February 21, 708 CR
Jessica had never spent any time at Lake Barnhardt during her long life in the Valley. She’d been born and raised in Keeptowne, and until she’d been forced to journey with Habakkuk and the rest the previous Summer, she’d never spent more than a few days away from the Keep. There had been the required patrol duties for Metamor, but apart form those, she’d never had a reason to see the rest of the Valley. As a hawk she’d enjoyed many lazy afternoons flying high in the sky and seeing much of the Valley from a view few could ever imagine, but she’d always returned to the Keep after.
But in the last week and a half at Lake Barnhardt with Weyden and his patrol company, Jessica realized she needed the familiar but new surroundings to regain her focus after the arduous journey to Marzac and back. If she were at Metamor, she’d be surrounded by friends and associates who’d work hard to reintegrate her into the rhythm of castle-life. Three hours away at the Lake, she could repose in silence and contemplation for entire afternoons. And for a mage with much new knowledge to contemplate, it was exactly what she needed.
The only time she valued more were the many hours she spent with Weyden. She’d joined him on his patrol flights the first few days, but it reminded her too much of the weeks spent almost entirely as a full hawk scouting ahead for her companions or merely as convenience when they had to walk and couldn’t afford to wait on her slower hopping gait. So she remained behind in the main barracks where Weyden and the rest were billeted. Captain Naomi of the Lakeland militia had been kind enough to offer her an old storeroom to pursue her magical inquiries without being disturbed.
It was the one thing she’d never had time to do while journeying with Habakkuk and the others. Now that she had some relative stability she devoted herself to picking up her magical studies where she left off. She’d learned so much on her journey out of sheer necessity that it would take months for her to integrate all of it together. And then there was the scrolls she’d been given that would show her how to summon the Pillars of Ahdyojiak. She didn’t dare attempt such a casting until she’d spent at least six months if not a year studying the scrolls — and she had no notion as to what she might use it for.
Nor was that the only mystery that plagued her thoughts. She could remember as clear as day watching the Marquis’s magical artifice melt from Lindsey changing him from a female kangaroo back into a human man as the Curses had originally made him. It taxed her imagination how he could have altered the effects of the Curse so effortlessly. Did the solution to the great enigma of the Curse lie in what he’d done? Sometimes, she could almost see it as if someone were whispering the solution in her eardrum.
But Jessica did not let failure trouble her. Her notes, some of them belonging to her master Wessex but many of her own, were her constant companions and in them she made sense of the magical nature of the world around her. Or tried to. There was much Wessex had taught her, and she had learned a great deal from Elizabeth, Misha’s sister. The revelations in Marzac and what she’d picked up from Qan-af-årael, Abafouq, and Guernef added to her treasure of knowledge. But connecting each of those stores was the challenge now before her.
Jessica shuffled the pages before her with her wing feathers and sighed, plumage settling against her back as momentary excited faded. For a moment the hawk had thought she’d seen something, but as always, the mystery ebbed back into the mists. Her golden eyes rose from the well-worn parchment to the candles lighting her investigation. Normally she would have just used a witchlight, but these gave off such a delectable aroma she allowed herself the luxury of a few simple fire spells instead.
Although she still knew only a handful of people who made Lake Barnhardt their home, one of them that she had met was the candlemaker. Unusually talented, the man enjoying his second childhood had a canny knack for blending perfumes and oils into his wax. As Jessica stared at the centre candle in the candelabra standing on the edge of her makeshift table of boxes, she could not help but marvel at his the exterior white wax enclosed a central spire of a dark maroon gel that smelled of cinnamon with a hint of mint.
For several minutes the hawk watched the candle burn. The twisting and turning of the flame was mesmerising, as well as the pooling of wax, glistening like liquid pearl before trailing down the side and exposing more of the darker column at the candle’s middle. Jessica knew that it was a simple matter of dipping the candle in two different types of wax, but she still marvelled. The white exterior was nothing more than a façade to hide the scented portion in the middle. But as it melted, the candle’s true substance was revealed and carried into the smoke.
Jessica pondered that principle. What was interior had been fashioned first. Maroon in colour, it was hid beneath the white wax layered over top of it. But a simple flame melted the outer wax to reveal the inner. At this she stared for many minutes before jumping and cawing in sudden exhilaration.
“That’s it! Oh Akkala could it be so simple?” She turned her head from side to side, hopping forward and back, wings fluttering like a hummingbird before a honeysuckle. Her eyes dashed over what notes were spread before her but for once she didn’t see anything there. Images and conjurations flashed through her mind as if the solution had been sent via thunderbolt.
Jessica squawked in delight and jumped for the door, folding her wings behind her to keep from damaging them in her excitement. “I must find out! I must find out!”
Now that they were set to be married soon, Maud and Larssen were also granted a spare storage room in which to privately prepare for what was soon to come. With their room so close to Jessica’s, it was they who she stumbled across first. Maud had purchased several samples of cloth from the rat’s caravan that had come through the previous week and she was holding up square patches of various colours and styles to gauge whether they would suit her husband-to-be. The giraffe stoically endured the woman’s gregarious manner and offered his opinions by way of grunts and nods while she took notes with a charcoal pen.
But both turned when Jessica burst into the room her black feathers in need of preening and her golden eyes wide and bright. “Jessica!” Maud exclaimed in delight. “Are you all right? Did you find something in your notes?”
Jessica stilled herself and took a deep breath. She cawed to them both, eyes keeping them close in check. “I may have found something. I hope you don’t mind if I test it on one of you.”
“Is it safe?” Larssen asked with furrowed brows. The ceiling was high enough for him to stand without bending over, but he still hunched from habit. “I trust you, Jessica, but... we haven’t had good experiences with wizards.”
Jessica felt a tightness in her gullet and nodded. Her friends had all once been in the service of Yonson who’d proven a Marzac slave as well as two of their friends. “I believe it will be. I only want to try manipulating the Curse.”
“How so?” Maud set a square of deep maroon down next to the rest. “I didn’t think they could be undone.”
“I don’t know if they can,” Jessica admitted. “But while on my journey, I saw something done to Lindsey that partially undid his curse.”
“What happened to him?” Larssen lowered his head and crossed his arms over his muscular chest. It finally dawned on Jessica that the giraffe had no shirt on. He’d taken it off to help Maud pick colours. Despite having a yellow-haired hide covered in brown splotches even more than a cow, Larssen’s physique was very handsome and the envy of many men. Jessica averted her eyes from too close an inspection.
She cawed once to regain her thoughts and replied, “The Marquis used a spell to make Lindsey into a female kangaroo. The spell eventually melted away returning Lindsey to his human self, but for a very long time he, she, was something else entirely. And it looked to me as if she’d been cursed that way all along.”
“But not quite,” Maud supplied, her eyes turned inward as she slowly worked through the implications.
“Not quite. It did dissolve. But perhaps there might be a way to undo or alter the Curse. I need to study it more to know. First, I have to see if it’s even possible. And I was hoping you might allow me to try on one of you.”
Maud shook her head, a tremble creeping in her voice. “I don’t want to be a man again, Jessica. I don’t. I...” She glanced up at Larssen who rested his massive hands on her shoulders. She leaned into his legs and slipped an arm around his lower back. His wispy tail brushed her back. “I want to be Larssen’s wife and have his children. I... I remember being a man and I’m glad I was... but I’m a woman now and I feel like a woman and love like a woman and want to be a wife and mother too!”
Jessica felt a little shocked by the vehemence and actual fear in her voice. It was clear she’d never before considered the possibility that she’d ever be offered the chance to be a man again. Truly everyone responded to the Curses differently. Jessica knew several who’d had their genders swapped who would do almost anything if they thought they could change back. Rumour had it that Princess Malisa had spent a long time searching for a way to be a man again.
“I would never do that, Maud. I’m sorry. But I might be able to make Larssen human again, even if only for a little while.” She lifted her eyes to gaze into his face. “Would you let me try that, Larssen?”
The giraffe frowned and then nodded. “I don’t want to go back forever. I’ve gotten used to being taller than everyone else. But if it will help your magic, Jessica, of course.” He gently squeezed Maud’s shoulders who gazed into his face with grateful love. “What do I do?”
Jessica spread her wings from side to side and cawed. “Nothing. Maud, you should step away from Larssen. I don’t want what I’m trying to touch you by mistake.”
Maud squeezed Larssen’s heavy hand and then walked to the other side of the storage room to watch. It was not a long walk as the storage rooms were just big enough for a dozen men to stand comfortably when not filled with supplies, but it would be enough for what the hawk intended.
Jessica visualized what she glimpsed in the moment Lindsey went from a kangaroo flyer to a human man. For a moment she saw the way the Marquis’s spell had latched onto Lindsey and mimicked the Curse. And now, with her insight, she knew how to build a lattice that would insert itself into the Curse and potentially redirect it. She glanced at the way the Curse touched Maud and how it touched Larssen, noting the subtle differences. Once invisible to her, she now knew where to look.
She wiggled her claws through the threads of magic drawing together strands in a complicated weave. Both Larssen and Maud waited uncertainly as the hawk worked. The lattice, delicate and shining like cobwebs in morning dew, spread inch by inch until it circumscribed the giraffe completely enveloping him like a leathery egg. And then with exquisite care, Jessica pulled the lattice tight until it sank into the black goo of the Curse that clung to everyone so touched. For a moment that darkness stirred and her heart lifted in excitement. But then the power faded from her spell and it evaporated as if it had never been.
Jessica slouched and Larssen glanced down at himself once before asking, “Well? I don’t feel anything.”
“I didn’t work,” Jessica admitted. “I don’t understand... it should have made you human for a short time, as long as I could give it power that is. Perhaps...”
“Perhaps the Curse is too strong to be undone,” Maud suggested in the manner of one who knows they don’t understand at all but wish to be helpful nevertheless.
“The Marquis was very powerful,” Larssen added likewise. “Maybe there was more to the spell than you saw.”
“It’s not reason to be upset,” Maud said with a faint smile. “I hear mages have been trying since the days the Curse was laid down to undo it and have failed.”
“But I know what I saw. Maybe...” Jessica looked between the two and then felt her heart jump in her chest again. “Maud, do you trust me?”
The woman nodded. “Aye. What do you mean?”
“I’m going to attempt a similar casting on you. I want to do something else.”
Maud swallowed and nodded. “All right.” Larssen opened his muzzle to object, but no words came from his blue tongue.
Jessica moved her claws at the tips of her wing-joints, constructing another lattice, this time shaped to fit Maud. No longer would she attempt to turn the Curse back on itself. Now she would do something altogether different. Her concentration was focussed and intent, filled with excitement and the assurance that this would work. Perhaps her solution had only been a partial one. But even that would be a step no other Keeper had ever taken. And any step would be a good one.
She gently drew the lattice over Maud’s comely form until it settled all around the black spell of Nasoj. Jessica’s artifice anchored into the Curse with a sudden jolt that made her feathers tingle. And then, the darkness throbbed and shimmered, just as she’d seen happen to Lindsey. Maud let out a gasp as her neck and chest lifted from the ground, stretching each and every one of her limbs, tearing through the fabric of her simple tunic and breeches until they hung in tatters from a yellow and brown mottled hide.
Larssen gaped in ear-backed astonishment as Maud changed from a woman into another giraffe. Jessica squawked in triumph and folded her wings behind her back. Maud blinked and felt her snout with one altered hand. She then twisted her neck in a way no human ever could to examine her body. She lifted one hoof and then the other, setting them down with a heavy whump. Her whip-like tail flicked back and forth a few times, which made Maud laugh in delight.
And then she noticed that she was no longer presentable to polite company. “Oh my! My clothes!”
She tried to cover herself with her lanky arms, and that failing, she stumbled uncertainly behind a stack of crates. “What did you do to me?”
Jessica leaned back on her talons and cracked her beak in an avian grin. “I activated another part of the Curse on you. It will only last so long as I can hold it in place which won’t be long. But I thought you might like to be able to be a giraffe for your husband-to-be.”
Larssen had a broad grin on his muzzle. “I like it. You look very lovely, Maud, my sweet.”
Maud’s ears bent back and she seemed to blush as she hid. “Thank you... do I sound funny?”
“A little,” Larssen admitted with a laugh in his eyes. “You sound like I did after I changed.” He stepped closer to her, but let her keep the crates between him and her. Only their heads were visible. Larssen reached one arm around and gently caressed her snout. “But I’ll love you anyway you are.” And with that Maud leaned her snout into his touch, large eyes closing to savour it.
Jessica had hoped to keep the spell active longer, but already she felt dizzy and unsteady. Another minute and she’d collapse. She coughed a few times before managing to speak. “I’m going to remove the spell now, Maud. I can’t hold it any longer.” Both giraffes nodded and Jessica pulled out the threads holding the lattice together. It disintegrated and Maud shrank back down so suddenly that she gave a startled cry and fell into the crate behind her. It teetered for a moment before steadying.
Larssen took one step and helped Maud to her human feet. Her clothes were still torn but at least now they gave her a semblance of modesty as they clung to her normal proportions. The woman shook her head and held onto the giraffe. “Oh, I think I need to sit down.”
The hawk was not much better off. Jessica swayed back and forth before the room finally stopped spinning. But she still felt an elation that would not waver. “Oh, Maud! You were a giraffe! Even if only a moment. Even if only a moment. Do you know what this means? The Curse can be changed! It can be changed, even if only for a short time. Oh wouldn’t you like to be able to be together like that always?”
Maud blinked and looked into Larssen’s dark eyes. “I don’t know... I wouldn’t mind if it made it easier for us to be together.”
“Carrying you over the threshold will be a little harder,” Larssen replied with a straight face. They both laughed.
“I just need to figure out a way to give the spell more power. I can’t link it to myself because it drains me so quickly. It would do the same if I linked it to you. I could blight the earth if I linked it there. Maybe Kyia, maybe... maybe...” She pondered that problem when as if from the blue another idea came to her.
You could always plant a hyacinth.
Jessica smiled, remembering just how Yonson had used the hyacinth as a reservoir of power. “Maybe there is a way.” She stretched her wings touching either end to the crates at her side and then folded them back. “But for now I have to experiment more. Will you two be willing to help?”
“Of course,” Larssen replied. “I’d like to get to know what Maud looks like as a giraffe.”
Maud slipped one arm around her husband-to-be’s hearty thigh. “And maybe next time you can make Larssen a babe. I’d like to hold him in my arms for once.” The giraffe didn’t look too sure about that.
Jessica took a deep breath and felt herself recovered enough to walk again. “Oh that would be adorable! Consider it a deal, for you both. I must go back to my studies. I will let you know when I’m ready to try again.”
And as she left, excited that she may have learned a way to turn the Curse to Metamor’s use, she heard Maud say, “And I need to get some new clothes!”