Chapter 3: The First Shift

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"A what?" I asked intrigued. "What does that mean?"

"Some Wise Women have the ability to transform themselves into animals at will. We call them Shifters. It's a skill that takes practice and comes with certain risks. I've only met one Shifter in my lifetime — a woman called Karin from Quain whom I met in the forest. She showed me how it's done. You need to be able to touch the animal whose form you want to take on. If she wanted to shift into a bird first she'd clear her mind and still her body. Then she'd concentrate on the bird and imagine herself into it. She'd try to feel as if she had its feet, its wings, its beak and feathers.

"When her identification was complete, she'd touch the bird and instantly her body would change, starting with her feet. She'd shrink down small, her shape would change, wings and feathers would grow and within a few minutes she'd be completely transformed into a bird.

"She told me a Shift can only last one cycle of the sun or moon. If she shifted in the day, she could stay in that animal body till sunset. If she shifted in the night, she'd have to change back before dawn, otherwise she'd lose the power to turn back into a human being again. She'd have to stay as that animal for the rest of her life." I listened open-mouthed.

"When Edwin reinstated the Old Law banning our craft, some of the Wise Women who were Shifters transformed into their favourite animals and stayed that way permanently. They preferred to live out their lives in the animal kingdom rather than face persecution in the human world. They became animal helpers and helped in the secret healing ceremonies the hidden Wise Women performed.

"Eventually Karin didn't even need to touch the animal to be able to shift. If she wanted to change into a bird, she could do it by just touching a feather. I once saw her shift into a snake by touching a discarded snake skin.

"She told me that when she wanted to change back, she'd imagine herself human again. She'd feel her fingers and toes, think herself into a place she loved, doing something she loved doing. For Karin, it was always swimming in the Shining Sea off the beach in Quain. Instantly she'd grow back into her human form again."

"Does she still live in the forest? Can I meet her?"

"No." Gerda shook her head sadly. "After my training, she moved back to Quain and practised in secret. But then she got caught. The king's guards discovered her trying to heal a slave girl who'd been badly beaten. King Edwin was so terrified of witchcraft he didn't even give her a trial. He sentenced her immediately to death by burning. She was taken to the Witches Pyre which stands in the central square in Jamain and tied to the stake. As they set it alight, Karin lifted her head and called out to the Goddess to save her. Just as the flames were about to reach her, a golden eagle swooped down and landed on her shoulder. Immediately, she shifted into an eagle. The ropes holding her dropped away and she swooped into the sky and flew off into the sunset. She never changed back after that. She lives as an eagle now. I see her sometimes, wheeling above the Great Forest."

"Wow!" I was all I could manage. I was lost for words. My heart was thumping in my rib-cage. My eyes were wide with a mixture of astonishment and excitement.

"Do you want to try it out, Daisy?"

I nodded breathlessly. My mind was whirring with all the possibilities. I didn't think I'd be able to clear it at all.

"Let's start with a rabbit," Gerda scooped up one of the half dozen that were hopping around us and stroked its ears. "They're gentle, simple creatures. A rabbit should be perfect for a first Shift." She set it down in front of me where it sat obediently and munched the grass.

"First of all you need to relax and let go of your thoughts," Gerda's voice had taken on that mesmeric quality I knew so well from healing training. "Close your eyes and become aware of your body." I obeyed. The grass was cool beneath me, the breeze caressed my skin and my ears were filled with gentle birdsong. "Breathe in as deeply as you can. Breathe out and feel all your worries, all your tensions draining out of you and into the ground. Feel your body become still and let your mind become as silent and peaceful as a still pool of water."

I inhaled. I exhaled. My muscles relaxed, my mind let go and I surrendered to deep, all-pervading tranquility. "Now open your eyes and focus on the rabbit. You are this rabbit. You have long rabbit ears and a twitchy nose. Your eyes, your limbs are all rabbit. You are covered in downy fur and you have a fluffy white tail. You're nibbling the grass with your sharp rabbit teeth." She fell into silence while I connected with the animal in front of me. I felt my heart beating in time with its little heart. "Now reach out and touch the rabbit."

Slowly I extended my hands. As soon as my fingers made contact with the soft fur, a wave rippled through me from the soles of my feet to the crown of my head. My stomach lurched and every cell in my body tingled. I felt like I was falling down a deep hole as I shrank small, the contours of my body reshaping themselves while I fell. My ears grew long, my teeth sharpened and fur sprouted all over my tiny body. When the falling sensation passed, I was every inch a rabbit, my dress fallen empty around me.

Too stunned to move, I looked around, taking in the view from my new perspective so close to the ground. My eyes were on the side of my head so now I could see further behind me but straight in front was just a blur. I twitched onelong ear. Even the tiniest sound was loud to me. Each rustling in the forest undergrowth, each movement of the other animals around me was sharp and clear. I could pinpoint exactly where each one came from. My rabbit senses were alert. I was watchful, wary, poised to take flight at the slightest sign of danger.

I lifted my front paws and hopped forward, out of the pile of clothes. It was surprisingly easy. I hopped again, further this time; then again, all round the grassy patch. My little heart was bursting with happiness. I twitched my tiny nose, the fresh green grass suddenly smelt delicious. I lowered my head and started to nibble at it, my sharp teeth cropping it easily. Each of the rabbits lolloped over to sniff me, the new member of their family, starting with the rabbit I had touched. I sniffed them back, each of their individual smells was distinct — as different as one musical note from another. Once they'd established I was the same as them, they went back to grazing the grass and took no more notice of me. I hopped over to Gerda and snuffled at her knee. She laughed her tinkly laugh and stroked my forehead with her finger.

"I think that's enough for a first Shift. Turn back to Daisy, now."

It was easy to think myself into my favourite place because my favourite place was Gerda's garden. I imagined myself kneeling among the herbs, breathing in their fragrance, the sun on my neck, holding a sprig of lavender between my fingers while I sliced its stem with a silver knife. A wave rippled through me again. My stomach lurched once more and my body tingled with energy as it grew and swelled. First my paws reshaped themselves into human feet, the fur disappearing as they changed, then my legs and arms. My body swiftly regained its normal shape. My ears shrank back into their normal shell-like coils and my black hair grew long down my back.

There I stood, human again. I touched my face to feel if all the fur had gone, if my features were the same as before. In a daze I pulled my dress back on and flopped down on the grass opposite Gerda, overwhelmed by what had just happened.

"Wow!" once again was all I had to say. Gerda smiled and stroked my hair.

"Well done, Daisy. You have a rare and precious gift. Karin told me one more very important rule. You can only change once in twenty-four hours. If you shift at night you can't shift the next day. You have to wait till nightfall to shift again. Shifting takes a tremendous amount of heart-energy and if you shift too frequently, you won't have the strength to change back to your human form.

Equally, if you shift in the daytime, you can't shift again till the following day. So please be careful, Daisy. Use your gift wisely and follow these rules rigidly. You can practise in your room but not till tomorrow now and don't let anyone see you. Tell your mother, Poppy and Annifer but no one else." She held up her index finger and raised her eyebrows for emphasis." Your gift has many uses and unscrupulous people might want to use it for their own gain but you must only use it for good. I trust your goodness, Daisy. I know you will.

"Now, let's be silent for a while so you can absorb this experience and get your energy back. Then you'd better get back to the Castle before Cook has a heart attack."

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