Clawed hands rummaged through the soft earth. Rain pelted against her unprotected head, and dirty water washed over her face. Ashley rested a moment and swiped away the rivulets with the back of her leather gloved hand. Surely it was enough for today. From her side she plucked a small pouch and the rain forced her to lift her goggles to peer inside. The count was a miserable three. But there at her feet the rain had freed a small gem from the earth. In a flurry she grasped it, hissing at a nearby waif whom dared hinted at a challenge and he suddenly found renewed interest in his claim. Four now she had four, it may be enough. No, it was definitely enough. She placed the gem with it fellows and looked to the sky, the rain was starting to still and daylight would break soon enough, but there was still time. Ashley replaced her goggles and stretched her wings and with a pause to adjust for the air currents, she took flight.
The flight was brief and her claws dug into the gravel lined footpath. She approached cautiously and when with a few inches she rang the doorbell. As she waited she recited the Gatherer’s Prayer:
To us and say, to speak no more;
Seek for once, for ever and more.
For every nay they are to hear,
Bells of toll, for once to cheer.
If and only that must stay,
Forever once, never this day.
Ashley was half way through her eighth when a man appeared in the doorway. He said nothing but struck out his hand, and Ashley gave him her gem bag. He jiggled it for a second and then motioned for her to enter.
‘Lady Penny will be down shortly. Please try to make yourself somewhat respectable.’
‘I’m not a lord’, he rolled his eyes, ‘just a slightly well-kept servant than those you are used to.’
He placed Ashley’s gem bag on a small side table and left the room. She wasn’t sure what he had meant by respectable, but decided to fold her wings properly so little was displayed. There had been talks in the pits that those from the manor had a particular dislike for them. She retracted her claws and for the first time felt the carpet under her feet. It was an odd sensation, similar to the cut grasses in the western region, but softer and not as offensive to her olfactory senses.
‘Do you like it?’
Startled Ashley stepped backward and bumped the wall.
‘The carpet do you like it? I was thinking of having the entire house redone but Thomas will not hear of it, some nonsense about – well where are my manners. Peter tells me you have something for us?’
Ashley motioned to the bag and Penny picked it up with fore finger and thumb only and dumped the contents onto the table then tossed the bag away. Ashley scrounged for the bag and hung it back in its place.
‘These are wonderful.’ Lady Penny picked up each stone and examined them. ‘Is this all you have?’
‘My dear creature, you may speak and in fact it is encouraged.’
‘Yes, it is all my work.’
‘And you are happy to trade?’
‘Excellent, but first sign this.’
Ashley took the paper Lady Penny offered.
‘Take special note of the returned agreement.’
Ashley glanced its content and then signed the end of the document and she handed it back. Lady Penny tucked it back into her waistband, turned and rang a small bell. Within seconds three girls appeared in the room. She said something to them in a language Ashley didn’t understand and then left.
‘Lady Penny has told us to serve you this morn,’ the dark skinned girl said.
‘Please stand very still,’ the blonde one said.
Ashley did as requested. The three girls started to chant and they appeared to spin around her. A shower of blue sparks streaked the air and suddenly she was in the eye of a cobalt firestorm. Faster and faster it seemed to swirl and Ashley felt like her skin was peeling away, but without pain. Without warning the maelstrom vanished and the girls giggled as they grabbed Ashley’s hands and led her away into a small room.
‘Look, look,’ the tall girl shoved Ashley in front of a mirror.
Instinctively Ashley thrust her hands over her face. But in that second she saw something unusual, her light fur had gone and in its place pink skin, smooth and perfect. She stood tall admiring her new physique, its curves and unusual extremities.
‘Are you happy?’
Ashley nodded, unable to speak.
‘She’s happy,’ the tall girl giggled, ‘but if you want to enter the manor, we need to put some clothes on that fine ass.’
‘How’s this?’ The dark girl held up an object of black lace and corsetry.
The three girls surrounded Ashely again, tucking and prodding. Once they decided they were finished, they let her look once more into the mirror. The bluish hues of the black dress made her skin radiant, the effect was indeed, mesmerising.
‘Well don’t we look much more suitable?’ Lady Penny said from the doorway. ‘Another excellent job ladies. Now if you excuse me, Ashley and I have a gathering to attend.’ Lady Penny pointed her elbow, and Ashley obliged taking hold.
Lady Penny escorted Ashley up a flight of stairs, and into a grand room. Music was playing and people were chatting and dancing. At the far end men carrying silver trays of food were gracefully prying their way through the crowd and guests sampled their wares. Everyone stopped and looked up at Ashley.
‘Our newest member!’ Lady Penny applauded and the crowd followed suit.
Ashley smiled for the first time that evening. She stepped forward, just as a buzzer sounded.
‘And that’s time.’ Lady Penny snapped her fingers, and a flurry of red sparks fell from Ashley. Her wings burst out the back of the dress. Within seconds she had reverted to her original form, wearing nothing but shreds of the black dress.
Her transformation complete, Lady Penny leaned in, ‘Work harder and we will see you again.’
Lady Penny let out a whistle, and the world flipped upside down, streaks of colour flashed past. It all stopped with Ashley landing face first in her dig claim. She stood and groomed herself free of the mud. She looked upwards to the manor, the lights burned bright and she knew the party would go on till morning. Ashley released a sigh and ran her hand through her hair, stopping shortly to pluck out a stubborn lump. As luck would remain it was a small green gemstone. A wry smile on her face, Ashely set to work, perhaps she would see inside the manor again, but next time she would be offering much more.