“Hey, Flee! C-C-Come over here!”
I had my small knife out, trying my best to carefully slice leaves from a yew tree sapling in front of me. The leaves of the yew saplings were useful ingredients for potions, and I had stolen a book from the library that said I could use them for casting certain spells. Mother insisted I practice magic more often, and some of the spells were very complicated. Most could be done by chanting the proper incantations – usually in elvish or draconic – and some required hand or arm gestures to channel the flow of energy. The rest required parts of the natural world. Heath and I had been coming out to the woods behind the temple pretty often over the past few months, and we had a good sense of where to find the things we needed. Today, like most days, we were building up a magic spell component pouch for me.
These yew leaves would be particularly useful to me. Two months ago on my thirteenth birthday, a new boy had come into the orphanage. He wanted to impress his new friends and chose to do so by slipping random liquids into my drink during supper. It had worked a few times already. Last time, I was sick for a week. With these yew leaves, Heath and I could perform a small ritual to detect the poisons. I wasn’t very good at the spell yet, though, because a large part of its power came from the Morninglord’s Blessing, something that only those who started their oaths possessed. I had attempted to cast a few spells through the Blessing, but the spells were never very effective.
“Flee!” called Heath again.
“In a minute!” I shouted back, still looking down at the sapling in front of me. “I’m busy!”
The yew leaves had to be cut only from a sapling, and they had to be cut in a very particular way to preserve the liquid inside them. We learned the technique to cut the leaves from a book I had pilfered from the library. The process was very delicate and precise. If you took less than a minute on each leaf, you were probably doing it wrong. I had already ruined five leaves from this sapling and didn’t want to cut any others. I had to concentrate, and that was hard to do with my broken fingers.
I heard Heath’s footsteps coming up the path, his shoes crunching on leaves and snapping twigs. “Oh, s-s-sorry,” he said. “I didn’t r-r-realize you found another one. There’s a t-t-tree just up the path.”
I fumbled with the knife, trying to ignore Heath. I had to focus. The broken fingers on my right hand ached, so I switched to my left hand instead. It was unsteady and my knife cut diagonally across the stem, severing the leaf from the plant. The cut was too deep and too fast. Liquid glistened in the cut. Ruined. I sighed and dropped the knife onto the ground, then sat down, defeated, in the dirt.
Heath sat down next to me. “You’re b-b-being stubborn, Flee. J-J-Just let me heal you.”
He was sitting so close to me. I felt heat in my cheeks, just like all the other times when he got so close. Quickly turning away, I said, “Fine, go ahead.”
Heath reached into his pocket and pulled out his sigil of the Morninglord. He held my hand gingerly, careful to not move it or cause any more pain than I was already feeling. He muttered the incantation and pressed the sigil to my hand. It began to glow faintly as the magic coursed from Heath into the sigil, and then into my hand. The two broken fingers popped and I cried out, surprised. The pain disappeared almost immediately, though, and the swelling around my fingers began to lessen. The skin remained dark and tender when the glow of the sigil faded as the spell finished.
“You know,” started Heath, still holding my hand. “I c-c-could have cast this spell hours ago. Actually, F-F-Flee.” I don’t know why, but I found it heartwarming when his stutter made it hard for him to say my name. “You c-c-could have done this yourself. I know you know h-h-how to do it.”
I looked down at the ruined yew leaf on the forest floor and then to the discarded knife next to it. “Because if I heal myself or let you do it, they’ll just hurt me again.” The tutor had slapped my hand with a cane this morning. I answered his question in the halfling language instead of elvish. I had thought since we were studying the halfling language today, it would be appropriate to answer his question like that. He inexplicably thought differently. “I don’t like doing magic around them. They think it’s fun to cast stronger spells back at me. Remember last week when I finally made a magical shield?”
I regretted saying it as soon as the words came out of my mouth. It should have been a happy memory. I had been practicing this spell for what seemed like ages. Heath threw pebbles at me and I tried to block them with the spell. When I finally did, we were too busy celebrating to notice the other kids had seen us. They started throwing rocks, knowing that I couldn’t keep the spell up forever. I hated to remind Heath of the horrible things the others did to me because the clerics of the temple reprimanded Heath instead of them. He was told to stop defending the changeling and make friends with the others instead. When we saw the other kids again later that day, he got into a fist fight and came out with a bloody lip. The kids didn’t like this, so they set my pillow on fire. Heath gave me his pillow and I had been using it ever since. He insisted that he was fine bundling up some blankets under his head, but I wondered if that would make his neck hurt.
Heath changed the subject. “Is th-th-there anything else w-w-we need out here t-t-today?” he asked. His stutter was always worse when he was upset. He picked up the knife and handed it to me.
I pulled out a piece of parchment from my pocket. My fingers felt so much better now, all thanks to Heath. I inspected the list on the parchment that Mother helped me make last night. We had been pouring over spellbooks (including the one I had stolen, to which Mother turned a blind eye), making note of the spells that required material components. Many of the spells on my list were based on the Morninglord’s Blessing. Mother knew this and had insisted I include them, even though I was not an Awakened like Heath. She was still pushing me to start my vows. “Let’s come back for the yew leaves next week. Maybe they’ll grow back by then. I don’t want to hurt any more plants.” I scanned the list and found a good one. “How about this? We need some sand.”
“S-S-Sand?” he questioned.
I nodded. “I think it’s special sand. Maybe. It’s supposed to be very fine grain and Mother said we can find it by the river.” I put the parchment away and sighed. “I wish they would just let me use a wand like everyone else. Or one of those sigils like you and Mother have.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “I don’t s-s-see why they don’t. Even w-w-without making vows, you can s-s-still call on the Morninglord for magic.”
I watched Heath put the sigil back into his pocket and was embarrassed at the jealousy I had for it. A year ago, Heath had started his vows and became an Awakened acolyte in the temple. He had just gotten the sigil and was so excited to start learning magic. I wanted to try it, too. To our mutual surprise, I was able to use it, though the magic was very slight. The presence of the Morninglord was with me when I did so, but I knew I shouldn’t have been able to do anything with it. I hadn’t taken any vows. We wondered if it was that innate magic I had, but we knew better than to ask anyone about it. Besides, what right did I have to use the Morninglord’s magic anyway?
A few weeks afterwards, I stole Heath’s sigil. I wanted to keep using it, fascinated with its power and my strange abilities. Why was I able to use it at all? Even stranger, I was able to use some bits of magic without it. Heath was asleep when I took his sigil. The feeling I got from it was warm and calming, like a strange clarity. I followed along with the instructions of his spellbook and cast a wonderful spell. It created an odd comprehension in my head. I was suddenly acutely aware of my surroundings, perceiving things I hadn’t noticed before. I could better hear the quiet breathing of the other orphans in our dormitory. Even in the dark, I could better sense where each of them was. There was an owl outside my window, clicking its beak together hungrily.
The spell was fascinating! It was almost as if the Morninglord was guiding me directly, pointing out things that I would otherwise have ignored. Almost immediately, a feeling of intense guilt swept over me. I felt awful. I stole from my best friend! He would surely hate me for this. Sobbing, I woke him up and apologized for the theft. But Heath was kind. He forgave me immediately, embracing me and telling me not to worry. He would let me borrow his sigil whenever I wanted it.
Thinking on this, I had apparently blanked my mind to the world around me. Heath nudged my shoulder. “You okay?” he asked.
“Sorry!” I said, shaking my head. “Just thinking.”
“About the s-s-sigil?”
“D-D-Do you need to borrow it again?”
“No, it’s okay,” I replied. “Just thinking about magic again.”
“Did you hear what Etriel Riesz s-s-said about you yesterday?” asked Heath. “Sh-sh-she said you were a s-s-s.” He was having trouble with the word. The others made fun of him so much for his stutter. To me, it was charming. “Sorcerer,” he finished, finally able to say it.
I blinked. “A sorcerer?” That word sounded familiar. Did I read it in a book?
“Y-Y-Yes!” he said, standing up and helping me to my feet. “It m-m-means you have magic in you. In your b-b-blood. Naturally, I mean. With p-p-practice, you will be able to cast all kinds of s-s-spells. More than any of the clerics can. You don’t n-n-need to make an oath to a god or r-r-read a bunch of old tomes like a wizard.”
“That’s neat, I guess,” I said, not entirely understanding. It was true, though. I had always been able to cast a few spells naturally. No one else in the temple could do that.
“But,” continued Heath. “Are you g-g-going to make an oath? To the M-M-Morninglord, I mean.”
“Oh,” I stammered. I didn’t like talking about this with Mother or Heath. “No, I won’t.”
“Come on, Heath. You know they won’t let me,” I replied, disheartened. “The High Priest especially, but the other clerics won’t want me to either. If I make an oath, I stay in the temple. No one wants me here. In four years, I’ll be old enough to leave this place.”
I couldn’t help but notice Heath was still holding my hand after helping me stand up. His hand was so soft. He said, “W-W-What about me? I want you to stay.”
We began towards the river to collect the fine sand. As we walked, Heath never let go. I could feel my face was getting hot again, but fortunately the shade of the trees kept this a secret.
The sun was setting when we returned. Heath and I ran up the path as fast as we could, remembering the last time we were out so late collecting components for my spell pouch. Mother had reprimanded us. She wasn’t angry, but was worried we would get lost in the dark. I wasn’t worried in the slightest, though. While I’ve always been afraid of the dark, Heath wasn’t. He could cast a spell of light without much problem, and had taught me to do the same. Nevertheless, I hated to worry Mother like that.
We sped past the courtyard as the other clerics were gathering and laying out their prayer blankets. We raced into the dormitory and grabbed our own blankets before returning to the courtyard to join the others. Our usual spot was still free, under a small tree near the south wall. The other orphans and the Dawnbringers preferred to gather in the middle, which usually meant we had the space under the tree to ourselves. I pulled out of my pouch a stick of incense and snapped my fingers, casting a small spell that lit the stick. A sweet smell wafted from it as Heath produced his book of scripture and laid it out in front of us. We sat on our blankets and started reading while we waited for the High Priest to begin the song.
Heath began to read first. He hated reading because of his speech impediment. I never minded it, and I had learned when we first met that helping him with words only made him more frustrated. The scriptures we were reading this month were stories of the Dawnbringers of old. They could summon the power of the sun and create spheres of fire and light, using it to shun the darkness and bring light to the world. The Dawnbringers fought against all manner of creatures of darkness, which was such a strange thing to me. The Dawnbringers I knew were peaceful people, though many of them were very full of themselves. I couldn’t imagine any of them throwing balls of fire to destroy monsters. Mother was so old she needed help kneeling on her prayer rug.
As the clerics settled onto their prayer rugs and lit their incense, the High Priest rang the bell in the center of the courtyard. Heath and I, along with everyone else, bowed our heads low towards the sunset and began singing.
Farewell, illuminated one, until we meet again.
We carry the sun in our hearts until then.
Give us the strength to carry on,
Until the next dawn.
We greet thine ally, the Moonmaiden.
Her silver light guides us until then.
There is always another dawn.
Farewell, precious sun.
The sun dipped over the horizon and out of sight, and the brilliant orange and red streaks in the clouds began to fade into deep blues and purples. The clerics gathered their prayer blankets and resumed their duties, disappearing back into the temple. The orphans disappeared, too, leaving Heath and I alone in the courtyard. I liked to linger and watch the sunset, and Heath always offered to stay with me.
As we eventually gathered our prayer blankets and smelled the remnants of the incense’s aroma, Mother returned to the courtyard. “How was it in the woods today?” she asked, cheerfully.
We opened the pouch and showed Riesz what we had acquired. The pouch had various types of glowing moss, a few magnetic stones, some copper wires, twigs, flower petals, and a collection of seeds and berries. The two yew leaves I managed to successfully collect were wrapped in paper to dry, and the sand from the giver was in a small glass vial.
“Here, I’ve something else for you to put in there, too,” said Riesz. She produced a yellow rock from her pocket. A hideous stench came from it, overpowering the incense still in our noses. We recoiled and Mother laughed. “It’s sulfur,” she explained. “You can use sulfur as part of a fire spell. It’s extraordinarily complicated, though, so you probably won’t need it for a very long time.”
“Gross!” I exclaimed. “Do I have to keep it?” I was hesitant to put it in my pouch. It would make everything stink!
“Yes, but wrap it in some cloth. Here.” She passed me the sulfur and some cloth.
As I begrudgingly added the sulfur to my pouch, I heard a commotion coming from inside the temple. The doors of the courtyard opened and the High Priest and the orphanage caretaker came into the courtyard. The High Priest saw the three of us and frowned, but continued walking. Behind them was a young girl, perhaps only a year younger than Heath and I. She looked around sheepishly.
“Who is th-th-that?” asked Heath, looking towards them with interest.
“Oh,” said Riesz. “A new child will be joining your dormitory tonight. She came in while the two of you were in the woods. Didn’t you see her during the Sacrament of Sunset?”
Oh, good. Another kid to join the army of orphans who liked to torment me. I tried to ignore her and the High Priest. I didn’t care about her anyway. At least, I didn’t want to. It was as I was trying to hide my gaze from the High Priest that I noticed Heath was gawking at the new girl. He stared at her for an eternity! Why was he looking at her with such intensity? I wanted to say something to him, but Heath suddenly strode forward towards the girl, waving his hand and talking animatedly.
He left me!
I felt a flash of anger. He abandoned me for some stranger! Why? What was he doing with her?
“Leef?” said Riesz, loudly.
I jumped, startled. “Huh? What?”
“I was talking to you,” she admonished. “Did you not hear me? I was talking about the sand you-”
I interrupted. “Who is that girl, anyway?” I asked, pointing. I scowled at her involuntarily. Mother let out a snicker. “What?”
“Are you jealous of that girl, Leef?” she asked. She put her arm on my shoulder.
I shook the arm off. “Thric simi ti! Jealous of her?” My gaze met Mother’s. Her eyes were slits, staring. “What?” I said again.
“Oh, nothing,” she mused. “It’s nice to see that you like someone.”
“Huh?” I was confused and angry. “No, I don’t like her!”
I stopped. Heath was talking to the girl. They were both smiling. She batted her eyelashes at him, staring, puffing out her chest. She was touching his hand.
“You like him, don’t you?” asked Mother.
I said nothing.
Of course I like him, I thought. He’s my best friend! He’s so wonderful, and nice, and kind, and handsome, and…
The end of the day had come, and I returned to the dormitory alone. I told Riesz I needed to study and sped back to the dormitory before any of the other children had arrived. Tonight, thankfully, no one bothered me while I sat quietly in bed, reading through my stolen spellbook. An hour passed and Heath wasn’t back yet. Where was he?
The caretaker came in and announced “Lights out!”, snuffing out our candles personally, her scowl lingering on me before she departed. I wanted to complain about the dark. Heath would have said something to convince her to let me have a light. But he still wasn’t here. I looked over to his bed. Since we had become friends, Heath pushed his bed closer to mine. Only a small bedside table separated us. The bed was empty now, save for Heath’s stockings and spare clothes sprawled about. He must still be with that girl.
She was pretty, I conceded. She had nice features. I could understand why Heath would find her so attractive. I had to admit I found her attractive, too. Her long blonde hair, eyelashes, rosy cheeks. She was pleasant to look at, but I couldn’t help but hate her. Heath was probably infatuated with her. Maybe they were holding hands in the forest. Maybe they were in the spot in the courtyard under the tree. Maybe they were kissing.
The thought made me want to yell. What if I lost my only friend because some stupid, pretty girl showed up? There was nothing I could do about that!
I stopped for a moment after this thought, and sat up on the edge of my bed. Maybe there was something I could do! I thought that if I could be prettier or more feminine, maybe I could win him back. If that’s what Heath liked, I could try to be more girlish. I had taken the form of girls and boys plenty of times in the past, and this seemed like a good idea. It made sense, anyway. Heath probably wanted to get married someday. There’s no way he would ever want to be with someone as ugly as me. No one liked monsters. But what if the monster looked like a girl? Or a boy? Or..?
Thinking about it, I could honestly say I wasn’t sure what Heath preferred in a partner. My shape as long as I knew Heath had been male. Did he like boys in a romantic sense? Some boys like girls, though. I know I didn’t have a preference. But what about Heath? I didn’t even know what romantic really meant, but Heath liked that pretty girl and that seemed to me a good start.
I listened around the dormitory. The candles were out and the room was dark, and already the orphans were asleep. Hearing nothing but soft breathing, I kicked off my blankets and stood up. I thought about the girl. I thought about the other girls I had met. The children, adults I had seen, some of the priestesses in the temple. I thought about every aspect of the female form I could think of.
My pale gray skin began to shift as my body changed. My hip bones moved. My hair lengthened down to my shoulder, though I kept it a mess of wavy white strands. My shirt tightened as my flesh moved. I thought about changing the color of my skin, but that seemed a little too extreme. It didn’t take long for me to put on the new mask.
I questioned the look as soon as I was done. I pulled off my shirt to see the transformation. In the moonlight streaming through the window, I could see my new feminine shape. It looked alright, but was the change subtle enough? I didn’t want to draw too much attention. My hips were wider now and my chest was more pronounced. My hair was the same length as the pretty girl. Would that be enough? Should I change anything else, or go back to my true form? I was about to remove my pants next when I heard a voice behind me.
“W-W-What are you d-d-doing?” hissed Heath.
He was standing right behind me. While I was shifting, he must have snuck back into the dormitory. The glow of the moonlight was more than enough for him to see everything. I covered myself with a blanket and did my best to not shriek. It was very inappropriate for the girls to be undressed in front of people. Being a girl now, I was suddenly very embarrassed and flustered.
“Don’t look!” I whispered back, turning away from him. “Give me a second.” Heath turned around quickly. I fumbled with my shirt for far too long before drawing it back over my body. “Okay, I’m decent now.”
Even in the moonlight, I could see Heath’s face was as red as a Dawnbringer’s robe. “Y-Y-You’re a g-g-girl!” he stuttered.
“Yes, I know that,” I snapped. “Why did you sneak up on me like that?”
“Sorry, I d-d-didn’t mean to,” he replied. He came forward and sat on the edge of his bed, opposite to me. “I couldn’t f-f-find you after the Sacrament. Where did you g-g-go?”
I sat on my bed and looked at the spellbook on the table. “I, uh, had some studying to do.”
We sat in silence for a moment. I was afraid of saying anything. He must have seen me! His face was still very red, and I can only imagine how red mine must have been.
Finally, Heath asked, “So, why did you ch-ch-change into a girl? Are we going s-s-somewhere?”
“Who was that girl, Heath?” I cried, louder than I intended. Embarrassment washed over me again. I couldn’t believe I had done all of this. Becoming a girl was so stupid!
Heath giggled. “Is th-th-that what was bothering you today? You looked r-r-really upset.”
“N… no,” I stammered.
“Flee,” he said softly, reaching out his hand and grasping mine. “I know h-h-her. She was someone I knew when I was a k-k-kid, back when my father was alive. That’s all. N-N-Not even a friend. Just someone I used to know.”
I didn’t respond. What could I say? I just felt so foolish.
“Are you j-j-jealous?” he asked, concerned but pestering. A smile was on his lips. “Is that why you’re a g-g-girl now?”
“Don’t tease me, Heath,” I said, completely ashamed. I broke my hand away from his and buried my face into his pillow. This was the second time tonight someone called me jealous. They were both right, obviously.
“Oh, no, Flee, I’m s-s-sorry!” His voice was so sincere. He stood up and moved closer, sitting on my bed next to me. “Please, don’t be upset. I d-d-didn’t mean to hurt your f-f-feelings.” He wrapped his arm around me. “If you want to l-l-look like a girl, that’s okay. You’re a-a-amazing no matter what you look like.”
He gave me a quick hug and got up. Heath kicked off his shoes, letting them drop haphazardly on the floor, before climbing into his bed. He bunched up the blankets he was using as a pillow and laid down. I continued to sit on my bed, staring at him. His shaggy blonde hair was getting long again. He never liked getting it cut. I liked his hair long anyway. He was so-
A thought suddenly occurred to me, bringing me to my senses. “Hey, where did you go?” I asked. “Why’d you come back so late? Where did that girl go?”
“Oh, right,” he replied, sitting back up. “She’s over th-th-there.”
He pointed towards the other beds. Sure enough, there was one more child than earlier. In my shapeshifting jealousy, I had somehow missed that she was here in the dormitory the whole time.
He continued, “I found something for you in the s-s-storage room out back.”
“Found?” I laughed. I knew what that meant.
He picked up a small book from the bedside table. I didn’t recognize it. He must have brought it in while I was undressed. “Take a l-l-look!”
I opened the book and held it under the window so the light from the moons helped me see. “I don’t understand, Heath. These pages are blank.”
“They s-s-sure are!” he laughed, excitedly. “It’s a j-j-journal!”
I shifted uncomfortably, and probably noticeably. Keeping a journal was a practice in the temple amongst the Dawnbringers. Many of the other orphans took up the practice as part of their daily rituals as Awakened. Normally, one would write important events in his or her life in the journal, using it as a teaching tool during their travels. My life in the temple was miserable, except for my time with Heath. Why should I write? And what would I write about? I wasn’t an Awakened. “Thanks, Heath,” I said, trying to hide the awkwardness of this strange gift. “It’s lovely.”
He laughed again. “Yeah, I g-g-guess it’s a little weird, right? B-B-But this isn’t some religious journal unless you w-w-want it to be. It’s an adventure journal!”
A few months ago, Heath had suggested we go on adventures together when we grew up. For Heath’s part, I assumed he would be traveling as a Dawnbringer. I was likely to be kicked out of the temple when I came of age. We both entertained the idea of going on journeys together, but I knew it was never going to happen. Heath would become a Dawnbringer and would be too busy for me. Even so, the journal gave me hope somehow, and I smiled as I turned the blank pages. Rather than being a written journal for proselyting, an adventuring journal was very thoughtful.
There was a marking on the inside cover, small and in the corner, that I missed at first glance. It was in Heath’s handwriting, barely readable in the moonlight.
“Thank you, Heath! You’re the best!” I said. The darkness hid the tears in my eyes. He was always so kind.
“You know,” he said, watching me read the note. “We c-c-could start going on adventures already. N-N-No need to wait until we’re older.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like t-t-today,” he explained, laying back down. “In the forest. It was a small adventure, b-b-but I think it still counts.”
I watched him again arrange the blankets under his head, then laid down myself. Usually before we went to sleep, we reached out our hands to each other across the gap between our beds. It was my favorite part of the day. Tonight, he was hesitating for some reason. His hand stayed at his side, but I could see it fidgeting.
“Umm…” he started.
I waited for him to continue, but he stopped. I drew up the blankets to my shoulders, watching Heath. What was he thinking? My head was in his pillow. It still smelled like him.
“You l-l-look really p-p-pretty,” he whispered.
My heart skipped a beat.
He sat up immediately and faced me. “N-N-Not that you didn’t look nice before, I mean! You d-d-did! You do!” he stammered, awkwardly and overly loud. “You look p-p-pretty no matter what sh-sh-shape you’re in. You’re pretty anyway!”
“You think I’m pretty?” I giggled.
“Y-Y-Yeah,” he said, laying back down.
“Well,” I said, raising my head to look at him. I held out my hand, waiting. “I think you’re pretty, too.”
“D-D-Don’t say that,” he laughed, reaching out to me. Our fingers clasped together. “Boys aren’t p-p-pretty.”
“Don’t t-t-tease me, Flee.” Even in the darkness, I could see his face was as red as fire.