‘I journeyed across the Land, proclaiming our liberation, teaching the women to speak. But there was war. War and bloodshed. Many preferred the slavery of the wolf to the freedom of which I spoke.’
-- Fairbird, “Dragonwitch,” p. 390
The River sank through the Southlands, past baking fields of gold wheat and succulent patches of green jungle. Trembling clouds of flies batted above its swirls and eddies. Its voice, muffled by the Near World, burbled and complained as it inched lazily past a collection of sunbaked huts, barely enough to constitute a village by any but the Land’s standards.
A child stumbled along its banks, her soft legs almost too newly-formed to hold her weight. Like the arid landscape around her, she was a creature of soft browns and charcoal blacks, but the sun had not yet licked the softness and sweetness from her, like it had from the cracked earth.
Her rolling steps carried her down to the edge of the water, where the rippled brownness drew before her. With her brows drawn together warily, she lowered a foot into the warm water, letting her toes settle in the muck.
The child hesitated, her eyes drawn back to the huts on the horizon. Then, deciding, she swayed forward a step, so the water closed around her calves. Another step would carry her out among the rushes, past the shore’s reach.
Before she could plunge forward, a hand as brown as hers closed around her small forearm. The girl squawked silently, pantomiming one of the brightly-plumaged birds that serenade the jungle, as she was unceremoniously yanked from the river and dropped, shamed, upon the bank.
Fairbird! her rescuer, a maiden, exclaimed, as though she were not trembling with fear. Although no word passed her lips, her shaking hands carved the words from the air, plucked meaning from nothingness.
They were clearly sisters. No one but blood kin could share their features so closely, like they passed them back and forth between them. And never had someone looked so tenderly on one with whom they shared no bond.
The younger girl formed a trace of words with her unfamiliar hands, but the maiden picked her up firmly, setting her steps to return to the village. The maiden’s hand snaked free from the embrace to sign, calmly but adamantly, that Fairbird was not to wander off on her own again. Despite her harsh words, love filled every fear-drawn furrow on her lovely face. She smiled at the girl, like they shared a secret, as their steps led back to the village.
Now, years later, Fairbird wondered about that smile. If love was all to be seen in Starflower’s face, love for a babe that would bring about her fall. Fairbird had been but a child then; she had not looked past the smile and kind words.
Had there been anger, too—that a promising life should be clipped short to save one too young to appreciate it? Or fear—fear of what saving that life entailed? Surely something must have marred that love. Surely… there must have been bitterness.
Summer had worn away to thin winter again and again since Fairbird had seen that face, since the fair maiden had plucked her to safety from the river. She no longer even pretended to remember anything beyond Starflower’s smile. Or if love had been all she’d felt.
She did not know. And she was glad she did not remember.
Her eyes landed on the blot against the horizon, dark against the twining layers of gold and scarlet and deep orange. Bald Mountain shimmered in the heat rising up from the earth, standing sentinel above the civilization spread out below. With a practiced eye, she scanned the distance and shivered. It was just over a day away.
Almost without noticing, she reached the end of her oration, the final words slipping through her lips. With difficulty, she pulled herself out of her reverie, into the moment. She stood before a crowd of villagers, every gaze trained intently on her face, each head cocked to better hear her words.
“Choose again, people of Mountain Village,” she commanded. Her carefully schooled voice shook the air like thunder. “I do not grant this second chance lightly. Choose between the silence of slavery, or the fire of freedom that will burn you clean.”
Why had she said that? She’d never phrased it that way before.
Among the raised, browned faces, there was one pale as death. The amused, dancing fire in Dark Father’s eyes consumed her.
“I am Fairbird,” she managed to say, as sweat burst out on her brow. “First prophet of the Silent Lady. And I have returned.”
The villagers knew who she was. She could see it in their gazes, in the rounded mouths, as they beheld the Silent Lady’s sister. But her words dropped like stones into the pool of their silence, dissipating without a ripple. Their silence was their answer. Just like it had been with the Beast.
They disgusted her, this scattering of humanity who refused to grow beyond what they had once been. She clung to her disgust, for it spared her from her fear. An orator put herself in danger with each unsuccessful speech. Dark Father had taught her that.
She hated them more than she hated the Beast.
Then firm applause sounded behind Fairbird, and it took all her control not to leap from the steps to fly like her namesake. She blinked, and the pale, wavering face was gone.
“Excellently done!” a woman cried from behind her, and Fairbird turned.
The woman stood in the doorway of the Eldest’s House. She was, Fairbird saw, as pale as the ironically-named Dark Father, as though the fire burning in her eyes had leeched all color from her skin. She had curling coils of hair of an uncertain color—it might’ve been grey, although she was not old, or perhaps black.
“Who are you?” Fairbird asked. A curious sense of dread crept upon her.
The woman’s lips burned when she said, “I am Hri Sora.”
Fairbird smiled. Here was the woman she’d come to meet.
Hri Sora left her alone to wash up before eating, to Fairbird’s relief, and she dismissed her two attendants, First-to-Dance and New Light, as quickly as possible. She felt frazzled, singed. Even running her hands through the cool water didn’t help.
“You did well,” Dark Father whispered. Fairbird’s gaze dropped to the basin of water, and she smiled at the pale oval of a face rippling across the surface.
For years now, that pale, dark-eyed face had taught her the art of oration. He’d led her at every step, since the first time she’d met him in the reflection of her washing basin. While she’d reeled from shock, glancing anxiously over her shoulder to confirm that, no, he did not stand behind her, he’d said, “To business. Does the name Farthestshore mean anything to you?”
That had only been the beginning. He slipped through her dreams, the edge of her hearing, and the twilight realm of doubled reflections. Sometimes he even appeared in life, watching her in the crowd with his curl of a smile. Starflower had given her a voice, but Dark Father taught her to use it.
“Thank you, Dark Father,” she said, but she couldn’t sustain her smile. “No one clapped. I thought they were going to stone me again.”
“Remember, they’ve heard one of my protégées speak before. They’re hard to impress.”
“This Hri Sora,” Fairbird said, unable to keep a note of petulance from her voice. “She’s talented, then?”
She could feel his laugh vibrating the earthen vessel, gripped between her hands. She bit her tongue and waited for him to finish.
“Very,” he said, at length. “Hri Sora is the most noteworthy of my children. She is the eldest.”
Good, Fairbird thought spitefully. Maybe her hair truly was grey. She pictured her a withered, disappointed hag, although her skin was unlined.
“You’ll be as powerful as Hri Sora someday, Fairbird,” he said, amused at the envy in her face.
“But what does it cost?”
A smile. “One kiss,” said the Dragon.
“I’ll pay it,” Fairbird said. “When I see my prize in my hand.”
They had dinner together, Fairbird and Hri Sora, on the steps of the Eldest’s House, now that the Land had splintered into thousands of kingdoms and every village had an Eldest, and each Eldest a House. Fairbird did not dare ask what had happened to the Eldest of Mountain Village. The fervor in Hri Sora’s discouraged that.
Young, graceful slaves—Fairbird couldn’t identify their origin-- glided from the kitchen, with its swept hearth and hanging bundles of herbs, flavoring the air with their subtle scent. They set plates of figs and sliced mangos, roast fowl seasoned with herbs and flat bread before her. Her mission was not so easy or profitable that the meal didn’t delight her, and she lay into it eagerly.
“Your hospitality is greatly appreciated,” she told Hri Sora. Has Dark Father told her about me yet?
She raised her eyebrows almost imperceptibly, and Hri Sora nodded slowly. Good. They understood each other, then.
“Do not mention it,” Hri Sora said, her words thick with double meaning. “Although I am curious. Why did you come to Mountain Village?”
Fairbird checked her often-flaring temper before she responded. She was a prophetess now, of some repute. She was not accustomed to the… lack of respect in Hri Sora’s tone.
“I am making a pilgrimage to Bald Mountain,” she said instead. “I have never seen it in my lifetime, and if I am to understand the words of the Silent Lady, I must go to the place where it happened.” Unwillingly, she shivered, and Hri Sora’s eyebrow rose.
“I also plan on journeying to the mountain,” the woman said. “I would accompany you, if you allow it. But first—“ she leaned forward—“please tell me about your sister.”
“Starflower?” Buying time, Fairbird raised a delicate cup of fruit juice to her lips and admired the view from the steps. Mountain Village had changed greatly in the years since she had seen it; war had seen it twice burnt down and rebuilt again. That same war had stripped familiar faces from the hardworking bustle, although Fairbird was hard-pressed to muster any real sorrow for their loss. She had seen too many fall across the years.
“The Silent Lady,” her companion prompted. A breeze stole across the broad steps and through her hair.
“Of course.” Fairbird marshaled her thoughts, searching for her practiced response. “When she defeated the Beast, the Silent Lady freed the Land and founded the movement for women’s voices. Then she ascended from the Land to a better place, from where she watches over us. For almost ten years, I’ve acted as her voice on earth. I travel across the Land spreading her word.”
“Lovely,” Hri Sora said with narrowed eyes. “And you’ve enjoyed no little success. How many wars can be attributed to your teachings?”
Fairbird stiffened, but Hri Sora did not sound accusatory, merely interested.
“Many,” she said, though the word burned her. “Many more than I imagined when I began.” She had been a novice orator then, with no idea how to hold a crowd’s attention. It had been no small wonder that Redclay Village had driven her away.
She’d been lucky indeed to find a teacher like Dark Father, and at such a low price.
“Change is often violent,” Hri Sora said, nodding. “There must be war before there can be peace. What do you say of the movement that preaches that men must be silent, and women should control society?”
“I am… meditating on it,” Fairbird said with a frown. “But I do not believe that the Silent Lady would have wanted it.”
“Will you speak out against them?”
“Ah—that depends,” Fairbird said, sweating faintly. The women in favor of silence brought about most of the wars.
“Why—“ Hri Sora stopped, frowning, as raised voices outside drifted through the village, up to the Eldest’s House.
“What on earth is that?” she demanded, rising to her feet. The slaves ducked out of her way as she strode forcefully down the steps, breaking into a trot. Fairbird hurried after her, regretfully leaving the meal to the attending slave girls.
Hri Sora stalked to the edge of the village, where her people milled around in confusion, and her voice lashed like a cat’s tail, harshly demanding.
Fairbird spotted two familiar forms and once and hurried over to them. Her attendants, brother and sister, New Light and First-to-Dance. Arguably her best friends in the world, if one had time for such things. She often wondered why they stayed with her; the life of a travelling prophetess, no matter how successful, was neither safe nor luxurious.
“What is it?” she asked in a low voice. “Does it have to do with us?”
“No,” First-to-Dance said in her usual, calm way. Fairbird could not understand how she never seemed angry or weary, when she herself felt drenched with both. But her nature was as serene as her lovely dark eyes and her many dark braids, held back with a band.
“A stranger has come to Mountain Village,” New Light said. He craned his neck to see above the crowd. “We’re days from anywhere. They think he is making a pilgrimage to Bald Mountain, too.”
“Do I know him?”
New Light shook his head adamantly. “I’ve never seen anyone like him before.”
“It’s possible he simply believes in your teaching,” First-to-Dance suggested.
She might’ve said more, but Hri Sora’s voice snapped above her: “Yes?” One word, but half a dozen people, men and women alike, burst out in hurried explanations. Hri Sora’s lip curled—Fairbird wanted to copy the gesture to see if she could convey the same displeasure—and six sets of teeth audibly closed.
Then a man stepped forward: a quiet man, with a simple, open face, dark-eyed and dark-haired like most people of the Land. He stood, relaxed, with open palms. Fairbird liked his face at once. She couldn’t be sure why; something about the way he smiled faintly even when confronted by an angry prophetess, but also the calmness in his eye, as deep as a well in dry land. It reminded her, oddly, of New Light. Fairbird felt muscles settle in her neck and shoulders that she hadn’t even realized were tense. She found herself smiling, too.
“Lady Hri Sora, Lady Fairbird,” he said respectfully. “I have come a long way and beg shelter in Mountain Village.”
If Hri Sora experienced a reaction similar to Fairbird’s, she gave no sign. Instead, her nostrils flared, like she caught a whiff of a scent she found distasteful.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
The man tilted his head back to look at the darkening sky, considering the question.
“I suppose,” he said, in a pleasantly cheerful voice, “that you can call me Apple Bald.”
Fairbird lay in silence on her pallet, listening to the quiet cadence of First-to-Dance’s breathing. Even the Eldest’s House was not large enough to accommodate Fairbird’s modest retinue in addition to Hri Sora’s lavish entourage, along with any important guests who happened to pass through the village.
Not Apple Bald, of course. He’d bartered for space on the floor with one of the villagers, the same with whom New Light stayed. Fairbird hoped that Hri Sora had forgotten about him already. Her ire could prove decidedly uncomfortable.
When she was at last convinced that First-to-Dance slept, she rose silently from her pallet and crept to the basin.
“Dark Father?” she whispered, searching the darkness. She angled it so the bright silver moonlight shining in from the window illuminated it, casting sharp white shadows across the walls.
The basin was empty. Fairbird sighed and resigned herself to sleep, although her eyes seemed to spring open against her will. It felt like hours before her muscles uncoiled enough to doze.
She skimmed across the surface of sleep, dipping her fingers in its smooth waters. She did not see clouds slowly drift across the window, stained by moonlight, until they finally succeeded in hiding the moon’s face.
The Dragon flew on a moonless night. As quiet as death, his wings, like shreds of black silk, sliced through the thin cloud cover. With a quick snap, no louder than a breath, they furled, sending the dark bulk of his body plummeting through the clouds, down to earth…
They sprang out and caught the air just before the arid ground outside Mountain Village single-handedly slayed the Dragon. With the ungainly, ungracious fluttering of a vulture, he alighted on a twisted, half-dead tree. It bent, groaning, beneath his weight.
“Apple Bald,” he hissed. He stepped down from the broken tree, his wings fanning into a black cloak. “They don’t even have apples in the Southlands! It’s so terribly funny I forgot to laugh.”
“What a shame,” the Prince of Farthestshore said. “Although I did not make that joke for your benefit.”
The Dragon leapt so high into the air that, if he had unfurled his wings, he might’ve flown. But he did not. Instead, he landed catlike, soundlessly.
“Prince,” he said, with a smile that began life as a grimace. “What a complete and utter surprise to find you here!”
“I am quite fond of the Southlands,” the Prince said sternly.
The Dragon cackled. “They’re not fond of you! Barely one in a hundred knows your name in these parts. They’re more familiar with the Flame at Night than they are with you.”
The Prince turned mildly, and the Dragon closed his mouth with a snap of teeth.
“I confess,” the Dragon said at length, “I did not expect to see you here, which only goes to show that even the worst of us can be caught off-guard.”
“I’m sure you’ll console yourself somehow,” the Prince said, the first trace of irritation coloring his voice. “And I’m equally sure you realize that I value Fairbird highly. Too highly to appreciate you catching her in your schemes.”
“You wound me!” the Dragon protested. “She doesn’t even know you.”
“She does,” the Prince said, gazing to where Mountain Village stood, silent, in the darkness. “She just doesn’t remember.”
“So… this Fairbird…” Undisguised greed glinted in the Dragon’s eyes. “What say you and I”—he opened his fist, where two dice rattled like loose teeth– “have a bet?”
It was a mistake. He recoiled as cold fire, like moonlight, burned in the Prince’s eyes, stronger by far than the Dragon’s. It held him for a moment, unable to look away.
Then the Prince said, “You should know by now that there is only one bargain I am prepared to make.”
“Yes, Your Royal Highness!” the Dragon said, scurrying back. “My mistake, of course. However…” He licked his lips. “It is a bargain that I would now consider.”
The near side of dawn came, its weak light falling across the Land. It faintly illuminated three pilgrims trudging away from Mountain Village, none alike: a smiling man, a young woman with sharp, weary lines, and a strange, unearthly thing that looked like a woman.
Fairbird had already kissed New Light and First-to-Dance goodbye. Where she went, they could not follow. Only she, Hri Sora, and Apple Bald walked the road to the mountain. Apple Bald’s company surprised her, but if Hri Sora minded, she gave no sign. She seemed to have a curiously difficult time looking at him and preferred to ignore him altogether.
Fairbird strode across the summer-withered grass, feeling the warmth of the baked earth beneath her feet, even at dawn. She glanced up at a gnarled, bent fig tree that had been damaged in a storm. It tossed its lovely, leaf-capped head in the faint suggestion of a breeze.
Hri Sora’s nostrils flared, and she anxiously glanced around. Scents swam beneath her keen senses, but she could make neither hide nor scale of them. Surely that was her Dark Father… but the other… She knew it: distant, forgotten.
They did not linger long, setting off across the Land, through the jungle. Bald Mountain stood like a scar against the sky.
It was not the first journey Fairbird had ever made. Indeed, sometimes it seemed she had done nothing but walk since the day Starflower had left her with a parting promise and no look back. She had gone from village to village across the land, from the seething, cerulean sea to the far north, where the winters had a vindictive bite that could kill a man, to the distant south where even the lurchers sometimes died from sunstroke.
Along the way, she had spread Starflower’s message: that women could speak, that they had as much right to it as any man. At least—she had at first. The message had changed over the years, as surely as Fairbird had. Some women took her word too far—the ones who believed that no men should speak, that women should rule with an iron fist. Fairbird had even liked the idea at first; it seemed so fitting, almost poetic in its justice.
She thought New Light had forgiven her for that.
The sunlight no longer shown so brightly on the luminous green leaves. Fairbird shivered, as though a cloud had swallowed her soul.
“Dark thoughts?” Apple Bald said, walking beside her. Fairbird started; she had not realized he was there.
“Just—thinking,” she said, looking away. His gaze was curiously hard to meet. “About what I’ll do after we reach Bald Mountain.”
His silence invited her to continue.
“It’s hard to move past the loss of a family member,” she said, searching for the words, “even when it happened when you were young. Each time you discover something new—like when you fall in love for the first time, or discover afresh what sadness is—you lose them again, in a way.”
She squared her shoulders to face the horizon.
“I suppose that’s why I’m going to Bald Mountain,” she said. “I want to see where it happened. And I want to let Starflower go.”
“But your preaching!” he said, either startled or amused; she couldn’t tell. “How will you continue it?”
Fairbird opened her mouth to speak, then hesitated. “I guess it’s not a secret. I think I’d like to stop,” she admitted. “It’s worthwhile when you’re young, but I’d like to have my own life now.” Her shoulders hunched, and she looked past him, to Mountain Village. “I don’t know. I think it depends on if I have anything more to say… or if I have anyone to stop wandering for.”
“I can see how it might be hard,” Apple Bald said thoughtfully. “If your opinion of Starflower has changed...”
Fairbird shot him a glance, but he was admiring the verdant landscape as he walked.
“When I was young, I only knew that she beautiful and kind, and that—“ Her voice caught.
“That she loved you,” Apple Bald finished.
Fairbird nodded, her throat for a moment too tight to speak. Then she continued, “And then she left me. And I was alone.”
“But you saw her again.”
“Years later. She taught me how to speak, and what power my voice and my words had. She told me that we were free from the Beast. It became my duty to spread her words, the way we scatter grain for sowing.”
“And that was the last time you saw her?”
“Yes. But she swore that she would come back one last time… that I would see her again.”
“How wonderful,” Apple Bald said, but he watched her, and his voice rose like a question.
“Yes,” Fairbird said heavily. “I waited for years, struggling with that belief. But now—I think that I took her too literally. That it is in her words that I meet my sister again.”
“And that’s why you’ll stop,” Apple Bald said softly. “Because you won’t need her anymore.”
Fairbird nodded, relieved. “That’s why I didn’t want to go to Bald Mountain. I thought there would be too many memories. And I was right.” She shivered, her gaze fixed in the distance. “I feel like I’m drowning in them.”
“Did Starflower tell you why she left?”
“Of course. She said the Giver of Songs sent her.”
“Forgive me, but… who?”
“I thought I knew,” she said, looking past the horizon distantly. “I’m not sure anymore.”
They didn’t stop until the vast array of stars rose in a dark sky. The mountain’s shadow blotted out half of them; Fairbird twitched her sheepskin pallet so it faced away. She lay in the darkness with her hands folded across her stomach and gazed up at the stars, tracing all the familiar constellations with her eyes: the jester, the princess, the one they called the Beast. Her cheeks crinkled with a smile even as her brows drew together when she looked for the newly-christened Starflower constellation. But it was too close to the lady moon; she washed out its light.
She closed her eyes against the heavens and whispered, “Dark Father?”
She sensed a change in the darkness behind her eyes and knew that he was listening.
“One more day,” she whispered. “Then we’ll be at Bald Mountain. I’m afraid,” she confessed.
“Your past can only hurt you if you let it,” Dark Father whispered. “But don’t worry; you won’t be alone. The plan begins.”
Fairbird stuck out her lip petulantly. “You always talk about the plan, but you never say what the plan is.”
“Feeling impatient, Fairbird?” he asked. “There are only a few more details before it will ensure the Southland’s future.”
Fairbird shifted. “About that…” She hesitated. How to put it? “I’m getting old, Dark Father.”
“What?” he said in surprise. “How old are you-- twenty? Thirty?”
“That’s old in the Land,” Fairbird reminded him, flushing. “If I ever want to have a family of my own, I need to start investigating the possibilities. Soon.”
“Is that what you want?” Dark Father snapped. “A brood of mewling children and some spineless man to order about?”
“Well,” Fairbird said, blushing. “If someone were to offer…”
“You won’t need children when the plan comes to fruition,” Dark Father said. “You won’t even think about children. You’ll be too busy claiming the rewards.”
Fairbird sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose. She could feel sleep in the corner of her consciousness, slipping ever closer. “This had better be a good plan,” she said, yawning from around her hand. “All for a kiss?”
“One kiss,” Dark Father promised. “That will be my reward.”
Fairbird craned her neck back, to look at the sliver of darkness in the sky, where no stars shone.
“Almost there,” she said quietly.
She awoke early the next morning, her stomach full of anxiety. She couldn’t sleep or eat any longer, so she woke the others, and they set off while the day was still cool. The mountain loomed above the travelers, wreathed and veiled with clouds. The mountain where her journey began.
It would finish today. One way or another.
They stopped to catch their breath halfway up the mountain. Boulders obscured the path, which proved hard to traverse. But they were repaid by a wondrous vista of the Land spread out below, in a tapestry of browns, greens, and gold.
Fairbird, on edge, took a deep, steadying breath and stepped forward, prepared to continue the ascent. But Hri Sora tapped her on the shoulder, and she faltered.
“What is it?” she asked Hri Sora,
Hri Sora shaded her eyes against the sunlight and pointed wordlessly up. At the same time, a shadow flashed across the Land, like a cloud passing before the sun.
Fairbird raised her eyes, and her mouth fell open. A gaunt, sinuous black creature sailed on opened wings, a spiny tail rattling behind it. She bit into her lip to keep from shrieking as it landed in an awkward, swooping gesture.
A chill crept up Fairbird’s spine.
“Isn’t he glorious?” Hri Sora said, unaware of her companion’s distress. She favored Fairbird with a rare smile. “Soon you shall be like that, my sister.”
It was not glorious. It was ghastly. Fairbird fought not to be ill as, in a gruesome parody of birth, the black wings peeled back like the skin on overripe fruit, revealing a man of dark blacks and icy whites, with half-strange, half-familiar eyes that Fairbird had known for years…
“So nice to meet you in the flesh, Fairbird,” Dark Father said. “The Silent Lady’s little sister.”
She did not like the way he looked at her. He reached out to touch her arm, and she shied away, evoking a frown. Her eyes rolling in panic, she searched for Apple Bald, but he stood at an impassive distance, merely watching her.
“Shall we continue on?” she asked, her voice trembling. “All the way up. To where it happened.”
“Not just yet,” the Dragon said. “First we must discuss the matter of payment.” His hand curled inexorably around her arm. “One kiss, I believe?”
“I’ll pay when the prize is in hand,” Fairbird said. She tried to tug her arm free, but he had a firm grip.
The Dragon laughed unkindly. “The prize is already in your grasp, Fairbird. Just look.”
He pointed out to the great distance beyond the mountain; unwillingly, Fairbird searched with her eyes, but she saw nothing. They were far from Mountain Village; even the smoke of its cooking fires had faded.
“There were people here, only a few years ago,” the Dragon said, and she flinched. “None closer than the horizon, for fear of the Beast”—he snorted—“but they lived here nonetheless. They’re all dead now. Not because another tribe swept in. Because the women turned on the men.”
“Stop it!” Fairbird cried. “Stop now. You told me to say those things. It isn’t my fault.”
The Dragon smiled at her. “I gave you the idea,” he said, shrugging. “But, Fairbird dear… you said the words.”
“There are villages like it all across the Southlands,” Hri Sora said movingly. “Sooner or later, the women will realize they need the men. But not for some time. Not until hundreds more die.”
Fairbird thought she should feel the blood dripping from her hands, the corpses stacking upon her shoulders. But she felt nothing except her stomach’s vague, humble suggestion that it might be time for lunch. She had never seen the violence; it broke out after she left. But her words stayed behind her.
“But I wouldn’t have done it if—“ She stopped and stared at the Dragon. Her brown eyes bored into him, until he shifted faintly under her look.
“Yes, dear?” he asked. “I’m ready for my kiss. Any last words before I take it?”
“Yes,” Fairbird said. She had gone cold, in a way, colder than winter, colder than the moon. She wasn’t afraid when she said, “We called Amarok the Beast, but we were wrong. He was a reflection. You’re the only Beast in these mountains.”
“Enough of this masquerade,” Hri Sora snarled. Lines of shimmering black ran along her arms. Before Fairbird’s eyes had time to widen, she found herself lying upon the prickly grass, her head pounding.
“No!” someone shouted. Fairbird knew his voice, but she couldn’t remember his name.
Warm hands grabbed Fairbird and helped her up. Through a swollen eye, she saw a dear, familiar face.
“Apple Bald?” she said, remembering his name.
He smiled. Then he turned away from her, back to Hri Sora. He raised his hands while she burned and raged, twisting between a woman and a column of fire. Between these flashes, Fairbird caught glimpses of a scaly black creature, like a winged rock lizard. She shuddered and looked away.
“Ytotia,” Apple Bald said gently, half-laughing. He leapt nimbly back to avoid slashing talons as they whirled toward him. “Please stop.”
“That’s not my name!” Hri Sora raged. But the column of fire faded, and she, a small woman, stood there, trembling.
Apple Bald’s smile stilled, like a cloud sliding across the sun. “You’re right,” he said solemnly. “That’s not your name.”
He stepped forward; unwillingly, she tipped her head so he could place his mouth by her ear. He said something so quietly that Fairbird couldn’t hear. Hri Sora stared at him with wild eyes as he smiled at her.
“No,” she said, shakily. “That’s not my name, either.”
Fairbird screamed as the bone knife glowed in the bloody sunlight, and Apple Bald reeled back. She ran past the Dragon’s arms to fall to her knees by his side, meaning to save him, but Hri Sora knew knives all too well. Apple Bald’s eyes, even in death, watched Fairbird kindly. No heartbeat met her searching fingers.
The Dragon guardedly watched Apple Bald, held in Fairbird’s arms, for a few moments. Then he sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers.
“Hri Sora, my darling daughter,” he said. “Shall we review the phrase overkill?”
“You killed him,” Fairbird said numbly. She reached up and was surprised to feel tears on her skin. She gave a sob.
“We were aware, but thank you for keeping us up to date,” the Dragon said acidly. “Stop crying. You hardly knew the man.”
He was right. She hadn’t known Apple Bald. But she’d seen him in a world as sorrowful as the Land, but he smiled and still loved it.
She would miss that smile.
“Listen, Fairbird,” the Dragon said impatiently. “You want to know the plan, right? Here it is. You and Hri Sora will help the women who favor men’s silence. You’ll help them found a religion, I don’t know, probably featuring the Silent Lady. And once that’s in place, they’ll make you—“
Her noisy sob interrupted him.
“Dragon’s teeth,” Dark Father muttered. “Yes, Fairbird, it’s terribly sad, but it does not affect our plan overmuch.”
He reached for Fairbird’s arm: maybe to grab her, maybe to help her up. But she stumbled back, avoiding his touch.
“Fairbird,” the Dragon said, astonished. “You didn’t even know the man.”
“Yes, I did,” she said. Her voice was slow and clear, the way he’d taught her. “His name was Apple Bald.”
Something must have changed in her face. The Dragon reached for her, but she was already gone, digging her heels into the tough ground. As she raced, her composure deserted her until she panted with terror, not heeding where she was going. She didn’t know if the Dragon pursued her, but she ran as though he and all his fiery kin were hot on her heels. Some instinctive, ancestral part of her, wiser than her mind, had taken over her steps, and she let it run. She did not even hesitate when the ground fell away beneath her; instead, she coiled her legs and sprang out into the air, plummeting down to crash into the bubbling, white, raging water of the Great River.
The water was no kinder than the fire had been. In close, compressed darkness, Fairbird whirled and tumbled. Her outstretched hands knocked against the riverbank, but aside from stripping skin raw, she accomplished nothing.
The roar of the river filled her ears as she clawed madly, like a doused cat. She didn’t dare to open her eyes. She passed through shades of pain into a place where it didn’t matter anymore.
Senses faded. The River roared on.
Much further downriver, it settled into a broad, sweeping torrent, prepared to rush across the Near World to the Far. A dark, sodden lump that might’ve once been a person drifted down it, swirling in its eddies.
With the last of her strength, Fairbird opened her eyes.
From beneath, the River was a still landscape of filtered, flashing brown light. She was so peaceful and comfortable that she could sleep, arms outstretched, floating along.
Then a flash of new light pierced through the bubbles: not brown like the watery half-light, but pure, clean gold, like the rising sun from the highest mountain. It fell across Fairbird’s face, warming her.
With the last of her strength, she raised her right hand. She could do no more. If someone had pressed a rope into her hand, she would’ve regretfully let it go and resigned herself to a river grave.
But a warm, strong hand gripped hers and pulled her from the flood. Fairbird spat and gasped messily as her head rose from the water, into air that smelled of rushes and the fast-travelling river. She pressed her face into the blessedly dry earth of the riverbank and hacked until her lungs cleared. Then she lay there for a time, trembling, scarcely believing it was sunlight that warmed her back, the breeze that ruffled her hair. She had never realized how beautiful they were before.
Slowly, she raised her gaze. The River thundered behind her, crashing itself into mist against the rocks. She was alone in a small, picturesque inlet, soaked to the skin, with all the strength of a newborn kitten.
The breeze carried voices to her.
Fairbird knew those voices. She bowed her head as this latest piece of good fortune overwhelmed her. Then she raised her head and called for First-to-Dance and New Light.
On the third day, Fairbird returned to Bad Mountain. She had planned to ever since First-to-Dance and New Light had found her on the River bank—but only in a distant corner of her mind, so absently that she hadn’t been aware of it herself until she had voiced it.
“What?” First-to-Dance had yelped. “You almost drowned! You can barely walk!”
“I can walk,” Fairbird said stubbornly, but she was overpowered by First-to-Dance’s protests: Fairbird was weak, she needed rest, she might catch a chill. She went on in that vein for some time until New Light put his hand on her shoulder and said, “Let her go.”
And they had, although Fairbird knew it pained them. Even now, as she came haltingly up the mountain, she could still see them in the distance, waiting for her to return to them.
“I need to go,” she’d told them. “I’ve been haunted by this for long enough. I need to see where it happened.”
Halfway up the mountain, she paused, leaning on a boulder to catch her breath. Her words had been truer than she’d realized. She’d been running so hard from her past that she’d come full circle to crash into it again. Would she have been such easy prey for the Dragon if she had come to terms with it years ago? Fairbird’s knees felt weak, and she leaned against the boulder, although she’d recovered her breath.
She did not want to face her past. It hurt her, to acknowledge that there were debts in it she would never pay, to a sister she’d never really had.
Somewhere above her, further up the mountain, a bird sang a light chirp. The sound gave Fairbird strength. She hauled herself up from the boulder and kept walking, past the spot where Apple Bald had confronted the Dragon, where his body even now must lie. She would bury him on the way back, she told herself firmly. He deserved that. He deserved much more than that, but that was all she could give him now.
And then, without warning, she came around a bend and found herself before the Place of Teeth: misty grey shapes that rose against the overcast sky. A few more steps and they resolved into harshly curved pillars of stones. The Teeth. Where two of her family had slipped out of this world. The curving spires drew together like they would block out the sky.
When her knees didn’t buckle, Fairbird walked slowly through the weatherworn Teeth. Once this must’ve been a grim, terrifying place, but a sort of peace hung about them now. They had witnessed atrocities and horrors and still stood. They’d accepted what had happened here.
“But I haven’t,” Fairbird said aloud. She rested her hand against the cool stone, as though she could soak in its calmness. “You must teach me to forget.”
She searched among the stones for lessons. She ran her fingers across the smooth centerpiece, where Starflower must’ve waited for the Beast to come. She stepped away. Here the Panther Master might’ve died trying to save his daughter. It looked the same as any pebbled piece of ground in the Land.
Fairbird rose, surveying the Place of Teeth with disappointment. She had been over every inch of them, but they had not answered any of her questions. Like where Starflower had gone, and why she had not returned.
Disappointed, she turned away. Then she stopped.
A woman stood calmly in the middle of the Path. She was fair-skinned like the Dragonwitch, but their similarities ended there. Her hair was golden like sunlight or wheat; it glinted when the wind ran its fingers through it. Her limpid eyes looked frankly at Fairbird, unreadable emotion in their depths.
“He’s coming,” she said, as the wind sent the skirt of her pale blue dress dancing.
Fairbird stared at her, flummoxed. No woman of the Land could be that fair. No woman in the Near World could have eyes with that depth of peace and gravity.
And no mobile creature, no matter their origin or abilities, could climb Bald Mountain in a dress.
“Who are you?” Fairbird asked. “And…” Her dark brows drew together, almost imperceptibly. “Have we met before?”
The woman smiled without speaking. She looked over her shoulder and said, “He’s here.”
Fairbird gasped as Apple Bald clambered up the last steps of the rocky path, looking no worse for wear. Indeed, he looked better. A strange, glorious light filled his eyes and smile that she had only half-seen before.
“You,” she said in amazement. “But you’re-- dead.”
Apple Bald threw back his head and laughed, dropping his arm around the fair woman.
“What you saw was a bargain fulfilled,” he said, which told her precisely nothing at all and, perhaps, everything she needed to know. “Hri Sora may celebrate her perceived victory, but the Dragon knows I am neither dead nor sleeping.”
“I don’t… understand…” Her voice faded away as a suspicion gathered in her mind. “Are you the Giver of Names?” she whispered.
“Yes.” Apple Bald smiled. “I am also called the Prince of Farthestshore.”
“You’re the one who took Starflower away.” Fairbird’s voice trembled.
“I hate you!” she cried venomously, her throat thick with tears. “You took her from me-- I hate you!”
“Fairbird,” the Prince said, a deep sadness in his eyes, “at whom are you angry?”
“You!” she cried. “Because you took her! She—she wouldn’t have—“ But she would’ve. Starflower would’ve given up everything to help others. Even Fairbird. “Because you didn’t make her st—“ She stumbled to a confused halt, losing the trail of her argument.
“Wolf Tongue,” she said uncertainly, clutching for meaning. “Because—“ Why? Because the people of the Land had obeyed him? Because he had died before she could kill him? Because, perhaps, she had caused as much damage as he had? He was gone now. He couldn’t hurt her anymore.
“See the truth, Fairbird,” the Prince said softly.
And the weight of that truth rose up in Fairbird’s throat, until she could hold it back no more.
“Starflower!” she cried. “I’m angry at Starflower! For all the times I needed her and she wasn’t there, because someplace else needed her more!” The Prince watched sadly as she threw the water gourd First-to-Dance had packed for her, so it splintered against the Teeth in her rage. “I am so angry because she said she would return, and I must live the rest of my life crushed beneath the terrible, unbearable hope that I might see her again!”
The world reeled as though she might fall off, or faint, and Fairbird fell to her knees, clutching the base of a stone Tooth. The Prince bowed his head as, for the first time since the days of the Beast, Fairbird cried. Great tears rolled down her skin like rain onto arid land. She did not notice that the lady’s eyes were also full.
“And I’m angry at myself,” she whispered through her tears, “because I haven’t forgiven her. Because she wouldn’t have left but for me.”
She leaned against the pillar, trembling. Then, barely managing to push the words through her throat, she said, “I’m sorry. For what I’ve caused over the years.” Her voice broke. “I’m so sorry.”
“Do you know what you must do now?” the Prince asked.
She took a deep breath. “I think—I think I need to tell the others. Not just the women. All of them. I think they need to know.” The Prince might’ve smiled, but she couldn’t see through the mist in her gaze.
Gentle hands raised her and set her on her feet. She looked up into the eyes of the Prince. She felt a dead sort of calmness within herself, but tears still fell from her eyes. She didn’t know why. She could feel nothing.
“Fairbird,” the Prince said. “You will see Starflower again.”
She stared at him and slowly absorbed his words.
“What?” she demanded. “Where?” But she didn’t wait for an answer. Her mind ran ahead of itself. “I’ll look for her. I’ll travel and search until I find her.”
The Prince smiled gently at her impetuousness.
“You cannot find her,” he said. Although his manner was soft, his words were like stone: immoveable.
“Then I’ll wait!” Fairbird cried, her eyes bright with tears. She threw herself down to sit, cross-legged, by a great stone Tooth. “I’ll wait here until she finds me! I’ll—I’ll—“
Tears trembled in the Lumil Eliasul’s eyes, too, but he smiled through them.
“You mustn’t wait, Fairbird,” he said. “For it will be years. Your children’s children will have children before you see her again.”
Fairbird stared at him in shock. Her vision swayed, as though she stood on the edge of a great chasm so deep that she could find no way to cross.
“So long?” she whispered, shocked.
The Prince nodded. “But I promise you will see her again.”
Fairbird sat, numbed into stillness. She did not see the tears on the Lumil Eliasul’s cheeks as he bent down to kiss her forehead. Her brow scalded, cleansed, where his lips touched it, like a seal, or a brand.
“You have a very long wait,” he whispered. “Don’t waste the years I am giving you.”
The wind breathed across Fairbird’s face, parting her thick black hair. Slowly she raised her head. She was alone. The Prince and his companion had left Bald Mountain, or maybe they had never been there at all.
She sat alone as a cold wind rose, carrying with it the scent of winter. And maybe peace, she realized. For who would fight in the cold?
She gazed across the Land, and she as at peace, too. It was not only the Beast’s legacy that shaped it. It was Starflower’s, too.
Just like the day Starflower had left, Fairbird saw her life spread out before her. She saw the weary miles her feet would tread, the resistance she would encounter; but it would be different this time. She would speak of peace, not war. The Dragon and Hri Sora could have their schemes, but the people of the Land had their Prince.
Fairbird surveyed the life spread out before her and smiled at the unexpected happiness she found there. And, just as she had at the river, she heard voices carried by the dancing breeze as they wended their way up the mountain. Familiar voices. Beloved voices.
Slowly, Fairbird rose to her feet. She smiled at the sky, and whatever lay beyond, and she came down from the mountain.