Then came a sensation of incremental loosening, as of having been relieved of a heretofore unperceived physical burden, its profundity noticeable only in its absence. The gravel on the flat rock on which she lay bit at her back, at her flank, at her heels. She popped open one eyelid, then the other, sending shards of sleep scattering. Through a haze of crusted lashes she saw that the sun had only just begun to brown the sky.

Then came wet, squelching sounds, as of skin peeling away from tacky plastic. Something chattered high and raspy, and then screeched. A second voice chimed in, and then a fair chorus. Sujn’s hand went instinctively for the dagger she kept at her side. This sudden movement caused the agony to reassert itself below her belly now pushing its way up through her chest to her upper arms, down to her thighs. Her head wrenched back, pulling a neck muscle, and salty tears poured into her ears.

Then the pain came in her legs, piercing, stabbing. She sat up, pulling her feet up against her buttocks, and there they were, newborns, six or eight of them, small, fierce-faced, wet with her blood, stabbing at her calves and knees with their nails. They were strong-muscled, hopping, hovering, trying out their nascent wings. They panted with exertion, little tongues jabbing downward, fine drips of bluish drool spotting the sand-covered rock.

One of them jammed a nail in between her patella and femur. Screaming, she drove the dagger up through both of its hearts and its neck into its brain. As the blade passed under its ribcage, its eyes widened, the hateful stare dulling and going blank. She struggled to her feet, and shook the child from her dagger. The others looked warily at her, and down at their fallen brother, who was diminishing as they watched, muscles deflating, skin rippling and fluttering.

Time slowed. The sun bobbed as it approached its apex, the sky the black-veined light brown of morning. Before very long it would deepen, darken, go again to charcoal. A wind kicked up, blowing sand around them. The little ones crouched, hate in their eyes. They lunged.

The rutting had been swift and fierce yet fumbling, devoid of rhythm, too much and somehow not enough, cut off with a grunt and a stumbling dismount. Her sated suitor swaggered off, the sand raising his skirts and his hair, and she hated him and his stupid jutting jaw and too-small eyes and yet she wanted him to return. She despaired of her weakness.​

A school of migrating ferkels rushed past. She snatched one up, and chewed into its neck more savagely than was necessary, inhaling its shrieks and letting its blood coat her throat. She knew she was eating too fast, that ferkels are rich, their fat-laden livers to be savored slowly. But the hunger was too much to bear. Later, she threw the whole up in a steaming pile. Retching piteously, she fumed, hungry again, but angry and feverish and foggy, and curled up to go to the dark and quiet place where everything fell away and was, for a hard-to-quantify section of time, peaceful.

She stepped on the foot of one, then stove in its forehead with the pommel of the dagger. She released its foot as it crumpled, a round dent in its forehead, and kicked her leg hard, detaching another from her calf, sending it rolling into a leaning cairn. The rocks toppled, burying it. Only the tips of its fingers were visible, trembling and twitching. A third jumped on her back. She dropped her sword and beat at it with her fists, feeling its hot breath on her fingers, until it finally fell and curled up, breathing hard. She reached for her fallen dagger, only to see it rise glinting in the air before her, in the hand of a fifth. He jabbed it at her throat, just penetrating the skin, and with her left hand she grabbed the child’s arm and twisted, with her right pulling away the dagger.

The others scattered, whimpering and hissing and glaring back at her as they fled. It was done. A beat of silence. Another.

Then from behind the cairn came a chirp and a trill. The last one poked its head out, slowly approached, pausing to sniff at the fingers of his fallen brother. She pointed the dagger. The child ignored it. She froze. Something about this one. In a moment he stood before her, his nostrils fluttering, taking in all of her smells, pupils large and black. Curious. She jabbed the dagger into the earth and bent, lowering her hand to the ground, palm up. The child boarded. She lifted him to face her. He pushed his face forward and they shared a small kiss. Her head whirled. She felt a dizzying rush of inexplicable emotions. Then hunger growled in her belly, a ululating, insistent lamentation. She considered. The child saw it in her eyes. His pupils grew, filling his eyes like oil. He bared his teeth and hissed. She gasped. The sky went at once to pitch, obscuring the blood, but not the screaming.