1. An unwanted blessing.
There is a vagabond sleeping in the king’s forests, huddled in a cradle of tree roots. If you creep upon them when they don’t expect it—and you must be very quiet, since their hearing is excellent—you might glimpse their fey face. Smooth skin, made ashen by sunless winter. Long eyelashes. The vagabond has shapely lips, but they never smile. Their hair has gone white.
Make sure to leave before they wake up. They don’t take kindly to strangers, and the sight of their clear blue eyes is not worth getting shot.
But—imagine them rising from their burrow. They comb their hair back with their only hand. One sleeve of their overcoat is pinned at their chest. When they stand up to shake the sleep out of their body, dreams fall from under the coat like snowflakes. Their gait is brisk but stiff, but if every step hurts them, they don’t show it. They keep walking with a shotgun strapped to their back and a haunted look on their face.
They’re moving through the most difficult time of the year, when the snow has melted away but the earth herself is still exhausted from fighting the cold; when the soil wakes up frozen solid in the mornings. When the first flocks cross the sky, but there is no triumph in their call, just exhaustion. This is where death seems imminent, on the very cusp of spring. What can I say? Life is costly. It’s hungry. Every year, we dance the same dance.
But let’s not forget the vagabond.
A gunshot cuts through morning air. The vagabond walks through the grass, and can you imagine how they walk? That relentless certainty—and before you know, they lean over their prey. It’s a duck, its jewel-toned neck glinting in the morning sun. The vagabond stares at it, nudging its wings with the toe of their boot. The plumes open up and fall like a limp fan against the frozen grass, leaving the barrel-like chest open.
With one boot digging into the bird’s wishbone, the vagabond starts pulling out feathers. Whole fistfuls of them, until the clearing is strewn with plumes and the down coats it like gentle snow. There is nothing gentle about the vagabond. They tear, and tear, and tear those feathers out. You’d be mistaken to see violence in them, though; it’s only methodical pulling, as if their body became machinery designed to complete this single task.
When the vagabond is done, they select the longest feathers and carefully wrap them in a cloth, and hide the parcel beneath their overcoat. They leave the carcass behind, the meat untouched. Soon some fox will feast upon it in this unkind moment of the year; and it doesn’t matter what the vagabond has left behind, you only need to remember what they’ve taken. But for now, leave them alone as they disappear into the forest again, smelling faintly of sweat, bird fat trailing down onto their boots.
2. A deliberate mistake.
The scholar counts her days out of necessity, but every day looks the same. In her beautiful apartments, she’s prisoner to her many clocks, the rhythms of celebrations, her duties. Oh, I’m not saying it’s not a cushioned life; it surely is. You and I both know many people who would give anything to live in this luxury. Hot baths every week, just imagine! The scholar eats modest meals, but she never has to worry about her plate being empty. Once in a year, she dines with the king and his children. The king has six sons. They say one of the sons has a violent streak, and another has no interest in finding a partner, and another has found a sweetheart in another country already, but the scholar isn’t picky. She’d take even the violent one. Don’t look so surprised—if you were her, wouldn’t you try to marry one of them, any of them, really?
But let’s leave those half-baked marital plans. They’re hardly the most interesting thing about the scholar.
She puts on her somber working clothes, all soft greys, and steps out into the morning sun by the time it has melted the veneer of ice from the city windows. She greets the city—no, not the people, not many really come to her, but she greets the place that gave shelter and reverence. Dare I say, it gave her fame?
In turn, she keeps the city safe. It is a duty that lies heavy on her shoulders, but she fulfills it with her eyes set on the future, steadfast, never wavering. She can’t afford to waver, you know.
She walks across the city, leaving the palace halls behind. Instead, she enters the citadel, where guards reside. They let her in, into the capital’s ugly heart of hearts, where a shivering girl paces her cell. This cell is hardly ever empty. The guards make sure that there’s always a girl in this burrow, deep under the city, with layers of stone and rock between her and the good city-folk.
The scholar takes this girl by the hand, as if checking her pulse. The girl’s wrist is thin like a twig. To think that such a creature could threaten the kingdom! But it happened once, and the king won’t have it again. Thus he sends for his trusted scholar to be his judge.
The two women eye each other. Something changes in the scholar: her heart grows hard, as if someone has squeezed it tight, frozen it for a fraction of a second. Then the cold is gone, and the scholar is herself again, and the girl’s future is decided.
“Not a witch.”
Nobody asks how the scholar knows. Surely she’s been schooled in the science of spotting the witchery—years and years of bending her back over wise tomes. But she never explains her verdicts. They just are.
(She has many other secrets, but we’ll get to them in time.)
On her way back, she remembers the other girls, seeks in her memory for something outstanding about them. She does not enjoy prosecuting witches, but she wants to know them, to understand them. Why, she asks herself, why can they lift from the ground when she cannot? (She studied medicine once, but it did not give her any answers. She decided she might as well chase magic.)
In front of the king, she regains command of her face. Whatever was there, she’s tucked it away; the king might be powerful, but he isn’t used to peering into her face like this. He only wants his answer, and she gives him that.
“She’s not a witch. Your people made a mistake,” she says.
Ah: the king. I haven’t introduced him yet. It would be easy to call him cruel, but he’s more than that. He does not know any language other than grief, and yes, he’s selfish and violent in his mourning. Why? Well, this isn’t a story about him.
“I need her to be a witch,” he says.
He doesn’t need a witch. He needs a warning to the people, which is all the same, really, given how shy magic usually manifests. The scholar bows, a curt movement. She knows how easily she could be called a witch, too, if she doesn’t comply.
3. A mercy for the end of the cruellest season.
The ordeal of winter is almost over. The earth heaves again under the weight of the sky, and breathes out tendrils of fresh grass. The sun is more eager to rise in the mornings and it stays on the firmament a little longer, too. You can’t taste exhaustion on the air anymore; there’s just the fresh, green flavour of life.
The vagabond watches those changes, their eyes hazy, as if it was a great blasphemy that the world dares move forward. But the vagabond is moving, too. They’re migrating, the same way some birds migrate. Every day brings them closer to the capital. Their instinct is calling. And so the vagabond moves with it, trailing plumes of all kinds of birds you could imagine, the empty sleeve of their coat fluttering gently in the wind, the heavy barrel of their gun over their shoulder. You will notice they don’t unbutton the overcoat, even as it grows damp with sweat.
They reach their destination on the first day of spring, when the city is ablaze with festivities. We’ve survived another year, it’s singing in its many voices. Its flags flutter with pleasure in the breeze. A person like our vagabond has nothing to look for in the capital. They must belong to the forests, the unbridled vegetation. Aren’t you worried they’d get lost in the city streets? Won’t the white limestone blind them? Besides, there are almost no birds in the city sky.
And yet. The vagabond moves through the crowd with a sense of purpose. They’re moved by the same kind of energy that precedes their killing. They walk past stands of food—although their stomach must be rumbling—and ignore the workshops where they could mend their shoes. No, the cobblestones under their ragged soles don’t bother them. Their feet don’t yield to dance tunes. They have a destination, and their heart pulls them in its direction, and there’s no stopping on the way. Not when the barrel itches for ignition and the vagabond knows they’ve been walking towards the capital, this point, this person, all along.
You can see them when they try out alleyways in the central district, checking their aim. Yes, they are here to kill. Perhaps we should call them a hunter instead? Because they are on the hunt.
They join the procession again, dive into the crowd of good citizens. You’re even forgiven for thinking the look on their face is rapture; and maybe they are enraptured by what they’re imagining is going to happen.
They’ve been in love with this idea for years: a single scene honed to perfection in their mind. A fallen king. A beginning blooming from his blood.
Is this a fair ending, you ask?
Will it bring peace to the vagabond? Oh, child, they don’t know anything but grief and anger at this point. The hunger for killing is the only one in their heart, too; but their body knows another hunger, the most basic one, a hunger of bitter winters, not sweetened by acorns or nuts found in frozen ground.
And so, just as they raise the gun on the king’s litter and lock their eyes on the embroidered collar around the king’s shoulders, they collapse on the street. That in itself is not uncommon, as in any city that feeds itself on injustice, and rents its shadows to lost, nameless people. But few beggars are handed the mixed blessing of collapsing by the feet of the king’s favourite scholar.
4. A calculated kindness.
Here’s another of the scholar’s secrets: she holds a little magic herself. Sometimes, the future comes to her in glimpses, fleeting sights in the corner of her eye.
I told you she studied the natural sciences once, much to her dismay; the academics could not give her the answers she wanted. But before that, she was also a witch’s apprentice. You might have guessed she wasn’t particularly good at it.
Judge her all you want, but don’t undermine her real talent in anticipating what others want to hear. She’s playing a high-stakes game, lying to the king—about herself and, sometimes, about the girls she finds in the prison cell. But she’s gotten to know the king intimately, better than any of his two dead wives, and can tell him exactly what he needs to hear. Most often, it’s reassurance. But every now and then she also needs to evoke a sense of danger, so that the king would feel important and threatened and yes, a little on edge.
There have always been ambitious girls who would lie to build themselves a life. There have also been girls who learned too late that the world doesn’t want to see their glowing gifts.
But I digress. The scholar’s business is a tricky one, and it’s easy to slip when one moves within a circular time in jaded steps. She keeps a diary where she notes down what she’s said to the king so that she won’t repeat herself too often. Perhaps nobody would notice if she did, but she won’t risk it.
She keeps another diary, with her true prophecies. This diary could bring her to the stake.
Now, with the vagabond at her feet, she’s facing another kind of risk. The king is looking at her, so are the servants and the city folk—and what’s she to do? Her steps are always being watched.
“I’ll give them shelter,” she says, loudly, using the special voice she uses for the king. What she means is: I’ll make sure your kingdom will be safe. She even bends down and helps the vagabond upwards, feeling the stiff, filthy fabric of their coat under her delicate hands. The stranger smells—of stale sweat and acrid fat, of the forest, of pine sap—but she’s smiling, the radiant smile of somebody who did the right thing.
And it is a glorious scene, a show of mercy. But then she’s stuck with the stranger who can barely move their body, and the stink fills up her apartments.
And yet. She has to keep playing.
5. A secret freely given.
The vagabond wakes up in a bath. Their first instinct is to run, but their body is heavy, pleasantly heavy, and the heat seeps into their emaciated limbs. Then they realize their hidden wing—for it’s a wing they’ve been hiding under the overcoat—is hanging over the basin’s edge, its feathers a shock of white. The vagabond blinks, but it’s too late to hide, and the stranger woman is sitting in the opposite corner of the room, looking at them with curiosity.
“You’re the king’s lost child,” she states as her eyes study their wing.
The vagabond shrugs. They haven’t spoken in this tongue for a long time, and they don’t trust the words not to betray them yet.
“Your nettle-shirt was not ready on time, and the spell is still coursing through your blood,” the scholar continues in the same dispassionate tone.
“You look an awful lot like my stepmother,” they finally say.
She winces. “I’m not a witch.”
“Witch, scholar, same difference. Funny that Father didn’t notice this about you. But he sees only what he wants to see, as always. The world outside his view should conveniently disappear.”
“I’m not like her,” she says with disgust.
The vagabond shrugs again. “Too bad.”
For a long while, they sit in uncomfortable silence. It hasn’t occurred to the scholar she might leave and give her guest some privacy. She still views them like a specimen, her subject, and it’s nearly impossible to tear her gaze off the way human arm changes into bird wing.
“I could use a witch,” the unwilling guest speaks, more to themself than to her.
“There are no witches left,” she says. “The king made sure of it.”
The vagabond’s blue eyes turn hard. “There are always witches.”
She smiles thinly. “And people intertwined with spells, longing for stronger magic?”
The vagabond puts their hand over their heart, where the spell thrums gently. It has set roots deep in their body, and it produces sweet sap. They’re one now, the vagabond princeling and the spell, and they know why the king is prosecuting witches. If there’s no one to cast spells, then the princeling must come home, forget their folly, and act like the favourite heir should.
Oh yes, the king is afraid of witches. He can be charmed like any other man. But he is also afraid of his child, of what they became. And their child dreams of a world without the king, where witches emerge from their hiding and spells taste sweet on the wind. In that world, the vagabond could take flight again.
“Is your magic strong enough to make me a wing?” they ask.
The scholar surely knows what a lucky chance looks like when it falls into her hands.
“I could build you one,” she says. The lie smoothly rolls off her tongue.
6. A portrait painted in truths, promptly destroyed.
A scatter of feathers covers the floor. Brown like common ducks, white like geese, secretly iridescent like magpies, even tufts of russet like robins’ throats: the vagabond’s trophies are no longer tucked under their overcoat. The scholar bends and moves one of the longest feathers, reshapes the wing. She’s been preparing blueprints, even built a few wicker models of a wing that would bend and fan out. None of the models has worked so far. None will.
“What are you planning to do with the wing?” she asks her guest, who lies on a cot, sleepy, their wing lean and narrow.
They shrug. “You haven’t guessed already?”
“You want to fly into the palace and kill the king,” she says lightly, but she’s turned away, so that they can’t see the look in her eye. It’s not a joke. Not a taunt. An ugly, honest, naked wish. Yes, she would try to kill the king herself if she wasn’t destroying his kingdom from the inside. For him, she made herself into a new person.
He, in turn, didn’t even notice—so caught up in his insistence of purging the kingdom of the memory of his second wife, the witch, grown old in his pretence of normalcy. There was supposed to be a happy ending after his children were returned to him; but the pain is still there, and so is shame, and one of the children didn’t want to come back.
“You could take his place,” she muses. “You could live in the palace. It could all be yours.”
“I couldn’t. I won’t.” Their expression hardens.
She steps over the feathers, gathers the blueprints in her arms. “Why not?”
“I don’t belong there,” they say smoothly, a practised response.
“Do we belong anywhere, ever?”
She makes a vague gesture. We. Freaks. People from the margins. People who are allowed to belong, but only conditionally.
I want you to look at the scholar in this moment, and see the terror behind her guarded eyes. She let her mask slip again. She knows that this could take her straight to the stake, and she has no desire to feel flames curl around her toes and eat her up. She said we, but she didn’t mean it. She doesn’t know communality—it doesn’t exist between her and the vagabond, nor between her and the imprisoned witch-girls. She will claw her way to survival leaving corpses behind, if need be.
“Never mind. Let’s keep working,” she says, and leans over the wing that she knows won’t work.
7. A cage studded with gemstones.
There is a wall surrounding the palace; behind it, a lush garden clings to the limestone. You could almost forget there is a wall, when all you see is the bursting green. Behind the leaves, unfurling in early spring, sit two of the king’s sons. Their third brother is practising archery.
You’d never know they were once swans. They behave so normally. So proper. They smile the careless smiles of boys for whom the world is a gift to be unpacked. If there was a threat to their uncomplicated, rediscovered humanity, they’d kill it.
Their sibling watches them from the rooftops, a scratched spyglass in their hand.
They could go there, be with their brothers. Shoot arrows; swans are not predators, but the talent to kill clearly runs in the family. And maybe making themself palatable for the sake of the court would not be such a high price. It doesn’t seem high, to be given a chance at normalcy.
And even if one day someone would suggest removing the wing? Would some surgeon bring their blades and saw through the place where human and bird bones are fused together?
Bird bones are brittle. The wing is smooth and light, like a sail waiting for a gust of wind. To the vagabond, it’s the epitome of beauty. But there’s little dividing beauty and monstrosity, especially in the court.
They wonder if their siblings miss them—do they wonder what happened to the youngest one? Do they write letters that will never be sent? What does the court know? Ah, that oppressive, stifling place, where you can live comfortably. The price isn’t high, until you realize what it actually is.
8. A dead end.
Building the wing that will not work, the scholar thinks about her mother.
About how she seduced the king, power-hungry, and plain hungry, too, leaving behind a child. That child, a freaky girl who spoke of uncertain futures, later saw her mother burned at the stake. The girl escaped from the fire, and cut her hair, and learned to speak differently, but memories of those years cling to her all the same.
Have another of the scholar’s secrets: she wants to forgive her mother. She would come back for motherly love and forget being abandoned, if given a chance. When her mother was burning, she stood in the crowd, waiting for one kind word.
(Did this waiting turn her heart to stone, you ask? Perhaps. But we can chisel away at the stone from the inside. We’ve all done this before.)
She lies awake at night and considers her escape. What could happen if the vagabond succeeds? Which of the six brothers will follow them and swear revenge? How many girls will die for suspected witchery? It’s better to let the vagabond crash to their death.
In the daylight, the two conspirators talk of their plans and of king-killing.
The vagabond likes their rifles, but they balance a needle-thin blade in their hand just fine. They practise the choreography of steps: landing, thrusting, killing. The scholar notes down her prophecies, and calculates how many witches she will need to avoid the king’s suspicions. She builds the useless wing. She will make sure that the vagabond dies. This will be a mercy.
She reminds herself that this stranger is not her sibling, that shared weirdness does not bind them together. (You’re welcome to disagree.) All the same, her work proceeds slowly, as if her body rebels against the outcome. The days drag on. She watches her guest dance with that thin blade, and thinks about the moment when her fate was sealed. When her mother ran away, perhaps. She became the person others saw in her.
The vagabond practises, slashing the air. They balance with their one wing, the other’s skeleton attached to their arm. It looks like a court dance. You’d think they should be wearing the softest cloak. They keep dancing, dancing.
“What will you do after the king is dead?”
The vagabond stops mid-motion, blade raised in the air. “What?”
“After the king is dead,” she repeats, pronouncing each word carefully.
If you saw their face in that moment, you would know how they never considered any “afterwards”. The concept itself is hazy to them at best.
“I don’t think there will be an afterwards,” they finally say.
“Do you want an afterwards?”
They shrug. Their wing flutters. “There will be an afterwards for others like me. This has to be good enough.”
The only ending they can imagine is the one where they die, you see. Otherwise the story would drag on, and look where theirs got them: hanging between bird and human, dreaming of soaring on warm winds, with a body too heavy. And besides, isn’t it the fate of freaks to die after they deliver their lines?
(Trust me: it isn’t.)
“What if there was one for you—” the scholar-witch says, but the vagabond cuts her off.
“We don’t have time for idle talk.”
9. An unravelling beginning.
The vagabond keeps practising their dance until it’s the night before the celebration. The blade in their hands is a sibling to shooting stars: it bites into the practice sack. You’ve never seen a killing so elegant, so perfect. And yet, despite this perfection, the vagabond lies restless at night.
Their host can’t sleep, either. She stays in bed until pale autumn light starts trickling in, the sunrise still barely a promise. Then she gets up and takes out her ceremonial robes.
She rips the gems off the hem, one by one. She’ll need to sell them when she runs. Rubies drip from between her fingers.
The vagabond rises from their cot, the blade already in their hand, a quizzical furrow to their brow.
“Never mind,” she says, ashamed to be caught in her moment of cowardice. She drops the rubies to the floor, and helps the vagabond with the harness and the wing.
There are so, so many straps, digging into the vagabond’s body. The scholar has intimate knowledge of all the places where she’s weakened the structure, where the harness is not supposed to hold. She can foretell the shape of broken bones.
(And yet you forgive her. You’re thinking she’s composed of things she’s been given. She doesn’t know any other way, only the circle of other people’s unfortunate pasts becoming her future. And the vagabond doesn’t know other ways either, or they wouldn’t run across the country to resort to the only response their father knew, killing.)
The vagabond touches their blade. They can’t be anxious, not on this day of execution.
On the flat roof, they spread their wings with a sigh. In that moment, they’re most beautiful of all: a beauty that cannot be contained, that eludes words, that is too raw to behold. The witch’s daughter stands across from them in her torn, tattered robe, trailing rubies behind her.
They both devised this plan. At times, it’s been exhilarating to work together, to talk, to find the exact words and feel understood. They gave each other that moment before the plunge, a small consolation in a world full of thieves and back-stabbers.
There will be nothing more than the hand they’ve been dealt. They can only lose. The scholar learned this lesson early on.
But—what if we entertain a different scenario, just for a little while?
The scholar walks to her guest, almost to the end of the roof. She leans her cheek on the smoothness of feathers. Her work is indistinguishable from the real wing, and yet she’s never been less proud of herself.
For a second, she embraces her guest. Their heart flutters like a bird’s. Their skin is too warm.
They both have built themselves a life out of their past. But if they could transmute it into something else?
It won’t be by magic. She has too little magic. But she’d engineer a new future. She’d find it.
“Stay,” she says into the dawn. “Stay.”
Story copyright © 2019 by Karolina Fedyk
Artwork copyright © 2019 by Grace P. Fong
Karolina Fedyk writes speculative fiction and poetry about lost histories, found families, and futures born out of resistance and resilience. Their work has been published in Fireside Fiction and Strange Horizons, among other venues, and they’re a Viable Paradise alum. Their debut novel, Skrzydła, was published in Poland this year by SQN Imaginatio. They enjoy knitting, LARP, and looking for owls and kestrels.
Grace P. Fong or “Fictograph” is a Hugo-nominated illustrator and concept artist living in Vancouver, Canada. She makes covers for speculative fiction magazines and anthologies as well as promotional art for authors. Recent clients include Strange Horizons, Lackington’s, Paul Kreuger, and Kiersten White. Her work has been shown at Light Grey Art Lab, Q-Pop, and The Hive. “Bone Ink,” her upcoming short comic with Rhiannon Rasmussen-Smith, will be published in Iron Circus’s You Died anthology. In her minimal spare time, she also writes, travels, eats, and annoys her cat.