By Margret Helgadóttir
Adjusting her wings to balance on the strong winds, she flew over the vast ocean. Far below, her shadow rippled on the surface. The waves reached up, foaming, as if they wanted to grab her. Her huge wings stretched out over the sky, majestic, the brown feathers ruffling in the winds. Opening her pointed beak, she screamed, wild and earth-shaking.
Heart thundering, Arnhild woke up. The light bulbs in the corridor ceiling outside glared down at her. Just a dream, she told herself. Just another nightmare. They came whenever she slept now.
Her fingers prickled painfully. The skin between her shoulder blades itched, as it had for many weeks, but she couldn’t reach the area to scratch it. She tossed around, rubbing her back into the cold concrete floor, but it didn’t help. Moaning, she turned on her side. Her whole body felt stiff and sore. A row of thick metal bars blocked most of her view. She couldn’t see any windows. Was it daylight outside? The rank odour of urine was overwhelming. No matter how much time passed, she could never get used to it.
A small hand snuck itself around her waist and Arnhild felt a light, tickling breath against her chin. ‘Another nightmare, Ari?’ a sleepy voice whispered. Idun snuggled closer to Arnhild’s broad back to share some of her warmth. Arnhild softened. She didn’t know how she’d manage without Idun, but it pained her that the girl had been captured too.
Idun. Her little knight in shining armour. Who’d fiercely stood up for Arnhild ever since she’d arrived at the orphanage, so long ago, defending her when the other girls called her ugly names. Arnhild was so different from them; big, dark and clumsy. ‘Don’t listen to them, Ari,’ Idun used to say. ‘You are special. Never forget that.’ The two girls had kept together, even after they were brought here from the orphanage. The others had been too occupied with their own horrors to bother anymore, though Arnhild had seen some of them throw harsh glances in their direction now and then. But they were all gone now. One by one they’d disappeared. Arnhild and Idun were the last ones left. She wondered what had happened to the girls. Cold shivers ran down her spine whenever she thought of it.
‘Yes,’ Arnhild whispered. ‘I think they’re getting worse.’ Turning, she frowned when she saw the dark circles around Idun’s eyes and the tight skin over her cheek bones.
‘How are you feeling, little one?’ she whispered, stroking a few straw-coloured strands away from Idun’s pale face. She studied the girl’s hair in the meagre light. It was caked with dirt, but it had grown longer and thicker in the last few weeks, and strangely lighter, as if its colour was draining away. Idun would soon become white-haired, just like the other girls, just before they vanished. Arnhild shuddered.
‘Same old, same old,’ Idun whispered. She tried to smile, but it looked more like a grimace. ‘Feeling awful and turning into a freak.’
They both laughed in hushed whispers. It was an old joke between them: that they would turn into monsters, that it was why they’d been brought to the orphanage in the first place – their parents couldn’t stand them.
Idun became sombre. ‘Actually I don’t feel very well, Ari. I’m not sure I will survive it the next time they come for me.’
Arnhild didn’t say anything. She’d been thinking the same thing. The last time they’d dumped Idun on the hard cell floor, Arnhild had been sure she was dead. For hours, she’d held the unconscious girl’s head in her lap, trying to stop the blood that flowed from the wounds in her face. When Idun finally woke up, Arnhild had wept.
‘What do they want from us?’ Idun whispered. ‘Why are they doing this to us? What happened to the others?’ Tears brimmed in her eyes.
Arnhild bit her lip and stroked the smaller girl’s hair. ‘Everything will be all right, little brave one.’
With a weak smile, Idun burrowed her head against Arnhild’s shoulder. Soon her breathing deepened and evened out. Arnhild’s fingers ached almost unbearably now, but she kept stroking the sleeping girl’s back, feeling the hard bones that jutted through the thin fabric of her dress. Idun murmured in her sleep, but Arnhild couldn’t hear what she said.
‘Everything will be all right,’ she whispered, soothing Idun, who became quiet again.
Arnhild woke up when the door opened and a boot kicked into her side. She winced.
‘You!’ a brusque voice ordered. ‘Move!’
She dragged herself up and shuffled out into the corridor, her sore feet throbbing. She stared down through the bars at Idun. Still crouched on the floor, Idun gave her a weak smile and nodding encouragingly, as if to say “it’s going to be all right”.
The guard jabbed a gun muzzle into Arnhild’s side. ‘Get going!’
They stopped outside a door marked 17. Arnhild’s stomach turned. She’d been inside this room many times already. They will not break me, she told herself. She straightened her shoulders and strode into the room, her chin lifted. The penetrating beam from the lamps aimed towards her blinded her at first. As she tried to adjust her eyes to the light, someone gave her a hard shove from behind. She stumbled forwards, landing on her knees on the floor. Then came a kick to her spine. Crying out in pain, she rolled into a ball, protecting her head with her hands.
She lost track of the time. Maybe it lasted only a couple of minutes, but it could have been hours; she couldn’t tell. She wondered if the men would ever stop kicking and hitting her. She felt as if knives were slicing her fingers, as if her ribs were being forced out through her skin.
Mindless from the pain, she sobbed and whimpered and screamed: ‘Why are you doing this? Stop!’
But they ignored her. She felt so alone, lost and helpless.
At last, when she thought she couldn’t bear it any longer, a voice said ‘That’s enough for today.’
Arnhild couldn’t see who the voice belonged to, but she couldn’t see much in the blinding light anyways. She’d learned to hate this voice. Whoever it belonged to, he never shouted, but always spoke in a calm, mild voice. ‘Why are you different from the other girls? Why are you so dark? Why won’t you change?’ She didn’t know what he meant. She didn’t know the answers. What did he mean by change?
As they dragged her down the corridor, Arnhild’s feet got tangled in something. She fell, and they were forced to stop. Cursing, the guards bent down to get her loose. While they struggled, she lay still and stared into the cell next to her, wide-eyed. The metal bars hid most of the view and the room was dark. But she saw feathers. Piles of feathers. Large white feathers. She wondered where they’d come from, why they were there, and why the sight frightened her.
When they pushed her into her cell, Idun cried out and rushed towards her. Arnhild lay down on her back on the floor, her body almost numb from the pain. She felt blood trickling down her forehead.
‘What do they mean, little one?’ She was barely able to speak. ‘They demand that I change. I don’t understand what they mean.’
Idun looked down at her, her face almost hidden behind her hair, which fell down around her shoulders and dropped into her lap.
‘Your hair,’ Arnhild whispered. ‘It’s gotten so long.’ Arnhild tried to lift a hand, but couldn’t. ‘It’s white,’ she said in awe, her voice cracking.
Idun smiled thinly. ‘I’m so scared, Ari,’ she whispered. She pointed at her legs. ‘Look.’
Arnhild followed her gaze, and gasped when she saw the long claws where there had been small delicate toes. ‘Oh, Idun,’ she cried. ‘When did this happen?’
Idun quickly hid her feet under her dress. ‘They were there when I woke up, when you were away.’ Her voice faltering, she took a shallow breath. ‘I don’t know what’s happening, Ari. I’m so scared.’ Her lips trembled. She lay down and tucked her face under Arnhild’s chin.
Arnhild lifted her sore arms and wrapped them around the shaking girl. The pains stung through her body. ‘I’m here, little one. It’s going to be all right,’ she murmured, and fell into the merciful darkness of sleep.
‘Get up!’ Hard boots kicked them both. ‘Get up!’
Arnhild dragged herself up from the floor, shaking her head to clear it from sleep. It felt heavy and filled with cotton. From the corner of her eye, she saw Idun stumble to her feet. They were herded out to the corridor and into room 17. As the two girls stood hunched next to each other, inside the doorway, Arnhild grabbed Idun’s hand and squeezed. Idun looked up at her with a thin smile.
‘Well, well.’ That voice again. ‘It seems like it’s difficult for you to change. So today I want to try an experiment.’
Arnhild heard the shuffling of army boots behind them and braced herself for the kicks and punches she knew would come. But they didn’t come. Instead, Idun’s hand was torn from hers as they kicked the smaller girl. Arnhild cried out and lunged forward to stop them, but strong arms held her back. She kicked and fought, but they wouldn’t let go. Tears spluttered down her cheeks. Idun lay on the floor now, but they kept on kicking her, the little body jerking every time a boot hit it. The girl seemed unconscious.
‘Stop it!’ Arnhild shouted. Desperate, she bit the arm that gripped her around her chest. Somebody yelled into her ear, making her wince, but the arm still restrained her. ‘Please!’ she whimpered.
‘Let her go,’ the voice said.
Arnhild hurried to Idun and lifted her head into her lap. Idun was pale, almost as white as her hair. She opened her eyes and looked up at Arnhild. The pupils were so dilated they filled her eyes with black. Arnhild startled. ‘Your eyes,’ she said.
Idun lifted her hand to stroke Arnhild’s cheek. ‘I’m sorry, Ari,’ she whispered between cracked lips. Arnhild could barely hear her.
Then, Idun changed.
It happened so quickly that Arnhild wondered if she was dreaming. A white creature lay on the floor in front of her. Arnhild marvelled. It was covered in long white feathers and soft down. Folded against its body were two wings, the feathers swept back along the floor. Its two clawed feet lay still. Arnhild lifted her hand to stroke the long feathers of the wing nearest her. A black eye stared up at her.
‘You’re so beautiful, little one,’ Arnhild whispered in awe.
The creature, Idun, blinked as if it had heard her, and closed the eye.
One of the men pushed Arnhild’s hand away and grabbed her shoulders.
‘Yes, she’s beautiful, your friend. I wondered if she would ever change. She was so stubborn, that one. Her feathers will bring us much money. The tough ones usually have the strongest, most beautiful feathers.’
Horrified by the words, Arnhild tried to locate the voice, which she’d grown to despise, but it was hidden behind the blinding lamps, as always.
‘It’s difficult to estimate how long it will take for a body to change when we see a girl for the first time,’ the voice continued. ‘The orphan manager calls us when he has a group of girls that are near the first change. He tells us we must meet him to collect the girls right away. But we never know how ready the girls really are until we start to break them down. Some change at once. In fear, I believe.’ The voice mused. ‘Others are tougher. Like you two.’ The voice paused. ‘Though I’m starting to believe the manager was wrong about you. Maybe you can’t change. Hmm. He’s usually very good at picking out the right girls. Such a waste of time snapping you from your home if you are just an ordinary girl. He said you were brought to him by a sailor though, so maybe he was mistaken.’
Horror-stricken, Arnhild watched as one of the men began to snip the long feathers off Idun’s wings. Idun trembled, but she didn’t open her eyes. ‘What are you doing?’ Arnhild cried and wrestled to get loose, but it was no use. ‘Stop it!’
But they continued to cut. Long white feathers dropped to the floor. Anger ran down Arnhild’s spine. She started to shake. Idun opened her black eyes, croaking softly when she saw Arnhild.
‘Hurry,’ the voice said. ‘She’s waking up. She might change back. Kill her.’
His men nodded. One of them lifted a knife to Idun’s neck. At the sight of it, something snapped inside Arnhild. She screamed, high-pitched and piercing. One of the bulbs in the lamps exploded. Then another. The men covered their ears and ducked. Arnhild stretched her fingers. The tips ached terribly. An overwhelming rage swept through her body and burst through her skin. Her back burned. Her legs shook, wracked with cramps.
‘Well, well, well,’ the voice chuckled. ‘Who would have thought.’
Arnhild turned her massive head, searching for the voice in the meagre light, her eyesight sharper now. Several men stood still, waiting for orders. They shifted, restless on their feet, casting glances towards the door. On the other side of the room she finally saw him: the voice. A small man, he stood behind a chair, apparently unaffected, but the whitened knuckles on the hands clutching the back of the chair betrayed him. She cocked her head, studying him.
‘I thought your kind were extinct,’ he said, stepping closer to examine her. His eyes glinted. ‘You will bring us so much money.’ He crooned and lifted an arm, as if to touch her.
Arnhild lifted her large, muscled leg and before anyone could react, she’d sliced his head off with one long movement of her sabre-like talons. She gazed at the blood that dripped from their tips. Yelling, the men stormed towards the door. She shook them with her strong yellow beak and shredded them all with her claws. Within moments, the room was covered in blood.
In the silence that followed, she could hear Idun wheezing as she struggled to get up on her feet.
Arnhild chased the winds. She flew over the vast ocean, heading north, her massive wings riding the strong winds. Now and then she adjusted her wing tips or under-feathers slightly. Under her, the ocean roared and she could see the white foam on the waves. Once she saw a whale pod and the sudden spouts as they breathed when their slick bodies burst up through the surface of the water. She closed her eyes now and then and drank in the cold sea breeze, happy and strangely at home in the air.
They’d passed several islands, but Arnhild didn’t want to stop. She chased on, going farther and farther out above the ocean, driven by an unknown instinct. Her feet were sore after having carried Idun in a tight grip for so long. She looked down. Her little friend lay still, held in Arnhild’s huge sharp claws, the damaged white wings folded close to the body. She blinked up at Arnhild now with her new black eyes.
‘Everything will be all right, little brave one,’ Arnhild thought.
Idun croaked softly as if she’d heard her and closed her eyes again.
Below, in the distance, Arnhild spotted a green island. Her heart fluttered with happiness at the sight of it. Waves broke against tall cliffs. Seabirds filled the air. Far above them, a sea eagle coasted, gliding on the winds on its massive wings. It spotted Arnhild and screamed a high-pitched call. Arnhild called back in greeting. Lowering her wings, she set course for the island.
‘Everything will be all right,’ she thought. ‘We’re home now.’
First published in the anthology In An Unknown Country, Fox Pockets volume 7, from Fox Spirit Books, February 2016.