“Come!” said Atticus.
The door opened to allow in a man who would have been tall had it not been for a stoop in his shoulders, would have been attractive had it not been for a menacing scowl on his face.
“Syron, what brings you here?” asked an all-too-chipper Atalanta.
I know you’ve got it, Merry,” sneered the new wizard.
“And what do I have?” asked Atticus, his eyes darkened when Syron said his other name.
“You know what!” Syron towered over Atticus, glowering and bringing forth a crooked stick that glowed through the bark.
“Calm down, calm down, please, gentlemen,” said Atalanta, stepping between them.
“I will not calm down, not with that thief right in front of me!”
Though my heart had stopped beating, I realized that he was not pointing the wand at me, but rather straight at Atticus’s chest. Atticus sat perfectly still, his bowl and spoon held in one hand in his lap, looking up with raised eyebrows and a calm expression.
“Syron, I know you are suspicious of newcomers, but you know me,” said Atalanta smoothly, running her neck and head beneath Syron and easing her shoulder into his legs, nudging him back. “What was stolen, and when?”
“Two nights ago, and he knows what it was. He’s been after it from the beginning!” spittle flew from Syron’s thin lips and splattered on the floor. Atalanta stayed soothing, and even my own heart had slowed down and my muscles relaxed. Doubtless it was some of her healing magic.
“Atticus was with me that night and day, and we didn’t go into the village. If you would like, we will help you in your search.” As almost an afterthought, she added, “And please call him Atticus, you know how he feels about that.”
While his face had gone from blotchy to calm, the man still resisted Atalanta’s charm. He shook his fist, stepping away from the gryphon.
“I’m goinna call him what his mumma gave him, and that’s that. And I know you’re behind it, Merry. I will uncover you for what you really are. Riffraff. Trouble. Bad news.” The man leaned melodramatically close to me, his big nose almost in my face, “Murderer.”
I shivered at his brown-black eyes, but did not move away. I caught the flash of green eyes studying my reaction.
“Is that all, Syron?” said Atalanta.
The man snorted, made a vague wave in my direction, and said, “You’ll get rid of this one if you know what’s decent-like for you.”
“Why is that?” Atticus said, his face expressionless.
The man sniffed, pointed nostrils flaring to be much too big for their size, “Can’t you smell it on her? Rotten. Rotten like a corpse gone too many days out in the bog. Rotten like forgotten spuds. Rotten…like dark magic. Like murder.”
The hair stood up on my arms, because I knew what he was smelling. I’d smelled it myself, I hadn’t been able to get away from it with my uncle, with the times I had interrupted him during spell-making. Hours I had scrubbed at my skin, gone to run it out of my pores. It had sunk in, a stain I would never be rid of.
The man smiled, a smile of jagged teeth, of too many teeth, a smile not entirely human. “Nah, keep the stray, Merry. You’ll be in exactly the company you deserve.”
Syron turned on his heel, his coat shaking off water droplets as he spun out the door and slammed it, taking all the warmth of the room out with him and leaving behind a shell of what once had been. Pale and sickened, I put my half-eaten bowl down on the small table with a tiny thunk that resounded in the hollow room. The amulet warmed around my waist where it rested against my skin, a comforting feeling to combat the chills I suddenly had. No doubt in my mind, I needed to leave. I needed to be gone from here. Even Atalanta refused to look at me.
I stood up, the floor groaning beneath my weight as though to announce my every movement. Sighing, I said, “I suppose I should be going.”
But as I tried to push my way past Atticus, his hand twitched and I felt the air grow wet and thick around me.
“Stay,” he said.
“It is almost nightfall. It comes early this late in the year,” said Atalanta, a little rushed and a little soft.
I knew neither wanted me to stay due to the time of day…though, then again, Atalanta probably did care. Maybe I wasn’t giving Atticus enough humanity credit, too.
“Even after what he said?”
“Was it true?” Atticus’s voice was cold, his face emotionless.
Atalanta made no move to protect me nor support me. She was concerned, too. It meant she could smell me.
“Which part?” I sighed.
“I’m interested in all of it. The thieving.” he paused, then added slowly, “The dark magic.”
The gryphon shuddered, her feathers standing up, her eyes wide and nervous.
I most certainly did not want to tell them. Did not want to include them. I yearned for my quiet life with nothing happening, where nothing could set off my magic, where nothing could tempt me into using it again. Swallowing hard, knowing they wouldn’t let me go or stay without some form of an answer, I said, “My guardian was the magician, not I. He was so lost in it, I don’t think there was a way out for him. I was worthless to him, so when I left him behind, he left me alone.”
It was half-truth. I was very valuable to him, but he felt guilty and did not seek me out when I escaped. It was something, though it did little to keep his partners from seeking me out.
“How long were you with him?”
Once again, Atalanta half-cowered, like a guilty puppy trying to make up to its master, and did not interrupt the interrogation.
“I was eleven when I arrived, and seventeen when I left. For the first three months, I couldn’t stand the stench of the house, but the police kept returning me and I eventually hid in my room.” And painted. Lots and lots of paintings. Not so good at first, but better the longer time went on. When he found out what I was doing, he was downright giddy.
Atalanta chose to speak now. “More than enough time to stink like him.”
Atticus’s face softened in relief, and he leaned back just a little. “You didn’t cast dark magic?”
“No,” I said, though that, too, was a half-lie. In truth, I had cast dark magic, I just did not know that was what I was doing. Did that count? Or was I still soiled? When I thought back to it, I could recall every symbol, every stroke of the brush. I couldcast it, even though my only intention was earning the privilege to go to the movies. Most teens took out the trash or mowed the lawn. I unknowingly killed and maimed. Such was my shame and horror that I did not look at either of them. If Atticus was watching me, it would not be long before he discovered what a horrible poker face I had. I should have told him I couldn’t do magic. Before I could add that in, he said,
“What were you doing in his village?”
Frankly I was impressed he did not outright accuse me of stealing. I would have known what to say, and since he asked me something I did not anticipate, I hesitated. When I don’t know what to say, but know I have to say something, my mouth forms a mind all its own.
“I was abandoned there. I don’t know why. I don’t know where they are. I don’t know how to get home, I don’t know who I can trust, if I am safe with you, if I’m safe anywhere or anytime. I’m just hopelessly and utterly…lost.”
“I wish I cold slap a hand over my own mouth. I sort of wished I had. Still could. When I raised my hand to my lips, my hand continued and up to my forehead, covering my eyes, rubbing my temples. The room was so still I heard the flute’s song in my ears. Clearing my throat, I said, “I shouldn’t come apart.”
The amulet helped me keep together, helped my focus on the here and now. I desperately wanted to ask what it was, what it did, but I knew that if asked, it would betray my intentions, and they would know I had stolen. In truth, they most likely suspected me already. I would.
Not long after Syron had left, another person staggered in the cottage, shivering in a heavy shirt still too thin for the journey outside. Atalanta made him at home, giving him a bowl of the stew-like dinner and seating him closest to the fire while he told his story.
I had no clue what he said. I thought it was a language I could understand through the translation earring I had in my right ear, but the trinket couldn’t cut through the man’s gutteral accent. The coughing and hacking fits that overcame him did not serve to help matters. He talked straight to Atticus, but Atalanta was the one who listened to him closely. The man used wild gestures and had a booming voice that would go hoarse if he got too excited. Then he would cough and hack, test out his voice, and continue. When he concluded the matter, Atticus and Atalanta moved off to a corner to talk amongst themselves.
It wasn’t far enough for any degree of privacy, but the new man was contented to eat and warm himself by the fire. However, I was restless and curious, so I listened in.
“…I know we need to go, but we can’t leave Gayle here alone.”
Atticus’s low voice was harder to listen to, as it disappeared into grumbling sounds with his back to me, but thankfully he did not speak much. “Why?”
“Something talked to her in that pond. I don’t trust it.”
“Sure you don’t trust her?”
Atalanta paused. It stung. It shouldn’t sting. I hardly knew her, but some part of me wanted to. She continued, “She could hear us. Are we going or not?”
“She shouldn’t. Is there something you aren’t telling me?”
“Mmm. We’ll proceed as usual. Our guests will be fine here.”
Though I’d been thinking of something to seem preoccupied with, the man provided me the cover when he started to talk to me. At the first stop of his talking, I said, “I don’t have a clue what you’re saying to me.”
He asked me a question.
He said something else.
“Look,” I said, “I’m glad that you’re trying to be friendly, but I frankly can’t understand a single word that comes out of your mouth.”
He smiled, and it was then that his grizzly beard of ice and snot transformed into a yellow-toothed smile that encompassed his entire face, soft brown eyes twinkling as he snapped his fingers.
“I have it!” he declared, speaking not only in my language but also in my accent, “That was a bugger of a language barrier to cross!”
I blinked at him in surprise, “Why didn’t you do that for the other two?”
He waved a paw at them, “I like to play with people. Especially certain people.”
Bringing his thumb and forefinger apart, a spark flew between them and he winked.
“You’ve got magic,” I said, surprised I hadn’t noticed this before.
“Indeed I do,” he said, then leaned forward and spoke conspiratorially, “You’re one of five who know it. M’name’s Eustace, and I’m a Flute.”
I nodded slowly, as though I thought he were a nut job. “Uh-huh.”
Eustace shook his beard of a head, sending ice over the floor, “No, no. You don’t understand me. I’m a Flute. A Painter. Someone with magic so slight, no one else knows that you have it or when you use it. I’m someone very important, just like you.”
My blood went cold. “I’m nothing important.”
Smiling, his face soft and kind, he said, “Ah, but you are. And you must be careful around these two.”
“Why?” Two warnings in one day was hardly a good omen one way or the other.
That man’s a warlock, not many folks know that. Just you, me, him, and the gryphon.”
What makes you think you can whisper secrets about him when he’s all of eight feet away?” I hissed.
Eustace winked his brown eyes. “I’m a Flute. He won’t ever know if you don’t tell him. And I suggest you don’t, no one likes having their secrets brandished about, especially not when it’s one like that.”
Frowning and not returning his enthusiasm in the least, I demanded, “Why are you telling me this?”
“I want you to come train under me.”
My face went blank, maybe a little stiff, and I balked. “I don’t know who you think you are, but I’m a fairly attractive young woman and you look like the stereotype for a serial killer or worse, and you want me to go with you?”
Eustace shrugged, “Is it any worse than living in the same room as a warlock? In his bed, for that matter?”
I felt the gentle tug of magic to make his words have more impact, but I stayed firm to my argument. “Yes, it is worse. He’s hardly said four words to me, much less look my way, and I’ve got a bleeding gryphon who I’m sure would not approve of anything inappropriate. Compared to a self-obsessed trickster of an old man who has taken a keen interest in me. No, I’ll stay where I am.”
Eustace settled back into his chair, smugly. “You can trust me. Even if you couldn’t, we don’t have much of a choice but to be stuck together until those two get back.”
“What do you mean?”
“You heard them. The lady’s not going to throw me back out to the blizzard—though she could and I’d be fine, so don’t get any ideas—and they won’t take you. There’s no where else to keep us.”
There was Atticus’s workshop, but I knew he would not like to have people in it unattended. I doubted even Atalanta had gone inside; it was stupid of me to waltz in uninvited. He had a point, but I was determined to not stick around this man any longer than need be, much less be left alone with him.
Before I could voice my concerns, Atticus and Atalanta came to us, and the gryphon put on her largest, kindest eyes, curved neck, and what had to be a smile, and said, “We are going. Gayle, make our traveler welcome if you please. We will be back as soon as possible, but meanwhile you shouldn’t go out in the storm. Sir, if you would be so kind, I have another question or two.”
I caught Atticus’s eye and gave my head a tiny shake. His green eyes brightened, and I thought I saw him tilt his head in a slight nod, but I could not be so certain. Eustace dismissed himself to talk with Atalanta, and I had the cottage to myself with Atticus while he dug through a chest in the corner.
I don’t think you should go,” I said.
The wizard paused for just a fraction of a second as he examined the contents of a wrap; knives, neatly arranged, gleaming with enchantments stared back up at me. I read into his silent pause, and continued, “He is dangerous, and whatever he’s having you do, it has ulterior motives.”
Atticus dropped the lid shut to the box and sighed. I wasn’t sure how to react to that, but I stood my ground. Turning and looking at me, he put the wrap in his pocket and seemed to be contemplating. He lifted his chin, then stroked my elbow, nodded, and left.
I sat down in the chair, weak at the knees and head spinning.
With a flurry of snow, Eustace re-emerged, shutting the door hard. He looked much the same as before, a middle-aged man weary and worn from too long in the harsh elements, a man who you thought you could trust your every secret with. The sort of man you’d ask to watch your baby while you went out for a bit. He was counting on that perception, I knew. He had created it over decades and decades of trying, of manipulating his subtle magic to work on others. Little did he know that I’d been introduced to my own magic, and I knew what to look out for in others. I saw through him, and when he smiled and invited me to sit next to the fire, I let him have a little, a very very little, piece of my mind.
What wild goose chase did you send them off on?”
His good-natured smile did not fade, his spoke cheerfully, but his words were a dynamic foil against it. “Silly, not a goose chase. A domestic Cerberus chase. Can you imagine the damage a giant three-headed wolf-hound can do to the flocks during a blizzard?”
I could, and it was not pretty.
“Why did you unleash it?”
Laughing, he swung his legs out, piling one muddy boot on top of the other as he relaxed and basked in the heat, knowing too well that in this position he nearly blocked the door. “Whatever makes you think I unleashed it?”
“You know the truth. You want something. You wanted them gone. You knew to wait until the blizzard struck so you would be stranded here. What do you want?”
“I want a warm fire, another bowl of dinner, and a mug of spiced cider. Now, go on and fetch it.”
Two-faced was the softest adjective I could think to describe him. The other adjectives were not family-friendly and as one of my friends had a kid who just loved repeating new words, I’d been training myself to not even think of vulgarities. Eustace was testing my resolve.
Spiced cider. I hadn’t seen any spiced cider about here. Nevertheless, it was a good excuse to slip out of here without arising extra suspicion. I stared at Eustace, then coughed.
“What?” he growled.
“She keeps the cider in the cellar outside.”
“Then forget it.”
“Then forget anything at all to drink.”
Grumbling, he unlocked his feet and sat upright to let me pass. Doubtless, he thought I would go no where in a blizzard, and if I had been on foot, I would never have thought of it. However, I could read from him that he was at home, as though he had already declared victory, knowing that the others weren’t coming back. Even with Atticus on his guard, I did not think he could detect Eustace’s traps. I could, and I could do it in a way that he would not know I helped them. I would still be magic-less, boring Gayle with a strange past.
Donning the white fur coat, I stepped into the blizzard and hobbled away from the cottage. Once I finished with the initial shiver, I no longer felt chilled. There was no cellar outside that I knew about, but there was a ground covered in water, water that connected us to the pond.
“Nøkken! Nøkken!” I called into the wind, “Will you come to me?”
The wind answered me, and for a long minute, I heard nothing but the scream of the wind whistling past my ears. Determined to not go back to the cottage with that man in it, I hobbled forward, seeking, searching for the odd horse-thing to come again. The cottage door opened and I heard the man yelling. I shuffled away. My boots slipped on ice, and I fell onto my hip, biting my lower lip to keep from calling out. Silent tears rolled down my face from the stinging snow driven by swift wind. I crawled, unable to get my boot out from under the long tails of the coat, as the man’s footsteps came closer and closer.
“There you are! Lost, are you? Come, come to where it is safe.”
I punched him in the nose, warm liquid spilled down my wrist, then froze on my skin. He swore. I swore. He seized my coat.
“Come back with me to where you’re safe!” Eustace yelled over the singing wind.
“Let go of me!” I cried and kicked at him. I hit something, and he let out an oof, then I fell backwards. Towering over me, Eustace snarled. Behind him, I heard the flute building up its song.
“They aren’t coming back! Don’t waste your life going after them!”
“How would you know—unless you—umph—planned it?” I yelled, slipping on my backside and concealing a yelp when I found a hole in the ground.
“Back here, girl! Tell me where you hid it!” He had hold of my lapel again, and his breath smelled rotten as he spoke into my face.
Hot blood ran in my veins, and I shoved him with a foot in his gut, giving me about another foot of distance between our faces, but my quivering thighs weren’t strong enough to remove him entirely.
“Get away!” I hissed, my legs weakening.
Then, he was just gone, and I collapsed in a shaking heap for a couple minutes while I listened to snapping bones, shouts, and wet bites. Horse hoofbeats came back to me, slow and prodding.
“Are you well, milady?” came a familiar voice I never thought I’d be happy to hear.
Flinging my arms around his horse-like head, I gave him a quick hug. “I am,” I said, “But I need to get to Atalanta and Atticus. They’re after a three-headed canine.”
Warm mist brushed my cheeks, and then a hand helped me stand up on my feet. The nøkken shifted shapes faster than I thought that he could, and he stood before me as close to human as he could come, a tall, thin creature looking like a scaled person with glowing red eyes.
“I am not one to question authority, but I feel I must, as you are wobbling. Are you well?” he said.
Holding onto his shoulder, I shook my head. “I am a little shaken from the run, but I will be much worse if we do not make it in time to help those that saved me.”He stared at me for a second, then nodded, and shifted shape once more, this time into his horse-form but with giant, leathery bat wings. He bowed down, and I gripped his seaweed mane and swung onto him, shut my eyes, and hoped the wind would take us where we needed to go.