Kate watched in shock as an Alaian, wings the colour of sand, dragged Logan back, sending him sprawling into the wilted grass. Barely a few feet from them, Milo let out a startled whinny, darting away from the willow in his alarm. Kate would’ve cried out, only she still couldn’t quite seem to get enough air into her lungs to get any words out. Stumbling without Logan’s support, fiery spikes of pain still shooting across her back, she tried to get to him. Only an iron grip closed around on her upper arm, dragging her back and pulling her from over her feet nearly back onto the ground.
Holding onto her arm was an Alaian man, looking down at Kate with a face like thunder. He had the most vibrant set of scarlet wings that Kate knew in an instant she’d seen before, even through the haze of pain. With a scowl crossing his sharp-featured face, the Alaian began tugging Kate toward town, giving her arm a little yank every time she tried to twist around to catch a glimpse of Logan. The sand-winged Alaian had another grip on the back of Logan’s shirt, marching him along not far behind Kate and the Alaian who held her.
As they approached the square of their little village, Kate caught sight of a couple of other Alaians herding more people from Sweetgrass, even spying her mom’s pale face from among the small crowd; the ones who hadn’t been able to flee into the fields or the cover of the trees quickly enough. But Kate barely noticed. She was too caught up trying to catch her breath. Their pace a little quicker, the sand-winged Alaian pushed Logan past Kate and her own captor then, all but tossing him toward the straggling group that was slowly filing into the square.
At first Kate was sure that she was going to end up in the same place, but before the Alaian holding her got close enough, he stopped abruptly and dropped her unceremoniously in front of him. Having nearly been dragged all the way from the fields, her back still prickling in the aftermath of her latest attack, the instant he wasn’t supporting her, her legs crumpled beneath her, causing Kate to land hard on her knees.
Two of the other Alaians fell in beside the scarlet-winged male, the way they remained a half step behind him showing that he was, in Kate’s mind at least, their leader. One of them drew up short, his brow creasing with troubled astonishment when he caught sight of Kate sitting awkwardly on the ground where she had fallen, exchanging a uneasy glance with his companion and a few disbelieving muttered words before their leader silenced him with a sharp look. As Kate turned to look back at the Alaians standing over her, just as bewildered with their attention as they seemed to be by her presence, another still approached, tossing a familiar looking bundle of fabric to the scarlet-winged leader. He easily snatched it out of the air, his wings shifting sharply with agitation.
“There was an Aeye hiding in your woods. This was found in her camp,” he held up the bundle, a faded old thing with ominous crimson coloured spots, aloft for all to see, “someone here has been helping her.” With a jerk of his wrist he tossed the old plaid blanket into the dust of the village square. Kate could feel her face pale at the implication. She knew that blanket. Her mother had wrapped it around her after her last attack, but it had been gone when she woke later that day, her own blankets replacing it. If the Aeye woman had it…she must have made some sort of noise, as the Alaian leader’s dark eyes dropped to her then, one eyebrow quirking.
“Did you know her little one,” he said softly, almost kindly before his voice grew harsh again. Kate’s shock at the blanket’s appearance turned quickly to terror, but as he continued, that fear was instantly overwhelmed by confusion, “was she the one who hid you here?” Before she could react further, he turned back to the huddled group of humans before him.
“Who has been sheltering this girl?” His question was met with silence. A few people shifted uneasily, the odd glance unconsciously sliding toward, but then jerking away from Donna. In a settlement as small as Sweetgrass, of course everyone knew Kate was Donna’s daughter. Kate could only watch with horror, desperately wishing none of the Alaians would pick up on it. Nothing good came of the Alaians picking humans out of a crowd. It’s what had happened to her Dad.
“Captain,” Kate could only squeeze her eyes shut in fear as one of the other Alaians, a one with wings the colour of hickory wood this time, called out to the one looming over Kate as he wove through the clustered humans, his shadow falling over her Mom. The scarlet-winged male, now evidently their Captain, nodded sharply, gesturing for his companion to bring Donna forward. As Donna was led through the group toward Kate and her captor, a frustrated sigh escaped the Captain, drawing Kate’s gaze around to him when he muttered, “what is it about this settlement; every time, there’s something, someone.” The feeling of recognition surfaced in Kate again, and as her eyes darted back to her Mom, who was just then being pulled to a halt. When she saw the flash of hatred she caught in Donna’s eyes she realized why.
“It was you?” disbelieving, Kate murmured at first, her voice rising as understanding crushed painfully in on her, “you’re the one who killed my Dad?” For a split second his eyes narrowed as his gaze took in first Kate then Donna then Kate again before a similar flash of memory surfaced in the Alaian’s eyes. She could tell he remembered her Dad; Rick was the only one in Sweetgrass to have actually been killed on an Alaian’s order in a long time. The Captain nearly laughed, a pitying condescension twisting him mouth.
“There is no way that human was your father,” he answered quietly, a touch of disdain colouring his mention of her Dad. Kate couldn’t withhold her reaction. Clenching her jaw in a sudden burst of fury, she staggered to her feet, not even hearing her Mom’s fearful exclamation, forcibly ignoring the weight of panicked bewilderment suddenly pressing against her chest at what else he’d said. She almost reached him too, but his arm flashed out again, closing around her arm and jerking her around to face her Mom. Though an expression of annoyance washed over his face, Kate didn’t miss the amused way his eyebrow quirked.
“Spirited,” he commented lightly, “I imagine your husband would have been quite proud. He wasn’t one to show an appropriate amount of respect for us either.” A flicker of surprise crossed Donna’s face; she hadn’t expected him to remember her. She had been there when the Alaians had killed her husband; Kate had been with Logan that day, and they had made it to the woods while Donna and Rick had been herded, like today, into the village square. Kate still didn’t know exactly why her Dad had been singled out; no one, especially not Donna, liked to talk about it. But Donna knew, as Kate suddenly recognized, that the scarlet-winged Captain was goading her. So the older woman wisely managed to keep herself from reacting, leveling her eyes at Kate’s feet. Kate heard, rather than saw, the Captain’s wings rustle with impatience. She could practically feel him frowning behind her. After a moment he shrugged.
“Well, he certainly wasn’t her father,” he continued with thinly veiled amusement. Donna kept her mouth firmly shut, resolvedly not meeting the gaze of the scarlet-winged Alaian captain. Kate didn’t know how to react, simply couldn’t react. She jerked her head around, unable to help but confront him, though it took a surprising amount of effort not to shrink back upon meeting his oak-brown gaze. The way he looked down at her was darkly calculating, though there was certainly curiosity there.
“What?” She was barely able to say the word. He said nothing, his eyes still boring inescapably into hers. “What do you mean?!” The moment dragged on, the weight slowly descending on Kate’s chest pressing harder and more urgently with each agonizing heartbeat as he watched her reaction. Finally, his head tilted by a fraction, the only indication that he had come to some sort of conclusion. But then his eyes narrowed, a genuinely wondering frown causing his brow to furrow.
“You really don’t know, do you,” he said softly, barely loud enough for her to hear.
“Know what?” She was afraid of the answer. She knew from the pressure against her ribcage, the roiling of her stomach and a shadow suddenly looming in the back of her mind that the answer would shatter her old life, throwing her into a new, far more dangerous one. He looked away from her, back over the few corralled people Sweetgrass before landing on Donna again. Kate’s heart was fluttering frantically as he refused to answer her, her voice rising as it became evident that he had no intention of answering her, becoming shrill. She turned again, fighting back the frustrated, frantic tears that were suddenly threatening behind her eyes, to look to her Mom. “What don’t I know?” Donna’s lips thinned, pressed together tightly enough that the words she was trying to hold in couldn’t escape.
The Captain ignored her pleas, instead speaking directly to Donna.
“You are in a precarious position,” he said levelly, almost conversationally, belying the undercurrent of anger in his eyes, “what have you to say? You sheltered this girl, raising her as a human when she very obviously is not. What explanation do you have to offer for having a winged child in your keeping?” Again Donna refused to answer, standing still as a statue, once again staring at Kate’s shoes. Kate was trembling now, feeling lightheaded even as what felt like a mountain of stone dropped pebble by pebble into her belly. Donna’s eyes flickered up for a second, landing mournfully on Kate’s face for barely more than a heartbeat. It was a look that said far more than Kate was capable of accepting between one heartbeat and the next. She didn’t want to believe it. She couldn’t.
She wasn’t human.
She was one of the winged ones.
A maelstrom of emotions began whirling in Kate’s chest, and she pleaded, one last time, for an answer with a voice barely more than a tremulous whisper, “I don’t—I can’t—it’s impossible…” but she knew it wasn’t, “Mom? Please say he’s lying…” somehow she knew he wasn’t. Not five feet away, Donna shuddered, struggling to maintain her silence. The frown on the scarlet-winged Captain’s face deepened and his grip on Kate’s arm tightened.
“You would do well to say something, human. Your life and her’s hangs in the balance.” To punctuate his point, the Captain drew a slim bladed dagger, resting it lightly on Kate’s collarbone. Though it was barely touching her, the instant the cool steel met her skin Kate couldn’t help but shiver. The Captain didn’t seem to notice, his eyes fixed on Donna. Kate could only watch wide-eyed as her mom struggled with the demand. Obviously she wasn’t the only one to notice Donna’s wavering conviction.
“Is she yours?” asked a second Alaian, a female, her voice not unkind, “is she yours by an Aeye father? Or is she a foundling?” Kate couldn’t believe the look that flickered across Donna’s—her Mom’s—face. The Alaian woman had hit upon the truth. The Captain hummed with satisfaction. Donna sighed with defeat, looking utterly crushed.
“I found her as a baby,” her voice was little more than a whisper, “I didn’t know she was anything but a cold, lost and abandoned little baby. She was so tiny…” she trailed off, her eyes squeezing shut, though that didn’t stop the tears that trailed slowly down her cheeks. Kate felt numb, utterly hollowed out, as though the weight pressing on her chest and dragging her stomach down to her shoes had scraped every feeling, every emotion out of her. The Captain’s grip tightened again, painfully this time, drawing a startled squeak from his captive. Donna’s eyes flicked up to Kate, a flicker of something in her eyes that froze Kate on the spot. She was hiding something. She had been telling the truth, Kate could still see that in her face, but there was more that she hadn’t said. A sound akin to a growl rose from the Captain’s chest.
“That begs the next question,” he said quietly, stiffly, as though restraining either anger or annoyance, “is she a foundling…or a fosterling.”