Years after their friendship had ended, Ser Maerwynn heard tales of the evil Queen Loreen: her curse of silence on the centaurs; her demand that each stone used to build the townspeople’s homes be paid for in daily drops of blood; and finally, the murder of her husband, William the Well-Read, who had grown to love her as much as Ser Maerwynn had loved her.
Ser Maerwynn—Wynn—had left the Land of Mu for the edge of the Beyond for many reasons, only one of which she had told to the then-Lady Loreen, not yet a queen but the daughter, still, of her hated king father. None of those reasons were because Wynn no longer loved Loreen. Even later, as Wynn lay with her half-evil wife in her stone hut in the Silent Woods, she dreamt of her friend, the only woman who had ever truly broken her heart.
Wynn’s father lost his life not to the beast he slayed but to the bandits’ ambush on the returning carriages as they weaved celebratorily through the winter-bare banyo trees. Half the king’s men murdered in one evening; for years the banyo trees whispered of the bloodbath each night evening when the first beams of moonlight coaxed the trees’ mouths to open in their trunks. In her awkward childhood, Wynn once snuck to the edge of the forest at sundown. This was before her friendship with Lady Loreen; before her lack of grace and classroom skill convinced the king’s leftover knights to train her in the way of the sword. That childhood night Wynn stepped one foot over the invisible line that separated the civilized Mu from the wild woods.
“We saw your father’s death,” a banyo whispered. “When those bandits sliced open his belly, nothing there but empty space.”
“Come closer, little girl,” another said. “Place a finger on our tongue and we’ll tell you if that man was truly your father or if chivalry forced him to care for an ugly child that no one else wanted.”
Wynn turned and ran until she reached the palace, where the entrance guards hurried her through and placated her with a sour candy they’d hidden in their armor. They were the youngest of the King’s Order, unskilled at child care. A year into her adolescence, during her training, they taught her to funnel her rage through the memory of the banyos’ taunting words.
On Wynn’s thirteenth birthday, the king granted her knighthood before tossing her into his labyrinth, where she confronted the hot breath of death in the form of the king’s ugliest beast: a bear twice her size with black holes for eyes. She imagined the red of her father’s blood—never blue—as she killed the thing with her bare hands and dragged the carcass before the king father’s throne. He begged to know how she’d done it.
“Thing’s blind,” she said.
As punishment the king father assigned her to guard his only daughter, the difficult Loreen. The first night Ser Maerwynn stood guard at the Lady Loreen’s door, she caught her sneaking out the her window, climbing down a banyo that had grown up to the second floor. Wynn watched her go; Loreen saw her seeing her. Neither said a word, not even in the morning when Wynn let the Lady Loreen’s handmaiden in to serve her breakfast in bed, not even when her king father asked Ser Wynn how her first night of duty had gone. He bristled when she refused to admit that Lady Loreen had misbehaved.
For this small courtesy, Loreen slipped leftover biscuits into Ser Wynn’s clutched fingers as they made their way back up the tower stairs after breakfast. Ser Wynn was not fed at the noble’s table with the noble people; unlike the best of the king father’s knights, she was forced to slurp sludgy pudding in her brief rests. Three times a day the kitchen granted her a goblet of water. Each evening one of the sneakier servants offered her one thimbleful of wine. The biscuit that Loreen slipped her as reward for her silence flaked on her tongue, a cloud of sugar and flour and butter.
She did not thank the Lady Loreen. Instead she asked her where she went at night.
“Around,” Loreen said.
“How do you get away with it?” Wynn asked.
“I’m the king’s daughter,” she said. “I get away with anything.”
On one of her rests, Wynn checked the banyo tree; Loreen had taken an ax to its mouth, destroying its ability to tattle on her evening disappearances. It was then that Wynn knew that the Lady Loreen held inside her a rage like that she herself had experienced in her fight with the king father’s bear. The kind of rage that she knew would burn her up if she let it.
By Lady Loreen’s marrying age, Ser Maerwynn and she spent every spare moment with one another. They shared everything: dresses Wynn snuck into in the privacy in Loreen’s bedroom (though they stretched against her broad body), the secret desire to accomplish more than their roles allowed (for Loreen, an eventual marriage to a bore of a noble man and for Wynn, forever-service under the King who had disliked her from birth), and the thunderstorm-colored crow that began to follow them wherever they went.
They had heard the legend: crows attached themselves to people or pairs of people, traveling from one unlucky soul’s shoulder to the other. The crows instilled a sense of certain gloom in whomever their claws touched; their presence brought forth an obsessive worry about what moment that touch might come. Loreen and Wynn’s crow hovered silent in their room most of the time, but as legend predicted, its presence invited a tight expectancy into the girls’ chests. When the crow rested on Loreen’s window, she and Wynn were sometimes able to ignore it, to gossip and laugh as though they were still children. But when it hovered unignorably in the air, they dwelled, thoughts circling in them, on their pre-written lives: lady and knight, lady and knight, lady and knight.
On rare nights, when the crow shrieked and darted from one of them to the next, touching down on their shoulders, their arms, the tops of their heads—whatever bare skin it could find—they could do nothing more than curl into balls or hide beneath the bed until the shrieking ceased. The crow left no marks, but Loreen dug her own fingernails into her skin. “It should hurt more,” she repeated to herself. Though Wynn’s steel armor protected her from the crow’s touch, she removed her helmet during the crow’s fits in order to divert its attention from Loreen. After one of these fits, Wynn tried to kill the crow with her blade. The metal bounced off its body.
Lady Loreen was sure the king father had sent the crow. But Wynn knew better: the birds followed no orders, no logic, but their own. No one in the palace, even the knights who had half-raised Ser Wynn, mentioned the crow’s existence when the girls were around; it was easier to ignore than to ask if there was anything they could do to help, or to ask if they had helped, unknowingly or otherwise, to call it there.
Because of the crow, the girls appreciated more the light they found in one another. They snuck together into the field across from the palace and ran late-nights through moon-blooming lion’s-head flowers, named for their furry golden petals. They dared the crow to keep up with them as they dove naked of armor and finery in the river that ran at the poor edge of town. They dared one another to pluck its feathers. While Wynn winced each time she pulled at the crow, Loreen yanked its feathers with a gleeful abandon. She smiled with her mouth full of black, like ink. She held the flame of her candle to them and screamed when they did not light. These actions had no effect on the crow; it never seemed balder or weaker in any way.
Some nights the crow followed Lady Loreen into her bed. On those nights Ser Wynn abandoned her door-post and guarded instead Lady Loreen’s prone body, upon which the crow slept. Ser Wynn knew the nightmares that came with this heaviness; she felt them herself when the crow followed her to sleep instead, down in her basement bed: a layer of straw covered with leftover cloth from the royal tailors.
The king father never learned of these, the Lady Loreen’s indiscretions, but Wynn often practiced what she would say to him should he discover that she stayed some nights so close to his daughter; she would tell him that not all the evils of this world entered through the door, that not all the threats to his daughter could be fought with shield and sword. But Wynn did wonder: what, if anything, would kill the crow? Because they were tired, Ser Wynn and Lady Loreen.
Wynn received her answer at a dinner ceremony one stormy evening; outside, wind bells warned of devastation. The king father did not halt his announcement for the weather’s sake. His guests, a smattering of lords and widowed kings from all the Lands, were served at long tables made from the wood of banyo trunks strung together—mouths wide-open and facing upwards for goblets to set inside—and scarfed down a seemingly endless supply of river fish and rabbit, peas and long green beans on beds of lettuce. Some of the men were bearded and brawny; others were as thin as the garden poles used to stake the very peas they ate. None of them would appeal to Lady Loreen, who sat at the high table, yet Wynn had the sneaking suspicion that’s why they were gathered there. Wynn stood beyond the table, hands resting on her sword hilt.
Halfway through dinner the king father stood and rang his own bell; Wynn strained to hear him over the wind’s howling.
“I have asked you all here, as you may have suspected, because my daughter, the beautiful Lady Loreen, has come of marrying age.”
Lady Loreen rolled her eyes at Wynn, allowing the rabbit meat she chewed to hang down her chin.
“You may also have noticed that my beautiful daughter does not come without her...beasts.”
A small murmur moved through the crowd. The crow hovered above Lady Loreen; the king’s words confirmed what had long been mere rumor: the sole Lady of the Kingdom of Mu was afflicted.
“I have been told by some that this creature, this terrible bird, is impossible to kill. Those who told me as much, I have let free from my castle. I have searched the Land of Mu right up to the Beyond, to find some way to rid her of its presence,” the king father said. Wynn raised her eyebrows at Loreen; they had known nothing of this search. “I have heard of only one solution. At the farthest reaches of the woods, guarded by the Mother Bird herself, is a knife, forged by purest light, kept in purest dark. This blade is the only thing in all the world capable of killing this beast.” The king father paused and raised his goblet. “I will grant the hand of my fair daughter to the man who fetches this for me. I will drink this beast’s blood at their wedding.” He drained the goblet dry.
Wynn expected her rage, her king father-related fire, to erupt outwardly, for her to take the knife from her plate and plunge it into her father’s hand. But Lady Loreen held her composure.
After the dinner Ser Wynn escorted the Lady Loreen back to her quarters. Wynn grabbed her arm as she tried to disappear silent through the door. “Wait, don’t you want to talk?”
The crow flew up the hall toward them, sluggish in the well-fed air. It tried to land on Wynn’s shoulder, but she hit it away and shoved herself into Loreen’s bedroom, slamming the door behind her. The crow would find its way in, but for now they were alone.
“What is there to talk about?” Loreen’s eyes flashed. “My king father will sell me to the bravest bidder. That’s always been my fate, hasn’t it? At least I’ll be rid of this crow.”
“But there has to be some other way,” Wynn said. Loreen shrugged her dress from her shoulders and let it float into a pile on the floor. She crawled naked underneath her blankets. Wynn was used to her friend’s nudity; fearless Loreen, whose lithe body made Wynn’s stomach flip with jealousy. Wynn stepped, armor clanking, over the dress and stood beside Loreen’s bedside. “Isn’t there another way?”
Loreen ran her fingers along the edge of her blanket. “We could kill him,” she said. “My father. Take a knife to his throat in the night.”
Wynn frowned. “But he’s your—”
Loreen laughed. “I’m joking.” She reached out to touch Wynn’s hand. “Of course, there’s one other way.”
“Me?” Ser Wynn said. She thought about it; it made sense. “Yes, I could go. I could find the knife. I could—”
“Win my hand?” Lady Loreen said.
“No,” Wynn said. “Of course not. We talked about that.”
Indeed they had, during one of their first years together, two unsure girls years away from their first romantic experiences. Lady Loreen handed Ser Wynn a bracelet she’d braided from blades of grass. She helped Wynn remove her gauntlet and let her hand linger too long on Wynn’s bared wrist as she tied the bracelet in place. I know what kind of woman you will be, Loreen said. I am not that kind of woman. But I will keep this secret, the one you don’t even know yet.
Wynn had known, from the moment Lady Loreen had touched her wrist. But the focused feeling, extinguished as soon as it ignited, did not linger in her. She let that distant possibility free. She needed this friendship more.
“Can you imagine what your father would say?” Wynn grinned. “No, I could go. I could find the blade, fight the Mother Bird, kill our crow. Declare the king father’s contest unfair to you and ask instead for your freedom, whatever way you want it.”
“I want to be queen without marriage,” Lady Loreen said.
“I would demand it of him,” Wynn said. “Your freedom.”
“Instead of taking my hand, you could be my hand. My own best knight.” Lady Loreen sat up in bed. “Let’s toast to it.”
Ser Wynn located a half-drunk bottle of champagne Lady Loreen had stowed beneath her bed and filled two dirtied flutes full.
They clinked their glasses. “To the Queen Loreen and her best knight!” Lady Loreen said. Ser Wynn nodded. They giggled as the bubbles traveled down their throats. Loreen helped Wynn out of her armor until she wore only her gambeson. They lay side by side; the moment Loreen’s head hit the pillow she was out. Wynn laughed to see her sleep so easily. They woke before morning’s first light to a sinking feeling in their guts; the crow had found its way inside and perched at their feet.
“If you go now,” Loreen said, “you’ll have a head start.”
“I don’t want to leave you,” Wynn said. “You’re my only friend.”
“What do you think the crow will do when we separate?” Loreen said.
“Follow one of us,” Wynn said. “It’ll be too far for it to travel back-and-forth.”
“Which one of us?” Loreen said.
Wynn did not respond.
Lady Loreen helped Ser Wynn back into her formal armor, packed a knapsack for her long journey, and snuck her down into the palace yard. The winds had done their damage; several carts had toppled in the night, and the banyo tree below Lady Loreen’s tower was now bent into the shape of a lady mid-curtsy. In a fenced-in pasture outside the palace gates, Loreen bribed a centaur into letting Wynn ride him. Wynn bade Loreen goodbye, knowing full-well that she would not see her for a very long time.
Wynn stopped at the beginning of the first banyo forest and crawled off the centaur.
“What a long and arduous journey you’ve got ahead of you,” the centaur said. “Are you aching to join your father in the death-place?”
“Don’t talk about my father,” Wynn said. She tightened the muscles of her belly for the banyo insults ahead.
While Loreen had intended for Wynn to ride the centaur through the forest, Wynn would travel by foot. She hadn’t had the heart to tell Loreen that she intended to play by the king father’s rules. As he’d told the other suitors, the journey must not be taken by mount. Wynn shooed the centaur away and toed the forest line as she had as a child. The sun would rise in an hour; moonlight still sifted down through the leaves.
“The great knight is here,” a banyo said. “Look at her in her fancy armor, as though all that steel will make up for bad blood.”
“Be quiet,” Wynn said as she crossed into the woods. “Or I’ll cut off your mouths, like Loreen did to your palace friend.”
The banyo trees quieted, as they always did, once the sun rose and their mouths closed. In the light they looked like any other trees. Wynn was grateful for the silence.
The crow followed her the whole first day, circling her head. She swatted the crow. Black feathers floated to form a trail behind them. Wynn imagined Loreen following it, following her, imagined them running away into the woods where the king father would not command either of them. A few times Wynn tricked herself into believing that she heard footsteps, that she saw a flash of someone hiding when she turned to face the way she had come. But the crow’s continual presence on her shoulder told the truth: Loreen was safe in the palace. If the crow would follow Wynn forever, Loreen was better off without her.
At nightfall she pitched her tent in the middle of a circle of banyos. They would tease her mercilessly once they woke, but what choice did she have? She took off her armor—a lengthy process despite that she left on her breastplate—and lay waiting for sleep to take her. She expected to hear the trees’ whispers. When she was met only with stunning silence and the flap of the crow’s wings as it beat against the top of the tent, she shivered. It was more troubling, this quiet. What game were the trees playing? Or was it fear that kept them from speaking?
She did not dare to ask. Eventually sleep dragged her into an abyss filled with nightmares of her father: fighting dragons, fighting bandits. Wynn’s mother had fled after Wynn’s birth, having assisted in the breaking of Wynn’s father’s knight vow of celibacy. It was good that her mother had done so, for her mother’s own sake. On Loreen’s fifteenth birthday, Wynn had broken down while watching Loreen’s mother litter Loreen’s bed with gifts and bring them both juice and spicy sausage and the sweetest jam on the softest bread. Once her mother had left the room, Loreen explained that Wynn’s mother would have had no choice but to flee the kingdom: the king father killed the lovers of his knights, strung them up by their necks in the courtyard. When Loreen was ten, she’d walked right into one of the bodies.
“What did you do?” Wynn asked, stomach clenching.
“I moved it out of my way,” Loreen said.
Then, six months later, with Lady Loreen’s own mother sentenced to death, whereupon she too fled, they gained that in common: missing mothers, and fathers who failed them in their ways too brave or cruel.
In the banyo forest Ser Wynn woke covered in sweat, though a breeze blew through the trees and into the open flaps of her tent. She searched for the crow, expecting to see it darting erratically, but it slept still beside her. She rolled over and hugged herself, comforted by the familiar shape of its sleeping form, head nestled into the feathers of its chest.
“I’d be alone without you, crow,” she whispered, low enough not to wake it.
Still, her stomach sank when it did not reply.
When morning finally reared its subtle head, the sun lighting shadows on the dirt-worn path, Wynn rolled up her blanket and folded her tent and shoved them into the pack. The pack itself was an old, common magic: not bottomless but larger than it looked to outside eyes. Wynn breakfasted on dried sausage and plum. The taste left an emptiness in her chest, made her want to laugh though there was no one but the crow to laugh with. It perched on a tree and watched as she gathered herself and rose to begin again on her journey.
She wasn’t two steps beyond outside sight of her camping area when she stumbled on the paralyzed man.
The man was completely undistinguished, coiled in as best a circle a person could make, his floppy mat of brown hair covering his eyes. She pressed her fingers to his wrist then his neck. His pulse beat, though it was weak. She looked about to see if the man had a crow of his own that might be keeping him from moving, but she saw nothing around them but the silent banyo trees. She heard nothing but the rustle of leaves blown on the ground.
“Are you awake?” she said to him. She did not call him Sir; she would never call a man Sir unless she had to, unless he was a knight like herself and her Code of Honor required it. Unless the king father was watching.
He did not open his eyes, but he groaned through his lips. She leaned closer.
“Berries,” he whispered. “Berries.”
She knew enough to know that this was what he needed to be well again; either that, or his last request before he succumbed to whatever poison coursed in his blood. She rushed into the wood in search of a berry bush. She found no bushes, but she did spot a few berries scattered throughout the fallen leaves: two kinds, blue and black. She brought them both to the man.
“Blue or black?” she said.
“Black,” he groaned. “Black.”
She slipped one between his lips and massaged his throat until he swallowed. He lay still for a time, then finally his eyes opened and he moved his lips with greater range. “More,” he said. “I need more berries.”
She gathered more and fed them to him one by one. With each berry his condition improved, until he could move his arms, his legs. He sat unspeaking as he regained control of his lungs. Once he breathed easier, he thanked her.
“What happened to you?” she said.
“I’ve been living in these woods,” he said. “I’m in exile from Mu. I’ve been surviving off these berries for some time, the blue ones. I have this book—it was in my pack, but the pack was stolen by some rather unhelpful bandits—and it hadn’t yet led me wrong. But the blue berries look almost identical to the black berries in a certain light, and if you eat a black berry without the blue in your system it paralyzes you...”
“But I fed you the black ones,” Wynn said, panic rising in her chest. The crow swooped closer.
“Yes, and I owe you my life. See, it’s all very confusing, but one black berry will paralyze, another ten or so will de-paralyze you. It’s a tricky plant, one of the trickiest there is. They don’t grow here, either. The birds carry them in from miles away.”
“The birds?” Wynn looked around, but the only bird she saw was her own. “I haven’t seen many birds.”
“And you won’t.” He felt around him on the ground with both hands. He moved some leaves aside. There underneath them were several shards of broken glass and a twisted wire frame. He groaned, this time more audibly, and placed the broken spectacles as best he could on his face.
“And why not?” Wynn said. “Why won’t we see any birds?”
“She captures them,” he said. He poked his finger through the glassless frames. “She who lives at the edge of this wood.”
“Who?” Wynn said, but he wasn’t listening. His shoulders had slumped, and he sighed heavily as he struggled to stand. He reached out to steady himself on a tree but missed.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “But I am blind without these. Do you have any spectacles in that pack of yours?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Well, I hate to ask this, since I already owe you so much, but can you escort me wherever you are going? I cannot go back to Mu, and I need to find someone who can make me another pair.”
Wynn frowned. “Where I’m going won’t be much help, I’m afraid.” She told him of her mission; he did not seem a threat, despite his banishment from Mu.
“Well, that’s perfect,” he said. “You’re looking for the bird-woman. I know these woods by memory. I can tell you which way to go, if you’ll make sure I don’t run into every tree along the way. There are several outliers who live out there. One of them will surely be able to help me.”
Ser Wynn considered it; it was not in her to leave a man to die for no good reason. Besides, she did not think she could handle days of traveling on her own.
“Which is the best way to go?” she said. He held out his hand. She held it, though she had held no one’s hand in her life but her father’s and Lady Loreen’s. His skin was clammy against hers; the tops of his hands winter rough. But she held on regardless as he navigated them vocally through the woods.
“Last night the banyo trees did not speak,” she said as they walked the path. “Why is that?”
The man, he said his name was William, shrugged. “Deeper into the forest, the trees are different. The Silent Wood. Perhaps the trees are trying to fool those who venture here. Perhaps the bird-woman has bewitched them into silence to fool them herself. After all, it is to her benefit to dissuade people from finding her.”
“And why is that?” Wynn said.
“Wouldn’t you hide away if the only people who sought you desired something from you?”
“I’ve worked my whole life to protect the Lady Loreen,” Wynn said. “The only people in my life are the people who want something from me.”
“Well, I’m sorry to be another of those people,” he said.
Wynn squeezed his hand; she didn’t know what else to do. “Don’t apologize. I’m happy to help.”
They walked along the path, the crow never far from Wynn’s shoulder, then ventured off the path, earlier than Wynn had thought they would, at William’s behest—a shortcut, and not the kind that would get you killed, he promised. Wynn thought about what it would mean to hide herself away in the woods; what it would mean to leave the company of those who loved her only as much as she could help them. Her whole life Loreen had been the only exception. But there was also a nagging thought: Lady Loreen could have begged her king father to release Ser Wynn from service. It had not been part of their discussions; those had always been about her serving beside Lady Loreen from queenship to deathbed. Out in the woods, it seemed clearer that forever-service, no matter whom she served, wasn’t the freedom she sought.
Then again she had not asked for freedom. She shook her head and continued on until the sun dipped below the horizon and they stopped to make camp for the night.
William was no help with the tent. He leaned against a trunk as Wynn smoothed the thick leather sides over the triangle frame. When she finished, she led him inside. The crow swooped in with them and perched at the top.
As Wynn made fire from her ever-burning log, William napped. She woke him once she’d warmed the dried sausage and bread. He scarfed his down. She watched him dust the crumbs off his trousers pants.
“We may run out of food,” she said. “I didn’t bring enough for two.”
“We could catch and cook your crow,” William said.
Wynn’s breath caught; she hadn’t been sure William had noticed the crow, with his broken vision. “You’re welcome to try. We’ve tried time and time again.”
William leaned in toward the fire, warming his hands. “Then I’m right? That’s Lady Loreen’s crow? The one you’re searching for the blade to kill?”
Wynn pressed her lips together.
“I’ve read something about these crows,” William said. “They sometimes attach themselves to people in pairs, yes? But this one’s followed you, instead of sticking to her. What do you think that means?”
Wynn’s stomach churned; she’d eaten too quickly. She pressed on her belly with both hands. Inside the tent the crow let out one long shriek. Wynn concentrated on her heart’s beating; it quickened a step, an uneven dancer.
“I haven’t a clue,” she said.
William yawned and lifted his hands above his head. His back cracked. “I don’t know how much more of this walking I can stand.” He removed one shoe; underneath the leather his skin was bloodied, raw. He massaged around the wounds. Wynn studied his feet. Thin skin for a man who has been living out here a long while. William rose and bid her goodnight then disappeared into the tent.
Wynn waited by the fire until it burned down, then waited again until she heard William’s deep-sleep snoring. The bird, too, had fallen into itself. She lay as far away from William as she could manage without pressing herself too far into the side of the tent. His snores were a background white noise to block out the wind. She fell asleep to them, thinking how strange life becomes, how like a family this scene might seem to someone from the outside, someone who might happen upon us in the night.
She dreamt of that person: a woman with twigs for hair that fell to her broad shoulders. The woman sliced zipped open the tent with long claw-like nails and peered upon them through her mask made of leaves, the shape of a bird with a long beak for a nose. “I can take care of that for you,” she whispered. What? Ser Wynn said in her sleep, though she did not open her eyes. “Your bird.” The crow woke, then, and flew straight to the woman’s hair, where it nestled in her branches. “All I ask—”
Wynn woke with a start; the banyo trees were shrieking. She jumped out of her sleeping bag bedroll and pulled her helmet over her head—she’d slept in her breastplate but no more steel than that, and it would not be enough to fend off any real threat—and stumbled into the dark, sword outstretched.
William stood before three women covered head-to-toe in thick brown leather. They carried curved staffs each topped with a single claw. Ser Wynn towered over them, but at the edge of Mu people were rarely what they seemed at first glance—her father had told her that; bedtime stories meant to keep her within the town border—so Wynn did not attack.
“Are these the bandits who robbed you?” she whispered to William.
“Don’t know,” he whispered back. “Can’t see.”
“Ser Maerwynn, it can be no other.” The woman in the middle stepped forward. “We don’t want to fight you.”
“I don’t want to fight you either,” Wynn said.
“If you come with us, we will not kill you.”
“Where will you take me?” Wynn said.
“She has heard that you are looking for her. She would very much like to meet you.” The woman in the middle held out a beckoning hand.
Wynn shivered. “What choice do I have?” she said. “Leave William out of it and we’ll call it a bargain deal.”
The woman waved her hand. “We have no interest in fools on murder errands from the mortal king.”
Wynn glared at William, her anger redirected. “A murder errand?”
“Wait, let me explain.” William reached out for her arm, but she jerked it away. “I couldn’t do it. He sent a messenger. If I brought him both your head and the blade, he’d let me back in. But I couldn’t—”
“You tricked me,” Wynn said. This, then, was one of the things her father had warned her about: a stranger in the woods was never just a stranger. She understood the forest now. But then she was part of the forest too, here on the border of Mu and the Beyond; she would be one of these puzzles: not what she seemed at first glance.
Wynn stepped toward the women, leaving her pack, her tent, her crow to catch up later. Two of them took hold of her arms while the third led the way. They walked her, like a prisoner, through the trees. Then, when they were far enough away that William could no longer see them—not even if he had been lying, too, about his vision—they veered left into the thickening woods. Their bodies melted into the dirt, three pools of blood and brown feathers. Their staffs clattered to the ground. New bodies rose from the muck until three giant birds—not crows but some type that Wynn had never seen—stood before her. Wynn tried to run, but they hooked their claws around her arms and legs and lifted her through the trees and into the air. They flew her right to the bird-woman’s stone door.
The bird-woman was just as Wynn’s dream had showed her to be: a nest of wiry bark-colored hair, tangled so heavily that Wynn would not have been surprised had a few birds made it their home. She did not wear a mask, but her nose was long and thin. She ushered Wynn inside but instructed the other birds to remain on the other side of the door.
Wynn’s crow had followed her there, but the bird-woman locked her front door and closed all the windows. The crow crashed against the glass, giving Wynn a splitting headache, until the bird-woman leaned over and stared into its black eyes through the glass. It quieted on the window ledge.
The bird-woman handed Wynn a glass of tea already-steeped. The steam rose up and tickled Wynn’s chin.
“For your headache,” the bird-woman said.
Wynn sipped the tea; it tasted like freshly-upturned dirt. She did not dare spit it out.
“You must be wondering how I knew you were coming,” the bird-woman said, sprawling into her chair. She draped her arms across its back. “They always wonder that.”
Wynn shrugged. “Of course,” she said, because it seemed to be what the bird-woman wanted to hear.
When the bird-woman laughed, it was like wind bells firing. “But I can’t reveal all my secrets!”
Wynn shrugged again.
“Be careful.” The bird-woman sat up stiff in her chair. “Your shoulders will stick like that.” For a moment Wynn felt as though she could indeed not move the muscles in her shoulders, but the feeling subsided quickly. “Anyway, you’re here for a certain blade. Word travels quickly when the carriers of it are not relegated to the ground.”
Outside Wynn heard the flapping of the three messengers’ wings. She wondered where the bird-woman got her nickname. From the look of her? Her sway over the feathered?
“You think you want to help your friend, the Lady Loreen, but I can’t help but notice that the bird followed you instead of sticking with her. You must know what that means. It must kill you to know you’re the weaker party.”
Wynn stood, knocking the tea to the ground. The liquid flowed over the stone, into the cracks between.
“I am no such thing,” she said, no strength to the words.
“Is it a duel to the death for your honor, then?” The bird-woman moved her hand through the air; a mild wind blew through the hut and cracked the window open. The crow hopped inside, but it did not come to Wynn’s shoulders.
Wynn steadied her breath and sat again. “Of course not,” she said.
“What a well-trained soldier you are. Weakness is an opportunity, Maerwynn, to become strong.”
“You’re wrong,” she said. “I’m not weak.”
The bird-woman shook her head. “I’m right. But you don’t have to be weak anymore.”
The bird-woman leaned forward, and in her eyes kindness shone through. Wynn relaxed her shoulders and breathed in once, twice, three times. It would be nice to be strong, to be free from the crushing weight of the crow.
“Show me,” she said. For Maerwynn had her own plan: she would earn the bird-woman’s trust. Then, when the bird-woman showed her the blade that would kill the crow, Maerwynn would betray that trust.
The bird-woman agreed to teach Wynn everything she knew about strength: how to let go of the past and the lingering ache of parental shortcomings, how to control the birds, how to make demands of them and of yourself.
“I keep my crow hidden here.” She touched the lid of a woven basket. “When others come, I take care of them too.”
Wynn leaned over the basket, squinting in an attempt to see through the tiny weave holes. The bird-woman pulled the basket closer.
“We’ll work on yours.” She gestured to the crow at the window. Here in the bird-woman’s hut, the crow spent most of its time at the window. Wynn wondered if it liked the feel of the forest air.
“Sing to it,” the bird-woman said.
Wynn cleared her throat and started a bawdy chant the leftover knights had taught her.
The bird-woman covered her ears. “A song, girl, a song!”
Wynn shook her head. “I don’t know any songs.”
The bird-woman taught her one. Her voice moved across her lips in a cloud that sounded like Wynn’s first biscuit had tasted: sugar and butter and flour. Wynn licked her own lips and remembered her father’s singing voice, his surprising falsetto. She remembered the soft of the hands that had held her: her father’s, Loreen’s, William’s in the woods as she led him. She did not care, with the bird-woman’s melody filling her belly full, that all three of those people were not perfect.
When the bird-woman stopped, the hut settled back around Wynn.
“Now you try,” the bird-woman said.
Though Wynn’s voice was not as trained, she succeeded in commanding the crow’s attention for one brief moment when her performance met the gilded memory of the bird-woman’s note. When she finished the song, she tried again, to no avail.
That night, sleeping in the pantry, she heard a different song in her dream. This one reminded her of the good dreams she’d had as a child, before she understood the implications of her father’s death, before she dreamed only nightmares. She rose from the pallet the bird-woman had made for her on the floor of the hut and found her crow wide-awake at the window. She bent to meet it at its level. She sang the dream-song, a memory of good things.
The bird’s head lolled against its chest.
Wynn sang of loss; she sang of recalling those she had cared about without letting them pull her with them into their graves or their own Silent Woods. She sang of missing Loreen.
Her voice cracked. The crow’s head shot up, and its eyes shot open. It shrieked once, twice. Wynn’s heart hammered.
“Sing something else,” the bird-woman said from her bed.
The crow hopped from foot to foot, looking as though it might at any moment spring at Wynn, claws extended, in one of the fits that Wynn had not experienced since leaving the palace.
“Do it,” the bird-woman said. “Something else, anything else.”
Wynn’s mouth was dry. Her body ached, finally remembering the long trip she’d taken, two days of walking and a rough voyage through the air in the claws of beast-birds. Wynn opened her mouth and sang, not the song the bird-woman had tried to teach her the day before but the chant, only she made it melodic; that rhyme of women and wine and winning a princess’ heart.
The crow quieted. Wynn sank to the floor and held her throbbing head in her hands. She didn’t budge until the bird-woman nudged a cup of tea against her arm.
“Some song.” The bird-woman laughed until Wynn couldn’t help but do the same.
Over that afternoon, Wynn succeeded twice more in getting her own crow to sleep, then to rise from sleep, then to sing. She spent the four days afterward learning different bird-songs, repeating affirmations that would bring her closer to the self her father might have hoped she’d become: the kind of woman who demanded of the world rather than accepting the world’s demands.
When she woke on the seventh morning, Wynn did not feel the crow’s presence, though when she looked out the window she saw it perched on the branch of a nearby tree. Wynn waited for the bird-woman to wake.
“I want to thank you,” she said from the foot of the bird-woman’s bed.
The bird-woman rubbed the sleep from her eyes and shook her head. “Not yet,” she said. “There is so much more you must learn. This peace? It is temporary. You will need to know what to do when the darkness returns. That crow? You will never be rid of it, not even if you outshine your friend, not even if you learn all my tricks and then some.”
“The blade—” Wynn said without thinking.
“I have a blade.” The bird-woman wrapped her down blanket around her shoulders as she stood before Wynn like royalty in a bright white cape. “It will not kill the crow who follows you. I’m sorry, Wynn, but there is no cure.”
“But the Lady Loreen,” Wynn said. “You knew that’s why I was coming here. You said you knew.”
“And I did.” The bird-woman pressed her hands against Wynn’s shoulders. Wynn shrugged her off. “That doesn’t mean your mission was a good one. You want to help your Lady Loreen? Stay here in the woods. I have dreamt of terrible things in Mu. I have dreamt of many paths.”
“What things? What paths?” Wynn backed into the stone wall. “Is Loreen all right?”
“She is.” The bird-woman rubbed her head. “She will be if you stay. No man will win the king’s contest. This bird will no longer plague her. She will not marry. She will not become the Queen of Mu. Her cousin will take the throne.”
“Being queen is all she’s ever wanted.”
“If she becomes queen, married or unmarried, Mu will fall.”
“But she is my friend,” Wynn said. “She is my dearest friend.”
“Let her stay your friend,” she said. “If you return, you will betray her, sooner or later. Her anger is a fire and your betrayal will be fuel.”
Wynn looked around the hut she had made a temporary home. Her stomach turned. The woods had worked their magic on her once again, tricking her into trusting its inhabitants.
“I don’t believe you. I would never betray her. I need that blade. And that is all I need.”
The bird-woman pursed her lips. “I cannot give you that.”
“Then you cannot help me.” Wynn drew her sword, but before she had a chance to threaten the bird-woman, the woman whistled her lilting tune. Birds burst through the cracked windows and covered Wynn’s body. They dug their claws into her skin. They cawed in her ears until her ears rang with silence. She struggled to move her arms. The claws dug in further. Blood wept down her body. She collapsed onto the floor. She closed her eyes. If this is death, she thought, it is worse than I have ever imagined.
In the morning Wynn opened her eyes like any other morning. Her surroundings were less than ordinary. Instead of the palace, instead of the woods, instead of the bird-woman’s stone hut, she lay on a dirt floor in a straw-roofed dwelling with no windows and no door. All around her were wicker baskets with closed lids. Her skin ached and itched. When she examined her body, she saw hundreds of cuts, marks of bird claw and bird beak.
She rose as best as she was able and tried to find an exit in the clay wall, each movement of her fingers stretching the cuts on her hands. She was stuck in here, as caught as the bird in the wicker basket. Her crow was nowhere to be found. Wynn missed the familiar sight of it. But it was a blessing as well as a discomfort, for she did not feel the normal sinking feeling in her gut, that normal tightness in her chest. Instead she felt a desperate urge to get out of the hut, out of the forest, to return home to Lady Loreen
She opened one of the baskets’ lids. Inside, a dark mass. She reached in and grabbed what she could; when she pulled her hand out again, she held a sleeping bird in her palm. It did not wake or move but its lungs, their soft breath barely visible upon the feathers of its chest.
She dropped the bird back into the basket, part out of shock, part out of the memory of claws and beaks, claws and beaks. She closed the lid and held her weight against it. After she calmed, after she realized the bird was not going to attack her, she checked the others. All birds. So this, then, was where the birds of the forest had gone. Captured. Kept in baskets like root vegetables, like unliving things to be contained. What would the bird-woman do with her? Was she meant for a basketcontainer too? Or did the bird-woman possess some darker power. Wynn recalled the women who had fetched her. She had not heard or seen them since.
She had to get out of there.
The bird-woman brought Wynn nuts and seeds and water. She entered the hut through a door that appeared then disappeared into the clay.
“You will have to give in sooner or later,” the bird-woman said. “I could use a woman like you around here, Ser Maerwynn.” The bird-woman smoothed salve onto Wynn’s wounds. “I’m sorry for how harsh I was. I have my own insistent birds, you know. More than one. I took the first one down, imprisoned it, tamed it. But they keep coming. That’s the secret. You can’t kill them. You can’t scare them away. You can only bewitch them into submission. Savor the brief freedom.”
Freedom. The word tasted sweet on Wynn’s tongue as she repeated it to herself. “Let me go,” Wynn said. “Let me go back to Lady Loreen.”
“I cannot.” The bird-woman frowned. “I loved Mu, once upon a time. I will not see it reduced to dust.”
“I won’t betray her.” The salve stung as it seeped into Wynn’s blood. “Please.”
“You may not think of it as betrayal,” she said. “But she will. I cannot let you go back.” The bird-woman rose and left through that door of her own creation.
The bird-woman’s future appearances left Wynn with no idea of the time of day save whatever she saw out the brief door: a tiny slip of sun. Morning or afternoon, then. Her visits ran on a cycle. Wynn studied them for six days. She practiced the bird-woman’s waking-song, from the time she woke to the time she slept. On the seventh day, when the bird-woman opened her door, Wynn sang the birds to rise. She did not have to command them to attack; they rushed the bird-woman as she stepped in, cawing their terrible insistent noises. The bird-woman covered her ears and crouched as low to the ground as she was able, belting the calming songs in her shaking voice. Wynn ran through the dark cloud and into the light.
But the blade. If she did not leave now, the bird-woman might find her and imprison her once more. She would have to leave the blade. She cursed circumstance and ran from the bird-woman’s hut, back into the woods, her crow rising from the trees where it had hidden and trailing her like a shadow.
Wynn ran without thinking, without looking but at the path that unfolded beneath her. She collided head-first with the scrawniest of trees.
“You’re alive!” the tree said. But it was no tree; as Wynn gathered herself and regained control of her dizzied legs, she saw that it was William she had run into. He’d gained a sword since she’d last seen him.
Rage turned her stomach, but she had no time for rage. She pushed past him and continued on the trail. William followed behind, able to keep pace with her due only to the new limp in her step.
“Stop following me,” she said, breathless.
“I want to apologize,” he said.
“You’re a liar,” she said.
“You’re right.” William, to his credit, spoke steadily despite their quickening pace. “You shouldn’t have trusted me. I ate a banyo leaf, whose paralysis wears off in an hour’s time, knowing that you would soon come up the trail.”
“And your spectacles, I see, are still gone.”
“I have not needed spectacles to see since I was a boy, when I learned the spell to fix my eyesight.”
“Were you coming to kill me with that sword?”
“I was coming to save you.”
Wynn laughed so hard she had to stop. “You were coming to save me?” She wiped at the humor-tears that had formed in the corners of her eyes. “Even if I believed you—you, going to save me?”
William furrowed his brow. “I’m not without my strengths.”
“And the bandits you met before me? The ones who robbed you? How well did you defend yourself from them?”
“You met the same and only bandits I have ever encountered here. They stole nothing from me. It was another part of my ruse. Those women have wreaked havoc on these woods for over twenty years. And they are under the bird-woman’s command. There is nothing they do that she has not asked them to do.”
Wynn’s chest ached. “Then the bird-woman killed my father?” She thought of how she’d left the bird-woman covered in her shrieking birds. She did not feel sorry for what she had done. “She told me the blade would not kill the crow.” As though it understood, the crow cawed shrilly from above. “I guess this forest is full of liars.”
William pursed his lips. “From now on I want to be honest with you, Ser Wynn.” From his pocket he pulled another blade, this one smaller and shining and silver and covered in runes, the handle shaped at its end like the head of a vulture.
Wynn grabbed the blade and studied it under the sunlight. “This is the one?” Wynn had thought she would feel something inside her when she finally found it; heroes always spoke of how right their prizes felt once they finally touched them, as though these objects had been waiting on them all along. But Wynn felt the same. Her ankle hurt. Her skin burned. She was tired and wanted only for a warm bed in which to sleep for weeks.
“It’s yours,” William said. “But listen: I used to be the librarian at the Great Library. The king asked me to find a way to kill his daughter’s crow. I searched and searched but found only this old legend about a blade in the woods. This legend—it was disproven. It was tested long ago, before the blade was under the bird-woman’s care. Several experiments. It will not kill these birds. I told the king as much. He banished me for what he called my lies and hired a librarian more willing to overlook the truth. The bird-woman was right. There is no way to kill the crow.”
Wynn sang a song to call the crow into her open palm. Once it nestled there, she placed the crow into the dirt at her feet. She sang a calming song. She did not hesitate; if she hesitated, she knew, she would never be able to kill her closest companion, closer to her even than Lady Loreen. She plunged the knife at the bird as she had done with other blades several times before.
The knife glanced off its feathers and sent Wynn falling into the dirt. She sprawled there as the crow woke with a cry and soared above her, still half-stunned from Wynn’s songs.
William knelt beside her. “If you take this blade to Mu, if you present it to the king, he will have you killed, just as he originally intended.”
“Then not all I have heard in these woods was a lie.” Wynn lowered her head as far as it would fall upon her chest, her arms bent at her sides like folded wings.
William placed a hand upon her back. “If you want to save your friend and yourself,” he said, “stay in these woods. The crow is fondest of you. It will remain yours.”
“Because I’m weak.”
“No.” William removed his hand from her. “Because you’re strong. These crows are attracted to the strongest of us. Because you provide a worthy adversary. Because you will put up a fight.”
Wynn wanted to scream, to pound the ground in front of her. “That’s centaur shit,” she said. “I don’t want to leave my only friend. I don’t want this stupid bird following me.” She picked up a rock from the ground and hurled it at the crow, who dodged the projectile and darted at Wynn’s head. Wynn waved her hands around, the memory of the flock bursting through her, the scars still stinging, but the crow was quicker than her. Finally she re-folded herself and dry-heaved, losing then coming back to her breath.
When she could once more breathe, she rose. The crow stilled in the trees above her, satisfied with its tantrum, with the pain it had caused Wynn.
“You didn’t help me,” Wynn said. She stomped her foot. “What if this had been the time it killed me? Why has no one ever helped me when it attacks?”
William knitted his eyebrows. “No one can help you, Wynn. The same goes for Lady Loreen. It was wrong of her to ask you to come here.”
“But I wanted to help.”
“Then she didn’t need to ask, did she?”
Wynn frowned. Her head throbbed. She massaged her temples and tried to banish her confusion like the king father had banished this man.
“There’s no time for this,” she said at last, the edge returned to her voice. “I told her I’d return to her. And that’s what I’ll do. Don’t worry about me.”
William unsheathed his sword and presented that too to her.
“You’ll want this, too,” he said. “What’s a knight without her weapon?”
And it was her weapon, the very same that she had carried out into these woods. He must have stolen it when he stole the blade. Wynn had been so distracted that she hadn’t recognized her own blade.
She took the sword, heavy in her grip.
William led her back to Mu. At the edge of the city, the centaur that Lady Loreen had stolen for her waited. It had eaten a border line in the grass; green rimmed its mouth. When Wynn and William emerged from the Silent Wood, the centaur spit its mouthful of grass at their feet.
“I thought I was in the clear,” the centaur said. “Forever free. Thought for sure you’d die in there. But I see you might be worth the breath you steal from the air.” The creature bowed to Ser Wynn, inviting her to climb astride. Once upon the great beast’s back, she allowed herself to slump forward. William did not follow.
Back at the palace, the leftover knights guarding the entrance tried to talk her back into the woods.
“I know what I’m doing,” she said. “Let me through.”
They agreed to sneak her in as long as she did not let herself be seen by the king. But Wynn went right to the king father. She presented him with the blade.
“I see William failed once more in his duties,” the king father said.
The crow landed on Wynn’s shoulder. She spoke through the fear.
“This blade will not kill this crow.” She cupped the bird into her palm. She pushed the blade’s tip into the crow’s chest, cooing a sleeping song all the while. The crow dozed as the blade failed to enter its skin.
The king father eyed the crow. “I see.” He breathed heavy on his throne. “I think I know what the problem is. It’s been you all along, hasn’t it?”
“Yes and no,” Ser Wynn said. “You cannot kill me. If you kill me, the crow will stay with your daughter, forever. But I can take this particular crow with me. I can leave, never to return.” Here Wynn understood that she held the power; she could give the king father what he wanted. She could ask for something in return.
She had thought, all through her journey home, that she would ask for Lady Loreen to be made queen, without marriage, without the guidance of any man. But standing before the king father, the bird-woman’s warning returned to her. The bird-woman had lied to Wynn, but not everything she’d said had proved untrue. And Wynn knew Loreen better than anyone else in the world. When Wynn had heard the prophecy, she had not balked at Loreen’s evil but at the prediction that Wynn would betray her.
Wynn swallowed hard. “But there may be other crows who come for her. Bigger crows. More insistent crows. Crows that cling to you as well. My going will not stop them. But there is someone who knows a thing or two. And what he does not know he can find more quickly than anyone else would be able to. That man is William. He helped me find this blade. In exchange for my service, in exchange for my leaving, I ask only that you allow him once more to enter Mu. Allow him to take his old post back.”
“For this you will leave?” The king father gripped the armrest of his throne. “You’ll take that crow with you?”
The king father waved his hand. “William the Well-Read’s banishment is no longer to be enforced. Instead, Ser Maerwynn will take his place. She is to be led from the city of Mu and left in the woods, an exchange.” The king father smirked.
“May I say goodbye?” Wynn asked, bowing before the king father. “To Lady Loreen, I mean.”
“I suppose that would be acceptable.” The king father ordered two leftover knights to escort Wynn to Lady Loreen’s room—and then out of Mu forevermore.
Lady Loreen lay propped sick in her bed. When Ser Wynn broke the news to her that she would be leaving, Loreen hurled the plates left on her bedside table at the wall. The clay shattered around Wynn’s feet.
“I’ll kill him,” Loreen said.
“Don’t be angry.” Wynn walked across the room and leaned over Lady Loreen. Wynn held Loreen’s cheek in her hand. “It’s the only way. He would have killed me.”
Lady Loreen grabbed Wynn’s wrist. Panic entered her eyes. “Please, Wynn.”
Wynn’s chest ached. But this ache could be temporary, the way of every difficult journey.
“I have to go,” Wynn said. “Let me go.”
Loreen did not let her go. Wynn pried Loreen’s insistent fingers from her wrist, where she’d dug the nails in, drawing blood. Finally Loreen pulled back her hand and held it over her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know what came over me.”
Wynn knew. She’d known since she first saw that tree with its mouth hacked off. Loreen had so much anger in her and did not wish to let it go, to banish her own misery.
“Stay a little while,” Loreen said. “A night or two.”
Wynn nodded. “I’ll stay a little while.”
Loreen relaxed at this news and burrowed into her blankets. Wynn climbed in beside her. Loreen rested her head on Wynn’s chest and breathed steadier as she stole Wynn’s warmth.
“What will I do without you?” Loreen said.
Wynn waited until Loreen’s breath deepened before readjusting her. She crawled from the bed and padded as lightly as she was able across Lady Loreen’s bedroom, the bedroom that had been the only private space Wynn had ever known—and even then she had only shared it. Despite the cuts scabbing all over her body, she thought of that hut in the woods in which she had been trapped, how the quiet that greeted her each morning was total and in its totality brought Wynn peace.
She thought of her final untied thread: revenge for her father’s death. She was owed that hut; the spoils of murder.
She wandered from the castle despite her heavy heart. At the border of Mu, Wynn told William the Well-Read of Loreen’s hatred for her father. “Together, I think you two could see him gone from Mu.” She thought only a moment of that terrible way he might one day leave—I’ll kill him, Loreen had said—but she did not think William would let that happen. For how little she knew him, she trusted him.
As he started his journey back to Mu, Wynn walked away from it, back into the woods, her silent crow trailing her all the way to the bird-woman’s hut.
Wynn heard the hut before she saw it, a cacophony of bird shrieks. Hand at her hilt, Wynn knocked at the bird-woman’s door. The bird-woman did not answer. Wynn turned the knob and peered inside; the blankets the bird-woman had arranged for her still lay upon the floor. Birds nested in every cranny, singing their terrible songs. Beneath a lump of sheets on the bed, the bird-woman whimpered in her sleep.
Wynn’s chest ached for her. This was no way to die. Every woman deserved dignity, murderer or not.
Wynn scared the birds away using the bird-woman’s own tricks. It took a day’s work and then some to rid all the birds from the hut. She took quarterly breaks to heat then pour warm broth down the bird-woman’s throat. For herself, she ate bowls of berries and dried meat the bird-woman had cured. She took her meals outside, beneath a canopy of flapping wings. They did not bother her. Her own crow dozed in its own tree. It did not bother her much either.
When finally she’d cleared the hut, Ser Wynn knelt at the bird-woman’s bedside. She placed cool rags on her forehead and sung healing songs, songs that her father had sung to her. When the bird-woman could finally talk, she looked up and smiled to see Ser Wynn.
“Don’t smile at me,” Wynn said. “I’m only healing you so that the fight is fair.”
“You came all the way back to fight?” the bird-woman said.
Wynn wiped the sweat from the bird-woman’s forehead and exchanged the now-warm rag she’d set there with a fresh cool one from a bowl of water. “You ordered the bandits to kill my father,” Wynn said. “Do you remember that?”
The bird-woman placed a shaking hand on Wynn’s at her forehead. “No,” she said. “That’s all wrong.”
Wynn had experienced enough of forest-truth: to never know which words were lies. No easy answers like in the palace, where each assignment came with a script. Wasn’t that what she had chosen when she fled back into the woods?
“Those bandits robbed your father, it’s true,” the bird-woman said. “And I punished them for that. They had been robbers before, but they’d never taken lives. They’d never killed the king’s own men. I couldn’t have such lawlessness in my forest. I couldn’t have murderers living next door. I turned them into birds, enchanted them to do my bidding.” Her eyes fluttered closed. “But I had nothing to do with your father’s death.”
Wynn looked at the woman, her hair like twigs, her body broken. The rage in Wynn’s belly had gone without her willing it to go. She did not know if the bird-woman told the truth, but she believed that she did, and that was somehow more important.
“I believe you.” Wynn’s aching chest calmed. Her father had died a long time ago. There was nothing she could do about that.
“Will you stay and learn from me?” the bird-woman said. She let go of Wynn’s hand.
“If you will learn from me as well,” Wynn said. “You cannot lock me up because I disagree with what you think is best. You cannot lock me up for any reason.”
The bird-woman nodded, slow and steady. Wynn thought of the truths the bird-woman had told. Wynn told of her own truth: she had returned to Lady Loreen. If the bird-woman’s visions were correct, then the future for Mu she’d feared would come to pass.
“I know,” the bird-woman said. “We cannot change what we see out here. But that doesn’t stop me from trying.”
“Have you seen anything of me?” Wynn asked, though was not sure she wanted to know.
“I have seen you with my eyes,” the bird-woman said, drifting again into sleep. “That’s enough to know who you’ll become to me.”
Nothing in the Silent Woods was immediate: Wynn’s full grasp of her lessons, the control she gained over her crow and all the birds who came after, her love for the bird-woman or the bird-woman’s love for her.
The word from Mu: Lady Loreen had married William the Well-Read. They had grown close as he taught her how to control her latest affliction: a small crow that brought tears instead of fear. Using the library map collection, William had located a wealth of treasure. He’d bought the king father’s retirement and his own place on the throne, which he gifted to his rightful Queen Loreen. The queen issued her decree: all banished from Mu would now be allowed to return. Ser Wynn did not return.
Wynn thought at first that these events were not too bad. But then came more news, the picture of the future Wynn had influenced snapping into place. Loreen had finally learned how Wynn had bargained for William to be allowed back into Mu. Though she had nearly gained what she had always wanted—a lone place on her throne, even if it had required a husband—her anger erupted. Not only had Wynn not returned to Mu once her banishment was lifted, but she had asked for the pardoning of a strange man instead of what she had promised: her best friend’s queenship. Lady Loreen stole the centaurs’ voices and hid them in her palace. She demanded a blood tax of her citizens; each morning they would leave a drop in a bowl on their door. She murdered King William and changed his moniker in the history books: the Well-Read no longer; the Liar forevermore.
This news hurt. Some days, when her original crow slipped into a rare fit, Wynn found it difficult to rise from bed, to tend the garden she kept with the bird-woman—Queen of the Birds and the Silent Woods, no longer silent, no longer fearful of its most-feared inhabitant. But after a while she returned to herself long enough to sing the songs of the bird-woman, of her father, of her own creation. The calming songs of the people she had cared most for in her lifetime, and these songs pierced through Wynn’s dark clouds like the strongest blade.