A Feathered Heart
What happens when a hunter falls in love with his prey? The tragic tale of Benjamin Farmstone and WindDancer.
Benjamin Farmstone crept through the brambles, his young nephew close behind him. Though he was a big man, his footsteps were light against the ground and the leaves barely rustled as he passed. He wasn’t the greatest hunter on the West Side for nothing. Even so, the hart lifted its head, its nose to the air, nostrils flaring. Ben froze. His nephew held his breath. The wind had shifted. The hart bobbed its head, ears flicking from side to side, eyes wide, but it did not run. Instead, it lowered its graceful neck and turned back to the bushes.
Ben lifted his bow, nocked his arrow and pulled the string taut. It was a powerful hart with rippling muscles, a fine white coat and such a glorious twist of antlers that he salivated. It was a prize catch and almost a waste to kill. Almost. He took a breath, slowed his heart and relaxed his stance. He would not miss. He never missed. He released, and the arrow flew. At the soft twang of the bow, the hart lifted its head. His aim was true and deep, the arrow piercing it just behind the shoulder with a satisfying thump. It gave a startled bleat, kicked its back legs, then darted away.
Scott made to charge after it, but Ben slammed a big hand against his chest, almost knocking his nephew to the ground. ‘Wait. Let it die.’
‘But you’ll lose it.’
Ben looked at his nephew. He was only young, no more than twelve, his cheeks pink in the cold, his blue eyes bright with excitement. ‘Who is the hunter here?’
Scott dropped his head and folded his arms. Ben removed his quiver, put aside his bow and sat, listening as the creature crashed through the trees, its hooves pounding into the distance. He could see his nephew glaring at him through his fringe. Ben ignored him, removed the flask from his inner coat pocket and took a swig of ale.
While they waited, Scott paced and Ben drank. It was a frigid morning, but the sun soon glared through the trees as it climbed into the sky, thinning the light padding of snow on the ground—the last of the winter frost.
When enough time had passed, Ben hefted himself to his feet.
‘Finally,’ Scott said.
Ben seized his nephew’s arm before he could hurry ahead. ‘Wait. I don’t want you mucking up its trail. Keep to my side.’
Its trail wasn’t difficult to follow: leaves and vines streaked with blood and fur, hoofprints clear in the melting snow, broken branches and trampled bushes left behind in its wake. Ben’s arrow had dislodged and was lying on the ground, its shaft pink with blood. He picked it up and sheathed it. He sniffed. It was close, its musk thick on the air.
It was a strong beast, and it was almost three hundred yards before they found it.
‘Oh,’ Scott grunted.
It lay on its side, limbs akimbo, almost as white as the snow, except where the blood stained its coat in a deep red blush. Scott stared at it. Its eyes were open, a light shade of blue, empty now.
‘What do we do with it?’ his nephew asked.
‘We skin it, then quarter it.’ Ben pulled out his blade and knelt beside it.
Scott paled. ‘Here? Now?’
‘Unless you want to drag it back whole.’
His nephew looked over his shoulder, then dropped to his knees beside him.
By the time the deed was done, Scott was vomiting into the bushes. Ben shook his head. Little wonder his brother had sent him Ben’s way. The boy had no stomach. Clearly, living in town had pampered him. He tied up the sacks and hefted one over his shoulder, staggering a little under its weight. It was going to take a few trips.
Dusk was approaching by the time they got the last sack home. A short time later, his brother arrived to collect his son, and he was alone again.
Finally—solitude, until Friday at least when his nephew was set to return. He went over to what was left of the hart and ran his hand through its fine pelt, his finger along the smooth edge of one of its antlers. Magnificent. But where to put it? He glanced around his shack. Nobody could deny it was the home of a hunter: pelts rolled out along the floor, horns and tusks and antlers attached to the walls, a big stuffed bear standing in the corner bearing its great yellow teeth. There were so many stuffed heads, so many shining eyes watching as he went about his day. He was proud of his kills, and they deserved to be put on display, even if it were only himself who could appreciate them.
He looked across the room. There—just above the hearth. Perfect. It was his best trophy so far and deserved a central spot. It would be hard to top, but it could be done. He wasn’t the greatest hunter on the West Side for nothing, and tomorrow was another day.
WindDancer soared into the heights, flapping her great golden wings. The sun was bright, making her long yellow hair gleam and her feathers shine. Beneath, her shadow passed darkly along the clouds as she darted across the sky. She was the fastest of the Skybirds. Nobody could catch her. Not even Falcon, their fiercest and most powerful warrior. She dropped through the clouds, her skin pimpling against the frozen water. She shivered and laughed, flipped over, twisted, then shot to the earth, arms outstretched, head tucked tightly between her elbows, wings hard against her back, until she was as straight as an arrow.
The wind roared past her, chilling her cheeks and icing her nose. It stole her breath and stung her eyes until the world was little more than a blur. The earth flew up to meet her: rolling fields, luscious forests, gleaming water. She kept plunging until she must surely crash into the trees, but just at the last moment rolled over, twisted again, brushed her fingertips along the topmost leaves, before arcing upwards in a streak of gold, using the force of her plunge to thrust back into the sky. She laughed, revelling in her skill. She rolled and flipped and danced, then plunged again. She was told never to risk exposure, to think twice before revealing herself to the land creatures, but it was summer, the day glorious, and she was young and strong and beautiful.
She flew across the landscape, her shadow wavering against the trees and rocks and the strange wooden habitats the land creatures made for themselves. Ahead, was the mountain. She arced upward, following the steep climb, arms outstretched as she soared, hair streaming behind her. Every now and then, she flapped her great wings, thrusting herself forwards. Then something strange happened. There was a whizz, a dull thud, then her right wing slumped. She tried to flap it, but it would not obey and dragged her down. She cried out as she fell. Now, the earth really was flying up to meet her. She crashed through the trees. Branches ripped and scratched and tore, catching against her hair and wings and robe, slowing her descent until she hit the ground hard in a shower of golden feathers, and she knew no more.
Ben shouldered his bow and hurried through the trees. He had been watching the golden bird closely, hoping it would fly his way. It had seemed to almost tease him as it looped and ducked and danced just out of range, gleaming like a jewel against the sun. But now it was his—an unequalled shot, a beautiful kill, a perfect day.
He slowed his approach. The branches above were snapped and broken. Leaves and feathers were strewn below. He sniffed the air, and a strange scent tickled his nose, an almost perfume. Strange. He stopped, listening, but there was no sound: no squawking or hissing or flapping of wings. The creature was either dead or severely injured.
He found it crumpled on the ground beneath a tall oak in a bed of golden feathers. It was enormous. He had never seen a bird so big. He nocked an arrow and approached with caution. Injured animals could be savage. His boots crunched through the leaves, but the bird did not stir. He stopped and lowered his bow. There was a pale slim arm, yellow hair, tattered clothing—a woman. His heart thundered. Had he killed a woman? He looked around, afraid someone was watching. He looked at her again and saw his arrow. It had lodged deeply, high up in her right wing, just short of her shoulder. A blush of blood coated the feathers beneath. A lucky shot—for them both.
He sheathed his arrow, put aside his bow and knelt beside her. Her eyes were closed, and she was breathing gently. He smoothed her hair, brushed his hand along her feathers. She was so soft. His heart pounded harder. He needed to get her home.
Even with his immense strength, she was heavy in his arms, her wings probably weighing more than she did as they dragged along the ground. By the time he kicked open his front door he was sweating and staggering and gasping for breath. Still, he was steady and gentle as he laid her on his bed, careful not to knock her injury. She moaned, eyelids flickering. He would have to remove that arrow as soon as possible.
He filled a tub with water and retrieved his kit, then sat by her bed and waited, gazing at her. What kind of creature was she? He knew about dragons and mermaids, of fairies and monsters, but flying women? He scratched his head, trying to think back to his boyhood and his mother’s stories. Vaguely, he recalled her speaking of a floating island high above the clouds that circled the land. Had she spoken of bird people? He shook his head, unable to remember. It didn’t matter anyway. They were only stories.
She shifted and moaned again, then opened her eyes. They were yellow, like an owl’s. She blinked, stared at him, not afraid but curious. She tried to move and cried out. More blood trickled through her feathers.
‘Don’t move. We have to take out the arrow.' She looked at him blankly. ‘Do you understand?’
She blinked, pursed her lips and tried to get up again. This time she screamed and grabbed at her wing. When she saw the arrow, the little colour left in her face drained away. She looked at him, then around the room, at the animal heads, the pelts, the horns and tusks—all the death. She stiffened, and when she turned back to him her eyes were filled with horror.
She tried to get up again, shrieking at the pain.
‘No, don’t.’ He took her shoulders and eased her back. She was so weak she barely resisted. ‘I’m not going to hurt you. I’m sorry for what I did. I didn’t know what you were. Please, let me help you.’
She lay back on the bed, panting, small hand gripping his thick hairy wrist, her yellow eyes gazing into his.
‘Please,’ he repeated.
She released her grip and turned away, hissing and wincing as he gently prodded her wound.
He leant back. ‘The arrow has gone straight through. I will have to break off the fletching and pull it out through the back.’
She looked at him. There was no understanding there, so he did his best to show her what he meant. ‘Break.' He snapped an imaginary arrow in mid-air. ‘Pull.’ He yanked at it.
She grimaced and turned away, pressing her face into the pillow.
It was quick, but it wasn’t painless. She grabbed at him as he pulled. She screamed, thrashed. Then it was out, and she slumped back into the bed ashen-faced and gasping.
She slept, and by the time she woke again, he had cleaned and packed the wound and bandaged her as best he could, her feathers bent and crushed beneath his dressing. She touched it.
She just stared at him with those yellow eyes.
He swallowed and wiped his mouth. ‘Hungry?’
She ate in bed, and when she was done Ben carefully helped her up. She swayed on her feet.
‘Careful,’ he said, catching her as she sagged against him. ‘You lost a lot of blood.’
She was warm in his arms, yellow hair tumbling around her. He could feel her heart beating against his chest, her breath hot on his neck. He brushed at her cheek, and she stepped back with a start.
Ben watched as she walked around the room, the ends of her wings dragging along the floor, her right one slumped, the other held high against her back. She looked down at her feet at the pelts on the floor, looked up at his trophies on the wall. She touched the hart’s antlers above the hearth.
‘Magnificent, aren’t they?’ he said.
She frowned at him, and a hot flush burned his cheeks. He cleared his throat and dropped his eyes.
She took the bed again that night while Ben slept on the floor, rolled up in his blankets. When she woke, there was colour in her cheeks. She looked at him, then around the room.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I took them all down.’
Gone were all his kills, stacked up in the shed outside. He had even hauled out his bear, though with great difficulty. For some reason, a desperate need for her approval had roused inside him, and so when she looked at him with those yellow eyes no longer dark with doubt and smiling her pretty lips, his heart soared.
She stayed with him for the next seven days as she recovered. He changed her dressings, they ate together, spoke as best they could, smiled and laughed, and when he touched her, she no longer shied away. He learnt her name was WindDancer, and she learnt his name too, and every time she spoke it in her sweet voice, his heart would swell to bursting.
On the seventh night, she invited him into her bed, and they made love. He was gentle, anxious he should not hurt her wing, but she merely smiled, brushed at his stubble and pulled her against him. He felt like a bear against her perfect pale smoothness—all hair and muscle and sweat, but she didn’t seem to care, winding her fingers through his wild mane, sucking at his neck until he cried out. It had been a long time since he’d been with a woman and when he released inside her, it was with fear and hope and gladness.
‘I love you,’ he said, head tucked against her breasts as he ran his fingers through her feathers.
He knew she meant to return to the skies, but he didn’t have to be happy about it. It was two days later when he unwound the dressing, and WindDancer looked up into the blue. He kept back as she carefully flapped her wings. More confident, she flapped them harder, then harder still, until the leaves circled around her and her yellow hair whipped about. She seemed ready, but when she tried to take off, she cried out and dropped to her knees.
‘WindDancer.’ He rushed over and gently lifted her chin. ‘My love?’
He brushed aside her fringe, revealing the tears in her eyes. He checked her wing and saw to his horror the sheen of pus deep within.
She deteriorated quickly. First there was the weakness, then the drowsiness, then the fevers. Then her feathers began to fall out, following her in a golden trail whenever she had the strength to walk. She turned off her food, and no matter how much Ben asked or encouraged or begged, she refused to drink. She became delirious and suffered such terrible nightmares she woke screaming in the night. As for the wound itself, it broke down faster than he could treat it. It wept so much pus he ran out of dressings. It stank, turned green, then blackened.
She died within the fortnight.
He buried her in the morning. Ben stood at her grave, staring into the woods, leaning on his shovel. It was a bright warm day, the sun beating on his back. WindDancer would have loved it. He didn’t know how long he stood there, just gazing into nothing, but darkness had fallen by the time he went back inside.
The next day, he returned his trophies to their rightful places and went on the hunt as though nothing had happened. But something had happened. Rabbits, deer, ducks, even a dim-witted moose—every shot he took he missed, and he never missed.
It was the same over the next two days. No matter how hard he focused, no matter how hard he tried to want it, he could not get a kill. On the evening of the third day, he returned to his shack, clutching at his stomach, nauseated and feverish and shaking with rage. He slung off his bow and snapped it in half against his knee. He did the same with each of his arrows before flinging them across the room. Next, he stormed into his shed, grabbed his axe and attacked his trophies. Horns, pelts, heads, not even the stuffed squirrel on the windowsill escaped his madness. His bear crashed to the ground, and he smashed it until it was nothing but fur and teeth. Then he saw the antlers. He yanked them off the wall. He recalled how pleased he had been that day. Damn fool. He took a good grip on them and tried to break them with his bare hands. Failing that, he threw them into the hearth, set fire to them and watched them burn.
By the end, his shack was no longer recognisable, he was no longer recognisable. He sank to his knees and wept.
‘You’ll be proud of me, Uncle. You’ll see. Thanks to you, I never miss.’
It was a month later, and they were on the hunt. Ben had been training his nephew twice a week throughout the spring before stopping his lessons only days before he shot down WindDancer. By then, the boy didn’t need his uncle any more. He shot well, tracked better and no longer got sick quartering his kill. He was a hunter now—and a man. He didn’t need to prove anything to Ben. But if he wanted to show off, Ben would let him. It was his birthday after all, and he had a right to be proud.
It was mid-summer, and he was sweating. It was another fine day, the sun high and bright, the air heavy with heat within the confines of the woods. There was no breeze. It was a good day, a great day to hunt.
‘There,’ his nephew whispered.
Ben stopped, watching as he nocked his arrow. It was a doe: tall and lithe and young, if a little anxious, shaking her head, hooves dancing. The boy had good posture, a fine bow and unwavering focus. He would not miss. Ben had taught him too well.
‘Wait,’ Ben said.
‘Uncle?’ Scott said, poised for the kill.
‘Leave her?’ he huffed. ‘Why?’
‘Do as I say.’
The boy frowned. ‘No way. She’s mine.’
‘I said wait!’
Ben shoved at his nephew, who tripped and fell. The arrow released with a dull twang and the doe darted away. The two hunters looked at each other, stunned. Except for the blood pounding in Ben’s ears, it was eerily quiet.
‘Uncle Ben?’ Scott's face was as white as bone. Ben looked down in mild surprise at the arrow lodged in his abdomen. His nephew scrambled to his feet. ‘I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it.’
‘Leave me,’ Ben said when the boy reached to help.
‘I said, leave me.’ He clutched at himself with a groan as the pain suddenly caught up with him. He spat blood and wiped his mouth.
‘I’ll go get help.'
But Ben seized his throat before he could run away. ‘No. No help. Let me die.’
Scott’s blue eyes were wide. Ben released him, and the boy stood away warily. Then Ben turned and staggered into the trees.
He hadn’t gone far before he collapsed, coughing and spluttering and groaning. Blood wept between his fingers. He was dizzy and nauseated, and his heart was pounding so hard it hurt. But it was nothing to the pain in his gut. It would take a long time for him to die, and he prayed his brother wouldn’t find him too soon.
He got his wish. The world darkened, though it was not yet noon. He grew cold and shivery, became so weak he couldn’t move. He closed his eyes.
‘Ben,’ whispered a voice.
He opened them again. The darkness was gone. In its place was WindDancer, golden wings outstretched, flowing hair, owl eyes, shining so brightly he had to squint.
He smiled, then laughed, and there was no pain. ‘How I love you saying my name.’
He got up and found he had strength again. He cupped her cheek, ran his fingers along her right wing. No festering wound. No pain. Flawless. She was whole again.
And so was he.
Scott’s cheeks were wet as he, his father and three of his father’s friends rushed to find his uncle. He wiped at his face, feeling so sick his breakfast swelled in his throat. He couldn’t understand what had happened. What had gotten into his uncle? He was mad. That’s what he was. Why didn’t he want him to make the kill?
After the incident, Scott had wandered the woods aimlessly, not knowing what to do, frightened he would be blamed for his uncle’s murder. When he eventually saw sense and amassed enough courage to approach his father, two hours had passed.
And now, here they were, and it was almost like they were on an ordinary hunt, tracking their injured target, following a trail of bloodied leaves and broken bushes, except Scott had never desired so little to find a kill. He didn’t want to see his uncle’s bloodied corpse.
But find it they did. He was sprawled on the ground, blood soaking his shirt and the leaves around him. Scott’s arrow was still stuck in his abdomen, the fletching bloodied and broken as though he had tried to rip it out.
It was any fallen hunter’s wish to be found as he once lived, grasping his greatest love, his most prized weapon, prepared to hunt even in death. For his uncle, it should have been the bow. And yet it lay beside him, apparently forgotten. Instead, he had his fist clenched hard at his breast, something crushed within. Curious, his father knelt beside him and prised it open. They all stared.
‘What is that?’ Scott breathed.
It was something golden. A feather?
They all looked at each other in wonder as Uncle Ben gazed up at the sky, a ghost of a smile on his lips.