Ocelia, Ocelia, tell me who has hurt you. Who plucked your wings bare? Who stole your scarlet feathers?
Was it the men I saw launch themselves off the cliff, the ones that hid behind the ashen clouds? What names did they call one another? Describe to me their plumage and whistle patterns.
Ocelia, my little sister, I will reclaim your feathers.
Ocelia, Ocelia, don’t blame Mama and Papa. They love you just as I do. They did go to the magistrate and describe the men who attacked you.
We know their names now: Dagger Beak, Lash Tail, and Shrill Whistle. They come from the old bloodlines. The King’s laws are on their side.
Ocelia, please do not despair. I promise, you will be whole one day. You will sing and you will dance. You will soar across the crimson skies and fly over the snow-capped mountains.
I may be the featherless daughter, but I am bold beyond fear. I will hunt down the men who hurt you. This I solemnly swear.
Ocelia, Ocelia, I might not return to you soon. I will ask pigeons to carry my letters. Please pray the winds favor them.
The men who hurt you have left for war. I know, I hadn’t heard of the war either. I will explain to you what I have learned. Bear with me, if I ramble, for all of this is news to me too.
Some of us are born with feathers and wings, like you my dearest Ocelia. Some are born with beaks and claws, and they, too, are much cherished. I was born lacking, more human than a bird, with thick limbs and no grace, beakless and wingless. Yet I never cared to become more. I was destined to serve you.
But not everyone accepts their fate – they yearn to become more. They acquire feathers by any possible means. They resort to foul and mean potions. The poor hunger for fame and wealth. The very rich, I have heard, compete for the most striking plumage.
What does this have to do with the war? I shall reveal that next.
Beyond the snow-capped mountains, far, so far in the east, waves hide under a turquoise blanket a sandy reef called Lek. Every summer for two precious weeks, waters part to reveal the best mating grounds. Believe it or not, my dearest sister, anyone conceived there will be born whole.
In the east, a movement has started – they call themselves Purists. They were born whole, and they firmly condemn all transformations. But even their children may be born lacking. Hence they want to conquer Lek.
Did you know that our King keeps an aviary? He owns toucans, parrots, and hummingbirds. He wasn’t born with his majestic plumage. No, it is a gift from the birds and his subjects. The King himself has transformed.
Therefore there will now be a war against the Purists, over the precious Lek. Over the tradition of becoming more, no matter how some misuse it.
I do not care about Lek or the war. I only care about your feathers. The men who hurt you have flown east. I shall follow by foot.
Ocelia, Ocelia, think of me when you fear that all is lost. Look at the skies for the eagles of the mountains. They are kind and considerate creatures.
Please don’t think ill of me when I confess this to you: I almost gave up on the icy heights. I traced the men up the treacherous slopes. But I lost my way in the labyrinthine ravines.
I feared that they’d chosen to fly, but I swore to myself I wouldn’t give up. I trudged forward in the knee-deep snow. With no down to warm me, I shivered and shuddered terribly.
As days passed by, I ran out of food. I gnawed lichen for hunger. I sucked icicles for thirst. Eventually I collapsed in snow.
It was then that I glimpsed the eagle, a sacred true bird soaring above the clouds. Exhausted beyond shame and embarrassment, I called out for help.
The old eagle with a chipped pale beak took pity on me. He spiraled down from the bluest skies and wrapped his strong wings around me. He comforted me with long hoots and low whistles. He wanted to know why I wandered alone in the mountains.
I shared the wrong that had befallen you. I did cry fat, heavy tears.
He had seen Dagger Beak, Lash Tail, and Shrill Whistle, and told me, that if he’d known of their crimes, he would have shredded them to death. But he hadn’t known, and thus he felt obliged to help me on my quest.
The eagle took me to his nest to recover. He brought me mice and kept me warm. He spoke of General Blue Swan, a fair and fearless leader.
When I had recovered my strength, he flew me over the mountains. I clutched his talons tight, though I knew he would never let me fall. At last, I saw a city shivering on a cliff, the tall and foreboding Fortress of Flight.
At the iron-wrought gates the eagle gave me a gift valuable beyond naming a price. Three feathers from his glossy gray plumage: one from his tail, one from his wings, and one from the underside of his white belly.
Ocelia, my dear little sister, please thank him if you see him. He gave a part of himself without me asking. That, if anything, is noble.
Ocelia, Ocelia, Dagger Beak is dead. Not by my hand and not by my doing, but from a fall down the fortress’ steps. This all happened before I arrived, and by then Lash Tail and Shrill Whistle had already fled.
I saw the body of Dagger Beak and identified the feathers that had belonged to you. Yet I cannot send back those feathers, for any feather plucked from a corpse brings only illness in its wake.
But do not despair, Ocelia. I have devised a plan. Bear with me, dearest little sister. I shall explain everything.
The eagle had warned me that people lead a poor life here in the mountains. Sure enough, by the gates of the Fortress of Flight crippled veterans sold their feathers. I shied away from their vermin-infested trade, the tattered items on display. In the city square, mothers begged for down feathers, to ward off the constant chill. Plucked children tugged at their ragged hems, for thefts are not at all uncommon. I passed them all with my gaze turned down, hiding my eagle feathers. As I am wingless and featherless, they ignored me as though I were but one of them.
First thing in the city, I asked after the men, and soon learned of Dagger Beak’s demise. Many thought he got what he deserved when he broke his neck in drunken stupor, but the loss of your feathers pained everyone. Next I inquired about General Blue Swan, and the alleys filled with tall tales. Many confirmed the eagle’s words. She is a fierce, but just leader. She has plucked ten thousand feathers from the epaulets of the Purists. She is recruiting new warriors and will sponsor their transformations.
A crowd had gathered by the gates of the fortress. I ran to join their ranks. We waited all through the night. Hope kept me warm, I think.
At dawn the gates were opened and people rushed to the courtyard. Warriors armed from beak to claw guided us to a long line. They ordered us to be silent and still, and naturally we obeyed.
General Blue Swan strutted to the courtyard, feathers shining with indigo and emerald green. Breath caught up in my throat as I beheld this bird warrior and wondered at her clawed hands. Her beady eyes glinted with wisdom. Her beak narrowed like a spear. Her legs were long, talons scythe-sharp. She kept her blue wings folded against her back.
One by one, she dismissed the postulants, and I must admit that I feared for myself. But she halted before me. She locked eyes with me.
I thought of you. The great injustice.
She clasped my shoulder, claws curling against my coat. She tilted her head, revealing smooth blue neck. She croaked a high-pitched note of approval.
Believe it or not, I am to become a warrior. I am to meet the Bird Master and consume the eagle’s gift.
Ocelia, I am doing this to better serve you. You do understand my reasoning, don’t you?
Ocelia, Ocelia, you won’t recognize me when I return home. To serve in the ranks, one must transform, and that is what will happen to me.
General Blue Swan took all the new recruits to see her Bird Master. He lives in a tower in the fortress, beyond dozens of winding staircases. Outside his quarters, chaos ensued as the young men started to bargain. The initial feathers used in the potion determine what kind of warrior one will become.
Hawks and falcons. Eagles and herons. Everyone yearned for speed, power, and grace.
Chicken and goose. Sparrow and starling. Can you imagine a warrior small, plump, and slow?
But there’s more to that, complications. A feather found matches three plucked ones. A feather donated three found ones. A dead man’s feather makes you sick, and might take you to an early grave.
I remained back, pretending shyness, and showed no one my eagle feathers. I kept even the general in the dark, though she studied me from behind a raised wing.
When it came my turn to meet the Bird Master, at last I revealed my secret. The white parrot frail with age gazed at me, red eyes bulging, irises narrowing. The general and he glanced at each other, and then they burst into laughter. I think my cleverness impressed them.
I need to tell you about the transformation spell.
In his candle-lit lair, the Bird Master ground my eagle feathers in an iron mortar. He produced a bone needle, poked my thumb, and sprinkled my blood into the feather dust.
As the general and Bird Master smiled at me, I swallowed the potion. It tasted like iron and nests and spring, of mice and boulders and heights. I consumed all as they chanted the spell, their voices weaving together.
When I stepped outside, the day greeted me with the cold winds of the mountains. My steps felt lighter, and I swear you this, I almost felt as if I could fly.
In two weeks the General shall march to Lek. During the six-month journey, I will transform. I shall become a feathered warrior.
Ocelia, Ocelia, yesterday I thought I had caught up with the men I hunt. But I was wrong, it pains me to tell you, and that led to all sorts of trouble.
My regiment consists of seven hundred warriors, and more join us every day. Even the birds of old blood have answered the King’s call. They soar in the front with General Blue Swan. Their plumages of turquoise and vermillion brighten the gray mountain days.
The terrain remains rough, the descents steep, footing uneven. Some recruits whine as their bodies change. True, the transformation hurts, but I won’t say a word. Not when my bones elongate. Not when down pushes through my skin.
I don’t like watching the others wriggle, and so I march in the front. There I can see the scouts returning and keep an eye out for the men I hunt. To pass time, I flex my new muscles, the ones that will connect my feathers to shafts. I try and remain stone-faced – the seasoned warriors chuckle in their claws whenever they catch someone practicing.
It was yesterday when we halted to rest that I caught a glimpse of scarlet. I sneaked closer and sought cover from behind a moss-cloaked boulder. This is what I saw: a heron-legged man with red on his silver wings joking with a group of his friends.
Ocelia, I was so sure that at last I had found Shrill Whistle. I rushed at the man and tackled him down. I grabbed his wings, screaming accusations.
That was foolishly done—I can see it now—I was only one against many. And as his friends pulled me off him, I did realize, that the shape of his feathers was wrong. Your outer vanes are sleek and tall. His were short and wide.
General Blue Swan stormed to the scene, beak parted in displeasure. Heron Legs told I had attacked him. His friends witnessed my deed.
I apologized profoundly. I couldn’t refrain from crying.
Heron Legs demanded for an explanation. I stuttered out the whole tale.
I didn’t expect to be forgiven. But Heron Legs, he forgave me. His friends eyed me like I had gone mad. Perhaps I have. I don’t know for sure. This journey has tired me greatly.
General Blue Swan ordered the gathered crowd to disperse, but told me to remain behind. I feared she would dismiss me, but instead she took my hand in her claws. She wished me luck in my quest, but warned me not to act before thinking.
As far as other news goes, we’ve covered one third of the way to Lek. Today, I think I saw the forests in the distance. Endless green awaits us.
Ocelia, please believe in me, I will yet return home with your feathers.
Ocelia, Ocelia, I have no tidings of the men. Every time I glimpse scarlet I flinch. But I have learned from my mistakes, and I no longer rush to action.
You see, Ocelia, protocols dictate what a warrior may do. We may not hurt one another. We may not disobey our superiors. But I might not have to resort to plots or force to reclaim your feathers. I have gained unexpected support.
Since that embarrassing incident, I have stayed away from the front. I plod in the back with the other recruits, listening to their curses and whining. We have descended into forests so dense that we hardly ever see the sun. Great wet clouds roll down from the mountains and chill us to the core. The down and feathers I have gained cannot yet ward off the cold.
We camped yesterday right after the sunset, and while we waited for the supply balloons, we built a big campfire. I soaked in the warmth, practicing how to control my feathers. A man approached me from the shadows, startling me with his soft voice.
It was Caius Heron Legs, the man with red and silver plumage. He tilted his tall beak politely and asked if I felt cold.
I denied and stroked the new feathers covering my forearms.
He shrugged his wings, but wouldn’t leave. He claimed my courage had impressed him. He offered to help me.
I cackled. I thought he was joking.
He brushed my shoulder with the tip of his wing. He cooed a soft, silly note. Then he hopped into the dark. No doubt returned to his friends.
I don’t know what to make of that encounter. Perhaps Caius really wants to help me. I can’t tell if he’s after something else. Though, my feathers aren’t yet worth stealing.
As I lay awake on my blankets, I thought of you. I thought of the war. I thought of the King and the Purists.
Dear sister, what do you make of it all? Don’t we all wish that those we love could be whole? Don’t we all want to hold on to the achieved privileges?
Ocelia, Ocelia, I bear only bad news. Caius Heron Legs warns me that Shrill Whistle and Lash Tail might have transformed – they might have molted their precious plumage to remain forever uncaught. I do take his words seriously, for he has become a good friend of mine.
We are deep in the forests now, and I have never seen trees like these. The gnarly, thin roots suck mist from the air, and Caius collects the strangest specimen. Orchids bloom amidst the enormous leaves. Insects wriggle under our bare feet. Butterflies ambush us in hordes.
Ambushes… General Blue Swan thinks the Purists might try an ambush here.
I am afraid, I admit you this, as I linger awake writing this letter. Thinking of you helps me to calm my nerves. I know my rambling might bore you – don’t feel obliged to read more. You don’t owe me anything.
This morning I didn’t recognize myself when I glanced at the mirror. My skull had reshaped during the night. I have grown a curiously yellow beak. My eyes bulge a little, and they might yet turn rusting orange.
As we march through the forest, I have to carry my backpack strapped onto my arms. My chest muscles and shoulder blades throb. The first recruits already sport wings. I hope mine will bloom soon. Though, in the light of the bonfires, my shadow still searches for its shape.
I ache, as you may guess, as my bones hollow. I am taller now and hardened by the vast distances covered. The endless practice sessions with bows and arrows have shaped my new muscles strong. I know how to use a knife, though soon I can resort to talons and claws.
Feathers already cover my chest, my armpits, and my legs. At night, I do caress them. I am lonely, so lonely without you.
Ocelia, Ocelia, today I killed a man. I sank my beak into his eye and watched him bleed to death. Please do not think me evil. He was one of those who hurt you.
We reached the lowlands three days ago, lush grass and dense vegetation. I had never thought, not even after the forest, that the world could be so green. When I told this to Caius, he suggested we stray a little from the known path. He wished to show me more wonders, and shyly I obliged.
As we strolled claw in claw, he pointed out to me curious creatures. White-faced monkeys hid amidst the foliage, white-tipped tails wrapped around the branches. Snails with copper shells slithered out of our way. Translucent wings of blue butterflies reflected the slanting rays of the sun.
We walked straight into the ambush.
I recognized your scarlet, the man Lash Tail from your description. The hawk with rainbow plumage wore your feathers right above his heart. Vultures, drawn to all things rotten, flanked him on both sides.
I glanced at Caius sideways. Had I placed my faith in the wrong person?
Caius’ wings arched like sails. He drew back his head, hissed at the vultures. He launched in the air, talons bared.
A melee of wings and beaks ensued. A cacophony of shrieks and cries. Two vultures against my friend.
Lash Tail laughed at me, the frantic beats of Caius’ wings. There was nothing I could do to help my friend. I strode to the man who’d hurt you.
Lash Tail’s cackle came in ugly screeches. He mocked me and called me a featherless wretch. What was I, a half-transformed, compared to a bird of old blood?
But I am faster than I look, and he failed to consider that I could now fight.
I attacked Lash Tail, talons stretched wide. I grasped for your scarlet feathers and managed to reclaim one.
He pushed me off, annoyed. I tripped on a root. He prepared to take to flight, to assault me up from the air. I grabbed his wing, claws shredding feathers.
We fell on the ground and rolled in the grass. Twigs poked holes in our plumage. Then I was on the top again. He buried his claws in my shoulders.
Writhing in pain, I drove my beak down, not knowing where it would land. As fate would have it, it sank deep into his right eye.
He screamed, and I rejoiced. Blood spread all over his chest as he twitched under me.
As he fell quiet, I realized that it was too late to reclaim your feathers. For I had killed Lash Tail, the man who had so hurt us.
From behind me I heard whimpers, croaks dampened with pain. I hastened off the body, rushed to my friend.
Caius lay between two dead vultures. His right wing hung limp. Lost feathers dotted the grass, silver against green, the colors already fading.
I cradled him against my chest, and he let out a miserable sob. As we sought comfort from closeness, a shadow covered the sun. General Blue Swan soared above us. She whistled a low, sad note.
Soon after Caius’ friends arrived and helped us back to the camp. No one asked what had happened. Justice here has different rules.
Ocelia, Ocelia, you must wonder what became of your feather.
It pains me to tell you that when I return, I cannot give it back to you. Please don’t judge me before you have read the whole letter. Remember that I am still not fully transformed, that my feathers hold no power.
When we fought Lash Tail and the vultures, Caius was badly wounded. He lost dozens of feathers and shattered his right wing. His plumage dulled and claws ceased to shine, a disconcerting sign if any.
For a day and night the Bird Master cut and sewed and set bones right. I remained by his side all this time. Caius had fought for me—for us—after all.
General Blue Swan happened to visit when Caius’ fever suddenly spiked. She knew the stakes at one glance. She had seen bird-form fading before.
She plucked a blue feather from her tail and gave it to the Bird Master. But one feather alone cannot save a man who is about to lose his shape.
The Bird Master glanced at me, at my half-formed feathers. There was no time to go and gather donations from Caius’ friends. He needed another bright and strong feather, he needed it right at that moment.
Your scarlet feather burned against my chest. Twice worn, twice taken, made more powerful by that.
Ocelia, I gave your feather away, to save a good man’s life.
Please understand, my dear sister, we need Caius Heron Legs. Shrill Whistle still remains at large. But we will catch him one day, I promise.
Dearest Ocelia, please let me know what you think of all this. I only ever wanted to serve you. Please try and remember that.
I am not sure if you will read this letter or if you won’t ever break the seal. I will tell you my tidings nevertheless, how my hunt proceeds.
We have covered two thirds of the way to Lek. The jungle has given way to a gray and vast desert. Pebbles shatter under my curving talons, though I am lighter now. My thick plumage keeps me warm at night. I expect my wings to bloom soon. In a week or so, I think.
Caius has recovered well, but it is still unclear whether he can fly again. He must wear a sling on the wing that has turned scarlet.
I do not let him out of my sight. His friends make fun of me. But I think they respect me too, for each of them gifted me with a feather.
The Bird Master ground the feathers to dust. I cut my finger myself. The potion tasted of blood and ashes. I licked the cup clean nevertheless.
Each feather I consume changes me. Tell me, if that is how you want me to live. So far away from you. So far away from who I was.
Ocelia, Ocelia, are you still mad at me? Tell me, what else was I supposed to do? Tell me, I beg you, tell me!
Since I am slightly upset, I will write only a short letter.
This desert is endless and harsh. The sun scorches our feathers and teases us with mirages. Brave scouts leave. They don’t return.
Caius collects twigs and roots. At night, he builds miniature nests. He thinks we are close to Lek. I think my wings might carry me soon.
Ocelia, your sister is marching to a war. Perhaps you could consider how that might make her feel.
Ocelia, Ocelia, this will be my last letter to you. Today I flew for the first time. Tomorrow I will march in the battle. I don’t think you will get your feathers back. I don’t think I will return either.
This morning Caius combed my feathers. He helped me stretch my wings wide. He ushered me to run. Faster, faster, faster.
The desert breathed a hazy breeze as I sprinted, flapping my wings. The wind caught in my feathers. My talons lifted off the sand.
I flew, Ocelia, I flew. I soared up with the air currents. The thousand birds marching below… No, they were nothing from so far above. Irrelevant. Insignificant. Only one of them mattered to me.
Caius whistled at me, a silver dot against gold. As I soared higher, higher in the sky, his friends joined the celebratory note. They approved of what I’d become.
I glimpsed glimmering blue in the distance. A mirage, I first thought. But no, it was the ocean. Not a trick played by the sun.
I called out for General Blue Swan. Yes, it was the ocean I saw. We would reach the Lek the next day. The word carried through the ranks.
As the evening crept upon us, we danced around bonfires. The sunset lit our feathers aflame. Red and blue and yellow and green. We sang and danced and drank like there was no tomorrow.
Caius and I strolled a way off, our path lit by the stars. He bent his long neck around mine. He embraced me with his unbroken wing.
As our breathing found the same rhythm, he confessed to me his love.
I remained silent. Could I love someone else besides you, Ocelia?
He spoke of Lek and the battle, of what might happen after. Perhaps I would let him build us a nest. Perhaps we could mate there. Perhaps we could raise children together.
Ocelia, what do you think? You always told me I could love only you. But I think… I think that, too, has changed.
Caius asked what I thought of his plan. I spread my wings wide. I embraced him tight. When there is no certainty of tomorrow, all we have is now.
Feather against feather. Claw against claw. I think there can be love.
Today, very soon, I will soar the skies, my talons ready to strike. I will slash down many a man. I will kill those who stand in my way.
I think there will be much blood. In the end we will all look the same. Even if Shrill Whistle is out there somewhere, I might not be able to find him. Ocelia, perhaps you’ll have to learn to live featherless as I once lived.
Dearest, dearest Ocelia, this is the very last letter. I have but one more thing to say to you. Please read my words with great care.
We must stop this, you do understand?
I had no little sister. I am not Ocelia.
I was once hurt. That I admit.
But I have learned to love again.