That day, as the storm-clouds had begun to gather in the distance, Kate had known that she was not going to be able to resist their call.
She also knew just as well that she was going to find herself in trouble when she returned to the village. Her mother disparaged of her tendency to get herself caught out in the rain. While storms to Kate were a wonderful thing, they were just something else to worry about and contend with for the adults, something that Kate’s mom liked reminding her that she nearly was.
In the grand scheme of things, though, storms were the least of their worries. No matter the primal fears they consistently drew from adults and children alike, the storms were periodic and fleeting. On the whole they didn’t last too long and the most intense and unsettling of them often didn’t last more than an hour.
Food, shelter and safety were the main concerns. Kate lived with her mom in a small settlement known informally as Sweetgrass, as it had no formal name. Thankfully, where their little colony had settled a couple generations ago was more than bountiful enough for the families that lived there to make a good living. Crops were healthy and prosperous enough to feed everyone with the proper management and care, and the herds of livestock the settlement was raising were finally beginning to flourish. The homes and buildings that made up the settlement were sturdy and sheltered their denizens through whatever weather came upon them. It was the idea of famine, the loss of their hard built lives and the safety of their families that worried the adults around Kate more than storms.
But even those very real fears weren’t what worried them most.
The Alaians held that dubious distinction.
Whenever their silhouetted outlines appeared in the skies, the residents of Sweetgrass would melt away into the grass and the brush that surrounded their little hamlet. Humans and Alaians did not get along. It was a mutual dislike perpetuated by long, though distant, years of war and conflict between the two races.
It had been many, many generations since humans first stumbled upon the hidden Alaian cities inside the Mountains. Alaians were intensely proud, and it was that pride, when bruised by a handful of powerful and shortsighted humans, that brought about the Alaian Wars.
To humans, of course, it was all the Alaians’ fault, while to the Alaians the opposite was true. But more than that, because of the Wars the Aeyes, known to many as only Shadow-wings, appeared, leaving humans caught between two opposing forces in a war that they had once been a part of.
At the beginning it was human verses Alaian forces. It was because of humans that Aeyes joined the Alaian War. Humans were said to have created Shadow-wings, and things spiraled out of control from there. Now, the winged races were in control and were continuing to fight a war that, some say, the poor wingless human race had started.
All the sciences and technological advances humans possessed were worth little when Alaians made their presence known to the world. It was something every child heard of growing up. Kate had heard it often and extensively from her Dad, Rick, before he died, that once millions of humans had lived in cities larger even that the one Sweetgrass lay in the shadow of, that humans had once had marvelous medicines beyond count, sources of all imaginable information that fit in the palm of your hand, machines that could fly and sciences that verged on being magic, advanced as they were.
Only magic itself had proved to be real.
As a great power of the Earth, magic turned out to beat human technology every time. The Alaians were blamed for the ‘catastrophic chaos’, as Kate’s Dad had called it. He would describe at great lengths how human technologies would just fritz and spark and do all the other bad things advanced technology is said to be prone to before simply shutting down in the face of the Alaian’s magics. And, as he’d lamented, as humans had been so reliant on the technologies of old, chaos it most certainly was. It was then, he said, that the humans in charge of everything declared war.
The human race had almost been wiped out.
Just what went on in those years has been lost with record-keeping technologies burning out faster than bone-dry grass when confronted with a spark. More than that, a great deal of the written record was destroyed in later parts of the War that humans effectively lost.
As it had once been, human society ceased to exist as the ancestors of Sweetgrass’ modest population had known it. They had been unprepared to properly fight the Alaians and had suffered massive, crushing losses when outright war had broken out. More than that, a couple of decades into the wars, an epidemic had swept through the human population. As burdened down as they were by the war, the plague had a far greater impact than it might have had the wars never started. Millions were lost. Governments, economies and countries alike had collapsed under the strain and weight of the war and then the plague. Then a second epidemic had fallen upon the heads of those who had survived the first. It had proven too much. As a result, the human race was sent, for the most part, back centuries. Kate remembered her Dad wondering out loud at one point if there were even any humans left in other parts of the world, like the Western Continents, or to the south. There was little way of knowing. The plagues had been bad there; the east too, where people had apparently lived in such close proximity that the sickness had spread too quickly to contain. They were a dwindling species.
It was the Alaians who were ultimately in control now, and the Shadow-wings were rogue. Yet, despite the lingering tensions, the Winged Wars had essentially ground to a halt, so far as true conflict went.
The humans were no longer a real threat, and the Alaians let them be for the most part, except when they didn’t.
Aeyes and humans had once been on the same side. In the intervening years between the beginning of the Wars and the descent of the plagues, the Shadow-wings had made their debut upon the world. With all their great technologies, humans were said to have engineered Aeyes, created them to be their defense against the Alaians; a force that could combat the Alaians on equal footing. But then the Aeyes had taken up the war against the Alaians on their own terms, and humankind had been left behind. Even the name that the wars were known by had shifted; it was no longer the Alaian Wars, but the Winged Wars.
Yet there was still a certain kinship that lingered between Aeyes and the remaining populations of humans. Aeyes were part human, after all, humans said to have blended their own genetic code into the Shadow-wings to link them together. They were distant kin, and though their engineered children had edged humankind out of the war, humans would still sometimes lend their aid to Aeyes should it be needed just as Aeyes would sometimes protect their almost-ancestors.
The Alaians knew this.
For as long as Kate could remember, Sweetgrass had been subject to periodic searches by Alaian raiding parties looking for any Aeyes that might be hiding out among their human ancestors. The Alaians always claimed to the village leaders that they were there in the interest of protecting them from Shadow-wings. They perpetrated their sweeps in the interest of maintaining “The Reprieve”, as they called it, something the ‘war-mongering’ Aeyes threatened. With the wars having ground to a virtual standstill even the human populations had to admit it was actually a period of reprieve. So the citizens of Sweetgrass went along with the sweeps. But then, they didn’t really have much choice in the matter. When they had crushed the remnants of the human military effort, the Alaians assumed a position of power over the humans, declaring themselves the Stewards humans should have been.
Needless to say, the humans were not impressed. But, they had been defeated, and their numbers were too few to stage their objection in any effectual way. So now they were stuck in a status akin to that of medieval peasants.
The Alaians were in charge now, and the humans were left to their own devices so long as they didn’t do anything to upset the delicate balance the Reprieve had fostered. There was growing trade between the surviving human settlements that were within any proximity of the others and, to a certain extent, even between humans and the Alaians.
It was a period of relative peace; one that many in Sweetgrass had come to think was worth submitting to the Alaians and accepting them as their defacto Overlords to preserve.
Kate didn’t believe that. Her Dad hadn’t. Her Mom, Donna, didn’t quite seem to bother with thinking about it. “It is what it is,” she would say when her husband, and later Kate as she got older, started up with their complaints about the Alaians. Donna was practical like that. She was a survivor, and believed that the best way to survive was to follow along with the status quo. “It isn’t really so bad,” she said to Kate once, “and there are so many more important things to worry about.” That Kate did have to agree with. Yes, even Kate and her Dad had to admit that the Alaian Overlordship had, in some ways, been a good thing; other than the Shadow-wing Rogues and the way they made trouble for the Alaians, it was a time of relative peace. The human populations that were left were beginning to thrive again; food was relatively plentiful, people were warm in the cold months and had jobs and some time that was their own. It wasn’t a bad world; it was just a confined one. Humans were considered, by the Alaians at least, to be a lower species, and not just because they couldn’t fly. That rubbed a great many humans the wrong way.
So much so, that it had likely also cost Kate’s Dad his life, leaving her Mom to support and raise Kate on her own. It was lucky, in a way, that Kate had been just barely old enough to have some measure of independence. It made getting by just that little bit easier. But it was also that independence that her mother was coming to disparage of, especially in the face of storms.
Kate knew as she stumbled into their little house, dripping wet and splattered all over with mud and clinging strands of grass, that she was in for it. Knowing her Mom was going to have a fit the instant she saw her, it was all Kate could do to silently edge her way across the living room to her bedroom. She was forcibly trying not to think on the Shadow-wing, instead forcing her thoughts to turn to something warm and dry to change into, and hoping that she might just be able to clean up and dry off before Donna saw her.
No such luck.
“Please at least remember to put the sodden stuff right in the wash hamper.” Kate couldn’t help but flinch at the distinct bite to her mom’s almost sweet reminder. Donna was a reserved, sturdy woman with the sweetest smile and the uncanny ability to know exactly what her daughter was up to. Kate often disparaged that, even with the distraction of her work, her mom’s keen intuition—or ears—never seemed to miss anything. With a heavy sigh, Kate gave up on her attempt to sneak into the house.
Ducking into the bathroom, she all but dove for the linen closet, anxious to grab a towel or two, and the old plaid blanket she liked cuddling into after her forays into the rain. She was drawn up short, though, when she realized what she was after was missing. She usually always went for the same few towels when she got herself drenched and messy during her bouts in the rain, generally because they were older and it kept Donna from giving her more of those looks that also followed those said bouts in the rain. The blanket was missing too. For a brief moment she considered asking her mom where they were, but almost immediately dismissed the thought; she would likely only get the lecture before getting warm and dry rather than after. Besides, they were probably still in her room somewhere. After all, there had been a particularly fine storm just last week.
Grabbing the first towels that came to hand, she was already nearly done wringing the water from her dark hair by the time she reached her room. Another moment saw her drenched clothes in the hamper—as instructed—and Kate shrugging into a dry set of clothes, pointedly ignoring the dull spike of pain shooting down her back. Leaning against the cabinet that served as her closet, she paused for a bit of a breather. As if on cue as a distraction, the Shadow-wing burst back into her thoughts.
Kate had seen plenty of Alaians in her life, though never up close as she had always been whisked away into the woods along with just about everyone from Sweetgrass who could manage to flee. But she had never seen an Aeye. They were rare now, their numbers severely depleted. Kate wasn’t even sure there was anyone left in her village who had ever seen one…besides her, of course. She couldn’t get the woman warrior from her mind. The smooth, graceful way she’d stood, each movement betraying the depth of control and strength at her command. The way the elegant little knife had appeared in her hand in a flash of movement so quick and so instinctual, Kate wouldn’t have been surprised if the woman hadn’t even thought to reach for the weapon. The tattoos she barely remembered seeing that had broken up her outline in the shadows of the grove, winding up her arms, shoulders and even along one side of her throat. Then there were her wings.
Before, Kate had never quite understood precisely what the difference was between Aeyes and Alaians. But now she could say with surety that she did. Even from the considerable distance she had watched Alaian Raiding parties in the past, she hadn’t been able to help noticing the rich glossiness of the Alaian’s feathered wings; on the last occasion, one had wings the hue the same warm shade as a walnut shell, another wings the colour of a birch tree, while another still had wings that matched almost precisely the plumage of a cardinal. That one she hadn’t been able to take her eyes from, the hue of his wings had been so vibrant. But the Aeye woman was different again, unmistakably so.
Once, when she had been little and her Dad had still been alive, a bat had gotten into their house. With a flash of cleverness, Rick had managed to catch the frightened little things in a pillowcase. Before letting it go, he had shown it to Kate. She had marveled then at how small it had been, barely filling the hollow of his palm, and how its tiny sides had heaved from fright and effort. But more that that, she had marveled at its little wings, at the delicate, elongated fingers joined by paper-thin membranes, the tiny little thumb tipped with a needle sharp claw almost too small for her to see.
It was that bat’s membranous wings that Kate thought of when she recalled the Aeye woman’s wings. The same spare elegance, though not quite the same delicacy. No, the Aeye’s wings were strong, sturdy, built to carry the woman far and wide, though they still retained a grace that complimented their strength. A peculiar sense of longing sparked in Kate’s belly at the thought. The idea of flight had always appealed to Kate on a level that she barely dared think on, purely out of the sense that such a fancy was beyond her reach, and more than that, the winged races were not to be envied; they were to be feared. Humans didn’t fly anymore. The machines that had allowed it were long gone.
But that didn’t stop her from wondering what it must be like; to soar and dip on the wind, to have the capability to chase such freedom…
Shaking her head at her own childish fancy, Kate forced her thoughts on the woman away. Simply knowing she was there was dangerous. That an Aeye was hiding so close to Sweetgrass was concerning, but Kate knew better than to dwell on it. She didn’t even think about telling anyone, her mother or otherwise, for anyone she told would simply tell her that she hadn’t seen anyone, their warning perfectly clear. As the ache in her back had finally eased ever so slightly, Kate sighed, straightening. There were other things to think on.
The pains were getting worse. She wasn’t sure how much more she was going to be able to take…but then, the ache was nothing. She had learned to live with it. She had been determinedly trying to keep just how bad it had gotten from Donna, but she was fairly certain her mom suspected she was hiding just how bad it was getting. She couldn’t even really remember when the pains had started in earnest. It was just a sore back at first, an ache that she just woke up with one morning that never really went away. Donna had given her a sympathetic look but more or less shrugged it off. Even as the ache endured, Kate’s mom never seemed to give it much thought, attributing it to Kate’s growth spurt, which had admittedly been substantial, though Kate could see the worry that seemed to grow constantly in her mom’s eyes.
Looking down to the almost overflowing hamper, she sighed again, this time with aggravation. After her roaming through the storm, she was exhausted, a slow, seeping fuzzy feeling descending over her as she began to warm up in her dry clothes, her bed beckoning invitingly. But Donna would never let her hear the end of it otherwise.
But she barely made it out of her room as she went to lug the hamper across the little house to the laundry.
As she stepped out into the hallway, a searing, ripping pain shot from her shoulders to her hips. The intensity caused her hiss through her teeth, loudly. As her legs folded beneath her, the white-hot wash of pain engulfed her senses to the point where she barely knew up from down. She didn’t notice as the hamper tumbled from her hands, the sodden clothes and towels flopping limply across the floor.
As the pain eased, she realized Donna had materialized at her side, her arms wrapping tenderly around Kate as though she were made of glass. And in a way, it felt like she was. Her skin was prickling again, though this time it felt as though needle-sharp shards were being ground into her flesh. The searing pain that had flashed across her back had ebbed back to the dull, smoldering ache she was used to. She fought back tears, unconsciously burrowing her face into her Mom’s warm embrace. She hated this, being reduced to a trembling wreck every time she made a wrong move or turned too quickly. Softly stroking her hair, Donna murmured soothing nonsense into her ear, though it didn’t have the effect it used to have. Kate was sick of this.
After a moment, Donna pulled back, grabbing the old plaid blanket from the hastily dropped pile at her side and wrapping it around Kate’s still trembling shoulders. Taking deep breaths, she slowly regained her composure, watching silently as her Mom righted the dropped hamper and cleared away the clothes that had tumbled out of it.
She was sorry to realize it, but Kate was getting used to these attacks, so the intensity was lasting for shorter periods of time, but the ache she lived with daily always seemed to be fractionally worse after every one before building again until it felt like there was a primed explosive lodged between her shoulder blades. Then all it took was a simple move to trigger another attack. With the tormenting episode fading to a dull throb, Kate hazarded getting to her feet.
Before Donna could even look up, Kate disappeared back into her room, nearly tumbling onto the bed as a wave of exhaustion rolled through her.