It was a cool autumn morning, Tinka woke feeling the dew on her fur as she woke. She blinked away the sleepiness from her eyes and yawned. As her eyes came into focus and the light streamed through the shrubs, the folded note in front of her was clear. Nestor. At least he didn't put it in an envelope this time. She pushed the note open and read it.
I think I got it this time! I swear! I'm so close, but I need your help. Get to the laboratory as soon as you can.
She ran her tongue over her teeth and stared at the note, feeling the compelling pull of his request. He helped her out of that trap one time, one time, and now she was stuck owing him. Life debts were a curse. Not helping him wasn't an option, he asked, she had to answer.
Tinka arrived on the other side of the forest to the stone tower where Nestor did his work, or at least attempted to work, he was admittedly not good at it. She gave a kick to the heavy wooden door when she arrived. She heard him running around inside the tower talking to himself. She kicked the door again. "Nestor!" Wood and metal tools hit the floor inside and she could feel the chaos the day with him would bring. She muttered to herself, "Gaia, get me through this." She could hear the pitter-patter of his boots swiftly descend the stairs.
The iron locks clanked from the other side of the door. Considering how heavy the oak door was, he opened it easily. "Tink! Yes. You got my note. Come on. We have work to do!" He ran back up the stairs and she followed slowly.
"You have work to do. I have a life to live. There's a difference," she said. Whether or not he heard or acknowledged her, she didn't care. She didn't like the confined space of his tower as she ascended the stairs, it was dusty and cold; a different kind of dusty and cold of her home, at least the forest had fresh air. The tower stairs smelled stale. Nestor was talking consistently on the walk up, but she wasn't paying attention. He got to the top level, his laboratory, first and kept running around, prepping ingredients, talking about his latest discovery of a new translation of a book. She didn't understand half of what he was talking about, and it seemed like he didn't either.
"If I translate the runes backwards, it makes the whole thing work. It requires dead-living, not living-dead. I mean, undead bodies in the transfiguration used to make so much sense because of bodies, ground, mines, of course. But!" He held up some ingredients and she stared blankly at him. "If I get something that's dead-living it removes the risk, makes the formula work, and, AND!" He brought the book over to her, as if it would make a difference to her if she read it herself. "Will turn lead into gold!"
She looked at the giddy man in his working robes, his hands calloused and nails bitten. "Nestor, do you want to know what I had to eat this morning?"
"What did you eat this morning?"
"I was walking over here and I saw a meadowlark hit a red oak tree, stun itself, and hit the ground. I wasted no time to go over to that stunned lark and eat it while it was still breathing. I was hungry. I felt that bird sing its last note in my mouth. It is too risky for me to get close to the village to find anything else to eat. I regret nothing." She said it dryly. "Until you can turn lead into something else that I can eat, why should I care about gold?"
The horror on Nestor's face grew as she told him what she did. "I need to borrow your pelt." He said quickly.
"I beg your bucking pardon?"
"I shouldn't have said that differently." Nestor said looking at his book. "Dead-living." He pointed to the runes in the book, they both knew she couldn't read them. "I need dead tissue that's still alive. Cut hair is just dead, it won't work. Same if it comes out at the root, it dies too quickly and there's not enough of it." He touched her back. "But, the pelt of someone like a deer selkie. Your hair which is always living, even after your pelt is off, will work. It will make the transfiguration work!" He was giddy again, bouncing in place.
"I have two questions and a statement. One. How dare you? Two. How do you sleep at night? Three." She felt the compelling pull of his request. She sighed, looking around the room. "You better have something comfortable for me to wear."
"Yes!" Nestor squeezed his eyes closed, shook his fist happily, baltering in place. He didn't see Tinka roll her eyes. "I have an extra robe for you on the chair.
She sighed and her hooves clacked on the stone that showed on the floor. She wasn't sure which felt less comfortable: enclosed stone of the tower or the rugs under hoof. She looked at the robe on the chair and back over at Nestor preparing ingredients; her ears twitched. At least it looks more comfortable than the one he's wearing. She slipped out of her pelt and into her human form. She wrapped herself in Nestor's coal-grey robe with the yellow threads on the cuffs; at least it smelled clean. Her human hair draped over her shoulders, the same copper-red color as her pelt. She cinched the robe closed with a rope he left there. Her bare feet padded across the rug; it was a more pleasant feeling on human feet. She stood behind him, "Here."
"You can set it down. I'll grab it when I need it." He didn't turn as he said it, he kept measuring and weighing ingredients.
"You know I can't allow that. I need to give it to you."
He turned around quickly taking her pelt from her hands. "Fine." He plopped it on his work table.
"You know I can't replace that right? You could stand to be a little more careful," Tinka said bitterly.
Nestor stopped working. He turned back around and saw Tinka looking up at him. She was swimming in his robe, looking more than a little angry. He ran his hands over his face sighing. "I am this close Tink. If I can make this work, I won't be an apprentice alchemist anymore. The grand masters will have to accept me. They will have to tell me all the conclave's secrets." He waved his hand in a circle, "Including...?"
"Release of a life debt?" She said hopefully.
"Exactly. It's a win-win situation."
"I don't need to do anything else?" She asked skeptically.
"I've got some bread and cheese that's about to turn. It's yours if you're still hungry." He offered turning his back gesturing to the food.
Tinka grinned wide. "Cheese! I never get cheese." She grabbed the platter and ate alternating bites of bread and cheese. "Buck, yeah! You're not always as cruel as you claim to be."
"All in moderation. But that's somewhat odd coming from someone who ate a live bird for breakfast. I've never heard of such evil." He lined up all his ingredients. "I'm ready. You might want to stand back." Nestor said in front of his cauldron, holding a lump of lead.
"I can keep eating, right?" Tinka asked.
Nestor didn't answer her. He started reading the incantation on the page of the book and adding the ingredients to the cauldron. Tinka finished the cheese and munched on the bread and watched him work as if it was theater. He threw another ingredient in the cauldron causing white flames burst from inside.
"Is it working?" She asked.
Nestor nodded and kept chanting. He circled the cauldron, saying the incantation, adding the ingredients, and throwing in lump after lump of lead. Finally the flames withdrew themselves into a silvery liquid that stirred itself into a vortex. He took Tinka's pelt, and belted out the last line of the incantation, hurling it into the cauldron. A boom erupted from the cauldron and they both screamed as golden-yellow smoke filled the room. They were both coughing as Nestor opened the windows to let the smoke out. He quickly went to the cauldron, looked in, and saw the lumps of lead he tossed in moments earlier in the now clear liquid. His heart sank. He took his tongs, reached them in, and pulled out the lump of lead. As the liquid dripped off, Nestor's smile grew and a tear ran down his face. The alchemist was successful. He quickly pulled out all the large nuggets of what were once lead and as soon as they were dry, they were now gold.
"It worked. It worked!"
"No it bucking didn't." Said Tinka across the room.
"Of course it di-" Nestor turned to look at Tinka and she was not sitting in his chair munching on bread anymore. She was on his table, in the form of a giant scarlet macaw.
"What did you do to me?" She paced back and forth on the table, feeling her new form. "How did this happen?"
Nestor looked at her shocked. "I-I-I don't know. I mean, this particular incantation did come from the rain forest region. And I know they have jaguar selkies there. There was nothing about scarlet macaws in the translation," he was breathless by the time he stopped talking.
"Is my skin even in there?" She pointed with her new talon.
Nestor blankly looked with darting eyes between macaw-Tinka and the cauldron. He reached in with his tongs and pulled out her blackened pelt. It didn't look as alive as it did when it went in.
She shrieked at the sight of it. "What have you done to me?"
"Is it so awful?" Nestor winced. "Do you know how long a scarlet macaw can live? No one wants to eat macaws, right?"
Tinka tucked her head under her wing and cried. "You are cruel. This isn't my body and my pelt is dying. I can feel it. I'm not going to be a deer ever again. I'm not even going to be human again. I don't know how to be a macaw. I wasn't born to be one."
Nestor sat on the chair next to the table where she cried. "I'm sorry. I didn't know that was going to happen to you. I must have pronounced something wrong, which caused your change. But since I proved the magic is possible, the grand masters might have an answer."
Tinka sniffled under her new wing then looked at Nestor, he truly looked like he felt awful. "Then we go now." She hopped up onto his forearm and walked up to his shoulder. "You get my pelt, the book, the gold. We go now."
"Can I at least-"
"Now!" She dug her new talons into his shoulder.
Nestor winced and got up. He bagged the items and he walked down the tower stairs with her on his shoulder. "You know, a lot of alchemists have animal familiars." He tried to say positively.
"I would tell you to go buck yourself right now, but you don't deserve the pleasure of satisfaction."
Nestor let out a laugh. "That's 100% fair, Tink."
They left the tower early in the afternoon, the journey to the Conclave of Alchemists would take most of the day and into the evening. They wouldn't get an audience until the next morning. They spent their time talking, there was nothing else to do. Nestor wasn't always an alchemist. He was a metalsmith and a painter when he could afford the supplies, but alchemy was always his passion. He didn't even begin studying it until he was in his late 40s, by then, some people are already masters. No one starts learning alchemy at his age.
Tinka didn't always understand human stuff. She preferred being in her deer self over her human self. Some selkies go the other way: shed their skin and spend much of their lives human. She liked the company of the forest. The rock trolls were fascinating with their knowledge of the world and history. One of the troll princes was particularly well-traveled and educated. He was one that her favorites. The tree spirits taught her to dance and would conjure vegetables in the winter if she asked nicely. One tree woman taught her of Gaia, the goddess who housed all of them and how to commune with her. She was a wise tree spirit, strong and steadfast. Tinka would believe even the stars would yield to that tree spirit if she so told them too. It was humans who had made things difficult for Tinka; baiting and hunting her, even though she was more like them then they knew. Trying to steal her pelt to take her to wife: a life she wasn't interested in.
It was Nestor a human alchemist who found her in a bear trap that spring, released her, and healed her. Since then, her soul was bounded by life debt to him, even though he said she didn't owe him. It was a bond they couldn't break, at least, not with words, and not with the level of alchemy he knew. On this walk Alchemist and Deer selkie-macaw, learned more about each other than they had in the last half year.
They arrived at the city where the conclave of alchemists were. It was late in the evening and Nestor was exhausted, taking a room at a tavern. Tinka had fallen asleep after sundown, she couldn't help it.
The morning came and Tinka pulled her head out from under her wing. It felt so unnatural to be a macaw. She saw herself in the mirror of the room. She stretched her wings, twisted her neck, and fluffed her feathers. She was a beautiful bird, but she wasn't herself. She realized, she had slept on his shoulder, he never moved her. His hat was covering his face and he was snoring. He wasn't even in the bed of the room. He was sitting up in a chair with his feet on the bed.
"Nestor," she said quietly. "Come on. We gotta go."
"Nestor." She gripped his hat with her beak and pulled it off his face. "Wake up."
"You ready for more, hot stuff?" He muttered, still clearly asleep.
"Get up." She said plainly running her wing across his face.
His eyes were closed but he spoke more clearly, "Yeah. You know I'm up for that. What was your name again?"
"Great Gaia." She sighed. She bit down on his earring and yanked.
Nestor shouted himself conscious, scaring Tinka. She flapped her wings and landed on his chest staring him down. "You remember me? My dying skin. Your complete failure?"
Nestor rubbed his pained ear. "It wasn't a complete failure."
"What the buck would you call me then?" She said sharply.
"Don't answer. There's no good answer for that besides getting us something to eat." She said firmly, resetting herself on his shoulder.
He took a breath. "You know, it's probably not cannibalism for you to eat meadowlark again, you're not the same species or genus."
If she could have smiled she would have. "That's cruel and evil. And I like that."
In the main hall of the tavern, he sat at the table, she walked down his arm, and landed on the table. The happy cook brought over a platter to Nestor and set it down.
"Thank you," Nestor said, more so groaning, still trying to wake up.
"Eat breakfast while it's hot!" The cook said gleefully. "Everyone likes breakfast."
Nestor looked at the plate, meat on the bone, some bread, and some apples cut up. Tinka began to eat apple pieces and a bite of the meat. Nestor was a little slower.
He whispered to Tinka, "Do you know what it is?"
She had a full beak and still answered. "You heard him, it's breakfast."
"Yeah." Nestor said hesitating. "The cook made something that's not normally a breakfast food."
Tinka took another tearing bite of the meat. "Does it look like I care?"
"As long as you aren't bothered by cats named Breakfast."
After eating, Nestor took them to the conclave. With everything they had in tow, and the story they had to tell, they were seen quickly.
They were given an audience with Willona the Wise, an alchemist and sorcerer. They waited in her chamber for her to arrive.
"Have you ever heard of this woman?" Tinka asked.
"No. But I am still new at this."
The chamber door opened and in came a woman at least five years younger than Nestor in a yellow dress-robe carrying a woven bag. "I was told by one of the apprentices who and what was at my desk. But I didn't think it was to be believed. Come, come. Let me see everything."
Nestor stood and emptied the contents of his bag: the gold, the book, and the blackened pelt.
"You made quite a mess, didn't you?" She said. But she wasn't angry. She sounded more like a slightly annoyed mother and the whole situation was a minor inconvenience. "And you, my deer lady?"
"Tinka. Is there any hope for my pelt or me?"
"Tinka, would you come to my shoulder for a moment?" Willona put out her arm to Nestor's shoulder. She made her way up her arm to her shoulder. Willona took off her hat and obscured their faces so Nestor couldn't hear or see them speak. They only said a few things back and forth, but when Willona put her hat back on, she was smiling. "It is done then."
"What?" Nestor asked surprised.
"We will restore Tinka. And you will not try to turn lead into gold ever again."
Nestor's face dropped. "I understand."
"At least, not without proper training. You are still an apprentice and you tried to perform Grand Master level alchemy. If Tinka here were a macaw permanently or her pelt had died, this might be another situation. You will train here at the Conclave. And perhaps you may learn to be a little more careful."
Willona rose from her desk. She took the gold, the book, and the pelt. "I will need one more thing from you, Nestor."
Willona whispered into Tinka's ear again. "Your right hand."
Nestor held out his hand over her desk and Tinka made her way down her arm again. She bit Nestor's middle finger causing it to bleed. He screamed, pulled back his hand, and sucked the blood on the bite she had made.
"I got a little." Tinka said to Willona. "Don't worry. I think it isn't cannibalism if we aren't the same genus or species." She said to Nestor with a giggle.
He gave Tinka a playful sneer as Willona began to walk away with Tinka. "Wait." Tinka said. She whispered up to Willona and she nodded. Tinka reached to her back and plucked out a long tail feather. It shined red, blue, and an iridescent green. Willona walked back over to Nestor. Tinka placed the feather in his hand. "A master alchemist should have the quill of a master alchemist."
Nestor teared up to the beautiful feather. "That was more magic than I could ever have made."
"You're going to change the buckin' world," Tinka said as Willona walked away with her.
It was a couple days later, Nestor felt himself being poked awake. "Nestor," Tinka's whispered in her human form.
"Five more minutes my loves. Then I'm going to shake the ground you lie on," he muttered.
The gentle poke turned into a slap of his arm. "Nestor."
"Damn it, Tinka. Knock it off. There was a blonde and a black haired woman. Now they're both gone." He groaned.
"You want me to knock it off?" She poked him more in the arm.
"Quit it!" He whined.
"No buckin' way!" Tinka squealed and jumped. "This is really what it's like?!"
"What what's like?" He covered his face with his arms. "Come back dream women. I'm still here," he moaned.
"To be free from you."
Nestor uncovered his face, looking up at her shocked. "How is that possible?"
Tinka grinned. "It was part of Willona's process. When I bit you, your blood is now my blood. And with the quill, some of mine is yours. Nestor, I'm your sister now and you are my brother. I am free of my debt to you, we are family."
Nestor chuckled. "That's amazing!"
"You'll learn more in class. You've got work to do. Go!" She shoved him until he scrambled out of the bed and got ready for class at the Conclave. Tinka slid back into her healed pelt and enjoyed the gardens of the conclave as her deer self.
Nestor rushed to class and sat at a table. All the other students were half his age and younger, but he tried to ignore the awkwardness of being the oldest one in the room. He pulled out the Macaw feather quill and some parchment and prepared for the lesson. A man older than him with short white hair and a trimmed beard entered the classroom. Nestor sat up straight for the Master Alchemist. But the white haired man didn't start teaching, he walked through the classroom and sat next to Nestor. "I am so glad I am not the only old man here." He put out his hand and Nestor took it and shook it. "Metastar, the Apprentice."