It had taken Belian years to draw the conclusion that the reclusive old man at the outskirts of his village was a world-shaper, a practice thought extinct with the disappearance of the giants, and years more to convince him to take a pupil. By then Belian was considered a man, but just. More to get out from under his mother’s suspicious gaze than anything, they set out to explore what the world might teach. When they encountered a trading town where the founders had chosen the circle as their central design concept, the wandering teacher and apprentice finally settled down.
“The circle is a powerful symbol,” said teacher. “There’s work we can do in this place.”
The town of Azminan, thanks to easy roads and docks nestled in a large protected bay, had all of the indications of prosperity to come. Already many cultures had been drawn to the place for trade, their contributions evident in the architecture, art and cuisine. The two men settled into a home near the circle that indicated the heart of the town and set to work.
The townsfolk, in the absence of offered names, began to refer to the men as the magicians. Belian didn’t know his teacher’s name. He never would. All his life, he’d only heard the world shaper referred to as ‘Old Man.’ Belian’s first lesson had been to cast aside his own name and he hadn’t uttered it to a soul since then, until he met Ansa.
He spied her first when she came into Azminan with her mother to trade meat for cloth. She stole the air from the market. Her large eyes were careful and alert, and in the moment that they spent appraising him, seemed to learn more than he’d be able to form into words in a lifetime. She moved with the fluid grace of the wild and her soft voice made him dream of intimate singing; the kind reserved for him alone; and someday their children.
Belian tucked his infatuation out of teacher’s view and was careful to hide his distraction in the days to follow, blaming lapses on the sleep he was losing keeping up with his studies. That much was true, anyhow. Teacher, normally a man from whom it was impossible to conceal anything, was caught up in an obsession of his own, and didn’t catch Belian’s deception.
The more teacher delved into the possibilities posed by a town built on circular principals, the more frenzied he became. Teacher’s distraction lent Belian time to seek out Ansa’s village. His reception from Ansa was one of coy curiosity. Her clansmen were less warm. On several occasions he was chased off by protective uncles, or brothers, or their dogs. It seemed there were always dogs present. Closer scrutiny proved them not just any dogs, but wolves. Belian’s curiosity was piqued. Wolves and humans rarely coexisted, to his knowledge, and certainly not in the numbers he’d seen. Feigning mild interest in local cultures, he began to ask questions.
None of the Azminians knew much about them. Their village hadn’t been there long, though there was a sense that the same people had kept villages not far away in other regions of the forest. They were always fair in their trading, and otherwise kept to themselves.
“They’re wolf people,” said teacher.
Belian started. He hadn’t sensed teacher’s approach while talking with a basket merchant about Ansa’s mysterious clan. He could always tell when teacher was nearby and inwardly he scolded himself for being unaware. In world-shaping, a lapse in awareness could be catastrophic. Teacher uncharacteristically took no notice of Belian’s turmoil. He was headed somewhere and expected Belian to fall into step. Belian quickly followed.
“They can change on will,” teacher was saying. He was walking swiftly and consulting a silver disc that he held out as if it were giving him directions. It likely was. “They’re extremely private,” he muttered, coming to an abrupt stop. Teacher looked around at the people trading and grunted. “Wrong time,” he grumbled.
Belian had learned long ago that the things teacher said and did most often did not make sense in the moment, but with patience, would become clear eventually. He decided not to ask what they were doing with that disc. “Is shape-shifting something we could learn how to do?” he asked instead.
“I suppose,” teacher mused, his attention still on the crowd. “Now, the stone eating tribe south of here may be of more interest to you,” he said, walking once more. The disc had disappeared to a pocket and teacher’s gaze was once more alert and present. “Their skin has taken on many of the qualities of the minerals they eat. Nearly impossible to penetrate. I hear they’ve become somewhat aggressive in their perceived invincibility.”
Belian feigned interest in the rock-skinned people until he had a chance to separate from teacher. Then his whole mind was on the key to winning Ansa’s heart. It made perfect sense now why her people thought he was wrong for her. He couldn’t shift into a wolf… yet. Belian took his studies into a new direction. The multicultural influences in Azminan proved to his benefit when it came to finding existing tales of rituals to change form. Most were absurd but a few held some promise.
Each full moon when teacher secluded himself in his studio with strict orders not to be disturbed, Belian seized the opportunity to experiment. Around the time that Belian managed to get a tremor to run through his skin during an experiment, though, Ansa told him that her family was about to move their village again. She had slipped away to meet Belian in a series of old tunnels they’d found snaking under the town.
“We never know where,” she said. “My father decides when we’ve found the right place and then we set up our homes.”
“How will I see you again?” asked Belian, cold panic rising inside.
“I don’t suppose you will,” she said, and her eyes studied him sadly. “It’s for the best, Belian,” she added. “We’re not alike, you and I.”
“What if I can change that?” he asked. “Would you be with me then?”
“That’s impossible,” she said, drifting back toward the surface.
Belian grabbed her hand. “What if it isn’t?” he pressed. “I can do many things you’d think impossible. I can change the elements. I can manipulate time. I can…” already he had an idea. “I can stop you from aging. I’ve already stopped my own. Then it wouldn’t matter how long it takes. I’ll find a way to be with you, Ansa.”
Ansa took a step backward and removed her hand from his grasp. “These are words of madness,” she said. He could see that she was afraid.
“They aren’t, you’ll see,” he said, stepping away from her so she’d feel less threatened. “You’ll see, Ansa. We have all the time in the world. And I’ll find you once I’ve discovered how to be like you.” He hesitated. “A wolf,” he added.
She gazed at him for a long, frightened moment, and in a flash of white, was gone. He smiled and knelt to pick up a thin hair still drifting lazily to the tunnel floor. Her wolf form was pure white, like fresh snow. Even as a wolf she was beautiful. His smile widened. That she had transformed in front of him could only be her acceptance of his proposal; her trust. He gathered what he needed in a quick walk through the woods on his way back home and by nightfall it had been done. Ansa would not age from that day. Now, he just needed to complete transitioning into a wolf.
When teacher took on another pupil it seemed that fate was on Belian’s side. Teacher’s attention was divided even more between his investigation of Azminan’s resonant potential and training the woman who’d appeared in the market one day while teacher waited with his silver disc. Belian’s experiments, however, bore no fruit. Month after month, and then year after year, the closest he came was that maddening tremor. He began to make small trips under the guise of collecting histories from interesting cultures. Teacher encouraged his curiosity. In truth, Belian was looking for tales of shape-changing people. In truth, he was still looking for Ansa. He was beginning to consider it a measure of cruelty that she had not come back, at least to reassure him that she was still well. He’d stopped her aging, but that wouldn’t protect her from harm. Any accident or predator could easily take her from him.
After exhausting every transformative ritual he could learn, Belian changed his focus to transforming smaller creatures from one form to another. This bore more results, though those were often frightful, and he had to put his test subject out of its misery quickly.
Belian retreated to the cottage Ansa had lived in each full moon to further his experiments. A library formed from his many journals. Eventually he dug a secret underground room to conduct the experiments without the threat of discovery, and to house the animals. Finally, when he’d taken his research as far as he’d be able to without making the leap to experimenting on himself again, he found he was suddenly reluctant. Even when the transformation appeared successful, the creature was generally inconsolable, unprepared to be anything other than itself. At least, that was his best guess. What if the problem was deeper, though?
Belian’s answer came in the form of a traveler well into his wine. The man, though he’d spent the afternoon and evening in pursuit of the bottom of a jug, had failed to attract much notice from the other patrons of the tavern. It was a simple matter of offering the traveler a place to sleep and guiding him to the abandoned village the night before the full moon. Belian took him a hearty breakfast the next morning, and returned later with lunch. The traveler, finding himself fed and sheltered, relaxed with the meal and fresh jug of wine, and by nightfall was snoring loudly.
Since Ansa’s people had left no wolves had been seen in the area. Without a live specimen, Belian was forced to use the single hair he’d collected from Ansa years before. The result was incomplete, and somewhat unsettling. The traveler transformed into something close to a wolf. The differences were difficult to pinpoint beyond a sense of something about the animal being wrong. Still, his larger question was answered. The wolf’s eyes held intelligence, and he exhibited no difficulties eating when presented a helping of roast rabbit.
The next day, Belian found in the wolf’s cage the traveler, looking bewildered and afraid. The man had no recollection of his transformation the night before. Belian fed him a story of becoming violent with drink as explanation for his imprisonment and sent him on his way with a meal in his pack. He set to work in his library, trying to figure out how to make the transformation something he could trigger whenever he wished, and hopefully without the amnesia. He’d also need a live wolf when it came time for his own transformation.
He sensed suddenly that he wasn’t alone and stepped out from the cottage. Teacher? He calmed his thoughts and focused on the feeling. Not teacher. He stepped into the woods and waited. Ansa stepped into view. Again, she stole his breath, as she had the first time he saw her.
“I haven’t aged,” she said. There was something of an accusation in her tone.
“I needed time to find a way,” said Belian.
“A woman shouldn’t have to outlive her grandchildren,” she said.
Belian swallowed a painful lump. To have grandchildren she’d have had children, who weren’t his. But grandchildren… he tried to calculate how much time had passed but couldn’t. If it had been generations then his own family would be gone by now. He hadn’t intended to stay away for so long.
“I’m the last of my people,” she added, and the accusation was apparent.
“Why didn’t you come back?” he asked. “I stopped your aging because I love you. It was the only way we could be together. I really thought you’d come back. I thought… you felt the same.”
“I came,” she said, stepping closer. “Your wife said you were traveling.”
“My wi… I’m not married.”
There was silence as they found no more words to say to each other.
“I’m close now,” Belian said finally. “I can be like you…”
Ansa shook her head. “That doesn’t matter anymore,” she said. “You said you love me. Do you still?”
“Always,” he breathed.
“Then we’re together now,” she smiled.
In that moment Belian found that whatever had happened, or gone awry in the years that had passed, no longer mattered to him. He led her back to the cottage and they began to build their new life together. The days that followed were the most peaceful of Belian’s life. Teacher expressed distaste at Belian’s decision to take a mate but he didn’t forbid it. With Ansa there the village seemed to come to life again. Their cottage was soon surrounded by the colors and scents of small forest flowers and filled with the sound of laughter.
Belian’s happiness lasted only a few weeks, however. Returning from Azminan one day, Belian found Ansa waiting for him with her arms folded and a shadow in her large eyes. She threw a journal at his feet.
“I was raised to believe that all living things deserve respect,” she spat. “That those creatures others thought monsters were misunderstood. That is, until I came to know you.”
“Ansa…” Belian stuttered, but Ansa screamed.
“No! You don’t get to speak! How dare you commit these atrocities in the name of love? Love for me! I’m sickened! You understand nothing of me if you’re willing to do this!” She waved her arm toward a gathering of creatures scattered around the clearing. Belian recognized his surviving experiments.
“Please,” he begged, “let me explain.”
But Ansa was gone, and he knew he wouldn’t see her again. That night he burned the cottage and its library. When he returned to teacher and the other apprentice, he shrugged and said it hadn’t worked out with a smile manufactured to sell indifference. While they didn’t buy his nonchalance, they were kind enough to move on without discussion.
During the next full moon, Belian found his own way to the bottom of a wine jug. He woke in the moonlight with a pounding head and wet cheeks, lying on a bed of ash. He’d returned to the abandoned village. He stumbled to his feet and tried to orient himself back toward Azminan, but froze. A wolf emerged from the trees, teeth bared. There was something wrong about the wolf, though it was hard to say what. And then he recognized him. The traveler.
Belian acknowledged the justice as he felt the wolf’s teeth sink deep.
Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Comments are welcome at www.farsideofdreams.com. Oh, and if you want to show your support, tell your friends about this short story blog – and pick up a copy of “The Statues of Azminan” by W. C. McClure. Thanks!