How long had I been in this tower?
Enough to know I will die here. All they had to do is not bring me food, or I fell ill. Sometimes I thought about throwing myself down there. If there was no hope of rescue, then I faced death, whether it was slow or fast.
It was a long way down. I think it would have been the quickest option. Starvation is death by a thousand bites.
Henrietta, my sister’s fairy godmother at my sister Catherine’s bidding slipped a pinch of Slumber into my wine and I collapsed into the arms of a guardsman.
The former story is so much more enjoyable to tell. It also absolves me of blame which is a handier skill to have than you might think up here. There’s no sense in anger up here where the winds howl and the birds fly around me, waiting for me to die or give up as they float on the thermals.
I knew she would marry me off to some ailing duke to cement an alliance. Have children and hold his withered, limp hand in public.
I wanted children but with someone I loved. There had been such a man, a troubadour who attended court at the height of spring who enacted complex verses of poetry and played a lute with such skill my eyes watered at the sound of it. Mathuin.
There were private performances for my pleasure where I was the instrument through which his talent flowed. Catherine had other ideas and had him banished. She waited a year before she whispered how she had his hands broken and his tongue removed. He did not get the mercy of death.
Her eyes gleamed with an emptiness I recoiled from. What had happened to my sweet and wise elder sister?
‘What do you gain from my misery, your highness?’
She drew her lips back from her teeth and hissed at me. I stepped back. I was more frightened of how everyone around the table ignored it. I wondered if it was even real.
‘Two things, dear sister. One, he was a commoner and your cunt is too precious to be wasted on a piece of rough, silver-tongued or not and the other thing, well it seems almost silly, but I spoke to Henrietta and she said I should at least tell you.’
I gave a slow nod, looked for a knife on the table whilst she spoke.
‘When you were eight and I was six, you broke my cup and ball. It was the last thing Mother gave to me and you couldn’t even let me have it. I hated you for that and I still do, so when I got the chance to hurt you in a way which would still allow me to sell you off then I took it. ‘
I blinked with surprise and a sinking horror she meant what she said. Mother had died birthing a son, and he did not last an hour before he died. Father had the two of us, and he never took another wife. He died in his bed and part of me died with him. I looked at my goblet of wine and drank it down.
I got up and left the hall. It was no more than a few steps when my head swam with an overwhelming exhaustion and I was caught by a prepared guardsman and winched up here.
It’s quite an interesting bit of history but the tower was built to honour Peregrin, the great archer and it was rumoured whoever could slay the four great birds of death, who were doomed to wander the skies without tasting flesh again, would get their fondest wish.
Catherine never came to see me. Henrietta came in her stead, watched me as her insect wings fluttered as she floated up to see I was still alive.
‘Between you and me, she’s not handling things well.’ she said.
I got up and strode over to me, brought my hand up to slap her before she buzzed away, her wand pointed at me, the gem at the end trailing off sparks of energy.
‘Neither are you.’
‘You’re supposed to be her godmother, you have an obligation to look after her.’ she said.
Henrietta frowned and shook her head.
‘I do, but you can’t save someone from themselves, can you?’
She reassured me I would come down in time when she felt I’d suffered enough and she made a table heaving from food appear. My stomach had shrunk and the rest of it rotted away to the point I had to toss it over the side, without anywhere to store it.
The birds float on the thermals and I went over to the side, ready to join them at last.
I looked down, so high up clouds thronged around the bricks of the tower below. I made out a shape against the wall and hear the faint slam of something heavy being smacked against the wall. I tilted my head to listen.
It saw another day before I saw something which convinced me my mind has broken.
Someone was climbing the tower.
Starved of stimulation, I watched and listened. Each thud had a ringing metallic tone. Like swords at tourney but slower and more certain.
The figure was cloaked and hooded and they climbed the tower, hand over hand.
I called to them but they did not look up. There was too much sky to look upon. They kept coming towards me and I wondered if this was my sister playing a cruel prank on me.
I wept and screamed at them to go away.
I pleaded for them to hurry.
I swore they would die in trying to kill me.
I asked what their name was, and why they were coming.’
The figure climbed without stopping and as they drew closer, I heard the harsh panting of their breath.
After three days I watched the gleam of sunlight on his brass fingers where they bit into the bricks of the tower.
The hood fell back and I looked into the eyes of a man I believed dead or broken. The lower half of his face was wrapped in a length of black cloth but his eyes bore into mine with a purpose as hard as steel.
It was sunset when he stood in front of me, his chest heaving and I looked at his hands.
They were made from brass and iron, small rods leading to perfect spheres at either end, pistoning to allow him a full range of motion. He followed my gaze and lifted them up, looked at them as though it were the first time. He reached into his tunic and retrieved a scroll.
There was a sigil set into wax. It represented one of the guilds in the North, men who had learned the work of the dwarves and plied a trade in weapons and armour.
They left me for dead.
Broke my hands and took my tongue,
I wandered in the north and took work
With a caravan back to the guild
I swept floors
Slept in ashes
But I waited and earned
I wrote down my story
Asked what I needed
I told them
He drew down the cloth from his face and smiled at me. His tongue gleamed white between his teeth.
‘The hands count as one item.’ he said.
I screamed as I ran towards him.
‘You stupid man.’
I touched his face and kissed him. His tongue stole between my lips and it was soft and agile without the taint of metals. His hands went to the small of my back and drew me closer to him. I put my hands to his chest and push him backwards.
‘Had you thought of how we are going to get down?’
He straightened his tunic and adjusted his belt. He reached for a pouch and pulled it away from his belt.
‘It’s a mix of djinn ash, powdered silver and aether. The dwarves used it to make their armour lighter but when you sprinkle it on flesh, it produces an interesting effect.’ he said.
A screech drew our attention as the birds descended upon us. Their beaks were sharp and hooked as they raised their claws to attack him.
He tossed the pouch to me and turned on his heels to face them. He raised his brass hands above his head, clenching them into fists which shone in the dusk.
The first of them was clubbed to the ground with a wet crack and he caught the second by its beak, splintering it into shards of bone and splinters of keratin before he pulled back and straightened his fingers to slap the third’s head across the neck. I had caught the pouch by the time he had grabbed the claw of a fourth and twisted it off with a wrench like a starving man tearing into a capon. He took a claw across his tunic but he kept moving and hammered into the fourth bird until it lay still as he got up from his knees.Blood stained the front of his tunic but he walked towards me and looked at the pouch in my hand.
He shuddered and reached out his hand to brush the hair from my face.
‘I want to take you away from here.’ he said.
The air shimmered around us and it grew too bright to see as I reached for his cold hands and felt soft earth beneath my feet. I blinked away spots from my eyes and looked around us.
We were at the foot of the tower. I put my hands to my face and sobbed with relief as he looked up with wonder.
‘Peregrin’s challenge wasn’t a myth.’ he said.
The wish could have granted him eternal life, the power of a god but he had chosen to speak from his heart and take me from my prison.
He came to me and took me in his arms as the years spent at such a height robbed the breath from me as a wave of vertigo overwhelmed me. We walked to the horse tethered to an old oak a few yards from the tower.
I held his hand and caressed the pistons, wondering if he felt it when he looked at me.
‘What about the queen?’ I said.
He adjusted the saddle and fed the horse from a bag of oats as he stroked its mane.
‘During the years I could not speak or use my hands, I thought of her less than you, but those thoughts weighed me down so I let them go. People see a poet or a musician and think their work a thing of lightness. They forget the patience and the determination it takes to make art with feeling and craft.’
I put my hand against his cheek.
‘So when you couldn’t speak or play, what did you do?’
He flexed his brass hands and smiled at me.
‘I listened and paid attention. Those were the first things I learned as a man. We can go and take revenge if it pleases you, but we had best dig our own graves before we go.’
I lowered my head and closed my eyes as another wave of dizziness overcame me.
‘I’ve no desire to see my own grave for a while.’ I said.
He put the tip of his finger under my chin and lifted my face to his.
‘Neither have I. Now we shall ride to a better place than this.’
He assisted me onto the saddle and climbed up with an exhausted grunt as he took the reins.
We settled on a stretch of land on the borders of the Crow King’s demesne and he built us a home with animals and we grew food to sustain ourselves. It was three months when the soldiers arrived. I called out and he came over to me, a sheathed sword in his hand but the soldiers stopped and dismounted as soon as they saw me.
They kneeled and the captain came to me with a scroll in his hands.
‘Your sister has died and with her went the wicked sylph Henrietta. We have searched for you as the sole heir and we beseech you to return and claim your throne.’
I looked over my shoulder at Mathtuin and with a smile, he bent the knee.
‘How did my sister die?’
She took up arms against Henrietta and dealt her a mortal blow with a knife she kept in her sleeve. Henrietta cast a final ball of fire which engulfed Catherine and sent her running into the courtyard where she collapsed and died.
Henrietta’s last words came back to me and I felt the weight of the lesson.
Mathuin came to my side and put his arm around me as I wept for my sister. The captain passed me the scroll and I took it as I nodded through my tears.
We went home, Mathuin and I, but by his side, I knew it was something I carried with me. It took his patience and determination when he could not speak or touch me to find me and carry me down to the earth. Fate had raised us up again but as I saw my family’s castle, I knew I would be capable of the task with this man by my side.