The Hawk
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Little is known of The Whispering Willow's life before happening upon a Way to the Library. This, however, is one of only a handful of tales she told us of that time, when she had met her Hawk. I have transcribed it here as I recall The Willow telling it. -LF

In a little cottage that is swarmed by weeping moss, towering oaks, willows, and sycamores, lived Sigrún. She cooked a stew upon her stove, red hair in a mass of curls atop her head, flowing wildly down to her hips. Her dress was a nice but plain greenish thing, although the hem, where it flows about her ankles, was recently mucked from the sudden rain that had caught her by surprise while foraging for mushrooms.

Not quite by surprise really. In fact, she had known it would rain later in the day, and simply lost track of the time. A fox had run laughing past her, and Sigrún couldn’t help but to follow where it led. The thing had disappeared when they had come upon a massive willow tree, its trunk at the base separated into three not-quite-legs. She left a tribute of sand from a far-off land in the hollow nook there. She didn’t know if she’d return here, so left her tribute in advance so the faeries didn’t take offense.

Sigrún moved to the wall opposite the hearth, where her wolf(ish?) companion Bani rested, and gently plucked a leaf from a mint living on a shelf there, then returned to her stew to continue cooking. Bani took little note of her, huge wolf-like paws on abnormally long legs extend out to stay warm by the fire, while he purred almost like a cat on the chair he had claimed as his. Bani’s snout was long and cream colored, which quickly turned into a gray head and body. If one were to look closely, one would notice faint stripes, like that of a tiger, lining his frame.

A knock at her door caused Sigrún to jump as she was broken out of her stupor. When she opened her door, a young boy with hair dark as fertile soil and sticking to his forehead from the rain, stood before her. He just barely came up to her waist. The boy looked up at her, his expression unreadable, water dripping into his eyes from his hair, causing him to squint and scrunch his nose in a charming manner. “Are – are you the Whispering Willow?” he squeaked.

“I am many things, lad.” Sigrún raised an eyebrow at him. It was one of many names assigned to her during her time in this place. Settlers an age ago had decided to make their homes upon the outskirts of her Wood, and Whispering Willow was the name appointed to her by the village children who were brave enough to venture near. Others were not as ambiguous. Bani was quite partial to ‘Hag of the Hollow’. She had never even lived in a Hollow.

The boy chewed his lip, seeming to wait for her to offer an answer to his question. When none came, he moved on, “Um, well, yes. There’s a hawk, see, it tried to nick one of the chicks that jus’ hatched an’ my pa got it good in the wing, hangin’ all limp-like, an’ I hear from Lochy you got a way wi’ the critters–”

Sigrún was already grabbing her cloak and a few supplies, “Where is it now, lad?”

“I think I know where ‘e landed. I c’n take you to ‘im.” Sigrún shut the door behind her and stepped into the rain with the boy. She set off at a brisk walk as the boy ran just slightly ahead of her.

He guided her first towards the village. The witch grew skeptical immediately, as the villagers not fourty years before had tried to lure her out of her Wood. The boy stopped once the first edge-most buildings were visible through the treeline, then looked up and turned towards Sigrún.

“This way.” He pointed, running off, slightly East of where the witch’s home was. Sigrún tried not to be frustrated with the boy. She had overheard some of the other younglings saying they had a sort of buddy system, where the older children guided the younger ones. This boy was clearly unfamiliar with her Wood.

Her mother had admonished her endlessly, early on, upon hearing the witchling allowed the village young so near, to learn her Wood so intimately. Sigrún understood her mother’s caution, and she was much the same at first. Those first few times, she didn’t even allow them to get beyond a single tree. There were times, however, when someone was desperate enough to stand right at the border she had set and called out, begging for help. She’d help, for Sigrún was taught to be kind to all creatures. Sometimes, she was snuck into a backdoor to help a bedridden old person hang on for just long enough to say goodbyes, or a child went with their parent to call for her, to be healed then and there. Their wide eyes and shy stares had charmed her.

Sometimes, during her village-side visits, a child would ask why she was doing this or that, and she’d gently explain to them.

The ones she’d healed, and those she spoke gently to, tended to be less fearful of the Wood, after their experiences. So, to those four or five children each generation with truly kind hearts, she, and her Wood, would make an exception. And even then, the younglings knew not to stray from their invisible paths. As she had told them many times, those paths were meant to just nearly guide them to her, and were purposefully difficult to find and follow.

Soon enough, the boy called out, “There!” He picked up his run again, before the hawk, in a tangled mass on the ground, heard his approach and began to screech in defense. The boy slowed, just barely, before tripping on a root that was not there before. His fall was grand, landing face-first in a muddy puddle and skidding a few feet. He rose slowly, chest, chin, and nose decorated lovingly with dirt, wet from rain and mud.

“Return to your home, lad. The Wood will guide you.” The witch cast a simple spell to clean him of the worst of his new wardrobe. The boy sulked, looking a final time at the hawk, then Sigrún, then sulked off. The hawk, seeing the boy leave, halted its screeching, then looked at the witch, beak still open as a warning.

Whoever did this to the hawk clearly caught it off guard. Its wing was horribly broken at the wrist, bent in an unsettling manner. Sigrún crouched down to inspect the injury more closely. The hawk let out a single warning screech, eyes watching her intently, and beak still open and ready to bite. “I assume you realize by now that I am a Practitioner, yes?” Sigrún asked the creature.

It blinked.

“I’m afraid the break is too great for me to heal safely with the Arts. We will have to settle with the old ways. I can provide you with shelter while you heal.”

Blink.

“I am going to pick you up now. I will be gentle, I swear it.” The hawk’s beak finally closed, eyes still following her closely as she reached out to pick the creature up. Sigrún did her best not to jostle the wing too greatly, but the hawk still administered a couple bites for her effort.

Sigrún’s home was kind enough to allow her in on its own, her hands occupied as they were.

The witch quickly found a box large enough to fit the bird comfortably, and had Bani fill it with blankets and towels. With a few words she then magiked it to a chair near the hearth.

Ever so gently, Sigrún placed the hawk in the box. It struggled a bit with the transition, flapping its good wing to try and balance, but the creature eventually settled. Bani tried to get closer to sniff it, but the hawk quickly screeched a warning and snapped its beak at him when he got too close.

“Bani, the poor thing has already had a difficult day.” the witch admonished the creature. He huffed, before circling a spot on the floor and laying down on it (His normal spot had been occupied by a rather mean bird).

With some small bits of wood she’d planned to whittle into cutlery, Sigrún put the hawk’s broken wing into a splint, to allow the bone and muscle to heal in the correct shapes.

The days passed peacefully afterwards. Sigrún would wake and start prepping for the day’s work. Bani would hunt, returning an hour or two later with a vole, hare, or squirrel, and drop it by the hawk’s box for it to eat. The witch would tend to the garden at the side of her home, then go foraging for mushrooms or mosses. Sometimes Bani and the Hawk would join her, the hawk generally standing on her arm when it came along. They’d return home, and Sigrún would brew potions, or study her spells.

The Hawk, unable to fly and wishing to move, would squawk until it had her attention, then shuffle its feet around on its makeshift perch until she approached it. Sigrún found it quite charming when it first reached a foot out to her arm, attempting to step on. After that, before leaving, she’d ask, “Hawk, do you wish to come along?” and the Hawk, when it wished to come, would make a small noise and do its little dance until she approached.

The eighth day was going to go much the same as before. Bani and the Hawk had chosen to stay at the home this time, so Sigrún had a slightly more peaceful time as she checked the hollows of fallen logs for the specific beetles that she’d need for a spell.

When Sigrún started to return home, beetles collected and setting sun obscured by the tree canopies, she was startled to hear Bani howling. It was a horrifying sound, one he used to call to her at a distance. It wasn’t a true howl, per se, more like a chuffing mixed with a strange wood snapping sound and an elk’s call. Sigrún just called it a howl for ease.

The witch made haste returning home, worried her two housemates got into an argument.

The enchanted mist obscuring her home lifted itself in her presence. Sigrún twisted the dark iron knob of her door, rust staining a path upon the old wood to the ground below.

“Bani? Hawk? Are you all right?” she called out as the door swung open. Not bothering to close it behind her, Sigrún strode past the entryway, beyond which the rest of her home lay, in a sort of L-shape.

Bani was standing near the hearth, at the foot of the little staircase up to Sigrún’s quarters. He gave the witch a small look before looking back towards the chair that had once been occupied by the Hawk’s makeshift nest. Only then did the witch realize.

There was a person sitting there. Skin pale as the moon, long and wild midnight black hair, wearing little save one of Sigrún’s tan work shirts, which came almost to their knees. The woman – for now the witch could see it was a woman – had what was clearly once the splint for the Hawk sitting uselessly in her lap. If the oddly bent arm wasn’t hint enough, the woman looked up at Sigrún then, flashing a toothy not-quite-smile that displayed the rows upon rows of shark-like teeth that were indicative of the woman’s status as a shapeshifter.

“We are quite well, good witch. How fared your gathering?” The shapeshifter’s airy voice croaked and clicked as it bounced about the walls.

Sigrún allowed herself only a moment more to be shocked that the hawk she had thought was perfectly mundane was truly a shapeshifter, before moving on. “The gathering was fine, although I’d have liked to witness your transformation for myself, if I’m quite honest.”

The shapeshifter let out a snapping sound that Sigrún hoped was a laugh. “My condolences, Witch. An injury such as mine limits the ability to change my shape at will.”

Sigrún walked under her staircase and grabbed two arm-sized planks of wood she kept around for repairs and a roll of bandages. “If you say so. Please excuse my lack of knowledge of your kind. The writing is sparse.” She pulled a wooden chair up next to the shapeshifter and held out a hand.

The pale woman looked at the outstretched hand, then at Sigrún. “I am no beast, Witch. I cannot stand upon your arm.”

Sigrún huffed, “No, I must put another splint on you, since you have taken a new form.” She leaned forward to take the offending appendage, but the woman leaned away.

“I am not a helpless thing.”

“Oh I’m sorry, I guess you want to have no use of your arm again. My mistake.” Sigrún raised an eyebrow in challenge.

Reluctantly, the shapeshifter allowed her arm to be manipulated into position, although much like before, she did not make it easy for Sigrún to perform the task.

Once that was done, Sigrún placed her beetles on her ingredient shelf and began making supper. “So, what is your name then?” she asked the shapeshifter. At the tilt of a head, she clarified, “What are you called?”

The woman hummed, standing to inspect the potion shelf. “I am called many things. Horror. Demon. Changeling. Thundering Foot by the deer. To wolves, Death Stalker. I am called The Great Horned One by the moose. To your familiar, I am Thief. To you, I have been Hawk.” She fiddled with the label of a lesser mind flaying potion. Bani bit at the air in the woman’s direction as he settled down into the spot that was once his.

“Bani, do not be rude.” Sigrún turned back to her chopping, “You wouldn’t mind then, if I kept calling you Hawk?” she asked.

Warm hands snaking around Sigrún’s waist made her jump for a moment, before she felt the wood of a splint against her side and relaxed, although only slightly. “I have grown to await your voice, Witch. Call me how you will, only keep calling.” Sigrún felt the other woman’s sharp teeth drag along her collar, pressing into the exposed skin dangerously.

Sigrún felt heat grow in the pit of her stomach and fought to ignore it.

She was constantly wishing other witches had studied shapeshifters more closely as the days went by. It seemed like there were always new things she was learning about Hawk’s kind. She learned, for example, that the…touchiness…that Hawk displayed was a common form of displaying reassurance and friendliness, like cats, but not quite. They could get stuck in a form, for a time, as Hawk had. Sigrún also learned that although they can change their shape, as the name implies, shapeshifters cannot change their appearance, and often have an individually preferred form. Hawk’s was the human shape.

Like an eager student, Sigrún kept detailed notes on Hawk’s physiology, psychology, and the answers to a growing number of questions. In return, Sigrún indulged questions on humans, the younglings that sometimes appeared, her food, her home, and her witchcraft.

“Make me look human,” Hawk had asked of her one time. Sigrún, with nothing urgent or important planned for that evening, did.

She had tied up Hawk’s hair, in a sort of messy bun, half-up half-down situation. It displayed the shifter’s eyes, black sclera upon which lived an almost shining yellow iris, her pupils horizontal like that of a goat. The hair being up and away also meant more of Hawk’s neck was on display, web-thin black veins crawling up the long expanse. For clothes, Sigrún found an old red dress of hers that no longer fit. It draped well on Hawk, shorter in the front than the back (as were most of Sigrún’s dresses, fashion and all that), and held in place and given shape by a leather belt. Unused work boots had finished it out.

When the work was done, Sigrún was speechless by how wonderful Hawk looked. She was gorgeous. Hawk, in a rare display of shyness, fiddled with the belt as Sigrún gawked at her. Long fingers with talon-like nails, that looked to have been dipped in an uncleanable black ichor, lightly brushed the barely-there texture of the leather.

“Admiring your work, Witch?” Hawk finally broke the silence.

Sigrún took one of the fidgeting hands, knowing it’d reassure the shapeshifter. “You certainly look better in that than I would. Keep it, if you like.”

She did, to Sigrún’s pleasant surprise.

Sometimes she’d wear the whole ensemble, others just the old shirt she had pilfered the night of their proper introduction. More often than not, the hair stayed, which allowed Sigrún to take lingering glances at Hawk’s neck (though she’d never admit to such a thing).

Bani continued to begrudgingly allow Hawk to take his favored spot, although only after a stern talking to about treating guests respectfully.

Life continued thusly. Although Hawk could not simply transform and frolic as she was wont to do, she still disappeared for stretches at a time. She’d return to the house, out of breath and sweaty, hair matted with twigs and a too-wide grin on her face. Sigrún would herd the shapeshifter back in, where she’d be promptly seated and fed, while the witch prepared a cleaning spell (Hawk said it was bad fortune to enter bodies of water in the wrong shape).

It was three months after Hawk's injury when the splint was finally removed. Sigrún tried not to be too sad about the day. She had grown comfortable and familiar with her new companion.

As bandages slowly unwound from gangly arms, Hawk seemed to shimmer with anticipation. She had described the need to change shape before as an incessant itching feeling in the muscles, and had often lamented the difficulty of resisting her nature to allow herself to heal.

As soon as her arm was freed, Hawk was climbing the siding of Sigrún's home. The witch had little time to say anything before her three-month housemate was leaping off the roof, too-wide too-many-teeth smile plastered on her face. In midair, the Hawk that Sigrún had first encountered that rainy night was back, joyously climbing high into the air and diving back down as Bani joined the celebration, chuffing as he attempted to follow her from the ground.

Sigrún let out a tearful cheer watching her Hawk fly.

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