If the Alaian Captain had hoped getting Donna to admit Kate wasn’t hers would get her to open up, he was sorely mistaken. But Kate couldn’t care in that moment. Everything was different. Everything was changed.
You sheltered this girl, raising her as a human when she very obviously is not.
It was burned into her mind, searing her thoughts as she tried to turn the words over, to make sense of them.
I found her as a baby.
Her whole life had been a lie. Everything. Her face felt hot, but the rest of her was suddenly so cold. She couldn’t help it when she began shivering, not noticing in the slightest that she was trembling like a leaf. In her haze of disbelief she saw nothing, heard nothing. She was lost within her own head, tumbling amid the memories of her happy childhood and what she always thought she knew. Now, it seemed, she’d known nothing.
Her Mom wasn’t her mom. Her Dad hadn’t been her dad. She was something other. She was the something other that everyone she had ever known feared and strove to hide from every time their silhouettes appeared in the sky. The invisible weight that had been crushing in on her chest intensified as her new reality sank in on her, causing her very breath to falter. Bile rose in her throat, choking her as a whispered realization in the back of her mind hissed that she was one of them. The enmity, subtle and implicit, that had lingered between the Alaians and Aeyes and the humans had been passed onto her as it was every other human child. She was what she had been conditioned to fear and borderline revile since before she could remember.
What would happen to her now?
Blinking against the bitter tears she hadn’t even realized had begun to gather in her eyes, she found her gaze drawn to the little group of Sweetgrass residents. Every one she looked to didn’t dare to meet her gaze, their eyes sliding away either in shame, trepidation or fear. More than that, out of the corner of her eye, she could see their eyes sliding back to her, that same fear and aversion that made them look away strong enough that she felt it on her skin like a film. Misery and grief welled in her belly as people she’d known her whole life—people like Alderman Traver, her neighbour Lucy Warner, Lorenz Harlow the town farrier, Norman Reyes the carpenter’s apprentice, Jacqueline whom she’d always thought of as a friend—refused to so much as look at her, her tears finally breaking free as the most gut-wrenching feeling of humiliation suddenly threatened to drown her. But then she saw Logan looking at her. The ache in her gut began to ease.
He wasn’t shying away from her gaze. She saw nothing in his eyes but sympathy and concern. There was shock there too, that was still written on his features, his lips still parted in disbelief, but in that moment he didn’t fear her, he feared for her. That made all the difference. It warmed her out of the cold, numbing haze that had descended over her the instant her Mom had confirmed that she was one of Them. Gulping back the sudden onset of tears, Kate was once again wholly aware of the battle of wills taking place over her head. The Captain was quickly loosing patience and, with a sudden jolt of terror, Kate realized her Mom was in very real danger. Because no matter the devastating implications of what she had just forcibly learned, Donna was still the only Mom she’d known, and Kate knew without the shadow of a doubt that to Donna she was a daughter, no matter that there was no blood relation. There was no other explanation for the way Donna was still trying to protect her.
“Did the Aeye come here because of the girl,” the Captain was pressing, “is she the one who hid the girl among you?” Her resolve bolstered, Donna was again refusing to answer, something that a whispering feeling deep down inside Kate was starting to think was unwise.
“Did the Aeye hide the girl here,” he snapped with impatience, giving Kate a little shake as if to emphasize his question. Kate gasped in surprise as the blade of the little dagger he still held to her collarbone pricked her as he did. Donna’s eyes were immediately on the tiny cut, fixed on the drop of blood that welled and fell, trickling slowly across Kate’s skin.
“The Aeye didn’t know about her,” Donna said with a start.
“Then where did you get the girl?”
“I told you; she was abandoned; I found her as a baby. I didn’t know she was anything but a baby girl. Rick and I had left the village we were from, and found her on the way here. It was a hard winter. We assumed she was alone, so we took her in. We couldn’t leave her to die!”
“So you have no idea what she is? You had no idea she was anything but human?” It was the kind-sounding female Alaian who asked. Donna mutely shook her head in agreement. The scarlet-winged Captain scoffed.
“Thus your overwhelming shock and surprise at finding out that the girl is not human,” he bit out sarcastically, causing Donna to flinch. “If you had no idea she was anything but human, why do you not seem surprised when we point out that she is not? Everyone else in this backwoods was; even the girl was surprised!” At this, Donna was silent. The Captain’s wings flared, snapping through the air, physically exhibiting his ire. Kate could only watch with frightened fascination; there was something in her Mom’s eyes. She was thinking, fast. Kate realized in that moment that she had known. Her Mom had known all along. A flood of warmth went through her then, the realization soothing the ragged hurt that had settled in her chest, only for the feeling to be chased from her when the Alaian Captain dropped her arm again, pressing on her shoulder in such a way that she was suddenly on her knees again. He leveled the dagger at Donna, his eyes flashing.
“Now would be a good time to start being honest with us, woman. At best, you found an abandoned Aeye or, sky preserve us, a half-blood child…at worst, you have harboured a kidnapped Alaian babe.” Donna paled at the malice in his voice, and Kate couldn’t help but shrink from it.
“Her birthmark…” Donna said quickly, her voice wavering, “she’s been having pains in her back and the birthmark on her back’s been changing… part of me began to wonder, and you confirmed it.” The Captain, though he didn’t lower his blade, paused, turning thoughtful.
“She’s getting close then,” he said quietly. Kate turned, looking up at him with apprehension. The subdued way he said it made her anxious in a wholly different way.
“Close to what?” Alarm coursed through her, but the Captain was oblivious to it. Rather than answering her, he turned and nodded, gesturing for something to be brought to him.
It was then that yet another Alaian came forward at the Captain’s gesture—this was by far the largest raiding party that Kate had ever seen—and at a second, more impatient gesture, was at Kate’s side, slipping a looped length of what appeared to be a pewter-like cord around her wrists.
Kate didn’t even have time to marvel at the lustrous sheen of the cord or shrink away from the fact that the Captain meant for her wrists to be bound.
As soon as each loop encircled her wrists, even before they were tightened, it was as though a wet blanket had been thrown over her. The already damp, heavy air grew heavier still, a cool, moist chill seeping over her skin as she suddenly felt like her ears, her mouth, her nose, even her thoughts had been stuffed with cotton. Even the colour seemed leached from the world as she blinked heavily, struggling against the sodden fuzzy feeling muddling everything. Even the riot of conflicting emotions that had been flooding through her only moments before seemed lessened, like someone had thrown a veil over them, deadening the sharp edge of her fear and muting the intensity of her distress.
She felt dulled.
As though witnessing it from a great distance, she could hear Logan’s panicked, angry voice and for a split second, felt his hands on her wrists, grasping at the cord before a hard tugging sensation told her that they had yanked him back, no matter that he had fought to hang onto her. Distantly, she saw him calling out to her, his midnight blue eyes wide in his suddenly pale face before hands closed around her arms, pulling her back and away. Part of her tried to call out, to speak to him, to tell him she loved him too, but even though she could feel her mouth open to cry out, her tongue didn’t want to work.
Then he was out of her line of sight, and her coordination was so thrown off by the sudden muffling of her senses that she could barely stay conscious for vertigo, much less try to twist around or fight back.
Vaguely, she was able to track where they were taking her, recognizing buildings through the fog clouding her eyes as they pulled her to the edge of the village, dropping her down once they reached open ground. Kate was so dizzy that it took little more than a nudge from one of the Alaian’s watching her to send her sprawling into the dirt when she tried to pick herself up, anxious to try and get away from whatever they were doing. As she struggled to pull herself back up, her arms and legs barely obeying her commands, she caught sight of one of the Alaians, the hickory-winged one, pulling something from a pack that he had been wearing strapped securely between his wings. Each Alaian that she’d seen so far had a sword hilt or two peaking over their shoulder, secured between their wings, while the odd one also sported a light bow and set of arrows. They all had knives and daggers on their forearms or at their waists. As soon as she spotted him reaching back between his wings, Kate thoughts immediately flew to the sword she knew hung there.
Even through the muffling haze of whatever they had done to her, a jolt of fear went through her. They were going to kill her; she just knew it. They didn’t know what she was, and had decided that they couldn’t afford to find out and decided to kill her. Panic flooded through her despite the numbing effects of the cord or the spell or whatever it was. In her disoriented state of panic, the instant one of the Alaians made to pull her back to her feel she thrashed out, a strangled shriek torn from her throat.
It didn’t seem to bother the Alaian holding her though. He just gave her a little shake, making her dizzier yet, before pulling her toward the hickory-winged Alaian and his companion. Another pointed nudge saw her tumbling back to the ground again, only this time, instead of landing in the dirt, it was the thick, woven webbing of some sort of net that she landed on. It was a development that she couldn’t wrap her head around. They intended to kill her, didn’t they?
“Hold tight, little one,” one of the Alaians laughed, his amusement cutting through the haze of her thoughts. It only served to bewilder her more.
Until, of course, she realized as the net jerked and strained around her, that the ground had begun falling away, and she was being pitched and lurched about as the Alaian on either side of her, the netting attached to a cleverly fashioned harness wrapped around their torsos, were fighting for altitude. Each Alaian’s powerful wing-strokes buffeted the netting, straining to counteract her weight with their combined effort to get into the air. Part of Kate desperately wanted to scream, though the wind rushing by made it hard for her to breathe, much less produce any sort of sound.
But another part of her felt nothing but an intoxicating euphoria, her heart seeming to swell in her chest until she was sure it was about to burst with a feeling of such elation that a bewildered laugh bubbled up through her body. Her fingers winding through the netting—whether out of a fear of falling or as a means to steady her trembling hands she wasn’t sure—she pressed her face closer, the webbing that made up the net digging into her cheek as she looked out at the view below her. Distantly, she knew that the only home she’d ever known was slipping away behind her, each beat of her captor’s wings pulling them farther and farther away from everything she knew. It seemed to matter very little in that moment. Every fibre of her being was caught up in the way the wind seemed to caress her skin, winding through her dark hair as on either side of her her Alaian escorts leveled off, one falling in behind the other, their wings flared to catch the air and hold them aloft. Even the ache in her back seemed to fade away, evaporating in the midst of her wonder.
She never could have dreamed it would feel like this to fly.
It felt right.
Hours passed like that, with Kate awestruck through the haze that still coated her senses, the two Alaians carrying her eating up miles that she was too overwhelmed to measure with slow, steady wing-beats. Off in the distance behind them, the sun eventually began to set, and as the summer-blue of the sky began to melt into the fiery colours of dusk, Kate was stirred from the sleepy languor that the Alaian’s rhythmic wing stokes and gentle sway of the netting had soothed her into as she was once again pitched to and fro.
And then, with jarring suddenness, she was still, her limbs grinding into the hard ground while poking stalks of grass stuck themselves through the webbing to scratch against her skin and catch at her clothes.
The gentle caress of the wind gone, Kate was once again painfully aware of the dulled feeling that had entrapped her the same time the pewter cords had encircled her wrists. As hands once again closed about her arms and she was hauled to her feet, the dizziness was back, though this time with far less potency than before.
No matter that her faculties coming slowly back to her, she was all but powerless as the Alaians guided her around, pressing virtually tasteless—that particular sense was still dulled—rations into her hands and ordering her to eat—which she did after a bit of prodding—giving her water-pouch to drink from—which she did without prodding—showing her a place where she could relieve herself and finally guiding her to a place where a makeshift bed of sorts had been prepared, little more than a small blanket in a grassy hollow.
At that point Kate didn’t care. The magnitude of the events that she had been dragged through had caught up with her, and she burrowed beneath the blanket, which was surprisingly warm despite its thinness. She barely registered the way the cool ground pressed firmly into her hip and shoulder, just as she barely noticed the way the familiar ache her back had returned with a vengeance. She was far too exhausted. A little part of her mind knew that it was a small sort of reprieve, and that everything from that day was going to crash in on her when she woke, but utterly drained as she was she didn’t give it a second thought, and she slept.