© 2011 Marvin E. Fuller
The world swam back into Baksrit's awareness when someone stuffed what felt like a bag of rough canvas over her head.
Still too stunned after the double shock of slamming into the road after her brother's skoit chucked her off its back and then of someone striking her skull before the ermine could pull her wits back together, Baksrit didn't resist as whoever had put the bag over her head hefted her up and slung her over his shoulder. She didn't know who carried her or what had happened to get her in his clutches, but something deep inside Baksrit told her she didn't want to stay with whoever carried her.
She suddenly wriggled like an eel, startling her captor and nearly making him drop her. Only his last minute grab at her tail prevented her from tumbling onto the ground. She tried to kick at him, but someone cuffed her ear through the canvas over her head, rattling her teeth. Baksrit blacked out again.
She woke again when her captor set her on the ground with surprising gentleness. For a moment, that deep corner of Baksrit's mind whispered that she really ought to do something, but then the pain creeped into play, a body-wide ache topped by a pounding in her head, all throbbing in synchrony as if nostalgic for the rhythm of her captor's footsteps when he carried her... where?
"Quick! Get her tied up!" she heard a familiar, if muffled, voice exclaim.
"Ronce, shaddup! Please!" grunted another voice that sounded almost too female to be male. Or was it the other way around? Baksrit's body hurt too much for her to care one way or the other. "Help me here 'fore she tries to get away again."
"I keep tellin' ya, keep an eye on yer weasels," said Ronce as someone yanked off Baksrit's boots and lashed her bare feet together, followed by binding her paws behind her back "They'll soak up anythin' you throw at 'em an' come back fer more. 'Course they'll feel it in th' mornin', but there's a good chance ya won't, if ya catch me drift."
The other person grumbled as he pulled the canvas off Baksrit's head. She blinked in the evening sunlight, but she didn't see more than a blur before a blindfold slid around her head.
"Careful! Don't let 'er see us," Ronce warned. "She'll turn us inta toads if she does! Then she'll eat us! Ya know them highbrow weasels love frogs' legs."
"What you bellyachin' about?," the unfamiliar voice sounded suspiciously like it was trying not to whine. "'You said she was just an apprentice."
"Then her mage master'll turn us inta toads," Ronce snorted. "Then she eats our legs. That's if her boyfriend don' chew 'em off first. I saw him when ya hightailed it outta there. I tell ya, he looked fit ta tear his skoit inta ribbons 'fore I whammied 'im."
For a moment, Baksrit wondered who Ronce referred to. She didn't know of anyone courting her, but she had been out riding with her brother earlier that day. A jolt passed through Baksrit as she recalled the gray fox attempting to waylay them on the road, followed by her flying off her brother's spooked skoit, and then her memory got fuzzy from there. She now recognized Ronce's voice as belonging to the gray fox. It seemed he had managed to put out the fire she had lit on him.
One of her captors interrupted her disorganized thoughts by shoving a gag around her muzzle. Baksrit roused herself enough to snap her teeth at his fingers, earning herself a pop on the cheek. Aching dizziness momentarily washed through her head.
"Ow! Teeth!" complained the unfamiliar voice as he put the gag in place. He heaved a sigh. "There, she'll keep 'til tonight, I hope. Lucky she didn't break anything when she fell, or we'd be in a real pickle. Keep an eye out, will ya, Ronce? We ain't in the clear yet."
"Right, right," said Ronce. "But I'd reckon we got away clean."
"How would you know? You were too busy bein' on fire," came the retort.
"No, I weren't! I dropped an' rolled," groused Ronce.
"You tripped," the unfamiliar voice wasn't having it.
"Well, yeah," the gray fox said, brightly. "That's 'cause my feets remembered fer me."
The unfamiliar voice sighed, eliciting a snigger from the gray fox. The two lapsed into a watchful silence. Blind, mute, and aching all over, Baksrit lay on the ground, a rock digging uncomfortably into her arm as she listened for any clues to where she might be. The two had obviously taken her from the road where she had fallen, but she had no idea in what direction or for how long. She did hear the trickle of running water nearby and could feel a coolness in the air, not unlike the shade cast by the trees of Hedgewood. The two had found some spot to go to ground in, some temporary shelter where they could stop and wait. Until when? Nightfall, perhaps, when they could sneak off somewhere else under cover of darkness with only the Full Moon shining down on them. Some person who preferred the night over the day might see them carrying her, but she couldn't count on her captors being so careless.
She mentally prodded at the wards in her dress to see how many remained after cushioning her fall. Checking them was easy, something she could do despite her condition. All she had to do was visualize her body and aura where she lay and scan them with what many would call her third eye, that inner eye of the mind trained mages used to look beyond the physical plane. Most of the wards had blown, their energy spent absorbing and dissipating the worst of the fall. Thanks to them, she had managed to avoid breaking any of her bones although she feared she would be one big bruise in the morning. Unfortunately, until she could spare the time and thought to replace the wards, she would be as unprotected as anyone else from rogue spells and random injury.
At the moment, she didn't have much choice but to lie quietly and hope the gray fox and his friend didn't have anything nefarious planned for her. Their worry over her status as a mage encouraged her as much as it concerned her. They wouldn't be likely to hurt her too badly for fear of what she might do to them when she got a chance, but they would also be more vigilant for anything she might pull on them when that chance came.
Neither Ronce nor his friend spoke a word as time crawled by, only occasionally shifting position as they waited. The air reluctantly cooled, as if a miser hording the day's heat but forced to give it up to the tax collector of evening. Baksrit tried to meditate, feeling the ache in her body and the pains in her head with her awake mind. The rock biting into her arm didn't make it easy, but she managed to drowse off at one point.
"Th' sun's settin'," Ronce finally said. Suddenly wide awake, Baksrit listened. "We gonna move her now?"
"Eh, not quite," replied his friend. "We better wait a bit longer. I don't want no farmer seein' us carry her back."
"Don't wanna wait too long," said Ronce. "That whammy's bound ta have worn off her boyfriend by now. He looked like a pretty smart feller, too. He'll find us if we stay too long."
"I walked through enough ditches and doubled back so many times that I'm half lost," complained his friend. "He ain't gonna find us soon."
"Pro'ly just get some tracker an' hunt us down lickety-spit," Ronce's voice managed to shrug. "We ain't no bandits ya know."
"I hope not," winced his friend. "I don't fancy singin' at the gallows 'fore the week ends."
Again, they lapsed into silence, leaving Baksrit bored and twitchy. Worse, she could feel the beginnings of hunger gnaw at her stomach while a slow pressure started building in her bladder. She debated whether she ought to try casting a spell, but decided against it. Strictly speaking, a well-practiced mage didn't need to speak and, in some cases, see to cast spells she was familiar with, but Baksrit could think up a number of objections to blindly tossing spells about when bound and gagged with a couple of strangers in an unknown location, one of whom she knew only by his voice. Better to wait for a better opportunity. It would allow her more time to gather her strength.
"It's late enough," said Ronce's friend a few minutes later. He sounded jumpier than before. "Let's go."
"'Bout time," Ronce muttered. Baksrit heard him scramble up out of where they had stashed her. "I don't see nobody. Let's get outta this hole."
Baksrit felt gentle paws lift her up into the air so the gray fox could grab her under the arms and drag her across the dirt with a whining grunt. Once her other captor huff and snort his way out of their former shelter, he placed her over his shoulder and set off, almost immediately splashing into some water. They went on like that for some time, sometimes slogging through a ditch or stream, other times walking on dry land. On occasion, the gray fox called a halt until he could be sure they could continue unseen.
"Thank Pax, we're almost there," Baksrit heard the one carrying her whisper in relief.
"Shh, shh! We ain't in th' clear yet," Ronce didn't let the nearness of their goal distract him. "Those pesky chilluns might still be about. Don't see 'em, but let's get in quick. Madeline! Open up there!"
The gray fox's paw rapped against wood. A door scraped open.
"What is it, ya dog?" a grumpy female voice answered. "Oh! Ya got th' mage. Hey, Al! Al! They got th' mage!"
"Yeah, yeah, just let us in, willya?" Ronce sighed. The texture of the air seemed to change as Ronce's friend carried Baksrit forward, as if they had just entered an enclosed space. The door thumped shut behind them.
"Are you sure no one saw you?" a fourth voice spoke up. A chill shivered along Baksrit's spine as she immediately placed the wheeze, as of someone continually out of breath and on the verge of coughing.
"I reckon we got away fer now," Ronce replied. "But now that we're here, ya'd better have somethin' in mind."
"Yes, yes, your amulets, did you use them?" al-Qamar asked.
"Yeah, I put th' whammy on her boyfriend all right," Ronce said, a trifle impatiently. "An' th' skoit, too. I reckon Chuck here whammied th' mage."
"Er, no, I forgot," chagrin colored his friend's voice. "She got bucked off, an' I whacked her one on the head."
"Chuck..." Ronce sounded exasperated.
"Hey! I was panickin' there!" Chuck struggled to keep a whine out of his voice.
"That's wise, really," mused al-Qamar, interrupting Ronce's response. "Good with the skoit. I wouldn't have thought of that. And Chuck still has his two shots if he needs them."
Baksrit wondered what sort of spell al-Qamar had placed on the amulets. Physical objects could house ready-to-use spells for a time in case a mage needed them, such as when two non-mages needed some magical assistance when the mage had other business to attend to. From what Baksrit had heard so far, she guessed al-Qamar had loaded up two amulets with a couple of one-time-only spells, simple to trigger and non-lethal in effect.
"We got her, like ya said," annoyance laced Ronce's voice. "Now what're we ta do with her? We didn't drag her here for no picnic, ya know."
"Al's got somethin' set up in th' back room," supplied Madeline.
"Hmm? Yes, put her back there and light the incense," al-Qamar roused himself to say. "That should keep her quiet for a while."
"We gonna feed 'er?" asked Chuck. "I bet she's hungry."
"Pro'lly gotta use th' pot too," noted Ronce.
"That's my job, ya dog," Madeline snickered. "I ain't gonna have ya lookin' up her skirts no more."
"Oh, har har," Ronce sounded less than amused. Madeline yapped a teasing laugh, and Baksrit could feel some of the tension in the room ease.
Chuck moved forward, then set Baksrit down on a stool. The ermine listened as someone rustled and banged about nearby. A pungent odor drifted into her nostrils.
"Phew, that stinks," said Madeline. She sneezed.
"Good, that should keep her head wobbly, as your husband might say," al-Qamar coughed. "It won't be enough, but I don't see any wards on her. Chuck may have been smarter than we thought by not using his amulet. I'll make something up to try to foul anything she tries."
"Will it work?" asked Madeline, suddenly worried.
"That depends on how powerful she is," al-Qamar said. "But I would say so. She is only an apprentice, after all."
They left her alone, the incense her only company. It clogged her nose and filled her lungs, making her cough painfully into the gag. The incense seemed to poke through her nasal cavity and past her eyes, wrapping smoky tendrils throughout the insides of her head.
At some point, someone re-entered the room and placed something around her neck. Baksrit suddenly felt as if some big paw pinched her temples, like a headache that had yet to hurt.
"Now, I'mma gonna free ya up, so ya don't go usin' no spells on me," warned Madeline, a hint of fear raising the pitch of her voice. "I'll whack ya one if ya do."
Baksrit decided that seemed a reasonable request and didn't complain as Madeline untied her and removed the gag and blindfold. Working her mouth to wet it again, Baksrit disinterestedly looked around, but the room looked boring, only dried wood panels for walls, plaster on the ceiling, and a dirt floor. A table stood nearby, a candle and a couple of funny-looking sticks poking out of a small jug. Smoke curled up from the sticks and maybe from the jug as well. Baksrit really didn't care enough to take a closer look.
Madeline turned out to be a female gray fox wearing a dress with patched elbows. Baksrit blinked at the bowl of beans the vixen offered her and realized she did feel kind of hungry.
"Go ahead," Madeline urged her. "I ain't stuck in no meat, 'cause I heard tell you can't handle that stuff."
Baksrit mumbled something akin to thanks, then greedily wolfed them down. When the ermine finished, she gave Madeline the bowl back, then looked confused when Ronce walked in long enough to leave a clay pot with a wooden board on top of it. It took a few moments before Baksrit's bladder reminded her of what the pot was for.
"I reckon it's workin'," Madeline called back over her shoulder as she retreated from the room with the candle, bowl, and filled pot. "She looks really wonked out."
The vixen shut the door behind her, leaving Baksrit in darkness filled with the cloying smoke. Thoughts of escape percolated through her head, but it seemed her paws had been tied behind her back again. She couldn't remember when that had happened.
She lost track of time, as she watched in rapt fascination as colors began to dimly shimmer in the dark. Were these from her own aura? The part of her mind that might have answered her question stayed stubbornly silent, choked off by the sinister smoke. A couple of the colors made her uncomfortable for some reason, sending her scooting across the floor until her back bumped up against the rear wall.
The smoke wormed down into her stomach, mixing unpleasantly with the beans. Her stomach lurched, and she toppled over onto her side. The smoke smelled less obnoxious down there, and the cool scent of the bare earth seemed to chase away enough of the smoke for the nausea to leave her alone and the alarming colors to fade back into the darkness. She had the vaguest idea that the foxes and their effete friend were going to end up killing her at this rate, despite their best intentions otherwise. This didn't concern her as much as she suspected it should.
"By Pax, I think she's high!" she heard Madeline exclaimed as if from a great distance. Baksrit looked up, way up, to see two foxes standing over her, illuminated by real light rather than the phantom lights that had visited her earlier. "Did Al reckon on this?"
"Dunno," Ronce shrugged, his shoulders going up and down like storm-tossed waves on the beach. Which was odd since Baksrit had never been to the beach before. "Our daddy-ta-be's off seein' his baby bunny-thing's birthday. I don't reckon he'll be back."
"Whadda we do then?" Madeline's head squished down into her shoulders and turned yellow. "If she croaks, we're screwed."
"She croaks, we'll croak," agreed Ronce, worriedly. "We'll be toads fer sure."
"I'mma gonna put out that smoke fer th' night," Madeline decided, plucking the sticks out of the jug. The table tried and failed to sidle off rather than have her ground the sticks out on it.
"Moons, weird rabbits, I'll be bloody glad when this week ends," Ronce hunched his shoulders past his ears. Baksrit wished he wouldn't do that. His shoulders made her seasick.
"Ya an' me both, dog," Madeline fervently agreed.
Once more, they left her in the dark, except the colors had returned, sneaking back into the room with her, first dancing on the edge of her eyesight, then pulsing out in front of her eyes in time with her heartbeat.
"Oh, for crying out loud, leave me alone!" Baksrit snapped at them, her words coming out garbled and mushy. The colors wavered and scattered for a moment, giving her time to bury her nose in the dirt and snuffle its scent. She wriggled about, looking for a patch of dirt that would drive off the smoke's lingering odor. A whiff of sweet-smelling air teased past her nose. She greedily sucked it in. Fresh air! She couldn't tell where, but maybe there could be some outlet to the outdoors somewhere in the back of the room. Outdoors, where rabbits jumped over moons high in the sky.
"Moon," muttered Baksrit. She began to sing quietly to herself, a broken and disjointed song. "Moony-moon-rabbit shining high in the sky. Show me where you shine. Showy, showy, moony-moon. Will you damn things leave me alone?"
Having crowded back to listen to her tattempt to sing, the colors fled once more at the sound of her voice. Baksrit mumbled and grumbled into the dirt floor, sniffing up any breath of fresh air that would breeze across her whiskers. She eventually dozed off, falling into a fitful slumber full of strange and disturbing images. Sometimes she woke long enough to snarl at the colors, but she couldn't separate those occasions from her dreams. Fortunately, the colors finally decided to leave her alone sometime in the wee hours of the morning.
Baksrit felt fairly certain she had been awake for awhile, contemplating the darkness above her, when the vixen, whatever her name was, checked in on her. The smell of clean dirt and the whiffs of fresh air had helped clear the ermine's head enough for her to realize she probably could use some spells to get out of her predicament, but she couldn't think of any. How embarrassing.
Once the vixen had finished feeding her, giving her water, and doing whatever the pot thing was for, another fox brought in some more funny sticks. Baksrit remembered the smoke they gave off only too well.
"No, no! Not those, please, not those!" Baksrit gurgled in panic, but the foxes gave her a puzzled look as if she spoke some unknown tongue. She wriggled and writhed on the dirt floor when they left, crying to herself. She'd had enough! Couldn't they leave her alone? She just wanted to do things with moons and rabbits and spells and... and... she lost the thread of her thoughts again, the smoke poking its way back into her nose, filling her head with muzziness, a clogging pressure pushing out against the paw clamping on her temples. It was just too much!
Her shoulder scraped against the back wall. A wood panel seemed to shift slightly. A puff of clean air washed away the smoke for just a moment. A barely thought out notion wormed its way into her head.
"Moon Rabbit," Baksrit sang to herself, an off-key warble based off some half-remembered song she'd once heard a street-corner entertainer croon. "Wider than a smile, I'm tossing you in style someday. Oh, dream-maker, you heart-breaker. Wherever I'm goin', you're goin' my way. True drifter's off to be the world. There's such a lot of world to be. We're after the same moonbow's end, waitin' 'round the bend. My heart needs a friend. Moon Rabbit and me."
The colors prancing and dancing about her suddenly took flight, vanishing back into the darkness that had birthed them. A silver light took their place, glowing soft and cold, yet also comforting and somehow far, far more real than anything else she had seen during the night, including the foxes. The glow resolved into a definite shape – long-eared, cottontailed, female – then flowed into a bright silver disk, gray blotches and shining splashes of white sprayed across its face.
Baksrit had never seen a more beautiful Full Moon.
The blotches congealed into a rabbit crouching like some non-thinking animal, but it turned its head and gave Baksrit a wink, giving away its true unearthly intelligence. Baksrit reached out towards it, lifting the disk in etheric paws, her physical ones unable to do the job. She held the moon for a moment, contemplating its light.
"My heart needs a friend, Moon Rabbit and thee!" sang Baksrit, her voice becoming clear and strong for just a moment. She flung the moon up, up through the ceiling and into the clear air above.
Drained, Baksrit slumped back in a fit of coughing, the paw about her temples clamping harder, the smoke turning her mind to mush. With the moon gone, the colors didn't bother to return, letting Baksrit drowse in peace, until something skittered across her shoulder. She tried to brush at it in irritation, only to be reminded once more she couldn't move her paws out from behind her back.
Tiny claws pressed through the cloth over her shoulder, a little paw gently shaking her.
"Miss Baksrit?" came a shy voice, excitement and fear mingled in its whisper. Baksrit smiled to herself.
Al-Qamar was going to rue every sniff of that damn incense he'd put her through even if she had to ram it up where the moon didn't shine.