Fists Full of Feathers

by Charles Matthias

Afternoon July 2, 708 CR

The open cavity at the top of the decrepit oak snag provided ample cover for Myrwyn as he rested his wings. As a young woodpecker his endurance could never match the hawk's. Neither were his wings suited to circling in the upper winds hours on end. So Myrwyn relied upon the forest branches to recover his strength and the fortunate snag to enjoy time in his most human form.

After testing the strength of the bark and remaining sinew on the tall side of the cavity with several sharp jabs of his beak, Myrwyn dropped his flight satchel and gratefully rested his wings against his back. He preened the feathers for a few minutes all while listening to the sounds of the woods and occasionally peering through the small crevices in the dead bark to the living boughs below. There were patches of forest visible through the tangle of branches and profusion of leaves for him to inspect. To the other members of the patrol he was sure there were many secrets before him, but he only saw pine trees, climbing ivy, and wildflowers.

Myrwyn tried not to dwell on the poachers they were hunting and focused on his feathers. Flying all morning while wearing the harness to hold his satchel had left them in complete disarray. He yearned to stretch fingers again so he gave up half-way through to transform. He'd already been larger than a normal woodpecker in order to carry his satchel, but as he regained his height the snag groaned beneath him and the dead bark loomed inward until he barely fit inside.

Despite the squeeze, Myrwyn felt relief to have fingers at the last joint of his wings again. Like most bird Keepers, they were little more than a pair of grasping digits. Without a thumb to accompany them he was forced to use both wings at the same time to manage almost everything he attempted. But, little by little he was learning what his body was capable of; the patrol left him no choice. With increasing confidence Myrwyn unlaced his satchel and withdrew a small bundle of parchment. He wedged it into a bit of the snag where the pulp still clung to the bark, then carefully eased the inkwell from the bottom of the satchel and set it down near his feet. A snowy white feather, tattered after three years, served as his pen. This, when he was ready, he would grip with his foot.

But Myrwyn needed to rest his muscles first. Though he'd succumbed to Metamor's curses three months ago, only in the last few days had he ever spent so much of it in the air. His first attempts at flight had been brief and consisted of gliding from the rooftop of his father's shop to the busy streets below. Sheer terror had filled his tiny heart as he forced himself against all sense to leap into the open air over the cobblestone river chasm. Some Keepers spoke of a beastly instinct showing them how to use their new bodies in ways no human ever could. He'd hoped such instincts would turn his wings to catch the wind and bring him safely to his father's head. Rather dark-furred arms had to snatch him from a tumbling fall.

As a boy, Myrwyn had loved being held in his father's stout arms, the prick of claws at his back, a strong buttery scent clinging to the fur. The bearcat easily lifted his son and set him upon his shoulders where Myrwyn could grasp his tufted ears and gently steer him around the workshop. And so it was again after the fall, without a word of dismay, paws rough from a life carving stone lifted the distraught woodpecker and deposited him atop his silver-tinged brow. And in a low gravely voice asked, "Where to?"

His second attempt followed not long after. It would take many more before he'd learned how to tilt his wings and spread his tail to both glide safely to the road and fly from rooftop to rooftop. Braving the world beyond Keeptowne, traversing its skies, and winding through the tangled forests was an exhilaration he had never imagined could be his own. But after three months of practice he started to feel a confidence as a bird he had never imagined he could have.

At least for flight.

Twisting his head to one side so he could see, he attempted to pry the stopper from the inkwell with a talon while his other toes tried to keep it from tipping over. He almost succeeded. The spill was small, only a drop no larger than a coin, and he righted the inkwell with a little nudge. Then, even slower, he gripped the white feather with his other feet, wing claws digging into the bark to steady himself, and dipped the end.

With his precious ink he lifted his foot to the parchment and cast a few lines upon the page. He gazed out through one of the holes at a patch of forest floor visible through the leaves, studied the lay of stone, root, and bush, and then with nary a tremble in his toes, engraved those images in ink. Stroke followed stroke, dash of indigo, and brush of thin line captured with steady, if at times uncertain, clawed foot. Three toes in front, one toe behind, it operated almost as a hand, while he balanced without trembling upon the other.

Each new line brought forth the image below. First the stately spires of pine a quick vertical stripe followed by little dashed lines at their base for the needles spread below drowning the underbrush. Then, curlicues tangled together to mark the crawling ivy climbing up the face of a rocky hill and dark crevice. A wavy line at the bottom captured the remnant of a stream gone dry. He even managed a few touches for wildflowers scattered around the trees.

Myrwyn compared his meager drawing with the forest through the crack a few times, added a detail here and there, and then decided it was enough. He stoppered the ink well and secured it and the white feather quill in the satchel. He had to wait for the ink to dry completely before he dared take it with him, so he made sure no errant wind could disturb his things, shrank down to his feral form, and flitted out of the snag in search of a meal.

He found another tree with promising bark and settled in to peck for bugs. Pounding his beak into the bark was the easy part. At first he'd thought his head would ache after hammering faster than he could blink, but he never felt even the slightest discomfort. The idea of eating the insects he found beneath the bark had felt like the meanest poverty, but what else was survival. Captain Dallar had suggested those who could find their own food do so if they patrolled as beasts. And as Myrwyn speared a beetle and swallowed it down, he realized there was wisdom in it. A few bugs and the woodpecker was as full as if he'd eaten loaves of bread and honey.

Myrwyn glanced around the forest every few minutes while he hunted and pecked for his midday meal. Other birds he could hear aplenty, as well as the capering of squirrels and chipmunks. He was pretty sure the small opening beneath a tangle of roots far below was a badger den. He even spotted a pair of does making their way through a defile where a trickle of water still ran. But no sign of Metamorians and certainly no sign of poachers.

The woodpecker flitted around the forest, a good fifty paces around the snag with his equipment, pecking for grubs and eating those he found, while doing his job for Metamor. The forest life was so different from the one he knew back in Keeptowne. The grubs were filling, and while they did not offend his tongue and slid down to gullet easily enough, they weren't one of Gregor's pastries drizzling with cream and sprinkled with cinnamon. And the trees, beautiful and lush with Summer, pungent with pine and maple, could not compare to comforting chimneys and the smoke filled with vagaries of odors as meals were prepared, iron forged, and incensed prayed.

But there was an order to life in the wilderness much as there was an order to life in his city. Myrwyn supposed both could be learned and both could be lived if necessary. The biggest difference was the noise. His city was always full of clangings and rumblings and all manner of clamor. From the echoing ting of chisel on rock in his father's workshop where apprentices spent their days shaping building stones for city streets, leaving the finer work for his father's furred hands, to the wagons always crunching by in the streets, horse hooves on stone and dirt, and the frenzied voice of merchants hawking their wares, Keeptowne was filled to the brim with sound.

The forest was quiet. It almost hurt how quiet it was at first, like a vast emptiness into which the woodpecker's mind frantically filled with imagined monsters just so the barrenness didn't consume him. But as his little avian heart settled, as the city receded from view, and as he was able to turn lines on parchment into depictions of what he saw, the natural noises made themselves known. He could hear the distinct scratch of a squirrel's scampering, the twitter of normal birds, the creaking of tree branches in a breeze, and the trickling of water in forest streams below. And his own thoughts; ever his own thoughts.

And the cawing of magpies chasing away a hawk.

Myrwyn flitted up to the canopy and stared in surprise as several magpies chased after a red-tailed hawk swooping overhead. The hawk almost lazily banked and swerved to keep ahead of the pestering parliament, flapping its broad wings from time to time to loft higher. Myrwyn tilted his head to one side as he hopped on the slender branch to follow them in the sky. When the hawk finally turned so he could see its chest he recognized the baldric of a Metamorian scout. It was Weyden!

Weyden fixed his eyes upon the woodpecker, dove nearby and then swooped past, the magpies still chasing him for another fifty paces before breaking off and heading back. Myrwyn watched unblinking as the hawk made his way toward a massive oak whose boughs stretched above the nearby canopy. He landed in one of the branches overlooking the forest and waited, turned toward the woodpecker. Myrwyn's eyes were not as good as the hawk's, but he could see the hawk staring straight at him.

Myrwyn jumped into the air, beat his wings, and made his way toward the oak. A minute later he lowered his tail and banked in to land, feet grasping the bark of the hefty branch a few feet from Weyden. The hawk stared at him for a moment with piercing golden eyes, and then those eyes lost the avian intensity as his entire body swelled upward, developing human proportions if still in the guise of a hawk. Myrwyn willed his own body to do the same. A moment later, the two Metamorians perched upon the branch as Keepers true.

The baldric Weyden wore was imbued with magic to unlatch at his side when he changed. It now dangled from his shoulder. Weyden clasped it in his beak and set it down on the branch. He put one talon on it to keep it from being carried off by a breeze. "Myrwyn," Weyden's voice was firm, but patient. "Where are your things?"

"In a nearby snag," Myrwyn replied readily. He stretched his wings behind him to steady himself as he turned around. When he was facing the hawk he preened his chest feathers with the finger talons on his wings. "I thought I would study the area while hunting for a meal."

"Can they be seen from below?"

"I don't think so. The snag still had all of its sides, only a few cracks."

Weyden bobbed his head a moment before glancing out across the forest. The forest stretched a few miles in every direction but to the east they could see the expansive farmlands of Lorland, and to the west the snow-capped peaks of the Dragon mountains. To the north the village of Ellingham nestled at the Dragon's base overlooking pastureland. And to the south another village, Goffs Oak, sat upon a ridge rich with limestone and calcite. His father visited there to inspect the quarries a few times each year.

"Have you seen any sign of the poachers?"


Weyden made no sound nor offered a reproving glance. It must have been the answer the hawk was expecting. They perched in silence for almost a minute, Myrwyn unsure what could be said, or what the hawk could want from him. Best wait until he was spoken to. While waiting he preened his feathers with both wing and foot talons as well as his long, sharp beak.

Eventually the hawk thought of something to ask. "How are you managing, Myrwyn? Are your wings or chest sore?"

"Not as much as the first two days of patrol," Myrwyn admitted. "I'm taking breaks to rest them and in places where I can see everything around. Like you told me."

"Good. A bird's greatest strength is his wings. And then his eyes." Weyden turned his head, golden eyes intense upon the woodpecker. "How far can you see?"

"A good ways." He gestured with a wing to the north. "I see Ellingham in the distance."

"You remembered your maps, very good. When you look at the village, what do you see?"

"Not much. It's brown and gray and different from the forest. I can tell there are buildings, but I cannot really see much more."

"So your eyesight is not quite as good as mine. I can see the villagers on this side going about their day, and the flocks in the field. The eagles could have told us what the people are wearing. It's more than we could have seen while still human."

Myrwyn nodded and clacked his beak. "I suppose. I never really tried seeing far before I changed."

"Do you see any colors you could not before?"

"A little. Some Keepers have markings I didn't notice before the curses."

Weyden seemed pleased with the answer. "And most don't know they do. We can use those markings to help find them in the forest, even when they try to hide."

"I have been looking," Myrwyn said, breast feathers puffing outward. "Have you seen anything?"

Weyden stepped back on the branch, head tilted in surprise at the woodpecker's sudden outburst. "Nay, I have not either. These poachers are very clever. We may never find them and Captain Dallar would not be disappointed in us. I'm not trying to discipline you, Myrwyn. I'm trying to help you. I know it can be difficult becoming a bird. It is far more difficult to adjust than becoming a sheep or even a giraffe. But it is what we are and so we should know what we have and how to use it in a way no mammal ever could."

Myrwyn took a deep breath and tried to still the temper flaring in his blood. But there was something driving the sudden anger and it still flowed. "Wings! We're a pair of wings who talk."

Weyden stood taller, eyes imperious. "I've heard such talk before and it is only true if you let it be. I am a warrior and my wings and talons and beak are not to be dismissed. And put a halberd in my talons and wait and see what happens to any enemy below me. Hardly a pair of talking wings! Nor are you! Get such foolish thoughts out of your head."

"Well, I cannot be a stone mason like my father now, can I? I can be a messenger, a spy, or a scout. How are any of those more than a pair of talking wings?"

"You could do those, aye, and there is no shame in any of them. But who says you cannot be a stone mason?"

"I cannot swing the hammer strong enough. My own body says I cannot!"

"And is that all a stone mason is? Swinging a hammer?"

Myrwyn lowered his beak and clawed at the bark beneath him with his talons. He pulled his wings tight to his back, chest swelling with each heavy breath. "Nay, but without it... how can one be a stone mason?"

Weyden considered him with his intense gaze for a moment before saying in a quieter voice, "You've spent all your life knowing you would do the same as your father, did you not?"

He turned his beak toward the village in the distance, and lowered his legs down to sit where he perched. For several seconds he didn't say anything. A long sigh escaped his throat when the words did finally come. "Aye. Doesn't everyone?"

"But is is what you truly want to do?"

"It was, and still is I suppose."

"Is there anything else?"

Myrwyn pondered the question for a few seconds. "I don't know. I have to show my worth and what I can do, what craft I can master."


"And it has to be something others in Keeptowne or the valley need. Otherwise I may as well be eating grubs and berries out here with the other birds."

Weyden studied him for a moment and then gazed out over the treetops. "You know, I was already a soldier when I came to this place. I left my home and everyone I knew behind to come here as an honor guard for the ambassador. I knew I might never see those I left behind again. And when I started to grow feathers and a beak, I knew even what I had been as a soldier had to change. A sword? I cannot wield one with these fingers. A halberd I could manage with enough practice, but in many ways, I was learning all over again."

He turned back to the woodpecker and stretched out a wing, draping long feathers across Myrwyn's shoulders and back. "My path was known to me. I had to make the best of it. You don't have a path yet. Out here, perhaps the life of a soldier and scout will suit you. Perhaps you will learn some way you can be a master stone mason yet, even without ever being able to swing a hammer like your father. And perhaps you have another skill to benefit Metamor you have yet to discover.

"You are young yet, Myrwyn. When we return to Metamor speak to the other birds in the Fellowship. There is no end of work for winged and feathered folk. And not all of it requires flying. There is a rooster who runs a spice shop. An ibis serves as the Duke's archivist. And do not forget my wife who is a mage; she only comes on patrol to be with me you know."

Weyden lowered his wing and tensed his legs beneath him as if he were about to leap back into the sky. "Don't let anyone ever say you are good only for your wings. Especially yourself. They are a blessing from the gods. Say prayers to Dokorath you might use them well in service to your patrol. And when we return to Keeptowne, seek out your place. Either at your father's side or apprenticed to another. You will figure out how to use your body for any trade you take on. Do not fret over what it may be. If you need introductions with others in the Fellowship who could help, my wife and I will be glad to do so."

Weyden picked the baldric up with one foot, passed it to his wing claws, and deftly draped it over his shoulder. "I must return to patrol and so should you. But I like you, Myrwyn. Your a good young man and I'm delighted to have you on this patrol. Do not hesitate to ask me for help in any way."

"Thank you, sir," Myrwyn said with a long sigh. "I'll think on all you said."

"Good man." Weyden shrank down into his feral form, and with beak latched the baldric into place, before jumping and swooping back into the air. Myrwyn watched the hawk's shape spiral above the branches and off east.

He sat for a few minutes staring after the hawk before he shrank down and leaped into the air. Memory of the parliament of magpies fresh, he made a wide circle to the south then headed east toward the snag. He glided as close to the canopy as he could, eyes flicking upward to watch for real hawks or eagles who might think he'd make a tasty morsel.

His drawing and the satchel were where he left them. Myrwyn settled down into the cavity and swelled back into his most human size. The wood groaned as his wings pressed backward. He touched one of the lines of ink. No smudge. Myrwyn stared at the picture and sighed. Why couldn't he admit to the hawk he enjoyed drawing? Perhaps for the same reason he couldn't admit it to his father.

His mother.

The curses had left her a snow white owl. Her greatest joy was perching over his father's shop and drawing whatever she saw in the streets, and often his father at work. And at times, her only son trying to carve rocks too.

And in his tenth year, she noticed him watching her draw and invited him to try. She even gave him one of her own fallen feathers to use. His first drawings had been under her tutelage. They were awful but she loved them all the same.

And then in his eleventh year in deepest December his mother had flown back to their shop to fetch something they'd forgotten in their hurry to reach the Temple. His father helped with the defenses while Myrwyn helped the other children trapped in the Temple stay brave. Their mother's body was never found.

Myrwyn gripped the parchment in his wing claws, ready to fold it and tuck it into his satchel. But his eyes fixed on the details and he spared a moment to compare what he saw with the view. The tall pines with the needles beneath, the stream gone dry, and the wildflowers all there and recognizable in the ink. The ivy climbing up the rocky hill spread wide. Myrwyn blinked and studied the ivy down below and in the drawing. He did so three times. Four. Five.

Where was the dark crevice in the hillside?

Myrwyn shrank back down to his animal size and flitted down to the scene, landing atop the granite and clinging ivy. He hopped to the left side of the rock, poking his beak through the ivy petals and stared. The crevice was there, but now hidden behind the ivy, drawn taut with leather straps behind.

The woodpecker ventured a few feet into the crevice, stared within the darkness for a few seconds, then turned and flitted back out before any of the murmuring voices within heard their unwanted visitor. He rushed back to the snag, secured parchment and satchel, and hurried back north where their patrol made camp.

He'd found the poachers.

In his heart, Myrwyn imagined his mother's eyes gleaming with pride.