Yril lowered his ears and frowned at his mate. He knew he couldn’t keep it from happening, but he wished he could pretend it wouldn’t for a little while longer.
Taiph nuzzled the child sprawled on his belly between her arms. Rayld was only four months old. He had no way of knowing that life was more than warm earth, mother’s milk, and naps. His pudgy legs twitched as he slept.
She met Yril’s eyes and held them, unblinking. “They are old and wise,” she said. “They may be the only ones who know how to fix him. We do him no good by putting it off.”
She was right. He knew it and he couldn’t do anything about it. “All right,” he said, reaching out to run a finger over one of his son’s floppy little ears. “I will find them and bring them here so you do not have to carry him away from the den.”
He poked his head out of the den’s main entrance tunnel, scanned for danger, and then crawled out. The sun had not quite finished setting. The wind brought scents of humans, their cooked food, and the animals they kept. Most ghouls were still curled up asleep in their forest dens, waiting for darkness to make it safe to enter the village and search for food.
The elders yawned, stretched, and came along without asking any questions. By the time they made it back to Yril’s den the moon had replaced the sun.
Taiph crawled out with the child dangling from her teeth by the loose skin of his neck. She set him before the elders and gave her nose a nervous lick. “Do you know what happened to him?” she said.
The elders narrowed their eyes and tilted their heads. Vae, the female, lowered her muzzle to the child’s face and sniffed him. Ghak, her mate, approached the child from the other end and began sniffing too. Rayld whimpered, rolled over on his side, and shivered in terror.
Of course a child this young would be expected to be frightened of strangers, but Yril couldn’t help seeing it as an omen. In the moonlight Rayld’s white skin almost seemed to glow. Instead of the healthy midnight-black color of other babies, he looked like a sun-bleached bone or a dead fish.
Vae looked at Taiph with soft, pitying eyes. “I have never heard of such a thing,” she said. “Were you ill while you were pregnant?”
“No,” Taiph said. “I felt it was going very well, until he was born.”
“We do not know how to help him,” Ghak said, “but there is someone nearby who might. You should take him to Zairn.”
Yril flattened his ears and grimaced. “What can that shapechanger do for our child?” he said.
“I have heard there is more to it than that,” Ghak said. “He knows healing magic.”
“You have seen this yourself?”
The old male lowered his eyes. “No,” he said, “but who else can you turn to?”
Yril snorted. “Fool’s advise!” he said. “He cannot be trusted. He would probably put a curse on us for entering his territory. You think that will make my son’s life better?”
Taiph growled, low and soft. “Show some respect!” she said. “I do not care what he can do. If there is a chance that Zairn could help, we will take it.”
Unaccustomed to the loud and angry sounds coming from his parents, Rayld whined. Taiph scooped him up and held him against her chest. He clung to her tattered brown shirt with his tiny claws and pressed himself into her warmth.
Yril bowed his head to his mate. Once again, he knew she was right.
They left at sunset the next day. Taiph wrapped Rayld in a warm cloth she stole from a human. She carried him in her teeth to trigger the hypnotic calmness that fell over young children when their neck skin was pulled. Yril carried a rat caught the previous night, a gift for the shapechanger.
These were unfamiliar woods. Everyone knew where the shapechanger lived, and they did everything they could to avoid him. When he entered the village they slunk out of his way. He could even approach an unruly crowd fighting over an uncovered grave and scatter them, claiming the prize for himself without a struggle. Taiph didn’t want to expose her child to such a person, but she felt the alternative could be even worse.
Yril still argued that they had to consider putting Rayld to rest. Sometimes she stayed awake late into the day, replaying their discussions.
Zairn’s den entrance was well hidden by bushes, but a passing human would have no difficulty finding him. He sat in a nearby clearing before a fire. A contraption made of sticks held a black teakettle over the fire. His large ears pricked forward when he heard them approaching. One ear had a chunk missing, the size a perfect match to a male ghoul’s tooth.
Taiph was surprised at how young he looked, perhaps only ten or twenty years older than herself. Underneath the dirt his clothing bore a swirling pattern of blues and greens. The shapechanger smiled, stood, and spread his arms. “Visitors!” he said. “I do love visitors! Wait right there. I will fetch you cups.”
He dove down the tunnel and returned with two delicate white cups. He took a pouch from a pocket in his shirt, sprinkled leaves into the cups, and poured in water from the kettle. Grinning wide enough to show some of his back teeth, he handed them each a cup.
Taiph held Rayld against her chest with her free arm.
Yril sat rigid, ears flattened. He held out the rat, muscles tensed to spring back at the slightest threatening movement. “Please accept this,” he said. “We were told you could help our son.”
“Tea first, then talk,” Zairn said. He picked up his cup and drank with dainty laps of his tongue.
“Tea?” Yril said. “Is this some kind of potion? What does it do?”
Zairn held the cup beneath his nose and savored the scent. “Ancient human recipe,” he said. “Drink, drink! I would not serve my guest something I do not myself enjoy.”
Taiph stared at the water in her cup. It was dark and dirty looking. She sniffed it. It smelled like the herbs humans grew in their gardens. She tried to lap it from the cup and splashed warm water down her fingers. It tasted like bitter healing weeds.
Yril’s eyes darted back and forth from her to his untouched cup.
Zairn lifted his palms to the stars. “Drink!” he said. “It is good for stress, and you sure look like you need it.”
“Please, Yril,” Taiph whispered, “do not offend him.”
Yril lowered his muzzle to the dark water and lapped at it. He only got a few swallows before it was all spilled. His wrinkled his nose in distaste.
Zairn laughed and clapped his hands. “Excellent!” he said. He collected the cups, rinsed them with the remaining water, and put them back in his den. He returned to his seat and began to eat the rat. “So, what can I do for you fine people?”
Taiph unwrapped Rayld from his cloth. “I am Taiph and my mate is Yril,” she said. “Our first child, Rayld, was born deformed. We were told you might be able to heal him.”
Zairn came around the fire for a closer look. “Interesting!” he said. “May I see him please?”
He held out his hands.
Taiph stared at his claws. Instinct told her she should back away from or attack this stranger reaching for her child. She felt Yril’s hand on her shoulder. He gave a comforting squeeze. She hesitated a few moments longer, and then let the shapechanger have her child.
Rayld looked at her, squirmed, and whined.
Zairn sniffed him, turned him this way and that, held him over his head with his eyes squinted and a deep look of concentration on his face. He gave him back. “Wait right here,” he said. “I have a tool for this.”
He dashed into his den and returned with a large transparent crystal. “Such a cute little boy,” he said, smiling at Rayld. “Hold still please.”
He pressed the crystal against Rayld’s forehead and closed his eyes. Rayld tried to wriggle away. Taiph licked his head to calm him. The shapechanger stood there for several minutes, unmoving except for his ears, which twitched as if picking up distant sounds she could not detect.
Zairn put the crystal in his pocket. He frowned. “I can detect no magical cause for his… difference,” he said. “I am afraid I cannot do anything for him. I recommend he see the healer in the village. He is a good one. I go to him myself.”
Yril bared his teeth. “You are insane!” he said. “Why would a predator want to help him?”
Zairn held up his hands. “Oh, they are not all bad,” he said. “Besides, you are forgetting about my disguise. I can take him for you. The humans love me! They think I am the nephew of my mentor, a wizard who died a few years ago.”
“You spend that much time among them?” Taiph said.
“Oh yes! As much as I can. They suspect nothing. My mentor taught me all about human customs. Your Rayld will be safe with me.”
Yril flattened his ears, but he looked at Taiph instead of saying something else rude.
She nodded. “We will try it,” she said. She bowed her head. “May a thousand blessings repay your kindness.”
“Wonderful!” Zairn said. “Come back here at sunrise and I will take him for you.”
Taiph returned to the den while Yril went hunting. She nursed Rayld and groomed him. If she closed her eyes and held him there was no way of sensing anything was wrong.
Zairn removed his usual clothing and left it in his den. He brought out his robes, folded and stored in a leather case to keep them clean. They were his favorites- dark blue with gold trim. He set them beside his basket and porcelain potion bowl, and then went to the stream for a bath. It amazed him to think that his ancestors, stuck in the endless nothing of the desert, may have never seen flowing water.
The young mated pair returned as instructed. They had their heads lowered and ears swept back, making no effort to hide how nervous they were. The white child swayed from his mother’s teeth, still as a fresh kill. They sat and his mother held him tight in her arms.
Zairn lifted the bowl and held it before him. The potion rippled. He could see them sniffing, growing more nervous. Trying to understand the unknown and failing. He grinned. “You are in for a treat,” he said. “I do not show this to just anyone.”
He lapped up the bitter potion and then quickly set the bowl aside so he would not break it. He took deep breaths to help his body ease into the transformation. Pain flared in his joints first, then his bones and muscles, organs and skin. He dropped to his hands and knees and groaned through gritted teeth. They were one of the last things to change, shrinking into his newly flattened face. He stood, shook his head, and ran his fingers through the curly hair he had just grown. “Oof, I really hate that part,” he said.
The couple stared, wide-eyed and trembling.
Zairn crouched to put himself at their height and smiled. “It is still me!” he said. “It is easy to change the body. The mind insists on keeping its shape.”
He dressed in the robes and tied a purple sash around his waist. He held out his arms so they could see the elegant way the large sleeves flowed as he moved. “So beautiful!” he said. “My mentor bought them just for me, before he died. He took me to a tailor so I could have something perfectly fitted to this form. Such a nice human.”
He smiled at the memory of old Jonathan. It was a pity humans aged so fast.
“I am not so sure anymore,” Taiph said. “What if they try to hurt him?”
Zairn crouched again and held the basket on his knees. “You have my word I will protect him with my life,” he said, voice low and gentle. “I will treat him like the child I will never have.”
That seemed to put them at ease. Even Yril looked a little less tense. Taiph set Rayld in the basket, tucked a blanket around him, and licked his head. He settled into the warmth and closed his eyes.
Zairn picked up the basket, careful to hold it steady. “All right little boy, time to see the healer,” he said.
They gave him directions to their den, and then he set off for a road that took travelers into the village.
Familiar faces waved when they saw him, and he waved back. He was grateful to find the healer unoccupied with customers. The fewer curious humans, the better. He set the basket on the counter and grinned. “Samuel!” he said. “How is business?”
“The usual,” the healer said.
He was a large man, starting to grow old and already grown rather fat. He had enormous eyebrows and an incredible amount of bushy white hair between his nose and upper lip, as if those places had sucked away the hair that most humans carried on their heads. Zairn kept his face hair restrained to a little tuft beneath his lower lip. It felt weird, but he liked it.
“What’s this?” Samuel said, peeling back the blanket.
Rayld woke up, squinted, and began whimpering.
“Believe it or not, this is your patient,” Zairn said.
Samuel gave him a funny look, but he put up a busy notice and led the way to the examination room.
Zairn sat with the basket in his lap. “It is all right little boy,” he said. “Be calm please.”
“So, what is it?” Samuel said.
Zairn cupped his hands under the child’s belly and lifted him out for the man to see. “He is a ghoul,” he said. “A friend found him orphaned and wants to take care of him. He was busy, so he sent me to get him a health check. He is worried about this strange color. When they are born they are supposed to have black skin. What could be causing this?”
Samuel scowled, looking as if someone had brought a diseased rat into his shop. “Your friend has odd taste in pets,” he said. “Yes, I’ve heard of this. Sometimes happens to people and animals. It’s a rare bloodline curse.”
Zairn furrowed his brow and tilted his head. “A curse?” he said. “But I tested him and he was negative for magical ailments.”
The healer shrugged. “That’s just what I call it,” he said. “Don’t know what causes it, but it acts like a curse. They stick to certain families. Sometimes it shows up a lot, sometimes it’s dormant for a few generations. Type like this, you can’t do anything about it. It should be fine. Curse won’t hurt it.”
Zairn frowned. He wiggled a finger in front of Rayld, and the child chewed on it. “Can these bloodline curses happen to children whose parents look normal?” he said.
Samuel nodded. “Sure,” he said. “Case like that, most of the offspring will be normal, but you’ll get a few cursed ones. For some reason that type prefers to stay hidden most of the time. Cursed ones usually have normal offspring.”
“That is good news at least,” Zairn said. He tucked Rayld back into his blanket. “What do I owe you, my friend?”
Samuel waved a hand at him. “No charge for looking at it,” he said.
Zairn bowed his head. “May a thousand blessings repay your kindness,” he said.
The healer rolled his eyes.
Zairn returned to the forest and found the couple pacing outside their den. They came running. Taiph scooped Rayld out of the basket and held him tight in her arms. They sat and listened, grief written on their faces, as he explained how bloodline curses worked.
Yril stroked his son’s head. “A thousand blessings for your help,” he said. “I apologize for losing my temper. We are still trying to decide, would it be best for him if we put him to rest? What do you think?”
Zairn sat on his heels. “No,” he said. “No, you should give him a chance. Do you really think his life will be that bad?”
“He will be an outcast. People will be afraid of him. No female will ever choose him. I do not want a life of loneliness and misery for him.”
Zairn was silent for a while. He understood their concern. He did not agree with the solution, but he understood. He picked his words with care. “I think you will be surprised at what a happy person he is when he grows up,” he said. “He is so full of energy. Let him loose on the world and see what he can do. If you are still worried when he comes of age, advise him to choose a territory in his birthplace. People who watched him grow up may be more accepting. If he does become lonely, tell him to find me. I will give him an offer no one else has received. I will take him as my apprentice.”
Taiph nodded at Yril. He processed the offer for a few more moments, and then bowed his head. Taiph smiled. “Yes,” she said. “We will do that.”
Watching them crawl back into the den for some much needed rest, Zairn realized this was probably the most important thing he had ever done. He didn’t care that most of the others avoided him, as long as the right ones didn’t. He looked forward to meeting Rayld again in a few years and seeing what kind of person he became.
Zairn hurried back the way he came. If he was quick about it, he could make one last visit to the village before the potion wore off.