Detective Jack Bastard was halfway to the bottle when something soft and stiff brushed his outstretched arm. Pale sunlight, through the city canyons, scattered by the grime of the bar's window made a halo 'bout that head. A stupid pick-up floated through his forebrain - had it hurt when she fell? Then he saw the scars on her fingers and hands, and reckoned it had hurt more when she clawed her way out of where she'd landed. In the background, the speakers started playing Rodney Crowell.
"Detective," her voice was always a breath on the wind to him. "Parenting troubles?"
He shook his head. "She's a good kid."
"Then perhaps the problem is not with her."
Annaya wore a warm rich brown leather coat today, which matched her skin so well they almost seemed to be of a piece, reaching all the way to her knees, where a pair of brown leather boots emerged. Her hair was shorn close to her scalp, some pattern carved there he could not read. Brown eyes laughed as she smiled at him, revealing teeth that had been filed to rough points. He dropped his gaze, back down to her hands. The nails had been torn out by the roots, leaving grey scarred pits where the nailbeds were. Normally, she wore something to cover them - a bit of jewelry, or a pair of gloves. Not today.
"Tell me a story," he asked. Something fluttered past his shoulder as she sat down opposite him.
"The boy ran ahead of the questing knight, down the forest paths. He counted neighbors by mile and by valley, the thin plumes of smoke rising from alternate mountains. It was a thin place - lightly settled, on the edge of things; all authorities were nominal there, both of God and man. Life was old there, and they had their own ways, little bothered by kings and princes.
"The word had gone up of the knight's coming before they ever saw him, as is the way of things. The dust of his passing was seen far-off along the road, and there were few thing that could portend. Then the questing-banner was seen, flying high upon the lance, and it was known that a knight had come to face Callambach, the Old Storm, the Wyrm of the Earth, who drew the poison from the wound of the world.
"The boy had never been to the vale of serpents, but he knew where it lay. All the people did, as the bird knows north and south, and the salmon knows its stream. The knight was worse than blind to such things, and in their own time would have a hard time to find that hidden desolation, but the boy knew there were men and women of the woods who would lead him fair in return for gold, for there was that honesty about even self-destruction among them.
"So he ran, though it was ten miles to travel two miles as the crow flies, around deep ravines and through wooded gullies, past the split rocks and down the Pagan Road, to where the serpents lay in every shadow of every rock, and the earth gave up its vapors. The boy risked his life to reach Callambach, and did not even know if the Old Storm would understand the speech of men - but he had to try.
"The neighbors marked the boy's passage. None of them followed. Yet none stood in his way. The wise ones battened down for what was to come. For the Old Storm rose out of the vale of poison, shook the mountain and wilted the valley, so for three days dead fish floated down every stream, and those who ate them fell ill and died. It was a bad storm, the worst in memory...and on the third day after it ended, and the knight was shelled from their armor, the boy's corpse floated down stream as well. Some say his grin was the rictus of a corpse, but his father declared it was the smile of satisifaction at a job well-done."
"Why?" the Bastard croaked.
"Because the boy was a conservationist. It was his nature. To protect, to preserve. As it is with you and I."
"But what do we protect?"
"Dangerous and stupid beasts, that dwell on the edge of extinction and fight those that try to help them. You know," she winked. "Humans."
Something brushed his cheek. He hadn't felt the tear roll down.
"Do they hurt?" He asked. "Your wings."
"Sometimes," she said, the great muscles in her shoulders hunching beneath her coat. "Yet it is only a phantom pain."
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