by Loretta Sylvestre
Guthrie stubbed his toe as he stepped out the sliding glass door from his tiny apartment to his tiny balcony. It hurt, but the pain was easy to ignore as he stood in the sun, letting it warm him, and taking in the beauty that was the Okanogan. It was one of the wildest places left on earth, and Guthrie new better than anyone how to appreciate it.
“Good Lord,” he said (as he often did), “I am one lucky bird, living in a place like this.”
The tall firs of the forest that started only a dozen yards away — no more than a wingbeat’s distance for Guthrie — seemed to him independent sorts of trees, standing singly or in small, loose knit groups — unlike their close-up-and-personal cousins across the Cascades. These eastern-slope trees went about business in a soldierly fashion, like guardians, he thought, and whenever they let him pass beyond their front lines, he felt like he’d been given top-secret clearance and a dangerous mission.
Anything might happen out there, he thought, swallowing the last of his morning coffee and stripping off his robe. But then he laughed and shook his head. “No,” he corrected himself, momentarily sad, thinking of his love life. “Not anything.”
Half an hour earlier, he’d set his laptop on his two-TV-tray desk, revved it up, and jockeyed it around cookies and pop-ups and internet caches, toying with the idea of subscribing to a cyber dating service. He’d scrolled through the e-hype for two sites before he found a third — LoveCharm.com — where both the “I’m a” and the “Looking for a” data fields let him select MAN.
He’d clicked on the “Get Started Now” button and was whisked away to a parallel dimension where he found the World of Romance. He’d begun feeding the web demon data as fast as it could swallow.
My eyes are: BROWN
My hair is: BROWN
My height is: 6′ 5″
My body type is: ATHLETIC/FIT
My love style is:
My love style is?
My love style is…
“Okay, I’ll come back to that. Yes! I have a credit card!”
He’d thought, no wonder I haven’t had a date! Everyone’s on line, but here’s me, still stuck in the latter days of the shaman. Well, that is about to change.
His smile had grown wide contemplating his romantic future. Joy had danced around the inside of his rib cage. His heart raced, his fingers twitched, and his toes curled. “Good lord,” he’d said (as he often did), “I’m so excited!”
Then he’d begun filling out the “About Me” profile.
Q: What are your hobbies and talents?
A: I become a scavenger bird with a red face and a twelve-foot wingspan, and look for dead things to eat. I’m impressive, I soar, but my breath is atrocious.
If Guthrie had been the one to choose, his alter ego would not have been Condor. Condors are vultures — very large, beautiful in flight, but vultures nonetheless. On the ladder of spiritual allies, Condor rated a rung higher than Buzzard or Budgie, for example. But Bald Eagle, Red Tail Hawk, or even Prairie Falcon could have slipped more impressively into casual conversation.
Yet it was a rare, familial gift that had set him on the wing at five years old, and he remained grateful. Now, as the sun began to fill the day like leavened dough rising in a pan, he stood on his hidden balcony and stretched up to his full height. He balanced on the rail to test the wind before beginning to phase and flux. The summer breeze teased his bare chest and legs, and a feeling washed over him that was as close to contentment as he ever got, these lonely days.
“I’m glad,” he said, shrugging to loosen the bunched muscles in his shoulders. “I’m glad I get to fly, no matter what.”
He thought one last time — with regret — about LoveCharm.com. At least, he sighed, they let me cancel the credit card transaction. He crouched, spread his broad, black wings, clicked his claws for luck, and flew.
Li perched on a rock ledge in the remote stretches of the Okanogan, Washington State, U.S.A., Earth. He focused his gaze on the uppermost window of the tallest turret in the Witch Georgina’s castle — located for the moment at eye level just across the canyon. He suspected the wizard Jedrek was trapped in the room behind that window, which could have happened only because Jedrek’s soft heart had once again betrayed him.
Jed would be fine, of course, as always. Meanwhile lunch was getting cold, and Li was annoyed with the wizard in that possessive way that always develops when one man has spent two-hundred years living with and working for another. For that long, Li had kept the wizard’s house, found the wizard’s lost socks, followed the wizard’s orders, and called the wizard “Sir.”
On the surface, that seemed ridiculous. Renowned in his own right, Li’s fame as The Golden Warrior bordered on idol worship in their home world, Knuth. Now and then, when he wasn’t trailing Jedrek through the vortices, picking up after him all the way from this world to that and back again, Li had slain Ice Demons, Fire Wraiths — even Pookah Bellies — single-handedly. Generals studied his military brilliance. Schoolchildren celebrated his birthday.
But first and foremost Li held the position of Shield Man to the wizard Jedrek, as well as butler, cook, and bottle-washer. Nearly always, he didn’t mind. The job afforded him a slick way to stay close to the man to whom his heart had shamelessly sold itself one-hundred-ninety-nine years past. Jedrek loved him back, too. Li’s faith in that fact was unshakeable. Alas, Jed’s love was the other kind, the kind one has, say, for a favorite nephew.
That would never change, and lately Li was thinking that two-hundred years makes a hell of a dating dry spell.
The day began to go weird for Guthrie when, as he circled above the forested ridges and valleys of the wild country, he spotted a castle. With turrets. And murder holes. And a portcullis barring a stone gateway. The structure could have been conjured from a page out of the Brothers Grimm, and it couldn’t possibly be real.
Guthrie had grown up in the nearby town of Tonasket. He’d fledged his baby wings flying over this part of the Okanogan. If such a castle had been there, he would have seen it.
He tilted his wings into the wind to smooth out his turns, worked them once, twice to ride the drafts, but all that was done by instinct. His entire mind was concentrated on the castle. Specifically on a particular stone-framed, unglazed window in the highest turret, and the voice he heard coming from beyond it.
“Don’t come any closer, Georgina,” said that voice. “I mean it, you old witch,”
Curiosity piqued, Guthrie circled down.
“Oh you’ve got me scared now, Mr. Charlatan,” answered a reed-thin voice with a cackle and an accent that made Guthrie think of Nova Scotia.
He flew in closer.
“Not another step,” the first voice said. “I promise you I will take drastic measures.”
Guthrie was just drawing even with the window, about to get a look inside, when he spotted something across the canyon, something just as unusual and a lot more interesting. A man. An anachronistically leather-clad man with a Grecian physique.
He was just thinking, never say never, when the sky exploded.
“Good lord! It’s a dragon!” Guthrie felt foolish as soon as he spoke, but he forgot his embarrassment when he heard the oddly dressed stranger’s strange answer.
“Don’t worry, Guthrie,” the man said. “It’s Green.”
“How do you know my name?”
The stranger, who’d been studying the terrain into which they’d both tumbled ― near the bottom of a deep, forested ravine – glanced over. He frowned as if he’d already forgotten Guthrie was there, then held out his hand. “Li,” he said without smiling.
Guthrie shook it, glad for a mundane touch in the midst of a moment he could only think of as surreal. Maybe even hallucinatory.
Looking distracted, Li said, “I can hear your thoughts, or some of them, I should say — especially when you think about me.”
After a moment of puzzlement, light dawned and Guthrie realized that Li’s impossible words were meant to answer his earlier question. He opened and closed his mouth several times guppy fashion, trying to ask any one of the zillion questions swimming around his swamped brain. Perhaps, he thought, I’m suffering concussion.
Then Li’s qualifier, “when you think about me,” finally sank in and he stopped, right in the middle of the mouth-open phase of his guppy act. He recalled precisely the thoughts he’d entertained when he’d first spied Li’s compact, sculpted form from the air. Glad that his brown skin would hide his blush, he said, “Oh,” and thought it best to let the topic cool.
He sat down on a flat rock, not so much because he was tired as to gain additional contact with something solid. The black mud around his feet oozed. The ravine was damper and greener than he would have expected for the Okanogan in summer. A wide stream cut through the canyon — deep, judging from the black water and dark sound. He didn’t recognize the river but he supposed it might explain the damp. The whole place, wherever it was, seemed ghostly, with columns of mist billowing from the ooze. But it looked, smelled, and felt like rock, dirt, and green stuff; thus it hung blessedly near the edges of normal.
That was more than Guthrie could say about the castle — now vanished without a trace. Or about Li — now sexy without a shirt, and standing next to him. And the big-green-lizard-looking-thing-with-scales-and-wings-and-a-spiky-crest that reclined about fifty yards away — that was farther from normal that it would ever be possible to get without Dorothy’s ruby slippers.
Guthrie cleared his throat, tightened his ponytail, and rubbed at his eyes and knees, all in an effort to strengthen his hold on reality. He reminded himself that he was a sensible guy, twelve-foot wingspan notwithstanding.
He’d come upon a strange sight in familiar country. He’d been knocked out of the sky by an explosion like fireworks with music. He’d crashed onto the head of a man clad like a gladiator, who read his mind and then told him not to worry about a dragon because it was green.
How could he expect to think at all, never mind sensibly?
But he was thinking. He was examining the way Li’s muscles moved under his sun-kissed skin. He was wondering how well a handful of that thick, gold-tipped chestnut hair would serve as anchor in a critical moment. He caught himself falling into the memory of his first look into Li’s hazel-gold eyes, pondering the subtle twitches of his full, curvy lips.
Good lord, Guthrie, you’re disgusting, no discipline at all. Surely, if ever there was a time when he should marshal his thoughts toward other things, this was it.
He made it a general rule never to transform where anyone could see, but it didn’t matter now. He’d still been a bird at first impact with Li, so the man knew all about his shape-shifting. Besides, was metamorphosis any stranger than castles, dragons, and mind readers?
“What are you doing?” Li’s full attention was drawn to the tall stranger — Guthrie, he’d said his name was — when the thought patterns coming from the man shifted.
At Li’s question, Guthrie rose from his crouched pose and sighed, rolling his well-muscled shoulders. He sat down again, reclaiming his seat on the rock, and then re-banded his hair in its queue, blinking his eyes as if exhausted. “I thought you could hear people think?”
“I can,” Li said. “But usually I don’t. You’ve no idea how distracting it can be.”
Guthrie made the guppy face again, which Li thought endearing.
“I’m leaving,” Guthrie said. “I think I’d better just fly home before things get crazy… crazier.”
“I know.” Li nodded.
“What do you mean, you know? You just said—”
“But you can’t, or at least I don’t think you can.”
“This isn’t Earth.”
“This isn’t Earth.”
“Okay, let’s start over. Where were you before you fell on my head?”
Guthrie’s eyebrows and thumbs pointed up.
“Yes, but what sky? Earth’s?”
“And you saw a castle, right? And then there was a blast, and you fell and here we are, right?” Li waited for the dawn of enlightenment. When Guthrie gave a narrow-eyed nod, he went on to explain. “The castle belongs to a Witch whose name is Georgina Boudreau. She brought her castle to Earth as a base of operations in order to plunder and defile your world.”
“Plunder and defile?”
“Sorry,” Li said, and slashed a hand through the air, “I have no time to spend thinking of less dramatic clichés. What you need to understand is that the blast — which was probably the result of the Witch’s spell colliding with Jedrek’s…”
“An important wizard—”
“Stop interrupting! Anyway half the time, when they face off, he gets soft-hearted because they have a history and she catches him with a surprise offense—”
“Like in football?”
“—and then he barely mounts his defense in time. The spells collide and some disaster — like this — usually follows.”
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