FEATHERS



FEATHERS, by Andrew Knighton

Hal stood on the track out of Olbry, feeling the wind whip off the moor, watching a dark shape soar on rotten wings. He heard the cawing of the raum crow and the whimpering of his son from their hut. The cawing filled him with anger, but the other sound ripped his heart.

Samuel was not the first to suffer the blight. Half the village were dying, or piled up on a crude pyre. There was no time for a proper funeral, not with the raum crow’s curse still killing. This was no ordinary plague. Hal had seen sickness in a dozen countries, but never seen one that struck when a crow came in sight and vanished when the bird moved on, leaving only corpses in its wake.

Hal pulled an arrow from the ground, shaft fletched fresh this morning. The straightest of ash rods, tipped with barbed steel. He had opened up his carved box of souvenirs – feathers of eagle and vulture, parrot and peacock, plucked from birds across half the world. The ones he picked were the straightest, truest goose feathers he had ever seen, gifted to him by the King for his part in the defence of Aureat. Untouched through ten years of peace, today he split them and set them to shafts.

The worn grip of the bow was a familiar friend. He pulled back the string, felt the power of his arms and that perfect yew heartwood.

The raum crow came around in another loop, feathers dropping from its diseased tail. Hal let out a breath and loosed.

The arrow missed the bird by an inch. He must be getting old.

Hal took a deep breath, channelled his frustration into pulling the bow. Another breath, another shot hissing through the heavens.

This one hit, burst through the crow in a spray of feathers. But Hal’s grin faded as the raum crow kept flying, its screech a hollow rasp.

He snatched up a third shaft, loosed it on instinct. This time the bird snatched it from the air. There was a snap, a cawing like laughter, and two splintered ends of wood tumbled from the sky.

Hal had never been a man to let go of hope. He had taken an arrow through the leg while defending Aureat, spent weeks in a fever as the wound grew infected and then slowly healed, but had still taken his place on the battlements every day. If he could survive that winter of waking dreams and eating rats, could emerge intact from years of ambush and siege in the royal armies, then his son could live though this.

He went back into the hut, pausing to mop Samuel’s fevered brow. He reached down into his straw bed, pulled out a box that had lain hidden and untouched for years, and eased open its lid.

The phoenix feather glowed, its orange light making shadows of the rest. He remembered the day he first set eyes upon it while tracking for a royal hunting party. As the excited noblemen chased after the fiery bird, Hal had climbed the steep cliff to its nest and there found that single feather, like a tongue of flame that somehow left the wood around it unburned.

Hal picked it out, along with a smooth black arrowhead of fairy glass and a thread wound from stallion’s hair.

His tools were still on the weather-warped bench outside, along with a dozen unfletched shafts. He paused to look one last time upon the beauty of that feather, to feel its magical heat, then set to work.

When Hal rose again from the bench he held an arrow rich with power, its tip so black it swallowed the light, flights blazing like the sun. He smiled despite Samuel’s groans. This would work.

He found a place with good footing, notched the arrow to his bow and drew the string. The phoenix’s glow warmed his cheek.

He took careful aim. His son’s life, the most precious thing in his whole world, depended on this.

He loosed.

The arrow hit the raum crow full in its centre. A flash filled the air. Singed black feathers drifted, smoking, on the wind. A black body dropped towards the earth.

But fire glowed at its breast. Just before it hit the ground there was another flash, and the raum crow soared back into the air, reborn like the phoenix itself. Hal had thought himself clever, fighting one magic creature with another, but all he had done was feed it power.

He sank to the ground, mud seeping up through his breeches. How could he win now? He had used up his best trick. From the cottage Samuel gave a wretched, gurgling cry. Failure squeezed Hal’s heart until he thought it would burst.

Looking down, he saw a red welt forming on the back of his hand. The blight was upon him. Soon his strength too would fade. Tears ran down his face.

Dead. All of them dead.

But no. There was a way. There was always a way.

What did he have that was stronger than the desperation this bird brought? He had survived battle and starvation across half the known world, he wouldn’t let this beat him.

And then he knew. The thing that was stronger than war, stronger than age. That had kept him going all this time.

Hal reached up, plucked some strands from his own hair. He went back to the bench, twisted those strands into a thread, split a good goose feather. With his own hair he bound the flights to a shaft, making an arrow of the will that had brought him safely home down the years, of the love he bore his son.

He tipped the arrow with an old, stained head that had once been dug from his own leg. Then he rose and took aim at the crow.

The arrow sailed through the air, skewered the raum crow.

For a long moment the bird flew on, wings still flapping. Then it went limp and tumbled to the ground, its essence overcome by Hal’s own, by his love for his son and his will to survive, bound up in a strand of hair and an old arrow head.

Hal strode over to the mangy corpse and ground its head beneath his heel.

He walked back to the hut and paused in the doorway. Samuel was rising from his bed, eyes glowing with life, blisters starting to fade. Hal looked down, saw the red mark lingering on his own hand. But still his spirit soared.

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Andrew is a freelance writer based in Stockport, England, where the grey skies provide a good motive to stay inside at the word processor. He’s had over forty stories published in places such as Daily Science Fiction, Wily Writers and Ann VanderMeer’s Steamunk anthologies. His anthology of fantasy stories, By Sword, Stave or Stylus, is available now in all electronic formats, and readers of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly can get a copy for the discount price of 99c by buying it from the Smashwords store using the coupon code LY48V. You can find out more about his writing at andrewknighton.com and follow him on Twitter @gibbondemon .

 


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