Ghosts of the Cortilanes



Six weeks after Nate’s funeral, Mena rode back into camp. How comforting to see the cabins again, the little laboratory that Nate had built, the tables where they’d discussed their findings long into the night. She took what felt like the first deep breath in weeks.

    

Her friends and family back east were wrong. Just because a stupid, pointless accident had taken Nate didn’t mean she should spend her days tatting doilies in her niece’s spare bedroom. Nate had loved this camp, loved the rare golden birds they studied, the cortilanes. It made every sense for her to return, to continue their work.

    

She swung off her saddle. Her feet hit hard-packed prairie dirt.

    

Now was when Nate should barrel out of their cabin, ink stains on his fingers, boots trailing their laces, to ask how her trip went. Had she seen any cortilanes along the way?

    

Yes, love. One followed me all the way from Port Matilda, flying just above the northern horizon. Any idea what made it follow me like that?

    

The wind whispering in the grass made the only answer. Fresh grief chafed her throat. Roughly she shook her head. She’d never hear Nate’s voice again. She needed to accept that. 

    

A cabin door slammed behind her.

    

She spun. 

    

A woman marched towards her wearing a split riding skirt and the largest bonnet Mena had ever seen.

    

Beneath it was a pale face, one Mena had never expected to find in camp. She blinked, feeling slow from travel and the grinding exhaustion of grief. What was Magister Lynn doing here? Why would a professor from their sponsoring university come now, when none had before? 

    

“Mrs. Fairlie,” Magister Lynn said. Her cheeks showed two spots of red. From the heat? Or embarrassment at being caught in camp? “My condolences. We didn’t expect you so soon.”

    

Two other magisters lingered by the cabins, both men, dressed in white linen suits against the heat. One was young and gangly, the other middle-aged, with a drooping face like a hound’s. 

    

Alarm shot like a gulp of whisky through Mena’s chest. 

    

“Magister--” She fumbled for words, her mouth dry as prairie dust. Where was Nate when she needed him? Since he’d held the rank of magister, he’d always handled the administrative side of things. “Magister Lynn, what are you doing here?”

    

The Magister crooked an eyebrow at the blunt greeting, but then Mena had a well-deserved reputation for her lack of social graces. 

    

“We, ah--” She cleared her throat, which ratcheted up the anxiety burning in Mena’s chest. “The university had concerns about the safety of your camp following the, er, incident.”

    

Mena clutched her mare’s reins. Interdepartmental politics lay behind Magister Lynn’s words, politics Mena had always left to Nate. Longing for him welled thick as silt in her chest. “Nate was struck by lightning as he walked back to camp.” What were you doing there, Nate? You never went that way.“The storm was still miles away. Are you blaming him for his own death?”

    

“Of course not, and our initial review has shown conditions in camp to be satisfactory. However…” She took a deep breath. “We’re concerned about your research. Mrs. Fairlie, we’ve been here since yesterday and have yet to see a cortilane.”

    

Are you blind? “One accompanied me all the way here.” She pointed north, over her horse’s ears, but the sky held only clouds.

    

Magister Lynn arched her eyebrow again, a gesture no doubt affected to make slow students squirm. Now it said she’d expected Mena’s eccentricities.

    

Mena ground her teeth. She was too tired, too empty to mince her words. “You think I’m lying? You think Nate and I, we’ve what? Fabricated our data?”


“You have to admit your findings are fantastical. Cortilanes that recognize individual human faces, craft tools, have a rudimentary language--”

    

Ah, now they came to the crux of it. This visit wasn’t about safety in camp. Some professors, including Magister Lynn, never could accept the idea of birds with thoughts, emotions, plans. 


“Who put you up to this?” Mena demanded.

    

Magister Lynn waved a hand, brushing away the question. “Several of us have concerns about the safety and methodology--”

    

“Who else? Is anyone else here?” Mena stepped towards the cabins.

    

The gangly young man--Magister Scott--shook his head. He quirked a smile, a conciliatory look. “Just the three of us. Supposed to make sure everything’s aboveboard.”

    

“While I’m away at my husband’s funeral? Were you ever going to tell me? Or did you plan to poke around, then declare our work a fraud?”

    

Magister Scott had the decency to bow his head, his ears red. Magister Lynn said, “It does look suspicious that after twenty years you still can’t demonstrate how cortilanes use magic or even give unambiguous evidence that they have emotions. You haven’t published an article in five years, and now we don’t even see any cortilanes at our premier research site.”

    

“Magister Thomas had no concerns about our work.”

    

“Magister Thomas is no longer chair of the research division--”

    

“You are,” Mena finished. She could barely form the words.

    

Magister Lynn nodded. “And unless you can prove--quickly--the value of your research here, we will close you down.” 

    

Lily-livered, flea-brained weasel! Outrage threatened to boil from her mouth.

    

Careful, Mena-mine. Nate’s voice whispered in her mind. You have to coax people even more carefully than cortilanes.

    

Nate, why aren’t you here to deal with these people? What was so important that you went out by the lagam tree and got yourself killed?

    

She said instead, “If I can prove cortilanes are here, will that do?”

    

“It will be a start,” Magister Lynn said.

    

“Fine. I’ll take care of my horse, and we’ll go find some. Three pairs were nesting in the river bottom when I left.”

    

Magister Lynn merely raised an eyebrow.

    

Mena clucked to her horse and stomped to the stable. With the magisters’ horses already tucked inside, her mare barely fit.

    

“These people!” she fumed while she brushed her horse. “Why can’t they leave me alone?”


Twenty years before, Mena had discovered that cortilanes had agency—they planned, thought, displayed emotions. More radically, they stored magic in the seedpods of trees. In other words, these fabulous birds were magicians.

    

Such a discovery had turned on its head the traditional view of birds as little more than feathered receptacles in which human magicians could store magic, placing their spells in the birds’ hollow bones. Overnight, a young, radical generation of magicians had embraced the idea of birds as partners in magic rather than mere tools. Every year since then, some new study proclaimed that another species could count or use tools or learn a few words of human speech.

    

None, though, as well as cortilanes.

    

Traditional magicians insisted such studies came from shoddy research. As one of the old guard’s loudest voices, Magister Lynn must have been salivating at the chance to discredit Mena and Nate’s work.

    

“Never,” Mena whispered.

    

She gave her mare a final pat, mentally girded her loins, and strode back to the cabins.

    

“Is it far to the nesting place?” Magister Lynn asked. She sat at one of the tables, bonnet pulled forward, a parasol open against the sun, gloves protecting her hands. The black raven perched on her wrist stood out against her white face, white shirt, white bonnet, white gloves. 

    

“Yes,” Mena admitted, assuming the river was far by the magister’s calculations, if not her own. She did a quick refiguring of her plans. “Let’s walk up the hill from camp first, and look for the cortilane that followed me here.”

    

“I was up there yesterday—” Magister Scott began.

    

Magister Lynn surged to her feet. “Yes, let’s try that first.” 

    

Magister Scott shrugged his deference. 

    

So they hiked out of camp and up the nearest hill. The prairie stretched in an undulating sea of yellow and green grasses, flowers peeking between the stalks like the sun glinting off waves. Here and there stunted lagam trees dotted the landscape, their gnarled arms bent by the ever-flowing wind. Above all stretched the blue-white sky, lording over a horizon that seemed impossibly distant. 

    

Paradise, Mena thought, the very word Nate had used when he first joined her at camp. If only we could go back to those days.

    

She shaded her eyes with her hand and scanned the northern horizon. Blindfolded, she could have described every hill and valley this side of camp.

    

“I don’t see any cortilanes,” Magister Lynn said. 

    

“Do any of you have a seeing scope?” Mena asked. If she’d had time to think properly, she would have brought her own. 

    

The third professor, Magister Carey—he of the hound’s face—pulled one out of the sack over his shoulder. He whispered a spell, and the raven on Magister Lynn’s wrist shook its feathers as magic rushed out of its bones. The seeing scope’s power was now magnified.

    

A lump formed in Mena’s throat. Nate used to say that spell. He’d had a bit of magic, which had fascinated her to no end. And he’d never minded that she couldn’t spell an ant to spilled sugar even if her life depended on it. 

    

“Thank you,” she said, her voice rough around the lump, as she accepted the scope.

    

Through it, she spied distant trees, circling vultures, wispy clouds like seed puffs spread on the sky wind. With the magnification, the blue head of the vulture showed crisply against its black body and individual leaves on the trees rippled in the breeze. She scanned the hills, the undulating line between earth and sky: waving grasses, wildflowers like broken bits of a rainbow, lagam trees bowed like old women.

    

Then.

    

A flash of gold, a hint of red.

    

She sucked in her breath.

    

A cortilane winged its way west, every feather like a drop of living flame, its tail flowing behind it like a comet’s.

    

Her fingers tingled around the scope. No matter how many times she saw one, each sighting was a gift.

    

Nate should have been there, to share it with her. 

    

“Cortilane,” she whispered and handed the scope to Magister Lynn. “There, just to the left of that tall hill. It’s about a handspan above the horizon, just under the clouds.”

    

An odd place to see one, really. The cortilanes rarely ventured so far north of the river. In that direction, the lightning had found Nate. Had he been investigating a new nesting site?

    

Oh, gods and spirits, why aren’t you here to tell me? 

    

Magister Lynn squinted through the scope while Magister Carey held the raven and Magister Scott carefully angled the parasol. After several moments, she lowered the scope, glanced at Mena’s pointed finger to sight along it, and raised the scope again.

    

She scanned a long time. “I don’t see it.”

    

“Let me check.” In the scope, Mena found the hill, the clouds-- “It’s gone. It must have slipped below the horizon.”

    

Damn.

    

She lowered the scope in time to catch the glances the magicians exchanged.

    

Would it be so bad if she threw the scope at their heads? Did they think a wild, untamed cortilane untethered by spells in its bones would come when they wanted? Or that she lied about seeing them at every turn?

    

Or had Magister Lynn lied about not seeing the cortilane? Was she so determined to close the camp that nothing Mena said or did would convince her otherwise? 

    

Careful, Mena-mine.

    

She hugged herself, seeking the animal comfort of her own body. “We’ll have to check the nesting site,” she said and took little joy in Magister Lynn’s wrinkled nose.

    

Down the hill to camp then down the well-worn path to the river bottom. How many times had she trod this, alone or with Nate, laughing when he fell behind, a hopelessly slow walker? Now she would have traded her right eye to dawdle beside him again. 

    

Why hadn’t he been along the river that day six weeks before? What had excited him so much that he’d sent his bespelled magpie ahead to tell her to keep an eye out for him?

    

She brooded over this as the trees of the river bottom came into view, as the temperature dropped in the shade of those trees. Dragonflies shimmered above the calls of frogs.

    

“Their main nesting tree is here,” she said and pointed to the tree where twenty years before she’d caught her first cortilane. Her last, too. She’d never dared to catch another.

    

A pile of seedpods littered the base of the tree, discarded by the cortilanes once the spells inside had been used. Mena squatted to examine them. Sure enough, several pods looked freshly used, the ends still pale from where a cortilane’s beak had worked them. At least one bird had been by in the last two days.

    

“Hullo! Anyone there?” Magister Scott called up to the hole in the trunk, three-quarters of the way up. He grinned, as if he thought the adventure a grand lark.

    

“We’ll have to climb up and see.” Mena knelt to make sure her boot laces were tied securely.

    

Magisters Lynn and Carey paled at that—a difficult thing for Magister Lynn to accomplish—but Magister Scott plunked himself down beside Mena. He also checked his laces.

    

“Sounds like fun. I haven’t climbed a tree since I was a boy.”

    

“Don’t be ridiculous! You could fall,” Magister Lynn hissed.

    

“It is rather high,” Mena agreed. Magister Scott wasn’t that far out of boyhood and he seemed capable enough, but he had the soft look of a man who spent more time exercising his mind.

    

“It’ll be fun.” He climbed to his feet. “Shame to leave without seeing one of these critters.” He grabbed a branch and pulled himself up with unexpected grace. “Meet you at their front door.” He winked and swung up to another branch.

    

He’ll feel that tomorrow, Mena thought. The last thing she needed was for him to tear a muscle, but at least a magister was working with her for once. 

    

She pulled herself onto the lowest branch. Even that small distance off the ground made her feel lighter. She was up, amid the branches and leaves, away from pinch-faced traditionalists, up in cortilane territory.

    

What were the chances that a cortilane roosted now in the hole? She couldn’t say, but she’d rather be climbing, feeling the strength of her muscles and the scrape of bark against her fingers, than down with a seeing scope.

    

Above, Magister Scott shrieked.

    

She froze, peered up.

    

Magister Scott straddled a branch, his right hand clasped in his left, his eyes bulging. “Something stung me.”

    

“Stay calm,” Mena called. “Did you see what it was?” Few insects out here were poisonous. She’d be more worried if a snake had bitten him.

    

“My hand’s swelling!”

    

“He’s allergic to bees!” Magister Lynn called up.

    

Gods. What idiot agreed that he could come? Mena bolted onto the next branch. “I’m coming!” She scrambled up another one, two. “Do you have a healing spell?” she called down.

    

Magister Scott shook violently by the time she reached him. His hand and forearm had swelled nearly double. His right cheek, too, had started to swell. 

    

“A minor one,” Magister Lynn yelled. “Get him down here! There’s more back at camp.”

    

Mena could have slapped herself for not checking that they had all supplies before heading out. She really was not thinking clearly.

    

“It’ll be okay,” she told Magister Scott. His moan said he didn’t believe her. “Take my hand. Come on. I’ll get you down.”

    

He shook his head frantically. “Can’t.”

    

“You have to.”

    

He kept shaking his head. His eyes widened, his nostrils flared, and he clawed his good hand at his throat.

    

Was his throat closing up? Damn.

    

Mena screamed at Magister Lynn. “Send the bird up!” The closer the raven was to Magister Scott when the spell in its bones released, the more good it would do him. 

    

Magister Lynn dropped her parasol, fumbled with the jess that held the bird to her wrist. She ripped the last one free.

    

Mena held out her wrist. “Come!” She prayed Magister Lynn used the standard commands to train her bird.

    

The raven erupted from Magister Lynn’s wrist. Feathers black as death rushed Mena. She had one moment to admire its speed, its grace and precision, then the raven clamped hold of her arm, and she grabbed an upper branch to keep from toppling out of the tree.

    

Below, Magister Lynn bellowed a spell. On Mena’s arm, the raven quivered. 

    

Magister Scott stiffened. His back arched, and he slumped onto the branch, coughing, gulping in breaths of air.

    

Praise the gods. Relieved, Mena squeezed her eyes shut. She tipped her forehead against the branch above her.

    

“Thank you,” she whispered to the raven. It tipped its head quizzically. Probably it had never been thanked before.

    

Sad, that. 

    

“Thank you,” she said again before sending it back to Magister Lynn. She crouched next to Magister Scott. 

    

“Ready to get down?”

    

He nodded, still sucking in lungfuls of air, and took her hand with his good one. The other was still swollen, the fingernails blue. She wondered if he would lose any fingers, or even his entire hand.

    

Then she could only focus on making sure he remained steady on his feet as they climbed down branch after branch. Surely there hadn’t been this many on the way up. The figures of Magister Lynn, her parasol, and her raven remained stubbornly far below.

    

Finally, she guided Magister Scott onto solid ground. 

    

“Magister Carey went for the other spells,” Magister Lynn said.

    

Magister Scott nodded grimly as he leaned against the trunk. Mena, bent over her knees, marveled to find she hadn’t missed the other professor. Still, it had been smart to send him ahead.

    

After a moment to catch their breaths, she slung one of Magister Scott’s arms over her shoulder, and they started back to camp as fast as he could manage. She kept an eye on the sky. The first cortilane she’d ever met had given her a seedpod with healing spells that saved Magister Thomas’s life. When she found Nate’s body, four cortilanes had stood a sort of watch over him. If cortilanes came to those dead and dying, would they come to Magister Scott?

    

Please come, she prayed up one hill and down another. Please come.

    

Magister Carey found them first. The two magpies on his shoulders flew to them over a patch of poppies, landing on Mena’s and Magister Lynn’s outstretched wrists.

    

Magister Lynn said the words of release, and Magister Scott promptly sat down in the grass. He clutched his right hand, which diminished to its normal size before Mena’s eyes. His fingernails turned from blue to purple to red to pink.

    

“Thank you,” he breathed, turning his hand this way and that. “Thank you.”

    

Magister Lynn readjusted her parasol. She sent both magpies back to Magister Carey. “Can you walk?”

    

Magister Scott hauled himself to his feet.

    

“Good, because as soon as we get back, we pack our things. We leave for Port Matilda at first light. All of us.” She glared at Mena. “This camp is not safe and is no longer in operation.”

    

“Ridiculous.” Mena set one fist on her hip. “The camp’s perfectly safe for anyone not allergic to bees.”

    

“I’ve made my decision.” Magister Lynn flicked her parasol. “Come along.”

    

The Magister might have yapped like a grass-fox for all her words had meaning to Mena. The camp couldn’t close. It couldn’t. Cortilanes could teach human magicians so much, more than humans could ever deduce by stuffing spells into magpies and crows. And what about her and Nate’s legacy, the revolution in the treatment of birds that their research had sparked? No other research camp had their reputation. Without this camp, would birds return to being little more than feathered pockets? 

    

The three magisters eyed her, waiting to see what she would do. Even the raven and magpies seemed to wait. 

    

She breathed in, tasted the dusty air of the prairie. Her kind of air. She breathed out. She tipped her head up to a sky as clear and welcoming as a pool.

    

A prick stung her arm.

    

She swatted, smashing a mosquito against her skin. Blood streaked her elbow.

    

There’d been no blood when Nate died. If there had been, perhaps she would have accepted the truth more quickly. Instead, she’d told herself he must only be sleeping. Please, gods and spirits, let him only be sleeping.

    

She’d not had a chance to go back there, where the cortilanes had held vigil until she reached him. She’d had no chance to discover what he’d been so eager to tell her.

    

“I can’t stop you closing the camp,” she told magisters and bespelled birds alike. Not now, anyway, not until she got back to the university. “But I’ll be damned if I help you pack it up. I’m going to visit the place where my husband died.”

    

She turned on her heel. Her strides ate up the lengths of grasses and poppies.

    

Behind her, Magister Lynn said. “Go with her. Make sure she comes back.”

    

A few moments later Magister Carey trotted up, without his magpies. His drooping face flamed red from sun and heat and exertion.

    

She didn’t give a pig’s ass about his face as long as he stayed out of her way. 

    

He seemed determined to mimic her shadow, existing as a silent presence at her elbow. His muffled breathing grated at the edge of her hearing. She hummed to drown it out, but the noise crept in, like the whine of a mosquito.

    

Finally she crested the last rise, and there was the lagam tree that had been Nate’s companion in death. At the sight of it, tears seized her eyes. Fiercely she blinked them away. Half of the tree sat charred, the withered leaves hanging limp at the ends of blackened branches. The other half raised gnarled, leafy limbs to the sky as if in thanks for surviving.

    

In that half, sat a cortilane.  

    

Mena froze, her heart winging into her throat. Her eyes still stung with tears. 

    

“What?” Magister Carey demanded. He stopped a step ahead of her.

    

She stood silent. If he couldn’t spot a cortilane at close range, too bad for him.

    

This cortilane showed more copper coloring in its face than normal. So this was Penny, one of the local breeding females. How good to see her, a familiar face. 

    

Penny cocked her head, eying the base of the tree where Mena had built a small cairn in Nate’s honor. Something new glinted gold on its top.

    

“Oh!” Magister Carey’s face lit up, and he pointed to Penny.

    

“Yes, I see her.” No matter his abominable breathing, she loved to see the awe on other people’s faces at the sight of a cortilane. “Stay here.”

    

She walked to the pile of stones. On its top lay a golden cortilane’s feather, a long flight feather the length of her forearm. She sucked in her breath. Finding their feathers was rare. To find this one here, as if left as a gift…

    

No ordinary gift. A face peered out from the feather’s surface. A human face. Nate, smiling up as if through a golden window.

    

“Nate?” She snatched up the feather. Her heart thudded against her ribs. 

    

Could he hear her? Was it really him, peering through the feather as through a pane of glass? 

    

He smiled, not moving.

    

“Nate!”

    

The face beamed at her, frozen.

    

Raw grief knifed through her belly. For just a moment she’d been sure she had Nate back. But no. Even cortilanes, magicians though they were, couldn’t gift her with some secret portal to the dead.

    

“How intriguing!” Magister Carey peered over her shoulder, rubbing his hands in delight. “How do you suppose the cortilanes captured his visage?”

    

“No idea.” And she wasn’t about to test it to find out. What if Nate’s face disappeared? The image was much more lifelike than the little portrait she carried, better even than what a human magician could capture.

    

“The cortilane appears to desire its return.”

    

No! She cupped the feather against her chest, pressing Nate’s face to her heart. Even as she did, she knew it was selfish. Of course the feather belonged to the cortilanes. They should have it back if they wanted it. She should be grateful she got to see Nate’s face one more time.

    

Should be, but she wasn’t. She wanted to drown in the sight of him. 

    

Penny leaned down on her branch, her wings slightly spread, eyes fixed on Mena.

    

Begrudgingly, Mena held out the feather. Nate’s face beamed at the sky.

    

Penny clacked her beak, a short, harsh sign of disapproval.

    

As warmth flooded Mena’s chest—I get to keep the feather!—Penny flew to a nearby hill. She leaned towards Mena, fanning her wings.

    

“Oh.” Mena clutched her feather and managed a smile. “She wants us to follow.” 

    

At that, Magister Carey snorted.

    

She shook her head and set off after Penny. Every step, every beat of the cortilane’s wings, sharpened the world around her. This was what she was meant to do: tramp over the prairie, following birds with wings like flames. The only thing missing was Nate.

    

Would one feather, one close encounter with a cortilane, be enough to keep their camp open? Would Magister Carey support her in her arguments? He puffed along behind her, looking in desperate need of quiet time in his office.

    

Penny flitted from perch to perch, always stopping to ensure Mena and Magister Carey kept up. She stopped on the top of a hill, peered back, and disappeared into one sloping side.

    

Mena strode up the hill to where she’d vanished, Magister Carey at her heels.

    

“Should I presume a cave exists inside?” He whispered as if someone on the wide prairie might overhear.

    

“Never knew one to be here.” But they were quite a ways from where she normally observed the cortilanes. Could this have been what Nate discovered? A secret lair of cortilanes?

    

Mena dropped to her knees and brushed aside a mat of grass. Sure enough, a hole opened in the side of the hill. She squinted inside but met only darkness.

    

“Surely you aren’t proposing venturing inside?” Magister Carey took a step back.

    

“Why, are you afraid? It’s safe enough for a cortilane.”

    

He puffed out his cheeks, gazed across the landscape. She could see him debating if he could find his way back to camp without her. And deciding he couldn’t.

    

“Come on then.” She tucked the Nate feather in her waistband—by my side as always, love—and crawled inside.

    

It was a tight fit. She squeezed against the dirt sides, crawling hunched over so her head didn’t scrape the sod ceiling. The light fell away, leaving her fumbling in a dark that smelled of worms and loam. Her knees and palms grew damp. Every few paces, she checked her feather, scared it might tumble out. Behind her, Magister Carey muttered under his breath.

    

In time, the path bent to the right. Soft light beckoned. She scrambled into a chamber the size of a classroom.

    

She squinted into the pale light as Magister Carey hauled himself up behind her.

    

A crack in the earth above let light filter down into the round space. Perched on outcroppings of rock or dirt were cortilanes—nine in all. Six were the mated pairs from this year—Penny and Big Red, plus four others. With them sat three fledglings, their feathers more brown than gold.

    

I’ll have to name the youngins. The thought drifted through her head as she stared at the entire local population of cortilanes.

    

Why on earth were they here? Why lead her here? Was she to thank them for the feather? But she’d never observed anything like gratitude from the birds, and she could have expressed thanks back at the lagam tree.

    

One of the birds murmured, low, the kind of call a mated pair chortled to each other as they settled in for the night. She and Nate had heard such calls many an evening along the riverbank.

    

Except all of the birds in front of her were silent.

    

Was there a separate chamber? More cortilanes?

    

She turned, peering at the walls.

    

Instead of doors, golden feathers lined the walls, their color blending in with the earth. Dozens, scores, hundreds of feathers, each carefully placed so it jutted from the walls. On the closest ones, images of cortilane faces showed clearly, each image as crisp as the one of Nate, each one showing a face with individual variations of yellow, bronze, or copper.

    

The one on the right, it was Scarlet, one of the first cortilanes she had named. Penny’s grandmother. Beside her, Penny’s father, Sol.

    

Her heart seemed to stop. “My god,” she whispered. She stared at the faces, dumbstruck by what they meant. “It’s a mausoleum.”

    

“Preposterous.”

    

“I knew those cortilanes!” Each face peered at her, reminders of happier times. “You think this is a coincidence?”

    

“It’s, ah, I mean…” He trailed off, his fingers plucking his lips.

    

She walked among the feathers, among faces so familiar her chest ached, among feathers so old the images on them had started to fade. Her breath caught at pictures of nestlings, infants so young their faces were little more than balls of down. She bowed her head, overwhelmed by all the faces. 

    

On the far wall where the cortilanes perched, one feather stuck into a rock a little darker than the others. Here the nighttime murmurings sounded loudest. She stared at the feather for several heartbeats, her mind feeling slow and dull with sorrow, before she realized the calls emanated from the feather as if from a music box. 

    

The image on the feather was Ember, the cortilane who had helped save Magister Thomas twenty years before. Ember had died several years after that.

    

Was she hearing him again, an old friend, his ghost voice revived in this twilight?

    

And if she was, did that mean the voice of each cortilane was preserved with their image?

    

And if their voices were preserved—

    

She gripped her feather with Nate’s face. Her elbows dug into her sides as hope thumped painfully in her chest. 

    

Penny chipped, an encouraging little noise.

    

Before she could reconsider, Mena swapped the feathers.

    

The silence that followed pressed sharp against her ears. Each ruffling of a cortilane’s feathers seemed to echo. Magister Carey cleared his throat. 

    

She pressed her clasped hands to her lips. Please, please, please. 

    

Then a voice.

    

“Well, Mena-mine, I seem to be dead. Sorry about that, not my plan. I’m not sure—oh, the feather! Listen. I have to tell you. I was down by the tree when one of Penny and Big Red’s nestlings died, not sure the cause. But she did the most amazing thing. She pulled one of her feathers and pressed it over the nestling’s face. And it imprinted! No joke—it made a perfect portrait, right on the feather. She flew north with the feather in her beak so I hightailed it after her. Lost her after a bit, I’m still mad at myself for that. And now I don’t know what to think. Have they been hiding this feather-thing from us all these years? Evidence of culture, emotion, mourning? Oh, love, I wish I could tell you in person. It’s a wondrous discovery, but not half as wondrous as you. You made me very happy, Philomena Fairlie.” 

    

A hush as the voice faded. She found she was bent over, arms wrapped around her stomach, as if his voice were a magnet drawing her towards it. She straightened, pulled the feather out of the rock, and stuck it back in again.

    

“Well, Mena-mine, I seem to be dead…”

    

His voice, that deep rumble that had bolstered her days and nights. Here it flowed again, encouraging her, supporting her, laying out the first clue that would have led them eventually to this cave. He’d been hurrying to tell her. No wonder he’d sent his magpie ahead. 

    

She leaned forward, parched for the well of his voice. Tears streamed down her face. She wondered how, since she felt emptied, gutted. She put the feather back in the rock again. And again. And again. 

    

“Well, Mena-mine, I seem to be dead…”

    

He hadn’t needed to die. Cruel, senseless accident.

    

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Magister Carey whispered.

    

She glared. She didn’t want his sympathy. It drowned out Nate’s voice.

    

Magister Carey plucked out the feather. 

    

“Hey!”

    

He handed it back to her but covered the rock with his hand.

    

“Evening comes. Can you navigate to camp in darkness?”

    

How long had she been standing there? How many times had she listened to Nate’s message? Not nearly enough, but Magister Carey was right. The light in the room was fading. The cortilanes had gone. She knew this part of the prairie only vaguely.

    

“I’m coming back tomorrow.” She wiped her eyes. 

    

He nodded. “I suspect you’ll come often, backed by a cadre of researchers. Even Magister Lynn won’t shutter the camp for this. I’ll ensure it.”

    

Well, that was a relief. She breathed out. “Thank you.”

    

He bowed, a formal, stiff movement that still managed to convey respect. That small comfort kept her going as she led the way back out to the hillside. 

    

“We’ll call it Nate’s Cave for now,” she said as she dusted herself off.

    

Magister Carey smiled, the first time she’d seen him do so. “A perfectly good name.”

    

A good name, she thought, after such a terrible loss. But now she knew she’d been right to come back. Nate’s work, their work, would go on. Nate would be proud.

    

She turned her feather so Nate’s face reflected the setting sun. She led the way back to camp, Nate glowing golden all the way. 





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