This is another "Heartland Tale" with a nod to "Heartland" creator and Literotica author Trisha Monks for her inspiration and indulgence. Follow the link on my Favorites page to see her work.
This is a standalone story though and may be read without the context of other "Heartland Tales" stories. You may want to read my other piece "In an Iron Sling" for character context prior to reading this one, though, as this piece does include the recurring character of Hannah the witch.
Somewhere in the Cathalian wilderness...
Chela swept her red cloak out of the way as she stooped down to pick another mushroom. She added it to the collection of its kin in her basket and danced off to find another. Soon it would be too warm to wear her cloak and hood, but her mistress insisted she wear it this evening in case she got caught out after dark in falling temperatures. Spring had just begun, after all, and Winter still thought it ruled the night.
Indeed a chill did seem to be creeping through the wood. The sun was fast setting and the shadows were long. The red dusk peaked through the newly budding branches of the hardwoods and colored the girl's pale skin in bloodtones. Soon it would be dark, and Chela did not know that she was being shadowed.
The monster had been following her scent for miles, and now its luminous yellow eyes spied the girl in the gathering gloom. Her red hood bobbed along in the undergrowth as she worked her way toward the cottage in the distant clearing, and the creature knew it could have her long before she made the safety of the shelter.
It flexed its wickedly taloned forepaws in the air and growled low in its chest before dropping back onto four feet and padding silently after the girl. Its giant muzzle swept back and forth across the scent trail as it trotted, and though its gleaming yellow eyes were also on the ground, its upright ears focused forward on the girl's dancing footsteps, pauses, and mushroom plucks.
Closer now... so close that the warmth of her body still lingered in the air as the giant beast moved in upon her. It stayed silent and crept below her line of sight. Closer now... so close that it could taste her breath as she sang quietly to herself.
Chela stepped into the clearing and threw her hood back. Her basket was full and it was almost too dark to be wandering the wood alone. Not that the darkness mattered one bit to Chela, but the things that crept about in it were a different story. Mistress Hannah would be pleased that she had found so many mushrooms, though.
Had she been able to see it, she would have noticed at that moment that a small tattoo on the back of her neck flashed suddenly with a blue light. She felt it though and immediately dove forward into a rolling whirl of red cloth and scattering mushrooms. A huge taloned paw swept the air just where the girl had been and snagged the trailing edge of her cloak. With a roar of hungry triumph, the creature stood to its full formidable thirteen foot height, a terrifying monstrous wolf on two legs, and clutched the cloak to its chest.
The garment was empty.
Just then a stick poked between the beast's legs and cracked it solidly in its giant furry testicles. The monster wolf's eyes crossed, and it toppled over with a very unthreatening whine. The discarded cloak floated gently down to land upon the beast's wounded crotch, a suitable badge of defeat.
"I am not amused, Mactuan," said the one-eyed woman as she leaned over the beast's prostrate and gasping form. "Trying to scare my childe like that -- you should be ashamed. You had just better be grateful that your balls didn't crack my broomstick. I would have been forced to become cross with you if they had."
"It was a fine -- test of -- both your broomstick's -- and my anatomy's -- fortitude, m'lady," the beast, Mactuan, panted in a savage, raspy voice. "I would like to say -- that they have both survived -- but I am not certain."
"Why don't you lick them like a dog and find out, hmmm? You appear to be capable," the woman said and turned to walk away.
Mactuan righted himself onto four feet and shook his great hairy head until his ears flapped against his skull. With a few grunts and growls he looped his body into a circle and did indeed check to see if he was whole and undamaged.
Meanwhile the one-eyed woman walked languidly back across the darkening clearing toward the cottage and called, "Chela, sweet girl, you may come out now." Then back over her shoulder, "Mactuan? The mushrooms... if you please."
"I am here Mistress Hannah," said Chela and stepped into view around one corner of the cottage.
"Quickly now, open the door and step aside please," said her mistress and stepped aside herself to make way for an unusually large crow clutching the basket of mushrooms to blow past her toward the cottage. The red cloak streamed out behind it as it gripped it together with the basket's handle.
Chela got the door open just in time for the crow to streak past her into the cottage with its wings tucked tightly to its body. There followed a great beating of feathers and then silence. Chela waited by the door patiently and did not look inside, as normal protocol demanded that her mistress enter first.
"Prepare yourself dear girl, for this is likely to be interesting. Keep your lips together and your ears open as well. The less he knows about you at this point, the better," Hannah said as an aside when she caught up and prepared to step across the threshold. Then just to reassure the girl, she gave her a little wink before entering.
Chela stepped into the cozy cottage that had become her second home these past eight years. She couldn't think of a better place in all the world... except maybe outdoors under the stars in the Summer. This place was her school and her shelter, and more important events in her life had taken place in its one room or the wood surrounding it than the rest of the Heartlands combined.
As her mistress moved toward the fire and away from the door, the girl was greeted with an unusual sight. There was a mostly naked man sitting calmly at the table and drinking tea. He grinned behind his steaming mug and nodded a greeting to her. Her cloak wrapped around his waist like a skirt provided his only modesty.
Chela nodded back, quietly took a seat on the floor next to Hannah's favorite chair, and studied the stranger. He appeared to be well formed if somewhat wild in appearance. He was absolutely filthy and his long dark hair was tossed in unruly shapes. He had no beard despite appearing to be of age and his lean muscular body showed the scars of a life apparently spent naked in a bramble bush. Chela immediately thought he was the most beautiful man she had ever seen, and she desired him.
His eyes, however, were unsettling. They glowed with a reflective light, like a raccoon caught by a lantern beam. Chela did not know what it meant, but it excited her. Her own eyes had done the same since her first woman's blood had arrived many years before, and perhaps this stranger might be a key to finding out why.
At last, with her own cup of tea in hand, Hannah sat in her chair and appeared to be about to speak. Both Chela and the visitor leaned expectantly toward her imminent word, but she blew on her mug of tea instead.
"Oh gods bless your magnificent breasts, Mother Hannah!" the stranger erupted. "Get on with it would you?"
"Ha!" cackled the witch. "Your patience has not improved since I last saw you lad. Very well... Mactuan, this is my childe Chela. She is nearing the end of her training with me and is shortly to move beyond my capability to guide.
"Chela, this is Mactuan. He was my childe once upon a day, and for a short period of time he is to be your teacher for certain wisdoms that I do not possess. You may trust him in all things, for he is above reproach in all things except conversational manners and cleanliness."
Chela nodded slowly.
"Now to answer the question that you are thinking," Hannah continued, "this is necessary because you may have a gift I cannot instruct. Mactuan possesses this gift and can guide you through your first painful steps into a world where I do not trespass."
Hannah let that sink in a moment before continuing, "His is magick beyond anyone's ability to learn by study. It is natural, but not in the way that you and I understand it; and what little evidence we possess indicates that you have to be born with it. Mactuan is, as you have no doubt guessed, a skinwalker -- a shapeshifter -- and we both suspect that you may be too."
"Are you sure she has the gift, Mother Hannah?" asked Mactuan.
"No, I'm not," Hannah spoke while studying Chela. "That will be up to you to discern for certain; however, she does have the eyes. You, my lovely boy, are the only other person I have ever known with eyes like that."
They were all silent a moment. Then Mactuan turned his attention to Chela.
"You can see as clearly in the darkest night as a mildly cloudy day?"
"Do you tire slowly and heal quickly?"
Again, Chela affirmed silently.
"How old are you, little sister?"
Chela looked to her mistress and received a nod of permission before answering, "Twenty-five winters."
"And how long have you been with Mother Hannah?"
"I am in my eighth year of study. My parents brought me to her right after I came of age."
Chela nodded, wondering how he knew, "Both dead or gone before my memory begins."
"We have nearly identical stories, little sister, except that I was younger and never had good parents until Mother Hannah took me in. She provided all my love and education for five years before I left her at the age of sixteen. I am twenty-seven now myself."
"You were too big for the nest, my boy, and I taught you all I could," Hannah remarked kindly.
"Aye, and I am forever grateful," Mactuan replied to her and nodded respectfully. Then he turned back to Chela and continued, "You see I do not have the talent or the aptitude to learn the greater wisdoms that she teaches you. I was fortunate enough just to learn to read and write, to survive in the wild, and to make use of my own simple skills. I do have gifts, though -- special gifts, which I thought were unique until today.
"It seems that neither of us knows what manner of parents we come from, little sister. My own were fatally absent in exactly the same way but were obviously different people than your own due to our age difference. All that we can be certain of is that we were born different. What you do with your difference is up to you, but I will teach you what I can."
Chela blinked several times as she allowed all of Mactuan's words to sink in. A skinwalker? What could it mean? How could she not know? Then she realized that both Hannah and Mactuan were looking at her expectantly.
"Will you accept me?" Mactuan asked, breaking the silence.
"Very good," Hannah said and clapped her hands. "You may do anything you wish to her, Mactuan, but she must always have the option of free will. If you rob her of choice, I shall test my broomstick on various parts of your body until one or the other loses."
"That last was a lucky strike. Had you not been fortuitous enough to be in a position behind me, you never would have been managed it."
"Fortune had nothing to do with it," Hannah said vaguely, waving away his bluster. "I knew precisely when you would arrive and in what manner. How else do you explain that a mug of tea prepared according to your tastes was waiting for you when you came to the table?"
"True enough, m'lady," Mactuan replied and bowed again.
"Then mind my girl as you would mind your balls, or you'll pay for one with the other, lad," Hannah threatened with a wry smile.
"It is an acceptable risk, Mother Hannah," Mactuan grinned. "We will begin in the morning."
First light found Chela and Mactuan seated on the house-sized boulders in the midst of a nearby river. The wood was beginning to wake as the wind changed with the rising of the sun. Small creatures crept amidst the giant rocks, and birdsong began to accompany the rush of the river. There was still a chill in the air and Chela saw Mactuan's breath in vapor as he spoke.
"First I must ask a potentially awkward question. How comfortable are you with being naked?"
"I have nothing to be ashamed of," Chela shrugged.
"Good. I spend so much time in other skins, that I do not actually own any clothes. Obviously I had to borrow these from Mother Hannah. Shape changing in clothes does not work at all. They do not change with you when the Spirit transforms your body."
"Aye, Spirit. That is what Mother Hannah and I have reckoned this to be. I have a very strong animal part to the Spirit inside me, and it allows me to wear its skins."
"Seven total skins for myself. We do not know for you."
"How do we even know that I can do this?" Chela asked the burning question.
"We do not... yet. Surely you have heard the saying that 'the eyes are the windows to the soul'. Well, there is a beast staring back at me through yours. My task is to see if we can connect that beast to your Will. We want to awaken the animal part of your Spirit to the influence of your mind. Once there we will see if it will transform your body."
"Gladly," Mactuan grinned. He stood and cast off the borrowed cloak. Then quickly unbinding and setting aside the wool skirt he had also been loaned, he stood naked in the rising sun.
Chela caught her breath. He was magnificent, from the tanness of his skin and sinewy cords of his springlike muscles to the life in his stance and eyes. He represented everything a witch like her found irresistible -- a totally free being connected intimately with Nature. She also did not fail to notice his large cockstem swinging above his equally grand balls. Both immediately began to shrink in the chill air, but Mactuan did not seem concerned.
He crouched down and suddenly sprung into the air. His body entered a new sunbeam filtering through the trees and hung in the air for a fraction of a second before seeming to tear itself down the middle. Chela's scream caught in her throat as Mactuan's body burst apart with the sound of rending fabric. The ragged bits of him seemed to melt into shreds of grey ash and smoke. The ash and smoke further dissolved into nothingness in the sudden burst of air driven by the wings of the large crow that came from within the man's exploded body. In that moment of weightlessness still carried from Mactuan's spring from the boulder, the crow took flight.
Chela was at a loss for words as the crow wheeled silently in the morning light. The shock of seeing Mactuan's body tear apart in midair was offset by the beauty of the animal he became and the speculative wonder that she might be able to do the same.
Moments later the crow alighted on the boulder and turned a shiny black-button eye on her. "Hello beautiful," it croaked.
"You can talk!" Chela laughed. "Can you understand me as well?"
"Aye," croaked Mactuan the crow. "Crows have ears and voices. Watch now."
He hopped up with a few quick wingbeats and then, tucking his wings to his body, plummeted into the swiftly running river in another puff of ash and smoke. Chela wondered what it meant, but then a large silver salmon leapt from the surface of the water to land with a splash that showered her with cold spray.
Chela laughed again despite the cold water. Salmon did not live in this river; it could only be another skin. She watched as the fish leapt again to land in the shallows and raced back and forth in silver streaks biting at the newly hatched flies in the calm pools.
In a vicious swirl of water and smoke, a young buck deer rose up and stepped out of the shallows. His ears flicked in annoyance as cold water dripped off them. He turned his large eyes to regard Chela and snorted softly before bounding off into the wood.
Moments later, a great black boar crashed through the undergrowth with much pounding of hooves and gnashing of tusks. His bristled back stood easily three feet from the ground, but he grunted softly to ease his intimidating presence. His small red eyes squinted at Chela, and she would have sworn he winked at her.
The boar belted out a short squeal and reared up onto its hind legs. A moment later and another tearing of physical form and ash and smoke, Mactuan's naked humanity was stepping lightly over the river boulders to once again join her.
"Sufficient?" he asked as the seated himself on the rock.
"That was only four. What are the other three?"
"Ah... one is a large wolf, one you see before you now, and the third lies halfway between the two but is greater than both. You saw it yesterday when we first met. As I recall, Mother Hannah was 'not amused,'" Mactuan explained and cupped his testicles in his hand.
"You don't appear any worse for it," said Chela shyly. The young man was well equipped, and it was causing a stirring of excitement under her skirt to sit close to his beautiful naked body. She was a young woman accustomed to manifesting what she wanted, and she was rapidly convincing herself that she wanted Mactuan. Something about him felt right, and it was more than his physical beauty.
"My apologies, little sister," Mactuan said and released himself. "I should not be so bold in front of you. I so rarely wear clothing and share company that my manners are not what they used to be."
"I am not offended," Chela replied, "but I thank you for your deference. If I know my mistress, we were both taught to feel no shame in our bodies -- "
"For we are Nature's designs and we cannot second guess Its intelligence," Mactuan interrupted, smiling. "I had to write that a thousand times on my clay study tablet the first time Mother Hannah caught me pleasuring myself. Of course, that was after I had to write 'I shall be respectful of my own privacy and the privacy of others' two thousand times."
"Because not only did she catch me pleasuring myself, but I was watching her bathe at the time. She explained to me that what I was doing was not wrong, but that I had not taken into account the more important issue of respect. I should have asked if I could watch her, and when I did she expressly forbid it. 'There is a time and place for pleasuring oneself,' she explained, 'but that was neither.'"
"How old were you?"
"Young enough that my cockstem was just beginning to wake up and to rule my reason. Her bountiful body was not quite as bountiful back then, but she has never been anything but overwhelmingly beautiful and sexual. She is so very much alive," Mactuan continued.
"Yes, she is," Chela agreed emphatically. She noticed that Mactuan's cock had partially hardened as he retold the memory, but she decided not to mention it.
"You have inherited it from her," Mactuan stated matter-of-factly, causing Chela a slight startle. "But we are losing time. Shall we get back to the lesson at hand?"
"Of course," Chela stuttered, trying to recover her composure. "What must I do?"
"Close your eyes, little sister," Mactuan began. "Think about how to bake bread."
"Do not question now, just follow," Mactuan instructed. "Think about how to bake bread."
"Picture the ingredients," Mactuan began slowly, adding each image after several moments. "Picture the steps and motions involved in preparing them. Feel the flour in your hands. Hear the gentle slap of the dough on the kneading board. Smell the loaf baking. Taste the first mouthful... name an animal."
"Hawk," Chela declared, her eyes springing open.
"Good. Do you understand what just happened?"
"Of course. Mistress has done similar things to me. You focused all my thoughts and senses on something else, so I would respond with instinct rather than reason."