Part thirteen in the Knack for Powders serial. A table of contents for previous episodes.
Merph carried a dozen slats that had previously formed the bottom steps into the tower's cellar. He wasn't sure what he would've done if the aging powder had failed to turn the nails into gnarled shapes loose within the boards. Yet, it'd worked and would be ready to trap Mortok in the cellar once he read the message Katja had sprinkled on his floor. A beam in the cellar's roof creaked, but it couldn't be someone awake. It was the middle of the night. He guessed that the tower settled as the wind pushed against it. Excitement shivered through Merph as he climbed the final steps with Moon powder sprinkled over the floors so he wouldn't miss the steps. He would return to sweep the Moon powder into one of his jars and replace it with some gelid powder. The latter powder would freeze the stairs and cause water condensation in the air to leave a slick coating.
At the top of the stairs, his footsteps echoed against the wood and the doorway opened before he reached it. A strong arm yanked him from the cellar and the slats tumbled from his grasp.
"I knew it was you." Mortok's voice was a husk above a whisper. "I have some questions for you, and here is not private enough." Mortok removed a length of rope from one of his pockets and tied it around Merph's wrists. "Don't yell," Mortok said as Merph opened his mouth. "You'll wake the guards and they're looking for you, not me."
With Merph's hands and ankles bound, Mortok lifted the boy onto his shoulders and staggered towards the tower's gate onto the courtyard. Light flickered down the hallways from the guard's station. Mortok left Merph against the wall and moved into the light.
"Sleeping while on duty?" Mortok's voice rang through the halls. "I should tell Lord Calle."
"No, no," said the guard in a high-pitched voice. "I swear my eyes only closed for a breath."
"No matter," said Mortok. "I need your help to carry some tools for Tvinnrun from the stables."
"I can't leave my station."
Merph should have known that Mortok was working with Tvinnrun. Of course, he'd suspected that, but it must've been the evil runeworker who had seen through his plot.
"And you were doing such a good job while sleeping, weren't you? Help me and I won't mention your slip to anyone. Besides, we'll be in the courtyard and no one can sneak past us."
Merph listened to the two men disappear and squirmed against the bonds that held him, but couldn't get loose. He thought about how friendly the healer had been and how he had failed the healer. He doubted he would get another chance to rescue Kluvenstrom.
Slow footsteps reentered the tower and stopped. "Leave the crate outside my rooms and I'll deal with it from there," said Mortok.
"What about the door?" The guard's voice whistled from exertion.
"Don't worry," said Mortok. "I'll watch it while you deliver and I won't fall asleep."
The guard's footsteps moved up the stairwell and when they faded, Mortok returned to Merph and lifted him onto his shoulder again and walked into the courtyard to dump the boy against the side of the stables. His head hit the wall hard and a tear came to his eyes. "Stay here," said Mortok.
Mortok returned to the tower and the door closed, leaving the courtyard in darkness. Nails clicked on the stone and Merph bunched his legs up in front of him to fend off the creature -- his imagination created an image of something bear-like and ravening with foam dripping from its lips.
A wet tongue licked Merph's cheek.
"Whitey?" Merph's eyes adjusted to the darkness and he saw the white splotches on the dog's coat. Perhaps, the dog would help free himself from the ropes. He pushed his wrists towards the mutt's mouth, but Whitey evaded and laid down to rest his head on Merph's knees.
"Come on," said Merph. "You've got to help me escape and help Kluvenstrom."
Light splayed across the courtyard, creating long shadows across stones, as Mortok moved towards them. The door shut behind him and he stopped when he saw Whitey.
"Your dog won't save you." Mortok drew a knife from under his cloak and the edge glinted in the light.
Whitey stood, withdrawing from the runeworker, and hung his head. Mortok fumbled with the knife to return it to where it had come from and sidestepped while watching the dog to approach Merph. The boy felt abandoned by Whitey as Mortok carried him into the forest.
It seemed like Mortok walked forever, but the heavens remained dark. They stopped beneath a pavilion. Strange marks -- runes -- glowed on the side posts and Mortok propped Merph against one of the pillars. Whitey had followed them through the woods and laid his head on his outstretched paws.
Mortok opened a chest on the far side of the pavilion and removed an armful of carven blocks. He placed them in a circular fashion until they began to glow and lit the darkness with a pale green color. The runeworker chanted under his breath until a flash occurred and roiling black smoke, pierced within by red lightning, filled the center of the circle.
When the smoke subsided, a giant crow stood within the circle. The bird blinked an eye larger than Merph's head. Mortok approached.
"Now, you will tell me the truth," said Mortok. "If you don't, this spawn of Muninn will remember your lies." Mortok indicated the crow which bobbed its head. "Now, tell me the truth about what happened to Healer Kluvenstrom."