Willowbright flitted from shadow to shadow in the trees, watching the gravediggers mutter and complain as they threw dirt into the gaping wound in the churchyard. The old widow, who had often left small beer and salt herring on her windowsill for Willowbright, lay lifeless at the bottom of the hole. Now that she’d finally gone beneath the stones in the churchyard, Willowbright had been left alone, unserved by human hands.
Autumn had arrived like an unwelcome guest, altogether too early, stealing the last of the summer-fruits, and with no gift of greeting in hand. Favored fey might overwinter on the largesse of the Queen at court—if they shared with Her some glimmer of glory stolen from their own human patrons. Without the widow, Willowbright had no such thing to trade upon.
The old woman had no human mourners, so Willowbright stayed; if not to mourn, then to mark her passing at least. By the time the widow’s grave had been covered over and the gravediggers sat atop the new wound in the earth to pass a cup between them, the moon had pressed its thumbprint deep into the sky. Willowbright wrapped her arms around her hollow stomach.
She didn’t need and could only bear so much human want and whim. Just one wide-eyed child or hopeful housewife, to offer her what little she required and could not, by the rules of such things, take for herself. A relief, in some ways; a worry in others. Without their gifts, she could not survive forever. She frowned down at the gravediggers, one of whom now straggled out of the cemetery, one of whom had paused to relieve himself beside the fresh-turned dirt. Clever hands and fast wings alone wouldn’t feed and warm her the long winter through.
The Court, Willowbright knew, laughed behind their wings at her and her far-between patrons. But she was the one who should be laughing, not those who were forever flitting to the petulant stomp of an oversized foot or the crook of a great clumsy finger.
Starlight prickled her wings as she lifted her nose and tested the air. The phlox embroidering the tree-roots below offered dankly scented nectar; not far, a patch of wood-sorrel could provide stolid sustenance. Willowbright craved something more substantial than nectar and sweeter than sorrel. She stirred her wings and set off deeper into human holdings.
She skimmed low over the squatty cottages and mossy fences, hiding when a crow’s shadow slid coldly over her, then again from a pair of wild fairies. She watched them pass from the cover of an oak bower as they flew by, naked but for mud and berry-stains. Faint light limned their well-patched wings, where they had carved out shimmering scales and fed a length of batskin or spidersilk to the hungry gap, and bone chips chattered where they hung from the ragged margins. When one threw back her head and laughed, silhouetted by tallow-fat moonlight, she looked almost like one of the Good Folk. Were they looking Willowbright’s way? She waited, breath stilled and wings trembling, until the wind had swept away their raucous cackles.
The evening’s cool breeze let her glide for a few easy minutes, scanning the terrain below. Taking an egg from the friary’s coops would have appealed, if she were able to help herself to human food without spoiling it. Unless clearly abandoned or freely offered, it was no good to her. Perhaps the wreckage of a meat pie, or a child’s splattered porridge?
Or then again perhaps something better! An acorn cap of milk and a slice of buttercake, sitting upon a tree-stump out where the goat-keeper’s fence nestled up against the forest, as if attending upon her arrival. Too good to be true. But when Willowbright cast a suspicious eye around, she found no living thing but trees and stars and moon and, at a distance, the humped backs of sleeping goats.
Sometimes the townspeople left offerings for fairy favor. If the goat-keeper desired hers, Willowbright would mark his fence to warn the Good Folk not to pluck his herd for paintbrushes or pillow-stuffing. It would wear off after a week, but then, a meal, even such a very fine one, would wear off long before that. He could feed her again if he wanted more. The goat-keeper would make a serviceable patron; though she preferred cow’s butter to goat’s, both far outpaced winter starvation.
She alit on the stump and lifted the acorn cap. Not milk but sweet cream, petal-silken, and it cooled the fire at Willowbright’s core. She gulped it all, lest it was no offering and the touch of fey lips should sour it.
A human girl crouched opposite her. “Hello,” she whispered. “Please don’t fly away.”
Willowbright stayed but kept her wings unfurled. She’d take flight if the girl tried to grab at her. Besides, fine wingmanship made a good impression on susceptible humans, especially the young. Which this one seemed to be—Willowbright had little practice gauging human ages, but this looked like more than a child and less than a woman grown. A pretty thing, whatever her age. Poppyjoy had several human admirers of her own but only the miller and his wife, and a pair of old men from the friary—and one of those had dreadful pockmarks. The Queen, of course, had six, most of them pretty youths. Like this one.
Willowbright lifted one hand, giving the woman-child an opening to elaborate on her invitation. Fairy speech was beyond human ken, but hopefully this creature wasn’t too dull to recognize a polite overture to conversation.
“Oh—thank you.” The girl settled to her haunches in the grass, which brought her face nearly level with the stump. Her clothes were homespun and her feet bare but unstained with grass or mud. Not the goat-keeper’s girl, then. “I hope you don’t mind it’s only the half of the buttercake. I ate the rest. I’m sorry.”
Willowbright shrugged and broke a crumb off the cake, intimating magnanimity, deeply desiring the girl to get on with it.
The girl’s hands crushed deep valleys into her apron hem. “My stepsister is—plain.” The word ugly shimmered beneath the too-bright surface there. “My stepmother is worried she’ll never marry while I’m under the same roof. It wouldn’t be seemly to marry off the younger one first.”
Willowbright’s lips twisted. Trite, but easy enough. A goose that lay a dowry’s worth of emerald eggs, perhaps, to buy a suitable suitor. Boring, though not old-man-with-pox-scars boring. Willowbright had that within her power. She flicked her fingers: go on.
“Make me ugly,” the girl said quietly. She wiped away the miniature mountains she’d creased into her apron. “Make me so ugly they forget to hate me. So ugly they forget I’m there. My time will come, I know. But for now let me be too far beneath them for me to be trouble.”
A spark caught the easy tinder of Willowbright’s attention and took flame. Now that was more interesting than any number of gem-shitting geese. But then interesting alone didn’t polish Willowbright’s wings. She cocked her head and put her hands out. Well?
The girl gnawed her lip. “My firstborn.”
No. Willowbright didn’t work on credit. Nor did she care to deal with the obligatory attempt to worm out of the bargain by the time such a child arrived.
“A ring of gold.” The girl touched her apron pocket, then jerked her hands back to her lap, as if she thought Willowbright would snatch it if she knew its hiding place. That wasn’t the way of things. Didn’t the girl know anything? “It was my mother’s.”
Willowbright didn’t care if the ring belonged to the humans’ own father-God; she shook her head again. Gold’s sparkle lured the eye, but it was so heavy. Let Poppyjoy and Swallowmoon weigh themselves down beneath earthmetal’s pull; she had something simpler in mind. She held her hands cupped in front of her, then moved them to her mouth, miming tearing, gnawing, chewing.
“Food?” The girl’s face creased. “You want—food? That’s all?”
Willowbright nodded, glittering all the brighter for her satisfaction. Hardly a grand gift, but glory had never yet filled her belly.
“You shall have it, then.” She thumbed the hidden ring. “I promise.”
So they were agreed and bound. Willowbright pointed at the ground: wait here.
One nanny goat lay at a distance from the herd, its knobbled knees tucked under its chin. Its slash-pupiled eyes fluttered beneath long lashes when Willowbright stroked its hide, but it didn’t wake, not even when she dug her hands into the hoary flesh below the neck, not when she tore the hide clean free. Not even then, and never again.
The girl stared when Willowbright dropped the goathide on her lap—stared, but did flinch. Willowbright gestured to her shoulders, then to the goathide: put it on!
The girl grasped the edge of the hide and whirled it over her back. Where it met her body, the goatskin became as her own. For a moment her eyes peered out through the ragged holes where the goat’s had been, pupils huge and dark instead of barred. Then its features settled into place, its face imposed upon hers.
Still recognizable but undeniably altered: her smooth skin gone rough and blotchy, glossy braids flat and stringy, bright eyes dull. Asymmetry disrupted the even lines of her nose and cheeks, put crooked the straight-laid paths of her teeth. Her hand fluttered to her chest, where she found the secret line of false flesh over true, and flensed it back over her scalp and neck. For a moment her face was fully her own again. Then she withdrew once more inside the goatskin, and her lopsided mouth twisted. “Thank you. Thank you.” She knelt down and pressed her forehead to the ground. “Three times I thank you, daughter of the Fey Forest.”
Willowbright fluttered her wings modestly when the girl rose with a line of fresh dirt on her scabrous forehead. A good bit of magic, by her judgment, and it would last until it had served its purpose. In the meantime... She swept a dainty hand over the crumbled buttercake and empty acorn cap.
The girl nodded. “Yes. Of course. Come to the cottage just west of town, the brewster’s house with the field of heather behind it. I’ll set out cream and sugar for you every night so long as I live under my stepmother’s roof.”
A fine arrangement, sweetened all the more by the adulation that poured off the girl. Willowbright curtsied, and wondered why any fey creature would choose to scrape a wild living off the forest floor when humans were so eager to wait upon them. They weren’t all so bad, if you chose carefully and bargained well.
Winter dragged its corpse-white body through the valley, pulling down trees and flattening roofs. The abandoned wasps’ nest where Willowbright made her papery home fell to a hailstorm; it split open on the roots below, where the phlox would crawl carelessly over it come summer.
She didn’t bother asking the Court for help. With only one human vassal, she hadn’t the status to be afforded housing in the abandoned badger sett where the Queen kept Her rooms. And while the Queen might listen sympathetically to her sorrows, Willowbright could not abide the looks from behind lowered lashes and fluttering fans that she’d get from Saltfrost and Echo and Poppyjoy.
So she found a scrap of poplar fluff, and made herself a little capelet, and huddled in the nests of sleeping ground squirrels and hibernating hedgehogs when the winds cut sleet-sharp through her. Sometimes hunger’s claws scraped her up from shallow sleep, but the cold—the cold gnawed her bones and left lingering marks.
And when daylight shone blinding-bright upon the snow, at least Willowbright could still visit the brewster’s cottage, to find her thimble of buttercream or crisp oatcake. She never saw the goatskin girl, but gratitude slipped down her throat as sweetly as the cream. The reverence due a fairy in all her glory might not be so readily supplied to one in Willowbright’s undignified state. The poplar-wool encumbered her wings and made a drunken stutter of her elegant arcs.
No matter. She let frost feather her wings until she was a shimmer upon the sky. On fresh-fallen snow she was invisible, and she left no footprints to follow when she went down to the brewster’s cottage.
Until the day when she crossed the whispering fields of heather to find two fairies already on the brewster’s sill, guzzling her cream and devouring her saffron bun. No one of consequence, no one of the Court. Two nameless slips of glimmer and glow, and they dared—! Willowbright shrieked and shot from snow to sill with a single wing-snap.
The other two scattered in a flurry of crumbs. Before she could decide which to pursue, both had passed beyond her reach. They disappeared on a swirl of laughter, headed toward the village, to dance on the baker’s bread till it failed to rise or sour the dairyman’s milk. If a fairy couldn’t enjoy human food, some satisfaction could be had in seeing that no mortal mouth took pleasure in it either.
That these two could barge unwanted into Willowbright’s bargain meant that the rules that bound such things had begun to unwind. Her magic had served its purpose and come to its end.
Then she would see the girl again soon, goatskin or not. Snippets of soul were like entrails; tug at one bit and the rest tumbled after. She scooped the remainder of the sodden saffron crumbs into her cape, where they left sun-colored stains.
At the forest’s edge she stopped short. A wild fairy grinned at her amid a tumble of dead lives and dirt-smeared snow, with her arm crooked around a squirrel’s throat. Red lines scored her face and her already tatter-patched wings had taken more damage from the beast’s small sharp claws—but the fight was over. Willowbright was there only long enough to witness the shine leaving the squirrel’s eyes.
“Like what you see, tameling?” The wild fairy’s chest heaved when she dropped the squirrel. She licked blood, her own or the beast’s, from her knuckles. “Always more where it came from.” She bent and tore the squirrel’s pelt from its body.
Willowbright stared at the steam that rose up off muscle and sinew. The wild fairy shook out the pelt, then looped it around neck. It skewed her wings, but she showed no concern as she hefted the carcass over one shoulder. “Only the Queen may slay the creatures of the forest,” Willowbright said, her voice aquiver. When the wild fairy looked at her, her tongue tripped thickly. “Only the Queen may wear their pelts.”
A snort. “Suit yourself, tameling, and I’ll suit me—both of us as we like.”
“If you had a human, you would get what you need...” Willowbright stumbled on the half-truth. “And you wouldn’t need to risk breaking the Court’s laws. The Queen could order your wings torn off for this.”
“She could order my wings torn off for not liking the color of my eyes.” The wild fairy’s laugh was thunder in the snow. “Why not build yourself an iron cage in the alewife’s kitchen, tameling, if you like it so well?”
“Stop calling me tame!” Willowbright shrilled, but the wild fairy only shrugged the squirrel higher upon her back and disappeared deeper and darker into the woods.
Willowbright hated to venture from her borrowed shelter of nests and dens; the wind cut like bramble-swords through her cape. Still, she visited the stump at forest’s edge each time the ice moon rose. And on the third night, her patience paid.
The girl hunched on the stump, a creature of gooseflesh and not goatskin now. Willowbright alit upon her trembling knee. The girl had flung the goatskin—only a hide, now—over her thighs, and Willowbright knelt to pull a flap of bristly flesh over herself.
“It’s you,” the girl said, and the slit of her smile echoed the moon above. A feverish glow brightened her eyes; it would be a shame if a winter grippe snatched her from Willowbright’s reach. “I need your help again. Please.”
Willowbright stroked the goatskin, asking a question with the cut of her eyes. But the girl shook her head. “Not this time. It doesn’t matter anymore what she thinks. Not if you can help me.” A convulsion of her fingers twisted them deeper into the goatskin, yanking it clear of Willowbright’s legs. “I went to the pond to bathe, three nights ago.”
She would have had to cut the ice to get to clear water. Willowbright drew the cape tighter, to suppress a shiver.
She also would have left the goatskin upon the shore.
“The margrave’s second son saw me there.” The girl fingered her wrists, where her cuffs did not cover snow-pale skin. “He wrapped me in his houppelande and he called me a swan-maiden, an angel.”
They’d stumbled into familiar territory here. Willowbright knew the steps of this dance—the staid pavan of hearthfire and happy ending. A wedding gown and dowry set to a wealthy father-in-law’s standards. Perhaps she would have to conjure up the damnable emerald-egg goose after all.
“He’s only a second son. But rich enough—or his father is—that he’ll get what he wants. And what he wants is me. My stepmother can’t tell him no, or she’ll find out how fast the knights of his march take their custom elsewhere.” Now Willowbright reconsidered the girl’s febrile gleam: not illness and not love, but the fervor of well-crafted calculation. “He wishes to see me again. His family will be there.” Her mouth twisted, and she fingered a hole in her sleeve. “When they see me like this, they won’t take me for an angel. I need a gown that glows bright as the sun, to wear to the margravine’s Twelfth-Day masque. And a mount, to carry me to the winter residence.”
Twelfth-Day... Willowbright pointed at the moon overhead: tonight?
“Yes. Now. Can you do it?” The girl’s breath rattled, as she remembered the courtesy due a fairy. “Please?”
Willowbright pursed her mouth and waited.
“I... I can give you...” Restless hands stretched the goatskin. “If I marry the margrave’s son—”
Willowbright jumped up. Pretty promises were worth less than the breath it took to spill them. She cocked her wings and gave them a flick, as if she might take off. A pause long enough for the silly girl to use her brain.
“Wait!” The girl leaned over Willowbright, and her golden head eclipsed the moon. “I know you don’t want silver or jewels. Tell me what would please you. If it’s in my power, I’ll give it.”
Willowbright didn’t hesitate. She shivered, chafed her arms, pointed at the girl.
“Warmth.” With the moon in her hair, Willowbright couldn’t read the girl’s face. “Take it. Take what warmth you can wring from my life. If you can do this thing for me.”
It was agreed, then. Willowbright fluttered off the girl’s lap and looked about. A gown that shone like the sun—that she couldn’t contrive. But one that shimmered like the moon? She tore a moonbeam free of its moorings and shook it out to test its drape. Two more slender shafts that slipped between the clouds made slippers, and a few threads of starlight bound the thing together. Finally, a fistful of snow cast into the girl’s hair melted into a pearl-studded net.
The girl’s expression didn’t change, but the fire in her eyes kindled anew. The goatskin fell into the snow as she shed her cheap homespun. As she slipped into Willowbright’s creations, Willowbright focused on the matter of transportation. A mount, the girl had said, as if a maiden alone could simply ride sidesaddle up to the estate house in the dead of winter! She dug in the snow until she produced an acorn cap and two pebbles. They vibrated in her palm, listening to the new names she whispered.
When they understood, she flung them into the air. Instead of an acorn cap, a carriage and team struck the ground, great wheels creaking, and in place of pebbles, a driver and footman caught themselves in the ankle-deep snow. She’d left too much gray in their complexions, but no one would look at a servant too closely tonight.
“Oh,” the girl gasped, spinning in a luminescent swirl. “Thank you. It’s wonderful. It will last all night?”
Adequate, yes, though Willowbright for one wouldn’t have sold her life’s warmth for it. She pointed to the moon again, traced its path toward the horizon, then indicated the treetops to the east, where the sun would crest in ten hours’ time. Under the sun’s unforgiving eye, night’s magic would quickly burn away.
She shot up in front of the girl’s face, though, when the girl lifted her hem and stepped toward the carriage. Wait, Willowbright signaled, palms out. When the girl nodded, Willowbright mimed scooping a double handful of snow. The girl obeyed, and Willowbright flew beneath her hands and pressed them over her eyes. When the girl lowered them, a silver mask clung to her fine features. Almost. Willowbright snapped a pair of icicles from an overhanging branch and affixed them at the girl’s temples. There, they curled into a goat’s stubborn little horns, and her masquerade was complete.
The girl touched her face, where the white brocade lay flush. “I wish I had my mother’s ring,” she whispered.
But there could be no turning back now. Willowbright ushered her forward, and the girl stepped into the carriage with the footman’s assistance. Before the door closed, Willowbright glimpsed her hard bright face, with lips clamped together so tightly that Willowbright couldn’t tell whether the girl was smiling or crying.
After that, Willowbright didn’t see the girl again. Because the margrave’s middle son had swept her off into the velvet-cushioned rooms of the estate house? Or because she’d failed to win her coveted morganatic marriage and had gotten cast out of her stepmother’s house for her ambition? The offerings of cake and cream had ceased, so the cause mattered little. Willowbright eked out her days on acorn paste, but sweet stolen warmth blunted the season’s hungry edge. For a while, she managed to tempt a plump boy into trade. But his slippery little brain forgot often as not that he had bargained bread crusts for Willowbright’s proffered sweets. His attention endured a few weeks before his gifts lapsed altogether. The broken agreement wrung Willowbright magic-dry. But the food held long enough for her to scrape survival out from beneath frost and ice.
The frozen forest melted grudgingly into spring, bringing sunshine and sweet nectar, and Willowbright wept for joy when summer offered up its fruits. When the first wild strawberries crawled out from their tangle of vines, she gorged herself silly. After a day curled around her stretched belly, she spent a more prudent afternoon lining her new home in a sycamore hollow with fresh leaves.
Once strawberry days gave way to summer heat, Willowbright flew farther afield, where the blackberry brambles clawed skyward. Her cape, stained pollen-yellow now, held three blackberries. In a few trips Willowbright could carry enough food to last the week.
If she wore the cape at Court, she would be laughed out of the sett, out of the very forest. Not even human patronage could save her from that. So she didn’t wear the cape to Court. She did not, in fact, attend Court at all, except when it was required for the moon’s turn and the Midsummer Hunt. When she did go, she learned not to shiver in the unfriendly shadows at the margins of the Queen’s glow.
Little fruit remained at the bushes’ tops, where sun-brushed berries ripened first,. but unripe berries gleamed ruby-red where sunlight sliced through the thorns. Willowbright crept beneath the brambles, wings tucked close. Sour fruit wasn’t worth the trouble to carry, not if it would empty her belly as soon as fill it. She squinted into the deeper darkness.
A murmur of fairy voices wafted from the shadows.
Surprise twitched her wings. She shimmied deeper into the bush. Closer to the ground, the sickly sweetness of rotting berries filled her mouth. She landed and slipped in the fruit-muck that littered the soil. The voices had faded, but a dull animal moan reached out to grip her heart. Some unfortunate creature might’ve crawled into the brush to hide or nurse its wounds. Willowbright might able to aid it, if it would serve her for a spell.
A dark shuddering shape solidified from the restive shadows. Willowbright could nearly make out the long limbs of a fox—or a squirrel’s hunched back? Then the twisting lines and curves resolved into not one body but three.
One wild fairy sprawled on her back in the fallen fruits. Stains and dripping juice mottled the hard planes of her body. Another rocked back and forth upon the first one’s face, patchwork wings tilting drunkenly for balance. The third rutted against her, pelvis to pelvis, one hand bracing herself and the other working wetly between their tangled legs.
The moan rolled to a shrill peak and crashed into raucous laughter on the other side. The fairy in the middle arched her back, levered upward by the spasms of her wings. The one astride her mouth slipped and tumbled over backward. Without getting up, she lifted a liquor-limp berry to her lips and sucked its soft pulp.
Willowbright’s foot crushed more fallen fruit when she took a tottering step forward. Her hand squeezed her own breastbone; her mouth had gone salt-dry.
The wild fairy on her back was watching her, the same wild fairy she’d met before. “Well?” she said. “Have you decided yet, tameling?”
The fairy held out a hand and beckoned.
Willowbright’s wings refused to work. A fat drop of black juice rolled off the wild fairy’s fingers, and the soil drank it up where it struck. The fairy between her legs groaned like a storm-shaken tree and bent to suck the juice that ran down her lover’s jaw.
The pink flash of her tongue shattered Willowbright’s frozen limbs. She fled the blackberry bramble, heedless of the thorns that nipped her arms, and her wings didn’t stop beating until she dropped into her leaf-lined home. For a long while after, her heart kept the same frantic rhythm. When she closed her eyes, the wild fairy’s lips were against her ear, whispering of sinew and stolen light.
On a cloudy late-summer day, Willowbright clutched a dandelion-stem bridle and crept closer to the butterfly she’d marked as her desired mount. It lapped at a woundwort, heedless of Willowbright where she wove between dancing wildflowers. Two flicks of her wings lifted her to the level of the flower, and she readied the slippery bridle to throw.
“There you are.”
The butterfly twitched away into the air. Willowbright watched in dismay as it shriveled into the distance: it had been a fine blue argus, too, not some ill-tempered copper. An impatient flick of her wings spun her around, and she looked up to find the goatskin girl.
The girl’s face was still moon-pale despite the summer heat. Weight had fallen away from her, like the snow that melted to leave behind hollows carved into the soil. Dark stains, not of berry juice, ringed her eyes, and her ragged-cropped hair hung nearly as stringy as when she’d sheltered beneath the goatskin. “I went home for my things,” she said. “My mother’s ring and my father’s cup. Do you know what she did, when she found out the margrave’s son wanted me?”
No need to ask who she was. Willowbright’s wings scraped the air, as if begging her to flee. She shook her head at them, anchored by a dread sense of debt. The harness slithered from her hand and the grass devoured it whole.
“The margrave’s son came through the villages, looking for the girl who’d won his heart.” The goatskin girl drew her hair back from her face. A stub shone florid red against behind her cheek, where her ear should have been. “She cut off my ears, so that the mask I’d left wouldn’t fit and mark me true. She rubbed ash on my face and told him I was a madwoman, when I raved and screamed and begged him to know me.”
Willowbright spread her hands wide: half apology, half plea for explanation. Did the girl blame Willowbright for her stepmother’s monstrosity or her lover’s fickle eyes? There was nothing Willowbright could do about either of those.
The girl took a step closer, so that her shadow swallowed up Willowbright. “Make it so that every time he touches a coin, from now to the day he dies, it burns his fingers. Make it so that each time he dances, it’s as if he does so on burning coals.” Veins rolled blue in her wrists when her fingers curled into claws. “Make it so her bones go as brittle as ice, so that she can’t bend a knee or stretch a hand without it shattering. Make her skin thin as lace, so that she can see every crack. So that they slice clean through.”
All this would be too much to ask, even if she’d showed the proper deference. Magic so dark would leave marks on more than just its intended victims. Willowbright slashed downward with one hand, an unmistakable gesture of abnegation.
“Yes.” The goatskin girl’s shout shook the air, and Willowbright’s wings jerked to keep her aloft. “You promised me safety. You promised me a margrave’s son. You owe me this and more besides!”
The imputation against Willowbright’s sworn word was too much. She shook out her wings to leave this presumptuous mortal behind.
A great weight struck her and bore her groundward. When she crashed into the dirt, air fled her lungs. She kicked frantically, held fast by a terrible weight..
The press solidified: not only weight but grip. Willowbright shrieked for breath and blinked her streaming eyes. The goatskin girl’s dark shape loomed. “You’ll not deny me as easily as that,” she said.
Willowbright folded around herself and dug her teeth into the girl’s knuckles. Blood ran hot over her chin, but the girl didn’t let go, didn’t even flinch. She spread her palm to force Willowbright flatter into the struggle-torn grass and reached into her pocket with her free hand.
Through tear-spangled eyes, Willowbright saw the flash of the iron nail. She screamed when it tore through her wing and pinned her to the ground. She strained against it with all her might, but that was only enough to pinch her vision with jagged bursts of light. Lymph and broken scales made sparkling mud of the dirt.
“Take his sight,” said the goatskin girl. Though she sat back on her heels, taking the weight off Willowbright’s body, her voice stayed close and harsh and her sour-milk breath spilled into Willowbright’s face. Willowbright pulled weakly against her own pain. “Make it so everything she eats tastes of ash and burnt hair.”
Willowbright turned her head to retch. Her fingers brushed the sap-sticky surface of the dandelion harness.
The goatskin girl was still deep in her litany. “Let ravens peck out his eyes. Let worms and maggots chew her flesh while she sleeps.”
The dandelion stem pulled taut in Willowbright’s hand—it had fallen about a slender sapling. She twisted it around her hand and closed her eyes, and tears washed hot down her cheeks.
Her wing split with a scream of splintered veins and ruined scales. It hardly pushed air, but Willowbright wrung a frantic lopsided flight from it anyway. Leaves and grass whipped her face until the screams of the goatskin girl fell away behind her, until she was alone with the thunder of her breath and the lightning of her pain.
This time, when she fell, there was no weight but her own to bring her down. She breathed dirt as much as air, and gagged. A cough cleared her mouth but her vision stayed filmy with sweat and filth and tears.
One breath, two. Her dizzy world steadied, with pain and grief holding her down in gravity’s place. A passing breeze pulled a shudder from her. She thought of getting up and could not muster the will. At least the Court could not see her now.
Then hands fell on her once more.
Small hands this time, fairy hands, but strong and insistent. A moment’s struggle, and they pulled Willowbright flat, slammed her shoulders to the ground. None other than the wild fairy, her wild fairy, straddled her waist. “Hold her,” she said, and pulled spidersilk from a skein to thread a thorn-needle.
“No,” Willowbright wailed. Three more wildlings pressed her down, one gripping each leg, another pulling both arms overhead. Black wings, bat wings, wings patched with pitch and rags, filled her vision and cut sharp shapes out of the sky above. “Oh, no—”
“Be still,” the wild fairy said. “It will be over soon. You’ll fly again, tameling.” The needle kissed Willowbright’s tattered wing, and her vision split into empty darkness.
Daylight returned in dappled patches. By old instinct, she lurched to her feet with a flicker of her wings and sobbed at the bright pain the movement woke. A blanket of leaves had fallen by her feet. No other sign of the wild fairies marked the meadow.
She bent her neck and spread her reluctant wing wide, to see the damage, to see how they had marked her as one of their own—
Spidersilk gray hemmed a spread of molten-gold feathers. When she turned, sunlight poured through the fine silken vane. She reached behind herself to stroke the barbs and choked wetly on a laugh.
She found a pile of wet leaves at the top of the hill and crouched to wipe the mud from her face and arms and the pink petals of her dress. From here, she heard the cattle lowing, smelled bread browning in clever iron ovens. Human voices, too, so far away that their words melted into more animal bleating. Willowbright caught herself straining to hear them, and she let go the breath she’d held too long and tight.
Then she turned and stumbled deeper into the forest, where the trees grew too thick for sunlight to spill in between, where the fruit fell sweet and rich and rotten. Where the Queen’s Court did not deign to venture, and where humans did not tread for fear of what the shadows hid. When she asked it of them, her wings answered with flight. There was pain—there might never be another such trip without it—but there was the sky, and it was still hers.