Ayrenn Bobs Her Hair

Post » Sat Oct 29, 2016 9:04 pm

So, uhhh.... I forgot to post this here. Actually thought we were supposed to have migrated to the new forums by now. Anyway, happy late Witches' Festival!

Ayrenn Bobs Her Hair

“Goooood morning, High Kinlady Mother-so-pretty!”

Ayrenn’s head popped up from a hole in the floor of the ancient mews, grinning like a scamp with pinfeathers all through her bright hair. Her mother just looked placidly down at her, and held a blunt finger to her lips.

“Forefather is still sleeping.”

Ayrenn scoffed as Tuinden turned away. Forefather, the old eagle perched on her mother’s head with his head tucked beneath a wing, had shot her a sly little look between his scraggly flight feathers as soon as he heard her mother speak. The old buzzard delighted in beating Ayrenn to her favorite perch. Scrambling quickly through the hole, she leaped with all limbs extended to latch onto her mother’s back. Fingers and toes scrunched in the plain night shirt she still wore, Ayrenn squirreled her way up her mother’s considerable solid height and hoisted herself up to sit on her shoulders, shoving the eagle off her head so she could rest her chin there. Tuinden’s peaceful limbs barely moved despite her daughter’s energetic climbing, but Forefather flapped wildly as he fell off, huge wings filling the room as he squawked off to a perch on the headboard of the ancient bed.

Quiet cooing and calls filled the air as the other raptors roused at the commotion, owls blinking and hawks shrieking. Two falcons swooped out into the chilly grey morning through a crack in the waxen wall of the old hive-house. Her mother just breathed deep and went back to stroking the four young eagles in the nest before her.

Ayrenn kicked her feet, bouncing her heels off her mother’s chest as she watched.

“When will they be ready?” she asked.

Her mother took a long, thoughtful moment. “Today,” she said.

“What! Does that mean we’re going hunting tomorrow at last?”

“No. Your father will tell us when it is time.”

“Ugh, seriously? Why does everything have to be ‘Read in Refraction,’ oooooh, aaaaaaah,” She blew a raspberry by her mother’s long ear.

“That is our way, as the true descendants of the Aldmeri. You should pay more attention to your readings, like your brother.”

Ayrenn rolled her eyes. “Naemon only spends all his time staring through scopes because he can’t see anything otherwise.” Her mother merely shrugged, a slow shift of shoulder boulders. “Where is he, by the way? With Father, staring at Crystal-like-Boring?” She could have answered her own question, of course, but she still didn’t like using her royal right to sense her family to track them down. Maybe they didn’t want to be tracked down, after all. They could always just reach out to her if they did; as sister, daughter, and queen-to-be, she would hear them no matter how far they were.

“He is not,” her mother answered. “He is with… hmmmm, his fiancé, I believe.”

Estre?” shrieked Ayrenn. “Why didn’t you tell me?” She shimmied down her mother like a tree trunk. Her feet kicked up must and feathers in the golden air as they hit the dirty old floor.

“They are to be married,” said Tuinden, still focused peacefully on the birds rubbing into her hands. “They must spend time together, or they will be unable to find love for each other and the match will have to be voided.”

“Good!” Ayrenn snapped. “Estre is bad for him. She’s mean, rude, big, smarmy, and… and… she has short hair!”

“That is not her fault,” said Tuinden, looking at Ayrenn sharply. “Her hair is kept clipped to show her separation from the sins of her recent ancestors, not as punishment. When she joins our family, her hair will be allowed to grow long to show her connection to her new ancestors – and through them, to those honored ancestors in her own line. You know that. Do not be spiteful.”

Ayrenn pouted. “She’s still mean to Naemon,” she muttered, and turned to leave – this time by the dropping-encrusted stairs, rather than the ruined floor.

“Ayrenn,” her mother called after her, “you are forgetting the ancestors.”

Ayrenn sighed as she spun around midstep. “Honor to the noble ancestors who give up the bliss of spiritual summer to watch over their offspring.” She bowed once to the owls atop the bookcases, once to the hawks on the mantel, and thrice to each of the golden eagles in the huge raised bed where they made their nest. “May you find peace and rest in this place which was home once and now again.” She took one step backward toward the stair.

“And?” Tuinden’s voice caught her.

“And may you all have a good preening!” Ayrenn let out in a rush, and darted down the stairs.

High Kinlady Tuinden smiled as she moved to fetch the hoods for the four youngest eagles. “Thank you, little Wren,” she said, and Forefather hopped back onto her head.


Feathers spun behind her as she rode, scattered from her tangled hair by the bitter sea breeze rushing up the mountainside from the shore. Belle’s enormous black body bunched beneath Ayrenn as she leaped away from the crumbling mews along the broken path, claws grasping at each looming piece of ancient flagstone. Ayrenn barely guided her; Belle was the smartest horse in the stable, and knew the way down to Glister Vale even without her keen eyes to pick out the glowing old step markers. Instead, she looked inside herself, searching for the strand that tied her to her brother. The beat of waves, the bite of a cold wet breeze, the scent of ripe mangoes in the distance… Estre’s voice commanding, demanding… She knew where they were. She urged Belle on, and the shadow of the morning vale swallowed them up.

Almost no one besides the royal family was up yet, despite the manor being full up with relatives of every stripe; only the royals rose with the birds. The manor was dark and shrouded by fog still, only the tower lit up by steel dawn slanting down over the mountains where the mews perched at the edge of the vale. Her father’s telescopes glinted in the grey light, already attuned to the first gleams off of Crystal Tower on the mainland, ready to read the script of the day. Ayrenn galloped by on Belle without a thought for prescription, mist musing in her wake.

She found them halfway up the slope of the vale’s seaside wall. Their horses – well, Estre’s horse and Naemon’s pony – were perched anxiously atop a boulder, flicking their ears as Estre shook Naemon by his embroidered pajamas.

Don’t tell me you can’t, Naemon,” she sneered down at the little boy, held a foot off the ground in her grip. “I’m your fiancé, and I’m seven years older than you. Of course I know what’s best. Just do what I say.”

“B-but only the royal family is s-supposed to hunt with eagles,” Naemon sputtered, crying behind his glasses.

“I am the royal family, don’t you remember? We’re going to be – “

“Hey!” Ayrenn yelled as she swung down from Belle’s back. “Leave him alone!”

Estre looked over, sneered, and dropped Naemon to his feet. But then a little flash came into her eye as she watched Ayrenn hurrying up to them, and she gave the little boy a shove – almost halfhearted, but enough to send him sprawling on his face in the dirt.

“Naemon!” Ayrenn ran over and helped him sit up, checking for scraqes and bruises and cracks in his glasses. Blood dribbled from his nose, and his eyes were red from crying.

“Good morning to you too, Princess Ayrenn,” said Estre from behind her.

Ayrenn clenched her fists as she stood. “Not good morning to you, you mean little snothead without a family! How dare you touch my brother!”

Estre flipped her short hair away from her face lightly. “He is my fiancée, you know. I can do as I like with him.”

Ayrenn shoved her roughly. “He’s not yours! He’s his own person! You should be nice to him if you really want him to be your husband!”

Estre grinned past her at Naemon, still on the ground. “I certainly want him to be my husband. But – I’m sure you’ve noticed – he needs a tight leash, for his own good. I’m just doing him a favor.”

Ayrenn tackled her.

“YOU – ARE – NEVER – GOING – TO – BE – MY – SISTER!” she yelled, punctuating each word with a wild punch or kick to whatever part of Estre she could reach; cheek, leg, hip, shoulder, stomach. She wound back for a real whomper to the eye, but a swift smack across the cheek and ear caught her off guard and sent her reeling, allowing Estre to easily catch her flailing wrists in a cruel grip. Ayrenn struggled, but for all that she was as tall at thirteen as Estre was at sixteen, Estre was still a lot stronger. She flipped them easily, slamming Ayrenn’s arms back into the ground.

“I don’t want to be your sister!” she hissed, inches from Ayrenn’s face. They glared at each other for a moment, panting, and then Estre sat back, releasing Ayrenn’s wrists.

“You have dirty feathers in your hair, little Wren,” she said, looking over Ayrenn, her short hair clinging to her cheeks with sweat. “If you’re not going to take care of your hair and appreciate it properly you should just cut it off.”

“She can’t!” squeaked Naemon through his sobs. “H-hair symbolizes one’s connection to the ancestors, and as the royal heir, cutting it would be –“

“Shut up, Naemon!” barked Ayrenn and Estre at the same time.

“I bet you wish I would,” Ayrenn spat. “I bet you wish I’d just cut my hair and cut my family and be just as miserable and alone as you are, so you wouldn’t be the only kinlady in the Isles with short hair and no heritance, so I wouldn’t have ten thousand relatives brushing and braiding my hair every hour and I wouldn’t trod on it every other step. So you wouldn’t be the only one with no one to care for them and no one to come for them.”

Estre’s face twisted up, vicious and tight and aching, and her hands clenched on nothing as she reached for Ayrenn – but then she was gone, and someone else was standing over her and shouting… someone with a long, sleek brown braid.

“Go away, Estre!” No one wants you around! You’re supposed to be fetching the mango skins from the model house anyway. Causing trouble instead of doing what you’re supposed to be, as usual. You’re just like your voided parents, even if none of the grownups can see past your noble little act.”

Estre rose like a wraith, smoothing her hair back into a perfect tawny helmet. “Clear vision is the root of right action, Malanie,” she said, “and clearly yours is clouded.” And with a swift spring onto her horse, she vanished into the fog.

Ayrenn hopped to her feet. “Umm, wow. Thanks, Malanie.” She rubbed the back of her neck, blushing.

Malanie smiled sweetly. “Of course! Estre’s such a bully. I can’t believe she always gets away with it.” They stared at each other, grinning, until Naemon sniffed behind them.

Malanie spun around and rushed over to him, pulling him close in a hug. “You poor little thing! Did she break your glasses? Here, let me see.” She made as though to take off his spectacles, but Ayrenn put a hand on her shoulder to stop her.

“Naemon doesn’t really like to have his glasses off. Besides, they’re not broken, I already checked.” Naemon nodded, grinning a little as Malanie instead wiped away the tear tracks under the lenses. “We can clean you up though!” said Ayrenn, and pulled a silk handkerchief out of her pocket to wipe the blood from his nose and lip.

“There we go, all tidy again! Except your pajamas. Those are, um, a little bloody. Oh well.” She grinned, and hugged him swiftly.

“Come on, let’s ride up to the cliff side so you can do your readings,” she said, sweeping Naemon up onto Belle – well, up to Belle’s stirrup, at least; she was the biggest horse in the stable, after all, and Ayrenn was not that strong yet. But he was able to scramble into the saddle with her help, and smirked down at her from his towering perch.

“I’m riding Belle!”

“Don’t get used to it,” scolded Ayrenn, but she was smiling. Truth was, Belle didn’t really let anyone but Ayrenn ride her. They’d been together since she was the biggest and wildest filly in the yard, and little Wren the only one whose eyes she would calm for. Her wet dark eyes blinked down, raindrops at midnight with just a curl of gold, and Ayrenn turned to Malanie, trying not to stare too much at her shining hazel eyes or long braided hair.

“So do you want to come with us?”

“Sure!” Malanie chirped. “I don’t really have a horse, though. I can’t really ride Hilyat,” she said sheepishly, nodding at Naemon’s pony grazing between the trees now that the excitement was over.

“That’s ok! Belle can totally carry the three of us. Here, come on.”

Ayrenn hoisted herself up into the saddle – much like scaling very muscular wall, really – and reached down to swing Malanie up behind her by both arms.

“Hold on!” she yelled, and before she could even move her heels they were off, Belle bounding up the slope with abandon, her claws sure and solid on the broken glyphs of shattered stairs.

“But what about Hilyat!” shrieked Naemon as Malanie’s arms hugged hard around Ayrenn’s waist.

“She knows the way home!” Ayrenn laughed, and kissed the top of Naemon’s head in reassurance. Malanie’s chin slid in to rest on Ayrenn’s shoulder, and her cheeks nearly hurt with grinning.

A wet ride through weeping trees, the dark boughs of the hemlocks showering them with dew every time Belle got a little too exuberant in her jumps – which was nearly every other one; not even Ayrenn could rein her in completely. Her claws rang out against the stone like bells in a storm. They wouldn’t get there secretly, but she sure was quick.

They crested the edge of the vale and Belle pranced to a stop at Ayrenn’s silent command. She stood with steam boiling from her nostrils into the mist, and they looked out over the choppy seas of the channel between Auridon and Alinor. Cliffs reached out toward the other island both below and above them, weathered down to trailing fingers. Alinor’s ridged shores themselves were invisible; such was the fog.

“Tough luck, bud,” Ayrenn said. “Doesn’t look like you’ll be seeing Crystal-like-Boring this morning.”

“Don’t call it that!” Naemon whined back, and pulled at the chain holding his portable telescope around his neck. “I can try! Father always gets it!” He put the brass scope to his eye and fiddled frantically.

“Too bad that b-“ Malanie elbowed her, “that bad person dragged you away from him then, huh?” Ayrenn said, and then frowned. “Why didn’t you call out for me, anyway, little brother? I could have gotten there sooner, sent her packing before you got hurt.”

“She’s not supposed to be sent packing. We’re supposed to be getting married. I have to do what she says.”

“What! Naemon, no, no you don’t! You can make your own decisions!”

Naemon threw down his scope. It jerked at the chain, thumping back against his chest uselessly. “How! I can’t even do my readings right. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do today, or when! I might as well just do whatever she says. At least I won’t mess stuff up that way.”

Ayrenn opened her mouth to say that he didn’t need anything to tell him what to do, but Malanie was faster.

“You could use the Almanac,” she offered tactfully. “Or at least on the days you can’t get a reading from Crystal Tower.”

“The Almanac is stupid,” he muttered. He sighed, and hung his head. Ayrenn just hugged him tighter. “Do you think… I always mess stuff up because I can’t see right?” he asked in a tiny voice.

“No way, Naemon,” Ayrenn answered immediately. “Look, don’t listen to Estre. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

“She quoted that correctly, though,” he sniffed.

“It’s just a metaphor,” Malanie said. “Clear vision just means understanding things as they really are. It doesn’t matter what senses you use to get there. Anyway, she was talking to me, and I have perfect vision, so that’s not what she meant at all.”

Naemon just nodded and stared down at his scope. After a moment, though, he perked up.

“Do you think we should ride along the ledge and try to find a better place to see the Tower?” he chirped. “Maybe we still can!”

Ayrenn shook her head, but clucked to Belle anyway. They moseyed along the slim shelf of flat ground edging the cliff face, heading north. As they rounded the point of the towering cliff above, Belle stopped to let Naemon hold his glass up to his wet spectacles again.

“I think maybe I can –“ he said, but Malanie broke in.

“Is there someone down there?”

Ayrenn followed the line of Malanie’s arm down, to where a house stood atop a low, narrow cliff. It was a funny little house, with windows too small and tiny little balconies, but an enormous widow’s peak in the middle of the moss-mounded roof, all arching doorways and broken windows. Its roof was split clean down the middle, and each side leaned a little away from the other to make a narrow Y. The gables were a little sagging and a little too narrow, sharp and curved and hanging with moss like cobwebs.

“Huh? In there? No one’s supposed to go in there,” said Ayrenn.

“That’s not true though! Estre was supposed to get the mango skins from there!”

What mango skins?” whined Naemon, put out at the distraction.

“The ones we cut all into faces a few months ago, little brother. We hunted for green mangoes, remember? And then after we ate them we got to cut the skins into faces so they look like ancestors. This is where they put them to dry, so we can light them all up with candles after the fall mango hunt.”

Naemon frowned, sticking out his lower lip. “What is it, though?”

“Oh come on, you’ve seen it lots of times. That’s Glister Scale. Before they built our manor, they built this one so mother and father could see if they liked it. It’s exactly the same as our manor, it’s just smaller. You have to crawl around everywhere except the tower. Father used to use it to get readings before the real tower was done, and all his broken old telescopes are there still. But it’s kind of rickety now, no one’s supposed to be in it. I got in trouble for that,” she added sourly.

“Well, someone definitely is, and, actually, I don’t think it’s Estre,” said Malanie. “Look, someone’s moving around the tower. She looks weird.

“Naemon, let me borrow your scope,” said Ayrenn as she tugged it out of his hand and put it to her eye. The house jumped close, and she swept the glass across the patchy shingles to where a wild dark figure flitted about the widow’s peak.

“She looks like… I don’t know, a Bosmer? What’s a Bosmer look like? She’s all wrapped up in some kind of veil. She’s like, hammering or something. What’s she building in there?”

“Ayrenn!” hissed Malanie. “Someone’s coming to the door!”

Ayrenn pulled away from the glass. Indeed, there was a figure approaching the front of the model house. A large, solid figure, just dismounting from an equally large horse.

“Is that…” she muttered, and pressed her eye back to the telescope. The figure was heavily cloaked, the hood pulled low, but those wide shoulders were distinctive… and they bore two hooded eagles Ayrenn had seen in the mews just an hour or so past.

“Holy ancestral crapsticks,” she breathed, “that’s Mother!”

“What?” Naemon said. “It can’t be. Father said she was supposed to be –“

“Shh! She’s going inside!”

Ayrenn watched through the glass as her mother opened the rickety model door and stepped inside, eagles and all. Even this far away, she could just barely hear their confused screams as the door swung shut.

“What is she doing?” Ayrenn whispered furiously. Malanie stroked her hair, and she jerked the glass up to the widow’s peak, pressing it hard against her eye. The veiled figure had vanished, but a moment later her mother appeared instead, throwing back her hood and speaking to someone Ayrenn couldn’t see.

“There’s smoke,” whispered Malanie in Ayrenn’s ear. “Look, coming out of the crack in the roof.”

“Yeah, she’s lit some kind of oven,” Ayrenn said. “Not Mother, the other one.” She’d slipped back into view, long veil swirling around her. “She’s kind of – kind of dancing around Mother.” The veiled figure was, indeed, spinning lightly around High Kinlady Tuinden, touching her softly here and there, stroking the eagles’ beaks and whispering in their bearers’ ear.

“Now she’s taking something out of the oven. Looks like pastries or something.” She slid two pastries from the wooden paddle she’d used to remove them, then cut one of them in half with – well –

“She just used some kind of thread to cut the pastry!” gasped Ayrenn. “And she’s – she’s feeding it to the eagles.” They took the treats eagerly from her fingers, throwing back scraggly heads to gulp them down. The figure clapped her hands gleefully, and darted back to grab up the other pastry. “Now she’s feeding one to Mother!”

But Tuinden snatched the treat from her fingers before she could shove it in her mouth. Still, she did eat it; quickly, businesslike.

“Is it medicine for them or something?” asked Malanie.

“Why would Mother eat it too, then? No it’s – wait, weird!”

A sudden wind seemed to have gusted into the tower, for her Mother’s tawny hair billowed up of a sudden, twisting wildly, almost prehensile… but then the strange figure’s veil blew up too, and Ayrenn could see nothing but dark, wild cloth.

“What?” whispered Malanie.

“I can’t tell,” said Ayrenn.

When the wind died and the veil fell, all seemed as it had been before – save that the shrouded woman had her arms crossed and her toe tapping rather than dancing. She held out a demanding hand, and…

“Wait, hold up,” said Ayrenn, “Mother just gave her a mango. A ripe mango.”

“That’s stupid, sister,” Naemon piped up. “No one’s allowed to hunt mangoes until Father reads that it’s time to start the harvest, that the winds are ready. Picking one before that is –“

“I know that, little brother,” said Ayrenn. “But that’s still what she did.”

“She’s leaving now,” said Malanie, pointing again. Below, Tuinden stepped out of Glister Scale and clambered astride her horse. She wasted no time, cantering quickly off down the cliff slop and vanishing from sight.

“Weird!” sighed Ayrenn. “Weird! Wow, we have got to get down there. Let’s go see who it is in there. And what she’s building.”

“That’ll take forever, unless you want to end up in the Pity Pool,” said Malanie. Ayrenn turned to throw her a skeptical look… from a gulpingly short distance.

“What do you mean? There’s gotta be a way down there from this side.”

“There’s not, unless you jump,” Malanie replied, shaking her head. “My grandfather’s the canonreeve of the town nearby, right? I have to know the paths around here for when I take over. Lots of people did try to jump here, but –“

“Someone else is coming!” squeaked Naemon. Ayrenn jerked the telescope back up to her eye, but this new visitor had already slipped the door closed behind them. She swung the glass up to the widow’s peak instead, where the veiled woman was slowly peeling the skin from the mango – with a single delicate thread. She paused, head turning, then set the mango down and swept out of view. When she returned, she had an arm around the shoulders of…

“Estre,” breathed Ayrenn, then gulped a little. “She’s, uh, been crying.”

The veiled woman pushed her down into a tattered but plush armchair, draping a shawl over her shoulders tenderly.

“The weird lady is, like, comforting her,” said Ayrenn. “She just brought her a – looks like a cat.” Estre’s short hair stood out from her head as though underwater as the cat curled up in her lap. The veiled woman was crouching in front of her, talking with her head tilted, and slowly wiping the tears away from Estre’s cheeks. After a moment she whisked away again, bending briefly to snatch up the half-peeled mango.

“What’s happening?” said Malanie.

“She’s peeling the mango again,” whispered Ayrenn. The veiled woman had moved behind Estre. She half-bent over her to pass her arms around the chair and hold the mango just in front of Estre’s face. Slowly, so slowly, she started to peel it again, sliding the thread in her fingers between the fruit’s flesh and skin. As the peel fell free in Estre’s lap, the thread bit deep into the bared mango, slicing off a piece. The woman held it to Estre’s lips.

“She’s feeding it to Estre!” Ayrenn exclaimed in a strangled yell.

“Great moldy grandmothers, they’re sharing a mango?!” Malanie choked back. “Let me see, let me see!”

Ayrenn passed the glass to Malanie quickly. “Yeah, but Estre didn’t take it. Shook her head.”

“Ah, yeah. Yeah that weird lady is eating it herself. Weird, you can’t even see her eyes. Wait – wait now she’s – she’s – oh –“

“She’s what?” gasped Ayrenn, and snatched back Naemon’s glass. The woman’s fingers were buried deep in the golden flesh of the mango now, one hand holding it so firmly that juice dripped down the woman’s wrist and onto Estre’s shirt, two small fingers of the other squirming, reaching deeper inside…

“Let me see!” said Naemon. “It’s my telescope!”

“Um, you shouldn’t, little brother,” said Ayrenn, swallowing thickly. The glass was pressed firmly to her eye; she couldn’t look away. The woman’s fingers were squelching in the fruit, sending juice squirting. They seized on something – and then pulled, and the slippery core of the mango shot out into her dripping fist.

“She just – she just – the entire heart just like that. I didn’t think you could…”

Malanie grabbed the telescope. “Estre just jumped up. She looks like she’s kind of, like, babbling. But she’s smiling too. But also kind of backing up. The weird woman’s following her, and, um, cleaning off her hands… oh, there, she turned and ran.”

Even far above, they could hear the resounding crack as Estre threw open the door of Glister Scale and jumped back astride her horse – to vanish, just as Tuinden had.

Ayrenn and Malanie stared at each other. Naemon furiously snatched his scope out of their hands, scanning at the house again. Both girls swallowed in unison.

“We have got to go talk to Estre,” said Ayrenn, and Belle turned to make the trek back to Glister Vale.

Below, in the widow’s peak of the scale model of what was to come, a veiled witch thrust her head out through a warped archway. “Spies in the night,” she hissed, and jerked the moth-eaten curtains closed.

It was not night.


The girls burst through the manor doors with singular purpose – but found the cavernous hall abuzz and aflutter with whispering relatives.

“What’s going on?” demanded Ayrenn as she punched a path through skirts and robes alike. A third cousin once removed bowed low to her despite the bruise forming on his thigh.

“Your father the King has made a grand reading in the refractions this morning. We are gathered to hear what it is, and what we should do in its light.”

“Of course,” muttered Naemon. “Father has no trouble…”

“Shhh!” Ayrenn hissed. “He’s coming down! Come on!”

She grabbed Naemon and Malanie’s hands, tugging them with force to the front of the crowd as her father’s feet slowly came into the view at the ceiling and the crowd went hushed. The clack of his cane echoed through the manor as he took one heavy, limping step after another down the spiral staircase from his tower top. Though his limp was pronounced and his gait slow, King Hidellith was still a hearty man, muscular and confident, his platinum hair and beard sleekly braided and thick. In his eyes, though, a great well of sadness pooled pitifully.

When he reached the bottom, he passed the bamboo cane to his other hand and held it at his side, standing solid on his own as he looked over the silent assemblage.

“Treasured family and honored guests,” he began, deep voice ringing, “good morning!” There was a wave of murmurs and bows before silence resumed. “While performing the royal refraction readings at first light, I received a portentous glint from Crystal-like-Law, honored be its bones.” The crowd echoed him, a round of honored bones for all. “It revealed to me that although it is most unusual for this inauspicious date, the winter winds are ready, and the fall harvest is to begin today.” Whispers rippled through the family, but Hidellith held up a hand. “That means, as you know, that the royal hunt must take place this afternoon.”

Across the gap in the crowd surrounding the king, High Kinlady Tuinden stepped forward. “My King… the birds are not properly prepared. There will be –“

“Nevertheless, the hunt must happen by tonight. Word must be sent to High Kinlord Rilis XII; he and his son are to join us this year. The light of Crystal Tower is clear,” he added, “and this must be done. See to it.”

He turned, and set off back up the stairs, cane in hand once more. The hall erupted into noise as soon as his back was turned.

“The Hunt!” yelled Ayrenn brightly. “Excellent! You’ll finally get to have a go, Malanie, since you’re here this year!”

Malanie smiled sadly. “I can’t, Wren. I’m no high kinlady, just a minor canonreeve’s granddaughter. Actually, I have to go back now and help get ready for the harvest tomorrow and the preparations for the hunt today. I’ll be back by tonight, though!” she added at Ayrenn’s crestfallen look. “Grandfather said I can be here for the feast again! Maybe you’ll catch a mango big enough to share,” she said coyly, and Ayrenn’s cheeks flamed. “I have to go now though! See you later Naemon!” And in a flash, she’d kissed Ayrenn’s burning cheek.

“And you too, Wren.” With a wink, she vanished into the crowd.

Ayrenn shook herself roughly. “Come on little brother, before they –“

But she was too late. Just at that moment, about a thousand hands descended on their shoulders, chastising voices proclaiming how dirty and tangled she’d let her beautiful hair become. Both she and Naemon spent the next hour or so having their hair washed, oiled, washed again, brushed, and dried by what seemed like half of Auridon. When they finally struggled free after being re-dressed in their hunting clothes, their hair fell down their backs in nearly identical gleaming sheaves of fine sunbeam blonde. Naemon, of course, had his braided neatly back, but Ayrenn’s, as the heir, had to be let loose until she came of age, signifying her open attachment to all Altmer before she was bound by the necessary distance of rule.

She grumbled under her breath as they made their way out to the yard in front of the manor to take their mounts.

“Do you mean that?” asked Naemon quietly. “Do you really want to cut your hair?”

“Sometimes,” sighed Ayrenn, then amended, “Well, most of the time. It’s just such a pain, and I don’t get a say in anything about it. I won’t really do it, though. It’s important, I guess. Symbolic and ceremonial and all that. But yeah, I wish I could.”

“Well, you can’t,” answered Naemon snottily, pushing his glasses up on his nose. “You should get used to it.”

Scowling, Ayrenn tripped him as they stepped outside.

She found Belle immediately, her eyes rolling as a hostler held her bridle. She stopped to pull her nose down to her forehead and stare into her night wet eyes for a moment, calming her, then scaled up her shoulder and straightened up in the saddle – to find Estre in the doorway with Naemon, helping him stand and put his glasses back on.

“How clumsy of your sister, Prince Naemon,” she said, flashing a broad grin over at Ayrenn. There were no signs of tears or terror in her now, just a sleek, pressed readiness. For the thousandth time Ayrenn wished that Estre couldn’t come on these hunts, that she didn’t have an immaculate bloodline, excepting her parents. “Would you like to ride with me, sweet thing? I remember you usually have some trouble with that pony of yours.”

Ayrenn opened her mouth to say that he could ride with her instead, but Naemon was already nodding with a shy smile. And, surprisingly, Estre didn’t look over at her to gloat; she merely helped Naemon up onto her black mare and mounted behind him, nestling him between her arms protectively.

An interminable wait later, they each sat astride their horses with a bird of prey on their arm; hawks or falcons for those not of the royal family, tethered and hooded as normal, and golden eagles for Ayrenn, Naemon, and their Mother, unbound except by the intimate connection between royal family and royal bird. Their father, of course, was not present; he had not participated in the hunt for many years, due to his bad hip. High Kinlord Rilis XII and his slouched, scraggly son had joined them midway through, and the elder fruitlessly attempted to exchange meaningless pleasantries with Tuinden. She never was one for useless talk, and especially not when she had a bird on her arm.

There was, of course, a great deal of ceremony involved in seeing them off, endured impatiently by Ayrenn and her Mother. The hunt was hot in them already, and no talk of the great symbolic significance of the ripe mango as the flesh of their living communion as the Aldmeri people could hold back their beating hearts, their clenching fists, the wonder of whose bird would catch the first fruit, the biggest. The word was given, the dams burst, and the hunt scattered. Belle’s claws stormed as she raced ahead of the others, closely followed by her mother and Estre, each striving to reach the high cliffs first, where the foretold winds would shake the first fruit from the boughs of the clinging mango trees. Horses bellowed and birds screamed and Ayrenn’s breath came harsh as they neared the crest of the slope – and broke out of the trees into the grey light of the winter monsoon gathering in the strait. The wind already whipped, the mango trees clinging to the even high cliff above lashed this way and that. She licked her lips; it was nearly time.

It came; a tiny dark stain inking the sky and Ayrenn’s gloved arm shot out to launch the young eagle into the air. Screaming, it shot toward the falling fruit – but another bird had flashed by from behind her, faster than hers, and the two beat their wings furiously side by side until – a whip of wings, a blur of talons, and one bird pulled away with the fruit in its claws. The other screamed its defeat, and both wheeled back around to return to their handlers.

“Now we see which is what,” said her mother, trotting up beside her. A grin blazoned her cheeks, so rare save for on these hunts, and Ayrenn returned it fiercely.

The two eagles swept up to them, huge wings overwhelming for a moment – and then folded, perched once more on heavy gloves. And, in Ayrenn’s lap, there laid the first ripe mango of the season. She laughed out loud, and her mother bowed her head to her, pride in her eyes, as she cast her own bird out for one of the other fruits beginning to fall. Those not caught would still be saved by the spells of Malanie and her grandfather’s workers below, but a caught mango was special, meaningful – especially when caught by one of the royal family.

Estre and Naemon trotted up beside them in the colds winds, trailed by that weird little Rilis XIII and his patchy teenage beard. Estre seemed to be struggling to coach Naemon into casting off his eagle. He could barely hold up his arm with it perched there, much less cast off.

“Just give it a good shove, Naemon,” she said. “Do you want me to help? Here,” she started to grip Naemon’s arm to offer some strength.

“No, girl,” snapped Tuinden, suddenly sharp. “That is a royal bird, a royal ancestor, and a royal heir. You are no royal wife quite yet, Estre. You will hunt with no eagle.”

That left them alone in the keening shriek of the wind. Estre blinked furiously, staring down at Naemon’s head while she rubbed his arm. A few minutes later, Tuinden heeled her horse into motion, the fire back in her eyes, leaving the four young hunters alone.

Ayrenn sighed happily. “I wish Malanie were here,” she said, meaning ‘I wish Malanie had seen me get the first catch.’

Estre looked at her curiously. “Why? She has no place here. She would not be comfortable.”

“Ayrenn mingled mangoes with her last year,” Naemon announced slyly.

“Naemon!” shrieked Ayrenn, cheeks blazing and her skin crawling with embarrassment. Estre’s mouth was hanging open. “He doesn’t know what that means,” said Ayrenn. “That’s no – we didn’t – we just shared a mango together! That’s all!”

It didn’t seem to cheer Estre up at all; she pressed her lips together tightly, blinking hard again.

“I want to try again,” stated Naemon into the awkward silence. “Here I go!” And before Estre could shriek at him to wait, he gave a sudden, weak jerk of his arm. The eagle squawked indignantly and most decidedly did not cast off after a falling fruit. Instead, it nearly fell over, and its talons clutched wildly at air before it could catch itself and flap awkwardly off, screaming at the indignity of it all. As it went, something stretched between Naemon and its claws – and then snapped, and his portable telescope dangled in the bird’s grasp as it fled.

They watched it soar away in shock, silent as it went and silent when the scope eventually fell from the bird’s talons, spiraling down, down, down toward the mossy roof of Glister Scale.

But, just before it struck, something dark and erratic flashed past, muscular membranous wings flapping wildly. It rose, darting in every direction but always rising, cresting the edge of the cliff opposite them, to –

To a silhouette. Black, against the grey sky. A draqed drip of ink astride a dark horse, its legs lost in the mist. An extended arm, and then with a flash of bat wings two inverted eagles hung from it like venom from fangs. For a long moment they stared, tracing the fire with their eyes – and then its arm flashed out, and the shadow raptors flashed hither and thither at random through the air, their tethers extending, running out and out and out until the figure itself unraveled and the frayed ends of thread trailed behind the bats until they reached their roosts in the cracked tower below.

When it sunk in, of course, Naemon bawled, and Estre had to sing to him and hug him tight and wipe away his tears until he was merely hiccupping slowly. Ayrenn and Rilis XIII could only look on awkwardly until it was done, but once it was Ayrenn sidled up beside her brother, snug in Estre’s strong arms.

“Look, little brother, we’ll get it back,” she said softly. “There must be a way down from this side, right? We’ll –“

“You cannot.” Mother was back, a mango in her hand. “The only way down – or across,” she said, nodding to where a ledge beckoned from across the gap that held Glister Scale below. “It used to be something of a fashion to make that jump. Only the bravest riders, the most skilled, the strongest horses. And they were rewarded by the finest fruits on the island.” She stared across the gap. “But the Pity Pool holds the bones of the many who fell short.” She pointed down to the dark pool and below Glister Scale, thick with kelp. “Now, it is forbidden to all. Too many lost.”

She gave a long pause. “Your father once made the leap every year. He was a very renowned rider until he was not.”

The wind alone spoke again. Their robes flapped, vociferous of themselves. Eventually, Tuinden turned to go, and the rest followed. Not Estre, nor Naemon, nor Rilis XIII had a mango among them, but they went. No one seemed brave enough to mention the dark figure to Tuinden. No one seemed willing to mention to each other, either. And Estre, at least, seemed disappointed about her lack of a catch. Ayrenn thought about her strong arms around her little brother, protective, and her voice soothing in song, and dropped back to ride beside her.

“I was thinking,” she said after a while, when her mother had gotten far enough ahead. “This was kind of a bust for you guys.” Rilis XIII grunted. Estre just nodded. “So… what would you say if we did this again… tonight?”

“After – after dark?” choked out Rilis XIII, and Ayrenn had to blink to remember that he could talk. “It’s – it’s a full moon for Secunda, didn’t you know?”

“All the better to hunt by,” said Ayrenn. “What do you think, Estre?”

“We’re not supposed –“

“Shut up, Naemon,” chorused Ayrenn and Estre together. They grinned, but Estre made no answer.

“I’ll even let you use my eagle,” said Ayrenn, lowering her voice. Naemon almost fell out of the saddle explaining why she couldn’t, but Ayrenn just tweaked his nose. “Live a little, little brother.”

“I am for it,” Estre said at last. “When should we meet?”

“Midnight? By the stables,” Ayrenn replied immediately. Estre nodded.

“What about me?” Naemon asked. “I didn’t get a catch either…”

Ayrenn and Estre traded a Look. “Sure… you just have to promise you’re not going to tell anyone,” Ayrenn said.

“You can do that for me, right Naemon?” said Estre in his ear. “Right, my Prince?”

And her prince nodded.

But no one asked Rilis XIII what he could or could not do.


They met in lightning, caught in the wet shadow of the stables with Belle’s inky eye watching over them. The storm had long since blossomed, the first flush of the monsoons unfolding across the night in cloud and bolt and boom. Ayrenn hurried inside with Estre at her heels and Naemon under her heavy cloak.

“I’ll take Belle, of course,” whispered Ayrenn, stroking the horse’s nose. “Naemon, who do you want to ride with, me or Estre?”

“He can ride with me,” came a breathless voice. Malanie had stepped into the stables just behind them, the hood of her cloak dripping. Ayrenn and Estre gasped, before Estre turned abruptly away.

“Of course you invited her,” she spat.

“Actually, she didn’t,” said Malanie as she swept Naemon up onto a horse and jumped up behind him. “Rilis XIII did. He’s not coming, if you care.”

“That hairy little creeper,” muttered Estre.

Ayrenn rubbed the back of her neck. “Look, Malanie –“ she began, but Malanie jerked her head.

“It’s fine, Princess Ayrenn,” she said. “You don’t need me along all the time. I don’t expect you to choose someone such as myself. But I did think Prince Naemon might be a bit overborne between the two of you, so I thought I’d join for his sake.” And she heeled her horse out into the rain, Naemon peeking out from the gap in her cloak.

Ayrenn gulped, but Estre gave a tinkling laugh. “Bit entitled, isn’t she?” she said, smiling at Ayrenn. “Like you owe her anything.”

Ayrenn frowned, then clenched her jaw. Estre was right; Ayrenn didn’t owe Malanie anything. In fact…

“You know… I didn’t eat the mango I caught today at the feast. I wanted to save it for something special. I brought it with me tonight. Just, you know, in case. I was thinking that after this is over… you might like to share it with me.”

And Estre stared down into her eyes, down into the gleam of her long hair stuffed beneath her hood, and she spoke.

“I think I might like that very much,” she said.

Ayrenn beamed. “Cool. Ok, well, better go huh?” She jumped astride Belle and heeled her out of the stables.

“I got the birds already,” she said loudly as she rode up beside Malanie and Naemon. “They’re waiting under the eaves. Not very happy about the rain, but oh well.” Closing her eyes for a moment, she let herself feel the ties that bound her to her family, extending out from her scalp in tingling strands, and let it guide her to the four juvenile eagles nearby. With a few wingbeats, they swooped out of the night and alighted on their saddles and shoulders.

“All right,” she breathed. “Let’s go!” And go they went, vanishing from the warm light of Glister Vale into the dripping, rumbling night.

The forest in the glare of lightning and the gleam of Secunda’s full face peeking from behind the clouds was a very different place from where they had ridden just that morning. Branches sighed and creaked against each other with the wind, and the lightning lit flashing stark relief across their faces, the marks of raking claws and tearing fingers. The glow of the path glyphs seemed cloudy and confusing beneath them, not at all the sure guide they normally were. The wind screamed as they rode, and water splashed with every footfall, and behind them the underbrush stirred.

“Are you sure we’re going the right way?” yelled Estre.

“Not at all!” Ayrenn shouted back.

“I think we should have gotten there by now!” said Malanie, and a fourth voice sounded from behind them.

“Owooooooooooh!” it said, in a long, low, moaning howl.

They looked at each other, caught in a flash of jumping lightning.

“That didn’t sound like a normal wolf,” Naemon noted, and then they were all kicking their horses forward with abandon, not caring where they went so long as it was away. They dashed from glimmer to glint in the underbrush, following any semblance of guidance, and found themselves tilting downward, and then splashing through shallow water and up onto a new slope. The wolf, or whatever it was, howled again, and the sound echoed strangely, as loud as though it were right at their backs.

Lightning slashed among the clouds, casting them all in terror molded brilliance – and revealed a tumble-down wooden sign just in front of them; ‘Glister Scale: the Future waits Within.’

“The house!” Ayrenn screamed. “We’ve got to get inside! Come on!” She spurred Belle onward, hoping the others had heard. The creature howled again.

“Here!” she yelled as Belle reared up in front of Glister Scale’s rickety door. She fell from the saddle in a heap, and when she pushed herself up the others were there with her. The horses had gone, vanished screaming into the night, and the eagles too. Ayrenn wasted no time in ripping the door open, shoving the others inside, and slamming it closed behind them.

It shook with an almighty bang as something pounded against it, shaking it in its frame. They froze, staring, nowhere to go, but whatever it was didn’t seem to realize that the door opened outward, because it just kept pounding at the old wood and howling uselessly. Eventually, it snuffled off, scratching at the walls.

“It’s looking for another way in,” whispered Estre. “Come on, we should find somewhere to hide.” As one, they crept forward into the gloomy, low-ceilinged entrance hall. So like the manor they knew so well in the vale, but cramped and collapsing and dusty. Tiny doors barely as high as Ayrenn’s chest lined the walls, with windows so small they’d not be able to put their heads out if they tried. An eerie glow pulsed up ahead, drawing them out into the open space of the base of the tower.

A strange buzz filled their ears as they stepped inside, like bugs in the walls, and a faint scent of some herb crawled inside their noses and began undressing. The tower was lit by a weird purple light that seemed to come from the walls themselves. It made their teeth blaze and their eyes light with unearthly fire. Strings of faces hung from the banisters of the spiral stair, twisting slowly and smearing the shadows of their visages across the leaf-strewn floor.

And – a figure stood across the room, playing idly with some of the faces and humming to itself.

Naemon sniffed, suddenly loud in the quiet, and the figure spun around.”

“Ah! Visitors!” she squealed, and ran to them. They scrambled to run, but her hands were already on their shoulders.

“Wait! What’s your rush! What’s your hurry?”

They looked up at her silently, shivering and shaking in their riding boots. It was the veiled woman, of course, but up close they could see just what her veil was. It lay across her forehead, woven tight and thick over her eyes, and draqed down to her shoulders where it merged with the loose-knit robe she wore. It clung tightly to her shoulders and arms, and swirled around down to the ankles of her bare feet. And all of it – all of it – was woven from the woman’s own black, living hair.

“Oh you poor things, you must be freezing!” she said, trailing a wet lock of Estre’s hair from her finger. “Why don’t you come on up? The stew is just finished, and sweet treats nearly done too.” They didn’t resist as she swept them over to the staircase – until, that is, the pounding resumed at the front door.

She clucked at them. “You naughty little chiggers, why didn’t you tell me were still waiting for someone? That’s right rude, innit?” She slipped away, nearly to the door before they could scream at her to stop.

“No!” they yelled in unison, but she had already pushed the door open.

A huge, black silhouette filled the doorway, hairy and clawed and awful. It stretched its snouted head up high, gave a long howl, and then –

The veiled woman bopped it on the nose, and it was just Rilis XIII standing there, scraggly and dripping in the rain.

“Well, come in, come in!” she said cheerfully, turning to let him follow. He closed the door gently as he stepped inside, looking just a little embarrassed. “Let’s get something hot in you, dears. It’s a wild, wild night.” She grinned as she said it.

They followed her uneasily up the stairs, staring at the hanging faces as they went – which, of course, stared right back. On a closer look, they were just the dried mango skins they had cut months before, but crawling with…

“Black lightning bugs,” said the veiled woman cheerfully, noticing their stares. “Imported straight from the void!” She popped one into her mouth and chewed noisily.

She seated them at an uneven round table beneath one side of the yawning widow’s peak roof before spinning away to stir at a steaming cauldron over a blazing fire. A large brick stove stood under the other half of the roof, veiled from their view by the rain pouring down through the crack. A plate of half-finished pastries sat on the table, and more carved mango skins lined the walls, still aglow with the soft purple pulsing of the bugs. Broken telescopes of every shape and size stood here and there along the walls, and for all the whole place seemed to be protected from the storm mostly by tatty old curtains and broken glass, it was surprisingly warm.

“Here we are,” the veiled woman said as she set out five bowls before them and began ladling a cloudy soup from the cauldron.

“Umm, no offense,” Ayrenn said after her bowl was full and steaming, “but who are you?”

She giggled. “Who am I? It’s easier to ask what I am, darling. My name in itself is a question that most will never answer.”

“Ok,” said Ayrenn. “What are you, then?”

“Ahhh, what am I?” she sighed back wistfully. “Well, let’s just stick with the basics, mmm?” She counted off on her fingers as she listed, “I am magnificent, marvelous, and…” her lips coiled beneath her veil, “… mad.”

“Now, if you’ll just lend me that mango, I’ll finish up your desserts and you can enjoy the soup,” she said smartly, and held out her hand.

Ayrenn traded wide-eyed looks with Estre, who eventually gave a little nod. Ayrenn pulled the mango out of her cloak pocket and handed it to the woman.

Very good, my unfinished sweet,” she whispered, and spun away to busy herself peeling and cutting the mango with a strand of her own hair.

The soup was wonderful. Hot and rich and salty, with bits of seaweed swimming in its depths, it warmed them up marvelously. And for all it seemed like it took mere minutes to slurp it down, when their bowls sat empty and their bellies full, the veiled woman was already pulling the pastries from the oven and sliding them onto battered wooden plates.

“Can I ask a question?” said Ayrenn as she grabbed one and the others began chewing. The veiled woman nodded. Her hand rested on Estre’s shoulder. “What were you building in here the earlier today, then? We, er, saw you.” She took a bite; the taste of mango filled her mouth, spread glitteringly through her flesh.

“Why, your very first device of doom, Ayrenn. Would you like to know the recipe?” As she spoke, the others’ eyes went suddenly blank and their heads fell forward into their empty bowls. Ayrenn gasped, but the woman went on anyway. “First, the eye of a drake and hair of a salamander, purified by the dark of the new moon and the light of silverfish imperatrix, then the stewed dust of a starbone elf’s void-dry lips, plus just a nibble of a witch’s tongue.” She bit her lip. “Not my own, of course. I prefer to nibble other witch’s tongues. That’s the dough made, to be filled with a paste of pulped glow bug and ground crystalline lens. I used your brother’s, among others,” she cackled, and tossed the broken telescope onto the table. “Then sprinkle with the juice of a royal mango ground down with its own heart, and I think you know which one I just used. Bake for a hot second and feed to your victims, and then…”

And then an unearthly wind roared up from nowhere, throwing the others’ heads limply back against their chairs and billowing Ayrenn’s fine bright hair wildly. She screamed, and it twisted like tentacles, prehensile, and swam through the air in great coils, gleaming bunches bright as stars in the lightning bugs’ black gleam. Her friends’ eyes popped open, staring blankly – and her hair, her long, beautiful hair, plunged inside.

“Hush, hush,” whispered the veiled woman by Ayrenn’s ear as the wind died down and only Ayrenn’s quick panting breaths broke the sudden silence. She stared at her friends, with their eyelids spread wide by thick twisting locks of her hair. “I’ll show you how it’s done,” the veiled woman whispered. “This is what she pays me for, little Wren, little dirt-bird. Oh, your poor mother, always longing to have that full knotted strand that her children and husband take for granted – but she doesn’t have the royal blood, does she? Couldn’t call the birds till I helped her, could she? Couldn’t hear your calls in the dark. Do you think she hears them now? But I helped her, yes I did, and now – wowee, what a woman! Your solid sure thing! Your mountain to climb! Every bird’s favorite perch! All because of me! Because I can tie knots where there are none, send strands where summer would never have been tasted! And now,” she giggled, “now I’ve done the same for you! Can you feel them? Can you feel them, bound by their vision to your right action?”

Ayrenn could. She could feel them all, tingling out from her scalp, their blood and breath and dreams. They just sat there, little Naemon and sweet Malanie and hairy Rilis XIII, staring blankly with her hair in their eyes. And Estre, infuriating Estre, with her stupidly cute short hair floating free and easy in the stillness.

“Ask them anything,” whispered the veiled woman, the witch. “They must answer you. Their vision is yours.”

Ayrenn blinked furiously, mind racing. She could learn anything, get any answer…

She swallowed. “Um, Malanie? Do you like me?”

“Yes,” said Malanie’s mouth.

She looked at Rilis XIII. “And, uh, are you a werewolf?”

“Yes,” he growled.

“And, um, Naemon?” she went on. “Do you – do you think I’m a good sister?”

“Yes,” he said.

“And Estre, yes, ask Lady Estre,” the witch breathed in her ear.

So Ayrenn did. “Estre. Honestly, what is your problem? Why are you such an ass? Why are you so mean to Naemon? I mean, what does this even look like to you? Seriously!” She seized Naemon’s pajama shirt, bloody from where Estre had pushed him that morning, and held it in front of Estre’s head. Naemon’s thin little chest swung pathetically inside as she shook her fist. “What is this to you?”

Estre answered. “I am alone. You have everything and do not appreciate it. Because messing with him is the only way I have of calling you to me.” She stared emptily at the bloodied shirt, eyes full. “Like roses on white lace,” she said. “Like flowers on our marriage bed.”

Ayrenn threw herself back into her chair, sobbing. The witch rubbed softly at her shaking shoulders.

“You can have them,” she sighed softly. “You can have all of them by your side, loyal forever. Rilis your wolf, Naemon your hound. Malanie your wife… Estre the witch in your wings. They are linked to you now. All they need is a sign that you want them, and they will be loyal to you forever. Not completely obedient, oh no, but loyal, and interconnected at umwelt. All it takes is a kiss,” she whispered against Ayrenn’s ear. “That’s it. Just a kiss with a spell, and they’re yours forever.”

“No!” Ayrenn shrieked. “Never! It’s wrong! I can’t take their will from them! I can’t bind their hearts with some witch’s black magic! I’ll never do that!”

“Are you sure?” said the witch, whirling to stand behind her. “Are you sure you won’t, on this thirteenth at thirteen with thirteenth, my magic five-fold enforced? Trials are coming, little bird, such trials, and these four at the center of so many. You could have them. You would spare yourself so much pain, Ayrenn. And spare them so much pain. Spare the world.”

“No!” Ayrenn shouted again, shaking her head hard. “I’ll never use something like this!”

“I’m not so sure of that, if you refuse this,” the witch said. “But, if you insist…?” Her hands gathered Ayrenn’s hair at the back of her skull, and Ayrenn nodded.

“Then I shall have to cut your hair to break the spell,” the witch whispered breathlessly. Something drew taught around Ayrenn’s hair, and she could feel the witch’s hand pressed against her head. “Do you agree?”

“I do,” Ayrenn said, and the witch’s slicing strand slid swiftly through her sheaf of fine, fine hair.

Immediately, the hair slid out of her friends’ eyes and they blinked wildly, awake again. But the witch was cackling, and Rilis was roaring and shifting and Naemon was screaming. Malanie and Estre stared at her with tears in their eyes as Rilis leaped, a flash of fur, and vanished into the night. Naemon flailed with all his limbs, sending the table crashing to the ground. He struck out at random, clipping Malanie on the cheek and knocking telescopes everywhere. Glass shattered in the purple gleam as he wailed with the storm.

“Enough!” shouted the witch, still holding Ayrenn’s hair. “If she will not give you the leash you so clearly need, I know who will!” Bats flashed out of the dark, trailing tethering threads of her black hair, and darted back and forth around Naemon. They wove a tight knot of strands around the chain of his broken telescope and twisted it tight around his neck, sending him choking to the floor. The other end they tied tight to Estre’s thin wrist.

“No!” Ayrenn shrieked. “Stop!”

“Too late, little Wren, you made your choice!” snickered the witch. “And now – payment rendered!”

The veil of hair over her eyes unraveled as a great wind gusted through the tower, shredding her living robe to a whipping cloud of dark hair around her amber body. Above her head, she held Ayrenn’s hair, coiling and twisting again as though alive. Ayrenn stared at her wild, exultant face, grinning and gay, and realized suddenly that she had no eyes at all.

Letting go of the hair to float on its own, the witch pulled open her empty eyelids with her fingers and tilted her head up, up, neck straining and spine thrown back.

“One strand she promised me!” she giggled. “Just one strand of heritage in exchange for her stupid birds! And now! Now I have the whole lot!” And Ayrenn’s hair shot down into her empty eye sockets, squirming and thrashing until every last strand had vanished inside. The witch stared down at her with new eyes, black and gold, haloed by a whirlwind of black hair threaded through with strands of Ayrenn’s own sunbeam blonde.

“A family,” she breathed. “A kinship! An ancestry! An in! Oh, my dark golden knot, we are summer-bound!” She hugged herself, spinning around and hopping up and down in her nudity. She threw up her arms, and her hair flew up too, swirling overhead as though floating underwater. “Now,” she said. “Now to ride!” But just as a bony black horse draqed in dried kelp clattered in from the rooftop, another’s thundering hooves boomed behind them.

Belle reared in the archway, her claws striking out and snapping the rotted wood. High Kinlady Tuinden sat astride her, looking fierce as any eagle with her eyes ablaze with lightning. The witch just cackled louder, her hair coiling into every edge of the room, impossibly long. Tuinden’s arm flashed, and huge wingbeats filled the room. Claws snatched at Ayrenn’s shoulder, and before she knew it she was behind her mother on Belle with Naemon draqed before her and Malanie clinging behind. Naemon was still bound at the throat with the witch’s leash. Her mother started to wheel Belle around, but Ayren shouted.

“No! Naemon’s still tied to Estre!” The thread stood taut across the distance as Estre struggled to untangle herself from the wrecked table, Naemon’s leash around her wrist. Ayrenn tugged frantically at the knots at Naemon’s neck, while Belle reared again and the witch’s locks slotted themselves into the hairlines of the carved mango skins.

“Hurry!” shouted her mother.

“Don’t leave me!” wailed Estre. “Please! Pull me out!” She tugged at her wrist weakly.

“I’ve – I’ve got it!” Ayrenn yelled, casting aside the leash triumphantly. “Mother, grab Estre!”

But it was too late. As the leash fell limply to the floor, the witch’s hand fell gentle on Estre’s shoulder. She looked up at her, face stricken, and saw above her a mantle of outcast generations mired in the witch’s coiling hair. She stared around the room, and gasped as the faces along the walls morphed and changed to become full and fleshly and alive as the witch’s hair touched them, until all of a sudden the widow’s peak was filled with lonely women; young women, old women, cruel and kind, but all Altmer, all wild and joined to the same flowing, swirling hair, their heritance and heritage. All chewing gleefully at the black lightning bugs crawling across their bone-bright teeth.

“Come with us,” said the witch. Estre blinked, mouth open, and said nothing. “Come wander, come roam. Come never know home. We’re demons loose, Estre, demons loose, and there’s ten thousand miles to trail in a dead witch’s shoes.” She spun, and suddenly her feet were clad in heeled boots of what looked like pure honey. She stomped around to kneel in front of Estre, still otherwise naked. “You hunger, I’ll thirst, busting at the heavens on the horses of the sun! Up there where angels conspire and heroes do drown! It’s hurly burly Turdas, Estre, and you’re one of us! One of us!

“Estre!” yelled Ayrenn, but her mother was already backing Belle up to flee, and Estre’s short hair already floating up as the witch drew her to her feet. Her head barely came to Estre’s chin, but she looped her bare arms around her neck anyway, leaning up on her toes.

“Come, my mango,” she breathed. “Let us mingle.” And then she pressed her lips to Estre’s, and a crowd of bare amber bodies cut off the sight as Belle leaped down from the roof.

She galloped as the coven cackled, and didn’t stop for a good distance into the trees along the coast. Tuinden turned her then, to look back at Glister Scale in the dark. Purple light beamed from every crack, and green smoke coiled up from its sundered roof. Singing and chanting drifted to them from its walls. Its windows burst with oozings of brilliant hair glowing like stars against the black, Ayrenn’s hair. It darted out and down to the Pity Pool at the cliff’s base, plunging below the surface to drag the kelp shrouded skeletons of fallen horses up to the house by their eye sockets. They milled around the house, tossing their glistening skulls. The hair withdrew, and naked witches poured outside, laughing and chatting as they mounted their undead herd.

At the forefront, Ayrenn caught a glimpse of Estre’s short hair where she sat on her own horse, the veiled witch grinning in her arms. A great trilling cry went up, and then the horses were cantering into the air, straining for the sky. The witches’ hair snapped backwards, wrapping around Glister Scale’s gables and straining until the whole thing broke free and rose like a great weird carriage into the sky, trailing roots and rubble. They rode up and up into the night, until Glister Scale was but a dark Y against Secunda – and then vanished.


Afternoon of the next day, an investigation team of mages picked through the wreckage where Glister Scale had once stood. Ayrenn, of course, was with them, her short hair waving lightly in the bright sunny breeze. Naemon and Malanie picked through the rubble a little way off.

A groan sounded just ahead of her, and Ayrenn’s heart seized up. She dashed forward, falling to her knees beside the body.

“Estre?” she gasped. “Estre are you ok?”

She helped her sit up. She looked ok, just very tired. Estre rubbed her eyes, then her lips, smiling faintly, and finally blinked at Ayrenn.

“You bobbed your hair,” she said. “I didn’t think you’d actually do it. Now you’re just like me.” She smiled bitterly and rubbed at her eyes again.

“Estre?” said Ayrenn, more quietly. “Are you ok?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” she said, pushing herself to her feet. “Just had something in my eye is all. Hey, Naemon!” she called. “Malanie!”

The two ran over, breathless. Naemon slammed into Estre’s side, hugging her hard. His neck was still red where the leash had choked him, as was Estre’s wrist, though the thread had vanished. “Hey there, my Prince,” she said softly. “I’m all right. What do you say Malanie and I go braid your hair back at the manor, hmm?”

She didn’t look at Ayrenn as they walked away from her, Estre holding Naemons hand and her fingers just touching Malanie’s. Ayrenn blinked, and jumped to catch up with them. They joined her mother at the edge of the rubble with the crew of mages. They were all ecstatic to see Estre alive. There would be no punishment; everyone could see that what had happened was obviously not Estre’s fault. She would be treated, and pampered, and made to feel as though she were already part of the royal family.

Ironic, considering what they did not see. For as they made their way back to Glister Vale, a single thread of sunbeam blonde slid through Estre’s eye and out her scalp, a lone strand of heritance veiled by her hair.

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Racheal Robertson
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Post » Sat Oct 29, 2016 4:36 pm

Very nice! I applaud you for the F. Scott Fitzgerald reference as well. :goodjob:

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SaVino GοΜ
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Post » Sun Oct 30, 2016 2:52 am

I actually can't take credit for that! The readers of Fitzgerald are the writers of the Divine Comedy, whose https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OA5aUeeFi3Q I was intentionally referencing. But hey, Neil Hannon is literary enough for about twelve people, so I don't feel bad.

Glad you liked the story! :)

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Mariaa EM.
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