Once upon a time, long, long, long, long, long, long, ago, there were three raptor sisters, hatched beneath a lucky star. They lived in a wood together, they stole sheep and cattle together, and all in all, there was no tighter-knit hunting pride of matriarchal dromaeosauridae between the mountains and the sea.
The oldest was called SKRRKITTTT, which, roughly translated into something human vocal cords can pronounce, means Allie. She was oldest by approximately six minutes and cleverest by her own assessment. Second to claw free of her shell was RRRKIISH, known henceforth as Betty. She was quiet, good at sneaking, and fond of the way fireflies buzzed and glowed and crunched in one’s mouth when snapped up on a balmy summer evening. The last to emerge—the others had considered setting upon her egg before it finally began to crack—was SSSSSS, or Ceecee. She was the smallest of the three and the most dangerous for it. Her favorite thing in all the world beside her sisters was raw woodsman.
Happy was the trio—oh, aye, happier than liver and shrieks and the final pounce, warmer than blood and sun-drenched stone. But happy makes for a short story, love of my gizzard, and an uneventful one to boot. Let us set a snare in the path for our three beautiful raptor sisters. We shall give him a headful of hair as golden as a stolen egg’s yolk, skin as pale as a hatchling’s tooth, and eyes of a glorious ferny green. We’ll hang a title around his neck—first and only son of a king, so rich and privileged he never even bothered to try devouring his siblings in the nest—and we’ll set him a-riding aimlessly through the forest on a nice plump horse, wandered off from a royal hunt.
Now, the King’s subjects knew all about this particular forest, and avoided it like the plague, and if the Prince had thought to ask them they could have easily told him why this was so. If you know a blessed thing about royalty, however, you’ll have already guessed that he had bothered doing no such thing. He blundered across fields and through open gates like a stunned sheep, never stopping to consider whether it was allowed or advisable.
He rode by peasants toiling in the fields wearing masks on the backs of their heads and thought, “how quaint and fashionable! I shall have to have one of my own made!”
A little further still and he came to the edge of the settled lands, where the villages were ringed with stockades taller than steeples. “What an overreaction!” he laughed to himself. “The wolves and the bandits in these parts aren’t that spry, surely?”
Across a muddy river criss-crossed with three-toed tracks (“What large chickens they have here!”) and over a bridge scored with toothmarks (“Do the locals never take care of these things themselves? Must it always be the gentry?”) and through a bone-littered fen (“A plague must have recently passed.”) he trotted, right up to the edge of the forest where the knobby-kneed cypress trees grew. Never for the slightest second did the Prince notice he was being followed, which confused poor Ceecee, out hunting while her sisters slept, to no end. Even the most distracted farmer or heedless young stag could feel eyes on the backs of their necks before the teeth and claws came a-calling.
Whrrrrrrrrr? she said to herself, cocking her head askew. He smelled fine, but his lack of attention concerned her. Perhaps, she thought, he was some sort of poisoned decoy set out by a village witch to ensnare them. Plump as a partridge and blank-eyed as a bullfrog, tempting to be sure, but one could never be too careful. She decided to eat his stallion instead and consult her sisters about the rest.
Such a long face! Don’t concern yourself a feather-tip about that poor horse, shining claw of my foot’s delight, for it opened like a generous man’s gut beneath Ceecee’s teeth and talons and not a hunk went to waste. The Prince tumbled off into the undergrowth, surprised for the first time in all his days.
“Well!” he said, blinking on his bottom, “that was unexpected!” Others might have taken Ceecee’s distractedness as a blessing from above and made a break for the high hills, but not the Prince. He watched her taking apart that stallion like a Sunday roast with slight dismay and a deeply furrowed brow, trying to puzzle out what had just happened and what might come next. “How the dickens am I going to get home now?”
Ceecee got her fill for the time being and turned back to the issue of the Prince, almost as puzzled as the lad himself. He wasn’t running. When you ate someone’s horse there was usually a fair amount of running and howling and desperate screaming, the crunch-crunch-crunch of undergrowth before the shriek-snap-gurgle of their head a-twisting off its bony stalk. She couldn’t very well be expected to pounce on a thing that just sat there like a lump, and she was full of horse now besides.
RRKKKKKKKT! she said, picking bits of gilded livery out of her teeth. Definitely an unnaturalness. Her mind made up, she set off to drive him back to her older sisters. He let himself be nudged and directed all the way there with only mild complaints, still trying to puzzle out a way to get home without his horse.
HZZZZZZZZT, said Betty, thwapping her tail thoughtfully. It had been wise to bring him back untouched, for no human safe to devour had ever blundered into their woods and not at least made a jackrabbit’s best effort at escaping. What were the people plotting? Was this some sort of devilment sent by villagers tired of their predations?
KRRRRT, agreed Allie, scratching at her neck with a back talon until rainbow rachis flew. Ceecee had once again shown what a clever girl she was. Surely this was a trap, and if they ate the shiny blank-eyed man all three would sicken. But what did it mean? Were there more coming? Was it time to find a new hunting ground?
And that thought was a droop-feathered dull sadness to the sisters, for these woods were passing pleasant, full of sunny rocks and sandy wallows and hungry desperate farmers-turned-hunters scrounging for a poached meal. None of them wished to ever leave. They cocked their heads and narrowed their eyes and pushed their feathery heads together, each taking strength from the other, trying to think of a solution. The Prince sat in the middle of their circle unconcerned, wondering if perhaps someone from the castle would come looking for him soon.
At last Ceecee spoke again. She knew what had to be done. Not a pleasant task, no—not a fine old flurry of flesh and fear, not a warm afternoon snout-deep in a chest cavity, this—but the only way to make sure of their safety she could send skittering from beneath the ferns of her mind.
STTTTTKKL, she said, and the other two trilled alarms until she shushed them with a gentle hiss. To find out what the men were plotting, she would have to go to where the human pack leaders nested, and so as not to incite suspicion, she would have to do it alone.
O, little chirplings, if you only knew how those sisters ached to be sundered for even so short a time! I rather hope you never find out. It’s a thorn throbbing in the foot. It’s a louse gnawing at a feather between the haunches you can never quite scratch, a raided nest in your center with not a single blessed egg spared. The sisters understood that it must be so when they thought about it, but it was almost too much to bear. They trilled and chirruped and butted heads, whistling comfort to one another. To see it would have burst your heart, and then they would have eaten what was left of you. Really, it’s best for everyone that you weren’t nearby at the time.
They reluctantly said their goodbyes, with a swish and a snap and a final mournful hiss. When they were done, Ceecee turned to the Prince and crouched at his feet.
RRRRRRRR, she said reluctantly. It felt a shameful thing, to allow a mammal such congress, and yet she could think of no other way.
The Prince couldn’t speak their beautiful hunter’s tongue, but he knew what fealty looked like, and he knew what a steed looked like better still. Once more the heavy weight of having to make a decision on his own lifted. He climbed onto Ceecee’s back, pulling her feathers terribly in the process.
“Tally-ho, you strange beast!” he said, cheerful now that the danger of thinking had passed. He yanked a handful of her neck plumage and clapped her in the sides with his booted heels, slipping and sliding as he tried to stay aboard. “Let’s go! I know the way!”
It was a long ride back to the castle, darling ones. By the end of it, Ceecee regretted her decision to go out hunting alone that day about as much as she had ever regretted anything in her short, simple life.
The court was more than a little disconcerted when the Prince came back missing his prize stallion. The fact that he rode a rainbow-feathered creature with cunning eyes, a snout full of sharp white teeth, and lethal claws on each bipedal foot, was also the source of much talk, but the loss of the thoroughbred was a blow to all and sundry, for he had been a stud of some renown.
“I had plans to race him this summer,” the King said. “What a shame.”
“I raised him from a weanling,” said the head groomsman, his face stricken. “He was more like a brother to me than a mere beast.”
“Oh, this is not good,” whined the vizier, twisting his hands together nervously. “We were going to breed him to the next king over’s finest mare as an act of friendship. What will they say?”
“Has anyone else noticed that the Prince is riding a wolf-eyed she-dragon that walks like a man?” the Prince’s betrothed said.
Nobody bothered answering this last question. Of course they had noticed. They weren’t blind. Had she noticed that the Prince had come home without Sunspot, the kingdom’s beloved blood bay stallion? Obviously this was no fault of the Prince, but perhaps if the Princess had attended to him better he wouldn’t have had cause to go riding all over hill and yon. If she was so worried about the beast, why didn’t she show some initiative for once and find something useful to go and do instead of bothering the men at their important matters of council?
So while they mourned and groused and dabbed their eyes with handkerchiefs of watered silk, the Princess sighed and (cautiously, for no fool was this she-mammal) led Ceecee to a stall in the royal stables, where she made sure their strange guest was comfortable as best she could.
WHLLLL, said Ceecee. Manners, after all, were important.
“You’re quite welcome,” replied the Princess, who was also a witch and more than capable of understanding any number of languages. “Is there anything else I can provide you with?”
Ceecee could think of nothing. She was also a little surprised at a mammal speaking her tongue.
RLLLL? she said, hesitantly.
“Oh, you live long enough and you learn all manner of things. Yes, you’re welcome to stay here for as long as you like, although I do wish you would explain why. Please don’t eat the dogs or the horses or stableboys, they’re expensive to replace. Someone will bring you dinner shortly.” She gave a little curtsey and smiled a sad smile with all the feathers rubbed off. “Good evening.”
Only a day Ceecee had been in the place where pack leaders nested, and already she was woefully confused. She made a nest in the sand of the stall and fell asleep, escaping into uncomplicated dreams of hunting with her sisters. The absence of them throbbed beneath her skin like an ingrown pinion. So deep was her sleep she didn’t even notice the Prince and his subjects, grief over Sunspot spent, peering through the bars of her stall with some interest.
As the days passed, no-one else questioned her presence in the castle grounds. She wandered where she pleased, resisting the urge to take down slow children and fast dogs when they toddled or sprinted into her path, and every morning and evening the Princess brought her a shank of lamb or beef, raw as she preferred it. It was a stiflingly boring existence. If there was a plot to hunt the sisters down it was a well-kept secret, for no hunting party was ever mustered or terrible weapon unveiled. She told herself to be patient. Impatience could ruin a hunt as thoroughly as waiting too long to spring.
Sometimes the Prince would drop by to see her, a train of hangers-on and court subjects trailing behind him like a raggedy tail. Almost all of them wore masks affixed to the backs of their heads, for the Prince said this was the height of fashion out west. He liked to ride her around the courtyard while the others watched, and even had a special saddle made for the purpose. She allowed this humiliation, though it cost her much in patience and pride. Her sisters and her home—oh, they were worth it, it and a thousand other miseries. Patience before the lunge. Love for her pack and caution nipped mosquito-sharp at her neck whenever she was tempted otherwise.
The only bright spots were when the Princess came to visit. She was surprisingly clever for a mammal, and sometimes the two of them would talk. She, too had been sundered from her sisters, carted many leagues from her father’s woodland kingdom to marry the dull-eyed Prince. They wanted her to make sons and embroideries. All she wanted—all she had ever wanted—was to live by herself somewhere in a deep dark forest, with a nice garden patch for her spells and a rabbit for her stewpot and absolutely, positively no neighbors. This dream had been taken from her, snatched from her jaws before she even had a hope of swallowing. Now she was ringed round by people, day and night, never allowed to be alone. Her life was saddled beneath the weight of the Prince and his needs. He never washed up after himself. He had no initiative. It was her job to think for him, her and his advisors, and the advisors were as empty-headed as skulls in a bramble.
“Why do you linger here when no-one could stop you from being on your way?” the Princess asked once. “You speak so fondly of your sisters and your old home. What keeps you in this place?”
Ceecee did not answer. She wanted to—wanted to ask flat-out, wanted to trust someone, wanted a sister to rub her snout against affectionately—but she could not bring herself to. Not yet. And o, best beloved squeaking among the eggshells, that hesitation would cost her dearly!
For one night the Princess did not bring her the evening meat. A stranger was sent to tend to the task, as happened on occasion. Lulled to dullness by weeks of uneventful boredom, she did not smell the sleeping powder folded within. She gulped it down with a toss and snap. Drowsiness like nothing she had ever felt soon thickened her litheness to slow mud. She turned three times before falling into a deep and dreamless slumber.
When she awoke, her claws were capped with beeswax, her jaws were fettered with an iron muzzle, and the doors of her stall were bolted and double-bolted with lock and chain.
Back in the forest, the leaves were starting to turn orange and gold. Soon it would be moulting season. the season of slow blood and deep nests, and still Ceecee had not returned to her sisters. The pain of her absence began to fester into worry.
LLLLLLLLLRRRR, said Betty, snapping a mosquito from the air.
SHHHHHHHRRRRL, agreed Allie. Something had definitely gone amiss, for there was no puzzle devised by any ape that could confound their clever sister-small for this long.
Shadow-strong and fast as thought, the sisters sprinted to the edge of the wood. There they bobbed and tarried, scenting the air, worry tugging at their ankles. Many a longing glance they threw over their shoulders at the dear forest—its mossy fallen logs, the thickets full of rabbit and doe, the hot springs where mud bubbled warm like a kill’s insides. It was a good place, and the pull of it was strong.
But the call of their lost sister was stronger. As the moon rose and the first nightingale sang, they slipped away together down the man-path, leaving the forest behind.
In an unlikely turn of events, the Prince had done something not a single soul in the court foresaw: Taken initiative and come up with a complex plan. It wasn’t terribly complex, to be sure, and of no great importance to anyone but himself, but even those who had doubted him before said this was a turning point, the first really king-like action he had ever undertaken.
At some point the Prince had decided—all on his own, with no suggestions from anyone—that he would like to make Ceecee a permanent part of the court menagerie and his own personal mount. More shocking still, he had foreseen the fact that she might object to lifelong servitude, and—perhaps with poor Sunspot’s fate somewhere in his memory—saw to it that she was drugged, muzzled, and chained first. Everyone was very proud of him. They told him so, often while patting him on the shoulder and making cooing noises like prideful parental pigeons.
The Princess was as blindsided by all this decision-making as the rest of the court. She had no idea it was coming until she arrived at the stables to find Ceecee snarling and snaking beneath the Prince’s saddle, a furious quicksilver rainbow bound in clattering iron. Seeing his betrothed, the Prince waved and pointed downwards.
“Look!” he said. “I made a real choice, just like you’re always asking me to!”
The Princess staggered back as if struck. She caught Ceecee’s glittering yellow slit of an eye, and what she read there chilled her blood to pudding. Stay calm, I’ll figure this out, she tried to say in a look.
Then she excused herself and spent the rest of the day in thoughtful, panicked solitude. For if the Prince had gotten the knack of making decisions, that signaled her own freedom’s doom. In a man of his nature, it was almost worse than being incapable of making any decisions at all. She stayed in her study scrying until well after dark. When the moon was high and the crickets loud at their revelling, she slipped back out to the stables, a lantern in her hand.
Ceecee was not asleep. She lay curled in a feathery heap in the floor of her stall. Already there were welts and bare spots among her snout plumage where the iron muzzle had rubbed.
“I’m sorry,” said the Princess. “I didn’t know he was going to do this. I didn’t see it coming.”
Rrr, said Ceecee.
“He didn’t outwit me,” the Princess snapped, “he accidentally figured out how to stitch two thoughts together to make a third. But all that is beside the point. Listen.”
Ceecee didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.
“In my room, there is a scrying vessel, and in that scrying vessel I have seen your sisters, slipping towards the castle along the old road. They are coming to save you. If they kill the guards at the gate, more will come, with pikes and arrows and swords, and both of them will die.”
All Ceecee could manage in response to this news was a low moan of misery. Her claws were dulled and her jaws held fast. Even if she escaped, how could she possibly help them? Perhaps sensing her thoughts—for again, this good mammal had many talents—the Princess raised a hand.
“You cannot help them,” she said. “They cannot storm the castle by force. What they need now is stealth. They need trickery, and they need an ally to help them.”
And here she smiled, with her flat, dull teeth. No beautiful curved sickle of bone, that smile, but it held its own kind of danger.
“You cannot help them,” she repeated, “but I can.”
They came running, her sisters, striding-slipping-sweeping down the man-road like the shadows of leaves in a gale. They whistled and fluted hunting songs as they ran, and villagers bolted their doors and pulled their shutters and slammed their chimney flues shut with a bang. Mules spooked and carts overturned. Cheeses rolled and apples bruised. Human children in their beds awoke wailing from nightmares where they were hunted through tall grasses by yellow-eyed wisps of smoke. Cats and dogs apt to wander the lanes late of nights vanished, never to be heard from again.
And still they raced on, veering neither left nor right, following a call in their heads and hearts as the moon sank and the sky turned pink as a flayed ribcage. On towards the horizon, where the spires of the castle loomed black.
Almost to the drawbridge they were, and the world growing lighter every moment, when a figure stepped out to intercept them. This was easily dealt with; as one they launched themselves at the woman, claws extended and teeth bared and oh, to kill was sweet! Through the air they sailed, beautiful to see in the moment before the blow.
A word rang out, a sharp, sudden, unexpected command.
In mid-leap they suddenly stopped, tumbling to earth like shaken fruit. Allie was first back on her feet; she scrambled back upright with a hiss of confusion.
“Listen,” said the Princess—quickly, for at that moment, her life hung by a thread. “Just listen. I know where your sister is, and I have a plan.”
Witches have many spells, my hatchling. Some of these you may have heard of, and many more may have escaped your snuffle, for you are young and the inside of your shell is damp yet. Spells to tempt the rabbit into the snare. Spells to make the flowers grow. Spells to make bones stand and sing their true names, to see the future in the spiral of a tadpoles’s insides and the past inside a mosquito’s last meal of blood. Shape-changing spells. Songs to sicken and songs to heal.
Spells of glamour.
Take a feather the rainbow sheen of oily water. Sing a song of apples and barley and hearth ash across its length, wrapping every barbule with burlap and lullabies, each ratite with human dullness and human cares. When the song is done and the feather well-swaddled and fairly a-shimmer with mundanity, take it and wave the little object from snout-tip to tail-tip, until hunting stripes and emerald plumage and yellow slitted eyes crouch unseen behind conjured ape-shapes of cambered crones. No hunters here, say the bread-bakers and candlestick-makers on their way to early market. No sickle-clawed memento mori pair cutting furrows through the high wheat. Just a couple of grandmothers on their way to the castle, baskets of apples and quince and rosemary dangling from their elbows like broken-backed prey.
“Good morning to you, old mother!” said the guard at the drawbridge. “Are those apples for the King?”
The first old woman looked down at her basket, then back up at the guard.
“YES,” she said in a loud, croaking voice. “FRUIT FOR THE SHINY APE KING’S FLAT TEETH.”
“MAMMALS LOVE FRUIT,” her sister added, nodding emphatically.
The elderly were often saying such things, so the guard took no mind. He waved them on to the front gate, where a second guard loitered.
“A fine day for a stroll, eh, aunties?” he said. “Are those quinces for the cook?”
The second old woman cocked her head and fixed the guard with a thoughtful stare. For some reason he found this deeply unsettling; some voice in the deep depths of his hindbrain hooted for him to run.
“COOKING,” she finally said. “YES. HUMANS EAT BURNED THINGS. LIKE RATS.”
“SQUEAKING,” agreed the first sister. “SQUEAK SQUEAK. CRUNCH. THEY CRUNCH SO GOOD.”
And then the two of them laughed. Every hair on the guard’s neck and arms remembered it had once belonged to a small furry squeaking thing and tried to climb as high as it could go. He waved them hastily on into the castle, where they passed plump toddling children and ancient arthritic dogs and bare-bellied donkeys tethered fast to hitching posts. What there wasn’t a lot of around was cats. Glamour never worked on cats. They saw right through the Princess’s spell, recognized the kindred hunters beneath, and found pressing reasons to be elsewhere.
“Need a hand with those baskets, mams?” asked a passing stableboy, eyeing the apples with interest.
The oldest of the sisters snapped her head around to face him in a way that would haunt the lad every time he thought about it, eventually driving him to a life in the priesthood. Humans are very soft and spook easily. One brush with fangs in the dark and they bruise like dropped peaches, never understanding that life is a series of extinction events barely avoided.
“NO,” she said, wiping drool from her lips. “FOR THE PRINCE’S SOFT TENDER STOMACH. FOR PLUMPING.”
“SOFT,” echoed the second. “UNPROTECTED.”
The Princess used her time wisely, as she did all things. She went to the key room, where many keys hung like iron teeth from many jagged hooks. No-one guarded the key room’s vaults, for the King had never landed upon a reason to appoint a watch there (not so emptyheaded as his son, the King, but still not the sharpest claw in the toe) and many in the court had benefited from his thoughtlessness on this matter. How much worse this would grow under the Prince someday was not something the Princess intended to wait around and find out.
She met no-one in the hallway, not that anyone would have questioned her if they had. She was considered more or less ornamental by most of the Prince’s advisors, but a princess is still a princess, not to be questioned face-to-face.
Down the great stairway and out to the stableyard, where Ceecee’s two sisters waited still wrapped in their glamour.
“SISTER!” said one. “INSIDE!” And indeed, from inside the stable came a most pathetic whistling and trilling in response.
“INSIDE!” repeated the other, throwing herself against the oaken door with a crash. Several grooms glanced their way curiously.
“Shh,” said the Princess. “Shh, old mothers. Patience.” She unlocked the doors and they went inside, past horses screaming and spooking in mortal terror at predators they could only smell and rats fleeing like the roof was aflame. The entire stable was in an uproar. The Princess knew she only had a little time before someone rushed in to check the cause. Hastily now, she led them to Ceecee’s stall.
“SISTER!” said the first.
“SISTER!” said the second.
KKKKKKKKKKLLLLRRRRRK! said Ceecee, She tried to thrust her snout through the bars only to be turned back with a clang by the iron muzzle. Enraged, she tried again and again until the air rang with the clamor. Between the noise of the panicked horses, the frantic calls of the sisters, and the blacksmith jangle of Ceecee’s fury, the Princess could barely hear herself think.
She put her fingers to her lips and let out a clear, sharp shepherd’s whistle, sure to let every groomsman in the area know something was amiss if they hadn’t already noticed.
Ceecee, Allie, and Betty froze.
“Here,” she said. “I’m coming in.” She shouldered past the sisters. One by one she dug into the great padlocks with her keys until their insides snapped and twanged open like cracked bones. When each was unlocked and the chains lay spooled in limp gut spirals across the floor, she rolled the door back and stepped inside.
The Princess had never been this close to Ceecee before. She smelled of dusty feathers and blood, musk and rotten meat and sweet crushed grasses. She smelled like freedom, and the Princess felt a short sharp stab of longing lodge in her chest.
Ceecee had never been this close to the Princess before. She smelled of spices and sweat and human cares, responsibility and duty and other things Ceecee only knew of in passing. She smelled like a trapped thing, a forest creature locked in a stall far away from sunlit glades and solitude, and Ceecee felt something like pity for the ugly creased face, naked and flat and already lined with sadness.
The Princess reached up with a final tiny key shaped like a talon, fingers searching beneath feathers until she found the muzzle’s lock. There was a rattle and a click and the ugly thing fell from Ceecee’s snout like a pried-open oyster.
Oh, hatchlings, the reunion that ensued! The glorious shrieking and fluting and twining of necks! The whip-whapping of tails and the flaring of plumage! The rubbing of snouts and the click-clack of sickle claws freed from their beeswax clots tapping a joyous tattoo on the floor! The horses didn’t appreciate it, not one blessed bit, but I know you would have, with your clever slitted eyes and your sharp senses of scent. The strength of the pride is in the many. Split us apart and we are nothing, but together—oh, together—there is nothing we cannot bring crashing and spouting to earth.
And so it was with the three sisters. Apart they had snuck and slunk and relied on trickery for their survival. Rejoined as a trio, they turned and flowed back through the stable like a burst dam, unafraid of anything. The Princess would have had them make their way back out with some caution, but she knew the extent of her power over them had fallen apart with the muzzle, and for that she was glad. She followed them to the barn doors, where Ceecee suddenly paused.
RRRRR? she said. The other two looked up at her in surprise. The Princess did as well; it was not a question she had been expecting.
“I… I am a Princess,” she said, haltingly. “My happiness is of little regard. It is my responsibility to stay here and see that the Prince takes care of himself and more importantly his people. If he should stumble face-first into a chamber pot and drown—or decide to hunt the poor for sport, now that he’s gotten into the habit of deciding things—I would feel bitter guilt over the matter.”
RRRRR, Ceecee repeated, gently. The Princess’s silence this time was lengthy.
“No,” she said. “No, I am not happy. I do not know why I have taken this responsibility. It was chosen for me. I was told it was the right thing to do, and I allowed myself to believe what I was told. The Prince and I were well-matched, it seems.”
Ceecee turned. The saddle was still on her back; there had been no time thus far in which to pry it off along with the rest. As she had with the Prince in the woods, she crouched at the Princess’s feet, waiting. This time, at least, there was no shame in the gesture. It was an offer extended to a fellow huntress, freedom offered for freedom.
The Princess thought about all the ways she had allowed herself to be yoked, making choices for so many others. She thought about the sweet solitude of the forest, birdsong and vine-wrap and the taste of fresh rabbit’s blood on her tongue. She would never have to wear a corset, or comb her hair, or entertain anyone she didn’t feel like entertaining. She wouldn’t even have to wear clothes if she didn’t feel like it. If villagers came to visit wishing for her blessings or curses or poultices, they could handle the sight of a crone’s bare bottom or they could turn around and go home empty-handed. Every blessed stitch of it would be up to her.
“There is not enough pity in me for that man to keep me shackled here,” she said, and climbed aboard. “Let us leave this place.”
Those that saw them go never forgot it, and the incident very quickly passed into legend: The morning their turncoat Princess and two beldames who looked not a day over 110 stole into the King’s stables and made off with the Prince’s newest treasure, the latter two running alongside faster than anyone would have thought mortally possible. The guards were too stunned to stop them as they flashed by. Back through the great stone gate, over the drawbridge, and away down the open road they flew, where not even the dearly departed Sunspot could have kept up with their pace.
And that is almost the end of our tale, little downy toothlings. The Princess went back with the three beautiful sisters to their forest home, where she built a little crookety cabin in a sun-dappled clearing ringed ‘round with fern and foxglove and other plants that should not have gotten on together but made an exception in her presence. There she grew into the powerful witch-crone she had always longed to be, responsible for no-one’s choices but her own unless they ventured into the forest and paid her for the privilege first. And many folk through the years did, driven either by desperation or lust or greed or a fear greater than that of the things that lived within the treeline. Those that returned spun wild tales of naked witches, feathered shadows that fluted and stalked and sang, and a little cabin that walked about on scaly toes tipped with shining sickle claws. Those that didn’t kept their lies clenched between grinning white teeth, boring beetles and earthworms with their blather as the centuries wore on and the leaf drift deepened above.
Allie, Betty, and Ceecee were never again bothered by men’s wiles or lack thereof. Through the Princess’s counsel they learned to stop hunting sheep and cattle and other things that drew attention, focusing instead on deer and boar and those visitors that annoyed the Princess just a little too much. Sometimes they would hunt together, the Princess crouched naked astride Ceecee’s back as they slipped through the trees, starlight flashing off her blade as she tensed for the spring. Other times the three would sun themselves in her front yard and she would brush the dried blood from their feathers with a fine-toothed mother-of-pearl comb, the only thing she had kept from her time as royalty. It was a good life, sprinkled with just the right amount of companionship and just the right amount of solitude, and none of them ever regretted their choices, which is a fine way to grow old if you can manage the trick.
But what of the Prince, you ask? What happened to that worthy? Oh, bless, what a stone-turner you are! No snail or vole will ever escape your jaws, small one, and no mistake. If you must know all things, I’ll tell you of his fate.
They came upon him not far from the castle walls, returning from a late night at the pub. He was very pleased; he had chosen eight different ales all on his own and really felt himself on a roll with all the decision-making he had lately been engaged in. Why, maybe he wouldn’t even need a council or a vizier or a Princess telling him what to do! Maybe he could handle everything on his own from here on out. The possibilities were suddenly, blindingly limitless. A little too blinding, really; he could feel the stirrings of a really impressively nasty headache coiling behind his eyeballs. He blamed it on the barkeep and made a mental note to have the man punished for allowing his sovereign ruler-to-be so much freedom. The morning sun couldn’t be thrown into the stocks, but someone else could certainly pay.
Like the very firmament above had heard his request, a shadow fell across his princely brow, cool and blessedly dim. He luxuriated in it for a moment before cracking open one eye to see what presence had honored his unspoken demand.
“Oh,” he said. “Hello there. I don’t… remember giving you permission to take my creature out for a ride, darling.”
“You didn’t,” came the flat reply.
“Ahh. Well, that’s good. I remember most decisions I make. They’re all so good, and I’m getting such a knack for it.” The Prince squinted at them a little more closely, swaying like a cattail in the breeze. “And—I don’t think I recognize your friends, have we been introduced? Aunties I’ve not yet met? Old wet nurses? Teachers from the convent, perhaps?”
“SHINY BLANK-EYED MAN.”
“SOFT ROUND PRINCE BELLY.”
“Very good, very good. Lovely to meet you both. Sorry that it had to be in this fashion.” He belched, staggered, nearly went over but righted himself just at the no-return point of his totter. The world was spinning merrily. “Now then. I—I don’t think I like you taking Birdie out for a stroll without asking first—”
“—Birdie? You named her Birdie?”
“Thought of it myself. Another good decision.” He beamed blearily. “Please stop interrupting, it’s hard for me to collect my thoughts when everything’s whirling and you won’t stop nattering on. Anyhow, if next time you maybe stop to ask me before taking liberties and borrowing my keys, I shall be as kind and fair as any queen could hope for from her lord and master. Disregard me, and—”
“There’s not going to be a next time.”
The Prince blinked.
“I’m sorry, what? You’ll have to speak up, I didn’t quite catch that.”
The Princess edged Ceecee closer, until the sister’s breath stirred his golden locks and his rumpled coattails and the split ends of his little rolled mustache. She leaned down.
“There’s not going to be a next time,” she repeated. “Ceecee is going back home, and I’m going with her. I’m glad you’ve learned the trick of making your own decisions, because I won’t be around to monitor them for you anymore. Choose well in the future, sire. Someday your subjects will rely on you.”
She made a move to ride on by. The Prince squinted and furrowed on her words for long enough that she almost made it. Her stirrups were almost level with him by the time he finally puzzled out what was going on through the brewery haze and grabbed her by the leg.
“I’ve just made another decision,” he said. There was a new timbre to his words. The Princess didn’t like it one bit.
“Is it to let go of my ankle before you get kicked in the face?”
“You’ve been a good princess. A fine lass, no matter what my counsel said. Beautiful to have around.” His grip grew tight and cold as iron. “But I don’t need people to make my important decisions any longer. In fact, I don’t have to listen to anybody, I’m so good at it now. I don’t need you sticking your pies in all of my fingers.”
“That’s excellent. Pies can always use more fingers, heaven knows. Can we be on our way, then?”
The Prince shook his head slowly, winced and thought better of it.
“You’re riding my property,” he said.
“She isn’t your property.”
“She is, and so are you. How’s it going to look if you take off? How’s it going to look if you take off with something that’s rightfully mine by the really excellent choice I made, hm? I can’t let you go. Wouldn’t be proper. Wouldn’t be fitting.” He cocked his head, his tone brightening somewhat. “Glory, look, I’m doing it again! Another decision!”
“How exactly do you plan on stopping me? I don’t want to hurt you.” And the Princess didn’t, either. It would be rather like hurting a mean, blundering possum caught menacing your hens one too many times: Necessary, maybe, but unpleasant. But the Prince, alas, gave her no choice.
“I’ll send my father’s soldiers into every forest between here and the mountains,” he said. “I’ll catch up eventually, and when I do, it won’t go easy for you, my darling. You can bet a coin with my father’s head on it on THAT. That decision is in the bag. Already made.” His face contorted into a petulant human toddler’s expression, a spoiled child teetering on the precipice of a tantrum. “I’ll have my Birdie back. You should have heard the nice things people said about the way I sat her. I’ll have crossbow bolts put through those other two and decorate our bed chamber with their heads. I will, see that I don’t.”
The Prince’s head wasn’t the only thing spinning. The sisters had begun to circle, hissing low and long. They knew enough of human speech and enough of the Prince to smell the threat in his words.
“HUNGRY,” said Allie.
“BLOOD,” said Betty.
RRRRRRRRRKT, said Ceecee, vibrating beneath the Princess with rage.
The Princess sighed. She shook her head sadly.
“Alright, then,” she said. “If that’s your decision—and you are so very good at decisions, after all, the best—here is mine: Run.”
“Run. Run fast. That is my final word of advice to you. We’ll give you a head start. I can’t hold them off for long, though, so you’d best be quick about it.”
The petulant child expression was slowly melting from the Prince’s face as her words thudded home. He let go of her ankle like it had just come glowing from a blacksmith’s forge.
“You—you wouldn’t do that,” said he, staggering back. “You couldn’t, you wouldn’t, my father’s soldiers would hunt you down anyway, you—”
“I’ll take that risk. The matter is already settled. You decided for me.” The sisters whistled in delight as he turned and stumbled down the road, making desperate little panicked noises. “Now, for the final time: Run.”
And the hunt was easy, but it was sweet—oh yes indeed, sweet as springwater and heart’s blood. A cat may look at a king, but the three beautiful raptor sisters did far better than that. And they lived happily all the rest of their days, too, for there’s no luck like that of those who have dined on tyrants and survived to sing the tale.
(Editors’ Note: “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” is read by Stephanie Malia Morris and Brooke Bolander is interviewed by Lynne M. Thomas on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 23B.)
© 2018 by Brooke Bolander