‘Ashen Wings and Lightless Skies’, Amelia Sirina

Illustrations © 2018 Saleha Chowdhury



 [ Monster, © 2018 Saleha Chowdhury ] Umqener moved oddly, as if broken, as if ready to fall on her unbending feet. Against the lashing sleet she swayed and limped.

Nau saw her through the heavy snowfall, the Day as dark as her eyes could endure, the mocking blueness of the shrouded ground not yielding light to see with. She blinked, left the deer reins in someone else’s hands, and watched. That wasn’t her aunt Umqener. Umqener wasn’t ill or broken—she was strong and defiant when it came to running wild in the Night’s winds. But her hood was down. Her hands had no mittens on them. The sleet would scar her, on a long Night’s day such as this. Umqener wasn’t crazy to allow that to herself.

But then an old woman gasped behind Nau, “Umqener. She’s turning!” And Nau understood.

The men and women made to run to her, the sled with the walrus carcass forgotten in the gales, but Nau ran faster than anyone else. Her young legs could do this.

“Are you mad?” Nau out-screamed the hollow wails of the ice valley, dragging Umqener close, snapping her hood low. She reached for Umqener’s hands and paused. “Umqener, what have you done?”

In the wrap of Nau’s mittens cold fingers cradled a bone knife. Umqener’s blood froze the knife to the skin so completely, there was no separating the two.

Nau hugged her, shaking. From Umqener’s feet, the long trail of red ice weaved back to the hut. Women and men huddled around them, yelling, offering their unneeded helps. Nau didn’t respond. No one would understand. No one would help.

In this, the cursed women of the Karalhine were utterly alone.


They thawed the knife off slowly, leisurely—hurry was useless. Nau helped Umqener take the clothes off her back, layer by layer, and at the last one she faltered. Blood darkened Umqener’s lean shoulder-blades under the deerskin shirt, and Nau’s resolve dwindled

She knelt. “Were there…”

Umqener’s smile tore Nau’s heart apart, so hopeless it was.

“Just the barest tips.” Umqener didn’t blink. “The color of ash. They’ll grow again. They’re growing right now—I feel them sprouting.”

Nau followed her gaze to the bed. Red-tinged, spattered, tiny light-grey feathers dusted the covers. Torn, they shivered with the heat waves drawing from the hearth.

This was too much, too much to take. Nau was barely twelve Nights old, she wasn’t ready to hear this, to see with her own eyes.

“Cut them out.” Umqener clasped Nau’s fingers over the knife, her own strong and rigid. “Cut.”

So Nau did. She couldn’t disobey Umqener’s alien haggard voice, the vacant gleam of her eyes. She peeled the crusted shirt off and grabbed, slipping, the splintered bones that angled out of Umqener’s bare back. Mutilated, ravaged, frail hollow bones. They didn’t go easy.

Umqener wailed. Her breath exploded in bouts of screams, nothing remotely human, high as the keen of the ice fissures-threading wind, tortured as the dying sea lion’s plea. She began rasping when her vocal cords betrayed her.

“It goes too deep,” Nau said through her own tears. Every word hurt her. She choked on the smell of blood that drizzled the coals and steamed in suffocating fume. The whole hut blurred before her eyes, yet she still saw sunlight-clear that the alien bones and muscle clung to each other too tightly, wrapping along the spine, slithering in between the cords, worming their way into the core of Umqener’s body. “I can’t cut it—it’ll kill you.”

“You’ll have to try!” Umqener roared, rounding. Nau shrank back.

Was it really Umqener? Nau knew what the lore said. The woman would turn into a feathery beast soon, a month, maybe less away—a shallow-hearted spirit, an empty skin of herself.

Maybe Nau’s emotions showed too clear in her stare, because Umqener smiled again. She sat back on her heels, a sick shiver coursing through her frame, and swept a hand over her sweaty face.

“I’m still me, Nau,” she said. “That’s why I want them gone. You don’t have to fear me.”

Nau fell to her knees, clutching the useless knife. “I know, I know… Umqener, I—”

“Silly girl.” Umqener drew her in, a hot embrace of sticky red. “Don’t ever let a boy close to you, Nau.”

“…a boy?”

“Yes, a boy. A man. A child. Anyone who makes your heart bleed. And once your heart thaws—for a person or a dream, the wings will claim you.” Umqener’s hold of her weakened, and Nau belatedly realized blood loss might have been too great for her to bear. She wanted to rush for the rugs and spreads, but Umqener didn’t let her.

“You don’t really have a choice, dear,” Umqener said tenderly.

“Yes, I do.”

“Then you choose to be cruel. Like him. He couldn’t cut them out either.”

Nau wouldn’t listen. She broke free and ran to Grandpa Gelmetge’s hut.

They kept Umqener alive, but not for long. She cut her own throat the next night and no one was there to stop her.


Alongside her father Nau danced atop the raft, not hunted. On their broad, skin-wrapped boats upon the ice-free water, Nau rose tall and eager, her harpoon steady, aiming at narwal’s tendersoft side. Slide, dash, ravage. She was good at it, people said. They said she was the best. She really had no opinion of her own on the matter. She let them decide. She let them choose.

But today she was out there with Ioniri, not father. Ioniri made her step catch. At times, she felt his eyes on her.

Such unease. Chill in her sides. She was very clumsy today so she pulled the hunt over before clipping a whale. It was nothing. One of the hunters in the other boat had already succeeded. The whale would roll out onto the shore in a short time, and the whole village would have food enough for a third of Day’s stretch, so her decision was wise.

Still.

She had gotten a distrust for Ioniri as soon as they began hunting in a pair—a year and a half ago, probably. Not because she believed the lies Aunt Umqener had told her all those years ago, the ones about boys and men and all sorts of forbidden desire nonsense. Nau was not so young anymore to believe that, not so emotional. No. She disliked the care, the open trust in those dark eyes of his, the silence he brought with him everywhere he went. It drove her insane.


“Are all bird-women afraid of their fate?”

“Of course not,” Grandpa Gelmetge said. He worked the mortar, grinding berries, the first timid cloudberry which sprouted at every sunrise’s peak, the long-awaited and eternal Morning. The Noon had idled for so long now, and Twilight was only a vague menace. Not real, because the fuzzy white sun—that tiny dot over the horizon—still played at descent without setting.

“Your grandmother fell in love with the wind. The Karalhine wind, westward-bound. She wasn’t afraid, she welcomed it. Her wings spread soon after Umqener had her first braid cut.” Grandpa said that casually, almost without skipping the well-worn roll of his mortar—he tried not to let sadness show. “Tynjele… ask your father, he knows better. I always thought she fell in love with you right after she saw your face for the first time. Lightness. Tortuous joy. Not fear, no. She feathered and flew even before you’d learned how to smile.”

Nau let a sigh out. She sank near Grandpa Gelmetge with the impassivity she mustered so well, unlike him.

“I don’t remember her. I don’t care,” she told him.

“Yes, yes.” He savored the moment to himself. “Other Karalhine families shed daughters and wives much the same way. We don’t know why. We don’t know how. These girls—these women, they just fly away one day. Wings, what can you say.”

Nau churned the snow with her boots, too distraught to ask more. Grandpa Gelmetge was a man. He didn’t know. He could only hope to understand, fail, speak in regrets. He could only guess.

The grease-lantern they had in the hearth-lit hut to count down time, reduced itself to a dribble at the bottom. Nau passed by, and kissed her two great-aunts who minded the fire while Grandpa finished his cooking, and told them how well she’d hunted today. They wanted nothing less than to hear about her success. Old people in the village rarely caught anything else from their youngs other than the tales of misremembered luck. A gift of a shell or a round stone found on the shore. A promise of more visits. A child, maybe. The most welcome of gifts.

They reminded Nau of that. Again.

To probably pass her curse to her daughter? Never. But they still reached her heart, those words. She had to shield herself from them better, always better.

She stashed the cask of berried lard for it to draw properly, while Grandpa Gelmetge unbent from his squat and staggered into the hut.

“Leave it,” he said. “I’m not done with it. I’ll go to the range tomorrow, get herbs.”

He could barely stand straight without doddering, and Nau said, “I’ll go. Or we’ll go together.”

“I’m not that fragile yet.” He sounded huffy. “It’ll do me good, you’ll see.”

He did go without her. He tripped and fell badly, and was still in bed a week later.


When Nau came from the healer’s hut, snapping the hide curtains closed behind her, the first person she saw outside was Ioniri. Some feet afar her father stood, arms hanging, shoulders sloped—as if he didn’t know what else he could do with himself.

“I’ll find my mother, and bring her back,” Nau said to her father, her lips numb. “I promised.”

“Nau…” Even through all the layers Nau felt the tension in father’s arms, a string taut inside. “Please don’t leave. You know Grandpa didn’t really mean that. He’s delirious.”

Nau couldn’t find any strength left to argue with him. Even he had to know it would be useless.

“Stay. He’s dying, he doesn’t have long,” he pleaded. “It’s better that at least you’re by his side when that happens.”

“I promised I’ll find her. She owes a daughter’s duty to him.”

Father’s voice cracked. “I don’t want to lose you, tiny pup. What if…” He blinked furiously, watching his feet.

“I love you too,” Nau said. “But I can’t choose between you and Grandpa. He asked me first. Don’t worry. I’ll be here before Sundown.”

Her calm demeanor was breaking—a horrifying crackle of ice she’d hoped was so much thicker. Everybody depended on her being stronger than this. Chieftains owed that to their people. So she turned and walked away.

There’d be lands and waters stretched before her, lonely and forlorn, to break down in somewhere. Plenty of time to be weak then.


“Do you have nothing better to do with your life?” Nau finally spoke. She was watching the dark spread of the village that cuddled close to the cliffside—snatching a glimpse before the long road, praying with the Mother of Winds for success. Then she’d noticed a human figure trudging towards her from across the valley. He’d walked steady, and she imagined he had never let his eyes off her as he ascended the slope.

Ioniri.

Nau almost had a weak moment when she turned to be on her way, but then rethought. He could be a messenger from father or Grandpa Gelmetge. Sure enough, he wasn’t. He stopped a few feet away and regarded her. “We hunt as a pair,” he said at last.

“Well, I am not in for a hunt,” she told him, then flung the last goodbye to her home and left. She promised herself she didn’t care whether he followed or not.

Only at the Lattani cove they spoke again. The agreeable silence dragged on for five days now, so it seemed rude not to. Besides, they stood at the furthermost point of their native land where neither had ever stood before. It had to mean something.

The Lattani people burned their fires over the hills, and the distant singing and drumming lent some ease to Nau’s posture. She’d hungered the past few days, but the welcoming feast here in the village brought her strength back. However, she couldn’t stay, even for a sleep—even for an hour—with that bleak promise over her head, and the natives understood her perfectly.

Ioniri was a different game. He offended their hospitality by refusing, and now stood here with her, waiting for the boat woman to come claim them. Such offense was a deep one. Nau told him it touched her too, that he was dragging her down with him in this shame.

“How am I doing that?” His voice was a rare thing. Nau regretted ever hearing it, all those years back. It was beautiful, much like his face.

But.

It left her cold. Everything about him did. She had little choice in this.

“I know you don’t care for me. You shouldn’t.” He was very quiet, eyes wandering over the hide of grey water. “I asked you once, long ago. I heard your answer. I listened.”

“If it’s not about me or you, then what? You want to marry a chieftain? You think it’ll earn you respect?” Nau spotted the distant bead of the boat over the waves. “There’s no respect in Karalhine families. I fly away, they’ll pick another chieftain.”

“But you won’t fly.”

She looked him in the eye, and he said, “You’re not like the rest. You won’t fly, ever.” He thought of a smile, Nau noticed, but it never quite got out. “There is something about you that’s different. Solid. Maybe even cold, and harsh, like eternal ice, but true. It’s why people love you. It’s why I’m here, by your side. Always.”

The cold waters licked the shore. Nau cleared her throat. “I thought you came because you wanted to see the…” She paused, and found herself unable to finish.

The bird-woman of his family, his own mother, had abandoned eight children, escaping to the skies. They were tying her down, and she still tore away.

Ioniri didn’t reply.

“I guess it won’t be that scary if we’re together,” Nau went on, seeking to make him forget. “The Grey Waste, the nomads, the White Cliffs. It’s a hard journey for a lone traveler. The two of us, we’ll manage.”

Then Nau gladly joined the silence. Why had she ever thought of breaking it in the first place? The sea’s murmur was enough for both of them.


How long did Day last over the horizon? A month, a week, a span of a dream of never seeing the long blue Twilight? It would tip into the Night, endless and cold. A star-studded abyss.

In her bones, Nau felt it encroaching. She unbent awake, crawling from underneath the bearskin cover, and found the sickly light of Day still around.

Ioniri led the boat.

“You can sleep now,” she told him, but he didn’t move. By the tilt of the sun she counted the time, spat into the waves. They had lost so much time before, weaving through the floating ice.

“I’m not in the mood for disobedience, Ioniri.” Nau opened her hand for the paddle. “Go and sleep.”

“There was a ripple over there.” Ioniri couldn’t take his eyes off a rolling tumble in the distance. “I think it follows us.”

Nau squinted. The sea and the sky were one single thing, grey and opaque, today. Hard to separate the two, and hard to focus on what looked like an utter absence of motion or life.

Underneath the grey a darker thread loomed. It didn’t surface, but it curled and twisted in an arc, away and closer again. Nau rooted her legs firm, ready to dance upon the wave-long sway like she was used to, hunting. The underwater beast was far, so she took the bow out first.

She waited. Paddles splashed through water. Nau caught Ioniri’s gaze on her and exhaled with an edge.

“You’re ruining my aim,” she said. The nimble shadow wound beneath the waves, and Nau followed its sinuous motion with her eyes and the notched arrow. The thing was enormous, long, fast. But most sea-serpents were fast under there. In the air they were soft and slow.

The outcome of this meeting would be decided by the beast’s size and brain. If it were truly monstrous, it would overturn the boat and there would be little she or Ioniri could do in the water. So Nau prayed that the beast would be stupid, at least.

“Throw the fish,” she decided. Ioniri swung the biggest char from the pile they’d caught earlier, above the darkening glimpse.

The predator in the water fell back, no more than a moment.

“Another.”

The crimson fish belly flashed in the air. It didn’t even touch the water when a giant head erupted from the waves—scales greening—its jaws opened wide and snapped over the bait.

Each of its teeth was the size of Nau’s harpoon, thin and clear as ice. Her breath stuttered. She only had a split moment to judge the distance and aim: she fired and missed the eye. The arrow dug into the side of the serpent’s head, and the monster crashed down. The force of the impact on water sent a tide over the small boat.

The shade under the wave coiled deeper for a length of a breath, and rose upwards again. Nau grabbed the harpoon.

It’ll be like striking a whale. A feral walrus. A sea lion.

Blood deafened her ears with a rush. She bit her lips raw. She screamed, not hearing herself, when the barbed head broke into the air again: a segmented worm, a pillar of translucently green flesh rising high from the sea to come crashing down. It wanted to break them. It could.

Even so Nau found it strangely beautiful. Its inner organs, the gelatinous skin, the heart, pulsing. So naked and vulnerable under the sky.

Ioniri’s arrow pierced the scaly gleam. It lodged in the surface, and the monster squirmed sideways in arching coils rather than crush them underneath. So it was stupid. A stupid animal that wasn’t aware of its doings, which didn’t choose to be dangerous. Maybe it wasn’t aware of the light or the sky. Maybe it didn’t want to kill them at all, not stupid—but kind. Maybe. Maybe not. Darkly amused, Nau took an aim and sent her harpoon flying into the glimmering flesh. The rope at the handle’s end snapped tight, and the serrated edge of the blade tore through the beast’s side. The boat lurched amidst the boiling froth, and though Ioniri cut the cord immediately, he was too late. The deck flew forward. The boards yanked out from under Nau’s feet.

She fell.

The breath-shattering waters closed overhead like a cold blanket. In the greenlit silence Nau fought the pull of the sea-monster’s thrashing. Yet waters caught her in the roil and dragged below.

Swim, Nau, she imagined telling herself. Someone had to. She wouldn’t lift a finger without being told.

The sea-serpent rushed away into the layered darkness, undulant and swift. Impossibly beautiful. Bubbles surged around Nau and she thought before dimming out in the freezing dream, of that ethereal serpentine grace she wished she had for herself. Of being her own, in the waves.

Or in the air. Higher than clouds go.


She jerked awake afloat, hauled, spewing bitter seawater from her mouth.

“The boat, Nau! The boat!” Ioniri’s voice came from a distance even though his face was mere fingers away. Numb, Nau gripped the edge of the boat. Her hands were so limp she doubted they would hold her weight, but Ioniri helped her before climbing in himself. Nau collapsed on the bottom and watched the sad grey sky above, Ioniri by her side, heaving, resting.

“Why didn’t you swim?” he rasped. Shivering, she looked at him sideways and preferred not to answer. Her teeth were barely meeting from the cold and her throat burned from the salt. He’d understand.

He didn’t. Even as they gathered their scattered belongings buoying over the waves; even as they scrambled with only one paddle left to the faraway outline of the land; even as they huddled away in an eroded cave with the porous walls and floor, Ioniri kept his eye on her. Never speaking, just scowling, judging.

Nau unwrapped the drier clothes from the waxed bundle and peeled the heavy sodden ones off. That made him stop staring, finally. After putting on the deerskin shirt and reaching down to reclaim her family’s feather necklace, she noticed Ioniri’s necklace side by side to hers. He was busy undressing himself so he didn’t see.

It must have been his mother’s feather. Women of his family had a reddened edge to their brown plumes. Nau had only ever seen the ashen ones her mother and aunt left behind them. She hadn’t really thought about other families, or what it meant to be a man in a Karalhine family before.

She put the feather’s edge to her lips and nuzzled against it.

When Ioniri was done dressing, Nau kissed him. He might have been surprised—that was why he didn’t stir.

“You changed your mind about me?” he asked after studying her face in drawn out silence. Nau shook her head, or shrugged. Probably both. He backed away to focus on her properly. “Then what’s this?”

“Something that you asked of me once?”

“You say that like it’s not you in there, even. Like you don’t care.” Nau let him search for the words, and he did it long, trying not to meet her eye once. “I guess you don’t.”

The wind wailed higher up in the cavernous hollows. Too spent to argue, Nau spoke the truth. “I can’t. You know well enough that I can’t. Everyone knows. That’s why they chose me to be the chieftain. They think I am reasonable and brave and righteous. I only do the right things. Only think the right thoughts. Only feel what’s absolutely necessary. It’s true. Doesn’t mean it’s easy.”

Ioniri smiled without mirth. “So this is it. You don’t desire and you don’t feel.” He mouthed words slowly, to himself, and turned away. “That’s how you protect yourself from the curse. I see.”

“Free will is for other people. Not me, if I want to stay human.”

Ioniri shook his head. “Free will is what makes us human in the first place. Animals and beasts don’t have it. We do.”

For some reason it stung more than Nau thought it would. “I’d rather abandon mine than turn into a beast myself, especially if I were to hurt others in the process.”

At this he snatched his feather from the ground and carefully stashed it away in his shirt. “Yes, you are very righteous, Nau.”

Nau brushed hair away from his face. A kindness. How pensive and forlorn he was. In another life she could have loved him back, or just—loved him. In this life she could only feel concerned, in an dim detached way as though unsure.

“I can give you what you asked of me once, if you want,” she whispered. He made not to listen, so Nau added, “I don’t mind.”

“Do you ever do anything you really want?” Ioniri snapped a couple of driftwood twigs in his hands, threw them at the wall. “Anything you actually feel passionate about? Do you dream? Are you even human?”

Nau didn’t bother to answer. Back to silence it was.


Since they were so far off their intended route, they had to hunt as they went. They would have been further on their road by now, if not for the damned sea beast. They’d have ridden silver deer of the Mauwe people. They wouldn’t be hungry, wouldn’t need to waste time on finding food. Most of all they wouldn’t be so late for the Sundown back at home.

But now they were. Sun dipped lower with each spin, and it almost rolled over the horizon lately. Bitterness gnawed Nau on the inside—desire to thrash and run—like a trapped, fettered, grounded thing. It was unbearable. She started getting sloppy, hunting.

Thus, she crossed the forbidden lands border one day to get to the White Cliffs faster, and that was when the savagelings caught them.

Seven deer-riders, watching her and Ioniri with tired eyes. The murky sky colored the tundra and everyone here much older, much fainter. Ioniri looked pale, at a breaking point. He hadn’t wanted to go through here in the first place. He had been right, of course.

“To pass through our land you have to give,” the eldest savageling said. She nodded at Nau’s carved tusk collar, the chieftain’s symbol, and Nau didn’t quaver before giving it away. It was truly the only sane thing to do.

When the woman demanded Ioniri’s bow, he stepped back. No, he said, simple and clear. He wouldn’t give away his ancestral bow. Not for their safe passage, not for his life, not for Nau’s.

Nau and he were apart: she was let free after this encounter, while he stood alone amidst the grim faces. This felt like a farewell. “Ioniri. I’m afraid I cannot support your rash decision.”

“Liar. You’re not really afraid, are you.” Two savagelings sidelined him, got behind his back and he couldn’t keep tracing them any more. He told Nau, “Go. I understand.”

And it was just like with that serpent, before. Nau wanted to wait and do nothing, or to walk away this instant, but in the end she saw there was so little she could have done. It wasn’t as though she had a choice. A chieftain defends her people from harm.

So Nau stood her ground. She locked her eyes with the leader of the group, hand on the long knife on her side. Grandpa Gelmetge’s knife. “Let him go, I’ll give you something else of mine. This knife?” Nau took it out slowly, backing when the savagelings moved to flank her.

“Put that down, pup,” the woman said. She didn’t climb off the deer, but every other one did. They all drew blades and spears out. Ioniri flinched to notch an arrow, but the savagelings were quicker. A flash, a cry, and a man pierced a spear through Ioniri’s thigh. Ioniri feel on one knee, gasping.

A dark cloud crawled over the land, casting them all in shadows.

Taste of blood in her mouth. Nau had no idea where it came from, but she felt better for it. She felt alive. A good thing to remember right before dying. The savageling went in to snatch Ioniri’s bow away from his weakened hand, and as he was swinging a kick at Ioniri’s side, Nau jumped, knife in hand. Someone yelled from behind. She felt a hot metal cut through her furs and skins into her back. But she didn’t stop.

Her foot caught the man in the knee, then slashed at his face. The spear fell from his grip and Nau jerked it out from Ioniri’s leg in one swift motion. He screamed.

There were too many enemies for her to strike, and Nau had no idea whom. Too many, fanning around. People were shouting, but Nau didn’t hear them: she lost herself to the beat. The pounding clamour. Her heart.

 [ Enormous wings flapping, © 2018 Saleha Chowdhury ] It ran so fast now, Nau imagined it multiplied, echoing through her being. From out of the skies a pale ray scrambled over her and she marveled at the stark shadows it threw against the ground. Of birds. A multitude of birds, their silhouettes distorted into giant shapeless wings, into storm clouds. And that sound around her—others heard it too. The sound of myriads of enormous wings flapping.

They circled lower, and from their descent the savagelings skittered away. Hair and clothes billowed from the rising wind, and Nau was at the center of it.

Purple-tinged, black on green, snow-white, sundown yellow, the frost lights’ blue—every one of those wings a span of a whale’s body. Karalhine women. Before, Nau had only seen drawings, carvings, heard elders recount what they had seen. No one had mentioned them also being so achingly beautiful.

There was nothing human in any of them now. Feathers covered them whole, their hands grew into wings, elongated, powerful. Their feet were clawed, all flesh gone; their faces beaked and bright-eyed. They swerved in the air and fell onto the savagelings. They struck.

Amidst the flurry of feathers, a pale grey flashed. Nau focused on it, traced its flight, throat tingling.

The color of ash.

“Mother!” she screamed against the noise: people choking in yelps of horror and pain, birds screeching. Nau’s voice was no match. She broke into a run, following the fierce flight of the ash-winged bird far above, tripping, falling down. “Mother! Tynjele!”

Tynjele canted mid-glide, swooped around. She heard.

“Mother, please!” Nau dropped to her knees when Tynjele rushed down to her. She wanted to kill her? To rip her apart? Neither happened. Tynjele landed gracefully some feet away, and Nau could only stare in shock. The bird tilted her head sideways, shook herself, reached her beak to the savageling lying close, his limbs sprawled and motionless. Tynjele clawed at the head, rolled it, then tore a strip of flesh from the cheek and swallowed.

“Mother…” Nau rose to her feet, only now feeling the weight of her tired body. Her back burning with a cut—how deep did it go?—her legs trembling. The sound of her voice made Tynjele squawk and pace. Her head moved jarringly, quick and rigid, huge yellow eyes scanning Nau’s figure. Nau gulped a raw lodge in her throat. “I… came to see you. Grandpa Gelmetge is dying and…”

The bird went back to feasting.

When Nau forced a timid step closer, the bird ruffled up. For a moment Nau was sure it would strike her next. It had that unmistakeable blank fixed stare a wild thing gives before an attack.

So this was it. A wild thing, no more than a vessel for fury and primal instincts. This was what Nau would become herself one day. Not Nau, just one of the predatory birds? Most now ravaged the bodies in the distance, and some rose heavily in the air, encumbered by their catch.

Where was Ioniri?

…Ioniri.

Nau forgot about him. She swung on the spot, and the movement spooked the bird upwards.

“No! Mother, wait!” Nau clutched her necklace, pulling the old feathers, crushing them in her shaken hands. “I’m your daughter! I’m here, I need you!”

The bird rose, too high to hear Nau’s calls. The majority of birds had already dissipated, burrowing through the clouds and going back home. Where was their home? White Cliffs? Somewhere else, closer? Nau couldn’t keep running like this. Watching the grey dot against the sullen sunlight made her eyes water, and she already knew she had mistaken some other bird for Tynjele. They were too far to see color of their wings.

There had to be a deer left alive somewhere, she’d seen one before. Nau darted to where it stood amidst the torn human bodies. Ioniri clung to the deer’s reins, sobbing. Nau pushed him away to grab the deer herself, to mount, to chase after the birds.

“Nau!” Ioniri said, a sickening waver in this one word.

“I need to. We have to ride after…” Nau unclasped his cold fingers from the reins. Her hands seemingly turned into wooden sticks: nothing bent, everything wanted to snap. “They’re so close, we can still reach them!”

“They’re gone.”

“No, they’re not! I have to get my mother, I have to tell her—”

“Nau. They won’t hear, they won’t comprehend. They’re birds. Beasts.”

Nau lashed at the body of some woman on the ground, kicked something. Could have been a limp hand. “You don’t know! You don’t understand, you didn’t see…”

“I did.”

He slumped low on the ground, in the snow grey and dirty, mixed with black earth and red blood. His frame twitched with a nasty shiver here and there. In his hand he clutched his own feathered necklace. Some feathers broke from his grasp.

“There’s nothing human in them. Not a trace. They’re gone.”

“We don’t know that,” Nau began.

“Look around you!”

She didn’t need to. The smell was high in the air, and the rush of bile to her mouth nauseated her. But, still. “They didn’t touch us. See?” The reins clinked from her touch. “They left us one single deer. They care. They recognized us. We can talk to them…”

He watched her in horror. “You can’t reason with them, Nau! Instincts govern them, not will or reason. We can’t hope to understand what they think, or even if they can think. No human leaves her children behind like garbage. So they aren’t. Not human.”

Wrong. He must be wrong. He didn’t know for sure. No one did. Only those who turned themselves.

Stubbornly, Nau gazed at the sky, searching, yet finding nothing but colorless fog. “If I give chase now maybe I can still reach her. I have to know. I have to make sure.”

Ioniri let go of the reins, his hand heavy, falling. He didn’t say a word.

And by that easy surrender to her will, he won. Nau was free to choose—at long last, for the first time in her entire life. Forward, into the unknown. Or backwards, to safety and familiarity. The sheer scope of the decision made her feel small and insignificant. Death or home? Losing Ioniri’s life or finding a hint of mother’s? Chasing after a phantom or being a loyal chieftain to her people?

She thought she knew what she wanted. What she dreamed about. If ever.

At first numbly, she patted the great silver deer on the side of its head. Calmed it down, talked to it, babbling nonsense. The poor animal. It had to carry the two of them—her and Ioniri—through the whole desolated region back to a human settlement. She had to get acquainted with it first, after all the horrors it witnessed.

She helped Ioniri onto the deer’s back. In the somber howling of the winds they made their way back home.


Mauwe nomads led them to a seal-hunters’ village. There Nau traded for a boat. She made to leave Ioniri with them, seeing how his leg was swollen, the bone split, but he said he wanted to go home with her. She didn’t argue. His choice, not hers.

She was late anyway—not that he would slow her down. The tiny white sun winked, edging towards the horizon, and Nau cursed at it. She cursed at the wind that was always on the rise. The awful dull sky, neither grey, nor white.

They hadn’t yet reached their cove when Nau glimpsed something over the rocky shore, under the ridge-sharp cliff. A glimmer of scales, something long and grand, and dead, sprawling.

The translucent flesh looked as if it had been melted from the carcass. There was no blood, no organs exposed—everything had been eaten. Seagulls and cormorants rose in a startled keening from the corpse when Nau came to claim her harpoon wedged in between the ribs. She stood motionless for a long time, watching the sea beast’s bones whiten on the pebbles, softly rocking from an occasional tide.

Night descended on them on that shore, a true Night, not a hesitant Twilight. When Ioniri let her take a peek on his leg, Nau preferred not to speak. He would no longer have a leg. He had to know that himself, even before he’d decided to come back home without healing.

“Is it that bad?” he asked timidly like a little boy. “Will they cut it?”

Nau tied the lace of his pantleg, motions sharp. “You’ll be fine.” She thought of how he’d never return to the hunt or the exploration. How he’d have to go by, learn another sets of skills, change, however much it would hurt him.

“No, I won’t. It’ll rot away, and I with it.”

“Damn, Ioniri. Your family will take care of you. It’s not the end of the world if you’re crippled.”

“What if I don’t want them to take care of me?” He scrambled for words. “It’s not really their choice, is it…”

“Look at me,” Nau ordered, then gave him a hard shake. “You’ll be fine.” She thought a bit, to maybe find a lighter kindness she could offer him, and a sudden joyous memory made its way back into her mind. She cited, solemnly, “Ioniri, “under the sky, upon the snow, against the breaking wave, would you marry me”?”

The lines on his face smoothed. “Don’t remind me. That was silly and embarrassing.”

“I’m serious. Would you marry me?”

Momentarily, he grew grave. “I thought we talked about it.”

“I love you,” Nau lied—almost didn’t have to. “If you’re planning to die soon, we might not have much time.”

The sea rumbled in the night, breaking up on the rocks, carrying some distant beast’s call over the waves. There were many wonderful and horrifying creatures in the depths of the sea. Fishermen always heard one or the other weep across the the waves from far away, searching, looking for another of their kin to share that sorrow with. Such a long, lonely sound.

“This is so awful,” Ioniri finally said. “Not how I imagined this would be.”

Nau smiled at him lightlessly, leaned in closer and placed a chin on his shoulder.

“Please shut up,” she murmured in his ear. She brushed her nose on his earlobe, whispered things they both remembered from long ago, cuddled close. And then, at last, he wound an arm around her. But it stopped never reaching her shoulder. Slowing, it lay on her back, right where her shoulder-blades had been before.

Now there were pecking wings. She had hoped he’d notice them much, much later.

His shoulder touching hers went stiff. He swallowed visibly, but didn’t dare look at her. “I see,” he said. He wasn’t even that surprised.

This was exactly why she would have never even imagined herself with anyone else. Ioniri never needed many words around her.


“Nau,” her father called. “You did everything you could. You did good.”

He and Nau stood at the grave mound where the villagers buried Grandpa Gelmetge a little over two weeks after Nau had left. She took a deep breath and didn’t reply.

“Pup?”

“I’m fine,” Nau said. “I did everything I could. We did.”

Her father watched her out of the corner of his eye, scrupulously, without trust. Nau turned.

“Ioniri’s a good man,” he offered, like an apology. “I thought a lot whom you would choose one day, and—”

“I didn’t choose.” Nau smiled.

“Whomever you choose, whatever, whenever, however,” he continued without pause, “I’ll always support you, pup. Always. It’s your life.”

“Is it?” Nau didn’t let him absorb that. She leaned in and hugged him with all resolve and love she could summon. So much. This much. “Thank you, father. I love you too.”

He didn’t want to let her go. Like back then, the last time they were separating. Only this time Nau let him see her cry and smile, both at the same time. She let him hear her sob, a little. Humans need that, a show of weakness, sometimes.

Then she got into the sled and reined it back to the cove where she’d left Ioniri. The last human she wanted to see. The only one who knew.

Before they parted at the lattani, he had asked her, why?

She answered, “Why not?”

There was freedom of choice and the weight of consequence on the feeble human heart, and then there was just freedom. Letting go of choosing, letting go of deciding. Complete utter freedom. Why not revel in it?

And it was so easy, she felt as if she was flying already—out there in the clouds. Ash-feathered and free. Beautiful.


© 2018, Amelia Sirina

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