Skip to main content
  • Feathers and Teeth

June 01, 2024

FEATHERS AND TEETH

BY KAELYNN PUGH

 

I sit in the dark, so deep into my cell that they've got to search for my body, fallible eyes unaccustomed to the darkness I live in. I say nothing. They're here to poke and prod, to goad me into a fight I cannot win. To make me snap the way I sometimes do. Another beating and I'll be dead before dawn. They know this; it's why they're here. They want me dead. They think I'll be less troublesome when I cannot breathe.

From where I dwell, they stand mere feet away, their safety promised by the iron grid forming a wall between us. I can see the stitching on their coats, gold to compliment the red, blood-dyed fabric of their uniforms. Their ebony boots are shined, but the treads are choked with lavender dust that can only derive from the mines. The taller one has wax in his mustache, as if he actually tries to look like a prick. There is a balding one, with beady eyes and purpled fists. He must've partook in a beating to have such bruises. I can only imagine what kinds of marks he left behind. The third is the same height as the fighter, but he's cleaner, and his jacket doesn't quite fit. It's pulled tight across his shoulders, the seam stressed, the fabric taut. The top three buttons have been left undone, an anomaly in the immaculate Kardia. They always take pride in that uniform.

The Anomaly steps closer, over the thin black line painted on the ground, and into dangerous territory. He must not think the Iron much a threat. The other two look at him like he's a fool, and I'm inclined to agree. One does not need magic to have a Leta. And no matter how big or small the mark is, it reacts just the same around Iron. But the Anomaly seems unaltered by the caustic metal. I'll remember that. He's either too stubborn to falter, or too weak to feel it. Either option means the same, he's trouble.

His eyes find mine. Trouble indeed.

He's built far slimmer than the men I typically see in these halls, shoulders broad but lean, a body designed not for heavy punches—but for deliberate, succinct blows. The guards behind him—they think he's a lightweight. They think they can take him out with one punch. The idiots don't see the way he walks, the way his eyes make note of everything around him, how he keep his hands near his belt where I know there to be some sort of weapon. They only see his size, and his nicked shave, and his un-calloused hands. They only see what he wants them to see.

I'm that gullible.

The two rapists behind him turn and walk in opposite directions, acting coy and creative, pretending to be the guards on duty.

They are not the guards on duty.

While most of the Kardia are slimy at best, sinking to levels lower than scum, these two are in a whole different class. They're the ones that feed on innocence like it's a drug they can't resist. The Prick prefers little girls between the ages of eight and twelve. Fighter likes the one's that resist, the one's that scream. His first was no more than a babe. Every now and then, he goes back to that memory—and holds it in his mind, as if to remind himself of what he is.

They make me wish I couldn't hear them. See them. Feel them. Their memories make me want to scoop my brain out through my ears with a spoon and toss it in the corner to rot. Every time they come in range, my stomach withers and my ears slip into their consciousness, then further into their subconscious, and I hear and see and feel everything that they are, and their thoughts merge with my own, and their memories build homes in my head that I have to live with every single day. Their little girls haunt my forest filled dreams like doe eyed demons from Sephtis. They attack me as if I am their assailant, as if they cannot tell the difference.

I don't know why my mind seems drawn to the darkest, and most despicable, but I seem to find them faster than any other. And their memories seem to stick harder than the rest. But nevertheless, I see them all. I hear them all. I know them all.

Except him. The Anomaly. I watch him pull a metal card from his pocket and flash it over the symbols carved into the wall. It's like there's wall built around his mind, I keep bouncing off of it, back into my own head. I'd stop trying if I could, but haven't a clue how. I wonder if he realizes that my mind is reaching for his. If he can feel my consciousness slamming into that wall over and over again. If he can, he doesn't show it.

The bars of my cage fall away, retracting into the walls, but I'm not stupid enough to try to run. I've already tried it—twelve times—it never ends well.

Besides, my new chains won't let me anymore than eight feet forward, and I'm not desperate enough to test them. Cautiously, I press my back into the corner, twisting my chains around my hands.

The Anomaly steps into my cage, then flashes his card against another set of runes. The ancient marks glow in recognition. The bars of my cage return. Why would he close the door? My wings have been clipped, I couldn't find the sky even if I wanted to. I shake my head, focus Ara.

I want to ask him what he wants, but that's a rather stupid question to ask in the Mountain. There are only three reasons a Kardia hound steps into a cage. None of them are good.

He glances back down the corridor, as if to see if the rapists have returned. I can hear them, miles down the hall, their thoughts dripping with filth. They won't be coming back for a while. They've long since slipped into that insidious space in their minds that whispers sweet lies to their blacked souls, telling them that what they feel is right, what they want is right, what they are is right.

I shudder, returning to my own fractured mind. The Anomaly growls in disgust, looking away from the shadowed hall. Where I can hear them with my mind, he must hear them with his ears. I don't know which is worse.

After a moment, a heart beat, a breath, he turns and faces me, a little Rat shoved into the corner of a nine by nine box.

I don't move.

I don't breathe.

The Anomaly presses his finger to his mouth, telling me to be quiet, but the only thing I can hear is my frightened heart, beating against my sternum like wings against a cage.

That's when I see it, peaking out from his too-short sleeves.

A small, blue tattoo, printed on his inner wrist, slightly faded from age. It's a circle, with three interlocking circles inside it, and a feather in it's center. Around the large outer circle are words, written

in the language of the Leta, the ancient language of the Fae. And when the light hits it just right, I can see a number hidden behind the feather, glowing white in the faint light. 14.

He's no Hound.

But how? How could a Bird fly into the Mountain in colors of a Hound without being caught and crushed in Kardia teeth? It's not possible. It's not plausible. It's as impossible as a Bird with clipped wings, flying out of it's cage, over a Hound watched wall, and into the sky. It can't be done. The Mountain is where Birds go to die, where our wings are snapped and our feet are bound and screams are far too underground to be heard over the whispering wind that we want nothing more than to feel. He can't be real. And why? Why would a Bird creep willingly into its cage, into its grave, into the place all of its friends have died?

I look up and his eyes are wide. My shackles are in pieces—pried apart as if by claws.

I swear under my breath, and as my fear spikes, the Arus chains split even further, as if yanked apart by invisible hands. I swear again. Hound or no, He saw me. He saw me practice. He saw me use magic when magic is impossible to use. The mountain was made as magic's tombstone. The walls are heavy and the metal is hot and the runes scream and they poke and jab at that flurry of magic inside us until it leaps into the back of our bodies where we can't reach it anymore. Outsiders and Birds alike can't practice any more than they can scale the wall and leap to their deaths. They're dead before they touch the wall.

I shake the haze from my head, my thoughts muddled with my frenzied mind, muddied by the forever I've spent in this hole. Now he knows that the rock and the runes and the Iron and Arus no longer hold my arms behind my back. Now, he has all the power, and I am just a plucked bird with nothing but bent metal shackles and proof I cannot deny.

He snorts, something like a laugh but not quite complete, "You can practice?" His question isn't really a question, but I nod, once, afraid to speak. "How?"

I shrug, "How is a Bird wearing Hound's clothing?" I tap on my wrist, where my own mark lives, now freed from captivity, "Would've thought they'd have eaten you by now."

His brows knit together, confusion blurring in his eyes. I blink. Reword. "You don't blend Anomaly, you're a dove in a sea of pigeons. Sooner or later, they'll—"

"Is that a 4?" I push my too small jumpsuit sleeve over my mark, suddenly self-conscious.

"What does it mean?"

"What's your name?"

I arch a brow, "You came to me, not the other way around. This is my cage. That is my bed, and my bucket and those are my bars and my runes. Didn't you're mother ever tell you not to walk into another Birds cage without knowing their name? It's on the wall, it's on my wrist, it's everywhere, can't you read?"

"Not your prison number, your name. The name you used before you came here."

"Why did you come here? You were free, so why come to the place Birds go to die?"

He swears under his breath, then he turns and talks to himself in that strange way he does, eyes going glazed. I don't have to know his thoughts to know that he's conflicted. His eyes are staring into the wall, but it's not the wall he's looking at. He's in his head. I'm in my head all the time, and when I'm not, I'm in someone else's, so I know that look.

After a moment, I glance up at the ceiling, then at the bars, listening for the telltale sign of people. When it doesn't come, I let my nails become shards of glass in my palms, the bite igniting a clarity I don't get but for a moment, so I speak fast, "Ara, though that's not my real name, I was dead and then I was saved and my head hasn't quite been right since, and with the raw Kineta and the darkness and screams in other peoples minds my mind hasn't been very concise. What I'm saying is, I don't know my real name. I don't know anything beyond the age of nine, and if I did, I suppose I'd be more fractured than the glass girl I've come to be. But I was named Ara by the only family I can remember, and Ara is the name I use in my head."

He swears, more creatively than even I can muster, and I've had forever to think of the perfect string of words. I'll have to ask him where he gets his grit—if I ever come to see him again. He's been here for far too long as it is, and even I know that a Hound can smell a Bird faster than a Bird can catch the wind. He's running out of time, and I know he knows it.

How I wish I could peer into his mind, to know what he knows faster than his tongue can tell. Because contrary to everyone's belief, stupid and insane are not the same, and I can see what he'd been hiding. Since he's been closer, he's had his hand on the shiny silver knife peeking out from his side, as I'd seen before he'd come in. He also stands, never sits, never rests, always stands, even though he shut the door. And shutting the door, that in itself was a silly little tell, for the only people that shut the door are the people that want it to seem as if they aren't even here. Even his partners were deliberate picks, as their fantasies tend to be at the top of their mind. I doubt he'd have even brought them if he'd been able to get away with it, but the Hounds always march in threes, and choosing the two that were most likely to leave was the best chance he'd have at getting me alone.

Like I said, there are only three reasons a Hound walks into a cage. He is no Hound, but he wears their colors, and a Bird in Hounds colors walking into a cage only means one thing.

"You are a Raptor," I whisper, watching his fingers twitch over his blade. "A Bird of Prey, a Bird of taking. Have you come to take my life?"

The Raptors come when the Birds cannot, because the Raptors are the Birds that deliver the caged into the ground, because the Free Birds cannot help them into the sky. In the Mountain, there are far too many caged for the Free Birds to help, and sometimes the Raptors come to free them in the only way they can. Their types of freeing are not the same, but I understand why. The Mountain is large, and strong and powerful, the Hounds large and vicious. The Birds are small and light and breakable. Sometimes they cannot get in and get out. Sometimes they get crushed in Hound teeth. Sometimes they are tortured until their tiny wings snap and their screams are echoed across the Mountain. So, the Raptors are the ones that come more often than not, to free the caged before their songs become laments sang to the brethren they've killed.

I never thought I'd see a Raptor. But I never thought a Raptor would deem me liable enough to free. I haven't any special songs to sing. I cannot remember the words.

His eyes slide to mine, and I know I am right. "The Queen has pulled your number Ara," my name, but not my name, it sounds strange on his foreign tongue, "She has sent for you. She believes you have the power to win the war for her."

"Which one?" I sit up a bit straighter, my curiosity humming, "The War of the People, or the War of the mind?"

Those green eyes become puzzled, "The war of the Mind?"

"The Queen has two of them, and they don't get along. I heard them both when I was taken, and the one with the silver tongue didn't like it one bit. She was the leader, so she locked me away, but the other mind was quite happy that I heard her and screamed at me to help her. I wanted to, but I'd never met someone with two minds before. Is that why she needs me? To help the quiet one?"

"She wants you to win The War of the People Ara, she wants you to kill the Birds."

"But I would never do that. I'm not a Hound. Killing Birds is something Hounds do, for the Hounds think death is the truest form of victory. But I know that even when all the Birds a gone, the Hounds will not win, because the Outsiders are made of feathers and one day they'll become Birds too. And the Hounds cannot get rid of Outsiders, because what's the point of being Queen if you have no one to be Queen over?"

"Ara." The assassin's voice is low, sad, "She'll make you."

At that, I smile, "How?" I gesture around the room, "This is all I have Raptor. I have a bucket, a straw bed, broken chains and simple magic. I don't even have my mind most of the time, which is cruel seeing as I can see into almost everyone else's. The Mountain has already taken everything from me, and there is nothing in this world that hasn't already been done to me. No offence, but I don't see why you Free Birds find the Queens so frightening, they are only as powerful as you let them be."

"She has magic like you've never seen, a kind of power that makes you do exactly as she wishes without your consent. She will not have to take anything from you, all she has to do is touch you and you'll belong to her."

"The Queens have no magic. They were born human and human they still are. Only Fae can have magic. What the Queens have is something different than magic, a kind of power humans discovered, and that kind of power does not frighten me. And I cannot belong to anyone, not even myself, because in order to own someone that someone must be something, and while we're all someone—we cannot be something, but that thing must also be nothing. And nobody can be nothing. Things can be nothing, because they mean nothing, they are just things, but people are more than things, they are everything. Everything good, or bad, or beautiful. So the Queens cannot own me anymore than I can own you, Mr. Raptor."

"Regardless, she still has power, Ara, and I can't let her power infect you the way it has everyone else. You are a threat Ara, to the Aerie."

His hand hold is blade, which is a dagger, not a knife.

I climb to my feet, which still ache from my shift in the mines, "I don't remember the Aerie, but I remember the forest. I remember smoke and screaming and monsters with wolf skull heads, walking around on human feet. I remember Hounds in their blood jackets, and their guns that never stopped shooting and the smell of burning flesh. I remember crying because I couldn't find my way back to the little hollow tree where I belonged, and I remember getting shot in the back, over and over and over again, because I wore blue instead of red," I shake my head, little spiteful tears falling from my eyes, "If you have to kill me, because you are afraid, because you do not trust me, because I cannot be trusted—then kill me. But do not pretend that you are doing it to save us, because only the Hounds justify killing their brethren by saying it's for the good of all."

He swears, again, I should keep count. He swears more than me. "It's not just you we don't trust, it's the Queen. We don't trust her power, and we don't trust your strength."

I gnaw on my bottom lip, milling over his words. His reasoning seems sufficient enough, but does it warrant death? Am I so weak that I cannot withstand the Queens' might? Have they gotten that powerful in the forever I've been here?

If the Birds are this afraid, what does that mean for the rebellion. Have they given up? Have the Queens already won? If they've gotten the Birds to kill their own in fear, then I suppose they have already won.

"I agree," I relent. "I am not as strong as I once was, my mind is as fragile as eggshells, and my body has been broken and pieced back together so many times I'm like a china doll of glue and glass. Just a bit of pressure and I'm bound to break. Besides, the Queens have already won, and I wouldn't want to live in the world they want to make. Just make sure you cut me into little bite sized pieces, so the death sticks this time. I don't to wake up in their world."

He looks at me, "You're kidding me, right? Death doesn't work that way, Ara. Once you die, you die."

I roll my eyes, because maybe if I roll them his mind will flip and start hearing like mine does, and then he'll know what works and what doesn't. That dagger for instance, doesn't work. It will not kill me any more than a paper cut. But at this point, I'm certain all he hears is the crazy. The words that don't line up. He'll reject anything I say unless my words have reason and proof, something he cannot deny.

I stare at that little silver blade, hiding in his hand. How much blood is hiding on it? How many people has it given to the ground? From the man’s reluctance, I would say not many, if many at all. Maybe not even one. He seems too amiable to kill someone out right, too willing to converse with the dead. I've never heard of Raptors talking to their prey, it doesn't seem like a very good idea. Why make a friend of someone if your going to kill them, it'll only make the killing more difficult. But then, maybe he wants it to be difficult. If it was easy, he'd be a Hound.

I reach out with my invisible hands, my magic small and frail, and wrap my fingers around that blade. Then, before he has a chance to resist, I pull. The dagger leaps at me, then through me, imbedding it's shiny self in my chest like silvery accessory. The pain is fleeting, nothing compared to what I've endured in the past, but the Raptor seems to think the pain is much more than it is, because he's kneeling beside me as if I'm going to die. I don't see why he's so upset if he was going try anyway. Maybe his frown is because he wanted to do it, and thinks I've stolen his chance.

With my invisible hands, I pull the blade from my chest, and just to make things clear—I ram it in again, this time between my ribs. The second time angers the pain, turns it into something more, something I cannot control. I fist my hands to make it flee, but it's quite content in ravaging me.

"Are you crazy?"

"Is that a rhetorical question?"

"Ara, you've just stabbed yourself in the chest!"

"Really?" I snort, "I thought I'd just misplaced your dagger."

"Ara, I'm not—I didn't come here to kill you." His hands press against my chest, where my crimson trickles over his fingers. "I came here to make a deal with you."

"I know. You are a Raptor and Raptors kill."

He mutters those foreign words. "No, Raptors kill Hounds, not Birds, Ara. Never Birds."

"Birds die when the Raptors come, everyone knows it." My voice leaps in a false laugh, blood on my lips. "The Raptors may not sully themselves with Bird blood, but the Birds still die." I tap my fingers against the stone. "So how can you say the Raptors never kill Birds if the Birds all die because of the Raptors?"

More foreign words, more special curses. He has a scar on his forehead, that runs into his eyebrow and parts it like a river. I should've seen that. And a light smattering a freckles all over his already tan skin.

"We don't kill our families Ara."

I tap my fingers on the stone, "Maybe not, but the Hounds hear with their canine ears, they hear everything. They wait and listen and when the Raptors leave, they gut us in our cages, so we cannot be free."

"Look, I know, we all know, the Kardia have killing our people for years Ara,” a lightness trickles across my body, from my head to my toes. It won't be long now.

"If you know, then why do the Raptors still come? Why do they still paint targets on our backs, so the Hounds know who to eat come morning?"

He shakes his head, "We're desperate Ara,” His voice is quiet, as if he cannot believe the words he's saying, "Our strongest people are either dead or in prisons, all we have left are children. We hate having to come into prisons just to walk away without anyone, we despise it, but it's the only option we have anymore. We figure, if we can get enough people on the inside, we'll have some sort of chance."

"Silly Raptor," I whisper. "Every Bird and Outsider in the Mountain answers to the Rebellion. There's no need to bargain with us, we're already yours." I blink, and blink and blink, but his face is gone, "Stop coming for us, stop trying, and just listen."