Once there was a king, neither handsome nor kind, whose domain extended through the entire Misty Peak. This kingdom, known then as Zaltana, was splendorous, surrounded by a dense, moist forest and built with heavy pillars to stand atop the mountain like a swing that could fall at any time, but never did. Its abundance was divine, as was the indomitable power of its king, blessed with the ability of turning into a great harpy eagle, or royal-hawk, as his people called it. The hawk-king gets what the hawk-king wants, they used to say.
Yet one day the lord of Zaltana fell ill, choking on his own tar-black blood, and there was no medicine that could soothe his pain. Only one person in the entire kingdom knew the answer to his ailment: Gaíra, he and she, man and woman, healer and witch, hiding in the depths of the forest and capable of turning water into cure. The hawk-king, who trusted none of his subjects, soared through the sky to find the one who could bring his health back.
When he saw Gaíra, kneeling in front of the river, chestnut hair tied into braids, the king was taken by a frenzied desire. Men like him could not just want, they needed to have, so he seized Gaíra by the robes, lifting the witch into the air.
Gaíra struggled, but the hawk-king did not let go, and soon they crossed the mist and arrived in Zaltana’s royal palace. There, he left the unfortunate captive on the stairway, and turned back into himself.
“You will live here now,” he said, before heading inside. “And do as I command.”
A stone fountain sprinkled water against the tiles of the floor, a bleak sight in a bleaker place. There were no trees in Zaltana, only lichen; there was no sunlight, only fog; there was no freedom, only walls, windows, doors. Cool liquid ran through slim fingers, curling around the deep cuts in Gaíra’s arms. The king’s claws had torn into skin and flesh, and now only the river below could heal the wounds he had left.
“King Cauano requests your presence,” said the man standing next to the fountain. His tone was polite, almost comforting, but the cloak of golden linen tied to his shoulder was the symbol of the royal guard.
“I am aware,” Gaíra replied. Water, cold and rewarding, washed the blood and kissed the pain, but no water in the world could clean the memory of another person’s hands.
Moacyr waited for him to continue, but Gaíra ignored him, submerging brown braids into the fountain.
“You heard me.”
“So I did,” Gaíra agreed, disentangling the twin braids. She filled a cupped hand with water, pouring the contents over the top of his own head. “You’d think that the king would like to see me after a bath, not before one.”
Gaíra could feel Moacyr thinking behind her like an oven filling the room with smoke. It would have been amusing if Gaíra wasn’t furious, consumed by desire to leave that dreadful palace.
“You think too loud,” he said, looking over her bare shoulder. Moacyr seemed unsettled. Did the man believe him capable of reading minds?
“I would like to ask you not to pry into my head.”
Gaíra chuckled. “I will try.”
Moacyr walked toward her, carrying a towel so large it could dry two people at once, and covered the healer with it.
“King Cauano wants to meet you,” he insisted. “I will not speak again.”
The moving surface of the water looked into Gaíra’s eyes, understanding him like an old friend. Gaíra smiled at it and stood up, accepting the harsh linen of the robe Moacyr had used to cover her nakedness.
Now he was ready, or at least, as ready as one could possibly be. Unlike the fountain, the king’s chambers were located on the second floor of the palace, and had no walls, only pillars to support the ceiling. The wind howled, threatening to tear the building apart, but the furniture made no sign of moving.
Moacyr grasped one of the pillars, trying to stay on his feet. It was interesting to see that even royal guards were affected by the raging current of the air, despite living and dying there. With effort, the guard offered his free arm for Gaíra to hold and began to walk again.
“Only the king can fight the currents.” Moacyr continued through the corridor that led to the chamber. Gaíra’s hair, once humid and dripping, was rapidly turning dry, and shivers ran down her spine.
The chamber was at the end of the second floor, near the cliff that permitted the king to have a full view of the mountain. Cauano waited there, lying lazily in a hammock. A man who can fly cannot fear falling, Gaíra realized.
“Tell me,” the king said without greeting them. “Is it true that you can make any illness go away?”
“Even the ones brought by the gods themselves, hawk-king,” Gaíra answered, bowing his head.
Despite his sickness, the king was strong like a boulder, his olive skin thick like leather, his face and chest covered in dark hair. Worse were his hooded eyes, somewhere between brown and green, piercing into her.
“Come closer,” King Cauano commanded. His square fingers closed around Gaíra’s wrist, pulling the other closer. Gaíra fell to his knees in front of the hammock, upturned eyes focusing only on the cliff ahead. When they were face to face, Cauano slapped Gaíra’s limp hand against his chest. “Can you feel it? Can you feel me rotting from the inside? I heard you can read minds.”
On other, far more pleasant occasions, Gaíra would have explained that it was not possible for a human being to read others’ thoughts. This time, however, smelling death in Cauano’s breath and watching as his fingers left white marks in her copper skin, Gaíra failed to speak. Instead, he stared back into Cauano’s deep-set eyes.
“So you can feel it.”
“That you are dying? Yes, I can.”
Gaíra saw Moacyr shifting from one leg to the other out of the corner of her eye. Maybe it was for the best, indeed, to let them believe…
Cauano held him tighter, and her arm stung with pain.
“And what can you do about it, water-bearer?”
“I was born with the ability to manipulate water with my bare hands,” Gaíra explained, feeling a burning sensation where the king had touched. This time, instead of allowing Cauano to keep hurting him, Gaíra put both of her hands to the man’s chest, feeling his weakened pulse. Water flowed from the tips of his fingers to the end of her toes, as if the river itself had travelled up the peak for them.
The hawk-king was not as threatening now that he gaped, mesmerized, watching water coming from nowhere to wet his chest and the hammock beneath him.
“Some believe this water to be medicinal, whatever the ailment,” Gaíra whispered, black eyes against Cauano’s almost-green.
“Moacyr,” King Cauano said, rubbing the liquid against his own stomach. “See that our guest will have a room close to mine, the nearest you can get. As for you, water-bearer… I hope you like it here.”
A depressing routine began. During the day, Gaíra had to be followed closely by Moacyr, whose new function was to watch him at all times and grant her every wish. If he wished for a different meal, Moacyr would demand the kitchen cook a new one. If she desired new robes, Moacyr would order the handmaids to fetch their best clothes. The king said Gaíra ought to be treated like royalty, but at night, he was a commoner, and had to stay in the king’s chamber.
For weeks, clear water soaked Gaíra’s hands, and she brought it to the king’s lips. The king ran his hands over Gaíra’s body, mouth kissing the fluid sprouting from bone and skin.
Soon, the king began to feel well. He no longer coughed black blood, and there were days he felt invigorated enough to hunt on his own, returning with a jaguar, a capybara, a tapir. And with the hunting came the parties, and with the parties came a week full of celebrations in the name of the king’s health, parties that continued from morning to night.
Roars of laughter filled the lower floor of the palace. Below, no one seemed to care about the haunting cries of the wind hammering the stone, only about the inordinate portions of food and the sweet wine mixed with açaí berry, offered to guests and guards alike.
Gaíra sighed, leaning against one of the pillars of the uppermost floor. Moacyr had been kind enough to make a temporary wall of furniture for him, but she didn’t feel any safer. Sometimes, it felt like the wind could completely carry him away, as if she was nothing but a flower in the eye of a hurricane.
“Chaotic, don’t you think?”
Moacyr had not been invited to the party downstairs. He had to watch over Gaíra whenever the water-bearer left the king’s side, as if Gaíra could escape the prison he was now in.
“I think,” Gaíra answered, barely able to hear either of their voices. Moacyr sat on the floor, hugging one of his knees and holding a wineskin with his free hand.
“Well, let them have fun,” Moacyr announced, lifting the leather bag, alcohol dripping from his hand. “And let us rot up here!”
“You are drunk, Moacyr,” Gaíra said, slowly choosing the thinnest pieces of fried manioc in the tray. That had been all she had tasted from the celebration: a bowl of fried manioc, and a bowl of sweet paçoca.
“You’d be drunk too if you had been demoted to a handmaid after serving the king for so many years,” Moacyr smirked, but he sounded more pitiful than anything else. He touched the back of his shaved head, pressing his neck like he was in pain.
“I cannot imagine how much you must be suffering, truly,” Gaíra said with a half smile. His voice sounded as blank as she had expected it to.
Moacyr took a large gulp of wine, and looked into Gaíra’s eyes.
“I admit we are in this together. A strange duo, if you think of it!” He waved the wineskin, and scarlet droplets flew to the floor. “A soldier pretending to be a maid, and a prisoner forced to heal their captor. The king’s right and left hands. Fancy some wine?”
“No, thank you.”
“To our good fortune,” Moacyr said, drinking what was left of the alcohol.
Gaíra smashed the sugary ground peanut of the paçoca between his fingers, letting the crumbs fall into the bowl.
“Must be disappointing, I bet,” Gaíra began. Her narrow eyes, as dark as they could be, analyzed every detail of Moacyr: his curved nose, his wide mouth, his twitching fingers, his black skin. “To have believed that your life would be back to normal when the king felt better.”
“Stop reading my mind,” Moacyr groaned, visibly inebriated. Gaíra crawled to his side, and took the empty wineskin from his hands.
“Oh, but it was disappointing, wasn’t it? You thought I would deny him his wish.”
The guard closed his eyes for five long seconds, pressing his lips together. “Well, that wouldn’t be unexpected, would it?” Moacyr, who usually spoke very little, forced visual contact, and Gaíra could see his bloodshot eyes even in the darkness. “I hate that bloody tyrant.”
Cauano soared through the sky, his lead-coloured wings spread, penetrating layers of mist. Gaíra watched from the palace; seeing him fly was nothing like the burst of genuine power of his transformation, but it was a spectacle still. Minutes ago, the king’s burly arms had turned flat, bending joints and rearranging bones, his chest was covered by thick white feathers, and his beard and nose melted to form a down-turned beak. And then he rose into the air with a sharp cry.
“I blame you,” Moacyr spoke close to his ear, not to unsettle her, but because he knew better than to say such things out loud. “You and your miserable water.”
“I did what I needed to do,” Gaíra murmured, touching the end of his own braids. “I do not question the stars.”
Moacyr burst into laughter. It wasn’t like the easy grin of his drunken self, but a bitter and distasteful laugh. The guard chewed on a handful of cashew nuts, also observing the prideful display of the harpy eagle ahead.
“It could have been me,” Moacyr said out of nowhere, his voice raspy with a feeling Gaíra could not quite comprehend. Was it envy? Regret? “Would you believe if I tell you that, in the past, Cauano and I were brothers in arms? Way before he even dreamed of being king, there was no one who could fight him besides me.”
“I guess things have not ended too well.”
“No. He was always the strongest of us.”
Moacyr sat on the border of the second floor, his long legs dangling from the stone, almost as if he wanted to fall. Gaíra sat by his side, and waved her hand weakly when he thought the harpy eagle glanced at her.
“Maybe it wouldn’t be too bad, falling from here.” Gaíra’s voice was but a whisper, and his brown hair fluttered with the wind.
“Oh, a hawk would catch you, worry not. But Gaíra…”
“What on Earth did you mean when you said you do not question the stars?”
The sky above them was bright blue, partially covered by dense white clouds that made Gaíra feel like the sun would never kiss her face again. After a small pause, he smiled at Moacyr.
“Our lives are commanded by the stars, and I was born under a rather fickle one.” Gaíra closed her eyes, feeling for the first time the wind enveloping him like the water did, caressing her face as softly as a kind lover would. “Born in the middle of summer, on a windswept day. My parents left me to die in the river, but here I am.”
“I fail to see how that has anything to do with you not only healing him, but making him even stronger than he was before.”
“We will see.”
“Wait,” Moacyr said, shaking Gaíra by the shoulder. “You are reading my mind again, aren’t you?”
Gaíra smiled. “What, are you trying to keep me out?”
And so went their days, with the king drinking his magical water every night to turn even mightier. Cauano abandoned all his fears—there was no warrior too strong, no beast too wild. There was no woman or man he could not have. He drank, and ate, and fought, seizing all pleasures life could give him, until a miracle happened at last.
Gaíra waited for the king near the pillars that supported the palace of Zaltana. Below there was an endless abyss, from which the harpy eagle emerged, crossing the fog. It was part of their daily life: Gaíra would wait, and the king would transform in midair, making anyone believe he could still fly, even in his human form.
Then, he would trap Gaíra in his arms, and ignore how cold and unfeeling he was, and would take her thin hand to his mouth. “Water,” he would demand, addicted to the fulfilling elixir that had cleared his body from that putrefied blood. “Give it to me.”
This time, instead of majestically setting foot on the stone and with part of his body still out of the palace, King Cauano transformed, disgruntled, and fell to one heavy knee. He grabbed his own chest, coughing, scratching, trying to get whatever was inside of him out, but fell back.
Gaíra had no time to react. When he realized what had happened, the handmaids were already screaming for help. She looked down to see Cauano’s lifeless body near the cliff, almost close enough to fall to the forest, but the king was carried back by five soldiers, all trying to bear his massive size.
Moacyr stared at the corpse. He had tried to save Cauano, jumping from the second floor without any care for his own life. The problem had not been the distance between the uppermost floor and the peak of the mountain, which was not much, but that he could have easily slipped on the wet ground. But it had not been enough to fall and roll, skin his arms, and sprain his wrist. The king was already dead, no matter what he did.
He thought it had been a heart attack. Now, looking at Cauano’s open chest, cut from the neck to the end of the belly, Moacyr understood the truth. Cauano was filled to the brim with a black and greasy substance, his bones darkened and aged, and the smell that came from his organs could make anyone pass out.
“The water witch will not escape this one, oh no,” one of the physicians told Moacyr. “You know very well what they have done.”
Moacyr touched Cauano’s face, and closed his empty, unfocused eyes. He did know what Gaíra had done, or he guessed, but he would not be able to act if the water-bearer was accused of treason first.
“Now is not the time to point fingers,” Moacyr simply said. “It is time to grieve.”
He walked out of the room toward the entrance hall. The faces around him were wrathful, mutinous, shocked, tearful; they had reached the same conclusion the other healers had. Moacyr climbed the stairs, jumping five at a time. He had to be quicker than them.
“Gaíra! Come here!”
The water-bearer was lying in the king’s hammock. One of his arms dangled outside of the palace dangerously, and her fingers played with the wind. Only now Moacyr could see the toll the last months had on Gaíra: his skin was pale brown, and dark circles surrounded her beady black eyes. His hair, once full, was limp, but she looked just as beautiful as he had been on the first day, only sick.
“You are no longer safe here, now that the king is gone.”
“As you know, I cannot escape,” Gaíra said with a faint smile. “But I am surprised to hear that you care.”
“There is a way.”
Moacyr had to do it now, before they burned the king’s body. He lifted Gaíra by the shoulders, and placed her at the edge of the stone floor.
“It might hurt.”
“I am not afraid,” Gaíra whispered. For once, it was nice to see some expression in his face.
Moacyr stared at the cliff, at the bed of mist lying ahead, and pushed Gaíra over the edge, jumping after her. The chilly air hit his face, and he felt it, like he had felt only once, many years ago: spikes sprouting from his arms, chest, back, piercing, covering him with feathers as black as the starry night. His aquiline nose hardened, his deep brown eyes became yellow, and white spots sprinkled his tail and wings.
He was not as large as Cauano, but he managed to hold Gaíra with his legs. The healer, who now felt as light as a child, thrashed at first, but then held onto Moacyr’s claws, allowing him to continue his flight. Soon, they were in the forest, crossing the crown of the trees that looked like shadows in the dark.
Moacyr left Gaíra on the ground, drops of blood falling on the grass.
“Moacyr,” Gaíra said, caressing the head of the ornate hawk-eagle. “You never said…”
Moacyr turned back into a man. His skin was almost as dark as his magnificent black wings, and it glittered indigo blue under the moonlight. Gaíra touched his face, feeling one of the cuts near his mouth.
“You are very hurt,” Gaíra murmured, cleaning the sweat off Moacyr’s cheek. Water began to run from his hand, washing away the pain that had taken over Moacyr’s limbs. It sprang from her nails, from his palm, from her knuckles, from his wrist. It touched and healed, wetting every part of Moacyr’s body that had been broken not only in the fall, but in the difficult task that was turning into a bird.
“Thank you,” Moacyr answered, parting lips to drink from her fingertips. He had never done anything as bold in his life, and he doubted if he would still have one afterward. “Tastes like blood.”
“That would be your fault.” Gaíra sounded amused, and pointed at the cuts that claws had ripped in his arms. “You should use your gift for a good purpose. Cauano could have done the same, but it was his choice not to do so.”
Moacyr washed his own face and head with the water that came from Gaíra, and looked at the shape of the healer, frail and soft under the moon and stars.
“Like you do?” Moacyr placed his hands over Gaíra’s, and the liquid sprayed her arms as well.
Gaíra smiled, warmer than before.
“Are you trying to read my mind, Moacyr?”
Moacyr smiled back, and pulled a chestnut braid playfully, unsure of how to continue.
“Well, I think this is farewell,” he said, and turned his back. “Something will happen tonight in Zaltana, for good or bad. Take care of yourself, Gaíra.”
Gaíra filled one of his cupped hand with water, and raised it like a glass. “To the good fortune of our new king.”
Again, Moacyr was engulfed by feathers, his body twisting into that of a great black hawk-eagle, and soon he could not see Gaíra anymore. The forest became distant, so distant… The only thing he could feel was the currents, flowing his way. Once again, Zaltana had no ruler, and only the strongest had the power to become the next hawk-king.
Story copyright © 2019 by H. Pueyo
Artwork copyright © 2019 by Diana M. Chien
H. Pueyo is a South American writer of comics and speculative fiction. Her work has appeared before in print and online venues like Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and The Dark. She currently lives in Brazil with her husband and their interminable piles of work to do.
Diana M. Chien is an illustrator, writer, and science educator. She leads an educational program at MIT. Her illustration work is mainly in watercolour; both her art and writing embrace natural, darkly fantastical, and surreal elements.