There was blood in the undergrowth. Her blood. She didn't know how far north of Trøndelag she was, but it was bitterly cold and getting colder. The forests were thicker here. Ancient, like the trees were watching her. And they were, of course. She knew that. She could see her own breath coiling like a spirit in the frigid air as she trudged onwards. Her left thigh felt like it was on fire. Blood had already soaked through the tourniquet. She was so far from Stavanger and the safety of the west coast. So far from anything even remotely resembling her childhood home. But Ana had been lost to the radiant for many years now. What seemed an eternity. She'd come to understand that she was so much more than just a girl. Her old life felt like a half-remembered dream, the faces of her parents and brother dim shapes in her mind. Ana could still vaguely recall the feel of them, their warmth and humour, but she couldn't remember what they looked like. It broke her heart just to think of it. Memories and time seemed to move differently in the radiant. Grey skies above the green and burnt-orange treeline now. Dusk would be coming soon, and then she'd be lost out here in the unfamiliar night. She might even freeze to death – if he didn't find her first. Ana recalled his chilling voice from a few hours ago.
"Liten Vinge? Jeg vil ikke skade deg..."
I won’t hurt you.
She had watched him from beneath moss and dirt and autumn leaves. Dark hair, early thirties. His black coat and fingerless gloves, his military stance. The way he held the rifle like it was an extension of himself as he stalked through the clearing, boots crunching twigs beneath him. She'd been lucky. Ana doubted she would get lucky a second time without the old woman's help.
This wasn't the forests of her childhood. She didn't feel safe here. But then, she was being hunted. She wouldn't have felt safe anywhere. A sixteen year old girl in an oversized winter coat and a gunshot wound in her left thigh. The makeshift tourniquet had stemmed most of the blood but the pain was still excruciating. The fallen branch she was using as a crutch was keeping her moving, but the injury brought pain with each step. She prayed for strength, muttering under her breath.
"Beskytt, beskytt, beskytt meg..."
It didn't feel like anyone or anything was protecting her out here.
Tears were dry on her cheeks but new ones came all the time. Most teenagers prided themselves for no longer believing in monsters, for putting away such childish fears. But most teenagers had never been hunted by a monster. Most had never awoken one morning to find themselves lost in the radiant; a place of messengers and living nightmares. The gunman was still out there, she knew, and getting ever closer. It was only a matter of time before she was a girl with a hole in her skull, sleeping in the fallen leaves as the forest creatures ate her rotting flesh. There was only one way left now to get the old woman's attention. It involved becoming a killer, like the man that was hunting her.
It was the last thing she wanted to do.
Ana tried to hold back the tears. She stopped in her tracks and slumped to the ground among the gnarled, leaf-littered roots of an ancient pine. She tossed her branch-crutch away in anger and squeezed her eyes shut. If she didn't kill she would die out here. A simple choice, really. When she opened her eyes again she tried to be resolute. She searched the sky until she saw a crow circling low nearby. She lifted her hands as if to cup the image of the flying bird, and muttered, "Sove."
The bird's wings seemed to spasm and it fell from the sky like a black stone, vanishing into the undergrowth. Ana hauled herself upright and hobbled towards where the crow had hit the ground. She found it among the leaves, somehow still barely alive. She winced with empathy as its wings trembled in pain. She sat down beside it and took it into her arms. Its wings began flapping valiantly against her breast like it knew what was coming.
"I'm so sorry," she muttered in Norwegian, before she curled her fingers around its head and quickly snapped its neck.
The crow still beat its wings for a few moments in an unsettling imitation of life before going limp. Ana frowned as she gently folded its wings back into place. She knew the truth. Her life wasn't worth more than this bird's. Or any of the things of the forest. She'd learned that even as a little girl in Stavanger. But she was being hunted, and so she was willing to hunt also. How could she protect the lost ones if she was dead? The gunman was tracking her, of course. She'd left a trail of blood through the forests. He could be minutes or moments away for all Ana knew.
With a sharp stone she cut open the crow’s breast, and dabbed a little of its blood on the bark of the nearest tree. Three small vertical marks, the old woman's signature.
Now all she could do was wait. The radiant had its own rhythms and secrets.
Dusk was finally gathering in the skies above. In the darkness something was shimmering as it slowly curled around the trunk of a tree that Ana was watching. Like a cascade of moonlight spiralling around the bark. Ana realised it was hair. Human hair; silvery and aglow in the twilight. Something was crawling down the length of the tree, circling as it descended. The old woman was naked and almost the same colour and texture as the tree itself, but her hair was a waterfall of pale luminescence. Finally she detached herself with an almost feline grace, squatting in the leaves before moving forward on her fists like an ape. Her skin was so dark that she seemed to blend in and out of the undergrowth like a trick of the twilight. But her hair still shone. Ana could feel the age and gravity on her as she approached. The vitality still coiled in the pit of her spirit.
"Little Wing. Silly little wing, getting lost out here with no knives."
"This is a forest of knives, you know. All the old growth is. Mayhaps ask the green about such things. Such secret things..."
"I need your help, grandmother."
The blackened old woman laughed, deep and throaty. "Faen ta deg, liten vinge. What’s one more human dead to grandmother?"
"I'm not fully human,” Ana told her. “And I'm not dead. But I will be if you don't help me. I can’t walk much further. He shot me when I fled."
The old one squatted closer. “A frightened halfling piques my interest only a little. You shall be murdered in these woods, I think. The young soldier, he is near. His heart isn’t utterly cold, yet he wishes you dead. He fears his employers more than his own conscience. How sad."
"Restore my feathers."
The old woman smiled. "My little dead girl talks such nonsense. Why ever would I do such a thing?"
"I'm a child, grandmother. I need your protection."
"Hush. You’re an ageless, supernal thing. A star within a star."
"But I'm still a child. I'm many children. Many lives. But right now I'm Ana and I need your blessing. Please."
"Your feathers for the corvid's blood? Not enough, I fear. So grand a request for such little sacrifice?" The old woman grinned, revealing broken, rotting teeth. "Hardly seems fair."
Ana couldn't hide her anger now. These old ones of the land were often infuriating like this. "Grandmother," she hissed, "I am at your mercy..."
The blackened crone threw her head back as she squatted before Ana and began howling with laughter. "Mercy is for Christians, little wing! I'm older than all your king-in-the-sky nonsense!"
"Really? Appeal to Freyr himself then. How would he move about this? I'm going to die out here, wise one. I'm a child and I'm alone and I'm going to be murdered. Is that amusing to you? Honestly?"
Grandmother fixed her with feral stare. "Don't test me, child. I've already given you more attention than I do most halflings. Consider yourself blessed to be even vaguely interesting to my eyes. Freyr be damned."
Ana peered back with equal intensity. "Vaguely interesting? Wise one, I am an angel."
The old crone chuckled. "And I am all worlds, all word, all spore and leaf and moss. Thus, I am the mother of all angels. Everywhere. Fuck your bodiless, deathless idealism. I’m decay, growth, and all poetry therein. So, angel, tell your father I think him a doe-eyed urchin, and that grandmother sends her love."
Ana smiled, despite the pain. "My father would cut your throat if he knew how you were behaving with me."
"I thought your father knew everything?"
"He does. He’s still an angel. I am my father, in part, as you well know."
"Well, well. Such fire in your pit, child. Mayhaps I grow fond of you, somewhat."
Ana sighed. "Then you'll grant me my feathers?"
The dark old woman shrugged, smiling, as if the entire exchange meant nothing to her after all. "If you insist, little wing. The corvid's feathers for yours. Away with you now. The bullets in the soldier's rifle are very real. Let that be your focus until your shoulders are ready."
"Hmm. I care more than most are aware, child, about everything. I’m not indifferent. But rarely am I called or conjured to be so...human. It both thrills and disturbs me, I think. Do not summon me again, winged star."
Ana nodded in agreement. "Thank you, grandmother."
"Mayhaps I shouldn't say, but in truth your shining father and I are old friends. Old lovers, in fact." The woman pressed a finger to her lips, and grinned. "Tell no one."
She turned from Ana and moved away on her fists like a silverback, disappearing into the undergrowth. She quickly became a play of shadow in the deepening twilight, and then she was gone.
Ana took a deep breath and peered at the dark forests all around her. She was so tired now and had no idea how long it would be until her shoulders were ready, but her only hope of survival was to avoid the soldier's rifle until then. She could afford to rest only for a little while.
Ana awoke with a start, terror in her belly. The grey light of morning was slicing through the canopies. She'd slept in a small hollow all through the night with only gathered leaves and her winter coat for warmth. The changing fires within her body had kept her alive. But she'd slept too long. Ana silently scolded herself for her stupidity. She'd been exhausted, injured, and now the gunman had found her. She tried to listen above the pounding of her own heart. She had to deduce how far away he was.
He sounded very close.
Ana tried not to move a muscle.
"Little Wing...? I won't hurt you. Just come back with me. You belong to them, and you know it."
She belonged to nobody, least of all the cold-hearted men who had trapped her. The soldier was near, perhaps only a hundred feet away, but the forests made it hard to judge his distance. Her back was beginning to throb, her shoulders burning. That was a wonderful sign, but Ana knew it might be too late. She gently shook off her camouflage of autumn leaves, lifted her head and peeked round the base of the tree. He was perhaps sixty feet away, rifle aimed as he stalked through the early morning light. She leaned forward slightly to catch a better view of him. A large twig snapped beneath her knee. He immediately turned his head, the rifle swinging round a split-second later.
The gunshot blew a chunk of bark from the tree, only inches above her head. Ana's stomach clutched like a fist. She cried out, leapt from her hiding place and began hobbling away as fast as she could. The wound in her thigh sent agony all through her leg and up into her pelvis as she fled. Another shot cracked through the trees around her. The dense forest had obviously compromised his aim, but Ana knew she would only be offered such grace for a few moments more. Terror churned in her gut. She tore off her winter coat and then her sweater as she hobbled through the undergrowth. She risked a glance back and saw his dark shape darting left to higher ground, to catch a better aim.
"Little Wing! Don't run from me!"
Ana pulled her vest over her head and discarded it like the coat and sweater, hurrying now in only her boots, jeans and bra. Her back was on fire, her shoulders pounding like her heart. Another shot cracked through the forest and she felt the bullet whistle past her left ear. Ana screamed involuntarily at the nearness of the shot.
She suddenly stumbled on a hidden root and went crashing into the undergrowth, kicking up a flurry of fallen leaves. She gritted her teeth at the pain from the wound in her thigh and prayed her flesh was ready. She'd run out of time and the soldier would be upon her in seconds.
Ana dug her fists into the earth and muttered, "Rise."
The exposed skin of her back was instantly shredded as a pair of huge grey-feathered wings burst from her shoulder-blades, still trembling and damp like newborns. They opened tentatively, fanning around her for a moment, beating twice in anticipation of flight before folding themselves against her back.
"Holy Mother of God..."
Ana turned her head and saw the soldier standing only twenty feet away, his rifle lowered. His eyes full of awe and terror as he peered at the winged girl lying among the leaves. Ana forced herself to sit up, raising a trembling arm before her face in equal terror.
"Please don't kill me..."
The soldier slowly shook his head, unable to process what he was looking at. "Erkeengelen. My God, it’s true..."
Ana glanced at the lowered rifle in his hands. "Please," she begged. "Don't take me back there..."
"You’re...you're fucking beautiful..."
The sight of her grey feathered wings held him transfixed, but only for the moment. She had to take flight.
It was now or never.
Her wings unfurled suddenly and began to beat as she was lifted into the air. Not with the speed or elegance she hoped for. She had never used them before. But the feeling was pure exhilaration. For a few moments she forgot all thoughts of death as she watched the soldier's image shrink beneath her. He could only stare up at her, transfixed at the sight of her ascension. The sound of beating wings in the air. The joyous breath in her lungs, the wind in her face. Within seconds she was above the treeline, a canvas of grey sky above her.
A rifle-shot cracked through the sky. And then another.
Exhilaration was lost to panic and dread. The soldier wasn’t going to give up. She quickly turned in flight, a desperate countermeasure. But she wasn't high enough yet to evade the scope of his weapon. Another shot cracked the sky and tore through the joint of her right wing. She shrieked in agony as it immediately fell limp, bloodied and broken. Her left wing continued to beat desperately as she began to spiral back down towards the forest below. A sixteen year old girl plummeting through the sky. The wind howled. She might not survive the fall. Ana only had time to mutter a single word on her breath.
She went crashing through the canopy of a huge tree, branches and leaves whipping at her face and body. She bounced off another branch with a sickening crunch and slammed into the undergrowth.
Pain all through her body. The taste of blood in her mouth. But she was alive somehow. Her uninjured wing had slowed her fall and the changing fires within had hardened her. It was the only reason she wasn't dead.
Ana struggled to lift her head and found she was at the edge of a large clearing in the forest, wooded hills in the distance. She glanced and saw her bloodied right wing open and limp at her side, mangled at the joint. The left wing still flapped behind her, but it wasn't enough to lift her once more. It folded at her back, practically useless without its twin.
Ana knew she was done for.
The soldier would have no choice but to kill her now. She put her fists in the earth and forced herself into a sitting position. Then she saw him. Stalking into the clearing, rifle aimed directly at her. She closed her eyes in pain and defeat, awaiting the kill-shot.
It didn't come.
When she opened her eyes again the soldier was only ten feet away, rifle lowered slightly. The awe and incomprehension was written all over his face. Suddenly he looked so young. Little more than a wide-eyed boy completely out of his depth.
"What...what the fuck are you...?"
"You know what I am."
He shook his head, still unable to process the sight before him. "Impossible..."
"Little Wing. They didn't tell you what you were tracking?" She laughed hopelessly and tried to appeal to whatever remained of his soul. "Tell me your name, soldier."
He waited for a few moments before responding. "Mathias."
Ana tried to smile despite the pain. "That's a beautiful name."
"Tell me your name. Your real name."
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Anael. My name is Anael. Ana, for short."
"But you're just a child..."
"I'm a lot of things. The radiant has changed me. Revealed the truth to me. I'm more than the human girl I once was."
"I don't understand…"
"You can't. I'm a thing of the eternal dreaming. The living radiant. Please don’t take me back to the compound. Just fucking kill me, Mathias. I wish to be in my father's arms once more."
Ana peered at the soldier, with fury in her eyes. "Indeed."
He lowered the rifle completely but he didn't drop it. He simply stared at her in awe. "Dear Lord..."
Something seemed to shift around them. The air in the clearing quickly became heavy and strange. The background noises fell still. Even the wind grew silent. Ana saw that the soldier sensed it too, glancing around.
"What the fuck is happening?" he muttered fearfully, then frowned like he could hear something. "What? What choice...?" A haunted look bloomed in the soldier's eyes. He swallowed and peered down at Ana. "Yes," he said quietly, but he wasn't addressing her. "Yes, I understand now. A choice. I understand."
Tears began rolling down the soldier's cheeks, his expression full of empathy and regret. "Your father loves you. Oh God, he loves you so much…" Ana was silent, afraid. The soldier sighed. "Forgive me, Anael."
And with those words he turned the rifle on himself, shoved the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
His entire skull came apart like a starburst of scarlet.
The shot echoed through the clearing. His body slumped lifelessly into the grass.
Ana sat in shock near the dead soldier, her broken wing trembling and bleeding, her entire body in pain like never before.
Her father, the light of all tears, had spoken to this man. She crawled through the grass towards his body. When she reached him she touched his chest and whispered, "Thank you, Mathias."
Beyond the clearing she noticed a building high on the wooded hills. A house or ranger's station. The hope of eventual sanctuary, perhaps. If she could find a place back among the trees to hide and heal her broken wing first. Then, once healed, she might finally have the strength to call the shimmer to make such wings unseen to men's eyes. Then she could walk as other girls walked, and be useful again. Though her place in the radiant had taken her human life – her many human lives – perhaps her call to the message could be completed after all. To serve the lost ones. For her it was personal. She’d been one of them for the longest time now.
"Beskytte dem," she muttered to herself.
Ana wouldn’t let herself forget. She took a nearby stone and began digging at the soil, carving the letter 'K' into the earth. A simple act of gratitude for the shining one who loved her still. She took the rifle from the headless soldier lying in the grass and slung the strap over her shoulder. And then Ana began the slow, painful crawl back into the trees.