Tuesday, January 10, 2012
New writing will be coming soon. I haven't been quiet because I've been slacking off. I'm nearing chapter 19 on Child of Thunder, chapter 3 on The Red Elevators, and I have a little bit of short fiction I'm working on as well, so stay tuned!
Edit: The links across the top are all functional now. Still a little work to do, but we're getting their llamas!!
An Ill-Fitting Word
"Surely a more beautiful kingdom a princess has never known," I declared, looking about the endless rows of withered trees with great relish.
"Nor a more sumptuous feast, I would imagine," My fiancé Robert replied, setting his ancient picnic basket down in the dry, dead grass beneath a slender cherrywood. We stood in a small clearing, which was the perfect place to eat even a meager lunch such as ours on an unseasonably warm autumn day. We'd managed to escape for a few hours, and I meant to enjoy every minute of it.
I considered peasant an ill-fitting word for one as content as I felt, but it was the word most often used in description. I suppose I was, after all, a chambermaid, betrothed to a dirt poor blacksmith, but I usually had a hard time seeing life so simply.
Couldn't I just be content with what I had? I didn't see why not. The rest of the world could have their mad scrabble for wealth. Give me fine weather, a picnic, and someone to spend my time with and I was just fine.
With much fanfare we laid out a blanket and spread out our lunch. Water, crackers, cheese, and sausage. A feast.
We'd been sitting for an hour chatting amiably when I noticed a figure moving through the woods. I'd been telling a story. Robert always made fun of me for talking with my hands, but I didn't know how else to express myself. But I stopped mid-sentence, mid-gesture when I saw him. I wasn't sure why.
The man was moving towards us. Robert turned to look and rolled his eyes when he saw what I was staring at. He sighed, put his hands on his knees and rose, glancing at me with eyebrows quirked as if to say "I'll deal with this."
The man who'd approached was old, but despite long gray hair that fell past his shoulders and an immense shaggy beard, he didn't look too especially wizened or wrinkled. He wore a blue robe with a strange pattern of stars and crescent moons in white adorning it. His hat was of the same fabric, a large, conical affair that flopped behind him as he walked.
"Hello good sir, may we be of assistance to you?" Robert asked congenially, bowing slightly at the waist. Robert was always polite, even to people whom he disliked.
"You certainly may, young stripling. You can leave at once. These are my woods, and I must conduct my experiments in privacy." He growled the words. His voice didn't sound old either, merely gruff, perhaps even cruel.
"Well sir," Robert responded, "My fiancé and I were under the understanding this forest was public property, but we'll be happy to return to our village once we've finished our meal."
"No, I'll be telling you to leave now. Delayed me enough, you have." He glanced down at me, still seated and watching the proceedings silently. "What? You've not taught your wench proper manners, to rise at the arrival of her betters?"
At this Robert clenched his fists. For a moment I thought he might actually hit the man, but then he relaxed his hands and spoke with an even tone. "I think you've delayed our picnic enough. We'll be on our way when we're able."
With that Robert turned back to me, rolling his eyes again and smiling. The strange old man did not care for this one bit. He rolled up the long sleeves of his robe and produced some sort of wand seemingly from nowhere. Before I could move or warn Robert, who was about to sit down, the man had whacked him on the back of the head with a harsh blow.
Robert, perhaps unsure how proceed, began to turn, seething with anger now. "Bit of a dull clearing this, isn't it?" The old man muttered, glancing around as if nothing at all had happened. "Needs a little something extra. Maybe a nice tree right here in the middle."
Suddenly Robert let out a frightened moan that chocked off midway through. As I watched in horror, he began to transform. His legs twisted together and grew rounder, his feet contorting into long, spindly shapes before sinking into the earth like roots. His skin grew rough and seemed to flake. Branches grew from his hair and sprouted leaves while his arms shriveled away and tucked into his body.
By this time I ran to him, but I was so shocked I hardly knew what to do. I wrapped my arms around him, sobbing. Robert was being turned into a tree, I could see that much. It wasn't more than a minute before most of his human features were gone. I barely had time to look into his eyes, filled with fear and confusion, before they were gone. His face was the last to go. Once near level with mine, it rose higher as he grew taller, then it began to contort out of recognizablity as the bark overtook it.
When all was finished, the tree stood nearly twenty feet tall, with leafy green branches despite the season. Of Robert there was not a trace left except for a few marks three quarters of the way up the trunk. They vaguely resembled two wide, frightened eyes and open "O" where a mouth might once have been. His clothes were gone, melded into his body. The tattered remains of the blanket and a shredded basket lay at his roots.
On the other side of the tree the wizard, for that's what he had to be, looked on in satisfaction. He was looking quite pleased with his handiwork. "Teach you some respect for your elders," he muttered.
It took me a moment to find my voice. "What...what have you done, you h-horrible beast of a man?" I cried. "Ch-change him back at once!" My voice came out shrill but I could hardly control myself. I'd never been so angry, or so afraid, in all my life.
"What's that? You're still here?" he replied, sounding genuinely surprised. "Thought you'd run off." He chuckled and turned to walk away as if the matter were fully resolved.
Tripping slightly on the hem of my dress, I ran after him. Pushing back all my fear, I charged right up and grabbed him by the arm, hauling back as hard as my slender muscles would allow. "No," I declared stubbornly, "I need you to change him back."
"Unhand me, you filthy little urchin, before I put you into the body of a cockroach." Our faces were very close now. My eyes were red and wet with tears. His appeared flat and emotionless, a cloudy pale blue.
"I'm not afraid of you," I responded. I wanted to sound courageous, maybe even threatening, but my voice trembled on "afraid" and it came out sounding weaker than I meant it to. And it was a lie regardless.
"I'm quite sure." The wizard reached his free arm around and shoved me away. I stumbled backward, and fell on my backside into the dirt. "I've much to do. Be gone." Not sure what to do, I followed. It took every ounce of energy I had to keep my emotions in check, to keep from crying.
"What you want is quite impossible regardless. I'm not a man who takes back what he does. So. I've never had cause to study the art."
I was silent, not sure what that even meant.
"Are you sure you want to follow me?" He continued, talking over his shoulder the whole time. "Your boyfriend's a tree now. It's very difficult to tell trees apart. What happens if you lose him in the crowd?"
For a moment my heart nearly stopped, my breath caught in my throat. Stopping in my tracks, I looked back. But no, the very notion was ridiculous. The remnants of our picnic lay strewn about, and his was the only tree with leaves.
I turned my head back to where the wizard had been walking.
He was gone.
"Crud." I mumbled, running my fingers through my hair.
An Eye For an Eye
Three weeks later...
Autumn was coming to an end. Each day seemed to rush by quicker than the last, like an avalanche picking up momentum as it runs down the mountain. I came out to visit Robert every day that I could, stealing away to sneak into the woods. I would variously sit near the roots of the tree or climb up into branches above.
Just as if we were still together, I explained everything that had been going on over the last month. I told him of the flurry of searching that had gone on. I told him how I'd been forced to lie, but that I'd been so red-eyed and hysterical that it had hardly mattered what I said.
And obviously, no one would ever believe me if I told them what I'd seen. I'd turn into the "village crazy" in a heartbeat. I didn't see the wizard after that horrible day, even though I went back into his precious forest so terribly often. Sometimes I'd see a shadow move or hear a twig crackle and I'd nearly jump out of my skin, sweaty palmed and with hair standing on end.
One day in particular, I was leaning up against the trunk of the tree, reading a tattered old paperback. It was a book my mother had loaned me, about a princess who fell under some sort of curse. It had a happy ending though, as the princess once freed, was said to be destined to rule the land. I'd read it twice in the last fortnight. I guess I was desperate for a happy ending of some kind.
It was cold so I was bundled up with a shawl and a borrowed blanket. I was often stubborn and stayed longer than I should. It had earned me a few scoldings at the inn where I worked, but knowing what I was going through, no one had the heart to be too hard on me.
As I was reading, having a difficult time focusing on the words, a single bright green leaf plummeted from the branches above and landed right on my book, sticking in between the open pages. As I looked at the little leaf, I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I wondered if this was the first leaf to fall, or if others had done the same. I looked up at the branches swaying in a gentle, frigid breeze.
After a moment I took the leaf and slid it into my pocket. The tears. I hated crying...it seemed like no matter how much I sobbed, there was always a little more in there. After a moment I took my book and hurled it across the clearing in anger. It hit a tree, exploding into hundreds of pages that fluttered every which way.
But, to my surprise, they didn't fall to the ground. I was about to chide myself for wasting something so precious and hard to get ahold of when it began to suddenly come back together. All the pages congregated to land in the hands of a man, standing next to the tree I'd struck.
He was the tiniest man I'd ever seen, standing no more than two and a half feet tall, yet without the strange appearance or short limbs that usually marks a dwarf. "You should be more careful. That's probably somebody's Aunt Milly," he remarked casually, approaching me with healed novel in hand.
I jumped up, alarmed at the bizarre sight. "Um...are you...an elf, sir?" I asked with a cough, nervous. I wasn't sure what one was supposed to do, so I stood awkwardly with my hands behind my back.
"Hmm? No...I'm uh, I'm not an elf. Don't you worry about me. I'm here to help you." The little man walked up and offered me my book. I took it carefully, cautious to avoid touching his fingers, as if being small were contagious.
"H-help me?" I asked in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"I mean you and I, we both got a problem with the same man. A certain wizard who thinks he owns these woods. I can't stand up to him alone, but with your help... we can fix your boyfriend, and me, maybe I won't need a stepladder to urinate."
"You...he shrank you?" I replied, aghast. The very idea unsettled me. I'd always been a bit small. The last thing I wanted was to be even tinier.
"Well yeah, I didn't get this way because I passed on the ol' broccoli. Anyways, you in or not, kiddo?"
"If we can save Robert...of course I'm in."
The cabin barely looked big enough to fit a full grown man, let alone a wizard caught up in any manner of magical experimentation. The elf-man, whose name was Charlie, had led me deep into the trees, further than I'd ever gone before. The vegetation was thicker, the animals more populous. I could almost understand why the wizard valued this place.
It was beautiful.
We were tucked behind a bush, looking at the cabin through a haze of brambles. There couldn't have seemed a less remarkable shack in all the world. The only oddity I noted was a circle of some sort of dark gray ash in a circle around the perimeter. Like my Robert, the cabin sat in a clearing.
"Is that all?" I whispered to my companion. "It's hardly big enough for a good-size loaf of bread, let alone a wizard."
Charlie chuckled, "It's bigger than it looks, kiddo." He pointed to the circle of ash. "You're going to have to breech that. I can't get through unless you scatter some of it and create an opening."
Break the circle, that was all. Heart pounding, I walked right up and began to kick at the ash with my foot till I'd created an opening two feet wide. Charlie dashed past me and ran straight for the door. "Excellent work, kid," he chuckled. "Ugh, get the door, will you? I can't reach the knob."
As I reached for the knob, I realized there would be no going back. I had no idea what I would say or do. I could only demand that he return my Robert to me.
Once inside, the cabin did indeed prove to be bigger than it looked, far more so than I could have imagined. It wasn't cavernous by any stretch of the imagination, but it was big enough to house a kitchen, living quarters, and several tables cluttered with all manner of odd paraphernalia. It was at one of these tables, to my left, where the wizard was at work, meddling with a number of tiny vials and bottles filled with a blue liquid. Gentle curls of smoke were rising from the liquid. He had his back to us.
"Close that door at once. I'll not abide a draft in here."
I ignored him, standing in the doorway with Charlie, gawking a bit. Still hesitant.
He turned, angry now. "I said..." The wizard stopped, looking a bit perplexed, as if trying to remember where he knew me from. "I see you're associating with vermin now," He said after a moment, presumably referring to Charlie.
He then looked down to the little elf-man, who had wondered further into the cabin than I, gazing around. "Getting a child to do your bidding, that's a bit cowardly, even for you." The wizard, speaking again. I wondered if maybe Charlie didn't know what to do either.
But no, he turned to face the wizard. "You know what I've come here for. I'll not leave without it."
"I took away your powers and your stature because you did not deserve them, and I am not to be cajoled into returning them." The wizard began to roll up his sleeves. I'd seen that gesture before. Not a good sign.
I didn't understand what they were talking about. Feeling out of place, I forced myself to speak up. "You've more than one spell to reverse, sir. I want my fiancé back, and I'm not leaving either. I don't care what you turn me into, you'll not be rid of me."
Suddenly I had two pairs of eyes studying me. Charlie looked at me like a bug he'd found under his fingernail, a nuisance he was done with. "Begone, you beggarly filth," he snarled. Suddenly his voice was different, a little deeper, a little bit more arch and condescending. I'd not paid it much mind before, but I noticed then that he was bearded, and wore a robe not too different from his much taller counterpart.
Another wizard? What had I gotten myself into?
I reached forward and picked him up by the leg and shook him. "No," I cried in rage, hot tears pouring down my cheeks. "You said you were going to help me."
I looked to the wizard, the little man still caught in my grasp. "I don't care what you do to this hateful beast, but my fiancé is a good man. He doesn't deserve the punishment you gave him."
"Unhand me!" Charlie was screaming and raging, crying himself now. I dropped him, not feeling inclined to any sort of kindness now. He landed roughly and leaped to his feet at once. He tried to kick me in the shin, but I barely felt it.
Charlie looked to the wizard, who had been preparing a spell all this time. The tinier sorcerer looked worried. "Now, Josiah, you know whatever you do to me, the council won't stand for it. "I'll come back again."
"Well..." the wizard mumbled.” Guess I better make you a good deal smaller then." The wand again. He took a bottle of green liquid, dipped the wand in it, and then flicked it at Charlie. At once, Charlie began to shrink again, growing insect-like features. In seconds he'd been transformed into an ant. A tiny black ant.
I shivered in fear, wondering what my own fate would be. As he looked to me I suddenly found myself sobbing hysterically. "Now...what shall we do with a little fusspot who won't leave well enough alone?" He said the words slowly with a relaxed air, as if he had all day.
"I'll make you sorry," I replied. I was crying harder now, tears streaming down. I hated myself for it, but I didn't know how to stop now that I'd really started. "I'm going to find a way to make you so sorry. I'll find a way to make you miserable." I choked up, then spoke again, barely able to get the words out. "I'll, I'll take everything you love, and I'll stomp it in the dirt, just so you'll know the pain you put me through. I will. I'll hurt you, just like you hurt me."
My chest was heaving when I stopped, the tears still coming. I felt like I'd laid myself bare. There was nothing more to do but wait for my fate as a bug or a plant or whatever.
"You can't take what's already gone, nor can you hurt that which no longer exists." He said the words quietly, so I could barely hear them. For a moment both of us were silent. All I could hear was my own heart, beating away like a miniature drum.
"Oh very well," the wizard said, relenting to my shock. "The last thing I need is one more enemy, and you sound like you've got the spirit to actually accomplish something. Spirit...drive. It's capable of more than most can imagine." He pulled out a small silver knife and handed it to me. "About a foot low from where you last saw your lover's face," he instructed, "scratch out all the bark. You'll find two tiny little doors, like a cupboard. Inside, you'll find a potion. Drink the potion, and you'll be able to save the lout of a blacksmith.
Hardly able to believe my incredible fortune, I took the knife and left at once. I didn't say a word to the wizard, only nodding as he spoke his directions. Despite the cold, I was grateful to escape the cabin with life, limb and shape fully intact. I held the knife tight and flat against my chest and made a dash for the tree.
Once I made it back to the clearing, I found where Robert's face had been, as the wizard had told me. Two circular marks for the eyes, one for his mouth. I leaned up on tiptoes and kissed where his cheek should have been.
"I hope you can't feel this," I whispered, using the knife to peel away enough bark. Sure enough, I soon revealed two tiny little doors. They reminded more of a jewelry box than a cupboard, but it hardly mattered now. I swiftly opened them to reveal a simple glass bottle with a glass stopper. It was filled to the brim with a dark green liquid.
A little white tag attached to the neck of the bottle gave me the only directions I needed.
I lifted the bottle to my lips, and swallowed every last drop.
The Real Trouble Begins
As I drained the potion from the bottle, I dropped it, letting the glass vial fall to the dirt. Almost at once, spots began to dance before my eyes. Feeling dizzy, I put a hand against the trunk of the tree to balance myself.
I didn't know what to do next. I felt very strange, but I didn't understand how I was helping Robert. Suddenly I felt something beneath my palm. I lifted my hand away and noticed something curious. A daisy had sprouted where my hand had touched. Or something like a daisy. It had large white petals, but it looked a bit odd, and it had no stem. It was growing straight from the bark.
As I looked, I noticed more and more of these flowers growing all over the tree. They soon grew thick enough to blot out all the leaves, till the whole of it was just a mass of white. And then...it collapsed. A rush of flowers spilled over me, their fragrance filling my nose, overwhelming me.
As I looked through the cloud, brushing the plants away, I saw him. Robert lay on his back, exactly where he'd been struck by the wand all those weeks ago. He was looking at the sky, a little vacantly.
I laughed with glee and threw myself into the grass and flowers next to him. He turned to look at me, both of us on our backs now. A slow smile of recognition overtook his face as he looked at me. He looked...sleepy, as if he'd just woken from a lengthy nap.
He reached out a hand to trace the curve of my cheek. I gripped it tight. "I missed you," I breathed, suddenly feeling sleepy myself. I realized I hadn't really let myself rest since he'd been changed.
"I... feel like I've woken up from the strangest dream. I dreamt I was... a tree. But you were there, in the dream. You visited me and talked to me, told me things. I...is something wrong, dear? You look a bit odd."
"Hmm, no, I'm wonderful. Just tired. I haven't been sleeping well." As soon as I said the words, I realized they weren't true. I still felt horribly odd. The spots were still there, the dizziness.
"You...are you sure? Your skin is turning blue...I'm sure of it. And you look a bit smaller. Sit up." He sat up himself, carefully helping me into the same position. I was a little smaller. I was only supposed to be about four inches shorter than Robert, but now I barely came up to his shoulders.
I was...shrinking? But no, it was more than that. I was changing into something else. Soon my whole body was changing shape, it was growing rounder, my face narrower. And I began to sprout blue feathers.
I was turning into a bird.
Before my mouth turned into a beak, I urgently told Robert as much as I could. "The wizard, he did this to me. I went after him today, told him I wouldn't leave until he helped me change you back. He told me how to, how to get to a special potion, one that would help me fix you, but he didn't tell me there would be..."
I was about to say "side effects" before I lost my ability to speak. By then I was nothing but a tiny little bluebird. I sat on Robert's hand, unsure what to do. I supposed I could fly now, but I didn't know how. This new body was so strange, and all the world seemed so big, it was too disorienting for me to handle.
But I knew what was coming next. Robert would want to find this wizard himself now. Placing me on his shoulder, we immediately set out. I hadn't been able to tell Robert how to find the cabin, and I didn't want to, but there were only two sets of tracks leading out of the clearing. One set led home, toward our village. The other set led deep into the forest, making it obvious which direction I'd come from.
The day was collapsing into starlight by the time we finally reached the cabin. My stolen afternoon had been stretched very long. I wondered how long it would take for people to notice my absence.
From my vantage point on Robert's shoulder, I noticed as we neared that the circle of ash had been carefully restored. Robert kicked an opening into it, ignorantly scattering the fine grit. Not bothering to knock, he walked right up to the door and threw it wide open.
The both of us were at a loss as to what to do now. Robert at once began to explore, starting with the laboratory. The only problem was, not a one of the potions lining the shelves and tables was labeled. Just a whole lot of blank jars and bottles, filled with liquids of every color in the rainbow.
And some of the bottles were empty, or filled with random oddities. I saw one from my perch with nothing inside but a tiny black ant.
At least the wizard hadn't squished him, I figured.
I still didn't feel like I understood this strange man. What was he doing out here in the woods? What did he want?
Finally, after a good deal of searching around, Robert found something promising. Another special bottle, with a label tied to its neck. This one said something different.
Could this be what we were looking for? Before we could figure anything else out, a distant rumbling began to sound, coming from the fireplace. Suddenly, it began to transform, taking the shape of an archway. There was a door within the arch. As we watched, the handle rattled. Someone was coming!
I began to pace back and forth on Robert's shoulder. I wanted to fly towards the door, get him to leave, but I didn't know how to get myself into the air. I pointed a wing towards the door. We needed to flee!
Robert shook his head, turning to face me. He smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. It was a tight expression, filled with concern. He meant to comfort me, but I was too fearful for my beloved.
Robert stood his ground. He didn't seem even the least bit afraid. But his hands were balled into shaking fists, betraying his emotions. He had no fear. He was livid with anger.
The door opened and the wizard appeared, arms full of some sort of branches. He dropped them when he saw us, face growing angry. "You again?" He snarled. "Can I get not one day of peace?" He stomped his foot and began to roll up his sleeves. I thought he might do something with that awful wand of his, but he regained his composure with surprising speed.
The wizard looked at me, calming a bit more still. His voice had a smug tone when he spoke. "I see you discovered a side effect to my potion." He chuckled. "Nothing in this life of ours comes for free, eh?"
"We're taking this bottle," Robert declared. "And then if it heals my Eleanor, we'll be on our way. If not, you'll just have to turn me into a tree or a bird or whatever else you like." I was glad we were of the same mind in all this. It made me love the man all the more. Of course we belonged together.
Robert was less emotional than I though. I had to admit he was handling it all with a good deal more composure than I had. The wizard was gathering his brush and piling it on some table.
"Alright..." He said. "You can take that potion, and be on your way. But you need to drink it, not she."
"I'm not falling for that trick. If it takes someone else drinking it to change her back, then you do it." He held out the bottle, offering it to the wizard.
This seemed to catch the wicked old man at a loss. He hesitated for a moment. "Truth be told," he said, looking at me, "I was too tired to do anything to you earlier. Putting our mutual friend Charlie into his insectoid shape took a lot of energy out of me. I hadn't the strength to do the same to you. But that is no longer true. I see the time has come to deal with you both!" The wizard began to roll up his sleeves, producing a wand once more.
"No." Robert replied, producing the dagger I'd used to peel away bark when he'd been a tree. I hadn't seen him pick it up. "It's not my preference, but I'll turn to violence if you move that wand another inch. I may be a blacksmith, but I know how to throw a knife." It was true. His father had been a circus performer, an expert at juggling knives and balls alike.
The wizard let his arm fall. "Very well. That potion is truly an antidote, but it must be poured over her head. It is fatal if consumed." I wasn't sure of the truth to any of this, but Robert seemed to believe it. Rather than administer the magic drink at once, Robert cautiously darted forward and snatched the wand.
"How dare you?" Josiah cried, "You'd better bring that back when you're through!"
We retreated together, and it wasn't till we were outside and a little ways from the cabin that Robert popped the stopper on the potion. I hopped down to his palm on my little bird feet and he used his other hand to dump the bottle all over me.
The potion did nothing as it seeped through my feathers. However, when it reached Robert's hand, he at once began to turn into some sort of lizard. His skin grew pebbly and green, his face angular, his body shrinking. We'd been tricked, again! Blast!
Before he lost the strength in his fingers, Robert grabbed the wand and snapped it over his knee, screaming in anger and frustration. There was a great explosion, and when the smoke cleared, he wasn't turning into a lizard anymore.
Instead, he seemed to be turning into a bluebird. Just like me. The both of us seemed terribly small now, the great trees of the forest towering around us. I hop-walked to the broken wand. A faint pinkish mist was rising from either fractured tip like rose-colored steam.
I wished Robert hadn't broken the wretched thing. I was certain we might have figured out how to use it. And yet, at the same time, this was all so unpredictable. The potion had turned him into a lizard, but destroying the magic wand turned him into a bluebird just like me. I didn't understand.
In the distance, I heard the cabin begin to collapse. Its wooden beams fell upon one another. The ash circle exploded into the air. When the haze cleared, the little house had fallen into a pile of rubble.
The wizard had fled. Perhaps we had proven too much for him after all. Although I could hardly fathom why the man would be frightened of a pair of helpless birds. Had he abandoned this land completely?
I still wondered what he'd really been up to in the first place, what his experiments had been about. I supposed we would never know. There were so many mysteries I wanted answers to, but we were trapped now. Caught out here in an unfamiliar form and lost deep in the woods.
Well, it could have been worse. I looked back to Robert, who was trying to figure out how to walk on new legs. I stretched out my wings, trying to flap. I'd always wondered what it would be like to fly. Now the sky would be all I had. And Robert.
As I ascended towards the stars above, I knew it would be enough for me.
A Long Journey
Six Months Later...
The fresh spring rains were my greatest delight. I loved to wake up early every morning and swoop down from my nest to hunt for worms. The waters made them evacuate their earthen homes every time, making them easy prey, even for one as small as I.
I glided into the dew laden grasses and began to search around for breakfast. I couldn't help reveling in the feeling of the misty air through my wings, the wet grass beneath my talons. This was my life, and I loved it. I knew there'd been a time before I'd lived in the forest, beautiful tall trees all around me, but I couldn't remember it.
Ah! Ah! I saw one! I could barely contain my excitement as a nice fat mealworm crawled through the grass, just waiting for me to snatch it up and crack into its ripe, delicious body with me beak...
But suddenly, as I leaned forward to snatch it up, my beak was gone! Confused, I looked down at myself and saw that my wings, too, had vanished. They'd been replaced by some sort of gangly pink tentacles. I vaguely recalled having seen something similar once...long ago, but I couldn't recall the name for it.
Was it an...arm?
Yes! That was it exactly. I'd had arms once before, but that had been a very long time ago as well. I couldn't imagine why. They seemed completely useless, dangling from my shoulders the way they did. Certainly not as practical as wings.
Suddenly I found myself jumping, startled at something brushing the nape of my neck. Someone was behind me? No. It was hair. A long brown mane of hair cascaded over my shoulder. I had hair now. Fascinating.
I examined the pink tentacles, the arms, again. They were dotted with little brown specks...freckles? I raised one of the arms awkwardly to my face. The little tentacles that came off the arm, the hand. I used a hand to feel my face. Flat. Perfectly flat, except for a tiny little stub of a nose, hardly as proud as my lost beak. If memory served, my face would be freckled as well.
On unsteady legs, I stood. Part of me still wanted to pursue the mealworm, but I decided that would be unwise. It looked far smaller now than it had a moment ago anyways.
But breakfast was hardly important now. I needed to find my someone. My...
That was his name. We'd been out here in the forest for a very long time. I didn't even want to think about how much time might have passed. I didn't want to think about life as a bird. I just wanted to find him and maybe, finally, go home. If I'd changed back, surely he had as well...right?
"Robert!" I cried, looking around wildly. My heart began to beat faster. What if I didn't find him? What would I do? I ran through the trees calling out his name at the top of my lungs. Words tasted funny on my tongue, so used to mindless songs.
Finally, after a few moments of circling around, a bluebird landed atop one a branch high above my head. My heart sank. Robert was still trapped. I called him and held out my arm, but he just looked at me. If only I had a way back up to him...if only I could still fly...
As the thought came to me, I suddenly felt the world shrink again. The grass rose up to meet me, and in the space of mere seconds, I was a bird again. Confused yet elated at the same time, I flew right up to Robert's branch. He trilled out a few notes of song, but I didn't respond. Instead, I concentrated on my human form, wondering if I could reverse things again.
In seconds I was back, awkwardly hanging from a branch that was too small for me. I looked Robert in the eye, and he looked back. I could see recognition in his eyes but little else.
"I need you to follow me." I told him, and then I turned into a bird again and flew across the forest, to a place both of us knew all too well.
The wreckage of the cabin.
I landed in the grass beside the fallen building, transforming back to my old self. Robert alighted atop a pillar that stuck out, staring at me with a quizzical expression.
"We need a clue about where he might have gone," I said, answering his unspoken question, "Or maybe a leftover potion...I don't know! Anything!"
And that's when I saw it, somehow miraculously intact. A slender glass bottle, containing nothing but a tiny black ant.
I reached forward and pulled it out of the rubble. It was only trapped under a few little bits of lumber and some sort of sagebrush.
Had it survived all this time, somehow? There had been grass inside once, but it was all gone now, leaving nothing but green dust. I shook the bottle ever so slightly, hoping to see some movement.
"Maybe Charlie can help us." I told Robert. I gently dumped the contents of the bottle out onto a fallen log. After a few moments, the dark little speck began to move.
"Excellent!" I at once began to dig around. I was able to find three more intact bottles, all filled with unnamed potions. Charlie would make the perfect test subject. It's not like it could get much worse than being trapped as an ant.
I popped the stopper to a bottle filled with bright yellow liquid like captured sunlight and poured a few droplets over the ant. At once, he began to transform, but he didn't turn human at all. Instead, he turned into a big fat worm.
I shivered in disgust and grabbed another bottle, hurrying to change him again before Robert could snatch him up for a snack. This one looked like starlight, black with white specks. With it, Charlie began to grow...bigger and bigger, sprouting brown fur and a tail, and legs with hooves.
Not helpful at all. As the horse stood there with surprising patience, I tried the last potion. It shone an electric blue color. This time he shrank again, finally settling into the shape of a lizard.
"Well...no luck for any of us," I told Charlie, wondering what we could do next. "I don't suppose you've got any ideas, do you?"
To my surprise, the little green lizard began to move. It awkwardly began to gather debris, piling it up in a clear patch of dirt. It didn't take me long to realize it was forming a message. Words slowly began to form over the space of several minutes. I watched intently, but Robert got bored, and soon went to darting through the grass for food.
Finally, after a few minutes, a handful of words had taken shape.
YOU MUST GO BEFORE THE WIZARD COUNCIL.
"What? What's a wizard council? Where do I go?"
More words, these even more confusing than the last.
PREPARE YOURSELF FOR A VERY LONG JOURNEY.
A warm spring sun watched from above as I stood at the edge of the trees, the road laid out before me. It ran to the left and to the right, slipping through the forest in either direction. To the left, according to my limited understanding, the road led to a faraway land where some sort of council of wizards convened, who might be able to restore Robert and Charlie to their normal, human forms.
To the right...
Our village. Robert sat on my right shoulder, Charlie on my left. Like two opposing angels, pulling me in two different directions. As I looked down the road to the right, I could feel home beckoning me like a physical force. I wanted to run back to my parents, to my dear old inn. I wanted to go back more than anything I'd ever felt.
Robert pointed a wing in that direction. He knew I would want to go home. All the things I could miss in life were there...
Except for one thing.
"No..." I replied, tears stinging my eyes. "We go back together, or not at all. Someday we're going to return here...arm in arm..." I was crying harder now. I'd never really left the village, never been far from home. It was all I knew of the world. "We're going to dance through the streets together...and then we're going to get married in the church, just like we said we would."
And then I stepped out onto the old dirt road, with eyes only for our destination. Tears sliding down my cheeks, I never looked back.
I'd managed to find a knapsack at the cabin. It had a few holes in it, but nothing so serious it couldn't hold a few bottles. I'd packed all the potions I'd found at the bottom, and then I'd foraged a little food, mostly berries. And that was all I took with me as I left the only country I'd ever known.
Except for the broken wand.
I'd found it exactly where Robert had left it, buried under forest grasses. It seemed harmless now, and completely useless, but I felt better for having it. Perhaps some use could still be gleaned, perhaps its last wicked works could still be undone.
I didn't know how long we would be walking. Back at the inn where I'd worked since age sixteen, I'd worked long days, but I still wasn't sure how my legs would handle such a long journey as I'd been promised.
But who knew how long was long?
I was quite certain Charlie was far from right in the head. He never quite acted the way one would expect. Sometimes I would look down and catch him gnawing on his own tail, or licking the shoulder of my dress with his tongue. Other times he'd just stand and gyrate back and forth, swaying and rolling his wideset eyes.
And most of all, he wanted to talk. His mouth was almost constantly moving with undiscernable words. All those months as an insect had clearly been hard on him. And so, while I wanted to believe the former wizard was leading us on the right path, part of me couldn't help suspecting we were headed nowhere and the poor man was completely bonkers.
I'd been walking for a few hours, daydreaming about a hot bath and a clean dress when I heard a strange sound. What's more, the earth shook ever so slightly. There was a rumbling on the dirt path. It wasn't quite like oxen or wagon wheels, those sounds I knew well enough. But it came from behind on us, by way of the village.
Suddenly a sound like a cannon shot shattered the silence of the forest. I heard a great cracking somewhere in the distance behind us as a tree fell over. I turned and scanned the area. All was peaceful, the world green and misty white. Not a trace of whatever had just disturbed the quiet.
I breathed a sigh of relief and turned back to be on my way. Robert did not. He kept his eyes trained behind us. I started to speak. "I think it's all right now...probably just a logger..."
At that exact moment an enormous black shape came pounding along the road. A great creature huffing and snorting as it charged me down. Robert let out a fearful trilling and Charlie clutched tight to the side of my neck. For a moment I could only stare, frozen in fear.
Robert squeezed my shoulder with one foot. I let out a small shriek and took off running, as fast as I could. It quickly became apparent that the beast, whatever it was, would soon outrun me.
I hazarded a glance over my shoulder and caught sight of the creature, closer now. It was some sort of immense, broad shouldered wolf, black as shadows. I darted into the trees, leaving the road behind.
Another tree exploded as the wolf-beast dashed through it, as if the great oak were nothing. Bits of bark and leaves rained down, showering the three of us and tangling in my hair.
I tried to weave my way through the forest, zigging and zagging this way and that in an attempt to lose the beast, all to no avail. A few more trees fell, one nearly landing on me, so close I could feel its branches tear at the hem of my dress.
The beast was close enough now that I could smell the fetid stench of its breath. It reached out a claw to bat me down and I ducked to the right, barely dodging the blow. It kept running, passing me up for a moment before swinging back around to pursue me again.
I realized as I turned to run the other way that Robert and Charlie were both gone. I could only hope Robert had flown away. As the wolf charged me down I realized I could run no more. I dropped to my knees just as the creature pounced.
I hugged the ground in a panic, the scent of earth filling my nostrils. The wolf sailed over my head and landed with a loud boom, its great claws churning up the earth. Finally, I remembered. I could turn into a bird! It was my only hope now. I transformed immediately, winging my way into the forest canopy. I alighted on a branch and waited as the the wolf searched about, snuffling at the trees. Perplexed. Apparently it either hadn't seen me transform or didn't understand.
I felt much safer in my perch, fifteen feet up. As I watched, the giant wolf seemed to give up on finding me. To my utter shock, it began to change its own shape, into that of a man! A tall man in a strange black cloak, the like of which I'd never seen. It was more form-fitting than most cloaks I'd seen, and woven throughout there were a number of patterns, all in black so as to blend in save when the light him them just right.
Before he departed he looked up into the trees, seemingly right at me. His eyes were like a pair of dark coals, emotionless and flat. The man's hair was the same color as his fur had been, black as pitch. Frowning, the wizard stalked away. I breathed an internal sigh of relief. I didn't know who the man was, or why he'd come after me, but I certainly didn't want to meet him on the road anytime soon.
I waited for a long time, uncertain what to do. After a few minutes, Robert landed next to me on the branch, with Charlie clutching to his back. Robert and I leaned close, till our beaks were touching. This was all so strange and frightening and confusing, but I could not give in to fear and uncertainty, not for one second.
I found the road again, flying high in the air until I could see it wending its way through the forest, and then I landed in the dirt of it and turned back to my human shape.
Part of me wanted to fly as far as I could, to shorten the journey, but I couldn't make myself do it. I'd had enough of clouds and stars, and tree branches. I didn't want to be a bird any longer.
I arranged my companions as before, on either shoulder, and set out again. I couldn't help feeling as if I'd made no progress at all. I sighed. The road seemed endless, the forest seemed to go on forever. The trees were different here though. Their trunks were getting thinner, their bark a lighter color.
Thoughts of the wolf-beast filled my head. I wondered what else I might run into out here, on my own. I shivered. The air seemed to have grown colder. I looked up at the sky. It was barely after noon.
But still, I shivered again. I wondered if I would ever feel warm and safe again.
Before the Wizard Council
The journey was indeed long, just as Charlie had promised from the start. We'd been walking for three days. Alone. There was hardly a traveler on the road, despite the fine weather.
After a day and a half, we'd left the forest. We traveled till the trees ran out. They'd grown more and more sparse, smaller and smaller, till great plains stretched in all directions and the comforting shelter of the forest was nothing but a memory.
After two, I'd found a village. It had been a little out of the way, and reminded me so dearly of home my eyes had watered at the mere sight of it. But I hadn't cried. I'd refused to cry. Even so, I'd been able to beg for a bit of stew and a clean mat to sleep on. A straw mat may not sound like much, but it was far better than the forest grasses I'd slept on the previous evening.
After three days, hills began to rise and fall higher and higher, like ocean waves. The road wound on and on and on and on. The dirt path beneath my feet began to seem like an endless, eternal thing. But change came even there, with the quality of the dirt going from reddish brown to an odd sort of clay-like dirt, light and white.
The moon was rising high in its roost, the stars scattering themselves in their assigned positions, when I began to see mountains towering in the distance, great looming shadows against the evening sky.
I stopped and stared. I'd never seen mountains before. Something about the mere sight exhausted me. I was beginning to feel like I could hardly walk another step. "Might you be who you might be?" A voice suddenly broke the deep quiet of the night. I'd run into so few travelers along the road, it was odd to hear a voice besides my own.
To my absolute shock, a man was walking beside me. He looked very young, no more than a few years beyond my own age of seventeen. He was dressed in a large brown robe that looked a little too baggy.
"Are you a wizard?" I asked, curious. "You look awfully young."
"Perhaps," he replied. "But perhaps I'm not half as young as I am old, and while it is true these hills have watched the stars spin o'er this globe of ours a few more times than yours truly, truly I would daresay, have I watched them dance their astronomical foxtrot far more than the young wizard who I am addressing presently."
He stroked a thin goatee while he gave this speech, which I must confess I barely understood a word of. I pressed on regardless. "But...what sort of wizard are you?" I asked.
"I might be studied in the art of evaporation, among other curiosities I fear you wouldn't understand. What sort of wizard might you be?" As I watched, the majority of his body vanished, robe and all, save his arms and head.
"I'm not a wizard..." I said quietly, disconcerted. After all I'd seen since that picnic so long ago, it hardly seemed odd that a man should be able to erase parts of his body at will.
"What business is this business then, which is carrying you so far south?" The disembodied head questioned. His arm reached up to stroke his goatee again, but not before it twirled in a most unnatural way, a way impossible for any normal arm, to say the least.
"Well," I said hesitantly, not sure whether to trust the strange wizard. "My fiancé has been transformed into a bluebird, and I am out seeking a wizard council that can turn him back."
"Well!" The head and arms floated into the air over my head, and the rest of his body reappeared. "That is quite the story! Why don't you change him...being a wizard yourself?"
I stamped my foot, growing impatient. "I told you...I'm not a wizard." The man was drifting lazily overhead, seemingly deep in thought over my plight. "I wish you'd stay in one place," I told him. "It would make a conversation with you far easier to manage."
But he hardly seemed to hear a word I said. "Are you quite certain? Might you be quite certainly wrong?" He seemed convinced that I was a wizard myself. What a ridiculous notion!
"Do you know where I can find the wizard council?" I asked, ignoring his odd line of questioning.
"To find a wizard council, one must first be in council with one wizard. Perhaps I can lead you there...and perhaps you could lead yourself there. If I were you...a slender young thing with an avian for a lover...and an odd perchance for giant insects..." he looked at Robert, then Charlie as he said this, apparently having never seen a lizard before. "...I would carry on."
And with that, he descended to my side, and was apparently content to walk with me on my journey without another word of explanation. When I asked him plainly if he could help me find my way, he said we "might" share a similar destination, so I left it at that.
I was beginning to grow exhausted, but the idea of being close to our destination excited me. Soon rocks were beginning to rise around us, the mountains growing closer. The wizard floated a few inches off the ground at all times, I noticed. I wondered if he ever walked anywhere. After a good deal more walking (on my part at least), we came to an intersection.
Like a great three-headed snake the road coiled away in three separate directions. I stopped but the hovering wizard kept going, along the path that led straight, the way we'd been going all this time. I ignored him and looked down at Charlie, hoping my diminutive guide would be able to help me once more.
"Charlie, which way should we go?" After a moment, he lifted a foreleg and pointed dead ahead, the same way oddball wizard was drifting. I sighed quietly to myself and followed him.
The road soon began to climb, meandering through the rocks. After another hour of walking, the air began to grow colder. The frigid wind served to remind me I had little protection from the elements, just the same old dress I'd been wearing.
Walking, walking, walking. Soon we were in the mountains proper. A mere few feet to my right, the ground zoomed away into an imposing drop. Now that we were up high, I could see the world spread behind us, all green flatness. I tried to spot the forest, but I could see hardly a single solitary tree anymore.
I didn't think I could carry on another step when a cavern suddenly yawned before us, a wide opening in the side of a cliff. It wasn't snowing, thankfully, but there were drifts of the white stuff here and there. The path led right into the cave. I could see yellow light inside.
The wizard had slowly gotten ahead of me as we traveled. By the time we reached the cave, he was over a hundred feet ahead, vanishing into its maw. I stopped at the entrance, apprehensive. I looked out at the crisp morning air, all mountains and snow clouds. I looked at Robert, perched on my shoulder.
This was why I was here, why I'd journeyed so far...to save the one I love.
Without another thought, I stepped inside. I stumbled slightly, nearly tripping over my own feet, but I managed to right myself. It was surprisingly warm. The chill that had hung around me all through the night vanished. I could not see the source of the light. It seemed to emanate from deeper within the tunnel. All but asleep on my feet, I tiredly mustered up the energy to keep going.
I felt a stirring in my hair. Charlie, who'd been asleep and clutched to my neck all this time, began to come alive. I couldn't imagine being a cold-blooded creature in an environment like this. Robert, too, had been forced to take shelter in my hair. As I walked through the cave towards the distant source of light, I couldn't help worrying over my hair. I tried to smooth it down into a reasonable shape as quickly as I could.
What would a wizard council think of me? I was so small, and so filthy, surely they wouldn't listen to a word a poor peasant like me had to say. But no, I couldn't think that way. It was too important... I would have to MAKE them listen to me.
There were dozens of little offshoots that branched away from the main tunnel, but I followed it straight all the way. That was where the source of light came from, I was sure of that at least. I had long ago lost sight of the wizard, but that had always been a risk, what with his strange powers of "evaporation" and all.
Strange scents began to reach my nose, some of them I recognized. Garlic, rosemary, mint, but others I didn't. Perhaps these wizards made potions too? That made my blood run a little colder. What if they turned me into something horrible, like a cockroach, or a beetle?
Finally, after nearly ten minutes of slow stumbling through the cave with not a soul in sight, I found the source of the light. It turned out not to be a torch, or a hearth as I had expected, but a man.
A glowing man, sitting in a chair. It didn't hurt to look at him, as you might expect, but his light was certainly traveling far nonetheless. It allowed me to see the entire room, born of stone. It was not much to look at. There were nine chairs in the room, placed along the back wall in a semi-circle. There were all made of stone, carved from the rock wall itself. Six of them were filled. All else the room contained were two more tunnels, both sloping away into darkness to the left and right.
The wizard council.
I'd done it. I could hardly believe I'd made it. The eight were all wrapped in conversation, including the glowing man. I couldn't make out what they were discussing, but I was glad they hadn't noticed little me right away. It gave me time to study the wizards in session.
As I said, there were nine chairs, and six wizards:
From left to right:
-An enormous man, the largest I'd ever seen. He was dressed in a plain black robe, which helped disguise whether his girth was more fat or muscle. I had to guess the latter. He was staring towards the center of the room.
-An empty chair, this one tall and narrow.
-The glowing man, sitting serenely, listening to the conversation buzzing in the room.
-My friend the evaporator. He sat cross-legged, floating a few inches above his seat. He was whispering into the ear of the wizard to his left, and everyone else in the room seemed to be straining to hear what he had to say.
-A tall, imposing wizard with a very long gray beard, and an angry old face. I presumed he was their leader, because he had a big metal staff capped by a fanciful symbol that looked like the sun.
-Two more empty chairs.
-A pale, lizard-like man. He was white as salt and had narrow, hooded eyes. Despite this, he looked rather jolly, and seemed to be smiling.
-A skinny stick of a man, redheaded and with unnaturally large eyes with violet irises. He was covered in freckles like me, but something about this one bothered me...he had a look of...greed in his eyes. Want. I wasn't sure how I knew, I just knew. He was greedy, perhaps craven.
"...and it looks like our visitor has finally arrived." The evaporating wizard finished, mere seconds after I took in the last in the strange array of men. He was part of the wizard council! And he'd told them all about me. All eyes were trained upon me now, all conversation paused.
The leader spoke next. "Well child...tell us why you've come so far to see us. It must be quite a tale." He had the booming, confident voice of a natural orator.
I felt as if I'd lost my voice, and my nerve. I could hardly find the words I'd so carefully been thinking over all this time. Before I could finish, another wizard bustled into the room from one of the side tunnels.
"Late again, Margrovax?" The lead wizard asked impatiently.
"Ho...what's this? A visitor?" This one seemed kindly enough. A younger man with a neatly trimmed goatee and mustache that matched his long brown hair in color. "I hope I haven't missed anything important." The man said, taking his seat in one of the empty chairs between the leader and the pale man.
"No..." the pale wizard leaned forward, putting elbows on his knees and steepling his fingers. He stretched some of his words, reinforcing his serpent-like aspect. "The young ladyyy wasssss..." he paused for a moment, sucking in air through his teeth. "...Jussst about to tellll her ssstoryyy."
I cleared my throat. All this time I'd said not a word. I opened my mouth to speak. "I've come to you for help..." Suddenly overcome with emotion, and the power of all those eyes staring me down, I lowered myself to my knees. "I come as one with nothing to offer. I come as a beggar, humbly asking for you to return my husband to his true form..." I lowered my face to the rock floor, my hair falling over my face in a curtain. I barely noticed I'd called Robert my husband, rather than my fiancé, I was so nervous.
To my left and right, Charlie and Robert had gotten off my shoulders and stood at either side. Charlie, too low to the ground, could not bow, but Robert was standing bent over, with his beak lowered. I sighed. I should go on. The room was perfectly silent now.
Finally, the latecomer spoke first. "Rise...child. We will do what we can to aid you. Tell us...who has transformed your husband into that shape?" His kindness gave me a little strength.
"It was a wicked wizard named...Josiah...Josiah Gimel!" I told them the whole absurd story from the beginning. How the evil wizard had turned him into a tree, then Charlie into an ant, then me into a bird, and how we'd come to be as we were.
They all gasped when I mentioned Charlie. The glowing man spoke. "Gimel has gone much too far this time." His voice was rich and deep, resonating like a cello. "We must do something. To think! A member of this very council!"
"Wh-who is Charlie...exactly?" I asked.
"He was...is a member of this council." This was the redhead, his enormous eyes shining. "He was dispatched to spy on Gimel. It would seem his mission was a failure." He chuckled a little at this, as if he'd told a funny joke, despite the fact that there was nothing humorous about it.
"Can you help me?" I asked, a general question. I didn't want to address the redhead. Instead I found myself mostly talking to Margrovax and the leader with the staff. "Can you reverse what's been done?"
At this everyone looked at the redhead. He wandered my way and knelt down. He examined Robert for a very long time, frowning. He pulled at a wing, looked down his beak, examined his feathers, and then after a moment moved on to Charlie, shaking his head and frowning. What could that mean?
After a few moments examining Charlie, the leader spoke. "What is your prognosis, Carrol?" Carrol turned his eyes towards me. I shivered as I stared into their violet depth. Suddenly I felt very strange...dizzy and sleepy all at the same time. Was Carrol examining me, too?
"We can fix the lizard..." he said, smirking slightly. "But it is not within our power to fix the bird. It's under a different kind of spell. Harsher, deeper magic. Only the caster can break it. Looks like a security spell tied with a mimic. If I had to guess, I'd wager he tried to steal or break a wand, and it hit him with whatever magic it had been used for last, unless perhaps there was a cursed individual nearby that..."
Carrol kept explaining, but I didn't hear the rest. I was fixated on one of the first things he'd said. I could hardly believe my ears, didn't think I'd heard quite right. To save Robert, I was going to have to find him, wherever he'd gone in the world.
I would have to find the evil wizard Josiah Gimel...
And confront him again.