throat tightened at the sight of the updraft, a deeper blue against the
washed-out autumn sky. It rose like a column of shimmering heat from the
open field of grass. Beneath her was the icy cool of the surrounding
forest. Tops of individual trees were lost in a blur of damp pine smell
from her speed. The wind slipping over her felt and sounded like gray
silk, but instead of her usual pleasure, she held only a coming dread.
Beast said in her thoughts. “What’s going to happen when we find it?”
“We go up,” Alissa thought back, swallowing nervously.
“The sun’s setting, and I
have a lesson tonight. Perhaps we should stop. It’s getting hard to see
“It is not.
We’ve been at this since sun-high. It’s not that hard, Alissa.” The
voice in her thoughts gave the impression of an aggravated sigh. “We’re
almost there. What do you do when you reach it?”
my wings about it and turn into a rising curve?”
tail made an exasperated twitch. She was sure Beast had done it. Alissa
wouldn’t have minded, but it shifted their momentum, and Alissa gasped.
Beast said nothing as she impatiently abandoned this pass and angled
Alissa back to the forest. Beside her came a faint chitter as Talon,
Alissa’s pet kestrel, protested at the sharp shift of direction. The bird
had accompanied her all afternoon as if in encouragement.
Alissa asked, “why are we bothering? I don’t care you do all the
your teacher watch you when we fly. He knows something is wrong. Someday
he might realize it isn’t you who is flying but me.” Beast turned Alissa back to the updraft.
“Look sharp. I’m not going to help you this
“Beast?” Alissa thought, concerned as she took control over the gentle glide Beast
had left her in, but the voice didn’t answer. Alissa eyed the approaching
updraft, knowing from countless passes she had a moment to gather her
courage. She glanced forward to the Hold. The nearly abandoned fortress
nestled into the rock of the mountain. Behind the peak was a steep drop.
The setting sun had beaten upon the sheer rockface all afternoon until the
wave of heat streaming from it was so strong, it was almost purple to her
sported them in the windy violence earlier, showing Alissa the glorious
possibilities to be found in updrafts before settling down to try and
teach Alissa to fly on her own. The heavy upwelling of energy behind the
Hold made the updraft over the fallow fields look like a washbasin in
comparison to the sea, but even so it scared Alissa silly, making her long
fingers tingle down to the tips of her savage claws.
wings and ease into it,” she thought, her lips pulling back from her
long canines as she felt Beast’s thoughts turn impatient.
stiff, Alissa,” her feral conscious complained. “Tear my dame’s
wings to shreds, why don’t you trust the wind? It’s more faithful than the
most loyal mate.”
“Mate?” Alissa thought, embarrassed. Distracted, she slammed into the updraft
unprepared. The wheat-scented wind caught her wings, shocking her with the
force behind it. Alissa overcompensated. Feeling herself stall, she tried
to flap her wings. It was a mistake. Pain shot through her back as she
sought to find lift from a standstill.
Beast shrieked. “You can’t rise that way! Cup your wings!”
whipped wildly as she tried to find her center of balance. It smacked
painfully into a treetop. She was out of the updraft and back over the
trees. Without the help of the rising air, she fell. A massive hemlock
loomed before her. “Beast!” she cried.
Beast tried to
snatch control, but panicked, Alissa wouldn’t let go. Wings flailing,
Alissa crashed through the canopy. Branches as thick as her arm snapped.
Pain raked her wings. Frantic, Alissa struggled to fold them. There was no
time to even gasp as the ground came at her.
She hit hard.
In an uncontrolled barrel-roll, she tumbled along the ground. Undergrowth
and small trees cracked. End over end she spun until slamming into a tree.
Her long neck flung out, and her jaw smacked into the earth. The tree
shivered, sending dead needles to the ground and birds into the air. Blood
filled her mouth. She had bitten her tongue.
she moaned aloud, her words coming out as a pained, guttural groan. Talon
fluttered down to perch on her head, the bird’s nails digging painlessly
into Alissa’s bare scalp. Alissa waved a nastily clawed hand at her bird
to get her to leave. It was so undignified when Talon perched on her head
like that. The kestrel made an insulted squawk and flew away.
came a dry, disgusted thought from depths of her mind. “You are the
only raku I know who can fall down in an updraft.”
groaned aloud, her thick rumble carrying more pain than her human voice
ever could. She slowly picked herself up, settling into a suffering,
hunched crouch. Red-rimmed scratches marred her golden hide, and she was
sore with what would probably be bruises.
your wing,” Beast demanded. “I think you tore it.”
turning, Alissa extended her left wing, being careful to not hit any of
the remaining trees in the clearing she had made. Her neck snaked to look
behind her. “Burn it to ash,” she thought. A panel close to her
body had been punctured, making a tear almost as long as a man was tall.
She looked to the ground, trying not to pass out or vomit. What would
Useless, her teacher, say? He would ground her for a week.
Beast thought sourly. “It’s going to take twice that long to heal.”
nothing, relieved when her feral conscious seemed to disappear. There was
little to interest Beast on the ground. Only anger or the promise of
flight would bring Beast to the forefront of Alissa’s thoughts again.
folded her wing, holding it from her side as it was still oozing blood.
The faint sound of someone calling her name filtered through the woods. It
sounded muffled, as her hearing was now more attuned to deep tones her
human ears couldn’t discern. Her pulse quickened as she recognized
Strell’s voice. He had probably seen her fall. A second voice joined
Strell’s, and she grimaced. Lodesh was with him. Better and better.
always-composed, self-assured, one-time ghost find her hurt and foolish
was the last thing she wanted. Alissa sighed. Not really a ghost. Not
anymore. The ancient Warden of Ese’ Nawoer said he was as living as any
man. It was a claim she tended to believe, as Lodesh’s hands were warm
when he pulled her into a dance, and his frequent, overly expressive looks
often brought a blush to her face.
There was a
faint tug upon her awareness. Recognizing Lodesh trying to reach her
thoughts, she set up a block so he couldn’t find her. And she could shift
back to her human form to hide the tear. What her hurt wing would turn
into was a question she had hoped she would never have to answer.
Strell’s low-pitched voice, close and worried, and she sat up with a
surprisingly quiet shuffle of leaves.
“Ali-i-i-i-issa?” called Lodesh, his careful pronunciation sounding
concerned as well. Then, softer, clearly to Strell. “I know she came down
here somewhere. I hope she’s not unconscious. I can’t reach even her
wicked, but the shame of her torn wing kept her mouth shut and her mind
closed. Lodesh would shake his head, then twist her life until her teacher
found out about the tear. Strell would tactfully ignore the
situation—providing she seemed all right—knowing she would be embarrassed
for having fallen out of the sky. If she was going to shift, it would have
to be now.
slow breaths, Alissa unfocused her attention. Quick from practice, she set
up the proper pathways in her mind to work the ward. Cool, silver force
flowed from her source to fill her tracings, deep in her awareness. The
heavy smell of bracken and sap vanished as she broke herself down to a
thought, shifted that thought to the body she had been born with, then
made that thought real. At the last moment, she remembered to clothe
herself, and a new pattern joined the one already resonating in her mind.
coalesced into existence wearing a Keeper’s traditional garb of long tunic
and short vest bound about her small waist with a black scarf. A skirt
hemmed in green ribbon finished the outfit, edging her toes bare but for a
pair of thin stockings with holes. Her face warmed for the lack of shoes.
At least she had stockings on. She may as well be naked if she hadn’t had
her Keeper attire, saying as a Master, she ought to dress as such. But she
hadn’t yet taken the time to learn how to craft anything else with her
thoughts. The task was tedious, and she would learn how to make shoes
before more clothes. Alissa ran a hand over her skirt to reassure herself
it was there. The one time she had forgotten had been mortifying.
savagery of hide, claw, and primitive strength had been replaced by
sun-darkened skin and horridly straight fair hair that went halfway to her
elbows. Her eyes had retained their odd gray color; it was something she
wished she could change. Scratches marred her arms when she pushed up her
long sleeves to see, and her jaw was tender. A new soreness ran down her
back, and she stretched painfully to test her limits. Something was torn
inside her. By feel she decided her back was whole and unmarked. The
damage was hidden inside.
pounding, she lurched her way through the shattered branches and ducked
behind a tree. If she planned it right, she might get a moment with Strell
Navigator’s Hounds!” she heard Lodesh exclaim, and she knew they had found
her clearing. “Look what she did!”
around her tree. Strell and Lodesh stood with their feet edging the new
destruction in the setting sun. Talon was perched on Lodesh’s wrist. The
canny bird swiveled her head and looked directly at Alissa. She winced as
Strell cupped his hands and shouted, “Ali-i-issa-a-a!”
shivered and ran a hand over his brown hair, ending the motion with
gripping the hair clip at the back of his neck in a tight fist. The action
was clearly one of worry. Strell was from the desert and probably felt the
chill of the coming night as much as she did—though she had yet to hear
him complain about it. He was surprisingly tall, almost gaunt despite the
plates of food he ate. Dressed in his simple brown shirt and trousers, he
looked like a poor cousin next to Lodesh’s extravagant clothes.
Lodesh was the
only Keeper the Hold could boast of right now, and was admittedly faster
with his wards than she despite his lower standing. Nearly four centuries
ago he had been the Warden of the nearby abandoned city, Ese’ Nawoer. Now,
the revived ghost spent much of his time helping her practice her wards.
He was dressed
in Keeper attire cut from a rich, dark green fabric befitting his
Wardenship. Around his neck was a silver pendant in the shape of a mirth
flower. It was the symbol of his city and was repeated on his heavy ring.
He, too, kept his cheeks clear of even the hint of a beard, knowing Alissa
liked it that way. The Keeper cut a startling figure with his blond hair,
green eyes, and confident poise, but it was upon Strell her gaze lingered.
in frustration. Strell, who had saved her life, who had freed Useless from
his cell, who had returned her mind to her when she went feral—who could
never be a Keeper, forever unable to perform even the simplest ward, and
thus forbidden to her. It was him she loved. Him and the smile he reserved
for her when they were alone.
The two men
picked their way through the ruin, clearly awed. Even from behind her
tree, she could see Strell’s worry. “Can you reach her thoughts yet?” he
asked Lodesh as he rubbed his fingers together after finding a drop of her
blood on the leaves. It was a rare question, proving how concerned Strell
was. She knew Strell’s aversion to bringing up Lodesh’s Keeper abilities.
It only pointed out Strell’s lack.
confidently put his hands on his hips and shook his head. “She’s ignoring
me, so she must be all right. Obviously she isn’t in her raku shape
unfocusing her attention, Alissa modulated her thoughts so Strell could
hear her in his mind. By rights she shouldn’t be able to reach any but
another Master, but Alissa never listened to impossibilities, managing to
speak with not only Masters and Keepers, but Strell as well. Useless said
it was from having started life as a human instead of a raku, thereby
forcing her mind to develop human strategies for verbal language. She
she thought, knowing he wouldn’t be able to answer. “Don’t tell Lodesh.
I’m over here.”
She smiled at
the faint rush of emotion she could sense from him: relief tinged with
anticipation. Her smile deepened as he turned to Lodesh. “Obviously she
isn’t here,” Strell said, the fallacy falling from him as convincingly as
one of his numerous tales. “Why don’t we split up? I’ll check the woods.
You see if she’s gone back to the Hold.”
Shaking his head at the devastation, Lodesh walked the length of the new
clearing and vanished under the trees. From his wrist came Talon’s
chitter. The bird clearly knew he was going the wrong way.
Strell whispered as soon as Lodesh was gone.
Strell,” she called, coming out from behind the tree.
He beamed, his
shoulders drooping as he saw she was all right. He crossed the clearing in
eager, long strides.
said in alarm. She held up a hand before he could sweep her into an
embrace and show the world her lack of footwear. “I lost my shoes.”
to a stop. His brow furrowed, and he took her shoulders in his hands. “Are
you all right?” he asked, his brown eyes intent on hers.
caught at his tight grip, and she dropped her gaze, flustered. “Yes. I’m
fine. But I left my shoes this side of the garden’s wall. Come with me to
Alissa,” he said, reddening as he released her shoulders. “Would you hurry
up and learn how to make them?” Taking advantage of the rare opportunity
of having no eyes upon them, Strell cupped her hand in his as he helped
her over the upturned earth.
lowered, she paced beside him, keeping her steps slow to prolong their
walk, as much as from the pain in her lower back. His hand was warm, and
rough from his work at keeping the Hold’s few fires lit. She ran her
fingertips to the ends of his fingers and back, feeling the calluses from
his twin professions of musician and potter. His other hand lacked a full
pinkie, and she knew he had shifted to her right side so as to hide it.
went soft. It was foolish, and she knew it meant little, but Strell so
rarely felt free to show his feelings for her that even the smallest
gesture was a treasure. It didn’t help he had been raised in the
stiff-necked culture of the desert, either. Useless would be annoyed if he
found out she had been alone with Strell in the woods.
It had been
made very plain to her that Strell would never be allowed to formally
court her. Part of the bargain to bend the rules and let Strell remain at
the Hold had been based on the understanding he would keep his
thoughts—and hands—from Alissa. Useless made no secret he hoped with time
Alissa would turn her fancy to a match more suitable to her Master
stretched forward for her in abundance. As a Master, she now had a life
span ten times Strell’s. Again, she didn’t care, or at least that’s what
she told herself.
“Play a tune
for me tonight?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
sighed, holding a branch for her as they passed into the shadow of the
fluttering brought a groan of dismay from both of them. Talon hovered in a
noisy complaint, waiting for Alissa to offer her a perch. The robin-sized
bird’s chatters were accusing, and Alissa drew her hand from Strell’s with
a guilty swiftness. If she didn’t, Talon’s protests would turn physical.
And though it wouldn’t be hard to fight off the small bird, it would be
difficult explaining to Useless why Strell was scratched.
held out a wrist for the kestrel. “Hush,” Alissa soothed as she brought
Talon close and tried to cover her head. Talon would have nothing to do
with the pacification, worrying Alissa’s fingers with her sharp beak until
Alissa gave up and put Talon on her shoulder. The bird’s harangue never
slowed, but it at least grew softer, turning into a muttering complaint.
at Strell and winced. Lodesh had probably flown the bird, knowing she
would seek out her mistress. Strell took a reluctant step from her,
clearly coming to the same conclusion. “You really should teach that bird
to wear a hood and jesses,” he grumbled. [. . .]