The brown-speckled finch rose and fell on the blasting polar wind, not stopping his lurches or dives for anything that beckoned from below.
My influence already showed in the way his frantic flight passed by a pond with a chipped out fishing hole, blessedly fluid water that would have soothed his parched throat. And next, blurring beneath in a haze, a gathering of young raccoons squabbling over bits of dried meat he could have stolen with his lightning quick dive.
Yet something drove him on. Something powerful and important. I couldn’t imagine why he wouldn’t just come home where it was safe and warm.
This wasn’t what I’d imagined beast-magic to be like. I thought I’d see the world with an eagle’s clarity, feel the pumping power of a snow leopard, or slip through the icy deep as the water slicked past my leathery skin.
Beast-magic wasn’t about me, not even a little bit. It wasn’t about what I could take, but what I could give.
Seeing the world skim by through his beady eyes, I guided him as best I knew how. I’d never touched a beast’s mind before. I’d only used my gifts inherited from my father, the ability to seek out what I most desired. I’d only used it before to find my mother when I’d lose her hand in a crowd, or when my older sisters told me I couldn’t best them in a game of hide-and-seek.
Now I used my father’s gifts for my beast. My magic burned through him, seeking something that meant more to him than his own life.
His desperate search jolted forward with my mind pushing from behind, finding the drifting hints on the winds.
When I sensed we were close, he burst his wings into action, launching through a small patch of magic that had triggered the scent. Every successful plunge lit up the sky, and what a sight that was. How I wished I could wake Papa and show him how wrong he was about beast-magic. It didn’t make me go mad. I didn’t lose myself. This was the most incredible, wonderful thing in the world.
Soft blue lights winked through the trees like snowflakes— but I knew what they were. Motes, the essence of life. Something my bird sought was here, and it was something alive.
The motes clung to one another, drawn to a single spot on a snow-covered tree. Whatever my bird sought was there, and my own heart leapt with his surge of joy.
My bird flattened his wings to his tiny frame and plummeted the short distance from sky to branch, snapping them out at the last possible moment in a way I’d only seen predator birds do when coming upon their prey.
In a jolt of ecstasy and panic, I realized my beast was speaking to me.
I licked my lips and pushed out my thoughts, Where?
He fluttered to a branch, only stopping long enough to quiver the snow off his feathers in a short, violent shake. His talons, smaller than my sewing needles, latched onto the frozen twig.
Here! Here! he exclaimed as he bounced over to a shadow gouged into the tree.
A hawk’s screech burst through his elation and my finch dove to the side.
Red, searing pain blistered through my vision.
My bed exploded as I lurched free. I jerked on fur-lined boots and shivered in my thin nightgown. I hadn’t planned on risking Papa’s wrath, but I couldn’t just leave him to die.
Pausing at my eldest sister’s room, I grabbed a fistful of pink handkerchiefs off her nightstand. She could kill me later.
Papa’s snores made up for my lack in stealth, camouflaging every thump and curse as I clambered down the ladder.
Rescuing Papa’s thick coat from the top hook proved a challenge, and two sharp yanks won a rip and clatter as the iron hook fell to the floor.
Not turning to see if the ruckus had brought anyone out of their slumber, I wrapped myself tight and squeezed through the doorway.
Outside, I stuffed the handkerchiefs in the coat pocket and shivered more than I should have. I was born for the cold, but not a beast-match. I wasn’t supposed to take after my mother. Not when she’d died of heartbreak after loosing too many beasts-bonds. Papa said she’d lost all hope, and that’s what happened to any who made use of their beast-magic.
Yet, in spite of his warning, kindling my beast-magic helped me keep her alive. I had no hope, but I had her magic.
Are you still there? I reached for my plumed friend.
My heart lurched and my throat went dry.
Then his voice tumbled in my mind like a disoriented child. I gathered what was left of it, putting the scattering sounds together enough to form one word.
His mind was so weak, so faint.
Find someplace warm, safe, I pleaded, sending as much strength as I could his way.
Can’t… leave, his voice broke in a short burst of pain before I lost the thread of our connection to the winds.
Tears froze and scratched at the edges of my eyes.
I’d only just found him. It couldn’t end like this!
I hoisted up the heavy coat and broke into a run.
I’m coming! Hold on!
In spite of the toil of trudging through snow, I raced, lifting my knees high and bounding through the piles of fluff as best I could. My lungs burned, each new breath coming with fresh shards gripping inside my chest.
I crested the last mound and found the tree. Blue snowflakes drifted around it like magical fireflies, guiding me to my heart’s desire.
To my feathered friend, the tree had seemed enormous. Yet the trunk I approached was barely taller than I.
My heart fractured at the sight of all that was left against the bark, a crimson slash of red and three brown-speckled feathers.
Tears and desperation brought fresh heat spreading across my chest.
He should have been in a nest, hidden in his cubby behind the barn. Or he could have listened, and nuzzled with me under the bedsheets. Why, instead, was he here? What could be so important he’d give his life?
The answer came by way of the faintest of sounds and a knocking at my heart.
Holding my breath, I approached the bloodied scene and found what had been so important to my lost friend.
Poking out of the small gouge in the tree was a tiny beak surrounded by a puff of feathers. My eyes misted again, the trails of moisture freezing on my cheeks.
“There, little one. I’ll take care of you.”
On the walk home, I understood why my father had kept this magic from me. My heart was broken into a thousand pieces. I could have died in that very spot. There was nothing more that I wanted but to follow my mother and my bird into the numbing darkness.
Peeking inside the coat pocket, the chick’s wrinkled eyes closed and he puffed cozily against the handkerchiefs. Slight peeps of protest rang through the cloth, letting me know it was too cold. I smiled, and decided to name him Hope.