Ida’s heartbeat pulsed in her fingertips, making her feel strangely off-balance. She sat on the edge of the cliff, her feet dangling over the perilous drop. After so long, she had finally made it to the peak. Her backside was cold on the black, frozen stone beneath her, and the sound of her chattering teeth was lost to the wind. Now that she wasn’t using them anymore, her extremities felt disconnected from her body. She was just a chilly lump of flesh, too cold to wrap her arms around herself. As if from the end of a long tunnel, Ida examined her fingernails. Dry, cracked, and bleeding…it was nothing new, her training had prepared her for this. She’d climbed for…what was it? Eight days? Nine?
Below her, the country spread out, a sea of hills and valleys that looked navy in the pre-dawn light. To the west she could see the deserts of Plim, to the north the Lin River snaked toward the ocean, glittering even in the gloom. To the east, the very first rays of the sun split across the earth, in a beautiful medley of orange and yellow. As they raced across the country below her, her body tightened in anticipation.
This moment, this was what she’d been waiting for, training for, her entire life. Nineteen years of agony, climbing, falling, injury, healing, bruising herself again and again, for this. It might hurt, but Ida had prepared for that too. It would not be the first thing that tried to kill Ida.
What she didn’t know, the most important thing, was what was about to happen.
In her clan, the summit of Mount Hellene was a legendary place. Not only was it the tallest, most wicked peak in the southern country, with winds that whipped and tore at exposed skin, but it was also the mythologized birth place of Lady Helike, first leader of the Oreada.
Mythologized for her skill, ruthlessness, and beauty that could corrupt even the holiest priest or priestess, Helike was the first of her clan, and the first to undergo the Nix Trial.
Only those who had been through the trial themselves knew of the process, its secrets, but still, every year girls trained to climb the mountain, learning to survive the thin air and meager meals that they could carry with them. In her seaside village of Cor, Ida hung from cliffs the width of a dovetail, suspended above the great ocean below. The trials were as vicious as the climb up to Hellene. Many girls died, falling into the sea or cracking their heads on rocks as they tried to complete the cliff-climb—that was the main event, the big festival in Cor. At the end of their training, the girls who were left, those who hadn’t broken ribs or limbs or necks or drowned in the icy water, would climb the Cliffs of Cor as their final test.
There were other tests, Ida knew, for different types of strength. Only the Oreada, the girls from her clan, could take on the Nix Trial—but she’d heard of others, those in the north, who waded the Lin River and tested their strength by surviving underground caves. Ida was glad she did not live in the north. She’d heard this was a trial to appease Lord Talos, the warrior. She’d much rather compete for Lady Helike’s blessing, which was said to be profound—only those who had climbed Hellene, who had received the blessing, knew what was about to happen.
Now, as she sat at the peak, her heart rate coming back to resting, the wind viciously scratched at her, biting her raw fingers. Carefully, she tucked her hands into her gloves. She’d tend to the cuts later, if she could.
Ida took a deep breath, getting carefully to her feet. It had been a long time since the injury, but she was still careful around her legs. After not being able to feel them for so long, she never wanted that to disappear. Besides, if she fell now, all of this would be for nothing. She was so close to the end. Bracing her aching back against the cliffside, she bent her knees, spreading her arms out to greet the sun.
Her heart stuttered in her chest as the light raced toward her—what if she wasn’t worthy of Helike’s gift? What if, instead of blessing her, the gods decided her unworthy?
No. Ida shook her head, closing her eyes. The early light threw golds and reds across the inside of her eyelids. She relaxed her shoulders with an exhale. Now was not the time for doubt. Doubt would get her killed. She had made it, like Claea said she would.
It would be any second now…Ida opened her eyes as a blinding halo of light burst from the mountains in the East; the sun was finally rising.
She could almost feel it below her, creeping up the peak below—there! She felt the first rays of warmth as they crept over her frozen toes, then knees and thighs. Her frost-bitten limbs began to thaw.
The sun’s warmth hit her then, full in the face, bleeding through her clothes and warming her skin. It weaved its way into her body, spreading light in toward her heart and back out to the tips of her fingers and toes.
But—Ida gasped—ow…was this supposed to hurt?
What had at first been warm and comforting turned to tiny pricks of heat, like something was forcing its way through her skin. Her body ached; not the ache of sore muscles and exhaustion, this was pain, searing, burning pain.
She raised her hands, tearing off her gloves. Though she hadn’t eaten a substantial meal in weeks, her stomach roiled—the dry, cracking skin on her hands had begun to bubble with blisters.
What is this?
Claea hadn’t mentioned this. No one had.
“This will be tough, Ida,” she’d said, the day Ida left for Mount Hellene. “It will test your limits, but it will not be more painful that what you’ve already endured.”
Ida had thought the climb had been the worst part…she was supposed to be reborn under the first light of the sun. Had Claea lied? Those who made it to the peak where not meant to speak of their gifts to novices, but Claea wouldn’t lie to her…would she?
The full force of the sun settled on the peak, bringing Ida swaying to her knees. The thousand-foot drop lurched in front of her as fire seared through her veins, too hot as it licked through her body, burning her from the inside out. Perched precariously on the edge of the peak, Ida pressed herself to the cliff face, willing herself not to fall. She could not unfurl her hands now—the blisters grew, popping and bleeding with even the slightest movement. How could she survive this? How would she get home?
The fire roared inside her and Ida echoed it, her cries flung far by the savage wind. Her insides turned to goo, burning and melting, bones hollowing out—she was fire and smoke and ash, heat and energy.
The only clear thought she had was of Claea. Please let Claea be right.
Because if Claea was right, then all this would be worth it.
Nineteen years ago, at the very edge of her village, in a small and dilapidated house, Ida had been born sickly and small. To her parents, who had barely enough to feed themselves, exposure had been an easy choice. They could not heal the child, let alone carry the burden of its sickness, and so they left her, unnamed and red-faced, crying into the wind on the very edge of the Cliffs of Cor.
It took three days for Claea to find her, cold and silent, but still living, at the cliff’s edge. She had not been taken by wolves or picked at by the eagles that made their nests in the cliffs…this alone was why Claea decided to bring the baby home.
It seemed that during her exposure, the baby had become quiet, with large eyes that watched the world carefully. As she grew, she considered things, examining, processing, all long before she could talk. Claea took the girl with her to the Nix Trial drills, sure she could train her up to complete the climb at Mount Hellene. When teaching the novices how to fall, how to brace themselves if they fell into the water, Claea watched others make the thirty-foot jump head first or feet apart…Ida watched them all too, choosing to go last.
Her bright, grey eyes watched the girls before her, watched the older Oreada swim out to meet those who had broken legs or necks or wrists in the fall.
When it came to her turn, Ida turned those bright, grey eyes on the water and leapt from the cliff, feet first, legs together. Claea ran to the edge, watching for blood, for her child’s corpse to float to the surface, but—with a spray of sea water, Ida surfaced. Her grin could be seen from the cliff top.
It took Claea a long time to accept that Ida was simply like that. She grew with the others, soon towering over Claea at twelve, then fifteen, then seventeen. She watched the other girls in her group drop out of the training due to death, or dismemberment, or disability. Ida herself had broken her leg at nine, after a particularly bad fall, and had long lived with cracked finger and toenails as she climbed the smaller cliffs with no protection. But still, Ida endured. She watched and listened, paying wary attention to the world around her, though she was not so wary in her actions.
One year before she was meant to complete the cliff-climb, Ida fell from a rocky outcrop, a tough spot for any climber, let alone a Nix Trial novice. When she landed, she broke her spine and lost function in her legs. When she woke up, after being told by the Oreada she could no longer train, her face went stony, those watchful eyes cold and distant as the life inside them dimmed.
Ida wanted to move, to walk and run and climb on her own…and though Claea knew the pain of the Nix Trial’s end, she knew that Ida would want to continue. So, they trained. Each day a team of Oreada helped Ida move her muscles, assisting her to the water as she retrained her body to function. It was six months before Ida could walk with assistance, and in those six months, Claea watched her adopted daughter struggle through pain and hopelessness, fear and grief.
After another three months, Ida began to climb again, only a few months before the annual cliff-climb. The luck that she was blessed with upon birth, the kind of magic that kept her safe from the elements and animals, was not the same kind that kept Ida alive during this time. Her own determination fueled her, carrying her through the tough patches, lifting her higher during the moments when she could feel her independence returning. Ida had done the impossible.
Though eventually she could move on her own, during her re-training she was much slower than she was used to. She didn’t fly up cliffs anymore, preferring to spend more time on the ground, watching, carefully planning her route. Still Claea clung to hope. Her watchful child, now more careful with her movements, conscious of her actions, would complete the climb, and move on to Mount Hellene.
Ida wasn’t sure how long she writhed there, clinging to the cliff, but eventually, something changed. The fire inside her died a little, becoming a simmering flame rather than an inferno. Though she couldn’t yet tell, dazed and sick from the pain, her body changed—bones hollowed out, becoming lighter, sinew and scar tissue knit itself back together, but in different patterns, forming a different Ida than the one that had climbed to the peak of Mount Hellene.
This Ida was whole. No more bleeding hands or cracked nails. No more freezing toes and pain in her back. She was light, and warmth, and sun. As she opened her eyes, the last of the flames receded, dying to quiet embers that barely stirred inside her veins.
The first thing she noticed was the wind. It was harsh, yanking at her hair and stinging her eyes, but…it was not cold. It howled and shrieked as it whipped through the mountain range below her, as if upset its chill had been taken away.
The legend of Lady Helike, first of her line, said this: she was never cold.
Now that she was changed, she realized, she would never be cold again. Ida spread her arms, felt the relief of the warm sun on her limbs before the true transformation began—her fingers stretched, becoming talons as sharp as a blade, great fiery wings burst from her shoulder blades, slapping the cliff side in their sudden appearance. Thrown off balance by her new appendages, Ida tilted forward, her wings coming with her, throwing her off the edge of the mountain’s peak.
Her scream was lost to the wind as she twisted in the air currents, trying to figure out what to do. Perhaps this is the true test, she thought, Our Lady can gift you wings, but will not tell you how to use them. She felt the wings must be an extension of herself, so raising them like she would do her own shoulders and arms—
They did not spread. The ground was getting closer.
Ida spread out her body in the hopes of smoothing her descent. Behind her she felt the wings streaming in same wind that whipped her hair. She’d reach one of the base camps of Mount Hellene soon, where she’d taken refuge a few days ago. She spied the tops of trees far below, forcing away the thought of getting impaled on a pine.
Though she wasn’t cold, or hot, or any kind of temperature, sweat beaded at her forehead, quickly rushed away by the gale. There had to be something she was missing, something Lady Helike was trying to teach her. Below, she could see an eagle’s nest at the top of a sparse tree. She did not have much time.
Lady, she prayed, Show me what I must do. Ida closed her eyes, praying hard, but there was no answer from the goddess. Goddess, she did not want to die. Not after she had broken herself, and been healed.
Tears stung her eyes and she blinked hard.
Then, she heard it: a whistle.
It was faint, emanating from nowhere and everywhere. Her eyes flew open, not to the ground fast approaching, but the air around her. There—it was coming from the air…
It was the current.
As the wind shifted, blowing and gusting around her, she listened for the different tones, calculating what each shift meant. Still, it would mean nothing if she could not get her wings up.
Ida straightened her arms, still trying not to look at the ground below. She could see the gaps in the trees as she forced her arms out, wondering what it would feel like to dust the tops of her trees with her feet as she felt the shift in the muscles of her lower back. Now’s the time, she thought furiously. Birds swooped around her; this was far too easy for them.
Just as she was almost level with the tree tops, as the pine needles and rough bark came into sharp focus—Ida spread her wings.
The air was knocked from her lungs as her descent stopped. As the air caught under her wings, she came level with the tree cover, her knee knocking painfully against the tip of a towering pine.
Ida whooped, pain turning to fierce joy as it settled in her: she’d done it. She could fly. The wings were heavy at her back, and she could see them, red-gold in her periphery, covered in thousands of delicate feathers. Goddess, they are beautiful. Tuning her ears to the tide of the wind, Ida flapped her newfound wings, soaring up into the sky. She flew East, to the rising sun before turning, spotting the crowd gathered at the base of Mount Hellene. The conquerors of the Nix Trial had come.
Ida was met at the bottom of the mountain by Claea and others, more of those who had been changed by Mount Hellene. Some were her teachers, as Claea was, others she’d never seen before. She settled on the ground, suddenly exhausted, and felt her wings droop to the ground. It probably looked shameful to the others, not being able to hold her own wings, but her back ached, the muscles in her chest and neck exhausted. She relished it, she realized. This new pain that was the final fruit of her suffering. She had endured once again.
Feet away, Claea was smiling at her, and as she walked toward her, Ida waved. Despite the exhaustion, she felt renewed, ecstatic—she would now be a part of Lady Helike’s chosen, the protectors of her clan.
But as Claea moved toward her, Ida noticed the others stayed back. They had not come forward to offer smiles and pats on the back. They looked…nervous.
Claea beamed, her eyes teary, but her silence unnerved Ida. Her teacher, her mother, was tough, a woman of indestructible character. Was she nervous?
“You completed the ritual.” Her voice was tight with unshed tears.
“I did,” Ida smiled. “I was reborn.”
Claea’s eyes darted back to the group. They had begun to move forward, inching closer to where the two women stood.
“You’ve all climbed the peak and transformed, haven’t you? I did it.” Ida stepped forward, gripping Claea’s hands in hers. “I finally understand what you meant—it did hurt, Claea, but I endured.”
Claea froze; Ida felt her pulse rabbiting beneath her skin. “I know you did, my girl. And I am so proud. But…” she hesitated, looking back at the group. “What do you see, Ida, when you look at the others?”
She looked, but she did not understand. The women were closer now, wary. What was wrong with Ida’s transformation? They had all completed the same task: climb to the peak of Mount Hellene. Lady Helike will bless you. This was what she’d been told all her life.
But as she looked, Ida saw the differences. These women had no wings to let droop, no sharped talons, perhaps not even her sense of currents. “Where are your wings?” Ida asked.
The conquerors of the Nix Trial were not meant to show their gifts. They wore the badge that Lady Helike gifted them, irises the violent gold of sunrise, with pride, but they were not to showcase their talents unless under threat.
Perhaps she hadn’t learned to put them away yet, as the others did. The group had reached them, probably twenty women, all with gold eyes and the beauty of invincibility. No wings. No talons.
Claea said, “We were gifted choice.”
The air shimmered around them: one moment the women were exactly that, the next, they were women-like. Where their arms had been were now great red wings and curved claws. Their legs became those of an eagle, thin and wicked sharp, and fine feathers of red covered their entire bodies. What remained the same were their faces: those that Ida knew and those that she didn’t, the features did not change.
They were not what Ida was. She was not one of the Oreada.
She looked to her mother for answers. For all the invulnerability she had gained, she could not stop tears from pricking her eyes. “Did I do something wrong?” Had she not suffered enough to gain the favour of Lady Helike?
“You are not the same as us. We are Harpies, those who protect.” The air shimmered once more as Claea once again became herself. “Our Lady gave us this gift to let us prove we can protect the Oreada, her descendants.”
“Then what is wrong with me?” Ida cried. How could this be? Had she offended the Lady in some way? Had her injury from years ago been a warning to not complete the trial?
From the back of the crowd, a voice, deep and gravely, rang out: “Nothing is wrong with you.”
The crowd parted as an older woman stepped forward. Her face was sun-tanned and deeply lined, her silver hair braided around her face. Without meeting her before, Ida knew who she was: Nomia, the eldest of the Oreada.
When she stood in front of Ida, a sly smile brightened her harsh features. “You must learn to pick those up.” Pointing one long-nailed finger at Ida’s wings, she started to walk around her, examining every inch of the red-gold wings. Ida tried to stand up straight, straining her back muscles to lift the wings from the dirt.
“You’ll have to try harder than that if you want to live up to her name,” Nomia muttered from behind her. Her breath smelled like onions, tickling the hair at the back of her neck.
“I will try,” Ida vowed. Though she still did not understand what was happening, the rest of the Oreada had begun to creep closer, sealing her in a circle. It seemed that their leader’s fearlessness had rubbed off on them.
At last, Nomia appeared in front of Ida once more. “You look a bit like her.”
Nomia and Claea shared an amused look. “I thought you said she was smart.”
“The elements have sapped her strength.” Claea beamed. “She is brilliant.”
Ida took a deep breath. “What are you not telling me?”
“Our Lady Helike was born with golden wings and silver eyes.” The corners of Nomia’s eyes crinkled. “She spoke with the wind and was never cold.”
Ida’s eyes went wide. It couldn’t be—she’d heard tales of the gods picking their favourites, protecting them by divine will…but Ida was not one of them…was she? She had fallen, broken her body and taken ages to heal…
Nomia bent, one knee to the dirt, and around her, the Oreada followed suit. “Our Lady picks only those she deems worthy. The descendant of Lady Helike, at last, has come.” Beside Nomia, Claea looked up at her daughter, smiling through tears. “It appears you were saved from exposure for a reason.”
Ida nodded, unable to speak around the lump in her throat. She’d been told the story of her exposure many times. When she’d woken up after her fall, Claea told her she should be dead. It was a miracle that she could open her eyes. She must have had some help with that too.
“As your mother tells it, you were not given help with regaining your strength after your accident.” It was as if Nomia had read Ida’s mind. The elder’s eyes went to Ida’s legs, now fully restored. “Only the opportunity to make yourself strong.”
Beside Nomia, her mother’s glassy eyes shone. Ida took her hand, helping her to her feet. Lifting her wings as much as she could, she turned and looked to the peak of Mount Hellene, lit up with the rising sun.
Ida inclined her head. I will make you proud. I will endure.