We knotted it about the iron rail that bound our little balcony. Clear, cold twilight glimmered over the rope in a cascade like water. The moon was in it already, and we heard the infinitesimal creak and rustle of growth as the hair yearned toward the forest floor.
“You see? The spell will work.” I smiled at my sister. “We’ve only to wait on the moon.”
The tower was unlovely and rough, the survivor of a grim, warlord’s keep, and Guin looked down its length with trepidation.
“Why must I go first?” she asked.
“Because you are heavier, of course.” She could not argue. The heft of her earthy magic had settled in her bones like lead. “I will stay behind and ensure the knot doesn’t slip free. We can only descend by ones, you know.”
She made an impatient gesture. “Yes, yes. What about Tom? I won’t leave him here.”
She knelt beside him where he huddled in the bedclothes, his knees drawn to his chest, and shook him gently by the shoulder. He made no response. Guin looked up at me with a quick, indrawn breath.
“Isabella, he’s ill! Help me with him.”
I fell to my knees beside her and held the candle near Tom’s face. His flesh had tightened over his bones. His breath came fast and quiet. I put out my hand and felt his forehead. His skull seemed light as a wasp’s nest, and heat and magic radiated from it. The feather tattoos hidden beneath my sleeves twitched at the contact, and I snatched my hand away.
“He is dying,” I lied. “We haven’t enough power to sustain both Tom and the rope. I’m afraid we must leave him, Guin.”
I had drawn away the candlelight from his face, and in the shifting shadow, I saw his eye open. Its gaze fastened on me – full black and glittering – a raven’s gaze, freighted with cruel humor.
The moon bobbed above the forest and ascended until it peered in our window. It contemplated the rope of hair. Ripples of white, sinuous fire ignited along the braid. I stood watching, ready with the concealed sewing scissors, and when the witchfire ran dripping to the very end, I slashed my palm and added my blood to the conflagration. The shock of binding shivered up my arm. I had assumed control of the rope. I glanced over my shoulder to be sure Guin had not seen, but she was wrapped around Tom, petting him and sobbing.
“Come,” I said. “It’s time.”
“Oh, sister! I can’t leave him,” she wailed. “I will carry him on my back. He is light as a child.”
I flitted over the stones and grabbed her by the arm. She came up from the bed in unresisting surprise.
“Damn your silly notions of love,” I hissed. “Get out that window before we lose the power of the moon. Or would you prefer to stay with Tom? For I shall certainly leave you both.”
She pushed me away, her anger blazing. “Villain! I wish your stony heart might crack from love one day.”
It had all the force of a curse. I felt it pierce me. Still, she turned to the window and lifted herself to a seat on the rail. She wound the rope about her waist. Her tragic face, in the icy fall of moonlight, was beautiful to me again.
“Mind the knot,” she said in a hard voice, and then she went over the rail.
I could have let her go. I could have gone down the rope after her and left Tom caught between worlds. She thought I didn’t know love, but I did. And for love, I killed her. I put my hand on the knotted hair.
“Bella, Bella, I am caught,” she cried. I heard her gasp. It was over, and she hung against the rough stone of the tower, our shared braid about her throat.
No sooner had she breathed her last than the air burst over my head. Black feathers beat the silver night, so close they brushed my cheek. A raucous cry of joy shattered the doomy silence. Tom was in flight, his raven’s body sleek and strong on the chilly currents.
“Wait! Tom, come back,” I shouted.
He wheeled against the massing clouds and glided past the balcony. His dark eye flashed at me. He croaked one word as he whirled up into the sky.
Love rushed and thundered in my heart. I stepped up on the iron rail and bared my tattooed arms. I stepped out on the air. In that moment, my heart cracked. I am falling, still.