Though his mother had done her best to keep him away from the villages, Swiftwing learned at a very young age that he was not like other boys. Other boys had fathers and other boys were never avoided with wide eyes and signs of fear and reverence.
No one ever told him he was not supposed to learn the language his mother wove with her fingers so he learned it quicker than many a child, and when he discovered that there was another language, one of noise that only men used, he learned that too, though it was seldom that he heard it.
But then his mother lay down ill, and soon the day came that he could not wake her. Then in tears, he’d made his lonely way to the village, and the men took him in as one of them. Yet he was not one of them, for still they held him in awe and respect that they gave to no other youth.
Only once did any man dare act against him, and it was when Swiftwing was still very young and had not learned that the language of dancing fingers was only for women. The first and last time he spoke it in the men’s presence, one of them struck him so hard across the face he saw stars for the rest of the day. But the other men were provoked to fear, as if something might strike them for striking him.
So he lived amongst them, yet ever apart. Equal, yet ever above, but ever below. And the higher they held him, the lower he felt.
The night that the Wolf Lord died, all their reverence turned to rage.
The shadows of night had fallen upon the South Land, and in them could be felt a darkness greater still—the darkness of crawling fear and teeming hatred.
Hunkered against the ground, Swiftwing could nearly feel the earth pulsing with uncertainty and anger. He lay perfectly still, listening and looking for any sign of danger. The sharp smell of the soil beneath his cheek stung in his nostrils, and a few wandering insects crawled across his prone body, but he paid them no heed. Perhaps no one else would have felt the tension running through the night, a night humming with the life of the jungle. But he felt the aches of the land as clearly as that of his own body.
A distant cry broke the false calm. Swiftwing’s muscles tightened in response, ready again for flight if need be. But the cry was different than what he’d expected, far more high and child-like than that of a man’s, and yet not that of a child nor an animal. Ever so silently, he lifted himself up and cocked his head to hear better. Yes, now he could hear what he expected—the rumble of warrior’s voices and running feet. He should leave now, make certain their path did not cross his.
But he remained still, his gazing piercing through the forests towards the first and foreign cry. What might have caused it, and why were the warriors hunting it? In the very tip of his hearing, he fancied he heard the song of a daytime bird, beckoning him forth from his hiding. His heart responded to it with little thought, following its call as naturally as that of his own instinct. He gathered himself up into a crouch and darted through the brush, agile and cunning as a wildcat. The sound of the unknown creature stumbling through the jungle drew him to it, and in mere moments, he sprang onto a log and stared down into the dell below.
A woman hunkered below him, struggling to loosen her long dark hair from where it had tangled in a thicket of thorns. She was not yet aware of his presence, but he could see the whites of her eyes rolling to watch for her pursuers as she jerked fruitlessly against the branches, her effort for freedom only sounding alarms for her capture.
He leapt down from the log and landed beside her. At his appearance, the strange terrible cry sounded again—from her mouth. He stared, appalled. Women made no sound! They only spoke with their lovely fingers and faces. But he could not deny the truth of her whimpers or the terror held within them.
Silence, they will hear you! he said, weaving his words with his hands, the speech he always took around women if there were no men nearby. He knelt beside her and grabbed for the branches, snapping them one by one with care to avoid the many sharp thorns.
But though she made no sound again, she shoved against him with all her strength and leapt the other direction, the bush again yanking her to a halt with a loud rustle.
“I will not hurt you, I will not hurt you,” he hissed in a whisper, realizing that she may not have been able to see his hands in the dark. It was hard to remember that no one seemed to see as well as him at night. Yet his voice did not comfort her. Her hands beat as his face, nails scratching his skin.
The sound of their pursuers thundered in his ears, and in panic, he threw aside all silence and tact. Forcing himself past her, he reached and embraced all the branches in his arms, thorns piercing, and broke them with a heavy twist. A sharp ache bit through the bone of his left arm, reminding him of its past injury, and he swallowed back a curse. He grabbed the struggling girl and threw her over his shoulder even as the first hunter crested the ridge above them.
His eyes met that of the man’s, and a snarl burst from his chest. It was not the growl of a man but that of a beast, and it surprised even him. The man faltered, and Swiftwing took the moment to leap for the log on the other side. His free arm grasped it, and he flung himself and the girl over, hearing a spear thunk into the wood behind him.
The girl was still fighting, but she was small and he was strong, and he paid her little heed as he tore through the forest, the startled cries of monkeys and night birds hollering around and drowning out any sound of his passing.
Sometime during their long and wild flight, the woman had stopped struggling. Swiftwing at last drew to a halt and stood still, sniffing the air and listening for any sound of pursuit. But all was still and silent once more, and he could hardly even feel the tension of the earth.
Sharp teeth snapped down on the flesh of his wrist, and he leapt in surprise, stifling a yell. The girl tumbled from his shoulder and flung herself around to face him, teeth still bared. And then she spoke.
“By the Song Giver of my sister and mother, you will not take me!”
Swiftwing stood stunned, his wounded hand limply falling from his embrace. He felt as if the entire world had gone mute around him in disbelief that a woman spoke. A wild thought flew across his mind that perhaps it was a trick or somehow a young boy disguising himself as a woman, but that voice was unlike any man’s he ever heard and it’s truth could not be denied.
“How…how do you speak this tongue?” he whispered.
She startled at his voice, and she seemed to peer at him through the darkness as if she had thought him someone else and only just recognized him as a stranger. “Do you not know?” she said, her voice rough and angry, yet somehow still the loveliest thing he’d ever heard. “After all this time, do you dare claim to be the only man of our land who does not know? Is this not why you were hunting me?”
Swiftwing shook his head. He disliked how she had to stare so high up at him and he lowered himself to the ground, holding her gaze as she watched his every move. “I have not lived amongst the tribes for a long while.”
Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Why?” she snapped. “Are you shamed?” Scarcely had the words left her mouth then she cowered. It was clear that she was still not used to speaking her mind.
Am I shamed? Swiftwing wondered. I wish I knew. He wanted there to be a reason he could understand for how everyone had treated him throughout his youth, and why they had all turned against him and sought to kill him that horrible night now long past.
“Where do you come from?”
“I will not tell you,” she whispered. “You’ll take me to those who hunt me.”
It struck him as strange that he accepted her voice so easily. Perhaps it was because he always had understood women’s language, and that one should now have a voice felt only right and wonderful.
“I would not,” he assured. “They hunt me too.”
Her expression changed at that, and she peered even harder at his features, with now a thoughtful and saddening face. “Yes,” she said at last, “They would.”
Every muscle inside him jolted, even more than when she’d first spoke. What could she mean? What did she see so clearly about him that he couldn’t? “Why do you say that?” he demanded.
She shifted. “I am from Red Clay village.”
He scowled, irritated that she changed the subject, but her words he could not ignore. “That is on the other side of the South Land. Have you traveled so far alone?”
“I have been going from village to village,” she said. “Teaching.”
“Are you the only woman to speak?” He did not think she could have spoken since birth. Her voice and words were still so slurred as if unsure of how to form.
She shook her head. “No. The curse broke the night the Wolf Lord died. All women may speak now.”
The night the Wolf Lord died. The night the men drove him away. The night women spoke. Was there a connection somewhere that he could not imagine? There had to be. And she knew, she knew something. But he knew from looking at her wary face that he could not pry so far yet.
“Is that why they hunt you?” he prodded gently.
She was silent for a while, her eyes huge. “They are all afraid,” she whispered. “Man, woman, child, everyone. Their god is dead, and they are afraid of change, even if it is better. I speak to them of hope of life, and for that they would kill me. They call me She-Who-Speaks. But to their ears I speak nothing but horror.”
Swiftwing woke to the trill of a morning thrush. Something so small and gentle should not have pulled him from sleep, so he stealthily sat up and looked for anything else that might have disturbed him.
The very first thing he noticed was that the girl was gone.
He’d taken her to the place he called home, a grassy corner tucked between rocks and behind thickets and told her to sleep there, while he had gone to the tree above and secured himself in the thick branches. Long through the night he’d heard her shifting and thought neither of them would find any sleep.
Apparently he had slept, and she had gone. But she couldn’t have been gone for too long, for the grass was still pressed flat where she’d lain.
He dropped down to the ground and spotted the path she had taken through the bushes, all the dew scattered from the leaves. He pushed through them and paused, inhaling to catch some scent of her. Yes, there she was, not very far away at all. She must have only recently left, which must have meant she had fallen asleep too as she would have rather gone before dawn had come. He hurried after her trail, keeping a wary ear and eye open for any sign of danger, for the jungles of his land were perilous.
It did not take him long to catch her. He silently passed her hurrying figure and went to wait for her ahead.
When she saw him seated upon the tree fallen before her, her mouth twisted into a scowl. “Why do you follow me?” she demanded.
“It is not safe for a woman to travel alone,” he replied.
Her laugh was hollow and sad. “I have been alone for a long while now. Do not think this is my first time. I have traveled from village to village over and over to proclaim freedom to my people.” Avoiding his gaze, she climbed over the trunk and continued down the path.
He fell into step beside her, and he could nearly feel the walls fall into place between them. “Were you never not alone?”
At first, the only answer he received was the crunch of their footsteps on the ground and the swish of branches brushed away. “I had a dog,” she said finally. Her voice trembled, but she steadied it before continuing. “But she was old and she died after about a year of my travels. Yet she protected me to her last breath, and now I can take care of myself.”
Swiftwing thought back to last night and disagreed, but he did not say so aloud. He only just kept walking alongside her.
She cleared her throat. “Which means you can leave.”
He laughed deep inside himself, but did not allow it to show even in his eyes.
She ground to a halt and glared at him when he swung around to face her. “What about the men who hunt you? You will not keep following me!”
“How,” he asked softly, “are you going to make me stop?”
Fear leapt into her eyes at his response, and he inwardly cursed himself.
“I will do you no harm,” he hastily assured. “I only mean to see that you are kept safe.”
“Why?” she demanded, her teeth clenched. “Why?”
He considered for a long moment, sorting through the various reasons he felt his heart so drawn to her. She could see something about him that he couldn’t. She knew the truth about the women’s speaking, which meant she knew something about the Wolf Lord’s death. And…
At last, he said, “You remind me of my mother.”
She did not answer, she did not even blink; she only turned and walked away. But when he followed her again, she made no protest.
It had been far too long since Swiftwing had seen a village. He was startled at how his stomach turned at the distant sight of the huts, the spiraling smoke of the fire, and the roving figures. Why, why, had they refused to let him be a part of their lives, to be equal amongst them?
He turned to see the woman staring at him with far too perceptive eyes. Swallowing hard, he looked away, hoping his skin had not turned so grey as it felt.
“You should remain in the trees,” she said.
“No, they may turn on you,” he began.
“I have been here before. They listen.” Her shoulders hunched as she spoke and her gaze darkened as she glanced again at the villages. “It will be better for both of us if you remain behind.”
There it was, that indication that she understood something more about him! He nearly leapt forward, caught her arm, and demanded to know the secret, but she was already striding through the trees. As he watched her go, he thought how no woman he’d ever seen had ever walked with such strength, no matter how forced.
He crept through the brush closer into the village so he could better watch and listen. By the time he’d drawn near enough, she was already in the village center, most of the people gathered around her. The expressions of the people were starkly contrasted, some showing uncertain hope and respect, but most of fear and anger.
“The tribes are sundered, She-Who-Speaks!” a man growled. “What peace we had under the Wolf Lord is now utterly gone! How can this Giver of Names you speak of be good?”
Agreeing murmurs chorused in response, but the girl shouted above them all. “Listen, listen to me again! The Wolf Lord had us all under slavery, woman and man. Yes, there is now fear, but there need not be. Listen, and let me tell you again. Our High Priest Wolf Tongue was not a god, but a monster come from the Grey Wood, and he was the Wolf Lord, turning from man to wolf at will! His hunger would have devoured us all in the end.”
Swiftwing hunkered lower still to the ground to muffle his gasp. What was this she spoke? He knew of Wolf Tongue and though he’d only ever seen him from afar, he knew he was a powerful and terrible man. But a monster possessed of such power? Impossible. Yet his skin crawled as he remembered the times he’d wandered too close to the Grey Wood and the mystery that had reached out to touch his heart with icy fingers.
The woman was still speaking. “But we were not forsaken. Have any of you never heard music in the night, have you not wondered at the beauty of the stars? Have you never wanted to be known by your true name? The Giver of Names delivered the chieftain’s eldest daughter from death and took her from this land. He gave the Silent Lady the power to speak, and she returned and brought about the Wolf Lord’s death. And now we are free, all of us free to speak, for yes, even you men were captive before, not daring to love.”
A heavy silence followed her words, a few growls and grunts rumbling under its surface.
Swiftwing lay paralyzed at this new revelation. A woman had killed the Wolf Lord? Whatever would this girl say next? Was she mad? Yet he could not deny how her words entranced him for many times he had wondered if he heard music in the sky, in the water, in the thrush’s song, and he wondered where that beauty came from, for the Wolf Lord knew only brutality, and beauty was to be taken, not cherished.
“Where is the Silent Lady now?” A man’s voice suddenly demanded.
“She has been called to other lands by the Song Giver,” the girl answered.
“Where is this Song Giver?” the man continued. “Where is any proof to what you say? The Wolf Lord is dead, and women speak, but how do we know you do not use this to take this world for your own? A silent woman thinking she can rule? Not over us!”
The girl paled as the man’s angry words spread throughout the crowd, and nearly all the gazes staring at her became hostile. “Please,” she began, her voice a tremor, “that is not my intent. Search your hearts, do you not hear the Song Giver’s—”
“Witch!” the man yelled. “Sorceress!” He picked up a stone and heaved it at her.
The next moment, Swiftwing had risen to his feet and flown across the distance between them. He grabbed the man’s wrists before he could loose another stone and threw him to the ground.
The man hit the dust with a thud and a groan, and everyone near drew back and looked with shock and fear at Swiftwing.
But it was only with the fear that they might turn upon an enemy. He watched as it again transformed into the fear of a monster.
“Blight of our fathers!” the man wailed. He scrambled to his feet and backed into the safety of his fellows, but though his gaze did not leave Swiftwing, his words were for the woman. “You witch, you serve him! Is this another scheme of his to rule?”
Never had anyone accused Swiftwing of wanting to rule. Startled, he looked to She-Who-Speaks for an answer, and he was aghast to see that she gone pale grey. Her hands trembled, the fingers moving in strange jerks. And then he realized that she was speaking to him, speaking in the woman’s language.
Run, her fingers said. RUN.
Then the man drew a knife, and Swiftwing wheeled on his foot, grabbed the girl by her wrist, and ran. They raced back to the trees, the terror of the villagers rising into a raging roar as they came after. But as soon as he passed under the trees, Swiftwing knew that they would be safe. He pulled the girl closer to him, then scooped her up into his arms, despite her grunts of protest. Then he truly did run, and soon the village was far behind them.
The moment he began slowing pace, She-Who-Speaks began to squirm until he was obliged to stop and put her down.
“I told you not to come,” she snarled, flushed and panting. She scraped aside the hair that had caught in her mouth spoke again. “How could you go and show your face like that?”
Swiftwing took a hard, angry step forward. “Why?” he shouted. “What is wrong with my face, why does everyone fear it?”
The girl became very still. Her eyes stared past as him as if she saw some unknown horror. Then slowly she whispered, “You do not know?”
Frustration clotted in his throat, nearly making him choke. He had to swallow several times before he could speak, and then his voice scraped out in a rough murmur, “No. I do not know. No one has ever told me. Not my mother, not the men. You too feared me at first sight, but now you don’t. Why am I different from everyone?”
Unwillingly, her gaze lifted to his. “Did you not ever wonder why your eyes are yellow?”
“But it is only eye color,” he said desperately. “There are many people in the tribes whose eyes are different shades of brown. Why should pale eyes make me terrible? Because I am the only one?”
“Because you are not the only one,” she said, her lips wooden. “The only other man with yellow eyes in all the South Land was Wolf Tongue….the Wolf Lord.”
The jungles of the South Land swept out like a blanket before him, appearing flat and unbroken, but he knew how many chasm s scored through the earth, splitting the land into pieces. The birds of early morning rose in glorious chorus from the trees and monkeys wailed their wild cries, all seeming determined to ignore the pain of their realm.
But Swiftwing sat blind and deaf to it all.
The Wolf Lord.
The terror, the ruler, the god of the land. Not even the elders could remember a time when he had not ruled. He was always there, always hungry, always devouring. So much blood had he drank, so much flesh had he claimed. A tyrant, a monster.
As a boy, he’d asked his mother why he didn’t have a father like other boys. The question had seemed to pain her, so he eventually stopped asking. But now he knew, and he also knew why his mother had refused to attend any of the ceremonies, why whenever rumor of the High Priest came, she had taken her child and they had traveled deeper into the forest.
Footsteps crunched beside him, and he looked up to see She-Who-Speaks standing next to him. Her face was drawn tight with uncertainty, but true sorrow shone in her eyes. “I am sorry,” she said at last.
Swiftwing looked back to the distant mountains, his arms wrapping tighter around his knees. “Why did she still love me?” he whispered. “Why did she not abandon me at birth?”
The girl sighed and slowly lowered herself down to sit beside him, joining his gaze to the horizon. “You might have been his, but you were also hers. And in that she found a gift.” Her voice shook as she spoke the last word. “I had a sister who loved me, but I could not understand why, for my birth had taken away her beloved mother. Yet she saw me as a gift and cherished me.”
After the silence grew uncomfortable, Swiftwing asked, “Where is this sister of yours?”
She-Who-Speaks wove her fingers together as if seeking a hand she could no longer touch. “She left. She went beyond this land.”
He thought perhaps she meant death, but then he remembered her words to the villagers. “Is your sister then the Silent Lady you spoke of?”
His breath drew in sharp, and he swung to face her. “Then she killed the Wolf Lord! How? How did a maiden accomplish it?”
“I did not say she killed the Wolf Lord,” the girl replied, eyes kindling with annoyance. “I said she brought it about.”
He considered this in silence, wondering how this was done, but the girl no longer seemed inclined to share as she was turned away from him. She might have accepted him, but he could still feel her resentment. Resentment he deserved. He was the son of a monster. For that he deserved hate. Yet he did not feel hate from her, and it puzzled him.
A sweet silver trill danced through the morning stillness, bringing a brightness as real as the sun that surged life into both the figures and the earth upon which they sat. The girl straightened, her eyes searching hopefully.
“There,” Swiftwing said, pointing. “There he is.”
The wood thrush danced from branch to branch in a tree near them, flicking his tail and whistling cheerfully.
“You listen to the songbird?” the girl asked, and her surprised voice held none of the hostility always underlying her words before.
“Yes,” Swiftwing said, his mouth softening. “My mother always loved it. She named me for it. May you always pursue his swift wing, she’d tell me.”
He looked at her then, and his very breath was stolen at the sight. He had seen from the first that she was beautiful. But now he saw how truly beautiful she could be. The first golden glow of the sun caught in the stray strands of her thick dark hair, and her face was aglow with the same light, her wide eyes gleaming with gold stars. Most beautiful of all was the wondrous smile curving her lips.
“I was named for the songbird as well,” she said.
“She-Who-Speaks?” he said in bewilderment.
“No,” the girl said. “Fairbird. My name is Fairbird.”
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