She concentrated, trying to focus the strange stirring inside her. Adam’s face was contorted with pain. His wrists had been bound behind his back, then fastened to a length of chain. Renee had then tossed the other end of the chain over a tree branch and used it to lift Adam up. He stood on tiptoes, his entire body taut as he tried to keep his balance and prevent even more strain to his shoulders.
The candle failed to light. Renee brought the whip down across Adam again. His scream was muffled by the gag in his mouth as he struggled to regain his balance. Blood ran down his sides and legs from where the lash had bitten into him. “Try again.” Renee narrowed her eyes. “I don’t stop hurting him until the candle lights.”
Wren took a deep breath, and imagined that the wick was Renee’s head. The candle lit with enough heat to melt away the first half inch of wax. “It’s lit.” She turned toward Renee. “Let him down.”
Renee hit the lever to release the chain. Adam fell to his knees, and Wren rushed toward him. She put her arms around him as she focused the healing magic. “Adam, are you alright?”
He managed a small nod. She unhooked the chain and started to unfasten the bonds around his hands when Renee barked, “leave them.” She grabbed Adam by the throat and dragged him toward the old picnic table, and tossed him face up atop it. “Don’t move, boy.”
“You said…” Wren rushed after her. “You said you’d stop hurting him.”
“I said I’d stop hurting him.” She grabbed Wren by the wrist, then shoved the candle into her hand before extending her wrist over Adam’s torso. “Keep your focus, and the wax won’t scald him. Any pain he experiences now is your fault.”
A drop of wax fell from the candle, landing on Adam’s stomach. He hissed behind the gag. Wren gave Renee a hateful look. The next drop made Adam hiss again, and he tried to squirm away. Renee’s hand caught his shoulder and held him in place.
Focusing was hard. She tried at first to solidify the drips, freeze them before they reached Adam’s skin. She couldn’t get the concentration in place fast enough and… And his pained moans were distracting. Seeing him squirm like that was… Wren felt the urge to vomit when she realized where that thought was going, and focused on the candle again. The flame on the wick continued to give off light, but stopped giving off heat. It danced, but failed to melt the wax. She gave Renee a triumphant look.
“Clever girl.” Renee nodded. “Take your toy. He’s yours until dinner, then he goes back in the cage.”
Adam flinched as Wren used the cold cloth to wash the dried blood from his back. The wounds had vanished, but their memory remained. “I’m sorry.” Wren’s voice shook.
“It’s not your fault, Wren.” Adam shook his head. “It’s hers.” Feeling that witch inside his head had been worse than the lash itself. Being helpless in his own body had almost made him wish he’d been left a rabbit in the cage.
“What she did to you…” Wren sighed. “I think as long as she has that gem, you won’t be able to resist her.”
“You mean even if…” He hung his head. “Even if she left the door unlocked, I couldn’t escape her now.” He turned to look at her. “You can, Wren.”
“I won’t leave you. Not to her.” Wren shook her head.
“Wren just…” He caught her hand. “Without you, she’s got no reason to keep hurting me.”
“No, she’d just kill you outright.” Fresh tears fell down her cheeks.
“Wren just…” He sighed. “Just tell me you aren’t staying because…”
“And if some part of me is?” She sighed. “If she can teach me, I can save you and…” She took a deep breath. “Maybe some good can come of this.”
“Some…” He stared at her. “Some good?” He shook his head. “You think any of this, what she does is good?”
“She taught me how you heal, Adam.” Wren stood and put her hand on his shoulder. He couldn’t stop himself from flinching at the motion. “You were good as new within moments. Imagine how much good I can do with that?”
“Then take it and go, Wren.” Adam looked up at her, and felt tears well behind his eyes. “Before she destroys you.”
“I’m stronger than that, Adam.” She bent down and kissed him.
He kissed her back, wishing he believed her.
Her arms went around Adam protectively when the door opened. Renee gave her an amused and knowing look, then flung something in her direction. Wren blinked at the leather strap. It took her a moment to realize it was a dog collar. “No.” She shook her head.
Renee shrugged, then tossed another item. It landed with a jingling sound, and Wren stared at the training collar. A choke chain, with prongs designed to bite into the neck. “Pick one, girl. Or I will.”
She gave Adam an apologetic look as she picked up the leather collar. He remained still as she secured it around his neck, his eyes never leaving her face. “I’m sorry.” She whispered the words to him.
Before he could reply, his body jerked. He cried out in pain as he contorted, his body shifting in shape. A small part of her mind watched in rapt fascination as he went from human to golden retriever in the span of seconds. Then Renee tossed something else at her. Wren looked down at the items in her arms. A white sundress, and a leash. Renee smirked at her. “Get dressed. We’re going for a walk.”
Figuring out how to walk as a dog was slightly easier than figuring out how to move as a rabbit. Dogs, at least, were more familiar beast. Getting all his limbs working properly was nowhere near the problem of the sensory overload he was currently experiencing. Sounds and smells were the worst, but adapting to eyes that saw a different range was giving him no end of difficulty. In the cage, everything was the same and he’d been able to take his time and grow used to the senses. Moving through the world outside to follow Wren and the hag was a different problem.
The effort wasn’t helped at all by the occasional tug on the leash. Wren tugged again when the hag changed direction, and this time Adam dug his fe… paws in. She stumbled as the leash went taunt from his refusal to move, then turned back to look at him. He glared at her. “Adam?”
“Should keep your pet to heel, girl.” The hag glanced over her shoulder.
Wren took a step toward him and knelt. “Adam, please, we don’t want her angry.” And then she lifted her hand and actually rubbed his ears. Like he was really a dog. For a moment, he considered biting her. Then he shook his head and started walking again. He really didn’t have a choice. The witch had proved she could make him dance if she wanted.
At the pond, the witch actually took hold of the leash before making Wren set up for a small picnic. His stomach rolled when the witch opened a can of dog food and poured it into a dish before setting it in front of him. One whiff made him want to apologize to every real dog he’d ever owned. He stepped away from it, only for the witch to tug the leash hard. Then the hag smiled and handed the leash back to Wren. “Your pet is stubborn. He needs training.” She turned to look at Wren. “Teach him to roll over.”
“Please leave him…” Wren started shaking her head.
“You can teach him to roll over…” The hag smiled. “Or I’ll teach him to beg.”
He could actually feel his hackles rise. It was a strange sensation. He wondered what it would feel like to sink his new teeth into the hag’s throat. From the look she gave him, she knew what he was thinking and was daring him to try.
The leash was tugged when Wren stood. Some small part of his brain observed that at least he actually looked like a dog. The hag could have left him human for this.
Wren found herself smiling as the evening progressed. It was pleasant, being away from the cottage. It had taken Adam a little bit, but he too seemed to be enjoying himself. Renee had insisted he get some exercise, and had told Wren to play fetch with him. The first time she’d thrown a stick, Adam had given her a look that suggested he was considering lifting his leg on the picnic basket. But he’d gone after the stick.
Now he lay next to her. She kept petting him as Renee lectured her about different types of spells and focus. Without a focus, magic was extremely limited. Most who could use magic could perform only one or two limited tricks. But what someone like Renee could do was mindboggling. She glanced down again at where Adam was laying. “Could I change my own shape?”
“You could.” Renee nodded. “You’ve seen me. But not like that.” She wrinkled her nose at where Adam lay. “Change to a lesser beast, girl, and you’ll be stuck. They don’t have the spark needed to change back.” She smirked. “It takes work, girl. Trying to learn.” Her voice almost seemed to contain a grudging respect. “Last person I turned into a dog took hours before he figured out how to sync up his legs.”
She smiled a little when she petted Adam again, and somehow even as a dog he managed to roll his eyes at her. “Is each form a separate spell?”
“No.” Renee shook her head. “Let’s see what your pet can do, shall we? Watch.” Renee concentrated, and Wren felt magic surge.
Adam made a yelping noise as his body contorted again. A few moments later, it was a snake laying next to her. The serpent’s body wiggled and twisted a moment. Then Adam stopped moving. It took a couple minutes, then he started slithering off the blanket. “Wait…” Wren started to reach for him.
Renee laughed. “Maybe letting him live wasn’t a bad idea after all.” Magic surged again, and the snake started writhing. “Let’s see if he can figure out how to fly.”
A raven replaced the snake. It hopped a pace, then turned back to look at them. “Try.” Wren smiled at him encouragingly.
“You heard the girl.” Renee tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. “Try. Or I’ll turn you from bird to bird until you do.”
The wings spread, and Adam gave them a few experimental flaps. He went still for a few moments, with them outstretched. Then he gave another beat and left the ground. He stayed airborne only a few seconds the first time. The second he managed to fly up into a nearby tree. A pang of terror came to Wren as she considered what might happen if he tried flying away, a heartbeat before he did exactly that.
A lazy gesture from Renee sent him crashing into the pond. He came up out of the water in human form, sputtering. Renee chuckled. “Clever boy.” She waved a hand at Wren. “Put the collar back on him.”
She picked up the collar and walked to the pond as Adam made his way to the bank. “You flew…” Her smile trembled just a little.
“I…” He suddenly screamed again as his body shifted. Then she was looking down at the dog again. Wren swallowed before leading him back to the blanket.
“What drew you to him?” Renee lifted an eyebrow.
“What?” Wren frowned at the question.
“There are a lot of boys out there. Some prettier than that one. So why pick him?”
“I love him.” Wren put her hand on Adam.
“That’s not what I asked, girl. I asked what drew you to him.”
“I was…” She took a deep breath before glancing at Adam. “My first day of school, I was nervous. I stood at the door to the lunch room staring inside, looking at all those strangers. And then there was a hand on my shoulder. I turned, and he was smiling at me. Then he pointed at the food counter and said ‘relax. It won’t kill you. It’ll just make you wish you were dead.’” She petted Adam. “I laughed, and followed him in.” She swallowed. “Why?”
“I’ve turned four into birds, girl. Two never did learn to fly. One took a year. The other a month.” She gave Adam a speculative look. “Possible he’s got a bit of the gift himself. We’ll have to experiment with that a bit.”
She nodded, a smile on her face. Adam, however, made a soft whining sound, and looked away.