The dawn was visible first upon the peaks of the mountains to the south, setting the white snow a blazing scarlet. Blazing like fire, the light ran liquidly down the flanks of the mountains, paling as it did so, the pigmentation seeming to transfer onto the red clouds in the brightening eastern sky. Feral stirred and yawned as the light hit his window, stretching, then settling back under the warm sheets, quickly returning to a peaceful slumber.
“Morning, sleepy head!” Cassanya stuck her head around the door, a cheerful smile plastered across her broad feline muzzle. Feral rolled over, blinking drowsily at her. “You sure slept well,” the leonin grinned, entering the room, carrying in her arms a tray from which emanated the unmistakable smell of breakfast.
“What time is it?” Feral asked, sitting up and squinting at her until his eyes figured out they were awake now.
“Needs about an hour to midday. Didn’t think you’d want to sleep the whole day away. Here,” she put the tray down next to him as he sat up. Eggs, bacon, buttered bread, fried mushrooms, a bowl of porridge, a glass of milk and a pot of tea beamed up from it.
“This is all for me?” Feral looked at Cassanya as she perched on the edge of his bed.
“’Course,” she smiled. “Skinny little squib like you needs a good breakfast or six.” She watched as he began to eat. “I'm really sorry we've not had much by way of good meals recently,” she said suddenly, some of the bounce disappearing from her tone.
Puzzled, Feral looked up at her around a mouthful of hot porridge.
“Truth be told I’ve not really noticed how thin you were looking until last night,” Cassanya went on, looking apologetic.
Feral hesitated, swallowed, then smiled as understanding dawned on him. “I’m ok, you know,” he said gently. “Really. This is not me half starved, this is how I am.”
“Are you sure?” Cassanya looked genuinely concerned – indeed so much so that Feral couldn’t help laughing.
“I’m no leonin,” he told her. “I’m not built for muscle. Not sure what I am built for, but it’s definitely not muscle,” he added with a lopsided smile, his ears echoing the slant.
“Hmm,” Cassanya didn't look convinced. “Ok, if you say so. But I really don't mind bullying Thor into doing a little extra cooking for a while – not like he won't be glad of the excuse, and the least I can do is offer you a few days good rest and recuperation before hauling you off again!”
Feral smiled. “Well if last night’s apple pie was anything to go by, Tee’s not a half a bad cook, either.”
“I know,” Cassanya nodded. “If it grows in the ground, on a bush or up a tree, that girl knows how to prepare it so's you'd think an angel sent it for you...”
“Then I shall make a note to save room for her puddings,” Feral smiled, resuming his porridge.
“Good boy, that’s the spirit! Some of Thor's huntsman's stews, and Tee's best fruit puddings and we’ll get some meat on those scrawny bones of yours yet!”
“Mmm,” Feral agreed, not quite sure what a leonin would consider a polite response.
“How are you for a trip today?” Cassanya changed the subject. “Just a couple of miles along the river. No mountains to cross,” she patted his knee through the blanket and winked. “Town called Riverwood, small place, but got all the essentials. We can find you some nice clean clothes, and get those boots fixed up.”
“Only if you tell me how you got that collar off, and then do it to mine,” Feral said, noticing for the first time that the leonin had rid herself of the mark of captivity.
“Deal,” Cassanya nodded. “There’s tools in the woodshed. We’ll go sort it when you’re done eating. And dressed,” she added as an afterthought. “And you better not tell me you’ve nothing on under that blanket either,” she narrowed her eyes at the sheet scrunched around his waist.
Feral went red. “Uh, actually... Tee found me some clean underclothes last night.”
Cassanya giggled. “Embroidered tulips? ”
“Ooo, very nice. Always thought those looked comfy.”
“If you happen to be a girl, I’m sure they are,” Feral nodded. “Unfortunately nature discriminates against me yet again,” he sighed wearily, adopting a glum expression. Cassanya creased up laughing.
“Ouch, that looks like it hurts,” she said, about a quarter of an hour later, dropping the detached collar into the dirt.
Feral ran his fingers gingerly over the bruises the iron had left on his collar bones. “Had worse,” he shrugged. This statement didn’t stop Cassanya from locating Tallow and asking her advice, however, with the result that Feral soon found himself smeared with a sticky brown paste that fortunately didn’t smell like it looked.
“Trust me,” Cassanya said, wrapping a bandage over both his shoulders to provide some extra padding. “Need a herbalist or healer, Tee's your girl. You’ll hardly have a mark left by tomorrow, and I bet it stops aching in an hour. There now,” she added, standing back to ruffle his hair before handing him his shirt. “All done. Ready to go?”
Riverwood was small as towns went, but seemed friendly and welcoming. As the native guide, Cassanya explained to Feral, Balthor, and Archer that it was a town run mostly on trade, being the last riverside stop of significance before the mountains. Surrounded by good forest, and within range of several metal mines, its major exports were wood and ores, while most food was brought in via the river. The result was a goodly number of hard working, prosperous, and rather lean locals.
The tailor’s shop was located on the town’s main road – although Feral wouldn't have noticed it was the main road unless told. It only seemed to contain a handful of shops and a couple of storage yards for the riverside docks. The buildings were all rather old, but clean, constructed predominantly of stone on the ground level, with half timbered upper storeys providing a black and white lattice of interesting angles.
Crown glass windows gave a circularly distorted view of the shop's display, the iron lattices casting a shadowy grid over a number of tailor's dummies of various sizes. The mannequins came in a selection of shapes and sizes and wore a variety of clothing, from fanciful and elegant dresses, to velvet dinner jackets, to traditional hunting and workman's wear.
The tinkling of a small bell above the door brought a vulpani woman from around the back of the main counter. About five feet tall, perhaps forty years of age, and wearing a blue apron, she had a selection of measuring tapes draped over her shoulders, and a vast quantity of pins stuck through the cuffs of both sleeves of her white blouse. She smiled along the length of her narrow muzzle when she saw Cassanya, giving a little bounce on the balls of her feet.
“Oh, hi miss Northpride, been a while since you was ‘ere,” she said cheerily, leaning back a bit to look up at the leonin. “What can I do for you?”
“Hi, Tess, I've brought you some new customers,” Cassanya smiled, nudging Feral forward with a hand on his back. “We’re gonna need replacements for everything they’ve got. Need it hard wearing, too.”
“Oh yeah? C’mere, luv,” the vulpani gestured for Feral to step closer. “Well now, you're going to be interesting to work with aren't you?” She measured him up as she spoke, writing several numbers down with a stick of chalk on a small piece of slate. “Going on another long trip are you, dear?” she looked at Cassanya again.
“Yup,” the leonin nodded. “Business, as always.”
Feral tried not to wriggle as the vulpani tickled his waist as she measured him.
“Coast run, got some deliveries to make,” Cassanya said, and Feral eyed her over the vulpani's head. It wasn't exactly a lie, but it was obvious she had decided it was easier if nobody else knew of their actual mission. She was probably right, he decided.
“Aye? You want to watch yourself there. Strong lass like you might find herself 'persuaded' into the army.”
“The army?” Cassanya raised her eyebrows.
“Goodness, you were away a while,” Tess commented. “Don’t you know there’s a war on?”
The leonin coughed slightly. “Been out of touch, but I’d heard a couple of rumours.”
“It’s that damn Lordenor lot,” the vulpani declared. “Some fool's obviously decided their border needs expanding. Are you sure you need to go?”
“Well, you be careful, luv. I’d not like to hear you were caught up in the fighting. They say,” she looked at the leonin and lowered her tone. “That their commander has a pet dragon.”
“Really?” For a moment, Cassanya’s air of innocence faltered a little, but thankfully the vulpani didn’t seem to notice.
“Sorry, luv, did I poke you?”
Feral, who had jumped at the mention of the dragon, shook his head quickly.
“Load of second hand grass, I know, but it’s a good story,” the vulpani woman grinned.
“Um, yeah. I mean, whoever heard of such a thing?” Cassanya could feel the gaze of her friends and shifted uncomfortably. Fortunately, Tess came unwittingly to her rescue.
“There y’go, luv, all done,” she said brightly to Feral. “I’ve got a good few things we can adjust to fit quick like, or we can do something custom for you. What exactly are you after?”
Cassanya ordered Feral a spare set of everything, as well as a new shirt and a heavy coat, in case winter came upon them before they finished their travels. Tess had most of what they wanted, but said the vest would need making up, and that they would have to come back a little later. She shouted her instructions through a door behind the counter, and passed the slate to a younger vulpani, who nodded enthusiastically and vanished again.
“New assistant, Tess?” Cassanya asked.
“Yes,” the vulpani nodded. “Good job he was around, actually, poor Hevena’s been feeling a bit off colour recently.”
“Oh, I’m sorry…”
“Nah, she’ll be ok, just a little woozy, I think. She’s three months pregnant, you know.” Tess raised her eyebrows meaningfully.
“Really? How did that happen then?”
A snort of laughter sounded, and Cassanya turned to find Archer looking down at her from across the room, where he had decided to sit on top of a tall cupboard.
“Oh, yes, of course,” the leonin felt her cheeks go pink.
Hastily clearing her throat, she turned to Balthor, looking at him critically and saying something about finding clothes for him too. Tess moved to stand at her elbow, suggesting a rather interesting purple waistcoat and asking if she wanted him to take the lupari’s measurements for it. Seeing Balthor looking at her with a pleading expression, the leonin smiled and asked the vulpani if she could perhaps find something rather more traditional. Tess sighed, muttered a little about no sense of style, then found a set of step ladders on which to climb while she measured the tall lupari from head to toe. Then she grumbled about not having enough spare material in the hem to let anything out that far, as if it were in some way Balthor's fault for being long of limb.
Archer, fortunately, was somewhat easier to please, since as he pointed out, anything that didn’t have holes in it was going to be an upgrade. Cassanya quietly agreed, but didn’t say anything as Tess located a mossy green tunic and pants that he seemed quite content with just as they were. Their tailor seemed to take this lack of alteration as a compliment, and her mood lightened somewhat.
“Anything for you this time, dear?” Tess asked, looking up at Cassanya.
Shaking her head, Cassanya laughed lightly. “You've got me down for three already, how much money do you think I have?”
“Aw c’mon, dear,” the vulpani said with a sly, but friendly little smile. “I’m sure you can manage something nice for yourself. Oh, I know just the thing, suit you fine it would,” and with that, she vanished through the door behind the counter, only to reappear moments later. “What about this?” she asked, holding something out to the leonin. Taking it, Cassanya found herself holding a beautiful crimson scarf. Light as feathers, and neither warm nor cold to the touch, it felt wonderful.
“Pure silk, it is. Special import, very rare around here too,” Tess was saying. “Go on, dear, try it on,” she prompted. Carefully, Cassanya tied it around her neck, knotting it in the hollow of her throat. It felt very nice against her fur as she leaned to look in the mirror at the side of the shop.
“See? I knew it was just the thing to add that little flair,” Tess said proudly.
“I like it,” Feral said. Archer nodded in agreement, much to Cassanya's surprise. A little flustered, she turned to Balthor, whom she could always trust for a down to earth comment.
“Looks good,” he smiled, folding his arms over his broad chest and nodding.
“Well... how much?” the tall feline asked, looking down at the beaming tailor, untying the knot carefully.
Tess pursed her lips, thoughtfully. “Now I know you won’t like this, dear, but you know I always give you a fair price, especially when you bring in some business like this. Five silver, an’ I’m not even making a profit.”
Cassanya looked at the scarf in her hands. “It is beautiful,” she said. “But it’s not really necessary is it? I’m sorry, Tess, I can’t justify that much. Not on this.” Regretfully, she passed it back to the shopkeeper, who folded it carefully.
“C’mon, Cassy,” Balthor said. “I’m sure we could manage…”
Cassanya looked at him, then shook her head, rather sadly. Balthor found himself desperately wishing he had the money to buy the scarf for her, but was painfully aware they had come out of the mountains with nought but a few coppers.
“All right, dear,” Tess sighed. “I understand. If you change your mind, I’m sure it’ll still be here in a day or two.”
After a little good-natured haggling about the cost of labour, the friends finally concluded business with instructions to come back later that day, say in about four or five hours. Tess vanished into the back of her shop, and they could hear her passing instructions to her assistant as they exited.
The next important port of call was the cobbler's shop at the far end of the row. After all their recent travelling, none of them lacked for worn patches on the soles of their boots.
Still left with a few hours before they were to return to Tess, the companions made their way to the small marketplace. Saying he would meet them back at the tailor's shop, Archer wandered off on his own. Feral looked worriedly after him, but decided it was probably better not to question. Besides, Archer may have a pretty rough background, but he was very clearly trying to turn over a new leaf – as evidenced by the fact he was still following Feral around. Feral felt guilty for even considering not having faith in his sciurel friend.
They spent their time in the market mostly window shopping, as Cassanya insisted that their budget was by no means lavish – although that didn’t stop her buying Feral a slice of damson and blackberry pie, and a toffee apple. The most useful thing they found was that the rumour about a dragon with the Lordenor army had circulated the entire town, and was in fact still doing so, though reports ranged from a captured baby dragon, to a flight of dragons that filled the entire sky. Although somewhat dubious as to the accuracy of either, it was nonetheless an obvious cause for concern, and they made a note to have Tallow pass that information on to Fellirion.
They returned to Tess’ shop with a couple of hours until sunset, finding Archer already waiting for them, talking merrily with the vulpani, who seemed to have taken rather a shine to him. He had acquired a walking stick from somewhere, and one of the pouches on his belt seemed rather fuller than it had earlier. Feral fretted inwardly, but said nothing.
“You sure about this, dear?” Tess asked Cassanya, holding up the scarf again as the leonin paid the agreed price for the other clothes they had bought.
Cassanya looked long and hard before finally replying, “I’m sorry, Tess, I just can’t afford it. Maybe another time.” All the same, she couldn’t keep just a little of the regret out of her voice, and she left quickly, leaving the others to collect their things and follow at their own pace.
Archer watched her leave, then watched Balthor and Feral pick up their own packages and follow. He slipped one hand into a pocket, feeling the fiver silver coins he had managed to keep hold of. Well, it only seemed fair, he decided, then reflected on the oddness of the thought. Not so long ago the idea of fairness wouldn't have entered his mind, yet somehow fate seemed to have dropped him into good company... and it did nothing to help the suspicion that he was treading on morally grey territory. Still, what nobody knew wouldn't do no harm...
They were about half way home, the tiring sun swooping towards the horizon when Balthor jumped about a foot in the air at a tap on his shoulder. Turning, he found Archer looking up at him, his new walking stick still raised where he had used it to reach up.
“What?” Balthor asked sharply, annoyed at the sciurel for surprising him, and at himself for jumping like an idiot.
Silently, Archer passed him a small package. Rough cloth, tied with string, and evidently containing something very soft. After a moment, as realisation began to sink in what it was, Archer said, “I figured you’d know what to do with this. An’ just to make you ‘appy,” he passed the lupari a small piece of parchment.
“What’s this?” the lupari asked.
“The receipt. Now that’s not from me, all right? Tis yours now, whatever you do with it is up to you.” With that, he jogged forwards and whacked Feral lightly on the back of the head, promptly drawing the young half-race into a chase along the road and well out of range of suspicion.
Balthor looked at the package, then quickly hid it behind his back as Cassanya turned to look at him, amused as their companions vanished laughing up the roadway. So what else am I supposed to tell her? he wondered.
It took quite a while to figure that out, and Cassanya was almost dozing in an armchair by the fire when he finally plucked up the courage and draped it over her head.
“What...?” she sat up with a start as her vision suddenly went red. Putting both hands to her head, she hesitated, then carefully drew the material down in her hands.
“How on earth...?” she asked, craning her neck to look up at Balthor as he leaned over the back of her chair.
“Picked up a few coins from those slavers,” the lupari smiled. “Almost forgot about them.”
“But... I... you really shouldn't have, there's much more important uses for that money,” she admonished, but her tone was gentle and he could tell she appreciated the gift anyway.
“You deserved something,” Balthor shrugged. “You gonna put it on?”
Cassanya did so, adjusted the scarf slightly then looked at herself in the mirror that hung on the wall of the drawing room. She had to admit, she really liked it.
“You look great, Cassy,” Balthor said, standing on tiptoes behind her and looking over her shoulder. She does too, he thought, happy that she was pleased, and wishing that he could find more ways to put that wonderful smile on her face.
Turning, she squeezed the breath out of him with a powerful hug that lifted his feet a few inches off the floor and reminded him of how strong leonin tended to be, even the relatively slender looking ones like Cassanya. “Thank you, Thor,” she said, kissing his cheek and making his ears feel warm. “It’s beautiful. Completely unnecessary, and a horrible waste of money, but beautiful.”
“Ah, heck,” he said, trying to breathe normally. “I figure it about pays my bill for room and board. And maybe the boots. Lets just call it quits, huh?”
She gave him one final squeeze, then put him down and looked at him, one eyebrow raised slightly as a thought known only to herself passed through her mind. Then she blushed, and lowered her gaze. “Goodnight, Thor,” she said warmly, then turned and left, heading for the stairs. “Sleep well.”
Balthor looked after her. “G’night, Cassy,” he said quietly, watching the wooden stairs for nearly a full minute after she had gone.
It was only on the second day as Fellirion’s guests that Feral found time to ask the question that had been plaguing him for some time now. Feeling it likely that the person most likely to know the answer was Tallow, what with her being Fellirion's apprentice, he set out to find her, starting in the courtyard into which he had seen her vanish after breakfast. He squinted in the early autumn sunlight slanting in over the surrounding wall, shimmering on the light dew that adorned the grassy lawn.
With a sudden and unexpected flutter of wings, something landed lightly on Feral's shoulder. Resisting the urge to duck and run, he managed to hold himself still long enough to discover that he was eye to eye with a handsome looking raven. A small tuft of white adorned its otherwise glossy black forehead, and it was peering at him in what could only be considered a quizzical manner.
“Um, hi,” Feral said. The raven bobbed its head as if in acknowledgement. “I don't suppose you've seen Tee around...?” he felt slightly foolish for asking, but he had already witnessed several of Fellirion's magical miracles, so after all, why should the local wildlife not be a cut above the average? It was apparently a good guess, because the raven dipped its head again, clicked its beak, then pointed it fixedly towards the far side of the courtyard, where Feral could see several fruit trees and a large patch of tilled earth with a number of bushes and leafy plants upon it. “Thanks,” he said to the raven, which seemed disinclined to vacate his shoulder. Figuring it wasn't doing any harm, Feral decided to leave it be as he made his way over to what turned out to be a small orchard and vegetable plot.
The raven turned out to be correct as to it also being Tallow's present location, and Feral found her kneeling along the edge of the plot, half hidden behind an arched wooden trellis over which grew a leafy plant which he thought might be a grape vine. Watching as he approached, Feral wondered if she always wore tunics with a masculine cut, or if it was just the way this one looked on her. With an – albeit lowered – hood, and a mantle across her shoulders, it made her look somewhat like a monk. Combined with a haircut shorter than Feral's own, and an absence of any make up or jewellery, there was very little about Tallow that would give away her feminine nature until one got close. He couldn’t help wondering whether that was intentional.
“Good morning, Feral,” she said softly as she glanced up, the sun glittering in her liquid, ocean coloured eyes and making her look more like the young woman she was for a moment before she returned her attention to the small, rather sickly looking plant.
Intentionally boyish or not, Feral had decided that he liked Tallow. She was polite, and intelligent, and despite her actions on the first night they met, he believed she was honest and loyal. In fact he suspected that it was exactly these qualities that had caused her initial attempt to steal his... silver... thing. The problem had been that in that case her loyalty had been to Fellirion, and Fellirion didn't seem to have had quite the same goals as Feral had had. Fortunately they were apparently now on the same side, which presumably meant that so was Tallow. Plus Cassanya trusted her, and that basically meant she was perfect.
“I see you've met Woodward,” she added, fishing in a pocket and withdrawing a small leather pouch. Dipping her fingers into it, she produced a small amount of fine brown powder which she sprinkled over the ailing herb while reciting a gentle little chant whose rhythm felt more important than the words. Feral thought he caught something about “micro-nutrients” and “cellular osmosis” – neither of which meant anything at all to him. Still, it was a soothing recitation, somehow earthy and wholesome, and quite appropriate to the setting.
After perhaps half a dozen lines of her peculiar verse, Tallow ceased to speak and applied a dose of water from a small clay pot to the base of the plant’s stem. Pushing the first and second fingers of her left hand – her right still being lightly bandaged – into the damp soil on either side, she closed her eyes and spoke again, but this time under her breath. Finally, breathing deeply, she blew softly across the somewhat browned leaves of the little plant. Much to Feral’s surprise, the herb seemed to flood immediately with a healthy green, the wrinkled brown leaves smoothing, the bent stem straightening as if reaching for the sky. Within seconds the sickly little thing looked as healthy as the other plants around it.
Tallow opened her eyes and looked up at Feral’s expression. “You just have to know how to talk to them,” she said smiling. “And would you mind checking that tree behind you? I asked her last night if she could manage a few more apples. It's a little late in the season, but I think she's obliged us,” Feral felt a little dubious, as he was pretty sure it had been devoid of fruit the night before, but he had already witnessed one botanical surprise this morning, so why not another?
Tallow was quite right, he soon realised. Several healthy looking apples hung from the branches of the small tree. At Tallow’s indication he carefully removed them and placed them in a basket placed nearby as she tidied up her small collection of gardening tools. When he had all half dozen of the fruits, he found her looking at him meaningfully. Feeling rather silly, but fairly sure he knew what she was hoping for, Feral thanked the tree and gave it a small half bow. Tallow beamed.
Remembering what he had come to ask in the first place, Feral finally asked his question.
“What's this thing called?” he asked, holding out the silver statue he had tucked under one arm. Some time during the night, it had decided to be an otter, curled up in a hoop with its muzzle resting on its tail.
“Ah – just keep that away from me if you don't mind,” Tallow stopped him as he looked about to step closer with it. “I've had quite enough close contact already, thank you. I have however put some research into it,” she finished, pulling on a pair of white cotton gloves. Feral wondered if it wasn't more usual to wear gloves while gardening, rather than after, but she had already started off towards the main house.
He followed her in through the front door, dropped off the apples in the kitchen, and together they continued down the hallway to the third door in the left, into what turned out to be a library. Row upon row of highly polished wooden shelves supported great tomes of knowledge from across the world, some bound in the best leather, others merely scrolls tied with a ribbon.
“All these are spell books?” Feral asked, looking upwards and revolving slowly on the spot.
“Goodness, no,” Tallow smiled. She pointed to some of the shelves in turn. “History, philosophy, astronomy, fluid dynamics.” Feral wondered about this one but didn’t interrupt. “Palaeontology, geology, botany, zoology, my three favourite sections…”
“Science books?” Feral asked, surprised.
“That’s right,” Tallow nodded.
“But I thought uncle Felli is…”
“A mage. Or a wizard, if you want a more street level word. I prefer mage, it's less pretentious and people stop expecting you to wear a pointy hat and make potions out of spiders and newt eyes.”
“Just an apprentice. Fourth level, last grading. Hope to make fifth next year!”
“Uh-huh... But what has science to do with magic?” Feral felt confused.
Tallow regarded him with a smile that suggested equal puzzlement. “Well how can you hope to affect a thing you don’t understand?”
Feral opened his mouth, but failed to find a suitable answer. He closed it again in confusion.
“Magic is not hit and miss guesswork, or the recital of arcane incantations that have been known forever,” Tallow explained gently. “It’s not just something you can do with a careless phrase and a hand wave. It’s a very precise art, and requires the right key ingredients. The spell caster has to have a good understanding of what it is they are trying to achieve, and the processes involved in that act, as well as everything that nature has lined up to prevent the spell from working. The trick, if you can call it that, is in what we call the Lumen Magus – or sometimes just Lux, if you're feeling lazy.”
“Lux?” Feral asked, lazily.
She gave him a wry smile, but expounded. “It's what you might call the native energy of the world around us. The Lumen Magus is... it's like air. You can't see it, you can't taste it, most of the time you neither hear or feel it. But grab a fan and you can move it, build a windmill and you can tap its power – and now and again a really strong storm will knock down a tree or two.”
Seeing that Feral still looked blank, she continued.
“People tend to think of magic as bringing something from nothing, but that's not true. Admittedly it's possible but it's really very difficult and takes a lot of energy – and it usually doesn’t last long enough to be useful. What it is is harnessing Lumen Magus to manipulate things that already exist, like the parsley this morning. The powder I used is a mix of ash and bat droppings, a good fertiliser. The water… well, all plants need water. A bit of both, and it would have perked up in a couple of days anyway. The spell is just an accelerant, it helps the spellcaster focus on channelling Lux, to get a natural process going a bit quicker. Or sometimes slower… Point is you have to start with the right ingredients, and the right environment. You can’t make a fire burn under water, for example, but you can make a candle burn faster, or snuff it out.”
Feral wasn’t quite sure he felt any more enlightened. “So how about the viewing pool…?”
“Ah, um, yes,” Tallow looked a little uncertain. “Tell the truth, I don’t really understand that one myself, bit out of my line. Mister Forester seems to. Something about long wave radiation and magnetic induction… The books are over in the optics section, but I don’t follow the mathematics. Fortunately that doesn’t matter, it’s possible to imbue an object with enough Lumen Magus – or magic if you prefer to think of it like that – that it will do its job even without a knowledgeable user. All I have to do is know right the keyspells for the frequencies so's I can tune our transmitter to the right receiver.”
Definitely no more enlightened.
“All right,” Tallow went on, sounding slightly irritated. “Just think of it as either you understand what you’re trying to magic, or you use an enchanted item to do it for you.”
Feral nodded. “That I can handle. About this...?”
“Yes, of course,” Tallow nodded, then looked around the library uncertainly. “Now, where did I put that book...” Apparently failing to spot it anywhere nearby, she located a set of sturdy timber stepladders, positioning them against a set of shelves with the word ‘history’ engraved at the top. Squinting in the sun that shone through the high windows, she pulled a book off the top shelf, carefully checking the handwritten script on the spine. Descending, she led Feral over to a desk in the middle of the library. Tallow opened the tome at a page indicated by a leather bookmark.
“Here you go, I checked up on it while you were out yesterday.” She moved to one side, giving Feral space to look at the book while she continued. “Your, um, otter, turns out to be a bit of a mystery. As Master Forester surmised, it matches the description of the weapon that destroyed Tyrandius Tenebrae's Dragon Staff and put an end to the war – but there's not a lot of records after that. Oh sure, there's odd little mentions in any number of legends, silver armour or polymorphic weapons and the like, but there's nothing really confirmed.”
“Hmm.” Feral frowned. “So we don't know very much about it other than that it's...” he hesitated.
“Made of a dragon blood alloy,” Tallow prompted, and he blinked.
“That's what the test Master Forester had me do on it said,” she nodded. “Sorry, didn't I mention that?”
“No,” Feral shook his head. “Eww?” he added, setting the statue down on the table.
Tallow shrugged. “It is what it is. I can only imagine the level of craftsmanship required to form a successful fusion between the metal and the organics, let alone to retain a degree of the original donor's will within it.”
“So it's a dragon weapon?”
“Draconic, technically, being a part of a dragon – but yes,” Tallow nodded.
“That's slightly creepy...”
“Yes,” she agreed again. “But it is at least on your side. Whatever became of this dragon, whether it's now dead or simply elsewhere, there seems to be enough of it within that statue to animate it to the degree that you've already seen, and it seems inclined to act in ways that are beneficial to you.”
“Or lifesaving,” Feral added, lifting the silvery statue and trying to look it in the eye, but it remained resolutely asleep. “Well, thank you, mister dragon. Or is it mistress dragon? How do you tell?”
“Well I guess they must have all the relevant anatomy...” Tallow mused, then caught him looking at her. “But that's probably not useful right now,” she concluded quickly.
“And I still don't know what to call it!”
“Oh, it's the Ward of the Red Dragon, according to the proper historical accounts. Or Dragon's Ward, when they're writing shorthand.”
“See, I knew you'd do that,” Tallow sighed. “That's what half the folklore tales call it, thanks to lazy mispronunciation and bad handwriting,” she gestured to the pile of dog-eared books again. “The freeing of the slaves from the dark mage Karish Naar, the revolution in Zarastus and the subsequent overthrow of the tyrant king Zaras, the monster of the Sho-Dum mine in northern Tisai, the sinking of Skullbreak Keep and the liberation of those living in its shadow, and the defence of Chasmhold against the barbarian warlord Bane Clawhide the Third – all of them have that silly misprint. It's not fair to the creator, or to the dragon,” the young woman continued, looking genuinely frustrated. “A sword is a horrible invention, it has no purpose other than to kill. This,” she jabbed the silver otter with a fingertip. “Is an exquisitely flexible, multi-purpose, semi-autonomous tool and companion that is geared to keeping its owner safe.”
“And it hasn't just zapped you again,” Feral pointed out.
“And it hasn't... oh,” Tallow looked at the cotton-clad fingertip with which she had just prodded the shining object. Cautiously she removed her glove, reached out and patted the silvery otter very briefly on top of its rounded little head. There was a pause just long enough to be reassuring, then the statue rippled, flowed, and reformed.
“Um, is that...?”
“A rose,” Feral nodded, lifting it. It was about twice the size of the real thing, and a little simplified, but it was quite recognisable. “I think you could take that as a peace offering,” he smiled, holding it out at arm's length.
Visibly relaxing, Tallow laughed, reaching out with her still gloved hand and accepting it.
“Gosh, it's quite light... I wonder what the metal in the mix is. I'd thought maybe quicksilver, but you can float a horseshoe in that stuff – this is much lower density, I wonder if it's more of a polymer?” She peered at it closely for several seconds, evidently captivated by the slight undulations in the surface, running one bare fingertip across the edge of the metallic petals. Eventually she shook herself a little and set it down gently on the desk. “Well, it's nice to know I don't have to worry about accidentally bumping into you and getting fried!”
Feral thought this possibility to be rather unlikely, since he had noticed Tallow tended to put a slightly larger radius between herself and others than most people felt a need for. Nonetheless, he rested a hand on the shining metal and gave it an under-his-breath thank you for its good behaviour.
“Where was I?”
“Ward vs sword?”
“Yes! See, the point is, the Dragon's Ward is not by nature an offensive weapon. It can be one if you need such a thing, but that's not its primary function. There's a reference in the Sho-Dum mine legend to the 'Armour of Heaven' that made its wearer shine 'like a lake in the moonlight,' and in the account of the defence of Chasmhold, there's a mention of a silver barricade that shored up a breaking gate. It really isn't just a weapon, you see!”
“Mmm...” Feral mused, unconsciously rubbing his right forearm as he thought of the occasion where the silvery creation had formed itself into an arrow-proof shield – and when it had stubbornly refused to be pried loose for a week. “So I can't call it Dragonsword?”
Tallow gave him a look through narrowed eyelids that suggested her slender frame and generally non-violent attitude might belie a potential for sudden acts of brutality. He held up his hands quickly. “Ok, ok, I'll find another name for it! Maybe Wardy? That's not so...” he was interrupted by an unexpected whistle and flutter of wings from the raven, Woodward, who was regarding him sternly from the back of a chair.
“Too close to Woody,” Tallow explained, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
Feral sighed. “I guess that's a quest for another day then.”
“Never mind,” the young woman smiled, sitting on the edge of the desk and looking down at the metallic rose next to her. “Greater scholars than you or I have been hung up for longer over simpler. If I were you, I'd focus more on what the Ward is, and what you can do with it. This thing is a legend, there's collectors, warriors, heroes, villains, and kings who would trade all they have to get their hands on it!”
Rubbing the back of his neck, Feral looked at her awkwardly. “I don't know about kings or heroes, but I don't feel much like someone who has any part being in legends... Only now this thing has come along, and it's all 'Oh, hey, guess what, you've got the only weapon that can do the job!' and it's like suddenly everyone's looking at me, expecting me to step up and turn into some sort of warrior – only I'm not one. I don't even know where to start with that... I'm a country bumpkin, not a hero.”
Inclining her head a little to the side, swinging her feet back and forth as she perched on the edge of the desk, Tallow conspired to appear suddenly younger and more girlish as she looked at him owlishly. “I don't know,” she said at length. “The Dragon's Ward seems to think you're worth something, and from what I've read it doesn't choose people who aren't up to the job. Think for a moment; you've lost your parents, your sister has been kidnapped, and all you want to do is save her, and help prevent the same happening to anyone else. That's quite a heroic attitude, even if you don't feel much the hero.”
Feral felt himself blush. “I... uh...”
“And you could have just handed the whole thing over to Master Forester, but you fought tooth and nail for your right to take part. You insisted he let you help! You didn't have to do that.”
“That's not a heroic warrior thing, that's just what you do when your sister is in trouble...” Feral protested.
“Doing something you're scared about, are worried you might not be able to do, are afraid might get you killed, all because you love someone and don't want them to get hurt? I certainly think that's pretty heroic. Maybe you just need a little warrior training.”
Feral gave a defeated laugh. “Better be some damn fine training,” he shook his head, smiling. “As it is, if I so much as meet a big spider and I'm ready to scream like a girl and run!”
Tallow giggled. “Cass doesn't think you will, from what she's told me of your journey here. Reckon she's right to say you're tougher than you think you are.”
“She said that?” Feral's ears perked up at the praise.
Tallow laughed, pushing herself off the desk and standing. “She did. Apparently you go wide eyed and weak at the knees, but you don't run – so come on, warrior-in-training,” she said with amusement. “If you've nothing better to do, there's a dirty big tree root running right through my vegetable patch I could do with some help cutting out. Been making me want to scream and run for weeks.”
“Can't you just ask it to move?”
“No, it's that damned sycamore just outside the wall,” Tallow shook her head. “Sycamores never do as they're asked, you always have to take the hard line with them.”
Not really knowing how to respond to that, Feral picked up the silvery rose from the desk. “I don't suppose you could be a saw, or an axe?” The shining metal remained resolutely in the shape of a rose. “It might be a killer sycamore,” he tried, persuasively. “Our lives might be in danger...” Tallow giggled, but the metallic flower remained unmoved by his plea.
“Don't think it believes in killer sycamores,” she said, almost – but not quite – patting his arm, her fingers stopping just an inch from his shirt.
After nearly an hour, both Feral and Tallow had made little impression upon the mighty wooden limb, which was indeed running diagonally across one corner of the vegetable patch and leaving a swathe of dried earth around it as it greedily drank all the rain that fell upon the soil.
Armed with a hatchet, Feral was attacking an exposed portion of it with all the might of a scrawny lad in his middle teens – with about as much effect as could be expected from such. While chipped and dripping sap, the root remained stubbornly intact, and seemed to be smiling gloatingly at him as he sweated over it. Meanwhile Tallow was continuing to excavate along the root's length, exposing more and more of the offending object.
“It just doesn't stop!” she cried in exasperation, throwing the spade to the ground with a clatter. “I swear the damn thing must go all the way to the house!”
“Nah, she's tapering off already,” Archer grinned down at her from the top of the defensive wall that circled the courtyard. “Won't go on more than another few feet before you can pull 'er right out. And what you want, Red, is a mattock.”
“It is,” Archer nodded, hopping down from the wall and ambling over to the tool shed. He returned with what Feral would have considered a pickaxe, but soon noticed the flatter, broader blade where the sharp tip would have been were the tool designed for breaking rock. Taking a wide stance at the side of the root, Archer hefted the heavy looking tool with both hands, heaved it up over his head and brought it crashing down with impressive accuracy and force, taking a chunk out of the wood that dwarfed the combined cuts of the hatchet.
“Gravity,” the sciurel said, grinning. “Does all the 'ard work if you let it.”
Taking turns with the heavy tool, the three of them worked at the root until with a satisfying snap it severed all the way through. Sticky sap oozed from the broken ends as Tallow looked up at the sycamore. It seemed to frown down at them from over the wall, its leaves giving a little shiver in the breeze.
“Well I did ask!” she told it defiantly. “Grow the other way next time you stupid thing! Now then – oh, goodness!” She had tried to get her hands under the now severed root and discovered it completely beyond her strength. Valiantly, Feral had a go, and discovered he wasn't all that much tougher than Tallow. Nor, to his pleasure, was Archer.
“Right, well, 'ave to cut 'er up then...” the sciurel said.
“Cut what up?” asked Balthor, peering over his shoulder. He answered his own question, then moved the sciurel aside and bent over the root. Strong hands dug into the crumbled earth around it, sturdy muscles bunching, tendons standing out along his arms as he heaved upwards.
It was of course, beyond even the burly canine's strength to lift the whole thing out at once, but it was undeniably a good effort and far beyond anything his smaller companions had achieved. Several feet of thick root projected up into the air before he had to take a breather, holding it steady while the others cut it away from the still buried portion.
By the time Cassanya, who had been down at the river, returned with several freshly caught fish and a small basket of watercress, all four of them were dirty, sweaty, and relentlessly cheerful. Sitting around the trench, surrounded by several yards of thick, twisted, thoroughly torn up tree roots, they had fallen to animated discussion of the toughest manual labours they had ever performed – which in at least one case, Cassanya knew to be removing tree roots. Smiling, the leonin took her catch inside, returning shortly with a large jug of cider and a stack of sandwiches.
Then she made them all go and wash their hands before letting them eat any of it. Workforce standards had to be maintained, after all.