I had almost finished my work for the day at the market when the word reached me. By hag, as usual.
After all, at their age, what little they had left in this life was to wander from place to place, listening out for idle gossip and making sure that the choicest morsels were propagated onward. The only way that information could have possibly moved any faster would surely have to involve magic.
But magic doesn’t exist any longer.
Women like the breathing wreckage before me had seen to that. They must destroy what they cannot control. Or ever hope to.
I had drawn the awning over my stall as she shuffled over, more an ambulatory pile of rags than an actual person. Then she smiled, a graveyard of broken headstones filling her mouth. ‘Have you heard?’ she asked me with a wheeze.
I took a slight step backwards. Heard, I had not. But smelt her breath? Fit to blister paint, so it was. I shook my head, not just to say no, but to get back out of her funk into more breathable air. When I finally found something more palatable, I replied, ‘
Her eyes lit up, like twin burning pyres. She was finally useful. ’I’ll say there is’, she cackled, ‘they’ve found one, up by Millers Crossing!’
She meant the windmill, of course. ‘Surely not Mistress Baker?’ I asked, horrified at the very notion. I had always considered the woman a close personal friend; surely she would have been able to confide in me if this were genuinely the case?
The old hag cackled even louder, ‘The very same! Hurry home, fetch your razor! You’ll not want to miss this one, I’d say!’
I waved her on to the next unsuspecting victim, eager to get myself away from her.
I was soon back in the tumbledown shack that I referred to as my home. The sky outside was darkening now, no longer the blue that the hags had grown to despise. Through the window, I saw the procession of torches heading along the river to the windmill. Good, they were taking the longest route! All the better to rouse the rabble.
I reached under the table, my hands questing for the blade that lay secured beneath its surface. My warm fingers soon found the cold ivory handle of the razor. I didn’t need to check if it was sharp. I always kept it honed to the keenest of edges.
Such occasions as this were few and far between these days. You have to be ready to join a mob at a moment’s notice or even less. So I lit my torch from the lantern in the street and began to run straight through the middle of the city, taking the shortest possible route to the windmill.
I managed to reach the windmill before most of the mob began to assemble on the grassy hilltop. Many feet were already trampling the beautiful daisies that Mistress Baker had lovingly planted there when her daughter was born.
Someone spotted me before I’d had the chance to go inside and assess the situation, alerting my presence to everyone’s attention. ’Mistress May is here!’
I quickly drew my razor, the blade glinting in the reflection of a hundred burning torches. ‘We’re both here!’ A cheer reverberated across the mob, seeing my razor held aloft. Now I just had to take control, if I could. ‘Let me in! Allow me examine the aberration!’ I had lost track of how many times I’d been forced to attend such an event as this. Despite having no actual power, the crowd automatically deferred to my leadership now. The cut-throat razor was my magic wand.
I hoped that today would prove to be no different. So I looked across their number. The growing crowd already assembling on the hilltop slowly parted, like a pair of curtains, to grant me sole access. ‘Hold here, my friends! Let me see this claim is valid!’ And with that, I rushed between the sails, inside the windmill.
I was met by the anxious visage of Mistress Baker there. ‘Thank the stars it’s you, Mistress May! Have you come to help us escape?’
I shook my head. ‘Merely to make sure that this event takes place as quickly as possible, for the child’s sake, if not your own. Who did you tell? What fool did you think you could trust with such news as this?’
The young girl sat quietly on a rude wooden stool before the roaring fire, unaware of her impending fate outside.
Mistress Baker bowed her head in shame. ‘It was Mother Simcal. I thought…’
I held up my hand, not the one holding the razor. There was no need to make her feel any worse than she already did, or give her any further reason to be afraid either. I knew exactly what Mistress Baker had thought.
She had thought of Mother Simcal as a trusted family friend, someone she had known almost her entire life. A person who could be counted on to keep the secret, that her daughter’s wings had not only been allowed to fledge and grow but to almost reach full maturity.
I’m sure Mistress Baker had thought that, if the girl was raised well by a right-minded family, she could in time become our new Queen. To make Fairyland great once again.
But the hags would never allow another Queen to reign, well-intended or not. Overcome with mental anguish at the death of her mother, the last Queen had almost torn her own wings completely to pieces. Only the bones supporting a few tattered blue feathers had remained.
Then she had turned her rage outwards, to those who had been her most loyal supporters–the mothers of experience, otherwise known as the hags. And she had lashed out hard, ordering each of the old women to present themselves to her in person. The Queen had been a great believer of the old phrase, do unto others. Its true meaning had been lost in her fog of grief and rage.
Once she had personally removed the wings of the first ten hags, word quickly spread of the fate ahead for the others. Taking matters into their own hands, the remaining hags saw fit to administer their own punishment, and quickly took to plucking each other’s feathers. But the Queen’s rapid downward spiral into madness had focussed the hags on a single path. No Queen could be allowed to reign again.
If no one had wings, there would be no new successor to the throne either.
It is sad to think that a mere shade of blue started this whole messy business. The people of Fairyland had referred to that particular shade as Royal Blue for as long as anyone alive could remember. Only Queens had blue wings. Yellow was the most common colour, and those with green wings were blessed with the skill of healing. My own mother’s wings had been green.
And they had been her undoing.
My wings had started to show the tell-tale shades of iridescent blue when I was only 14. Even the Queen at the time hadn’t begun to tinge until she was well into her 17th year. But I had always been precocious.
My mother had been torn to pieces by the Queen’s Harpy guard when I was little more than a few days short of my 15th birthday. That hint of green in her wing-tips had been mistaken for the rare regal blue. ‘No successor!’ the Harpies had chanted, as they had sliced my mother to pieces with their razor-like fingernails, keen to keep their beloved Queen in power for as long as possible.
All under the watchful eyes of the other old women whose wings had long since naturally fallen off, shed feather by feather from the ravages of time. That had been the day when the hags first began to despise their Queen. Her later actions against the others had merely reinforced their desire against being ruled.
It had also been the day that I had taken my mother’s name. Not just to honour the woman’s memory but to remember how she had not only kept me alive, she had also kept me off the mad Queen’s radar.
On the fateful day when the Royal Harpy guard had been called upon to defend the borders of Fairyland for the first time in over 2000 years, the hags seized upon the opportunity to implement the very first true Parting. Overpowered by sheer weight of numbers, the Queen felt the remnants of her blue wings being torn from her back.
When the few surviving Harpy guards returned, battered and broken from the conflict, they were soon killed by the hags, who awaited their return with glee. Word of their action soon crossed that border again. Fairyland had taken care of the regal problem itself. No further attacks would follow.
As to which of those old crones dealt the fateful blow that finally ended our Monarchy? Each woman present claimed the honour, but none was able to prove that it had been her hand which had actually killed the Queen.
Thus were the Partings created. At first, when any likely candidate drew close to claiming the throne, the hags quickly assembled to remove the threat, on seeing a fresh pair of blue wings.
In the early days of the Partings, the hags had only slain those women whose wings had the tell-tale blue tinge of the royal bloodline. These days, any and all wings were abhorrent to them. The hags had enjoyed the taste of freedom for too long now, and they liked its flavour.
The occasional side order of fresh blood after a Parting had become an acquired taste for them too. This was why their network of listeners never stood still. The gossip itself may have been idle, but the hags were forever active, eager to discover a new set of wings to destroy.
Now the baying pack outside had found their latest victim, young Miss Baker, the poor sweet innocent girl who had done nothing wrong, except listen to the kind but ill-informed intentions of her beloved mother.
I shook Mistress Baker vigorously, to bring her focus back onto me. ‘Have you taught the child your work?’
Mistress Baker nodded, blinking back the forming tears. ‘Yes. She knows all the workings of the mill and the preparations for the bread each day, among other things. But why?”
She already knew the answer, but I still had to tell her; she had to hear it from me, for it to be real. ‘You know they want blood. I can only save the girl. Let me take control outside. I’ve done it many times before as you well know. I can at least promise it’ll be over quickly for both of you. The girl can lodge with me until she’s well enough to begin working back here at the mill once again.’
Mistress Baker knew better than to argue with me. She had witnessed almost as many Partings as myself. The removal of wings and the threat of a new Queen, all gone in the single slice of a red-hot razor. The crowd always insisted on blood after the fact, and today was no different. Only it was her turn in the spotlight now. ‘Promise me she’ll live?’
I saw the door beginning to bulge inwards under the sheer weight of the masses pushing against it. The mob outside were frantic to get proceedings under way. I looked away into the fire, so Mistress Baker wouldn’t see the doubt in my eyes. ‘I’ll do my best. Now, wait in here for my signal, and send the girl out alone first when the time comes.’
I pushed out the door. Seeing it was me, the crowd opened up again which just barely enough time for the door to shut firmly behind me. I held up my hand to silence the chattering mob. This time, it was the one holding the razor. It worked its magic better than any mere wand.
‘Let Mistress May speak!’ they called out.
I took a breath. ‘We have certain rules in this city!’ Mob rules but rules nonetheless, A thought better kept in the privacy of my own mind right now. ‘That no mother is to allow her daughter’s wings to grow. Now the accusation has been made, and I have seen the proof with my very own eyes. Will all those here present abide by my decision tonight?’
As one, the tightly packed crowd of women all shouted, ‘Aye!’
I raised my hand for silence once more. The sheer power that the razor held over them was almost like a form of magic in itself. The day would come when actual magic was reclaimed by a new ruler.Soon enough. But not tonight. Not for young Miss Baker. Hopefully for one far older and wiser than she.
‘By the law of the land, there will be a Parting here tonight. And I myself will see to a winnowing afterwards, using my own blade—known throughout the land to be sharp and true, with your good selves to bear witness. Then the perpetrator of this foul misdeed will be given over to the crowd for punishment, but I claim the first blow. Acceptable?’
Again, the crowd screamed in unison, ‘Aye!’
I kicked my heel against the windmill door. It creaked open, revealing young Miss Baker and her shimmering yellow wings, now almost three feet long. I nodded to the child, leading her by the hand to the spot I had already picked out. ‘A Parting only, mind you! If any hand is raised in anger against this child, I’ll remove it myself!’ I shouted out, brandishing the razor aloft as proof of my intent.
The mob went silent as young Miss Baker opened her wings fully, each individual feather now catching the downdraft off the sails of the windmill behind us.
One by one, the grabbing hands of the mob moved silently forwards, each one plucking a single feather from the young girl’s wings, parting it from her very being. Each feather was then dropped onto a burning torch staked into the ground near my feet until nothing remained but the bones that had once supported those beautiful yellow wings.
I ran the blade of my razor across the flickering torch until it glowed red hot. Then I stepped up, right against her back, showing the blade one final time before administering the punishment every woman there wished she could dole out. As I sliced the two long wing bones off her back, she let out an ear-splitting scream—much to the crowd’s delight. As expected, young Miss Baker fainted immediately afterwards.
I walked back to the windmill, kicking the door once again.
Mistress Baker walked out alone, her head held high, fully aware of her impending fate.
I led her back to stand beside her fallen daughter. ‘This’, I shouted, ‘is your perpetrator. I claim the first blow! Then, myself and young Miss Baker will withdraw. You may act as you see fit, once we are departed from this place. And the mill is not to be touched!’
The mob couldn’t shout ‘Aye!’ fast enough. They wanted blood now.
I leant forwards to Mistress Baker. ‘Close your eyes, my dear. It’ll all be over in a second, I swear it!’ I made certain that my slash was deep enough to extinguish Mistress Baker in the one stroke I had been allowed by right. Then, I picked up young Miss Baker and slung her across my shoulder.
The crowd focussed their attention upon the perpetrator, overwhelming her in their frenzied rush. I left them to their destructive ways, wishing no further part in the proceedings.
The outbound journey to the windmill had taken me no longer than 10 minutes. Impeded by my load, my return took a great deal longer.
Safely back inside the shack, I applied a poultice of soothing herbs across her cuts. The bones would regrow again in time. As would her feathers.
I was pleased that the crowd had missed my switching the red-hot razor with the cold one I kept secreted up my sleeve. The crowd had seen me cauterise this girl’s wings, the power of suggestion was such strong magic. People saw what they wanted to see. So they would leave her alone now.
But given time, her wings would return. She’d learn the ways of the razor, just like I learnt them from my own mother.
It took another month under my care before young Miss Baker finally returned to reopen the mill.
When she finally left me alone in the shack, I closed the curtain and took out my sharpening strop, slowly working the razor to its keenest edge once again. Then I removed my shirt and undid my bindings, as I had done many times before today. Some of the scars on my back were almost as old as me, from those early days when I was still learning how to use the razor.
My hand is much more practised now.
As I guide the blade, I can hear her voice from my memory. That of my mother. ‘Parallel to the skin, Mab. The hags mustn’t see there’s a new potential successor on the horizon.’
Wingless female fairies aren’t entirely uncommon. They are generally ignored or even completely shunned. It was one of the reasons my mother chose this place to build our new home, way out on the far reaches of the city.
The bones in my back have regrown quickly over the last month. Working carefully in the mirror, I slice each wing bone precisely until my back is flat again. Then I apply the poultice and replace all the old bindings with fresh ones. It will take many years of training before I can use young Miss Baker. She will take her place in my army. As one more hag is removed from the chain of information, I will have another willing member to join my army of the Parted.
A fresh weapon in the uprising against the hags.
It has taken me almost 20 years to get this far. No one dares look too closely at a hag—people’s natural revulsion is practically a magic of its own, entirely led by fear. Almost no one notices that well over half of them aren’t old women any longer. They are my girls now, the ones I saved through the sacrifices of their own mothers. And when the time comes, they will all be able to claim the right to wings once again.
I’ll reclaim my own name soon after that.
It is my hope that, if I save enough young women from their evil clutches, I’ll be able to prevent that final Parting.
Fairyland will need another Queen one day. And that will be the day I swap my razor for a crown and a wand. We will have magic in our lives once more. To live without fear of persecution is magic enough for now.
And my first decree will be the banishment of all remaining hags, on pain of death. But until then, I alone will lead each Parting with such sweet sorrow.