Today, I'm going to become a real witch.
Timing is always very important for these things. It's got to be a full moon. The night must be cloudless. I've already failed twice, on just that account - it has to be right. If a wisp of cloud falls across the moon when I'm mid-ritual - well, I'd say there's no telling what will happen, but the Aunts have told me a lot about the things which could, and none of them are good.
It's got to be within the month of my birth - the time when my birthstone has its power at the fullest. And I need to get this growth potion just right. The cat is very well-trained, but I keep an eye on her anyway; I don't want to be stunted by her having taken a lick of the blood.
Then there's the blood of the living creatures. It's pretty embarrassing hunting for mice and then flipping them over to see if they have balls. At least most of the birds have the decency to have different feather colours.
I look up at the doll on the shelf again, and wonder what it says about us as a species that the females are the ones with the gaudiest mating display.
Doesn't matter. I've done all the worrying about what I'm letting myself in for that I can handle. For all that she promises I'll never lack for anything, I can't spend my entire life under her skirts - not least because I know, despite all her magic, she could be taken from me by misadventure still.
I guess that's some of what calls me, as well. Their lifespan is easily three times that naturally allotted to us. I should be too young to think of such things, maybe, but all this bird-juicing and being close to the natural cycles kind of concentrates the mind on such matters.
I'm sure she could give me some of that, but she shouldn't, not as I am. Mortal man, doomed to die, and all that. I glance up at the doll again. It must remain as it was made - the care and attention of all its previous owners is an essential part of the magic - but I can always cut my hair afterwards. And dye it. Maybe straighten it a little, depending how long I wear it.
That's the bird done. Bess has been very patient; I offer her the carcass as reward. She'd spurned the dry mouse earlier, but now she triumphantly takes her mouthful of feathers and makes off to some dark corner with her prize, strutting like she caught it with her own two paws.
I'm never quite sure how smart she really is. I guess soon I'll be able to ask her myself. Mother tried to explain, but apparently with familiars there's so much tied up in instinct and more in the bond - I've seen Bess do some astonishingly intricate things, but she might have just been under direct control. Although mother always laughs when I talk about 'controlling' a familiar. Apparently there's much more to it than that.
Oh, you'd like to know her name, wouldn't you? But names have power - even new-coined ones, if the bond and the meaning are there, and few bonds tie closer than birth. Most of the mothers give away their children. That's another reason to do it - even with the arts she's taught me, parlour tricks and misdirections, without true power of my own I'm a terrible liability to her. She says she doesn't mind, that it's worth it just to know me, but I don't want to be kidnapped and used in some dark rite against her - for my own sake, never mind hers!
The stars are coming out. It's time. I take the doll from the shelf, the blood, the herbs to burn, the knife. I look at the noose. She told me to include the noose. She said that I might regret the transformation as soon as it took hold, and to hang the doll by the noose was the quickest way to reverse it.
But the noose is final - its nature is finality. If I get cold feet in a weak moment, if I use the noose in panic or reaction, I condemn myself forever to this body and its destiny.
Already I am trying to distance myself from it - the reverse of all our training, which teaches the witch to be wholly present and inhabiting the body. But in this body I can be no witch. The path of the warlock burns up the life-force rather than buttressing it; the path of the wizard is not something my mother can teach me, and I am too old to apprentice now even if one would take me.
(And in any case, they would most likely take me only to use me against those that raised me. In all fairness she had told me this option before I might have heard it from another - that I could probably barter my family for tuition - but I rejected it. Even for a sevenfold life, some prices are too high.)
I do not intend to have regrets. If I do, I wish to consider them fleeting. The new body might be unfamiliar at first, but I will master it. I will make it mine, whatever it takes.
I can hear my mother laughing sadly, in my mind's ear. Fine. I will not master the body and force it to be mine - that is a man's talk, a man's thinking. I will master myself, instead, and mold my self to fit my new form.
Better. She will let me proceed. She still thinks I should take the noose. I head out, into the cold darkness under the stars, without it.
There is not much darkness tonight. The full moon fills the valley with its radiance. She had arranged to be out of the area while I did this. She said that she didn't want to watch, but she would be back in good time to pick up the pieces, and embrace son or daughter or whatever I had become.
I set the herbs around the perimeter, carefully sprinkle half the mouse blood with them. I anoint the doll and place it in the centre. I circle, warily, this way and that, casting out any interfering spirits. Bess has made herself absent. Hopefully she is busy with the carcass and will not show up to see what is going on.
There is nothing further to be done in preparation. This is the last step I can reverse without consequence.
I do not give myself too much time for thought. Thoughts are dangerous - too easily they can become second thoughts. I raise the mouse blood to my lips and down it in one swallow. I learned very young to drink much fouler things without complaint. With shaking hands - how this soon to be cast off body betrays me to the last! - I paint the wings of freedom on my cheeks with the blood of the birds, drink a careful portion, and upend the rest upon the doll.
There is a confusion of position. A blood-drenched silence. The strong beating of many feathered wings. Then I am conscious again, or something is, at any rate. A rough tongue is licking the blood carefully away from my eyes.
Everything is wrong. The temperature is wrong. My heartbeat is wrong. There are unfamiliar tensions in my changed skeleton; my different limbs, my torso filled with new and disturbing weights.
When I am certain that Bess is finished, I open my eyes - my eyes, I tell myself firmly, not 'the eyes', not 'her eyes'.
I am curled fetally around the doll. Except it is a doll of - not me, I tell myself, not my 'real' body - just a cast-off, what I used to be, a shell that outlived its usefulness.
The wings of freedom are painted on his face. It might just have been the way that blood runs, but it looks like he was crying.