Fiera watched the body of her mother slowly disappear. One-by-one, the villagers placed their stones on the woman that had borne her and, until that morning, had brushed her hair every day. Her father lay nearby, under his own pile, settled from rains that had come too late for her parents. Now Fiera was alone. With her parents’ death just days from each other, it was as if she had died, too.
She bore her grief in every pore of her body. Yet, she stood by and did nothing. Leery villagers filed past, offering condolences. The neighbor woman, who sometimes entertained soldiers, took her gingerly by the waist and guided her home to a table filled with meager offerings of food.
The bereaved eagerly ate and mostly left her alone, sneaking quick looks when they thought she didn’t see, then turning back to their friends, shaking their heads sadly.
For hours this lasted, and would have gone all night, but Fiera rose to her feet, stumbled out the door, and back to the graves of her family. The sun had given way to night and it had started raining again. A fine shower hugged her as she lowered herself to huddle between her parents. The water slipped into the ground and disappeared, leaving the soil as hard and cracked as before, not enough to erase the hunger of either the land or its people. Tomorrow, there would still be dust.
The neighbor woman followed with a lard-thickened blanket that was meant to lie beneath a traveler as they slept in the open night. She drew it tightly around Fiera and left, muttering, “We’ll probably be at her funeral within a few days’ time.”
Nineteen and Fiera was alone. If she’d married like others much younger, then she’d have had a husband and his family to help her through. Then again, they might have died from the famine as well.
Slowly, the understanding of her sudden freedom crept over her. Rising, and with no plans or sense of her direction, she stumbled across the broken land in the rain, her blanket as her only shelter. Through the night she walked on hunger weakened muscles, at times falling to lie in a crumpled heap until the awful ache within her heart drove her on. The rain ceased, leaving the ground dry and choking, as if water had never touched it. At long last, she came to a road and the struggle of whether to turn east or west sapped the remains of her energy. She slumped to the ground, waiting for fate to decide her death.
Finally, in the dawn hour, Fiera heard the clack of hooves on stone, the creak of braces, and the low toneless hum of a merchant coming from the east.
She struggled to her feet and tugged the blanket to cover her tangled fawn-red hair. The effort to hide herself had a cost and she tipped toward the ground. In what she supposed could be considered a miracle, she managed to stay on her feet by flailing her arms and stumbling a few steps.
A giant single-horse cart appeared from around a bend. It was loaded with rattling pots and pans, bolts of fabric, herbs, jars of assorted nails, and other items. A huge dappled gray horse slowly pulled at the traces while an ancient man with a long white drooping moustache hunched on a seat with thick springs and an even thicker pad.
“Whoa!” The aged merchant heavily leaned back on the reins, sawing at the horse’s mouth. He peered at her in the awakening light. “What do we have here?”
Too weary to speak, Fiera waited for the merchant to decide what to do about her, swaying on her feet like a leaf on one of the dying trees around her.
After a long slow consideration, the old man pursed his lips. “Well, come on, then. You can climb up by yourself, can’t you?”
Dumbly, she shuffled toward the cart. The giant draft horse looked her in the eye, its thoughts in her head. Witch, beware of this man. He steals from other merchants and the poor. He only feeds me when he steals.
Fiera paused at the horse’s muscled neck, giving it long strokes, in part to buy time while she spoke with the horse, but also to steady herself. Animals always knew the truth. She wasn’t surprised this one had seen her identity, but horses rarely cared about the affairs of men until it affected them, such as this horse’s hunger. She would be wise to consider its words. If the animal was to be believed, the merchant wasn’t to be trusted. Will you carry me?
The horse bobbed its head. Anywhere.
With shaking fingers, she smoothed her hands over the brace buckles, feeling them disappear beneath her fingers. You will need to lower yourself so I can mount.
“What’s going on?” The old man rose from his seat, the springs squawking from lack of grease, and he peered down at her. “Stop! What are you doing?”
He tied off the reins. As he climbed down from the cart, the braces dropped to the ground and the horse lowered to its knees. Fiera slid across its wide back and wound one hand through its thick mane, her other hand tightly clutching the blanket around her. She clamped her legs around the horse’s ribs. Even still, the horse nearly unseated her as it lunged to its feet and they took off, two steps ahead of the cursing merchant. She only hoped she had enough strength to stay mounted for the journey.
Hunkered low over the horse’s muscled shoulders, they flew past thinly foliaged trees and brush that was nothing more than sticks, leaves long dried and blown away. Watching the landscape blow past dizzied her, so she concentrated on the road instead. The horse’s hooves burst the dust off the ground like small explosions. Boom-boom…boom. Boom-boom…boom.
She asked, What’s your name?
I’m called Captain. I was first a soldier’s horse.
Fire! Like your hair?
Yes. Like my hair. The brown of bare trees ripped past as the clouds above dissipated. Beneath her, the boom-boom…boom took her further away from her only home. She turned and looked behind them at the dust trail that became a wall between her and the past. There would be no more hiding, no more shame. Despite the ache in her heart over the loss of her parents, she smiled. It was time for a new beginning.
Her traveling companion seemed to enjoy the journey. He stretched his long neck forward and tossed his head. Where are we going?
Anywhere there was life. Her heart hurt for her parents, yes, but it also ached for the friendship of her own kind: witches. And it ached for something else, something she couldn’t quite define. As far away as we can.
* * * *
Efar stood on the doorstep of the little cottage that had been his home for the last four months. He reached up and placed his hands inside the doorway, not so much as to stretch, but more to keep himself in place. The beast within him surged, reminding him that he was not one person, but sometimes two. His fingers beat a staccato rhythm on the ancient wood as he let his gaze rove the valley.
Lush green trees, thick grass, and flowers of nearly every hue and fragrance were interspersed with bold swaths of golden grain and vegetable plants heavy with produce. The pigs were fat, cows and goats swung pendulous udders, and the horses frolicked in the field.
Behind him, in the cabin, worked a beautiful woman, Gabriella, with long black hair, honey-colored skin, full lips, and patience in her eyes. The exact opposite of him. He was fair-skinned, blond, blue-eyed, and impatient with most things, but trying to learn to be different.
He had a reputation as being fond of the ladies. Of never being able to settle down. His mother, out of desperation, had turned to her brother, the King of the Griffins, who had set him up to run this small holding.
Gabriella was the wife of a fallen soldier. Not of his choosing. Yet, he’d been quite taken by her when they’d met.
He had everything any man could want. So, why was he thinking of leaving?
His fingers stopped drumming. He knew the reason: he wasn’t in love. He and Gabriella had tried to be. It just wasn’t working. And she, with the long-enduring patience of a saint, would never tell him to leave. Though he knew she wanted him to go.
He barked a laugh and shook his head. Such was the story of his life. Why couldn’t he be like most men: stay, work the farm, raise babies, love or not? Gabriella would keep him comfortable.
He dropped his arms. Because, he wanted more than comfort. He wanted passion. Somewhere, a woman with fire in her eyes and bravery in her heart waited for him. His woman. He couldn’t rest until he found her.
He turned back toward the dim light of the cottage, but he couldn’t make himself step all the way inside. He raised his gaze and met Gabriella’s patient eyes. She knew he had to find his own way. Be his own man.
Without saying a word, he pivoted and walked into the bank of trees. He wasn’t going to worry about her. She wouldn’t be working the farm alone for very long. During the time he’d been with her, he’d chased off three would-be lovers. It wouldn’t take her long to find a new “husband”, probably someone more suited to her. She’d be fine.
As soon as he was out of sight, he undressed and loosed the creature within him. It grew and stretched, his bones aching with each inch they lengthened. He could change in the blink of an eye, but there was a price to pay if he did. The pain would be excruciating, nearly blinding.
So, he kept it slow, taking long minutes to become the creature. His arms thickened heavily until they touched the ground with fingers that sharpened into talons. His back broadened and wings sprouted on his shoulder blades, spreading to a span of nearly fifteen feet. A fine coating of golden brown fur coated his skin from his feet until just below his wings where it changed to feathers that covered all the rest of his upper body, including his face. His already large nose increased, becoming an eagle’s beak and his hips and legs changed to that of a giant cat’s, complete with lion’s tail.
When he finished shifting, he stood a little over nine feet tall, small for a griffin. He clacked his beak. He may be small, but he was fast. More than once he’d taught his taunting brethren to respect that. There were no other creatures in the sky that could catch him.
Efar launched into the air, thrusting hard with all the strength of his wings. The giddiness of freedom filled him, and he greeted the sky with a deep, piercing cry. He hadn’t realized how miserable he’d been, trying to live the life of a man, denying his truest nature. Never again.
With another full-throated cry, he turned and picked up a western tailwind.