Dominion of the Hyacinth

by Charles Matthias

Jessica spent most of her day in the small workroom in their quarters practicing her spells. She was fascinated by the idea of using the Curse as a defensive measure. But in order to use it effectively she needed to be able to craft the web of interlocking charms quicker than it took to breathe. Her previous spells had always taken almost a minute or more to put together but when somebody was trying to kill her a minute was fifty-nine seconds more than she had to protect herself.

The hawk discovered that through repetition that she could bring the spells together more quickly, but never quickly enough. It wasn't until late in the afternoon, not long before Weyden and his fellow soldiers would return from their patrol, that she had the insight that made it work. The weaving of spells required bringing together several disparate strands in a complicated pattern. If she knew the pattern she wished to impose before hand, she could prepare spells that copied the pattern for her onto the weave of magic. By doing this, she could spend several minutes preparing her spells and binding them to some talisman, and then activate them whenever she needed to use them.

Enchanting talismans was inordinately difficult without real hands which was the main reason she had never spent much time studying the art. She knew the basics though and decided to focus on a single type of transformation. The magical weave collapsed several times before she felt she had determined the right steps, but by the time her husband returned home that evening, she had bound a series of spells to a single talisman, in this case a small topaz framed with a metal hook she could wrap about her wing-claws. The only challenge now was to test it.

As the door to their quarters at the Twin Hearth's Inn opened and the melodic voice of her husband squawked, "My sweet hawk, I have returned!" Jessica set the small topaz on her small desk and left the work room, the scent of spiced and salted meat striking her as she did. Standing just in the doorway was her husband, his feathers ruffled beneath the sash he bore to mark him as a soldier of Metamor, with a small paper wrapped bundle whose aroma made her talons dig into the floor.

"It smells wonderful, thank you, my love," she cried, wrapping one wing around her husband and nuzzling his cheek with the tip of her beak. He trembled a moment and then returned the gesture, firm and tender as his hooked beak straightened her black feathers. He grasped the door with one leg and pushed it closed as they stepped deeper into the room, the wrapped jerky pressed between their chests.

The two hawks groomed each other with unrestrained affection for several minutes more before they finally settled down in the corner of their main room nearest the hearth where they had arranged a set of hard, wooden perches with heavy stone bases to keep them from tipping over. Weyden removed the jerky and offered her a thick slice. They lowered their beaks in prayer before a small statue of Kammaloth they'd placed atop the hearth, and then they ravenously tore into the jerky. They held each piece in their talons, and bent over double as they ripped portions free with their beak, only to tilt their heads back and gulp the morsels down after a few seconds of tenderizing and savoring the smoky flavor.

Jessica admired her husband as he ate, adoring his strong wings, curved talons, beautiful red plumage, and vibrant gold eyes. But where he would always appraise her with a sly confidence, now he seemed diffident, as if there were some great weight bearing him down. She well recalled how distraught and conflicted he'd been when he learned his master Yonson was performing an evil ceremony. There was something of this anxiousness in his demeanor now and it upset her.

She swallowed the last of her jerky and folder her wings behind her back. "Is something wrong, Weyden? You're here, but your soul is troubled. I can see it in your eyes and feathers."

Weyden ducked his head and swallowed another bite of jerky. The last of it he lifted with his talon, balancing with ease on one leg, but he did not lower his beak to snatch it. "I have just been thinking quite a lot."

"What about?"

"About..." his voice faded for a moment as he seemed to stare past her even as his eyes remained fixed on her. "About... children. We haven't talked about that yet."

Jessica nodded though she felt as if a part of her was cringing and grasping at the same time. "Nay, we have not. There has been so much else, but... what is there to say? Do you not wish to be a father?"

"I do," Weyden replied with a quick nod of his head. "I just feared... how are we to raise them properly if we both serve on patrol all the time. It is not how things are done in my homeland, and from what others have said, it is not how things are done even here with the Curses."

There was no reason to argue because he was right. Jessica could see that in a moment. Were they to have children one of them would always need to be there to watch over them, to teach them, to feed them, and to help them as they grew. Children demanded not just one sacrifice, but many sacrifices repeated day after day and through night after night. How would she maintain her research into the Curses if she could not practice amongst the people or tend the hyacinth and the other she meant to plant in the months ahead once she could harvest the bulbs? Weyden could stay home with the children, but men were rarely suited to that sort of work. Was that what he feared, that he would not be able to care for them as they should be?

"That is true. But we will find a way when the time comes. There may be something we can do to make sure our children are cared for properly. Maud and Larrsen will face a similar choice one day."

"And Maud has already said she will step aside to care for the children," Weyden replied with a bob of his head. "It is odd, I knew Maud for several years before we came to Metamor. It is hard to remember she was once a man now. I just... maybe if you would take the place you've been offered in the Guild you could stay here and still practice your magic."

She felt an intense loathing for the idea but kept it deep within her mind. The little meerkat child Kuna had not been the only one among the Mage Guild to inquire after her ability with the Curses. She had rebuffed all requests so far, though she had not used her ability on any other mages as they had not been alone at the time. They also hoped she would take on apprentices and teach them much as Wessex had once taught her. One day she would, but for now her studies were far more important for her sake and for the sake of Metamor.

But there was something else that bothered her with the notion of being involved in the Mage Guild. Were she to participate she would enjoy their camaraderie it was true, but she would also be subject to their rules and their governance, and she found the idea of submitting her will to another to be distasteful. Working on the patrols with her husband at her side was one thing as it gave her ample opportunity to experiment and expand her knowledge and her skills. Teaching students to conjure flames and lift feathers would not hone her art, and the strictures of the Guild would force her to share the powers she had mastered. This she would not do.

"Weyden, my love, I know you want the best for us and for our children. But there are many answers better than the Guild. For one, the Fellowship will help us at first. Our children will hatch from eggs! It is a wonder to know that!"

Weyden nodded and his eyes took on a warm light. "Aye, it is a wonder!"

"Let me think on this some," Jessica suggested, extending her wing to brush against his own. "We do not have to decide right away. Now put this worry aside and tell me of your day."

It was not long after that they moved from the main room to the small room in which they slept. Not being able to use a bed like their mammalian and reptilian counterparts, they opted for a round wooden frame in which numerous straw-filled cushions had been arranged. A dozen pillows accented the cushioning, while a very smooth and inexpensive pair of cloth sheets draped over the top to help keep them warm during the cold Metamorian nights. It was inevitable that their talons would rend those sheets to shreds, but as long as they slept with their feet pointing down it wouldn't happen often.

She could always have used a spell to keep them warm, but Wessex had always taught her that if there was a mundane way that was just as easy it was always best to use the mundane way.

Still, when it came to making sure her husband was asleep, a simple spell was ideal.

Jessica slipped out from beneath the sheet once she was sure Weyden had settled into a deep sleep. He would have pleasant dreams and wake fully refreshed in the morning. Until then Jessica could act. After reclaiming the enchanted topaz she left their quarters by the balcony. It was already night and lamps were lit throughout Keeptowne, making the streets look like a golden cobweb. She glided from balcony to the nearest roof, her talons grasping at the wooden beams and stone protrusions holding the roof aloft as her large wings beat through the air.

She navigated this way toward the southern section of Keeptowne where there would be more foreign merchants and more taverns to sate their appetites. Jessica selected a tavern that she knew had a reputation for causing the Watch some trouble and perched on a heavy arch overlooking the alley and the narrow street outside its doors. Poor music came through the windows, but it was only barely audible over the raucous laughter, shouts for more beer, and deprecations about the genealogy of Keepers. Perched so close she couldn't help but inhale the stink of ale, vomit, and piss. Jessica buried her beak into her feathers and preened herself just to relieve herself. It was best not to use excess magic until she was ready.

While she waited she pondered anew the question that her husband had raised. She wasn't sure what the right thing to do was yet, but she was sure that Weyden would consent to any decision she made. He was always so receptive to her initiative.

Jessica did not think up an answer and decided it was best to wait for now. The tavern saw a regular stream of people going in and out. Some were Keepers who looked haggard and weary after a long day's work, while others were foreign merchants interested in finding the exotic underbelly of Keeptowne. She even saw a trio of brightly dressed Keepers fawning over the foreign men and inviting them for trysts of a most loathsome sort; they were probably the sexually degenerate Sensates she had seen from time to time. She was awfully tempted to construct some other spell to bring an end to their scandalous deeds, but that would draw too much attention to herself. She needed privacy if she was going to test her enchantment properly.

It took almost three hours before she finally saw what she had hoped for. As the night wore on the narrow street saw fewer people moving about until it became quiet except for the noise from the tavern and the others nearby. Most of the townsfolk were asleep in their beds except for the soldiers on duty and the practitioners of unsavory trades and their clients. And most of the tavern patrons left in twos or threes. It wasn't until the night grew very dark that a single man stumbled out the door, singing a raunchy ballad to himself. Jessica stretched her wings as he loosened his trousers to take a piss on the tavern wall.

She glided to the alley and dug her talons at the slick stones beneath her. She extended her wing claws and brought the enchanted topaz out of its hiding place in her feathers. The man turned a leering expression toward her and then frowned. "You... yur no wo... woman. No... No boooosom!"

Jessica narrowed her golden eyes and activated the spells on the topaz. A dozen interlocking incantations unfolded from the yellow crystal to swarm about the pissing drunk. He must have been a merchant or a hired soldier to protect the merchant because up to that moment the Curses of Metamor had never touched him. But as the pieces of Jessica's spell surrounded and bound themselves to him, so too did the Curse, blackening the weave of energies in his body in an instant.

The man was still pissing as his body abruptly changed shape, his face distending into a snout, his hands withering into paws, his trousers falling down to his ankles which lifted out of his shoes, as a bushy tail sprouted from his thinning hips. His chest swelled and rounded within his tunic which bunched around his shoulders as he stumbled forward, paws scratching at the wall to keep him from stumbling. But he fell to the ground on all fours, new legs flailing to get him back to his feet and to get untangled from his clothes.

Jessica felt a great well of satisfaction fill her at seeing a dog where once had been a man. He was covered in shaggy, gray fur that fell into his eyes and just like a normal dog, walked on four legs and possessed no speech of man. The dog barked and whined as he struggled to get on his feet. He managed to step out of his trousers, but the tunic was wrapped tight over his back and shoulders. And he stank! The dog had accidentally fallen into his own puddle of piss as he changed and now it had smeared across the tunic and soaked into his fur. He kept lifting one forepaw and brushing it across his snout with confused and horrified twists.

He'd eventually sober up and perhaps might even be able to figure out how to force his canine body to take on a more human form like all of the other animal Keepers. If he managed it, word would spread of how he'd suddenly changed. This man couldn't have been inside the Valley for more than two or three days. If rumors spread that the Curse struck that quickly, nobody would ever come to Metamor again. Jessica couldn't let that happen.

The dog was beginning to figure out that he couldn't stand on just two legs anymore and started whining in fear. Jessica spread her wings and felt the touch of one flower of the hyacinth tip through her wings, pouring out the sweet nepenthe across the dog's body. The animal stopped struggling and stared through the fur falling in its eyes as if it were rapt with a heavenly vision. Another spell and Jessica sliced the tunic from his back and shoulders; the pieces settled on the ground harmless at his paws.

Jessica scratched one talon on the stone and the dog now in body and mind, bolted down the street and around the tavern. She could hear him running for several seconds more before the music and raucous laughter of the tavern drowned the scattering of his claws against stone.

The topaz, with the enchantments cast, returned to being ordinary crystal. Jessica's tremendous joy at the success of her enchantment was tempered only by the fact that she couldn't carry more than two or three of these crystals around at any one time. There had to be a way of anchoring the spell pieces to her feathers or talons without them triggering before she was ready to use them. There would be a great deal more study in the days ahead.

Excited at what awaited her tomorrow, Jessica took to wing and flew back through the night toward the Twin Hearth's Inn and her sleeping husband.

May 3, 708 CR

Weyden felt refreshed and energized when he woke the next morning. He could feel his wife's feathery form nestled next to him in their bed, and he shifted one wing to cradle her closer to his side. She lifted her head and blinked open her eyes, finding him after a moment. "Good morning, my love," he said in as quiet a whisper as he could manage. "How did you sleep?"

Jessica leaned forward and nuzzled his beak. They laid their heads together and enjoyed the moment. Morning light poured through the window although it would be another hour before the sun would rise over the mountains. "I slept... well." She almost, if it were possible for a hawk, purred her words. "And you?"

"Very well," he replied. Weyden knew he had to do a much better job of hiding his worry than he'd done last night. "You know we have no patrol duty today. I was rather hoping to share something beautiful with you today."

She leaned back in their bed, talons clasping and unclasping as she slid a few inches away. "I have a great deal of research to do..." Her eyes stayed on him, tentative for a moment and then softening to the tenderness they had shared before. "But it can wait a day. I would love to spend a day with you."

"I love you, Jessica. Have you ever seen the cliffs near Lyme Regis?"

She stretched her wings and climbed out of the bed, the linen blanket sliding down her back. "I have flown that way many times. But it has been a long time."

Weyden cracked his beak in a grin and then climbed from the bed, stretching out his wings, legs and neck. "I thought we might spend the day there together. The view and the dives... I want to share them with you, my love." And as Lyme Regis was southeast of the Keep it would keep them as far from Lake Barnhardt and Rickkter as possible.

Jessica stepped around the bed and slid her wings atop his own, holding him close and to her chest. "I would love to dive there with you, my Weyden."

The weather cooperated with the two hawks as they had a bright and mostly clear sky to savor. A few puffy clouds drifted in from the south at about diving height, but they were easy enough to avoid on their trip to the cliffs overlooking the small farming and herding village of Lyme Regis. As they flew south from Metamor Keep the gap in the mountains widened quickly with the Barrier Range retreating in the east. The south-facing slopes grew taller as they moved away from the castle, and the hills at their base rose as well with long stretches of forest and field rising up the slopes until only the rock remained. Near Lyme Regis these slopes became sheer walls of rock that had long been impenetrable natural towers watching over the eastern extent of the Valley. Humans had not set foot on those cliffs since the days of the Suielman Empire.

At least until the Curses had turned many Keepers into birds. Now for a select few the cliffs had become a favored Spring and Summer haunt, often displacing the real hawks and eagles who had once nested there. Jessica and Weyden took their pure hawk forms as soon as they leaped into the air from their balcony; several minutes letter they were south enough from the Keep that they could see the cliffs in the distance. After climbing to a comfortable gliding height, they cavorted in the sky, diving back and forth, looping over top of each other, and flying close enough to brush each others' wings and to chase each others' tails.

It took a little more than two hours to reach the cliffs at which point both of them were ready to rest their wings. They found a crag of bright granite covered in lichen with grass and moss clinging in every crevice. Jessica stretched her wings and scratched her talons on the stone. Weyden preened his wings as the wind cooled them. The two hawks relaxed for several minutes, staring down the long drop to the valley below. Green fields and strips of forest intermingled with clusters of homes, farms, and towers. In the distance they saw the many acres of farms at Lorland as well as the few villages at the western edge of the valley. Somewhere even further a dragon circled the mountains.

Weyden grew to his most human shape and stretched his wings before tightening his grip with his talons. He turned his beak toward his wife and asked, "Is it not beautiful here?"

Jessica also grew to full size. "It is." She stepped closer to her husband and slipped her wing behind his own, hugging him close. "Thank you for suggesting it. It is good to just fly." She did greatly want to pursue all of the ideas she'd had the previous night, but it was good to take a break from time to time. It helped the mind clear out the cobwebs and to focus on what was important. Besides, it had been some days since she and her husband had been able to spend so much time alone together since their wedding.

And the choice of the cliffs overlooking Lyme Regis afforded Jessica the chance to inspect her spells anchored to Rhena the skunk. She hadn't thought she'd have that chance for several more days. Truly Weyden was thoughtful even when he didn't realize it.

Weyden leaned against her, the top of his head nestling against her cheek. Jessica felt a deep warmth in her heart and ever so gently crafted spells to ward the cliff from all danger. Through it all Weyden did nothing but stare out at the valley and fix his eyes on the cows, sheep, and pigs herding far below them in the fields around the village. Once Jessica was satisfied that her husband would be safe, she cast a spell on him much as she had done the night before. His bright and alert eyes sagged and after a few seconds closed.

"Rest here a moment, my husband," she told him as she pushed his body into a rigid pose. His talons would keep him safely perched atop the cliff, and no errant wind or sudden squall would uproot him from his perch. She adjusted his wings and smoothed out several of his red-banded feathers until she felt satisfied that her sleeping husband would strike a dignified pose. And then with a squawk of pleasure, Jessica leaped from the cliff and shrank to her normal hawk size, diving through the air toward the village.

The air rushed past her as the ground rushed to meet her. She felt like an arrow loosed from the bowstring. Though the dive lasted only a few seconds she felt as if she could live her lifetime in those moments. All of the world was there before her, clear and without pretense. Colors were crisp and shapes refined. The air wrapped her in a guiding hand that reduced her from the limitless possibilities of stasis to a single act. The only potency left was when she stopped her descent.

She spread her wings a few hundred feet above the village rooftops and began circling in a wide arc around the town. Lyme Regis was a small holding without even a rudimentary fort to protect it. A thick wooden wall and gate system offered protection from raiders but little else. The land surrounding the village was broken into farms and pastureland. Cows grazed and mingled with flocks of sheep while in the middens at the low end of the village pigs milled about until they were ready for slaughter. The market was best suited for those living in the village; most anyone selling meat, wool, or leather would ride to Lorland or Metamor to the wealthier markets there.

Because of this several merchants found it convenient to buy meat, wool, or leather in bulk in Lyme Regis on their way to Metamor, or on their way back down south. And it was to the Evening Crow Inn that such travelers were sure to come for a hot, hearty meal and a warm, dry bed. Jessica found the familiar second story roof and landed on one of the tall chimneys. She could smell roast pork cooking.

The inn fronted the widest street in the village whose contours closely matched the hilly slopes at the base of the mountains. A rudimentary gutter system followed the troughs between the hills where it could easily be washed away by the Spring runoff and Summer storms. The Inn was shaped like a bended arm, with a wide courtyard for chickens and some livestock to provide milk and a roast of their own when they could not procure meat from the market. A pair of horses and eight sheep mingled in the small field which was backed by other homes, only a few of whom had windows facing the field. Jessica watched and waited.

The hawk waited for perhaps half-an-hour before a familiar skunk stepped into the field with a small basket under one arm. She was dressed in a plain, ankle length skirt already muddy around the hem, and a tunic that did not hide her breasts but certainly did not accentuate them. Her dark green eyes were alert and her thick, tail flowed languidly behind her despite a few tangles and bits of hay in the fur. Jessica watched her walk into the field toward the pair of horses. The hawk glided from the chimney to perch on an awning overlooking the chicken coop. She peered beneath it but could not see anyone else in the field.

Jessica dropped to the ground and swelled to her full almost-human size. The skunk, startled, turned around, her tail lifting upward but settling after a moment. She put a paw to her chest and breathed a sigh of relief. The bucket still clutched tight in her right arm, the skunk took a few steps toward the hawk and chided with a bright and youthful voice. "Visitors should come to the Inn by the street, milady. Master Renauld will not like it if his guests start coming in through his kitchens!"

The hawk could not help but laugh and shake her head. Anyone looking at this young woman would never have suspected that only a month and a half ago she had been a man at his prime, a fierce hunter full of his own conceit and in charge of all the archers of Glen Avery. Jessica had been irritated and uneasy in his presence. Now she felt her heart lighter and growing in affection toward this young girl just entering womanhood. She had blossomed but remained a flower unpicked, humble and undemanding in her own beauty.

"I am not here to rent a room, Rhena. I came to see you."

She blinked and glanced over her shoulder at the horses. They remained at the far end of the field grazing on the Spring grass. The sheep were in the other corner watching them for the slightest hint of either danger or food. Gone was the easy manner; anxiety and uncertainty ruled in its place. "How did you know my name?"

"You do not recognize me, Rhena?" Jessica asked. Much the same had happened the last time she'd visited Lyme Regis and learned the extent of the hyacinth's power to help people forget things that they didn't need to know. For Rhena she had forgotten about her old life and the hawk that had made her new life possible. That new life was only as good as the spell which had transformed her though, and Jessica needed to make sure that it would remain. How horrible it would be for the poor girl if the spell disintegrated and she was left an older man with no idea why it had happened.

Rhena shook her head and lowered her snout like any peasant might when they didn't know the rank of the person to whom they spoke. "No, milady. I apologize but I do not know you."

Jessica took a step forward, her talons sinking into the soft grass and the mud beneath. "There is no need to apologize. You should not remember me. Be still for a moment and I will let you return to your chores."

The skunk was too surprised by this request to argue. Jessica reached out with her will to the tangle of spells that wrapped about her and which anchored into the curse that made her a skunk. The cords that returned to the hyacinth were pulsing with energy and on closer inspection she saw a hundred smaller cords all bundled together like a rope into a single strand. When Jessica had first cast her spell it had wrapped about Rhena's body like a cloak. To the hawk's surprise and delight she saw that it had drawn tighter and tighter about the Curse until the two were pressed so closely together that she could not even wiggle a bit of her will between them.

Jessica felt an elation she could not describe nor contain. The spells she had cast which at first had been so weak as to crumble before her after only a few seconds were slowly and slowly becoming so potent that time itself was her ally. In a few days, a week or two at most, Jessica's alterations and Rhena's skunk curse would fully merge together. When that happened it wouldn't matter whether or not the hyacinth continued to power the transformation; Rhena would always and forevermore be Rhena unless Jessica came and altered her Curse again.

"Oh, I'm so happy for you, Rhena! You are such a beautiful and lovely young woman. You are going to make some man very happy some day soon, I know it!" Jessica squawked and spread her wings, overwhelmed in her delight. Rhena was so surprised that she stumbled back a step, all the while smiling as if the suggestion of making a man happy had brought a particular man to mind. Still, she did not let Jessica wrap her in those wings. She lifted the bucket in front of her as if it were a shield.

"I'm sorry, milady. I don't understand."

"You don't need to. In a few moment you won't even remember that I was here." Jessica marshaled her will and managed to subdue her emotions. Even though Jessica had transformed Maud first, the now-giraffe had only consented to becoming a full-time giraffe at the beginning of April. She had not yet shown signs of the changes to her Curse becoming permanent. She wondered if remembering the old body had something to do with it. Maud would be an excellent test case if, as Jessica suspected, Rhena's alterations merged with her skunk curse in the next week. Regardless, there was an opportunity here in Lyme Regis more than this wonderful discovery.

"Rhena, I want you to do as I instruct you to do. You will never leave this village again unless it is in the company of your husband. And the one thing you will treasure above all else will be a flower I bring you. In a few days I will bring you a bulb and you will plant it and nurture it. You alone. It is a hyacinth and this you will protect always. Do you understand?"

Rhena shook her head. "I am not even betrothed. How can you speak of a husband? And what is a hyacinth?"

"You will see soon. Now forget this and tend to your duties."

Jessica jumped into the air and flew back to the chimney. She turned to watch, once again in her normal hawk form. Rhena stared with an empty expression at the spot where the hawk had stood, and then she shook her head and started back out into the field toward the horses. The skunk was even singing a soft little tune. The hawk hummed it to herself all the while she watched her lovely skunk tend to her chores at the inn.

Weyden felt embarrassed that he'd dozed off while perched on the cliff. Jessica, while nuzzling the side of his neck with her beak, assured him that it had only been for a few minutes, but there was a strange disquiet that filled him nevertheless.

They spent a few hours diving off the cliffs and even once giving a herd of sheep a good scare. The frivolity brightened Weyden's heart and for a time he forgot his misgivings and to a certain extent the very reason he had invited his wife out here in the first place. When their stomachs began to growl, Jessica snatched a rabbit and they flew back up to the cliffs. A simple spell provided them a fire to cook the meal. After they had sated their hunger they returned to resting and observing the world from their lofty vantage.

Two years ago if somebody had told Weyden that he would live out the rest of his life as a bird he would have thought them mad. Now he was pleased to discover that an avian life agreed with him and that he could find contentment in so simple a thing as flight and watching the world in all its variety. But in all that time he'd always had another hawk at his side to teach him.

And now Weyden had to be strong for his wife, strong in a way that she would never enjoy. He had to be strong in defying her. What woman could ever be grateful for such defiance and assertiveness? Many women accepted it as their place, but Jessica was not those sorts of women. But he could not let her abilities make him less of a man either. And that meant making sure she was protected from all that would harm her, even if Jessica was responsible for the harm.

So while Weyden took great pleasure in the diving and the feasting, and especially the intimate time they shared on the cliffs and in the air, that vague disquiet kept returning. He had sent Rickkter to destroy the hyacinth; shouldn't Jessica have reacted in some way when that plant was destroyed? Yet she never lost her vivacious joy, a joy that on any other day would have brought him nothing but delight.

When the afternoon began to wane the two hawks took to wing to return to Metamor. Weyden stayed close to his wife, watching her, hoping for some sign that the corruption was broken. He didn't know what to expect but he was certain that there would be a sign. Perhaps she might spiral down wailing in despair. Perhaps she would cry in anger before begging forgiveness. Perhaps she would fly faster in an attempt to protect her flower. Weyden saw her do none of those things. As the sun began to dip toward the western mountains their talons touched the rim of the balcony outside their home and Jessica was as eager as ever to continue her magical pursuits.

"There's still a little time for me to do some research before the sun sets," she noted after folding her wings behind her back. "That was wonderful, Weyden. Could you find us something to eat in the market tonight? I want to spend some time crafting spells."

Weyden kept the sigh from escaping his tongue. "Of course, my love. I will return soon with something to tide us this evening."

He took a little bit of money with him and waited until he was out of sight around the other side of the inn before he gave voice to the sigh. His Jessica was still under the hyacinth's power. There could be no other explanation. But why? He resolved to find Rickkter as soon as his duties allowed him on the morrow. He wished to find the raccoon right then, but he knew Jessica would ask him where he'd gone if he were late in bringing back food.

So with heavy heart the hawk flew to the market square to find a meal for his wife.

"You must stay here and nest our eggs, my love," she heard Weyden telling her. Jessica tried to turn her head from side to side, but no matter which way she looked she couldn't quite see where her husband was. Yet she could feel the weight of his wings and chest on her back pressing her downward into the circular bed of cushions and interlocking twigs, leaves, and stones. Shed feathers, both black and red, were scattered everywhere like a soft downy quilt.

"Our eggs?" Jessica cawed, a sense of dread filling her. There beneath her legs clustered together were three oblong eggs each as big as a roast chicken. When had she lain them? Jessica tried to get back up, but Weyden's presence pushed her back down. She felt the smooth surface brush her feathers beneath her tail and with it came an overwhelming urge to surrender to her husband's demands and the demands of these eggs.

Weyden stepped into view, his posture more avian than man, his head tilted to one side to regard her with bemused delight, as if her struggles were a pleasant bit of levity. Beyond him she could see her workroom with spell components, slates, chalk, and rows of crystals and sigils scrawled on parchment. The floor stretched and her workroom began pulling away as if their apartment were made from taffy.

"Now that you are going to be a mother, for only a woman can be a mother," Weyden said, pointing at her with one talon, "you must put aside everything else. You are to take care of those eggs and nothing else."

Jessica shook her head and tried to rise. But her husband squawked and smacked her down with his wings. The thickest part of his wings knocked into her head; she could only back up and onto those three eggs. Jessica let out a caw of anguish, "But my magic!"

"It is over now," Weyden declared. "No more magic for you, my love. Only motherhood."

"But," Jessica found her legs weakening as the eggs beneath her warmed her belly and tail, almost numbing her lower half into a maternal stupor. "I need my magic!"

Weyden glanced over his shoulder at the retreating workroom, and then cawed with all his lungs. The room hurtled out of sight until there was nothing left but a lightless corridor of gray stone stretched until it was a smear of paint more than anything real. "It is no more," Weyden declared as he turned back around. "Your only duty is to take care of those eggs. Do not speak otherwise again." Jessica struggled to get up and to offer another objection, one filled with fear at how her husband would treat her, when he spoke again, his eyes glinting with both love and malice at the same time. "Do not speak at all."

Jessica cawed but no words came out. She lifted her wings to grasp at her throat, but even her wing claws had dwindled away until there was nothing left but wings. She had, in the space of a moment been reduced to a normal hawk in body. The eggs and their nest seemed to have shrunk with her, but Weyden remained big and powerful, a dominating presence whose will could not be denied. "You are my wife, Jessica, and you will be the mother to my eggs! Be that and nothing more! Your womanhood demands it!"

Jessica shook her head back and forth even as her body betrayed her by settling in atop the eggs to keep them warm. All around her the red of Weyden's feathers and wings spread outward to envelop her and shut out everything around her.

She blinked open her eyes with a gasp that almost turned to an avian shriek. Jessica was beneath the quilt with her husband sleeping at her side. She stretched her claws and shifted her tail feathers about but felt no eggs beneath her or beneath Weyden. The nightmare rang vividly in her mind, but the panic subsided as soon as she woke. She took several deep breaths, letting her lungs fill with the warm air of their bedroom.

Jessica climbed out of the bed, being careful not to disturb Weyden. Her husband stirred a little but he settled back down a moment later. Once satisfied she would not need a spell to keep him asleep, she stepped into her workroom and closed the door. After summoning a trio of witchlights to illumine her way, she hop-stepped into the middle of the room and lowered herself into a crouch, wings spread wide at either side. In a whisper she breathed, "If we have children I won't be able to help Metamor with my magic anymore."

This isn't how things are meant to be.

"I love him."

As you should. But more than just your husband have need of your skills.

"I want to do the right thing for everyone."

Magic is a tool to do the right thing. You have helped so many already.

"I know."

It is only right that you respect your husband's wish to have children. But it is not right for you to abandon those who depend on your magic.

Jessica shuddered and closed her eyes. "How can I do both?"

Your magic is the key. You do not have to be the mother.

Jessica blinked open her eyes and leaned back on her talons. The thought was so striking that she could not drive it from her mind. She pondered and pondered every angle, ever nuance, and every consequence of the notion. Her breathing slowed and her panic faded until she felt a tremendous peace saturate her. The solution to the dilemma was simple and apropos. She had already exchanged the roles of husband for wife for the rooster merchant Richard. Why not for herself and Weyden?

As a woman Weyden can be a mother to the children he desires and you can continue the practice of your magic unimpeded. Everyone will have what they wish. The world will be as it should be.

Jessica nodded and stood. She caught a glimpse of her reflection in one of the mirrors she kept and she turned to study her countenance. She admired her black feathers which framed a golden beak and piercing eyes before flowing down a slender but sturdy body through elegant wings to strong legs and fierce talons. What would she look like as a man? And what would Weyden look like as a woman?

It was too soon to find out. Best to mull over the possibility. She would have to at least discuss it with her husband first. But that could wait. Perhaps she should have the spell ready for the time he agreed?

Possibilities and hopes swirling in her mind, the hawk returned to her bedroom, extinguishing witchlights in her wake. Sleep would be far more pleasant now.

May 4, 708 CR

Rickkter growled under his breath, a sort of hissing snarl that sent flecks of spittle hurtling across his long tongue, past his jowls and short fangs, and onto the object of his irritation. Before him was a rather plain wooden chest with an ordinary key lock that he normally kept in his bookshelf behind the heavy and mind-numbingly verbose compendium of treaties on developments in warfare over the last few thousand years in the principalities of Sonngefilde and Kitchlande. Its plain exterior belied the intricate syzygy of enchantments that kept industrious thieves from pilfering its contents.

At least when there were contents worth pilfering.

The raccoon mage stilled the growl in his voice and slammed the chest shut. "I guess it's time to make money again."

The chest wasn't completely empty, but the small satchel of coins would, with the way he hated frugality, especially during the warmer months, be expended before the Summer arrived. After waking in December to find his body completely emaciated and his muscles nearly useless he'd been left with no choice but to live off the savings he'd amassed in the previous year. While it had been almost two months now that he'd regained his strength, he'd demurred from several offers from both George and Misha in order to hone his skills and resume his studies; and of course there was Kayla whom he had spent a great deal more time with.

The other reason was that he had been watching for some terrible threat and he hated to be away from the Keep until he was sure that threat was past. Marzac had already tried to claim his beloved Kayla, and he had heard of what it had done to both James and Lindsey. Vigilance was necessary to ensure that it did not strike again. But the almost empty chest left him little choice; he was going to have to start accepting the offers for mercenary work from George and Misha more often if he hoped to enjoy his Summer at Metamor; or worse, translation work for the library. Marzac had stolen his last Summer away and he would tear down heaven and earth if something as banal as finances did the same for his next!

He had just enough time to shut the chest and return it to its hiding place when he heard a scratching at his door. Rickkter straightened, stretched his back, and then walked to the door, his claws clicking lightly against the stone. "Who is it?"

"It's Weyden."

He could not recall the hawk soldier ever calling on him before and so immediately tensed. Still, Weyden was a good man and a steady soldier which was enough for the raccoon to grant him respect. He opened the door.

"Good afternoon," Rickkter said with a nod of his head to the hawk. "What may I do for you?'

Weyden leaned forward, his eyes intense. "Did you destroy it?"

Rickkter blinked and flicked his tail, brow furrowing. "Did I destroy what?"

Weyden sighed and lowered his beak. "The hyacinth."

His heart thumped. "Hyacinth? What do you know of any hyacinth?"

"Jessica planted one in Lake Barnhardt. I told you about it two days ago. You were supposed to go there and destroy it yesterday."

Rickkter shook his head and ground his molars. "I don't remember that at all. But if a hyacinth was planted then I would forget things. Who planted it?"

"I just said... my wife, Jessica."

"How do you know this?"

"Two days ago I stopped you and Kayla at the Deaf Mule and I told you all of my suspicions about Marzac corrupting my wife. She's doing very strange things lately, and it scares me. I told you especially about Kuna who I'm sure you've already forgotten about again. Are we going to have to go through this whole thing again?"

"I've never heard of anyone named Kuna."

"I see the answer is yes." Weyden's wings and tail slumped and he sighed. "He was the headmaster of the Mage's Guild until last month. Jessica turned him into a child and nobody has seen him since and nobody remembers him either! I can wait two minutes and tell you about him again to see if you've forgotten him again."

Rickkter shook his head back and forth and gestured for the hawk to come inside. "I need something to write all of this down so I won't forget. And it is better you tell me here where there won't be any errant ears to listen in."

Weyden hopped into the room, his long talons scratching at the stone as they tried to find some purchase. He glanced around the room with a quick sweep of his head, and then narrowed in disappointment. "I don't have a perch," Rickkter admitted as he bent over his desk and tapped his ink bottle to loosen the ink. "I don't usually have avian guests."

"I can manage. Most of the time I have to stand without a perch." Weyden watched him for a moment as he folded his red-banded wings behind his back. Rickkter couldn't help but admire his speckled feathers, sharp talons, hooked beak, and fierce golden eyes. No matter how many times he saw an avian Keeper he was always struck by their otherness. It was a sensation that went beyond anything he saw in any who had become mammals like himself no matter how unusual, or even those who had become reptilian like that insufferable billiards champion Copernicus. The counter-curse that was cast to ameliorate Nasoj's spell gave the birds their human size back, as well as some number of wings claws that could serve as hands, but the posture of wings that granted them flight kept them more like the animals they resembled than the humans they were in spirit and at birth. Only those rare few who had become insects or some other oddity left him feeling as unsettled or more by their presence.

Rickkter set the ink bottle down on the desk and feeling a trifle unnerved by his guest's intense stare turned to him and asked, "So what can I do for you, Weyden?"

The hawk took a deep breath, swelling out his chest and pushing his wings out a foot from his back, and then exhaled with an almost hopeless sigh. "You forgot again." And then, in a voice that rose from a guttural whisper to a piercing screech, he continued, his beak widening with each word. "Rickkter, my wife is being corrupted by Marzac and has planted a hyacinth at Lake Barnhardt! Write it down before I have to tell you again!"

He blinked in surprise, and then turned to his desk to see the ink well, the parchment, and the long peacock quill with scintillating patterns in blue and green. "A hyacinth? Damn! How many times have you told me?" He lifted the quill, dabbed it in the ink, and wrote the name of that accursed flower across the top of the parchment in large letters. Beneath it he added 'Marzac' and 'Jessica' in slightly smaller script.

The hawk quieted, but the tension strained his voice so taut and filled it with such malice that it made him sound more aggressive than Misha when his temper snapped. "Twice so far today. I told you two days ago and had to repeat myself several times before you wrote it all down."

"I wrote it down already? How did I forget?" Rickkter paused in his writing to let the ink dry.

"I don't know. You were going to visit the rats to charter a wagon to Lake Barnhardt when I left."

"Something must have happened," Rickkter mused, glancing at the words on the page. It was hard to believe that Jessica could have been so corrupted to have planted a hyacinth, or that the hyacinth had already gained so much power that it could erase itself from their minds in only a minute or two. When Yonson had planted the first hyacinth it had been in the ground for almost eight months before it had been discovered. He hadn't had as much trouble remembering that plant as he did the current one. It felt like trying to grasp an eel slick with slime with paws coated in thick oil.

"This new hyacinth couldn't have been planted until after Jessica returned from Marzac. I can remember Yonson's hyacinth in great detail. It shouldn't be able to make us forget anything from before its planting." Rickkter brushed the end of the quill over his nose making his whiskers twitch this way and that. "But how? And where did she plant it?"

"Lake Barnhardt. It is where I was stationed when she returned from Marzac. She stayed with me there and must have found the small box I kept the hyacinth bulbs in. Yonson had me rescue what I could of the hyacinth after you burned it. There were two bulbs... I told you this before."

"And I've forgotten. Tell me it all again and I will write it down. I am sorry, but since you seem to be immune for... some reason... this is a position you're going to be stuck in until we can get this situation resolved. Preferably the sooner the better."

"Then may I suggest a few extra copies this time? To ensure this won't happen again."

"A good idea, yes. And when that's done we're going to go visit somebody who can help us coordinate and who won't forget."

"Why won't he forget? Everyone but me is forgetting and I am taking a terrible risk in coming to you!"

"Because he won't know why he's doing it." Rickkter dipped the quill into the ink and sat down to ease his back. His striped tail flicked from side to side and his left ear twitched with nervous intensity. He hated Marzac. "Now tell me everything you know about this hyacinth and Jessica's corruption."

Weyden settled his wings and checked his anger as he spoke. The raccoon war mage listened and copied every detail he could.

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