Part three in The Knack for Powders serial. A table of contents for previous episodes.
Merph squeezed into the kitchen and slipped one of the meat pies from a tray before one of the maids carried it into the dining hall. His wrists hurt from eight days of pounding the pestle into the marble bowl. Too much time wasted on books and the pounding, incessant pounding, of mastic. Kluvenstrom had only let him mix a simple ash powder. He had barely accomplished anything in one week. Merph slunk into a corner of the kitchen away from the cooks.
Katja entered the kitchen and grabbed a handful of fried potatoes and an apple that the chambermaid polished against her gray stained dress. Katja winked at Merph as she joined him in the corner. "Did you make anything today?" She set the apple down and flicked her fingers. "Explode?"
Merph breathed in and tried to sit straight like his elder brother had when describing a new way to till the field. "The healer says I'm a natural expert. We're doing important work making ash powders to heat Lord Calle's Tower this winter." He patted his chest. "I'm learning to read faster than anyone Kluvenstrom's worked with before."
The chambermaid smirked as she reached into her bodice to withdraw a folded piece of paper. "Can you read this?"
The cooks and other maids ignored Merph as he unfolded the paper and traced his fingers over the words. There were too many black scratches and letters, but Merph recognized two words. Powder, and power.
"Well, can you?"
"Where did you find this?" asked Merph.
"In one of the rooms I cleaned." She leaned forward smelling of rosemary and thyme. "Bet you can't read that."
"What does it say?"
Merph blew at a strand of hair that had fallen into his eyes. "It describes a powder that's used in the fields to make the plants grow." The chambermaid smiled at Merph and her encouragement led him to speak quickly until he stopped. He had begun to repeat himself.
"It says all that?"
"It does." Merph nodded his head solemnly and the strand of hair fell back in front of his eyes.
"You'll teach me to read?"
"One day," said Merph. When she reached out for the piece of paper, he held it away from her. "This must be Healer Kluvenstrom's. I should return it to him.
Later that night, Merph traipsed down the stairs into the tower's cellar holding the torch that he'd taken from the top of the stairs. He pulled the scrap of paper Katja had found from beneath his trousers and rope belt. He wished that he'd had some of the moon powder that he'd watched the healer mix, but the powder had been moved from the workroom. Instead, he'd paged through the book trying to match the words from the piece of paper with the pictures in the book. He'd managed to decode one more word, cellar.
Teetering on the circular stairs, Merph favored his bad leg. Rectangular chests piled one upon the other and leaned against the stone walls. In the center of the dirt floor, a small fist-sized box stood. Black ink stained the top in a pattern that wasn't a letter Merph recognized. Yet, the pattern looked familiar. He looked at the paper and saw it at the top margin. The box must hold the powder of power. Merph wondered what fantastic powers it might yield. He knelt on the floor and cracked open the box.
The room disappeared as darkness spread in every direction. It reminded Merph of swimming underwater in the river. Except underwater, there was a light above you where the sun shone through the river's surface. Merph yelled but nothing answered him. Pinpricks of light twinkled around him but he couldn't move any closer to them. Time passed.
A sound popped behind Merph and he spun to see Kluvenstrom holding Katja's folded piece of paper. The healer opened a palm filled with the pearlescent glow of moon powder. "Do you know what this says?"
Merph took a step backwards away from the healer.
"No! This is an astral plane and one can become lost here. The paper is gibberish. A trap. You should not have come down here." The healer placed the paper in the boy's hands. "Hold this. It'll take you back."
Merph looked up at the healer hearing something in the man's words. The man looked distant. "What about you?"
"Can't. No time. You must rescue us." Fog swirled and Kluvenstrom faded from sight. The man's last word echoed. "Listen."
Merph found himself sprawled on the floor of the cellar and he scrambled to his feet. The floor was empty with no sign of the box that he'd opened or Kluvenstrom. His hands held a dozen grains of moon powder. His skin crawled as the shadows cast by the moon powder seemed to move. Merph ran up the stairs.
Merph burst through the doorway at the top of the cellar and ran into Mortok. The boy stepped backwards. "I'm sorry."
"What are you doing?" asked Mortok. "That powder in your hand is Kluvenstrom's. Where is he?"
The neighboring Lord's son scared and confused Merph who stepped back against the wall. Merph didn't understand why the sun shone into the hallway. It had been night. He whitened. "I... I..."
Mortok yelled down the hallway. "Servant!" He waited until footsteps ran towards them. "Bring Lord Calle here." Mortok turned Merph towards the cellar. "Let us investigate."
Merph lowered his chin. "I have the moon powder, I can light the way."
"Nonsense." Mortok chuckled. "I saw the healer enter the cellar. Some apprentices can become greedy. Has that happened with you?" Mortok withdrew a cube from the pocket of his coat and the black runes on the sides glowed red.
The stairs creaked as they descended. The cellar had the boxes the same as always against the edge of the room. Mortok closed his eyes holding out his arms and sniffing. He stopped and his eyes popped open. "I sense the otherworld here. We need Lord Calle and my master, Tvinnrun to investigate." Mortok turned and his cloak brushed the stone walls leaving marks in the darkness.
As the red light faded, faint moon powder glowed on the floor. The powder hadn't been there before, Merph was sure of that. It created a six letter word, but Merph didn't know what it meant. He memorized the shapes. _Listen._ He bounded up the stairs.