Mariah bent down and gathered up yet another sharp scrap of iron from the floor with her long, slender fingers. It was smaller than the length of her little toe, so she threw it onto the scrap heap. That seemed to be the last one. She grabbed the broom and began to sweep the stone floor, starting at one corner of the room and moving foot by foot to the edge and over to the door until all of the coal dust and tiny flakes of metal were on the ground outside. Row by row, she swept until the gray stone was smooth and clear. Magnus insisted that it be so, even though they both knew that by midmorning, it would be covered again.
Sweat dripped down the sides of her face and slithered down her back beneath her woolen dress, even though the air blowing in through the open doors of the smithy bit at her exposed skin. She resisted the urge to stop and rub her back like a bear up and down the nearest wooden support to get at the spot between her shoulder blades. The smith wouldn’t have that kind of behavior, so she ignored the itch and propped the broom up back in its corner, breathing in the smells of burning coal and the ghost of molten iron as if it were life.
The fire in the brick forge was starting to fade against the cold wind. So, despite her own discomfort, Mariah pulled one of the wide doors closed. The temperature in the room started to increase as she moved to the bellows. She grabbed the hook overhead with her calloused palm, her cloak falling over one shoulder, and maneuvered it up and down with ease, feeding air into the fire. She could hardly even remember a time when it had been difficult to reach and more difficult yet to pull. As she moved, she double-checked the room around her.
Magnus’s tools were all hanging neatly on pegs on the side of the forge. The cooling tank was full of fresh water, and another full bucket waited nearby. Although she carried the water up from the stream every morning in the gray light of dawn, her shoulders still ached. When they twitched, her feathers brushed her calf. Still working the bellows, she quickly looked down, checking the ends of her floor-length dress and cloak. She sighed in relief. Her wings were still safely concealed beneath them. The binding across her chest and back was still snug, uncomfortable even, so she knew it was still in place. Raising her head, she continued her visual inspection of the room.
The anvil was clear. Had she checked the holes for bits of metal? She nodded. There was also extra coal in the wheelbarrow just inside the room. The hammer!
Mariah let go of the overhead crank and searched the room for Magnus’s favorite hammer. He had left it on the stone table near the side wall. She hefted it up and carefully laid it on the edge of the anvil.
The slamming of the house door startled her, but she scuttled back over to the bellows, working the crank with one hand and running the other through her short, silvery hair.
She expected to see Magnus’s hulking form come through the door at any second, but instead, she heard her mother’s voice.
“Think about it, darlin’. You can’t go on like this.”
“Maybe I can let Mariah try somethin’, a short sword to start. Then she can work her way up. Once she’s got a handle on things, she can help me with the longer blades.”
Mariah’s heart jumped in her chest. Her father had let her work on hooks and chains and arrowheads but never an actual weapon. Weapons for the crown were his stock-in-trade.
“We both know she’s not strong enough to take your place, and she never will be.” Her mother spoke, her voice pitched low, but even with the roar of the fire and the whoosh of the bellows, it was clear to Mariah’s keen ears. “Besides, who would buy weapons from a slip of a girl barely old enough to marry? The king? I don’t think so. Girls might be servin’ in his army, but smithin’ is a man’s trade.”
The edge of her father’s foot appeared around the edge of the smithy door.
“With all of Eaglespire’s boys heading off to Glenley,” her mother continued, “there’s no one to apprentice for you. How will you supply King Rothgar with swords for the war when your shoulder keeps seizin’ up? That girl can’t do it all for you, Magnus, and you know it. But she can serve us … and serve the crown if you only …”
“Ashanya,” his voice was a low rumble. “You promised. We promised. Promised we’d keep her safe.”
There was a long pause. “We made that promise when you were still bringin’ in enough coin to feed us all. If you can’t work, we’ll all starve.”
As if in response, Mariah’s stomach growled fiercely, but she ignored it.
There was silence outside the smithy for a few moments. Then, she heard the squeak of the back door. Her mother must have finally gone back into the house.
Mariah shook her head. Her mother couldn’t possibly mean it, but her heartbeat sped up anyway. Her back muscles twitched, and her wings brushed against her legs again. She longed to fly, to escape the ice that had suddenly filled the middle of her chest. Maybe she had misunderstood.
“What’s wrong with you?” Magnus’s basso filled the space.
Her head shot up. Her father’s face, as big as the rest of him but lined from all of his years at the forge, was drawn. One hand rubbed his shoulder as he walked over to check the fire.
“That’s good for now.” He walked to his table and started sifting through the long billets he had already shaped. “Now, answer my question.”
She let go of the crank and lifted his favorite pair of tongs off their hook as he brought the long metal bar around. “I heard, what you and Mother … Father, I …”
“Don’t go listenin’ to Mother. She’s always overworryin’. Nothin’s going to change.”
Her smile came naturally, but it was strained. Nothin’s going to change. She handed him the tongs, and he used them to push the billet into the fire, holding it there until the metal glowed. It was like sunset, all blazing yellows and oranges. Nothin’s going to change. Her wing twitched again. Mother’s right about one thing. No one would trust a girl as a smith, so I’ll just keep helping Father like I always have.
Magnus moved the hot metal to the anvil and picked up the hammer with his free hand. Clanging filled the air as he started to draw it out, pounding the hammer down again and again. The sound soothed Mariah’s nerves, and her smile brightened. This is good work.
“Grab one of the short ones.” Magnus gestured with his head toward the pile of metal he had left on the table. “I want you to try a hunting knife this mornin’.”
Mariah’s eyes widened, and her heartbeat, which had only just begun to slow, sped up once again. There was nothing she could do to stop the stupid grin that spread over her face as she moved over and started sorting through the billets. Her father had faith in her, even if no one else did. She would forge the best knife anyone in Eaglespire …
Time slowed as the clang of metal hitting the anvil in quick succession ceased. It was followed by a soft thud and her father’s scream. By the time she spun around, the blade Magnus had been shaping was sizzling on the cool stone floor, the hammer nearby. Her father was still by the anvil, but he had stepped back, and his meaty hands clung to either side of his thigh. She had never seen such anguish on his face. The fabric of his trousers had been burned away in a clean line across his thigh, and the smell of searing flesh filled the air. The white of bone peeked through her father’s bloody flesh like an unwelcome guest.
“My shoulder, it … it … Garrett. Get Garrett,” he croaked. His eyes fluttered closed, and his body crumpled.
Mariah reached out, barely catching his head between her hands. His fall pulled her to her knees, but she kept his head from hitting the floor. She laid it down as softly as she could manage.
Then she was up and out of the smithy, running for all she was worth down the cobblestone road toward the healer’s cottage.
* * *
Mariah paced her bedroom, ever aware of keeping her footsteps quiet. She was down to her shift. In her nervousness, her wings had kept twitching, threatening to rip through their bindings and her dress as well, so she had locked her door and stripped down. Her mother would forgive her that more than she would a ripped dress as long as she remained hidden.
The scene replayed over and over in her mind—every action from the second her father had walked into the smithy—but she didn’t see a way they could have prevented it unless she had been the one working the sword. His bad shoulder had apparently seized up as he brought the hammer down, and the molten sword had slammed into his leg before bouncing onto the floor, where it could do no further harm. That one moment on his leg had been enough.
Her father had been injured at the forge before. Even she had a multitude of small scars from flying sparks. But nothing could compare to this. How could a person go on working if his flesh was burned away to the bone? How could he avoid infection?
Garrett was with her father now. Mariah prayed silently that he would be able to save him.
She paused in her pacing and stretched her wings, their black tips touching the walls of her small room. She let their complexity distract her. They were long and nearly straight when extended like this. The feathers were silvery on the bottom like her hair and black on the top and around the edges. She shook her head, again amazed that someone like her, Ceo San, could have come from her mother and father. Ceo San supposedly had the ability to become animals like the Althamir, the ancient, mythical gods of Whitelea.
Those gods, if they existed, had a mysterious sense of humor. Why give wings to a blacksmith’s daughter? She had heard that there were others similarly cursed, but she had never met one. Instead, she had spent her whole life hiding. After she was born, her parents had told neighbors that she had a deformity of the back. It had been excuse enough to keep her in the house as a baby and a toddler and to explain the lump under her clothing as she grew. Her eyes still filled with tears, she stifled a giggle, remembering her father recount tales of how hard it had been to keep her on the floor because once she had learned to walk, she had also learned to fly.
At his insistence, she had been one of the few Ceo San in Varidian to be raised at home. As she understood it, in the last twenty years, most children like her were sent to be raised in Glenley, to be put into service to the kingdom as soon as they were old enough. His Majesty, King Rothgar, had strongly encouraged this practice since he had taken the throne. Less than a year ago, he had declared it law. All Ceo San, whatever their age, were to be sent to the capital city to be trained to serve in the king’s army. Those who sent their children voluntarily received a hefty reward from the royal treasury. Those who did not risked imprisonment.
Her father had never liked Rothgar. Nor had he agreed that the king should be able to “kidnap” the kingdom’s children to serve in his never-ending quest for world domination. Mariah had heard Magnus speak of it so many times, had watched her mother smile and nod whenever he went on one of his rants—always within their walls, of course.
“Mariah, open this door right now. Garrett is gone.”
She snapped her wings closed before unlocking the door and pulling it open.
“Yes? Is Father okay?” She looked down at Ashanya. Her face was pinched, and her eyes were red. “Is he …?”
“He is alive. He’s restin’, but he needs a tincture, one that Garrett can’t make. I need you to travel to Glenley to get it.”
“Glenley?” Mariah’s mouth dropped open of its own accord. She had never been beyond the outer limits of Eaglespire.
Ashanya handed her a sealed scroll and another piece of paper, this one with a hand-drawn map and directions to a shop on the outskirts of the capital. “Take this letter, and the alchemist will know what ya need.”
Her mother’s steel gray eyes looked straight into her own blue ones. “You must do this if your father is to heal. Now, get dressed and say your goodbyes quick. I’ll have a bag of supplies for you in the kitchen. Hurry!”
* * *
Mariah tried to rush, she really did, but her mind kept getting caught up in the newness of what was happening. In the nineteen years that she had been alive, her mother had insisted that she never leave Eaglespire and, in fact, had discouraged her from ever leaving the house. Her father was the one who had started sending her on errands around the village when she was eight. She had learned to enjoy that little bit of freedom, despite the odd looks because of her deformity, and eventually, although she had never been allowed to play with the other children, the townsfolk had gotten used to her and the “lump” that ran down the length and width of her back. And now, her mother was sending her to the capital, the very home of the man who thought that every Ceo San was born to serve him.
She buttoned up the front of her dress and threw on her cloak, tying it at her neck. She opened her door and started to go through, but she stopped and looked back at the simple space. A hard lump formed in her throat, but she pushed it down and shut the door.
Her parents’ bedroom was across the hall. The door was open, and she could see her father lying in their bed.
The tears that had finally dried welled up again when she saw him.
His leg was wrapped in wet bandages and propped up outside the blankets. Blood seeped through, and she could see the outline of his injury.
He opened his eyes. His black hair, peppered with gray, was damp with sweat, and his face was drawn, but he smiled. “Mariah, sweetheart.” She had never heard his voice sound so weak.
She hurried to his side. “I’m going to help.” She grabbed his large hand and folded it in both of hers. “Mother’s sending me to Glenley to get a tincture. You’ll see. Everything will be fine. We’ll be together in the shop again before you know it.”
“No, no, no,” he shook his head, panic in his eyes. “Don’t go! It’s time. You must run! You must fly!” The movement must have caused his leg to shift because he began moaning and trying to grab at it again.
She put her hands on his chest and pushed him back down on the bed. It was a struggle. Even in his weak state, he was so much bigger and stronger. “Father, you must lie down. It’ll be all right. I’ll be as fast as I can. I promise.”
“Run,” he panted. His eyes drifted shut. “Fly. If you fly, they cannot hold you. Take … take my knife.”
His prized knife. He always wore it. It was a hunting knife, but since he didn’t hunt anymore, he used it whenever he could, even just for spearing his meat at dinner. The belt and scabbard sat on a chair against the wall.
“Okay,” she murmured. “I can do that.”
His breathing slowed, and she used the damp cloth from the basin beside the bed to wipe the sweat from his face.
“I love you, Father.” It would do her good to have a piece of him with her on her journey.
* * *
In a few minutes, she was in the kitchen with Ashanya, her father’s belt wrapped around her waist twice with the knife tucked in its scabbard at her hip, all of it hidden under her cloak.
Her mother put a linen bag into her hands. Inside was a waterskin, two loaves of bread, and a few coins. “Are you sure—” she began, but Ashanya cut her off.
“You must go, child. Hurry. Leave on the North Road and follow the map from there.”
“Go!” She didn’t meet her eyes, only shoved her out the door. Her voice was oddly tight. “Your father needs you to do this, girl.”
“Yes, Mother,” she replied, but the door slammed, and she was talking to the air. Mariah looked up at the door, shaking her head, before she followed the cobblestone path away from her house, away from the smithy where she had grown up.
She took a deep breath, but her heart continued to flutter in her chest. It was all too much, she decided. It had all happened too fast, and her mind just hadn’t caught up. So, she would get to Glenley and return as quickly as she could. It was a few days’ walk from what she’d heard. She could be back within a week.
Steeling herself, she picked up speed, turning after a moment onto the main road, which led to Glenley in the north and Kilgereen and the Granite Sea in the south. The baker, her face knowing, nodded in her direction from inside the window of the bakery. The whole town must know of Father’s injury by now. Mariah nodded back and turned to the road again.
Two men were marching toward her from the north gate, and the sight of them made the feeling of wrongness burn in her chest. They each wore black and gold armor with a dragon carved on the chest plate. What were King Rothgar’s soldiers doing in Eaglespire? Their eyes were hard, and their hands were on their swords.
They looked straight at her, and their pace increased.
She stopped and stood still for a fraction of a moment, pain burning in her chest. Mother!
Her father’s voice cut through the fog in her head. “You must run!”
She turned and ran. The sound of the guards’ boots rang on the cobblestones, drowning the sound of her own fleet steps.
She had to make it to the south gate and to the forest beyond. She could hide there until nightfall. Then what?
All of her fears were confirmed when one of the guards shouted behind her.
“Ceo San! You must stop! In the name of King Rothgar, halt!”
Mariah stumbled. She could never come back. Her mother had condemned her.
She picked up speed, dropped her bag, and tore at the ties at her throat. The pressure of her wings pulled at the fabric of her dress. Her cloak came away and flew to the ground behind her. She could see the gate ahead. It was a small affair in a stone wall only a few feet high. She fumbled at the buttons down her front but ended up tearing them off, exposing her shift beneath. It was enough.
Mariah’s wings snapped open, shoving one of the guards behind her and pushing him backward. Her wings knew what to do. She knew what to do. She pumped them hard and rose into the air and over the gate. She had never done anything like this before, although she had always wanted to. She spared a look down and saw the guards running in her direction, but they quickly became smaller as she soared. She flew toward the mountains west of the South Road, grief and exhilaration warring for control.
Nothing was supposed to change. Tears fell and dried on her face within a matter of seconds. Everything has changed.
Her mother had turned her in. She must have done it days before for the guards to have arrived so quickly. There were no words for the pain that lanced through Mariah’s heart. Her father would need the reward for his recovery … if he recovered. Only his last words kept her from turning around and giving herself up.
He’d wanted her to run, to be free. He’d wanted her to fly.