Windemir was in a poor mood, and the behavior of the Asher garrison, while not as raucous as his own team, was doing little to console him. Perhaps he’d made a mistake when he’d locked up that girl. Perhaps having her present would have allowed him to actually speak to Shard, and even better yet, spring a trap on him and finally prove conclusively that he existed. But the Golden Goddess had been silent that night, and if Shard had been there at all, he’d kept himself hidden. He knew that Shard, this magic-using unicorn man was a criminal, reputed to enjoy the thrill and challenge of stealing and pickpocketing, as well as utilizing his sorcery genius to play pranks. He was the tragic sort, Windemir reflected, whose talents could truly be put to use if they would just reform themselves. Turning his sour frustration into bitterness was the fact that his own interest in the local legend had brought upon him unrelenting ridicule from the locals, who saw Shard as a curiosity whose threat was no more tenable than a ghost reputed to haunt an old castle.
“Heard ya just missed catching Shard, eh?” Sergel, one of the higher officers who tended to instigate this foolishness, prompted with a slathering of patronization. “Such a shame. I’ve been dying to meet the guy.
“Shard's a creep, has no soul
Swallows children, pets and women whole!
I gotta see that!”
“Oh yeah!” Hussel jibed enthusiastically. “That was him last night, wasn’t it, howling at the moon?”
“That’s what I hear,” Aswessen nodded into his mug of grog. “Say he’s actually very lonely, he despairs over something. All that howling at the moon business. Isn’t that right, Windemir?”
Gods, why did they all have to eat at the same pub on Syndays? Well, Windemir reflected, perhaps it was because this was the only pub open on Synday mornings in this tiny town; Synday was the day that most restaurateurs, farmers, or anyone who owned land set aside to clean up the wind damage that had been incurred by the previous week. It was both tradition and pragmatism that brought this about; if everyone did the same job more or less together, it was faster and more efficient to dispose of any debris around the town that couldn’t be salvaged all at once. That which was flammable was burned on a bonfire every Synday night, with a little set aside in a warehouse every week for the giant pyre created on the Festival of the Winds late in the month of Fiendwary, on the tail end of winter.
“You’ll pester and tease me until Shard is brought before your eyes with a sign round his neck saying 'I am Shard, the fairy man that howls at the moon', won’t you?” Windemir sighed. A perfunctory shovel-sized bite of breakfast on his tiny spoon ensured that until he was able to finish chewing it he was not obligated to say anything more on the matter. He supposed they meant no real harm in their jest. It was just the simple prattle of simple humans, and to endeavor to stand in the way of it was to try to stop the idle grazing of cattle.
As the barmaid brought round fresh plates to those whom one serving had not been enough (most of the humans at the table), Nettles, not actually called Nettles but so nicknamed because of the collective appearance of his hair and beard, patted him on the shoulder over the table consolingly. “Yeh, pretty much. And that’ll never happen, so you’ll just have to put up with us until you set sail for home!”
Raucous laughter shook the table and made the torchlight flicker. Hussel guffawed until he began choking on his toast and pounded the table until Opferdill, a grungy mound of muscle clinging to a stout frame, helped him to get it down.
“Huh,” Windemir managed with a chuckle. “What a bunch you are! The best and brightest of Asher—nay, the whole of the duchy of Prill, and this is how you spend your Synday mornings, jeering at your superiors and horking down egg and potato on toast…”
“With spicy salamander sauce,” chimed in Kekelesser.
“Oh, peas to your stupid spicy salamander sauce,” muttered Yav’el-gnur, the only elven member of the squad, who couldn’t stand spicy foods and was routinely tricked into eating them anyway.
“What else is there to do?”
At last, Windemir would have a sweet bit of revenge, and do a little bit of good around the town too. He stood up and bellowed with a commanding boom, “Finish your plates, lads. I want you cleaning up round the town within quarter of an hour, with just as big smiles on your faces as you’ve got now, or it’s community service scraping off barnacles down at the docks for the lot of you!”
The chorus of groans was like the litany of a siren and a string of curse words, some muttered discretely under the speaker’s breath and others launched unabashedly into the dense air of the pub, but it was acts of authority like this that kept them in line and that gave Windemir a sense of satisfaction that couldn’t be got anywhere else. He wasn’t the captain of the Analerna guard for nothing, after all.
Only the meek elven Yav didn’t complain. And perhaps due to a mutual understanding owing to the fact that they both were elves, he counted himself out of the teasing that the rest of the group engaged in. Good lad. About half the size of the rest of them and a quarter of the drive (Windemir reckoned he had joined the guard to please his mother), but he had a good heart.
“Of course, I’ll be out with you, helping out,” Windemir nodded stiffly. “I’m nothing if I’m not a fair captain. I’ll see you gentlemen in the town square.” With frustrated mutters at his heels, he gave the barmaid a silver piece tip, tipped his helmet and began to leave the pub with a stride that hadn’t been so dignified in weeks… until he made it to the door. The pub, its owners proudly advertized as being the only one open Synday morning, was generally very busy around that time of day and for that purpose had a small closed-off waiting room for those who are diligent enough to wait for a table when they were full up. It was here, in that little enclosed space when no one else could possibly pay witness to what was about to happen, Shard appeared.
“Good day,” he spoke from the corner of the room, tantalizingly close to the door. He was dressed elegantly, far too elegantly for this pub or most of the other establishments in Asher, and gods knew how he’d managed to shut himself in there without anyone noticing.
“Ahh, it’s you,” Windemir nodded. “What manner of humiliation do you plan on delivering to me today?”
Shard shrugged. “None,” he admitted mirthfully. “I’ve come to entreat you with a plea, and, being a clever man, I’m sure you can already guess what I’ve come to request of you.”
“I won’t venture a guess,” Windemir said sternly. “Since you came to me, why don’t you tell me what you want that not even you can take care of yourself?”
Trying to get Shard to reveal anything himself was Windemir’s way of pressing him into a corner—metaphorically. He was already physically wedged into a corner. Windemir deduced hat Shard did not care to speak of himself and as a result, had an exuberant desire to encourage others to work out what he wouldn’t say straight out. There was only so far that cooperating with a strange creature like this would go; to an extent, people like this had to be reminded that not everyone was happy to bend to their will. If he could, conversely, get Shard to bend slightly, he might become even more malleable under Windemir's hammer of justice.
And it worked. Already under some duress, Shard bit his lip and blurted, “It’s Lord Pelgrin. Now, I’ve spent seasons trying to foil this wicked man’s deeds, and I’m afraid I can’t do it myself. His resources and charisma and power are too great and he amasses even more whilst I ineffectually plot and scheme by myself. I would be content to go on pestering him and putting my own life on the line, but for Eidolyn, I’m afraid that time is of the essence.” This part was obviously hard for Shard; Windemir relished it as he fidgeted with the numerous jingling charms of his costume, ran a hand through his hair, applied cologne and shifted on his toes to stall. “I am in need of your assistance. Investigate Pelgrin’s tower, for Eidolyn’s sake. You must know that she’s a good girl.”
“Well yes, she certainly seems to be, but…”
The market! Windemir had had a hard time putting Lord Pelgrin's kind and soothing countenance, garishly contrasting with the cruel note, out of his mind. And its contents... if true (and why wouldn't they be?), his crimes were unconscionable and great in number. In the face of a panicked Shard, he had nearly forgotten what he'd seen. “I did see him, er... mistreating a living basket of sorts.” He winced at the crudeness of his words, but there was no way to make such an assertion sound serious. “He seemed to be threatening it with a wand.”
Leaning in, Shard explained whispered, “Lord Pelgrin, as I've said, traps souls in his devices and uses them as slaves. He claims to be able to use the wand to expel the soul from the object immediately, leaving the person's spirit without any body at all.”
“There was also a note. In the basket. I... I don't know if he realizes that I read it.” Something about Shard's behavior had got Windemir even more on edge. He shook as he recalled the truth tauntingly scrawled on the paper. Why in the gods' name would he reveal something like that?
“You read it...” Shard seemed to turn even paler. “So you know what he's capable of. What he'll do to get his way. No one around here but you thinks that I exist. Isn’t that frustrating, having that hanging over your head and you helpless to convince anyone? Now you and I are the only ones who know.” Shard stood straight up, obviously uncomfortable standing at attention. “If you promise, swear on the soles of your boots to investigate Lord Pelgrin’s tower before you go home, I will take away that frustration from you. I will turn myself in for my own crimes so that Lord Pelgrin may be punished for his.”
Comments about this being some sort of prank immediately died in Windemir’s throat. He could tell sincerity, even in someone like Shard, when he saw it. Shard knew that no one in this place where he was considered a phantom of the forest would take him seriously. “This is a genuine surrender?”
“If it will inspire you to see for yourself what Lord Pelgrin has been up to, then I can’t beg you enough to arrest me!” For emphasis, he lowered himself to one knee, what looked to be a complicated position for someone who walks on their toes. “But please: don’t go showing me off too much. This is hard enough as it is. If you get inflated about this, I promise you you’ll come to regret it.”
Coming from Shard, Windemir didn’t doubt it. “Very well.” He immediately withdrew a pair of manacles from his waistband, which Shard was only mildly surprised to see that he carried on him even when dining out on a Synday morning.
“Ah, the things I do for the sake of being a gentleman,” Shard sighed, rather operatically as he held out his wrists to be shackled. “I am a right fool.”
Windemir also withdrew a spindly collar of gold—fantastically expensive both in terms of its material and its enchantment of blocking all magic coming from its wearer. It was adorned with an ornate and simple but powerful lock and to any observer it would seem little more than a slightly eclectic and more than slightly ostentatious choker.
“Oh, we’ll be having none of that!” Shard huffed, though he was already in chains. Him taking a step back in the close quarters of the corridor had little effect.
“Planning on escaping, eh? Going back on your word?” Windemir asked. “If you mean what you say, you’ll wear it.”
Eying it with unconcealed ire, Shard sighed. “At least it’s attractive enough. All right, you win, but I’m very displeased about it, I’ll have you know.”
With shock that failed to diminish over time, Windemir successfully put the collar onto Shard and actually convinced him to be led to the jailhouse from there.
Outside, Shard actually paraded himself proudly in the manacles as he was led across the down. Regrettable; Windemir had no desire to turn the simple execution of justice into a spectacle, no matter how badly he desired to prove Shard’s existence, but at least he made no effort to escape. He went graciously, nodding to those he passed with a gentlemanly smile and looking as if he’d like to have his hands free, if only to shake hands and offer gestures of greeting. Instead of reprimanding him, Windemir reflected silently on the fact that Shard, supposedly a talented wizard, might be expecting Windemir to be able to contribute to a campaign against Lord Pelgrin. He’d save all questioning until Shard was safely locked away. However, one question that presented itself to his racing brain immediately worked its way out.
“Shard, where’s the girl I saw earlier?”
“Ah, the sweet girl you crammed into a cage for an evening. Well,” Shard mused, “I left her with a pair of other acquaintances at my home. As long as she remains there, she will be safe.”
“And where’s your home?”
“I’ll thank you not to pry about that. That has nothing to do with any of this.”
“Oh, yes it does. Doubtless, much or all of what you’ve stolen will be there.”
After a pause, Shard exuded a soft “Mmm,” as if in recognition of the basic problem, but then said, “I see you don’t miss a trick. Let’s concentrate on being sure that Eidolyn and everyone else threatened by Lord Pelgrin is safe, hmm? I came here of my own will to give myself up, so I think I’m at least allowed that much.”
What Windemir wanted to say that he was not entitled to much at all in his given position, but Shard’s willingness to give himself up at the insistence that the willful, sweet girl he’d met the other day was in danger hung heavily over him. “Very well. We’ll talk, and I vow to visit Lord Pelgrin to investigate these claims of yours.”
“And you can’t,” Shard insisted as they neared the jailhouse, “Simply go there and ask for a tour and ask a few questions. He’s not going to give anything up like that; he’s very smart. Almost as smart as me, so you’ll have to be tenacious and if possible, not even let him know what you’re there for.”
At this midday hour, the jailhouse was empty except for a single pair of guards keeping watch over the place, coincidentally, two of the principal offenders in the force’s teasing over Windemir’s belief in Shard. The urge to be smug, even in the heart of an impartial man of justice, was difficult to deny. Still, he set a stern frown as he led Shard inside.
Windemir avoided eye contact, nodded, and grunted, “Checking in a prisoner, lads.”
“What, on a Synday morning?” one guard asked, looking up from his book.
“It’s afternoon, and yes. Justice never sleeps. Now, if you’ll just prepare the necessary paperwork in the record-books for me, I’ll get him safely put away.”
The other guard, who was fiddling with a stuffed dog toy from the lost and found box, finally looked up. “Eh? Yeah, all right.” Apparently, he hadn’t taken a good look at Windemir’s prisoner yet, and wasn’t getting any closer to doing so as he hoisted a ragged, yellowed tome from under the desk and readied a quill, attached to the desk by a long, delicate chain. “Name?”
“Ah, yes,” Windemir nodded. “Shard, do you have a last name?”
At last, both guards snapped their gaze up to Shard as if they’d been smacked on the back of the head. “What? You don’t mean that…”
“You’re serious?” the other asked. “That’s the bloke?”
To Shard’s credit, he leaned forward politely in his detested fetters. “Hi there. Yes. It's as you say. Let’s not cause a fuss now, eh? Windemir’s a busy man!”
“Uh… right.” The guard at the desk scribbled in the book. “Shard… got it. Crimes being arrested for?”
“Thievery, disrupting the peace, other possible crimes to be determined.”
As the guard wrote down what Windemir dictated, Shard darted out his gaze at the book. “What! What other crimes?”
“Well,” Windemir admitted, “Until a thorough investigation of your own past is performed, it’s impossible to entirely dismiss the rumors of acts like the kidnapping and performing of forbidden magic.”
At this, Shard was nearly sputtering. “Wh… but… b… forbidden magic? How dare you! You may not be privy to the sort of emotion that that sort of accusation can evoke in a dedicated and honorable wizard, but I’ll describe it as being, well…” He huffed, sounding genuinely hurt. “Painful. I would never cast forbidden magic…” Reluctantly, he shrugged. “…for my own gain.”
“Nevertheless,” Windemir grumbled, “I must perform my job impartially. I note that you did not outright deny the charge of kidnapping.”
“Only because that is such a negative way of putting things.”
The guard with the book wandered closer to Shard in a slight circular path apprehensively, eyeing the shadeling ever more cautiously as he got closer. “That’s really him? Shard? He exists?”
“I suppose I could be any other handsome, svelte, dashing shadeling,” Shard shrugged, “And Windemir’s wrongly arrested me for the purpose of proving that Shard exists so that he can feel vindicated. Ah, but that’s not true. I am the shadeling known as Shard spoken of in legend and rumor.”
“Huh.” The guard at the desk finished writing up the arrest record and sat back. “Huh. S’pose then by all accounts we were all wrong. Let's put him in with ol' Higgins Appleshanks. Should make for a bit of fun.”
At the sudden appearance of a mischievous grin on the warden's face, Shard, shooting an uneasy look down the dusty corridor of the jailhouse, tentatively shuffled his feet in order to look through to the cells without appearing to do so. “Appleshanks? Sounds like a condition one might get from not bathing properly.”
“Oh, good gods, not Appleshanks.” For an impartial man of justice, Windemir never hid his sour feelings for a town drunk, a town fool, or a town heretic. But in Asher, all of those people happened to be the same person, a strange man named Higgins Appleshanks with no connections to anyone else who made his home in a derelict boat that was permanently docked in a filthy corner of the harbor. Generally, he kept to himself but he seemed to have the occasional need for human contact. Perfectly natural, except his idea of human contact was to get drunk and speak loudly about his bodily functions, divulge to anyone within earshot a different story about the imminent end of the world every week. Last week he claimed that the world would be swallowed in exactly nine bites by a giant zombie pig, and the week before he warned that a vengeful god would cause a worldwide famine by turning all livestock into novelty soaps. To say nothing of the trouble of going out to catch him every week only to have to do it again the next week, he was a colorful character that made weekends more interesting. “Let’s go, Shard. I still want to question you, and I think Appleshanks is too mad to care about anything he might hear from you.”
“He doesn’t pose any threat, does he? If I may remind you, with no ability to use magic I wouldn’t be able to defend myself in a small cell should he decide he couldn’t stand my company.”
“Harmless, lad. Never hurt a soul, just a troublemaker.”
They found Appleshanks in his cell carefully perusing an upper corner, looking ready to bolt—to where, Windemir was unsure. Without turning, Appleshanks hissed urgently, “I’ve got this, gentleman! I’ve encountered mortar goblins before! They live in the mortar of buildings between the bricks and if they leave their homes, the building falls to rubble! As long as I keep glaring at them, they’ll stay where they are!”
“Well, Appleshanks,” Windemir attempted. “If you need any help…”
But, still not turning away from the wall, Appleshanks barked, “No! You mustn’t! You leave this to me!” For a moment, he turned to plead them imploringly over his shoulder, then quickly snapped his gaze back to the empty wall. “I saw that! Don’t try it, you little imps!”
Placing his hand on the cold iron of the wall of bars, Shard said consolingly, “Don’t worry, my good man. I happen to have chased mortar goblins from none other than the duke of Prill’s manor!”
Incredulously, Windemir muttered to Shard, “Is there such a thing?”
“Of course not.”
Still, Shard didn’t resist, entering the cell with Appleshanks resignedly and sitting down while his cellmate crouched over double, anxiously rubbing his hands like a housefly.
Shard seated himself on the bed, warily watched Windemir through the cell door after recovering from the softness of the bed. “You’ll keep your promise now, won’t you, Windemir?”
Windemir's wince immediately betrayed his answer. Before he could speak up, his head now bowed between his shoulders, Shard got to his feet, agape and twitching in confusion. “What! How dare you? I sensed nothing but sincerity from your words. My time in trying to stop Pelgrin is more precious than any bauble that glitters or shimmers, and yet you cage me here under the pretense of proving yourself to your peers!”
“Please don't jump to conclusions.” The reply came out a guilty grumble.
“I do believe it's in my right!”
“I fully intended to investigate Lord Pelgrin, but I must return to Analerna this evening. I've been suddenly summoned back by a direct order from the duke. There are real problems there-- robbery, vandalism, murder, not to mention all the problems that come from the blasted slavery business.”
“But... after what you saw!”
“Think about it, Shard. You can start again now that the people here understand that you really exist. If you build an upstanding reputation, you may very well be able to...”
With a speed that rattled the iron bars, jostling them enough to make Windemir stumble backward, Shard roared, “There is no time left!” He sighed. “Eidolyn doesn't have the time.”
Pained, Windemir turned from Shard as his heartbeat regained a healthy pace after the startle. He couldn't bear to look at him and as he moved his gaze to the opposite wall, he could feel the accusatory glare as heavy as the ceiling over them.“I'm sorry. It's my bloody job if I don't follow orders. If it suits his fancy he might decide that my ignoring him constitutes treason, and then I'm really done for. Now, 'll leave a good word for you before I board the ferry.”
Any retorts that Shard might have shot back died in his throat for lack of energy. Sideways glancing at Appleshanks as he tapped the wall telling the mortar goblins to mind themselves, Shard sighed. “I don't suppose you can summon those mortar goblins of yours to bring down this wall?”
The evening at Shard’s tree had been passed by a systematic tidying, which was not nearly so extensive as a cleaning, but more so than a “straightening-up.” It was the kind of chore that one did for old friends arriving but was not quite satisfactory for a visit from parents. They worked outward from the kitchen, picking up things that had apparently been placed there by Shard and forgotten, straightening furniture, giving everything a modest dusting. Even the basket helped, acting as a receptacle for small items whose proper location were to be determined later. Mittens carried bundles of twigs and dried leaves that had been swept in back outside while Gryphon routinely scouted the next room to be cleaned, and as they worked their way outward the patina of dust grew thicker. Delving further was like opening a series of progressively older time capsules until they arrived in a cramped little storage room.
“He knows how to keep rooms clean,” Eidolyn mused, more to convince herself than Gryphon. “Look at the ones he lives in, nearly spotless.” She opened a creaky old chest, finding a store of ancient liquor with something swirling around in it. “Perhaps when he sees the whole tree clean for the first time, it will inspire him.”
Gryphon pawed at a ceiling-high stack of mismatched blankets. “I dunno luv, there’s a…”
Dust obscured the tiny room as the whole pile neatly fell onto its side on top of Gryphon with a spectacular flump.
“Oh, dear. Are you all right?”
Squirming under the pile, Gryphon muttered to himself about indignity before finally emerging, caked in dust, with a book in his beak.
“Pleh.” He gingerly released it onto the blankets around him. “Dis thing’s a magic book. Anovver one! Can’t tell or why or what it does, but I can tell magic when I see it.”
The book was called An Everyday Manual for the Discreet Poisoning of Fruit. It didn’t sound particularly magical, and when Eidolyn opened it, she saw that it was about precisely the topic that its title purported it to be, containing on those particular pages a recommendation against trying to poison a coconut as well as specific poison suggestions for different kinds of citrus fruits. The book found in Shard's bedroom had been magical as well, despite being titled Trail of Crumbs: How Evil Witches are Luring Your Children. “Why are there books scattered everywhere?”
“Shard’d know,” Gryphon suggested, “And if not, I’m sure ‘e can work it out. Enchantments is kinda his specialty.”
They took the book with them after stacking the blankets again and sorting out the contents of the cramped little storage room. Throughout the rest of the day of discovery and leaving every place in at least slightly better condition than they left it in, they found seven studies, another kitchen, fourteen bedrooms, twenty-one storage rooms, another library that had been sealed off, several empty rooms and bathhouse. They were all scattered with misplaced objects of many varieties, but the one constant was that they kept finding books tucked away in, under and behind things and, Gryphon reported, they all had some manner of spell on them. Eventually, they found fourteen in all.
The second kitchen contained A Monk, a Paladin and a Cleric Joke-A-Day Calendar.
One study held Spell-less in Sela: A tale of bawdy delight! by Ga Jallen.
And, in another study they found, cluttered with dog-ear bookmarks, Chicken Soup for the Deposed Long-Lost Prince’s Soul.
The library, of course, contained many books, but none magical. They gathered all the stray tomes over the course of the afternoon, and by that time were beginning to wonder what was keeping Shard.
Despite being lied to, Shard really had done his best to answer Windemir’s questions politely and without a hint of ire or sarcasm, but as the afternoon wore on it proved difficult, as Windemir kept repeating Shard’s answers, either muttered to himself as a statement, shouted as an imperative or interrogatively to Shard. In addition, he kept asking him the same questions in repetition, perhaps, Shard realized, still suspicious and checking to see if Shard would supply conflicting answers. At least Appleshanks was well behaved, though after a few hours he’d given up on the mortar goblins, claiming they liked Shard and decided to go bother someone else and instead began asking Windemir for “another ale” and attempting to order food as if he were at a series of progressively more expensive restaurant until, when refused his order for mermaid caviar, huffed, “Well, I’ll be telling my comrades at the Caviar Fancier’s Guild about this, and we’ll take our business elsewhere!”, whirling around as if to saunter off, then hiding under the bunk.
“Er.” Windemir cleared his throat. “So, how does Lord Pelgrin go about trapping these souls of criminals into these objects?”
“That’s not an area I’ve ever had the stomach to research,” Shard admitted.
“So you keep saying. Do you have any… ‘theories’ about what Lord Pelgrin might want Miss Eidolyn for? That is her name, wasn’t it?”
“Eidolyn says that all the memories of her life earlier than about three years ago are missing. It doesn’t seem to constantly bother her, but seems to be aware of the possibility that her memory was deliberately altered in an effort to hide something.”
“She told you that?” Windemir half asked, half snapped in his eagerness. His hands gripped the chair as if he suspected Shard might cast a spell to make him drift away into the sky before he got his answers.
Nodding, Shard sat back and put his feet up to get away from Appleshank’s tickling them. “She did, soon after we first met when I saved her from some of Lord Pelgrin’s monsters.”
Shard had constructed a story of ominous foreboding. Still, “It’s a farfetched story, and Lord Pelgrin is well liked. Tales of his charisma and wisdom, and of the wonders of his estate, abound even in Analerna. To mount any kind of accusation against him will take an investigation by no less than the most experienced and savvy in order to procure enough evidence against him.” Before his summons back to Analerna had been delivered, Windemir had actually begun to formulate a scheme based round the image of Pelgrin’s tower he had in his mind. After all, he’d never actually been there himself. The more he explored his plan, the more that fact became a glaring monolith casting a shadow over it. Perhaps arrangements could be made to return to Asher in short order. Despite being a fairy man with a unicorn horn and an extravagant taste in fashion, the urgent desperation in Shard's eyes drove a dagger of guilt into Windemir's chest. Sighing, he cut off the questioning and left under the wizard's glare.
In short order Shard was given mushroom stew and bread for dinner, and after their plates and cups had been collected to prevent Appleshanks from hoarding them and claiming he was saving them to use as tribute when the kingdom was inevitably usurped by the Flatware Empire, like he’d purportedly done last month, they were left alone, and Shard’s cellmate became mercifully quiet, usually only speaking when spoken to first. When Shard inquired about this fact, Appleshanks sagely replied that it was to ensure that he didn’t run out of words.
And so, they sat there in the dim, sterile silence until Shard transformed again. He was as unsuccessful as he’d always been in past incidents in holding it in, and his repulsive bulk abruptly filled the cell, part of his hideous, useless wings spilling out through the bars into the corridor.
“Oh, for the gods’ sake.” That was what he attempted to say, but it came out more like, “Arrrgh grahh grr.”
Appleshanks, still awake, paid Shard a courteous nod, then went back to his contemplations in silence.
He’d resigned himself to sitting there crammed into the little cell and being discovered the next morning either in the form of a hideous monster of half-naked, in a very dapper suit of rags, it actually took him until nearly midnight before he realized, “I’m a monster the size of a minotaur with a head as thick of an anvil! I can go wherever I want!” again uttered as a series of grunts and growls.
“Well,” Appleshanks shrugged from his bunk, “With the exception of Addie’s Porcelain Boutique on account of they’re closed right now, I reckon you can.”
Shard shrugged his massive warty shoulders, deciding that if a man of justice can't keep his promise, nothing obligated Shard to his. He lowered his head and gently pressed the stone wall opposite the bars, strained only the slightest bit, and winced a little as the wall and part of the adjacent walls crumbled over his head with a spectacular crash. All was a black curtain of rubble for only a moment before the cool midnight blew over his scales.
“Good gods!” Appleshanks shouted. “The mortar goblins are at it again!”
Shard lumbered awkwardly over the bits of stone and wood on his eight legs, trying to move just fast enough to make it out of town but slow enough not to make too much noise or trip over that trailing white beard. However, as it happened, Addie’s Porcelain Boutique had been placed adjacent to the jailhouse and shared one wall, and as he thumped over the cobblestones on hard, calloused feet, a series of crashes rang out like screams into the cool empty night.
“Grarr…” Shard muttered and stumbled over himself to hide anywhere—an optimistic goal, at best. If only those wings fluttering behind him like dirty bed sheets weren’t completely useless he could take off, however clumsily, for the forest and no one would spot much more than a shockingly ugly shadow set against the night sky. However, he’d attempted to fly with them on many occasions and that endeavor usually only rewarded him with a headache.
Thankfully, Shard was familiar with Asher’s streets, even at night, and he knew that not far away was an side street that would take him through a suitably shadowy series of alleyways that, if properly navigated, would lead him to the outskirts of the city well out of sight of any of the guard towers, which were seldom manned anyway. So, grunting, he heaved himself forward in the correct direction as he heard distant, frantic footfalls and shouted commands. Angular indigo shadows stretched themselves against golden torchlight that groped its way across courtyards, streets and up the sides of houses, still far enough away that he thought he may yet be able to preserve his dignity that night.
But just as he was dragging himself into the protective shadows, well away from the pacing guards, there was a blast of silent heat and cool blue light to his left. He knew well that sensation, and by the time they appeared, the sight of a flight of shadelings didn’t shock him much, even when they appeared in their divine form—the way Shard was meant to look right now: three pale white dragons with sinewy, delicate bodies, fringes of white feathers about their backs and legs and beautiful white wings that carried them just as easily through the sky as if they were walking. If the concepts of elegant, beauty and majesty had ever conspired to collaborate on a single entity, this was the result. The eldest of the three, smaller, more wrinkled and grayer than the others, held a scroll curled up in his claws, and they all made a point of surrounding him. What was the meaning of this? To Shard’s knowledge, no other shadeling had ever seen him in this form before. Could they possibly still know that this was him, and could they really have come into Asher in the middle of the night in order to pester him again? The shadelings had always been annoying, but they’d at least always had the courtesy to wait until the proper hour, and they’d certainly never entered a populated area in their efforts; it seemed against everything they stood for. No, Shard realized. This had to be for something else.
Shard sighed, but the sounded resembled the cry that might be made by a suffocating sea mammal. “Brooooonk.”
In response to this series of intonations, the shadelings looked down their snouts at each other, frowning primly. Finally, they appeared to decide ignore what Shard had said, whether they could understand him or not, and the leader of the three shadelings stepped forward, his head level with the roofs of the nearby houses, and deftly unrolled the scroll in his claws and speaking, Shard reflected enviously, with perfect inflection.
“It is the esteemed duty of I, the Elder Feinlore, to inform thee, honored creature, of we, the shadlings’ invitation to our homeland. We have been awaiting thy arrival, and we have labored and endeavored on the quest we now take to task: to…”
Good gods, this speech had more confusing twists and turns than a labyrinth! Shard had a tough hide in this form, but he’d never tried to fight anyone this way, and he didn’t have confidence in his ability to either fight or flee as long as he was in that hideous form. He couldn’t exactly use diplomacy, either: “Broooonk!”
There was no use. If the shadelings were willing to come to Asher in their divine forms in the middle of the night, doubtlessly they would no longer take “bugger off” as an answer, even with the addition of “please.” He had been warned, after all: if he continued to defy the shadelings, he’d be forcefully escorted to their home, where they felt he belonged, and Shard realized that he had no plan, not even so simple as running away, that could forestall his fate.
“Now, hold on!” a faintly familiar voice called out from the intermittent glow of the torchlight. Appleshanks staggered down the street, holding a half-finished bottle of Hogstrough Ale. “You might be the biggest fireflies I’ve ever seen, but that doesn’t mean you can come around here and wave your fancy bits of paper at my friend here!”
The leader looked down over his shoulder at Appleshanks like a mountain trying to spot a hare at its base. “What relation are you to it?”
“He’s…” Appleshanks’ mind meandered through the haze of alcohol and madness, clearly coming across a wide array of answers, none of which pleased him. Finally, raising the bottle of swill, he said, “He’s me uncle!”
A wave of shock washed over the shadelings’ celestial forms. shadelings may be beautiful, timeless and nearly omniscient, but thanks to their isolationism, they are also intensely naive.
“I wasn’t aware it was possible…”
“Perhaps we may have misjudged…”
“… must regather…”
“… inform the Right Honourable Chancellor…”
“… mustn’t interfere with outsiders…”
This continued for an agonizing few minutes while Appleshanks eased closer to Shard until finally, the leader regarded them again. “We must briefly return to discuss this change of events. If this is so, we cannot easily carry out our mission delicately without creating an impact on outsiders. Good evening.” With that, they took off, glowing the sterile blue of the hottest of stars, in perfect silence and elegant formation.
Immediately, Shard stepped into the shadows to complete the very important task of hiding himself and, unsurprisingly, Appleshanks followed.
“You need to leave here quick, right, and you’ve got a long way ahead of you. No good if the guards stop you, and no telling what they’d do to something like you that they’d never seen before. I got nothing better to do: I’ll run out and distract them in the other direction. Maybe out toward the harbor, and you can escape in peace.”
Thank the gods. It seemed Shard had made a serendipitous companion that night. He nodded his enormous head. “Bronk.”
With a final nod of gratitude that could shatter a pile of bricks, Shard trundled off into the shadows, and eventually out into the forest until the dim, warm torchlight and the sounds of Asher faded into the umbra of the trees. It was a long way back to the tree mansion and if Shard didn’t change back, it might take him all night to complete the journey. Surely by now everyone had been worrying about him. He prayed to the gods that they didn’t try to leave the tree to find him, and even worse, succeed in doing so. There was nothing in the world that would make Shard willingly show himself to Eidolyn like this. Someday, he swore, he’d find a way to end this curse.
It must have been a curse. No creature who stole from the Sylvan Tomes escaped punishment.
No. No, no, no! That wasn't when he started turning into this creature! He thought as he stomped. Spin it as he might to suit him, that couldn't be the reason. The truth was far worse. He’d taken away something far more significant than binding and paper. He’d toyed with someone’s heart in a way that no one is ever meant to, irrevocably. He probably deserved worse than the lot he’d been dealt.
He felt very much like howling again now, but he didn’t dare reveal his location, even as he gained more distance between himself and Asher, should the garrison decide to follow him into the forest, or should his shadeling pursuers change their mind or decide that now he was alone, they could strike with impunity. Howling was at least cathartic, a far more primal act than he usually allowed himself, but deprived of that, instead he attempted to content himself with whimpers that danced through the shadows, whirled round the trees and came back to his ears in the form of a distorted, hollow groan. Disturbing, but the silence was far more so, and so he left a trail of impotent little whimpers as he made his way home. He knew the way well enough to know that if he couldn’t change back, it would be dawn by the time he made it back to the tree.
The arrival of the morning light found Eidolyn still alone in the tree without Shard, and quite tired; they’d stayed up very late indeed, hoping that he would make a late return, but when it was nearly two o’clock, they put themselves to bed reluctantly with the hopes that he would be there the next morning, admonishing them for having cleaned much of the tree without his permission. Only the farthest reaches of the tree manor had been untouched, because the further out they got from the center of the tree, the more overwhelming the buildup of brush, dead leaves, branches and twigs that had been blown in from the outside became until it became earthy walls of natural debris filled in with stolen junk that completely blocked off their progress. Eidolyn suspected that Shard, or previous inhabitants had done this in a hasty effort to clear away some space. The thought of removing all of that was so overwhelming that they’d immediately turned back the way they’d come, despite overwhelming curiosity about what might lie behind it. Gryphon had left with the promise of returning later the next day, after making a sweep of the forest to attempt to locate Shard, and the tree suddenly became lonely indeed without them. She sat in the kitchen with Mittens, having tea and examining the piles of books that lay there as telltale evidence of the discoveries they’d made the previous evening.
Of course, Eidolyn couldn’t tell either way if something was magical or not, so she had to take Gryphon’s word for it that they were, especially since they all seemed like very ordinary books that anyone might possess. Only one of them was actually about the casting of magic, and the magic it discussed was on how to use transmutation spells to clean one’s home. As she sat there, she deduced, tentatively, given her lack of knowledge about sorcery of any kind or amount, that if they’d found so many magic books and all of them seemed just as innocuous as the others, it was probable that they all carried the same or similar enchantments, and for books with similar enchantments to be found in such a plentiful number—fourteen, she reaffirmed as she counted them again, it was probable that they hadn’t all arrived there at the tree manor by chance. At last, finished with her tea and satisfied with her deductions, she stashed away all of them in her quarters and had just decided to ask Mittens if it would take her out to Asher when, at least, she found Shard waiting for her in the kitchen, reading a book as if he had never even left the previous day, much less having been missed since last night.
“Ah,” Shard nodded conjugally in her vague direction. “Eidolyn. I see you’ve made a mess of my perfectly good clutter while I was away. A befitting act of revenge for my absence. I apologize.”
Eidolyn chuckled. “But what in the world kept you? We’d begun to worry, and it’s not as if I’m prepared to go out after you, just myself. Gryphon is probably still out there, trying to find you. I sincerely hope you were actually held up by something and that you hadn’t made us all worry completely of your own will!”
“I’ll have you know,” Shard informed her loftily, “that I had myself arrested in return for that daft garrison chief’s promise to do a thorough investigation of Pelgrin’s compound. I planned on breaking out, but he put a magic-blocking collar on me, so not only was my escape intensely troublesome in a manner which I am entirely unwilling to disclose to you, but removing the collar was a difficulty all its own. So, yes, I was held up not of my own will, and thank you very much for your concern.”
Well! She was glad that Shard was all right, of course. He’d been gone much longer than the “short while” he’d promised, though she suspected that if she confronted him on the issue, he would insist that a “short while” is a relative term anyway and there wasn’t any use making a fuss over it now that it was over. And she supposed that he would be right in saying so. “Well? Do you still plan on going to Analerna after all this?”
“Of course,” Shard said. “I’m more convinced of it than I was last night. My knowledge that Pelgrin is a beloved public figure in Asher has been reinforced by my experience last night; it’ll be no small feat to get aid from anywhere on the peninsula that has heard of Lord Pelgrin. His reputation is simply too spotless and his public presence too charismatic,” he scowled, now beginning to pace about the kitching, tidying up bits of crumbs as he passed by the tables and sweeping at the thin cover of dust on the floor with his tail. “I think that Windemir might be an ally in our conflict, if not for this most unfortunate turn of events. Worse, I fear now that Windemir's forced departure may be a result of Lord Pelgrin's influence, as our over-starched elf friend knows too much. We'll just have to ensure his presence on the peninsula again. While we're there, we'll have the full authority of a city guard prepared to deal with just about anything at our disposal. We have only to force them to mobilize in our favor.”
“Ah, so you ‘aven’t come to your senses, den,” Gryphon said.
Indifferently, Shard shrugged. The plan was wildly hazardous with no guaranteed outcome, but at least it would keep them safely out of the way of Lord Pelgrin's compound, and thus his minions who would probably be out in full force even if their master wasn't. “If you’re not coming with us, you’d better leave before I lock up!”
“O’ course I’m not coming with you! Madness, this is. Madness and gryphons do not mix.” He pounded off the table and padded with them from the kitchen, toward the entrance to the tree house. “I mean, not even if ya begged me would I be so inclined to even fink of it.”
As Shard went, dragging his bags behind him, he shrugged. “Of course, Gryphon. I’d never try to make you go somewhere you don’t want to. Wouldn’t even consider it.”
“Well… thass good! Cuz I wouldn’t!” Now, an edge of guilty uncertainty crept into his voice. “Cuz… it’s dangerous. Fool’s errand, it is.”
“Oh, I’m sure,” Eidolyn chipped in, hard at Shard’s heels. At last, the chance to properly travel, and with pleasant company at that. Her bag only contained a pair of clean outfits and a comb; there would be need for little else. Shard had begrudgingly provided her with a small utilitarian dagger as well, and she told herself that his hesitancy wasn't over the idea of her having a weapon, but rather a reluctance to admit that she might have to use it. Perhaps just the sight of her wearing it would provide the small amount of deterrence for more intelligent brigands out there.
Now, Gryphon padded along a little more hastily. “O’ course, there is fair Eidolyn to thinka. Shame if she got ‘urt, bloody shame. Shard’s too much a fool to keep ‘er safe, but a wily, cunning gryphon might make the diff’rence.”
“In fact,” he continued. “Some might say that it’s a matter o’ pride. Gryphon’s aren’t cowards, dun let anyone tell ya that!”
“Wasn’t implying it,” Shard returned.
“Not even thinking it,” Eidolyn chuckled.
“O’ course, nuffing in Analerna is a match for ol’ Gryphon, anyway.” He ruffed his feathers and stuck out his chest as he cantered behind them. “Ya know? Ya know that, right? Maybe a lesser beast could be apprehensive, but not ol’ Gryphon. I say bring it on! Let the most vile and corrupt of Analerna just try to shake ol’ Gryphon, because it’ll be the end uv ‘em! Dat’s right!”
They crossed the cavernous abandoned dining room that stood just inside the natural knotted staircase just through the entrance, stirring up the layers of dust and seasons-old detritus from years of neglect. Leaves crunched under their feet, and Gryphon used the sudden widening of their path to trot at their side. “I insist that you not commit the idiocy of trying to go to Analerna without the protection o’ ol’ Gryphon! It’d be a discredit to the ‘onor and courage o’ my species to back down from a few piddly little rogues and bandits!”
“You don’t have to,” Shard shrugged amiably, reaching over to tousle Gryphon’s mane.
But the beast leaned out of the way of the affectionate gesture indignantly. “O’ course I don’t!” Gryphon huffed. Now, he was ahead of them, tail lashing excitedly. “No, you won’t shake me off so easy! I can tell you don’t want me to go, but dat’s just too bad! Can’t be fettered, dat’s ol’ Gryphon! I’m coming and that’s final!” Wings set tightly against his back, he stomped his paw on the gnarled tree bark outside the entrance as Shard breathed the incantation to hide the door leading into the tree’s interior. The last out, the walking basket, empty at the moment, skittered at their heels and came to a rest beside Eidolyn. They weren’t sure what it could do on their journey, but it had wordlessly insisted on accompanying them, probably to combat its baskety boredom.
Shard shouldered his pack with a sigh, standing, as was the usual, with his weight on his left leg. “I see my wits are no match for yours, Gryphon. Naught but your own superior will could compel you to stay behind here; I see that now!”
The fearsome beast nodded determinedly. “No ‘arm done, but let dat be a lesson. Less be on our way, den!”
That particular day greeted them with wispy rivulets of clouds running in a whimsical, wishy-washy way away from the Celestial Bay. The air was still and crisp with the sharp ring of the oncoming blade of winter hanging over the golden forest.
“So,” Eidolyn asked, “Go on impulsive holidays often?”
“Not lately,” Shard admitted. “Though I think I like it. Might make a habit of it, when my free time isn’t held hostage by the machinations of an evil wizard.”
As usual, Shard sat closest to Mittens’ head with Eidolyn just behind and Gryphon gliding at their side. The basket had been crafted a special seat, and it seemed to regard this special accomodation with approval: Shard and Eidolyn had together crafted the leather harness to fit over Mittens’ flank. If the basket curled its legs around the leather loops that laid over Mittens’ back, it was able to ride very securely. Mittens carried them down through the still forest air to the sound of hungry waves lapping at the cliffs below and the forest rustling apprehensively. Gryphon flew, false nihilism in every beat of his wings, ahead through the forest, and behind them Mittens trotted through the brush, gradually speeding to a plush, whispering canter that whipped them silently through the trees. Each footfall, bounding the length of a house, produced the lightest of rustles, and even Mittens’ streaming tail avoided striking any of the dense, crowding forest, and Eidolyn supposed that anyone who happened to be nearby as they passed might only feel a brief, slight movement of air and by the time they turned to check if they’d seen what they thought they’d saw, Mittens would be far away, leaving only the vague impression of paisley and polka dots. And it seemed that the faster Mittens ran, the smoother their ride was, as if it was now gliding through the air just above the ground, although upon checking, it was indeed still making contact with the forest brush. It was no wonder that Shard was regarded by some as a phantom. It was exhilarating at first, but unsettling the further they traveled at that vertiginous pace. After all, no matter how smooth the ride was, she couldn’t help but wince whenever they came too close to a tree, only to have Mittens swerve to the side just in time.
“Don’t tell me we’re going to be going this fast the whole way.” Though it was important to make good time to Analerna and they did have some distance to cover, Eidolyn didn’t care for the idea of embarking on her first journey away from the peninsula at such a speed that she couldn’t see what she was passing.
“Oh, we’ll stop to rest. Mittens doesn’t get tired, but you will, trust me. And there isn’t much to see, really,” Shard dismissed.
“Easy to say for you; you’ve seen it all already! Are you afraid of people trying to get your hair or your saliva? Or whatever?”
Shard's shoulders hunched under his crisp shirt and sky blue coat. “I’m not afraid,” he huffed loftily. “But take it from me, it does tend to complicate things. Can’t fathom how anyone even got those absurd ideas to start with.”
Eventually, Mittens slowed to a leisurely canter. In Jigsaw, moving trees, fairy-circles, water that turned you into a tadpole or ghostly androgynous figures that led the greedy and malicious into inescapable labyrinths of fog were just as much part of the natural order of things as natural selection and forest fires. People from worlds where magic tended to keep to itself, clustering in unexplored corners of its planet, use the word “supernatural” for anything that unfairly make them realize they’re still part of the food chain, and are lower on it than they’d previously thought. In Jigsaw, the word “supernatural” is an utterly useless one, and when a fortunate soul survives a perilous experience and states that their ordeal “really put things into perspective,” that usually translates to something like “I always figured dragon fire was just uncomfortably warm until today.”
Seeing a dragon would be nice, Eidolyn decided, but preferably one of a harmless or benevolent species and from a safe and impersonal distance. She wasn’t sure which ones could talk and which ones couldn’t, and anyway she wouldn’t know what to say to one. But for the few hours it took to emerge onto the kingdom’s windy central plains, the largest thing she had spotted was a deer, and Gryphon, while fine company, had a very different sort of appreciation for the various forms of life they encountered on their journey, being the natural predator of anything that wasn’t much larger than he was and wasn’t poisonous. She eventually persuaded him to agree not to discuss anything in terms of its taste or tenderness, or the accessibility of its jugular.
“Sorry, luv. I forget.”
“It’s all right. Shard, we are going to head to the west eventually, right? That is where Analerna is.”
“We’re going further south to cut around the Swamp of Dire Poets,” Shard replied. “It’ll take longer, but there’s no need to get dirtier than we have to. Dangerous place, too, with all manner of unpleasantness congregating there for gods know what. Poisonous insects and plants, buried corpses of poisons insects and plants creating pockets of noxious fumes, burrowing swamp serpents, sinkholes in the mud caused by burrowing swamp serpents, and mireclaws, which eat burrowing swamp serpents by the dozen. And mud. Lots of mud.”
“And why’s it called the Swamp of Dire Poets?”
“Not the faintest notion, though I imagine poets that are dire are involved.”
Further south, as they approached the town of Sable, a brisk breeze ran at their—or rather, Mittens’ heels, and it seemed as if currents of sunshine were embedded in the air, making it glow. Once you know that land has an opinion of its inhabitants, you can tell when it enjoys their company. Those plains had seen merchants and traders, heroes in groups or broodingly single, fortune hunters both idealistic and ruthless, and enough long-lost heirs and deposed monarchs to create work for an army of traitorous advisers and high priests. Some heroes of destiny trampled daisies, and some hardened, gold-hungry assassins helped baby birds back into their nests. Good, evil—it was all the same to the plains of Jigsaw. But on that day, they decided that they loved giant plush cats.
After Shadelings invade Shard's tree house, Shard decides to become more proactive, planning a trip to Analerna to enlist the aid of the large city's powerful police force, headed by the elf Windemir. Whilst he is away preparing for the trip, Eidolyn snoops about his belongings for clues as to his hidden past.