He does not hear the children approach. They move with fierce cooperation and he is barely conscious. He offers no resistance, except that of a deadweight. They attempt to pull him into something resembling standing and, supporting his left side, half drag half carry him; compelling him forward and upward into the woods. The stranger is lulled into some strange daydream rhythm of fever and pain, of heat and exhaustion, of a body in motion.

Abruptly, they halt in front of a cedar plank enclosure.

Another whispered argument commences, but this time a deeper rough edged voice has joined the children’s. They call this voice “Gulo” and their tone is half defiant, half cajoling. Again the older boy invokes “Meri.” Finally, a gate opens. A pale sharp face looks down at him and the same voice snarls in his ear, “Better watch yourself, Stranger.” The words are only dimly heard through the haze of fever but the menace cuts through sharp and cold.

The stranger struggles for a moment against his captors but the world whirls on its axis and he stumbles down into the dust. The last thing he sees before entirely losing consciousness is a volt of vultures roosting on a water tower—he thinks they cock their heads in unison, staring down at him as he falls.

Time passes in jagged disjointed vignettes.

His wounds are washed, and sewn, and bandaged, and changed and re-bandanged, the shattered bone of his leg set, infections lanced, and gentle hands pour bitter teas into him and feed him small bowls of salty broth.

Out of a dream haze of fever and fear the stranger wakes, his fingers instantly reaching for the circlet and fluttering with panic when they find only tangled curls. It’s gone. Gone. But no, there. The gleam of gold catches his wildly roaming eyes and there it is, set on a three-legged stool beside the mattress he lies on. He clutches it to him—pressing the cool metal into his hands so hard it leaves a mark. Dragging his left leg behind him, he crawls out of bed, out of the tent, into the cool night, out of the camp and upriver. When he can go no further, he collapses in the dirt beneath the stark skeleton of a maple tree and buries the circlet.

When the stranger wakes next, he is back on the thin mattress in the same tent as before. He crawls from his sickbed again, and again, each time heading upriver. The children retrieve him—bringing him back from wherever his wounds and exhaustion have left him unable to continue his desperate confused flight. The third time he is bound, gently, to the bed.

The fever finally breaks. He wakes into lucidity—and darkness and panic. Gasping and flailing against soft restraints he attempts to sit up, but a heavy hand pushes him back down. A voice mumbles something low and rough-edged. A lighter voice responds and then calls out. The stranger’s breath catches hard as he hears the swish and murmur of people crowding around. The weight of the hand on his chest is suffocating.

And then it releases, and he can breathe once more. Someone unties the bandages wound around his head and blinking he looks directly up into blue-black eyes.

There are other figures filling the tent but the stranger sees only the woman above him, the graceful lines of her big-boned face and hooked nose haloed in clear winter sunlight. She is a giantess, towering even seated, as she is, in a wheeled chair drawn close to the bed he is tied to.

“I am Meri,” she says with an authority that makes whether it is name or title meaningless. She waits.

When the stranger stares wide-eyed and makes no response she reaches out and clasps strong calloused hands around his face. Her gaze is kind, but ruthless as the sun in the way it scours and assesses. “Who are you child?” she asks.

The stranger licks cracked lips but does not answer.

Another voice, strangely familiar and comforting, says thoughtfully, “Meri—the wound to his head, all the injuries he’s sustained, the fevers… Everything. There is a possibility… These things, they can affect memory and—he may not know the answer to that question.”

Meri nods in acknowledgement and speaks again to the stranger, “Do you know anything of yourself?”

The stranger breathes their first word, “No.” And then, haltingly, “I… don’t remember.”

“Very well.” Meri turns to the small group of children clustered at her right hand and asks, “You found this one cast up on the rocks, yes?” A quick silent chorus of nods. She turns back, smiles, and releases his face from her hands, saying “You shall be Oncor—if it suits you.”

The stranger tastes the syllables, whispering them softly, and the slim ghost of a smile crosses his face. “Oncor. Yes.”

Then fear rolls back over it.

“Who are you? What do you want of me? I can’t… I can’t stay. I…” His voice trails off and he mutters, halting and uncertain, “Have to keep going. Upriver? Have to…” His hands clench, “I can’t remember.”

And then, voice rising with panic, “Let me go!”

Meri laughs, rich and warm. “No one is keeping you, child.”

In answer, he strains against the strips of cloth that bind him to the bed.

Meri waves a hand, still smiling and two children move forward and untie him. In one sharp jerky motion he attempts to stand. Pain sears through him, but gentle—strangely familiar—hands catch him, supporting him as his leg evidently cannot.

“This one here, Vulpes, he’s our healer. He’s tended to you and your injuries,” Meri says, with a nod of approval to the tall broadly built youth in flowing robes and jingling jewelry who lowers Oncor slowly back to the mattress.

Vulpes is beautiful—eyes charcoaled and hair in oiled ringlets—like the court ladies, Oncor thinks and then wonders where that thought came from.

Still gasping, Oncor respectfully mumbles his thanks to Vulpes.

Vulpes nods and his sharpened incisors gleam in a wide smile. He says—and his voice is warm and husky and so familiar, as though Oncor has always known it—”Your injuries are healing, but they’re still severe. Your leg was fractured and the bone ruptured through the flesh. I’ve never seen such a severe break and though I’ve mended it to the best of my abilities it will take months to heal. You really shouldn’t try to put any weight on it at all, let alone walk anywhere. We have a chair you could use and I…” he pauses and then finishes, “truly would recommend you stay with us awhile longer. Let your body heal. Perhaps your memories will return as well.”

Meri adds, “Wait until the winter storms are done, at least.”

Oncor looks up guardedly at both of them. “What will your hospitality cost me?”

Meri laughs. “Oh child. It will cost you nothing. You’re not the first wounded outcast to wash up here—some go, some stay but if the birds tell us to welcome them, we do.”

Oncor still stares at her with confusion and suspicion.

Vulpes turns back to Meri. “He is tired and still confused. We should let him rest.”

Meri nods agreement and wheels herself backwards, turns and straightens to wheel out where the front tent flap has been drawn aside. The others follow her. Oncor catches sight of the sharp-faced hostile man from the gate—Gulo?—striding along by Meri’s right hand.

After they leave, Oncor lies still and tries to think. Tries to tally his injures. The leg he can see is emaciated and knotted with still healing stitches. His torso, likewise. There is a large lump at the back of his skull. All these things are superficial enough though—he could keep going. It’s his left leg that’s a problem. Vulpes has indeed tended to it deftly and expertly—a full splinted cast from thigh to ankle. It would be more than a minor hindrance.

He knows he needs to keep going, knows it like a fish hook in his gut. There is danger behind and something imperative ahead and no matter the kindness shown to him here he cannot stay. But—there has been kindness. Whoever he is and whoever these people are, he is in their debt. And that too, is an imperative.

By the time dusk falls and a small child drifts in, evidently sent to check on him, he has made a bargain with himself. He will find some way to repay these people. He will let them care for him, as they seem so intent on doing, and he’ll let himself rest and grow stronger and then—when Spring comes—he’ll leave. He smiles tentatively at the child and the child grins gap-toothed back at him and runs away.

In a few minutes there is a light step and a jingle and Vulpes ducks through and brings him a bowl of rich fishy broth. Oncor finds the words difficult in his mouth but Vulpes seems to know that he wants to say something and waits. Finally Oncor mumbles, between mouthfuls, “Give my gratitude to Meri and tell her I will accept her generosity.”

Vulpes only nods and begins to move to the tent flap.

Quickly then, Oncor adds, “And… my thanks to you. For… everything.”

Vulpes smiles, sharp and sweet.

Oncor mostly sleeps several more days away but on the fourth he grows restless. Despite Vulpes’ warning he tries to stand but the pain is still severe and he falls in a twisted heap. To his shame, Vulpes enters the tent at that moment. Oncor tries to hold his head high but he knows how ridiculous he must look and braces for a rebuke. Instead, Vulpes only offers him his broad capable hands in assistance and asks sympathetically, “Bored and restless, aren’t you? I broke my leg once too—oh much less severely then you—and the boredom was almost worse than the pain.”

Startled, Oncor only nods.

Vulpes squeezes his hand and leaves, but only for a moment. He returns with an armful of fine woven nets. He dumps them in Oncor’s lap and laughs at his startled bewilderment. “You can keep busy with these,” he says, showing Oncor the tears and holes to be mended and the way to hook and weave them together.

Oncor starts to shove the nets aside, trying to formulate some protest—he knows this is not suitable work, it’s undignified, it’s common—but Vulpes says quietly and firmly, “It is, after all, fish soup that’s nourished you,” and Oncor does not argue with that.

Mending the nets is both difficult and monotonous. Oncor had never thought of such menial work when he vowed to repay his hosts for their kindness. His fingers tangle and catch and the fine strands slip and snag. His thoughts do something similar—tracing around the gaping holes of his missing memories and almost hooking together fleeting half memories that slide away as he reaches for them.

Oncor continues to struggle and sweat over the nets all day. He finally finishes one as the day comes to a close and Vulpes enters the tent, carrying not yet more soup but roasted fish and tubers. As Oncor eats, Vulpes looks over his work. Vulpes shakes his head as tests the strength of the repairs and strands unravel and rupture. He squeezes Oncor’s shoulder kindly as he leaves. Oncor bites his lip, tasting blood, and carefully sets down his plate. Snarling suddenly, he hurls the nets across the room and lies back breathing heavily. Eventually, he sleeps.

Sometime in the night he wakes to see the nets glinting in the moonlight. He stares at them, resentful and guilty, and then begins to crawl, dragging his splinted left leg behind him. The earthen floor seems to stretch unending and everything aches. When he finally reaches the nets, he curls like a cat around them. Only for a minute, he tells himself, as he falls asleep.

In the morning he wakes to find himself tucked back into bed and the nets neatly spread out and draped at the end of the bed. Vulpes says nothing about it when he brings Oncor breakfast.

It takes four days of frustration and clumsy inadequate work but on the fourth day the sun slants in through the tent canvas, bathing him in warmth, and the ropes slide through his fingers and knit together easy and smooth. Unconsciously, Oncor begins to sing. Vulpes ducks in through the open tent flap, and Oncor stops. He knows he shouldn’t have been singing and his stomach twists. It’s undignified, not suitable. But Vulpes sings an answering refrain, a honeyed deep bass, and suddenly Oncor doesn’t know where that previous cold certainty came from. Tentatively, he begins singing again and by nightfall three nets are mended smooth and strong.

That evening Vulpes asks him if he’d like to have his supper with the others in the great hall.

The scale of the camp, previously only glimpsed through a fever smog, startles Oncor. It’s a huge sprawling affair of tents and shanties, fish drying racks, gardens, even a massive forge—all of it radiating out from a massive central building of logs. It’s largely open—big doors flung wide so it seems more almost a roof on posts. Beside it, Oncor eyes alight on the water tower that he saw on that first day. He can’t help laughing at the relief he feels when he sees its barren lines and he twists back to Vulpes, who’s pushing the handles of the wheeled chair he’s helped Oncor into, to tell him, “When the children first brought me here, I was so delirious I thought vultures were perched there, watching me as I fell.”

Vulpes laughs then, “Oh, but that was no fever dream, my dear.”

“What?” Oncor startles and stares up at him.

“Oh yes, they roost there—it’s their tree, really. But they’ve left of course, for warmer climes, you know? Actually, come to think of it, I believe they left the day you came. Don’t worry, they’ll be back—they always return to us.”

Oncor hadn’t been worried. But he is now. On several counts. “But—” he struggles wordlessly for a moment. “You live… with death birds? In your camp?”

Vulpes grins toothily, clearly enjoying himself at Oncor’s bewildered expense. “Oh yes,” he says airily, “certainly we do. We’re all scavengers ourselves here—why shouldn’t they roost with us?”

Oncor can only nod, hesitantly accepting this strangeness and adding it to all the others.

The great hall is strung with lanterns and tinkling wind chimes, blazing with the heat of the cooking fires. It is full, so full of voices and bodies swirling in an overwhelming and terrifyingly orchestrated chaos.

Vulpes brings them to a gentle stop just outside and waits while Oncor watches for a moment. He begins to pick individuals and actions of the chaos. There is Meri, the still eye of the hurricane, who catches his glance and holds it with a steady smile. There is Gulo standing at her right shoulder, muscle-corded arms crossed. A crowd of children are laughing and chattering while slicing vegetables. There is an older woman with a shaved head who herds the children and feeds the fire, over which they are roasting a rack of fish and a whole pig. A tall thin white bearded man is decanting, from a great oak barrel, some kind of alcohol that smells wickedly strong.

It is, Oncor decides with relief, not, as he had first thought in a panicked moment, anything like the dance hall of his father. Belatedly, he pounces on that thought. His father had a dance hall. It’s a fragment only but it’s something. He clutches it to him and nods and smiles up at Vulpes, who wheels him into the tumult and seats him at a table near Meri. The white vulture follows them and Meri reaches down to it and lifts it to perch on the arm of her chair.

Dinner is raucous and rich. Oncor puts his head down and eats, trying not to draw attention to himself. Stays watchful and wary. He counts and recognizes it as he does so as a habit, a calming trick.

Fifteen adults.

Six children.

Twenty-two potential sharp weapons.

Twelve potential blunt weapons.

Nineteen people who seem—happy? Oncor cannot detect deception in their faces as they laugh and talk. The words he can overhear seem to contain no barbs or hidden meanings. There seems to be no delicate dance of power and influence. He feels lost.

One crying child, whose necklace has broken spilling the beads into the dust.

One older woman, pale and thin, who vacillates between cheerful and then distraught. Oncor struggles to divine a reason for her ephemeral moods.

Vulpes leans closer to say, “Her memories too are damaged, though it is a different and more severe malady than yours, a thing that happens with old age sometimes… She drifts through time and sometimes forgets who we are or where she is.”

Oncor is ashamed that Vulpes caught him watching and ducks his head lower, but no one rebukes him. This too feels strange and confusing.

As the meal draws to a close, Meri clinks a spoon to her tankard. The sound is small but quiet reverberates out from it as the room stills. This at least, is familiar. Oncor hears some echo of the past saying “You must command the room, as I do, with one word or look or gesture” and then, his stomach curdles as, flat and cutting as a sword, another voice hisses in his ear, “You can’t. You’re soft. You will never make a warrior.”

But in this moment it is Meri speaking, slowly and quietly and everyone is listening. And she, like the voices in his head, is speaking about him.

“This is Oncor, or at least that shall be his name while he stays with us. As you all know, he was severely injured—as many of us have been when we first arrived here. He has lost much—including memories of his past—and I wish for you to treat him with kindness and welcome.”

And they do.

The only one with reservations seems to be Gulo, though if Oncor didn’t remember Gulo’s harsh warning he might think the man merely taciturn. As it is, Oncor simply avoids him. It’s not hard. Gulo is the camp’s lookout and guard—self-appointed Oncor suspects, possibly unfairly—and Oncor doesn’t leave the camp. His days are more than full enough within the camp’s walls.

Vulpes continues to care for him and help him with the things he can’t do for himself and Oncor continues to mend nets and begins too to join with the rest of the camp in the communal chores, helping with what cooking and cleaning and weeding he can do. It is all humble work and occasionally that still chafes, but he shoves the feeling away adamantly. Meri does much the same work in the camp—often their chairs are drawn side by side over a laundry tub or slicing fish thin for drying at counters that he realizes must have been made a convenient height for her in her chair—and if the work is not too humble for as proud and strong a leader as she, then it is not too humble for him.

In this way, there comes to be an easy rhythm to life and Oncor could almost forget the past that he can’t remember and the insistent pull of the future that he knows must take him away from this warm hearth, this strange family. The strangeness still catches at him and disorients him. Mostly he doesn’t even know how he knows that there is strangeness, only that there is.

The children for instance—Oncor wonders about them. Surely they cannot all be abandoned infants taken in by the camp? Some must have been born here. The shape of relationships here is hard to disentangle though. He feels certain that there should be more formality, more rules, more concrete delineations. He does not know whether Gulo is Meri’s vassal, her lieutenant, her lover, her brother-in-arms—he can sense a thread connecting them but no one names it and he cannot think how to ask without risking offense. It is much the same for all the other relationships. And the pups—everyone calls the children this as though they are a many-headed single entity—all seem to have no parents. Or rather, it seems as though all the adults of the camp act as their parents.

Oncor asks once, whose the children are, but Vulpes seems confused. “They aren’t slaves!” he exclaims, obviously horrified.

“No. No.” Oncor tries to clarify, “I mean, who are their parents? They’re not all orphans are they?”

“Oh.” Vulpes says. “Well, of course some did come to us, spat up by the river like you, or fleeing some evil, or merely lost. Some were born here. Let me think—Rubus was born to Acer, maybe? Yes, that was the first birth I attended. As for their father, I suppose Acer might know that perhaps, but I never asked them. And Lagom came with Musc, from the same village—it was burned to the ground. But none of them are orphans. We’re their family—all of us.”

Oncor considers that. “But. What about inheritance?”

Again, Vulpes is puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“How can fathers bequeath the tools of their trade and their wealth to their son? And mothers to their daughters? If you don’t even know which children are whose? Surely no man would want his things to go to someone not of his blood?” Oncor knows this is how it is done, has always been done, but as he says it, he feels his own certainty slip away.

Vulpes laughs. “What? No, no, no, my goodness, that would be ridiculous!” He sobers and amends himself, “Well, it seems ridiculous to me, but of course, there’s more ways than one to spot carrion, as we say—and maybe how you describe this ‘inheritance’ is even how it’s done in most places. I wouldn’t know. I washed up here when I was very young and I don’t remember much of where I came from.” He sighs softly then and adds, “I truly meant no disrespect, my friend.”

Oncor shakes his head quickly, “No. I don’t… I don’t even know myself where my own ideas about such things come from.”

Vulpes looks at Oncor with warm wine-dark eyes and gently reaches out a hand to rest lightly on his shoulder for a brief moment—then says, “I shall try to explain how we do things.” He pauses, gathering his thoughts. “So. I ‘inherited’ the tools of healing and medicine from the one who trained me—it was Plantago. You remember her? She keeps her hair shaved short and often watches over the children and their games. Her fingers are too arthritic now to stitch and tend to wounds as they once did. She trained me, not because I was, as you say, of her blood, but because I took the most interest in the work she did, because I thought it was a miraculous and beautiful thing the way she could ease pain and help the wounded and ill. She chose me and I chose her and this work. I’m sure it will be much the same for these children. Already little Musc is Gulo’s shadow and Melinae is trying to interest one of the children in smithing. She’s begun to grow restless and wants to pass the skills and responsibilities to someone else.”

Oncor thinks on that for a few days. Just chewing around the edges of it while he mends nets and washes dishes.

“I’ve another question.”

“Oh,” Vulpes laughs, “you’re as full of questions as the pups.”

When Oncor pauses, unsure if he should continue, Vulpes laughs again. “Well out with it—I didn’t say it was a bad thing to be full of questions.”

 [ Trinkets, © 2017 Rachel Linn ] Relieved, Oncor continues, slowly though, still feeling out exactly how to ask. “What about your beads?”

“What do you mean, honey? What about them?” Vulpes’ hands tangle and jingle through the long swaying mess of chain and trinkets as he cocks his head to the side, questioning but patient, always so patient. Such kindness makes Oncor swallow hard and stumble on his words.

“I mean. That kind of inheritance. Who’d get your beads? Those kind of things? I mean…” Oncor pauses, “Don’t you want to leave that kind of thing to the ones you love? To… to remember you by.”

“Well! And are you angling for a bequeathal yourself, now? Got your eye on a particular strand, do you?”

Oncor knows it’s a joke. Vulpes’ voice is all teasing crooked laughter. Oncor tries to laugh too but there’s a sudden image in his head of the rings being roughly stripped from a dead man’s hand—taken by right of inheritance and somehow it seems taken from him, from him as well as the empty corpse of a man he only half-knew—and his throat catches. He shakes his head.

Vulpes sees the flicker in the other man’s face and fills the silence quickly. “I don’t know really—I suppose I never thought of making it my problem to figure out who gets which bauble.” He laughs again, and then continues thoughtfully, “I think I’d just as soon give my loved ones things to remember me before I’m in the ground.” The laughter returns, “Rather more fun for me that way, don’t you think?”

Oncor nods. They return to weeding, side by side, until the dinner bell.

After dinner, as always, Vulpes walks with Oncor back to his tent and helps him transfer from the wheelchair to the bed. He turns away. And then turns back, the candlelight glinting off those sharp teeth when he smiles, and he drops something around Oncor’s neck—then leaves in a swift rustle of robes. Oncor’s fingers trace around the gold chain, and the small uneven rough river pearl drop hanging from it, over and over until he falls asleep.

In the morning, Oncor seeks out the blacksmith, Melinae. He realizes, as he approaches her, that he doesn’t know what he’s going to say, or how to say it, or indeed how to talk to her. Has he said one word to her before now? She looks up though, from where she’s working at the forge and it’s too late to turn tail. She watches him approach with a measured gaze.

When he’s wheeled himself in front of her, she grunts, “Hold this.” His hands move automatically to do so.

A few minutes later, she gestures at the bellows and he moves to pump them, steadily and evenly as he has seen some of the pups do under her instruction. She nods at him, brief but approving, and continues hammering.

When Melinae starts talking it seems almost as if she is talking to herself, but her voice is pitched just so, so that Oncor can hear it over the ringing of the hammer. She explains each motion as she transforms broken pieces of metal—scavenged from the river, maybe, like him—into fish hooks.

Oncor feels relief flood through him. She doesn’t need him to explain, he need only be useful and he can learn. Through the heat ripples of the forge and the sweat in his eyes, he smiles.

The next day and the next, Oncor helps Melinae at the forge. No one comments, but Meri draws her chair near them when she fixes nets and watches them work. And several weeks later, when Melinae at last allows him to make his first clumsy fish hook, Gulo stops beside Meri and watches him too. Oncor could almost think that the older man was smiling and something about the softening of the wrinkled harsh lines of his face makes his chest ache fiercely.

The days continue to blur one into the next. The passage of time is marked only by little moments, little interruptions to the daily rhythm.

Vulpes saws the cast from Oncor’s leg and helps him take his first wobbly steps.

Oncor overhears—half accident, half curiosity—a moment between Meri and Gulo, in which Gulo says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to doubt you and you were right, as always. It is only that I worry. You are kind and sometimes maybe too much so.”

Meri’s face softens, the long lines curving down from her eyes creasing into canyons. She says, “I know.” And then teasingly but still a rebuke, “You should have trusted me.”

Gulo sighs and leans sideways bumping his shoulder against hers and rests his head there for a moment.

Oncor thinks of a hound, thin and sleek and perfectly groomed with a gold collar set with jewels, just like the crown he once wore, and leaning into him just so. He has ceased to probe much at such memories. They flash into his mind and then fragment away and trying to capture and dissect them has accomplished nothing.

Oncor is washing dishes when he sees the pups running by all adorned with dandelion crowns. The bright gold of spring-time. His hands pause in the gritty water. He finishes the pot and sets it aside with the others—then straightens and slowly, thoughtfully stretches.

Undressing before bed that night he runs his hands over the neatly healed scars on his torso and legs. He performs his exercises. It’s been, oh, how long?—weeks maybe—since he needed Vulpes help with them. His left leg is weaker; the ache has dulled but it has never quite left. Still, it carries him. Vulpes has done work to be proud of.

Two days later the vultures return.

Oncor has finally asked to learn how to work with gold. It’s different from other metals, Melinae explains curtly, “Softer, easy to damage.” “And,” she adds, almost reluctantly, “I’ve less experience with it. But I can still teach you what I know.”

Through the clang and clatter as they work Oncor hears something and looks up. The entire pack of pups comes running past the forge, laughing and shouting. Flying behind them, huge wings angling to allow them to fit between the tents, are a flock, an unending stream, of massive vultures. Oncor freezes. He knows it’s not a hallucination or fever dream but it has the feel of one.

Melinae starts shutting down the forge, methodical as always, but she’s humming a lilting little tune. Oncor moves to help her automatically and when they’re done Melinae smiles at Oncor, a real big broad grin and, unexpectedly, takes his hand. “Come,” she says, eyes shining, “they’ll want to see you.”

Oncor swallows but Melinae’s hand is warm and strong around his and he follows. They are birds of death and fear and horror—and now Oncor is standing in perhaps the exact spot of dusty ground where they watched him fall, moons ago. Their eyes are beady and glittering and he is afraid. His fear is intensified, not lessened, by the atmosphere of celebration. It is too strange, too wrong and his head whirls.

Meri emerges from a tent, strong arms propelling herself forward and her face is glowing. A pure white vulture swoops down, wings slicing through the air and lands on her chair back. It rubs its head against her, pulls at her hair and she strokes its feathers. It is a communion of some kind and Oncor had thought Meri a queen but now he sees he was wrong, she is a priestess.

Oncor wants to run but can’t, his feet are leaden and his heart stutters futilely. Vulpes swirls jingling out of the crowd and takes his right hand—Melinae still clasps his left—and sandwhiched between their two broad bodies Oncor’s heart slows.

Meri’s eyes open and she smiles and looks directly at Oncor and across the meters that separate them he feels the reassurance of her hands cupping his face.

This is only one more strangeness.

Oncor begins to count. One, two, three, twenty-two vultures. Vulpes watches Oncor’s mouth moving silently and he smiles and whispers in his ear, “They came home with a new member of the flock—they do that sometimes. You see there,” and he points, “that one, the smaller one with the reddish tinge to its plumage.”

“Yes,” Oncor says, “I see.”

The next morning, Oncor wakens early. The rest of the camp is still asleep—they celebrated and sang and drank until long after the moon had risen. The grey pre-dawn is chill but he knows the sun will soon burn away the fog. The day will be fair and hot. He helps himself to a breakfast of dried fish but he doesn’t pack anything. There is nothing to pack—he will not take from those who have already given him so much.

When he leaves the camp, Gulo is at his guard post and awake but he watches outward and Oncor thinks he can slide by. He almost does. Gulo swivels cat-like at the last moment. He tilts his head almost imperceptibly when he sees Oncor and the corner of his mouth quirks when he says, gruff but warm, “Better watch yourself, stranger.” Oncor hesitates for a heartbeat then and grins broadly back at the older man. He continues out. He heads upstream. He knows where he’s going, knows what he’s doing. What he must.

It doesn’t take Oncor long to find it. It’s only twenty minutes or so upstream. A gentle walk but he remembers the wrenching pain, hauling himself by his bloodied finger nails up that final stretch slippery slope to curl beneath the spreading branches of a huge maple. It’s blushed with bright green now, awhirl with fuzzy little helicopters and leaf buds and it glows in the brightening dawn. He can almost see the impression his battered body made in the mud there, sheltering between the maple tree’s roots.

Oncor digs carefully, with his hands. His hands—the same hands that dug in this same dirt before, but they are so changed now as to be almost unrecognizable. Open bleeding wounds have healed into faint white traceries; ragged nails are trimmed and filed; cracked rough skin is soft and smooth. The crown is unchanged though, despite the moons that have passed. He washes the dirt from it and studies it carefully—tracing the elegant lines, the intricate scrollwork and the wine-dark gems. He places it on his head and watches his rippling reflection in the river for a moment. Then he looks upstream. He stares long and hard and he lets himself surrender to that relentless tug deep in his bones, in his ribcage, a longing and a knowing.

And then he takes the crown off.

Oncor examines it as Melinae has taught him to. It’s a very pure gold. Soft. Malleable and easy to reshape. This, Melinae has told him, is not a flaw. It will never make a sword or even a fishing hook but it can be forged into things of beauty. Things that glitter and jingle, things Vulpes would wear. And a ring, maybe. A bangle, like the one Melinae wears. Trinkets. Nothing to compare to what they have given him, but something. Something solid and warm and golden and right. Oncor smiles and begins the walk back to the camp, back to the forge, back to the birds of death and the people who live with them.

© 2017 Omi Wilde

Comment on the stories in this issue on the TFF Press blog.

Home Current Back Issues Guidelines Contact About Fiction Artists Non-fiction Support Links Reviews News