Silvery flakes drifted down, glittering in the bright light of the harvest moon. The blackbird swooped down and touched the ground with human feet. Wings grew into hands, and a proud bird's chest turned into the shapely curves of a woman's bosom. She straightened and brushed what was left of the moulting feathers from her body.
Avery hated taking human form, but a cold night like this was full of hungry owls and she was in no mood to be delayed. Changing on the outskirts of the town gave her a little time to piece together something to wear from the farmhouses that littered the fields.
When she entered the tavern, it wasn't her mismatched clothes that drew the attention of the townsfolk. Neither was it her beak-like nose that looked out of place on her dainty face. No, it was the way the air around her seemed as cold as death. It was the tempered rage that shone through in her bright eyes, forcing even the rowdiest men to stare intently into their mugs of mead.
Only one man dared meet her gaze. Avery knew him as the Wolfman, for underneath his handsome, young mask, that was what he was. She perched on the barstool next to him and had to remind herself that she had no feathers to fluff for warmth.
"Of all the taverns in all the towns, fancy meeting you here." The Wolfman raised his mug to her before drinking from it deeply.
Avery's eyes narrowed. "I am here because you called."
"And so you are," he agreed. "Do you want something to drink?"
"What is the task, Wolfman?" she demanded. "Twenty four times you have called me now, and twenty four times I have come without fail. After this, I will have what you promised to me and I will gladly forget you along with the rest."
The Wolfman laughed and tapped a finger to his temple. "Are you sure you want to trade your gift for a birdbrain?"
He referred to her memory; her very unbirdlike memory that remembered everything all too vividly.
"It is not a gift, it is a curse," Avery spat. The Wolfman had promised to make her mind like the other birds.
He shrugged, as if to say 'each to their own'. "How much do you know about the king of this land?"
Avery frowned. A normal bird wouldn't have concepts such as 'king', but for some reason, her mind had always grasped these things and she had always been drawn involuntarily to the chatter of humans. Avery hoped that the Wolfman would do something about that as well. It would be no good to have a bird's memory but still all these stray thoughts that had no place in a bird's mind.
"He is old. Near death. This town is not far from the fief of his birth," Avery said.
"He's destroyed many nests to get to where he is today, and he will destroy many more if he is not stopped," the Wolfman added. "The Red Witch has agreed to make him young again."
Avery wiggled her shoulders in a bird version of a shrug. "I have no interest in the nests of humans so you do not need to justify to me why you want him culled." After a pause, she said, "Why not just kill the Red Witch?" It was none of her business, really, but that seemed a more logical course of action.
His smile was humourless. "I ask myself that all the time. Are you sure you do not want a drink? For old times' sake?"
The barkeep looked up hopefully.
"You know that it disagrees with me," Avery lectured. "It makes me act like a silly hatchling."
"That's its purpose, my dear." His gaze was far away when he said, "I can't help but feel a bit sad that after tomorrow you will fly away and never return to me."
"Tell me your plans for the king," she said, drumming up the anger inside her so she wouldn't have to feel anything else.
"As we speak, he is travelling to his old family keep. There's something he needs to retrieve from the castle, something for the witch. I dare say he will need to eat and rest after travelling hard. My plan is to get you close enough to plant a dagger in his heart."
When she turned to look at him, her eyes were hard and cold. "How are you going to get me that close?"
The Wolfman's eyes twinkled in dark amusement. "We put you in a coffin."
Avery opened her mouth, then closed it again. Sometimes, the less details she knew, the better. The Wolfman hadn't been speaking particularly quietly and when she glanced around the tavern, she caught more than a few people flinching away.
"Should I make sure the king is not forewarned?" she asked in a tone that was no different from the way one might inquire about the weather. Her eyes locked with those of the old barkeep who froze in fear.
The Wolfman polished off the rest of his drink and tossed some coins on the table. "No, I'll take care of it."
Before any of the townsfolk had the sense to leave, a blast of wind tore though the space, snuffing out fires and toppling people and furniture. There were shouts of alarm, and groans of pain as the villagers recovered. Someone revived the fireplace and used the flames to relight the lanterns.
"Are you alright?" the barkeep asked Avery as he straightened up the bar.
Avery glared at him, but there was no recognition in his eyes. Just like that, a room full of people had forgotten what had passed here. She looked at the Wolfman with fear and awe.
He picked up his coat, which had been blown to the ground, and dusted it off.
"Shall we get going?" he asked.
Avery nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
They walked back into the cold night where the moon hung high in the sky. The old castle was on a hill overlooking the town and its fields. It was a dark shape against the moonlight. Avery's bird instincts told her that she was a fool for walking into dark places where cats might be hiding. They entered through a servant's entrance at the back of the keep.
The smell of baking wafted out through the kitchen windows. At this time of night, the kitchen was the only place still lit.
"What are you doing?" she hissed as the Wolfman strode boldly towards the light. Was he trying to alert everyone of their presence?
He winked and approached the door, knocking loudly and as bold as brass. The door swung open to reveal an old woman with dirty blonde hair and an apron that was grey and fraying. Without saying a word, she ushered them in and closed the door.
"She's not going to fit in the coffin," the cook said after taking Avery in with her eyes.
"She'll fit," the Wolfman assured.
The cook strode briskly over to the kitchen bench and slapped her hands down on either side of the item on top of it. It was a round pastry about the size of a pail with a lid of lattice design. She pealed the top off and gestured to the space within. Avery smiled, despite herself. It was definitely not big enough to fit a person.
"Stuffing her in here might be beyond even you, Stephen, unless you want to cut her up and boil her down," she said.
"This is the coffin?" Avery asked.
The Wolfman nodded. "It's a human food. Sometimes they call them pies."
Avery had always found the idea of cooking food disgusting, but she supposed that humans found the idea of eating living worms disgusting too.
She began to strip off her clothes, causing the cook to gasp in outrage and demand that the Wolfman at least turn away for the sake of modesty. The cook turned silent as feathers sprouted from Avery's skin as her form began to shrink back into that of a bird. Once her transformation was complete, she flew onto the table and tilted her head to regard the cook.
"Well, aren't you full of surprises?" the woman muttered as she recovered from the shock.
The Wolfman drew a dagger from the folds of his clothes and placed it in the open coffin. When he tried to scoop her up, she pecked him and awkwardly flapped up and into the pastry herself.
He received another peck when he tried to stroke her head.
"I will not be here when you commit the deed," he said, "so this is goodbye my little blackbird."
Avery felt a bright tingling sensation through her body, and she knew that the Wolfman had cast a spell of sorts on her.
He confirmed her suspicions by explaining, "Once the deed is done, your memory will fade quickly. I suggest you fly as far as you can before that."
Avery couldn't stop herself panting from fear when the cook lowered the lid on her. Confined spaces were not her preferred habitat. Alone in the dark, she retreated into her memories.
She had fallen for him the first time that she heard him sing. He wasn't from her flock, so the others chased him away. But he returned the next day, and the next day, singing songs that were sweeter than raspberries. He didn't seem to care that she was a bit different from the other birds.
You are perfect just the way you are, he sang to her. You are the new leaves in spring. You are the sunlight on the glen.
Neither of them had nested before, so their first nest was a mess of feathers, leaves and twigs. His song told her how proud he was when she laid their first eggs, and there was never any doubt that he would raise the chicks with her.
But then, the humans took him away.
Avery was jolted out of her thoughts when someone lifted the pie from the table. At first, she struggled to stand, but the motion knocked her around so much that she was better off crouching. Finally, when she felt as though she could not stand the rough movements any longer, her coffin was set down. She could hear the laugh of an old human man.
"It's not poisoned is it, my dear?" she heard the man say. "I didn't think to bring my testers with me, see. You've always been a delight, Tracy. You were my little confidant. You never once told your mother about the things we did together, though who would have believed you if you did?"
"You are kind to remember me, Your Majesty," was the cook's reply.
Avery mustered up her courage and her rage. She burst forth from the pastry, shifting forms faster than she had ever done before. The pain of bones cracking and muscles tearing was excruciating, but it was nothing compared to the agony that was remembering. She grabbed the dagger beside her, and plunged it into the king's chest.
When she withdrew the blade, a spray of blood splattered against her skin. The king fell back, surprise on his dying face.
Then, she was on the move, running as fast as she could for the open window. She hurled herself through the opening and willed her arms into wings.
Free, she thought to herself, almost deliriously. Already she had forgotten her name. Someone had given her a name once, but she couldn't remember who. She looked out at the land before her, and saw that winter was coming. There were sounds coming from the stone mountain behind her, but they were the meaningless shouts of non-birds. Her stomach was empty. When she spied a berry bush, she sang out with joy and descended upon it.
The blackbird peered down at the wolf-human who had stopped under her tree. She sank further onto her eggs and prepared to shriek in alarm.
"Hello, blackbird," the wolf-human said.
Wolves didn't bother with birds; they were barely a mouthful, and she was far enough up in the tree that she was surely out of his reach anyway. Something deep within her resonated with his voice, as if she had heard it before.
The wolf-human cleared his throat. "You know, they have a song about a blackbird in these parts," he said. "Would you like to hear it?"
A note from Augie
This was written for the January Contest on Fylofox's Labyrinth Forum. It is loosely related to another story I have on fictionpress called Woodsman. My inspiration for writing it came from a character creation guideline I found on Chuck Wendig's blog (for anyone interested, I have a link from my blog post on 20/1/14).
22/1/14 - Made changes based on comments. Thanks Liz!