Ricóre stopped two steps outside her shop, and stared at the front doors of the Red Gryphon Inn. She squinted against the possibility that she was mistaken, then shook her head. No, it really was skinny old Aulofu, waving a dilapidated broom at a pigeon on the walk. The bird appeared to give due consideration to whatever was being said, then departed in a wavering flight path that barely sufficed to keep it off the ground. Just what is it she portents this time?
It was a rhetorical question. Whatever possessed the dream walker to hold conferences with birds would become clear in time. Ricóre tucked the matter in a convenient corner of her backbrain for later study. There was no way to tell, Aulofu hadn’t visited her dreams, and at the moment there were other matters to attend. Half a day’s walk north along the Great Lir’s Highway, a goat had given birth to a kid with two heads. Two more hours east of there, a woman had an ailing child, and an orchard near the northern mouth of the Talos Valley was reportedly producing apples of strange appearance. There was enough to do without worrying about Aulofu.
A broom promptly appeared in her right hand.
"Be a horse, please."
The wooden handle became a set of reins attached to a gray gelding. "Steps, please."
A wooden crate put in an appearance, directly below the dangling stirrup.
"Huh. So Dora wasn’t kidding!" Májica shifted appearances, becoming a female instead of a bush at the side of the inn, and watched Ricóre ride off.
"Oh, no. She wasn’t kidding about Ricóre being a witch part." The sapling she stood next to also took on human form and the girl jumped.
"Oops. Are you all right?"
"You’re a shifter!" Why hadn’t she known this before? Shifters recognized other shifters!
"Nope, I’m a wood elf." Trey brushed at his forearms, knocking an assortment of leaves and dust from his sleeves, then glanced at her in apprehension. "Does that bother you?"
"Only when it takes place at my elbow!" She shuttered just a little, the startled element fading off to nothing. "That doesn’t happen very often!"
"Probably not," he agreed cheerfully. "You make a pretty good bush, all things considered."
Oh, really? "What kind of ‘things’ are you considering?" The implication that she had overlooked something stung, coming from somebody as young as he was. Or appeared to be.
"Well, the junction of the limbs is flatter-but not by much. You really did a good job, honest."
"Only another plant form could tell, huh?" She grinned at his earnest expression and barely managed to suppress an inclination to tousle his hair. "Where was she off to, anyway?"
"That sounds like an interesting place."
"Must be--she goes there all the time."
Out of sight? Enough to manage. "Horse, go broom." She really didn’t have time to put up with a plodding gelding, that stupid knight’s sense of honor notwithstanding. But if he ever tried to force his code of chivalry as he had that morning, she’d learn exactly how long it took to roast a turkey in a tin wrapper! Just because she didn’t waste perfectly good magic making herself look like Májica was no reason for him to assume she was too old to gallop!
"And by the Old Ones, there he is again!" She banked sharply to the right, circling the stony area where the sun had bounced off burnished metal. "Challenging a dragon! Hope his mother doesn’t expect letters."
Given some preparation, she might have been able to do something. But she didn’t have it, and the knight didn’t last long enough for her to find a landing spot before he became roast. "You’ve got to stop this, snidley."
The massive head nodded thoughtfully. "Thisss may be ssso. And were I Sssnidley..,"
"Oh, thou art snidley, butter brain." There was no point in teaching him the meaning of the adjective. She made a low pass over what was left of the late, bold knight. "Thou growest more so, every day now."
One green eye followed her carefully, the other closed in concentration. "Wasspissh, for an old hag, woman."
"Indeed, ‘tis true that I am waspish, and why, pray tell, should I be other? Once again thee hast left thy memory in thine tail scales."
"Sstrange sspeach thous hassst, and yet familiar..." He watched while she debarked, unconsciously drawing one foreclaw across a growing itch halfway along his snout.
"’Tis not strange, O snidely viper; merely older than thy thought trails." Stepping closer, she bent to examine the remains of his tail tip, recently removed in his encounter with the knight. "Ah. In this one."
The itch was definitely growing greater. He ceased his efforts to converse and dug determinedly at the spot which seemed to be spreading below the surface of his hide.
"Adhere again, and do not leave him.
Afix thyself atop his skull bone.
Abide thee there, below the scale line;
feed his empty brain as needed."
One or two good digs more, and the itch subsided, freeing him to return to matters of import. The woman was still there, once again upon her broom and hovering at an easy eye level. "And just what brings thee to mine home, witch?"
"Happenstance, serpent. Do thy wings work?"
"Work? Of a surety mine wings work!"
"Care to try them in the open?" She backed away, giving him room to exit his enclosure. "Thou hast had a close call, Old One."
"O, and then pray tell me how so." Almost by reflex he stepped forward and shrugged, opening and closing his wings. The woman was daft, no doubt about it.
"Yon pile of cinders cleft thy tail tip." She rose and fell, riding the air current he had caused. "Canst thee remember what promised the Council of Dragons to the Druid?"
It took a moment, and then the memory flooded back. "...and the Race of Dragon, shall eat not of the flesh meat of the Children of Man... It isss remembered."
"Then store thine memories in places not so easily removed, sir. When the foolish Child of Man removed thy tail, he took from thee near all thine history. And thou didst eat the flesh meat, thus proving naught the word of dragons."
"No!" He glared at her, then glanced around, finding the still warm pile of bone and twisted metal. "Yessssss..."
"I have replaced thine missing pieces. Take thee care that this does not happen yet again."
With or without memory, the dragon did not care for her tone. He inhaled, intent on providing her with a smoking rejoinder.
Ricóre had anticipated this. She blinked out of sight, although he could still sense her presence. "Test me at thy peril, thou belching chimney. ‘Tis no great feat to baptize thee in the Chartreuse, should such appear beneficial."
"One blast, old witch, and thou shalt ride thy breeze against the moon."
"A possibility. But think. What gainest thee by such an action? And who else is there to restore what thou willst lose upon the morrow?"
She had a point. He nosed at the debris that littered the rocks, letting the memories of recent things join with those of ancient ones. Dragons lost many things in their lifetimes. "Thou hassst sshhown but sscant respect for sssuch as I."
Her resulting snort sounded clearly, although the she remained safely out of sight. "Indeed, I hold great respect for such as ye! Why else would I bother with thine problems? But I do grow weary of those which repeat. Amongst thy kind are many who store their treasures in locations poorly suited for a safebox. Thou art not the first, O Ancient."
There was nothing further to be gained, the conversation was rapidly sinking below his station. The dragon turned, gave an extra shrug in irritation, and returned to his burrow.
He’s worse than the kids. Ricóre rode out the wind swell and turned northeast again. Orchards and goats could take care of themselves, but the ailing child was still to be dealt with.
The healer’s cabin was empty for a change. Pedrín flopped himself into a somewhat less than stable looking chair and balanced by hooking his boot heels on the corner of Ricóre’s work table. Just what he’d expected, he didn’t exactly know. He was way too old to need a mother around all the time, and Dora fed him with more than enough regularity. What he didn’t have was...freedom.
No? his conscience questioned sarcastically. Made a slave of you, did she? Ties you down, refuses to let you leave?
Of course not! It’s just that--
It’s just that you don’t have the guts to tell her. And no idea of where you want to go anyway.
Conversing with himself was not proving beneficial. He gave it up and got to his feet. Darvón had to be somewhere around. Anger at anything could be worked off by pounding on Darvón. The measly wizard was always up to some sort of beatable offense.
"I guess I’m just bored." Májica rolled a stone around under the ball of her foot, watching the small trail it left in the fine dust that covered the Great Lir Highway. "The blasted road comes in the valley, runs through it, and goes out again. Why can’t I?"
"I think there was a song about that. Had rainbows or something." Trey looked back over one shoulder. "Now there’s somebody who might stir things up."
"Who?" Anything would be better than drying up in this valley. Májica turned to look. "Hey! Who is that?"
"One of my brothers."
"Another tree?" He looked big enough to be a tree. "What kind?"
"Not a tree--a woodsman. And he wrestles."
Oooohh! Tanned, dark hair, long stride. "Wrestles what?"
Trey was already moving, heading back toward the inn. "People."
This sounded interesting. "Any particular kind of people?" she asked, tagging along.
It took them a full three minutes to get back to the inn. Májica absorbed information and noticed details all the way. Well over six feet tall. Heavy shoulders, very slender waist. Long legs. Dark brown hair. Plain, linen shirt, no sleeves. Tight leggings or long thews that went into high boots. Slightly elevated heel, the kind used for riding.
"Hello, Sprig. Where’s Ricóre?" Strong, white teeth made a striking contrast in his dark face. "And who’s this?"
"She went north. Májica, Pedrín. Pedrín, Májica." His glance flicked apprehensively from one to the other. Something in the atmosphere was... "Anything going on?"
The brown eyes stayed on Májica. "Just noise, Sprout. That crazy horse is still banging around the stable is all."
"Very glad to meet you," she murmured. "Do we need to do something about this horse?"
"He’s been that way for days--another couple of hours won’t make any difference," Pedrín half-whispered back. "Are you new here?"
"I’ve been here for...a little while."
"Since the horse went bonkers," Trey supplied.
"And...are you planning to stay?"
Hey! Since when did Pedrín care who came and went? And why wasn’t he working, anyway? A narrow line of consternation etched the younger brother’s forehead. Were they going to ignore him completely? "Grass grows blue in the mountains."
"Until I can earn enough to move north again." He has the nicest voice...deep and soft like chocolate pudding...
"I’ll be going north if I can manage it." She’s got golden eyes, with green sparks. "There’s something I’ve got to do, but in a couple of hours...would you have time to talk?"
"A couple of hours will be fine, I think." What am I going to wear...?
"I’ll find you in the inn. Take care of her, Sprig." He turned to find no one at his elbow. "Now where on earth did that kid go?"
Inside the cabin, Trey took the same chair his brother had used, and positioned himself against the table in the same way, a sour twist delineating the curve of his mouth. Thanks a lot, Pedrín! She’s sure not bored any more!
Briger’s body had been moved inside the inn. After some few days of flailing around and banging into things it’d subsided into a listless pile on the bed and now bothered no one. Dora’s girls were charged with spooning soup down its throat, and it lived. Briger’s mind, however, was a completely different thing.
Well, you could still ride him. Darvón pondered the situation from outside the stable. The miserable sot always threw a colossal fit if he got into sight, and the wizard would just as soon avoid any more attention being drawn to the animal. Or buy him cheap from Karl and then get rid of him. That seemed a pointless solution; geldings had their uses
Oh well, something will come up. Always does.
The area surrounding the little cabin gave ample warning of what she would find inside, and Ricóre set down well away from the building, behind a pile of discarded limbs and tree stumps. The woman who picked her way carefully through the accumulated deposits of broken crockery, small animal snares, and bits of discarded clothing was taller than the original had been, and somewhat slimmer. Heavy boots replaced the usual soft shoes, and a collection of knives decorated black pants and vest. The iron gray hair was caught in a thin metal mesh at the crown of her head. Behind her trailed a silent guard, his rather plain face set and expressionless, a sword hilt protruding above his left shoulder, a heavy cudgel in his left hand. He was ramrod-straight in his posture, and walked with a heavy heel-first tread that would have thumped on anything harder than the yard soil.
"Ain’t got nothing fer ye," announced the man who opened the door. "Go’n, leave." The body odor was pronounced, even from several steps away, and he leaned heavily against the doorframe.
"I only request a drink of water."
"Go’n, I said. Ain’t got no wuder fer the likes a ye."
The woman studied the door stoop for a moment, gathering her thoughts. Then she looked up, into the man’s pale blue eyes. "Move."
"Lookit, ye--" He had become airborne, held several inches above the floor, and was being transferred backwards into the room. "Hey, you cain’t just--!"
"Yes, I can." She deposited him carefully against the wall, and turned to the guard behind her. "No one enters."
Inside the structure was more of what she had found outside. Piles of rags, partially eaten food molding in cracked dishware, one broken chair, a table littered with odds and ends from past meals. In the nitch formed by the protrusion of the fireplace was a crude wooden box which served as a cradle. And in the middle of the room stood a young woman.
"We ain’t done... We ain’t--" Speaking was difficult, a partially healed split in her lip oozed discolored blood. When she put up one hand to hide it the nails were broken and filthy, the fingers nearly as dirty as the floor. "Please..."
"Oh, shush. I didn’t come to hurt you." The cabin had only one window and it was high against the wall, permitting precious little light. "A healer might be able to do something for your face though."
"Ain’t got no healers here!" The man struggled against the force that kept him pinned, kicking and waving his arms in an attempt to break loose. "Don’t need no healers here, neither. Jest go ‘way an leave us alone!"
Controlling multiple things was possible, but could prove draining at the most inconvenient of times. Ricóre kept part of her energy directed at the man, ignored the woman, and moved toward the box by the fireplace.
"She done it! She done it herself, she did!" The panic in the woman’s whine spoke volumes as she glanced apprehensively back and forth between the witch and the open hearth. "I tole ‘er and tole ‘er, but she would keep crawlin’ in there!"
"Born daft, she was!" the man shouted. "Borned that way! I hit the old woman fer it, but it was too late to keep ‘er--!"
Oh, no. Ricóre’s stomach churned at the knowledge of what she would find, but it had to be done. Determining how to handle it would require some quiet. She drew the bag of sleeping powder from a vest pocket and poured a little onto the fingers of her left hand, then blew it directly into the woman’s face and caught her as she fell.
"Ya kilt ‘er! Ya kilt ma’ wife!"
"Not yet." She had to do a little more to pin him still enough to get the dose. When he was safely unconscious and down against the floor she turned with great reluctance to the box.
The burns were days old, of course, and badly infected from being wrapped in the filthy towel-like thing torn from who knew what. She guessed the child to be just over a year old. The hair was so matted with pus and dried blood there was no way to determine its length or color. The little face was still, pocked deeply by blisters which had burst, and the rest of her body was in the same condition. Yet she lived.
Now what? The fever that blessed the toddler with unconsciousness could possibly be broken by either herbs or magic, but to what end? And where?
Meddling never pays, Ricóre, whispered the familiar ghost of memory. You are not the keeper of the world. There are choices not yours to make.
"This may be," she muttered. "The trouble is in knowing which is which. Broom!"
"It’s doing what?" Májica understood what the giggling kitchen girl had said, she just didn’t quite believe it. Pedrín, however, had already dropped both their conversation and her hand, and was heading toward the back door of the inn at a steady jog. This lent a fair amount of credence to something patently impossible so she sprinted to catch up with him.
Well, maybe it wasn’t so impossible. There was the broom all right, jiggling in agitation , at the entrance to the kitchen, the stout handle twisting rapidly under the leather wrappings that held it to the yellow heart. The heart itself was shivering through color changes, gold to amber to pale yellow and back again, while the individual straws curled and hissed along the stone pathway.
"Started banging on the doorframe, it did," Dora announced firmly, fixing the offending creature with a glare designed to fry it. "Fair near made my cake fall!"
Pedrín stopped a few feet short of the wooden creation and reached out one hand. "Hey, come here. What’s the matter with you?"
The broom spun, kicking up a small hail of stones and dirt, and bobbed several times in rapid succession.
"Ricóre sent you?"
A double bob.
"She wants us?"
A half bob, half backward movement.
"One of us."
Two double bobs.
Rapid left-to-right jerks.
The bristles left the ground as the broom flung itself a short distance straight up.
"He’s in the public room." Dora wiped her hands on the small towel she carried, then popped it smartly at the broom. "Next time show you’ve got some manners!"
The broom seemed to cringe back just a little and Májica found herself biting back a grin as Pedrín pushed passed her through the doorway. "Why didn’t you just invite it in, Dora?"
"It can’t pass the wards, Lady. Karl didn’t make allowances for household items when he set them. No magic within the walls. None."
It sounded a sensible enough plan, and spoke volumes of foresight. "So Ricóre spelled it here?"
"She probably just threw it." The cook took a cautious step toward the still trembling item, cocking her head to one side. "Certainly seems to be anxious though."
"You don’t suppose she’s in trouble, do you?"
"What, Ricóre? No! Well...not generally. Although why she’d send it for that wizard..."
"Maybe because he’s a very good wizard." Darvón joined them on the stoop, and Májica realized she’d seen him passing through the building several times, although she’d never paid him much attention. He didn’t look like either of his brothers. "What’s your problem now, Stick?"
"And you!" Dora’s towel smacked hard against the man’s left side. "You show some respect to your mother’s messenger!"
"Yes, ma’am!" He rubbed at the spot where the cloth had stung him and stepped sideways which put him on the other side of the broom from Dora and left room in the doorway for Pedrín to exit. "What do you wish, Sire?"
The broom promptly flattened out, three feet above the ground.
"No. Oh, no."
The broom poked him gently, the handle tapping against his hip.
"I said no!"
"Looks like she meant it," Pedrín observed soberly.
"I do not ride brooms." It poked him again, and he swatted it. "And cut that out!"
"May I?" Dora demanded, shaking her head.
"Do what you will, but I do not ride brooms." Darvón backed away slightly, giving her more room.
"Let’s see now...how did she...? Oh, yes." One flour-dusted finger touched the handle. "Be something else, please. So the wizard can ride."
The broom promptly became a roan gelding.
"Ah. There. Now that’s better." The cook looked highly satisfied at the transformation.
"There isn’t any bridle," Darvón objected.
"You won’t need one--the horse knows the way." All practical considerations taken care of, she turned back into her kitchen.
All the hells--! Now what was to be done? Blast the witch and her meddling--she’d run into something she couldn’t handle and had the nerve to send this...this...thing after him! He looked around the small circle, taking in Májica’s open mouth, Pedrín’s expressionless stare, and Trey’s wide eyes. When had the kid gotten there, anyway? He didn’t remember seeing...but it didn’t really matter. What did matter was that he had to go. "Something worth gawking at, folks?"
"Not in your direction," his older brother grunted. "You plan on waiting all day?"
"I’m not sure I plan to go at all."
"Oh, you’ll go. Your only option is whether you do it with or without a broken nose."
"Huh." He crawled aboard, a sudden realization making his stomach flip. "Is that crazy horse still in the stable?" Trey’s wordless nod settled him considerably. If it hadn’t been, he wouldn’t go anywhere on this nag for any reason.
The broom-horse had what it needed. It went around the crescent shape of the inn at a full gallop and nearly lost him making the turn around the pointed horn.
The remaining three glanced at each other and then the stables, but Pedrín shook his head. "Forget it. We’d never catch him."
"Well she could," Trey stated, staring straight at Májica. "If she would that is."
Májica felt her face flame. Of course she could. Or she could try. But why did he have to--
"Really? Could you?" Anxiety colored his tone, nothing more. "Could you get me there?"
"I don’t... What shape...?"
"She’s a shifter, Pedrín! She could be anything!"
"And just what would you suggest?" she snapped in frustration. "A bird, maybe? How do you think I’d carry him?" She was going to strangle the kid for dong this and dump him where...
But Pedrín wasn’t listening, and didn’t seem to care if she was a shifter or not. "Be an eagle," he instructed, starting for the stable. "Don’t loose them!"
An eagle. An eagle. She had to concentrate and block out...there. It took her a little bit to get off, eagles didn’t usually throw themselves into the sky from ground level. By the time she’d managed it the stable door stood wide open and Pedrín was pounding around the inn after his brother. She screamed in excitement, and led the way.
Following the broom-horse was easier than she had anticipated. It went only at horse speed and she didn’t have any idea what broom speed might be. It didn’t bother to slow down for anything either. She glanced down every few minutes to make sure the other horse and rider were on the right track, but with only the Lir Highway to follow they couldn’t very well get lost. Darvón seemed to be holding his own, or at least holding on. For all his reluctance to ride a broom he did a very good job on a horse, even if it didn’t have a saddle.
The wind against her was indescribable, much cooler than the occasional breeze from down on the ground, and she reveled in it as it lifted her higher. Shooting through the waves as a gull had been her favorite pastime in the Caverns, icy water slapping at her as she skimmed the surface. Land birds were less familiar, the warning signs less recognizable. Practice could remedy this, but she would have to study. She found herself growing edgy.
Below, the scenery tilted and turned as she banked, circling both riders. What would she do if the stable horse proved unable to match the endurance of the other? Was the broom truly a broom in the form of a horse, or was it constrained to the limits of the form it had taken? How did witches do these things? The Caverns did not have witches, or at least not currently. There was nothing of their lore in her experience, nothing to guide her assumptions. This in itself could prove deadly. She might well be tolerated once they reached their destination, purely because she came in the company of the woman’s sons, but... Sons! Three sons! Trey! What had happened to Trey?
She swung close to Pedrín, checking for the youngest brother. There was no sign of him. And he had not been left at the kitchen door, of that she was certain. For this she will kill me! Fury engulfed her, building almost instantaneously to a scream.
Trey! She rose, reaching for an updraft, searching in panic. The landscape swirled out below in a canopy of color but held no evidence of the boy she sought. Pesky! she kreened at the sky. Come out! Come out! Come out!
So intent was she on venting the rage that filled her, she nearly missed the little cabin. Wretch! Why did he give no notice that he had reached it? New anger swept through her and she hurled herself downward. Legs! She needed legs! She would have to have...! The earth rose up to smash her and she lost all sense.
"Good flying," came a cheerful whisper. "But you have got to work on those landings!"
"Trey?" She managed to open at least one eye and found him cross-legged on the ground beside her. "Trey?"
"The very same, the one and only." He tilted his head sideways and studied her carefully. "I don’t think I’d move just yet if I were you. You got lost in the eagle."
"Lost? In the eagle?" She remembered the eagle, and a terrible anger. And she remembered why. "Where were you?"
"With you, hooked under a feather. Up until you started that suicide dive anyway. Then I let go."
Something was wrong here, there were too many things that just didn’t make sense. Brooms becoming horses. Boys that hooked...no, that couldn’t have happened. She’d have noticed the weight. But at the moment she couldn’t think well enough to figure it out. "Where are they?"
"Well, Darvón and the broom went inside. Pedrín and the crazy horse are coming up right behind us."
That much was true enough, she could feel the hoofbeats under her. She took a deep breath and decided nothing was broken. Time to push herself into a sitting position. "Where are we?"
"Oh, just a little up the valley from the inn. Not very far really. Some sense of preservation you shifters have! I’ve never seen something do that before."
"Do what?" She was concentrating on getting upright, and it took most of her attention.
"You went from eagle to mouse just before you hit. Guess that’s what keeps you living in cases like this, huh?"
"Mouse?" She’d made it halfway up, up on her knees at least, and could stare directly at him, face to face.
"White one at that. Didn’t know they bounced though."
"Yeah, well, neither did I." One more shove against the ground and she was on her feet. The world was no long spinning and Pedrín was pounding up to join them. The rest of it could wait until later.
The cabin door was partly open. Pedrín kicked it and went in. Májica and Trey trailed along behind. Ricóre looked up from the contents of a wooden box and waved them to one side, keeping an open view to the fireplace where Darvón was nursing a small blaze with bits and pieces of what appeared to be broken furniture. "Somehow, I suspected this would happen."
"We came to help," Trey piped cheerfully. "And to find out what’s going on."
"That much, I surmised without aid." The witch draped a dirty coverlet of some sort back inside the box and turned to Pedrín. "Can you bolt the door please? And watch it? We do not need any more visitors at the moment. Májica? Make yourself useful if you can, but take no form that can burn. Trey, you get to tend the fire while we’re gone."
Gone? They were leaving? The combination of confusion and curiosity keep Májica from realizing that the witch also knew what she was. Where would they go?
The face that turned from the fire was nothing like the one she’d seen in the inn. The expression was a blank, mouth set hard and eyes focused someplace else. His voice, when he spoke, was from a distance. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"It is the only way." Ricóre turned to Trey. "The flame must not go out. Feed it with whatever you can find, including the house, piece by piece. It need not be large. But it must not go out. Do you understand? It must not."
If a brown wood elf could blanch, Trey did. But he nodded sharply and Májica realized this was as strange to him as it was to her.
"Then it is time."