I, the daughter of a once great and noble Augur, now sit in my own stench and filth—my thoughts drowned out by the sound of my empty gut as it wails relentlessly for food that may or may not come. A few more painful minutes pass before I have my answer. Asir appears in the barren field, empty-handed, head hanging in defeat. I avert my eyes to spare him my own expression, though he doesn’t need to see it to know what it reveals.
The crisp autumn breeze sneaks into Asir’s tiny farmhouse behind him. He closes the door quickly to give the small fire a fighting chance. If I wasn’t also starved of energy, I might hunt the orchestra of crickets outside—their chirps mocking us as they sing happily with full bellies.
We sit in silence, dreaming of the rationed food that has gone unrationed now for four days, and there hasn’t been anything new to talk about in ages. Public executions stopped triggering any emotional response. Even loved ones watching had mentally prepared for the scenario countless times and stared blankly from the crowd.
Sometimes we discuss the past, but sad memories are exhausting and the small jolt of hope provided by happy memories goes wasted.
Asir’s gaze awkwardly meets mine.
“Don’t even think it,” I say with a soft smile before he can speak.
He forcefully returns the gesture.
There’s no need to apologize for something out of his control.
The rations aren’t much but are sorely missed, and Asir is kind to share his when it is given as promised. It is, after all, technically just for him. I had been considered missing and most likely dead several months ago. He’d risked everything to save my life when the king’s men came for what was left of my family. They’d taken my father when I was young, forcing him and any other known Augur to use their gifts solely for the paranoid king’s purposes, and forcing any unknown Augurs into hiding. Years later, my mother went with the guards willingly, knowing they’d never stop looking for both of us if they didn’t get at least one.
Asir never told me why they came for my mother and me, but he didn’t have to. Though she tried her best to shield me, she had no power over the whispers in the village. Horrors of loved ones being tortured in front of Augurs who failed to deliver the messages the king wished to hear seep through the streets like tree sap.
I remember watching tearfully, fighting an urge to scream for her from inside Asir’s magic. I respect Asir enough not to ask him to explain it, considering he has never volunteered the information, but it felt as though I had been trapped in a mirror. I watched the guards, inches from my body, as they searched Asir’s house. The guards looked in my direction, sometimes straight at me, but couldn’t see me.
Asir still protects me. Every night I hide in shame with his Lituus—the crooked Augur staff that imitates its master’s posture. It’s a shame he’s never been able to use it proudly.
There had been times I suspected my mother to be an Augur, Asir as well—the way she focused on the movements in the sky and later adjusted her moods or plans. It’s known that only men possess the gift of an Augur, but Asir would watch her and say, “You know, if I didn’t know any better…” and chuckle to himself.
Could he have been wrong? It’s not unlike men to assume they are capable of everything and women to only be capable of the one thing they physically cannot do—whereas women have had to find their power through study—learning wisely that gifts are often exploited. The vile king has proven that.
What if she knew she was to be taken that day? The thought overwhelms me. My mother, keeping her gift a secret, learning her fate, and then surrendering to it. She’d gone without a fight, which was not at all like her. My heart shatters when I think of her face, staring fearlessly ahead as the guards walked her to the carriage, and remembering my own cries of confusion.
I’ve tried my best not to be angry with Asir—not to question whether he could have prevented it, or if he’d seen an omen and chose to let it play out.
I begin to think perhaps it was no accident that Asir was prepared to protect me that day.
He refrains from looking to the skies too often. I know he hears the warnings from flocks, but he’s taken to staring into the reflection in the water trough to avoid calling attention to his actions. The king’s spies are always watching, and Asir highly discourages me from even getting close to the windows—though he’s lost motivation to scold me when I do.
“Your parents are so proud of you,” he says, his voice dry and raspy.
His attempts to uplift me are testing my patience. “My parents are dead.”
He stares out the window, I assume at whatever is chirping in the distance. “The human body, like any body, is merely a vessel. They’re not gone.” He turns toward me, his dark eyes mirroring the last expression I remember my mother having—fear and ferocity manifesting at once. “You’ll see, Cissa.” He smiles, a genuine smile this time.
This conversation isn’t worth my time. Not that my time is worth anything anymore. But if I can’t eat and I can’t sleep over the rumbling in my stomach and I can’t work and I can’t laugh and I can’t sing and I can’t run away, I’m going to at least try and change the subject. “I’m going to the river tonight.” My eyes match the intensity of his. “I would sneak out, but I don’t want you to worry.”
Asir lets out a laugh that sounds more like a cough.
“What’s so funny?” I ask.
“Why have you chosen this particular time to be honest with me?”
“What do you mean?” I say defensively.
“Well, considering all the other times that you snuck out without telling me.” He winks.
“I…I’m so sorry, Asir. I just didn’t want you to worry.”
“Oh, child, Augurs know better than anyone that all chicks eventually have to face the cruel world beyond the nest.” His eyes move back to face the chirping.
The flush in my face lingers even as the humiliation subsides.
He continues, “Although, I sense a more intentional reason for your escape tonight, is that right?” he peers at me the way my mother did when she wasn’t mad, just disappointed.
I’m not sure what to tell him. I don’t want to lie again, but I also fear he will try and stop me.
“Spit it out, girl. I’m too slow to catch you even if that’s what you think I’ll try and do.”
I take a breath. “I want to collect some moss beans.”
His eyes widen, though, he doesn’t look surprised.
“I don’t…really plan to use them. Not soon, anyway.” I stutter, “I just…think we should have some, just in case. You know…while they’re…ripe.” I gather my confidence, “Starving to death will be so much worse.” I want to lower my head out of guilt, but I owe him more than that.
All the magic in the world can’t hide the pain on Asir’s face. He’s fought so long to avoid the devastating truth that he will never, ever, be able to change our hopeless situation. A promise he made to my parents we both knew—they knew—he’d never be able to keep.
He clears his throat. His voice shakes over the booming grumble from his stomach, “I guess that’d be alright.”
His defeat is gut-wrenching. He’s not even going to argue with me.
Neither of us speaks for the rest of the night.
Snoring soon fills the cramped living space and I make my way toward the peaceful sound of the river. It’s stunning under the moonlight, and it feels almost cruel to be reminded that there is, in fact, some beauty left in this world. Delicate water droplets nestled on the soft green fuzz of the moss beans signal their presence.
As a child, I was never allowed to play near the river, for it can be difficult to tell the difference between a moss bean and a harmless moss-covered rock. Ingesting them is fatal, but just enough pressure applied to the shell hiding under their mossy exterior releases a poisonous gas that, when inhaled, knocks its victim unconscious. My father had often worried I would accidentally step on one and fall into the river. Something that unfortunately happened all too often.
I gather them gently, careful to scoop rather than grab, and rest them softly in my apron pocket. Asir and I won’t need many, considering how emaciated we’ve both become, but just as I stand with two final moss beans in my hand, a swallow song catches my attention.
Swallows? At this hour? I stare at the pair as they stare back at me, they stop singing. One is completely still, eyeing me with its head tilted slightly to one side. The other sits as if ready to take off at any second. I wonder what Asir would make of this?
Although, maybe I’m…
No, I brush the thought from my mind. That would be silly.
The sound of a crow’s caw seizes my spine and snaps me out of my trance. The swallows’ gaze firmly turns to the crow opposite my direction, sitting motionless atop a patch of towering scrub oak. I can’t explain it, but I know it’s watching me, and I know it’s not here by accident. I need to get back to Asir. It’s only seen me, perhaps there is still time for him to save himself—for once.
As I turn to run, the crow takes flight and my chest tightens. Asir has been so careful to keep me safe, now I’ve endangered us both. The swallows chirp wildly from their perch, clearly in distress at the sight of the crow. Their sudden movement startles me and I lose my footing, falling to the ground and catching myself with the hand still holding two moss beans. They snap in my palm and I inhale out of shock.
Panic sets in as quickly as the sharp stinging in my lungs. My head spins. I look up, the crow now a tiny speck in the distance heading north—toward the castle, no doubt—its continuous, mocking laughter echoing through the valley. The swallows’ chirping is right above me now, their eyes darting from me to each other as if formulating a plan. The quieter one heads off in the direction of Asir’s home, the other flutters just inches above my face, her expression is that of a protective mother. I barely feel her feet land on my chin as my body numbs and lungs begin to slow, each breath more difficult than the last.
Bravely parting my tingling lips, she forces what feels like her entire body into my mouth. A warm, slippery, and slightly grainy substance falls into my throat while her beak forces it as far as she can reach. She flutters off, returning promptly with a mouth full of water that also ends up in my mouth, gently guiding the slippery goo to my stomach.
Almost instantly the stinging in my lungs subsides and all sensation returns to my body. In fact, my body feels more energized than it ever has. As if a warm snake were making its way through my veins, I feel every muscle pulse and grow; a strength coursing through my body I’ve never before felt.
Though I’m not sure what’s happening, I hoist myself up in haste, kick hard against the ground, and take off for Asir’s with the gentle, motherly swallow flying steadily at my side.
The castle isn’t far, and guards are consistently ready for situations like this.
I make it home faster than I expected and bolt to his side. I sit so close that his weathered face is just inches from mine, his expression completely at ease.
“A crow…” my new heightened senses are more aware of our shared stench than ever before, and I catch my breath before continuing. “The guards are coming.”
His sunken eyes seem to register what I’m saying, “Cissa, you must…”
“They’re coming for me. Protect yourself. You don’t have to protect me, Asir.”
He whispers hoarsely, “You’re in luck.” He pauses, offering a foreboding smile, “I’m not going to try.”
Without even a second to process what he’s just said, a fleet of guards shouting over rickety wheels interrupts my thoughts.
“Let me have some of those beans in your pocket.” His boney hand extends from his side.
I hand him what I can pull out in a single scoop and, just as I reach for the rest, he says, “That’ll be plenty for what’s left of me.” He tugs at his shirt dangling pathetically around all sides of his body. He’s sitting as if waiting for his mother to come tuck him in for the night. How is he so calm?
The swallows chirp enthusiastically from just outside the window. As if interpreting for them, Asir says, “We’ll be with you.”
A wagon violently approaching distracts me. Maybe if they see me first they won’t bother to look for him.
I sprint for the door, a power coursing through me as if I’m invincible. Unafraid—for the very first time—to let my presence be known.
The wagon stops directly in front of me and two greasy, drooling men grin through chapped lips.
The plump one jumps down from his position, “Well, well, well, what have we here? King says he’s been told of an Augur, or a witch…” he eyes me up and down, taking in more woman than he’s probably had in his whole life. “It’s gonna be fun watching you burn.”
“She got anyone in there who’s lookin’ to give us some trouble?” the uglier one points to the house, and my once shriveled and shrunken stomach twists into a tight knot. The first one blows past me and kicks down the door.
My heart stops.
Asir’s body lies sprawled on the floor, the hand that held the beans now empty.
Before I can run to him, a harsh grip clasps around my arm and whips me backward and drags me into the carriage. He locks it before I realize what’s happening.
The chubby one emerges, “There’s nothin’ left. Not even anythin’ worth takin’.”
“Well get up here so we can go! The king’ll be so pleased with us this time.” Shouts the uglier one.
Sitting silently in a nearby tree, the swallows wait until we’re far enough away that I can just barely see them fly into the house. I half hoped—no, that’s a lie—I fully hoped at least one would follow me for comfort.
Tingling all through my body has morphed to an itch so intense I wish for nothing more than to shed my own skin. I remove my shoes to free the swollen prisoners, feeling a bit of relief as the cool air kisses my red-hot flesh.
It’s an unfortunately short trip to the bleak castle, with more torches than necessary declaring its presence and creating an illusion of a warm welcome. I feel myself buying into the illusion. Somehow, any fear I might have ever felt about seeing the king is completely gone. The thought of facing a man so insecure that he kills people who aren’t even afraid to die to convince himself of his strength brings more pleasure than pain.
Another greasy sod pulls me from the carriage and I barely make out the conversation happening around me—the grandeur of even this simple entryway is slightly distracting. I assumed the castle was ornate and glamorous beyond belief, but this truly is well beyond even my own imagination.
One guard says something about the king awaiting my arrival now and not waiting until morning. Another protests my lack of shackles while another laughs at the thought of me even standing a chance against the six of them. She doesn’t even have shoes on! And What’s she gonna do? Cry on me? echoes behind me. They push and prod me until I finally see the king in what is undoubtedly a second, smaller throne room considering its size. I must not be good enough to be considered a main event.
He’s absolutely disgusting, sitting on his throne, slouching slightly as if too drunk to stand upright. The skin on his face is sunken in, though he doesn’t appear emaciated like Asir and I were. It’s as if his paranoia starved him to the point of robbing his body of any semblance of appearing truly human.
His laughable crown and oversized embroidered robe aren’t enough to hide the fact that he’s wearing a simple nightdress underneath. The man thinks he’s so intimidating he doesn’t even get dressed…
Something rank fills the room as if his chamber pot is close.
His glassy eyes are glued to me and nothing else.
My ears pick up the subtle movement of the swallows sneaking in. Pretending to admire my surroundings, I catch a glimpse of them—now a group of three—and an overwhelming sense of peace sweeps through me as swift as a gust of wind.
A revolting voice booms through the chamber and I turn my attention toward…him. He’s speaking, but all I can focus on is the appalling state of his appearance. A hunger creeps into my system, but not one birthed from starvation. This is a craving.
“…If women do possess such powers and are keeping it a secret from their king in this kingdom’s greatest time of need then it is undoubtedly treason! Of which they will pay dearly! Speak, girl!” he shouts.
“Is that not my fate regardless of what I say?” I snarl.
“Your cooperation in this matter may just spare you any serious consequences.” He’s still slouching, although I’m sure he hasn’t yet blinked. An intimidation tactic that is, unfortunately for him, not working. “Tell me, do you or do you not search the skies and interpret the messages sent from the heavens?” he demands.
My ears ring with the intensity of his heartbeat.
He’s stressed—his pupils wide and eyelids twitching. I’m elated.
“…many Augurs have served their king well and were treated fairly in return…”
To cause him even greater stress, I sharply shift my gaze to the three swallows nestled on a beam, each one eyeing me with parental pride.
“It can’t be!” I hear him shuffle on his throne. “Tell me now, do you know what this means?”
I’m silent and unable to keep myself from smiling any longer.
“Answer your king!” his voice booms, but I don’t flinch.
Like an eagle spotting a mouse in the grass, I jerk my head violently back at him and cock it to one side. “You are not my king.”
A collective gasp from the guards in tandem with the king’s fills me with immense pride. I take a step toward him.
His grip on the throne tightens and his knuckles turn a sickly shade of white. “Stop right there, Augur! Or be killed!”
“I am no Augur.” I plunge my hands into my apron pockets, the ones the guards assumed they didn’t need to check.
Stuttering, the king shouts, “She’s a witch! Don’t just stand there!” he looks furiously around at his six supposedly fierce protectors. They cautiously move toward me as I gently pull the remaining moss beans from my pockets so I have a few in each hand. Just as the guards are almost within reach, I shoot my hands out to my sides and crush the beans as I spin in a swift motion, sending the poisonous fumes toward each one, knocking them to the ground almost instantly. I smile as they manage a few gasps before dropping into their deep slumber.
“I am no witch.” I cackle.
I can’t see it, but he’s soiled himself. His face is locked in terror as he cowers with each step I take. My swollen, filthy feet hardening as I walk.
I reach behind my back and pull at the weak string keeping my dress on. It drops effortlessly to the floor as thick, resilient feathers sprout through the pores all over my body. I feel my feet transform—now fully covered in a heavily scaled skin—with sharp talons bursting where my toes were.
The swallows follow my lead and shed their own delicate tufts of feathers. They morph into large, sleek predatory birds, armored with their own hooked beaks and deadly talons.
The king is frozen and curled up in a ball as urine drips from his seat. He’s sobbing the way I had when his men took my mother.
He manages through heavy breaths to say, “Wha…What are you?” the trembling in his body travels in waves through the room.
Just as I feel my lips begin to stiffen, I say through a smirk, “I am an omen.”
I raise my arms to take in the power of my stealthy pointed wingspan and clap the new weapon that is my mouth. The mighty sound echoes through the chamber and my stance signals to the others that I’m ready—we’re ready—and in unison we lunge at him, exercising a power he once believed only belonged to him.
We make quick work of him—leaving a few fleshy remnants and a crumpled pile of bloody rags—and fly to the highest beam. A new pack barges in and sees what’s left of their almost unidentifiable ruler. They aren’t too disappointed.
Though grief typically occupies every space in my body, I feel more alive in this moment than I have in months, maybe years—a feeling of hitting the ground hard but being free of the nest.
Together we sneak through the colossal doors and out of the wretched place. The sunlight peeking over the mountain tops kisses us with radiant warmth. We soar for hours with full bellies, feeling the powerful stares of every woman looking to the sky. They, too, know it truly is a new day.