In which consumer satisfaction is sadly lacking
It took another three days to reach Mauriac. Valarien would have liked to by-pass the town altogether, but there was no choice. Like Harlonne, it was built around a bridge which provided the only crossing point for miles either way of a major river. Here it was the Amarelle, principal river of Varraine.
They were all feeling distinctly edgy as they approached Mauriac. What did their unknown enemy have organized for their entertainment here? Something? Or nothing? If nothing, would it be because they'd missed something? Had they really been 'seeing and not seeing', or had they not seen because there was nothing to see? The incident in Orlo could have been entirely innocent. Then again, maybe not...
Ewan tentatively offered to ride on ahead and spy out the town. He was unsurprised when Valarien vetoed the idea. They rode cautiously through the large town, alert for anything remotely suspicious, but apart from taking one wrong turning, nothing untoward occurred. This did not altogether please the wizard however.
"I don't like it," he murmured as they put Mauriac behind them. "It's too easy."
"Perhaps they've given up," suggested Leon and received a withering look.
Valarien carried on without deigning to reply.
"Either they're - um - trying to lure us into a false sense of security or they've - um - got something big planned further ahead. Or both."
It was not a heartening prospect. As Leon remarked, an enemy with a face is lot easier to deal with. They rode steadily westwards keeping up a high level of alertness. The constant tension took its toll of their tempers. After a particularly bad argument, the cause of which was forgotten by the end of it, an unpleasant atmosphere hung over their little camp. The smouldering silence was palpable as they sat around the dying embers of the fire.
"Doing the enemy's work for 'em, aren't we?" Ewan remarked after a while.
"Wha' d'you mean?" growled Kai, still quietly seething.
"Suit their purposes if we split up - or came to blows - or worse... "
The nightranger looked significantly at Valarien. The wizard scowled back.
"I'm not likely to do that again ever," he snapped.
"Point is, wouldn't 've thought you'd 've done it in the first place... "
Valarien visibly sagged and dropped his head in his hands.
"How could you?! " Kai exclaimed, bristling in defence of his fellow sufferer. "Just because you've got a heart of flint nightranger! "
"Ewan's right," Leon interrupted, in unusually quiet tones.
"Who asked you?" Kai and Ewan demanded in unison.
"Just listen - will you," Leon insisted, "I know we're all under a strain, jumping at every bush that rustles "
"Are you calling me a coward?" Kai spat out aggressively.
"No! Listen. The way we're at other's throats all the time - it's not normal. We're behaving out of character - all of us. O.K., so we don't always see eye to eye but there's never been any real malice in our dealings before. Seems like there's some sort of canker eating away at us inside - unseen."
"Yes," Valarien responded sombrely. "I thought we had it too easy in Mauriac. How easily we fell for it!"
"What?" came a chorus.
"The - um - cake seller. When we took the wrong turning, remember. Come to think of it, we didn't take a wrong turn. We were - um - directed to it."
"The ginger haired kid! Seeing and not seeing - again!" Leon exclaimed.
"So for the last three days, we've been nibbling those fruit cakes and at the same time, we've been poisoning our minds against each other... "
"I think that's about the size of it, Kai," Valarien agreed reaching for his saddle-bag and pulling out his remaining pieces of cake.
He crumbled one between his fingers. The aroma was delicious. How could anything so mouth-watering be evil? It couldn't be could it? Of course not! He put the fragments in his mouth. The flavour was exquisite. He became aware of three pairs of eyes upon him.
"They're fine," he assured them. "There's - um - nothing wrong with these."
The others regarded him sceptically.
"Really," he reaffirmed.
He was putting a second cake to his mouth when the nightranger lunged towards him, knocking the cake out of his hand. The wizard leapt to his feet.
"What the hell d'you think you're playing at?" he raged, flexing his fingers menacingly.
The others stared at him in silence.
"Why are you all looking at me like that?" Valarien demanded, suspicion manifest in his expressive features as his eyes flickered from face to face. "You're plotting something, aren't you? I can tell... "
Ewan stood up.
"No one's plotting anything against you," he said pleasantly, moving towards the wizard.
"Stay away from me, do you hear!" Valarien shrieked, backing away. "Don't make me ahh!" he yelped tripping over his saddle.
The nightranger pounced.
"That'll keep him quiet for a while," he announced getting to his feet.
"What have you done?" Leon looked at the wizard's inert form, aghast.
"It's all right," Ewan replied soothingly. "It's just a mild hypnogenic drug. He should sleep till morning now and won't remember any of this when he wakes."
"Are you sure?"
"'Course I'm sure. It's my job." Ewan sounded irritated.
"I think we'd better dispose of the rest of the cakes," Kai suggested quickly, before Leon could provoke the nightranger into helping him into dreamland also. They duly took out the last of their cakes.
"DON'T " Kai squawked, " ...put them on the fire!"
He had no wish to repeat his experience with the crow. Ewan gave him a sharp look. Kai hastily explained the reason for his outburst, lest the nightranger mistake its cause...
They decided to bury the cakes - several yards away from their camp. In the distance, a wolf howled.
"We're going to have to do something about that," Leon said grimly.
"You mean... ?"
Valarien awoke betimes none the worse for the nightranger's ministrations. Kai filled him in on the salient points of the previous evening's activities which had somehow slipped his mind. He looked a little sheepish, registering from Kai's shuffling replies to some of his questions that he was not being told the whole tale. He apologized if he had said anything untoward. The hoot of laughter from Leon at this, did nothing to ease his discomfiture.
"Don't worry about it," the barbarian grinned. "We all behaved badly, willy-nilly - but we'll all right now."
He was not grinning, however, when they passed the place where they had buried the cakes...
The oppressive mood that had dogged the party since they left Mauriac had lifted and they began to take more of an interest in their surroundings.
They were passing through well-tended farmland in the fertile basin drained by the Amarelle and its tributaries. It was a pretty patchwork of small fields bordered by pleached hedges and dotted with copses and picturesque villages. There was a wide variety of crops grown but the commonest by far was the grape. This was the heartland of the Varranese wine industry.
The sense of relief they felt after the discarding of the cakes was short-lived, however. Leon had been pondering the problem of the wolf-that-was-not-a-wolf for some time when he saw the creature.
It looked very much like a wolf, but the shaggy hair over its neck and shoulders had the appearance of a rufous mane. Despite his affecting not to have noticed it, it was no sooner glimpsed than gone. His first thought was to chase off after it, but reconsidered. Perhaps that was what he was intended to do?
"I wish I were a hawk," he said pensively.
" - Um? - What?"
"The wolf-thing. I just saw it. Nearly went after it, then I thought, maybe that's what it wanted, and I was just thinking, if I were a hawk, I could find it without taking any risks." Leon laughed. "Silly idea, isn't it?"
"No, it isn't," Valarien exclaimed excitedly. "Just a minute."
He spent several minutes going through the contents of his robe and finally emerged triumphant.
"I'd forgotten I'd got this," he announced jubilantly, holding aloft a small crystal phial of clear blue liquid with tiny silvery specks floating in it. "Old Turalkar gave me it when I - um - studied with him. It'll turn you into any bird you want from - um - a sparrow to a swan. Just visualize your choice as you drink it."
Leon looked askance at the slightly manic-looking wizard brandishing - awful sight! - a magical potion. It was suddenly clear to him that second thoughts were infinitely better than first ones and wished he'd kept his mouth shut. He sure as hell intended to keep it shut now!
"Ur do't fink dat's a good idea," he mumbled through clenched teeth.
"Eh? Why not?"
"Ca't kill it widout ny pow, can ur?"
Kai grinned appreciatively as Valarien screwed up his face in his attempt to understand what the barbarian was trying to say.
"I think you ought to know that our bold barbarian is terrified of all things magical."
He looked at the liquid.
"In a blue funk, in fact," he laughed.
Leon looked at him reproachfully. Valarien gave him an understanding smile.
"Perhaps it's not such a good idea," he conceded. "You couldn't very well use your - um - bow in bird form."
Leon groaned. "That's what I said!"
"Oh. We could still make use of the potion, though. Someone else could take it and act as - um - a spotter. You know, hover over the thing to mark its position."
"Great idea," Leon agreed, visibly brightening.
Kai, on the other hand, suddenly looked distinctly alarmed. Ewan chuckled.
"Of course, you don't like flying, do you?" he said.
Kai's smile returned.
"No - but you do, I seem to remember," he responded smugly.
The nightranger shrugged and stoically swallowed the brew. The air scintillated around him. He seemed to become translucent, then there was a faint pop and a bird fluttered awkwardly on Ewan's saddle horn.
"Oh, shit!" squawked the parrot. "How long have you had that stuff, wizard?!"
Valarien bit his lip. "Only about fifteen years. I don't know how long Turalkar had it though."
"You mean it could be fifty years old or more?!"
Valarien apologized. "They don't usually deteriorate so - um - quickly."
The parrot - or to be more precise, macaw - gave the wizard a baleful stare and tried out his wings. After a few experimental flaps, he took off northwards in the direction Leon indicated.
The bright red plumage had the advantage of being clearly visible to the rest of the party. Unfortunately it also attracted the attention of half the neighbourhood. Soon Ewan was being pursued by the entire juvenile element of a nearby village, holding out handfuls of fruit and grain. One enterprising youth had even managed to find a birdcage.
"This is no good," groaned the wizard.
"Oh, I don't know," Leon said softly, nocking an arrow.
The cooing sounds of enticement had suddenly turned to sharp cries of alarm and the pursuers turned tail and fled. Leon wheeled around and galloped down a narrow path between two fields, eager to get a better shot. Judging by the macaw's flight, the thing was heading towards the low range of hills that ran between the Amarelle and one of its tributaries. It was travelling remarkably fast.
For an instant it was in clear sight. The arrow flew. There was an anguished howl. It had hit its mark, but the creature only checked slightly. It did not stop and was soon lost to sight. The barbarian swore roundly. The macaw, after several unsuccessful passes over the thing's last known position, flew slowly towards him, and settled on his shoulder.
"Sorry. I lost it," said the rasping voice in his ear.
"Well, let's see if we can track it on the ground, shall we? Shouldn't be difficult after I hit it."
They found no blood, however, but a sticky, greenish-yellow ichor, which gave off a fetid stench. They followed their noses for some twenty yards into a clump of trees then all trace of the creature disappeared. Leon swore again and the macaw fluttered off into the trees.
"Yech!" came a disgusted squawk from the greenery.
"Aw, come off it! Your language isn't any better."
"No, it's not that - it's what I just landed in! I don't think I'm the only one to take to the air."
"Hell! You'd better come down right now!"
The macaw needed no second telling.
"Actually, it needn't have changed into a bird," Ewan remarked. "Could be a squirrel or something."
"Or anything," Leon added glumly.
It was irritating to have to leave the job half done, but there was no point in hanging around waiting for the thing to reveal itself. It was some consolation to know that, whatever it was, it was injured, and the injury might yet prove terminal.
Valarien was disappointed but not altogether surprised that the venture had not been crowned with total success. At least they had struck back against the enemy for once, which provided a degree of satisfaction.
"Where's the antidote?" croaked the macaw which had settled on Valarien's shoulder.
"There - um - isn't one."
"Ouch! Not in my ear! You're deafening me. It's all right, it - um - should wear off in an hour or two."
"All right?!" Ewan squawked furiously. "Should wear off?!"
"Do you - um - have to repeat every thing I say?"
"What do you expect?" Leon chortled. "You turned him into a parrot."
"Yes, and I've a bloody good mind to crap down your back as well!"
"You'd - um - rather be a lizard?" Valarien asked coldly.
The macaw blew a raspberry.
"If you can turn me into a lizard, friend," he said, gently tweaking the wizard's ear, "you can also turn me back into a half-elf."
"I can't, actually. It - um - doesn't work like that," Valarien explained, massaging his ear. "I can turn you into a number of different forms, either temporarily or - um - permanently. There never seemed much point in learning the - um - reversal spell because the temporary version soon reverts to normal anyhow. Too soon sometimes... I can turn animals into hominids "
"Great. Do it."
" but I can't - um - guarantee what sort, and "
"You might not like it... "
"Just do it, would you. I hate being conspicuous."
"Well, if you're - um - sure ?"
"Oh, get on with it!"
"Um - would you get off my shoulder first? - Thank you - Hommi darroo mayz."
The macaw shimmered and with a pop, the new Ewan stood before them.