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."

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