That evening, we knew something was wrong when the night birds didn’t fly our way.
It was the third full moon of the year, so Kayla and I joined the older girls in sneaking out to see the night birds, the way we had been doing for three springs now. Parents knew about their girls stealing up to shore to watch the silent beasts sail across the skies, and did all they could to deter us.
“Don’t trust anything with wings,” was what our father told us. They were thieves, every one of them. They stole your trust, and then your magic. Finally, they stole you.
Still, the horror stories they told us about the winged creatures couldn’t kill their allure.
Besides, the birds – a motley assortment of jays, eagles, hawks, and albatrosses – had never once tried to harm us. Even when they landed on the shore and shook out their wings and transformed into tall, strapping young men with eyes that flashed like lightning under the moonlight.
The older girls would whisper and giggle over the one with the strong jaw, or the one with the dimpled smile, while Kayla and I shared a glance that contained all the words the older girls were saying. At fourteen and sixteen, we still blushed at the sight of the men.
I knew my sister’s gaze lingered on one of them in particular: the tawny eagle with driftwood-brown feathers. She would watch it fold its wings around itself before, in a ripple of stardust and moonshine, turning into a young man just slightly older than Kayla.
The first person I noticed, though, was the boy. He was barely a man yet the first time I saw him, a wiry stranger significantly younger than the rest. The boy – Eylar was his name – stood out from the rest with his sleek, downy feathers the colour of sun-bleached bones. The sea eagle. Each year, he filled out more and more, body taking on harder, leaner lines. His gaze became keener, as did the planes of his face, and his shock of coppery-red hair darkened into a deep russet tone. But there was wonder in his eyes, and laughter in his voice that made me think of milky skies and jewel waters.
They were soldiers from the north, I gathered, who stopped by the deserted beach on their way to the sea-ravaged eastern islands, which were inhospitable at best and perilous at worst. None of us knew what they did there. They went deep into the dark heart of the forest with their crude metal weaponry (that Father always scoffed at) and disappeared for several moonrises until they took to their wings again and headed back north.
Once, Kayla and I decided to follow them. We stole away from the other girls and tailed the soldiers into the forest, pushing through the wall of trees blackened by night.
They kept a brisk pace, navigating their way through the tangled undergrowth with practiced ease, while Kayla and I stumbled along in their wake, waking the forest with our ungainly steps. But we had gone mostly unheard and ignored.
We traipsed for what seemed like an entire moon cycle, finally coming to a stop in a clearing. There, the soldiers gathered around a pile of rocks as tall as them. Light glowed from the spaces in the rubble like a trapped sun.
It took me a longer time than Kayla to understand what they were doing.
“Thieves,” Kayla hissed, sounding very much like Great-Aunt Basil, who had lost her husband in the last border war. “They’ve been coming here all this time to steal earth magic.”
I wanted to tell her that magic didn’t belong to anyone, not to the earth creatures or to us, the sea children. But the last time I suggested that to Father, he had laughed in a way that made me feel like I was five years old again.
We never told our parents what we saw in that clearing.
Tonight, the birds didn’t come. The sky was bruised and barren with wanting.
The girls and I held out out for a break in the clouds, a ripple in the air from their silent wingbeats. When it became increasingly certain that the birds weren’t coming, the older girls got bored and slunk back into the inky water, making a grudging splash with their tails.
Kayla tugged on my hand. “Come on, Amber. They’re not coming.”
I stayed where I was, half-hidden by a rock on the warm sand. With the other girls gone, the water became black glass again. Water lapped at us, eager to take us home, but all I could think of was that pure white plumage.
Kayla gave my hand another tug, and I almost let her. But as Kayla disappeared beneath the surface with a soft splash, a solitary shadow loomed overhead. It cut through the clouds, a blot in the sky, its wings reflecting the pearly moonlight.
I couldn’t move even if I tried.
He was half-human by the time he landed on the beach, his feet slipping onto the sand as though he weighed nothing. He folded his wings behind his back, and I recognised that shock of russet-brown hair.
He was alone tonight. Without the rest, he seemed out of place this close to the sea, like an errant sky creature breaking rank. Maybe he was.
Kayla voice at my ear made me jump. “Why’s he the only one here?”
Before I could tell her to hide, Eylar had spotted us. Maybe he had already found us from afar. But the time he closed the distance between us, he had shifted to human form completely. There was a newfound, inhuman grace that now sat within him. He was no longer the sinewy boy I had first caught sight of among the armoured men, but a man himself.
A chill snaked down my back, and I didn’t think it was due to the night breeze. I tried to focus on his gaze, not on the firm set of his shoulders.
“They are coming for you. All of you.” His first words to us were as cold as the steel of his eyes.
“We should go,” Kayla said. She had on that look when we stumbled into old crone Helgina’s shipwreck house, like we were better off keeping a wide berth from it.
“Yes, go. Take everyone dear to you and leave while you still can.”
The end is coming sooner than you think, Helgina had intoned. No one had believed her – Father had almost driven her out of the border in a pique – but after her public proclamation I’d had recurring dreams of giant hook-beaked birds swooping towards the water, their talons grasping for us.
“Is it true?” I said Eylar now. There was no lie in his eyes, but no warmth either, so different from the wide-eyed boy learning how to wield a sword on the beach.
“Come on, Amber.” Kayla gave me a sharp tug. “Let’s go home.”
“Your home is not safe,” Eylar said. “Go to dry land, deep into the forest, another island.”
“We will perish there,” Kayla snapped. I squeezed her hand.
“Your magic can certainly keep you alive.” His voice didn’t contain the usual bitterness that the sky people had when they spoke of us, the sea children.
Kayla stuck out her chin. “Well, then. Let them come. The sky children are no match for us.”
“They are with the Inferno.”
“Fire,” Kayla scoffed. The sea was our protection, away from the reaches of earthly elements.
“The Inferno,” Eylar corrected. “It is far from your regular fire. It can plunge into the depths of the sea and devastate everything in its path in less time than it takes for a sea storm to brew.”
“We have no reason to believe a word you say.”
“You don’t,” he agreed. “But every second you stand here doubting me, the Indigo Army bears closer.”
There were many ways I had envisioned my first encounter with Eylar, but none of them turned out like this. I wished I had never come up to shore tonight.
“Why are you helping us?” I managed to ask.
“This war has nothing to do with you. Besides, there is no glory in winning a dirty fight.”
A shriek rent the still air, cutting off Kayla’s response. From the south, a firestorm rolled towards us. Unlike Eylar’s crew, the incoming flock was a uniform army of brown-grey hawks whose wings were alight with immortal flames.
Father had been right. The winged thieves were always going to be our enemies. They would not stop until they had stolen all our magic.
“Go,” Eylar roared, shaking me out of my thoughts. “I can stave them off with the fire” – he gestured at the pile of burning rocks behind him – “but only for so long.”
Kayla squeezed my hand. We tore down the beach, but there was only flames burning infernal all around us. Sky beasts tore through the skin of the sea, screaming murder.