I stole her. I shouldn’t have done it, but I did.
They were killing her, and I couldn’t stand it. I had no plan, but they did.
Maderas had one goal, and making more of her was it, even if it meant breaking her in the process. Her tiny nape feathers brushed against my cheek, and she smelled like ash and copper. Hummingbirds should smell like nectar, but they’d bled her dry. And for what? Nothing more than beauty. One drop of her blood could make even the most shriveled crow look young again. I was just a sparrow, but I knew her beauty belonged to her alone.
“Jess?” Her voice was a whisper lost in the crunching of snow under my horse’s hooves, but I heard her.
We were lucky the moon was full. Its light reflected off the snow and the ground was the only lantern were were going to get out here. I wanted speed, but I didn’t want to risk her legs on the crust of ice under us. I wished my hummingbird was strong enough to fly.
We needed to move faster.
“Alley?” I tightened my hold on her thin frame in front of me, thinking maybe if I pressed her closer to me I would see pink instead of the gray blue that was blooming at the edges of her lips. She hadn’t spoken the last hundred feet, and I was trying to hurry.
The only part of her that was warm was the blood that dripped from her sleeve onto my jeans. It burned like fire and shimmered in the moonlight.
“Stay awake,” I begged her.
Their dogs bayed behind us, and even in the dark I could see the whites of my horse’s eyes.
“Too cold,” her teeth chattered, staccato. The sound made the blood in my ears an audible rush.
“We’re almost there.”
And we were. The lights of the cabin winked just at the edge of the lakeshore. I had hoped to lose them before we got this far. I never meant to bring this fight to the doorstep of the very ones who had offered us a safe house. Even now her blood betrayed her, leaving a perfect trail for the scent hounds.
“Go,” I whispered to my mare, and she leaped forward, plowing through the snow.
The only thing that could save us now was the lake. Frozen, but precariously so. The ice as unsure as my shaking hands. The barking was a growing din in my ears.
My horse balked at the lake’s edge. I couldn’t even see it in the dark, and I hoped the dogs and the monsters following them wouldn’t either. I jumped down, Alley slid limply into my arms. I shook her once, knowing she was in no shape to shift into her darting form. They had even stolen that from her. I just had to make it Grace and Gemma.
I had to partial change to keep her in my arms. Something my body wasn’t made for, something it was never meant to do. We were bird or human, never in between. I was just a girl, or just a sparrow, but tonight I would be both. I had to be steady.
She clung to my neck, breathing hope onto my collarbones.
My nape feathers spread down between my shoulder blades, tingling, electric. My coat tore as primary flight feathers grew from the lithe bones of my wings, set in place right under my shoulders. I pushed them, testing the air and how I might lift with such a huge wingspan. Bones cracked, and I bit back pain as the rest of my body screamed change change change.
Blood dripped down my back.
I had her. Cradled in my arms, grounding me. But I didn’t want to be grounded. I looked down at the bleeding girl in my arms and was met with green eyes looking back at me.
“Hey, you’re awake.”
Her green eyes were hazy and her grip was weak but she smiled and said, “Look at you. Not just a sparrow now.”
“I learned from the best.”
She burrowed her face into my neck. “Don’t let them take me back.”
I kissed her rusty curls and told her, “Don’t worry.”
The snarling was louder, and their horses hooves drove through the snow like breaking glass, too fast. We had to go.
I worked my wings, lifting us up into the night. The lake was immense, and the cabin looked tiny from above, a speck of light I flew for. Snarls turned to yelps and breaking glass turned to breaking bones as our followers unknowingly broke through the lake’s frosted surface. My arms burned with effort, sweat mixed with the blood on my skin, burning hot. I banked, lowering us to the shoreline on the opposite side.
I gulped air, trying to shift back to girl. Pain lanced through my head and my vision swam. I was stuck. Wings wouldn’t budge, bones cracked with effort. Bleeding and raw, I was stuck between girl and sparrow. Panic rose in my chest, and I swallowed bile. I had no focus but the front door of the cabin.
“Help, please.” I begged against the wooden door. Our hunters screamed behind us, lost in the frozen water. My whole body shook with cold and the uncertainty of this form.
The door gave as my knees did.
“Jess?” Grace’s voice whipped through the darkness, sharp and full of disbelief. “Gemma! Help me!”
“Goddamn, she got Alley out,” Gemma said. “What did she do?”
I couldn’t see. What had I done?
They pulled us inside. So warm.
“Please. Help her.” My words were honey, too slow and thick.
Something brushed against my arms, so warm I wanted it to stay. I gripped it tighter.
“Jess, let go. We’ve got her, she’s okay. Let go of her. Can you shift?”
And then Alley was gone from my arms and I couldn’t feel them anymore.
Girl, sparrow, girl, sparrow.
“Jess? It’s okay. You’re safe. Switch back.”
Girl, sparrow, girl, sparrow.
“I can’t.” The words ran through my head over and over. Arms lifted me, gravity pulled at my wings more warmth ran down my back.
They pushed something meant to be soft into my torn flesh and noise tore from me. It turned into broken words, and most of them were Alley.
“Shh, shh, shh.” Someone crooned. “You’re okay, Jess, you made it. She’s safe, you saved her. Just rest.”
I made it.
Girl and sparrow. I smelled ash and copper.
Stay tuned for extra content this week from Julie. Check out Anne’s answer to this prompt next Monday.