© 2012 Marvin E. Fuller
With a boost from her brother, Baksrit climbed up into the skoit's saddle. Jaiken settled in behind her as she picked the reins off the front of the saddle. Baksrit stared blankly at the back of the skoit's head, suddenly at a loss on how to get the critter to move. Jaiken cleared his throat and reached around her. Baksrit sighed and pressed the reins into his paws. She had to admit he was right. She drooped so badly in the saddle she feared she would fall off if she tried anything as fancy as guiding the skoit somewhere.
"Where to now?" Jaiken asked, nudging the skoit out onto the road.
"Holly Acres," Baksrit decided, glancing up at the sun. She guessed it to be not quite midday. "The day isn't over yet. Maybe we can still beat al-Qamar to Jazz."
"Maybe you can get a bath there," Jaiken gave a disgusted chuff. "I can smell that incense on you. Heavens to Pax, does it stink. I don't look forward to smelling you when it gets hot."
The rest of the trip to Holly Acres spun into a blurry haze for Baksrit. The growing heat and occasional whiffs of incense still clinging to her made her head muzzy. More than once, she drowsed off only to be woken with a jolt. Fortunately, Jaiken's arms on either side of her kept from sliding off the skoit.
Jaiken gently joggled her awake at one point. Rousing herself, Baksrit looked around but didn't immediately recognize their surroundings. She then saw a badger knight settle his skoit alongside theirs and drew a paw through the fur on her head in a futile attempt to look halfway presentable.
"Good day, sir knight," Jaiken greeted the badger. "Am I safe in assuming you are here for the same reason we are?"
"If you mean that damned horned rabbit we spoke of earlier, yes, we would be," growled the badger. A grumpy expression seemed permanently scribed into the stripes on the knight's head. "This had best pan out, Mister Jaiken. If that's the mage who told you about that foreign rabbit, then I have some very serious doubts about your information."
"My sister has had a run-in with that foreign rabbit," Jaiken replied, a trifle stiffly. "If anything, her appearance should impress upon you the seriousness of the situation. Al-Qamar wasn't even trying, yet he still managed to nearly kill her."
"I see," frowned the badger. "I'm still not convinced, Mister Jaiken, but I shall take your word for it. For now."
By this time, they had entered Holly Acres proper. The badger prodded his skoit off to the side and turned away, riding back out of town. Baksrit glanced after him as Jaiken continued on to Marty's house. The knight's leather armor must have been hot under the bright summer sun. No wonder the badger seemed testy.
"He's right. I must look a fright," Baksrit brushed at the fur on her forehead once more as Jaiken stopped the skoit in front of Marty's house. The aged rabbit sidled over to meet them.
"Land sakes alive, Miss Albes!" worry creased Marty's fuzzy face as he reached up to help her off the skoit. "What in Pax's name happened to you? You look like hell warmed over! Ugh, I reckon you smell like it, too."
"It was hell, Marty," Baksrit wobbled unsteadily on her feet. She leaned against a nearby fencepost before her knees buckled out from under her. "It was al-Qamar, the horned rabbit who ensorcelled Jazz. He tried to get me out of the way, but I finally made it. How's Jazz? Has she given birth yet?"
"Not yet, Miss Albes," Marty looked troubled. He held out a paw to her. "Quite frankly, we're worried. Jazz is lookin' really bad."
"How so?" Baksrit gave him a curious look. She took his paw and let him walk her to the front door of his house.
"She's fit to burst, all right," Marty told her on the way. "But it's like the baby's been suckin' the rest of her dry. Quite frankly, I'm astonished she's still alive."
"I thought we expected that," Baksrit said.
"We did," Marty paused at the door. "But not this much. It's like she's been starvin' for a whole month despite eatin' us outta house and home."
"A month? But it's only been two weeks..." Baksrit's voice trailed off as a sudden thought struck her. She gave a start when she stepped forward only to realize Dilly blocked the way inside. The rabbit matron took one sniff of Baksrit and looked ill.
"No offense, deary, but I don't want you in this house smellin' like– like– what the hell is that?" Dilly held a paw over her nose.
"None taken," Baksrit caught another whiff of the incense, forcing her to wait until the world stopped spinning before she could continue. "It's incense. I'd love to wash it off, but I haven't been able to yet."
"We moved a tub inside to clean up Jazz after she pops," Marty said. "I reckon you're welcome to use it first."
"I've got some hot water brewin'," added Dilly. "If you can wait a bit, I'll see that the tub's filled."
"Oh! A bath would be most divine," Baksrit hoped the giddiness she felt was over the prospect of a bath and not the incense befuddling her again. "But please don't worry about the water. That was one of the earliest spells I learned. It beat running to the local well whenever I wanted a drink. Plus, I don't have to boil it first."
The tub turned out to be half of a large barrel cut down the middle from end to end. Figuring she wouldn't have a problem fitting into the empty barrel-tub, Baksrit focused her mind on it. Gallons of water suddenly sloshed inside the tub. She didn't have any trouble stopping the sudden influx, but the world wobbling around her normally wasn't part of the spell.
"Oh, deary! All you all right?" Dilly nearly jumped over the tub to give the woozy ermine a steadying paw.
"No, I'll be fine as soon as I get my bath," said Baksrit, leaning against the wall for support. She watched as Dilly, skeptical but otherwise willing to go along with her, hauled a nearby wooden screen in front of the tub to give Baksrit some privacy. Under cover of the screen, Baksrit disrobed, tossed her clothes over the top of the screen so Dilly could take them to be washed, then slid into the water. After warming up the water with another spell, she washed the smell of incense out of her white fur with some soap Dilly supplied, working from the top of her head to the black tip of her tail, the only part of her coat not a snowy white. When she finished, she leaned back in the barrel-tub and enjoyed soaking in the warm water.
A scream from Jazz's bedroom made Baksrit jump. Listening to Dilly shout orders to her relatives, Baksrit realized the time had come. They would finally see just what sort of baby al-Qamar had gone to such great lengths to sire.
Unfortunately, the al-mi'raj would also be making his appearance soon. Reluctantly, Baksrit dried herself with a towel draped over the top of the privacy screen, then jammed on the accompanying smock. She waved a paw over the tub, banishing from view the water and the grime she had washed off. Adjusting the slightly-too-large smock more modestly around her, Baksrit peeped out to make sure she wouldn't get in the way. She saw Jaiken sitting near the door, his bespectacled nose stuck in a book as he ignored the frenzied bustling of the rabbits. Marty sat on another stool on the opposite side of the door, looking as if this sort of thing happened every day. Baksrit edged over to her brother, noting his staff leaning within easy reach against the wall. He looked up from his book as she approached.
"Oh, good, you're done," he said, peering over his spectacles. "And you smell better. How long do you think it will take al-Qamar to get here, assuming he makes it past the soldiers?"
"Any time now, I think," Baksrit chewed on a clawtip. "What soldiers?"
"Marty tells me there's been a few soldiers patrolling around about," Jaiken answered. "They're probably with that knight we saw, keeping an eye out for our horned friend. As much as I hope they catch him, I know you mages well enough to not wager on that possibility. I'm happy to help however I can, even if all I can do is make faces at him."
"I don't know if you can help," ignoring her brother's attempt at levity, Baksrit scrubbed her paws over the still damp fur on her face. The bath had done wonders for restoring her energy and clearing up her head, but nervousness now gnawed at her. "Hell, I don't know if I can! I'm just an apprentice, and I've had a long day. I'm afraid it's only going to get longer before it's done with me."
The two weasels settled down to wait. Baksrit couldn't keep still, fidgeting and shifting on her stool. She didn't realize how wound up she was until a sudden shriek from Jazz's room made her jump. Unable to stay by the front door, Baksrit wandered over to peek into Jazz's bedroom, keeping to the side so she didn't block anyone's path. Before jerking her head back when a rabbit passed by, she got the impression of a bloody mess and a horribly emaciated pile of fur and bones lying spreadeagled on the bed, surrounded by two rabbit does and a female raccoon. For a moment, Baksrit's stomach churned from a combination of the sight and the tension twisting inside of her. Dilly appeared at the doorway, providing a welcome distraction from the nausea.
"Good news," announced Dilly. She didn't sound very happy. "It's a boy."
"What's wrong, Dilly?" Marty asked from near the door, his long ears orienting alertly towards the rabbit matron.
"He's alive," Dilly grimaced. "That's good, really."
"But?" prodded Marty, knowing from their many years together when something bothered his wife but she didn't want to or know how to say it.
"It ate the afterbirth," Dilly blurted. "Newborns ain't supposed to do that, Marty. They just ain't."
"I reckon this ain't your normal newborn," Marty fixed Baksrit with an expectant look. The ermine stared back for a moment before she could think of something to say.
"Er, yes, I guess that would make sense," Baksrit said lamely. "Spells, no doubt."
Jaiken facepalmed at that, which only served to nettle Baksrit.
"Well, I don't know what sort of spells they are!" she snapped at him. "I haven't even seen them!"
An awkward silence fell over the room, only to be broken by a loud thump from the front door, as of something hard bouncing off of it. Everyone jumped. Marty glanced wide-eyed about the room, then took a firm grip on a heavy walking stick and slowly reached for the door. The door didn't wait for him, giving a loud, splintering crack before slamming open, missing Jaiken by a scant few inches. A dread moment passed before a gaunt, well-wrapped figure stepped in out of the brilliant afternoon sunlight. The newcomer scanned the insides of the cottage before his gaze fell upon Baksrit. The ermine could see sudden shock in the newcomer's body language. She also noticed the very sharp curved sword in his paw, its blade smeared with fresh blood.
Baksrit hurriedly cast about for a weapon of her own, her eyes alighting on Jaiken's staff. She almost dismissed it as being out of reach before a picture of the branch she had used on the two foxes flashed into her mind. Just as the newcomer raised his sword to point it at her, Baksrit held up her paw, a sweep of her fingers triggering a spell and sending an etheric paw leaping out for its target.
Jaiken's staff suddenly jumped up from his spot by the wall and flung itself at Baksrit. It slapped itself into her waiting paw, her fingers closing around it without her looking at it. Without hesitation, she snapped into an en garde position, ready and waiting. She doubted she stood a chance against al-Qamar even had she been well-rested, but the simple summoning of the staff felt so good, so right that she knew without a doubt she had made the proper choice.
The newcomer paused, taking in this new development. He lowered his sword reluctantly, now well aware he couldn't just swat her aside as he might the rabbits.
"Manzil al-Qamar," Baksrit took the initiative. She hoped her voice didn't tremble too much. "The kit is not yours to take."
"I must," came the fevered whisper.
"That is not good enough," Baksrit grimly replied.
"I must, or he will die," a desperate note entered al-Qamar's voice.
"Why?" Baksrit's eyes narrowed. If true, this was a development she had not considered.
"I must," al-Qamar took a step forward. Baksrit braced herself, but the al-mi'raj kept his sword down. "The baby must be separated from its mother's enchantment at once, or it'll burn out and die. Would you consign it to death in your foolishness?"
"And what of the mother?" Baksrit didn't budge. "Will she die too?"
"No, I think not," al-Qamar didn't sound entirely sure of himself. "But my gizzard tells me you know better than I. Don't you?"
"And what do you intend to do with the kit once you have him?" Baksrit didn't rise to the bait.
"Raise it. Him? It's a boy then? Then I shall raise him as my son, of course," al-Qamar lifted a long foot as if to take another step, but when Baksrit tensed for a strike, he set it back down. "I have no further use for the mother, and quite frankly, I imagine she will be more than happy to never see me or the kit again."
Baksrit took a moment to think. She needed a plan, but try as she might, nothing seemed to suggest itself. She had to end this stalemate somehow. Al-Qamar had traveled from his homeland, crossing sea and land, torturing himself, raping Jazz, and fighting through who knew what obstacles just to reach this point. He would not let a mere apprentice stop him from getting his son.
In short, Baksrit was going to die.
Worse, if she put up a fight, the rabbits and her brother would also get hurt, and the outcome would still be same. Al-Qamar would leave with the kit, most likely injured, but triumphant. In his wake, not only would Baksrit be dead but so would Jaiken as he came to his sister's aid. As for the rabbit family, some would most likely survive, but others would be killed trying to stop al-Qamar or possibly just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time when something deadly was flying about. No matter how she worked it out, the result would be the same.
This really wasn't the job she had signed up for.
Then it struck her that she was going about this all wrong. Fighting al-Qamar wasn't her job. Saving Jazz was.
Suddenly, everything fell into place in her head. As if reading her thoughts, Al-Qamar took a step forward. He raised his sword again.
"Hold it right there!" Baksrit ordered. She needed to keep what little advantage she had if she wanted things to play out right.
"I mean to take my son," al-Qamar said with determination.
"Dilly," Baksrit said, calmly ignoring al-Qamar for the moment. "Bring the baby out here."
"What? But–what? Are you–?" startled, the rabbit looked confused.
"Please," Baksrit said with forced mildness.
"Yes, dearie," Dilly's long ears flattened anxiously. The rabbit matron turned and hurried back into Jazz's bedroom.
"Do you know what you've wrought upon this world with your spells?" Baksrit turned her full attention back to al-Qamar. "I don't know what they do in foreign lands, but we do not play with others' lives so recklessly and expect to get away with it."
"In many regards, we are worse where I come from," al-Qamar held his ground, wary, but curious at this change in Baksrit's strategy. "Had I a better choice, I would have taken it."
"Perhaps so," Baksrit knew she had him where she wanted him. Now, to spring the trap, one al-Qamar would not be expecting. "But do you think I'm going to let you just take the child, sirrah?"
"If you think–?" anger surged in al-Qamar's voice. He raised his sword, but a sharp laugh from Baksrit halted him.
"Oh, no, no, no," a savage grin curled through Baksrit's whiskers. "Not that way, dear al-mi'raj. You have done more than sire a child with an unwilling mother. You have brought her anguish and pain only a mother could know. You have brought worry and strained the resources of the family who took her in. You have killed I don't know how many of our countryfolk in your quest."
"Just two–" al-Qamar shut up when Baksrit made a silencing motion.
"It doesn't matter," she chided him. "The point is that you have done more than just father a kit. The real question is what will you offer in compensation, hmm?"
Al-Qamar just stared at her dumbly, not yet aware he had been outmaneuvered. Baksrit moved in for the kill.
"What will you pay, al-Qamar?" the ermine pressed. "What will you give Jazz and the family who cared for her in her time of need in return for their pain and suffering?"
"What of the ones I killed?" asked a baffled al-Qamar.
"Let their comrades exact their price from your hide should they catch you," Baksrit shrugged dismissively. A corner of her mind registered Dilly's presence with the baby rabbit, the latter's fussing sounding eerily like angry growling. "I can only speak for the rabbits you have brought trouble on, but what of your foolishness? What will you say before the AllCreator when He calls you?"
"I– your point is taken," al-Qamar lowered his sword in defeat. "May the AllCreator forgive me for my haste, but my need has been great. What will you take?"
"What have you to offer?" Baksrit countered. Now came the tricky part, keeping him in the trap until it was too late for him to wriggle free.
"Whatever you might think of me, I am not a total fool," confessed al-Qamar. With his free paw, he fumbled at the folds of his robes under his cloak and drew out a full purse. "My intent was to pay this Jazz well in gold for her part. I don't know what else I can offer."
"Perhaps it will do," Baksrit beckoned to Dilly with a paw. "Shall we begin?"
"Would you place the kit on the table there, please?" al-Qamar directed Dilly. He wiped his sword off with a spare rag from under his cloak, then sheathed the blade with a definite sense of relief. Baksrit could feel the tension in the room ease. Just like that, the crisis seemed to be over.
Al-Qamar examined the baby rabbit closely. It seemed highly aggressive for a newborn, at one point somehow chomping one of al-Qamar's fingers despite its eyes still being shut. Luckily for the al-mi'raj, the baby's teeth had yet to come in. Baksrit couldn't help but wonder how it could have eaten its afterbirth.
"That's some rabbit," Jaiken grimaced.
"Indeed," al-Qamar agreed, just as disquieted.
The al-mi'raj began a series of motions with his paws, uttering various strange words and phrases as he cast and removed spells in rapid order. Far more eagle-eyed than her brother, Baksrit watched and listened intently as al-Qamar worked, focusing her attention on both his physical movements and how he moved energy around on an etheric level. Like scrying something for spells, the latter required refocusing her conscious mind partially away from the physical world. As long as nothing distracted her, including and especially her own mind's attempts to understand and categorize the spells, she would catch just about everything al-Qamar did. Figuring out what the spells did would be another matter entirely, but that could wait until later.
In less than a minute, al-Qamar peeled away the knot of energy twisted through the baby's aura. The baby rabbit gave a little sigh and settled down to sleep, suddenly looking as helpless as a normal newborn. Baksrit found the change startling and more than a bit creepy, highlighting just how wrong and monstrous the baby rabbit had earlier appeared.
Finishing, al-Qamar heaved a weary sigh. Baksrit blinked herself back into normal awareness.
"Is he–?" she wanted to know.
"He'll be fine now," said al-Qamar, sounding extremely troubled. "As much as he can ever be fine, I suppose. I hope the AllCreator forgives me because I'm damn sure no one else will."
Al-Qamar began wrapping the baby rabbit back up in his swaddling clothes. He fixed Baksrit with an eye framed by his turban and scarf.
"I must take my son to his wet nurse now," al-Qamar wheezed. "Is that acceptable to you?"
"We haven't settled on the amount of compensation yet," the ermine pointed out. "The sooner that's over with, the sooner you two can go."
"Very well," al-Qamar nodded impatiently. He named an amount in gold, which Baksrit countered. The two dickered for a minute before settling on a price.
"This is less than I foresaw," al-Qamar admitted as he counted out gold pieces onto the table. "I half expected to be gouged for more."
"'The love of money births many sins and lures the unwise from the path of righteousness,'" Baksrit kept her furry white face straight as she quoted scripture at him. Truth be told, she had thought she had overcharged him. "We can't all be money-hungry misers."
"Indeed," al-Qamar set out the last gold coin. He put his purse away and dusted his paws. "Now, may we go?"
"There's just one last thing," Baksrit held up her paw.
"What now?" the al-mi'raj narrowed his tired eyes at her in irritation.
"Just promise you'll raise him well," Baksrit told him. "That's all."
Al-Qamar stared at her for a moment, what little of his expression the ermine could see as unreadable as a blank page. He then gave her a formal bow.
"I shall do my best," he said.
Baksrit gave a small curtsey and stepped away from him and the baby rabbit. Al-Qamar tugged a carrying bag out of his robes and gently tucked the sleeping baby rabbit into the bag. He carefully slung the bag around his shoulder, double-checking to make sure his son was safe and secure.
"Thank you for understanding," al-Qamar bowed his head at Baksrit.
And he then was gone, out the door for whatever the future might hold.