Chapter Two

"None of us had ever heard a wind blow like that before," Corinne began as her granddaughters settled comfortably onto the floor at the foot of her rocking chair. Linza – the eldest – sat close by her younger sister Taja, who had begun to braid Linza's long white-blond hair into a loose knot.

Taja smiled up encouragingly at her grandmother as she hurried to finish her sister's braid to better enjoy her grandmothers tale. "The wind," Corinne continued, making sure her granddaughters were ready for the story that she had told them all too often over the years. "Was as black as night and blotted out the sun for many days. The sound was fierce," she continued, "like the screams from the throats of an army of men. It was loud like thunder but hollow like drumbeats." Corinne stopped for a moment, even though both Linza and Taja were entrapped within the story their grandmother was telling. As always, she wanted them to appreciate it as part of their past, and not just another fable.

"Go on, grandmother?" Linza begged. Taja swatted her arm at her sister to hush her, knowing that Corinne would halt and pause whenever she chose to, but she would always finish the story.

"My mother," Corinne went on, placing an aging hand against her arm in a gesture of loss, a position that always made the breath in Linza's throat seize up. "Was the leader of our tribe." Corinne stopped herself again and raised an eyebrow toward both girls. "And how many tribes were there then, my beauties?"

A sound escaped Linza's throat like she would answer, but Taja cut her off. "There were three tribes grandmother."

"And what were the names of these tribes, Linza?" Corinne added as she looked down at her eldest granddaughter.

Linza hesitated only a moment before answering. "The Sayb's were the silverspines— they were the most fearsome. That's one," Linza held the last syllable of the word 'one' longer than was necessary to give her more time to remember the other names. "Then there were the Miam—always blue, they could change their skin to match the bright blue of the day sky or the dark blue of the night sky." She continued with more certainly, "and then our tribe the Irisa—the strongest and wisest, usually red of color."

"Very good," Corinne said encouragingly as she cupped Linza's chin in her small hand. "My mother, your great-grandmother, Avviḙa was the leader of the Irisa tribe. She was a warrior queen…"

Linza cut her grandmother off, "Tell us again what she looked like?"

Taja hushed her sister again, but Corinne continued unfazed. "Her skin was a beautiful deep red, and it often times glistened in the sun when she took to the skies. She also had a long dark streak that began at the crest of her head and continued down to the tip of her tail." Corinne looked away from the hungry expressions of her granddaughter's and gazed into the wild firelight in the hearth. Her memories often times freed her as much as they imprisoned her. Corinne pointed to the flames and her granddaughters followed her gesture. "My father told me her skin resembled fire. She had a regal coloring, my beauties, and she ruled our tribe with care and devotion. I was still in her belly when the winds came. You see," she went on more carefully, "The Eidolon—the witch Elin—cursed our flight. When the winds came our long bodies turned inward." She moved her hands out so her granddaughter's could study them carefully. "Our wings turned to fingers, our snouts became mouths, and our ability to soar through the sky was expunged until we had naught but these two feet to walk the earth with."

Taja watched her grandmothers hands flutter back toward her lap. "She cursed us because she hated us. Is that not right grandmother?"

Corinne studied the young girl, who in many ways was already wiser than her older sister. "Perhaps," Corinne said truthfully, "we may never know the reasons behind it. The truth of her actions may be forever lost to the stretches of time. So many years have passed since then," Corinne added absently noting that she had seen over sixty winters and had never once been able to spread her wings like her ancestors had before her.

"And Avviḙa?" Linza whispered, although she already knew the answer from hearing the story so many times before.

Corinne had to look away from her granddaughters again, and staring into the fire once more she added. "Our bodies were not used to the changes. We are still not able to give birth as a normal human woman would. The pain…" emotion cut her voice off. "The alien quality of this flesh…"

"Like momma?" Linza muttered.

"Yes," Taja added, sensing the pain in both her sister and her grandmothers voices. "Like momma when I was born."

"It was not your fault, poppet," Corinne added when she heard Taja's bitterness.

Taja pushed aside her emotion, "What happened to the Eidolon, grandmother? The witch…?" She added with distaste, "What became of her?"

"She is long dead…" Corinne said, glad to get away from the painful note that her tale had taken. "Dead many years I suppose."

"Is there no hope then?" Taja asked. "No hope of ever taking our true forms again?"

"The prophecy – which was written down by Olvḙa on the first full moon after the winds came - foretold of a black dragon. Sheyla Meydela, pure black," Corinne continued eyeing the tangled mass of Taja's black hair tied back with a thick ribbon. She had always wondered about her granddaughter, although she had never voiced her suspicions. "Black as night. Black as the bottom layers of the deepest oceans will come. Someday, it is written, this black dragon will break the curse, free our people, and the skies will once again be filled with not just stars, but the glisten and glow of a thousand outstretched wings."

Taja slumped back against her heels, "How beautiful," she sighed. Corinne smiled.

"It will never be," Linza added matter-of-factly. "Elin is dead," she continued in a flat tone. "Only the witch can break the spell and the witch who cast the spell is no more."

"What do you know about it?" Taja argued, her voice rising with ire.

Linza's voiced raised as well. "More than you, I—"

"Now girls!" Corinne warned. "The story is not over." She smiled at both Linza and Taja. "You will continue the story. Who knows what will happen next. We have not yet reached the ending." Her statement seemed to satisfy both girls. "Now come," she added in a much lighter tone. "Let us prepare the evening meal for your father's homecoming."

Taja sighed loudly, "I'll bet as a dragon Avviḙa never had to prepare supper for anyone…"

"Actually," Corinne cut in, "she was rather fond of hunting, as they all were, and Irisa hunt as a group and dine as a group…" Corinne couldn't suppress a smile, "In much the same way we are going about it now."

Taja rolled her eyes, although she was quick to help her sister prepare the table and begin the other final preparations for the meal.

Corinne watched them from the fireside where a cauldron of soup was near to boiling. She mused that no two sisters could look less alike.

Linza was all limbs and pale-haired. Her complexion had always been milky-white, and ashen since she was a child. Linza was quiet and thoughtful; her beatitude was a startling calm to Taja's fiery storm.

Taja was not as tall as her sister, and she was proportioned in much the same way Corinne was, although her eyes were a startling deep brown and her hair fell in thick raven locks that no matter how Corinne attempted to manage it, always seemed unruly and unkempt.

When Corinne heard one of the wooden trays drop and clash against the side of the table she turned to see Linza clutching the side of one of the chairs. Her body was doubled over, and her long braid fell against her face. "Linza?" Corrine said, the same fear overtaking her voice as it always did when Linza fell into one of her attacks.

Taja had already gone to her side. She was rubbing Linza's back with one palm, while with the other she gently eased her sister into sitting in one of the chairs beside the table.

Linza's eyes were squeezed tightly shut and her hands balled up into tight fists. The muscles in her neck twitched and contracted while her breath was released in tight exhales. "Linza?" Taja said easily, trying to calm her sister and pull her out of her stupor with the sound of her voice. "Linza?" Taja lifted the hem of her skirt and balled it into Linza's mouth. Taja fought against Linza's clenched jaw but as always she was afraid Linza might swallow her tongue. "There now," she sang against Linza's cheek. "Come back little one."

Corinne had left her position near the fire and was standing on the other side of Taja when Linza finally opened her eyes.

"It's alright," Linza reassured them quickly, noting the distress on her grandmother and her sister's faces. "It's passed now, I swear it."

Taja backed away, hearing the shame in her sister's voice, and she busily occupied herself with what she was doing before. Corinne hovered close by. "I am well grandmother." Linza tilted her face up and smiled reassuringly, although her cheeks were red from the attention.

Corinne reluctantly headed back to the fireside. Linza's attacks came and went quickly, and although they had been serious only a handful of times, Corinne still felt a pounding fear each time they came on.

"He's here!" Linza hollered when she heard footsteps halt outside the front door. She sprang from her seat and scurried to the entryway.

"Wait!" Taja warned her sister, but Linza had already at the door when Marek entered.

Marek shivered, brushing the cold night air from his bones. He did not acknowledge Linza's presence so near to the door.

Taja approached cautiously, and pulled at her sister's arm until Linza backed away with her. If Marek hated Taja for being the cause of their mother's death than he felt shame and embarrassment over Linza and her condition.

"How was the hunt tonight, Marek?" Corinne asked trying to deflect the awkwardness of her granddaughter's silences. Her son took after her long-dead husband, and always had; no matter how hard she searched she could find very little trace of herself in him.

"T'was for naught," he noted sharply. "The Nymphlings are stalking the wood like banshees intent on killing anything that moves. The decoy did not work at all. None of us made it past a few yards of the barrier."

"You will try again another night," Corinne added gently as she ladled soup into a wooden bowl for each of them. She handed Marek's to Linza so that she might bring it to him and cheer him slightly.

"'Tis the same outcome at every attempt," Marek said gruffly. "'Twas the same in my fathers life, and in my grandfathers... same for mine."

"I am happy you are home father," Linza said quietly as she placed the bowl before her father at the table. "I am gladdened that you were not harmed."

Marek grunted in reply. He cupped the warm bowl into his frozen hands. His fingers were short and very thick. Linza studied the dry calluses visible across his knuckles.

"Was anyone hurt, Marek?" Corinne asked, trying to fill the silence as she and her granddaughter's sat down at the table.

"Aye, cuts and bruises, but nothing more severe than that. As I said though, the Nymphlings were agitated. I fear they understood the way of our plan and sought to punish us for trying something so bold."

Their soups were half eaten when Marek spoke again. "Linza," he said quickly, followed by, "Taja," in a much lower tone. The sound of their names on his tongue startled them both. "Go up to the loft," he continued. "I must speak to your grandmother in private."

Linza obeyed immediately, but Taja hesitated. Marek had not looked at his daughters as he spoke but when he tilted his face in Taja's direction, showing her a raised eyebrow she quickly got up from the table. She was convinced that it would be folly to argue with him when he was in this state.

First Linza and then Taja climbed the ladder up into the loft where the small bed her father normally slept on was. A single candle flickered in the tiny box window in the corner. Linza plopped onto the bed and waited while Taja pulled open the shutters and gazed out into the wild night, letting the frigid night air sweep across her cheekbones.

She knew the candlelight cast a strange shadow across her face as she scanned the horizon where the village met the forest. As she squinted her eyes into the blackness she thought she saw the small outline of a Nymphling dart from tree to tree. Taja wondered if the loathsome creature had seen her spying from the window. She watched its shadow pull back from the trunk of a tree and dart outward toward another in a single swipe of its long arms. She saw its eyes glow fiercely in her direction before it melted into the darkness of the forest again.

"Come," Linza beckoned her sister from the window. "Come and listen to what they're saying."

Taja closed the shutters and placed the candle back atop the sill.

"Well, we are alone," their grandmother began. "What is it that you wish to say to me that your own daughters may not hear?" Corinne realized too late how much emphases she put on the word 'your' and she lowered her head in anticipation of her son's anger.

"The lad Jascha—Ewan's elder son—was with me in the hunt tonight." Marek watched his mother carefully. "It was not the first night he fought bravely by my side."

"He is a good lad," Corinne agreed, although truthfully she did not know the boy very well.

"He has spoken to me of his intention of taking a mate." Corinne's reaction told him that she understood.

"Linza?" She asked hesitantly. Her voice was small, but heavy with disbelief.

Marek scoffed. "No!"

From their vantage point in the loft Linza felt Taja stiffen against her side.

"He's eyed Taja as a match," he went on flatly. "He said he's been watching her for quite some time."

"Taja is too young," Corinne argued. "She is the younger sister. Should not Linza be pair-bonded first?"

"I have no hope for Linza. She is sickly and always has been. There are no lads who would take her even if I would agree to a match."

"If she were in her natural form she would not be so. It is the same with all of us – we are not meant to live and die in these bones. This flesh is rot to us."

"I have made up my mind."

Corinne sighed, "Taja is wild." She described her granddaughter as if she were speaking to a stranger, rather than her own son and Taja's own father. "She will never be happy bonded away to another. She will only ever be happy if she is free."

In the gloom of the loft Linza reached across her lap and grabbed Taja's hand, giving it a small squeeze. Both sisters were shocked by their father's revelations.

Corinne glanced upward into the shadow of the loft where she knew her granddaughters were listening, and if they had not heard all of what was said between Marek and herself they certainly knew most of it. "And when will you tell Taja what her fate is to be?"

"I've told the lad to come tonight."

"So soon?" Corinne was shocked.

"Soon enough!" Marek warned. "There are less than thirty of us left in this village, and only half of that are still capable of bringing forth the next generation." Marek hesitated before continuing, he was weary of saying too much. "'Tis been six months since we heard from anyone from the other tribe. No notes by winged route, no word at all. We must assume that the last of them has finally died. We can only hope their bones were put to ground properly."

"But Linza—?" Corinne pressed.

"—Will pass her sickness onto any child she may carry. She is weak, mother. You know she would never survive the birth. Taja is strong."

"I agree with you on that part, but on the other I disagree." Corinne hated the thought for entering her mind when it did but she found herself unable to not voice it. "If the others are all truly gone, as you have said, than surely our time here is coming to an end. Taja, Linza, and all of the other girls may never bear sons and daughters to remain imprisoned in these cold forms."

Marek scowled. "I do not believe that. I—"A knock at the door interrupted him. "There he is. I told him to come after an hour or so so that I may prepare you. I shall see to him, call the girls down."

Corinne crossed her arms over her chest and stayed in her seat, even though Marek had told her to rise. "And where do you intend for this bonding to take place? Am I to curl up back to back with him near the fire while he takes Taja in his arms? Is he to accidentally reach out to Linza in the night?"

Marek tilted his head toward her. He had already gotten up and was only a few short steps away from the door. "They will take my bed in the loft for privacy."

"And where will you go?"

"I have business in the meeting hall tonight, I shall be away."

"Coward," she spat. "Leave me alone to carry out your foolish plan."

Another knock came from the door, and Marek opened it before he could address his mother's accusation.

Jascha entered when Marek beckoned him to, and even as Corinne stood up from the table, using the side of her chair for support she was struck by how handsome the boy was. She noted that she had never truly looked at him before, but now as she studied him she saw that he stood very tall. Taller than Marek even, with lean limbs and a pleasing sculptured look that came from years of heavy activity. Corinne mused that although Taja may never be happy being forced into a match, Marek had at least secured her a pair-bond that was pleasant to behold, if nothing else.

"Marek!" Jascha greeted, and the two men clasped forearms in greeting.

Corinne looked away from the two men and angled her head upward toward the loft. "Girls," she called up, "come down now."

Linza raised up onto her knees and waited in a squat for Taja to move, but she did not. She squeezed Taja's hand again and whispered, "You must do this." She received no response from her sister; Taja's vacant stare remained fixed ahead of her. "Jascha is a good man," Linza soothed. "He is kind and gentle. I've seen how he treats the other villagers… You may like him."

Taja heard her sister's voice although the words came to her in a muffled jumble, and it took her a long time to comprehend Linza's meaning. In her mind, Taja kept repeating: I must not cry. I must not cry.

"Come Taja!" Her father's voice bellowed from the entryway.

Taja knew she could put it off no longer. Keeping hold of Linza's hand she let her older sister lead her to the small ladder leading back down. Linza went first, and Taja meandered down slowly after her. The act of having to put one foot below the other and watch where she was going distracted her from concentrating on her thoughts.

Corinne put a gentle arm around Taja's shoulder. "Be brave, poppet." Her grandmother kissed the side of her face at the temple. She knew her granddaughter had been in the loft listening.

"Taja," her father started. "You know Jascha."

Taja stared at her father blankly, waiting for Marek to speak.

Marek went on. "Jascha," he explained. "Has asked to pair bond with you."

Jascha smiled at her, and when Taja finally got closer to him she saw for the first time how tall he was. Even as she stood the top of her head only reached his shoulder. "Hello," she said shyly. Taja had grown up with him beside her, although as she stood before him she could not recall a single word that she had spoken to him in her entire life, yet as her father had pointed out, he had watched her.

"Hello," he responded. His smile was wide and expectant.

"I've prepared the loft for you," Marek began when the silence had lasted too long. "Taja, show him the way!" Marek pulled on the coat he had hung on a peg earlier. "I shall leave you now, I have business in the meeting hall."

"Of course!" Jascha agreed.

All three women suppressed a scowl.

After Marek left Corinne pulled Linza aside and guided her to their pallets by the fireside. The night was chilly and when Marek left a strong draft had crept into the room.

"This way," Taja gestured, and she walked across the room toward the ladder with Jascha following her. She climbed the ladder first and was very conscious of the fact that as he followed her he watched her. Her cheeks flushed a bright pink and when she reached the top she quickly untangled the black ribbon that had held her dark hair up, and she let it fall on either side of her face hoping it would hide the color in her cheeks.

"You have beautiful hair," Jascha noted as he took a seat on the bed.

Taja suddenly worried that she should have left it up. Her hands began to shake. "Thank you," she said after realizing that the silence was too heavy.

Jascha took note of how she trembled and he reached his hands out to her, cupping her cold fingers in his. Taja saw soot on his palms. She wondered if they were from the blacksmithing fires or from the Nymphling attack. "It's alright," his voice was gentle, and still holding her hands in his he eased her toward the bed until she was sitting beside him. He did not let go of her hands.

"I am nervous," she told him truthfully.

He smiled. "I am as well."

She felt relieved. "You are nervous?" She found that hard to believe when looking at him. He was very handsome. She reflected that he could have his choice of girls in the village, yet, he had chosen her.

"I am," he insisted. "I have thought on this moment for a long time." Her quizzical look spurred him to continue. "'Tis true. I have thought often of what I would say to you. I've wondered if you would be pleased with the match, or saddened by it. That fear has kept me silent with your father for many months."

She couldn't help herself from asking, "Why me?"

Jascha laughed. "I remember when you were but a girl, and I recall one day you walked all the way to the edge of the village. If you had taken one more step your feet would have planted you into the wood. You were alone," he continued, "I do not think you saw me watching you, or that you meant to be seen." Taja found it strange to have her actions retold through another's eyes. "You held your arms out, like this—" Jascha let go of her hands and spread his arms out wide on either side of him, and Taja couldn't help but giggle at her own recollections of what she had done. "And you said 'I am not afraid' and I believed that you were not. Most grown men would not have done such a foolish thing as stand too close to the border. I remember from where I watched you I saw the slight blur of a Nymphling jump from tree to tree coming fast toward you. I moved closer, almost giving myself away. I was afraid for you, thinking that you had not seen it beyond the tree line, but the tilt of your head told me that you had seen it. Despite the sight of it moving closer you did not even flinch. I watched you raise your foot up slowly and it was a hairs breath from touching the ground on the other side. The Nymphling even had her small hand outstretched to grab you…"

"And?" She prompted him; even though she remembered the day he spoke of and knew what happened next.

Jascha took a deep breath. "Your sister called to you from the other side of the field. I do not think she saw anything, but as soon as you heard her voice you jumped back. I suddenly saw fear in your face, for the first time."

Taja nodded. "I was afraid she would be hurt by my foolishness."

"Not foolishness," he told her. "Bravery."

Jascha rolled his shoulders and removed his leather vest, which was brown and well worn with age. Next he removed his leather boots, which were in a similar condition. He gestured for her to lie down and she found herself obeying him. She let him slide in beside her under the blankets. Her dress was still on, as was his shirt and his britches.

"I do not mean to force you," he told her, his voice slightly higher than a whisper.

Taja didn't say anything, although she hoped that by reaching her arm out and clasping his hand tightly she was telling him that she was glad.

From her position on the bed she could look down at the hearth where the fire still roared over her grandmother and sister as they lay stretched out with their backs turned to the loft. Taja wondered if they had actually fallen asleep, or if they laid awake listening to them.

"That is a pretty picture," Jascha said, and Taja turned to note what he was looking at.

The picture he pointed to was a charcoal drawing that her grandmother had done of Avviḙa in her dragon form and the drawing itself was framed in an ornately carved wooden design.

"That's my great-grandmother Avviḙa, she was the last of my grandmother's line to live in dragon form, and my mother carved the frame. My grandmother drew her after listening to her father speak of how she looked in her true form. She died giving birth to my grandmother." Taja took a deep breath. "That is how my mother died as well… when I was born."

Jascha sighed quietly. "My mother as well," he reveled. "When my brothers Parlen and Callum were born. They are twins, you see, the first set ever born in the village."

Taja wondered what it would be like when she bore Jascha's children. She wondered if she would share the same fate as her mother, and her great-grandmother. Taja had never spent much time on the notion before, but with Jascha laying beside her in the bed the thought became all too real.

Jascha too thought about the possibility. He felt so at ease next to Taja with her small hand wrapped in his that he regretted his desire for her, only because it could lead to her pain or suffering.

"We will have many nights together," he told her gently, and he smiled when he felt her relax beside him. Jascha turned onto his side to get a better look at her, and she mimicked him until they were staring at each other. Jascha curled his fingers against her face and pushed back a long stray strand of her hair and curled it behind her ear. "So soft," he mused, moving his hand further until his fingers combed through the thick strands of her black hair. He felt his need for her rage inside of him and he slumped back onto his back. Taja curled up closer to him and rested her cheek against his chest. "Go to sleep little wife," he spoke gently, and even though knowing the dangers of it he stroked her hair again. "Sleep well, and dream of open skies."

All work by D.J. Wilson (FictionPress id. 350994) is copyrighted under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.