A shabby net curtain was drawn over the grubby panes, obscuring, but not hiding, the slender form of Miss Cavendish. She was bending over something on the kitchen table and cooing softly. Irritation – whether at her own absurdity or at Grace’s contentment, she didn’t know – raged up inside Mrs Hunt, and she rapped loudly on the back door. She could see Grace freeze through the grimy window, then walk calmly to the door.
‘Mrs Hunt! Is William alright?’
The housekeeper stood rooted to the spot, unable to speak. Grace’s nightgown was smeared with blood.
‘I was feeding the magpies,’ Grace said by way of explanation. ‘There’s nobody at the school to look after them now it’s the holidays. They need sustenance. Please, is something the matter with William?’
Recovering her composure, Mrs Hunt shook her head stiffly. ‘No. His Grace simply wanted you to have this for tomorrow.’ She handed the girl a neatly-wrapped parcel. The paper was a soft cream, flecked with gold. The ribbon was baby blue. The smile it brought to Miss Cavendish’s face was nauseating, and Mrs Hunt bade her a brisk, ‘Goodnight’, hurrying towards her own quiet cottage in the village.
That night, the bishop slept soundly, dreaming of his future happiness.
Mrs Hunt tossed agitatedly in her sleep, the streaks of blood on Grace’s nightgown growing into ever larger pools which lapped at the feet of the wedding guests.
The magpies feasted on the innards of mice and rabbits.
Grace arranged her wedding clothes carefully for the long day ahead of her.
It was unnaturally dark on the day of the wedding, with snow clouds lowering from early morning, hiding the sun from view. But when Grace had walked through the doors of the cathedral to the strains of Mendelssohn, William had thought his heart would burst for love of her.
Her golden hair was modestly covered with a veil, her grey eyes downcast except when she looked up at him through her long, dark lashes. She wasn’t wearing the gold cross he’d delivered to her house the night before, though.
All through the service and the wedding breakfast, William thought and thought about what the night would bring. She was so young, so modest, so beautiful. He’d been engaged several years earlier – Grace would not be his first, but she would be the sweetest, that he knew.
He drank a little more than he usually would to steady his nerves, and was glad when the guests started to make their way home at dusk. He and Grace would finally be alone. He longed for it, and yet, he feared it.
Mrs Hunt was waiting for her brother-in-law to pick her up. She watched Grace and William go into the house together; he like a dog on the scent of a fox; she resplendent in her white lace. Grace had been obliged to stay under an umbrella every time she went outside on account of the snow. Mrs Hunt noticed, for the first time, several peacock feathers in Grace’s wedding flowers, and frowned.
‘An ill-omen for an ill-matched pair,’ she muttered as Fred, her sister’s husband, pulled up. As she was getting into the car, a bird flew, screeching, at her. Its sharp talons knocked the pillbox hat from her head and its wings boxed her ears. Screaming, she lost her footing, and fell over out of the car and onto the gravel, her gloved hands clutching at her head. There was blood on the ground.
Mrs Hunt felt with trembling hands for its source, and found that the bird had gashed her scalp.
‘Bloody hell, Eileen!’ cried Fred, rushing to her aid. ‘What’s gotten into that magpie?’
‘Do you want me to take it off?’ Grace whispered as her new husband fumbled at the back of her dress. He nodded. It had a high lace collar, with one of those hook-and-eye fastenings. His trembling, eager fingers couldn’t work it from the front.
Grace snapped it open with one hand and slid the fabric down over her shoulders, stopping just below her collarbones. She, pulled her arms loose, and wrapped them around William’s neck again, kissing him softly on his cheek, his jawbone, until William could stand it no longer and kissed his bride full on the mouth.
His hands moved over the tiny waist of his bride and up her delicate ribcage.
‘Why didn’t you wear the necklace I gave you?’
‘Oh,’ Grace smiled, ‘it kept snagging on my dress.’
William’s hands slid into the fabric of Grace’s dress at the sides, but he found he could not move it down. ‘Please,’ he gasped.
She smiled slyly. ‘You want me to take the whole thing off?’
‘Yes,’ came his guttural reply.
‘Alright.’ Grace placed her fragile white hands on her husband’s chest, on the purple bishop’s shirt he had worn for their marriage, and pushed him back onto the bed. She climbed on top of him, feeling sure of herself now the ring was on her finger. The man was mad with love for her. She could feel it; she could almost hear both their hearts pounding – his with lust and hers with excitement. Almost.
She unzipped the dress at the back and revealed herself to her husband. His mouth gaped in admiration for her…but then, he became aware of something flickering behind her.
Without any warning, an enormous pair of soot-black wings appeared behind Grace. William stupidly wondered if they were a wedding present meant as a joke from someone, before realising that they were attached to her. The wings were Grace’s.
William fainted. He fell back against the pillows and Grace calmly climbed off him, removing the dress completely. She rolled her shoulders to relieve the stiffness in her wings, which she beat and flexed gently.
A tapping at the window startled her, but when she realised it was only the magpies, she sighed with relief, opened the window, and let the birds in.
On entering the room, they transformed into human-shaped females, naked, winged, with soot about their eyes.
‘Sister, you have done well! A holy man for a husband? I’d never have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself!’ said the first, eldest, bird-woman, who had long black hair that fell straight and glossy to her waist.
‘He is handsome, isn’t he? And I do love him so,’ said Grace truthfully.
The younger bird-woman, who had been the chick, now appeared with red hair, falling in ringlets to her shoulders. ‘Do we get to share him?’
‘No!’ snapped Grace, pulling her sister away from William, who remained unconscious. ‘He is mine now, nobody else’s.’
‘I am unhappy to hear you have grown selfish,’ pouted the elder sister. She was equally as beautiful as Grace, yet more alluring still, for her features burned with inhibition, and she stroked the bishop’s sleeping face.
‘You can be as displeased as you like,’ hissed Grace, wrenching her sibling away. ‘You two take possession of men’s souls all the time, and think nothing of it, but I love this mortal.’
The sisters laughed at Grace. ‘If you had any true concept of what humans call “love”, you wouldn’t have married him,’ cackled the red-haired sister.
Grace felt her head throb with anger. She knew it was impossible for her to love any man, and yet she loved William.
And to show him how much she loved him, she sank her fangs into his warm neck, and made him hers forever and ever.