For my rage far surpasses my guilt.
Late Summer '96
The elder Greengrass, whom I cannot yet think of idly as father, called his troupe to a halt. "We're perhaps a quarter hour from the grounds I sent in a permit to hunt in. Once we cross the markers, spellfire will be permitted," he explained, and by the looks of those nearby, I assume it was for my benefit.
Daphne sat next to me, on a dappled horse that she sidled up to my own. The animal beneath me was skittish, uncooperative, frankly scared half witless, and prone to disturbing jolts of random direction that not only broke the elder clansman's formation, but jostled other riders as well. Of course, I didn't blame the animal. I'd rather be afoot than hauled about like so much luggage. However, I had resigned myself to this path, and would persevere. I asked nothing less of the steed.
It just left a sickly feeling within me, to do this. It became stunningly apparent after our second day of practice that I had no skill in spellwork. I knew why, of course, but didn't have the nerve to crush Daphne's hopes. So, we came to a compromise, one I was more pleased with, but still rubbed me in an ill fashion.
"You'll do fine. You don't even have to make the kills, just show you're going along," Daphne assured me, but it was little comfort, truly. Regardless I offered her a smile, hoping it not too wan.
As we let the horses take us forward, a kind of wariness crept over me. Something was not right. I hoped it was simply my awareness of the balance, and my worry of it gnawing at me, but I knew better. Rather than let my mind drift, I turned my ears, nose, and eyes to the wood looming before us. Whatever was awry, it dwelled there.
The hunt continued as Daphne had warned, and we crossed the line into the forest. This, I had quietly, privately, secretly hoped for. Trees! Woods! The sunlight sowed a patchwork quilt of shadows on us all, and it was grand! The air was crisp, clean, clear, and I could smell everything – familiar scents, animals and hunters, loam and leaf...
It was heavenly, but again, something was awry. "Hold a moment," I called, startling everything nearby. There was a rule of silence that the elder had declared, in hopes of not startling prey. Of course, with me already showing some hesitance, and now calling a halt, his face had gone stormy with anger.
"What are you doing," the man asked with obvious restraint. There was a tick of tension in his brow, even.
I looked deeper into the wood, eyes narrowed. My manner seemed to stall his ire, and he followed my gaze. "Something isn't right. The forest is too still, there."
Sniffing a moment, he made to say something, but then blinked, and thought a moment more. "You're sure?"
Perhaps he recalled that I had lived my whole life in such a place, or that it was a wood not unlike this one that I was pulled from not too long ago. Whatever providence allowed him a glimmer of common sense, I thanked. "Very sure. The smell is of men, and..." throwing my head back, I closed my eyes and breathed in a great lungful of air, slowly, taking my time to sort the many, many scents.
Men, horses, broken limbs of trees, trampled loam... further, startled birds, rabbits gone to ground, some deer, also stinking of fear – not from us, they were too far. Near there... men, again. The stink of alcohol, and bleached bone? Curious. Then, the particular thread of a scent struck me, and I smiled, "Men, and bone. Bleached bone, and alcohol," I murmured for my father's ear only.
I was not prepared for his suddenly widened eyes, and paling skin. Nor was my horse, for when he turned hard – startling the mare and nearly sending me to the forest in a heap. "Out!" He cried, waving his hand over his head in a near panic, "Back to the road, and the apparition point!"
Daphne and I tried to keep my horse, already frightened and unhappy, from bolting or bucking me off while those with the elder fled. He tried to grip the bridle to my mare and help, but she shook and rolled her eyes, causing Daphne to tell him she would assist me. It was a futile effort, and I finally just slid to the horse's side and slapped her soundly, sending her into a panicked gallop almost before I'd lowered my hand.
"What's going on?"
Trying to order my mind, quell the black hunger that bubbled up into my heart like a torrent, and figure out why my sister hadn't fled as well, I shook my head hard. The motion helped clear my mind, but all else remained. "Father took a fright," I bit out, as the pulse in my veins quickened, deepened. However, I didn't miss the sudden surprise that my address of the elder elicited in my sister. No time for this now! – "Men, spirits, bleached bone. What does it mean?"
My demand caused a similar reaction in Daphne, and my cursing as she whirled around in a panic caused more birds to flee the forest canopy. Finally, I dragged her from her horse, and ended her wheeling about that nearly trampling me, "Death Eaters," she muttered, as if that answered my question.
"Dead eaters? Scavengers – cannibals?" My confused queries brought her around, and she hushed me – madness, she was practically screaming herself – and pulled me down beside a tree.
Looking about, she hissed into my ear, "Father made enemies, by not backing the Dark Lord. Apparently someone got wind of his trip out here, and planned an ambush. That's what you smelled, those men!" Fretting with her hands, she suddenly went for her wand, and I imagine, recalled I had it. "Please, Asto-" shaking her head, she bit her lip. "Fíona, may I have my wand? I feel naked without it!"
Gladly handing the thing over, I went about stripping myself of clothes. "What are you-"
"There is a man," I began, wrenching off my leather boots. "I know his smell. He waits with the others."
Daphne seemed to follow my actions, with her own reasoning, "You're going after him."
It was no question, deserved no answer, but I nodded, "Yes. He will bleed for me, before the sun sets." My new belt joined the pile, settled in a crook of a tree's roots.
"I'll go with you," she offered, and I nearly barked out a laugh, while undoing the devilish device she fitted me with, to bind my breasts. Tiring of the infernal thing, I fashioned claws of my hands and shredded it. "How-"
I shook my head hard, "No time. We go, now, if you must."
My bindings, any I felt I could not account for with my Change loosened leaving me in loose tunic and breeches, I gave into its call and felt myself melt away, replaced with the fleet-footed golden shadow that was my wolfen form. As Daphne watched, I pointed, like a hound, to show her where my prey waited.
Then, I took the hem of her robe in my mouth, and started off to the east of them. After three steps, I halted, and looked pointedly at her feet. "Oh, sorry," she muttered, mumbling a charm that left her unnaturally quiet.
It would matter little – the forest may find her disconcerting, but the men would not hear her. That was all I wanted. The spoor I could smell was strong, speaking that the men had been waiting for some time. This was good – impatient prey made mistakes, let their guard down – and so I moved quicker.
Almost too soon we could hear the murmurings and heaving breaths of the Dead Eaters, or whatever it was that had my sister and her father panicking like yearlings. Daphne quivered, shook almost, as I hunched down, then Changed again. By scent and ear I had their measure, and knew this would be an easy task – for me alone.
Human of guise once more, I motioned her close. "Do not follow me. If you insist, do what you will to those that flee. I will not need your help, in this."
"But you're just one person," she hissed, eyes rolling about in a near panic that she would be heard. "Those are all wizards, and they can kill with a single spell!"
Lips thinned, I sighed. "Very well. Keep to this side. Approach when you hear them cry out. Do not be seen! If they are as deadly as you say, then heed your own cautions." Saying no more, but wanting to simply clout my stubborn sibling about the head to keep her safe, I fed the core of hatred till it blazed within me like a furnace.
She only swallowed nervously as the blonde I had been became the monster she knew lurked within. I settled on my haunches, as tall as Daphne. And then, I struck.
Pandemonium reigned, and at its center, I was queen.
My first lunge brought down an aging wizard, crushing him under my bulk. I heard and felt bones snap and shatter, and the final, liquid wheeze of air as it was blasted out of lungs made into a broken bellows.
Around me stood or crouched his fellows, all facing the other direction, all ready to die by my fang and claw. I greeted them with a roar that sent everything within the small forest to fleeing in panic.
Spells flew, but my hide in the war-form was resilient. I was cut, blasted, there was a moment when one spell tried to strip the skin from my back, but the magics that wound about and kept my heart pumping searing hate through burning veins mended and absorbed such things. Skin and flesh knitted quickly, leaving no trace but blood and my own riled fury. This body was built for war, for bloodshed, for the kill. It was my nature.
I am, and ever shall be, a servant of my nature.
Blood painted my fur a deep red-gold, as my clawed hand snapped out and ripped the bowels of a man free, the swipe all but reaching his spine and leaving nothing where it passed. Shock painted his features, as he looked down for a moment, only to see nothing where he expected his abdomen to be. I imagine he died – I cannot be certain, of course, other prey called for my attentions. Vaguely, I noted Daphne cringe and blink, as the gout of blood from my work reached her, a fine spray painting a line of red across her face. Eyes wide and unseeing, she reached up toward her face with a shaking hand. I noted this distantly, as the magelings recovered themselves and bent into their attack.
A cutting spell all but removed my ear – it would heal – but the gesture drew my attention. There! "Macnair!" My roaring challenge stalled the battlefield of a half dozen, myself towering in the middle. They had not expected words from the nightmare that was felling them like young trees before the axe, I mused somewhere behind the curtain of fire that sat between reason and rage. With an earth-cratering leap, I barreled into the man who's face had gone pale and horrified in realization, throwing him into a tree. There was a thrill as the sound of snapping bones reached me, but I would deal with him later, when my sport was finished.
Time. Time would be needed for such a thing. For now, I had distractions to see to.
Distantly, I noted my blood-sister, wand lowered and a look of abject terror on her face. I knew that look, as often the carnage of my release to the fire within was a horrible thing, for an innocent to see. That would change, now. I had no pity, no remorse for it. My rage far surpassed my capacity for guilt.
Another little mageling clipped me with a spell – and Mother it nearly sent me to my knees! Pain like only my first Changing coursed through me, but I was no stranger to it. Pain was my ally. My bedmate, my precious keepsake. Cradling that feeling within, feeding it to the black hunger that cried and sang for the blood of these men, I ripped my claws across the space between us, yards from the man who held the crackling red spell on me.
Air warped, split, and so did he. From another, I suppose it would look as if I swung my outstretched claws at him, futilely. Then, the backlash of my will rippled with the passing whistle of air across my hands. Where I saw my claws pass, so did the force of my own strange magics.
Trees to either said and behind the man exploded in showers of splintered wood, as the softer target of the fool in a mask was ripped into pieces, his short, strident scream bitten off as the parts of him were thrown in different directions. Shock again washed over those that still stood and lived at the brutal savagery of his death, but I was not one to wait.
Another died, as I simply crushed his skull in my jaws. Sharp teeth, as long as his fingers, pierced and shattered his head from temple to neck. The cloying, fatty, greasy taste of brain had me spit and snarl, but I didn't linger.
Ever-moving, ever-killing. Nearly out of prey, I sighted the last of those standing. He was brave, thinking to sneak up upon me and stab me with what was undoubtedly some ensorceled blade. Rather than give him the chance, I caught him by the shoulders, smiled my terrible smile, and ripped him in half from gizzard to groin.
Coated in blood and breathing great gouts of steam for my breath, I let the killing frenzy ebb, seeing no more enemies. Only my terrified sister, and the man who would add spice to this banquet of death and pain.
I sighed, sitting against a fallen tree as the broken and still senseless man beside me stirred in his pained slumber. "Yes, sister. I killed them."
Daphne, as I had feared, had never seen death such as I plied it. "That was... was. Oh, Merlin," again, she bent over the fallen tree, and emptied her stomach. I pitied her, and now that the Change had left me cold and small and nearly human, I felt regret for taking that innocence from her. Regardless, I had little time. Unless the elder Greengrass was an utter coward, at some point he would return to reclaim his daughters, or what remained of them.
Hopefully, my sister would be sensible enough to listen to me, so we would both walk from the wood without her father thinking us both monsters. Standing, I sat beside where she leaned, still regaining her breath and balance. Before the shock had set in, she had cleaned both of us, some of her high magics stripping the blood and grime from our clothes and skin. I had quickly regained my few scraps of clothing that I could not carry with me through the Change. The odd bindings for my chest were a ruin though. I could likely use that... but it was something to think on shortly. Now, I had kin to see to.
Reaching out, I gingerly rested a hand on Daphne's shoulder, "I am sorry, my sister. I would have spared you such a sight. But you must be strong now. We have things yet to do."
Red-rimmed blue eyes looked back at me, and for the first time I felt it a betrayal that my own were gold and amber now. Were that I still bore that skyborn hue! It would be a comfort to her, I was sure. Despite my dark thoughts, she nodded, and stood shakily, "I... I've just never..."
"I know," my murmur brought her attention to me, and she kneeled down, peering up through my fall of flaxen hair to find those cursed eyes.
"You had to do this often?"
I did try to shake my head, denying her words, but I could not. Not now. "Yes," was my simple answer. I did offer more, seeing her need to understand, to know why we, who resemble each other so much, could be so different, "The Mother had many enemies. Magics and those that work them... it is a rarity, in the deep wood. Gifts such as your own would bring a tribe of mud-dwelling scavengers up to nearly thanes. That she has kept to herself so long is a strange thing, but she took me in. Gave me hearth and home, as they were, and for that I fought. Fought to keep warm, to keep fed, to keep myself... my own."
To my surprise, it was I who was being embraced then. "I'm sorry," she muttered, voice thick with things I can only imagine.
Unused to such, I hesitantly, haltingly tried to comfort the young woman whom I called sister so idly. Perhaps I should not have... such things are a weakness. But it was a weakness that brought warmth, and I welcomed it.
Daphne finally roused from her unbalanced emotions, and shot a hate-filled glare to my captive. "What about him?"
My eyes followed her own. "He was one who threatened me, at that Ministry. I will have some answers from him." He was, however, still some time from waking. I would need to speed such things along soon, or our time and my plans would be forfeit. "You may want to be some distance away..."
Seeing my meaning, Daphne shook her head, showing the depth of her stubbornness yet again. "I'll stay. You're my sister, I'm not going to run off just because you have to do something unpleasant."
I admired her resolve, all the while questioning her reason. There would be no shame in turning from the sight of what I was to do. I would not waste the time in arguing, though. Scampering about the carnage from before, I pilfered wands, shiny things, bits of this and that that interested me like a magpie, and tied them all up in a small sack I found on one of the less bloody corpses. One thing of interest I found was the dagger that had been intended for my back, by one of my later kills.
It was at once like and unlike others I had seen. Blades crafted by those I was familiar with varied widely, from chipped stone to fine steelcraft. This was above even that, it's handle and crosspiece ornate with twined and twisted images of snakes, the blade bearing such a mirror polish I could see myself in the blade... nearly. The similarities were superficial, really, considering the blade wept a thin black wetness along its length. Wiping it clean on a dead man's cloak, my brows rose as it slowly took on that strange sheath of fluid, again.
Wiping a tiny bit on a finger, I hissed as it stung and burned, obviously some kind of poison. Quickly deadly I wagered as well, as thin as it was. It would not linger in a wound, rather speeding about in the blood at haste. Searching for the man I rended in half, I found an ornate sheathe for the thing, and set it aside, on top of my little trove of plunder. I would find use for that wicked little treasure, I was sure.
Daphne watched all this with varying expression – laughing quietly, if strained, as I made happy sounds finding shiny baubles, raising her brow as I seemed to search for something particular within pockets. Her eyes darkened significantly when she saw the poisoned blade, but neither of us lingered on it.
Macnair was stirring. It was time to work.
"Ouugh, urh... wha-" the man's insensate babble cut short, as I bent a finger back till it crackled and splintered like new wood. There was a confused moment, and then a muffled scream, as I pressed a thick branch into the man's mouth before he could do more than voice a yelp.
His eyes, shining and wet with pain and fear, finally fixed on my familiar and, judging by his thrashing, unwelcome face. "So you wake. I was afraid I had addled what passed for your mind, in introducing you so... forcefully, to that tree."
Maths seemed to be the man's weakness, as he took some moments to work through his last memories before his forced slumber. Then he struggled all the more, till I bent the Change around my hand and set wicked claws against his pulse, below his jaw. "Be still... yes, shh... You will tell me things, that I want to know. Shh. That is why you yet draw breath, yes?"
There was futile moment of struggle, as he flailed trying to dislodge the branch I was holding his head still and mouth gagged with, much like a horse's bridle. Spittle flew in small ropes, as he thrashed about, till I pricked skin with those claws and his eyes grew panicked. "Yes, yes," I crooned, leaning close. "You can see reason, no? You fear the Fever?" A short, desperate nod was my answer. "As you should. Those strong enough can make it a most agonizing death. And I do not doubt you recognize my strength, do you, mageling?"
Things moved forward much faster from there, but for his silly reluctance to speak truth. "I-I don't know why the Minister and Undersecretary were so interested in you-"
Another finger was bent like willow, sadly lacking the tree's own agility. The splintering crack, as this time I was not kind, was followed by a tearing rip as I twisted the broken bone within its thin sheath of flesh. "You know," I pointed out, as tears and screams rolled against the branch I again applied to muffle the fool, "I can smell lies. You stink of them, right now. Lies and fear. Do you know what they say, about fear?"
I took no pleasure in my sister's disquiet at my actions, but I had warned her. The cinder within me that was the Change and what it represented kindled, and I knew my face grew alien, fearsome and inhuman. "Hunters can smell fear, little mageling," I half-purred, as he soiled himself in terror.
When he quieted, screams becoming sobs, I removed the branch and turned his face toward me again. "You will speak truth. Or I will hurt you more, and worse, each time you do not. Now, tell me why they found me so interesting..."
And so, the man's tale was spun. The Ministry had quite the agenda to forward, as a ruling body. I found it curious they needed to threaten and bargain with those they supposedly ruled over. Did not kings and thanes and chieftains... well, rule? Not supplant themselves before their people like beggars hoping for favor? It made no sense.
Yet, here were the reasons... they feared me as leverage, used by my apparent father's faction. Supposedly, the elder clansman held quite the base of power within this Ministry, and the man Fudge feared that his rulings would mean little, if the elder could rally his allies in this meeting of chiefs or whatever it was they called themselves. A Wizened Gambit or somewhat.
Indeed, it was a crime to be Touched, as I was. How curious! Did they have no reason, thinking to alienate those that held so much power, so that they were forced to be that which they feared? It was frankly the act of a fool, really. If being simply what I was, happened to be a crime, then why do things in half-measures? What matter, small laws to hold tribes together, when simply drawing breath could be punished? It was no wonder they feared my kin. My elder sought to undo those laws now, and this made the Minister's power unstable. How strange... perhaps his weakness wasn't so accepted after all.
I wondered at the transition of power within this Ministry. Would there be a battle? A challenge? Probably not... this man Fudge wouldn't last a moment against one even as rough as Macnair. Ah, questions for another time...
This one also had another master... someone whom he seemed unable to name, always using some childish label. This master on the other hand had heard of my unique nature, and had an interest in me himself. Apparently, my Mother's gift intrigued him, as he had other Touched allies. No doubt those driven off by the Minister's idiocy.
Daphne paled at that, and I wondered if it had something to do with why there was so much fear about her and her father when it came to these men, who dressed as none other I had yet seen in their billowing black robes and bone masks. "Sister, what worries you so?"
"The Dark Lord wants you, and you ask what worries me? The Ministry wants to silence father, the Dark Lord wants my sister to give to Grayback... what in the world is going on-"
I snatched at her hand, dragging her down beside me, "Sister," her eyes wide, but now without the sheen of panic, I relaxed my hold. "It will be fine. Please trust in me."
Incredulity swept over her, but she nodded regardless. "Alright. I'm going to get some air... this is just too much."
"Very well," I murmured, releasing her hand. The other relaxed my hold on Macnair, having pressed his jaw down so hard that he was in danger of blacking out again. "And you... what else can you tell me, that is of interest, hmm?"
"I don't know," the wiry man whimpered, shaking his head as he could when I took the gag from him. "I've told you what you wanted, let me be, please."
How curious, I thought, tilting my head. "You would ask mercy of me?"
"Please, yes – mercy!"
I looked about the remnants of the ambush, obviously meant to kill the elder, and capture me. My eyes swept back to Macnair, and he saw in them that which he did not desire, I think, as he wept and struggled all the harder. "So, I see your plans clearly enough," looking behind me I saw that my sister was well out of earshot, "For myself, and the elder. What of dear Daphne? What would you have let happen to her, as I was trussed up like a prize boar, and my father gutted as a fish, hmm?"
Panic washed over him, the fear of more pain if he lied, or worse for the truth. In that, was my answer, of course. In that, was also his answer. What mercy would they have shown my dear sister? Only those afforded a woman taken in a raid. It was no small effort to keep my fury banked, to keep my jaws from growing huge and deadly, to rip this waste of meat to bleeding ribbons. My smile, mirthless and full of hate, let him know that I saw it too.
There was no chance the man could escape, I thought. Not with his broken hands and body, and how fast I could track him were he to flee. So, thinking on something I had some curiosity for, I stood.
Macnair, not being the brightest man really, sat and gaped, while I spun to pick up the slender dagger from the small hoard I had collected. Precious moments wasted, he scrambled as I returned, but I was quicker, kneeling down and catching his leg about the knee as he made to rise and run.
With a piteous wail, I wrenched him back down, reaching up to grip and shatter his collar bone to keep him from trying such again. Not that I imagine he would. With a flick to unsheathe it and spin within my hand, the dagger was held underhand, as I thrust it to the hilt into the man's thigh. Shock and horror played over the man's face, as he stared unblinking at the ornate handle simply resting there, so innocuous.
I tore his simple robes away, watching as the veins blackened and seemed to spread with the speed of thought up and down his leg. Skin grayed between those dark branches, and I watched fascinated, as the limb seemed to simply die and grow sallow and cold as the poison spread. No lingering heat, or response in the limb at all seemed to remain, judging by Macnair's dying babble.
It was nearly anticlimactic, as the hungry spiderweb of blackened veins spread, but I knew the true danger was not the skin-deep veins I could see, but the deeper ones, powerful and wide, that sped to his heart and brain. Macnair died, a low keen of pain and his face pinched in suffering, as spasms took him not a dozen heartbeats from when I sank the poisoned blade into his limb.
Wrenching the dagger from his cold flesh, I wiped the blood off, before settling it back in the sheath that seemed to quell the thing's constant weeping of poison. Daphne stood back, gray-faced and wan, obviously in some form of shock from the things she had seen. In truth, that would be for the best. I was cunning, and could lie well enough, but she would need to be the one they paid heed to, cared for, tended in the coming days.
Shock would also make the task of tailoring the lies easier. Thinking on what I had gleaned from the now-dead Macnair, and the demonstration of my new blade, I hummed and smiled, "Quite the informative afternoon. I'm rather glad the elder invited me, now."
Daphne, by her expression, was not amused by my candor.