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The sky was still, a solid gray canvas that leant itself well to the dismal castle atmosphere. Her eyes searched eagerly above for movement, some sign of change, and today she would not be disappointed. There, in the distance, was the all too recognizable movement of wings. Before she knew it and before her guard had realized it, she was running down the dirt roads, skirts in hand, following the only bird she had seen in months. And she wouldn’t stop for anyone, not even the trees of Umbragh, as she dove headlong into their dark shadows.
What a bird! So small and fragile, and yet it had come so very far. It hopped about her palm, finally settling on clutching to her fingers. It sang a short melody, making her smile, but then the melody was answered by another and another. Birds singing so close she hardly argued with her curiosity; she followed the song. Ducking under a low-lying branch, she was greeted by an enormous flurry of wings. Dozens upon dozens of birds fluttered about, but they all seemed focused on the center of the clearing. There stood a young woman with flaming red hair and dark clothes; she turned to look at her. “Welcome to our haven.” The woman curtsied, but only slightly.
“The birds,” the princess replied. “It’s impossible.”
She sat on the edge of the torn tower, watching as the golden bird, a present from her new friends, flitted back and forth between her and the open air. A shot rang out, striking the outer wall. The bird ducked back into the princess’s hand and she made sure to slip down the stairs without being seen.
The hummingbird whizzed around the room, evading several large hats and wigs, making its way up the stairs to the second floor. It made instant conversation, some of which she understood and most she didn’t. The door swung open and the bird nestled into her hair.
“What a lovely little bird, darling,” her stepmother exclaimed, adjusting it slightly in her hair.
The princess sighed again, not noticing her father walk by with one of his many lords. They paused and watched her for a moment.
“Is everything alright?” the king asked, stepping toward her. She started a little but smiled.
“I was just imagining what a bird’s song must sound like,” she admitted and leaned against the door frame again. The king gestured a dismissal to the lord, who bowed and disappeared.
“You know, they are extremely rare… Alive, anyway,” the king said, gently. She nodded.
He took her hand, leading her to a wide window, and gestured to the clear skies.
“Not a feather,” he said after a moment. She crossed her arms, eyes straining to prove him wrong. “Eradicated, for our own good.”
“Our own good, Father?” she asked, glancing at him but he only narrowed his eyes in frustration.
“The useless have no business surviving in this world.” He nodded once to be sure she understood, and then marched out of the room. She had never seen him so confident, or so closed.
“Useless,” she repeated, tasting the word and trying to identify the familiar flavor.
“The birds have not forgotten, nor have they forgiven the despicable actions of this kingdom,” spoke the dryad as the birds circled like a storm around her. The king ordered a guard around the princess, partially blocking her vision.
The king ordered the guards escort the princess away, back inside.
“Father, please,” she shouted, pulling away from the guards. She grabbed his arm. There were shouts, several more running guards, and she could see her father pointing to the dryad amidst her swarm. As the birds descended closer, she saw the fatal arrow strike.
“No!” She kicked against the guards, screamed at her father, but the roar of wings overshadowed her noise. Even as she was dragged inside, she struggled to every available window. The feathers and claws surrounded those who remained in the square.
“Make them stop,” she cried as arrows criss-crossed the square, striking wildly among the flock.
“You’re not who he says, your highness.” Two dryads step out from the shadows. The princess sat up, glancing at her bedroom door, which was guarded on the other side.
“You ran so far, running and hiding and carrying it all the way. So young,” said one of the dryads.
“What do you mean?” she asked curiously.
“He found just a small bit of mercy. He had no children. He could ensure her protection. So young, so strong, so forgetful.” The dryads pulled from the darkness a large white eggshell.
Without hesitation, they dropped it and let it break upon the carpeted floor.
“I don’t understand.” She shivered just a bit, rubbing her shoulders.
He tossed her carelessly down the stairs, in full view of his guard and several distinguished members of the court. She ignored her burning palms and elbows, and met his empty eyes.
“Out of mercy, I took you in. I raised you. The ingratitude…”
“The hypocrisy,” she interrupted, clutching the stone banister as she stood. “Guilt, sir. Never mercy.”
His moustache twitched as the crowd behind him pressed forward, their whispering hum gaining volume.
“Leave. Get out. You’re no longer welcome here,” he said, and turned back to his stone walls and ignorant nobles.
“You can’t erase what you’ve done. You can’t just banish the past,” she called and he stopped, his shoulders stiffening.
“I am King,” he replied and refused to look back at her.
She smiled, stood straight, and declared, “You’re no King. You’re just a coward.”
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