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?"