breakfastofchampions: (goldenhour brothers)
[personal profile] breakfastofchampions
Title: Brothers and Birds
Universe: Goldenhour
Rating: PG
Word count: 2,663
Characters: Damien, Mora, Bernard, Bevan, Nora
Summary: Damien tells Mora a bedtime story. She asks for one that isn't happy.
Notes: Written for redvelvetaddict. <3



The night was cold but soft, the chill in the air a gentle one. Mora was curled in her bed beneath the covers. The light was low, her eyes were closed, and when Damien walked through her door, he thought she was asleep at first. He stood watching her, thinking fatherly thoughts, deciding whether he should wake her up to say goodnight or leave her to sleep there peacefully. His decision was made for him when her eyes snapped open, black and bright.

"Hi, Dad."

"Hello, beautiful. I didn't know you were still awake."

"Yes, I am," she said, and he smiled to hear a lightly chiding note creep into her tone. "I haven't gotten my story yet."

"Ah, that's right." Damien seated himself on the edge of her bed. She rolled over to face him, pulling her covers up under her chin. He tousled her hair. "Don't worry, I wouldn't dream of depriving you of your story tonight."

"Tell me a good one this time."

Damien was pleased to have a daughter who demanded excellence. That was as it should be. Any child of his should have the best, and he meant to provide it. "Don't I always tell you good ones?"

"No, not always."

"I see." Damien gave this information the careful consideration it deserved. "This is the first time you've brought this to my attention, Mora. You really should tell your father when he's failed to provide you with an adequate story. I do take pride in my storytelling."

Mora's shifty look indicated a touching unwillingness to hurt his feelings. "Usually they're good, just not always."

"What ones don't you like?"

Mora considered with a light chew on her lip, before breaking the news to him gently. "The ones about princesses."

"Princesses?" he asked. "What's wrong with princesses? You're my little princess."

"No, I'm not," Mora sniffed. "I'm a knight."

He was proud of her quick, emphatic reaction. "Yes, I know," he said. "I was teasing, but you don't have to be a princess to like them. You like Princess Margot, don't you?"

Mora nodded fiercely, affronted by the suggestion that she might not like Princess Margot. "The story princesses aren't like her. Maybe you should tell me a story about her, instead!"

"I could," said Damien, open to suggestion and eager to please. "If you prefer. Is that what you'd like tonight?"

"No, not tonight. But--can I have a real story, like that? A grownup story?"

Damien found this an interesting request. A story for grownups. That could mean many things. Mora wasn't a small child anymore, but she was still a child. He didn't believe in sheltering children, but there was no need to expose them to the harshest version of the truth without cause. "What kind of real story?"

"A scary story." As soon as she said it, she paused to reconsider. "No--maybe a sad one. Not one about anyone I know. It had to have really happened, though."

"You're full of harsh requirements tonight, darling," Damien sighed, but it was a sigh that came with a smile. "Sad and also scary. I think I can manage to provide. Are you sure you're going to be able to sleep tonight after a story like that?"

"I won't be scared by a story," Mora told him confidently.

"Good. I thought you probably wouldn't be. Knights aren't easily frightened." A knight himself, he had seen things in his life that kept him up nights, but he didn't want to tell her the kind of story that would truly keep her awake. He could tell her something more gentle, perhaps, but not too gentle, since she had a sanguinary heart, like her father. "I'll tell you a true story, but not a happy one."

***


There are no princesses in this story, but there is a young woman who was tall and fair, like a princess in a story. She was a noblewoman, too, but she did not live at court. She lived in an isolated house, far from the city, in a green wood, but she was not forced to live there. She kept herself away from court because that was where she wanted to be. Her name was Nora. She was proud and cold, but not unkind.

Nora was married. Her husband, a knight, was the king's advisor. He spent much of his time at court, but he returned to his home and Nora's side whenever he could. Nora loved him as dearly as a wife could love her husband, and he felt much the same. They were a fine pair. They had two sons. The older boy was dark like his father. His name was Bernard. The younger son was as golden as his mother. His name was Bevan. As different as the two boys were, they were alike in love. They loved their mother and father, and they loved each other, better than any other.

Mother, brothers, and sometimes father were happy together in the house for years, but one day, when the knight was away, a man came to the house, riding hard, his horse gleaming with sweat. He was a man Nora knew, a friend of her husband. He rode a black horse, and his face was grim. "Your husband is dead," he told her, "and the Aetherians are coming."

It is another story and a longer one, which I might tell you one day, but Nora's husband was a traitor to the throne. He had killed the king, because he had wanted the people to be free. Yet his plans had failed. Though the king was dead, the people were not free, for the Aetherians still ruled: proud and pale. They put a new king on the throne, and he served them as the old one had. The traitor was killed, as traitors usually are, once they are found out.

As a traitor's wife, Nora too was in danger. Surely the Aetherians would not allow her to remain free. They would suspect her of being a traitor as well, and they would be right. Nora had been loyal to her husband in all ways. She had loved him, and she had conspired with him. She was doomed, yet she did not fear for herself. Her husband was dead, and she did not care to live without him. They could do what they wished to her. She only hoped she would die quickly rather than slowly.

Her children were another matter. She did not want them taken from her, raised by the Aetherians, taught to hate their mother and father, taught to love those their parents had loathed. Bernard and Bevan were the most precious things in her life, now that her husband was gone.

What could she do? If she fled with them, she would be found, for the Aetherians' magic was strong. Only another magic could save her children. Fortunately, she had such a magic at her disposal. During those long years spent in her home in the green wood, Nora had made a study of the old, forbidden magic. Over all that time, with all that patience, she had become a witch, a dangerous thing to be, but powerful. She had done this for her husband, but also for herself. She had wanted a way to defend herself and her children.

Beneath the green trees and between the gray walls of her house, Nora did what she could to save her children. She called them into her room and had them sit before her. She studied them with sad eyes, for part of her knew that that would be the last time she would ever see them. She told them to be brave and strong. She told them that they had to go away, very far away. "Your father loves you," she said, "and I love you. We'll always be with you."

They were young boys, and they weren't old enough understand what she meant, but they promised to be brave and strong. Their mother touched their foreheads, fondly. She smiled, then she closed her eyes. She made magic for them. It was the most powerful magic she had ever made, her first and last great act as a witch.

With all her power, Nora did something that no human had done for many years. She turned humans into animals. She turned her children into birds. Bernard became a large, dark bird, and Bevan became one that was small and fair. Once Nora's final work was done, she opened the window and let her sons fly away. She watched them disappear into the blue sky. "Be brave, be strong. Fly fast and far," she whispered as they flew.

She could not turn herself into a bird and fly away with them, although she wished she could. This was not because it was beyond the limits of her magic, but because she was with child, and doing so might kill the daughter inside of her--but that is another story. She sank to the floor. She waited for the Aetherians, with their pale hands and their dark eyes, to come and spirit her away. She would try her best to save her third child, but that, too, is another story.

As birds, Bevan and Bernard did fly fast and far. First north, then south, then east, toward the bitter sea. Hawks harried them. The wind tore at them. Life was not easy for a bird. They were without nests, without direction. Their mother had told them to fly. She had not told them to land. She had not told them how to turn back into themselves. The truth was, spells need their maker to unmake them, she had not known how the spell would undo itself, or even if it could.

Nora had been desperate, and she had done a desperate thing. She had chosen her children's freedom over her children's selves. Had she made the right choice? It was impossible to say. Once her choice was made, there was no way of telling what would have happened if she had not made it.

For years, long years, the brothers flew. They began to forget their mother. They began to forget themselves, but they did not forget entirely. They found themselves drawn to towns. They perched on fences and rooftops. They watched people go about their daily lives. They could watch humans for hours, some part of them perhaps remembering the time they had been human, too. A white bird and a black bird, their sharp contrast made them noticeable. Once, a child threw stones at them. Once, a widow left out seed for them. Once, a man tried to catch them in a net.

Once, a storm came up without warning, and they were almost lost in it. More than once, they nearly died. If they had died as birds, no one would have known. No one would ever have learned what had become of them, for Nora had not given up the secret of their transformation. They might also have lived out their lives as birds, if the magic had held forever.

One rule of magic is that no magic holds forever. It is only a matter of how long it takes to unravel. It might take a year, or it might take a thousand years. Nora's magic lasted seven years. It ended all at once, fortunately when the brothers were but a few feet off the ground, or they might have fallen to their deaths.

They did fall a short distance, as they lost their wings and feathers in a moment. They lay on the ground, winded and startled, naked and afraid.

Bernard, who had been a black bird moments ago, opened his mouth and let out a hoarse croak. Bevan, lying next to him, answered with a keening cry. They barely understood each other. They had grown used to the language of birds, and their voices had changed too much for them to speak it any longer.

In seven years, they had forgotten the language of humans.

It took them time to regain their human memories. Together, they staggered into the nearest town. The people there did not know what to make of them. A fair young man and a dark young man who could barely speak, who moved their arms like birds' wings, hopelessly, as if longing to fly.

The settlement they found was an isolated village, little more than a collection of cottages surrounded by a ring wall. Its inhabitants were surprised to see the brothers, two men unlike anyone else they had known, but they took Bernard and Bevan in. They gave them clothes and food. They let them stay.

The brothers would not allow themselves to be separated, not even for a moment. When they slept, it was in each other's arms, as close as they had been they had slept as birds. The villagers wondered at how the brothers would climb up onto rooftops and gaze at the sky. It took Bernard and Bevan weeks to remember their names. It took them longer than that to accept the fact that they could no longer fly.

The brothers had returned to themselves, but they had not lost the memory of their lives as birds. They had lived as birds almost as long as they had lived as humans. They had known things no other humans had known. It had changed them in ways that had nothing to do with magic. Some parts of them could not change back, not even now that the magic had faded.

After a few months, the brothers suddenly disappeared from the village. None of the villagers had seen them go, and none knew where they'd gone. They did not forget the brothers who had been like birds, but they assumed they would never see them again. Perhaps they were right in that assumption, and perhaps they were wrong.

In two years' time, that village was destroyed. There was no warning or known reason for its destruction: no plague, no fire, no storm. Something swept through the streets, ripping open doors, breaking windows, killing every living thing it found. It might have been a monster.

There were few survivors. A single, small group of people was discovered by the residents of the nearest neighboring village. Of those few who had survived, only one was still able to speak in a way that others could understand. The others did nothing but cry out, like birds with human voices.

The one who could speak did not have a great deal to say. "Wings," he murmured. "And feathers. Bright feathers." He did nothing but rave, muttering about birds and feathers, until a week later, when he died.

***


"Then what happened?" Mora asked, when her father did not continue.

"I don't know what else happened." Damien replied. "No one does."

"That's not any kind of ending, Dad."

"Maybe not," Damien agreed, "but that's what you get, asking for a story that really happened. True stories don't always end as nicely as made up ones. Sometimes they never end."

"That really happened?" Mora asked.

"I promised you a real story, didn't I?"

"Can people really turn into birds?"

"Of course they can, but it's very difficult to do, and I don't recommend that you try it."

"Would you turn me into a bird, if I were in trouble?"

"No," said Damien, "because I'm not a witch. I'm a knight." He leaned down to kiss her forehead.

"Would you kill everyone to protect me, then?"

"That's right," said Damien. "I certainly would." And he kissed her cheek. Mora closed her eyes. He began to leave her, but paused in the doorway, turning to watch her. She was already asleep, or very nearly. With a wave of his hand, he put out the pale, magic glow that lit her room. She must have liked the story. He hoped she would sleep soundly that night.

He already knew that he would not sleep at all.
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