Chapter One

Chapter One

A Chapter by Korteni Free
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The slaves escape and Nicola loses her home.

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It was as if they were gods. Winged beings that soared high above the golden cities that we had been forced to build. They were beautiful, with all shades of gold woven into their hair, and all shades of green trapped in their eyes. They were our masters. We were their slaves.

            They forced us to labor, every day, under hot sun and burning whip. We were forced to build their cities, their palaces. Monuments to their past dominion over us. They had been here for a few decades or so, having conquered our small village with overwhelming force. I wasn’t alive then, of course. I heard the stories from my mother. Even a long day of working in the kitchens and scrubbing floors couldn’t deter her from sitting me down and telling me of happier times, when we were free.

            “Ah, I remember a time when we wouldn’t have to scrounge for these herbs.” she would say as she soaked her hands in healing rosemary and chamomile.

            I bounced on her knees happily. “Tell me about the festivals again, Mama!”

            She smiled, fatigue burrowing deep into the lines on her face. “You never tire of hearing about those, do you?” I shook my head, blonde locks flicking me in the face. I did not yet know what those locks would bring to me, being young and more naïve then. “Very well. You remember the story of the Festival of the Moon, don’t you?”

            My head bounced up and down. “Uh-huh. With the coyote, and the rabbit, and the coyote howling.”

            She would pat my head then. “Yes. The coyote was dearly in love with the moon, but was forever plagued by the knowledge that it couldn’t reach it.”

            “What does ‘plagued’ mean?” I interjected.

            “It means that he really didn’t like it.” She said, her voice gentle as a spring breeze. “So he prayed to the gods to let him know the moon.”

“Did they say he could?” I asked. I already knew the answer, but I loved to ask the question anyway.

            She smiled and tapped my nose with her sweet-smelling hands. “Of course they did. Even the gods won’t interfere with true love. But it came with a price. The coyote would have to recognize the moon in order for her to stay. The coyote agreed, and the gods put the moon on Earth in the form of a rabbit. The coyote, acting according to his nature, did not see that she was the moon. He only saw his supper. He caught and ate the rabbit, but as he killed her, the silvery moon rose out of her body to rejoin the sky. ‘Oh no!’ the coyote mourned. ‘My one true love! She was the moon!’. He howled his despair to the sky, begging the gods to let her return. But they didn’t, because he couldn’t recognize the moon in its earthly form.”

            “So we celebrated the coyote every fall!” I chimed in, my small voice practically chirping in delight.

            “Yes, and do you know why we celebrate in the fall?” she asked.

            I blinked. She had never asked that question before. “Because of the harvest moon?” I guessed. It was a good guess. Many people would have thought the same. But, no.

            She wrapped me up in a big hug. “No, Nicola. We celebrated in fall because fall is the time when all things end.”

“Oh…” I couldn’t really understand what she meant, being so young. It was a rather solemn thought for a six-year-old, but I held onto it nonetheless.

            I had no father, but we were content without one, As it were, it was hard enough to care for two, let alone three. My mother took to her bed when I was only eight, forcing me to earn our keep. I did the work of two, working in the quarries and the kitchens. Two years after she told me that fall is when all things end, she died. It was on the first harvest moon, the great orange globe hanging in the sky. A coyote howled in the distance as she breathed her last breath. Of course, as she was a slave, there was no funeral. She was burned, along with the five or so more people that had died recently. We were not allowed to mourn, our stone-faced guards raising a whip if we even so much as blinked.

I lived alone in our small hut outside the city after that. All the slaves lived outside the city. Our original village had been kept, and we lived in it, comfortably, though not happily. The Winged Ones made life little better than a living hell. I grew calluses on my hands that no girl should ever have. Even though we were already slaves, they taxed what little we grew ourselves, outrageous amounts that would leave families penniless and broken, and even more indebted to them. There were whispers around the village then, whispers of rebellion and treachery. We were tired of slaving away every slow, infernally tormenting day. The whispers were quiet, but our masters, Winged Ones, they were called, still heard. They beat us harder every day, whipping our skin raw. And still, despite all the hardship, the pain, the labor, the whispers remained only whispers.

            Until the day we fought back.

            We waited until dark to strike. Then, we stole into their vaulted palaces, always high-ceilinged for flight, and bound their wings so they could not fly. They were our equals now. They had sought to destroy us, but it was them, them who were being destroyed.

            The sky rained blood that night.

            The sun dawned the next day as it always had, first touching the gold-clad palaces, then our dirt-grimed faces, and then the blood-stained wings of our former masters. We had won. There was much celebration that day, gorging ourselves on the delicacies they had always hidden, dressing in the rich clothes they wore, and marveling in the large holes torn in the backs for wings. It was one of the few happy memories of that time that I would carry with me.

That night, I escaped into the woods for time to breathe. For once, the others had welcomed me, and we had much merry-making in the aftermath of the revolution. I had grown tired, though, and I found myself here. It was a familiar place to me, as I had come here often as a child to escape the bullying of other children, they taunted me, saying how like our master I looked, with my own hair, like woven gold, and eyes, as green as a forest leaf. The quiet sanctuary of the towering trees and gentle birdsong became my secret, and I snuck away whenever I could. Of course, these nighttime forays had garnered me many beatings from the overseers. My back had long since been striped with scars.

            I slipped through the trees, as silent as other denizens of the forest, and found myself by a small pool. Cataracts poured cheerfully into its depths from a small mound, and moss-covered rocks competed with cattails and watercress to shield it from sight. I sank onto the soft bank with a sigh, dabbling my feet in the spring and enjoying the warm silence that filtered through the trees.

            A bird landed on a branch stretching over the cataracts. It was a small bird, almost jewel-like in the stretch of the sun. It cocked its head at me as I stared in wonder. I had never seen a bird so close before. Only winging their way high above the city, soon out of sight, always out of reach.

            I reached out a hand gently. “Hello there.” I said softly, beckoning the bird closer with my thoughts. To my surprise, it gave a small hop-skip and alighted on my hand. It tilted its head again and chittered up at me. I just stared at it, amazed by its lovely brown wings and emerald green breast. It seemed to almost frown, if that were possible for a bird, and chittered again, sounding a little harsher this time. I blinked in surprise, almost hearing words in its chatter. “I’m sorry?” I asked, confused.

            The bird bobbed its head and chirped. This time, I could clearly hear its words. “Why don’t you have wings, Winged One?”

            “I’m not a Winged One.” I said stupidly. I had no idea what this bird was talking about. Stars, I didn’t even know they could talk!

            “You are, you are!” It chattered. “A daughter of the Winged Ones, but you have no wings! A new one!”

            “I’m human.” I protested, my golden hair, so like theirs, falling into my green eyes, also so like theirs. “I’m not like them. They enslaved me! I hate them!” the utter incredulity in my voice was tinged by just a hint of doubt. After all, no one else had blonde hair; not even my mother.

            “Nicola, who are you talking to?” a familiar voice came from behind me.    The bird startled at the noise and flew off into the forest.

I whirled around, rising and trying to follow it. “No, wait!” It didn’t stop. “What did you mean? Come back!” my cry echoed after it, vanishing in the vast reaches of the forest.

            My best friend, Kiara, grabbed my arm. “Nicola!”

            I spun to face her. “Kiara.” I was breathing heavily, the motion of spinning so much leaving me dizzy.

            “Who were you talking to?” she asked, her nut-brown eyes filled with concern. She was what was considered “normal”, with brown hair and eyes. Most of the slaves were like that, with the occasional blue-eyed child. None had blond hair. None had green eyes. None were like me.

            “There was a bird…” I replied softly, my mind winging away with it through the sun-striped trees.

            “O-kay…” she said, brushing it off as another fancy of mine. Normal village folk knew that a bird would never even come close to them, let alone talk to them. Kiara knew I was strange, and didn’t care about my hair or eyes. She helped me stand up for myself in the village when the boys threw stones, calling me a no-winged devil. She grabbed my arm again. “That doesn’t matter right now. We need to get back to the city.” she began pulling me back toward the dusty city and away from the pool, the trees, the quietly streaming sunlight…

            “Why?” I asked, wanting to stay here, where it was peaceful, and the sheer majesty of the forest absorbed all sound.

            “They’re going to hang the King!” her voice was full of excitement at the prospect of seeing the man that had put us through so much swinging from the gallows that had taken the lives of those that tried to escape. Within seconds, we were in the open, the brightness of the sunlight shooting lances through my eyes after the cool dimness of the forest. I blinked, trying to clear out the colorful spots before my eyes suffered from the temporary blindness.

            Drums sounded ahead of us, a long, slow roll that began to rattle along with my heart. People were gathered in two longs lines along the parade ground ahead of us, the same parade ground where we had suffered the whip for various reasons, and sometimes no reason at all. People I had known my whole life, that I had worked with, played with, that I knew would never hurt a fly, were calling out for blood. Kiara let go of my arm and plunged eagerly into the crowd. I followed behind reluctantly, standing on the fringe of the jostling crowd. I didn’t want to see someone killed, even if they had enslaved us.

            Suddenly, someone shoved me from behind, sending me sprawling into the clumps of people clustered in front of me. I cringed, expecting to hit them, but they separated for some reason, giving me room to keep falling. I eventually fell to my knees at the front of the crowd, in full view of the parade ground. I stood hurriedly and tried to shrink back into the crowd, but a roar rose up among them and they surged forward to press against the erected barriers.

            The fallen king of the Winged Ones was coming down the parade ground.

            His wings were bound behind him, their once gleaming white feathers stained black, sticky, and soiled from his imprisonment. He was shoved cruelly along, the butts of the wooden javelins we had used to fight jabbing into his back as he stumbled forward. Dressed in burlap sacks, this once majestic figure had been brought down to a level that was less than we had been as slaves. I bit back a cry. It was too cruel, too pitiful.

            He stumbled from a particularly vicious jab and fell to his knees in front of me. My knuckles turned white, and my fingers dug into my palms with the effort of holding back the unexpected fury that welled up inside me. I stared down at him, wondering how in the world could my people, humans, treat someone that way when they themselves knew what it was like. He raised his head, and our eyes met.

            His hair had fallen over his face, the golden locks lank and greasy on his forehead. His green eyes, green like a forest leaf, stared up into my own in shock. He held my gaze; I couldn’t look away. Finally, after what could have been hours, days even, but in reality was only seconds, he was dragged to his feet and shoved onward. He didn’t look back, not once, but I could still feel his eyes boring into me. I shivered from some unknown chill, and watched him mount the steps to the gallows.

            As they put the heavy rope that would end his life around his neck, he looked up at the crowd that roared eagerly for his blood. He raised a hand, and they immediately fell silent, more out of habit than choice.

            “You have bested me and my people.” His voice was as calm as if it had been any other day. “I commend you. It must not have been easy.”

            “Yeah, right! You idiots were pushovers!” one obstinate slop yelled. The crowd jeered in agreement, but fell silent as he raised his hand once more.

            “I understand then, that we were easy to defeat.” He continued. “Nighttime has always been a weak time for us. You chose the right time to strike.” He cast his gaze across the crowd, and eventually fastened onto my own. A ghost of a smile kissed his lips. “And now my daughter is free.” A ripple ran through the crowd. A daughter? What daughter? None of us had wings.

            I swallowed visibly. This would not bode well for me; I could tell.

            “My daughter was born wingless, a defect in our race, but I loved her with all my heart. My wife, however, was of a different mindset. She believed that none without wings could be counted as a member of our race. She had my daughter spirited away, and given to her handmaiden.” His voice broke, weighed heavily by emotion. I stiffened. My mother had been the queen’s handmaiden. I tried to shrink back into the crowd, but his gaze had captured me and held me prisoner where I stood. “She lives among you, as a human.” His voice grew tighter, and crystal tears began to shine in his eyes. “She has grown up, and grown beautiful,” his head hung in shame. “My only wish is that I could have watched her,” he wept openly, the tears making tracks in the ash smeared on his face. His gaze broken, I found I could move again. I slipped back into the crowd, hoping to get away before the crowd realized who he was talking about.

            The executioner took hold of the lever that opened the trapdoor beneath the feet of the King. He jerked it back, and the soul of Anor Anoch-tha, last ruler of the Winged Ones and the father I had never known, went flying away, never to land again.



© 2011 Korteni Free


Author's Note

Korteni Free
Anything is fine. Credit for the picture goes to meago of deviantart (PS Nicola should have green eyes)

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Added on December 27, 2010
Last Updated on March 29, 2011
Tags: birds, dragons, hot guy, Nicola, Thierry, France, ships, sailing, captain, slaves, fantasy


Author

Korteni Free
Korteni Free

Ann Arbor, MI



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