The Year of Our Lord 1843, somewhere in Scotland, Great Britain
The pounding of thundering hooves echoed against the hard packed dirt as my horse galloped along the narrow road. The route my bodyguard and I were following was well-traveled but small enough that larger traveling carriages would have a hard time passing unscathed through the close trees. I was in the lead on this ridiculous ride, though I was perfectly aware of the repeating hoofbeats of the horse that followed close behind.
For more than an hour now, we'd been galloping fairly hard after an entire day of traveling. Of necessity, I was keeping a close watch on my horse. We'd started early, continuing on throughout the day before coming upon the village where we planned to rest for the night. We had all been ready to call an end to our day, the horses, my traveling companion and I. But as we approached the small town in which we'd intended on spending the night, we found them waiting for us at the only inn. We didn't even have time to stop and rest our horses before flight became a necessity, immediate departure giving us only a small lead. Rest was abandoned for the necessary of escape.
Our pursuers were part of a group that had historically committed considerable focus toward killing my people and allies in any way they could. To be captured was to die -- always painfully -- tortured to obtain any information to be had. But in the end, extermination was their goal. My companion and I had to escape, but it wasn't easy to elude those who were so determined, especially as it was likely their horses were fresh, or at least fresher than ours. We had some options they didn't have, but they were of last resort.
I cast a glance behind me, gauging the condition and distance of my companion and his horse with a glance. Chastain Griffith was a warrior born. He was the bodyguard who'd been trying to keep me out of trouble since the day the healer caught me and handed me to my mother, fifteen years now from my last birthday. I had never made his job an easy one, and I admit, I had deliberately made it more difficult the older I got.
If there were two people as different as night and day, it was Chas and I. He was a soldier with a purpose, every moment, every thought geared toward keeping me safe and alive. My perspective did include those important things, but was quite a bit less rigid. I thought that a life worth living was the one that included taking time to just enjoy where you were and what you were about.
We had a noble purpose, our travels overseen by an overarching goal. I had to make a good showing, especially if I wanted to return home as anything but a disgrace. Chas and I had always fought over my insistence on relishing the steps along the way. There was nothing to enjoy about this mad dash through the Scottish landscape. It was times like this that I appreciated Chas’ more direct view of things. He always had a plan for these situations, and thus far, we had always come out ahead.
As we followed the road northward, I heard a slight change in stride of the horse Chas was riding. It brought back to the forefront of my attention the increasingly labored breathing of my own mount. Though I was smaller than Chas, both of the horses were exhausted and neither of them were going to last much longer. I glanced behind me again, this time trying to assess the distance between us and those in pursuit. We’d gained enough ground that they were out of sight behind a curve in the bend and a large hill that shielded us from a direct line of sight. They were likely following our dust trail rather than visual confirmation of our location. That meant it was time to get off this road, and get out of the area before they figured out we were gone.
To that end, I intensified my search in the area in front of us, looking for something that would work with the plan Chas and I had decided earlier, splitting up so that hopefully at least one of us got away. A thicket of trees difficult to reach from the road would do. An abandoned building or any unlikely option to provide cover while our pursuers continued on unaware. There had been several opportunities already that we had dismissed as too easy, too obvious; we would be unable to take advantage of them without our enemies aware.
As every moment passed, our need grew more dire as our horses became dangerously fatigued. We had to be especially cunning in our escape. Our pursuers had plenty of men and could track down many possible avenues if our dust trail were to suddenly disappear. The point was to lose them altogether, not to continue the mad dash elsewhere with no rest and only dire options available to us.
As we rounded another turn in the rutted road, I saw a heap in the distance through a broken, hilly meadow and atop an isolated hill. The only passable access was through a thick, low forest of trees and over a rocky, bare hillock. The heap I spied appeared to be a crumbling barn, long abandoned and downright forbidding. There was no discernible path from this road through the forest and up the hill. The way looked steep and treacherous, most of it with no shelter or cover of any kind. This was a route I could not take a horse, regardless of its condition. It was an unlikely and difficult hiding place, and therefore, perfect for our needs.
Lifting my hand, I gave Chas a subtle hand signal gesturing at the barn in the distance. He pulled up beside me holding his hand out. I slung my saddle bags over one shoulder, then handed over the reins of my horse. It took only a moment for me to pull my feet free of the stirrups and to rise to a crouched position on the saddle, balancing with my hands before straightening over my feet. My eyes continued to scan the road ahead, looking for the perfect place to pull my disappearing act. I could see, up ahead, several large trees reaching across the top of the road, branches stretching out to the other side. Grabbing one of those limbs would be much better than jumping off the horse into the bush, dangerous since I had no knowledge of what was behind the brush. I did not fancy ramming into a tree full force, though I could survive so much more than my pursuers, it might still do damage that would slow me down.
From my ready position standing on the saddle, I reached up as the first branch came into reach, nails lengthening into talons to ensure I wouldn't fall back to the ground as I grabbed the precarious limb. I was able to hold on as my horse galloped out from under me, and I used the momentum to pull myself up onto the limb and walked across it to the trunk of the tree.
Chas continued onward with the horses. He would leave a trail of hoof-prints along the road and away from where we had separated. Once he had led them away, he'd either hide the horses or get rid of them, ensuring that we would disappear into the night without a trace. Chas had talents that would ensure that he could get away more easily on his own, disappearing into the night like a phantom. Then he'd meet me at one of our prearranged spots after doing everything that he could to assure that we would not be followed. Chas was a resourceful fellow; I'd never seen him in any situation in which he didn't know exactly what needed to be done.
The trunk of the tree I was on was sturdy and large, but I would be a sitting duck up here in the branches, obvious to anyone looking upward. I made my way around the trunk and along another sturdy limb before carefully jumping onto a close branch of the next tree. Using this method, I worked my way deeper into the trees trying to leave no swaying branches as proof of my passage. I moved this way until I reached a spot far enough from the road that any tracks I left would be impossible to see from the road. Then I dropped down onto the forest floor, one hand still holding onto my saddle bags and continued on foot.
I was in an unknown forest in the dark and I had to get away from the road as quickly as possible. The branches hung low as though no mortal had ever taken a hand in tending them and so I was crouched down, trying to move as smoothly and as quickly as possible. The wildlife was abundant and could easily signal to anyone listening that an intruder was moving within their domain. There was so much to be aware and careful of and the most basic mistake would make my ploy more obvious than the sun at midday.
It took me longer than I liked to reach the treeline bordering the meadow and I was worried that it had taken too long to reach this point and it might not be safe to leave the relatively safe cover I had found. I took a moment to look around carefully, observing the dust cloud that was closer, but still in the distance. If I did it right, I could make it to the run down barn before they passed the nearest point on the road, the point where the trees broke and the rocky hillock was visible. I practically crawled through the tall grasses and weeds covering the hillock, moving as fast as I dared.
The barn was approached as carefully as the hill had been. I used all the resources at my disposal—sight, sound, scent—to ensure that it was truly as abandoned as it appeared. I'd feel perfectly idiotic if Chas was able to hide or get rid of the horses, evade detection and make it to our rendezvous point but I was captured or injured because I hadn't taken the time to do things as carefully as I had been taught.
Instead of stopping at the barn, I continued several steps over the back of the hill, observing the entire area around. I wasn't only looking for signs of those who were hunting us, I also didn't want to be seen by gypsies, vagrants or country children running wild. I needed to be a ghost in the wind, undetected as though I had never even been there.
As I returned to the barn, I came upon it from the back, using the structure itself to hide my approach from the road I had only shortly before abandoned. Everything in the air and the feel of the land said that this place had not seen human presence in some time. I could be wrong; I wasn’t infallible, but it was likely my instincts and senses would have revealed anything out of order. Chas had always told me that I needed to trust my instincts, that they would be my most valuable ally.
Once I had reached the barn, I checked inside, ensuring that it was exactly what it appeared to be, an abandoned structure of no use even as a temporary shelter from the weather. I checked the basic framework of the structure as well. It appeared it was mostly stable, built nearly entirely of stone. The roof was nearly gone, and it was not even slightly watertight with the remainder of the wooden roof badly aged but the its inability to repel water didn't interest me at all. I wanted to know if the structure would hold weight and it appeared that the reinforcing rafters inside were mostly intact and didn't look completely weather eaten.
The roof of the building was useful to me because it was high enough to provide a good view over the trees and toward the road. If I could hide myself well enough, I could watch them as they rode past. I wanted to know if our ruse was working. I did not want to take the option of last resort and make a spectacle of myself that would surely get me into a great deal of trouble when I got back home.
Deciding only on the basis of sight and experience that a portion of the roof could hold my weight, I scanned the nearby area again. I had to be sure that there were no witnesses for what I was about to do. Chas and I had discussed the usefulness of this particular act in our contingency planning. I decided that, in this case, it was worth the risk. We had to know if our evasions had worked, and one of us was going to have to get high enough to be able to assess our situation. I was here, now, when they were going to be galloping past, and I had reasonable cover to hide behind and so the task fell to me.
I moved until I stood in the deepest shadow of the building, just inside the small doorway that faced the trees behind rather than the road. I let the shadows overtake me as I stripped to the waist and set my frock coat and shirt aside in the darkness of the ruined building. My trousers were black and would easily fade into the darkness so long as there was nothing obvious about the rest of me. This was the most dangerous part of this entire affair. Being overseen as I changed was a capital offense in our culture. The uninitiated must remain so. As I turned, I faced the doorway and let the darkness pool over me.
My long braid brushed across the bare skin of my back, moving of its own volition. From witnessing as it happened to others, I knew what would be visible were anyone able to see me from behind. Two black shadows grew outward on the inside edge of each shoulder blade. The shadows grew into mounds becoming larger and larger. The tingling began, spreading across the area until I could feel them break free of my skin. They grew until they became too large to be contained, widening and spreading. The tingling grew, spreading downward as they continued to enlarge, the power of their emergence ripping through my body. They became two large wings, bones growing and stretching until they could support the huge structures. At the same time, my skin darkened to match the color of my wings, an ebony black that completely absorbed all light reflecting from the moon.
When the transformation was complete, I leaned against the inside of the stone wall, taking a moment to adjust to the changes in my own body. It was a relief, like getting the feeling back in an arm after having it immobilized for a time. My wings were huge compared to the rest of my body and draped around me like a protective cloak, hiding me in their midnight-black concealment. I spread them out just slightly above my head, and let them drop back, unfolding partially as I shook them out. Articulated sections spread until the sails hung limply from the overarching wing bones. It felt incredible to have them loose and free.
I didn't have a lot of time to enjoy the feeling, however, and I moved outside carefully and let my wings shake out further in the darkness of the night. When fully extended, they were nearly larger than the barn, which is why Chas and I hadn't just flown away at the first sign of trouble. My wings, fully extended for flight were far too conspicuous. I allowed them to spread fully out and beat down, cupping the air. With another down-sweep of my wings and a strong push of my legs, I rose.
The leather-like substance that made up the sails of my wings didn't react the way that a bird's wings did. A bird's feathers were soft, masking any sound of movement in the downy substance of feathers. Mine were more like a bat's wings and while not loud by any measure, made a sound discernible by humans when I was using sheer muscle, rather than the wind, to rise into the air as I was now. I hoped the sound of the galloping hooves in the distance would hide the soft sound from those who were rapidly approaching.
I felt clumsy as I continued to rise, trying to use the bulk of the barn to hide my body, as was its purpose. It only took five great sweeps of my wings before I was able to reach the portion of the roof that was closest to my place of concealment. I landed on it lightly, my wings holding the bulk of my weight while I tested the stability of my chosen landing spot.
The heavy support beams held under a portion of my weight, so I landed completely and folded my wings as much as possible. I used my hands and feet to climb further onto the roof, nearly lying down against its surface. I was lucky that the roof slats had been painted a dark color and took advantage of the fact that I was basically black from head to foot.
From the high point on the roof, I could easily watch large portions of the small road as it weaved through the countryside. Further along the road, I could discern the outline of a tiny village, but the area around was almost entirely empty fields and untouched forests. I couldn't see Chas from where I was, but I wasn't surprised. The man was an expert at concealment and evasion, and he wouldn't be found until he was ready to reveal his presence.
I could see the dust on the road as our pursuers neared. They were closer behind than I thought. I tensed in readiness as they drew nearer, watching to make sure they continued past at full speed. My eyes scanned the area easily in the dark and I could see each horse and rider separately as openings in the trees allowed. I followed their progress and then scanned the area around with my eyes again, looking for riders who had broken off from the main party and were out hunting us in other areas. There were no obvious signs of other avenues of pursuit, but that didn't mean there were none.
I waited for some time, watching the galloping horses as they continued along the road away and then onward. My eyes constantly on the move hunting for signs of detection. If they had stragglers watching, I didn't want to move too quickly, I was not in any significant rush. I had a week to make it to the nearest meeting point in Glasgow and if I wasn't there in that time, Chas would wait a couple of days and then move to the next closest point. If I was at neither, he'd come hunting and in all my fifteen years, I had never seen him fail.
I waited patiently and then when I thought it was safe, I reached out with all my senses again. I could not feel anyone else in the vicinity. But as I moved to the edge to look at getting back down again, I paused. Something registered in my mind as being “off” but it was nothing that I could verify or quantify so I remained alert. Chas had made sure to teach me that trusting your instincts is what kept you alive. When I was fairly sure that all was well, I spread my wings and allowed them to take me to the ground. I won't say it was effortless as it was clumsy compared to Chas flying with his feathered wings, but it was as good as was possible in this odd half-form.
I landed with a thump in the tall grass and allowed my wings to fold back against my skin. It took as long as several deep breaths for them to disappear back into my body where they'd been before. When my wings had disappeared and my skin was back to its usual color again, I grabbed my clothes and dressed quickly.
I looked back toward the road once before I turned and headed into the trees behind the back side of the hill. The trees were not as thick in this part of the country and so I walked under their shelter as long as I could before I came to the outskirts of a rural farmstead. I still did not want to be seen, even by the livestock, so I skirted the property and continued on my way.
From the map in my saddle bag, I could see that by walking a few miles to the east would take me to another main road, a larger one by the look of it. I would shadow the road, staying out of sight as I continued a distance before stopping for the night. I should be lost in the dust, one of many travelers, nothing special. I no longer had a horse and I couldn't just find an inn to loan me another. The rest of this trip was going to be by stage or on foot. That would slow me down considerably.
It took hours to make my way across the broken countryside to the road I'd chosen, continuing to avoid any hint of habitation. Maybe it was time to take a break in our hunt and head home for awhile. I was tired of evading these assassins. They were relentless, had spies everywhere and were just as unlikely to find our quarry as we were. There was no way of knowing that what we sought was even in the world yet.
It sounded strange even to me. We were hunting something that might not yet exist. Though what we hunted was the most valuable thing that I could conceive. In the world I lived, kings and queens were chosen not by lineage or strength in battle as was often the case in the human world. In my world, rulers were chosen by prophesy.
In this case, we'd been awaiting the next Queen. It had been foretold she was coming, but the signs given indicated it might not yet be time. Still, as was tradition and with direction from our holy people, the one who'd been identified as the next in line to be King was sent to seek her out. Hence, here I slogged through the Scots countryside hunting for a woman that might not have even been born yet.
My father, who was the current King, would have to understand that this was very ineffective. You couldn't find what might not exist. It was not the kind of thing that could be forced and I just didn't have the temperament for all this unabated, useless searching. But it was also a part of the tasks to complete before I could be considered a man. I had to go out into the world, live among humans and try to understand who and what they were and why it was so important for us to protect them, even from themselves.
Chas and I had been hunting in Scotland for months, and while I'm sure we sounded much the same to those not familiar with our cultures, there was a great difference between Scot and Irish. To be blunt, Scots were Scots, and Irish were Irish. I didn't get along with Scotsmen. The only thing that had prevented me from putting a stop to this earlier was that I knew Chas would object. It was my duty to search as long as possible, to find her if she was in the world, but what was there dutiful in slogging about the countryside looking for the impossible?
When I reached the road, I checked the length of it carefully before I returned to a spot deeper in the trees. I was tired and I'd not be able to continue through the night, but I wanted to get as far away from our last known location before the tracker realized we'd split up and they backtracked to try and discover our new path.
I had walked silently in the trees for hours to get to the road, moving as fast as I dared, and then for several hours more I walked parallel to it, not daring to get too close in case they had people watching the main roads. Near as it was to dawn, I was exhausted and those so tired made mistakes. I found a clearing about half a mile from the road and set up a simple camp. Sleeping out on the ground was something we had done often in an effort to remain unknown to our enemies. But then again, we hadn't expected being found the first time, so I couldn't relax my guard. They could still track me here. But I had to get some sleep or I would be even easier prey.
We could have fought off quite a number of the people who were constantly pursuing us, but Chas and I didn't dare get into a fight around uninitiated humans. Those who didn't know that there was more to the world than they knew must stay uninformed. It was one of the basic rules of our races. The non-human races, that is. When in a fight, we tended to forget those things that set us apart and it would be obvious we were more than we appeared.
After being on the run all day, I was more than ready to lay my head down and get some rest. It would be the cold ground in the dark for me until the sun rose, but I was hoping for a couple hours at least. A fire would only pinpoint my location. As cold as this climate was, I was not entirely human and could handle the temperature without a fire. Right now, I was most concerned with sleep.
There was no one to take watch, so I set down the saddle bags and started looking for a bite to eat. Field rations did not have me eager, I had been looking forward to tavern fare when we stopped at the inn for the night. I ate a bit of the bread and cheese I had on hand and then laid out my bedroll and leaned against a tree while sitting on it.
It felt like only moments later when I felt a tug on my hand, I'd fallen from my spot against the tree to laying on the bedroll. It took only that tug, though to bring me to wakefulness. That was unusual: I was alone. Following the tug on my hand was something touching my hair.
My hair was long, tightly braided and easily swept down to my knees. It was unusual and likely how they kept identifying us, but I couldn't alter that. My hair could literally not be cut without doing serious damage. This was unusual. Chas would never touch my hair; even if he was around. He knew all the cultural taboos against doing so uninvited.
Suddenly completely alert, I jerked my head around. What I saw was barely comprehensible. A strange man had wrapped the end of my thick braid around his hand. This wasn't good. I reached out, intending to pull my hair free before they realized there was anything unusual about it and felt a sharp sting on my wrist before my hand moved more than an inch.
The sting caught my attention abruptly, drawing my eyes away from the man holding onto my hair. There was another man in front of me, locking closed an iron cuff he'd just wrapped about my wrist. There was a sharp edge on the side and it nicked my skin, leaving a cut that was quickly welling up with blood. This situation was quickly getting out of my control. I needed to regain that control fast and get myself out of here. My sleep fogged mind was weighed down with fatigue and I wasn't thinking clearly.
I quickly scanned the rest of the clearing, taking an assessment. I needed to know immediately what I had to deal with: how many were here, how big were they and most importantly, if I could talk my way out of this. My wrist being bound in iron limited me in ways I hoped they weren't totally aware and my hair trapped was a risk that worried me. These things added together created a real problem against at least two fairly large men out in the trees, I saw several more unknown men in the shadows and as far as I knew, Chas was nowhere around to come to my rescue. My feelings of dread grew, I was on my own and it didn't fill me with confidence.
The pull on my hair tightened and I fought not to reveal a reaction of any kind. They were likely aware that my hair was a weakness or they'd not have grabbed it, but I hoped they knew not why or how much. The fingers on my hair felt like the sludge of a poisoned river, leaving me feeling slightly nauseous; I could literally feel the violence seeping through his fingers. I forced myself to look at the band around my wrist as I wrapped my free hand around the base of my braid, trying to extract myself peacefully first.
“What's the meaning of this?” I demanded in my best aristocratic Scottish accent. I was going to try to bluff my way out of this first.
“Ye know what we're about,” the man who'd chained my wrist said with a twist of his lips. He was celebrating a success he hadn't yet earned.
“I'm afraid I don't. Why are you interrupting a travelers' progress with this ridiculousness?” The hand around my hair tightened as I held up my cuffed wrist. “This seems a little strange. Don't you need it on both wrists to be effective?”
The man who had clamped the iron about my wrist just smiled in a way that made me want to punch him. He obviously thought he knew all my secrets.
“Now, now, no need to play. We know exactly who you are.” His accent echoed of the docks in London, dangerous and rough.
Even as I knew the diplomatic approach wasn't working, I hoped Chas was crouched ahead in a tree, waiting for the best time to interfere.
My attention returned to the man holding onto my hair as a horrible laugh escaped his lips. His grip was tight enough that I couldn't move without causing myself pain, even though I still held onto the base of my braid. I was far too aware that if he pulled on it hard enough, it would hamper my ability to fight.
“If you're looking for your friend, we took care of him already,” the man behind me laughed.
I shifted my weight, still mostly laying on the bedroll I had been sleeping on. My mind was nearly consumed with worry, growing anger and dangerous fatigue.
“We'd prefer if you came along quiet-like,” the man crouched before me stated in an understated way. “It's much easier for you than knocking you silly and taking you anyway.”
I looked back at him and did not try to hold back the slow smile that crossed my face. I didn't have my usual scope of strength and abilities, but that didn't mean I wasn't still dangerous. I pulled hard on the length of my braid, trying to pull it loose with one good yank. At the same time, I dropped back onto my backside and kicked both legs up in the air toward the man right in front of me.
I took perverse delight in the surprise on his face as I smiled and kicked him in the face at the same time. The iron cuff limited my strength, making the kick much less powerful than it would have been otherwise. It still sent him sprawling to the ground several feet from where he'd been, but he was knocked silly instead of dead.
I twisted onto my knees, turning to combat the hold on my hair before the men hiding in the trees were able to get close enough to rescue their compatriots. Left hand wrapped tightly around the base of my hair to limit the damage he could do, I punched the one holding my hair in the face with my right. He was prepared for me, using my own hair against me as I lunged. He was not letting go easily as he pulled hard on my braid and took most of the power out of my punch, throwing me to the side almost violently.
The abuse of my hair nearly brought tears of pain to my eyes and I tightened my hand around the braid. I might not be able to pull it free, but I could mitigate how hard he could pull on it. For now, the men in the trees were watching rather than assisting and the chances were good that would change unless I could end this fast and run as fast as I could. I needed the iron band gone in order to sprout wings and fly off. It also took time, I wasn't experienced enough to shift in seconds yet.
I pulled hard on my end of the braid but I couldn't fight the stranglehold he had on me. Even the tied-off end of my hair lashed out at the hand holding it, flipping and fighting: the hair itself combating to be released. The ends of my hair could cut with enough momentum, but my captor’s hand was too close to the end, preventing any deeper damage than deep scratches.
If there had been any doubt that I was not completely human before, it was gone the moment my hair started to move on its own. At this point, I wasn't worried about confirming their suspicions, even if I didn't believe their assertion that they knew who I was. I couldn't be concerned any longer about revealing myself. It was more important that I get away. I wish I'd known to sprout wings and fly off earlier. It would have been better than being captured like this, but with the iron cuff locked around my wrist, even the most simple of shifts was downright impossible.
Unable to get away thus far, I threw my weight to the side and kicked at the man trapping me with the stranglehold on my hair. We had been sure they were unaware of the special properties of our hair. This knowledge revealed that they had been given very specific information, until now this information had only been known by those trusted or with their own related secrets to keep safe. This information was quite specific to my race and it had an effect of making this feel quite personal. Our hair was the main reason our bodyguards were chosen from other races. Living hair was a weakness that Chas didn't have.
I could sense movement in the trees all around me as the other men moved in closer. They hadn't been able to lay a hand on me, yet. Everything they had done so far indicated that their aim was to subdue me, not kill me. Still, I would fight with everything in me. It didn't matter that I was severely outnumbered, my hair was bound, my strength was restricted by the iron band, and Chas was nowhere to be seen, I wasn't going to go down easily.
My greatest weakness at the moment, however, was my hair. If they were able to pull on it hard enough or cut it with a knife, the pain and damage done would cause me to pass out. I couldn't allow them to use my hair against me so I escalated the series of blows with the man holding onto my hair. We were both working one-handed, determined not to let go of the opposing ends of my braid.
Suddenly, my opponent pulled as hard as he could on my hair, nearly knocking me off my feet and causing me to release a growl of pain that could not be contained. A moment later, I felt a monumental blow to my temple and as I fell, an iron bar came into view. When I hit the ground, I felt another strong blow and I was unable to fight the slide into unconsciousness.