My horse screamed as it slammed into the tree trunk. That’s what I get for galloping through the forest in the middle of the night I thought as we struck. Then I was floating above the mangled heap that was my body, my horse and the tree. The trunk was snapped in half, with shards of wood embedded through both me and the poor horse. There were about a dozen armed men milling about, trying to decide what to do. Finally the Count galloped back on his stallion, a slight frown marring his features. He dropped the reigns from his left hand and used it to gracefully swing off his horse, counterbalancing with his legs to make up for his missing right limb. He regarded my body coldly for a moment before barking orders. My body was moved into a make-shift stretcher, which the count directed everyone to take back to his mansion. Before turning to follow them, he looked directly at my floating self, giving me a cold smile and a nod before swinging back into his saddle and galloping off.
“Tis a fine mess you’ve made, daughter,” a voice wafted up from behind me, distracting me from the Count. I turned and found a raven sitting in a tree above me. It had pale blue eyes; eyes that were the splitting image of my own. It was always so disconcerting to see those eyes staring out of a feathered face. “This tree was young, and not yet ready to die.”
My hands were on my hips. “At least that tree has peace. What of me?”
The bird dropped from the branch, transforming into a beautiful raven-haired woman. I always found it disconcerting when she did that, mainly because in human form she looked so much like me; it was odd to see yourself transforming from a bird. Whenever I saw her, my mind always made note of the little differences between us. She was slightly shorter than me, but seemed much more imposing. Her hair was somehow blacker than my own. And her eyes were hardened from the millennia she had seen. “What of you?”
“What do you call this?” I held up my hand, looking at her through it. “Am I to be damned to some purgatory for killing the poor, defenceless tree?”
My hand flew to my mouth as the words hung in the air between us. “I am sorry, mother.” I knelt before her. “I deserve to be damned. I have failed you and our people.”
She touched my cheek, drawing my gaze upwards to meet her smile. “Nay, daughter, you are not damned. I brought you here for a quick word. Tis all.”
The mournful shriek of a hawk directed our gaze skyward. Tam O’Shanter was circling, frantically searching the ground. “AYVLIN!” he screamed before winging towards the mansion.
“He must be mighty vexed to lose you thus,” my mother smiled. “Did you know, daughter, that his gift is to see spirits?”
“The Count saw me. What am I if not a spirit?”
“What are you?” She drew closer and raised her hand, running it gently down my cheek. “Oh my daughter. Would that I had seen how special you are sooner.”
“Special? I am but a lowly half breed! You yourself have told me this my whole life! What possibly could have changed?”
“This.” She held out her hand, palm upwards, cradling a small house sparrow. “Do you know what this is?”
I studied the little bird, which was shaking in her hand. Its colouring was dull and brown, much like you would expect. But its feathers had a slight blue shine to it. “I assume some sort of magical bird?”
Her laughter was a raven’s caw. “No daughter. Tis a piece of your mortal self.” She threw the bird into the air where it flew upwards and vanished. “It seems that when you die, you lose only a piece of your mortal self, leaving the Tuatha Dé to grow and strengthen.”
My mouth hung open at this pronouncement. Here, after all the ridicule I had suffered growing up, was the answer to all my prayers. “So if I die a few more times, I will no longer be human?”
“Yes.” She frowned. “And that’s why you must remain alive at all costs.”
“But mother, you know I -”
She waved away my protest. “Tis your human blood that we need now.”
I scrunched closed my eyes in an attempt to avoid spilling any of the tears I knew were there. “You still want me to complete my mission.”
“Of course, Ayvlin. Only you can kill the demon. But if your humanity dies, then like us you will be unable to touch him.”
A tear escaped. All this time, I could have burned the mortal blight from my soul and been fully accepted by my mother’s people. More importantly, I could have been whole. There was nothing stopping me from killing my humanity and becoming Tuatha Dé as I had always wanted. But what would be the point? Doing so now would mean the death of everything I held dear.
I drew a deep, shuddering breath and opened my eyes to face her. “Very well, mother. I will do what you ask.”
Ayvlin drew a deep breath and gasped as pain wracked her entire body. Her nose inhaled the sweet smell of incense wafting from nearby. A stout little woman covered in blood was sitting next to her, bandage in hand. Ayvlin recognized the woman as one of the Count’s nurses.
“She’ll live,” the nurse said over her shoulder, prompting several faces to materialize around Ayvlin, who couldn’t identify them. The world was swimming back out of view.
“Ayvlin,” she heard one of the faces say to her. “Thank God, we thought you were dead!”
“Now boys, she needs to rest,” the nurse ushered them back. “That tree knocked the daylights out of her. It’s a miracle she’s awake at all! Come and visit her later!”
Ayvlin heard their footsteps withdraw as she sank back into unconsciousness, dreading what she would have to do when she woke back up.