Part eight in the Knack for Powders serial. A table of contents for previous episodes.
As Merph and Whitey neared the top of the knoll, the gray blocks of Lord Calle's tower could be seen over the trees. Merph stopped, his breath coming in rough wheezes that accompanied the pain in his leg that increased with each breath. Detlef shouldn't have abandoned him. Merph scrunched his hands in the dog's coat. It didn't matter now because Merph would return a hero. Inside the bag stolen from one of the farms, he had the rune-lock that caged Kluvenstrom.
"Yes, yes. Time to return." Without the dog, Merph knew that he would have never made the journey. He'd needed the strong back to lean against. "You're a hero too."
Merph emerged into the cleared area that surrounded the tower. One of Lord Calle's guards oiled the leather hitch on a wagon parked next to the stables. Merph walked towards the tower's entrance.
"Merph?" called the guard.
Keeping one hand on Whitey's shoulder, Merph lifted the burlap bag. "Did it. One step closer to rescuing Healer Kluvenstrom."
"Don't matter," said the guard. He twisted Merph's arm behind the boy's back.
Merph yelped in pain as his left leg twisted and the bone shards rubbed against each other. "Hurts. Why'd you do that?"
"I heard from Detlef what you did. Be glad I'm not treating you worse."
Whitey ran from underneath Merph's grip. The boy sagged until the pain in his arm pinned behind his back balanced the pain in his leg. The dog circled and leapt with both forepaws landing on the guard's chest to knock him against the ground.
Merph limped into the woods. Behind him, the dog's scuffle was punctuated by barks and the guard's shouts. Merph felt for a second container of the ash powder and sprinkled it on the dead leaves and branches that covered the ground. They crackled and smoked a black impenetrable cloud. Merph collapsed into a hollow in the forest and leaned against a fallen tree while he waited for Whitey.
The stables stunk of horses, but outside rain fell in the darkness, which made his alternatives even less desirable. Merph plucked the straw from his vest as he waited for Whitey. He might've misunderstood. He didn't know if he should trust the dog. Yes, Whitey had saved his life at least twice and supported him back to the tower, but perhaps now that Merph had shelter over his head the dog felt that its responsibility had ended.
Whitey entered the stall with Katja's sleeve in his mouth as he pulled her towards Merph. She stopped. The dog gave two quick jerks against her sleeve but she leaned against them so she wouldn't be pulled forward.
"I should've known," said Katja. "Call your dog off me. You better hope that the mutt has only slobbered my sleeve. You know how much trouble you've gotten me into?"
The dog let go of Katja's sleeve as she rolled her eyes. The dog circled once and lay down to face Katja with unblinking eyes.
Merph ignored her question. "I need your help." Merph tried to keep the wheedling note out of his voice, but failed.
"Can't you do anything yourself?"
Her words burned like hot ashes and he looked down at his legs and the mud spattered cuffs. He pulled the rune-lock out of the bag. The box shimmered in the darkness, the markings on the sides glowing orange. "I got this."
She took one step forward. "What is this?"
"Kluvenstrom is locked inside."
"Then let him out." She shook her head. "I'm not sure his reappearance will be enough to get you out of trouble. But, you wanted to save him. He'll be saved, you can go home."
"It's not that easy." He couldn't admit to her that he didn't know how to get the healer out of the box.
"It's not going to be easy to get you in either. They've stationed one of the Lord's men in the tower's foyer at all times." She looked at the dog.
The hair on the back of Merph's neck stood up as he realized Whitey glared at him, baring its teeth.
Merph swallowed. It was impossible. The dog couldn't read his thoughts. Merph looked away. What did he have to lose? "I don't know how to get Kluvenstrom out of the rune-lock. I'm hoping one of the powders will help."
The dog's tail wagged and its head swung back to Katja.
"Can't you take this to Tvinnrun? He knows about runes."
Merph picked at the yarn threads of his vest. "Tvinnrun is the one who locked Kluvenstrom away." Merph's voice squeaked.
"No... no." Katja retreated towards the stable's door.
Merph lunged forward to catch her arm. "You must believe me."
Her face had turned white. "I... I do. I've seen some things when cleaning his room that I shouldn't have."
"You must help me. We can't let Tvinnrun succeed."
Whitey's cold nose pushed against Merph's hand.
"I don't know how to get you in."
"We'll think of something."
A smile crept onto her lips like the first crocus through snow. Hope warmed Merph's cheeks.