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."

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