“Lady” Jalline turned around. A face was pressed again the bars of a cell. It belonged to an old woman, her eyes seemed to glow fever bright. Jalline pitied her. To be ill and locked away was far worse than to by healthy. At least Jalline still had her health.
“I am no great lady.”
“But you are. You just do not know it yet.” The old woman's eyes grew brighter still.
“I am sorry, but you are mistaken.” Jalline turned to go. The guards tugged at her bonds forcing her to take a quick step.
“Wait! Wait... there is something I must tell you!”
Jalline knew it was foolish, but the old woman sounded so worried she couldn't help herself, without thinking she stopped and spread out her wings. They slipped through the bars of the cells on either side of her, preventing her from moving, at least temporarily. She turned back to the old woman. “I'm listening.”
“You will have to make a choice.”
“What choice?” Jalline longed to make the woman more comfortable, even though a slow chill was creeping up her spine.
“Hurry it up, would you? It's not like I have all day to watch you!” the guard called, after a few short tugs on the rope. Seeing that there was no way to move Jalline while her wings were laced between the bars, he settled back, grimacing at his newest prisoner.
“A difficult choice, but it must be yours! When the time comes, you must be willing to give up your wings!”
Jalline went cold. “My wings?” she whispered. Her wings were her pride and joy. They were of the prophecy, or so the priests said. She was a child of earth and sky, and the unusual coloring of her wings proved it. They were not white or silvery gray, like the other sylphii. No, her's were the soft blues of the sky at dawn, the pale greens of tender shoots of grass. Her's were where the earth met the sky. To give up her wings would be... Jalline couldn't even imagine.
It wasn't just her vanity at the loss of their colors. No. It was without them, she would lose her entire way of life. She was a sylphii, and what would a sylphii be without her wings? To forever be denied the rush of air in flight? Their tender softness as they cocooned her at night? Their subtle weight balancing on her back? To lose her wings would be to lose her life.
“Hush child. You need not chose now. But remember. When the time comes, give them freely.”
“I will never give up my wings!” Jalline whispered fiercely.
The old woman's eyes seemed almost normal now. They shone with a sympathy that was so deep it hurt Jalline to look into them for long. Jalline turned her head away. The woman spoke, “But they will take them just the same.”
Jalline looked back at the old woman's cell. The woman had turned around, her back facing Jalline. Jalline stared in horror at the scars on her back. They will take them just the same... Jalline looked around at all the other prisoners. Those that were turned away also had telltale scars. Some sat staring out windows blankly, no life behind their dull eyes. It had fled when they lost their wings. Their wings. Others crowded close to their doors, watching her pass with hungry eyes. Some reached out to touch her wings, a gentle caress as if remembering what they had lost. For they were all sylphii. And they had all lost their wings.
When Jalline reached her cell, she sat and stared out the window for a long time, alone with her thoughts. For while the hopelessness of the situation had not touched her at first, now she truly knew fear. She drew herself into a tiny ball. They would not take her wings. She wasn't going to stay here for long. The priests would come and get her. And as the hours grew longer, her thoughts circled around. Always coming back to the phrase, they would not take her wings.
Days became months. Months dragged on into what could have been a year. Jalline didn't know. She didn't keep track. She found that counting only made things worse. Some of the other prisoners counted. They kept track on their walls. Brown stains of dried blood ticking off how long they had been here. Where ever here was. There was plenty of time for reflection. Plenty of time for thinking. For hearing.
Jalline still could not get used to the screams. The raw sounds of agony. The sounds that came from losing your wings. She knew what they did. She had been here long enough to meet with the doctors. To be shown their great lab. To be told that she would serve science wonderfully. The tests were not terrible. Not in the way you would expect in a prison. No one was tortured. No, the scientists and doctors had said, that would interfere with their understanding of how the wings worked.
How they worked. How the muscles pulled, how the wings functioned. How could there be four wings? Why, birds needed just two, so why did the sylphii have four? Jalline had watched their cold, cold eyes look over her wings. She watched as they poked and prodded. As they took notes. They were amazed. Never before had they seen wings like hers. It was an honor to study them. So they said. All the while Jalline had the words of the old woman running through her head. They will take them just the same... It was only a matter of time. And she knew it.
Still, she did not give up hope. The priests were bound to notice she was gone now. And any day they would come in and take her back. They would tell her captors it had been an honest mistake. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Had seen more than she should have. She wouldn't tell anyone. She would be sequestered away at the High Temple. They would keep an eye on her. But even as Jalline thought this, she knew it wasn't true.
She had seen far more than a little. And it hadn't been an accident. The High Priests of the Temple of Air had sent her to find out what had happened at the Court of Uromal. There had been whispers on the winds. That the King of Uromal was dead. Murdered. Murdered by the sylphii that had been at court. When Jalline went to find out what happened, what she had found was even worse.
The rumors had been true. The king had been murdered. As had his entire court. There were no members of the royal family left alive. Not only that, but the sylphii had done it. The young sylphii priests, so sure that they could rule better than these short-sighted humans, had killed the court and were setting up a court of their own. Jalline was appalled. The ancient laws stated that the sylphii were not to rule. They were to be the caretakers, and watch over the land and all the races that lived. But it was becoming obvious that there was a new sect of power rising. One that believed the sylphii should rightly be the rulers. They were more majestic, longer-lived, and had more powers than these puny humans. So why should they continue to serve?
Jalline had brought her report back to the High Priests. They had been just as shocked and appalled. But after a week Jalline knew something had gone wrong. News came in that the dissident priests were not punished, simply recalled to the floating islands of the sylphii. Then there came rumors of some of the other priests disappearing. Not the dissident priests. The priests who still followed the old ways. It was not long after Jalline had gotten that news that she was captured.
She didn't remember much. The old priests had known what she risked to bring back her information, so she had been kept in the inner Temple. But someone must have tipped the dissident priests off. The last thing Jalline remembered was seeing the inner courtyard. And then her world went black. She hadn't returned to consciousness until she arrived at the prison. So she had no idea where she was. All she knew was that the prison was located somewhere high. Probably not one of the sylphii's floating islands. No. There were humans here. Sylphii would never bring humans to their islands. So it had to be on the mainland. In the mountains, perhaps. For what made this prison all the more cruel was the constant whistling wind that reminded every inhabitant of what they once had, but now could never have again.
Things continued on for while. The cycle of eating, sleeping, resting, waiting, testing continued. Until the day the old woman was taken away. Jalline had never forgotten her words. As the old woman was dragged out of her cell, she called to Jalline, her fever bright eyes fixed on Jalline's face,
“Remember! If a sylphii loses her wings willingly, wishes can be made on the feathers of hope!”
The next day, there was no news of the old woman. Instead a new prisoner arrived to take her cell. Jalline knew then that she was dead. A heaviness settled into her heart. She had never even learned her name. Dread had been gripping Jalline more all the time. She rarely slept anymore. She flinched away from people and walls. She allowed nothing to touch her wings. She didn't even open them to catch a strong breeze when one managed to blow through the cells. Shadows formed under her eyes. If she had a mirror, she could have seen how sunken her cheeks had become, how sallow her skin.
Her eyes started to look like all the other's. Filled with a seeping despair that leached the life out of everything. There was a kind of fear that comes with waiting too long. A fear that the waiting will end. Fear that it will go on. Sometimes she seemed alert, on a knife's edge. She would jump at the sound of feet. Not even sighing with relief when the guards came for someone else. For that would just mean that she had to wait longer. Other times she was lethargic. Sick of waiting. Sick of living. But the scientists would not allow the prisoners to die. No, they were fed twice a day, and bathed several times a week. Jalline tried to be alert then. She didn't want anyone to touch her wings.
Day and night began to blur together. Now there was just a twilit cell. And the waiting. It seemed to almost have a presence of its own in her cell. A tangible feel. But that had changed with the old woman's lastest words. They were able to drive back the waiting. Just a little, but it was enough. A little spark of life came back to Jalline's eyes.
For there was a tale. An ancient sylphii tale about the power of gifts freely given. The greatest gift, of course, was your wings. It was a simple learning tale, not often told once you grew past the age of seven or eight, since that was when most sylphii stopped believing in the fairy tales. It started with a girl, Anelli, who wanted to fly to the moon. Now, she couldn't fly to the moon, and she knew that, but how she dreamed! Each night, she would stare into the sky, trying to bridge the distance with her eyes. As she grew older, she would practice flying at the high altitudes for longer each day, and she would practice breathing exercises. For she knew if she was to fly to the moon she would have to go a very long way and the air would get very thin.
Now, about the time she was sixteen, she had tried to fly to the moon ever night for two years with no success. Not one to give up easily, she vowed to continue trying. Most other sylphii laughed at her impossible dream, but one young man was impressed by her determination. So impressed was Lanar that he asked Anelli to marry him. At first she said no, for he could never be first in her heart, her heart was given to the moon. However, he was persistent, and each night he flew with her and asked her to give it a try. If she really could never love him, then they would part ways. So finally, she gave in to his proposal and they were married.
Now, for a while, nothing had really changed. She continued to try to fly to the moon each night, and he continued to fly with her. Then one beautiful clear night they were out flying when a storm blew up out of nowhere. Thinking this was the boost she needed, Anelli flew into the heart of the storm and rose higher and higher in the sky. Lanar tried to fly after her, but he lost her in the quickly darkening sky. Undaunted by the storm, he flew on in the direction that he had last seen her. Pride shone in his eyes when he finally broke through the storm and saw her sailing high above him. But the light dimmed just a quickly when Lanar watched as Anelli was hit by an errant gust of wind and thrown like a ragdoll back down into the storm.
Lanar dove after her, headless to the dangers that swirled around him. He caught Anelli, but not before permanently damaging himself. The strong winds had torn two of his wings partially off. His blood dripped around as he held Anelli close. He crash landed in the mountains, using his body to shelter Anelli. She was unconscious for almost a day. The lack of air had affected her more than she had thought it would. Lanar watched over her, though it was clear he would no last that much longer.
When Anelli awoke, she saw the concern in Lanar's eyes. She knew that he would never replace her dreams of flying to the moon, but now she saw that he didn't have to. Lanar held her close, and Anelli saw the terrible wounds on his back.
“I have a gift for you,” he said in a week voice. Anelli shook her head. This couldn't be happening. Her dreams had caused him to lose his life.
“I won't take no for an answer.” Lanar held Anelli away and looked deep into her eyes. “You must accept it.” He turned his back to her and spoke, “I want you to take a feather.” He waited for Anelli to take one. When he felt no tug from Anelli he continued. “You must take a feather. My wings are destroyed and I will not make it back to our home. My time is not long. You must take a feather. A feather given freely from wings given to love can grant you one wish. When I die, you must make your wish. Then you can finally make it to the moon. Promise me... Promise me you will take a feather.”
It broke Anelli's heart to hear him plead with her, and so she plucked a feather. As she did, Lanar sighed and slipped into unconsciousness. Anelli, with tears streaming down her face, gathered Lanar up in her arms and flexed her wings. She launched herself into the air with her precious burden. Up and up she flew until she was higher than she had ever flown before. Once she was up higher than even the storm had taken her, she looked down on Lanar's peaceful face and let drop the feather. And so she made her wish.
Now, the story never did say what Anelli wished for. Some say she brought him back to life with her wish. Other's say she wished for all sylphii to be granted the same power, and then plunged to her death with Lanar still in her arms. Still others say she used it to wish to travel to the moon. But one thing is true. On nights of the full moon, you can see Anelli and Lanar locked in their final embrace if you look at closely at the moon. That is why one side is blood red and the other is silvery white.
Jalline hadn't even realized she had told the tale aloud. But when she looked up after telling it, the eyes of all the prisoners were fixed on her. She felt she finally understood the old woman's message. Even if the feathers granted nothing, the would give hope. Or was it that if her wings were freely given, her feathers would be able to grant miracles? It wouldn't hurt to try. And so Jalline stretched out her wings for the first time in months and attempted to smile.
“Please, take one” she said in a soft voice. She spread her wings to the sides of her cell, their blue and green quite brilliant against the gray of the cell. As they stretched to their fullest, they slipped between the bars of the cells on either side, allowing the prisoners to pluck a feather. While she could not reach everyone from within her cell, when she was let out she found ways to make sure each prisoner could touch her wings and gather a single feather. There were not a lot of them, so it was no great loss. Even if she was allowed to fly, the loss of a double handful of feathers would not hinder her flight. But she knew she would never leave this prison. That she would never fly again. She knew now that no priests would come for her. For during those long weeks where she was lost in thought she had remembered whose face she had seen as she entered the prison. The face of Land Priest Jankan. And if a priest had known she was here all this time, then they would not be sending anyone to get her out.
The gift of feathers seemed to give life back to the prisoners. No longer did some stare blankly out their windows. Some would talk softly to each other. To tell of what they would wish for. Some said nothing. If asked they would reply it wouldn't work this time either. And so Jalline learned that the old woman had done the same, and had convinced a few others to do the same, but that when the time came for their wings to be removed, not one sylphii could give them freely, and so the wishes counted for nothing.
Jalline knew it would be hard. Hard to give them up. But she also knew her time was running out. She was the only prisoner left with wings. She had to be next. She knew she would die without her wings, but if by giving them freely she could help the others, then perhaps it was for the best. It wasn't likely that she would ever fly or be free again anyway, so maybe it would be worth it. But it was still hard to image them gone. Each night she would touch her wings. Savor the soft feel of the downy feathers, of the stiff outer feathers. Soak in their color. She had plucked two to keep. One green and one blue, so that she would remember them. Not that she planned on living long after they were gone, but she thought maybe to looking at the feathers would help her forget that they were gone.
It seemed she had been right. A week after giving her feathers away, they finally came for her. Jalline thought she was ready. But how could anyone be ready for this? Fear gripped her heart, but she tried to smile. She couldn't look at the other prisoners. Their eyes said too much. Too much hope, too much fear, too much sympathy. As soon as she saw the lab door, her smile faded and Jalline paled.
There was nothing unusual about the lab. Nothing that would lead anyone to believe what was about to happen would. It was still pristine, white, clean. There not a lot of doctors there. Only two. And only one scientist to record observations. Usually they were all their. All poking and prodding. Perhaps they had done this so many times one more wasn't anything special and so they had gone off to do better things. Jalline didn't care either way. She was just grateful there were so few. She shut her eyes before stepping into the room. She was struggling so hard to stay composed.
She was half-dragged, half-carried across the room and placed on the usual stool. She sat limply, waiting for the words that would end her world. But they didn't come. Instead, the doctors continued to get things ready and the scientist started on a new page of notes. In time one of the doctors asked her to strip and then lay on a table, face down. She nodded her understanding and moved. It was usually like this. Except for the lying on the table part. She hoped that she would be wrong. And then she took a look at the tools next to the table.
The room spun once and Jalline struggled not to loose control. She had to hang on just a little bit longer. Fear wrapped around her spine. She forced herself not to move. If she was going to do this, she would do it right. It was so eerie. No one spoke of what was to happen, but it was obvious. There really was no other reason she could be there. One of the doctors was busy stretching out her wings and clamping them down. Jalline tried not to whimper. The clamps hurt. But she knew it was nothing compared to what was to come. She knew she had to speak soon, or she would lose her nerve entirely. Then next time one of the doctors came close, she spoke,
“Please” Jalline whispered, her mouth horrible dry, she felt like she was going to throw up. But the others were out there hoping, so she found strength to continue, “I give you my wings freely.”
“How odd.” she heard a scientist say. He wrote her words down in his notes. “Did you know that is the first time anyone said that? Usually they are pleading with us by now. Begging for release. Begging to lose an arm or a leg. Anything but their wings. Why, you'd almost think she wanted this.”
Jalline wished she could block out his voice, but she could not. She tried hard not to think at all, but her mind refused to go blank. Little sounds kept intruding. She heard the footsteps of the doctors as they finished preparations. She heard the scribbling of the scientists pen against his paper. She heard the saw as it bit through flesh and bone, catching her by surprise. A gasp escaped her. The sicken noise was accompanied by rolling waves of pain. They rolled over her body, radiating out from her upper right wing. It was over quickly. The final slice was made. The sickening crunch as the bone fully broke away.
Through it all Jalline stayed awake. Locked in a haze of pain. She could swear she was flexing her wing, trying to get the pain to stop. But she couldn't be. Her wing was gone. And finally, with that thought the pain overwhelmed her and she slipped into peaceful unconsciousness.
Jalline awoke later to the sounds of sirens. She opened her eyes. The room swam into focus. Or the floor did. She was on her stomach. Something wasn't quite right. She rolled to her side and the knowledge came crashing down on her. She had no wings. She curled herself up in a ball and just sat staring at the wall for sometime. And then smoke started to curl into the room. Jalline blinked and looked at the door. It was open. There was no one in the room. She didn't even know what room it was. She had never been here before.
She warred with herself. Part of her just wanted to curl up and die. She had lost her wings. What hope did she have of living? But a larger part of her had decided to live. Or at least live long enough to look out into the hall. And so she sat up. There shouldn't be smoke here. There shouldn't be... but there was. Jalline moved to the door. She fell. It wasn't easy to walk. Her sense of balance seemed to be off. Then she remembered the weight of her wings was missing. She didn't know her body was trying to overcompensate for their loss. But she caught on pretty quickly that walking would be out of the question for now. She sat down hard on the floor. The fall jarred her back. It seemed sore, and when she tentatively touched it, it was dry. Her wounds hadn't reopened. At least the doctors had done a good job part of her mind seemed to say. She couldn't even see what they had done. Crawling, Jalline stuck her head out into the hall. The sirens were louder there. And there was more smoke. Was the lab on fire?
Jalline crawled out into the hall and started moving away from the fire. There was no one around. Where was everyone? Had the prisoners escaped? Had their wishes worked? Jalline couldn't stop the flow of questions through her mind. But they stopped soon enough. Crawling was harder than she remembered. Her knees hurt. And she didn't seem to be getting anywhere very fast. Perhaps she could just lay down here for a few minutes and rest... No! She would not rest now. Not until she got outside. And so Jalline started to look for a door. After what seemed like forever she found one. With great care, she pulled herself up and turned the doorknob. Then she fell forward, using her fall to push on the door. It was opening! She tumbled gracelessly from the burning building.
The sunlight seared her eyes. It had been so long since she had seen it. A breeze tugged playfully at her hair. Jalline shut her eyes and tried to hold back the welling of feeling deep inside her. She was free. She had never thought she would be free again. But freedom meant little when you couldn't walk or fly. The loss of what had happened hit her. She curled herself into a ball and cried. She did not know how long she stayed their, wrapped in a ball, oblivious to the world. The wind kept tugging at her, as if to draw her away from the building. But Jalline wouldn't be moved.
When the sun dropped below a mountain peak, did Jalline finally stop crying. Through tear washed eyes she looked around. She had been right. The lab was on the mainland. And it was in the mountains. It seemed to be located on near a ledge. The prison windows must have faced over the cliff. That was how the wind seemed so strong. Jalline slowly uncurled her battered form. Her knees were bruised and stiff. Her arms were in agony. It was better not to think about her back. Slowly, every so slowly, she sat up. She was not by the door anymore. It seemed the wind had moved her. It was obvious why. There was not much left of the building. Flames raged out all the doors and windows, fueling the inferno within. Jalline couldn't imagine anyone surviving that. She hoped they had gotten what they wished for.
Before her eyes could tear up again, Jalline turned and looked towards the cliff edge. It didn't seem too far away. But she knew she could no longer move fast. So she began the agonizing process of crawling to the edge. It was harder to crawl out here than inside. There were no smooth, polished floors. While the grass was pleasant, rocks frequently bit into her hands and legs, causing more pain and bruises. Jalline had to stop several times. She was very weak, and not much accustomed to moving. But she was determined. And so, by the time the moon hung fully overhead, Jalline had made it to the edge of the cliff. She leaned over the top and looked. Darkness obscured everything below. She smiled a desperate smile.
Jalline stood up slowly. She didn't want to fall. As she tottered on the edge, she searched her dress for the feathers she had kept. Somewhere she had lost one. She pulled the other out. It was impossible to tell what color it had been by the light of the moon. Jalline looked up at the moon and started laughing, tears streaming down her face. The moon was full. She could see Anelli and Lanar locking in their embrace. “I'm coming to join you,” she whispered as she jumped off the edge. Almost as an afterthought, she let her feather fall. Perhaps wishes do come true.
End Chapter 1
All feedback is welcome. After all, while I have had this idea for a long time, I am just now putting it into a more concrete form. I plan on getting into the head of various other characters, so any comments would be welcome.