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?"
"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.