Chirp was down a bird. A sparrow, little gray-brown thing that looked like a hundred other gray-brown sparrows. Probably one of the squires, Chirp thought. They'd been fashioning thinner and shorter arrows, the better for taking out the small birds that clustered at Chirp's only window.
"You should all go away," he said to the line of birds jostling each other on the sill. "Don't ever come back. Ever, ever."
He said this in the chittering, whistling language that no one else understood. It was the reason they called him Chirp. He'd not spoken a single word in proper English his entire life; they said his mother had refused the babe her tit because all he would do was chirp at her. It was why he'd grown up stunted and pale, like string beans grown in shadow instead of the sun.
Not true: his mother had taught him the language. She was dead now, hanged and burned for witchcraft. She could speak six languages, including bird and deer, and heal the pox, but she had been a poor peasant woman.
Queens who could do the same were called sorceresses. One of them stood now at the single door to his cell.
"Honestly, I think it's nonsense. A made-up language, like a little child babbling to its dolly." She cocked her head. "Why, if I could speak to the birds, I'd rule the sky as well as the land."
Chirp didn't think that she didn't rule all the land; she had about a hundred miles in either direction from Morrowton. If anyone ruled the land, it was the worms and roaches. Not a king or sorceress yet had managed to evict them from where they crawled.
She stared at him, her hands clasped in front her and covered in the fine gold mesh gloves of royalty exposed to the pox.
Her magic was transformation, he'd heard. Changing one thing into another. He hadn't witnessed it, but it was clear she hadn't managed changing poxed flesh into healthy skin.
"All that talk," she said, "and you won't tell me what I want. I'm sure you can. If you can make all that other noise, then you can speak English just as well. Maybe you do already. It's not nice, you know, to keep secrets from your Queen."
Chirp watched the birds on the sill. They'd become silent when she'd arrived.
"It's time for a bit more encouragement."
Chirp looked down at his hands and feet, covered in "encouraging" streaks of red. He could barely walk, the soles of his feet were so flayed. He was starved and thirsty, having been in the cell for four days without food or water. Yet he would not tell her the cure for pox, nor make any signs.
Let her start on his back. The flesh there was unmarked. Or his abdomen. He did not care. In a week, the Queen would begin to smell of rot.
And when the Queen was well and truly rotted, maybe those outside the castle walls would at last be free. Maybe they would till fields for their own families, and not starve while handing over their harvest to those inside the castle. Maybe they would walk about without fear of random cruelty by minor royalty and the roaming guards. Perhaps a witch could tend to her orchard and brew her tisanes in peace, helping out her fellows.
"Derrick," she said, and her captain of the gaol moved out of the shadows, a box draped in brown cloth in his hands.
A new instrument of torture. Chirp tensed, took a breath, and willed himself to relax.
She drew the cloth from the box, and he saw that it was a barred cage. Within, the missing sparrow.
He sat straight up.
The bird trembled, and when she lifted the iron top just enough to slip in a gloved hand, it fluttered and crashed about the cage.
She snatched it and drew the frightened bird out, holding it in both hands.
"Ugly," she said. "Not like the peacocks in my garden. Have you seen them? I have a white one. It's quite beautiful. I wonder if you could talk to it."
She nodded, and Derrick took out a knife from his belt.
"No," said Chirp, but it came out like a squeak.
The captain sliced off the little bird's legs. It shrilled and peeped, thrashing within her hands. She tossed it through the bars of Chirp's cell, where it landed amidst dust and dirt and stones.
He stared up at her, wide-eyed and shaking.
"So many birds," she said, holding up a hand and looking at it. Tiny rivulets of blood spattered the gold mesh. "Why, there must be millions."
She walked away, and Derrick peered into the cell.
"Idiot," he said. "I told her you can't talk nothin' but that rubbish. But if I was you, I'd learn, real quick."
Thankfully, birds died fast from shock. He'd crawled over to it, held its body in his lap until, in a minute, it stopped shaking.
Cradling the dead sparrow, he'd closed his eyes, imagining himself flying in the air high above the castle, away from it, among the clouds. Gradually, he'd calmed.
The birds on the sill twittered their anxiousness, fretting and flapping.
"Go away," he whispered. "Go. Go."
But the next day, they were there again, as were the Queen and her captain of the gaol.
And the cage.
Another sparrow, this one young, only months old.
A wing this time, tossed into the cell. Then the dying bird.
Its mother came to the window, flew away, and he wished he could go with her.
Still he would not tell her of the cure for pox.
The third day, there was a gold mesh collar around her throat, draped over her chest. Soon, he thought.
The birds in the cage started coming every hour.
Finches maimed, sparrows mutilated, beaks and wings and legs thrown into his cell, followed by little bodies.
They lined up the birds shot through with the squires' special arrows, the birds' legs curled up into their bodies.
So many eyes, open and black and perfectly round, staring at him.
A jay from his mother's orchard. They'd sheathed its beak so it could not peck them bloody, and the princess pulled feathers from its writhing, shrieking body, letting them float in a gentle, blue-gray shower into the cell.
Another day, he told himself.
Another hour, another bird.
He wept, apologizing to the birds on the sill, who kept coming, kept coming, despite the obvious danger.
"I'm sorry," he sobbed. "Go away."
On the sixth day, she came alone. He was too weak to stand when she entered his cell, the hem of her rose-pink gown trailing across dozens of small, feathered bodies. She stood in front of him.
Her bald head was covered in a gold mesh cap. He could smell her.
He almost smiled. So much death and horror, but it would be over soon. With her demise, the kingdom would be free. His mother would be proud.
"We found another witch," she said. "She speaks to rabbits. More useful, she can cure pox. And she has two sons, who are more important to her than, I assume, your birds are to you. So we don't require your services any longer."
Chirp froze. He looked up, to see if she was lying.
"You wished for my death. Well, here is something you need to understand." She leaned down and caressed his cheek. "Just as there are other witches, there are other queens, and those hoping to be queen. Your foolish holdout was for naught. When we are both long dead, there will still be those in power, and those without any power at all."
He bit the edge of his tongue, trying not to cry.
"I may die soon after all, Chirp, but before I do, there is one more thing. I thought it sad that my magic was no help to me, but here, suddenly, I find it will give me a little happiness." She stroked the side of his face. "Have you heard what I can do? It's true, Chirp."
She smiled, breath fetid.
His heart stuttered. Was it true? Could she transform humans into the creature of her choice?
But of course she would not—
No, he already felt it. Growing smaller. Smaller still. The uncomfortable prickling of – of feathers! Feathers growing from his skin!
He opened his mouth, and out came the familiar chirps, but this time, they were real! He peeped and chirped, and fluttered in her hands when she gathered him up.
She stood, and held him up to the sill.
"Fly away, little bird."
He did not look back. He spread his wings and darted into the sunlight, into the open air.
And from far below, a squire's arrow flew, straight and fast and perfectly aimed at the bright, red bird.
Originally written for the Fantasy Faction monthly flashfiction contest. The theme was grimdark. Congratulations to pornokitsch, grimdarkest of them all. And I can reveal now that I voted for AC Smyth's The Deadly Game, which was clever and tense. Read all the entries here.