Ventus – Day 114 of 135


It was a joy simply to stretch out an arm, and feel the dry winter grass slide past her fur. The sky was lovely to look at; she would have liked to have rolled on her back, purring, to gaze at the new sun the swans had made, just to absorb the wonderful gradations of color that canopied it.

The hunt was even more enjoyable. For the moment, that was where the white Wind kept her attention focussed. It was hard, though, with all the wonderful distractions…

She prowled up the side of a rock-strewn hill, whose top sported some scraggly, wind-sculpted trees. The land had changed from desert to stony scrubland. A few human shepherds brought their flocks here in summer, simply because there was nowhere else for them to go, but nothing agricultural would grow in this soil.

That meant there would be no human witnesses, no one to interfere with the capture.

She lifted her muzzle and sniffed at the wind. She could smell horses–of course, they were obvious kilometers away. Now, though, she could also smell fresh-washed humans. Two women and a man.

There was the faintest possibility that these were not the ones she was looking for. She would have to risk a peek over the top of the hill, and hope they didn’t see her silhouetted against the bruised horizon.

The white Wind was very good. They wouldn’t see her. She crept the last meter with her belly to the cold ground, infinitesimally slow in her movements, and finally laid her chin on a flat rock next to some torpid ants. A few stalks of grass made a screen here through which she could see the valley.

It wasn’t much of a valley; more as if a single huge boulder, the size of a whole suburb of houses, had split open and crumbled. Three horses were tethered in the shelter made by the split. There was a half-cave there, on the other side where the ground humped up and then up again before rising straight up to the same height as the white Wind. This meant there were two entrances to the little valley, unless one flew. The Wind’s forces were all on the western side. She would have to send some of the men and basts around to block the other exit before they closed the trap.

A man walked around from behind one of the horses. He was talking to a woman in peasant garb who trailed after him, waving her hands in agitation. He didn’t recognize the woman, but the man was clearly Armiger. That was all she needed to know.

The white Wind eased back two meters, then spun, delighting in the balance of her tail, and raced down the scraggly hillside.

It’s good to run run run run, she hymned as she went. The Wind felt like bursting into song, and were it not for the presence of the prey so close, she would have. The swans would never begrudge such a display–they sang all the time. The whole world sang, a revelation that filled the white Wind’s breast with joy every time she thought of it. In quiet times, she could curl up around an interesting stone or sweet-smelling plant, and hear the faint music–thinking music–that welled up around her.

To think she had once believed it to be mindless chatter! She allowed herself a laugh as she reached the bottom of the hill. Her sinuous body wove between boulders and thorn bushes as she made for some trees that had made a brave stand several kilometers from where Armiger had camped. She was following the exact route she had taken to get here, and made a game out of stepping in her own pawprints as she went. One-to-four, one-to-four, whoops missed, one-to-four…

These last few days had been a blessing. When she was released to run down a long ramp onto the cold desert sands, the white Wind had rolled over four times in the dirt and howled her joy at the sky. She had wanted to run to the horizon and back just so she could say she’d looked over it, but the swans had other plans. Someone to find. When they told her who, she had rolled over again, laughing.

This was fun; still, she longed to be finished, so she could take off on her own and explore this beautiful world. She felt exactly like Ariel in that old play, so as she raced into the camp her servants had made, she sang,

Where the bee sucks there suck I,

In a cowslip’s bell I lie.

On a bat’s back I do fly

…forgetting that none of these people knew that old language.

One of the human soldiers stepped forward and bowed gravely to her. “Are they there, Lady May?” he asked. She could hear the well-disguised fear in his voice.

She ran a circle around him. Merrily merrily shall I live now, under the blossom that hangs from the bow, she thought, but she only said, “Yes.”

Her chief servant approached, distaste and fear written on his face as he watched her sit up on her hindquarters and pant. “Then shall we fetch them now?” asked the sergeant.

“No, not yet.” She explained the tactical situation. They would have to split their force and come at the sheltered declivity from two sides. “It’s open country,” she finished. “There’s a good chance of being spotted if they have a sentry out, so you’ll make the pincer at full gallop.”

As he slumped toward his men, issuing orders irritably, the white Wind turned a cartwheel and ran to her own people, the basts who prowled restlessly at the edge of the camp. They chattered laughter at her approach. “Little woman-bast,” one called out. “Why are you so happy?”

She stopped and cocked a paw to one ear. “Because I hear it!” she replied. “I hear it rising all around us.”

They nodded. They knew what she meant.


Megan had originally intended to hunt for berries. She had found a handful or two, but halfway back in her circuit of the hill above the cave, she had stumbled on a little flat area screened by bushes. It was invisible from below, but she could see the whole camp. The temptation was irresistible, and so she had hunkered down to spy on her man.

You’re terrible, she told herself, even as she parted the bushes to look almost straight down the rock face. She could hear Armiger and the queen bickering. Galas looked silly in Megan’s dress; it was far too big for her. But she refused to wear any of the perfectly good clothing they had salvaged from the razed town. Megan had thought her a tragic figure before. In the past few days her patience had worn thin, and she was beginning to think of Galas as merely spoiled.

Megan had dressed herself in some boy’s clothes. It was practical, but unfeminine. Yesterday she hadn’t minded that, but now, watching Armiger and Galas alone, she wondered. There was nothing overt going on between them, no ardent words or glances. They weren’t holding hands. Still, she knew a strong bond had developed between them–one based on commonality that Megan could never share. They were both rulers, of the highest possible caste. She was a peasant. Even if (foolish dream!) Armiger married her, Megan would remain a peasant. She could never be comfortable with the nobles and ladies of the Court. Even if he became king of the world, as he planned, she would blush and look down if she had to greet the great people of other lands. She had thought about these things. She knew she would rather serve them than look them in the eye.

So shall I leave? she thought sadly. Armiger shrugged at something Galas had said, and twitched his long hair back over his shoulder. She knew that gesture so well, she could almost hear him saying, “We will decide later.” Her heart ached.

She herself had told him that you can never hold onto anything. The harder you try, the more precious things slip through your fingers. The secret to life, she had said, was to find the little things, the unimportant ones that would nonetheless always remind you of the precious things they accompanied–and hold onto them. Like the fine furniture her husband had carved for her, seemingly centuries ago.

Galas was weeping again. Megan sighed. Had the rain found a way through her roof while she was away? Was the fine wood of the bed and wardrobe ruined now? Had someone moved into her house? Or would she find it exactly as she had left it, if she returned now?

Kiss her, she mentally commanded Armiger. Make it easy for me to leave. He did not, although he enfolded her in his arms and rested a hand on her head as she cried. His expression was distant, as it often was, as he rocked the queen gently.

Megan sat back, chewing her lip. She blinked at the strong sunlight–daylight in the middle of the night. It was unnerving, more so since she knew it meant the Winds were closing in on them. She shaded her eyes with one hand and gazed out over the dry plain, in case there were some army approaching.

She had only been half-serious about looking, so for a second or so she couldn’t believe it when she saw the cloud of dust raised by a band of horses approaching their hiding place. There must be at least fifty. Maybe Armiger could take on that many. Maybe not.

Megan’s heart sank when she saw what they were doing. The groups split in two as they approached. They mean to block both ways out.

They were approaching from the west. One group would have to ride the long way around to reach the eastern entrance of the vale. The other group would wait until some preordained signal then move in.

It is the queen they want, she thought. Had it been Winds, they would have arrived from the sky, as swans or Hooks. Or popped out of the earth as morphs. No, these riders must be from Parliament’s army, come to bring Galas home for trial.

For herself and Armiger to live, the sensible thing would be to send Galas out to them. The queen was in such a state she would probably be glad to go. But Armiger would never permit it, and Megan doubted she had the hardness of heart to do it either. They could all ride out the eastern exit now, but then the whole group would pursue them.

No: if they gave them what they wanted, Galas would be tried and executed. If they ran, they would be chased down and the end would be the same, only Armiger and Megan would likely be killed in the fight.

But if they captured someone they thought was the queen, and found out she was not only hours or days from now…

Megan scattered the berries in her haste to scramble down the hillside.

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