Copyright 2016 Lee Laughead
“Meyna, for your first day of training, you need to light this candle,” Master Colican said.
Meyna moved to get a flint and steel, but her master pushed her on the shoulder back down onto her wooden stool.
“Not like that. You’re going to stay in this room without any food and water until you make the candle light itself.”
“Master,” Meyna said, “I have no power. I don’t know how to start a fire.”
“I would not have taken you as an apprentice if you didn’t have power. And every apprentice I’ve had the past forty years has started with this lesson. I started with this lesson when I was a child. So relax, there’s very little chance of you dying at this stage.”
Meyna’s master was a man in his seventies with an experienced countenance and calming voice, but there was nothing reasonable about this request.
“Master, I will do as you say. I will light the candle,” Meyna said anyway.
Master Colican grinned. Wispy white hairs covered his wrinkled face, though he seemed unable to grow the long wizardly beard he was obviously going for. He wore an ugly blue robe covered in white stars and moons to try to make up for it. The end result was fairly ridiculous.
“Good. Now, I have some business to attend to. I will visit you in the morning.”
It was only slightly past noon. Meyna had finished preparing and consuming the day’s second meal a half hour ago. This meant that Master Colican expected it take at least sixteen hours.
“Yes, Master Colican.”
He left without another word.
Meyna stared at the candle. It was six inches tall, made of yellow wax with a black wick running through it vertically. It sat on a small ceramic candle holder with a loop on one end to make it easier to hold using a finger. It was fragile, weak, and yet a source of enormous frustration for her. She was bored after two minutes of staring at the candle, let alone the hours that would come. She had no power to work magic; she could barely scratch out the most basic of runes and couldn’t verbally command so much as the dust to blow itself off a shelf.
If Master Colican didn’t feel sorry for a starving orphan like her, she never would have been accepted as an apprentice. Yet after two years of working under his tutelage, she was still incompetent at anything but mundane chores. Had he seen some kind of hidden aptitude within her, or was it merely pity? It didn’t cost him much to have a live-in servant.
Meyna realized she wasn’t thinking about the candle, so she returned her attention to the piece of wick sticking out of the candle. She tried to will it to burn, to draw heat from the surrounding air and have it coalesce on the wick to start a spark. But nothing came. She could write a spell if she worked at it, but the meager ones she knew were only effective for scrubbing floors or plucking chickens. Starting a fire, even a small one, was beyond her abilities. At least without tools.
Meyna’s eyes drifted again. The room was probably intended to be a study, though she wondered why it was next to the kitchen. There was the simple wooden desk the candle sat on, but no papers or other easily flammable materials. A bare wooden stool sat next to it, which Meyna sat on. A small window of blue opaque glass let in some sunlight but offered no view. Behind her was the door through which she and her master had entered. The door handle was brass, and oddly detailed considering how bare the rest of the furnishings in the room were. The door might have been locked, or might not; it was irrelevant because she gave her word that she would stay here until Master Colican returned.
She was getting distracted again. She needed to look at the candle. Think of nothing but the candle.
But nothing was happening. She had been in this room of Master Colican’s house for fifteen minutes. She usually had chores to do, but those were gone from her now. Master Colican gave her permission, even a command, to ignore everything else and make the candle light on fire through her own mental acuity.
That wasn’t happening. Could she rub two sticks together to start a fire? No, that would be cheating, and would leave plenty of evidence besides. That was unless the task was a test of her ingenuity, to see if she had the common sense to start a fire the natural way instead of trying to do what they both knew she couldn’t.
Or maybe the task was a test of endurance, of loyalty. To see if she would keep her word and stay the course until the morning as they had agreed. There was no way to know for sure, so she kept staring at the candle.
Her mind and her eyes tried to wander, but Meyna forced herself to keep staring at the candle. Imagining it burning, melting, smoldering. Imagining the whole room covered in flame. It didn’t change, of course. There were wizards who could summon the elements through sheer force of will, but she was not one of them. She didn’t know if even Master Colican was one of them. He was more inclined to change objects into similar ones. She had seen him turn a rock into an intricately carved statue, a rat into a bat. Maybe he could turn a candle wick into a burning candle wick. She’d have to ask when he came back in the morning.
She fell asleep a few hours later. She awoke during the night, still slumped on the floor of the tiny study. A wisp of light from the moon shone a slit through the window. The candle was not changed.
Meyna’s back and neck ached from sleeping on the cold wooden floor, her lips were cracked, and her empty stomach gnawed at her. Even worse, the ulcer in her abdomen, near her stomach, stabbed like an insect trapped under honey and dying to get free. It always did that when she was hungry, or when she was stressed, or when she ran. And still the candle was unlit.
Meyna didn’t know if she was expected to stay awake the whole time, but it was too late now. In fact, she had never gotten that much sleep since she had become a wizard’s apprentice. Despite her many pains, the rest did her good. What she could do was try to focus anew on the task to which she had been assigned. Light the candle.
Hours later, the sun cast its red flame through the small window of the small room, but no flames appeared on the candle. It was dead and mocking.
“Can you please light?” she asked.
Nothing happened. It was the first time she had spoken since last afternoon, but if she expected any mystical power to emerge due to those words, she was mistaken. A half hour later, the sun had risen further, and let more light into the study. Meyna grabbed the candle’s wick between her thumb and index finger. Burn. Make it burn. But it didn’t.
A series of knocks sounded on the door. Meyna was startled from her reverie as Master Colican turned the handle and shuffled the room.
“Good morning, Meyna. Were you able to light the candle?”
“It is difficult without knowing the runes for fire. But it can be done. You will try again in a week. Ponder it until then.”
“Now, prepare breakfast for us.”
Meyna was supposed to spend the next week thinking about lighting the candle, but she had forgotten about it by the time she got back into her daily chores. The ordeal was just another eccentric thing her master did. It wasn’t until three days later when she went to dust the study where the candle sat that she thought about it again.
The yellow candle was still there in its holder on the desk. Coming into the room with a different purpose put the room into a different perspective. Instead of being Meyna’s training room as it was a few days ago, this was merely one of many rooms in the mansion that needed cleaning.
She cleaned the dust off the desk, the stool, and the door frame. She lifted the candle up and wiped her feather duster underneath it—the candle was merely a decoration now.
How could she light it? Would it be impudent to ask Master Colican to teach her the right incantation or runes to conjure fire? He told her to spend all week thinking about it. Maybe it was some sort of philosophical thing, with the candle representing something or other and she was supposed to spend one day a week pondering it until she understood the mental puzzle.
Or maybe he simply overestimated her skills; they both knew that she was still an incompetent novice. She had spent two years scrubbing floors and preparing meals with not much studying of magic.
So as soon as Meyna saw Master Colican again, she asked.
“Master, may I speak?”
Master Colican was in his library—over two hundred books—poring through them and leaving many opened on a huge wooden table while he rummaged amongst others.
“Yes. Go ahead.”
The library wasn’t like the tiny study; this room was well-lit through glass windows by the sun and had currently unlit torches on the walls for nighttime reading. Multiple comfortable chairs surrounded the table in the center of the room, including Master Colican’s favorite one.
“What is the purpose of the candle lighting exercise?”
“You’re almost ready to move beyond mere servant work,” he said. “Light that candle, and I can teach you the art of wizardry.”
Meyna felt elated. She was grateful every moment of the two years since Master Colican saved her from the streets, but she always wondered when she would start her real training. If now was the time, she would have to double her efforts.
“Yes. Thank you, master.”
“Don’t mention it. I told you you had great potential.”
After that, Meyna spent all of her time thinking about how she was going to light that candle. But when the time came several days later, she still had no idea what she was supposed to do.
Instead of sitting on the stool, Meyna sat cross-legged on the wooden floor with her hands folded in her lap. She had seen Master Colican and others meditate in that pose, so maybe it helped.
The yellow candle stood there, crooked, weak, and yet intimidating. It mocked her feeble skills.
Meyna had decided she was going to stay awake the entire day and night. There would be chores again the following day, and she would no doubt be weak from lack of sleep, but she was going to prove her determination. The candle must burn.
Yet her eyes still wandered. The room appeared to be unchanged since she came in and dusted it a few days ago. Just the stool, desk, candle, and the glass window you could barely see through.
And her. Maybe her presence here altered the room in some mystical way? Maybe she should count the lines in the wooden floor and walls and ceiling?
Meyna tried, but she quickly grew bored of such a repetitive task. Her eyes got tired of wandering and instead wandered back to the candle.
She stared, her eyes glazed over, and her vision blurred. She squeezed her eyes so tight that red phosphenes appeared where there should have been blackness. And still the candle would not light.
Meyna coughed. She became instantly aware of smoke in the room. She stood up, turned around, and saw the intricate handle on the door behind her had grown orange with heat. Black smoke poured from underneath the door, quickly filling the small room.
Her natural, healthy instinct was to flee the approaching flames. Maybe she could smash that tiny window with the stool and crawl through it. She had to get out. Maybe she could tip over the desk and block the smoke pouring in to gain more time. She had to get out.
Or maybe this was part of the test.
Meyna sat back down, cross-legged, and looked back at the candle. She promised to wait here until she lit the candle, and it would happen.
The fire burned through the door; she felt it. Smoke filled the room to such an extent that she changed her position to crouching prone on the floor where there was a bit of breathing room. She could no longer see the candle, yet she stared at where it stood. She would keep the fire behind her at bay and summon a fire in front of her. She would not fail her master.
The raging, killing fire dissipated, suddenly extinguished. She wanted to turn around to see what had caused it, but she would not. Acrid smoke filled the room, and still she stared in the direction of the candle with stinging eyes.
“Meyna! Are you in there?”
“Yes, Master Colican,” Meyna said calmly, finally turning her head around to see her master approach.
“Meyna, are you hurt? I was in my laboratory, so I didn’t see the smoke at first.”
“I’m not hurt,” she said, rubbing her eyes, as smoke still lingered. “I didn’t light the candle.”
“I don’t care about the candle anymore,” he said. “I’m just glad you’re safe. I wouldn’t want to live out my days here alone.”
Sudden guilt and fear filled Meyna’s body. The ulcer in her stomach, previously forgotten, stabbed at her now.
“I’m sorry, I must have been negligent while firing the oven this morning. I almost killed us both.”
“No,” Master Colican said, “that was my fault. I needed a hot coal for one of my experiments, so I went to the kitchen and started a fire to heat a few. I must have failed to properly extinguish the fire. The lord Ain Amot has protected us from my bumbling.”
Meyna was not used to seeing her master, an ancient wizard, cause such a catastrophe. She peered out into the hall. Blackened soot covered the hallway, and everything in the kitchen was probably ruined, but it could have been much worse.
“I kept my promise,” Meyna said, changing the subject. “I sat in front of the candle and tried to light it no matter what.”
“Girl, the purpose of the lesson was to teach you have enough sense to stop attempting the impossible and come ask me for help. I can light a fire instantly. And also accidentally.”
“But I promised to wait in the room until I lit the candle,” she insisted.
“A promise to perform such a minor task is not more important than your life.”
“Yes, Master Colican.”
He was unconvinced. “I don’t want to see you risk your life for something so meaningless again. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Master Colican.”
“So. During a lesson in which you were instructed to start a fire, you put out a fire instead. I didn’t know you had such a gift. Let’s investigate that.”
Meyna and her teacher stood outside among the bare, dry grass outside of Master Colican’s mansion. The afternoon sun beat downward at them, but they stood in the shade of a fruit tree during their exercises.
Master Colican held the yellow candle in his right hand, his other hand empty.
Master Colican pinched the wick between his thumb and forefinger, setting it ablaze with a healthy-looking fire.
“Don’t feel bad, Meyna,” he said. “It took me years to learn how to start fires by touch. It’s much easier with an incantation or runes. I will teach you all of them in time.”
“Yes, Master Colican.”
“You don’t have to speak so formally when we’re alone. You’re a true wizard’s apprentice right now. Have some respect for yourself.”
“Yes,” Meyna said, her tone unchanging. She would not defy him, but she didn’t know how to speak properly in such a situation. She had no training in etiquette or language.
“Very well. Meyna, do what you did this morning and put out this fire.”
Meyna stared at the yellow candle in her master’s hand as intensely as she did that morning. A weak summer breeze made the flame flicker under the shade of the tree. A tiny pool of liquid wax began to form at the top, and it would no doubt spill over the side soon, causing minute burns to Master Colican’s hand.
She willed it to go out, and it didn’t.
“Take your time. And think back to this morning. Were you doing anything unusual to put out the kitchen fire?”
“I was not looking at it. I had my back to it and concentrated on the candle.”
“Hmmm. It could be that you have a power for removing distractions rather than one for putting out fires. Perhaps you can put out fires but you require certain conditions. We’ll figure it out.”
Master Colican reached into a pocket of his comical moon-and-stars robe and pulled out the same ceramic candle holder. He stuck the candle to it and placed it on the ground. They were surrounded by dry grass, but there was no danger of the fire spreading while they were both watching it closely.
Meyna closed her eyes and tried to do the opposite of what she had struggled to do all of the previous day and night. Make the fire dissipate.
She had no faith in her supposed powers at all. She probably didn’t cause the fire in the hallway to go out; it must have been Master Colican humoring her, or some enchantment of the mansion’s that protected itself.
But Master Colican told her to have respect for herself. And he was the expert. If he took her on as an apprentice and said she had power, then it must be true. She needed to put the fire out.
They sat in silence for half an hour as the flame wormed its way down the candle’s wick.
Master Colican got to his feet and said, “Keep working at it. I need to prepare for a visitor this evening. I’ll be back in an hour or two when it’s time for you to make dinner.”
“Yes, Master Colican.”
He went back to the mansion, leaving Meyna alone with the candle and the trees and the grass.
It wasn’t desperation that activated her power. She was calm and resolute when the house fire was at her back. Maybe her devotion to her master, her desire to fulfill the task he had assigned her had done it. But then why didn’t that devotion inspire her to light the candle in the first place? Magic was a strange and nonsensical art.
Meyna fell asleep. She had been up all night and nothing was happening now. When Master Colican came to her soon after, she initially panicked, fearing that the candle’s fire may have spread. But it was still there, though the wax was an inch shorter.
“I’m sorry, master, I fell asleep. That was selfish and uncalled for.”
“You’re doing fine. You have years of work and study ahead of you yet. In the meantime, please prepare a meal for three. My associate, Silas, is visiting us tonight.”
Master Colican took the candle and holder and pinched the flame out with the same two callused fingers, though of course one did not need sorcery to do that.
That night, Master Colican and his guest sat in chairs—Master Colican in his favorite blue chair—in the library, talking, and eating the bean and whale meat soup Meyna had made for all of them. Torchlight and a hot fireplace lit the room; uncomfortable heat but necessary light.
Meyna was at first shocked by the guest, Silas. His skin was so pale that he looked like a waterlogged corpse that had washed up on a sea shore. But he was very much alive. In fact, he seemed lively and energetic. He also wore itchy-looking black commoner’s clothes and a cape despite the boiling hot weather. Meyna moved her eyes away from him. It would be rude to stare.
“Colican,” Silas said, in a raspy, harsh whisper, “your hospitality is most generous. Allow me to repay you.”
“Nonsense,” Master Colican said.
Meyna feared he would ridicule her soup as a method of espousing false modesty. He didn’t.
“Fellow wizards and scholars are always welcome here. And besides, I have no need of financial assistance.” Master Colican waved his hand around, gesturing at the library.
Silas, that man with strange skin as white as teeth, smiled, and replied, “I was thinking of the pain in your knees that you’ve been suffering. It should be gone now. For good.”
Master Colican reached down and poked at his knees, hidden underneath his robe. He then adopted a look on his face that was as flustered and confused as when he discovered Meyna had forced the house fire into nonexistence. Then he got to his feet and briskly walked in circles around the library.
“Silas, this is amazing!” he said. “I didn’t know such healing was possible!”
“I use a different style than anyone else,” Silas said.
Then he turned to Meyna. She turned her brown eyes away from his black ones.
“I would give a gift to your apprentice, as well. Do I have your permission, Colican?”
Master Colican was still gleefully walking around the room, enjoying the new strength in his old knees.
“Certainly. Maybe I ought to become your apprentice.”
Silas said to Meyna, “There is a pain in your stomach. Something serious that will get worse as you grow older.”
How did this man know about her ulcer? Either Master Colican told him—unlikely—or he possessed incredible powers of perception as well as healing. Regardless, the prospect of having her infirmity immediately removed was a pleasant and exciting one. As if on cue, her ulcer started acting up again.
Master Colican said, “Hmmm. No. It would be better for her to keep it, as I kept those hurting knees my entire life. It will give her discipline.”
Meyna was shocked. Before this moment, she never would have conceived of her master saying something so cruel. Here was possibly the only wizard in the world who could heal her, and he was ready to do so this instant, but Master Colican turned him down. Why did he want her suffer so?
Silas must have seen the disappointment on her face. “Then I will give you another gift. But it will depend on your answer to this question.”
Meyna looked at Master Colican. His face was unusually stern. What a hypocrite he was, denying her relief while he indulged in it himself. Or was this another test of his? Another test whose rules she would never understand?
“Yes, Most Great One,” she said to Silas, showing the highest level of respect possible in the language.
“That is a title reserved for royalty. Never insult me by comparing me to royalty.”
“Now. The question. What is the essential quality of a great wizard?” he asked.
Meyna was expecting the question to be some bit of obscure trivia, like the properties of an herb or the name of some far-off river. She should have known that wizards are always mysterious and eccentric. Then she pondered the answer. She sensed trickery; Master Colican must have put Silas up to this. Maybe if she answered correctly, he’d heal her ulcer after all.
Meyna said, “Devotion to a her master.”
Silas’s paper-white face did not change as he said, “I have seen fanatical wizards with devotion to evil causes. I have seen enormously powerful wizards who served nothing but themselves. That is evidence against your assertion.”
Meyna was a servant who scrubbed pots and swept hallways. She was not skilled in debate. She looked toward Master Colican for support, but he said nothing.
Meyna said, “I can only speak for myself. My devotion to Master Colican is what brought me from poverty to greatness.”
Master Colican finally made a noise. Low chuckling. “Meyna, if you think one single display of power in a lifetime is greatness…”
Meyna still did not understand the purpose of this berating. Was it in fact another test? Or was Master Colican just letting his guest interrogate his apprentice for sport? Her ulcer was itching badly right now.
“Very well,” Silas said. “I will give you another gift. Should you stand upon natural ground, you will always find fresh water. For the rest of your life.”
Did this Silas really grant her some power, or was this another way to make fun of her? Meyna didn’t know how to respond, so she just said, “Thank you, sir.”
Master Colican put a hand on her shoulder and looked into her face.
“I can tell you are confused, but Silas really did change something in you. I can feel it.”
What good would finding fresh water do for her? She planned on living in Master Colican’s mansion for decades, and not emerging until she was a full-fledged wizard of her own. She didn’t want water, she wanted her ulcer healed.
“Yes. Thank you, sir. And thank you, Master Colican.”
Meyna may have been disappointed, but she knew that ingratitude was the vilest of sins. She was thankful to Master Colican every day for taking her off the streets, and she wasn’t about to spoil that.
Master Colican said, “We live in a desert, girl. I had to pay quite a bit extra for a house with a private water well. So maybe that gift will come in handy. Thank you, Silas. For my knees, too.”
The two wizards spent another few hours of the night discussing wizardly things that Meyna couldn’t even begin to comprehend. And the dishes were clean already, so her mind wandered as she stood in the library.
Master Colican rarely had guests. His mansion was deliberately out of the way, and surrounded by a twelve foot stone wall besides. He spent most of his days absorbed in study and experiment. Meyna did all the household chores, and was grateful to be able to.
She remembered those months on the streets of Lotondria after her parents died, when ordinary hunger hurt her stomach far more than her ulcer. She lost a lot of weight then, despite the fact that she was still growing. She doubted she would have survived had Master Colican not taken her in.
And he was kind to her, too. Meyna had heard of vicious taskmasters who enslaved children and forced them to perform backbreaking work in horrible conditions just for a bowl of porridge a day. Master Colican, however, simply asked that she earn her keep, and in return she had the run of the mansion and all the food she wanted. He even gave her some spending money, not that there was a village within fifteen miles.
Meyna tried listening to her master and his guest again, but their conversation was completely alien to her. Whatever sorcery they were discussing, it was far beyond the meager knowledge Meyna had picked up during the past two years of mundane housework.
“Meyna,” Master Colican said, “can you fetch us some wine? Anything in the main cabinet.”
Meyna got a red bottle of red wine from the kitchen’s cellar and two glasses from the kitchen’s many cupboards. When she got back to the library, Master Colican was on his feet again, walking around, enjoying the lack of pain in his old knees.
“For today’s lesson, you will take a new perspective on your studies.”
“Try reading this for me.”
Master Colican got up from his blue chair—he enjoyed walking around now—and laid a brown leatherbound book on the library table in front of Meyna.
Meyna could not read very well, but she followed her instructions anyway. To her annoyance but not her surprise, the pages of the book contained nothing but scribbles that meant nothing to her. It did not resemble the Lotondrian script at all.
“Master, I cannot read it.”
“We’ll fix that.”
Meyna said nothing. She expected to immediately begin several months of tutelage before she could understand any of the script, but instead Master Colican walked up to her and tapped her on the forehead.
“Try reading it now.”
Meyna looked down, expecting to see exactly as much change as when she stared at the candle the other day. But she found that the words made sense. They burned themselves onto her brain, digging deep into her psyche. She couldn’t repeat the words out loud if she wanted to, but she somehow understood each word as intimately as a brother.
“Master, I understand the words.”
“Good. That was just a starter. Try this other passage.”
Master Colican took up the heavy book in his hands and flipped several dozen pages ahead before settling on the part he wanted.
“Read these two pages. They will turn you into a chameleon.”
“What?” Meyna always showed respect without fail, but Master Colican’s statement took her with such surprise that she immediately blurted out a response.
“I thought it best to warn you to reduce the shock when it happens. When you finish reading those two pages, you will transform into a chameleon. Yes, the little lizards. After a few hours, I’ll change you back. This is part of your training. Now begin.”
A chameleon? She had never seen him shapeshift before, but Meyna knew better than to question her master. So she cleared her mind of doubts and started reading.
She was so lost in reading the strange but now-comprehensible script that when she reached the end of the passage, it was even more shocking to see the book disappear from sight and the table it sat upon grow larger by many sizes. Her eyes looked in different directions at once, causing such incredible disorientation that she immediately vomited.
She tried to raise her hands to her face, but she had no hands. Moving her front feet caused her to lose her balance and fall down on her head. Fortunately, her head only fell several inches to be cushioned by her clothes, which now filled the chair. She saw all of this out of the corner of one wiggling eye.
Meyna felt confused and nauseous. She tried to look forward, but she couldn’t get her eyes to work. She tried to talk, but she had no vocal cords. Her tongue lapped out of her mouth and extended several inches as it unfurled uselessly. She was sluggish, weak, crippled.
Master Colican was talking to her. She couldn’t make out the words, but even her addled brain remembered that voice. Years of instinct taught her to listen to and trust that voice. Ignoring her awkward body and its horrid vision, she tried to concentrate on Master Colican’s voice.
“—to get used to. You need to exercise willpower and control the new body.”
Meyna tried to reply, “Yes, master,” but an annoyed squawk was all she could manage. She was so irritated that she was expecting her ulcer to flare up. But it didn’t.
That’s right. She had transformed into a chameleon. This body didn’t have an ulcer. Could lizards even get ulcers?
Meyna stood on her four feet and looked down. Her vomit had stained her human clothes, but she could deal with that later. She was going to take control.
“Stay in the mansion. If you go outside, a real animal could easily kill you.”
Meyna tried to reply with her usual affirmation, but again she was unable to speak. So she decided to go for a walk.
But her eyes would not obey. Eyes designed to spy in every direction at once for danger and food were entirely unlike a human’s eyes. The nausea overtook her again and she couldn’t move.
“Meyna, flick your tongue out if you understand me.”
Meyna’s tongue had involuntarily curled back into her mouth. She tried to stick it out like a human tongue, but it shot out like a whip—a tongue designed to catch insects in mid flight. It stuck to the wooden chair and she had trouble retracting it.
Master Colican picked her up in his hands, taking her away from the chair and vomit-stained clothes. He placed her on the floor of the library and sat back in his favorite blue chair to watch her move around.
Meyna tried to close one eye so she could look with one at a time, but her lizard eye wouldn’t blink. So she forced them to look directly forward as much as possible and tried walking again.
She shuffled along slowly. She had to remember to move her third and fourth feet, which she was not used to possessing. The tail was obnoxious as well; she knew that animals had tails for balance, but she was moving at such a lethargic pace that it was just another hindrance.
Master Colican didn’t tell her to master her new body, but he didn’t need to. She knew it was part of her duty as an apprentice.
Meyna saw an insect moving across the floor in a zig-zag pattern, its tiny legs scraping across the stone and carpet. Meyna shot out her tongue and swallowed it whole.
She almost vomited again immediately after. Insects were what you ate in times of famine; they were generally not good for humans. But, despite retaining her reasoning, she still instinctively acted like a chameleon. It had only been a few minutes since the transformation; could she with time learn to control the new body? Or would she go mad instead? Didn’t Master Colican say he was going to reverse the transformation in a few hours? What if he didn’t?
While she was busy thinking, she found she could walk easily. When he thoughts turned to her four feet, she stumbled over them. Meyna figured that her brain was an odd mixture of reptile and human. And if she overthought things, she momentarily lost her natural reptile instincts.
Before she knew it, Master Colican transformed her back into a human. She was naked, but Master Colican handed her a clean and folded set of clothes, which she immediately put on. He gave her some semblance of privacy by turning to look away while she dressed. She was an apprentice, but she was not a slave.
Going by the amount of sunlight in the library, several hours must have passed. It only felt like a few minutes.
“Master, how long was it?”
“Three hours. You were running around the library floor the whole time.”
“It was incredible,” Meyna said. “Have you ever done it?”
“Dozens of times. And many more times with other animals. Some wizards are so skilled that they can change shape with a thought, with no need for runes or incantations or rituals, but I’m not on that level.”
Meyna looked down at her hands. Tanned, calloused, human. The transformation had removed the dirt that was under her fingernails. Her stomach ulcer started acting up again.
“When can I do it again?”
“In a week. If I let you have a jaunt in a new shape every day, you’ll get spoiled.”
Meyna was excited for the first time since she could remember. Being in an animal form was the most fun she had ever had in her life. And she was going to experience more. She just had to patient and do her chores for a week. Her anticipation made previously menial chores seem agonizing and endless. Her ulcer flayed her insides quite a bit that week, but she endured it.
Meyna was scrubbing the walls in the kitchen clean of soot with a soapy rag. She had mostly recovered the kitchen from the fire, though it was still clearly damaged and Master Colican had lost his stores of expensive cheeses and whale meat. At least the wine in the cellar was intact; if Master Colican didn’t have some form of luxurious sustenance to indulge in, he’d be complaining a lot harder.
“Meyna!” Master Colican shouted from down the hall.
“In here, master,” she shouted back.
Master Colican stuck his head through the kitchen’s new door. He had ordered a replacement the day after the fire.
“You can put that rag down. Today you will be a bird.”
Meyna had many questions, but she respectfully held them. As they walked through the mansion’s halls to the library, Master Colican explained further.
“You are going to be a jar-bird today. I know they’re ugly and nobody likes them, but they’re better than people say. Jar-birds eat the vermin that eat our crops. They eat the insects that eat our wooden houses. They also eat blood from time to time, but only from already dead carcasses. The stories you’ve heard about them killing livestock are all myths. So are the stories of them breaking into jars to eat molasses. Their beaks aren’t strong enough for that.”
Meyna had heard of jar-birds before, and nothing she heard was good. She would have to work hard to control any animal instincts she might have while operating as one.
“Also,” Master Colican said, “you need to be careful while flying. You remember how you had trouble walking as a chameleon if you thought about it consciously? If that happens while flying, you will plummet to your death. I recommend at least an hour walking on the ground before you attempt to take flight.”
“Master, there’s no room to fly in the library.”
“That’s why you’ll be going outside. Don’t worry, the jar-bird has no predators in this area except man. And there won’t be any men for fifteen miles.”
Meyna didn’t think she was ready for flight. She couldn’t even control a chameleon’s eye movements without getting sick. But if Master Colican said she was ready, then she would be ready.
In the library, Master Colican retrieved the same book containing the transformation spell and opened it on the table.
“This one will be four pages. Take your time; if you rush it, the spell won’t work.”
She obeyed, sitting down and carefully reading the alien script. Meyna lost herself in the reading again, and the change came upon her suddenly.
The first thing she noticed was that her ulcer was gone. The next thing she noticed was the beak jutting out of her face, always within her vision. Then came the added sensation of an enhanced sense of touch from the feathers that now covered her body. She reached up to feel her beak, but instead of fingers she had tiny, probably vestigial claws on the end of her feathery wings.
Her vision as a jar-bird was much closer to a human’s than the chameleon’s was. In fact, it was sharper. She could probably see for miles if she could get out into the sky. She tried to say something to Master Colican, but she instead spat out an ugly, unmusical squawk.
“Another reason why the unlearned hate jar-birds,” Master Colican said from his favorite blue chair. “They have no song to speak of. People think that if something is not beautiful it has no value. There are some birds that can speak a human tongue, but jar-birds are not one of them.”
Meyna tried walking on her clawed feet, but she was not used to her lightweight, top-heavy body, and so she tripped. She instinctively flapped her wings to regain balance, but it wasn’t enough. She fell, jabbing her beak painfully against the stone floor.
Master Colican failed to stifle a laugh. “Don’t feel bad; it took me weeks to learn how to walk as a jar-bird without tripping on my own tail. I will teach you the details of animal bodies later. For now, get in some practice.”
Meyna tried lifting herself off the ground with her wings. It worked immediately. It was a disorienting and terrifying process to awkwardly patter around ten feet above the library floor, but it promised a new degree of freedom that she had never before envisioned.
After what seemed like moments but must have been an hour—as promised—Master Colican drew open several doors and led her outside in her new body.
The sun was pounding down, the clouds were thin, and a meager wind blew. But flying hundreds of feet in the summer air in her jar-bird form was like being reborn. Moments of exaltation like this were why wizards must have devoted their lives to the art. Birds had the greatest gift in the world and they didn’t even know it.
And her vision was indeed better than a human’s. She could see a mouse running hundreds of feet below her, and she even had the momentary instinct to attack it. She saw other birds in the distance, but she kept away. She was worthless in a fight as a human and no doubt would be even worse off in a form she wasn’t used to.
She swam through the air, reveling in her animal shape. She could travel anywhere, anytime. After what felt like an hour, she decided to go back home. If it felt like an hour, it was likely that four or five real hours had passed. The sun lowered as the day crept into evening.
Meyna landed by the front door of Master Colican’s mansion. There was an elaborately-designed nobleman’s cart outside, with a huge yellow lizard strapped to it with bit and bridle. The lizard heard or smelled Meyna and turned to face her, but it didn’t seem interested in eating her at that moment.
Meyna didn’t know who was visiting. Master Colican rarely had guests and he preferred it that way most of the time. She also realized that she didn’t have any way of opening the front door, so she flew to sit on the sill of one of the open windows by the library.
She saw Master Colican sitting in his favorite blue chair just as the door to the library shoved open. A richly-dressed aristocratic woman entered. She wore a gaudy green silk dress festooned with jewelry. There were two armored guards by her side, carrying crossbows, and their disposition was dour.
“Kollar Kinsler! No one invited you here!” Master Colican shouted as he rose to his feet.
“Colican. Have you forgotten what you owe me?”
The woman’s voice was so quiet that Meyna could barely hear from the window sill. And Meyna had never seen her master so cowed. She wanted to fly in and defend him, but what could she do even as a human? She had no skill for combat.
“No. I have not forgotten,” he said.
The woman pointed at Master Colican and her two men shot him with their crossbows. He staggered backwards from the attack and fell into his chair, now rapidly staining red. His neck twisted and fell hideously to one side. One of the men casually walked up to him and cut him in the neck with a knife to make sure the job was done.
Meyna screamed, letting loose a loud, painful cry. The other hired goon turned his head toward the window sill where Meyna sat. He was already reloading his crossbow.
“Hurry up and get those books,” the woman shouted, much louder than she had spoken previously.
She herself grabbed the one on the desk that had been used to transform Meyna. Then her two hirelings produced burlap sacks and began pulling books off the library shelves.
In three trips, they had stolen all of Master Colican’s books and loaded them into the lizard cart outside. Meyna could do nothing but watch from the window. If she made any more noise, they’d be suspicious of her. If she tried to stop them, she’d be killed right away. But she’d never forget this woman’s name: Kollar Kinsler.
“Boss, what do we do with the body?” one of the men asked.
Meyna got a better look at him while he stood outside in the setting sun. He was pot-bellied, thick-armed, and had severe burn scars on one side of his face, a face that betrayed no hint of mercy. Heavily nicked armor made of a leather base with iron scales over the chest and limbs covered him from neck to foot. He had probably been in hundreds of fights before.
“I don’t want to risk one of his friends retrieving anything useful,” Kinsler said with a casual wave of her hand. “Burn the mansion with the body in it.”
Without question or hesitation, both men stomped into the library, lit the torches on the wall, and dropped them on the floors of different rooms.
Meyna choked back another scream. She flew away from the window sill and took flight. The mansion soon caught on fire, with Master Colican’s body inside.
Meyna was going to kill Kollar Kinsler and her men. In Ain Amot’s name, she swore it. She didn’t know how she would do such a thing, especially as a jar-bird, but she was going to devote her life to it. She had never shown Master Colican how much she appreciated him, but now she would avenge him.
Meyna followed the lizard and its fancy cart from the sky as Kinsler took to the road. She didn’t circle around it; it would look too suspicious. But she kept an eye on the cart while flying a quarter mile behind and swerving around to come back again. She looked back at the burning mansion, but only once.
She followed them for several hours until they arrived at the town of Bendeg. The cart rolled along the streets of the town—a little place full of woodworkers—before stopping at a tower, about seventy-five feet high, which must have been Kinsler’s. Meyna could see fairly well in night with her bird’s eyes, and there was no mistaking the tallest building in town.
Kollar Kinsler had to die. And Meyna had to get out of this bird’s body.
Meyna was stressed and exhausted, but now she knew where Kollar Kinsler lived. She flew to the nearest building to rest. Better not to risk sleeping on top of Kinsler’s tower, since there could have been all sorts of traps there.
Sleeping as a jar-bird was different from sleeping as a human. She had to fight her lifelong desire to find a bed and lie in it, and instead stood vertically and wrapped her wings around her in the cold of the desert night.
She slept fitfully. She dreamt of her master’s death, except in the dream it was swords that pierced him, and he howled and thrashed for hours afterward until the mansion burned down around him while a horde of obscured demons cackled and applauded.
When Meyna’s eyes creaked open, it was noon; the boiling sun was high above. She must have slept for fourteen hours straight. In the heat, she was thirsty. Hunger bit at her belly, too, but water was a more pressing concern. She flew down to the ground and lapped at a dying puddle of hot water that had not yet been choked by the dust.
Villagers milled about now. The town was inhabited by loggers and carpenters due to the dien forest to the west. Dien trees were dry, brittle, and required more sunlight than water, all of which made them perfect for a desert environment. They also grew rather quickly, ensuring that generations of loggers could make a living in the same location without emptying their supply. And the trees produced a bitter, poisonous fruit that was good for nothing but kindling. Meyna didn’t know if jar-birds could eat it, and she wasn’t going to find out.
But she was hungry. Even in a lumber town there were bakers and grocers and butchers, and she saw some of them carrying their wares through the streets or selling from tents. All the money she had went up in flames along with her clothing and everything else in Master Colican’s mansion. It was probably a tiny, solid lump of metal at the bottom of the rubble.
Buying food was clearly not an option, and neither was working for it. If she stole food from anyone, they would kill her immediately rather than merely giving her a lashing like they’d do if she were still human. Or maybe they’d cut off the hand of a human thief. Meyna didn’t know the laws around here.
A passerby kicked Meyna, hard. It knocked her at least five feet and she tumbled through the dirt. She hacked and gasped for air, but road dust came into her lungs instead, making her hurt even worse. She scrambled to get to her feet and run to safety, but she had no strength.
Meyna stayed, prone, in the same position where she had been kicked. Mercifully, no one harmed her again during the minutes it took for her to get up and walk again. She had been so busy thinking about what to do that she had forgotten she was now a six inch tall bird that most people considered vermin.
Meyna got to her feet, her puny, fragile bird feet. She wanted to fly to the nearest rooftop, but she was still too weak. She huddled underneath a gap in a wooden fence and gauged her surroundings.
She hadn’t even seen whoever had kicked her. They were long gone by now. She was just an annoying obstacle along their path. And she couldn’t even fly away now. Who knew how long it would take for her wings to recover? Hours? Weeks?
Meyna had to get out of town, at least until she was healed up enough to investigate Kinsler’s tower. But her eyes were so close to the ground now that she couldn’t see where to go. Which way was the fastest way out? She previously thought that she could just fly away if she got into danger, but that was impossible at the moment. In the future, Meyna would have to plan multiple escape routes at all times.
Meyna sat under the fence, torn with indecision. Dozens of feet and wheels moved past her eyes. She could barely make any of it out. The town’s bustle picked up as noon approached, making her feel even more threatened.
Then she saw her chance. A big yellow pack lizard with its tail dragging along the ground. It carried a bundle of wood and a saddled rider on its back. Meyna looked left and right to try to determine when the safest moment to move would be. It was so busy she couldn’t tell, so she just took a risk and ran. Meyna climbed up the lizard’s tail and hid amongst the bundle of wood lashed to its lower back. As laden with burdens as it was, it didn’t even seem to notice her.
She took a few minutes to breathe rhythmically. She was going to survive.
From a few feet off the ground, she could see a bit better. No longer were the workers of the town an army of giants who would casually destroy her body underfoot. She saw them for what they were: Humans, just as Meyna still was in her mind. Just like Kollar Kinsler, the woman who murdered Master Colican. Most of these humans weren’t murderers, though. They just wanted to cut down trees and make money to feed their families.
Meyna’s wings still felt too weak to take flight. They were bruised or possibly broken; she couldn’t tell just by looking. She also had no idea how she was going to get revenge or change her body back. She thought of Silas, the man who had visited Master Colican last night. He was sympathetic and might be able to help her, but she didn’t know what direction he traveled in. And in a jar-bird body without a voice, she couldn’t ask around.
Meyna saw an insect crawl out of the pile of wood on the lizard’s back. She jabbed at it with her beak and ate it without a thought.
Meyna suddenly wished she had paid more attention to Master Colican’s affairs. He lived in the wilderness, but he would entertain visitors on occasion. Meyna had barely been awake as she stood near their library chats during those times.
“Take it around back. They’ve started already.”
Meyna shook her head and focused on her surroundings. She had let her mind wander again, and that could be fatal. Who had just spoken? She looked around and saw Kinsler there. She was wearing another expensive aristocrat’s outfit and ordering men around in the process of building something.
Meyna was at Kollar Kinsler’s tower. Her eventual destination, but she did not want to be here right now. She moved her wings—still sore, but she had to get out immediately—when someone shoved her off the lizard’s back and onto the ground.
“Get out of here!”
She looked back and saw laborers removing the bundles of wood. One of them must have shoved her off the lizard and shouted at her. Meyna scrambled away in a matter that hopefully looked natural.
Meyna caught her breath a good several hundred feet from the tower. Kinsler was building a fence around her tower. Meyna could even see one of her mercenaries with her. The same one who had cut her master’s throat to make sure he was dead.
Master Colican had told Meyna about wizards’ duels before. Gigantic clashes of power on mountaintops in the midst of thunderstorms, two sorcerers hurling mighty incantations at one another in a battle for supremacy. Meyna saw none of that last night. She saw a cowardly fop and her two hired butchers murder a kindly old man who took in orphans. Just so she could steal his books.
Then Meyna finally had a plan. She would break into Kinsler’s tower and find the book that would transform her back. She would do it tonight.
Meyna needed help. She would probably die if she tried to go into Kinsler’s tower alone. So she wrote a message into the dirt outside of town: “THE BIRD IS HUMAN PLEASE HELP ME”. Her handwriting wasn’t the best even with human hands, and cutting lines into the ground with her beak was painful and filthy. Before she could finish the first word, she decided to find a small, sturdy twig and carve out the rest of the message. It looked terrible, but it was still legible. She stood by the letters, waiting for someone to come.
The first was a lumberjack. Of course. The town was full of them. He was in his fifties, a face beaten by the weather, and hands covered in small scars. He carried an axe over one shoulder and had a belt full of saws, hammers, and other woodworking tools.
The whole of the writing was five feet wide. The lumberjack couldn’t miss it, nor did he overlook the jar-bird standing next to it and looking back at him. He looked over the words several times before responding.
“Demon!” the lumberjack shouted, raising his axe off his shoulder and preparing to swing it.
Meyna flew away in terror. She had recovered from her injury now.
Once safe on a high tree branch a mile away, Meyna rested until nighttime. Thanks to the wizard Silas’s promise, she always had enough drinking water when she stood outside. She valued that right now more than she ever would the removal of her ulcer.
Food was another matter; she had no idea how to find insects or worms or mice. The thought of consuming such vermin repulsed her, but she had to put that behind her if she wanted to survive. She was not going to find free scraps of bread every day. And besides, being in town was too dangerous for an unwanted species of bird.
She could fly again, and was grateful for it. Tonight she would scout out Kinsler’s tower and see if there was a way in. She had the advantage of flight and of an animal’s appearance, but also the severe disadvantage of lacking hands. She wouldn’t even be able to open a window. Meyna wanted to search Kinsler’s tower for the book of transformation, but she could barely remember what the book looked like and there was no way a jar-bird could pull books off a shelf without making a racket.
As Meyna approached the tower from the air, she saw a few shuttered glass windows on the upper levels, all with window sills she could rest upon. At least she would be able to quietly peer through them. It was better than nothing. She was still hungry, but spying on her enemy took precedence.
She stopped at the nearest window and examined the inside of the tower. She couldn’t see more than a few inches inside even with her superior sight; it was too dark and the meager starlight above was not enough to illuminate it. She would have to come back to this window during the day.
The next window revealed someone—Meyna assumed it was Kollar Kinsler—laying in a bed and reading a book by candlelight. Upon closer inspection, the bed was some fancy elaborately-carved piece of work, which strengthened Meyna’s belief that it was Kinsler sitting there. But she couldn’t see the resident’s face. Even with her jar-bird vision, it was too dark.
Now what? If Meyna felt suicidal, she could tap on the window and get probably-Kinsler’s attention. There was a handle on the inside of the window’s wooden frame so someone could push it open, but only from the inside. And no architect would ever design a window intended to be opened from the outside. This meant that if Meyna wanted to get in, she’d need to wait for an open window or try to sneak in through the main door, the latter of which was also suicidal.
Meyna took flight and circled around the tower. There were four other windows, none of them open. But it was a hot summer night, and eventually someone would open a window for relief from the desert heat. Meyna needed to check Kinsler’s tower multiple times every day for an opening. In the meantime, she felt like making a nest.
Meyna left the tower and went into the nearby forest. She started gathering small twigs of wood for a nest to hold her eggs before she realized that what she was doing was insane. She wasn’t a bird, she didn’t need a place for her eggs. Eggs were food. Meyna was a human and she needed to remember that.
Meyna was again grateful that there were no predators for jar-birds in this area. There were other birds of similar size, but they all ignored her, as did the big riding lizards that the town used for transportation and labor.
Meyna wanted someone to talk to. She was stuck in a bird’s body and the only thing that could get her back was holed up in Kinsler’s tower.
She remembered Master Colican, and she remembered him falling into his favorite blue chair, dead. Her parents, barely remembered, dead two years gone. She wanted to sob and wail and weep, but her body wouldn’t allow it. All she could do was spit out a pathetic squeal.
Meyna slept through the night inside the trees of the forest near Bendeg town. Horrid dreams plagued her and she still felt weak when she awoke to see a narrow sliver of sun emerge from the horizon. It would get oppressively hot soon, though flying through the air cooled her down considerably.
She needed water, which she found within seconds. She needed food, but didn’t see any insects on the outside of the tree. Did jar-birds dig into trees to find bugs? Or dig into the ground? Or maybe bugs emerged on their own at a later time in the day? She didn’t know. Master Colican would have known, but he didn’t expect her to be in a bird’s form for more than a few hours at a time, so he never told her.
Lacking any other option, Meyna flew into town. She was grateful to not have her ulcer, but the constant nagging hunger was even worse. Maybe jar-birds needed to eat comparatively larger and more frequent meals than humans.
The town was full of woodcutters, woodworkers, artisans, and the necessary infrastructure to support them. She found a bakery she could possibly steal some food scraps from, but first she saw a pile of firewood stacked outside. From her experiences with Master Colican, she knew that insects gathered under firewood. She poked around and found a few worms, which she quickly swallowed whole. She had abated her hunger, at least for now.
Meyna flew to the top of the in-progress fence surrounding Kollar Kinsler’s tower. It was fifteen feet tall, constructed from the same dien trees that made up most of the town’s buildings, and the beams tightly knit to keep even the insects out. Kinsler’s tower was made of stone, though; she probably paid extra for it.
Meyna watched the workers constructing the wooden wall but didn’t spot Kinsler or either of her goons amongst them. The workers were a third complete, and would undoubtedly finish by tomorrow. Meyna thanked Ain Amot that she had wings and had quickly acclimated to them; had she been stuck as a chameleon, she would have no way to get over these walls and no way to spy on Kinsler.
Remembering the darkened interior from last night, Meyna decided to take a look inside the windows now that she had the benefit of daylight.
She had counted six windows last night but couldn’t remember which was which, so she sat on the window sill of the one above the entrance. Inside was a kitchen. She saw a wood-burning oven, a washbasin, and several other contraptions designed to prepare and store food. Having been a maid the past two years, these were familiar to her, but of no use. No one was in the kitchen, so she flew to the next window, which was opened a few inches.
This was what she was looking for. It was Kinsler’s library. Kinsler herself was there, dressed in some noblewoman’s rich finery, sitting in an ornate leather sofa and poring through books—books that looked just like the ones she stole from Master Colican.
Meyna felt a mixture of hope and anger at this sight. One of those books was probably the one with the transformation spell, which meant that Meyna had finally found her main goal. Turning back into a human was more important than getting revenge on Kinsler, though she still desired both. The window was even open now; Meyna could easily slide in.
Kinsler, still lounging on her couch, lifted one hand in the air, waving her finger and leaving a trail of green light. Strange runes appeared in midair for several seconds before dissipating into nothingness.
This made Meyna pause. She didn’t know Kinsler was a wizard. Now it made sense why she wanted Master Colican’s books, badly enough to kill for them. And if Kinsler was a wizard, there could be all sorts of wards and traps on the window. Meyna might fry herself trying to crawl through, and that would be the end of her attempt at revenge.
But Kinsler was facing the side of the library, perpendicular to the window, and her eyes were down on the book’s contents. Meyna could sneak in without being seen. She would just have to risk any traps Kinsler might have set there, though a wizard’s traps were likely to be unseen.
Meyna was careful to not scrape her claws against the sill while she slowly shuffled in through the window. She didn’t get disintegrated, which was a good sign. The floor underneath was carpeted, which let her drop down quietly.
She was in. Her goal was within reach. But she’d had to wait until Kinsler was gone; maybe until nighttime. Meyna hid underneath a table that was low to the ground and waited.
Aside from the sound of Kinsler flipping through the pages and occasionally trying to draw something in the air, Meyna was alone with her thoughts. She suddenly realized she was breathing heavily, which she forced herself to slow down and measure.
There were other books sitting on the table above her head, just a couple feet away. She could open them and read later. But if someone walked into the room, she’d be spotted immediately. And even if she could somehow hide quickly, the open book would be suspicious, and it would take too much time and be too noisy to shut the book with someone about to walk through the door. Also, she needed light. She doubted she could light a candle with a flint and steel in her current state, and a lit candle would be an obvious sign that someone was in the room, so she’d have to read by daylight. But the daytime was when Kinsler was most likely to be here. Or a servant might come in to clean.
Meyna was in danger here, but she had no choice. The book with the transformation spell, right in this room, was her only hope. She knew of no other wizards besides Silas, and he could be anywhere.
Meyna’s stomach gurgled. Fortunately, there was no noise that someone else could hear, but starving to death inside her enemy’s home was not how Meyna wanted to end her fourteen years. There was the kitchen she saw earlier, but the window from the outside was closed. Meyna doubted her clumsy jar-bird body could be stealthy enough to work her way through unfamiliar territory, steal some scraps from the kitchen, and make it back unseen.
She looked at the only door out of the library, still being careful to keep her head under the table. The door had a circular glass knob above the keyhole. That settled it; there was no way she could turn a knob like that without clawing at the door and making enough noise to alert everyone in the hall. That meant Meyna had to find that spell before she died of hunger.
Kinsler slammed her book shut, dropped it on the table above Meyna’s head, and left the library with a crash of the knobbed door.
Meyna wondered if she should move now. Or would Kinsler come back immediately? She hadn’t said anything aloud, so Meyna didn’t know why she left or if she’d come back soon. The window was still open, so escape was an option.
But that was wrong. Escape was not an option. She had already resolved to stay in this room and find a way to change back, just as she had resolved to stay in the room with the candle until she could light it.
But now she was hungry and thirsty again. She walked around the room and found no sustenance; her water-finding gift only worked outdoors and the place was too clean for bugs. Meyna wanted to bite into a mouse and choke it down her gullet, but it wasn’t going to happen in a place this well-kept.
Meyna tentatively stuck her head out from underneath the desk, from the opposite side of the door. She wanted to climb on top of the table and start looking for that leather book with the transformation spell, but Kinsler could come back at any moment.
Meyna looked at the window. It had a handle on the inside; maybe she’d be strong enough to pull it open with her beak if someone shut it? That would be less conspicuous than a lit candle in a seemingly empty room. But it would be noisy. Meyna shook her head. No, she had to start reading.
Meyna stretched her legs and moved to the exit door. There was a crack underneath the door, about an inch tall, in which she could see outside the library. She saw a spiral staircase going up. She had forgotten that she was on the ground floor. It made sense for Kinsler to put her heavy book collection there.
She didn’t see any feet moving along the floor in the hall. Would it be safe to dig through the books? She had to try. She flew to the top of the bookcase—where she could easily hide if someone came in—and looked down. Now that she had a better view of the room, Meyna saw the fancy couch that Kinsler was lying in as well as several comfortable looking chairs, two tables including the one Meyna had hidden under, and a multitude of books stacked and scattered on top of both tables. There was a leatherbound volume in the middle of one of the stacks, which may have been the one she was looking for.
Pulling it free would cause the books atop it to fall and make noise, so she went to first remove the one on the top of the stack. She slowly pushed on it with her beak, trying to get it to quietly slide off the stack, but it barely moved. She would have to use a lot more force, but that meant more noise.
While deciding what to do next, she heard the clack of the library’s doorknob turning, so she dropped to the carpeted floor and hid as quickly as she could.
Kinsler’s voice came from above. “I’m writing a letter to that bastard Daigil. Take it to him as soon as I’m done.”
“Yes, master,” said a man’s voice. It must have been one of her servants.
Meyna heard Kinsler scribbling on a sheet of paper on the table above. Meyna could see her expensive-looking green shoes. Who was Daigil? Another kindly old man Kinsler wanted to murder? Meyna’s heart was beating far too quickly, so she forced herself to breathe slowly and stay calm lest she alert her enemy who was mere feet away.
There was a knock on the door and the same servant spoke again. “Master?”
“What? I told you I was writing,” Kinsler said.
“There’s a disturbance at your front door.”
“You deal with it. I’m busy.”
“I tried, Master, but the townsfolk are insistent. One of them even threw a rotten fruit at your tower.”
Kinsler walked over to the window, then out the door. As she left the library, she said, “A show of force is the only thing these animals can understand.”
The door shut again. Meyna had a few minutes where she could definitely be free to dig through the books. But that wasn’t long enough, and she wanted to see what Kinsler was going to do.
She moved to the still slightly-open window and looked down to the ground outside. There was a mob of ten, twelve peasants down there. They were belligerently waving axes and torches while shouting things like “Get out of here!” and “Kill the witch!” Meyna didn’t know exactly what Kinsler had done to make these people want to lynch her, but she was sure that Kinsler had earned it. One of Kinsler’s hired goons stood at the tower’s doorway, his crossbow at the ready.
Kinsler appeared at her tower’s front door, just a few feet below Meyna’s eyesight. When she appeared, the mob fell silent. She stretched out her hands and summoned a burst of bright red flame that engulfed the peasants in front of her. The group dispersed and fled in terror as the two of their members caught on fire and screamed in agony before dropping to the dirt, dead.
Kinsler’s goon picked up a shovel and was about to use it to scrape up the two dead bodies when Kinsler spoke to him.
“Leave them for a couple days. It’ll show the rest of the peasants who owns this town.”
Then Kinsler turned and walked back into her tower.
Meyna had planned to hide in the library and wait for a chance to read the stolen books, but now she wanted to flee. If she was found out, Kinsler could burn her and eat her without an instant of remorse. And the window was still cracked open; she could escape right now. But who knows what would happen if she gave up this opportunity? Kinsler might burn Master Colican’s books in a fit of rage before Meyna could read the transformation spell. Meyna decided she needed to overcome her fears and stay. She would get revenge on Kollar Kinsler, and she would get out of this jar-bird’s body. For both, she needed more information.
The door opened and Meyna saw Kinsler’s slippered feet enter the library. She sat down on her couch and resumed writing her letter.
After a few tense minutes of waiting, Meyna saw Kinsler get up again, open the door, then shout for a servant. It seemed Kinsler always closed the doors, which was good to know. Meyna would not be able to travel freely within the tower if every door was shut most of the time.
“I need you and Therr to take this letter to Daigil.”
“I’m not made for the road, Master,” the servant replied. Meyna couldn’t see his feet because Kinsler’s were blocking her view of the doorway.
“Then take my carriage. Therr will be your bodyguard. Take this letter to Daigil and await his reply. You remember where he lives, right?”
“Maybe with that moron’s help I can finally get to the bottom of Colican’s books.”
Meyna was incensed. This filth had no right to speak her master’s name. But Meyna was also curious. What did Kinsler hope to find in the books? And why did she need the help of another wizard she apparently hated?
“I know it’s a week away, so take food from the kitchen. And anything else you need from the store room. And feed for the lizard.”
“Now get going. I’m going to take a bath.”
Both Kinsler and her servant left the library, again shutting the door behind them. Meyna had another opportunity to look for the transformation spell. She also had the opportunity to spy on Kinsler’s enemy, Daigil. But she’d have to leave at once.
What kind of person was he? Could she convince him to join forces again Kinsler? Or…
Meyna crawled out from under the table and looked at the top. The books were still there, and so were the materials Kinsler had used to write the letter: Blank white paper, quills, an ink vial, a candle and a signet ring with Kinsler’s initials on it. Meyna knew what to do. She took the signet ring in her beak and flew out the window.
Kinsler’s two underlings took the cart and lizard and traveled north. Meyna followed them from a quarter mile behind, still holding the signet ring in her mouth. It was awkward, but at least it was easy to keep an eye on the big lumbering yellow beast dragging a cart behind it.
Meyna found fresh water whenever she wanted it, but food was much more difficult. She tried to let her instincts take over and find some food for her, but nothing seemed to work while she searched. If she stayed to forage further, she risked losing the cart. If she kept on, she risked starvation.
When Kinsler’s two men camped for the night, one of the things they did to prepare for sleep was to rummage through a barrel full of dirt they carried on the cart and pull out live worms to feed the lizard. When both of them were asleep, Meyna was able to eat some of the worms. The lizard didn’t care. So she mercifully found a quick solution to the problem of hunger, as she ate far less than the big pack animal. She still carried the stolen signet ring in her beak.
After a week’s uneventful travel, past several small villages, they arrived at the residence of Daigil, who must have been very wealthy indeed. He lived in a palace easily five times the size of Master Colican’s mansion. It even had several towers as big as Kinsler’s jutting out of its upper levels. It presented a moat and drawbridge to funnel visitors into its main entrance, and—as Meyna saw from above—a spacious courtyard filled with a garden and some smaller buildings. The palace was bigger than the village Meyna grew up in.
The drawbridge was down, and there were two men guarding the entrance—both men clad in steel plate mail head to toe despite the summer heat. They carried eight foot long halberds and wore spiked helmets that covered their faces. One of them flipped up the visor of his helmet as Kinsler’s two men approached. Meyna sat perched on a parapet above so she could listen.
“State your business, traveler,” the guard with the flipped visor shouted out after Kinsler’s underlings stepped onto the drawbridge.
Kinsler’s house servant, the less threatening of the two, moved forward while the mercenary stood behind. He held Kinsler’s wax-sealed letter in his hands. Meyna was again aware of the stolen signet ring she still bit onto even now.
“I have a letter from Kollar Kinsler of Bendeg town, addressed to Daigil the Changer.”
“Very well,” said the guard. “Open it first.”
“The letter is for Master Daigil’s eyes only,” said the servant man.
“Master Daigil has a policy of not being the first to open letters trapped with spells or poisons. Open it where I can see you or leave now.”
The servant sighed, broke open the wax that sealed it, and held it aloft where the guard could see.
Meyna didn’t even think of the possibility of putting some kind of killing spell on a letter to be activated when the seal broke. That was a level of ingenuity and murderousness that was far beyond her. Would she really be able to get revenge on Kollar Kinsler?
The heavily armored guard grabbed the letter in his thick gauntlet and said, “Very well. I will take this to him. You may go now.”
The guard opened one of the huge oaken double doors that led into Daigil’s palace while his partner remained, then Kinsler’s two men got back on the cart and went back the way they came.
That was it? Meyna was expecting Kinsler’s minions to at least go into the palace to speak with Daigil, and they had been instructed to wait for a reply. It appeared that they really had come a week in a slow-moving cart just to deliver a letter.
As the yellow lizard turned around and began to trundle back to Bendeg, Meyna’s first instinct was to follow it, but she realized that she didn’t have to go immediately. She knew the way now, and as a bird it was a straight line with no obstacles. She could easily make it back, and she could also stay and see what Daigil would do. It might give her an advantage over Kinsler.
But Daigil’s palace was much bigger and much more menacing than Kinsler’s tower. And the fact that Daigil was paranoid about traps meant that his home was much more likely to be trapped than Kinsler’s. Sitting atop the palace was dangerous enough; Meyna would be foolish to try to sneak into such a place.
Meyna was about to start the trip back to Kinsler’s tower—no sense waiting for the lizard and cart—when she heard a man shouting from the courtyard.
“That worm Kinsler thinks my favor is for sale? That I have no principles at all? That I’m like her?”
The speaker’s voice was loud and vicious, but it had a hollow, echoing countenance that made her feel uneasy. She almost expected the place where her ulcer used to be to start acting up. Meyna flew over the courtyard and saw the speaker. He was dressed in a shapeless black-and-red shroud that hung around his shoulders and covered his entire body. A mouthless, cat-eyed white mask concealed his face so that not a bit of his skin was visible, yet his voice was still clearly audible.
“Prepare the fires. I will read them tonight.”
His voice was still unnatural, like the wail of a ghost, yet as full of rage as any blood-filled mortal. His underlings scrambled at his command.
The sun was falling and nighttime would come soon. Meyna decided to wait until then. She found fresh water outside the palace, and was even able to find some burrowing beetles to satisfy her high metabolism. She spent an hour atop the palace’s battlements, preening her body for parasites, when she heard noise emerging from Daigil’s courtyard.
Daigil—for who else could the masked, shrouded man be?—walked in an elaborate pattern around dozens of burning coal-filled braziers that appeared to Meyna to be made of brass. A servant of his stood by each brazier, waiting. Meyna watched this from the safety above.
“Ain Amot, grant me wisdom. Show me the truth,” Daigil chanted in his unnatural hollow voice as he peered into the various fires.
Meyna had no idea what kind of wizard Daigil was or what he was capable of. Meyna was so unskilled that she wasn’t even really an apprentice; the workings of these masters of sorcery were completely beyond her understanding. But Daigil hated Kollar Kinsler, which meant that he was temporarily on Meyna’s side.
“I see a… I see…”
Daigil had stopped to look into one burning brazier. Or at least to point his mask directly at one; Meyna couldn’t tell the difference. Meyna still had no idea what this ceremony was for. Daigil had invoked the name of Ain Amot, the god of righteousness, but Meyna couldn’t tell if the ritual was a religious or a sorcerous one or what its purpose was.
Daigil spend at least another five minutes staring into the flames, looking for an answer to some question he had. His servants stood next to the brass braziers, silent and patient. Twelve lines of smoke curled up into the desert night sky.
Meyna grew bored. She wasn’t going to get any more information out of Daigil and she dare not show herself to him. Which left her one other option.
She willed the fires to go out. Sputter, crumble, quench. All of the dozen braziers died and covered the courtyard in quick darkness. Confused servants immediately scrambled to relight the fires.
“What? What does it mean? Who has done this?” shouted Daigil in his mortifying, inhuman tones that rang through the courtyard.
As soon as the first brazier was lit and Daigil and his servants could see, Meyna flew down as low as she dared and dropped Kinsler’s signet ring by the masked man’s feet.
Daigil picked up the ring with a black-gloved hand and turned it over. Meyna flew away as fast as she could.
Meyna powered towards Bendeg town so swiftly and fearfully that she had probably passed Kinsler’s two men and lizard without even thinking about it. But when the adrenaline wore off, she was weary and hungry. She used Silas’s gift to find drinking water and her instincts to find some loud crickets singing in some trees. After her meal, she wrapped her wings around her body and slept, and her sleep was more peaceful than it had been since she had been trapped inside a beast’s form.
She awoke around noon. It had grown painfully hot, but she was on a tree branch in the shade, which was much more tolerable. She considered waiting until nightfall to fly again, but she had a sudden urgency to get back to Kinsler’s tower once more. It was the only constant in her new life, aside from the frustration of not being able to speak and turn door knobs.
Meyna was hungry again. She had adapted years ago, after her parents died, to living from meal to meal as a survival instinct. But she could never get used to this constant gnawing hunger her new body foisted upon her. No wonder jar-birds irritated everyone; they were always begging and stealing food. Meyna didn’t find any bugs to eat. Is this how it was for all animals? Constantly find new sources of food or die? At least humans could labor in exchange for food. Agriculture made certain of that.
So Meyna ignored the pain in her gut and flew back to Kinsler’s tower, which had to be at least six days away. After a couple hours, the pain grew too much for her, so she stopped at a stone well surrounded by a man-made canopy. If there was water in this area, there would probably be food.
There was a puddle exposed to the air near the well. Three other jar-birds were there, dipping their beaks into the muddy water. When Meyna approached, they stared at her with their inhuman beady eyes.
Meyna’s muscles tensed up. She had been able to fly away from any land-bound enemies that threatened her, but if these jar-birds didn’t accept her, they could easily chase after her and kill her. In their way, these ordinary beasts were every bit as fearsome as Kinsler or Daigil.
Meyna stood a safe distance away from the jar-birds, but she kept her eyes on them. She tried to let her instincts show her what to do, but nothing was happening. Just three wild animals staring at her while her mind and heart raced.
One of the jar-birds was eating a small toad, which meant that this desert puddle somehow supported life. Meyna had to get there; she wouldn’t make it though the day without food. She edged a few inches closer, her muscles still tense and ready to propel her in the opposite direction. As she drew nearer to the puddle, two of the jar-birds flew off with annoyed squawks. One of them remained, and it would not take its eyes off of her.
Meyna was no good in a fight as a human, and she probably wasn’t going to be effective against another animal. The only spells she knew involved finding water and putting out fires—both worthless against this beast.
Meyna got to the opposite side of the puddle. The other jar-bird flapped its wings and approached her. Meyna backed off and got ready to take flight. If this thing was hostile, she needed to abandon the chance of food and get out of there.
But it didn’t seem to be violent. It was still wagging its wings. Was it performing a mating dance? Meyna didn’t know, so she turned back to the puddle. There was a clutch of orange eggs, each the size of the head of a pin. Maybe the toad had left them. Meyna scooped them up with her beak and was satiated. She drank some fetid water while she was there.
Meyna took to the sky. The remaining jar-bird followed her. She kept an eye on it but didn’t do anything to it because it didn’t pester her. After a few hours it drifted off and Meyna was alone with her thoughts under the hot sun.
She stopped for water several times but wasn’t able to find any more food. The path between Bendeg town and Daigil’s palace was an unremarkable straight line. It was remarkable how little the heat bothered her; it must have been something about jar-bird biology that made desert life easier for them than for humans.
Three days of steady travel later, Meyna was back “home”, well ahead of Kinsler’s two messengers. It was nighttime. She made straight for Kinsler’s tower, but five of the six windows were shut. Meyna slid into the kitchen window, but the door inside the kitchen was also shut. It had a handle that she could pull down on to open the door, but she was afraid of creating too much noise. She prepared to fly out the window again, but she stopped.
No. Meyna was never going to transform back into a human if she kept living in fear. She peered into the crack underneath the door, saw no light, and flew up to grab the door handle with the claw on the end of her wing. She didn’t have the strength to pull it down that way, so she jumped on top of the handle and pressed her body weight against it. That was enough to shift it downward, after which the door popped open with a noisy creak.
She initially panicked from the sound, fearing Kinsler and her guards, but she dropped to the floor where she would be much harder to spot. Her feathers were black, as well.
It was so dark in this hallway that Meyna could hardly make out any shapes in the night. She felt around for the spiral staircase, and it was there. Still not seeing any light or feeling any movement, she slowly hopped down the stairs.
The next floor down had several doors, and she thought she could remember which one led to the library. To salvation. But didn’t the library door have a circular door knob that would be harder to move? She felt for it, and her suspicion was correct. Her angular beak and claws were poorly suited to turning a man-made device such as this. And if anyone was in the library, she had probably alerted them already.
She felt underneath the door with a wing, testing how tall the crack was. It was about an inch. She fit her head through the crack, but the rest of her torso refused. So she shoved, strained, and scraped until she fit her tiny body through and scrambled underneath the door.
Once inside the library, Meyna could barely see anything in the moonlight, though it was better than the solid blackness of the hall. The stack of books on top of the table had changed and was now scattered across the room, piled on each other messily and many of them left open.
Meyna couldn’t read in the dark, which was probably the biggest foil to her plans. She looked out the glass window at the moon, wishing it was the sun. A jar-bird sat atop the wooden fence outside, matching her gaze. Could it be the same one that had followed her before? No, it had left days ago. Maybe she was unconsciously attracting them through biology or sorcery.
There was a candle, flint, and piece of steel on top of one of the tables. Enough light to read by, if only she could light it.
She picked up the tiny tube of steel in her beak and dragged it across the rectangular piece of flint. This created a shower of sparks, which Meyna immediately realized was a terrible idea. Old books would catch fire faster than any other substance she could think of. Was there a taper nearby she could light on fire to safely transfer to the candle?
Or maybe she could just light the candle.
Maybe she could. She knew how to put out fires with a thought, so why not start them? She had no idea if such a concept was thaumaturgically sound or not, but she was going to do it.
Meyna stared into the candle. She couldn’t even tell what color it was in the dark room. What color was the one Master Colican tried to get her to light? That was a week and a lifetime ago. No, time to stop letting her mind wander for once. Meyna kept gazing into the candle. She let her eyes bore into it, consume it.
The door slammed open and Kinsler and one of her servants stomped into the room.
“Light a candle. I need to read at once. I know it’s in here!” Kinsler said as she dropped into her chair.
“Yes, master,” the servant replied as he fumbled for the candle in the spot where Meyna was sitting seconds ago. His voice was deep but nasal and irritating. A different servant than before.
Again Meyna hid underneath the table as Kinsler read a book above. But this time there was an urgency in Kinsler’s tone that terrified Meyna. What act of evil was this selfish aristocrat going to commit next? Was there some spell from Master Colican’s stolen books that she would use to further oppress those underneath her?
Light filled a portion of the library as the servant easily lit the candle with his human hands. Meyna briefly considered dousing it, but that would alert Kinsler immediately. Again she was stuck with no choice but to wait.
“There’s a bird staring at me through the window,” Kinsler said. “I feel like I’ve been under scrutiny lately. Perhaps Daigil or one of my other enemies has spies in this town. In the morning, go buy curtains to cover every window in my tower. Black curtains. Thick ones, the kind you can’t see through. I have enough credit with everyone in town, so just bring me back a receipt.”
Meyna swallowed her spit, forcefully. By tomorrow, Meyna would be unable to see into a room with an open window before trying to go through. Sneaking around would be even harder. Not that she was doing much good as it was.
“What?” the servant blurted suddenly. Meyna couldn’t see anything of him but his feet, and barely that, given the weak candle light.
“What is it?” Kinsler asked, suddenly more alert.
“There’s a feather and… yes… a few drops of blood by the door.”
Kinsler got to her feet and looked out the window, which was currently framed with a thin sliver of a white curtain. Kinsler was looking at the jar-bird sitting on the fence, Meyna presumed. Kinsler slammed the window shut and pulled the meager curtains over it.
“Buy me some thick curtains, and iron bars for each window. Nothing gets in or out of my tower except by the front door. I don’t care how hot it gets, keep the windows shut. Someone’s out there.”
Meyna despaired. Not only did Kinsler now suspect every bird she saw, but Meyna was stuck. Now she had to either flee for good, try to live inside the tower, or enter and exit through the front door. The latter two were probably suicide.
“Yes, master,” the nasally servant said, then left the library, shutting the door behind him.
Meyna felt her side with a black wing. She was indeed bleeding from crawling underneath the door, which meant there could be a trail of blood droplets leading to her current hiding place that no one noticed in the dark. But in the morning, with the sunlight, they certainly would. Meyna needed to act tonight.
But what could she do? She needed either light or a means to escape. She wasn’t strong enough to carry a book with her jar-bird feet even if she did find the right out, and she knew she lacked the strength to open the window.
Could she kill Kollar Kinsler? Jab her in the throat with her beak while she slept? Find some way to poison her? No, Meyna didn’t have the means, and probably would lack the conviction to carry out the deed, despite her hatred. Meyna had to find the right book and transform back by morning. Kinsler or one of her servants would find more blood on the library carpet by then.
Meyna had to get Kinsler out of the room, and her options were limited. Meyna extinguished the candle above with a thought. Kinsler yelped in surprise, a sound more reminiscent of a crying child than Meyna had expected. Kinsler relit the candle then again moved to the window to stare outside for a moment before exiting the library.
As Meyna heard the door shut, she noticed that she could still see. Kinsler was in such a hurry to get out of the room that she left the lit candle sitting there. It wouldn’t cause a fire; it sat in a metal holder and would eventually burn down to a lifeless puddle of wax. Maybe Kinsler had a bad habit of leaving lit candles unattended.
This was an unprecedented bit of good luck for Meyna. She had experienced nothing but hardship and misery as soon as Kollar Kinsler had first shown up and murdered her foster father. But now Kinsler might have left Meyna the key to her own destruction.
Meyna flew up to the tabletop and began searching for the book.
Several hours had passed. Meyna would normally have been exhausted and hungry, but her new focus kept her sharp. She had tried to read every leatherbound book in the room but still hadn’t found the one with the transformation spell. She just couldn’t remember its color or its name. Some of the books were mundane—histories, sciences, poetry—but she’d occasionally stumble on one that held sorceries within. When Master Colican had prepared her to be transformed over a week ago, he had touched her on the forehead first. This somehow allowed her to read that specific magic book, so at least now she could immediately identify most books as not being the one she was looking for. More than one magic text was not only unreadable but painful to look upon. And moving and opening the books with only her tiny jar-bird body made the process of searching through them laborious and exhausting.
The sun was rising now. The books were all in different positions that last night and there was blood on the carpet. Meyna would be spotted soon if she didn’t find the right book, and the window was shut impossibly tight. When Kinsler or one of her servants walked into the library, that would be the end.
Meyna heard a voice from outside. Which was odd, since the window had been closed.
“Kinsler! You have tormented me long enough. I have come for what is mine!”
The voice was loud yet hollow. Ghostlike. It was Daigil.
Meyna flew over to the window sill and looked down, through the window. Daigil, that masked, black-robed wizard, was there, and with a contingent of at least fifty men who looked more heavily armed and armored than Kinsler’s. He had a small catapult with him and had two of his minions loading it with rocks. The fence of dien wood Kinsler had put up recently was the only thing momentarily slowing their progress.
This would hopefully buy Meyna some time. But if Daigil’s men attacked, she would probably die as well, and Daigil would most likely take the books. She rummaged through the books with a newfound intensity. She had to find the transformation spell.
After a few minutes, the tower violently lurched. Holes appeared in the wall. Meyna momentarily stopped trying to drag out book out from the middle of a stack to look outside. The sun had risen, which made it apparent what had happened: Daigil had launched his catapult’s load at at the tower and was ruining its exterior. Had it been a solid boulder rather than a clutch of rocks, it probably would have knocked the tower down. Daigil’s other men had swords and axes out and were hacking away at the wooden fence.
Meyna scrambled back to the books. She fished out the leatherbound one she was pulling with her beak a moment ago, but after lifting the cover open with her head, she couldn’t read the contents. She was too stressed. Ignoring her natural instinct to flee was too taxing on her body and mind.
There were holes in the stone walls where daylight stabbed through and revealed beams of swirling dust. Bits of gravel littered the library’s carpeted floor. Meyna could flee now if she wanted to, but that would mean giving up her mission. It would mean living however long jar-birds live and then dying unfulfilled.
Meyna read another passage, and it made sense. She now realized that it had been incomprehensible before not because of the stress of Daigil’s attack, but because it was written in runes that she didn’t know. But she knew these next ones on the page. It was the transformation spell for the chameleon.
Meyna used her beak to flip a few pages ahead where she knew the jar-bird passage was. In her haste, she tore one page slightly and she forced herself to slow down. She made another accidental rip as another load of rocks slammed into the tower. She could hear and feel a battering ram at the door; Daigil’s men must have torn through the wall already.
Meyna exhaled, willing herself to do this right. Master Colican, through whatever he had done when he touched her forehead, had already shown her how to decipher this section of the book. She mentally filtered out her surroundings, no matter how dire and violent they might be, and read.
It was done. Meyna was no longer standing on the book with her tiny claws. She was standing on it with human feet. She fell off balance and tumbled to the carpeted library floor with a thud and a bruise. At least Kinsler wouldn’t notice one more noise.
Meyna looked down at her hands. They were their natural reddish color, not black feathers growing out of white flesh. She made fists, felt her opposable thumbs. She had been scarcely ten days trapped inside the jar-bird’s body, but it had felt like years. Years since Master Colican was killed.
Meyna got to her feet. She noticed that she was naked, so she ripped the flimsy white curtain off of its hangers and wrapped it around herself. It was better than nothing.
Meyna picked up the transformation book and opened the door a crack. She peeked out through it and heard Kinsler’s voice coming from the hall. Meyna could see her from behind.
“Go through the secret tunnel and go into town. Take my jewelry.” Kinsler pulled off a gold necklace and some jeweled rings. “Hire anyone you can find to defend my tower and get back here. I can’t lose my home. There is too much at stake. Do you understand? Find someone, anyone, to come help me! You have half an hour.”
Meyna recognized the deep, nasally voice of Kinsler’s servant who had been in the library a few hours ago.
Meyna heard nothing from the hall after that, though she did hear Daigil’s men breaking down the front door. She had to move quickly or she’d die along with Kinsler and her servants.
The good thing about a tower is that it had a vertical, simple design, which made it easy to guess where the secret tunnel must be: Downward from here.
Meyna, wrapped in a curtain, the spellbook under her arm, walked with great trepidation through Kinsler’s tower. This was the first time she had seen the place clearly, and it was a mess now. Daigil’s catapult had torn through the walls in many places. Dust filled the air, and rock and wood debris filled the floor. She caught a quick glimpse of Kinsler’s servant going down the stairs. Lacking better options, Meyna followed.
Walking down the stairs, Meyna stepped on a piece of stone that embedded itself in her heel. She cried out, them glanced around to see if anyone heard. The chaos that threatened to collapse the tower covered the noise.
Meyna pulled the shard of rock out of her foot and threw it aside. She tried to take another step down the stairs, but the pain was too much. She would have fallen had she not had one hand gripping the railing for support. She sat down, ripped off a long rectangle of the curtain and wrapped it around the wound on her foot. It would have to do. She silently called to Ain Amot for strength to keep moving. The strength to escape.
The familiar ritual of prayer helped, as she was able to power through the pain in her foot. The ulcer in her stomach was back, and it bit and churned. If she were a bird again, she could ignore her injury and fly out of the tower, but she’d have to leave the book behind. It was too heavy.
Meyna reached the stairs on the ground floor. She didn’t see Kinsler’s servant and therefore couldn’t find the exit tunnel. The noise was unbearable here; Daigil’s men were almost inside.
There were five different doors in this hallway. The tunnel could be behind any of them. Kinsler could be nearby. A thick layer of dust covered the floor. What would Master Colican do? Use some sorcery to determine the way to the exit?
With Daigil’s attacks, enough dust had fallen on the floor that Meyna saw a fresh set of footprints in the top layer, which must have belonged to the fleeing servant who had gone to hire help just moment ago. The masked sorcerer’s attack had inadvertently helped Meyna find the way out.
Meyna, ignoring the pain in her foot and her stomach, retied the knot on her curtain-shawl, restuck the book under the crook of her arm, and followed the footprints.
A woman’s scream pierced through the noise of battle outside. Meyna feared it was Kinsler, but the voice came from what looked like a cook: A fat middle-aged woman in an apron with her hair tied in a bun behind her head.
Meyna wasn’t about to stop and explain herself. She ran after the footprints in the dust, cursing the hurt in every other footstep.
They led to a door that Meyna forcefully pulled open, and inside was a small storeroom full of gardening and stoneworking tools. If it weren’t for the perfect square on the floor that was completely free of dust, Meyna might not have been able to tell that there was a hidden door there.
Meyna got cuts on her fingers lifting the cellar door open, but she was able to open it nonetheless. There was a ragged wooden ladder leading downwards. She took to it quickly, and enjoyed the few moments where she didn’t have to put weight on her heel.
The tunnel was shallow and short. Meyna was no towering paragon, but she still had to stoop over to get through. Bits of sunlight from above provided vision. The exit looked to be barely two hundred feet away, and sunlight poured down there as well. The servant must be above there now.
Meyna shut the door behind her; probably pointless, but there was no sense in inviting pursuers. The crashing noises raged on above and dirt from above fell down in clumps. Mercifully, none of it fell in her eyes, as they were turned downward as she scrambled along while bent at the waist. Adrenaline and piety carried her through.
The exit ladder led to a hole coming up into a small copse of dien trees. The accompanying trap door on this end had been left open by the servant. After climbing up, Meyna looked backwards and saw Kinsler’s tower. Kinsler was sticking her head and hands out of the top floor window and firing gouts of flame down at Daigil and his men. Meyna ignored the temptation to get closer to put out the flames. Living her life was more important than revenge now.
Meyna felt safer in Bendeg town. No one but Kinsler’s cook would recognize her. She could beg or offer to work for food and clothing, or flee the town entirely, but she could worry about that later. Meyna sat on the dirt near a tavern and paused to catch her breath. She could still see the battle going on at the tower.
A tall red-feathered riding bird—a creature much swifter than the lumbering lizards most people in this region rode—sprinted past Meyna. She looked up at it and saw, as it trailed away, that its rider was the servant who was supposed to be out renting mercenaries for Kinsler.
To herself, Meyna said, “No sympathy, Kinsler. The world is better off without you in it.”
It was possible that the sorcerer Daigil could be an evil even more profound. Meyna didn’t know him, and he was terrifying. But in dropping the signet ring at his feet days ago, she had urged him to eliminate one of his rivals. Had Meyna just made the world better or worse?
She couldn’t be sure, but she had avenged Master Colican, the man who had been her father. That would have to suffice.
After resting for an hour, Meyna left town, hid the spellbook in an unattended tree branch where it was unlikely to be discovered by man or beast, and read from it to transform back into a jar-bird.
It was strange to willingly change back into the form that had trapped her, but she needed to master her fear. Besides, a breezy flight would mean not putting any weight on her injured foot. And there was one more thing to do.
Master Colican’s mansion was a pile of burning stone and blackened wood. No one had come to clean it up yet, and most likely no one ever would. It would take fifty men two weeks’ hard labor to shovel through, and the odds of finding fortune underneath were too slim.
Master Colican was trapped underneath, as well. No, Meyna corrected herself, not him. His mortal shell, his now-dead shell, rested under the rubble. There was nothing else here for her. Rest in Ain Amot’s paradise, Master.
Meyna flew back to where she had left the book and found it secure in its branches next to the curtain that had lain in the dirt. She became human once again, tied the curtain back on her torso, and went to town to go find some more presentable clothes.
Meyna needed to find another mentor. She wasn’t done studying. She still couldn’t light a candle yet.