Shapechanger’s Progress

© Copyright 2010

April – July, 1854

 

near Ennistymon

west coast of Ireland

 

It was an hour or two past sunset when Mary McCarthy walked into a small village on the west coast of Ireland, half a day’s walk from her former home.

No lights showed in any of the houses. Several of them were vacant, doors and windows open or missing, gaping mouths in the corpses of homes. None of the very few businesses were the sort which sold food, so there would be few if any chances to steal something to eat in this village.

The village was this way because of the great potato famine of the late 1840s. It was only five years past and Ireland was poorer by perhaps two million people, almost half of them dead of starvation. The rest had flown away like wild geese, to England, Scotland, America, and the very ends of the Earth.

Her bare and callused feet felt little of the rough gravel that made up the road, nor did they or any other part of her feel cold despite the near-freezing wind coming from the ocean a few miles to the west. Indeed, she enjoyed the caress of the wind and the smells it brought, of the salty sea and grass.

Mary had lived through the famine and it had hardened her soul, already tough, to hardest adamant. It had also taught her to enjoy what little blessings came her way. She’d had many of those, and larger ones too. She and her family had all survived the famine, partly because they had been well-off by the standards of the area, partly because they had planted turnips and other crops to substitute for potatoes, and partly because their potato crops had miraculously escaped the blight.

And hadn’t that aroused envy among her neighbors? Some of them had muttered about witchcraft.

Mary ghosted into each empty house, seeing if by some odd chance anything had been left that she could use. She was not surprised to find each abandoned house bare of everything but dust.

Except one. A book lay in one corner of a room.

Mary’s eyesight had been fuzzy and poorly focused before her death and especially bad at night. Since recovering from death her eyes had improved, and more than humanly possible. They focused sharply now, and starlight lit the room as if the full moon was out. Or as if lit by the sun just after sunset, for she saw colors in that eerie eye-bending way of twilight just at the edge of night.

Color vision was something impossible for ordinary humans even outside under the light of the full moon. Walking toward the book she wondered how she saw so well in here.

The answer came to her between one step and the next. She stopped to keep from falling over as her vision was replaced by another vision. It was as if she was a bird aloft in an egg-shaped cavern, open on one side to light cast onto the opposite rounded wall.

But it was not a cavern. It was one of her eyes. Her strange other-sense was probing into her own body. Even stranger, she understood what she was perceiving almost as if she’d once read a book about it.

At the rounded back of her eye was a wispy sheet of flesh made of the tiny cells that made up all flesh and blood and bone in her body. The sheet contained two kinds of light-sensing cells. One, for day, could see colors. One, for night, could only see brightness.

Somehow Mary was making that sheet of flesh more sensitive. At the same time she was letting more starlight in by opening the irises of her eyes much more than normal.

Then her regular vision returned. She was back “outside” her body again.

She shook her head at the strangeness and bent to pick up the book, her body moving as smoothly and gracefully as that of a dancer or an athlete. That was another mysterious aspect of the magical skills that had resurrected her. Even as a girl she had never been as agile as this.

Her eldritch sight could not quite make out the print. She left the house, slapping the book against the door jamb to remove the worst of the dust, and looked at the book again.

Perhaps the first and last thirds of the book were gone, the pages in between warped and stained by damp and time, but she could tell that it was a book of fairy tales. Indeed, it was this very book that had helped her learn to read, something few of the older country people in Ireland could do in 1854, and fewer country women, a legacy of the many years when English law forbade education to the Irish. When people were educated literally hiding in hedges, resisting stubborn as stones being brought to the level of animals, to being no more than creatures of burden and toil.

Carefully she wiped off the book, slipped it into her makeshift pack, and vanished from the village as silently as she had come.

#

It was maybe midnight when Mary smelled chickens.

She was not sure where she was, just that she was aiming south with the coast road under her feet. She was hoping to break into a store in the next city and steal some food.

She turned to look west toward the ocean, into the wind. A cottage huddled a ways from the dirt road she trod.

The barnyard smell coming from the cottage made Mary’s belly cramp. She had finished all the bread and ham from home, and she desperately needed more food. Her body had used up all her body fat and some of her muscle when it had cured her of death and old age while she lay in her grave. Her slow and careful eating during the day had rebuilt some of the most-needed muscles in her body and restored much of what had been stolen from her bones.

Her conscience warred with her need and struck a compromise. She made a promise to God — I will only steal one chicken.

She stripped off her coat and laid it and her crude pack next to a stone that marked the path to the cottage. Then she walked carefully up the path, stopping frequently to look around, listen, and breath deeply.

Her sense of smell improved quickly under her wish for such improvement. It told her that there were humans in the house, sheep in the field beyond guarded by a dog, and pigs and chickens in the wretched stone shack that was the tiny barn. Another dog slept within, guarding the farm animals.

Mary almost retched at the various odors of excrement and urine that her extra-sensitive nose brought to her. But she clamped a stern incorporeal hand on her reactions and continued on, her knife extended a bit forward and ready for whatever came. Nerves on edge, she prayed that if what came at her was human she could leash her reflexes quickly enough to keep from killing them.

As she walked, without conscious thought, she calmed her racketing heart and released adrenaline and sugar into her blood at a careful rate. Her teenaged muscles grew even more strong and supple, her reaction speed dropped below the threshold of what was humanly possible. Wishing for more sensitive feet caused her body to leach callus from the soles of her feet till she felt every tiny pebble and grass blade under them. She walked with legs flexed, touching the balls of her feet to the earth first, her body automatically taking on an even smoother flowing motion.

Someone seeing her now might have mistaken her for a legendary blood-drinker or cat lady and fled screaming, or crept silently away. Nor would they have been far wrong.

The door to the barn was on the west side, the side closest to the house. Mary could hear the breathing of the dog just inside it. When she walked around to the door, the ocean breeze would be at her back, sending her scent straight to the dog.

In her extrahuman state she could move fast enough to silence it temporarily with one hand then silence it permanently by cutting its throat. Yet she hesitated.

She liked dogs and this one was only doing its duty. Its loss would make this poor farm poorer. It might even cause its people the grief of losing a friend.

She decided on a more dangerous course, available to her because of what she was beginning to think of as her witch powers. She lifted her arms. Sweat glands in her armpits and crotch and on the top of her head began to release a vapor suffused with a sedative. Moving slowly, letting the sea-breeze spread the sweat, Mary walked around to the front of the small stone barn. Slumber bordering on coma preceded her.

Slowly Mary advanced on the chickens roosting on poles laid crossways in the cracks between two sides of the barn. With her enhanced eyesight she studied them. They were so deep in magical sleep that they could hardly keep claws closed on their perches. Gently she plucked one loose and left the little barn.

She retrieved her property and walked off down the dirt road. Perhaps a mile away she left the road and went eastward a hundred yards or so. There she plucked the bird’s head from its neck with a single powerful twist. While it flopped its life away she walked parallel to the road, letting it hang by its legs and bleed itself out. This way the prevailing west wind from the ocean would blow the blood scent away from the road and anyone traveling on it with dogs.

Rejoining the road, she traveled till perhaps an hour before dawn, when she sought out a row of bushes well off the road and made herself a little camping area. Her ability to dissolve living things at a touch made it easy to make herself a bed of small, leafy branches “cut” from the bushes.

As she fell easily into sleep she reflected that she had risen from the grave just twenty-four hours ago.

#

The sun peeking through the bushes and striking one eye woke her. Mary stood up and stretched, looking around, breathing deeply the cool moist air of morning. The sky was gloriously blue, the land to the east covered with brilliant greenery and rising to distant grey hills. To the west a few hundred yards was indigo ocean. The Arain islands were somewhere out there but at near-sea-level she saw no trace of them — unless those low-lying clouds on the horizon hovered over them.

Mary made herself ready for the day, gutted and stripped the chicken of its feathers, and impaled the body on a sharpened stake. She was very careful when lighting the fire not to waste the match. She had only taken a half-empty box of matches from her home, leaving the full box for her family.

As the chicken cooked grease dripped from it, the drops of grease making sputtering blue sparks as they caught alight in the fire. Mary ate each scrap of meat that she could, pulling it off the carcass as soon as it cooked, opening up the body cavity for further cooking. She ate the chicken liver with great relish, and she could feel her body making use of much-needed nourishment best available in the liver.

After eating, sitting cross-legged, Mary closed her eyes and focused on her hands. When her hands warmed and seemed to fray into many tiny fingers and then wisps of smoke, she sank her hands into the earth before her.

The tiny grains of earth barely visible to her physical eyes were the size of gravel or even larger to her witch sight. She could then break up the “glue” between the grains of earth by picking at it with her esoteric “fingers.” The earth became a very fine dust. This let her quickly dig a hole where she could bury the remains of the chicken.

Only after she did that did she realize that there had been another way to hide the evidence. She could have simply dissolved the bones and feathers.

Some time later the shore-side road began to rise gradually. Several miles further south the land would become the legendary cliffs of Mohr. But Mary took a branch of the road that led southeast and higher onto the sides of the hills. Without any land or vegetation to slow the breeze the wind rushed past her, making her coat flap. At first she felt chilled, then her skin thickened itself and changed blood-flow patterns and she grew comfortable again.

High on a hillside she stopped and looked west. She could now see the islands of Arain on the edge of the horizon. Several miles off, they looked like a single grey-green slab of rock at the place where the deep blue of the water met the lighter blue of the sky. Even with her eyes acting like binoculars she could see no detail through the haze of distance, except for the white triangle of the sail of a fishing boat. As she watched the sail was furled. Mary guessed that the fishermen had anchored at a good spot for fishing and were heaving their nets overboard.

An hour or so later a strong northwest wind began to push against her back. Low clouds began to rush over her. Following them was a grey sweep of rain.

There was no shelter anywhere near, so Mary took off her coat, made sure her matches were at the center of her makeshift pack, and folded the coat as tightly around her pack as she could. She hunched over it, squeezing it tightly against her belly, and continued walking.

The rain came in a great rush of wetted dust. Sharp drops struck her back like pebbles. Her skin automatically toughened to a leather hardness and the pain almost instantly went away, but she was quickly drenched.

Before her death the wind and water would have chilled her dangerously at this time of year, mid-April. Now her skin automatically adjusted and she only felt a pleasant coolness. If she hadn’t had to keep her pack dry she would have leaned back and let the rain wash over her.

An hour later the rain was gone and the sun was back. She opened her coat from around her pack and flapped it in the breeze to dry it out a bit. Everything inside the pack — including the matches — was dry.

A little later the land tilted downward into a shallow valley. Soon she came to a crossroads. A road sign pointed left, eastwards, toward a place named Lisdoonvarna. Trees and curves of the road in that direction blocked her view of the village except, perhaps a half mile away, the spire of a church. That was good. If she couldn’t see the village no one there could see her.

Beyond the intersection the road she was following turned directly south, following alongside a small streambed. Mary climbed down into it, knelt, and drank her fill of the water from the rocky-bottomed stream.

A quarter-mile later the stream merged with a wider stream which ran west toward the sea, gouging a deep steep-sided furrow in the land filled with lush greenery. A grey rock bridge crossed it. Looking down into the water mid-bridge Mary wondered if there were fish in it. She was tempted to go down and find out, but she was too close to Lisdoonvarna.

From there the road rose to another modest ridge, descended to another modest valley, crossed another stream, and rose yet again.

In the late afternoon the rocky road tilted downhill yet again. She stopped to study the wide green valley revealed. It ran far to the east and west, the sides of the valley raggedly terraced and spotted with patches of forest. At the bottom of the valley was a river. Perhaps a mile off to the right white dots were several dozen sheep grazing the hillside.

Perhaps a half-mile further up the opposite slope of the valley was Ennistymon, which from the number and size of the buildings housed several hundred people. A second river ran diagonally down from the southern ridge and passed through the town, where the water tumbled down a yellow-stone cascade with little flourishes of white foam. At the bottom of the valley the two rivers joined and wandered away toward the sea.

By sunset Mary was halfway down the northern slope of the valley. She turned left off the road and hopped a low briar-covered stone fence. She traveled a mile or two further inland then walked southward over uneven grassy pasture land, then through low trees running along the river bank.

She stopped just inside the ragged edge of the forest to look through twilight toward the river. Green knee-length grass made a rough lawn all along the water. The river was perhaps a hundred feet across, edged on the opposite side by another strip of green and more forest. The water flowed smoothly here. In it must be fish.

She had no fish line or fish hooks, nor money to buy them in Ennistymon even if she dared to be seen there.

Bears stood in water and scooped passing fish out of it. Mary approached the river bank and looked at the water. In the twilight luminance she could see no fish. Did they sleep at night? Perhaps. And if she could find their resting places, maybe she could catch them there.

Mary heaved a big sigh. She was too tired to try that. She was going to sleep hungry tonight.

She turned back into the wood. At the further edge of the strip forest was a dense patch of bushes. There she made herself a cozy little nest of dried leaves and cut branches and burrowed into it like a wild animal.

She tossed and turned like a human, however, her hunger bothering her more than usual. Finally she gave her stomach a stern warning to be quiet and was surprised when the cramps instantly went away. A handy ability, that — as long as one didn’t overdo it.

#

Mary slept till first light. She left her meager belongings hidden in the bushes and wandered along the river’s edge clad only in a dress.

The day was clear and bright, the air cool. Upriver a ways there were lily pads floating at the river’s edge, round leaves like plates and saucers resting on the water. They grew further east as far as she could see.

Near the water she tucked her dress-bottom up under her belt. There was a steep drop-off right at the edge, but only going down a couple of feet. Beyond the edge the river was shallow. She dropped with a splash into the water and walked cautiously upriver near the edge, her toes squishing into the mud at the bottom of the river. She ripped up one of the round, fleshy leaves and examined it. Were lily pads edible?

She swished the plate-sized round leaf in the water to clean it and nibbled it. It was not particularly tasty in a good or a bad way. She did not swallow but let the juice stand in her mouth, trying to decide if it was poisonous or not.

Edible, her deep body knowledge told her, but not terribly nutritious. Mary swallowed a small mouthful of the pulp and waited to see if her stomach agreed. It did, so she began to eat the leaf. It filled her stomach quite nicely, stilling the hunger pangs that had awakened when Mary did.

She reached down to pull up a second leaf and instantly forgot it as a foot-long brown salmon darted out from under a leaf and disappeared into the deeper water. So! This was where the fish were hiding.

She leaned over, poised to snatch a second fish if it appeared. It did not. Maybe they needed to be scared out from under the floating leaves.

Mary threw the remnant of the lily pad about six feet to her left, upstream. Several fish darted out of hiding and she snatched at one, then another, missing them even with her superhuman speed. They were fast!

Mary pulled up another round leaf and waded upstream a little way, going slowly and trying not to roil the water. There she slowed and stopped to stand perfectly still. After a few minutes she threw the leaf upstream again and poised to snatch at the fish. This time she actually touched one slippery side before they all vanished.

Mary had a lot of patience when she wanted to exercise it. The next hour or so required much of that ability. She improved to where she was sometimes able to guess just when fish would appear in the water in front of her and have a hand there to receive them.

When she had snatched/slapped a third fish up onto the river bank she took her catch far enough inside the trees to make her hard to see from the river. There she made a little fire pit with stones from the river’s edge. Then she gathered wood for a fire and used a precious match getting the fire started. She nursed it carefully till it was burning well.

She narrowed an invisible “finger” to paper thinness, invoked the dissolution action, and stroked it across the body of a fish just behind the fish’s head. The esoteric knife sliced through the flesh as if it was air and the fish head plopped to the ground.

She cut off the heads of the other two fish. She also cut off the fins and flensed the smooth brown skin away. A slender green branch smoothed and sharpened by an invisible claw made a convenient skewer.

The fish were utterly delicious despite her lack of salt. Finished, she dissolved the remains with her esoteric hands, piled a few dry branches onto the fire, and retired to her burrow in the bushes to sleep.

Late that afternoon she woke and examined the fire pit. As she had hoped a few coals covered with white ash remained hot enough to restart the fire with some twigs and dead leaves without using another match. She fished again, ate and slept again.

#

The next day Mary fished and caught several fish very quickly. Cleaning up after the meal, she decided on a full-body bath. Immersing herself to get her hair completely clean she found that she could hold her breath longer than she’d expected. Over the next few days she learned to stay underwater for more than a half hour. The time varied by how often she breathed deeply before immersing herself, and how active she was under the water. Soon she became as agile in water as she was on land.

Food assured, Mary began exploring, first at night and then during the day as she gained confidence in her stealth and familiarity with her surroundings. She kept close to the river and the land a little ways on each side of it, keeping always inside the bushes and trees.

She discovered an abandoned cottage near the forest on the river’s southern side. One edge of the roof had caved in but there was still plenty of shelter for those of her belongings which could be damaged by rain. The chimney was still clear and she started a fire in the fireplace within a bed of salvaged bricks shaped into a low box. Coals stayed hot in the box for a long time, enough so that often she could start a fire without a match.

Mary made a bed for herself in the cottage. It was easy since her esoteric hands could cut anything with a thought, including stone. She cut blocks that had a slot at one end and tongue at the other so shaped that she could insert the tongue into another block’s slot and, with a twist, lock the two blocks together. From a few dozen of these she made a rectangular “fence” a few inches high. Inside the fence, laid against the best-shielded wall in the cottage, she put leaves cut from several bushes. This made a simple bed that, for a shapechanger, was perfectly comfortable.

A mile downriver was Ennistymon, a mile upriver to the east was a lake about a mile and half long but only two or three hundred yards wide. A few small boats were tethered at a short pier and during weekends most of them were in use by fishermen. She avoided the lake at first but soon became adept at entering the water out of sight and fishing underneath the surface. It helped that her esoteric claws worked just fine underwater and that she could swim faster than any fish.

After a time she became able to stay underwater for up to two hours if she swam quite slowly or lay unmoving on the bottom of the lake. This way she could observe where fish and eels moved, congregated, and slept.

She discovered that she did not need her witch hands to dry off her body. When she wanted it a skin made of the same esoteric stuff as her invisible hands covered her all over. At a thought water on her physical skin flashed into mist. With her magical skin and her instantly adaptable actual skin it was not long before she spent most of her time without clothes.

One day while lingering near the bottom of the lake a hard shower came. It was quite restful to hear the rain falling on the water above her. The plinking water-strikes sounded almost musical.

Surfacing for air she looked carefully around, using her binocular eyesight, but of course there were no fisherman out in the rain to see her. She wondered what they’d make of her if someone ever did see her, whether they’d talk of mermaids and selkies. And what they’d think of one with red hair!

Roads that were little more than packed earth paralleled the river further east than she preferred to go, with occasional offshoots to the north and south. Small farms dotted the lush valley, keeping sheep and pigs and the occasional milk cow. Each farm had a garden, from which she stole. She did so very circumspectly, one to three carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, onions or whatever, and she carefully covered her tracks. She usually did this in the frequent Irish rains, which wiped away her scent as well as her tracks.

She put on weight, most of it muscle, and her body began to round out, making her seem more like fourteen years old physically. One difference was that her period did not return.

With practice she became able to switch back and forth between esoteric and visual images as easily as she refocused her eyes from near to far objects. It took much longer to view both images at the same time without confusion and know how the two corresponded.

She also learned one day that she could control the color of her skin when she lazed in the sun. She was wishing that her skin would tan rather than turn red and peel, and found her wish coming true. Indeed she could turn her skin so brown it appeared black and lighten it till she was as white as an albino.

Mary also discovered that she could control the growth of her flame-colored hair. It was then several inches long, much shorter than she was used to. Overnight she forced it to grow down past her shoulders, but the long hair was brittle and lackluster. She cut it close to her skull and let it begin growing again, at a more natural speed.

As an experiment she coated her hair with mud and turned her skin to a medium brown with mottled patches then ventured away from the river. Lying or standing absolutely motionless in or near bushes she was effectively invisible. In this way she could get close enough to rabbits to kill them by throwing smooth round stones she found in the river. But the camouflage quickly became unnecessary. Her body changed so that she could throw with inhuman force and accuracy.

After a few weeks Mary became sure enough of people’s habits and her skills to sneak into stores and taverns in Ennistymon. She stole only a very few items, including a box of salt and of sugar and a small jar of pickles.

This was easy to do. Doors on the ground floors were locked and windows barred. However, by now Mary was at least twice as strong as any man. She could leap straight up almost thirty feet and was nimbler than any ordinary human. She could usually come in from roofs or top floors, where doors and windows were rarely locked. Several times she lingered in the stores, seeing with her extrasensitive eyesight and exploring with her invisible hands inside containers without opening them. That was fun.

When she found newspapers discarded in waste bins she took them home to her broken cottage and read every word, even of advertisements. She could have stolen (or borrowed) books and magazines but felt that would too easily call attention to her thievery. The newspapers came in handy also in starting fires from the coals left over from a previous fire.

One day Mary traveled further east than ever before, where the valley became more heavily forested, and came upon a herd of red deer grazing in a meadow. Crawling in knee-high grass downwind from the herd she came close to it. Then she leaped up and chased a lamed but healthy buck, her shapechanger’s body re-shaping itself subtly to run better. Catching it, she leaped atop its back and swiped her witch-blade through its throat.

She wasn’t able to drink much of the deer’s blood before it drained into the grass and dirt. She laughed a little, ruefully. She wasn’t a very good dearg-dur, the legendary Irish blood-drinker.

However, sitting back on her haunches, taking stock of her body and its functioning, she decided that she made a pretty good bean-chat — woman-cat.

A deer was a big animal. She ate as much of it as she could. This was a lot, since her stomach could expand to several times the size of an ordinary human’s. She cut the deer into two parts, cached one in a tree, and carried the rest back to her cottage and set the meat to curing over a smoky fire. She returned to the cache and retrieved the second part, still intact though mangled somewhat by birds.

The hide she cured by scraping off excess flesh and hanging it with the flesh toward the sun.

#

One day in mid-July Mary looked at the sun in the sky and knew. It was time for her to continue her journey.

A few days south she would come to the River Shannon. It ran from the middle of Ireland southward then curved ever more westward to empty into the Atlantic. The Shannon steadily widened as it went till it was miles across when it met the ocean. Several cities lay on or near the river. Ennis, the capital of County Clare, was not that far from the Shannon. The huge city of Limerick straddled the river. There was also Kilrush, a few miles in from the sea. She’d heard much about it from a cousin who had once lived there. It sounded like the best compromise of small size and large opportunities.

She spent several days preparing for the trip, killing a second deer and smoking some of its meat, cleaning her clothes as best she could — no more living naked like an animal — and preparing to pack. This time everything would go into a proper pack made of deerskin, with straps for her shoulders. In it would go her old possessions plus several more that she had made, such as a new set of shoes. It had been easy to make them, carrying as she did — thanks to her witch hands — knives and needles of perfect, unwearing sharpness.

She set off a couple of hours past sunset. At Ennistymon only two businesses kept late-night hours, the taverns, so it was easy to avoid people. Past the edge of the village she began to jog along the road to the coast. It took only fifteen to twenty minutes to go the two miles to the seaside village of Lahinch on Liscannor Bay. Soon Mary was through it and on the coast road south.

By midnight she’d reached another seaside village called Quilty. A road sign pointing to Kilrush led her inland and uphill. An hour or so thereafter she came across a stream and went inland along it to some bushes that provided a place to sleep. She was quickly asleep.

Rain began soon thereafter. When the first drops woke her she bundled her dress into her pack and slept naked except for quick-grown oily fur all over her body and face that left her perfectly comfortable.

The rain continued into the morning, so she went back to sleep at first light rather than brave the mud on the road. Mid-morning the sun came out. Mary woke, dried herself off, relieved herself, shed her fur, and donned her dress. She ate smoked deer meat as she walked. The road was too irregular and slick to jog.

By mid-day the road was dry enough to begin jogging again.

#

Just past noon Mary McCarthy slowed to a sedate walk, passed discreetly through the tiny village of Creegh, and crossed a bridge of the tiny river that gave the village its name. Her discretion wasn’t enough, however. From a shabby tavern trouble followed her.

Perhaps twenty minutes past the village she looked back to see if she could begin running again. The winding road through the low coastal hills of County Clare had indeed put her out of sight of the village. However, three horsemen were riding toward her from the direction of the village. She faced forward and continued walking.

When the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves on the packed earth of the road was near she courteously curved toward the grassy verge of the road to let the riders pass.

They did not. One of them rode off the road then angled his horse toward her, forcing her back onto the road. Another came up to pace by her other side. The third took up station a few yards behind her.

“Good day, fair lady,” said the man who had forced her to change her path.

Mary glanced up at him. His dress and the tack of his horse told of money and his attitude spoke of arrogant assurance. From his speech she judged him some petty English nobility. He was a handsome man, taller than most as best as she could judge a man in a saddle, with dark brown ringlets, a round face, and laughing brown eyes. The horse was a sleek dark brown, obviously expensive.

He was silently laughing at her, and her temper flared, but she kept a rein on it. “Good day to you, sir.”

“Where are you going?”

“To my home over the hill.”

He made a show of standing in his stirrups and shading his eyes under the hat he wore as if to see over the hill. There was an emerald feather stuck in the hat’s sweat band.

“Oh, goodness. I suspect you of a fib, fair lady. I see no cottage ahead. And as I know this country well, I’m sure there is none.”

“I think she’s afraid of us,” the man on her other side said, a cruel smile on his face. He was much of piece as the first one, she saw. Perhaps a brother or cousin.

“No!” replied the first. “Why, how could she think that of us! We only want to be her friends.”

“I have all the friends I need,” replied Mary shortly.

“Oh, but we’re going to be even closer than friends.” This was from the man behind Mary. She stopped and turned to look at him. He was younger and blond and his horse was not so good. A poor cousin of the other two, perhaps? Trying to match them in wit and other ways.

It was obvious that they intended to rape her. She had other plans, however. They did not include getting her clothes bloody, so she needed to get out of her clothes without alarming them. And she needed to get them off their horses. Their mounts multiplied their effectiveness.

Mary glanced at the man on her right, he with the green feather. He was the leader. She smiled at him and spoke.

“Well, now, I would be friendlier if I thought you might have some coin about you.”

“Oh, yes, fair lady. We do indeed ‘have some coin about us.'”

“Then let us get to it. Over there.”

The direction of her nod was off to the side of the road up ahead where a few trees made a pleasant shade. She began walking again, stepping around the leader’s horse off the road, angling toward the trees. Then, looking playfully back over her shoulder, she laughed and broke into a run toward the trees.

It took a few moments for them to react. The leader laughed and kneed his horse into a trot. The other two followed suit.

Under the shade of the nearest tree Mary let her pack slip off her back onto the ground. Then she began disrobing.

By that time the leader was under the tree too and was off his horse. He hitched it to a branch of the tree and stood enjoying the show. The other two caught up and ground-reined their horses. The leader scowled at them and they hastily hitched their horses the same way.

Ah, yes, Mary thought. When she started screaming they did not want their animals able to run away. She folded her clothes and placed them on the opposite side of a tree, placing her pack atop them. That should shield her possessions from any blood spatter.

The leader was the first to reach Mary as she stood completely naked, fists on hips. The wind swirled her bright red shoulder-length hair around her face and ruffled the russet pubic hair between her legs. To them she would seem a fourteen-year old girl, with the muscles of a farmer but still lithe and pretty.

The wind was from the leader to her, and she could smell the cruelty on him. There was no doubt. They planned to do horrible things to her, then kill her.

She put out a hand toward him and he took the bait. He caught her wrist in a grip that would have pained an ordinary woman. She looked him directly in his eyes. Hurt a child, would you? she thought.

She twisted her wrist, broke his grip, and it was now his wrist that was captured. He jerked his arm away, or tried to. She saw the exact moment when he understood that he’d made a terrible mistake. But by then it was far too late.

Mary casually lifted his arm to a better position for a cut. He jerked his arm again, much harder, but her inhumanly dense muscles gave her half again her apparent weight. He only succeeded in pulling her a bit toward him.

From her free hand she extended her invisible witch knife to a foot length and a razor’s width. With a flick of her wrist she cut his arm completely in two at the elbow.

Blood gushed as Mary threw his lower arm toward the farther man’s face. Freed from her grasp the leader of the would-be rapists stumbled back, staring in shock at his arm. Before his first scream Mary leaped around him and sliced off the head of the nearer brother/cousin with a lightning-quick pass from her other hand.

As that body also began to fountain blood Mary turned toward the blond man. He’d dodged the arm thrown at him and drawn a gun. He cocked it and leveled it and pulled the trigger.

Mary had seen the gun and was already letting herself fall sideways. The ball struck her off-center. She felt a tremendous blow and stumbled to one knee. Blood bloomed from her side, but she began to get to her feet, lips pulled back and showing her teeth, snarling at him as if she were a wild animal. He hauled his horse’s reins loose from their anchor and swung astride his horse, kicking it into a gallop, laying low over his horse’s neck.

Mary cursed herself for over-confidence and launched herself after him but slower than she could have. Part of her was repairing her wound and part of her was carefully metering her strength.

Even so she gained on him within a few yards. Rather than leap atop the horse as she would have done unwounded, she grabbed his nearest ankle and jerked. He screamed and tried to hold onto the horse, but her weight was too much for him. He fell off the horse and lay stunned. She struck so as to take his head off but misjudged. Her invisible blade bisected his head at an angle so sharp that it sliced deep into his chest. His body jerked then flattened to the earth as if boneless.

Mary sat down, panting, then lay down on her back, holding her side.

Her body had already blocked both bleeding and pain. Mary turned her witch-sight into her body and examined the damage. One intestine was pierced and its contents mingling with the rest of her body. She encysted that area for further work and turned her attention to blood conduits. The several dozen damaged veins and arteries began to grow whole and smooth and she turned her attention elsewhere.

Next she told her body to repair tissue damage and began urging it to push out the pistol ball. That would happen over several hours or days.

She could have reached inside and dissolved the ball into dust, but it was lead and she could taste — if that was the right word — that lead was a poison.

She fixed several problems and put several more on hold and slowly stood, looking back toward the trees, switching her eyesight to binocular mode. The one whose arm she had amputated apparently had tried to apply a tourniquet. He had been evil but he had been hardy of spirit as well as body. But not enough; he was dead.

Mary sighed. Perhaps she should have felt triumphant. She could only feel a bit depressed. Possibly all three men had possessed admirable qualities in plenty, but corrupted by their taste for cruelty. She had no doubt that she had spared other people harm by killing them, but she could not feel good about her deed.

Her body was trembling very slightly. Her deep body wisdom told her this was because she had used up so much of her energy store. That was also part of the reason for her depression.

Mary searched the body of the blond man whom she had chased. She found a small purse of coins and poured them into her pocket, dissolving the purse into dust. There was nothing else of value to her.

His horse was grazing a ways down the road. She gathered up its reins after a bit of soft talking and led it back to the trees. She had to sweet-talk it a bit before it let her tether it but only a bit. Obviously these horses were not strangers to the odor of blood.

The other two men had more money, the leader quite a bit plus two expensive-looking rings on his fingers. She left the rings alone; they might be identifiable.

She also found a fair amount of food and several wine bottles in the saddle bags of the three men. She immediately sat down and ate an enormous meal of bread and cheese and dried meat, washing it down with an entire bottle of wine. The wine made her pleasantly tipsy for a few minutes, before she instructed her body to burn the alcohol into energy.

The wine was a big help; it replenished the water in her body. Using large amounts of energy always heated her up and made her sweat tremendously. She finished the second bottle, burning the alcohol before it could affect her.

The food helped, too. By the time she finished eating her strength was back.

What to do with the bodies and the horses? The bodies were easiest. She dissolved them into powder, clothes and belts and such also. She only dissolved the outside of metal objects, which was harder to dissolve, just enough to make them unidentifiable if found. Then she threw them far away from the road, in several directions.

The horses, however, she hated to kill. Riding the leader’s horse, she led the other horses down the road a few miles until she came onto an intersection with an eastward road. It looked at least as well traveled as the road running south, so she took the animals a mile or so eastward. There she removed all tack and dissolved it, then frightened the animals so that they galloped eastward.

If she was lucky whoever found them would keep them and say nothing. In any case, by the time anyone raised a cry for the dead men she believed she would be lost in the crowd in Kilrush.

And even if they found her, who would believe a fourteen-year-old girl could kill three strong, armed men?

#

Midmorning of the next day Mary came to the top of a gentle rise where a space had been cleared long ago. A stone church had once stood there. The church had long since fallen on hard times and, indeed, almost fallen. Left were only grey hand-sized stones stacked atop one another, a part of it curving to suggest an arch. She slipped off her pack and let it rest on the ground, stretched her back.

She had little attention for the church, however. For the down side of the hill dropped slowly into a deep valley — so slowly that only the long sweep of the land kept the valley below from looking perfectly flat.

The valley cradled the deep-blue Shannon River, which was so wide here that the opposite side showed only as a faded green strip on the horizon.

Closer in, perhaps a half mile from the shore, was a large and a small island. With her telescopic sight Mary could make out several structures on them.

The land in the valley was green with trees and grass in both directions, the edge of the river twisting and turning until lost in the distance.

At the end of the road she stood upon she could see scattered along the river’s edge white and beige and brown blocks of houses, looking like toys at this distance. Some of them must be several stories tall!

At the center of the town a finger-like inlet of the Shannon extended a half-mile into the land. This sheltered several ships, their masts looking like sticks thrusting skyward. Some of the ships seemed to have two or even three masts. Out in the river a ship was moving up the Shannon. It had two masts and several billowing white sails on each, plus a triangular sail reaching far forward, tied to the needle nose of the ship.

Around the town she could see the square plots of cultivated land and smaller structures which must be individual homes. There seemed to be a lot of land under cultivation, and with this rich soil the crops should be rich as well. Perhaps her cousin’s estimation of near a thousand people living in Kilrush was not a brag after all, but a drastic underestimation.

It was here that Mary would make her fortune — though she laughed to think that it might be a very small fortune! Enough, at least, to buy some books. If so she would think herself rich indeed.

And mayhap there would be strange music, and people who would talk about science and medicine and poetry and far lands. People interested in the life of the mind, who could challenge her mind, good before death and since being reborn sharpened to a rapier’s point by her magic.

Aye, great hopes. But first she must find a home, however temporary.

Mary McCarthy settled her pack onto her shoulders and set off down the hill.

#

Continued in Shapechanger’s Destiny.

© Copyright 2010

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