Charles was born with his wings.
Most parents in such a situation donate funding to the charity or event of their physician’s choice, assuring that after the babe’s wing-nubs are amputated everyone will keep silent.
But Charles’s mother thought they were beautiful: the shadowy promise of vivid green scales pushing up through the skin between his tiny, delicate scapula. Two little miracle nubs, she called them, and insisted to her husband that to surgically remove them would be flying in the face of Nature and Nature’s Creator. She was a mystic, you see, a fan of such esoteric clubs as Grimm’s Society for the Eventual Manifestation of Faerie on Earth and the Post-Death Tea Drinker’s Association. She held regular séances for summoning the Great Angels or the departed spirits of the Royal Family, drove about town in her gilded phaeton with a hat so sequined and ruffled that they called her Mother Fair-Warning. You could see her coming from across the park.
It was impossible for her husband, the Esteemed Sir Galen of Hathchap Abbey, to argue with her.
And so Charles joined the minority ranks of the city’s Winged Few.
I was fifteen the first day I saw him from the carriage with Mrs. Isers. He strode down the sidewalk with his cane tapping the cobbles at a quick clip. His hat tilted precariously upon his head and his wings were folded tight to his back so that it wasn’t until he’d passed us I realized they were not a shining green coat. Gasping, I twisted so hard in my seat that Mrs. Isers tapped my knee with her fan and said, “Please, Diane, do not stare.”
He never noticed me, I’m quite certain. I ignored Mrs. Isers and clutched the side of the carriage as he walked away, longing to strip off my gloves and touch the delicate skin ruffled together between his long wing-fingers.
At home I asked my father a hundred questions about the Winged, for I knew only the shadowed stories my nurse had told me when I was younger: that they are spawn of fallen angels, related to dragon-slayers, or born when their mother steps into a puddle of Avalonian waters. Father assured me that it was a natural deformity, with his lip curled up in distaste. “Like the green-skins or dwarf-folk. To be treated with pity, unless they manage to pull themselves into society. Which rarely happens, dear Diane.”
I dreamed of Charles, though, that night, of how his wings would feel against my fingers. Against my cheek. I woke a-tremble, and went out along the same route that following Suns-day, and every Suns-day after, hoping with every beat of my heart that our carriage would pass him again.
It did, sometimes. I wished to catch his eye, but could never wave or call out. I posed for him, chin low, hands folded in my lap, eyes limpid and sweet. I pinched my cheeks, chewed my lips, and made certain my braids were in place. But it never mattered. He did not look toward my carriage, but was always focused on his route, on arriving wherever it was he headed. I caught glimpses of his dark hair curling beneath the brim of his hat, of the bright yellow waistcoat flashing as he walked. His clothing was always impeccable, his bearing proud and perfect.
Then one day our horse threw a shoe and reared for everyone’s attention. It was a minor moment of panic, and my heart quite nearly choked me – especially when Charles paused. I paid no more heed to the shrieks of Mrs. Isers, but clung to the carriage at stared at him. His round eyes so dark, same color as his wings. His sharp-featured face, with prominent jaw and cheeks like the Atlas-gargoyles on the Palace wall. And oh, so young. Barely older than me. He tipped his hat and smiled. I waved at him; I couldn’t help it.
Every Suns-day after that he was there when I was. As if he waited, too. Our eyes always connected and he always bowed. I touched my lips or smiled my sweetest smile. I longed to jump from the carriage, but never did. Nor did he approach, though his eyes never left me the whole time we passed.
Never did we speak.
It was an afternoon luncheon at the palace, where I dodged the attentions of Mr. Earnest Meadow who had fat fingers but a pleasant enough smile. Mrs. Isers had turned her back for a moment, in collusion with Mr. Meadow’s intention, and I’d lifted my skirts to flee into the small acre of woods. My boots were not suited for the uneven terrain and I fell to my knees among the roots of a tree, jarring my wrists and mussing my gloves and skirts. Mother and Mrs. Isers would flay me alive.
I stripped off my gloves, wondering why on earth I’d run – Mr. Meadows was good and only a decade or so older than me, looking for a pretty, charming wife. He would take care of me and I liked his sister as my own. Tears burned in my eyes as I realized what a fool I was acting. And ruining my clothes. The heel of my glove was streaked with green stain. It would never, ever come out.
Topping it off, I was lost. The acre of woods was more like fifty, stocked with beasts for the young Princess’s hunting parties. Shadows cut everywhere, and I could hear nothing but the wind through the leaves above and my own footsteps. Turning in a circle, I realized I had no idea where I’d come from, or which direction to go. The sun, as it filtered down in scattered dapples of light, was absolutely no help at all.
Just as I decided it was my fate to die, I pushed through into a small grove of poplars, and there he was. Charles. He leaned forward against a wide trunk, head against his hands and shoulders hunched. His wings, usually so sharp and tightly folded, hung loose enough that the tips brushed the earth. Sans bowler, his hair was wild and wind-blown, and I had the sudden fantasy that he’d flown there.
I couldn’t help myself: I crept close, my bare right hand outstretched. Wind rushed all around, obscuring the sound of my boots through the grass, and when I reached him, I slid my finger down the vivid green scales coating the length of one wing-bone.
The wings jerked and Charles whirled around, knocking me back. I cried out and my rear hit hard roots and I caught myself on my wrists again. Wicked pain burned up my left arm.
“What are you, what is this?” he demanded, crouching beside me and gripping my shoulder.
I hissed in pain and tugged away, squeezing my eyes closed so I did not have to see bright flush of anger on his cheeks. “No one, nothing,” I whispered.
His hand leapt off me. “Good God, you’re only a girl. My carriage girl!”
Slowly I opened my eyes. He leaned back onto his heels and contemplated me with his wings arched up and around us like a shield. The sun poured through the thin membranes and turned all the light a gentle, lovely green.
Oh, but my wrist throbbed! I cradled it in my lap and said, “I am Diane Henington-Finch of the Pensgate Finches.”
With tender hands, Charles coaxed my wrist closer to his face. I winced and tried not to whimper as he fingered it delicately. “This is sprained, Miss Finch. It will need wrapping and you’ll have to be kind to it.”
“You are a physician, then?” I didn’t think he was old enough yet.
“Studying to be. My name is Charles Donragen of Hathcap Abbey.”
I smiled as demurely as I was able.
His wings slowly folded in and I couldn’t help but be disappointed. Charles frowned at me. “I am not here for your fascination, Miss Finch.”
“Oh, but no! I am not fascinated – well, yes, sir, I suppose I am – but I only think you are quite remarkable and lovely.”
Charles squared his shoulders, and although he didn’t stop frowning, I could see my words made him preen just a little. “You should not, in the future, go about touching a person’s wings like that.” His voice was soft, though, and I leaned in closer to whisper.
“I’ve dreamed of your wings, Mr. Donragen.”
I nodded. “Since the first Suns-day I saw you at the park.”
“I have seen you, as well.”
“I know, sir.”
“You are…” he drew breath, and sighed. “I would call on you, if you allow it. Now that I know who you are.”
He smiled, and I returned it. Forgetting my injured wrist, I flung myself forward and kissed him. His hands caught my waist and we knelt together, lips touching just barely. His wings fluttered and I recalled the dry, smooth scales under my finger. I shivered, tasting tears on his mouth.
Charles gently pushed me back. “Miss Finch.” His murky green eyes slid to my mouth, and then he closed them. “Diane.”
I cleared my throat, trying to find my voice. “Charles,” I whispered, “I would be grateful if you showed me out of these woods before I am terribly missed.”
“I shall, Miss Finch.” Charles raised himself gracefully to his feet and aided me as well.
With my scandalously bare hand upon Charles’s arm, we made our way through the trees. He asked me when I’d seen him first at the park. Near two years ago, I said, and asked why it took him so long to notice me. Because he was always on his way home from a disliked lecture and in quite an irascible mood, he assured. We spoke of his Mother, and her regular Full Moon Soirée. Charles rolled his eye at me and gave an impression of her high-pitch laugh.
Once I felt the press of his wing at my back, even through layers of corset and gown.
It was too quick a walk back to the party; I’d hardly been lost at all. Charles paused at the edge of the trees and said, “I must leave you here. We can’t possibly rejoin the gathering together.”
“I would not be ashamed, sir.”
“Ah, Miss Finch.” He smiled and I felt warm air against my back as his wing shifted. “When you have wings, you must be attentive to every other form of propriety.”
Though I would have liked to keep my hand on his arm forever, he was quite correct. I bobbed a curtsey, leaning close. “I hope I shall not have to keep watching you only from a far on Suns-days, Mr. Donragen.”
“Indeed, Miss Finch. I shall guarantee not.” With that, Charles bowed over my injured wrist, and I tore myself away.
Charles came calling shortly after that, when I was still riding the wave of Mrs. Isers’ temper for having run off alone at the Princess’s luncheon.
You can imagine, my parents were not thrilled to see a Winged man in our parlor. But his impeccable suit and countenance, along with the reputation of his mother for entertaining the queen and having a father who was a Knight of the Realm, had granted him entry.
It did not, however, grant him my hand. No matter how I begged and pleaded after Charles had gone. “We’ll have no Winged babes in this family!” Father stormed. “Your Mr. Meadow is so much more eligible,” Mother insisted.
“But I love him,” I declared, flinging out my arms to encompass the entire room.
Mother gasped and covered her lips. Father poured himself a brandy, and then one for me. “Drink this, darling Diane, it will calm you.”
“I don’t wish to be calm, Father, I wish to fly.”
“Please, Diane,” Mother said as she lowered herself onto a sofa. “You know he cannot fly.”
“Not literally, Mother!”
Spinning, I dashed from the room, grabbed my coat at the front closet, and charged out the door.
But there was no place to go. I stepped out anyway, across the cobbled street and down the block toward the park. I would go to his Mother for aid.
Mother Fair-Warning and her husband Sir Galen lived at the end of an elegant road lined with townhouses and small square gardens. It was not so far from my parent’s home that I was devastatingly weary open arriving, but I did long for a glass of sherry.
Knocking on the front door was a thrill in itself. I so rarely went calling on others, and here I was about to throw myself upon the mercy of Charles’s mother!
I was shown into her parlor, rich and decadent with purple and emerald velvet draperies. Mother Fair-Warning herself wore a gown of loose silk and a voluptuous golden wig. Her fingers, as they clasped my hand, were weighed down by ruby rings. “Oh, my dear, Charlie has told me so much about you!”
Delighted, I accepted the offer of cake and brandy-wine. Relaxing in her exuberance, I told her my parents were being awful, and she commiserated by telling me tales of her own courtship, of the duels Sir Galen fought and the florid love-notes he composed. I believed it, reveled in it, though I was skeptical of the role she claimed some pirates played. She told me, too, of Charles’s birth and how she loved his wings straight away. By the time Charles arrived for Suns-day supper I was quite tipsy. Encouraged by Mother Fair-Warning, I ran into his arms and kissed every inch of his face.
“Diane!” he gathered me to him and kissed me back. “What are you doing here?”
“I won’t let them keep us apart!”
“We’ll find a way, Diane, I promise.”
His mother slapped her hand against the arm of the sofa. “I shall acquire the Princess’s aid!”
“I must escort you home, Diane,” Charles said gently. “To keep things proper. I promise we will find a way.”
“Yes, we shall,” I nodded. I thanked Mother Fair-Warning, who gave me a tiny golden charm. “For faerie blessings,” she murmured, a sad smile on her lips. “Don’t let Charlie see. They’ll help you find a way.”
I tucked the charm into my glove so that it was warm against my palm, and let Charles walk me out the door.
We were half way between our two houses, and I reveled in the dry, musty smell of his wings and the hotness of the charm in my hand. The sky darkened into night, and I couldn’t believe how long I’d been with Mother Fair-Warning. We didn’t speak over much, but I caught Charles smiling in the corner of my eye.
The charm continued to heat, and it became unbearable. What had Mother Fair-Warning given me? I pulled Charles to a stop, not realizing it was at the mouth of a dark alley, and stripped off the glove. The charm tumbled out, shining like a diamond in the yellow lamplight. A livid red burn marked my palm.
“Come on, Diane,” he said. “We must hurry. This is no time for us to be out alone. If anyone sees…”
The new voice startled us both. It came from a man walking out of the alley with a limp. His shoulder hunched and his eyes glinted as yellow as the charm on the sidewalk. Behind him were three others.
“Nothing,” Charles said, spreading his wings behind us both, and trying to usher me along. “Quite nothing.”
But the man drew a thick knife. “That were stolen from our hills,” he said, pointing the knife at the charm.
Terror ran in my blood like ice, and I wondered why there are no people on the street. It could have been only an hour past sunset at the most! “Take it,” I said breathlessly.
“Hush, Diane,” Charles put his arm before me.
“Let the lass speak.” The yellow-eyed man stopped a few paces from us, and his friends, their eyes unnatural colors like red and inky black and crystal-clear, fanned out. “We will take it, Miss. As its ours. But we’ll take more than that.”
“No, let her go.” Charles pushed at me. “Run, Diane, run and don’t look back.”
I gripped his hand. “I will not.”
“Aye, she’s a keeper, sir,” said one of the other men. His nose was missing.
Suddenly they were around us, surrounding us and tearing me from Charles. My arms were bound back and I kicked and flailed until a clawed hand pressed my neck and I smelled foul breath on my face.
I saw Charles across the alley, on his knees with blood on his face. I cried his name, but they dragged at his wings, pulling them taught, and he could not move. The yellow-eyed man brandished his knife. I screamed again and the hand about my throat tightened.
“We’ll take these, too,” the yellow-eyes man said with a rough cackle. “Seeing they’re ours, too. So much of ours stolen.”
Charles’s face was so pale and his eyes wide. He struggled, but the three men had him, and the one on me snarled, “I’ll pop her head off.”
“Close your eyes,” Charles pleaded, staring at me.
I looked wildly around, but we were nowhere – surrounded by pitch darkness as though we’d been sucked out of the city and underground. The darkness wavered like water. No one could help us.
Charles’s groan brought my desperate eyes back to him. The knife sawed at his back, where I couldn’t see, but all I needed to see was the anguish on Charles’s face. His eyes rolled back and he clenched his jaw. His teeth ground together and he swayed in their arms.
Tears rushed over my cheeks and I pled with them to stop, whispering and crying, but the goblin-men laughed and then suddenly one wing tore away.
I screamed and Charles fell forward. Dark blood poured everywhere. I struggled again, kicking and squirming and reaching back with my hands, but the fingers tightened until I could not breath. My vision narrowed, and I saw Charles limp on the filthy ground, passed out.
They sawed and hacked at his other wing, and I sank to my knees. The goblin-man let me.
The discarded wing lay crumpled on the alley ground and as they surrounded Charles I crawled to it. I dragged it into my lap and my tears fell upon it. The scales shone and I caressed them, hearing the dull moan’s from Charles and the triumphant laughter when his other wing tore away.
They flapped it in my face. “Give that one to us, it’s ours, Missy,” the yellow-eyed one said. He reached for it, and when he touched it, howled and jerked back his hand.
“It’s mine,” I whispered.
“Her tears!” another cried, laughing.
It was like there were a hundred of them, dancing and howling around me, flapping the other wing at me until I reached out and grasped the tip of one long, scaled bone. “Mine,” I whispered again.
They dropped it.
And they vanished.
The alley lit with yellow lamplight and a carriage had stopped. Voices came at me, men’s and women’s, asking if I was well, if I was hurt.
I folded the wings against my chest, weeping and smelling heady, rich blood. It dripped down my chest and my arms as I struggled to my feet.
I would not let go of them, not all night long, not when my parents arrived, and not when the physician assured me that Charles would live. The cold gray hospital hall deadened my senses and I continued to stroke the wings even as my skirt became crusted with their refuse.
Finally, I released them when I heard Father say irritably to Mother, “They must be married now.”
I had the nubs capped in iron. On our wedding day they were hung, with great ceremony, over the mantle of our new home.