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The Long Dark Road to Wizardry

by Richard K. Lyon

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Book IV: The Whispering Mirror

Episode 6: Human Again!

Previously: The wizard Ebbern asks Breen to spy on his cousin Druin. Before the boy can say yea or nay, Ebbern changes him into a rat and puts him in a sack. On being released Breen follows Druin who has changed himself into a cat to go spying on King Thilloden in the Royal Palace. One of the Palace’s real cats attacks Breen, catching him in its claws.

With a sudden jerk, Breen managed to pull free. Instantly a deadly paw full of razor-sharp claws came speeding at his head. He had little choice; he sprang over that rushing death. Propelled by the fury of desperation, he flew straight at his enemy’s face. The cat knew only an instant of shock before its intended prey struck, jaws open and biting for all he was worth.

A piece of its nose gone, the cat howled in agony with a sound that must have wakened the entire palace. With violent jerks of its head it threw Breen off and went yowling down the corridor.

By Theba it’s true! When cornered, we rats really fight!

His self-congratulations were short-lived. Behind him someone shouted, and he whirled to see several guardsmen rushing down the hall at him. Pointing at the clearly visible rat on the carpet, the foremost shouted to his companions, “See, I told you there was a rat in the palace!”

Tail arrow-straight behind him, Breen sped down the hallway. As the guards in their flashing cuirasses started after him, the screams of the king blasted from his bedchamber. “GUARDS! HELP! ASSASSIN! MURDER!”

Forgetting Breen, those decorative men turned to bang on His Majesty’s door. In the excitement, several were trying to force the tall thick portal while only one fumbled for the latch. He found and lifted it. The door exploded inward, men in armor tumbling over one another. While a black cat bounded over their bodies, the king yelled, pointing, “Seize that cat! It’s a demon come to slay me!”

Someone muttered in a disbelieving voice: “ Seize? A cat?” And the chase was on.

* * *

Breen, running in the lead, was baffled as to which way to turn. Though he and the cat racing after him were far swifter than the pursuit, the alarm was spreading like measles. Everywhere he looked there seemed to be more and more guardsmen joining the chase.

Down the steps he scuttled, and turned — oops, three guards! He successfully dashed right through the trio and sped around a corner. Here came more, even while his nose appraised him that the kitchen was not far away. Shouts and clangor behind him gave him hope: maybe they’d stuck Druin, and would cease bothering with a poor little rat.

He made for the kitchen. Instinct sent him there, not plan or intelligence. He dashed into the big room only seconds ahead of the mad parade. Damn! They must have missed Druin!

The cook’s domain was black as Ebbern’s heart but for the small save-fire in the sprawling hearth. For a moment or two, Breen squandered his precious lead in a frantic scurrying about. At last he found what he sought — the door leading outside. It was a solid piece of oak, grease-swollen and tightly fitting into its frame. All that and an iron padlock, too.

What do I do? No turning back now and the only way out of here is that one opening onto the cellar steps...

The cellar would certainly have no outside exit. Down there, his only hope would be to find some dark little place and hide. Like a rat. A rotten plan, surely leading to death. This time, however, Breen was fresh out of alternatives. And here came that plaguesome Druin-cat, with men right behind. A pike clanged and went skittering over the floor.

Breen skittered even faster down the cellar steps. With the cat just behind him, he fled down into darkness, only a few paces ahead of the big, pounding feet of the noisy pursuers. Now luck or Milady Chance joined them: a rearward guardsman tripped. He fell. An avalanche of metal-cuirassed men bounce-slid-banged noisily down the steps as each man tumbled the one before him. While they tried to sort themselves out of the cursing, clanky pile at the base of the stair, cat and rat loped desperately about, searching for a hidey-hole.

More guards were coming. Their torches transformed the cellar into an eerie maze of shifting shadows that seemed alive with goblins and claws. Just as the task of finding a good hiding place was beginning to seem hopeless, Breen’s nose advised him of a most welcome scent: rat!

The cellar was divided into a number of separate rooms by wooden partitions, and at the base of one of these was a large rat-hole. With grateful thoughts to his putative kinsmen, Breen ducked inside.

Unfortunately the hole was big enough for the cat to follow. It did.

Now what do I do? They don’t care a spit about me — but to get Druin they’ll tear the place apart!

“Little whoreson went inta that hole! I seen him!”

“Reach in and see if you can find him, Cherky !”

“Huh! You do that, wren-brain.”

“Get out of the way, you cess-heads, I’ll fetch ‘im out!”

The wooden walls surrounding the fugitives thundered and quivered as that man commenced enlarging the hole with an ax. Over the din of chopping, the two changelings could hear others shouting in confusion. Obviously the royal guard was going about this with far more enthusiasm than organization.

What fun to race about the premises at night and start tearing up the palace, with the king’s sanction! The crashing multiplied as others attacked the partition at various places with ax and sword. A sword-thrust passed through the dampness-weakened old wood scarcely a hand’s breadth above Breen. A man cursed as his sword point snapped off in chopping, a foot away.

This, Breen thought, is what is meant by being trapped like a rat.

His sanctuary was being reduced to firewood and there was no way out — yes, there was! Up! Breen threw himself upon one trembling wall and began climbing. The old wood was rough enough so that his rodent’s claws easily gained good holds. For all that it was like climbing a tree during a hurricane, he made good progress.

Please, cousin Druin! I can’t speak, but surely you can see we’d both be better off if you stopped following me!

While section after section of wall disintegrated, Breen clawed his way to the cellar’s ceiling. Below he heard the furious activity continuing. They won’t stop until they either get us or smash the palace entire!

A trail of rat scent led him onward, along a joist and through a pitch-black maze that wound to and fro and round about through the ceiling crawlspace. Was he running in circles? Did he follow a trail that crossed itself? Perhaps; he had no way of knowing.

At first he could gain some notion of where he was from the sound of the guardsmen’s chopping axes. But now it seemed that they were everywhere, frantically chopping open every possible place of concealment. Breen was utterly lost, scurrying about in total darkness, whiskers warning him to twist and turn, and...

His sensitive rat’s nose caught a new scent. Very faint, but there was no mistaking it: grass! Fresh wet grass. Yes, and un-stale air! Filled with new hope, he followed that scent of living green.

Often his way was blocked and he had to nose around an obstacle. Each time he was afraid of losing the precious scent. He did not. The sweet aroma of grass grew stronger. At last he saw a glimmer of light ahead and joyfully raced for it. Soon he discovered all he had hoped for: a beautiful rat-hole, just his size. Beyond the hole he could see the palace gardens, bright in the moonlight; the high wall, and... escape!

Dimly aware that the cat was right behind him, Breen bolted for that hole. He plunged through in a burst of speed and, in the garden, paused to glance rapidly about.

Behind him the cat meowed furiously. Breen heard the true meaning of the word caterwaul. He looked back.

Druin-cat was too big to fit through the hole. It could only thrust part of its sharp-nosed feline head through the rat-gnawed gap. Twisting about, it opened its mouth to bite at the wood that imprisoned it.

Has Druin lost his wits? Cats don’t have the right kind of teeth to chew wood. Only rats... we rats, oh.

It’s a signal! My dear cousin wants me to save him — at considerable peril to my own life. Gnawing a cat-sized hole will take no little time, and one of the palace dogs could come by at any moment!

True, he still heard the distant sound of chopping. Damn that damned King Thilloden anyhow! Why couldn’t he have married a nice homely clod whose main talent was breeding and presiding over state dinners?

* * *

For a moment, Breen stood lost in thought. Then, decision made, he hurried back to the hole. Looking the cat straight in its green eyes, he shook his head

The cat stared at him, obviously puzzled. After a long awkward moment, the animal spoke. “I see,” it said, murmuring in Druin’s voice. “You believe you should be recompensed for your service. Very well, Breen, I promise to renounce all inheritances in your favour.”

Then Druin swore, and in a rush Breen moved to the hole and began a furious gnawing.

“I’ll also,” murmured the nobleman-turned-cat, “give you what you really need; an explanation of what is happening. Quite simple. ’Tis a war of magic between my grandfather — the wizard Mardarin — and some unknown malign power; the power served by Thilloden, Ebbern, and many others.

“In such combat there is no defense except secrecy and sorcery. You and I know enough to make us passing dangerous to this other power. Should we escape, our knowledge will allow my grandfather to spring one of the many traps he has prepared for our foe.

“Breen, should aught hap to me you will have two choices: get to Mardarin within a short time and tell him all you’ve discovered — or die.

Listening attentively, Breen busily chewed. No wonder rats loved garbage! The wood tasted awful. Portions of it were good, strong oak and required considerable time; other sections were rotten and disintegrated under his toothy attack.

Time passed at a stumbling pace and he had no way of knowing how much time. He worried, for he’d a presentiment of some nasty problem to come.

The last portion of the hole had looked as if it would be the hardest. When he bit into it, it instead crumbled rapidly into fragments, almost gone with dry rot. What delight for a thinking rat! In a final burst of effort, Breen gnawed away the last of it and stepped back to admire the newly enlarged hole.

Good job if I do say so myself! But where’s Druin?

The cat had been here just a moment ago. It had watched him intently all the while he worked, indeed he was sure it had refrained from giving him advice only because speech was not easy for the nobleman, in his feline form. Baffled by the disappearance, Breen stared about. With the fool gone for no reason, what was he supposed to do? If he...

A pair of eyes glowed from the darkness. Given power of speech, Breen would have said, “Well, there you are!” There was, however, something wrong with those eyes.

There was also something dangerously wrong about the way they moved; slowly, calmly approaching him. Then the thing in the darkness rustled into the light and Breen’s nervousness became absolute, paralyzing horror. His heart was a pounding drum. He screamed inwardly, desperately wishing to run and unable to do so. He was staring, red eyes bulging, at a cobra, elegantly dressed death big enough to gulp him in a single swallow.

* * *

At the back of his mind he knew King Thilloden was to thank for this. Finding his guards tearing the palace to pieces, the monarch must have ordered this thing brought and put on their trail. Such knowledge was of no use to Breen now. He could not move.

Slowly, inexorably, the monster slithered toward him, its eyes bright. Bared fangs looked long as swords. As it coiled to strike, sinuously, beautifully, Breen thought, I’ve got to run. I’m right at the hole. Just a quick hop and I’m back out of range.

With the thing’s eyes on him, however, he could not move. And the cobra struck. At the same instant, a bolt of blackness pounced on it. The snake’s fangs bit empty air, brushing Breen’s greasy fur while a black cat’s paw sank long claws into the back of the serpent’s neck.

The cat dragged it back. There was an awful moment of unimaginable animal fury and the cat’s sharp teeth sank into the cobra’s head to pierce the brain. Black blood trickled out of the reptile’s mouth and down its lolling forked tongue while its body twitched and quivered. The tail thrashed furiously at first, then only faintly. When it was still, the cat dropped it.

“Good cousin Breen,” the cat said, “heed me. Yon wall that seems so tempting an escape route is in truth a trap. We’d be far worse off on its other side. Our only way out is the south wall. And the route there goes through the dog kennels.”

Much as Breen wanted to protest such seeming suicide, he could only squeak. The cat apparently took that for agreement. It set off at a steady run, its sinuous form seeming to flow over the shadowy grass. Breen chose to follow.

They moved swiftly through the moonlit gardens, without incident. As the south wall came into view and drew closer, Breen began to think that all was going to work out after all. That was when the night was rent apart by a thunderous bark. It was echoed from a dozen directions.

Cat and rat broke into a dead gallop, legs moving for all their lives were worth to them. The rodent’s widely spaced eyes allowed him to see behind with only a slight twist of his head. He saw dogs. Huge dogs. They were coming from everywhere, ferocity-bred giants with great slavering jaws. Their long legs were eating up the distance between them and Breen, and the south wall seemed a hundred miles away.

Then there was the more immediate problem: the dog between the fugitives and the wall. The cat, still in the lead, was bouncing straight for that vast opponent.

O gods! I was better off when Druin was my enemy. He’s rushing straight into the jaws of death and I have to guess what he’s planning. (He is planning, isn’t he? Druin?)

The dog, a giant mastiff whose mouth was a fang-lined red cavern, was also running full speed, on collision course with the cat. At the last instant, the feline snapped, “Left!” and bounded to the right. While Breen dutifully leap-scrambled leftward, the canine’s claws dug up turf and he swung his head stupidly from side to side. Cat and rat rushed past him on either flank.

The fence was near, oh so sublimely near. A glance behind showed Breen the huge-jawed pack closing in. Tongues lolled over fangs like stalagmites and stalactites. The fury of their barking was all around him and their jaws were gnashing less than an arm’s length from his tail, and he was at the ivy-covered wall, struggling for claw-holds, willing himself upward.

The pack struck the wall beneath him in a snarling mass. They became a howling cauldron of savagery, leaping upward, powerful jaws snapping furiously — as he hastened up and away.

When he reached the top of the wall the cat was already there, staring down at the dogs with its fangs bared. It hissed malevolently at them. From his new vantage point Breen could see the length of the palace grounds — and the violent commotion at the far end. It wasn’t dogs.

DROOD’S ARMS! A mob is storming the palace! No wonder Druin didn’t want to leave that way — he knew! For an instant cat and rat looked at each other. Then they turned and went over the wall.

They were en route down before Breen saw how far it was to the ground. The wall ended not on a level but in a very steep hillside, and its bottom was a frightening distance away. The cat seemed able to run down nearly as fast as it could up, a feat that Breen could not match.

The sun was just peeking over the horizon. Though this new light of luminescent pearl should have made things easier for Breen, he found himself rapidly growing clumsy. He weighed too much. His claws didn’t want to work properly. He could not control his downward cling-and-run. Despite his best efforts, he slipped.

Breen fell headlong, to bounce and roll down the hill, his hands snatching futilely for holds. At the bottom of the slope he lay moaning, struggling to get his breath back. The sight of his own hand filled him with a sudden surge of excitement. Hastily Breen felt his face. It was a face. He was human once more.

Next Episode... Ceremony of Fire and Death

To be continued...

Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon

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