This whole thing was a mistake, Májica realized. What had ever convinced her otherwise? The public room would have been a much wiser choice of eating spots. Gem seekers, particularly those as accursedly young as she, did best if they kept to themselves. Being a shape-shifter didn’t help much either, once people found out. Overall, friends and acquaintances were dangerous baggage, not to be trusted if she wanted to live until twenty...
"So, where are you from?" the kid demanded for the third time. "Have you ever been down in this neck of the---"
"Trey, that's enough!" Májica involuntarily jumped at the sharpness in the tone, and shot a startled glanced across the kitchen at the old lady who was busily scratching at the floor with a broom. "Leave the poor woman alone, and mind your own business. She’s obviously hungry and certainly not obligated to satisfy your curiosity."
Woman! The feeling of entrapment began to fade. Woman!
"I’m sorry." The boy’s green eyes still retained their glue-stuck fixation on her, but his expression was suddenly one of chagrin. "I...I truly did not mean to be rude."
"It’s all right," she assured him quickly. "I don’t mind, really. Not that much. Where do you come from?"
"Up there." With one sweeping arc of his arm, he encompassed the entire geography of the Realm beyond the Red Gryphon Inn. "Somewhere up there. I don’t know what people from here call it."
She could sympathize with that. She didn’t know what people in this valley called her home base either. Names got changed around a lot from place to place. "We call my area DarAguas."
"The Caverns! You come from the caverns? Ricóre, she comes-!"
"I heard." The woman shoved half a streaming loaf of bread at the boy’s open mouth and shoved the boy himself out the back door. "Now let her eat in peace!"
"Well, I see everyone found the larders." A round, feminine form appeared from the direction of the hallway, her arms loaded with small packets of things that gave off wonderful odors. "Can you grab these for me, Ricóre? Kind of got myself full here."
"Your spices!" The broom-wielder abandoned her task and reached both hands to aid the cook. "Ooooh, and there’s some good ones!"
"Lots of good ones, I hope!" Her burdens divided, Dora had the opportunity to do a quick survey of the room. "Miss, did you find yourself something to eat? Sorry not to have been in here when you arrived, but..."
She was saved from thinking of a suitable response by a small trencher of hot vegetables that came down on the counter in front of her, accompanied by the other half of the fresh loaf. "Give the lady a minute. Trey started in on her and she hasn’t had a chance to half catch her breath."
"Then welcome to the Red Gryphon Inn." The evident proprietress drew herself up, and inclined her head in a more-or-less formal greeting. "I’m the cook."
"Don’t fib Dora-it isn’t polite." The gray head waggled in disapproval as the woman turned to retrieve the meat she had tucked into a small warmer to heat. "Shouldn’t let her fool you, Miss. Inside these walls, she’s an empress-enchantress."
"Oh, really now!" Dora gasped, aghast.
"How many times do I have to tell you not to confuse folks?" The speaker went back to sweeping the floor, sending Májica a conspiratorial wink over the handle of her broom. "It really isn’t good manners. People have a right to know where the power lies."
"Oh, bother." Her face a little flushed, Dora turned back to her guest. "Is everything all right, Miss? Would you like anything else? Something to drink?"
"A place to sit down, maybe?" A chair slid across the floor from the direction of the sweeper. "Honestly, Dora. Leaving the poor woman to just stand there!"
"Will you hush?" The empress-cook plunked a frosty mug of milk down by the rapidly emptying trencher and turned to glare at the older woman. "And since when do you call me down in my own kitchen?"
Woman... Her mouth full of flat beans sautéed in something delectable, Májica never knew when her defensive stance died away, drowned in an odd sense of belonging.
The sweeping continued, slow regular strokes that produced a familiar, imperturbable foundation to the banter. "It periodically becomes necessary to remind you of your station, My Grace."
"Well, I never!"
"You certainly never finished the introductions."
"Stop that!" With a great deal of dignity, Dora turned back to face her guest. "It appears that I may have been amiss, although whether you’re ready for all this, I have no idea. However, since yon scullery maid has brought up the issue, we may as well get it settled. That over there is Ricóre, the witch who lives down the road. Today, she has brought herself hence to plague me."
The verbal ball was firmly in her court. Májica took a deep breath and nodded with all the solemnity she could muster. "It appears that she is quite adept at doing so."
"Indeed! It is a frequent thing, and one that I am quite beside myself to end, there being no magical means with which to banish her."
"Ah." A study of the trencher turned up no more meat or vegetables, so she settled for a bite of bread washed down by the milk while she pondered. "And do you truly wish her gone, Your Grace?"
"Oh dear, that’s wisdom. I never do well with wisdom..." For a moment the cook actually managed to look confused. "No, of a fact, I do not. She does do well on the floors."
Damn! Pedrín rolled over, and prodded at the back of his skull with two fingers. It was going to take a while for the scenery to stabilize. In the meantime, he could work on getting the dirt out of his mouth and make plans to kill Darvón just as soon as he could stand up. This had to be that skinny wizard’s fault. "Can’t lose," he muttered, searching for his knees. "Lots of money." Hard packed soil provided a solid surface, maybe he could...nope, not yet.
"Beat ‘cha pretty good, he did." Liquid ice hit the top of his head and raced down to puddle in his ears. "Can’t say that he pinned ‘ya perzakly, but he sure ‘nuff beat ‘cha. Gonna open up them eyes today or tamarra?"
Tomorrow would be fine. Next week would be better. He was beginning to hurt all over, and there seemed to be something wrong with the left side of his face.
"Seen yer brother high tailin’ it outta here." Another dousing, this one a frontal attack, caught him with his mouth wide open. "Had wings, he did."
Choking and sputtering, he managed to get his right eye open. The fight pit was still in place, and he was still dead center in the middle of it. Last he remembered though, he’d been standing up. "Which brother?"
"The one wot wuz yere."
Well, that made sense. He concentrated on keeping his balance and climbed up the ladder with fewer problems than he’d anticipated. Now that he was getting his wind back, things maybe could be worse. A change of clothes, something to drink, and he could engage in a little sibling slaughter before supper.
The afternoon sun was making its way along the tops of the Fyrestorm Mountains, turning the peaks to amber. Across the narrow stretch of track known as the Great Lir Highway, the deep expanse of half grown grain was a shinning green sea, undulating according to the whims of the wind. It would have been nice to look at if he’d been less occupied with such mundane things as homicide. All he was really interested in was getting his hands on his brother.
Cheated! The bastard cheated! Almost too furious to think, Darvón threw what had been his bag of gold in the general direction of the chestnut tree. It’s refusal to emit even one good chink before lazily finding its way to the ground testified to his failure. Gone. Every damn piece I had!
He’d planned it out very carefully, every detail. Talking Pedrín into wrestling the gruesome Arlen had been the least of it. He’d studied what little mind the monster had, worked the betting up to something worth his efforts, set the stage, and begun production. From the very beginning he’d been in control, directing that great idiot’s every move. What he hadn’t seen coming, because the Arlen himself hadn’t known, was that the weasel he traveled with was just waiting for Pedrín to get into position. Then the bastard had whacked him over the head with something. Brigar. His name is Brigar.
This was going to require some repair work. Pedrín was not going to be pleased. More importantly, the gold had to be reclaimed, plus interest. Darvón had other uses for those funds; he certainly was not going to lose them. And then there was the matter of his reputation.
He cursed his lack of active powers as he scouted around the outside of the inn, avoiding contact with anyone he recognized. Active power would allow him to do something. The only ability he had was one that required preparation. He just couldn’t have been born with something that empowered him to throw a case of raving fits or boils from a distance, something that could strike an opponent dead on the spot. Oh, no, nothing that efficient. He had to worm his way into somebody’s mind, snuggle into a brain. Sometimes even that didn’t work.
Brigar must have had a cloaking spell; otherwise, he’d have been seen in the pit. That was the only way to explain why Pedrín had dropped like a rock and Brigar had materialized up over the edge. Atar hadn’t known about it, or Darvón would have been warned. Had to have been a cloaking spell. So where was he now?
A cursory inspection of the inn’s interior had turned up neither Brigar nor Altar, and a healthy respect for his brother’s right cross instigated a withdrawal from the building before Pedrín could arrive. Now relatively safe within the shelter of the encroaching forest he could concentrate. The trunk of a massive oak provided a good support, and he sat, leaning back and closing his eyes, casting his mental net.
Karl had been careful to construct wards within the Red Gryphon. No magic, other than Dora’s culinary variety, could be performed within the walls. This had necessitated the construction of a small structure some distance away where practitioners of the healing arts could perform their recoveries. It was there that Pedrín found Altar. The small giant was seated on a stool, his left arm stretched across the single table, his shoulder in Ricóre’s grip, when Pedrín ducked into the doorway.
"Take a seat and wait your turn." The witch was not pleased, and the look she passed over her oldest son promised several nasty things for the near future. "I take it you’re finished now, the two of you?"
Altar turned to glance at his former opponent, then nodded slowly. "We are. He’s strong, this one."
"And dense." She mashed here and there along his back, testing muscle reaction in the shoulder. "What on earth possesses idiots like you two? Does insanity run in your family, maybe?"
"Sport. It’s the sport of the thing." He winced visibly when she prodded the shoulder joint itself. "That hurts."
"It ought to-you’ve dislocated it."
"So you will fix it."
"Give me one good reason why I should."
"Uhhhh...?" Incomprehension blanked the man’s expression.
"Come on, just mend him please, Ricóre." Pedrín flexed his own shoulder, testing, and discovered it worked better than he had thought it would. "Fighting is a game. Sometimes we get a little messy is all."
"Oh, and do you now?" The witch reached into a small bowl, withdrew a few leaf fragments, inspected them critically, and dropped them back in. "Come here, Pedrín." When he complied, stepping within her reach, she made a few quick movements of her hand and hit him with something that sent him reeling backwards, pain bursting into little spots before his eyes. "Now you’re even. He has a dislocated shoulder on the left, you’ve got one on the right."
"Why?" Atar demanded, stupefied. "What was that for?"
"That was for wasting my time." She dusted off the table and her skirt, ridding herself of whatever they had brought in with them. "Both of you are trained warriors, ergo, both of you should know how to pop shoulders back into their sockets."
"Yea, but nothing. The pair of you did this; the pair of you can fix it. Now get out of my way."
Brigar was in the stables, occupied with trying to steal one of the horses. Darvón used his preoccupation as a cover, sliding into his mind, creeping carefully behind the eyes, listening intently to the thoughts. He wouldn’t underestimate this man again.
Brigar managed to get the horse properly saddled, checked to make sure his money pouch was safely stowed, and hauled himself aboard. Riding was not his forte, but he would manage. Altar could take care of himself. Passing middle age required increasing amounts of gold and he was feeling the bite of being beyond fifty. The amount he’d collected from the wager master would go a long way to providing for his needs, and he wouldn’t be back here again for a while. There would be other places, other wagers, other winnings. He still had a few cloaking spells left, the incantations carefully recorded on the scroll tucked into his purse. Pity they couldn’t be stretched any farther, but the old wizard who’d sold them might be persuaded to sell more if he could just get back north again.
Now wait a minute...why wasn’t...? He pulled to the right, a sharp movement designed to turn the horse, and succeeded only in nearly falling off. What...? He rode completely into the trees to the left of the inn before he fully realized that he had absolutely no control over his body.
Cloaking spells? queried something in his mind. Running away? Panic made his heart beat faster, even as he watched his hands pull back slightly on the reins, slowing the horse. Taking the money and leaving? Resistance was ridiculous; there was no force to resist. He felt himself dismounting, saw himself tether the animal to an available tree limb. Did you really think you could steal from a wizard and get away with it?
"I did not steal from a wizard!"
Oh, but you did. By cheating in the fight pit you lay claim to gold that was not yours.
"Atar beat the woodsman!"
He might have. Quite possibly would have. That was the known risk. What you did was not.
"There’s no proof that I did--!" He was cut off suddenly, his chest muscles contracting with enough force to stop his breath.
Now, now, let’s not quibble.
By the gods, what was this? Terrified, Brigar cast around, trying to locate the speaker without moving his head. Maybe if he could...
Over here, idiot. Under the tree. It took a bit to locate him, the brown jerkin and green shirt blended well into the colors of the forest. By the way, whose horse is that you were riding?
Brigar didn’t have the slightest idea. He’d simply chosen the first and handiest.
Dangerous occupation, horse thievery. One could lose one’s head.
The voice in his skull was light, flavored by a touch of malice. When the man stood up Brigar was surprised at how slight he was with none of the musculature that marked a fighter. The wiry frame was topped by a mass of dark brown hair that tumbled over fair skin and brushed narrow shoulders. He walked the few steps to the horse, then turned, and one corner of his mouth twisted up into a tight smile. I’ve always wondered what would happen if a horse thief became a horse.
He was joking! He had to be! The stolen roan jerked his head up and down, taking a step backward as if in agreement. No. It couldn’t be. Not even for a wizard was this possible...!
"Dora? Could you step out here for a minute?" Trey’s question was directed at the cook, but his green eyes were flicking around the kitchen in search of somebody else.
Up to her elbows in flour, Dora rubbed at the back of her nose with one sleeve to rid it of the flying powder. "Is it important? I’m a little occupied."
Májica was not in the kitchen. He sighed and turned his full attention to the cook. "Well, I thought maybe somebody might ought to know. That Brigar guy is out there in the stable with somebody’s horse and they’re both kickin’ up a terrible fuss. Gonna tear the place down if somebody doesn’t do something."
That certainly turned out well. Completely satisfied, Darvón strode along the curve of the inn, heading for the wide front doors. Killing the man would have only created a body, which was sure to have caused trouble at some future point. This was better. It hadn’t been as difficult as he’d thought it might be to make the switch. No telling how long it would last--he’d have to wait and see. One or the other would certainly die soon, probably the horse in Brigar’s body. It hadn’t seemed able to assimilate the transition from four legs to two. Brigar himself would be labeled mad if he didn’t stop trying to scream curses. Horses simply didn’t do that.
As for himself, he’d collected five times the gold he’d lost and salvaged the remaining cloaking spells. There was bound to be something he could do with--
Concentrating on his self-congratulations, he flipped around the peaked corner of the inn without looking first. The realization that he should have tried out one of those spells came an instant before a fist connected with his nose. In the commotion that followed, while he was scrambling to avoid a second blow and keep the blood from spurting on his shirt, it never occurred to him to ask why Pedrín had begun using a left hook.