She’d left it too late to pull out of the dive. Her body collided with the fir top, covering her in dislodged icy clumps of snow. All forward momentum halted. With the trunk out of reach, Aioffe tried to steady herself inside the woody prison by pushing all her limbs out wide.
It seemed to work. She had time to draw in a calm breath. Then her wings gave way. As her body slid down the branches, her frozen fingers failed to grasp the dark green spiky tufts. Tumbling through the tree, the translucent panes of her appendages shredded into tatters.
Halfway down, she hooked a thicker branch with one hand, then froze, dangling. Before she could grab another hold, the supple wood sagged, then cracked.
Her numb fingers lost their grip.
“Ow.” Her bare foot broke the thin, icy layer, twisting against the frozen earth beneath as her body weight followed. Having deposited its cargo in an ungainly heap at the roots, the branch pinged back with a whoosh.
Aioffe opened her eyes. A clump of snow plopped onto her head, a final insult.
Her quarry, a lone squirrel which had been sitting atop the tallest fir in the copse in an otherwise desolate land, now leant up on its haunches a few feet away. For a moment, its russet fur quivered as it examined her with curious eyes. They stared at each other silently, then it tilted its neat head at her and hopped off.
“Next time.” She sighed as she caught sight of her battered, numb wings.
She needed to feed. The squirrels’ Lifeforce would have been sufficient sustenance to return home with. Injured, she needed something more substantial to heal herself. Her wings twitched; the breeze whistled through the holes, tickling as sensation returned. There would be no flying away from the island with them so shredded. Her ankle throbbed in protest at the prospect of walking. Not that one could walk across the sea.
She swallowed, hearing her mother’s voice in her head, ‘One such as you should never leave. If you must, then never travel alone. And never be seen.’
And never find out anything, Aioffe always mentally added. Never be free. Never discover. Never live a different life than that which her mother, and the rest of the fae, demanded of her.
After following the squirrel’s tracks across the flat white landscape with her eyes, Aioffe turned on the ground and peered through the cluster of trunks surrounding her. Her heart sank as she watched for a few minutes. No other prey hopped or flew into sight. The silent sun had begun its descent, twilight would soon fall.
Where the land dipped into the horizon to the west, a stone cross peaked into the orange sky. A slate roof hugged into the curve of the coast; its adornment jutted up like a beacon towards the water. From the air, this small island had appeared uninhabited, but the whitewashed building was worth considering as shelter against the long winter night ahead. At the very least, it had a roof.
She crawled to the edge of the copse and gazed across the other side of the expanse. In the distance to the east, a tall, square building dominated a ridge. A lone tower atop a mound at its base rose only half as high as the trees in Naturae, and cast a long, dark shadow towards the coastline. Centuries ago, the Vikings - invaders, and destroyers from even further North - proclaimed their dominion over these islands with castles and brochs. Aioffe’s mouth dried. Maybe some were still used by those who ruled here. Stone constructs were so different to the treetop dwellings of her kind. The prospect of exploring them piqued her interest, despite her fear of discovery.
“Perhaps don’t stray too close to them, then,” she muttered to herself. Entanglement with people - humans - would likely get her in more trouble.
With hawk-like eyes, Aioffe stared at the tower, the low building, then the tower again for a few minutes. She didn’t spot any movement or candlelight inside the small windows of either building. A gust of chilly sea wind whipped a loose strand of hair across her cheek. She needed to move, and now, before darkness fell.
Wincing as she stood on her sore ankle, she shook the last of the snow from her head. Her wings, shredded and aching, dropped behind her back, so she tucked them out of sight underneath her heavy cloak before setting off.
As she limped down the slippery incline towards the whitewashed building, the silence of the desolate land was broken only by the crash and rattle of waves, lurching from the Sound to the pebbled beaches between this island and the next. Seals brayed in the cove below and her stomach rumbled. Now they come to shore! Typical of her luck. Given her current speed, by the time she made it down there, they would probably have gone back out to sea. Her priority now had to be shelter.
As she approached the single storey building, a cluster of upright stones jutting from the grass, decorated with carved inscriptions, caught her attention. One was a more recent addition, judging from the absence of moss on its light grey face. The slate was graced with a cross within a circle above the writing, like the one on top of the roof, as if the symbol were the most important thing to announce. A freshly turned earth mound extended from the slab’s base. Her nose wrinkled. Decay emanated from the soil where turf had yet to grow.
Weariness and pain swept over her, and she leaned against the stone. Her fingers traced the indentations of lettering as she caught her breath. Humans lived such short lives; how strange that they would place their bodies underground when their life ended. Their souls freed to roam wherever they wanted without earthly ties.
A noise interrupted her pondering. Her head shot up and she stiffened. A chink of metal? Despite her extraordinary hearing, nothing further sounded. Aioffe snorted, dismissing the sound as her own knife, holstered, and hanging from her belt; it must have bashed against the slab when she moved. She shook her head. How silly she was to spook herself when she had seen no signs of anyone alive on the island so far.
A flagstone path led to the building entrance. Her ankle throbbed from the unfamiliar exertion of walking. When she pushed the heavy wooden door, it swung open with a creak.
A furtive movement in the shadows at the back of the room made her blink, then, another chink sounded. She gasped.
The light from the slit of a window at the back fell upon blond hair. His face furrowed as he turned towards her. The bag he held clanked to the floor, then, his hands curled into fists.
Aioffe’s mouth dried as she stared at the human through the drifting dust. He was trapped, like her, in the last beams of sunlight.
Dropping the bag with the silverware inside had only served to announce Tarl’s deceit. He might as well have put his hands up and surrendered. He blinked and cleared his throat, hoping to shift the girl’s azure focus from his flushed face, but her stare didn't waver.
“I’m sorry to interrupt.” Her soft voice had a peculiar lilt, as if she were from far away shores. Indeed, with her white blonde hair wild about her pale, heart-shaped face, not to mention those peculiar wide eyes, she certainly looked foreign. Her skirt and cape were in tatters and, although muddied, their fine fabric suggested wealth and position. Her skin bore no lines. The lack of cap and wildness of her hair was child-like, even though she had physically developed feminine curves. She seemed barely a woman, more of a girl and probably not much younger than himself. As such, no threat to a man.
“What do you want?” He hadn’t meant to be so gruff, but his tone made her shrink into the door frame. “This is sacred property.”
“Is it?” she said. “Why?”
He drew himself taller, frowned, then bent down to pick up the sack. Who doesn’t know what a church is? “It’s a church. Of course it’s sacred.” She was still examining him; he could sense those peculiar eyes roaming over his person. He blustered, “And it’s closed except for worship. On alternate Sundays.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I’m here to…”
Tarl’s mind blanked of an excuse under her curious gaze.
It was no use. He fell silent.
There was no excuse to be made. Not really. He glanced at the sack in his hands, weighing heavier with his guilt.
“I was just wondering,” her voice caught. “I might rest here a while.”
She shrugged, then looked at him again through lowered eyelashes.
“Why are you out so late? I’ve not seen you before, and I thought I knew everyone on this island, and Rousay.”
She scanned the stone threshold; her shoulders drooped as his mind whirled. He had heard nothing in the village about new arrivals. Such an event in the sleepy Orkney Islands was definitely worthy of gossip. He would welcome a change of conversation. Anything to turn the debate away from his mother’s recent demise.
He stepped away from the altar table and frowned. “Are you lost? Do your family know where you are?”
Defiant, the girl still did not meet his eye and for a moment, he was torn. His instincts fluttered a warning, and goosebumps rose on his arms. The strangeness of the intruder could mean trouble, as if he wasn’t in enough already.
But she looked so pitiful, all shredded, slight and wild. Silhouetted by the open door with the white snow behind her, she seemed so very small. So alone.
And different to anyone else he had ever met in all his seventeen years. Her face, or her accent, perhaps? He wasn’t sure quite what it was about her, but his heart thumped another signal, and he took a step back. Guilt made him snap back, “Well, whomever you are, you shouldn’t be here.”
Those blue eyes flicked to his and narrowed. “And yet you are. What are you doing here?”
He wondered why this stranger kept asking him about his business? Had she no respect? “I’m collecting something. That’s all.”
His bluff didn’t quite ring true, but he rolled his shoulders back and gathered himself up to his full height. She was just a girl. What could she understand of a grown-up’s obligation to support a family?
“Is there a good reason why I cannot rest here?” Her voice was soft, yet with a steel-like determination behind it. “It’s so peaceful, and I am so…” She sagged against the door. “Tired.”
Tarl shook his head. “I don’t consider that a good idea.”
“You don’t need to stay. I won’t be a bother. If you need to leave, that is.”
“I think you should go before the priest comes to lock up.” He had planned to be gone long before that happened. Delaying with her might cost him the tide.
The girl tucked her front teeth over her bottom lip and pushed herself from the door frame. Her face creased with pain as she turned to the opening.
“Are you hurt?” He glowered.
She shook her head and pulled open the heavy wood. Her slim fingers tightened on the edge as she stepped outside.
“You are hurt.” Goddammit, now he would have to help her, or she might tell someone about seeing him. He took her elbow and ordered, “Lean on me.”
She yanked her arm back, then glared at him. “I’ll be fine.”
How peculiar she was. Defiant. “No,” Tarl caught sight of the lowering sun. “It’s nearly sundown. I’d better get you home.”
Her lips tilted up, just enough for him to understand that she thought the prospect of a dark, cold night was irrelevant.
“I don’t think that’s going to be possible,” she said. “But thank you for the offer.”
He grimaced. “You can’t stay outside in the winter night-time.” Tarl pressed his lips together, then offered, “Just tell me where you want to go, and I’ll get you there.”
“But that’s just it, you see.” Her smile turned to what he could only have described as mischievous. “I am where I want to be.”
“Hah! Who would want to come to Wrye?” He scoffed. “Nothing ever happens here. Barely anyone but the seals live here.”
“You’re here? In this… place.”
She nodded. “Church, yes. And those upright stones outside with the…” She paused, her eyebrows crossing as though searching for the right word. Then she shrugged. “What is your word for them?”
“Gravestones?” He bristled. Did she know nothing of faith and burial customs? She definitely wasn’t from Scotland. The way she talked with an accent yet didn’t know what things were called – that was foreign behaviour. Tarl hadn’t met many people who weren’t born here, and only overheard occasional travellers once or twice. Maybe she was from the continent. Yes, that must be it. A visitor. A traveller. That made sense.
She continued, “Yes, with the writing on. Are they names? Of those who have passed into another life?”
Tarl took her elbow again as she limped forwards.
“Yes. A better life.” This time, she did not shake herself free of him. The sack clanked against the wood as he guided her out. Keeping her distracted might be the best plan. Anything to get away from the church. Quickly.
“This better life. Where is that?” She gazed at him, and his brows furrowed even deeper.
“Heaven. Unless you know of somewhere better?”
She tugged her arm aside from his, then tentatively stepped out from the low porch onto the thin layer of snow.
“Heaven,” she said quietly, almost to herself. “That would be good.”
He closed the door behind them, then looked at the sky. Of all the times he could do with fresh snowfall to hide his tracks, but the clouds had dissipated. Across the horizon before them dimmed a pink-orange sunset. As spring beckoned to warm the chill of these windy islands, it was ever more likely to rain instead; this crisp, clear day would become a distant memory.
Already, he wanted to forget the day he had chosen to commit a sin. Not even being a good samaritan would absolve him of theft. And, from a church.
As the young woman turned her pale face towards him, a shadow darkened the pathway.
Shooting from under bushy eyebrows, the steely glare of a brown-robed vampire sent a chill through Aioffe. Seen only from afar before today, her skin tingled as a terrifying understanding of her predicament dawned. The surprise and speed of his approach suggested advanced years; indeed, he wore the wrinkles of many centuries. This must be the priest the boyman had threatened would arrive, but was the human aware of the kind of creature the Church protected?
Irrespective, the fact that he was a vampire posed an added complication. She consciously stilled her broken wings lest the human notice their quivering underneath her cape.
“Father McTavish!” The boyman exclaimed, dismay in his voice.
The priest’s blood-red lips curled, drawing back to reveal a yellow-toothed sneer. “A little far from home, aren’t we?” A gravelly voice barely contained the vampire’s hostility, but she didn’t know whether it was aimed at her or the human.
Aioffe raised her gaze to meet his.
“Oh yes, little thing, I smelled your filth. For you… are not altogether like others, are you?” He paced, almost leisurely, on the flagstone path. His feet crunched the ice crystals as beady eyes shot between Aioffe and the human.
The boyman took a step forward. “I found her in the church, Father.” His earnestness caused Aioffe’s jaw to tense.
Aioffe clenched her fists as the priest glared at the human, roaming his tall stature up and down. Although obviously keen to hand her over to the enemy, the boy was a casualty of the situation. He was not to blame for her intrusion. She was the one at fault here, having broken the first rule of the Vampire-Fae Sation Wars Treaty - never expose oneself to the humans.
The priest growled, “Which you, Tarl Smythson, should not have been in either. I know you, as I know everyone in your village. And I have heard of what happened to your mother.”
The boyman paled. At least Aioffe knew his name now.
“God rest her soul,” the vampire added sarcastically. “Except…”
“I have a right to visit,” Tarl protested. “My family…”
“You and your family have no rights,” the vampire interrupted. “There is a substantial payment to be made before you have ‘rights,’ as I recall.”
The boy hung his head, chastised, yet his hand tightened on the sack.
“So that does not explain quite why you are here at all? Unless you thought perhaps to settle your family debt with items which already belong to the Church?”
She may have been right to question earlier, but that didn’t help their situation now. Ownership of objects was something which she knew humans prized, but how did that work with an institution’s possessions? She recalled how a Fae Elder spat as he derided the Catholic Church that was ‘for the people,’ yet was wealthier in coin than the majority of the human population.
If she’d had not been looking, she would’ve missed the quick sweep of the priest’s arm. Tarl’s body was flung backwards towards the rough stones of the doorway as if weightless. Mid flight, his fingers released his treasures.
His head struck the door frame with a loud thud, then he crumpled to the ground.