Kira brushed a strand of greying hair from her face as she glared up at the clouds, daring them to break open and rain down on her head. It would be the perfect end of a miserable, damp day of trudging across the loneliest valley she visited in recent memory.
Her journey had been anything but easy from the beginning, but that was to be expected. For a long time, she did not know where she was going nor what she was looking for, only that it wasn’t something to be found among her clan. Now she sought a particular cave somewhere beyond this lost and lonely valley.
Wandering wasn’t new to her, wasn’t the cause of her difficulties on this journey. Clan Thrush was one of many who wandered from town to town, offering their services. In her clan’s case, they dealt in monster hunting, or at least they once had. Now it was mostly trolls and goblins and the occasional pixie infestation, nothing a sturdy group of hunters like her own couldn’t handle.
She loved her family and friends, all that traveled with them. She was a Hearthkeeper, one of three in her clan, and got to know everyone well, either by their special requests for the stew pot or the way they did, or didn’t, make a sound as she patched up their various wounds from some creature a bit quicker on the attack than anticipated.
Yet, a ghost of loss had gotten deep into Kira’s soul. She felt it settle into her heart after Thom, her childhood friend, had died on the road, the lightning-fast strike of a cockatrice talon leaving him opened from top to bottom, beyond all hope of healing. He had pressed a small, blue-handled carving knife into her hand as he faded. She had given it to him as a gift when they came of age. She carried it with her now.
Thom’s wasn’t the first loss their clan had experienced, and it wouldn’t be the last. They dealt in a dangerous, but necessary, trade and would carry on. Each time it happened, every few years, Kira would grieve and each time that grief sat a little longer in her heart. Still, it was Thom’s loss that lodged itself in Kira’s chest and wouldn’t let go. Three months passed, by the Queen’s calendar, and she hadn’t recovered herself. She would be found at times staring out across an open field where they had camped, startling when someone approached to ask if she was alright.
A month after that, and many discussions with the elders later, she packed up and took her leave, following the few others who left the clan for one reason or another. That life was not for everyone, though she thought it was for her, until it seemed it no longer was, realizing she had lost her way. Five years later, she was still wandering.
Kira hoped she would return to them. At first, she thought to only be gone for a short while. Others had done the same, often returning with a renewed vigor or a even a boon for the clan. Thom’s grandfather Ceril had returned after a year’s absence with a sword that never lost its edge. Thom had used it to slay the cockatrice just as it slayed him in return.
Here seeking shelter from a rainstorm, far from her clan’s usual circuit around the countryside, she wondered if she would ever find the peace that would allow her to go back to them, to that life. Was it even something she wanted anymore?
A stand of trees a distance off gave her hope of some kind of shelter and she pushed herself to make it before night, and the rain, fell over her. Her feet and back both ached, used to travel, but not the pace she was currently setting.
Entering the copse, a shiver ran down her spine as the first drops fell, a small river of cold down her neck. She’d be in real danger if she couldn’t get a shelter up quickly. A fire and food would have to wait.
Yes, she did want to go back to Clan Thrush, and not just because of the comfort found in her life, her family, her friends. In the years spent alone on the road, she had tried other things, other ways of being. At every turn, she found herself back at being a Hearthkeeper, back in that well-worn role. Over time, she realized it was more than simple habit that kept her coming back.
With the mage Ceara she was originally hired on as a bodyguard, her skills with the halberd earning her a surprisingly decent amount of coin. However, in the end her weapon was only pulled out to keep it oiled and free of rust. Instead of defending the mage, Kira tended the camp as they traveled together along Rava’s Wall and patched the woman up after she broke an old curse on a fortress’s seal by foolishly triggering it with her foot of all things. Ceara had been able to revert most of the effects, but some wounds needed time and the poultices Kira knew how to mix like she knew the back of her hand. It was satisfying work, caring for the mage, and their time together companionable. It felt close enough to home that as soon as the mage was well, Kira parted ways with her, sure of an open invitation to return to the mage’s employ if she ever wanted it, knowing she was seeking something else.
Some time later, Kira’s halberd was indeed put to good use with the Poverstow Three, who became four with Kira along for the journey. Their bounty took them into the East Widderwoods to fight a manticore that had become too bold, making its home in the eastern foothills of The Sleepers and terrorizing the villages surrounding Irrinlevel.
While driving the beast out, it began to speak to them, explaining itself. Kira had never seen a manticore old enough to have gained speech, but was able to explain to her shocked companions why the creature they thought was a mindless monster was suddenly talking. Quite simply, it had young and their hunting grounds had dried up. Kira stepped forward and negotiated with it, doing her best impression of her grandmother, who had led the clan when Kira was a girl and was known to be fair but firm when it came to deciding a monster’s fate.
She played the role of healer, of cook, of fixer, whatever was needed to keep herself in rations, but she kept finding herself lending quiet wisdom and leadership to whichever group she was with. These other journeys with other companions led Kira to a simple conclusion. She was meant to be a Hearthkeeper, not as her lot in life, but as a true calling. Even when she tried to be just one of many, she could not help but step forward and offer her services. She was coming to terms with it, but her grief still blocked her path to peace. She could finally see that it no longer served her.
A few pines had taken root a little way into the wooded area, providing far more protection than the trees that surrounded them. Kira sighed as she dropped her pack and began gathering branches, leaning them against a big, sappy pine before covering the whole with a fine, thin oilcloth that would keep out the storm. The cloth was a gift from a minor baron; his court mage worked a charm into it that made it light and strong. Kira had earned it with a scar on her left hip that would likely never fade.
As she worked, she became aware of the rustling of feathers above her head. “I hear you up there,” she said to the bird. She didn’t know what kind it was, but her mother had taught her to acknowledge any birds she encountered.
‘They speak to the souls of the dead,’ her mother told her. ‘If you want to stay in the good graces of the lady of death and find your peace in the afterlife, you’ll do well to remember to always have a kind word for the feather folk.’
With her shelter secured, Kira was able to get her little pot stove going, safely supported on a flat stone. It was a clever contraption that allowed her to create a fire that, even with the damp wood she was able to scrounge, produced enough heat to warm her meal of porridge and afterword warm a few stones to keep the chill of the coming night at bay.
A caw came from the branches above her shelter and Kira called out to the bird she now knew was a crow.
“Hello, friend. I am sorry you are out there in the storm. I would invite you in, but no doubt you don’t understand a word I’m saying.”
There was a flutter of feathers and Kira startled, a quiet gasp escaping her lips as the crow landed at the entrance to her shelter and cautiously stepped inside.
After a moment, Kira recovered from her surprise. “Welcome,” she told the crow, placing a bit of bannock on one of the stones warming by the stove. The bird turned its head sideways, inspecting both her and the food, before stepping forward to eat.
When it was done, it hopped onto one of the branches Kira was using as a frame for her shelter, preened itself, then curled its beak beneath its wing and went to sleep.
“Strange bird,” Kira whispered. Crows are social creatures, yet this one seemed without a flock. “We’re a bit alike, separated from our people. I guess that makes me a strange bird, too,” she told it with a yawn as effort of the day’s journey and the warm food in her belly lulled her to sleep.
The next morning the crow was still there, hopping above Kira’s head and croaking softly at her. It was comforting, the little noises it made, so different from the warning caws she heard from such birds when danger was near.
The rain had cleared and the crow watched Kira as she packed her oilcloth and washed her pot in a little stream nearby. Checking she had everything packed neatly, Kira walked on through the yellow, fading trees as they followed the low foothills of the western side of The Sleepers. It was two more days’ travel before she reached the West Widderwoods and began to watch for signs of her destination.
Beyond this ancient forest was The Blight, but Kira was thankful her journey would not take her to that desolate place. There was a thin pass along the upper edge of Grey God’s Refuge that would allow travelers safe travel to the lands beyond, but The Blight itself was impassable. Kira’s clan kept to The Flats along Rava’s Wall and knew this land she now traveled mostly by rumor and the occasional cartographer’s map. She was very far from home indeed. Yet her crow friend remained with her and somehow the distance was eased by the bird’s presence.
As Kira walked the bird kept pace, flying from tree to tree, sometimes disappearing for a time before circling back around to her. With little else to do and feeling a little lonely, she began talking to it, telling it the story of where she had been and where she was going.
It had been while she was traveling with a small band from Clan Trestlewood that Kira was told of the ancient cave in the West Widderwoods. Assured it was more than legend, Elder Greer explained the cave contained a passage to a temple dedicated to the lady of death. If one made the trek and was able to convince the guardian of their good intent, they would be allowed passage into the cave and they could ask a boon of the lady of death. The price, it was said, could be quite high.
Despite the warning, something about the story took root in Kira’s mind. Five years alone on the road had allowed her time to think and reflect. She was no youngster, out looking for high adventure or to see the sights the world had to offer. She was deep in her prime and her wanderings had specific purpose. She was urged on by the need to feel like the person she already was in her heart, a Hearthkeeper. All that held her back was the weight of those she had lost, so heavy she almost stumbled at times. She knew it was better to remember those long gone with the fondness they deserved, to carry their torch than dwell in the darkness of their passing. Her grief held little meaning any longer beyond the grey window it placed between her and her clan.
It was time to let go and there was no better place to lay down this particular burden than in a cave dedicated to the lady of death.
A few days passed with little change. There was a faint path through the woods that gave Kira hope she was headed toward something, if not her destination, than somewhere she could learn where she got off track. She followed this path, kept company all the while by the crow.
Late one afternoon the crow came down to the lower branches, within Kira’s reach if she wished to touch it. Usually the bird stayed in the upper branches of the trees or even above the canopy stretching its wings. It cawed loudly now, clearly getting her attention, before flying off down an even fainter path.
Kira hesitated. The bird had been an uncanny traveling companion, following it would be a leap of faith. Yet, why else was she so far from home? A leap of faith had led her here, what was one more to add to her collection? She turned and struck out down the path the bird had taken.
As she walked she began to see stones piled along the trail. At first they seemed random, but as she walked she noted carvings gouged into them, symbols that mostly were unfamiliar, but a few she recognized. They were unmistakably clan marks, crowned by the symbol of the lady of death.
It was near nightfall and Kira was considering setting up camp when she passed out of the woods and into a clearing containing a well-tended hut surrounded by a few garden plots, their harvest completed for the autumn. The crow landed on a fence post near the hut’s entrance and cawed loudly. Kira began to approach the hut.
Before she reached the door to knock it opened, revealing an elderly woman who, despite her obvious age, was unbowed by time, her movements sprightly and energetic as she waved in greeting.
“Hullo, m’dear! Welcome welcome. Ye’ve had a lang journey, haven’t ye?”
Kira bowed her head in greeting. “Yes, ma’am, I have. I’ve come to…”
The older woman waved her off. “I know why ye’re here. ‘Tis the only reason folk come see Grannie. I’m but a stop on yer true journey. Ye’ll be wantin’ to visit the cave.”
With a nod, Kira pulled off her pack and set it by her feet. She was about to speak again, to ask which way the cave was so she needn’t bother the woman any further when she remembered there was a guardian blocking her way to the cave and she needed to prepare. Or was this woman the guardian? It would make sense and something about the older woman spoke of a deep and ancient power, one Kira hadn’t felt since her time with Ceara, who taught her a little magecraft so she might recognize such things.
Before she said anything, Grannie gave Kira a swift assessment. “Ye don’t look too worn out and there be no reason ta keep the good lady waitin’ there in the dark for ye, but we shall see.”
Grannie stepped forward and put her arm out. “Come, bird.”
The crow flew down, landing on Grannie’s outstretch wrist. She took the bird in both hands, bringing it close and whispering something to it. She then threw it towards Kira who gasped and stepped back as the crow exploded into four brightly-colored songbirds.
Indigo, red, green, and azure blue, they silently circled around Kira before coming to land on Grannie’s shoulders, two on each side, framing her face. Something in Kira’s heart awoke with delight. It was as if she had stepped into a blooming springtime meadow rather than a hibernating late autumn clearing.
One by one the birds chittered in Grannie’s ear and she nodded in response. First the green, who flew to the hut’s eave and squeezed through a small hole. Next the red, who came to rest on Kira’s right shoulder, settling into the loop of her scarf. Kira could not help smiling at that.
“Tha’ one’s got ‘is own work to do this day,” Grannie told her, nodding to the bird. “’E’s all grown now and needs be judged.”
Before Kira could ask who would judge the little red bird, the azure blue came to her, but instead of perching on her shoulder, it came and clung to her coat, just over her heart. She looked down at it.
“Take a breath, m’dear. This may sting,” Grannie warned her a second before the blue bird poked her chest once, twice, three times. On this last peck, a dark hole opened in her chest and the bird slipped through before the gap closed behind it.
Kira gasped, feeling the bird flutter deep in her rib cage, pressure and strangeness edging her toward panic.
“Breathe, dearie, jus breathe now. Ye can handle it. Ye been carryin’ far heavier these past years.” Grannie’s voice grounded Kira, bringing her focus somewhat back to the clearing where they stood.
She tried to slow her breathing, and as she did so the bird in her chest began to settle. As she shifted on her feet, she could still feel the occasional flutter of its wings. “What…what?”
“Ye need ‘im in there, ta open ye up and make ye ready ta meet her,” Grannie said by way of explanation, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world to have a bird in your chest.
Kira now braced herself as the final, deep indigo bird whispered to Grannie and came toward her. This bird, however, did not settle on her shoulder nor try to enter her rib cage. Instead, flapping its wings as it hovered before her expectantly.
“I’ll be here waitin’ when ye come back,” Grannie gave Kira a nod before turning and heading back into her hut. She called back over her shoulder. “Yer little friend there will take ye to her. Ach, and while ye be with ‘er, don’t lie, not even ta yerself. She’ll know.”
With that, Grannie was gone and Kira stood dumbfounded in the old woman’s yard. The indigo bird chirped at her, insistent as it flew a foot away, then back. The little red bird on her shoulder gently beaked her earlobe and gave a quiet little chirp.
Kira nodded, taking a deep breath and feeling the blue bird flutter in her chest in response, the sensation becoming more pleasant with each passing moment. “I’m following. Please lead the way,” she told the indigo bird and began to follow as it led her across the clearing and into a darker patch of woodland.
Upon entering the deeper woods, Kira was not sure if it grew darker or lighter. The shadows shifted with each step, but somehow stayed the same shade of twilight. The path, which was well-defined, was thick with a layer of moss. Few traveled this road and Kira wondered if it was Grannie who tended it.
The indigo bird led her deeper and deeper into the wood, until Kira was sure night should have fallen. Yet the dim twilight still allowed her vision and footing to remain sure and clear.
As they walked, something dark and fast crossed the path before them. Kira was not the only one to spot it, the little red bird screeching at it and leaping off her shoulder. It dove at the thing while Kira froze in her tracks. This was no monster she had ever encountered, but the little red bird seemed to know exactly what it was doing.
There was a roiling of feathers and smoke just to the edge of the path, horrible sounds and screeches coming from the battle. Kira did not think it took long, but time seemed to be more fluid here and the fight could have lasted days, for all she could tell.
When the screeching stopped, the dark thing no longer moved and the little red bird flew back to Kira’s shoulder, panting as it settled back into her scarf.
“I do not know what that was, little friend, but you were very brave to take it on. I am grateful for your protection,” Kira told the little bird and it gave a quiet, tired chirrup in reply as Kira continued on.
The dark creature’s corpse was far behind them and Kira had long lost track of the hours when another clearing, this one far smaller than Grannie’s, opened up before them, a hillock at its center with a stone-bordered opening inviting them inside.
Without hesitation, the indigo bird flew directly into the cave. Kira followed it, but hesitated at the entrance. “Am I ready for this?” she asked, looking down her shoulder at the little red bird. The bird’s head lilted to the side, watching her, but it didn’t make a sound.
“You must decide that for yourself. Your companion cannot decide for you,” came a reply, a soft whisper from within the cave.
Kira squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, before taking a deep, cleansing breath. The little blue bird in her chest ruffled its feathers. With a nod, though to whom she did not know, Kira stepped through the threshold of the cave.
Once within the cavern, she expected darkness to envelope her. Instead, the dark was broken by a small, flickering light deeper inside. The indigo bird reappeared before her, giving her a sharp chirp before zooming down the length of the cavern to land on a small perch near the light.
Kira followed silently, the red bird settling deeper into her scarf. Reaching the light, she found a stone altar, its only decor a single candle that burned with an iridescent orange flame. She knelt before it.
“You have come to speak with me?” a woman’s voice whispered to Kira, though she could not tell whether it came from somewhere in the cavern or from within her own mind. Kira glanced around but saw no one.
“Yes, milady,” Kira replied and felt a cool hand upon her shoulder. The red bird jumped up and chirped loudly, flying over to join the indigo bird who made cooing noises at it, as if explaining something to it.
“And what would you ask of me? Think well before you answer,” the voice spoke gently. If this was the voice that met you at death, Kira thought, it might not be something to fear as greatly as some do.
Think well, the lady of death had told her and so Kira did. She thought of Thom, and his grandfather, her own mother, and all the other kith and kin that had passed on from illness or injury or blessed old age. She had allowed their deaths to hang upon her like a wet woolen blanket, smothering her joy. None of them would have wanted this for her, surely it was no way to live. This grief no longer served her, it was time to let it go.
With a breath to center her thoughts, Kira replied, “I have carried a burden for too long, m’lady. I would pass it to you, I would let it end to make room for something else.”
Moments of silence passed while Kira became aware of each breath, there in the dark cave. She felt scared, but safe at the same time. Her bird companions rustled their feathers, the sound a comfort in the darkness. Then the voice returned.
“I will take this burden from you, but there is a price. Have you something to offer in exchange? Something that ties you to this burden that you may set free?”
At the thought of what she could offer, Kira braced herself for her heart to break, yet it did not. Instead, she reached into the pouch on her belt and pulled out Thom’s carving knife. It was lovely, the handle stained the same blue as the bird within her chest. It felt like Thom to her, as if it was made of memory. Nodding, Kira placed the knife on the altar and as she did so, she felt something lift from her shoulders and her heart felt lighter.
The lady of death spoke again. “Thank you for your sacrifice. I shall take your burden.”
“Thank you, m’lady,” Kira whispered, and the blue bird fluttered its wings as she smiled with relief.
The little red bird gave a happy chirp and flew back down to her shoulder. It was looking at something she could not see and it chirped and hopped around for a moment before the voice spoke again, talking to the bird in the gentlest of tones.
“Little feather friend, you have done well today. You were brave to take on that beast and you were brave to come and see me. You have earned a boon, good creature.”
The red bird chirped a few more times and Kira saw it spread its wings and stand up tall and proud.
While Kira did not see the lady who spoke, she felt the being’s attention turn back to her.
“Go back to the world now,” the lady told her. “But know that there is a challenge before you. You have passed your burden on to me, but with it I take your old patterns of thinking, your accustomed ways of moving through the world.” Kira felt the hand on her shoulder lift away. “You must forge your patterns anew, must remake that part of yourself. I cannot give this new way of living to you. You will be tested. That is the true price of this gift.”
Kira nodded her head, a tear running down her cheek. The lady was right, that work would not be easy. Kira was not even sure where to begin. She had many half-formed questions to ask, but before she could ask them, she felt a kiss on her head as the light was extinguished. The lady of death had gone.
A chirp caught her attention and she could just make out the indigo bird’s silhouette. It had a faint purple glow around it that allowed her to follow it out of the cave and back along the path. Somehow the path was shorter this time, in that way that going home from somewhere new so often feels. Before Kira had a moment to reflect on her time in the cave, she emerged from the dark wood to find an open fire burning in a pit before Grannie’s hut, the older woman tending its bright flames.
“Ye done well, then?” the woman asked her as she came to kneel before the fire.
Kira mutely nodded, then paused, her eyes going wide as she felt the blue bird flapping hard against the inside of her chest.
“Bring ‘im out then, girl!” Grannie called to her, making a claw shape toward her own chest to show Kira what to do.
To her shock, when Kira copied Grannie’s movements, she found she was able to reach within her own chest and pull the bird out. It flapped a few times in her hand before she released it. It fell to the ground, flapping its wings but unable to fly.
“What do I do?” Kira looked to Grannie for help, but the old woman simply watched the bird, a sad look upon her face.
“Jes wait with it, dear. Jes wait,” she replied, her voice soft, barely audible over the crackling of the fire.
The bird’s flapping slowed, then stopped as it lay still upon the ground. Kira gently reached out to it, but it no longer moved. When she lifted it, she could feel the chill of the air already creeping into its still form.
“No,” she whispered. “No, no.”
Tears filled her eyes and she reached for that old grief, so familiar in moments like this. She blinked, finding it was not there. There was no tether for her feelings, the old patterns broken. This was the price the lady of death had warned her about. This first test caught her by surprise, but she saw it, recognized it. It was time to look at her feelings anew.
Taking a breath, Kira remembered the bird’s beautiful color, the feeling of its feathers in her chest, remembered how it was part of the crow that had brought her here to this place. She sat with the gratitude she had for the time she spent with this creature, then brought the bird close to her face and whispered to it. “Thank you, my friend. You were beautiful and kind to give of yourself for me. I shall never forget you.”
When she looked up Grannie was standing before her, her hands open. Kira placed the small bird’s body into her gentle grasp and sat down before the fire. Her heart did ache at the loss, but it also filled with love. A soft smile crossed her face, though her eyes were filled with tears.
“Tis a kindness you gave our little friend, here,” the woman told her as she placed the bird in a little box. “And it seems ye’ve passed yer first test, too.”
Nodding, Kira shifted her scarf, only to get a little peck on the ear. “Oh,” she yelped. “Little friend, I have not forgotten you.”
The red bird hopped up, flapping down to sit in her lap. It chirped at her, then flew over to Grannie.
“Ach, wee one! Had an adventure did, ye?” she chuckled at it.
The bird chirped again, a short string of its song, as it hopped on Grannie’s hand, flapping its wings.
“If ye be sure,” she told it in a questioning tone. “Ye know what it means ta do such a thing.”
Again the bird chirped at her, spreading its wings in what appeared to be a bow.
“Alright then. I’ll be sure to pass yer regards along ta the mistress, wee one.”
With a final chirp, the little red bird hopped up and took flight. It circled the fire, coming back down to land on Kira’s shoulder once again.
“Coming with you!”
The sound came to Kira’s ear as both a string of bird call and something like the whisper she heard in her head when the lady of death had spoken to her.
“I… I…,” was all she got out for a moment before a full, wide smile broke across her face. “Thank you, wee friend. I would love the company.”
Grannie nodded, a look of approval upon her face. “Ye may stay the night,” she told Kira, “but then ye needs be off at daybreak. If ye do, yer new friend’ll keep ‘is magic.”
Kira nodded, smiling and wiping her eyes. She wasn’t sure when she had started crying.
It took a full meal and a cup of warm mead before Kira was able to fall asleep curled next to the fire ring. Grannie had neither invited her into the hut, nor had Kira asked to go inside. Something about the place made it feel not unwelcoming, but still foreboding, even more so than the lady’s temple.
At break of day, Kira was gently woken by a pecking at her ear. The little red bird’s chirps soft in the early morning. Grannie emerged from the hut just as Kira finished packing. The older woman passed a cloth-wrapped bundle to her with a smile.
“Jus a bit of fresh rations to get you on the road,” she said and Kira reached out, wrapping the woman in a hug. With a chuckle, Grannie patted her back. “Don’t ye worry now, we’ll be seein’ each other again one day.”
Kira pulled away, nodding and smiling. With a last look around the clearing, she turned her back on the hut and set off down the path back through the West Widderwoods.
It was many weeks of travel, back across The Sleepers, through the East Widderwoods, and across The Flats to Borrodale, before Kira began to feel she was close to home. All the while, the little red bird was at her side. Fledge, she called him, after he told her how young he was, newly hatched into the world. She had many questions about where he came from and what magic he carried. One thing he did tell her was that he was not quite of this world and so would be her companion for many, many years to come, and so there would be much time to answer her questions and more as they traveled together.
Following a path of yellow moonlight through a wooded glade late one evening, Kira heard a bark of laughter a little ways off. It was a familiar sound, she knew that was the laugh of Thom’s brother Markus. Her heart was warmed and she picked up her pace. She soon came to the edge of the wood and up on a little rise saw a caravan, bright and friendly fires lit and torches all around. There were people, her people, preparing food, sharpening weapons, tending to small children.
Kira paused at the scene. It had been half a decade since she had seen these people. In her return there were tests yet to come for she did not know who they had lost and who had been born and who had wandered off, just as she had, in the time she was gone.
She did not yet know how she would handle these changes, but on her journey back, she had time to reflect on this and all her travels had taught her about herself and her place here. She was prepared to be unprepared, open to being open, and she trusted that the old ways she had clung to were gone and she could go forth with curiosity and a renewed strength of heart.
Stepping away from the quiet of the woods, Kira entered the ring of firelight that filled the caravan’s inner circle. As she did so, she whispered to the little red bird on her shoulder.
“Fledge, welcome home.”