User:Eirik/Swift of Foot and Hoof
Swift of Foot and Hoof
Grand Mage Morlith uncovered a stand of pure red crystal. It caught the light from the tiny window and refracted it all over the room. "Rafe!" he called out, his deep voice echoing down the narrow stairs. "Please join me in the battlement!"
After a moment, he heard the sound of his young apprentice running up the stone steps. She arrived at the door panting and trying hard to hide it. "Master?"
He allowed a thin smile and nodded at her. "Enter, enter." He picked up a slate and handed it to her. "Go to the chest and retrieve these items."
Rafe looked at the slate and at the workbench. "A retrieval spell, master?" she asked curiously.
Morlith raised a single eyebrow at her. "Your studies go well, I see. You are correct." He paused and looked at her. "But your speed is still leaving something to be desired."
Her head jerked up to look at him as her face turned red. "I'm sorry..." she said as she turned and scurried to the chest on the other side of the ancient battlement.
With a quiet chuckle, Morlith when back to his work. Rafe wasn't the best apprentice he'd ever had, but she was sincere and a hard worker. A welcome bit of light in his otherwise gray life. He had yet to decide if she would be sponsored to the University, but that was a decision far into the future. The young woman had only been his apprentice for two years. Setting out a candle made from pure beeswax, he held out his hand just in time for Rafe to set a ruby lens in it. "Thank you, Rafe."
"Of course, Master," she said obediently.
He glanced up from his preparations to see her waiting expectantly, holding a lump of raw quartz as large as a mans fist. "Is there anything else, Rafe?"
She looked uncomfortable, "Master, I was hoping that I might observe."
Morlith made a show of thinking it over, then smiled and held out his hand for the quartz. "Of course." He set the quartz on the crystal stand and looked back at her. "Do you know why these items are arranged just so?" he asked.
She studied the setup carefully, looking at the way each object bent and shaped the colored auras that flowed through the room. "The crystal steadies the area of the casting, the ruby focuses and strengthens the magic." She looked carefully at the raw quartz, but seemed to draw a blank. "I do not see what this is for, Master," she admitted. "It seems to counteract the rest of the components. Adding chaos to the forces, even changing the color from red to blue."
He nodded. "That is because it is not part of the spell."
She frowned, then her eyes opened wide, glittering with excitement. "An exchange!" She looked at him and smiled. "You're exchanging this with Gisele."
Morlith nodded seriously as he continued his preparations. "I am. She claims that she has something I deeply desire, though I do not know it." He halted his preparation a moment and looked at her. "Gisele seldom makes grandiose claims." He adjusted the ruby lens and waved his apprentice back. "Give me space, and watch carefully."
Morlith raised his hands and began tracing the runes of the ancients in the air, more out of an ancient habit than what magic they were worth. His hands, and then the room, begin to warm. Instinctively, he closed his eyes a moment before a tremendous flash of yellow aura came from the lens. He heard a quiet cry of surprise as his apprentice was caught off guard.
Opening his eyes, Morlith looked long and hard at her. "You are lucky that the spell was complete, Rafe." He sighed. "If you had done that while I was casting, you might have been exchanged instead of the quartz." Rafe stood in stunned silence, eyes looking to the floor.
He turned his attention to what had come through the ether to his tower. He stared at the object, and felt his jaw drop open. “It can’t be,” he mused. Gisele had promised she would send something of value, and she had meant it. He cautiously stepped over to the thin book. Morlith could feel his heart pounding. He picked it up and opened it. It took only a brief look at the first page to confirm he was holding in his hands a most valuable magical artifact.
"Do you know what this is?" he asked Rafe.
The young woman stepped slightly closer, still blinking from the flash of magical yellow. "It looks like a diary," she guessed.
"Gisele is a master archivist," he said. "She has found some of the most rare books in all creation. She even managed to find a sizable collection of books from the ancient library of Queen Sarls, a library that had been burned when the castle was sacked. But Gisela is far better at finding books than knowing what she has." He tapped the leather cover, "Letting this slip away proves it."
Rafe looked deeply interested in the plain looking book. "What is it, Master?"
Morlith ran his fingers gently over the cracked leather of the cover. The construction was strictly amateurish, a few dry and brittle pages tied into a binder. "Perhaps the most rare book you will ever see. The writings of a natural mage."
Her expression darkened slightly. "A natural mage?"
"Don't look so disappointed," he said in a stern voice. He turned the page and a note from Gisela slipped out, explaining the origins of the book. It had come from the home of a midwife in the lowlands shortly after her death. Her grieved husband had sold it knowing only that the paper it held was worth a fortune, even without the information it contained. It had been the content that had caught Gisele eye, and her knowledge that Morlith would treasure it. She had always had a low opinion of the natural mages, and so had done little or nothing to explore the contents.
"Aren't they all frauds and fakes?" she asked .
Morlith gave her a withering glance. "It is snobbishness like that which has kept the arts stagnant for a thousand years." He tapped his foot. "How did you find my tower?"
She was caught off guard by the question. "Master?"
He gently set the book down. "How did you find my tower? I am four days walk from the nearest town, more than two weeks ride from your own village, in a valley I have claimed as my own. The woods are littered with magical traps specifically designed to keep out people. How did you find it?"
She thought a few moments. "I watched for the areas that were ripe with magic and avoided them."
"You could see the way that the magic had an effect on the world around it, couldn't you?" She nodded. "And if you had decided to stay in your hometown, marry and have children, you still would have seen the magic in the world."
"And if I had done that," she said finally, "I might have experimented with it. Written it down."
Morlith tapped the book. "Assuming you learned to write, yes." He opened the book. The words were tightly packed together, every open space on the expensive paper was packed with words, with no allowance given to description or titles. He sighed. "And this is going to require a great deal of study. Go to my study and wait for me there."
Morlith closed the massive tome and set it aside. His intensive research into the works of Wather the Great would cease immediately. Wather, after all, was well known. Tomes had been written on him that contained thousands of words and said nothing. Now, he had something new to work on.
That simple fact excited him like nothing had since he rode with Prince Tizal as a young mage. He had spent hundreds of years in quiet study of the arts. It was fascinating, detailed work that took the dedication of a mage like himself. It was also mind numbing, decades could be spent on a single spell with no results. Morlith was ready for a change.
Gently, he opened the cover again as if fearing that it would disintegrate. He stayed on guard for wards and traps, but nothing of the sort was present. The faint aura that surrounded the book was white, indicating no magics had been used on its pages. The first spell, like all of the others he would find, was untitled. The woman who had spent so many hours manipulating the auras and forces of nature around her had no need of them, and no space to spare.
The tiny words were written in a variety of inks, some even in animal bloods, which held up poorly over the years. Morlith sighed. He was going to have to transcribe these spells in order to be sure to get them right. "Rafe, paper and a quill."
There was a faint rustle as his apprentice set the stack of writing paper on the table at his elbow. "Should I get anything else, Master?"
"Soup," he said simply. "I will be here very late."
Rafe left her master alone in the study, writing.
Morlith climbed the stairs to the battlement and laid the copy down. The words scratched by the woman so long ago had often been close to illegible, yet his copying had thus far proved flawless. For the past two years, he had been experimenting. It had been the most delightful two years in memory.
The battered book was everything that it had promised to be. A natural mage, a woman with no formal training, had come up with two completely unique ways to summon water. She had come up with a potion that forced plants to grow in almost any condition, a skill that surely had pulled her family though many a rough winter. Though a process of trial and error, all of which she meticulously documented, she had fashioned a potion that cured the Spring Frost, a deadly disease that took all too many infants. One of her mistakes in that quest had provided a formula for copious short term hair growth, as Morlith had accidentally discovered.
It was then he learned just how versatile his apprentice was. Rafe had proved invaluable cutting it all off.
It pained Morlith that this woman, whose name he had never learned, had wasted her entire life in the tiny backwater. In all of his years, there had never been a completely new magic, either an enchantment or in alchemy or even a rune. All new magics were built upon the old, and therefore nothing truly new had come about. Yet a natural mage, a woman with no training save for writing, had come up with at least five totally new magics in just a few decades.
Perhaps it will be six, thought Morlith as he looked over the final, complex spell.
He had barely reached the top of the stairs when he heard the running steps behind him. "Master!" he head Rafe call out. "Master!"
He stopped and turned. "Yes, Rafe?"
She stopped before him, trying to regain her composure. "Master, may I please observe this casting?" she asked. "I very much would appreciate it."
He looked at her, considering, then finally shook his head. "I am sorry, my apprentice, but you cannot."
"But, Master," she started to say.
"No, Rafe. No." He sighed and gripped her shoulders. "I realize that it seems that I am keeping you from your training, but I am not. In the last three years you have shown tremendous promise, but you are still a pup. I am about to experiment on a spell that I know nothing about. I have studied it for weeks and still don't know what it will do. I am going to have to be prepared to protect myself if something goes wrong, and can't be burdened looking after you." He smiled. "There will be much, much more experimenting in the future, do not worry."
She looked crestfallen, but nodded in assent. "Of course, Master. I didn't mean..."
He gave her a single, knowing nod. "You are not doing anything that I didn't do when I was an apprentice. Now, go back to the kitchen. It is the safest room in the tower."
He watched Rafe climb down the stairs and vanish out of sight, her steps getting quieter and quieter as she walked down. Morlith would make it up to the young woman later. Once the last spells of this natural mage were worked out, he would accelerate her training. Satisfied she was in the kitchen, he shut the door to the battlement and went to work.
This final spell, a potion, seemed reasonably straightforward though complex. Morlith silently wished again that he could figure out what this spell would do. Even with the others in the tome, he had an idea from the elements the woman had used to make them. Here, though, he was at a loss. While there were some particularly powerful elements in the potion, Bahemen root was a common potion ingredient, it had a number of items generally considered non-magical. Animal flesh was a worthless ingredient, everyone knew that animals were completely non-magical. It had been proved a thousand years ago! The midwife had used several herbs of no known value and mixed it all in a copper bowl. Copper, of all things! Copper was a terrible metal! It did all kinds of strange, unpredictable things! No mage worth his training kept even a scrap of that metal...
Morlith stopped the though cold. Even after months working intimately with this womans' work, he still hadn't gotten it. She was so successful because she had never been told what she couldn't do. Perhaps something about copper was unique?
After today, perhaps he'd know.
Cautiously, he began to mix the potion. Morlith intoned a common protective enchantment, one that would briefly protect his body from common laboratory disasters, and then brought the water to a boil. Each element was added in precise sequence, in precise quantities. He watched the aura coming from the bowl as the mixture came together. The aura changed colors rapidly, sometimes violently, while the potion itself remained a uniform green.
He began to wonder if this was some kind of soup recipe. It would explain all the sweet bay leaf required. The hunk of deer meat he had dropped in would be delicious after marinating in it.
With a slight frown, he gathered the last ingredient, three petals of waterflower. As he expected, the potion hadn’t yet done anything. If it was going to explode, he mused, it should have done so when he added the wort. He opened his fingers and let the three petals fall in.
As they dissolved into the bubbling mass, a faint blue aura began to rise upward on the mist, a bit of escaping magic. Morlith felt no fear, only a growing curiosity and admiration. He let it slowly seep onto his robes and to the edges of the room. He had no fear of allowing it to do so. Vapors were harmless, too weak to do anything. He started to enchant more protective spells anyway, purely out of habit.
The aura was quickly covering his whole body. It crept down his flesh to his feet and closed all around him. Morlith started to feel warm, then hot. A trickle of sweat started to flow down the side of his face. This vapor was dramatically stronger...
The mage gasped. The shock was almost instant.
Morlith lurched forward, upsetting the bowl and sending the potion splattering all over himself and the floor. The crystal stand he had been mixing on shattered, and the charcoal brazier skittering across the stone floor. The aura in the room became a blinding blue. He tried desperately to cast a final protective enchantment, but his fingers stopped working right. The mage felt a pain in his ears, then realized with a start that it was the sharp sound of his robes tearing off of him. The next pain was from the cord snapping around his waist as his new girth strained it. Throwing his arms out in front of himself to break his fall, Morlith was shocked to hear a distinct "clack" on the stone floor.
His jaw lowered in shock. There were cloven hooves where his hands should have been.
He stood completely still for a long time, not daring to move. With so much of the potion still puddled on the floor, he didn’t dare. Morlith was terrified at the same time he was fascinated. Slowly, the blue aura that had briefly flooded the room faded and he decided that the potion was spent.
It took no time to understand what had happened, even if it was impossible. Despite popular myth, mages were aware of the blindingly obvious. Morlith was now one of the common deer from the valley. Incidentally, he noted, he was a doe. His skin was now completely covered in reddish fur, which turned white at the base of his neck and ran back to his udder. The fur under his tail was black with white streaks. Cloven hooves and a sleek body filled out the transformation. As he meshed this with the thoughts about how the spell had worked, he nodded to himself. The potion had called for animal flesh, specifically deerskin, and he had used that from a doe.
A doe it had made him.
The shock wearing off, Morlith found a new, deep respect for the woman who had found this. This proved how powerful she had been. Whether by accident or design, she had discovered how to mold flesh to a new form, and without apparently the loss of memory. The libraries of any mage were filled with books and papers on how impossible it was to do just that. Morlith himself had studied the issue as a young mage, and set it aside convinced it was impossible. Animals, after all, were beneath notice anyway.
It was clear that this woman hadn’t read those books.
Morlith began to wonder what other skins might do. Had this woman only attempted to become deer? The spell had specifically called for deer flesh, after all. Or could she become anything?
More importantly, how did he turn back?
Morlith gingerly tried her new legs out. The first tentative steps were wobbly, but quickly the new doe was walking around in tight circles, more sure of her footing. Morlith walked over to her copy of the original tome and used her nose to turn the pages. With weaker eyes, she read it again, confirming what she already knew. The original spell had ended right at the addition of the waterflower petals, giving no clue about how to reverse it.
She pondered briefly if perhaps she never did.
As Morlith though the problem through, a chill when up her spine, sending her tail upward instinctively like a flag. She could always use the spell to become human again, but she lacked a precious ingredient. If the bit of skin had been a key, then she was in deep trouble. She had no samples of her own, human flesh just laying around...
Hair! Morlith thought all of a sudden. Of course! The hair growth spell! Rafe had cut it all off, but Morlith had told her to save it. A good mage is never sure what will come in handy later. Rafe, he was sure, followed his instructions perfectly.
Rafe! he called out in his mind. Rafe!
He heard no response.
Snorting, Morlith called out again. Rafe! Where are you?
Morlith waited a moment, and when she didn't hear the rapid footsteps up the stairs she decided that she was having trouble communicating mind to mind. Normally, it was a simply gesture in the air that made it possible, but without fingers she would have to come up with something else. But later. For now, it was enough just to find her apprentice.
Morlith started for the stairs, stepping carefully down the steep stone. It was hard enough on two legs, but seemed nearly impossible on four. The stumbling block, literally, was that she could not see her hind legs. It was hard to judge just where they should fall. When she misjudged, she stumbled. She reached the ground floor exhausted and bruised.
Morlith was about to enter the kitchen when he stopped and became more cautious. She wasn't sure how her apprentice would react to a doe in the tower. Thankfully, Rafe wasn't a hunter as her last apprentice had been. Korit would have put an arrow between his Masters eyes without a second thought. She gripped the handle of the wooden door in her mouth and tugged it open, then stepped in. Almost instantly, she stopped, her mouth again agape.
The kitchen was a mess, with flour and mixing bowls strewn across the floor. Standing in the middle of the mess was a young doe, her legs splayed out to keep her from falling, her fur streaked with flour, her nostrils dilating with each panicked breath.
Morlith felt her own heart pound a little harder. How powerful was that spell? he thought. Why did it effect Rafe?
Rafe only now seemed to realize that another doe was in the room. She jumped backward, knocking over a small table and stumbling to the floor. Morlith quickly leapt in front of her, stamping her feet. Stunned, Rafe stopped struggling to stand again and seemed to regain her composure, if only a little.
Morlith stepped over to the strewn flower and used her nose to smooth it out as best she could. Quickly, she began tracing ancient runes into the flour. It was difficult at first, but she gained confidence at it. The runes had been originally designed to be traced with a stick in the mud or snow, so even if they were limited, a good mage knew a few tricks for an emergency. He traced the final rune, the shape of a deer ironically, and waited a moment. Rafe? Can you hear me?
Morliths apprentice perked up, her large ears moving straight up on her head. Master? she heard her think. What happened?
The spell worked, I imagine, she thought wryly.
But, we're deer, she though in wonder, as if she was only just realizing it. That's not possible!
Morlith tried to laugh, which came out as more of series of short snorts. I told you that you should have respect for the natural mages, and now you see why. He walked closer to her and looked her over. And we make a fine pair of does.
She seemed to sniff the air a little, then bent her head forward to sniff Morliths leg, then her own body. Twin doe, at that, she though.
Morlith was impressed. She had not begun to experiment with the senses of the doe yet, but now that Rafe mentioned it, it was true. Their scents were nearly identical. Very good.
When do we turn back, Master? she asked.
Morlith snorted again. As soon as we can, but I will need your assistance. Did you save the hair from the experiment last fall?
Rafe nodded, an interesting thing to watch a doe to do. It in the storeroom.
Morlith spun around on her hooves. Let's go! The doe practically ran out of the kitchen and down the narrow hall to the dark, musty storeroom. Rafe was right behind her, trailing a light mist of flour from her fur. The apprentice wasn't as used to the legs, though, and skid on the smooth stone straight into a wall.
Rafe! Morlith practically shouted in his mind. Are you okay?
She stood, dazed, her ears limp. I'm fine.
Morlith didn't believe her, but turned and pulled open the door. Rafe trotted in first, with the mage behind. They searched the shelves with dim deer eyes. Morlith found herself using her nose and ears to search out of instinct, even though neither would be of much help in this room.
Propping her forelegs on chests to peer at jars on higher shelves, Rafe searched shelf after shelf. Master! she called out. Morlith looked up to see the doe pulling a familiar canvas bag off the shelf with her teeth.
Careful, Rafe. Don't damage yourself again! she thought.
Rafe slid the bag backward, narrowly avoiding pulling a jar off the top shelf with it. In a moment, she was back on four hooves, the bag in her mouth. Is this all we need, Master? she asked.
She nodded. I believe the rest is in my laboratory. Please, follow me Rafe. This obviously concerns you, now. The pair walked to the stairs, and after an admonishment for Rafe to be cautious, started toward the battlement high above the forest floor. As they walked, Morlith ran though the experiment in his head. She wasn't sure there were enough ingredients left to rerun the spell immediately, but she would have to make sure. Some of what she had may have been contaminated by the accident, but everything was available nearby in the forest. Everything but his hair, of course.
That thought suddenly caused him to stop. Oh no. Rafe.
She turned her head to look at her apprentice. The doe was an identical twin because they had been transformed from the same spell. If they cast this reversal, it wouldn't reverse it exactly. Rafe would become a man of more than millennium, and a man without the magical protections that Morlith took for granted. She would turn to dust.
Master? asked the doe again, now with a bit more worry.
Morlith shook her head. She couldn't tell her that now. Rafe was barely hanging onto her humanity, despite appearances. She couldn't take a shock like that now. Once she was human again, then she could try and turn Rafe back. Nothing, my apprentice. Come with me.
Morlith willed her heart to slow down as she climbed the stairs back to the top of the tower. It wouldn’t do to try and create so complex a potion too fast out of nervousness or fear, and normally she wouldn’t even try so soon after such a disaster. This was a tough situation, though. She had no way of knowing if and when their minds would start to degrade. More importantly, some of the elements of the spell were short lived. Waterflower in particular grew only a few weeks of the year under the best of conditions, and its growing period was nearly over now. If she missed this season, she and Rafe would be stuck in this form for at least a year.
Rafe set the canvas sack on the floor and stood off to the side while Morlith went to resetting the room. It was now that she lamented the loss of her hands. The taste of the charcoal brazier in her mouth was appallingly bad and she cut her lip on a broken glass jar trying to gather up some spilled bay leaf. In the back of her mind, she worried about the copious amounts of deer saliva on some of the herbs, but put it out of her mind. It was unavoidable. Neatly, she set out the ingredients as she had before, in their precise order of use. Rafe, please check the cabinet behind you for Listerweed.
The other doe turned and tugged open the chest with her teeth. She started poking around inside with her nose. No, master, she said. There is none here.
With a sigh, Morlith realized quickly that she wouldn’t be able to cast the spell again today. Listerweed was one of three different elements that needed top be replaced. She ran through her mind where they could be found, and decided that the nearby creek was as good a place as any to start looking.
We're going to need to find more of that, as well as a couple of other herbs before we can begin, though Morlith. She thought a bit and looked at her apprentice. Are you up to coming with me?
Rafe brightened. Master, yes! Of course! she thought excitedly. She looked around the room quickly and raced over to an empty water bucket. Will this do? she asked as she gripped the pail in her mouth.
Morlith nodded. That will do nicely. They navigated down the stairs again, Rafe keeping several steps behind her Master in case she stumbled. If this counterspell worked, she reasoned, she would be her old self again tomorrow. Morlith would explain everything to Rafe then and work and have nearly a year to prepare to experiment with this spell. In the meantime, he could quiz his apprentice about life as a deer.
The Master Mage didn't want to think about what she would do if the spell failed.
Reaching the huge main door, Morlith gripped the handle in her mouth and pulled, slipping on the smooth stone floor. She finally gained purchase by putting her forehooves into the grooves between the flagstones. With the added leverage, she swung the ancient door open. Rafe pushed by her carrying the bucket in her mouth, and then Morlith leapt though herself. The heavy door was magiced to close behind them, a way of keeping visitors out when she was not at home.
Morlith stood for a few moments, her hooves for the first time on soil, and noticed instantly how much better it felt. Her new hooves could get good grip here. She took in a healthy breath of air, smelling the forest for the first time in a new way. She even experimented briefly with her ears, turning them one way or the other and picking up the sounds of the forest like never before. She looked over to Rafe to see her staring at the forest in wonder, her nose pointed slightly upward into the breeze...
The door slammed shut behind them.
The door is spelled for me.
Tail flagging, Morlith turned slowly back to the door. It suddenly looked foreboding. She carefully set her head against it and pushed with all her might, feeling the dirt slide beneath her hooves.
Master, what is it? asked Rafe worriedly.
Morlith didn't answer right away, but tried desperately to push back through the door. Finally giving up, she let out her breath and felt her knees go weak. Magically locked doors didn’t open easily, and well magiced doors didn’t respond to force. It would be easier for a doe to break through the stone wall than that door.
Tiredly, Morlith turned her head to look at the darkening forest. On the breeze, she smelled the faint scents of wolves, bears, bucks and man. She felt her heart beat a little harder.
My apprentice, she said quietly, This is going to be a long year.
Standing at the doorstep, Morlith tried wracking her brain for the answer. She knew that there was one, but it was beyond even her at the moment. The spell that kept the door locked was simple but effective, one that she could de-spell with a few carefully chosen words under normal circumstances.
Deer, however, are virtually silent animals. Grunts and snorts are not enough to de-spell anything. The solution thus became vastly more complex than the problem.
She bent her head forward and set it against the door, leaning into it. She was feeling real frustration for the first time in her life. She took stock again of what she had in her arsenal, and didn't like how short the list was. She was cut off from all the talismans, potions and books of the tower, leaving her with only her considerable knowledge. There were numerous magical elements in the valley, but nothing that could help without being mixed in the lab. She briefly considered finding another mage, but dropped that thought instantly. The nearest mages were weeks away, even by does hoof. Even if she found one, she wasn't entirely sure how they would react. Giseles apprentice, he knew, was a master hunter. Two does at the door were likely to end up as dinner before Morlith could explain.
Reluctantly, she kept returning to the same thing: the ancient runes. The drawings were simple, but weak. She could link them together into a powerful form, but to find the right combination to crack the door was going to take time. A lot of time.
She felt her stomach rumble, breaking her concentration. With a snort, she turned and walked back to the forest edge. She sniffed at the grass and bushes, looking for something that smelled better than she was expecting. She'd tried some of the ferns the night before, which had gone down well but they had a sour, bitter cud. Finding food that this form could stomach was going to take time.
Master! came the thought from behind her. There are nuts on the Tshinon bush!
Morlith pulled her black lips back in a smile and turned. That's excellent, Rafe. Lead the way! Tshinon nuts were a delicacy, a late spring treat. She had been too engrossed in her thoughts to remember them.
Rafe turned on her haunches and started trotting toward the bushes, Morlith trailing close behind. The master mage was impressed with her young apprentice. She was dealing well with the sudden change in form, better that most mages might. As he watched the slender, beautiful doe bound over a holly bush, she looked all the world as if she were born into the form. Morlith wasn't sure her own movements were as smooth.
Rafe skidded to a stop at the bushes and started to reach out with her muzzle, then stopped and stepped away. Master, she said simply, demurring to her teacher.
Morlith didn't start eating. Instead she looked at her apprentice. It was somehow not hard to see the graceful young woman in the body of the doe. What scared Morlith was that she might be in it forever. Are you doing okay, Rafe?
The doe bounced in place, high-stepping her hooves. I'm doing fine, Master. It's a marvelous experience. Unique. I'll almost be sorry when it's over.
It may take some time, Rafe, said Morlith cautiously. We could be like this until spring, or later, if I can't get into the tower.
Rafe cocked her head, then spun around a couple of times. Though the doe's body was fully grown, she looked like a fawn. That won't be a problem, Master, she said. You told me yourself that a Mages primary goal in life is to learn new things, and this is a very new thing.
Morlith mulled the truth over in her mind. There really was no purpose in telling her apprentice that things were much darker than that, that there might be no counterpell, and even if there was one it was useless for her. But Morlith felt that she had a right to know. Rafe, please sit down.
Rafe looked a bit bemused at the ground, then folded her legs under herself and laid down. What is it, Master? she asked.
Morlith paced back and forth a couple of times, trying to find the right words. Finally, she simply stopped and looked at her apprentice. There may not be a counterspell. Even if there is, I suspect that it will only work on me. It may kill you. She went on to explain the details of the how the potion had worked, and how she suspected the counterspell worked.
Rafe stared up at her with a frozen expression, taking it all in. Slowly, her ears began to droop. Master? she asked quietly in a disbelieving tone once the explanation was over.
I'm sorry, she said simply. I don't know what to tell you. I can promise to try and come up with a counter, but it could take time.
The doe continued to stare at her, then suddenly stood up shakily and started to stagger away. I'm going to be a deer forever? She stepped though the tree line and started to vanish from sight. When Morlith tried to follow her, she stopped and turned. No! Leave me alone! She turned again and started running off into the woods.
Morlith sighed and fell to the forest floor, suddenly not hungry in the least.
Time had little meaning to a mage. Weeks and years could pass without notice, if not for the thousand inconvenience of life. It was one reason that Morlith lived where he did. The ancient stone tower he called home was all that remained of a garrison left here by Bloody Queen Rith. The farmers of these hills had, at first, proved to be no problem for the her elite soldiers. But as the years passed and the tribute became obscene, they had risen in rebellion. The farmers were surprisingly good at destroying the garrison and all it contained. The tower, the only portion built of stone at the time, had survived long after the farmers had been slaughtered for their insolence and their fields salted.
Morlith was amazed that she had seen more of the valley in the three months since the accident than in the last three hundred years. The summer was just reaching its zenith now and the bright colors of spring were slowly fading in the summer heat.
The master mage spent most of his time at the magically barred door. She was still convinced that the best course of action was to try and de-spell it by the use of runes, but it was slow going. A passing storm could erase hours, or days, of work. And the runes, while simple to do, were very weak magic. It was times like this that Morlith cursed his ability as a mage. The locking spell was simple, but solid. If she'd been lousy at it, then the spell would have had a weakness. She was no longer sure that she was going to be able to break it with runes.
Morlith looked up to see the doe that was Rafe walk though the forest. Her ears were erect, tail hovering at a half flagged position. What is it? he asked, a bit less gently than she'd intended. He was still walking on eggshells around her, over a week since she had reappeared from her solo run through the woods.
Rafe turned her head a little, ears coming to bear. I think I smell wolves.
Morlith jerked her head around and sniffed the air. Rafe, she'd found, was better attuned to this natural world. Morlith was so lost in thought near the tower that she could easily have a wolf tearing out her jugular before she'd know it was there. Where, Rafe?
She sniffed in the air a bit more. A few leagues away. I think they are going away from us.
Morlith nodded and yawned. It was only early afternoon, but she'd been at the door for hours. Keep tabs on them, please. I'm close to opening the door. She yawned again. She needed a break. Would you like to join me at the pond? Rafe nodded and turned on her heels. Morlith followed at first, then took a couple of quick steps and walked abreast of her. How are you doing, my apprentice?
Rafe didn't turn to look at her Master. She had yet to fully forgive him for what had happened to her. She'd come close to a mental collapse when she'd been told. Morlith had given her the privacy she seemed to need, unsure what else she could do. I'm fine, Master. Just fine.
Are your studies going well? he asked.
She still didn't turn toward him, but kept watching the deer trail in front of her. I have been practicing the runes as you asked, Master.
Morlith stepped in front of his apprentice and stopped. What is it, Rafe?
Her apprentice stopped, her large brown eyes looking more liquid than normal. She folded her legs under her and laid on the forest floor heavily. Am I ever going to be human again, Master? she asked.
Morlith lowered her head and nuzzled her. I don't know. I really don't know.
Master? she asked, Did I ever tell you why I was doing this? Why I wanted to be a mage so badly?
Morlith knew. Rafe had told her several times over the last few weeks. It seemed to make her feel better to talk, though. Why was that?
She sighed and looked away. I love children. I wanted to have a family. A huge family. As a mage, I could have had children, grandchildren and great grandchildren for hundreds of years to come.
Morlith didn't say anything. It was the one blind spot this apprentice always had. Rafe never understood that few mages, male or female, ever had children at all. With lifetimes so long, many just kept putting it off until time was long past. Of course, my apprentice. I understand. I'm sure you'll get a chance.
Rafe seemed to have more on her mind now, though. She was pensive, almost like something more was on her mind. Master, are you aware of the time of year?
Morlith would have frowned if the face that he had now was capable of it. Instead, her ears perked forward. Middle or late summer, of course. Why?
We'll be entering our season shortly, she thought quietly. A few weeks at most.
Morlith blinked, but said nothing. She had known that this day would come, but had never given it much thought. Rafe obviously had. You wish to mate? she asked.
Rafe nodded. Master, it is not that I lack trust in your abilities. I believe that you may find a counterspell. She seemed nervous to say the last line, but with an encouraging nuzzle from her master, she continued. A doe's life is short. You have told me yourself that a mages work could take generations.
Morlith resisted the urge to sigh. Rafe was perceptive, to say the least. You do not need my permission, my apprentice. You will not offend me. The doe turned to look at her master and licked her on the muzzle, the closest that she could manage to a kiss.
As the cool winds of fall started to come out of the north, the fall rains followed closely. The forest shuddered at their force, second only to the blizzards of deep winter. Ancient trees were often toppled by their high winds and hills leveled by the flow of mud that followed heavy rains.
Morlith stood by the tower, soaked through her fur, staring at the runes as they washed away. The drip of water off her nose had turned to a steady trickle, and her ears drooped. It was, she reflected, a bit of a setback.
It had been six months since they had been locked out of the tower. The master mage had spent more than half that time tracing arcane shapes into the dirt in front of the door to her tower, erasing them, then tracing again. She had watched the magic carefully, felt the aura on the door weaken, but never falter. She had been very close, though, when this sudden storm had blown in.
Master Morlith! she heard though her mind. Where are you?
Morlith stared at the ground a little longer before she answered. At the tower.
She could almost hear her apprentice sigh mentally. Come to the clearing. You're not going to get anything done today.
Morlith didn't answer, but turned and started walking back to the clearing that the does had claimed as their own. She reflected a little on the change in their relationship over the last few months. They were still master and apprentice, but had begun to grow closer as friends. In many ways, Rafe had assumed a motherly role over her teacher. Her anger at him seemed at times to have completely faded. Other times, she was bitter and resentful. Morlith was still worried that Rafe was becoming too much the deer and losing her humanity. There was little she could do, though, but watch.
She walked though the edge of the trees and made a beeline for the small grove of ferns nestled against an ancient pine tree. The ferns stood on a small, almost invisible hill and provided excellent cover from sun and rain. She found Rafe already underneath, looking wet, but comfortable. Here I am, she said simply.
Rafe looked shocked at her masters appearance. Lie down and let me help you dry off! You'll catch your death looking like that, and it won't be good for either of us!
Morlith folded her legs underneath herself and began licking the water off her own legs. She felt Rafe almost instantly start doing the same on her neck. Her coarse tongue certainly wasn't dry, but it was dryer than Morliths fur. Thank you, Rafe, she said gratefully.
It is my job to take care of my Master, she said without a trace of sarcasm. She stopped on Morliths back and licked her master on the side of the face. And you seem to need more care than most. She went back to her neck, Are you closer?
Morlith nodded, and started grooming Rafe in a similar manner. I am. I think that it will take me only a couple of days, once the rains stop. She chuckled, I'm digging runes out of my memories that I haven't seen since I was in the university. She shifted herself slightly on the ground to get closer to her apprentice, feeling the warmth of her body against her own. Are you practicing your own runes?
Rafe nodded a little non-commitally. I have, but it is difficult without the books, or your help. She closed her eyes halfway, I've been distracted, too.
Morlith didn't admonish her. They had both been dodging bucks for the last several days. The blacktail deer that they had become tended to have strong herding instincts, and large harem were common. Stray does joined frequently. Even months later, Morlith didn't know how deeply the instincts were overlaid on their minds. If they joined a herd, it was possible they would never be able to break out of it. Even Rafe didn't want that, at least not yet. How many herds are in the valley right now? he asked. I smelled a new buck this morning.
Rafe nodded, There is, and he has at least four does that I can scent. She sniffed a bit, then sneezed. The rain is keeping the scents muted, but there may be three other bucks, too. I don't know how many does.
They sat in silence for some time, simply trying to dry each other as much as possible. As Morlith went further down her apprentices back with her tongue, a new scent seemed to tickle her nose. She took a couple of deep sniffs, confirming it. You are starting to enter heat, Rafe, she said simply.
As are you, Master, she responded.
Morlith didn't know how to feel about that. She had been a human male for a long time, and now his body was going to have urges that she had never expected. Morlith wasn't worried, she was far less affected than Rafe and felt confident she could ignore them, but had to admit to a great deal of curiosity.
When they graduate the university, Mages are charged with the pursuit of knowledge. All knowledge. Morlith was the first human Mage to be transformed into any form that she was aware of. There was no way that she would be able to be transformed back before the middle of spring. By that time...
What are you thinking about, Master?
Morlith cocked her head a little, her ears rotating slowly back and forth in thought. She was balancing the risks versus the important knowledge she might find. Finally, they came to a rest. I think I may like a fawn of my own.
The rains continued for three days. At times, they slackened to a drizzle, but they never stopped. The constant dripping first kept the two does awake, but by the second night it was mind numbing. Rains dampened all scents in the valley, too. The myriad smells changed to the monotonous tang of wet earth and damp fur. For Morlith and Rafe, it was like having a wet blanket wrapped around their noses. By then, they fell asleep easily.
They spent their waking hours under their fern canopy, protected as well as possible from the rains. They ventured out only briefly to eat and drink, hastening back to dry themselves off.
When dawn came on the third morning, Morlith was awakened by a gentle nudge. She opened her eyes slowly, feeling the chill of the cool morning air against her damp fur. Rafe was bending her nose down to nudge again. What is it? she asked, trying to convey sleepiness in her thoughts.
Rafe didn't seem phased. In fact, for a moment, she seemed to forget that she had been human. She started to pull herself to her feet, then stopped and looked down. Don't you smell him?
Morliths mind snapped into focus in that instant as the scent registered in her own nose. It could be no doubt, but a buck was nearby, downwind. Rafe seemed enraptured by the scent. The apprentice was becoming entirely too eager. For her part, Morlith was still planning on going through with it, but she had yet to become emotional about it one way or the other. It was the experience she wanted, not the fawn.
Morlith pulled herself to her feet. Should we meet the suitor?
Rafe slowly stepped from under the ferns and started for the tree line. Morlith watched her carefully. She had a different look about her this morning, she carried herself differently. Her tail was gently lifted and flagging, her scent filling the air around her. She stepped lightly and quietly, sniffing the air frequently.
Morlith stopped suddenly and turned her head back. She realized with a start that she was doing the same thing. She stood there for a few heartbeats, letting Rafe get out of sight. She began to seriously wonder if this was a good idea. Her doe instincts were obviously more powerful than she'd realized, even until now. She couldn't even be sure that her search for knowledge was more than a justification...
A twist in the wind brought the bucks scent to her again, and her train of thought was interrupted. Morlith shook her head and continued after Rafe. She stepped though the trees, following the scent of her near twin.
Morlith found her standing near the base of a large evergreen tree. She was turned about halfway back, and whisking her tail back and forth in an inviting manner. Her ears were erect and alert, her eyes bright with excitement and anticipation. Moments later, Morlith saw with his eyes what she already smelled.
The buck, to Morliths slight disappointment, was not a magnificent specimen. At least, not yet. He couldn't have been more than three years old, as evidenced by his four point rack. He wasn't all that much taller and stronger than the doe that he sought, but he was obviously healthy and interested. He took a few steps toward Rafe, then stopped, seeing Morlith for the first time. His ears went forward in surprise. His breathing seemed to increase a little.
Morlith felt like laughing. The buck seemed to know that he was the luckiest one in the woods today. Two willing does and no rivals around. He resumed walking forward toward a willing Rafe, carefully sniffing the air. The buck sniffed at her for a good two or three minutes, mostly under her tail. He rubbed her a little with his head, and then Morlith noticed the gland there for the first time. He was marking his doe.
To Morliths surprise, the buck didn't immediately do what seemed to be the natural next step. Instead, he walked over to his second willing doe and started to repeat the process. She stayed still while his nose passed slowly over her fur. Rafe silently followed and waited, her body seeming ready to burst from the anticipation. Morlith was grimly aware that her mind was as well.
She felt the cold nose of the buck press her under the tail. The feeling was strange, alien to her. The buck groomed around her rump in a surprisingly gentle way, a pleasing feeling that Morlith didn't object to. She felt the tongue groom its way up her back, and then she felt the heavy, antlers head begin to rub against her own back, the sticky clear fluid seeping from the bucks gland through her fur. Morlith watched this with a mixture of curiosity and anticipation. She watched the buck rub two, three, four times, getting the musky scented excretion though her fur.
Suddenly, Morlith drew in a breath. She didn't see it the first time on Rafe, but now that she could see it more closely, it was obvious. The secretion had an aura, it was magical! Morlith didn't try to step away. She knew that whatever spell had been cast by this buck, it was already done.
The buck certainly didn't need to announce his own intentions. He turned his attention back to his first doe, rubbing her again with the gland. Rafe licked him a few times on the nose and around his ears, which seemed to excite the buck all the more. Rafe accelerated the process and turned away from the buck, lifting her tail.
That was all the invitation required. Silently, the buck mounted the doe. He thrust into her quickly and roughly. His hips moved rhythmically, his teeth gritted and a slight grunt escaped from his muzzle.
Morlith watched with detached fascination, like he was still a human observer in a blind. For some reason, this didn't seem like what she had been expecting. The act seemed less like love and more like duty. Morlith knew why, of course. Sex was an act that had existed long before humans had placed taboos and emotions into it. For humans, this was a deeply intimate act. For deer, it was a matter of survival. The buck had no compunction about single mates. Indeed, by the end of fall he could have as many as half a dozen does in his harem!
The buck finished with a final thrust, then slid off of her. He paused only a few moments to catch his breath before he turned his attention to his second doe. Morlith knew that it was the moment of choice. She could still get away, still not go through with it.
Morlith started to take a step away, then felt her resistance fall. With a start, she realized that she couldn't get away She couldn't bear to be away from her buck. All of her centuries of self control and willpower melted away. Her hooves felt rooted to the forest floor.
As the buck took a couple of steps over, she realized that it was pointless to fight it. She let the body take control. The strong, musky scent of the buck sent her mind swimming, as she was sure her own sweet scent did to him. His rough tongue caressed her around the ears, sending a shiver down her spine. She licked him the same way, tasting accidentally the musk he had marked her with. She took a couple of deep, involuntary breaths at the taste.
With a slow, deliberate step, she turned away from him. For a moment, she felt his nose test under her tail again. Then she felt his weight fall heavily onto her back, filling her. Morlith closed her eyes. The feeling was indescribable as she felt the warmth of his body on hers. He pressed in harder, pushing her forward slightly, her hooves scraping up the earth in front of them.
All too soon it was over. The buck quickly separated from his mate and began to lick her around the rump again.
Morlith tried to catch her breath, but every time she tried she caught more of the musky scent of the buck. She was feeling wonderful, but still deeply aroused. A part of her was still detached from the whole thing, taking mental notes, but the doe inside her was sorry that it was over.
As it turned out, it wasn't over.
Morlith discovered several important aspects of deer in a very short time. The first was that a buck and doe will mate repeatedly for up to a week. The buck, even if he had few points on his antlers, was more than ready for that challenge.
The second was what happened to losers in dominance fights.
Morlith had known little about the blacktail deer before her transformation. They were a skittish lot who stayed far from human habitats as a rule. They were only rarely hunted, and finding bucks was rare. When found, they were almost always in the company of a great many does. Morlith had assumed, when he thought of it at all, that was because the lone bucks were simply harder to find than the small herds. After seven days with the buck, though, Morlith found out the truth.
The trio had made their way back toward the tower. The buck, ostensibly in charge, had followed his does when they started away. They had been drinking from the nearby pond when a shift in the wind brought a new scent to their noses: A buck with an unmated doe.
The pair stepped though the woods, seemingly as surprised at the chance encounter as the others. Morlith sniffed the air cautiously. The doe with the buck was only just entering her heat, and Rafe and herself were only barely out of it. Rafe, back off a little. Give them room.
The apprentice, who hadn't sent a human thought since she mated, responded by backing away as asked. The two males stared each other down. It was obvious what was about to happen. The two bucks wanted to combine herds, and there could only be one buck.
Morlith didn't really like the looks of things. The newcomer was larger and at least a year or two older than her own buck. He looked poorly fed, though, his ribs showing slightly though his mottled coat. Given the wealth of the valley, he was probably sick. They snorted and pawed at the ground. Without warning, the challenger suddenly leapt forward, his antlers lowered like lance, and raced for the younger buck.
He met the challenge well, meeting the rushing buck with his own, smaller rack. The clack of bone on bone was chilling, and seemed to daze the younger buck a bit. Despite that, he was stronger. He pushed back hard and sent the challenger to the forest floor. He scrambled to his hooves quickly, but not before he was kicked soundly in the head.
The older buck stumbled backward and slammed his neck into a tree. He tried to stand again, but was pressed to the ground by the younger buck. He struggled a surprisingly long time, then stopped abruptly.
Morlith watched dumbfounded as the challenger lay perfectly still on the ground. He realized quickly that something magic had happened, the buck looked drugged, but he could not see it. The auras of the natural world, he was finding, were just below his ability to see. Slowly, the younger buck untangled his antlers from his vanquished challenger. To Morliths surprise, he began to groom the defeated challenger, even rubbing his forehead against him.
After several minutes, the victorious buck finished his grooming and moved on to welcoming his new doe into the herd. Morlith walked over to the defeated buck and tried to figure out what had happened. It looked merely like the deer had been drugged, perhaps poisoned. Then things started to change. The six pointed antlers suddenly broke off at their base, falling to the ground. The bucks body began to shrink slightly, and his generous endowments turned into something more appropriate for feeding spring fawns.
Morlith had never seen, or heard, anything like it. The blacktail deer buck had been transformed utterly into a doe in just a few minutes! She seemed dazed when she woke hours later, but also knew her place. Even though she wasn't in heat, the buck mounted her repeatedly.
Even among deer, noted Morlith, to the victors go the spoils.
There were no more dominance fights that fall that Morlith observed. Though they all smelled bucks from time to time, they all had sizable harems and never came close enough to see. A few days after the young buck had added his challenger to his harem, they did meet with another buck at a stream who looked at least as young, if not younger, than Morliths mate. That buck, though, made no effort to challenge and moved off quickly.
Morlith spent much of the next few weeks observing and wondering. These deer deserved a great deal more study than he was willing to devote, but he had already mentally made a list of mages who he was sure would spend the next few centuries among them, literally, to learn of their magic.
That is, if she could ever convince them of all this. The power of these creatures was unbelievable, even to one as open-minded as Morlith. These deer secreted potions, had done so long before humans had found magic, and yet man knew nothing of it! The bucks glands could calm, or tame, a nervous doe and transform a challenger into a mate. Even if that was all they could do, it was far more than anyone thought possible. How had it never been found?
That puzzle, as well as a host of questions, kept racing though the does head. More than once, she wondered if other animals of the woods had their own magical abilities. There was no reason to think that they did not. In fact, there were abundant folk tales of just such things.
And did the does have any abilities of their own?
The signs of the first snowfall on the horizon were unmistakable in the early morning sky. Morlith had lived in the valley long enough to know those storms long before he could smell their tang in the air. The snow, she knew, would finally give him a smooth working area in front of her tower. It was time to return.
She looked at the others of the herd. They were all still asleep, laying tightly together under a low tree. The buck, still antlered, was in the center, surrounded by Rafe and the doe on one side, and Morlith and the challenger on the other. Morlith was loath to leave them, there was still so much to learn, but it was time. Once she had dispelled the door, she would return to the harem until the fawns came.
She looked sadly at Rafe, not wanting to leave without saying something but not knowing what to say. The apprentice had been silent since she mated, not a single human thought slipped from her mind. Morlith knew that she was still in there, she still responded to her masters words and commands, but she didn't allow herself her own thoughts. Morlith also looked sadly at the challenger. The former buck had become visibly sicker in the last few weeks. It wouldn't be long before she passed on.
Deciding that it was now or never, Morlith stood slowly, trying not to disturb the others. They were all far too close together, and her actions brought a sudden alertness to the herd. The buck was on his hooves and sniffing the air in a second, and the does each started scanning for the imagined danger that had awakened their harem-mate.
Morlith decided just to slip away. She turned and took no more than a few steps before the buck was walking beside her. She turned her head slightly to look at him and could see the look of bewilderment behind his liquid eyes. He couldn't seem to understand where his doe was going.
Quickly, Morlith stopped and started grazing. The buck watched her for a few more moments, then turned his attention back to the other does. The bucks possessive behavior was almost humorous, though Morlith realized darkly that the harem hadn't been out of sight of the buck for more than a moment in weeks. It might be harder than simply walking away.
Rafe? sent Morlith. The apprentice perked up her ears and turned to face her master, but still didn't respond. Rafe, distract the buck a little while. I must go back to the tower, but I don't think he'll let me.
Rafe bent her ears forward then turned toward the buck and started grooming him on the neck. The buck didn't react much, grooming was common behavior among the herd, but it was enough for Morlith to slip through the trees and get out of sight. She trotted as fast as she could without making noise in the dead undergrowth. Morlith knew she would have to get fairly far away before she was in the clear. She hoped that once she was out of sight, the buck would forget.
Morlith didn't get that far before she started feeling the first pangs of separation. They were far from overwhelming, but Morlith could see how the feelings of isolation could drive an unthinking animal back to her buck. The forest started to look darker in the gray daylight, more foreboding. She didn't feel completely safe away from her buck and the harem. She kept moving without missing a step.
A tremendous sound came from behind her. Startled, she stopped and turned, hyper alert to the approaching danger. Morlith was shocked to see the buck racing after her, trailed by his does. The buck had been a cautious creature up to this point, careful not to make any undue noise, but now he was racing though the woods like a mounted regiment on the attack.
As it turned out, he was.
Morlith stumbled backing away from the onrushing buck, tripping over her hooves and falling to the forest floor. The buck angrily stamped his hooves over her, snorting. When Morlith tried to stand, she was roughly pushed back to the forest floor, sprawling. When she tried to stand again, the buck bent his head down and pushed her down again, then started rubbing her neck with his head.
Morlith started feeling a deep calm fall over her. She saw that the glands that he had used to subdue her weeks before were expressing again, more so than before. She knew that she was being reindoctrinated. She struggled a few times to stand, but it wasn't long before the fight was simply no longer there. Morlith struggled to hang onto his mind, to his thoughts, but he felt everything getting more and more dull. She started mindlessly grooming her buck.
When the buck finished, his errant doe stood shakily and slowly. Her once bright eyes were dulled, and her curiosity gone. When the harem moved toward gentler woods, she followed without thought.
Winter came on slowly that season. The buck and his harem were able to eat well into the season before the snows covered the underbrush.
While the three does started to grow with their fawns, the vanquished buck got thinner and thinner. By the time the sun poked through the clouds again, she had died. The herd had paused only briefly to note the passing, then moved on.
Animals are not known for long mourning periods.
The herd wandered the woods looking for food. There was little purpose in their movements. They would drift through the woods, sniffing for other animals and digging the snow for nuts and frozen berries underneath. The surviving does started to get fat from their new fawns even as their buck thinned from hunger.
Morlith didn't find her mind again until long after the solstice. She woke with a start one morning, her sleep filled with odd dreams. Dreams of a strange cave, strange smells and strange ideas. She started to remember that she was more than a doe.
The doe tried to shake off the thoughts, but they wouldn't go. She felt a warm lick on her neck and cocked her head slightly, seeing her twin grooming her. The doe calmed and began to return the grooming, but the thoughts didn't go away.
Master? she heard in her head. The does ears perked up and she tried to find the source of the voice. Her body tensed, but her twin continued to groom, more forcefully now. Master? she heard again.
The doe turned her attention back to her twin, confusing growing behind her eyes. She looked hard at the doe, and slowly the connections began to come together in her brain. Rafe? she asked tentatively.
Rafe let out a relieved sigh and nuzzled her master. You're still in there, thank the Gods, she thought to her. I thought you were gone forever.
Morlith was still deeply confused. The memories of the last several months were suddenly a blur, foreign. It was like they were not even hers. What happened?
Rafes ears rotated around a little. The buck did something that hid your mind. You've been a common doe in body and mind since the first winter snow.
Morlith looked around. Spring is almost here, she commented absently. Where are we?
Rafe sighed. I'm not sure. I lost track a long time ago. We aren't in the valley any longer, I know that. I think we are not far from Brittlewood.
She nodded absently. Brittlewood was a tiny farming settlement over a weeks hard ride from the tower. We are going to need to get back to the valley, soon. She looked at her apprentice. When did you return?
I never was gone, she admitted. I was... confused, she said simply.
Morlith didn't press for more of an explanation. She looked at the still sleeping buck. We need to get away from him. She pondered a bit. But how?
How about the runes? asked the apprentice. Disable him?
The mage looked at the buck. It wouldn't work. There aren't any simple runes to incapacitate like that for long, and he's likely to come after us when he can. The Gods only know how long we'll be does if that happens.
Kill him? suggested Rafe quietly.
Morlith looked at the buck. It wasn't hard to do, to be sure. She knew a dozen runes that could painlessly kill him. But she couldn't bring herself to do it. The buck was an innocent here, even if he was an obstacle. Only as a last resort. What we need is to... her thoughts trailed off. She looked at the buck again and started to think. She hadn't tried those runes since the university. It was a bit more complex than she liked, and would have to be repeated often, but it should work. I've got an idea, Rafe...
The buck was walking through the forest like a marionette with tangled strings. His breathing was irregular, his eyes filled with panic, but he did move forward toward the valley.
Following him was a doe that was deeply confused and worried, who spent all her time near her buck trying to understand what was wrong, but not having the ability to reason it out. The two twins followed a few paces back, one walking easily, and one walking with almost as much difficulty as the buck. We're going to have to stop and remark the runes.
You don't look well, master, commented Rafe as they drew to a stop.
She chuckled. I feel worse. She let her breathing become regular again. For the third day, she had been in two bodies. She was still the doe, but also occupied a part of the bucks mind, enough to direct its movements. The buck knew something was wrong and tried to fight it at every turn. Morlith had done this only once before, as a young university student. He had controlled the actions of a small bird for a few moments. That had been simple compared to this. It's not easy to control the buck. He's fighting me all the time.
Should I do it a while, master? asked Rafe.
She looked over her apprentice and shook her throbbing head. No, I'm afraid that you're not up to this challenge, my apprentice. She closed her eyes and lay on the ground. I'm not sure I am. I just need to rest. The buck apparently had the same idea and slumped to the ground himself.
What will happen when we get to the tower, master? asked Rafe.
Morlith didn't open her eyes. I've been pondering the door problem, and think I have the final combination of runes to open the door. I'll just make sure that things are in order for now. Neither of us can be returned to normal until at least the spring. She chuckled a little, Besides, we've got some little ones to wean first.
Rafes lips pulled back in a small smile, a final human expression she had not lost on her otherwise placid features. They should come any day now. She looked toward the buck and her eyes darkened. Is he okay?
Morlith looked over at the buck. He was completely still, save for a slight movement of his body with each shallow breath. His ears drooped low, and his eyes were shut. The other doe was trying to groom him in a somewhat panicked fashion. That's when Morlith smelled the slight tang of blood in the air. Oh Gods... she muttered as she leapt to her hooves. She raced over to the buck and took a good look. A thin trickle of blood was dripping from his nose and out of the corner of his mouth.
Master, what is it? asked Rafe.
Morlith turned away, feeling a deep pang of guilt. He's dying. I killed him.
Rafe looked shocked, then ran up to the young buck and looked at him. What happened?
Morlith felt weak kneed and slipped to the forest floor. I never considered the strain of this on him... she though back quietly. His mind couldn't take so much. He was trying to run from danger for three days, and couldn't. His heart just couldn't take it.
They stayed near the buck the rest of the day, but he never rose. By the time the sun fell below the horizon, his shallow breathing had stopped forever. The twin does started sadly toward the tower the next morning, the final doe trailing hesitantly behind.
They had traveled a day before the doe trailing stopped.
Neither Morlith or Rafe wanted to leave her behind, she had lost her buck and it seemed cruel to deprive her of her herd, so they stayed near and waited for her to follow. It wasn't long before they realized why she wasn't coming.
In just a short time two fawns, a buck and a doe, were brought into the world. Their mother licked them clean and guided them to her udder for their first meal in the world outside of her womb. Morlith and Rafe watched this with rapt attention. They knew that they would be going through the same soon.
The fawns stayed near their mother, but seemed to recognize their herd mates readily enough. Morlith took a turn grooming the two new additions. The pair seemed to enjoy the grooming, and even tried to return it when they had the chance. The trio of does stayed near the clearing while the fawns got stronger. Morlith still wanted to get to the tower as soon as possible.
Three days later, though, she realized it would be a while. While she grazed near the clearing, she felt an odd sensation inside her, and the incredible urge to push. Even as she did, she knew what was happening. Rafe! she called out in her mind even as she felt the first fawn tumble to the ground. Morlith let instinct take over. She turned and started cleaning the afterbirth off the fawn. It had the oddest taste, not bad but not pleasant, but she couldn't resist doing it. The fawn, a tiny buck, looked deeply confused. His world, after all, had just become much larger and much brighter.
She looked around but didn't see her apprentice. Rafe? I could use some help here, she called out.
The response wasn't that surprising. So could I.
Morlith shook her head, bemused. They were definitely twins, down to the timing. Lets meet in the clearing with the other doe as soon as we can. I've got a little buck here who would love to meet you.
There was silence in her mind for a short moment, I'm sure he'll love his two sisters.
A new desire to push came over the mage, and she closed her eyes. The sensation was not nearly as painful as she had expected, though it was far from a desirable. She felt her center of gravity shift as the second fawn tumbled to the forest floor. She turned to groom it, but was startled to see that it didn't move at all. She nudged it with her nose, but got no response. With a deepening sense of panic, she rested her head against the tiny fawns body. She could feel no tiny heart beating, no breathing. His body was cooling rapidly.
Morlith tried to think of something to do, but she was so damned limited in this form! In the tower, she had at least a chance of saving the fawns life, but not out here! Not like this! She nudged the tiny form repeatedly, trying to groom it, but nothing helped. Finally, she gave up. The fawn was stillborn.
The doe backed up a step from the silent form, her heart beating rapidly. She felt her jaw tremble and her knees get weak. She wanted to wail in grief, but they were actions that the doe's body the mage wore simply didn't allow. Besides, there was another to worry about. Morlith turned from the still form of the fawn toward the other, who was trying hard to stand on all four legs. The tiny buck shuddered and fell to the ground, looking bewildered.
Morlith stepped over and tried to encourage her new charge, trying desperately to shake the feelings that she felt. The fawn had died, that much was obvious, but she was never supposed to become attached to it! Becoming a doe was an accident, but she'd known that these fawns were merely an exercise in knowledge, to find out what an animal goes through in the cycles of life.
She was never supposed to care.
Gently, she groomed the fawn, and he finally managed to climb to unsteady feet. She nudged him gently toward her udder and felt him tentatively tug at a teat. Gaining confidence, he started to fill his belly with the first food he had ever eaten.
Morlith tried not to, but her gaze wandered back to the other tiny form. It looked so cold and fragile lying in the underbrush, so alone. The doe stepped forward tentatively, surprising the tiny charge who was still feeding. While one fawn struggled to regain the missing teat, the other was gently covered in leaves and dirt. Scant protection from scavengers, but it was enough.
After a few quiet moments of reflection, the doe turned and walked toward the clearing with fawn in toe.
Are you okay, Master?
Morlith didn't respond at first, then her ears perked up and she turned to Rafe. Yes, yes, Rafe. I'm just thinking.
Rafe nudged the sleepy fawn at her masters side with her nose. He'll make a fine buck one day.
Morlith smiled sadly, He will, I'm sure. I just wish that I'd managed to have both. Morlith looked at her apprentice with barely disguised jealously. Rafe had given birth to two strong does, both now asleep at her side. Morlith watched them breath in and out, I'm sorry for all this, Rafe.
Sorry, Master? she said questioningly, What is there to be sorry for?
I know you wanted children, but this isn't what you meant. She nuzzled her apprentice, I fear that your children may all be fawns, and it is my fault.
Rafe didn't respond immediately, but started to stare off into the darkening sky herself. The silence lasted so long that Morlith set her head on the ground, intending to go to sleep. Finally, Rafe let out a long sigh. You're right, of course, she said without bitterness. You did do the spell, and because of that I'm going to be like this a long time. She looked at Morlith then reached down and nuzzled a fawn. But this is what I am now, and these are going to be my children. So be it.
Morlith watched Rafe silently lay her head to the forest floor and closer her eyes. She wanted so deeply to make things right. She looked down at the tiny buck and began grooming him again. As much as she loved the little creature, there was a hole in her heart. Two, actually. One for what she had done to Rafe, and another for the tiny, cold buck that never was.
They crested the hill just as the sun was reaching its highest point, even through the dark clouds of the storm. The rain had finally stopped, and the trio of does, with their five tiny charges, were making good progress through the woods. They had now found the main road between Lither and Mickroll, the two closest towns to the tower. Morlith sensed that the tower was close, and the time was right. Mentally, she had been trying to go through the spell again. The most difficult ingredients for the mages brew would be ripening soon.
They stopped to feed their fawns, though. After only a few days, they all seemed to be getting so much larger so fast! All of them were sure on their hooves now, and practically ran circles around their mothers, except now, of course. Morlith felt the buck tug at her teats. She was still getting used to the idea of being used as a cow, but it was manageable. The buck was a delight to be with.
Are we far, Master? asked Rafe as she fed her own charges. The other doe, confused as to the whole migration across the landscape, grazed nervously nearby.
Morlith shook her head. A couple days, I think. At most a week. We can follow this road for a while, but we'll have to leave it tomorrow.
Rafe chuckled in her mind. There are no roads to the valley. You made sure of that.
Once the fawns had drunk their fill, they started to follow the ancient dirt road. Morlith had little fear of following it so closely. The senses that she had would warn them long before a horse or cart could sneak up on them, and the road was only rarely traveled in the rains. A few hours later, they found dramatic evidence as to why.
The deep ruts in the muck were testament to the long, uncontrolled slide the heavily laden cart had made down the steep hill. The body of one mule lay near the middle of the road, broken leather straps still tied around its neck. The other was buried under the heap of the cart along with a man and a woman, crushed under the weight of their belongings. The mud was still splattered on the wooden slats of the cart. This accident had happened just in the last few hours.
Morlith and Rafe looked at the scene with shock and dismay, while the scents of blood and humans and mules were setting off the other doe. Her tail already was flagging, and she seemed very hesitant to come any closer. Morlith took a few steps closer to the wreck, eerily fascinated.
A sudden movement almost startled her out of her wits. It did the other doe, who bounded into the woods, her fawns trailing as fast as they could. Morlith realized instantly what he had in front of him, though. Rafe! Help me!
The apprentice bounded closer, sliding to a stop next to her master, and drew in a startled breath. Half buried under the cart, pressed into the sticky mud was a small boy, no older than six. His scent was disguised by the mud, as was his appearance. But he was alive. Is he going to be alright?
I hope so, she said quietly. She looked into the frightened eyes of the young boy. Can you hear me, child?
The boy looked deeply frightened, "Mother?" he asked aloud, "Mother?" he repeated.
Morlith stole a quick look at the body of the woman nearby. The child couldn't see that from where he was. I've sent these deer to help you, my son.
The boy looked up at Morlith, seeming to notice the doe truly for the first time. "I'm cold," he said far too quietly.
Morlith stole a look at Rafe. These deer will pull you free. It might hurt a little, but you have to be strong. The child didn't respond to that, his eyes closed most of the way.
Morlith gripped the horribly quiet child by the shoulder in his mouth and pulled. Rafe joined on the other shoulder. The child slowly was pulled from the muck and dragged clear of the cart. He's freezing to death. We've got to warm him. Morlith laid by the boy on one side, Rafe on the other. They both started to lick the mud from his features. His tiny face was twisted in pain, but he didn't seem to respond.
What are we going to do with him, Master? asked Rafe. We can't take him to town.
Morlith nodded sadly. I know, Rafe, she said. I'll think of something. Even as she said it, some raw instinct was forming in her mind. A strange taste came to her mouth as she groomed the child. Rafe, something's happening. The child's eyes slowly opened, but the stare was glassy and unfocused. Morlith watched at the boy finally started to move, and move by returning the grooming.
Master, his scent! said Rafe excitedly.
Morlith forced herself to stop grooming the child, an action that took all of her willpower. The boy had no scent anymore. Just like a fawn.
The mage wasn't able to control her own actions now, the instinct was overwhelming. What am I doing? she said in a panic.
Rafe seemed to be taking it calmly. What you have to do, what these deer apparently do.
The small child was already changing, his suddenly dark eyes more focused now than before. Morlith watched in rising panic as her own tongue transformed another, forever.
It's hard to explain, said Morlith quietly. Instinct just took over completely. I'm not sure I could have stopped.
Rafe looked at the young buck that only a few hours before had been a human child. I'm not sure you had a choice either way. He would have died out here alone. You've given him a new, different life. He was of fair size, easily as large as a six month old fawn, and sure on his hooves already. Most disturbingly, the new deer seemed to have no recollection of being human. When he had finally awoken after his transformation, he gave no sign of the trauma of a child who had been so close to death, or of one who had lost his parents. This is just becoming too much to take. She looked hard at her Master, How could you have not known about any of this?
Morlith shook her head sadly. I can't explain that, either, my apprentice. Ever since I was an apprentice myself, it was always simply understood that humans do magic, not animals. It was always just assumed that animals lacked the intelligence to focus the energies around us.
Rafe paced around in a circle, her fawns looking up at her curiously. Morlith knew that the doe was getting agitated, but let her vent. Their relationship had long since passed the point of a master and apprentice except in name only. You are one of the most detailed researchers in all the ten kingdoms, yet you never even heard a story about this?
When you do what we do, Rafe, you hear all kinds of stories, she said without condescension. Have I heard of people being transformed into other creatures? Of course. So have you. But did you believe it until you found yourself laying in the spilled flour in the kitchen? Rafe quietly shook her head. No, you didn't because it didn't fit the way your viewed the world. Neither did it mine. Now, when it comes time for me to be human again, and once you're cured, there are many stories to look at. There are tales that the Ledge Hawks of Gorm can stun prey from the air, that the Trieste hare escapes by causing a blinding flash of white light and, most interesting, that the milk of the wild mountain sheep of Cape Lortal grows hair on those who drink it. I would be interested to know now how much, and if other aspects of the sheep come with it.
So many tales, mused Rafe, It seems that you have puzzles to fill the rest of your days. She dipped her nose to the ground and pulled up a bit of fresh grass.
Morlith didn't like the tone of her thoughts. My first puzzle is how to cure you. You know that.
She looked at him a moment, then grabbed up another mouthful. No, it's not. She sighed and looked at her fawns. They need me now. They won't be weaned until after the spring has passed. By then it will be too late.
I'm not going to leave you to this fate just because of the season, said Morlith quickly. I'm going to keep looking for a cure!
Rafe snorted, startling her two fawns a moment. By the time the next spring thaw comes, I'll have new fawns. If I'm not dead by then. She nuzzled one of her tiny does, This is my life now. Now and forever.
Morlith said nothing. He knew she would come around when it was time. She felt a movement by her side, the new buck fawn nuzzled her. The beautiful young animal looked so small and delicate right now, it was hard to believe he would grow into a massive buck.
It was hard for Morlith to believe that she wouldn't be there to see it.
The smooth, hard ground in front of the tower was covered in drawings. Fifty five different runes were carved into the earth with great precision, each one bending the forces of the universe in a unique way.
Morlith set her hoof down beside an intricate pattern of geometric shapes and carefully traced a circle around it. She held her breath carefully as the single line looped back and connected to itself.
For all the time that it took, for all the days and weeks that she spent in front of the door trying to get it to open, the result was rather anti-climatic. There was no shower of magic as the spell was broken, no splintering of the heavy wood and iron door. There was just a soft click as the latch popped and the door swung open slowly. She stared at the door amazed despite herself. I did it! The door is open! she shouted through her mind.
Your fawns are hungry, Master, was the only reply from Rafe. You want me to take care of them while you go to your lab? There was no animosity in the question, only the tone of concern for the two fawns who were about to lose their mother.
Morlith sighed. Rafe had most certainly given up at this point if even this didn't bring back her hopes of being human again. No, that's okay. I'll feed them first. The locking spell is gone now. She stepped away from the door and back to Rafe. The fawn that Morlith had given birth stood straight up and reached out for a teat. The former child looked up with mild interest, but grazed silently. He was definitely older in body and had weaned himself off milk already.
What happens now, Master? asked Rafe with an air of disinterest.
Morlith felt impatient waiting for the fawn to finish his lunch. She didn't want to just walk away, though. The fawn had a good month of milk feedings, at least, before he was ready to live on solid food. I'll take stock of things and set up to make myself human again. We can go from there.
Rafe looked at the two charges that hovered near their mother, What about them?
With a sad sigh, Morlith dipped her ears. I'm not sure, really. I don't want to leave them alone, but I can't be a doe through the next mating season. It's likely I won't ever become human if I don' break the cycle soon. She looked at her apprentice, Can you care for them when I'm not here, at least until I get you human, too?
I can, she said simply.
The fawn finished his meal and went to lay in the shade of a young fern. Morlith turned and walked for the door, alone.
She entered the tower, half expecting things to be in great disarray. To her surprise, it wasn't close to that. There was a thin layer of dust over everything, but it wasn't even that thick. The smell of rotten meat and vegetables wafted in from the kitchen, but even that scent was old, long past. There was still the marks of flour across the floor where Rafe had bounded toward the storeroom those months ago, so long ago that it seemed a lifetime.
Carefully, she climbed the stairs that led to the laboratory. Again, she found it just as it had been left, in a state of quiet chaos. There was still some signs of the disaster than had made the ancient mage a young doe, but signs of the cleanup attempt were evident as well. She took careful stock of things as they were, and noted that nothing had been touched. Morlith was pleased to see there had been no intruders to make a further mess of things.
With her nose, she turned the pages in the copied spell book and found the recipe that had transformed her. Reading the ingredients carefully, she started making mental notes of what she needed.
In just days, she could be human again.
Morlith turned away from the lab as the realization set in, and walked slowly out the door.
The blue haze once again filled the room, first thinly, then slowly grew more thick. The doe stood perfectly still as it did, waiting. Slowly, the mist penetrated her fur and touched her hide beneath. All at once, she became dizzy, the world seemed to roll around. Morlith drew in a startled breath as the smells of the lab became dull, but the colors sharp. There was a chill in the air that wasn't there before.
Morlith stayed as still as possible when the spell ended. His heart was beating rapidly in his chest. He'd done it! The first mage ever to transform himself into a creature and back, and live to tell the tale!
Once he was sure it was safe, Morlith stood, looking over his naked form. As far as he could tell it was none the worse for wear. Familiar pink skin, scars where they should be. Even the signs of his age that he allowed himself to retain were all present. It had worked!
He bounded down the stairs to the door and flung it open. "Rafe!" he yelled, his first spoken words in months. "I did it Rafe! We can be human again!" When she didn't appear immediately, he switched to telepathy. Rafe? You out there?
There was a short pause. He could feel Rafe's distance in the connection. I can hear you, Master. I'm happy you succeeded, but you scared our fawns with your yelling.
Morlith felt a pang of guilt. He hadn't intended to do that. Rafe, when you can, bring them back to the tower. I'd like them to get to know me.
There was no answer for so long that Morlith feared something happened. Then, slowly, Of course, master. Of course. There was a slight mental sigh. Give us until tomorrow.
Morlith felt a twist in his gut as he turned back to his tower. He felt horrible for leaving them all like this. Despite his words, he knew that the chances he would ever return the doe to her former self, and it seemed that she didn't want that anymore.
The fact was, though, as her master Morlith bore responsibility for her. He walked into the tower and sat on the stairs. The walls seemed to close in on him here. He was still used to having nothing but the open sky above him for the last year, and the walls were taking some getting used to. The forest, for all its dangers, had been a great adventure. The knowledge he had gained was incredible. It was going to take him years to sort it all out.
And there was so much more to learn.
Morlith rubbed his chin in thought. A thought turned into an idea, then a plan. Rafe would probably not mind.
Jumping to his feet, he raced to the storeroom. He had work to do.
Rafe returned to the front of the tower hours later, the four fawns in tow. She had been feeding three of them on and off for hours now, and it was already becoming hard work. She hoped that she could encourage them to start eating like their adopted brother before she went dry. Master? Are you there?
Rafe? came the reply from inside the tower. I'm glad that you returned. I was afraid that you wouldn't, or that I wouldn't be ready.
There was a mental chuckle in the air. I've been talking with Gisele all afternoon. She's very excited, needless to say. She coming here as soon as she can wrap up her affairs, in a year or so.
Rafe perked her ears up, then forward, scanning the woods. Master, where are you?
I'll be out in a moment, my apprentice, was the reply. I just hope that you don't mind. There's been a bit of an accident again.
Rafe cocked her head curiously. The fawns at her hooves seemed to sense her nervousness and their little ears perked up warily. Don't mind what, Master? What kind of accident?
The door swung open slowly, and Rafe smelled him before she saw him. The familiar scents of her Master were masked by the scents of a new fawn. The tiny creature wobbled slowly out of the doorway, his legs unsteady under him. This, he said simply.
Rafe walked up to the tiny fawn. Master? What happened?
I had to do it before I changed my mind, he said. There is so much more to learn, and I've only seen one side.
Rafe looked at him, sniffed him, then felt her heart twist. You're your own fawn?
Morlith nodded sagely, an action that nearly unbalanced him forward. I thought that he deserved a chance to live, in a way. I simply found what was left of his body and brought it here. Now, we'll see how the bucks live. He chuckled, I just didn't realize how closely the age transferred as well. I had expected to be a little older.
And if you don't make it as a buck? she asked seriously.
That's why I spoke with Gisele. She'll protect us.
Rafe circled her master-turned-fawn once, looking him over. How do you know I'll accept you? she asked. I've got three fawns to wean already. That body of yours needs milk, even if you know to graze soon.
You've tried to take care of me as a mother does a child since I took you in. You wouldn't turn me away. He felt his stomach rumble. And I'm getting hungry.
She sighed, but started to groom the fawn. You're right, I could never turn you away. She nudged him toward her udder, Drink before you get hungrier. Gratefully, the fawn took his first sips of milk.
Morlith wanted to grin as the warm liquid flowed down his throat. He was once again in the body of the beast, but it wasn't so frightening this time. It even felt... right. There were still dangers out there. It would be nearly a year before he could outrun a wolf, three before he would mature to an adult deer. There would be competition from other bucks, hunters and possibly now even the occasional mage. In the meantime, he would be dealing with instincts he didn't even know now existed, and the possibility of becoming a doe again....
Morlith knew now more than ever that his adventure was only beginning.