Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Busy Week

It has been a busy few weeks. A week in Sweden, a week in Germany, and a week back in the US visiting my sambo's relatives. Although, I tried to plan ahead so that I'd have no break in Merph's "A Knack for Powders" serial, I hadn't planned on forgetting my headset when I visited the relatives and therefore wasn't able to duck out and do some editing this past week. Therefore, I apologize for no Merph this week, but he will be back next week.

December should be a better travel month (i.e. fewer days away traveling) and you should see me more active on here and other virtual homes.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Rune-lock (A Knack for Powders, Pt. 7)

Part seven in the Knack for Powders serial. A table of contents for previous episodes.

Merph staggered through the wind where rain splashed his face in tight nearly frozen bits that stung with their ferocity. Pings rang against Detlef's helm as he moved the sword left, right, and stabbed turning during all of this through the practice ring. Mud caked the greaves and chainmail sabaton protecting his feet. Encumbered by the armor, the boy lumbered worse than Merph with his bad leg.

Merph swiped at a strand of hair and the drips streaming into his eyes. They weren't so different in ages, but as Merph watched Detlef sweep the blade in a low swing over the grass, he felt like a child compared to the lordling. Two weeks passed and he had not freed Healer Kluvenstrom from the prison of the astral plane. He'd made one simple powder in that time, a powder any apprentice could mix. Kluvenstrom had placed his hope in the wrong person.

"What are you doing out here? The rain isn't good for your leg." The tip of Detlef's broadsword cut into the mud and he leaned against its weight as his breath came in hoarse spurts.

Pools of water gathered in the footsteps within the practice ring. Raindrops splashed and Merph tore his gaze away. "I need your help."

"More silly words to read?"

"No." Merph's voice felt cold and he paused. "I can find Kluvenstrom."

"Great." A sucking noise escaped from the mud as Detlef pulled the sword out of the muck and grabbed a towel to clean it off. "Tell the Lord, or Tvinnrun. They'll help you."

Merph shuddered at Tvinnrun's name. He couldn't admit what he'd overheard. "He's been imprisoned."

"What does this have to do with me?"

"A rune-lock."

"What? That sounds like something Tvinnrun or his apprentice could help you with."

"Maybe." Merph stepped forward to un-strap some of the clasps that held the armor on. "But, the rune-lock isn't near here. We can get Tvinnrun's help after we bring it back." Merph would need to be careful, and find a distraction so Tvinnrun didn't get the box later, but he needed Detlef.

"And you need my help?"

"It's too far. We should travel by horse."

"In this weather?"

Merph's face burned as he looked away and hoped Detlef wouldn't notice the flush. "How is the Lord doing?"

Detlef spat into the mud. "The new crow-spawned healer is too young. He thinks he knows what he's doing, but my father's condition hasn't improved."

"Kluvenstrom would know how to heal him," said Merph.

"Help me carry the armor to the tower and then we'll retrieve this rune-lock."


Detlef stood on the edge of the cliffs above Lake Rudan. "Okay, there's your broken birch." Detlef had his back to the lake and pointed at the tree whose leaves had been scattered to the winds. "How do we find your rune-lock."

"Not mine." Merph made a sign to ward Othinn's one eye. "There'll be a cave in the side of the cliffs. We climb."

Detlef picked up one of the rain-slicked stones and flicked it over the edge. Although the rain had stopped partway on their trek, the humid air hung close and coated everything. "Too slippery."

"Watch this." Merph lifted the tube of ash powder from beneath his belt and poured a little in his hands. He flung the grains in a smoke descending down the cliff's edge. The black cloud turned white as it passed over the hissing rocks to leave a dried slope. Merph's hand burned from the touch of the grains.

Detlef retreated. "What happened to your hands?"

Merph glanced at the red welt flushing his palm. Ever since the accidental taste of the ash powder he had reacted to its presence. "It's just the ash powder."

"Your skin looks like my father's." Detlef's eyes bored into Merph he took a step forward. "Like you looked the day I came to the Healer's workroom to fetch you. What do you know about my father's affliction?"

The dampness in the air coalesced on Merph's cheeks to chill the burn he felt there. "We don't have much time. The rocks will cool and become slick again."

Detlef grabbed Merph's jerkin and pulled him close, his hands stronger than Merph's brother. The lordling's brows furrowed. "How do we save him?"

"He's... he's fine."


Merph swallowed. "I had... had to find a way to keep us from leaving the tower so I could find where Healer Kluvenstrom's ensorcelled body was hidden."

Detlef grabbed the tube of ash powder with his free hand and then pushed Merph over the edge of the cliff. "I don't want to see you ever again!"

Merph's arms twirled as he fell through the air. The rock was too far away and the surface of the lake raced closer. Tufts of grass grew around the entrance of the cave as he fell. He noticed every detail. Time seemed to nearly stop. He wondered whether one could create a powder to replicate this effect.

When he hit the water, his breath was knocked out of him. The suddenness of the plunge dropped everything into darkness. He turned end over end. His lungs burning, he fought to remember which direction was up.

A wet tongue woke Merph and he coughed to splutter water onto his chest. A black-and-white splotched dog stared at him. The dog yipped and pulled Merph further from the edge of the water. The eyes sparkled and Merph raised an arm that felt like dead weight to scratch at the dog's neck.

"Who might you be?" Merph wondered whether the dog had pulled him out of the water.

The dog barked.

"What should I call you?" He looked up at the white splash on the dog's throat. "How about Whitey?"

The dog's tail wagged.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Visby's Brazen Lady

Night fell in Gotland while an old lady, strands of gray hair escaping from the brown hood over her head, leaned on her fence. Fading sunlight played on the triangular wall of a church ruin. Higher on Visby's hill towered the iron grillwork of Sankta Maria church. Among the cobblestone streets walked emaciated children with none of the exuberance they should've shown. She wondered why Saint Maria couldn't hold sway over the streets at dark. Her neighbors had hidden within their walls, but not her, not a single night over seventy years. She lived her way, not the villager's way. Bribes.

Each child fanned out to wander in a different direction like a drunk weaving his way from a late night rendezvous, leaving the clutches of his love, her vapor thick on his breath. The old woman watched a little girl. Grime coated her cheeks. Blonde hair matted beneath the black rags of her cloak.

The children never looked the same to the old woman. Even though they came every night during the autumn. Why they came, no one knew. Perhaps, for the apples.

She swallowed once so her words wouldn't catch in her throat. "Apple, little girl?"

The girl shuffled closer, her teeth loose in her mouth as the gums pulled back leaving caves of darkness around the gray stumps. The wind, cool off the Baltic Sea, never made the children wince. The girl reached an arm up, a claw, and took an apple.

As the last light faded, night coming earlier every day, the children receded down the hill. They flowed out to the ocean where the fog kissed Gotland's coast.

Unlike the other nights, the departure of the children didn't leave the streets bare. Instead, the old lady, her arms propped on the weathered wood, stared into the depths of the fog. A skeletal man approached wearing a black robe with the hood pulled to leave his face in darkness.

He stopped and crooked his finger to call her forward. Her heart bubbled in her throat as she looked behind her but she knew deep down that he called for her. It was time. The apples fell from her hand and scattered in the grass as she loosened the gate and took his hand to walk through the streets of Visby one last time.

Update: I'm back from Germany; the last week has been particularly busy (meetings all day and then calls with the US office all evening) leaving me with little time to write. I've added a little to an old scrap of writing for this week's nearly Friday Flash.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bat Powder (A Knack for Powders, Pt. 6)

Part six in the Knack for Powders serial. A table of contents for previous episodes.

Merph sat by his window mashing mastic in the mortar and pestle while he watched the courtyard through the window. He'd mixed half of the ground mastic with the earwax from the bats, but after sprinkling it on himself he'd heard silence in the cellar and his hearing seemed unchanged. Nevertheless, he sprinkled a pinch in his hair just in case it only helped him hear better in certain situations.

Merph suspected he needed an additional ingredient. The healer's books had a reference to magnesia. He wasn't sure what that was, but the image of a man blowing into a stick attached to a glass bulb gave him a hint.

The jingling of a harness echoed from the tower's courtyard where the lord's cook backed one of the draft horses into the harness trace. Merph poured the half ground mastic powder into a glass flask that he stoppered. Favoring his right leg, he hurried down the curving steps from the healer's workroom and arrived outside as the cook finished hitching the second draft horse.

"Are you going to the town market?" Merph leaned against the wagon.

The cook connected the center shaft to the pole strap of the harness and wiped a hand over his brow. He leaned down to look Merph in the eye and winked. "Let me tell you a secret. The difference between a good cook and a great cook is fresh ingredients. Move away from the wagon so I can get there before the best produce is taken."

"May I come with you? I can help." Merph used the smile he flashed his Ma when he wanted her to cook sausages.

"Don't you have a bad leg?"

Merph raised his right leg and bent the knee. "It's healing. I promise not to slow you down."

The cook's eye twinkled. "I suppose you'd like to feel like you're useful now that the healer is no longer around. Go ahead, but you'd better promise to not run off."

Merph looked away into the woods. "I won't be a problem. Except, I have one errand to do for Healer Kluvenstrom. Before he disappeared, he had something he needed to deliver to one of the glassblowers. You won't mind if I help him out will you? I'm sure he'd appreciate it."

The cook lifted Merph onto the seat. "Make your errand fast so I don't regret this."

The wagon bounced along the path and Merph felt every bump in his leg. Fortunately, the sun was out or otherwise his leg would have felt worse. He hummed one of the tunes he'd learned from his father when they worked the fields. The cook picked up the tune and then softly sang the words.

The cook stopped the wagon. Fruit and vegetable stands created a miniature village between the tall buildings on the edge of the town's square. People bartered, chickens clucked, and boisterous children chased through the stalls.

"I'm going to make a loop to check the produce before I buy anything. Finish your errand for the healer and then help me carry things back from the stands."

Merph hurried to the market sure there was a glassblower somewhere. He grimaced as he ran on the leg. Merph wasn't sure how long it would take the cook to find the items he wished to buy. Ahead, he saw a three walled building with an oven, its belly glowing orange. A man held a long pole into the fire.

A respectable distance away, Merph stopped. The glassblower didn't turn so Merph coughed and then said, "Did you hear about Healer Kluvenstrom?"

The glassblower pulled the pole from the fire. Turning it quickly, he breathed into the hollow pole. His cheeks were red and he wore only a white tunic with his sleeves rolled up. "No." The glassblower placed the pole back into the fire.

"He's disappeared."

The glassblower raised an eyebrow.

"Honest. I'm his apprentice."

The man leaned over his pole to stare at the softening glass inside the furnace as it began to gleam with the heat. "I don't have any reason to disbelieve you. I'm busy."

Merph bit his lip as he looked at the man. "I need your help to rescue him."

The glassblower pulled the glass out of the oven again and it flowed so that it was no longer centered on the pole. "How is a glassblower like me going to help?" His eyes narrowed as he looked at Merph. "Aren't you a little young for an apprentice." He began to twirl the pole to correct the leaning glass.

"I'm a new apprentice, and it's all my fault. You've got to help me."

There must've been something in Merph's tone that caused the glassblower to pause for a second and stare at the boy. "What do you need?"

Merph pulled the slip of paper out of his belt and passed it to the glassblower. "Magnesia."

The glassblower grimaced. "That stuff isn't cheap. I need it to decolorize the glass." His eyes narrowed as he looked at Merph's lips turning into a frown. He indicated a box near his work tools. "All right. But, this better not be a ploy to get some free ingredients."


Merph finished mixing the magnesia with the mastic and bat earwax. The powder became pink as he finished swirling it together. The mixture more than the sum of its components. Holding his breath, he pinched a bit of the pink powder and sprinkled it over the back of his head and and over his ears.

He fell to the bench as the clamor washed over him. The honking of geese; elm, oak, and beech leaves rustling together; the scritching of termite mandibles dissolving wood; and voices everywhere.

He could hear everything. Yet, that didn't help because he couldn't hear anything with all the competing sound. His head ached and he leaned against the table.

Suddenly, he heard Katja's voice. "He's not my apprentice." There was a short pause as if someone else was talking. "Nothing happened at the cave last week."

Merph found that if he concentrated he could hear just the sounds in the room were Katja talked to one of the other chambermaids. The other chambermaid teased, "I can see the way you look at him."

"We're just friends," said Katja.

Merph's cheeks burned and he moved his concentration away. He heard Tvinnrun's sonorous rumble. The runeworker's footsteps thumped to accentuate his voice. "We've gotten the meddling healer out of the way." The runeworker tapped something hollow. "He's trapped in this rune-lock. Now, we just need to hide this someplace no one will find."

Friday, November 12, 2010

Pua's Choice

Ka'pali Ridge

Pua jammed another cartridge into the pheromone shooter. His father's refusal to allow Pua to study as a spirit speaker echoed in his ears as if wind spirits afflicted him with memories. Pua ground his teeth. Why couldn't the spirits see true?

One of the butterfly prawns veered from the herd. The damn creature's jelly-like shell would spew it's meat on the ridge as if mimicking his father's destruction of his life. Pua aimed the shooter while sliding the range dial so the pheromone would deter the prawn. The trigger stuck. The cartridge lodged improperly against the wrist-rig's flange.

One good smack was needed. A lot of things could be improved with a smack. He wasn't a child any longer. Son of the cloud spirits! The cartridge gashed his wrists and clattered against the igneous cliff. Slip-sliding, it stuck in the roots of a bottle-brush pine.

As if they were conniving against him, a second butterfly prawn drifted near the cliffs and the herd followed. The spirit-cursed creatures had no sense. Any hope of persuading his father would die if he lost their herd. He leaped from the ridge reaching for the fast approaching pine.

Wai'ona Strand

The light from glowing embers reflected off the spirit-speaker's cheeks. Makaha's knuckles, buried in the damp sand, reminded him of Pua's coldness. Ever since his wife -- and yes, his favorite son, Ku'u Maka -- had died, he'd needed his boy, shiftless as he was, to inherit his role.

The elder drank the spirit water and his eyelids closed, the eyeballs fluttering. Makaha clinched his fists in the sand as the elder's voice became other.

"The sun sets on a boy's life."

Makaha's throat tightened. Every night the elder told the same tale. He missed a word. The sun will set. Will. Will. Makaha ran from the pit pounding his hands against his ears.

Ka'pali Ridge

Pua smashed against the tree, teeth chattering. Hands slipped on the bark. Fingernails tore as he stopped his fall. Whipped cloud spirits. His hands hurt, but he'd stopped the fall. He swung to the far side of the tree and felt for the canister.

The first prawn grazed the cliff and popped. Its innards speckled the cliff with a phosphorescent blue glow. Pua repeated to himself that he could still rescue the others. His fingers nudged the canister loose. He lost his grip on the tree. Legs crashed against the rock. Pain exploded with bits of blood.

A spirit face hovered over Pua when he opened his eyes. Death wasn't supposed to be his route to spirit-speaking. He kicked at the figure.

"Nice, a little temper."

Spirits didn't talk. Centered on the man's forehead was a tattoo of the snake warriors. Kicking a leg, Pua tried to escape while the other leg pulsed with pain.

"Your herd wasn't as lucky as you." Tattoos curled at the edge of the man's cheeks as he spoke. "All dead. Your clan won't be happy to have you back."

Pua remembered his father's anger. The world shrank. Pua spat. "I'm not dead yet." He balled his fists. Until he was dead, he would fight.

"You don't have to go back. We need more warriors."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mgmt: Flying to Sweden

I'm flying to Sweden (really, my plane should have left six hours ago), but my flight was canceled, so I'm flying tonight. Although it is annoying to have a canceled flight, I was amazingly lucky to have the airline call and rebook me just minutes before my shuttle arrived to the airport. I was also able to rebook the shuttle for this afternoon. Unfortunately, this did not mean I got more sleep.

Yes, this is a somewhat long explanation to say, I'm traveling and will be updating somewhat less frequently than usual over the next two weeks. Honest, this isn't a fake excuse for my NaNo habit. ;)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Bats (A Knack for Powders, Pt. 5)

Part five in the Knack for Powders serial. A table of contents for previous episodes.

The light from the red and green runestones blended together to bathe Merph in a yellow glow where he stood outside the door to Detlef's chambers. The runestones, knuckle-sized cubes, balanced within an iron knotwork holding the stones. Merph wondered again whether Detlef had sneaked out of his chambers to avoid Merph's questions. He bit his lips. More time had passed and he wasn't any closer to rescuing Healer Kluvenstrom. He reminded himself that if Detlef could read the marks left on the floor after Kluvenstrom had disappeared, it would save him from searching through the picture books.

A man dressed in a leather vest over his brocaded shirt moved to the other side of the hallway and watched Merph. Merph stared at the floor as if he was a page. Ever since Lord Calle's strange sickness, everyone in the keep had been on edge. Even Merph who knew why Lord Calle was sick. Yet, he hadn't rescued the healer yet.

Detlef's door opened and the lord's son stood in the entryway wearing riding boots with a mink-pelt trim. When he saw Merph, he flinched and placed a hand on the door. "What are you doing here?"

Merph unfolded the piece of paper in his hand. "A question."

Detlef began walking down the hallway. "I don't have time for questions."

"I just need you to read something." Merph hurried to keep up with the boy's boots echoing on the stone floor.

Detlef grabbed the paper out of Merph's hands. His eyes narrowed as he looked at the farmer's son. "Your face was red like my father's when I came to summon you to his chambers. What do you know about his sickness?"

Merph's hands fidgeted. "Nothing. I had worked hard before you came."

Detlef stared at the apprentice's eyes and didn't seem to see the shaking hands. He crumpled the scrap of paper and threw it at Merph whose hands moved too slowly to catch the paper.

"It says listen." Detlef continued down the hallway. "I've got more important things to do. I must summon Tvinnrun home and find a temporary healer until Kluvenstrom is found."

The saliva in Merph's mouth congealed into curds. He watched as Detlef descended a stairway, but his mind was elsewhere. The eyes of the runeworker had been too pointed and he'd attacked Merph. The boy shook his head telling himself that he needed to hurry and rescue Kluvenstrom before Tvinnrun returned.

Merph pondered the word written on the ground of the cellar. It echoed what the healer had told him before Merph had returned from the astral plane. To what was he supposed to listen?


A raindrop splattered against Merph's nose. Katja stood in the gate frowning at the dark clouds hanging low in the sky. She wore a much patched cloak over her shoulders.

"Come on," said Merph.

"I think this is a bad idea." Thunder rumbled.

Merph placed an arm on the stone wall and looked into Katja's eyes. "I need you. The healer needs you."

She stepped backwards. "That's what you said the last time. Before --"

Merph made the sign of Othinn's one eye. "It was necessary. I couldn't leave here. No one will be permanently hurt." Merph walked away from the tower. "If you don't come with me, I'll have to find it myself."

She stepped out of the gate and the door closed behind her. "You won't find the cave without me."

Merph winked at her. "You'll have to come with me to see if you win the challenge."

Merph and Katja walked toward the hills along the stream and Merph stopped for a branch that he used as a walking stick to take his weight off the bad leg. The rolling grasslands became hillier and black rocks scarred the grasses. He moved to the right to follow an animal trail.

Katja tutted with her hands on her hips. "You lose."

"I would've realized I'd gone the wrong way. As long as I find the cave without your help, I win."

Small beads of rain stuck in her hair. She rolled her eyes. "Darkness will come before we return if I let you lead. Follow me."

She stopped at a boulder lying beside the edge of a cliff. Small thistles grew in the crevices around the edges and a dark shadow appeared against the far edge. "Now we've found it. We should go back."

"I need to go in."

Katja scrunched her nose. "Bats live in there."

"I know." Merph stepped into the darkness. He wished he still had some of the moon powder. He should've stolen one of the lighted runestones. After two turns, the cave became darker than the astral plane had been.

He remembered the winter stories his parents had told about bats that turned into people. He told himself that they were stories to keep children indoors after nightfall. Still, he shivered.

From Kluvenstrom's books, he had puzzled through the recipe for a listening powder. One of the ingredients had something to do with a bat. He was confused that the recipe had an image of a glassblower, but he figured he only needed to concentrate on one thing at a time. He bit his tongue. It wasn't getting any lighter in the cave. He pressed his hands against the walls. The rock was cool, almost slimy to the touch.

He moved and wings flapped through the air. Merph jumped to bump his head against the wall. Outside, Katja screamed. One of the bats must have flown out.

Merph tried again and this time, he got his hands on a wiggling bat. It seemed unlike his image of Kluvenstrom to kill the bat. But, the recipe required bat. He shuddered. What if the bat was one of those from the stories his parents had told that turned into humans?

Air swirled cool against his cheek. It felt like a breath. "No."

The words were soft and Merph held his breath.

"Only the ear wax. Rub the ears."

Merph recognized the voice. It was Kluvenstrom. He dropped the bat and it flew away. "Where are you?" Merph whispered. No one answered.

Merph captured another bat and rubbed the bat's ears. It seemed to wriggle a little less. Perhaps, it liked this. Merph's fingers had a waxy substance on them and he scraped his hand against a bowl's edge. He would need many bats. Merph gritted his teeth. The bats began to land on his shoulders as if lining up to bring him their earwax.

Merph crawled out of the hole.

Standing over him, Katja said, "Finally. What were you doing down there?"

"Healer things."

Friday, November 5, 2010

No Shoe Zone

Chatham trudged in the Logan security line. His new shoes nudged the shined shoes of the balding man with a blackberry pasted to his ear. The man shot him an evil glance. Chatham swallowed and stepped backwards tripping over the toe of his other shoe and falling against the woman behind him. He muttered apologies and thought that at least there was one benefit to the long lines.

Glancing at his watch, Chatham was glad his father's girlfriend had dropped him at the airport well before his plane's departure. He shook his head. They hadn't clicked. She'd only done it as a favor to Chatham's father and because she worked downtown and traveled through the underground warren on her way to work.

The line moved faster once the TSA agent had checked Chatham's license and he waddled forward to avoid tripping over his shoes. Chatham dropped his backpack on the conveyor belt.

Another agent, a full head taller than Chatham and built like a comic book hero, grabbed one of the backpack's straps. "You got a computer?"

Chatham shook his head.


Chatham shook his head again and stepped towards the x-ray scanner. The toe of his foot bounced off the side of his other shoe.

The TSA agent grabbed Chatham's arm. "Where you going?"

Chatham's chin jiggled as he swallowed and pointed at the x-ray machine.

"You're standing in a no shoe zone. All shoes must go through the scanner."

Chatham's hand jerked at his side. "Can't take shoes off."

"Your mom still dress you?" Someone in the security line laughed at the TSA agent's slur.

"It's for our good. I must not remove my shoes." The boy stared at the speckled floor.

"I decide what is good and secure. That's my job. Not yours." The agent's arm shook as he pushed Chatham against the belt that led to the scanners.

The crowd of people waiting to go through security pressed forward to compress into a single blurring blob. Someone yelled, "What's the holdup? I'm going to miss my flight."

The agent turned to Chatham and tapped a finger against his own chest. "You listen to me. I'm in charge here and good is no one getting through security without my guaranteeing their safety." The agent pointed at Chatham's shoes. "All shoes are removed, not just yours. Those size seventeen --"


"Don't interrupt me, boy. Those shoes are too large for you and look suspicious. I'm in charge here. You better listen to me."

"I can't take off my shoes."

The agent's lips quivered. He pointed at the gates and shouted, "You see that? If you don't take off your shoes, you ain't flying."

Chatham's head drooped and he began to turn. He needed his mother for the banishment and knew she would be disappointed when he didn't return home, but he couldn't take off his shoes.

"No, you can't just leave." The TSA agent grabbed Chatham's arm and waved to one of his coworkers. "We'll need to ask you some questions." The agent unlocked a doorway to the side of the security checkpoint and left Chatham sitting on a chair. The door clicked shut behind the TSA agent.

Chatham wiggled in the chair, his feet feeling uncomfortable. His shoes writhed and for a moment the tongue pressed upwards from the shoe and exposed a red-skinned demon tied with iron chains to Chatham's foot. Not a great binding and one that the demon could escape if he removed his shoes. He needed his mother who could banish the beast.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Taste for Ashes (A Knack for Powders, Pt. 4)

Part four in The Knack for Powders serial. A table of contents for previous episodes.

Merph sat on the bench in Healer Kluvenstrom's workshop with his bad leg raised to reduce the throbbing. His scrawl on the scrap of paper taunted him. Merph had scribed the letters -- his best recollection of the glowing moon powder -- that he'd seen that morning.

His head hurt from searching through the healer's picture book looking for the word. He swallowed thinking about the healer stuck in that neverworld. Kluvenstrom had called it an astral plane, whatever that was. How was a farmer's child like Merph supposed to rescue the healer?

A canister of charcoal-colored powder lie beside the two books Merph had studied. The boy stirred the powder with a finger and tasted its astringent smoky flavor. The healer should have had shelves or a chest filled with powerful powders. Instead, Merph had only found the ash powder that he'd personally mixed.

Beads of sweat dripped down his brow and his stomach felt queasy. He recalled the healer's warnings against tasting anything but pure mastic and healing powders.

Someone knocked on the workshop's door. Merph stared at his powder-stained hands as his heart raced realizing that with the healer's disappearance they would send him home. He needed to rescue the healer quickly.

The door creaked open and a boy entered in a brown doublet, embroidered in interwoven red and silver plaits. The absence of dust on the boy's boots and the bits of metal and bone glittering amongst the laces meant that this must be Lord Calle's son. Merph dropped his head and mumbled, "My lord."

"None of that." The boy laughed and made a sign to ward against evil. "Call me Detlef. A younger son shouldn't become Lord."

"Are you going to send me home?"

Detlef picked up the picture book. "Learning to read?"

Merph grabbed the scrap of paper wrinkling it in his hands before the Lord's son saw it. "Yes."

"Do you want to go home?"

Merph's eyes widened. "No. I must rescue the healer."

"You?" Detlef's eyes softened and his tone became more conciliatory. "Sorry, my tutor tells me that I underestimate people. You're braver than I if you're going to meddle in mysticism. Come. Father sent me to fetch you." Detlef turned and left the room.

Stone stairs curled along the outside wall and Merph paused by an embrasure. His leg throbbed with pain from too much movement. Through open shutters, Merph looked down at the treetops that surrounded the tower as their leaves fluttered in the wind.

Lord Calle sat beside a man wearing a black robe with silver embossed patterns in the style of the box that had been lying on the floor of the cellar. "Are you all right?"

"Yes." Merph swallowed. "Yes, my lord."

"Why is your face red?"

Merph heard Detlef's footsteps descend the stairs and wished the boy had stayed here with him. "It's nothing." Merph looked at the cracks between the floorboards.

"Do you know why you're here?" Lord Calle's eyes bored into the boy.

Merph shook his head and looked at the robed man. He guessed the man was the runeworker. He remembered one of his dinner conversations where he'd asked questions about the Lord's runeworker. Katja had refused to answer his questions, telling him that one shouldn't speak about the man.

"Tvinnrun is one of my advisors and tells me that you and his apprentice discovered Kluvenstrom's disappearance. What do you know about that?"

Merph's voice shook. "It's my fault."

Tvinnrun raised an eyebrow. "How so?"

"I opened a runebox --"

Tvinnrun leaned forward. "A farmer's son hardly knows how to read. The boy has listened to too many fireside tales and imagines objects that never existed." He glowered at Merphe. "Besides, we found powders scattered everywhere downstairs. Your fault, I don't doubt."

Merph didn't trust the runeworker. The shapes he'd seen on the sides of the box resembled the patterns on Tvinnrun's robe. He remained still remembering the way he had protested when his older brother had left the pen gate open and their goats had wandered out. The more he'd claimed innocence the more his Pa had suspected him. "I vanished into a world without light. Kluvenstrom called it an astral plane."

Tvinnrun rose and paced around the room before facing Lord Calle. "This is more serious than we thought. Someone sent the astral plane. I'm sure they sent it for you. You must send the boy home and leave this place. Someone is creating traps for you."

Merph's voice squeaked as he interrupted them. "My leg is bad. I can't go." The healer expected Merph to save him and he could only do that if he stayed at the fortress.

Lord Calle sighed. "Yes, Kluvenstrom mentioned you had broken your leg." He turned to face Tvinnrun. "I miss Kluvenstrom's advice. Do I really have to leave here?"

A blackness flashed across Tvinnrun's face but vanished as if it had never been there. "Yes. It is unsafe here."

Lord Calle leaned to peer into Merph's eyes. "Collect your things and you'll ride with one of the wagons when we travel." Lord Calle turned to look at the runeworker. "Where will I go?"

"My apprentice's father holds a barony by the Storsjö Lake."


Merph sat on the bench in the kitchen. Tvinnrun had left with his apprentice to prepare the Baron for Lord Calle's arrival. The cook scraped bits of venison from the roast pan into a pot where he prepared the gravy. Merph couldn't leave the tower. He needed something. Something that would keep them from traveling.

Katja slid across the table from him. Her hair fell bedraggled at the sides of her face. "Your face is red. Are you feeling okay?"

The noises of the kitchen faded away as Merph considered the ash powder. His skin still burned to the touch as if he had a fever. He could make them think that the Lord was sick and then they wouldn't travel. "Stay here."

Merph hurried up the stairs to Kluvenstrom's workroom. He bit his lips to avoid thinking about the pain in his leg. Grabbing a pinch of ash powder, he half-hopped down the stairs and leaned against the walls.

Back in the kitchen, Merph realized that he must ensure only Lord Calle consumed the ash powder. He didn't trust the usual servant that served Lord Calle. He could hear his Pa's lecture about hurting other people. Merph told himself that he was doing this for Kluvenstrom and therefore that made it right. Tvinnrun must've planned the whole thing and therefore he wasn't just helping Kluvenstrom but Lord Calle as well.

Merph grabbed a meat pastry cooling on the counter, stuffed half of it in his mouth, and dipped it in the Moon powder. With a wink, Merph stuffed it into the servant's mouth as she carried a loaf of bread towards the dining hall.

Merph sat next to Katja. "I need you to do something for me."

Katja's eyes crinkled. "What?"

Merph opened the palm of his hand and showed her the ash powder. "I need you to scatter this over Lord Calle's dinner. It must only be on his food."

"I couldn't do that. What if it hurts him?" asked Katja.

Merph grabbed Katja's wrist with his free hand. "Lord Calle is in danger. This is the only way to save him."

Katja stared at Merph for a long moment. "Even if you're telling the truth, look at me. I'm a grimy chambermaid. They won't let me into the Great Hall."

The serving maid returned from the Great Hall and stood with sweat dripping down her face as she wobbled with a hand against the wall.

Merph nodded at the girl. "She's not feeling well. She could use some help."

"Oh, all right." Katja held out her palm. "This better not to hurt him."