Dragon’s Ring — Snippet 17

Dragon’s Ring — Snippet 17

Chapter 16

It was good to be out in the sunlight again, Meb realized. The leaves were turning and changing the land into a vast canvas in shades of reds, ochres and yellows. The countryside so far from the sea was strange and unfamiliar. There were no gulls, and the breeze carried a thousand smells that were not salt or rotting seaweed or fish. Decay, yes. A wet-leafy, mushroomy smell, which, to her surprise, she discovered went along with huge numbers of mushrooms. She’d never had much to do with them before. It was rapidly apparent that Finn had.

Mushrooms, it appeared were something that came out in the woods and fields after the rain. The trees were still dripping. That didn’t stop her master bounding around under them, pushing over little hummocks of wet leaves and chortling with glee when he found a good mushroom. She did her best to join in. Her efforts were hampered by not having the slightest idea what she was doing. He was not impressed by the red and white spotted ones. “Hallucinogenic. Throw them away.” Her next effort was if anything, worse. “Good grief, Scrap. Do you not know anything about mushrooms? In the name of the First don’t touch your mouth, nose or eyes. Here, rub them thoroughly on that moss. There is a bit of a trickle over there by the sounds of it. You need to wash those hands of yours. And rub under your fingernails with that moss too.”

“I’m sorry,” she said humbly. “Mushrooms don’t grow much in the cove. And no one picks them. I thought those were the same as the ones you had.”

“Ink caps. You had deadly destroying angels. Look at them carefully. Remember them. Notice details. Anyway, I think we have enough for a feed. Now we’ll need a fire.”

That was something they were unlikely to get in the wet woods. But it seemed that she had underestimated Finn’s ability to find semi-dry wood, and to make it burn. He also seemed to have the most amazing assortment of useful things about him, and in that pack of his, including a little piece of fat bacon and a small iron skillet. And he had very tough hands and a mouth that seemed impervious to heat. He could eat sizzling bacon fat fried mushrooms with his fingers, straight from the pan into his mouth. Meb had to spike them on a knife-point and then blow on them. They were, however, worth running around the damp forest for.

When the last mushroom and scrap of bacon had been devoured, Finn looked regretfully at the pan. “Well, it’s a change from frogs and fish. I’ve been told it’s an unnatural taste for one of my kind, but wild mushrooms are one of my weaknesses. One of many,” he said with a grin. “And now, looking at that sky, unless you have a fancy for a soaking, we’d better move along.”

He cleaned the pan roughly with some leaves, kicked out the fire, and they set off again. A mile or two down the road they came to a large rock that someone had crudely chipped an arrow onto, with what Meb imagined was the name of the next settlement and of course, the distance. She could read some numbers. She was very proud of the skill.

Finn clicked his tongue, looking at it. “We’ll have to move that. Come on, Scrap. Push and shove time.”

Meb looked at the boulder. There was no way they’d budge it! But he was already putting his shoulder to it so she scampered to join him, and pushed.

She nearly fell on her face because it moved . . . it came free of the earth with a ripping crack, and rolled onto the track.

“Phew!” Finn blew on his hands. “Now. Let’s see . . . Over there.”

Between them they rolled the rock about five yards down the hill. It took all their strength . . . but it moved. The arrow now pointed at the hillside, though a generous tangle of bramble.

“A job well done,” said Finn with some satisfaction. “No respect, these people. That stone was put there for another purpose and didn’t like being a signpost. Things are better balanced now. Come on, let’s go. We’re still racing the rain.”

They walked on. Meb wondered just what local people would make of the rock’s movements. It seemed a lot of hard work for a practical joke . . . to the extent that she wondered if it was.

It was starting to rain when they reached a hamlet, complete with a local inn. “Time for us to sing for our supper, Scrap,” said Finn.

Meb hoped that she didn’t really have to sing. Somehow she thought sea-chanties would not get them much supper, and she didn’t know anything else. The locals looked pleased enough to see the gleeman, though. They were hauled into the tap room, which was a long step down from the inn in Tarport. This one had old straw on a dirt floor, and a few rough-hewn benches. And beer. Meb realized that she was going to have to get used to that. So she set about doing so. It wasn’t that she’d never tasted the stuff before. Just not much of it. People said you got used to it.

***

Fionn was expecting another quiet night of some mediocre brewing, ordinary food and providing a little entertainment in exchange for the same. Of course he knew that humans got hopelessly drunk and disorderly. They often did. Dragons had multiple and complex livers for dealing with toxins. It took some very special spells bound to gold to have much effect on him. He’d almost forgotten that Scrap wasn’t his kind when he’d seen the mushrooms. She was too observant for her own good, let alone his. He could — and did — eat mushrooms that would have killed her. She was trying hard to fit in. He’d been careful enough to keep her to actual hard practical work which took concentration, not daydreaming. He was fairly sure she had no idea what that imagination of hers could do, given the right cues and stimulus. So juggling had seemed a good thing to teach her. Of course, because she wanted to please, and wanted to do it well, she was bending the rules of causality a bit. Nothing that would cause more than a few misshapen trees, un-seasonal sunlight or strangely human faces on occasional root vegetables. Nothing to worry about.

Until she’d added beer into it.

They’d started much as usual. A bit of juggling. A bit of patter. A tumble or two. A break for beer and a few coins. Small coins here at a rural inn, but enough for food and shelter.

Fionn cursed himself for a fool. He should have seen to it that food came before beer, and that the human brat kept to drinking a minimum of the beer.

In part it had been his fault, he admitted. The craft of the dvergar-made wares was legendary, and of Dvalinn and his brothers more so. It was their reason for keeping themselves to themselves, and their names a secret. They also had the reputation of taking people literally. It would make her what she wanted to be. He’d meant in appearance. They, it seemed, hadn’t. Of course it would work as he’d intended, but possibly not when her inhibitions were awash with beer.

Now, in a barn a good mile from the inn the human was sleeping it off.

It was a pity she hadn’t gone straight to that stage!

It was relatively unlikely anyone magically skilled had been about to notice her pyrotechnics. But the marks of it would remain.

***

She inspected the scratches on her hand and arms. And felt her face. “What . . . what happened?”

“The scratches, I think,” said Fionn with some satisfaction, “come from when you attempted to juggle with the cat. In all fairness, I don’t think you knew it was a cat at that stage. But you deserved what you got. That was before you threw up on the innkeeper’s wife. You deserved what you got there too. You’ll have a very fine black eye.”

She blushed to the roots of her hair. “She deserved it too. I am sorry, master. Must I go?” There was just a hint of a sob in statement. Repressed. This one did not cry easily.

Finn laughed. “No. But we’ll not be back here for a while. Firstly, I think the innkeeper would be after us with a besom, and secondly we’d never be able to put up another show like that. You’ve set quite a standard for other traveling gleemen to follow.”

What he did not say was “and left traces of powerful human magic all over an inn that never did any worse than serve watered beer.” Instead he said: “Most of what we do, Scrap, is trickery. I need to teach you to do more of it, and not quite so spectacularly. We like to pass through without people noticing much. Not them remembering us in every detail for many years.”

“I am sorry, master. I remember everything the gleeman did the twice he came to our village,” she said, humbly. “I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to.”

She would remember of course. She must have a very precise imagination and memory to allow her powers to work. And as she saw more . . . it was going to become worse. She’d recreated some of the tricks she’d seen the night before. Only . . . they hadn’t been tricks. He knew of course how to palm a coin and pretend to pull it out of a local’s ear. Meb had made it lodge in the fellow’s ear. He’d been lucky it hadn’t been inside his skull, and it had been lucky that he’d been near as drunk as the scrap of humanity. Finn knew how to make a coin disappear. He would have made the same one reappear, not a silver thaler. That’s what had started the fight . . . She was no better at dealing with that than she had been with being propositioned by the innkeeper’s wife.

***

Meb was inwardly crawling with shame . . . in between feeling really like throwing up and dealing with a dull headache. Gleemen drank beer. And she was a failure at it. A failure. The inner voice said Well, he hasn’t chased you away. And he could have left you there. This isn’t the inn. Wherever it was, she had to get up and get out in a hurry, because anything that was still in her, needed out. At a staggering run she bolted out into the rain.

When she got back shivering and empty, he had a fire going — something that would probably horrify the owner of the barn — and small pannikin broiling. He poured some out liquid out of it into a metal mug. “Get that down yourself.”

“I don’t think it’ll stay down,” she said, warily.

“Well, let it have a passing acquaintance with you,” the gleeman said cheerfully. “And next time learn to spill most of the beer they buy you onto the rushes on the floor. That’s the advantage of a dirt floor, with straw or rushes. They help the sound and bad light will let you get away with it. The fleas will be grateful and you won’t have such a head on you in the morning.”

“Not to mention not doing such silly things,” said Meb shamefaced, remembering some of it.

He snorted. “I wouldn’t dream of mentioning it. Doing them, that’s another matter. You’ll learn, Scrap, that’s exactly what we do. Silly things. But usually we know we’re doing them. Sometimes we even tell people what we’re doing. They don’t believe us.”

She hung her head in embarrassment. “Sorry, master.” The stuff in the mug hadn’t come up. Actually, it was making her feel better than she had earlier, though that wasn’t hard.

He gave her a lopsided smile. “And now you’re making me feel bad about it. I’m usually the one to cause trouble, Scrap. Most of the time on purpose, but sometimes just because trouble likes me. I’m just not used someone else doing it.”

“It really wasn’t on purpose,” said Meb. “Or at least I am sure I’d remember if it was. I was just . . . trying to be a good apprentice.”

He snorted with laughter. “At this rate you’ll be a master before you know it.”

She was taken aback by that idea. She didn’t want to be a master. She wanted to be his apprentice. “Oh no. I have far too much to learn.”

“That’s true,” said Finn. “And your first lesson for today is that you should never stay around for the deeds to catch up with you. It means early starts. A lot of no breakfasts.”

She shuddered. “I don’t feel much like it this morning.”

“I’ll avoid talking about it then, until you’ve walked it out,” he said, getting up, and smothering his fire. “Get your cloak around you, Scrap. It’s going to be wet.”

It was. And a long time before lunch. They walked — mostly uphill — towards the mountains. It got colder. And the rain was replaced by drifts of mist around the ridges. Even while walking Meb was cold. The gleeman-cloak shed a lot of the rain. But wet crept in around the neck. She was very glad indeed when he led them off the trail and to a shallow cave in the woods. He seemed to know the country very well. Meb supposed one had to learn it. But how had he known there would be a cave there, hidden in a piece of wildwood? You couldn’t see it from the muddy track they’d been following.

“Chilly tonight,” said Finn. “But we’ll get a good fire going. Even the alvar won’t be out in this.”

That seemed to please him.

“Where are we going?” asked Meb. The whole world was a strange place to her, but she was beginning to feel that she should learn all about it.

“Tonight, here. Tomorrow elsewhere. Collect some dead-wood. I’ll get a fire going,” said Finn.

Collecting deadwood had to be easier than lighting a fire in this, Meb reflected to herself as, tired and hungry, she trudged through the trees. Still, he could have given her an answer. The inner voice said but he probably doesn’t know the answer. Meb was in no mood to let mere common sense and logic stand in the way of feeling aggrieved. She found a large dead fork, piled it with what she’d got so far, and walked back dragging it, picking up a few pieces as she went. It was all dead . . . but wet.

He did have a fire going. And he’d chopped a pile of bracken — wet bracken — and laid it out to dry near the flames. “Not a bad haul,” he said looking at her load. “I’ll get some more. I’m going to see if I can find us some dinner. You stay and tend the fire.”

Meb wondered what — besides possibly some more mushrooms, he could hope to find in the wet, wild woods. By now even frogs’ legs sounded tempting. But she would be glad to sit and tend the fire. She was exhausted. It was a hot enough little fire to dry the wood she had available to put onto it. She just had to keep feeding it while everything dried out.

Unfortunately, that meant staying awake. She would have walked, pinched herself or done something to make sure that she didn’t sleep . . . if she’d realized that just closing her eyes for an instant would have her away to the land of dreams, where she was still living in a cold fishing cottage.

It was that cold that woke her. The evening was closing in, and the little fire was down to a few smouldering embers. Her sudden panic left Meb wide awake and even colder — with a icy sick feeling in her belly. If she’d failed at this simple task he’d surely be furious. And rightly so. They’d need a fire tonight . . . and where was he? Darkness was closing in. Had he fallen and broken a leg? Had he gone off and left her here, because she was too much trouble? Hastily she piled splinters and sticks on the embers. Blew carefully. One or two smoked. Nothing else happened. She frantically felt about for more tinder, ripping the bark off the sticks to expose the dry stuff. Forcing herself to try and be calm. Pushing the embers together. Blowing again. Desperately wanting a flame . . .

It blossomed into a conflagration that singed her eyebrows and made her fall back as half the wood and the bracken caught fire too.

Meb scrambled back and broke a green branch and started beating it out.

“You never do anything by halves,” said Finn admiringly. Well, with what could be admiration. He put the string of neatly cleaned small animals he carried onto a limb and helped put out the fire.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to . . .” said Meb.

“Really?” he seemed faintly amused.

“I fell asleep,” admitted Meb. “I was just trying to get the fire going again.”

“And you really wanted it to burn. You’re wearing a dvergar treasure, Scrap. What did the cunning little devils tell you it would do?”

“They said that it would help me . . .” she caught herself in time.

“No. Typical of the tricksy little fellows. ‘It will help you become what you need to be.’ And right then you needed it to help you get the fire going. Or you thought you needed fire, badly.”

“Oh.” She fumbled for the necklace.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I have to take it off.”

He put a restraining hand on hers. “You’d do better to learn to use it properly. Besides what would you do with it if you did take it off?”

“Uh. Throw it away.”

“Besides the fact that the dvergar could be quite upset about that — their gifts are not lightly given — it wouldn’t stay lost. That’s the way of their treasures. And the next finder might do a lot worse. Kill themselves or others. If it fell into a dragon’s hands . . .”

“I could give it to you,” Meb offered.

He laughed. “No, you can’t. Now give me a hand with our dinner. I have some salve for you to put on your hands and face. Lucky for you they’re not burned too badly.”

It was a very soothing ointment that he provided. She was not too sure just what the small animals that they ate were, but even when she was told that they were squirrels, well, any food was good right now. And food in the stomach had a calming influence on her mind. That was still in some turmoil, but it was sleepy full-belly turmoil. Wrapped in her cloak, with some more bracken Finn had cut under her, sheltered from the wind and warmed by the fire, sleep came all too easily.

* * *

It didn’t come easily to Fionn. Curse the black-hearted black-haired little mischief makers . . . Only, it was possible that they hadn’t meant it as mischief. They’d liked her. Or if they had meant it as mischief, it almost certainly hadn’t been in that way. It was also possible that they simply hadn’t guessed just how powerful . . . and uncontrolled, she really was.

He wanted to fly back up to the conclave tonight. The moon was overhead . . . but he was wary about leaving the Scrap. For a start she might have attracted unwelcome attention with her fire-flare. And for seconds, she might die of cold without him. He had tampered a little with local airflow, keeping the cave a bit warmer. But they were late in the year and high in altitude for humans to sleep rough without more shelter than a cloak. All dragons should be given a human to raise, he thought ruefully. It’d teach them to value the strengths they had.

There would be limits to that power of hers, even focussed and amplified by dvergar magics. That was the balance of all things. It had been so structured by the First who understood the need for it. Thus alvar magics were potent against humans, and merrow spells in turn effective on alvar. The sprites were effective against the centaur-folk, and the dvergar against the sprites and so on . . . each with more or less mastery of the different types of energy. Of course the dvergar, cunning little fellows, had done their best to give her a talisman that would expand that. Earth, wood, water, air — always a weakness of humans, and the bound and unbound, and of course metal and fire in the making, and light in shifts of color in the opal. All of that would affect forces and energies not normally easy for humans to access.

If only the dvergar been prepared to travel more, they could have been as good a set of mischief makers as he was. As it was, they did quite well at getting others to do it for them.

He sighed. Just what was he going to do with her? She was a serious impediment to his speed and ease of movement. . . . But there were those who wanted any trace of human magic dead and buried. That could not be permitted.

Then there were at least three groups trying to renew the old compact of the species and rebuild Tasmarin. The sprites and the creatures of smokeless flame were part and parcel of both, for reasons he could guess at. Even without his interference the place was going to fall apart eventually because of the time differentials in the different planes that pieces of the refuge of the dragons had been taken from. Renewal would have a serious effect on his own plans and tasks — to say nothing of the damage it could do. They needed her alive — at least until they had achieved their end. It would all need re-doing soon enough, but they wouldn’t know that, or care, for that matter.

Basically, he was left with keeping her alive, and keeping her away from those who would use her. Well, his next move should put nice lumps of diamond in the mill of the latter. Anyway, the presence of so much sea-magic high inland had a terrible effect on the energies of the place.

He had to change that, and moreover, get himself (easy) and her (hard) away from the consequences of his actions. He thought about it deep into the night, occasionally dozing, occasionally tossing another piece of rock into the fire. While she slept she wasn’t going to know that he was burning rocks, not their supply of wood. If you knew the right ways of releasing energy from it, rock had a lot more fire-fuel in it than wood.

By morning he’d evolved a plan. Not a great plan, and not one without flaws. But it was the best he could think of right now.

They’d just walk in and take it. That, he knew from experience, would work.

It was getting away that would be problematic.

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