Copyright © 2012 F.T. McKinstry
All rights reserved, Wild Child Publishing.
A Hare Moon shone low in the sky as the first breath of dawn touched the forest. Spring chanted sweetly to the wild things; lilacs bloomed, trout lilies carpeted the ground and damp wind stirred the poplar trees. And Oona, in the shape of a wildcat, took intense notice of the wizard’s crow rustling in the sprawling garden on the eastern side of Straif.
Shapeshifting was Oona’s life, a fluid existence she preferred to humanity. As a human, she would have avoided anything to do with the Master of Straif. A wizard of the deep flowing waters, the hollows of the earth and the implacable forces of blood and transformation, he had one black boot in the shadows.
And he loved his crow.
Oona, on the other hand, found the raucous creature too tempting. Tawny, lithe and driven by the lust of spring, she slipped around the eastern wall of the castle and climbed the spiky old hawthorn tree that grew there.
Most humans knew better than to cross a wizard. A cat did not care.
She landed with a soft thump in a bed of periwinkle. The crow called to the dawn. Nice of him to give her something to head for, though she would have smelled him easily enough without the noise. She crept on her belly through the shadows of lupine spires, tulips and daffodils until she spotted the bird on his perch above the crabapple tree. Fluid as sound, she changed.
She landed with a graceful flutter in the tree, a beautiful female crow with glistening black wings and a song for the male on his perch. He knew enough to be wary of her instant appearance in his domain, but curiosity distracted him. In that instant of miscalculation, Oona drew close and returned to her wildcat shape to finish her wicked deed. It ended quickly.
A short time later, she sat calmly in the garden near a splintery pile of black feathers, her belly content as she cleaned her fur with tongue and paw. She paused and looked up as Rosemary, the wizard’s cat, moved in the direction of the garden gate. Oona took note as this very special creature slowed to a purposeful stride.
Rosemary sang to the stars, drew down the light and healed things. Being human, and not understanding the deepest patterns of the animal kingdom despite her lifelong dabbling, Oona did not know how the gray cat worked her art. She could knit the very threads of the heavens. Oona grew still and waited to see what she had witnessed only once before. Rosemary padded to a rose bush, where she sat and gazed up with green eyes to the last star shining in the predawn sky. Then she meowed softly. The bush dropped the gray worms munching on it and grew vibrant and whole in a stunning bath of silvery light.
Had she not been so entranced, Oona might have noticed the shadow falling over her, soft and quiet as a forgotten dream. A wizard could be very sneaky when he wanted to. And there he stood, in the fading light of the setting moon, staring down at the remains of his crow with an expression that could have cracked a standing stone.
Oona jumped up and shot beneath the shelter of a barberry bush, where she swiftly changed into a snake and wriggled beneath the leaves. The wizard came down and plunged his hand into the mulch. Oona changed into a moth and fluttered up inside a crabapple bloom.
“Shapeshifter,” the wizard said in a voice like a rusty scythe, “I hope you enjoyed your last meal.”
He stood, raised his arms to the east where the sun rose behind the mountains, and uttered a string of words that Oona felt in every petal, leaf, thorn and twig. She changed into a grackle and flew over the castle wall. From some part of her human mind, she perceived power rising from the ground inside the castle. It met the clear air above and cascaded down with the breathless sigh of a sexual climax into a shimmering wall of energy that surrounded and extended up above the walls.
Oona did not have the chance to investigate the particulars of this spell, whatever it was. Almost at once, sickness covered her mind as, high on the winds to the east, something moved. At first, she thought it was another crow. But as it drew closer with alarming speed, Oona grew still inside with recognition.
Wizards called it sioros in their ancient tongue, an immortal in the shape of a perfect man with raven-black wings and the fangs of a wolf. No ordinary hunter, this. A consummate predator, swift as dreams, the sioros could stalk his prey across dimensions. Apparently, the Master of Straif knew it would take nothing less: the one thing Oona could not change was her mortality.
The wind rose, tearing the trees into silvery wrath and scattering every animal within a cry of the castle. Oona changed into a dragonfly and fled.