When Kate opened her eyes again, the sun was overhead, and the wind was whispering gently in her ear. With a start she was awake, bewildered nearly beyond reason that she was airborne again, unable to conceive at first just what was happening.
Then it all came crashing in on her.
She was a captive.
Despite the way the flight once again made her heart beat a little faster for delight, panic surged through her. She was so distressed that Kate barely even noticed that, as compared to yesterday, she didn’t feel nearly so dull as she had, even though the pewter cord was still secured about her wrists. They hadn’t even taken them off for her to sleep, she realized as she pulled against them. Not that they were wholly uncomfortable. The cord was barely thicker than her pinky finger with a single loop around each wrist and the loose ends coiled three times around the inch or so of length that stretched between her wrists. It was not tight enough to bruise or even mark her wrists, save when she’d struggled and pulled against it. There was no pain from wearing it. The only real discomfort came from the limited range of motion it allowed her and the resulting ache from being unable to move her hands more than a few inches apart.
No matter what it was that the cord was intended to do, she felt far more alert. And that meant that the feelings of fear and uncertainly that had been dulled yesterday had returned to her in nearly full force upon waking. She was scared. And she wasn’t too proud to admit it in that moment.
Everything she had known had been torn away from her in the space of a few heartbeats. What explanation do you have to offer for having a winged child in your keeping? She shook her head against the words, as though hoping the action could shake them from her memory. Her sheltered world had been shattered with that one pointed question. She had never been anything but another girl in Sweetgrass. She had attended their little school, earning average grades, had helped her mom in the fields with everyone else and in caring for the flock of geese they kept with their neighbours Wanda and Perkin Frost. She had a boyfriend in Logan who she adored and relied on, whom people were predicting that she would eventually marry; a conclusion that she hadn’t felt any real need or desire to dispel. She had been learning to fletch arrows from her Mom for years, a small trade that brought in a little extra than just their geese brought. It had been a simple little life, one that admittedly she’d chafed under from time to time, but one that she’d thought she could be content with. At least, that’s what she told herself.
Now she didn’t know what she was. She had no idea what was going to happen to her. She was hungry and absolutely parched, while her back ached fiercely both from the way she’d been laying first on the ground last night and awkwardly in the netting today and from the deeper, lingering pains that she was begrudgingly almost used to. More than that, a deep, jarring terror had settled itself in her chest, forcibly reminding her that her fate wasn’t the only uncertainty in her life.
It felt like her very heartbeat faltered when she considered, even inadvertently, what was going to happen to Logan and, more critically, to her Mom. Her boyfriend had fought with an Alaian. Her memory after the cord had been wound about her wrists was fuzzy, but she did remember that. He’d tried to get to her, and had struggled with an Alaian as she’d been pulled away. She didn’t know what had led to her Dad’s death at Alaian hands, but she was pretty sure he hadn’t attacked one. She couldn’t bear to think that his life was in danger because of her. She couldn’t even consider the possibility that he had been stolen from her as quickly as they had taken her away. It felt like her stomach was trying to rip itself up through her throat at the very idea that they could kill him for trying to protect her. No matter how hard she tried, once she started trembling she couldn’t stop, nor could she stop the hot, angry tears that threatened when she tried to keep herself together.
And her Mom? As far as the Alaian Captain knew, Donna had very likely had contact with the Aeye woman, a serious offence in the eyes of the Alaians. More than that, Donna had hidden her since she was an infant. Kate had no idea how serious a transgression taking in a winged baby was in the Alaian’s view—the Captain seemed to demonstrate that it was bad, though Kate couldn’t see how letting a baby die was any better—but Kate knew that helping and protecting an Aeye was just about the most treacherous thing a human could do from an Alaian perspective. In the cradle of netting where Kate lay, it took every ounce of willpower she had not to shake herself to pieces. She knew, deep down, even she fought to deny that she was likely right, her Mom was probably dead.
She was startled from the dark turn her thoughts were taking when the pitching began again. It a was quickly becoming a familiar sensation, and Kate instinctively began bracing herself for the two Alaians to land, hastily scrubbing her face before weaving her fingers through the net’s webbing. In a few moments it was over again, and she landed heavily on the ground, abrupt but fleeting spikes of pain shooting up through her hips and shoulder where they impacted on the hard ground. Immediately she began fighting with the net, trying to disentangle herself as on either side of her, the two Alaians dropped lightly to the ground, their wings flared for balance. The hickory-winged one stretched absently and shook out his wings before they settled, relaxed behind his shoulders. The other one, his wings only a shade or two darker than his older companion’s, almost chestnut hued, was already unlacing the harness that the netting was attached to.
“I see you’ve finally adjusted to the Aeye-Ties.” Kate jerked around, meeting the hazel eyes of the younger Alaian. With a thud that earned a disapproving look from his companion, he dropped the harness on the ground, crossing his arms over his chest as he surveyed Kate for a moment. She froze, every muscle in her body suddenly tensed as she stared back at him.
“What?” she blurted out. Immediately she was berating herself. As the ground had come up to meet her, Kate had firmly convinced herself she would keep her reactions to a minimum, keeping her fear and her uncertainty to herself. Every instinct she had told her that she should fight, but another part of her knew that she needed to keep her head and that she needed to think before she spoke. The younger Alaian chuckled.
He looked barely older than she was, his features still softer than the other Alaians she had so far encountered. Like the other Alaians, he was slender, almost delicately so, though Kate would’ve been hard pressed to forget the strength behind an Alaian’s willowy stature. She had bruises on her arms from the grip the scarlet-winged Captain had on her. They had to be powerful. After all, together two of them had carried her over an immense distance. Even though she was slight, that still had to be tough.
As they had descended, Kate had caught her first glimpse of mountains. She’d known they were flying somewhat southeast—the sun had made that clear the night before—but she knew it was many days travel for poor wingless humans, even with horses or boats over the rivers, to reach the mountains to the east. Yet there they were. The very sight of them would have made her speechless, had she been inclined to speak, and she had gawked in awe, unable to take her eyes from them.
Even now that they were on the ground she couldn’t help but glance to them, her entire body humming in a strange sort of anticipation at the sight of the white-peaked cliffs and pinnacles of stone. She had never seen the mountains before. Her Dad had said he’d take her along to the Autumn Market in Carrefour one year, a crossroad town within easy sight of the mountains; he had died before that had happened. They were currently landed among the gently rolling foothills, resting before heading onward to the blue-grey monoliths of stone that erupted out of the earth like wedges determined to split the heavens apart. There were white caps on a large number of peaks, which contrasted to the point where they glowed blue-white against the darkness of the rock they blanketed. Overhead, bands of cloud were growing over the pale pinnacles, casting the odd shadow that dimmed long swathes of the landscape.
The younger Alaian was looking at her with open curiosity. She was a puzzle to him, she realized.
The older Alaian walked up beside his younger companion, giving him a critical look before landing a light cuff on the side of his head, pointing to where his companion’s harness still lay on the ground.
“We’re not stopping for that long,” he said with light exasperation before turning to Kate, his arms crossing in an eerily similar manner, “he means the Suppression Chain.” Hesitating to take her eyes off the two of them, Kate glanced down at the cord around her wrists. He was right; on closer inspection, it was really a type of chain, the links so tiny and so intricately fastened together that it looked and felt like a cord made of woven fibres.
“He called it an ’Aeye-Tie,’” she asked after a moment, trying to keep the hesitating waver from her voice. When she looked up the older Alaian was holding out the stiff slim leather water-pouch to her. Despite the pouch reminding her that she was rather thirsty, she hesitated. A wry grin lighting on his face, the Alaian popped the closure open, taking a drink before handing to her. Though still wary, Kate took it, taking a quick drink to wet her throat before continuing, “does that mean I’m an Aeye?” The older Alaian chuckled softly, though there was little real humour in the sound. He sounded almost sorry.
“Not necessarily. We often call it an Aeye-Tie because we use it mostly on Aeyes, yes. But it isn’t just for them. It suppresses a winged person’s natural magic. That’s why you were so weak and disoriented when we first put it on you.”
“You must be pretty powerful for it to have taken so long for you to get your senses back,” the younger Alaian volunteered cheerfully from where he was carefully readjusting his harness, “you were pretty out of it for a long time.”
“What does that mean?” Though thankful that the waver in her voice was gone, she still hated how naïve she sounded, but she was too uncertain about what they were talking about.
“Declan,” The older Alaian shot his companion another stern look, his tone one of warning, but he paused for a moment when he resumed his consideration of Kate.
“It means that the Chains affect those with more power far more than those with less,” he hesitated for a moment, as though weighing whether or not to say more, “it also tends to affect Alaians more strongly than Aeyes.” Kate couldn’t help but pale.
“So I’m an Alaian?” He shrugged.
“It’s hard to know for sure. Some Aeyes have proven quite powerful too; a few have even proven themselves Elemental. We can’t know at this point until your wings are Released.” The way he said it sent a chill through Kate, and as if in response, her back chose that moment to twinge painfully. But before she could ask what he meant, the younger Alaian—Declan—sobered, his eyes turning north.
“Orwin, storm coming.” Both Kate and the hickory-winged Alaian, Orwin, turned to look themselves. Indeed, off to the north, thick bloated storm clouds were gathering, looking almost like mountains the way they peaked and grew into the sky. Already the air was growing thick with the scent of the approaching storm, the wind beginning to pick up. Kate was nervous, though; the familiar feeling she always got upon sensing an approaching storm was little more than a quaver in her stomach. Orwin swore softly.
“Guess it really is going to be a short break. There’s an old city a few miles on. We should be able shelter there before the storm hits,” he turned to his younger companion, a challenging smile on his face, “think you can manage, little brother?” A bark of laugher came from the younger Alaian, who was already adjusting the net where it attached to his harness.
“You’re the one who wanted to take a break, old man,” he called back jauntily. Kate hadn’t even had a chance to move from the netting during the short conversation and before she knew it, it was wrapped around her again like a cocoon. After another moment, she was being launched into the air again.
There was something exhilarating about trying to outpace a storm. Instead of the steady flight she had experienced so far, Kate was now subject to a constant pitching and jolting that came with her captors being flung about on updrafts and fighting against the growing headwinds that tried to keep them from their destination. Strong gusts of wind tugged them about as the two Alaians navigated through the turbulent air currents toward the abandoned City Orwin had spoken of.
Orwin had been right when he said it was close. As the sky around them began to darken, the winds picking up by yet another degree, Kate spotted it ahead; dark skeletons of old buildings jutting from the landscape like shadows, painted nearly black by the encroaching gloom.
The first drops of rain were beginning to fall as they reached the City, and it had swelled to a downpour by the time they had landed. It was a welcome relief as they took cover within one of the towering structures, the gaping wound partway up in its metal and stone side almost cliff-like, creating an artificial cave for them to shelter in.
Again, Kate was struggling to untangle herself from the netting almost the instant she hit the ground. Only this time it proved too much. Her twisting and fighting against the sturdy webbing triggered the ache in her back to explode beneath her skin, the searing, ripping pain burning through her body in the strongest attack yet. And though she tried to keep her sudden cry of pain clenched behind her teeth, she wasn’t able to keep it there, a hoarse, strangled scream managing to escape her throat. Distantly, she could hear the Alaian brothers exchanging words, a few heated, before there were hands on her, pulling the rest of the webbing away and turning her over, baring her back to them. Kate could hardly have cared. It seemed never ending, worse for the limited movement she’d had over the last few days and the sheer stress she’d been fighting against. This time was severe to the point where her whole body was so tense and so tightly wound that she could hardly breathe, her ribs all but unable to expand.
But then it began to ease. As she slowly came back to herself, Kate became intimately aware that long, practiced fingers were pressing and massaging down her spine and around her shoulder blades. As she weakly gulped in air, she could feel the muscles of her back relaxing, something that hadn’t happened in months.
“There now, that’s better, no?” Blinking away the wash of pain that lingered over her eyes, Kate looked up into Declan’s sympathetic face, quite aware that his hand was resting gently on her shoulder. It was all she could do to nod weakly.
From there, exhaustion took her.
As she curled in on herself, Declan was already pulling the travel blanket from his pack, ready to drape it over her.
“You like her,” came his brother’s soft voice from the girl’s other side. Orwin was still massaging along her spine, grimly pleased at the way she was responding. Declan pointedly ignored the question.
“She’s got to be close, don’t you think?” he asked instead of answering, “she wouldn’t be hurting this much if she wasn’t.” Orwin only gave him a pointed look at first before sighing, his dark eyes dropping back down to his work.
“It’s hard to say,” he said quietly, “She was raised by humans. She’s responding well to what I’m doing. I suspect that she isn’t quite as close to her Releasing as she seems. She just hasn’t had the same physical and mental preparation that we had, that any of our young ones have.” Declan nodded soberly, watching Kate relax further under his brother’s hands. He remembered their Mother kneading and massaging his own aching back before his Releasing, so he remembered the relief that came with it. With a faint sigh, Orwin leaned back, fixing his gaze on his little brother.
“And you like her,” Declan avoided Orwin’s knowing look. Orwin sighed again, standing. “Best stop that now,” he continued softly, firmly. Declan looked up at him, a stubborn light flickering in his eyes.
“Who says I like her?” Orwin nearly laughed.
“Your face.” A faint flush came to Declan’s cheeks, but he refused to respond further, instead tucking the blanket around the girl’s shoulders. Orwin frowned. “We don’t know what she is, Declan. If she’s an Aeye—”
“I know what’ll happen to her if she isn’t one of us,” Declan said bitterly back. Orwin knew he did, but that didn’t stop him from worrying.