I savored the sweet golden caress of the morning sun on my arms and face as I strolled away from the hut that was my home and into the broader expanse of the verdant valley before me.
I was ambling aimlessly, intent only on the discovery of new places in this unfamiliar setting. And yet -- I gave pause to that thought and turned around to face the wind, which was warm and ripe with the scent of water, and I was un-surprised when I suddenly knew that there was a large lake at the end of the valley -- and yet I knew this place, knew that the path I was wandering led to mysteries I'd encountered before; above all, I felt the slightest vibration of electricity in the air, the fertility and fullness of the earth beneath my bare feet, and it filled me with a raw, itching tension that booted my senses into overdrive and tingled through me like a premonition of adrenaline. I breathed deeply, and drank it all in before turning on my way and rounding what I now knew to be the final bend in the path.
I emerged from the scrubby copses and tall, brushy grasses I had been traveling through onto an open field, large in size. To the far end, all the way down to my left, I could glimpse the gleaming of a metal structure, indistinguishable from this distance, that rested in the shade of tall cedars and pines. Immediately in front of me, however, was a sight much more confusing and readily relevant.
I stood before an expanse of ash, molded into a perfect circular shape, with a diameter of probably fifty yards wide. At the center of this peculiarity sat a circle of toppled dolmens that were, oddly enough, ash-free. And something sat in the epicenter of it all, though I couldn't make it out over the shape of the nearest slab.
Cautiously, I stepped forward into the circle of ash and carried on towards the dolmens, chuckling nervously at myself as I released a breath I hadn't realized I was holding. I rounded the last toppled column that had been blocking my view and stopped in my tracks when I was confronted with the enigmatic object.
Whatever it was, it was completely indistinguishable, in the sense that it never held the same shape when I looked at it twice, and even then it would have been impossible to describe what shape it was that I beheld. Despite that, I could clearly see something written on it in a foreign, flowing sort of alphabet. I was able to read it, though I can't remember how, or even what it said, now that the moment is passed. In any case, it told me the steps that should be taken to activate its powers. I turned tail and scrambled home in a fever of excitement.
I arrived at my tiny, thatched-roof house only to find that my beloved best friend, Peter, was already there, waiting for me at the table. I saw it in his eyes before he even opened his mouth to speak -- he had been to the dolmens, too.
"Ruby, I --" he started excitedly, but stopped as he saw me grinning wildly at him.
"Are you, perchance, looking for a box of baking soda and a lemon?" I inquired, already knowing his answer. Peter just caught hold of my contagious smile and flashed it back at me. Without another word, I ran to the pantry and got the items before dashing out of the house with Peter in close pursuit.
We were both breathless and giddy by the time we reached the field, but now it didn't seem so foreboding with the both of us there. We walked right up to the fluid-form object without any qualms and grinned at one another once more. What we were about to do was probably very dangerous, but the rewards of making it through would far outweigh any bodily harm that might come to us.
I cut the lemon in half with shaking hands and dusted each half with the baking powder before handing Peter his portion. Suddenly serious, he gazed intently at me, gripping the wrist of my hand that offered the lemon.
"I'll go first, so I'll be forty-four, and you'll be forty-five, okay? Follow the instruction just as they're written and everything will be alright. I love you, child. Be brave," he said before kissing my forehead. I nodded with equal seriousness and determination as Peter took his half of the lemon and stepped away from me, into the center of the circle. Closing his eyes and balling his right fist tightly, he licked the baking soda from the lemon. There was a brief flash of blueish light, almost reminiscent of lightning, and then he was gone.
My mouth was dry and tasted bitterly of iron, but I squared my shoulders and followed Peter's example.
"Forty-five," I whispered as I closed my eyes and brought the lemon to my mouth.
I awoke in a brightly-lit, pearly-white hallway. I was suspended in the air, floating as if unaffected by gravity, and I was unable to move, but that didn't alarm me. This had all been described in the instruction manual.
"Please state your name and subject number," a cool, feminine voice intoned emotionlessly.
"Ruby, subject number forty-five," I replied, suppressing a surge of excitement.
"Welcome, Ruby. Please remain still while the compatibility testing is conducted," droned the feminine voice. I closed my eyes and lost myself to the inner fortress of my mind as the testing began.
When next I awoke, I was alone in the field. Clouds obscured the sky, and the air was heavy and moist with the promise of oncoming rain. I shivered where I lay curled; I felt all too exposed, and I was worried about Peter. Where had he gone?
Slowly, I attempted to stand. After an awkward stumble, I was able to pull myself upright. I was pleased (and a little frightened) to feel a heavy weight settling in-between my shoulder blades. I forced myself not to crane around to stare at my back, but instead mentally steeled myself before turning my focus on making the weight balance itself.
I felt movement and heard a muffled "whoosh" as the weight did what I told it to. I swallowed hard and looked over my right shoulder.
Stretched out behind me were two enormous wings. Tear sprung to my eyes as I beheld their magnificence. They were round and owl-like, silent as I tentatively flapped them twice. And they were strong. They wanted to fly. I felt the wanting of it singing through my bones and answered it with a savage whoop before taking off at a sprint and leaping into the sky.
Joyous and free, I circled the field twice before alighting sure-footedly at the far end under the cedars.
Which is where I found Peter.
He lay very still in the cool shade, the only sign of life in him the shallow heaving of his rapid, panting breaths. I recognized the feathers of his wings as those of a sparrowhawk, though they looked painfully twisted, as though he had fallen on them.
I ran to him and crouched over his body, holding his head in my hands and begging him to wake up. His eyes briefly fluttered open before rolling back into his head, signifying he had fallen into a dead faint.
Frantically, I turned Peter over onto his belly and dragged him into the sunlight. Without thinking of what I was doing, I grabbed the base of Peter's wings and willed all the health and vitality and comfortable heaviness of my wings to be transferred unto him. I cried out in agony as I felt them wither and fade -- I cried out in an anguish of loss and sacrifice and fear. I just saw Peter beginning to stir when I lost all consciousness.
Again, I woke in the field, covered in a chill sweat. Peter was gone, and my skin prickled with anxiety. I ached all over, but I picked myself up off the ground and shuffled home.
I spent the rest of the day in bed, feeling sick and feverish, struggling to sleep. I was plagued by thoughts of what I might have done to Peter. What if my wings weren't compatible with his? I could have killed him, or turned him into something caught halfway between bird and boy, seething and raging between the two, never to find peace in either of the worlds to which he was bound.
Exhaustion eventually overcame me and I succumbed to a dark sleep, still paralyzed by my fears.
I awoke to the sound of familiar voices speaking quietly overhead. I didn't give any evidence that I'd regained consciousness, though, so as to give myself a chance to listen to the conversation.
El, Kat, Elayne and my siblings discussed my condition in hushed tones. With a shock, I learned that I'd been asleep for two and a half days. My arms prickled again, and I dropped the pretense of sleep to sit up and run my hands along them. Sharp needle-points of pain met my fingertips, and I quickly drew my hands away, only to discover that the quills of minuscule shoots of feathers were protruding through the skin of my upper arms. I looked around at my friends and caretakers with a heart full of sadness and regret. They solemnly bared their own arms to reveal feathers of their own in varying shades and hues.
"I -- I'm so sorry. I don't know what I've done," I choked out through a throat tight with tears. My friends only smiled sadly and shook their heads before grabbing my wrist and leading me outside and to the field. It was hot, and the sun beat down on our shoulders as we traversed the field to where the metal structure stood.
It took a moment for me to process exactly what I was looking. The metal structure was a large bench swing, and sitting in the middle of the bench was Peter, cross-legged and wingless.
He laughed at my dumbfounded expression and gestured for me to sit down next to him. He eased my worries with explanations I can't recall, telling me that the feathers were an aftershock of losing my wings and that they would soon molt away, and not to worry about it.
All seven of us spent the remainder of the afternoon companionably enough, swinging, striving to reach the sun, souls damaged, but still singing in our hearts and hands, for summer had just begun....