Of Scissors and a Needle
Of Scissors and a Needle
The princes of Stormhold were above the populace. Quite literally far, far above them, most of the time. Their palace perched on the top of Mount Huon, inside the mountain's tip. Only the long, tiny spiral staircase of two thousand steps connected it to the town below. It was up these that an unfortunate subject must climb if summoned by the king. But the princes of Stormhold never used it themselves. The sleek, powerful wings on their backs made sure that there was never any need. They came and went from their high home as freely as the birds.
The king's sons were seven in number. Primus, the eldest, was priggish and fastidious. Secundus was vain and arrogant. Tertius was luxurious and nervous. These eldest three kept to themselves, watching one another with deep suspicion. Quartus and Quintus stuck together. Their childish friendship had long mellowed to a pragmatic awareness that their alliance still benefited them both, so for now, they still watched one another's backs. Sextus was a comparatively quiet, unambitious child. He had just turned nine, that dreaded age in the royal household when a prince ceased to be under the protection of the king and became fair prey for his brothers. He wasn't very happy about it. His closest friend and playmate was his little brother, Septimus, one year his junior. Septimus also had rather a fondness for his little sister, Una, so she sometimes joined in their games.
But today the youngest two princes were hunting doves, and Una must perforce stay behind. Perforce, because being a female of the royal line, she had no wings of her own. The wings passed down the male line only.
Sextus hovered over the woodland, his balance in the air perfect, his eyes raking the trees below. He enjoyed teaching his brother the hunting art; and showing off his own prowess.
There... a dove... he waited, holding back, awaiting the perfect moment... now, he pulled in his wings and dived with breathtaking speed... the dove took flight in a flurry of white wings... too late. The young prince swooped back up to his brother, his limp quarry in his hands. The boys were hunting for the sport... but they were very partial to the cook's dove pie, and Sextus carefully fastened the dove's legs to his belt, alongside three others. Little Septimus had caught only one, and Sextus did not miss the slightly irritated twitch of his brows, and felt pleased with himself, and envious of his brother's drive, all at once.
It was Septimus's turn. He caught a thermal, wings barely moving, staring down. He saw his prey finally... it was on the ground itself, not the best place, but determination coursed through him as he carefully angled his approach to take some advantage of the sun's dazzling rays, without actually casting a shadow near his prey.
The dove began to move along the ground, away from him, he adjusted his approach to compensate... it saw him, and was about to fly, he dived on it at full speed... and a split second before he hit the ground, he saw the edge of the ravine...
He pounded the air in a desperate backstroke, but it was far too late... he hit rock, and his momentum carried him over the edge.
His wings thrashed wildly as he fell, beating uselessly against the stone walls... it was more crack than ravine... it slowed his descent slightly, but he hit the ground hard, and lay gasping, winded and in pain.
"Septimus? Septimus?" Sextus was calling him.
He pushed himself up on his arms, and turned over, still drawing in deep breaths. Sextus peered down at him, from a horribly long way up.
"Are you alright?" Sextus asked.
Septimus considered. He felt battered, but nothing seemed to broken.
"I'm fine," he replied, eyeing the ravine sides. The were narrow, far too narrow, there was no way he could fly out...
"Can you climb up?" Sextus asked.
Septimus examined the walls. There wasn't much in the way of hand holds. The rock wasn't particularly smooth, being rough and rather sharp, but the crack was narrowest at the top, and the walls overhung a fair bit. And were too wide to be straddled...
"I don't think so," he admitted reluctantly.
Sextus stared down at him, hesitating. Finally, he said,
"Hang on, then. I'll get a rope." And he disappeared from sight.
Septimus stared up at the place where he had been for some time. It was just possible that Sextus had really gone for a rope... but all things considered, the child thought it very unlikely. Sextus was extremely unaggressive as Stormhold princes went, but surely even he would not throw away this golden opportunity. He would not even have to get his hands dirty, so no one would ever know that he had broken the rules...
I'd better see about getting myself out, thought the eight year old.
He went along the crack some way, but at both ends it ended in so extreme an overhang that he knew there was no hope. He chose the narrowest point and began to climb. He found that his wings were wide enough to wedge across the gap. He hauled himself up wherever there were hand or foot holds, and the rest of the way, he edged upwards, inch by excruciating inch, all his weight on his wings, which were soon raw from grinding against the walls. Soon he gasped and wept in involuntary agony as he climbed. His wings shook with pain and exhaustion. He wanted to let go, let himself fall again, anything but this torment... But he clung on, and he bit his lip, and he drove himself onward. Climb or die, he told himself. If you fall back down you'll never make it this far again. Climb.
It got easier as the walls closed in, or he probably wouldn't have made it. As it was, he was just thrusting his head over the top when Sextus came swooping in to land, a coil of rope over his shoulder. He hastened to Septimus and getting a grip on his collar, helped haul him the rest of the way. Sextus stared at his little brother as he lay curled on his side, furiously fighting back the wracking sobs of pain that shook him.
"Stars, Septimus," he said, "Why didn't you wait?"
Septimus swallowed back the last of his tears and sat up, wings limp and raw behind him.
"Would you have waited for me?" he asked bluntly.
Sextus eyed his brother, considering.
"Of course," he said staunchly, eventually. "I might have tried to climb out on my own, like you did, but I'd have known you were coming with a rope. Just like you knew I was coming, didn't you?"
Septimus looked at him for a moment.
"Of course," he said at last. "I knew you were coming."
They were both lying, and they both knew it.
"Can you fly?" asked Sextus briskly, clearly dismissing the subject.
Septimus gritted his teeth and spread his wings. It hurt like hell, but they obeyed him, so he could probably fly.
"Yes," he said. "Slowly," he added prudently.
He never really forgot that flight home. Sextus had taken his dove to spare him its meagre weight. Septimus let him, there wasn't a lot else his brother could do. By the time they reached Mount Huon his wings felt ready to fold on him, and for the first time, as they approached, he eyed the vast expanse of air beneath him with real trepidation. But he made it. His legs gave out when he landed, and Sextus helped him to his room.
Septimus stretched out gratefully on the bed, on his stomach, letting his bloody wings lie outstretched and still.
"I'll put the doves in the ice larder," said Sextus, "and bring some salve."
His little brother nodded acknowledgment, and he left. Septimus rested his cheek on his folded arms. Sextus brought the rope, he thought, and smiled. Then his eyes closed...
When he awoke, dawn light was streaming through the windows. He sat up, wincing as he stretched stiff, and very sore, wings. He brought one forwards over his shoulder so that he could see it. There was no sign of any salve. It certainly didn't feel like they'd been any. He was slightly surprised, but surmised that his brother hadn't wanted to wake him. But salve sounded good, right now. His brother dabbled in that sort of thing, with surprising skill, considering his tender years. He knew an old crone down in the market...
Septimus got up and made his way to the door, wincing more now in anticipation of what his other brothers would say about his injuries than from the pain. He saw no one on his way to Sextus's room. But his brother wasn't there. Strange. It was early for him to be up and about. He went to check the privy, and met Secundus just coming out.
"Have you seen Sextus?" he asked his elder brother warily.
Secundus smirked. It was not an unusual expression for him, but today his smirk sent a chill into the pit of Septimus's stomach.
"Not this morning," Secundus replied, and walked away, without even mentioning Septimus's bloody wings, which was odd all by itself.
Septimus watched him go. He was worried now, although he did not want to admit it. Sextus had been going to go to the ice larder first, he recalled. He hastened there. The door was shut tight, as always, no way to tell from outside if Sextus had delivered the doves. Septimus got hold of the handle and with some difficulty, turned it. He opened the door...
Septimus never really forgave Secundus. Sextus had been so unaggressive, unambitious... Secundus was a cowardly bully, in his eyes. So when his door opened with a soft click, and he heard among the whispering voices that of Secundus, he was glad.
He was perched atop his four poster's canopy, motionless. In the bed below his pillows had been carefully arranged to look like his own sleeping form. It was the eve of his ninth birthday. In fact, his birth hour, seven minutes past midnight, had been passed for all of two minutes. Secundus, Quartus and Quintus were certainly wasting no time, he thought. As he had suspected...
He stood, moving not a hair, not a feather. There was a slightly hysterical giggle from below.
"Shut it," hissed Secundus, "unless you have a particular desire to bludgeon him to death yourself..."
Quintus shut it. Little Septimus noted to himself that they were armed, at the least, with clubs.
"Here's the box," Secundus added under his breath. "Open the end and stuff it under the sheets. Then take it out again. Best if there is at least the pretense of an accident."
The tiny soft sounds that reached the youngest prince of Stormhold's ears suggested that this operation was being carried out.
"Ok," whispered Quartus, "It's in, let's get out of here now..."
The three made a rather hasty retreat. When the door clicked again, Septimus leaned forward quickly and looked down...
...Just in time to see a long, thin, red and black tail disappear under the sheets. He swallowed. He was safe up there. I don't believe they just did that, part of his mind cried. The rest of his mind advised him that plan B was called for. Plan A had involved going down to breakfast in the morning and receiving everyone's birthday congratulations as normal. Plan B went rather differently.
He waited a considerable time, until his brothers could be certain to have finished giggling nervously together in the hall, retired to their own rooms, and actually fallen asleep. Then he took a pair of scissors from his belt and worked them experimentally. They went shnik shnik in a satisfactorily quiet way. He put them back in his belt and flew to the door, hovering to open it, and closing it carefully behind him. He did not intend to set foot on the floor of his room until he had had an animal wizard in to deal with that snake...
Quintus started awake as his door flew open and his youngest brother burst through the doorway, eyes wild and excited but rather sleepless. He must have been dodging the snake all night, Quintus thought, with deep chagrin that he had done so successfully. He clearly wasn't suspicious, though, the little fool, for he exclaimed,
"A phoenix, Quintus, a phoenix, come on, quick," and with that he was gone, and Quintus heard him banging on Quartus's room door and opening it, making the same announcement.
A phoenix! Quintus tumbled out of bed and wrestled his boots on, reaching for a warm robe. It would be freezing in the air this early in the morning... he heard Septimus skip Tertius' room, no doubt aware that not even a phoenix would rouse him this early in the morning, and pound on Secundus' door.
"A phoenix, Secundus," he called, "a phoenix, come on!"
By the time he came back down the passage, Quintus had just come out of his room and collided with Quartus, who had dressed even faster than he had.
"Come on!" called the youngest prince, setting off down the corridor at a run, and his excitement was infectious. Quintus and Quartus pounded after him, each so dazzled by the thought of having that rare magical bird chained to their wrist that it never occurred to either of them to wonder why Septimus had even told them about it in the first place...
Septimus reached the open balcony and ran headlong off it, wings opening. Close together, Quintus and Quartus followed.
Secundus turned over irritably and tried to go back to sleep. He would so have liked the phoenix for himself, but he just felt it too much below his dignity to go racing after it with his little brothers. He was thoroughly awake, though, so after a moment he got out of bed and went over to his mirror. Choosing a fine cambric shirt, he spread his wings ready to slide them through the wing slits.
And froze, his mouth falling open, staring into the mirror in stunned horror.
His flight feathers were gone, on both sides... he snatched his wing forwards, fingering the clean edge...
Cut off. They'd been cut off... He went cold all over, and sank weakly into a chair. Septimus? He knew then that there was no phoenix. But he went on sitting there numb with shock, and by the time the numbness wore off, and he could have got up and gone to his door, he had taken the decision not to do so...
Quintus let himself fall for a moment, then spread his wings... and got the worst shock of his life when almost nothing happened... he still fell... the wind rushed strangely through his feathers... he thrashed at the air, to no avail, and turned his head to look... His eyes widened in horror at the sight that awaited him...
Septimus soared on the thermals, his wings adjusting themselves constantly with quick changes of angle, his flight feathers spread, catching the air, holding him up. He heard Quintus' howl of anger and appalled realisation, Quartus' long scream of terror. He watched as his brothers fell, becoming the size of mere birds, and finally, nothing but two tiny red specks on the ground, far below. Then he glanced at the balcony in bitter disappointment. No sign of Secundus. If only one of the three were to have fallen, he would have had it be Secundus...
The King of Stormhold was laughing.
By the time Primus, Secundus, Tertius and Septimus had arrived at breakfast their father had already known the fact, and manner, of their two brothers' demise. He always seemed to know these things.
"Well, well," he had said to them, "there are distinct signs that one of you is growing a backbone at last. Your brothers are dead. Someone trimmed their wings for them." He eyed them all with horrible curiosity, but did not ask straight out who. In his eyes, not being detected, whilst not an absolute requirement, certainly gained one points for style.
"Primus," he said, "spread your wings."
Primus was looking stunned. Tertius likewise. Neither had heard. The eldest prince rose and spread his wings, tilting his head just a little to... check. The king smiled dryly and turned to Tertius, who sat beside Primus on that side of the table.
"Spread your wings," he said.
Tertius swallowed and getting up, very slowly spread his wings, turning his head gingerly, as though afraid to look... But his wings were also undamaged.
The king turned to the other side of the table.
"Septimus," he said.
Septimus stood and calmly opened his rather smaller wings. His young face was very innocent. Primus and Tertius were eyeing Secundus with looks laden with suspicion, and scarcely glanced at their youngest brother. But the king eyed Septimus rather closely for a moment.
"Secundus," he said at last.
Secundus stood, his wings tightly furled. He almost squirmed.
"Father..." he said in weak appeal.
"Secundus," repeated the king, his voice implacable.
Hanging his head in shame, Secundus spread his desecrated wings. Primus and Tertius stared in shock and turned to one another in instant suspicion. Each catching the other's look, they frowned, and finally, disbelievingly, looked at Septimus. The king chuckled outright at the sight of Secundus's wings, making his son flush bright red, humiliated. Then he, too, looked again at his youngest son. Septimus just stood there looking quite appallingly sweet and innocent.
"He's only just nine..." muttered Tertius to Primus out of the corner of his mouth, in a rare moment of semi-alliance.
"He only had to hold a pair of scissors..." shot back Primus.
And the king began to laugh.
He laughed all breakfast. Septimus sat eating, basking in his father's approval. His birthday was forgotten, but he didn't mind. His father had scarcely paid him any attention before; too young to either kill or be killed. Now Septimus knew, they all knew, that the king thought better of little Septimus than of any of his three much older sons. It made his heart warm as only little Una had been able to warm it since Sextus's death...
Once Una was gone, snatched away one day by who knew what or who, nothing warmed young Septimus's heart anymore. In fact, he deliberately worked to freeze it, to lock it away behind a layer of ice. The pain of that second loss, so soon after the first, was too much. His innocent look gradually faded into a look of emotionless blankness. As for Secundus, he knew exactly how he would kill him, but he was as yet too small, too weak. He knew he would have to bide his time. So he concentrated on staying alive in the face of his brothers' efforts to the contrary. He was their main target now. He had frightened them badly. Tertius' attempts on his life were occasional (usually intoxicated) and always wholly opportunistic. Secundus' were considerably more serious, but usually in some way poorly thought out. Once, even Primus, thinking he saw an opening just too good to miss, tried to push him down the main furnace chimney. Septimus's determined attempt to throw Primus down instead failed due to his small size, and he redoubled his efforts to become strong, quick, clever, cunning, and ever wary...
And so the years slipped slowly past.
Secundus entered his room and stepped up to the bed eagerly as he saw the new coat laid across it. He ran a finger down the intricate embroidery. Oh yes, it was perfect. He'd been waiting for it for some time; the tailor had really been intolerably slow. He picked it up, and made to slip it on, only to find, to his considerable displeasure, that the criminally stupid tailor had forgotten to leave wing slits in the back. If he'd looked more closely, it was just possible that he might have noticed that those parts of the back seams were not sewn quite as neatly as the rest. But he simply tossed the coat back on the bed, fuming. Who did the man think he was making coats for? He folded his arms for a moment, sulking, but the coat did not magically grow wing slits, and it was such a nice coat... He'd been working on the design of it for months, and it was finally just right. Well... there was no one to see, he thought, he'd just try it on anyway. So he wriggled, and wrestled, and wormed his way into it, his wings folded flat against his back. He almost expected the stitching to give way, it was such a tight fit, but he did not stop his efforts. If it ripped, the stupid tailor would just have to sew it up again. And eventually it was on. It was very tight indeed, and would not do up, but standing in front of the mirror, he could already see just how good it was going to look.
He preened happily for a moment, and struck several poses. Standing with his hands in his pockets, he felt something soft and took it out. It was a feather. It looked like the feather of a Stormhold prince, in fact. But it could not be, he thought, for only Sextus had had wings that pale blonde colour. Must be from a bird. And he put it on the dresser and promptly forgot about it. But he did not entirely forget about Sextus. He was born about this time of year, wasn't he? he mused after a while, then irritated with himself, he pushed the memory of the long dead child from his mind, and adjusted his sleeves.
It was a fine coat, very fine. He smirked happily at his reflection. He started slightly as there was a tap at the door, and someone came in, but it was only Septimus. Secundus' feathers had grown back, all those years ago, after several very uncomfortable months, but he had never really got over the shock. Since then his youngest brother had always creeped him out. He was disappointed that he hadn't managed to kill him yet. But it had been a very long time, and other than avoid all his attempts on his life, which Secundus was privately sure his brother did just to annoy him, in seven years Septimus had never done anything else. And just then the seventh prince stood by the dresser, absently fiddling with things, and definitely looking bored, not threatening.
"Nice coat," Septimus remarked rather inattentively.
"Thank you," said Secundus sticking his chest out and marvelling that the stitching still did not go. He thought he'd probably have to get a servant in to help him out of the coat, though. It was like wearing a corset. He eyed his brother's plain black attire disdainfully. He remembered when Una and Septimus had used to wear these beautiful royal blue clothes, a rich vibrant colour. Sextus had favoured blue, too, but a lighter, sky blue for him... Secundus pushed the child from his mind again. Septimus had still been wearing mourning for Sextus when Una had disappeared, and he'd just never bothered to come out of it again. It wasn't mourning at all, now, of course, it was just his colour, but it was dull...
Secundus turned his attention back to his beautiful red coat.
"The idiot man needs to make a few alterations, obviously," he said casually, slightly embarrassed to be seen wearing a subjects' coat. Septimus nodded vaguely. He'd found the feather, Secundus noticed, and held it lightly in his long, slender fingers. The fourteen-year-old was still rather a slender boy, although wiry, Secundus noticed. Though, when had he got quite so tall? he wondered abruptly.
"You know, Secundus," said Septimus, looking up at him suddenly, "I never did thank you for my ninth birthday present."
ninth... a prickle of fear went down Secundus' spine. That would be the snake...
"I know how expensive that breed is," Septimus continued, his voice soft and frighteningly sincere. Secundus eyed him closely. Did he have one in his pocket, about to throw it at him? But Septimus just turned that feather slowly in his hands.
"And Sextus," he went on, his voice even softer, and a rather more dangerous edge sliding into it. "I never thanked you for Sextus, did I? Because, you know, I really rather liked him. So I suppose you did me a favour. Saved me from having to do it myself. Except," said Septimus, with horrible false lightness, holding up the feather in one hand, "I don't think I'd have had to kill him. I don't think any of us would. He wouldn't have got in anyone's way. You just killed him because you could, and because it made you feel clever." Septimus's voice dropped to a deadly whisper, "I beg to disagree, though. I don't think it was very clever at all."
Secundus was more than alive to his danger now. As Septimus calmly placed the feather in his own pocket and stepped towards him, he stumbled back a few paces and began to struggle desperately, trying to get the coat off. But he should have run, for he hadn't a hope. Realising this too late, he darted towards the door, but Septimus, with a movement like a snake striking, intercepted and seized him. Grimly the seventh prince pushed him towards the window. Secundus struggled, horrified. When did the boy get so strong? he thought wildly.
Septimus's progress was slow, but steady, and eventually the struggling second born stood by the window.
"Septimus, don't do this, don't do this, please!" he gasped incoherently, and panic gave him the strength to withstand all Septimus's efforts to push him over the window edge. He felt a second of relief when Septimus released him and stepped back a few paces, then Septimus had charged him, sending them both headlong into space...
Secundus clung to Septimus desperately. Septimus's wings pounded the air, aching with the strain of Secundus's weight. He was losing height fast. Secundus was making a terrible high-pitched mewling noise of terror, but Septimus was unmoved, and with a few well-placed kicks he had rid himself of his encumbrance and soared free.
Secundus's whimpers swiftly climbed to a long shriek as he fell, still struggling frantically to free his trapped wings. But the stitching was so strong, it held, and only finally gave when he hit the ground.
Septimus floated effortlessly on the west wind, staring down.
"Happy Birthday, Sextus," he murmured at last.
Beside him, a pale translucent little boy flew.
"For me?" the boy exclaimed, clasping his hands and performing a victory loop. "Why, Septimus, it's just what I've always wanted!"
It was not clear if Septimus heard him. He had taken the feather from his pocket, and turned it in his hands again.
"I can't remember you any more," he said softly, eventually, and very deliberately, he cast the feather onto the wind.
The little boy flew close to his face.
"Yes," he said fiercely. "Forget me. Forget us both. Live. Rule."
Septimus's eyes followed the feather as it danced slowly away from him. He must forget Sextus. He must forget Una. He must survive. And for a prince of Stormhold surviving and ruling were synonymous. He had only two brothers left. He could do it. He would do it. His heart must be entirely ice now. He must have no thought of anything but the throne. He must be as strong, as hard, as cruel as necessary. Perhaps when he was secure on his throne he might take those treasured memories out again and look at them, but for now he must lock them away.
He stared at the castle with cold eyes.
He would be king.