Jrana’s heart thundered as her eyes fluttered open, blinking clarity into her misty vision. It had been her husband, Kon, who she was dreaming of, though it was their daughter, Kinjra, who startled her awake. With a loud gasp, the twelve-year-old girl rose from their bed. Jrana turned over and found her child gazing beyond its edge.
“What’s wrong?” she mumbled. “Did you have another nightmare?”
Kinjra did not answer, leaving her mother to follow her eyes. Amidst the darkness and the dim sheen of ringlight that was muted by their window curtains, Jrana saw… nothing. Not just the empty space of the open room, but a void. For her, their nest had stopped feeling like a home on the night Kon was conscripted by the Seers. Now, it was more like a tomb or a corpse. Even when the night was warm, Jrana shivered as she faced her cold, lonely reality.
“Can you hear that?” asked Kinjra. Her voice was somber, the words spoken quiet under her breath. Hearing nothing, Jrana startled upright. If Kinjra saw or heard something that Jrana did not, that could only mean one thing.
Jrana reached for her daughter in desperation, only for Kinjra to brush away her hands and scramble up the side of their bed. As soon as the girl’s feet were on the floorboards, she was pattering into the darkness. Jrana could barely see Kinjra’s tiny silhouette in the pale gray light and lifeless black.
“What are you doing?” she yelled. “Kinjra! Come back here!”
Her daughter neither responded nor returned, leaving Jrana to rise and chase after her shadow. As Kinjra ran around their nest collecting garments, the girl avoided each of her mother’s attempts to grab hold. After her third miss, Jrana gave up and moved to block off her only exit. With the nest’s front door at her back, she waited for her daughter to step into view. Her arms were crossed as she tapped a foot impatiently.
“I won’t let you go,” intoned Jrana. “I’m your mother, Kinjra. Stop what you’re doing and listen to me!”
Frowning, Kinjra waded into the brightest beam of ringlight, halting just out of Jrana’s reach. The girl had pulled one of her father’s old tunics over her pale green pyjamas. It draped over her small frame like a dress, hanging all the way down to her ankles. Over the tunic, she wore a thin, flower-embroidered jacket. A gift from Kon for her tenth nameday. Naturally, it was her favorite. Kinjra’s feet were bare by choice, not necessity.
“I think it’s him, Mom,” Kinjra muttered, sniffing. “I can hear a fae calling, and her voice… it sounds like the birds when Dad would make them sing.”
Jrana’s eyes widened. She did not want to believe it. Could not, because for all her life, hopes were only raised for reality to quickly dash them. Jrana had thought she found lasting happiness when she met and married her husband, but in the end, Fate granted him the Sight and brought Seers to their doorstep. Love was not enough to keep Kon from abandoning her.
“It’s not him,” she whispered.
“How do you know?” Kinjra asked.
Jrana’s only reply was a shake of her head.
“Can we just take a look, at least?”
The mother stood her ground and glared.
“Pleeease?” her daughter begged.
With a sigh, Jrana relented. “Wait for me to get dressed first. We can peek outside together, so long as you stay behind me.”
Kinjra nodded vigorously. By some miracle, the girl actually waited for Jrana to don her silken coat and slippers. When her mother returned, Kinjra was jumping at the foot of the door. The window at the top was too high for her to peer through. Still, the girl tried.
“Stay behind me,” Jrana demanded. Kinjra shrunk before circling around her mother, who stepped up to the door and looked through the window. Outside, she only saw a dim ringlit expanse of blooming fields and open plains. A jagged range of mountains loomed menacingly in the distance, surrounded by dark jungles and marshes.
“I don’t see him, Kinjra. I might not be able to see fae, but I would see your father.”
“Mom,” Kinjra groaned. “You said we can peek together. Just trust me. Please.”
Jrana hesitated. She gripped the doorknob in one hand as the other thumbed the lock. “It’s not you I don’t trust,” she whispered. “Fate stole away my childhood, and in return, all it has given me is misery. I can’t lose you, too. I’ve lost enough.”
“You’re not going to lose me,” said Kinjra. The girl stepped closer to her mother and hugged her leg. She was only tall enough for her head to reach Jrana’s waist. Kinjra buried her face in the side of her mother’s hip. Jrana couldn’t remember the last time her daughter had hugged her.
Slowly, Jrana lifted the door up as she pushed it open. It was the only way to keep the hinges from squeaking. Beyond, a cacophony of insects greeted them, loud, shrill, and persistent. The Gilded Plains of Northern Tír were swarming with them. Seeing nothing, Jrana looked down at her daughter, and found her gaze cast up toward the sky. Surprisingly, she didn’t let go of her mother the moment she got what she wanted.
“They’re still far away,” Kinjra told her. “I can hear the fae singing, way out in the Waistlands. They’re coming straight this way.”
Jrana swallowed, hard. The lump in her throat she could not be so easily dislodged. “How sure are you that it’s him?”
Kinjra frowned. “Fifty-fifty?” she mumbled, clearly more uncertain than that.
“And if it’s not him? What do you do?”
She sniffed. “Hide?”
“That’s right.” Jrana took a deep breath, relishing in the taste of fresh air. “If you promise to stay close to me, we can go for a short walk. Just until we know for sure. If it’s your father, we can wait for him. If it’s not, we run inside.”
“I promise!” Kinjra exclaimed, not missing a beat. Her little girl was bouncing with excitement. Jrana smoothed out Kinjra’s short, brown fringe, inspiring the girl to let go and gain distance. She hopped behind her mother, just out of reach.
“Stay close,” Jrana warned. Clasping the front of her knee-length, silken coat, Jrana exited their nest. Upturned dirt crunched beneath her slippers as she glided into the dimly lit field. Their flock’s steers had eaten most of the grass here, creating an open clearing for their encampment. Jrana’s nest was set in a circle with the rest of the Pale Hawks’ homes. Twenty-three nests in total, alongside a school, a clinic, and stables. At the center of them all stood their flock’s canteen, run by Kon’s best friend, Gul, and his wife, Cres. Along with the old widow, Miss Sut, those two were Jrana’s neighbors.
Kinjra pattered outside, barefoot, her face parted by a wide smile. Unlike Jrana, she didn’t mind getting dirty. The girl loved to feel the earth beneath her. She caught up to her mother and halted beside her, then raised a hand over her eyes to focus on the patch of star-spotted darkness between the southern horizon and Tairn’s lunar ring. This far north of the Waistlands, the blade of silver light was as wide as Jrana’s thumb. It arched over their planet like a guillotine, flickering with gray light and shadow as it slowly crumbled.
“Do you see him?” Kinjra asked. She was pointing at the cleaved heavens. “A man in black, soaring? Just above the mountains?”
Jrana squinted, only seeing more darkness. “No.”
“Keep looking,” Kinjra told her. “He’s there. His fae is carrying him in her talons.”
Jrana tried and failed to swallow the lump in her throat. Though most people took comfort in knowing they were born alongside invisible, magical protectors, Jrana only felt rage or trepidation. Like Kon and Kinjra, Jrana’s father and brother were Seers, and one by one, she watched helplessly as her loved ones were pulled into war. Once a person developed the Sight, it was their duty to help save the world alongside their prophesied hero, the Fated King. Only Seers and their fae were capable of defeating the wraiths; the spectral abominations that lived on and fell from the Skyblade.
And so her father was taken. The monsters didn’t kill him, but they wounded him in a way that could never be fixed. He returned home a monster of his own.
And so her brother was taken. Anjre… he didn’t survive long. He died in a battle with the Carrion; the tribes of cannibals that roamed the Waistlands, preying on innocent flocks like the Pale Hawks as they migrated north or south with the seasons.
And so her husband was taken. Five weeks had passed already, and in all that time, she only had received a single letter. Not even from Kon, but from the Headmaster of Westwind Academy. A famous Seer named Nise, the adopted father of the Fated King. He assured Jrana of her husband’s safety, but the Seers had said the same about Anjre too.
Jrana feared it was only a matter of time until Kinjra was taken. She had gained her Sight recently, though she had yet to be discovered. Whenever it did happen, Jrana would have no one left. She would be truly and completely alone.
A minute passed, and still, she saw nothing. “Kinjra. If this is a joke, tell me now before I get angry. If you don’t, I’ll be teaching you from home tomorrow. I’m sure Miss Sut won’t mind your absence.”
Kinjra glared at her mother, her brow furrowed and cheeks red. Most days, Jrana felt like her daughter loved her friends more than she loved her. Since Kon was taken, spending time with them was all she ever wanted to do. School was just the best excuse for her to see them.
“It’s not a joke,” Kinjra insisted. Jrana had to blink away tears as she drank in her daughter’s pained expression. The girl stared at her like she had just been stricken.
Jrana continued to flutter clarity into her eyes as she gazed back up at the sky. After another minute, she finally saw him. A man in black soaring through the night.
“It’s not him,” Jrana whispered. The ‘man’ looked tiny, even from afar, no larger than the average teenager. Ringlight cast off his unusually pale skin brightly, revealing a severe face and clenched fists. As he grew closer, thin, purple threads glinted in his matte-black leathers. His long, raven mane of hair danced around him, tied into countless intricate braids.
Jrana wiped the last of her tears from her eyes, and with them, the last of her hopes. She should have known better. Better than to believe.
“We need to wake the Pale Hawks,” Kinjra muttered. “They can see us, and the fae is telling me to get the adults outside.”
“What?” Jrana yelled, startling into motion. Without warning, she lunged for Kinjra and grabbed her by the sleeve of her jacket, then began dragging her back to their nest.
“Mom! Agh! What are you doing? Let me go!”
Kinjra fought Jrana the entire way. Already, lanterns were flickering inside nests as the Pale Hawks stirred, awakened by Kinjra’s excessive protests. Jrana made eye contact with Gul as he ran outside, his blunt face sullen. Kinjra bent her arms until she slipped out of her jacket, leaving it limp in Jrana’s hand. The girl ran over to Gul, hugging his leg from behind.
“What’s going on?” Gul asked. Though his expression was tense, his voice was weary and irate. Jrana had dealt with similar tones for more than half her life. Not a question, but an accusation framed as one. The man eyed Jrana warily.
“Kinjra needs to get inside. A seer is flying here now. I won’t let him take her too, Gul. She’s just a child!”
Jrana expected a hundred different responses, but not one of them was a solemn nod of Gul’s head. The man patted Kinjra’s shoulder as he nudged her toward her nest. “Kin, honey,” he whispered. “Can you please go inside?”
Kinjra groaned as she stumbled away, carried by the momentum. At the door, she halted and hung her head. “It doesn’t matter now. They both saw me. They know I can hear the fae. It’s why she was calling out. She was hoping to wake someone like me.”
“Why?” Gul asked. His wife, Cres, stepped out of their nest and approached him. She hugged his waist as she laid her chin over his bald scalp and kissed him. Though Cres was as thin as her husband, she was much taller. Compared to Gul’s crusty exterior, Cres looked so noble and frail. She waved to Jrana, frowning with curling, auburn eyebrows raised. As her gaze drifted toward the sky, her eyes widened with fear.
“She didn’t say,” Kinjra mumbled. “All she said was ‘We’re sorry.’ I couldn’t ask her for more. They were too far away to hear me, even if I shouted.” Kinjra glanced over her shoulder, her gaze joining Cres’. “They’ll be here soon. They need you to get the others.”
Kinjra closed the door behind her, leaving them in silence.
Gul and Cres whispered briefly, then separated. While Cres ran off to wake Miss Sut, Gul headed for their other neighbors, leaving Jrana alone to face the approaching Seer. The young man was descending quickly, his body leaning forward and arms up at his sides with elbows bent. A chain was clasped within his hands and pressed against his lips. Even as the wind rushed over him, making his hair dance before his eyes, the Seer hardly blinked. His gaze was eerily focused.
The Pale Hawks who were peeking out of their windows slowly trickled outside by the time Gul finished pounding on his third nest. People began shouting, rousing the others. Jrana remained still, standing right where they left her. With her feet planted firmly, she watched the flock gather. Most of them passed her without sparing a look or a greeting. The adults formed a crowd. No more than twenty couples, sprinkled with a few young unweds and elder widows.
The Seer hit the ground running. Ankle-high stalks of pale-gold grass billowed as the wind swept out around him. Chatter was silenced as the breeze passed through the crowd and settled. The teenage boy with the dark leathers and pale skin cleared his throat as he folded his arms behind him formally.
“Edos,” he greeted, his voice deep in spite of his youth. He was frowning as he bowed his head slightly. The silver chain around his neck jingled faintly. “I hope I’ve come to the right place. You are the Pale Hawks, yes?”
The flock chattered quietly among themselves.
“We are,” Gul answered for them. The man had pushed his way through the middle of the crowd as Cres glided behind him. “Why are you looking for us, sir?” he asked. Despite being at least twenty years older, Gul bowed before the young Seer and his unseen Fae.
Edos’ reply was terse. As he spoke, he scanned the crowd reluctantly. “I come as a harbinger of bad news. Before I say anything, I should inform you that I am here at great personal risk.”
The chattering only grew louder as the Pale Hawks shifted, trying and failing to get comfortable. Jrana remained motionless.
“We’re a peaceful flock,” Gul told him. “And we harbor great respect for the Seers. Your kind and your fae have saved and defended us on many occasions. One of our brothers became one of you, recently.”
“Kon,” the Seer whispered. “I met him very briefly.”
Jrana’s breath sputtered at the mention of her husband. For the first time in a long time, the Pale Hawks looked at Jrana and noticed her. Everyone could see the tears forming in her eyes. She could hear the sadness in Edos’ voice. Jrana had to fight the air from escaping her lungs in gasps.
“Are you his wife?” Edos asked. After seeing the flock look back at her, he was staring too.
“I am,” she said.
The teenage Seer frowned. As his lips bent, Jrana’s heart broke.
Jrana could see Gul clench his throat. With glinting eyes, he beckoned for Jrana to come forward. The huddled groups of families parted, giving Jrana room to carefully stumble on ahead. Each Pale Hawks’ expression was a grimace, but she knew they weren’t upset for her sake. They were Kon’s flock, not hers. They only cared about his Fate. Jrana was just a stranger, born and raised at the crown of a roost. She was nothing more to them but a troubled runaway.
“Jrana,” she greeted, the syllables of her name interrupted by haphazard breaths. She hated to look so weak in front of the others, but how could she not? She held her fists by her sides as she pleaded her question meekly. “He’s dead, isn’t he? You’re here to tell me my husband is dead.” It was the only thing that made sense. Kinjra had said the fae told her ‘We’re sorry.’
Edos’ frown deepened. From a pocket between the cross-body hem of his leather chest piece, the Seer retrieved a folded letter. Pink ink shined on one side. It was signed by Kon and marked with yesterday’s date. Edos handed it to her, then took a step back. “I didn’t talk with Kon much, but for what it’s worth, he seemed like a great man.”
The boy’s words fell on deaf ears. She was already unfolding the letter, sniffing and wiping her face with the sleeves over her wrists. Jrana spent more time clearing her vision than she did reading. She could barely make it past the first line.
To my darling wife and daring daughter, it began.
“I’m afraid that’s not all,” said Edos. The Seer had taken a few more steps back. His violet eyes scanned the crowd, taking a moment to look at each Pale Hawks’ face, as he adopted a more rigid stance. Edos glanced at Jrana one more time before drifting beyond the flock. People turned, finding Kinjra standing in an open doorway, crying. The girl never listened to her, and now she had heard everything.
Jrana glared at Edos, waiting for him to demand that Kinjra come with him just like the other Seer had done to Kon. The boy, however, only sighed. His shoulders sagged as his formality deflated. His voice was as soft as a whisper, though he spoke loud enough for the whole flock to hear.
“Five hours ago, our Fated King and his Vanguard were attacked by a Carrion horde. The Seers and soldiers there were reduced to a fourth of its members, and in the end-“
Edos didn’t get a chance to finish. Jrana jolted as the Pale Hawks erupted with noisy whispers of denial and shouts of dread. The new widow’s vision flooded, obscuring everything. Tears dripped onto the blurry letter in her hands.
“Quiet!” Gul yelled. “Let the Seer speak!”
The Pale Hawks obeyed, startled into silence. Their expressions of grief reminded Jrana of her own, whenever she thought of the fae and Fate.
“A powerful wraith led the Carrion, hiding their presence from Fate. Kon died fighting alongside the Fated King himself. The Faithful Blade, Agrigor, survived to sing your fellow’s praises. He says the man was a hero. That they nearly won because of Kon.”
Edos paused to take a breath. Still, he didn’t say it. He spoke of soldiers and Seers dying, of the Faithful Blade surviving, but not of the Fated King.
Half of the Pale Hawks were sobbing while others paced in circles. A few eyed their nests, perhaps wishing they would soon wake from this bad dream. None of them wanted to hear this. What the Seer was implying… it went against everything the Tairene believed in. It meant their world was doomed. Blasphemy.
“The Fated King is dead,” Edos intoned coldly. The dam now broken, the words poured from his mouth like a river. “Fate has been defied. Our world’s future is uncertain. I don’t know what this means for us or our people. I’m not even supposed to be telling anyone this. The Faithful Blade didn’t want this getting out. Not like this. Not yet. But when I was given that letter from Kon, I decided I couldn’t remain silent. Someone has to tell the world, so why not me? I figured it would be best to start here. I’m sorry it took me so long to find you. I’ve been searching for hours.”
Jrana blinked, unable to breathe, let alone speak. The letter clutched against her chest was damp, the glossy, pink ink smudged. The words on the page were barely visible anymore.
Around her, the Pale Hawks scattered. A pair of men approached Gul, requesting him to open the canteen. He gave his wife the keys on his belt as they departed. Cres agreed to fetch them the pipes and shia from storage. Most of the flock followed her as the others retreated to their nests. In the end, only Gul, Jrana, and Kinjra stayed. Edos’ shadow still loomed in Jrana’s peripherals.
“I should go,” muttered the Seer. “Other people need to know.”
“Thank you,” said Gul. “Not for bringing people this news, but for being the one who chose to bear it. Sun praise you, Seer Edos.”
Edos huffed a weak breath. “Sun praise you all. My fae and I- we’re very sorry for your loss, Jrana.”
The widow couldn’t bring herself to respond. Without another word, his shadow departed with a fluttering breeze. Kinjra stepped up behind Jrana, her gaze fixed on the Seer and his Fae as they took flight. With the Fated King dead, it didn’t seem it mattered that the girl had the Sight. There would be no point in fighting a war now. The wraiths would succeed in their mission of conquering Tairn.
Four years, Jrana thought. That was all humanity was Fated to have left.
“Jrana?” Gul asked. His voice was too quiet, like he was afraid of what she might do. The widow’s arms were beginning to tremble. Her fingers wrinkled the letter as she tried to read it. “I can read his last words to you,” he offered, his tone infuriatingly kind. “It’s okay if you can’t right now.”
Jrana shook her head, speechless. Most of the ink had smudged to illegibility, though its title remained unblemished. To my darling wife and daring daughter. These words weren’t for Gul. They were for her and Kinjra alone, and now, they were ruined.
The letter crumpled in Jrana’s hands. With a shriek, she ripped it apart. Kinjra grabbed her leg, shaking her as she screamed, before tugging on her mother’s elbow. She was too short to reach the letter as Jrana destroyed it. Too weak to pull it any closer. Gul yelled Jrana’s name, but she could barely hear him. By the time he grabbed her wrist, the deed was already finished.
“It doesn’t matter,” Jrana muttered. “Nothing matters. Not anymore.”
The widow turned and shambled toward her nest. As she moved, she left a trail of wet, shredded paper in her wake. Kinjra ran to catch the pieces as a breeze carried them away. Her daughter screamed again as the wind ripped a handful from her grasp. Gul ran off to help her.
Alone, Jrana retreated to her family's bed. She left the door open, despite knowing Kinjra would not soon join her. With her blanket pulled over her face, the widow wept softly in the darkness. It still smelled a little like Kon five weeks later. Soon, the smell would just be a memory. Then... nothing.
Tired as she was, Jrana did not sleep. Instead, she drifted thoughtlessly, her mind and body growing numb as her tears bled her soul dry. For hours, she heard nothing but the muffled cries of the woman he left behind.