Stories of the Stars contest third place winner:
She landed with the practiced ease of centuries, blue talons gripping the cliff’s edge. Wind whistled through the granite crags, and small stones scrabbled beneath her feet. With a low growl, she dove from the cliff. Unfurling her wings, she soared high in the currents, where stars whispered of hope. Gliding down to the last of her hunting grounds, she crept into her den to sleep, alone on the spine of the world.
With a shuddering sigh, she rested her chin on a floor polished smooth by centuries of use, and slept.
The scent and sound of man woke her while the afternoon’s light fell through the pines, and her ridges stiffened. His horse waited at the tree line. She heard it shake its head, its tack rattling. The horse’s sharp scent was overlaid by his. He smelled of wood smoke, of leather and salted meat.
She snaked her long neck to watch him.
The man rubbed his neck, staring down the mountain side. Thick shafts of sunlight reached through the branches to touch his face.
Then, for no discernible reason save the golden light and the dust motes, he smiled and laughed. She crawled closer to the mouth of her cave. His laughter faded, and the music stopped.
The man lowered himself onto a fallen log, head in his hands. He drew a deep breath, and rolled his shoulders. His jaw clenched, and he returned to his horse.
She waited before easing herself out of the cave. With practiced stealth, she followed him to his camp, her blue wings tucked close, and through the forest the next day. He sang to himself and to his horse, scratching behind its ear until it closed its eyes and chomped. His slow gentle chuckle and the way his horse leaned into him in the evening drew her in.
She flew far to hunt without frightening the horse and crept into a dark cluster of pines to rest during the next day, intending to find him after she had rested. The crack of a branch woke her.
He froze, the smell of terror filling the shadows. His hand drifted to his insignificant knife. Her amused snort blew the bracken away from him, and his face paled. He staggered backwards.
No. He could not leave. She could not be alone.
So she sang. A deep rumble, with the counterpoint above, through her secondary chords. She hummed in a rumbling bass the song he had sung to his horse, and he stopped. His eyes narrowed, and he backed away. That night, she found him again, and they sang together. Their songs became a habit until he reached the town. She watched him leave with a shake of his head.
She returned to the mountains and keened the songs to the stars, who whispered them back.
Summer came and went, and the stillness ate at her. She had to find him, to sing again, and there, in a clearing reminiscent of the ones in the mountains, she found his scent. He had been there recently, and the knowledge comforted her. She curled up in the shadows and slept. Sunlight filtered through autumn leaves, and familiar footsteps woke her.
She arched her back, cat-like, and unfurled her cobalt blue wings. He stood at the trees’ edge, and with a growing smile, he began to sing. He crossed the open space and reached out to her.
“Oh, my friend, how I’ve missed you,” he said, and she hummed in response.
That evening, he headed down back to town.
She followed his scent to the stone town. He sat alone at his window holding his head in his hands. She landed softly on the slate roof and rumbled to him. A smile like sunrise and moonrise together lit his face. He swung out the window and clambered up the roof, but his smile faded. He glanced around and touched her neck.
“You shouldn’t’ve come.”
She nuzzled his arm, and he sighed and settled back against her shoulder until the sky lightened in the east, and the stars faded. She flew to the forest to wait, and by midmorning, he returned. She hummed a greeting. When he reached out his hand to the soft aquamarine of her jaw, she nudged his arm, and he leaned his forehead against her cheek. They stood there until dusk gathered.
He sighed. When he left, the silence was tangible.
She was alone.
She growled and lashed her tail, knocking a boulder into a stand of russet maple.
Perhaps she need not be alone?
Grinding her teeth against the coming pain, she reached into her bones and peeled away the magic. She sang it from within and poured it into her wings until they grew so heavy she could no longer stand. Magic tore through her. With a resonating crack, her left wing fell, followed by the right. They hit the ground, the membranes withering until all that remained were long curving bones of cobalt blue.
The night forest was very still. She raised her head to look on the silent stars with new eyes. She stumbled, then took careful steps across her clearing, gaining confidence and agility until she laughed as she spun on new limbs in the moonlight.
When he returned in the morning, she sat on the fallen log near the curving bones and smiled up at him.
“I have been waiting for you,” she said.
He stopped, stunned, then stepped close and smoothed her cobalt hair away from her face. A smile like the joy of soaring above the clouds lit his face, and a laugh like music broke free. He swept her up in his arms and spun her in a circle.
She smiled, an unfamiliar movement, and set her hand on his chest. “I sang.”
He touched her cheek with gentle fingertips. “You will stay?”
“Always,” she said.
Taking his hand, she walked away from the cobalt blue bones, and together, they went home.