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She hadn’t made a sound since he began hacking away at her wings. Not a whimper when the primary and secondary flight feathers dropped around her. Not a shriek when bloodied covert feathers fell on either side of her. She sat with her legs drawn up, head resting on her knees, her naked back rounded up and exposed to his desecration. The winter sun was descending but its angle cast their shadows in the snow, and he could see their silhouettes mirroring every gruesome gesture as he hacked away.
A wide swath of black plumage, broken bones, and blood marred the pristine snow. She didn’t shiver despite the wintry air, her arms wrapped tightly around her legs, pain evident in the stiffened shoulders and the rough jerk of her body each time his blade sliced away at her appendages. He grasped the remains of her left wing and buried the blade in the dorsal bone. This time, she gasped out loud, then took a rough, indrawn breath.
It would be easier if she screamed, he thought. Or cried. No one would hear: the clearing was remote, and they were surrounded by alder and rowan trees so tall they nearly blocked the distant mountains. Instead it was he who wept as he mutilated her, tears running down his face as he ripped the knife through the remaining joints.
The shearing of wings was an unholy act of violence not for the weak of stomach or will. Severing a creature of flight from its wings was an unimaginable cruelty. And though the destruction now of those wings was at her behest, it was no less profane. She had been something revered and unique. They belonged to an older, pagan faith, in the most ancient of which, her kind were winged. The Choosers of the Slain had not always been the beautiful swan maidens of later folklore. Once, they had been closely aligned with ravens – hence her sooty wings. But no longer. Her wings were cleaved and gone. The jagged stump stuck out from the smooth, bloodied expanse of her back, joining its amputated mate.
He walked around and dropped to his knees before her, sinking back in on his heels as he looked at the black fuzz clinging to his hands. She raised her head, her face pale and calm. She was ethereally beautiful, like all those of her ilk: fair-haired, porcelain-skinned with aquiline features. She straightened her back, and a grimace of pain whiplashed across her face. For a moment, her breathing was harsh and rapid; she closed her eyes, hurried gasps escaping through clenched teeth until her breath finally slowed. She finished with a long and measured exhale. She glanced at the detritus around her.
“Burn it all,” she said, her voice surprisingly steady despite the agony in those dark green eyes. He nodded, the lump in his throat nearly choking him as he gathered the remnants of what had been her wings, walking towards the fire he had made earlier. The first handful of bone and plumage crackled and exploded in a puff of rising black smoke. He made efficient work of the rest, each pile smoldering and sizzling as it landed in the pyre. On his last trip, he paused, staring down at the single, perfect black feather. Somehow it had been missed in the first culling, when he had slashed the flight feathers in half.
“There’s no going back,” she said firmly. “It’s the only way to be free. Throw it all in.”
He turned back towards the fire.
She pulled on a tunic and wrapped a shawl around her shoulders, wincing in pain. The dark colors would hide the seeping blood but even with the powerful magic at her disposal, it would take time for her to heal. She watched as he rubbed his hands over the flames, dislodging tufts of down still clinging to his fingers.
“Now what?” he asked as he approached her, taking her hand and helping her to her feet.
She looked past his shoulder to the small basket covered with blankets, which began to stir, the soft snuffling noises signifying a waking baby. “Now we run,” she whispered. “And we seal the worlds.”