Aspirations

We all have our childhood aspirations. Little boys want to be superheroes. Little girls dream of becoming fairytale princesses. And little fairies dream of being powerful mages. Little Anton spent hours on end practicing his magic. Little things like disappearing in a blink of light or mending things that were broken were easily mastered. But the real magic, the casting of spells, was hard. And fairies weren’t allowed to know the magic of the mages.

Still, Anton dreamed of knowing how to cast spells to change men’s minds or make them fall in love. But laced among the mages’ spells were curses to cause great harm or death. Anton went to the village of a mage rumored to live in a tower above them all. He flew up the tower wall, becoming somewhat light-headed as he rose in the air. He was exhausted by the time he arrived at a narrow slit in the tower near the top and lay down for a moments rest.

Anton awoke moments later to find himself confined to a bird-cage sitting on a shelf in the mage’s workshop. The mage was busy mixing a potion and didn’t seem to notice that he was awake. He tried to free himself from the cage but the latch wouldn’t move. He rattled about the cage making all sorts of noise until he was tuckered out. He sat on the cage floor and watched the mage pour the potion into several small flacons.

When she had capped the last one, she wandered over to the cage. “My, you’re quite a spirited sprite, aren’t you?”

“Let me out of this cage!”

“Let yourself out.”

“I can’t. You’ve put a spell on the latch.”

“Nonsense! Try using the key.”

“Key? What key?”

“Oh, for goodness sake!” She reached into her pockets and pulled out a small silver key. “This key.” She handed the key to the fairy. “I thought that I had left it for you. I put you in there to protect you from the ravens.”

“Ravens?” Anton hadn’t thought to worry about the dangers of flying so high. He was suddenly grateful for the protection of the cage. After carefully scanning the room for ravens or owls, he let himself out of the cage. “Thank you for protecting me.”

“It was the least I could do for someone so desperate to see me. What is it that you came here for? A potion? Or a protection spell? For the life of me, I can’t imagine what a fairy would need to see a mage for.”

“I came here to learn to be a mage.”

“Hmm, so, you aspire to be a mage. Well, it’s good to have aspirations, but it’s best to keep them reasonable. You’ll never be a mage, no matter how much magic you learn. Fae are fae.” She picked him up and took him to a nearby slit in the stone wall. “Now, go home, fly back where you came from.” She set him down on the sill.

“No, I won’t go.” Anton stamped his foot for emphasis.

The mage slowly started pushing him to the edge of the sill. “Now, shoo! Go away! Fly on home.” With her last exhortation, she pushed him off the edge of the sill. Not to be dismissed so easily, Anton flew back inside, making a beeline for the cage, and locked himself in with the key. “Well, now, aren’t you a stupid little fellow?!”

“You won’t get rid of me that easily. I came here to become a mage. I intend to stay until it happens.”

“You’ll never become a mage. You’ll always be a fairy. What part of that don’t you understand?”

“What if I became a changeling?”

“Aren’t you too old for that?” The mage finished packing up her bag of potions for delivery and grabbed the cage before heading down the long spiral staircase inside the tower. She hung the cage on a hook just outside the heavy wooden door and hurried off to make her deliveries.

Her first stop was at the clockmaker’s house. Their child had run a fever for several days and the mage had mixed a potion to break the spell. The elixir was sweet with the taste of honey and smelled of lavender. “It should cleanse the child of the ill-humor in a day or so. Give the little one a spoonful, but only they when they complain of a raw throat.”

Her second stop was for tea with an old friend. Marta was waiting for her at the door. “Katya, come in before the tea goes cold.”

“I’m sorry that I was late. I had to deal with a little problem that rose up this morning.”

“Tell me about it!”

“I’d rather not. It’s such a minor nuisance. I’d much rather talk about your new suitor. You are still seeing Piotr, are you not?”

“Yes. And he has made it quite clear that he wants me for his wife. But Piotr is so boring. He’s as exciting as a block of cheese.”

Katya pulled out two of the flacons that she had prepared earlier and set one down on the tea-table and placed the other in a nearby cupboard. “I made some lavender honey this morning. I gave some to the clockmaker’s son and left the rest of it with his parent’s. Poor boy has a raging fever and his mother was beside herself. At least this way, she can feel that she is doing something besides worrying about him. He should be feeling much better in a day or two, but this way they are getting some water into him.”

Just as Katya picked up her teacup to take a sip, a small figure zipped into the room and settled on the table. Pointing the silver key at her, the small figure yelled at the top of his lungs. “Liar! You are no mage! It’s all tricks and traps and whatnot that I already know.”

Marta leaned in to take a good look at the livid fairy. “Oh, my! Isn’t he just adorable?”

“I thought that I left you locked in a birdcage hanging outside my door.”

“Yes, well, you also gave me a key.” Anton waggled the key in Katya’s face.

“So, I did.” She set her cup of tea down. “Will you go home now and leave me alone?” She grabbed the key and attempted to take it from him. As she lifted it up, he came with it. “Let go of the key or… or…” Katya didn’t want to convince him that she wasn’t a fraud. It was her best chance of getting him to go home.

“Or what?” He started to flap his wings. “You’ll turn me into a toad? Fat chance of that, you fraud. I’m keeping the key. You gave it to me, remember?”

Marta closed her hands around the fluttering fairy. “What exactly does he want?”

“He aspires to be a mage. Even went so far as to suggest becoming a changeling.”

“Oh! Once you go changeling there’s no going back. My parents found out the hard way. At least, they visit from time to time.” Marta uncapped her hands. “What’s your name?”

“I am Anton of the Grassy Pond.”

“Well, Anton of the Grassy Pond, my name is Marta of the Forest Glen. Except my parents gave me up as a changeling, then had a change of heart. Unfortunately, once done, the change cannot be undone. If I were you, I’d go home and aspire to be the best fairy in the kingdom of Grassy Pond.”

“But you’re not me. And I want to be a mage.” Anton glared at Katya. “A real mage, not a fake like her.” Seconds after feeling the impact of Marta’s open hand, Anton heard the dull thud of his body hitting the far wall of the small cottage.

“Ow! What’d you do that for?” Anton drifted slowly to the floor. Katya ran over and knelt in time to catch him in her hands before he hit the hard clay. Grateful for the soft landing, Anton wanly smiled at her. “Thank you for your kindness. I think I broke a wing.”

“I can bandage it for you. You won’t be able to fly until it heals. It will give you time to decide if you really want to be stuck on the ground with the rest of us mere mortals.” Katya set Anton down on the table next to her bag and took out some bandages. She carefully wrapped his broken wing and tied both of his wings flat against his body. “There’ll be no flying for you for at least a week.”

“I can’t go home. And I can’t stay here.” Anton paced back and forth across the table top. “And I’ve lost the key.”

Katya smiled. “Climb into my bag. I’ll take you home with me until you heal. Perhaps you have a thing or two to teach me about healing potions and elixirs.” She winked at Marta. “I’m sorry that our tea was cut short. Tomorrow then?” Marta nodded as Katya slung the bag handle over her shoulder and started off back to the tower.

Katya unhooked the open birdcage before walking through the tower door. She trudged up the long spiral stairs stopping a few doors short of the workshop. She set the birdcage down on the table and hung her bag up on a peg attached to the wall. She reached inside with her hand and pulled out the feisty little sprite.

“You’ll be quite safe here. The ravens can’t get past the iron bars.” Katya rummaged around in a chest of drawers and pulled out a small round cushion and a small quilted square and placed them inside the cage. A tiny bolster would serve as a pillow.

Anton sheepishly apologized for calling her a fake. “I’m sorry to have insulted you in front of your friend. And I’m sorry to have lost the key.”

Katya laughed. “You mean that you’re sorry you got your wing broken. But don’t worry about the key. It always turns up, usually in my pocket. I can’t seem to get rid of the bloody thing. To be honest, I would have let you keep it, but I didn’t think you’d like the consequences.”

“I don’t understand.” Katya smiled and rummaged through a pocket before pulling out the key. “My key!” She placed the key inside the birdcage. Before leaving him for the evening, she set out some bread and water for the little fae. Anton watched as she left before leaving the safety of the cage. He made a beeline for the bread and water. The bread had been cubed into manageable chunks. There was a thimble to be used for scooping water from the bowl. “Well,” he announced to the room, “she’s a thoughtful fake.”

“Careful what you say.” The voice came through one of the windows. “She’s a powerful mage, she is. A dangerous one to boot.”

Anton walked as close to the edge of the table as he dared to get a look at the speaker. “Who are you?” He heard the ruffling of feathers and saw the shadow of a wing. “You’re a raven. Why should I pay any attention to you?”

“I used to be a thief until she cursed me. Now, I steal things of no value, although the occasional coin comes my way. But what use is a coin to a raven?”

“All ravens are thieves. And some it seems are liars as well.”

“You doubt me, sprite? You would do best to heed my words. And hers as well. She calls herself Katya now. But she was known elsewhere as Malice, the Scourge of the Kingdom. I followed her here when she fled. I try to warn people, but no one listens. She built the tower to protect the people because sometimes she rages in her sleep. Below you, a dragon slumbers in the dark.”

Katya had gone back to the clockmaker’s house to sit with the son. The parents had not slept in days, but she knew they would rest well knowing their child was under her watchful eye. The father’s snores were music to her ears as she tended to the boys fevered body. As expected, the fever broke just before dawn. His parents awoke to their son sipping some honey tea and complaining about being hungry.

Katya returned to the tower to be greeted by the raven she had named Bob. “What mischief have you been up to, Bob?”

“I was speaking to you, wee guest. He’s locked himself inside the cage and swallowed the key, he has.”

Rummaging through her pocket, she soon pulled out a small silver key. “You mean this key?” Bob the raven nodded. “Well, I doubt he believed anything you had to say about me. He’s convinced himself that I am not a real mage. And it’s just as well. As soon as he heals, he will be gone.”

“He could be gone quicker, if you’d let me have him.” Bob winked at Katya.

“No, Bob. There’ll be no eating of guests. He may be a bother, but he is off-limits. Go find some mice to snack on.” Rather than argue with Katya, Bob flew off to scan the fields for mice.

Katya slowly climbed the stairs, tired from having stayed up to watch the clockmaker’s son. She was looking forward to getting some sleep after tending to her guest. He was asleep when she arrived and a light touch on the broken wing told her all she needed to know. He was healing faster than expected, but he was still days away from being able to fly. She hung up her bag and cloak, then walked over to her bedstead. She unlaced her shoes and slipped them off. She unwrapped the cloth binding her feet and wiggled her toes. Then she lay down on her thick quilted mattress and fell asleep.

When Katya woke up, she saw Anton sitting on the edge of the table swinging his feet. “Good morning,” she mumbled.

“Good afternoon!” he replied. “I knew that bloody raven was lying to me. You don’t turn into a dragon when you sleep.”

“Only in my dreams.” Katya stood and walked across the floor to brew some tea. The fire in the small hearth had gone cold and Katya was feeling too impatient to wait. She snapped her fingers after setting a new log into place and it burst into flames. She drew water from the cistern on the tower roof and set it to boil. She sat down at the table and let out a yawn.

Anton walked over to where she sat and stared her down. “Where were you last night? Was it some secret mage meeting? I saw you start the fire. You can’t deny being a mage anymore.”

“Geez, you sound like my father. But if you must know, I spent the night tending to the clockmaker’s son. His parents hadn’t slept in days worrying about him. Speaking of which, won’t your parents be worried about you? You’re still basically a child.”

“I’m not a child! I’m all of ten moons and will be eleven soon.”

Katya shook her head. “Not even four seasons old. Like I said, you are a child.”

“I’m old enough to know my own mind. And I want to be a mage.”

“Well, you can’t. You can study all the magic you want, but you’ll always be a fairy.”

“Not if I’m a changeling!”

At that moment, Marta entered the room. “Is he still going on about that?” Katya shrugged. Marta sat at the table. “Listen, Shorty. If you become a changeling, you’ll have no magic at all. What little you have now will be gone. Poof! No more!”

“The water is almost ready for tea. ‘Shorty’ saw me light the fire. I was too tired to use the flint.”

Marta reached down into the basket that she had brought with her and pulled out a cloth-wrapped package and some shiny red orbs. “I brought some cheddar and apples to go with your stale bread and hot tea.”

Anton walked over to the cloth package and inhaled deeply. “It smells like a fine cheddar. I shall be wanting of it a piece for myself.”

“Finally! A reasonable request. Will miracles never cease?!” Marta slowly unwrapped the cheddar and cut off a sliver for the fae. “I suppose you’ll be wanting a slice of apple to go with?” She reached for the apple and cut a sliver to match the cheese.

Anton held the cheese and apple slivers at his side and bowed. “Thank you for this gracious and generous repast, Milady.”

Marta smiled. “You’re very welcome, Shorty”

“My name’s Anton, if you don’t mind.”

“Tell me, Anton. Why do you aspire to be a mage? A mage’s life is terrible and lonely. People don’t welcome them unless they serve a useful purpose. For example, if Katya  didn’t go around as a healer of the sick and wounded, people would lock up the tower door. And she also has the job of lighting the signal fire should the need for it ever arise. Other than that, she doesn’t even want to be a mage.”

“When my parents discovered that I was a mage, they abandoned me to the care of others like me, accusing me of being a changeling. None of us are changelings. But I was a child with no interest in practicing magic. I ran away the first chance and found my way to a village where no one knew what I was. I grew up a normal child, learning the healing arts from the one who took me in. There was another child in the house, about my age.” Katya winked at Marta.

“What about Bob?”

“Bob is a raven. He likes to steal shiny things. He must have stolen that silver key at least a dozen times before discovering its enchantment. Now, he makes up tales as revenge for the joke I played on him. Fortunately, no one puts much stock in what a raven says. They aren’t known for their truthfulness.”

“What if Bob isn’t really a raven?” The decidedly male voice came from a tall raven-haired young man standing in the doorway. “What if Bob is really under an enchantment? Cursed by some cruel mage.” The male visitor entered the room and took a seat at the table.

“Well, don’t look at me! I’ve been very careful not to enchant anything since that damned silver birdcage key. And I wouldn’t dream of using my magic on a person.”

“No, I suppose not. Pity though that you weren’t better versed in magic.” The young man pared an apple and ate each slice as he them cut off.

“Bah! The village tolerates me because I don’t go around casting spells. I tend the watchtower. I practice the healing arts. And I keep to myself mostly. Before Anton barged in, I only had three visitors. My sister Marta, Bob the Raven, and you, dear Robby.”

“What if the Raven isn’t telling whole lies?” Anton walked over to Robby. “What if the Raven can’t tell the truth, but can tell part of the truth as long as the whole of it is a lie?” He winked at Robby. “What if…”

“That’s enough ‘what ifs’ for now.” Katya grabbed Anton and dropped him inside the cage, closing and latching the door.

“It’ll take more than that to shut me up!” Anton yelled through the bars of the cage. “What if Robby and Bob are one and the same?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Katya unwrapped the cheese and offered a slice to Robby.

“Have you paid any attention at all to Bob’s stories? Surely, you’ve noticed that there are some constants, some things that never change.” Anton reached through the bars trying to signal that he wanted more cheese.

“I never thought about it before.” Marta glanced over at Robby. “We only see Robby once a month and only at night. Maybe Shorty, sorry, Anton has a point.”

Katya ignored Anton and wrapped the cheese back up. “I can’t believe that we are even having this conversation. But, fine! Tell me the fairy truth behind Bob’s outrageous tales.”

The Raven’s Curse (as told by Anton)

Once upon a time, in a far-off kingdom, there lived a young prince named Robert. The raven-haired boy was denied nothing by the members of the court. He grew into a spoiled young man used to taking what he wanted.

One day, on a journey through a village, he stopped at an inn for some repast. There was a party being held to celebrate the upcoming wedding of the owner’s daughter. She was a lithe young maiden and young Robert was determined to have her. He approached her father and asked to speak to him in private. The father, recognizing the young prince, was more than happy to have a private audience and led him into the inn’s kitchen.

Robert demanded his right to exercise ‘jus primae noctis’ on the maiden’s wedding night. The old innkeeper was both shocked and dismayed by the request, but begrudgingly acquiesced. The girl’s future husband had overheard the conversation and took great offense at the gall of the young prince. He did not wish to have his bride defiled on her wedding day.

The young mage set about working a punishment for the prince. He wanted something befitting the crime. Thinking long and hard about the prince’s intent to steal the innocence of his bride from him, he settled on a curse from which the prince would find hard to escape. He knew the danger of casting a curse without an escape, as all magical creatures know, would be to suffer some dire curse of his own.

The following morning, the day of the wedding, the young prince awoke in the form of a raven. His own guards chased him off and set out looking for him. While they returned to the castle to inform his parents of his disappearance, the raven sought to appease those who had cursed him.

When the prince tried to apologize to the innkeeper and his daughter, they ignored him and tried to send him away. Fearing the raven to be a bad omen, the innkeeper called for his future son-in-law for help. The young mage caged the raven and sent him far away.

And that brings us to the present day. Our young prince cannot ask for his freedom from the curse, but he can tell others about it in half-truths. And one night a month, he can be human from dusk until dawn. But whether the curse can be removed, he does not know.

“Well, Miss Katya, can it be?” Robby picked up the cage. “Perhaps while you think it over, you could let the little man out of the cage.”

“I have no idea. I lived among the mages from age three to age seven. I ran away after four years of being ignored and told to be quiet and not touch anything. I did not feel wanted there anymore than at my local village. I didn’t have a home until Miss Anya took me in. I had two talents that I made use of on Anya’s small farm. I could start fires in the hearth and put out fires elsewhere. I know nothing of curses or spells. Ask me about poultices and herbs. Those I know about.” Katya unlocked the cage and took out the fae. She set him down and went about examining his wounded wing. “Well, Anton, it looks like you’ll be able to fly back home in a day or two. I can leave the bandages off today, if you’d like.”

Anton nodded. “But what about Bob? Can you help him?”

“No, but maybe you can.” Katya sat at the table. “I’ve never paid much attention to his stories. He must have mentioned something about what would break the curse. The mage would have to have told him how he could get out of it. A lesson learned, perhaps?”

Anton looked at Robby. “Why is it that you keep coming here? You know she knows no magic to help you, yet you return every full moon to visit her and her sister. It must not be magic that breaks it. It must be something else.”

“If it were that simple, I’d be free of it. I have given up caring about anything but this one night of freedom.”

“Heh,” Marta replied. “You don’t care about your freedom much given the number of times you have locked yourself in that cage. If I didn’t know better, I’d think that you cared about Katya.”

“If I didn’t know better, Marta, I’d think you’d been into your father’s ale!”

“Speaking of father, I’d best get home to him. I’ll be by tomorrow with more apples.” Marta hugged Katya and nodded at Robby. As she was leaving, she turned in the doorway. “Good night, Shorty! Stay out of trouble.”

He ran to the edge of the table while he yelled, “my name’s Anton!” Robby managed to catch him before he fell to the floor.

“She knows, Shorty.” Katya laughed. Anton stormed over to where she sat and glared up at her. “Seriously?” He tapped his foot. “Sorry.” She stretched and yawned. “I’m tired. But the two of you are welcome to stay and keep company while I rest.”

Robby waited while Katya lay down to rest. “It’s taking all her strength to stay human. Any other full moon and she’d be a small dragon. She aspires to be human. Even her sister knows the truth about her. You’ll see, if you can stay awake the whole night.”

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