Beat Softly, My Wings of Steel by Beth Cato

By the light of the full moon, I crept onto a battlefield mounded with decaying soldiers and horses. Mud squished beneath my boots as I searched for a horse’s soul. This close to the Jen picket lines, they had likely already scavenged for souls of both flesh horses and those that had already been reborn as pegasi, but I was desperate.

Not far away, the campfires of the Jen army flickered, their encampment a living wall across the peninsula. At my back, my own city Sharva repulsed me like the rotten flesh on this battlefield. Holes dotted the magicked dome over the spires like a moth-gnawed veil unable to hide an ugly bride. I would rejoice over Sharva’s imminent fall but not for what that meant for me and Grandmother.

My hand glided over the smooth metal belly of a pegasus. Voices caused me to hunker low. After a long minute, I crawled forward. Gauzy clouds smothered the moon but I could still make out the bodies around me like miniature foothill ranges. A Jen Cavalry officer lay nearby, her death evidently more recent than most.

The golden emblem of Jen Cavalry on her surcoat was not that different from Sharva’s: a rearing pegasus, wings flared. The city-states of Jen and Sharva vied like jealous sisters for the love of the benevolent horse goddess Atanta.

I rubbed my filthy fingers over the embroidered patch, then looked away, ashamed of my own pettiness.

That’s when I spied the soul.

The wisp was dull yellow like a star fallen to earth, its light nearly extinguished after so long on the field. I slid over a pegasus’s metal corpse to get closer as hot tears filled my eyes. A soul. Blessed Atanta, there was hope. We might be able to escape.

Only the souls of especially strong-willed horses could linger on earth after death, and it took even more fortitude for such souls to persist after their reconstructed bodies failed. Mother often said Cavalry families of Jen and Sharva had that same resilience. We were of Atanta’s brood, too—and horses responded to that. It’s as though they recognized a scent on Cavalry souls that marked us as part of their herd.

I cupped the soul in my hands. Faint warmth remained, as in a round of bread left cooling for an hour. “There, there,” I whispered. “I’m Ulyssa. I’ll take good care of you.”

I had known and loved many horses throughout my fifteen years, but I had never bonded with one.

With trembling, mud-stiff fingers, I pulled the ready heart from my pouch. I knew every dent and curve pounded into the metal surface. I twisted the lid from the right ventricle, and murmuring praise to Atanta, I poured the soul inside.

I slipped the heart into my pouch just as gunfire punched through the quiescent night. An unseen bird cawed, the sound almost as loud as the lurching of my heart. I eased myself back over the broken pegasus and officer. The bombardment would begin anew at sunrise. I had to hurry. My pegasus must be ready to fly before Sharva’s dome was breeched.

***

“Miss Ulyssa, do you require assistance?” asked Three. He met me at the estate’s gate, his three-fingered hand held aloft to cast its embedded illumination.

I stank after the battlefield and the sewers I’d slunk through to get there. “Take this to the workshop and make sure the heart is clean,” I said, passing him my satchel. He bowed. With much of his exoskeleton removed to plate my pegasus, the knobs of his spine were visible.

“Miss Faleen brought muesli. I stored it in the kitchen.”

“Thank you, Three.” What a mercy! I’d used our scant food supply to bribe the sewer guards. Three’s metal feet clicked on the courtyard tiles. His light faded.

Atanta bless Miss Faleen and her two children. The rest of Sharva tried to ignore me and Grandmother after the Bloody Tourney and Mother’s death, but our neighbor’s friendship had never wavered. That’s why I planned to bring her two youngsters along when we escaped the city.

I cleansed myself and entered the stable.

Before the war, we had lived in comfort off Mother’s Cavalry commission. We’d had a dozen automatons on staff—of which Three was the last—and a double stable filled with both flesh horses and those reborn in winged metal bodies.

Three had lit gas lamps and uncovered my metal horse. It was not yet a pegasus; the soul needed to adjust to a more familiar form first.

My horse was beautiful, yet still undeniably the raw work of a mere squire. Visible seams crisscrossed its body like stitches in a quilt. The mismatched metal patches were proof I had pieced it together from a hundred different carcasses. Likewise, the completed wings against the nearby wall contained hundreds of feathers in a warm metallic array that stood in bold contrast to the steel bones. The full equine form had some sinuous grace—a cupped chin, tapered ears—but overall, like any Cavalry mount, it was built for strength and endurance.

I picked up the metal heart, stroking it. I would soon know this soul with intimacy unlike any I had known. I crouched to place the heart in the chest cavity, and sang to Atanta all the while. I made the final connections within the body and stood, my hand on the halter. The enchantments I had pounded into metal and pressed into rubber thrummed to life like a swarm of bees. Onward I sang.

Life began with a shiver, like a flesh horse beset by flies. My horse’s ears flickered next. Hooves shuffled. Its polished black marble eyes rolled in their sockets, the spark of magic brightening pupils. It jerked back on the tethers then stilled, quivering. A flesh horse would have been frothed in sweat. The mouth began to work as if fighting a bit. I frowned as my prayers finished.

“Three, did I miss any elements in creating the mouth?”

“No, miss. All procedures were followed.”

“Have you observed any behavior like this in an awakening before?”

There was a pause as Three accessed his records. “No, miss. Nor are there notes on such behavior in fully adapted pegasi.”

The horse’s nearest eye gazed directly at me as its mouth continued to move. There was a pattern. Long gap, short gap. I mimicked with my own mouth. The horse’s head bobbed in an intense nod.

“Do you understand what I’m saying?” I whispered.

The horse nodded.

“But your soul! I saw it! You have to be a horse!”

The horse shook its head.

I stared in horror. “Oh, Atanta, what have I done?”

***

I skimmed through volume after volume at the workshop bookshelf while simultaneously flooding Three with queries.

Had a human soul ever been placed in a horse before? No.

Had anyone ever seen a human soul before? No.

Had a horse’s soul ever been placed in anything not shaped like a horse? No. A soul needed a familiar body to be reborn.

Then how could a human soul adapt to a metal equine form? I didn’t ask Three that. I knew he had no answer. Only Atanta did.

Oh, there were always jokes about Cavalry families and their deep soul-bonds with their constructed equines. But to see and snare a human soul as if it were a horse?

I froze in the midst of pulling down a book. Sharva killed Mother because she spoke out against the war. Would I have been able to salvage her soul after her execution? Cold trickled down my spine. After all, she had been the finest equestrian of her generation here; her only peers were the Arvo sisters of Jen.

Dizzied, I pushed away the book and faced the horse again. Most Sharvan Cavalry, horses, and pegasi were dead. Very few had ventured from the walls since the last full moon. I remembered the Jen officer’s broken body, so close to where I found the soul.

“You’re Jen Cavalry,” I whispered. The enemy. In my stable.

The horse exploded into motion. Its head jerked down at a hard angle, yanking the tether free from the far wall. The horse pivoted, hind legs angled toward me. I leaped and rolled to one side. Wood chunks and splinters rained down on me as a bench caught the attack. I turned in time to see the horse jerk hard on the other tether. The rope broke free, bringing a piece of board with it, and the horse lunged forward.

Three grabbed one of the dangling ropes. His reinforced metal might have been enough to slow a flesh horse, but not this beast. The horse purposefully jerked its head as it leapt through the open door. Three went airborne and crashed into the wall with a sickening jangle of metal. Hooves clattered in the courtyard, the loud echo like war drums.

I pursued, sick with dread.

The horse spun in a circle. Suddenly, I knew its panic. I saw what it saw: the home of the enemy. High walls, a thick gate, a fortress in miniature. Terror pulsed through the horse’s makeshift heart as it looked every which way, frantic for escape. The very sound of its hoof beats amplified its alarm.

Shock stole my breath away. My bond with the horse was true, Jen or not.

I whispered to Atanta, beseeched her for her wisdom, her peace, and flowed that calm toward the horse. At the stroke of power, the horse looked at me, ears back.

Negativity punched me in the gut. NO NO NO. It didn’t want me in its head.

“Please. You must be quiet. The neighbors… they’ll report the sound or sight of any horse. You’d be forced to ride against the Jen.” A hoof stamped. Questions bubbled against my consciousness, but I couldn’t quite grasp words, just continued negative emotion.

I clenched and unclenched my fists, fighting my own panic. I wanted to live. My horse was our only means of survival. I couldn’t lose it.

“Ulyssa?” Grandmother called from a far archway. “Did I hear a horse?”

“There aren’t any horses here, Grandmother. There are scarcely any in the city at all.” Atanta forgive me the lie. “Please go back to bed. Miss Faleen brought us food for breakfast.”

“Ah, bless her and those children! No horses. Mercy on us all…” She muttered as she shuffled away.

I stared down at the horse. It stared back, utterly still. I had the sudden sense it knew of all my emotions, too: my well of love and despair for Grandmother, and my hope. Some of the negative backlash softened. Maybe my horse had loved a grandmother, too.

“My Grandmother’s completely blind and can barely walk. I should have Three check on her, but… oh.”

I glanced back. Pieces of Three littered the doorway and hall. With his exoskeleton gone, he had shattered like an egg. Tears flooded my eyes. Oh, Three. I felt the sudden need to gather his wreckage, to save him, and then I noticed his neck unit laying on the tile.

“If you come back into the workshop, I can try installing my automaton’s voice box in your throat. It’s never been done before, but look at us.” I motioned to the both of us. “Will you let me try?”

The horse’s marble gaze was intent as it nodded.

***

I sang speech into my horse. Its mouth moved like before, ready to speak as Atanta’s blessing descended on us.

“Help. Me.”

I froze, my hands still inside the throat cavity. So that’s what the horse had been trying to say.

“I hear you.” I closed the hatch and stepped back. Thin morning light cast slants onto the workshop floor.

“I’m in Sharva?” The words warbled.

“Yes.” I licked my dry lips. “I found your soul on the battlefield. I thought…”

“I was a horse’s soul. I don’t understand, either. Nothing like this has happened in Jen. I am… I was Gia.” As she spoke, the tone continued to undulate until it found soft evenness. The soul had adjusted the voice to make it familiar.

I stared. “Gia. Commander Gia Arvo.” One of the Arvo sisters.

The horse’s head lifted. “You know me.”

“Of course. I saw you at the Bloody Tourney. My Mother…” I stopped and struggled to control my emotions. If Gia knew who Mother was, would she attack me again? I was almost defenseless against her weight and strength, though I could call on Atanta to sever the life I had sung into her; usually such a plea accompanied a dram of Dreamless Death to end the suffering of a flesh horse. There was no way to know how Atanta would answer a death prayer alone.

“Ulyssa?” Grandmother’s voice wavered in the distance. “Where’s Three?”

“Ulyssa. I thought that’s what she said earlier. You’re Commander Moshana’s daughter.” Gia’s ears pivoted forward. Instead of being enraged, she seemed intrigued. I nodded, too tired to deny it. “With your lineage, with your city’s need, why aren’t you Cavalry? Why are we here?”

I looked around. My workshop wasn’t shabby, but it certainly wasn’t like the Sharvan Cavalry stables Gia would have visited before the war. “I’m surprised you’re asking me questions and not simply stomping me into the ground.”

“There’s still time for that. What day is this? How long was I…?”

“Last night was the final full moon in the cycle. How soon until Jen pushes into the city?”

“I don’t repeat military secrets, no matter how obvious the answer may be.” Her indignant attitude prickled against my consciousness.

“Do you think I’ll warn parliament? The Cavalry?” My voice rose to hysterical heights. “I don’t care if they all rot, I…”

I didn’t dare grant this Jen-souled horse my wings. I had no way to get us out of the city now. The Jen would slaughter me and Grandmother. Eventually. Painfully.

“Ulyssa?” Grandmother’s frail voice was a little closer. “Where’s Three?”

“I have to go to her or she might trip on the tiles.” I glanced at Three’s remains on the floor. Such an ignominious end. I could still bring his central unit, if we had a way to escape. If.

Heavy thuds rang from the street side gate.

My blood turned to ice. “Someone heard your hooves and reported it.”

“I will fight. I won’t be forced to kill my comrades.”

“And I’d cheer you as you fought Sharva,” I snapped. Gia’s profound confusion—horror—flashed through my mind as I moved to the doorway. “Grandmother! Wait there! Three is broken. I’ll answer the gate.”

I grabbed a pitchfork, a stark reminder of those distant days when horse manure was an issue. I would fight, too. I wasn’t a noble officer like Mother, wearing my parade best to be marched to my doom. No. I’d kick and bite and scream. Like a horse.

Through the gate slats, I recognized Faleen’s young son. “Galen? What is it?”

His eyes were bold white against his brown skin. “We all heard hoof beats and Mama sent me to follow Mr. Kirks from across the street and he went straight to the Cavalry to tell them, and they thought hunger made him hallucinate but he kept talking and they’re going to send soldiers. Do you really have a pegasus in there?”

Atanta bless this family for all their kindness. “No pegasus, Galen.” Not yet. “Thank you for the warning. Get home so the soldiers don’t see you here.”

I left the pitchfork and ran. I burst into the workshop, breathless. “The Cavalry’s coming.”

The horse struck a noble pose. “I will make my stand here, then.”

“You’ll do no such fool thing. You’re in a horse’s body, but you can go where horses never would.”

Gia’s ears pivoted as she took this in. “What do you have in mind?”

***

I led three soldiers to the stable. I had thrown a sheet over the steel wings and tucked them partially behind a table.

“Our automaton had a terrible malfunction,” I said, pointing to the broken boards where Three had impacted with the wall. “That must have been what the neighbors heard.”

The commander grunted. “Hell of a malfunction.” We knew each other from our school days, but he couldn’t look me in the eye. My mother was the gifted hero turned traitor, after all.   I walked them through the main house. Grandmother sat on her cushion eating her breakfast of dry muesli.

“It was such a terrible noise!” she said between lip smacks.

“I can imagine, ma’am,” said the commander, his gaze averted.

In the back of my mind, I knew the presence of my horse the way I knew a cool breeze. I knew her effort to remain utterly still in the cellar just below. I knew her fear, her tumultuous mind. Also—her awe. For a flesh horse to be reborn in metal was a great honor. Gia’s new existence, for all its terror, was of unparalleled holiness.

She understood me in the same way. A standard pegasus responded to the call of its bonded rider, their teamwork in battle synchronized and sinuous. But those horses were horses. Gia was something more.

The soldiers left. The morning bustle of Sharva had been replaced by ominous stillness. Everyone waited for the attack to resume. For the end to come.

I entered the cellar. Any normal horse would have balked at those steep downward steps. I left a lamp hanging on the wall. Gia awaited me in a recess beneath the stairs, the light casting brilliant stripes across her sloped back.

“Sharvan Cavalry killed your mother. Why? She was your city’s greatest hero.”

“She was.” I blinked back sudden tears. “You need to know that at the Tourney, her volley that killed the Jen prince…”

“It was an accident. Yes. Many of us witnessed it and testified so, but many more wanted vengeance and blood.”

I couldn’t disguise my surprise. Even the famed Commander Gia Arvo had been against the war? “Sharva was happy to have an excuse to fight, too. But Mother didn’t want to be the reason. She testified it was all an accident, that Jen’s military outnumbered ours, that Sharva had no chance. When our parliament wouldn’t listen, she tried to smuggle messages to Jen, pleading for mercy. That’s when she was declared traitor.”

I remembered my mother at the end. Her uniform, creases perfect. Her chin high. She marched to her death without any regrets. I was the one left with the rage. Against her, for abandoning us. Against Sharva, for readying their volley of stones to kill her. Against the Jen, for persisting to fight.     Against Atanta, for letting this happen at all.

“You made this horse’s body as a means of escape,” Gia said softly.

Her grim vibe confirmed my fears. Me and Grandmother were symbols of a war with a terribly high cost. We would be shown no mercy in the invasion.

Dust shivered from the ceiling as the Jen bombardment resumed.

“The attack won’t stop at sundown,” Gia whispered. “This will continue as long as needed to crack the dome.”

“I need to affix your wings. The instant the dome falls, we must fly.” I stifled a yawn against my wrist.

“You need to sleep first or you’ll make some fool error. I know that from personal experience. I should stay down here as you rest, just in case soldiers return.”

I rested a hand on Gia’s muzzle and wondered how she felt my touch, how she saw, how she experienced life. All those questions that could never be answered through a human-horse soul bond.

“I feel like I’m alive. That there’s more of me. That I’m stronger than ever before. I feel… blessed.”

“Why didn’t Atanta grant our people this kind of bond months ago?” I hoarsely whispered. “If Sharva and Jen could have understood each other like this, if…”

“I don’t know.” Her frustration, her grief, compounded with my own. Gia’s head hooked over my shoulder as I leaned against her, the closest we could come to a physical embrace.

***

I sang Gia into a pegasus, and she sang with me.

It was peculiar, our fusion of power. Horses weren’t capable of this intense weaving of magic and soul. My body tingled with heat and light and the channeled blessing of Atanta, and Gia knew the same.

Even so, the wing attachment took hours. Pulleys in the ceiling held the heavy wings aloft so I could wire them in, chanting all the while. It was evening by the time I released the ropes and stood back to watch Gia test them in the wide space of the workshop.

She flapped once, twice, thrice, and her body lifted. I held my breath, in awe of her own indescribable elation. She flew. She had known the bliss for years as a rider, but to be the one with wings?

I absorbed her joy, and her ready forgiveness at my undeniable jealousy.

“Considering that you were able to see my soul, that we are capable of bonding like this, you may yet have your chance at wings,” Gia said.

“Atanta willing.” I was afraid to even hope to be reborn like her. Besides, I rather liked my human body and I hoped for plenty of years in it.

I closed my eyes, the rhythmic wind from her wings like a lullaby. I felt an urge creep over Gia. She could go right outside and fly higher and higher, leave us all behind. We weren’t Jen, after all.

I didn’t plead. I simply stood there. I understood her temptation. I also understood her.

She landed with a clatter of metal hooves on tile.

The bombardment intensified as the dome thinned. I prepared Gia with full tack and laden saddlebags. Our plan was to fly to Gia’s villa a day south to take refuge, and once the battle was done, connect her with her Cavalry officer sister.

I explained my plan to Grandmother as we walked to the workshop. Through the veil overhead, the shadows of Jen pegasi swirled like vultures.

“You brilliant, idiotic girl. You think these old bones can take the lurching of flight?” She sat in a wooden chair with a grunt. “Get more children out. Spare them the horror to come.”

“But Grandmother, when the Jen—”

“You think I don’t know?” Her voice was a brittle knife. She reached into her bodice and pulled out two vials. I accepted one. The glass was warm from her body. “That’s Dreamless Death. That dose would squelch the suffering of a flesh horse within a minute. You keep that dram, escape plan or not.”

I nodded and tucked it in my own bodice. I should have expected as much from her. “But Grandmother—”

“Stop dillydallying. Gather your young riders before it’s too late.” I pressed a kiss to her forehead, my hand desperately clutching hers. Reverberations pounded through the walls. “Go,” she said gruffly.

I ran next door and up the stairs. I found Galen, his sister, and Faleen on their flat, narrow roof. Faleen held a crossbow, useless as it was to her. Her steadiness had never returned after she survived a close concussive blast weeks before.

“Take them,” she said when I told her my plan. The children looked at me, wide-eyed.

A sensation like snow flurries drifted over my skin and I held up my hand. On my dark knuckles, iridescent slivers dissolved to nothing. The quiet was sudden. Deathly.

The dome had fallen.

Abrupt gunfire punctuated the stillness. “They’re already in the city!” a man screamed from a nearby rooftop. I saw him point just up our street. The walls must have crumpled before the dome.

“Come on!” I said, trying to pry the children free from their mother. “We have to go—”

I knew the moment Gia took to the air. Her power and majesty resounded through me like a symphony at full crescendo before I even turned to witness her flight with my own eyes. My pegasus soared, her wingspan stretched ten feet, each feather flared and perfect. She swooped down to our rooftop. Her metal hooves stirred up more of the dome’s melting, enchanted shards.

I lifted Galen to the smooth pommel. His sister pulled herself behind him and began to secure herself. I had affixed straps to keep the children in place. Like any youth in Sharva or Jen, they could ride a horse, but flight was something more.

“They’re here,” Faleen whispered.

I turned. Jen infantry filled the narrow street and split up as they came under fire from above.

Gia was a fluttering, unavoidable target. We’d never make it.

I didn’t want to die. I’d scraped together my pegasus to save others, yes, but myself most of all. I wanted summer sun to set my skin aglow; to chew hot honeyed oats on the high holy days. To breathe in the perfume of oiled leather and fresh hay. To welcome the timid winter dawn with songs to Atanta, every word a puff of steam rising straight to the heavens.

But if I was going to die, I’d go like Mother. Doing the right thing.

I grabbed the crossbow from Faleen’s limp hands.

“Ulyssa, you can’t!” Gia cried as she read my intentions. Faleen and her children stared, dumbfounded by the talking pegasus.

“Mount up, Faleen. Go with them. I’ll cover you. You’ll be shot down otherwise.” I crouched and aimed. I watched not only the street but my neighbors as well. “Go! Before we’re surrounded!”

Gia’s thoughts warred with mine, our emotions jumbled like fighting tomcats.

A gun barrel poked out from behind boxes along the street. A head leaned out, gaze directly on us, but pulled back before I could fire.

“Atanta, bless us,” I whispered, evoking the Cavalry prayer for battle. “Beat softly, my wings of steel. Carry us to clouds and home again. Home again, home again.”

The soldier peered out. I fired, loaded another bolt, fired anew. A shot pinged into the lip of the roof not a foot away from me. I tasted grit. The shot came from Mr. Kirks across the way. He took my next bolt in the gut.

“Where stables smell of sweet hay and viscous oil, where my heartbeat knows the cadence of hooves,” Gia sang in turn. Her hind legs propelled her toward the fading stars.

I had never known that Sharva and Jen Cavalry sang the exact same prayer. I had known so little.

Tears streamed down my cheeks as my soul-bonded pegasus flew away. I never even had the chance to ride her.

I had a few dozen bolts at ready. I loaded and aimed again, again, again. I hunkered lower and glanced up. The sky looked so bare with the magicked dome gone. Already, Gia was a distant blur. Other Jen pegasi freckled the sky but none close. I shared the image with her as a precaution, and likewise I knew her view. The sea glittered, ships flashing color with occasional cannon blasts. Gia was beyond their range.

There had been no time to bundle Faleen and the children in warmer clothes for the chill of flight—

Gia reassured me with a flash of emotion. She would take care of them. And me, in time.

Grandmother’s vial pressed against my heart. When it was time, I would take my drink. What they did to my body afterward didn’t matter. My soul was strong. I would wait here. Come the next full moon, Gia would know where to guide her sister, and she would sing me to life again.

“Beat softly, my wings of steel,” I whispered to Gia then repeated the prayer to myself, as a promise.