© 2011 Marvin E. Fuller
Marty's hometown of Holly Acres happened to be one of the more outlying communities in the floodplain west of the city of Loma. Like most other towns and villages on that side of the river, it primarily specialized in growing food that would ultimately find its way to the dining tables and restaurants of Loma. Jaiken's skoit took well over an hour to thread the dusty, well-traveled roads back to the city, leading Baksrit to estimate Donny would have had to leave early in the morning on a borrowed skoit in order to reach Solomon's home on the other side of Loma by noon.
They reached the Albes family home in Loma just after dinner started, but as their mother had expected the two to return late, this proved no obstacle to Jaiken and Baksrit's joining in. As she ate her vegetarian meal, a restriction forced upon her by the spellcasting accident that had locked her pelt in wintery ermine colors back in her early apprenticeship, Baksrit idly wondered if some part of her meal had been grown over near Holly Acres. Probably not, but one never knew.
Baksrit's magister, the wizard Solomon, a lighter-skinned human with a bit of a paunch, also sat at the Albes' dinner table that night. He'd already wrapped up his business for the day and had elected to make use of a standing invitation to have dinner at the Albes household in the hopes of walking home with Baskrit in the gathering summer twilight, so they could tell each other what they had done that day. Compared to Baksrit's outing, Solomon's business turned out to be a fairly mundane if time-consuming case. He was far more interested in Changy and the spell on her, listening intently as Baksrit described what she had found out and speaking only when he wanted her to clarify some point.
"Hm," Solomon considered her words as they walked along the road between Loma and the village of Hedgewood where Solomon made his home. Bubbles floated behind them as he puffed his pipe thoughtfully. Solomon never smoked, but his oddball sense of humor demanded he use his pipe for something. Baksrit didn't look at him or the bubbles, nervousness opening a pit in her stomach. Although he had not called her out on anything yet, his questions had made her feel incredibly stupid as she realized she had overlooked several ways of further examining Changy.
"Not as complete a job as you could have done," said Solomon, finally giving voice to her fears. Baksrit winced, her face burning with shame under her white fur.
"But that's why this is good practice for you," he added, not unkindly.
"Yes, magister," Baksrit steeled herself for reciting the things she had missed doing. To her surprise, Solomon didn't ask her to do so.
"It's interesting though," Solomon mused. "I look forward to what you find out."
"You don't know what it is, magister?" Baksrit asked.
"I can guess, but that's about it without further information," admitted Solomon. "Don't let this get around, but I probably would have had as much luck as you did even if I would have gleaned more clues from her. By the way, good catch with the moon connection. That should narrow things down tremendously."
"Yes, magister," relief flooded through Baksrit that Solomon wouldn't be taking her to task for her sloppiness. She resolved to a better job when she returned to Marty's home.
"Unless I've forgotten something somewhere, I don't think my own library will help, but the Library of Puma should have something useful. I'll write you up a permission slip tonight," decided Solomon. "You're also excused from your studies as appropriate while you run this thing down. Don't take too long, though. My gut tells me you don't have oodles of time."
"Thank you, magister," Baksrit eagerly said. She looked forward to proving her worth as a future wizardess.
Solomon didn't forget the permission slip, writing it out on a scrap piece of paper and handing it to her before he retired to the sitting room with a book he had borrowed from someone. Once she put the permission slip safely away where she could easily find it, Baksrit raided Solomon's small library, scouring through spellbooks and tomes of curious lore for anything on Chang'e, rapid pregnancies, or spells connected with the moon. Unfortunately, except for some tantalizing hints here and there that Baksrit dutifully made notes on, she found Solomon had remembered his library better than she had hoped. As midnight neared, she gave up and headed for bed.
Although the next morning saw her raring to race off to the Library of Puma, said to be the greatest repository of knowledge that side of the Midlands and undoubtedly a long ways beyond, she took the time to halfheartedly recheck Solomon's library, just so she could say she had been thorough. By midmorning, she couldn't stand it any longer and headed out on the hour-long walk to Loma. Eventually passing through a high class section of the city, she made her way to the sprawling Library of Puma where it sat in the middle of its walled park. Funded by civic-minded nobles and various mages who considered the library the city's greatest treasure, the library served anyone capable of reading and also did double duty as the main records building for city business. Clutching Solomon's permission slip as if it were some precious prize, she gained admittance into the library where she paused before taking the plunge into the halls full of books, scrolls, and many other means of conveying information. She needed to look through the sections concerning spells and legends, but she didn't know where to find them. Baksrit flagged down a young onza girl hurrying by with a heavy tome clasped in her tawny paws.
"Can I help you?" the onza asked politely. Baksrit could hear thinly-veiled impatience in the cat's voice, a sign the onza had some errand she needed to finish.
"Yes, please," Baksrit suddenly felt foolish. "I'm looking for some books on moon-related spells and anything on faster than normal pregnancies. Do you know where I can find them?"
"That would probably be the Hall of Magic," said the onza. To her credit, she didn't bat an eye at Baksrit's unusual request. With a beckoning flick of her long tail, she motioned for Baksrit to follow her through the maze of shelves to a large doorway deep in the library. Baksrit noticed several runes were inscribed around the doorway and guessed they gave the librarians notice if someone tried to take a book they shouldn't.
On the other side of the doorway, she could see the Hall of Magic proved to be more of a large room than a hallway, with several chairs and tables scattered between the shelves standing in rows down the sides of a central aisle. A zebra mare sorted through books and scrolls overflowing off a desk not far from the doorway. The zebra didn't seem particularly happy with the mess, grumbling to herself with her thick accent as she set another set of books on a wooden cart already groaning under the weight of many similar volumes. Baksrit noticed the zebra somehow managed to make her librarian's smock look slinky despite it being of the exact same style as the young onza's who couldn't seem to look anything other than gawky. Baksrit ignored a faint wave of jealousy as her less than stylish, if economical, tunic and trousers suddenly made her feel less than attractive.
"Tenebra? Are you busy?" the onza called out. The zebra looked up.
"Hmm? Salief? What is it?" Tenebra asked. "Ah! I see. A young mage seeks answers? Very well. Head along with your duties, girl. I shall speak with our seeker."
The onza gave a quick bow and, still clutching her tome, rushed off to finish her interrupted task. Tenebra listened to Baksrit's request, then raised her striped brows as she thought for a moment. Baksrit waited with trepidation, her heart beating worriedly in her chest. If she thought about it too much, she did sound silly.
"That is... unusual," the zebra finally said. "But stranger things have been seen. Trust me on this! I have seen them. Perhaps we can find some answers within my books." Baksrit gave a silent sigh of relief. The notes she had made the previous night would give her a starting place to look, but they could end up being entirely off. With Tenebra's help, she stood a better chance of finding something useful.
Although the Hall possessed plenty of spellbooks, it also had a large amount of material on magical theory as well as detailed descriptions of magical phenomenon and related information. Baksrit hadn't realized before just how much material existed on spellcasting, and wished she had the time and opportunity to look through some of the more interesting books. Fortunately, Tenebra turned out to be a fairly potent mage herself with a good grasp of the Hall of Magic's contents and who managed to keep Baksrit focused on her task. Although they didn't find much that day, Baksrit knew she had already gained more than she had expected.
"This is not of great help," Tenebra scratched her large nose thoughtfully, as they took a break for lunch. She looked over a book on lycanthropy, although both of them had dismissed it as useless for their purposes. "If we had more information, perhaps we could find the heart of the matter."
"I don't know what else to add," as she had done several times that day, Baksrit wracked her brains for something more to tell Tenebra. Nothing suggested itself.
"Hm, Changy must know from whence she came," mused the zebra. "Perhaps you should ask her once more?"
"I'm not sure," Baksrit said doubtfully. "I could try, I suppose, but I got the impression she didn't want to say anything."
"Tsk, are you wizardess or mere famulus?" Tenebra chided her. "Use your mind magic skills on her. You are well versed with them."
"Ugh," Baksrit grimaced, not liking the idea. "Wait, what? How do you know about them? I've never said anything about them."
"Haha, silly mage," laughed Tenebra. "I go to same workshops you do, but I am not good enough to excel like you. Many of us know of Solomon's apprentice and envy her skills. Most mages would not consider one such as Changy."
"Really?" Baksrit blinked at Tenebra.
"Yes," Tenebra shelved the book. "Whatever happens, we learn something. I am much curious about this Changy. When done, will you come back and tell me what you find? I would love to hear."
"I can do that," Baksrit promised, hoping she would prove disappointing.
Baksrit had not thought of herself as anything very special among apprentices, but she had to admit she normally didn't meet very many of her fellow mages-in-training so she couldn't compare notes very well. She had been contemplating over the course of the day whether she ought to give up with this befuddling case, but Tenebra's words made her resolve to continue trying if only so she didn't look stupid to the other mages.
Tenebra also got her to thinking. The workshops the zebra mentioned were basically daylong gatherings of mages who wanted to swap information and just as importantly, practice certain varieties of spells in a controlled environment. Advanced mind magic spells which required the casting mage to deeply enter another person's mind tended to be very popular at the workshops as they were often the only times mages could practice those spells without risking harm to themselves or others. Baksrit had been doing very well at the workshops for an apprentice but, although Tenebra seemed impressed by her abilities, she knew the big reason she had gotten so far was that she had worked at honing her skills. As far as she was concerned, any mage could be as good as or better then her if they applied themselves to it as much as she had.
Still, Baksrit hesitated to try a mind magic spell of the intensity she would need to safely pull out Changy's memories. Even with safeguards in place, such a lowering of one's mental barriers could be a terrible, terrible thing and couldn't be taken lightly. Yet, would she have a choice? If Changy didn't prove willing or was unable to tell her how the spells happened to be cast upon her, Baksrit might just need to get past her own reluctance and make the attempt.
She broached the topic to Solomon that evening after dinner. Baksrit waited as he considered her suggestion, unsure if she wanted his permission to try or not. His lack of surprise over her lack of success made her feel like she had let him down.
"Do you think you can do it?" asked Solomon.
"What, sir?" Baksrit gave him a blank look.
"Can you go into Changy's mind and find the memories you want?" Solomon tried again.
"I think so," Baksrit fumbled for a response. She hadn't expected her magister to ask for her opinion.
Solomon merely raised a white eyebrow at her and waited.
"I can do it," Baksrit didn't feel as sure as she sounded, but this seemed to be the response Solomon wanted.
"Then I defer to your judgment in this matter," Solomon said. "It's your job, not mine. Therefore, it is up to you to determine your course of action. Believe me, I'd love to be in your shoes, but I have to keep reminding myself to not steal it from you. I would be a very lousy magister if I did."
"You're not disappointed in me?" she blurted.
"Hardly," A slight smile played about Solomon's lips. "Quite the contrary, in fact. I have faith you will discover something."
"But I didn't find anything," Baksrit tried to wrap her mind around this sudden shift in her perceptions. Solomon had expected her to fail, but believed she wouldn't? It didn't make sense to her.
"My dear girl, I'd be more surprised if you had found something," Solomon chuckled at the baffled expression on Baksrit's white-furred face. "Don't worry about it. You'll find there are many times when we won't have all the answers we want. Most of the time, we're winging it and hoping we're not too far off the mark. In many cases, we have to be satisfied with what little we managed to figure out in the time we're given, no matter how much that frustrates us. Just remember that every little bit you discover is a little bit more you and other mages can use in the future. Every spell has to start somewhere and every one we document gives us more answers we can use later."
Solomon's words kept spinning through Baksrit's mind that night as she lay in her bed staring at the ceiling. Could she often expect to fail despite her best efforts or might she succeed despite gaps in her knowledge that might result? She hated the idea of the first option, suddenly realizing in the middle of her bedtime ruminations that Solomon did too. She resolved to do her best to figure out everything she could about Changy's spells. Neither she nor Solomon expected no less from her.
Unfortunately, as the next day happened to be Sämasday, when many of the faithful went to church, she wouldn't be able to enlist Jaiken's services until the afternoon. Although her family tended to be casual church-goers at best, Jaiken often attended, although Baksrit knew he only did so in hopes of attracting the attention of an eligible weasel jill. Because they would be leaving so late and she didn't know how long it would take to dig through Changy's memories, Baksrit decided the best course of action would be to stay over for the night. She would need to take some of her money with her in case she needed to stay at an inn. She also had to wear that dratted riding dress. She felt iffy about dresses, normally preferring to wear trousers, but convention required her to appear suitably feminine. She also took along a bonnet to protect her head.
Morning seemed to drag on forever. Waiting left Baksrit antsy, so much so that, when noon came, she raced out of Solomon's home and made it past the roadside marker that marked the edge of Hedgewood before remembering she had forgotten the pack she had stuffed full of anything she thought she might need. As she doubled back and retrieved her pack, she counted herself fortunate she had at least remembered her belt pack with crystals and her money.
The walk to her family's home in the midst of Loma burnt off enough of her excess energy to make her glad Jaiken would be taking her the rest of the way to Holly Acres. If he couldn't, Baksrit knew she could borrow a skoit herself, but that would be more of a hassle than she wanted to deal with. She just hoped Jaiken hadn't found himself a potential girlfriend at church that morning.
She needn't have worried. Jaiken welcomed the excuse to get out into the countryside to clear his head after that morning's sermon.
"I'm thinking very seriously of quitting church," he told Baksrit as he guided his skoit across one of the bridges across the river that bisected Loma.
"Why so?" Baksrit said, not really interested but feeling obligated to ask. "Did you run into Clarisha?"
"Thankfully, no. I haven't seen her in months," grumbled Jaiken. Although Baksrit knew few of the details, she recalled her brother had met a flirty female otter named Clarisha the previous spring at church. The two had hit it off well, but two months after they first met, Jaiken learned Clarisha had been seeing him behind the back of her husband, a soldier in the kingdom's army. No one had been happy when Jaiken confronted the otter about her unfaithfulness. Jaiken hadn't liked being played for a fool, Clarisha didn't appreciate being jilted, and the soldier hated being cheated on. Jaiken had limped home that night, bruised and battered, although Baksrit wasn't clear on whether Clarisha or the soldier had attacked him.
"It's no wonder you and Solomon don't bother with church," growled Jaiken. "The preacher keeps insulting our intelligence, but no one seems to notice."
"What did he do this time?" Baksrit watched in disinterest as buildings passed by as the skoit trotted its merry way down the street.
"He was going on and on about how we should eschew worldly things and live our lives humbly and simply," Jaiken answered. "Fine. Great. I can live with that. In fact, I agree with it. I also don't mind the part where we give our money to those less well off than ourselves, although I don't see any virtue in living in poverty myself. But the part that gets me is that tithes are up so that our church can get a new stained glass window of I don't know who, and I may be no clothier, but I'm pretty sure our 'humble, simple' preacher's new robes cost a pretty pfennig."
Baksrit tuned him out for the trip, making noncommittal sounds wherever appropriate as Jaiken's rant about church hypocrisy ran its course. On the good side, it did help calm her jitters, but she also secretly regretted encouraging him to let off steam. When Jaiken finally did lapse into silence a half hour before reaching Holly Acres, Baksrit perversely found herself wishing he hadn't. While the subject had been annoying, her brother's voice seemed to have a soothing effect.
They finally trotted up to Marty's house in Holly Acres around mid-afternoon. As Jaiken helped Baksrit off the skoit, Dilly popped her head out of the front door before yelling for her husband. She and Marty hopped out not long after, followed by an unfamiliar wildcat wearing a habit that had seen better days. Baksrit guessed the wildcat to be a member of the Church, a guess proved correct when Marty introduced him as one Father Evan. He and the two rabbits listened carefully as Baksrit outlined her plans.
"Sure, you can stay here overnight," Marty offered before Baksrit could ask. He pricked a long ear towards the open doorway of his cottage as if listening for something indoors. "Although you may not be gettin' much sleep tonight. Changy's been gettin' real lovey-dovey with the boy. Kind of reminds me of last week with my pretty gal."
With that, he goosed Dilly who gave a startled whoop! before socking him in the arm. Father Evan rolled his eyes heavenward and gave Baksrit a shrug.
"Not in front of guests, you horrible hopper," the rabbit matron giggled.
"Ahem, if I may be so bold as to butt in," Father Evan said before the rabbits could continue with their tomfoolery.
"Sure, but don't go on too long," Marty felt inclined to pitch in. "I would like to get some sleep tonight, you know."
"Yes," Father Evan's striped tail gave a single twitch, the only sign he gave of his annoyance. "Please forgive my bluntness, but the sooner we allow our young friend to see Changy, the sooner she can untangle this mess, Pax willing."
Was it Baksrit's imagination or could she hear a hint of distaste in the wildcat's voice when he spoke the ensorcelled rabbit's name?
"Now hold your skoits," Dilly huffed. "Our guests have had a long trip. I reckon they might be a bit peckish. Can I offer you something to eat, dearies?"
"No, thank you," Jaiken politely declined.
"I think I'd like to get to Changy first," Baksrit decided.
"No, you're not," Jaiken placed a firm paw on her shoulder. "You're eating something first. I'm not having my sister faint from hunger before dinner, and I very much doubt you remembered lunch today."
"It doesn't get that bad," protested Baksrit. She had indeed forgotten to eat lunch.
"My sister needs a special diet," Jaiken told Dilly. "She shouldn't eat any meat at all as it makes her sick. Cheeses and eggs are all right, though."
"Oh! I don't think we'll have a problem," Dilly brightened. "I was wondering how we'll feed her since we don't eat any meat either. In fact, I reckon I might just have the thing. Be right back."
Dilly dashed into the cottage and quickly returned with a wooden plate holding a handful of green vegetables Baksrit didn't recognize.
"I was saving these for Changy later today, but I think you'll appreciate them more. Go ahead, dearie. Take one," Dilly encouraged her as Baksrit dubiously picked one of the vegetables up. The ermine took a hesitant bite of it, half expecting it to taste horrible. Happily, the vegetable disappointed her.
"This is good," Baksrit said around bites. "What is it?"
"Artichoke hearts, dearie," Dilly beamed as Baksrit took another one off the plate. The rabbit gave her a wink. "I hate the things myself, but it's a wonder what some of my Mammy's good old-fashioned kitchen ingenuity can do with them."
"Mm, thank you," Baksrit turned out to be hungrier than she thought and quickly finished off the artichoke hearts. Perhaps she needn't worry so much about her stay at the rabbits' home.
"You can stop hovering now," she told her brother once she finished eating. He only answered with a raised whiskery eyebrow. Baksrit turned to Marty. "I think I'm ready to see Changy now. May I?"
"Sure 'nough," Marty escorted Baksrit into the cottage. As they approached the doorway to Changy's bedroom, a low male groan from inside made them hesitate. Marty gave a quick peek through the door, then gave Baksrit a lecherous grin. He motioned her to follow him back outdoors.
"Hoo-wee! The way they're makin' love, if Changy weren't already stuffed to the gills, she soon would be," chortled Marty. Dilly gave him another playful punch to the arm, while Father Evan offered a muttered prayer no one listened to. Baksrit ignored them all and returned to her brother as he turned the skoit around for the trip back to Loma.
"I think you can go now, Jaiken," she told the older weasel. "When can I expect you tomorrow?"
"Oh, about midday," he shrugged as he pulled Baksrit's pack off the skoit's saddle. "Will that suffice?"
"I think it will. Thanks," she took the pack from him and shouldered it.
"You're welcome," Jaiken nodded. "From the sound of things, I don't know whether to envy you or feel sorry for you."
"Maybe a little of both?" she grimaced.
"Maybe," Jaiken gave her a wink and a grin as he mounted the skoit. "And be sure to eat, will you?"
"I will," she turned towards the cottage and wondered just what she was getting herself into.