For a week, Aife avoided Sloane. Whenever they had to be in talks with Lily, Aife kept her eyes away from Sloane. At dinner, Aife chose to eat in her room. Frustrated, Lily just stayed in her own quarters until Aife worked out her feelings.
“Your teenage antics are giving me acne! I’ve worked very hard to have such clear skin!” Lily called through the door. Aife whined, banging on the door.
“But, you promised to teach me what it means to be a proper lady!” Aife cried back. People walking passed giggled and watched with bewilderment.
“Lesson 1: There is no such thing as a proper lady!
I am a consort! People come to me for services. Now, off with you!”
A man came up behind Aife and placed a hand on her shoulder. Aife huffed and shrugged off his hand, walking away. She found herself out by the stables, watching Wyk chase after the horses. She sat in the grass, bored now. At least back Slaanjo, she’d be busy with practice. It’d only been a week and she felt like she had gotten lazy and sloppy. Lilium was a place for people to come to learn how to talk to people, how to use your words to–
“Oh…” Aife got up and ventured back toward the house. She asked around for Sloane; no one really knew who she was talking about. She looked around the gardens; not there either. They weren’t at the table for dinner as well. Aife felt ashamed and embarrassed for how she had acted. That night, she was out by the stables again, brushing Wyk down. When they fell asleep, she kissed their head and left, walking out just in time to see not one but two giant birds flying overhead. She watched them head toward the house, her feet following.
Aife sighed, not sure where the birds had landed. She headed back to her room, closing the door and throwing herself on the bed. She had left her window open, the cool late spring breeze coming through. She sat up when she heard voices. She peeked out, seeing three bodies and two giant birds standing in a circle. One of the birds looked familiar, the strange one looked directly at her. It hooted loudly. Everyone turned toward her.
“Hoy, Aife!” One of them called.
“Yura,” Aife whispered. She rushed out to them, throwing her arms around Yura’s neck. Yura squeezed her back, holding her face in her hands.
“You’ve grown, yeh! No chance of slowing down, I suppose?” Yura laughed, resting her forehead on Aife’s. She pulled away and looked over at Lily.
“Well, I see yer doin’ just fine. I’ll take this one for a bit, yeh. Teach ’em everyting I know,” Yura said, motioning her head to the other person. They stood silently next to an owl, a hood covering up their whole face except their mouth.
“Where are you going?” Aife asked as Yura hopped up onto her eagle. Yura pulled up her own hood, staring at Aife. She looked at her new charge, the silent figure getting settled on their own fowl. Yura nodded to Aife.
“Aye, hurry up and get a bag, yeh? We’re already behind. Garden is going to start worrying if we died.”
Aife rushed to her room, gathering her things. She returned, sloppily throwing a scarf over her face. Yura shook her head, her eagle taking off in sudden flight. Yura’s charge reached a hand out toward Aife, who quickly grasped it. The charge’s owl took flight before Aife could sit comfortably in front of the charge. Ahead, Yura whistled as she passed over the stables. Wyk looked up sleepily, took a deep sniff of the air and barked back tiredly, falling back asleep.
“Is your beast always this lazy!?” Yura called back to Aife when they caught up.
“Mostly! But they have a mean bite!” Aife called back, trying to fix her scarf. The person behind her yelped she hit them in the head with her elbow.
“Oh, goodness, I’m so sorry!” Aife said, looking back at them. The person nodded, their head barely moving. Yura looked back and made a noise, her bird giving off a few flaps and moving ahead. Aife watched them suddenly pull up and veer to the left. The owl she rode on followed from their lower altitude.
The wind was warm as the summer season started to come in. As the headed toward the forests and jungles, the air started to get thick with humidity. Aife watched trees sprout up more and more. The owl maneuvered gracefully between the trees. Aife clutched the feathers of the bird, the person behind her placing a secure hand on her abdomen. The trees suddenly dropped down the edge of a mountainside. Aife gasped as the owl dove, barely grazing the tops of the trees.
The memory of her flight with her mother swam into her head, her eyes watering. She started to laugh hysterically, throwing her arms up into the air. The bird suddenly pulled up, causing Aife to lose her balance, falling off the bird. The hand that had tried to hold her place tried to grab her limbs but could only grab her scarf.
Aife’s voice got caught in her throat, watching the ground and trees coming up at her at an alarming rate. She let out a scream when a rope went around her waist, jerking her back a few meters in the air. She was suddenly covered by a cloak and another body. They squeezed her tight, rolling around in the air, letting around grunts and cries as their body smacked against tree branches.
They fell into a bush. Aife blinked and slowly unraveled herself from the cloak and arms of the person that saved her.
It was Sloane.
“Oh no no no no no…” Aife said to herself, trying to figure out what to do. Sloane let out a long groan, slowly rolling out of the bush.
“FfffffffffffuuuUUUUUUUCCCCCKKKK,” they screamed, slowly standing up, trying to catch their breath. Aife watched them ball and unball their fists, grabbing at parts of their body that were surely bruising. Aife climbed out the bushes, slowly walking over to them.
“Are you alright?” She asked, reaching out a hand. Sloane suddenly turned around, their eyes wide and crazed.
“Never better!” They said through gritted teeth. Aife took a step back. Sloane went through the motions of trying to move beyond the pain. It was harder to do it for physical pain, it seemed. Aife snickered a bit. Sloane winced.
“What’s so funny?”
“Oh, nothing, this is just… I can see why my trainer didn’t give me any grief when I started breaking bones in training. It’s kinda funny on this side.” Sloane rolled their eyes and paced a bit.
“Even my feet hurt,” they grumbled. “Ohhh, I’m gonna be even worse when I decide to wake up.”
Aife looked around.
“Should we stay here or–” She suddenly turned her head to the left, thinking she saw something. She shook her head and dug into her bag.
“Take off your top. I have something that will numb that pain.” Sloane nodded, slowly taking off their top, wincing at the pain. Aife noticed the bandages around Sloane’s chest.
“You okay?” Aife asked.
“Eh?” Aife pointed to the bandages.
“I was born special. When I was sold and I had blossomed. A lot earlier than the other people who had blossomed. I was an unfortunate favorite,” Sloane grumbled, shrugging off the word. Aife gently applied a minty smelling paste onto Sloan’s body.
“When Lily’s people were coming to rescue me, they… cut me. Garden saved me, and Lily is still upset that they didn’t make it in time. I don’t mind. I like my body like this.”
Aife nodded, putting the last bit of paste of Sloane’s back.
“Let that sit for a bit. I don’t know where you are able to rinse it off, though.”
Sloane sniffed the air. They stood up and sniffed again.
“Mm, this way.”
They gathered their things and took off deeper into the trees. They were quiet for a few minutes before Aife broke the silence.
“I’m sorry for avoiding you this past week. I… I have a… A…”
Aife’s face got hot with embarrassment, super thankful that Sloane was leading the way. Sloane was quiet. Aife took it as avoidance and didn’t say another word. They came up to a small pond that seemed to be shrinking as it got hotter. Sloane undressed and quickly jumped into the water.
“So. Cold,” they chattered, quickly trying to wash off the mint paste. They looked up. Aife wasn’t there. She had lagged behind, dragging her feet along the ground, eyes unfocused. She didn’t make that turn toward the pond with Sloane. No, she kept walking, snapping out of her trance when she tripped over root. She stumbled and looked around.
Silence answered back.
“Oh…” She shivered and looked around. Sticks cracked behind her. She turned around, seeing faded gold disappear between the trees. Aife followed, trying to keep up. She came up to a cave, the mouth big and dark. She took a deep breath and slowly walked in. As her eyes started to adjust, the faint smell of feathers started to fill the cave. There was a squawk. A familiar squawk, her memory reminded her. Aife stopped and held out a hand, her eyes trying to focus on the movement of the shadow in front of her. A beak nipped at her fingers, a giant wing covering her and pulling her close. Aife buried her face in the feathers, her eyes welling up with tears.
When she closed her eyes, the darkness that had surrounded her and the bird turned into her mother’s room back in the castle at Malaeye. The wind blew threw open the giant window she had forgotten. Snow was falling slowly in the sunlight. She slowly walked through the room, making her way out to the balcony.
“Mother…?” she whispered.
Her mother leaned against the balcony railing, her hair fanned out and decorated with white flowers. She turned around, a white gown twirling around her like a snowstorm. Aife stared in awe at the woman in front of her. She looked so different now that she was older. She noticed the wrinkles around her mother’s eyes. The gap in her teeth as she smiled made Aife’s heart weak and tears form in her eyes. She started to sob and ran toward her mother, throwing her arms around her. Her mother, the same height as her child, placed her hands on Aife’s face, trying to calm her down.
“Hello, my sweet,” her mother whispered, kissing at her face, small stars falling from her eyes. She was crying, too. Aife’s hands quickly went to her mother’s face, hands, dress. It felt so real.
“My dear, I don’t have much time… I have been watching you. And you’re doing so well. You’ve… You’ve done a lot more than I did,” she whispered sadly, wiping a tear from Aife’s cheek. “I don’t know how long you intend to be the Nomad, but I hope it’s forever. I’ve seen the stars,” she started, waving her hand at the sky. The sun and blue sky disappeared, a small smile of moon and many twinkles of stars taking their place.
“The stars know it’s not forever, but I have been petitioning them. They won’t listen. They hope… Well, they don’t really care what you do.”
Aife blinked and looked up, watching a meteor shower happening in the distance. She gasped, noticing they were standing on nothing, seemingly floating in the darkness of space.
“What do you mean they don’t care?” Aife asked, turning around, trying to find her mother. She was nothing but a 700-foot tall face now. Her mother smiled at Aife, looking past her, staring at a flickering star.
“That one there. That’s one of the younger stars. It watches you and Sloane and Lily and It thinks you three are going to do something amazing and hopes you can pull through. But these ones here,” she boomed. Stars zoomed past them until a cluster that looked like a warrior was in front of them. “They whisper for your demise. They don’t think you can do it.”
Aife blinked as the stars that made up the warrior turned into snowflakes and fell onto her. She took a deep breath, the cold air of the mountains reaching her lungs. Her mother stood on the balcony railing, her back facing the black nothingness behind her.
“These old stars galaxies and universes away can see you, but they are so far away they can’t help you nor can they intervene.”
“WAIT!” Aife called out, rushing to grab her mother’s hand as she fell back into the darkness.
“The stars and gods are old and have seen this story play out eons upon eons of time. But they whisper that your’s is different. Prove them right or prove them wrong. But just know that they don’t care whichever path you take,” her mother’s voice whispered. The space around her turned into walls, each of them showing Aife doing something she had thought about. From joining her mother when she found her body, letting the ocean sweep her away in Slaanjo, to listening to what her father wanted from her, having a family, dying old and frail. She watched as all the possibilities of her life flashed around her, her mouth letting out a silent scream.
“The stars already know. They are old. They don’t matter. But you are young. You matter. They are set in their ways. You can either bend them to your will or you can remove them.”
Aife opened her eyes, the pink light of the rising sun lit up the cave. She slowly sat up, dark gold feathers falling off of her. She looked down and started to scream. She had slept with the corpse of mother’s Friend.
Sloane and Yura showed up a few moments later, watching Aife sob hysterically as she cradled the dead bird’s head in her lap. Arrows a decade were still lodged in their body. Yura tried to make her way to Aife, but Sloane rushed past her, grabbing Aife and holding her tightly. Aife wailed louder, clutching her hands to Sloane’s tunic. Yura slowly lead them out the cave, taking them to her little cabin a mile down the hills.
“I didn’t know they were there… They… That day, they didn’t even actually stop, they just dropped that letter as they kept flying… I didn’t know…” Yura said to herself, as she fumbled with the firepit.
Sloane sat with Aife, wrapping her in a blanket. Sloane didn’t say anything, just watched the fire grow.
“She said that the stars are old and that they don’t care. Said they are set in their ways and I can either bend them or remove them,” Aife whispered.
“It would be much better to remove an obstacle that means to do you harm.”