The Long Dark Road to Wizardry
by Richard K. Lyon
|Table of Contents|
Book IV: The Whispering Mirror
Episode 5: The Wrong Cat
Previously: The wizard Ebbern asks Breen to spy on his cousin Druin. Before the boy can say yea or nay, Ebbern changes him into a rat and puts him in a sack. On being released, Breen finds himself outside the house Druin is using as a headquarters. He enters and discovers that Druin has been transformed into a large black cat. He retreats but is cornered by the cat. Their eyes meet...
It was rat, not human, instinct that made Breen snarl. The cat only stood, its gaze baleful and sinister. After what seemed an eternity it turned, tail twitching, and slowly walked away
Dazed, Breen spent a moment just breathing. The beast, he knew, had not been the slightest whit afraid of him. It was just that the cat was not a cat, but his cousin Druin, and it/he had more important things to do than obey feline instincts to kill a mere rat.
In fact, from what the enchanted youth had heard upstairs, it was a safe bet that Druin was doing something vital tonight, some critical move in this dark battle of wizards. And he hasn’t any notion I’m not a real rat!
Breen knew he ought to follow, to learn what the enemy was up to. Forcing himself, he set off after that bigger, tail-high prowler of the dark. The trail led through a maze of empty night-shrouded streets. A cat paced haughtily. A rat followed, scuttling, scurrying, moving from this bit of cover to that. Although now and again he caught a glimpse of the cat’s tail, for the most part Breen trusted his sense of smell.
Before he could be sure of their destination, the cat slipped through a gap between a high stone wall and a massive iron gate. The rat followed with more ease. On the other side he gazed about, his pulse quickening and eyes widening; they were on the ground of the Royal Palace!
Breen’s nose screamed at him: DOG! The palace grounds he knew were guarded by ferocious Nevinian dogs, big as small ponies. Still, the cat was racing on through the tall, wet grass, heedless of this danger. Because he knew something, perhaps?
Up broad pink-marble steps the cat sped, past the feet of a dozing guard and through an ornate grillwork door into the palace. Abruptly the guard awoke. Hazel eyes focused on the rat that came leaping up the stairs. The man started to lift his heavy pike and this time Breen had no choice. He raced for dear life.
The weapon sped down at him, aimed well, but he was faster than a just-woken man. Iron crash-grated on the marble a hand’s breadth behind Breen. Inwardly he exulted, for his human mind had known that once he was inside the weapon’s reach he was safe. The guard threw a futile kick, then cursed as his foot slammed into the door, The rat had sped under it.
Breen’s hand-like paws waded in a plush carpet of gold and plum and nacarat, in a brightly-lit hallway tapestried in deep plum velvet. He saw no sign of the cat. The carpet was a staggering confusion of odors.
In one direction, the corridor led toward the great Dining Hall, where the sound of the last few drunken revelers could be heard. In the other direction — Breen’s whiskers twitched while he sought to remember — Yes! It led up the broad stair to the sleeping area. The hall was clogged with drunks; if something important were happening here tonight, it would probably be in a bedroom.
Keeping to the side, where he tended to be hidden by the drapes, Breen scuttled down the corridor. On the stairs he caught a whiff of cat scent and was sure he had guessed right. He scampered up — to pause in bafflement at the top of the steps. This corridor, tapestried in luxurious gold and green, was long, marked by more than a dozen doors. Where had Druin gone?
The floor gave off feline scent. Breen blinked. This was a female’s spoor! Drood’s Arms! Queen Islaina has several cats! Any of them’s liable to attack me! Why did that lackwit Ebbern make me a rat instead of something practical?
Breen was frightened and angry. He was also determined. From door to door he went, peeking under each as he zig-zagged up the corridor. Again and again he found only an empty dark room... until at last he blinked at light and heard the sound of voices. By wriggling deep into the carpet’s fine pile he was just able to force his head all the way under the door for a good view.
The chamber was illuminated by the yellow-gold light of an extravagance: a dozen candles in a chandelier of crystal prisms. Oh, the eerie shadows it threw! The tall canopied bed extended from one corner, covered in lavender silk sheets over goose-down pillows.
The center of this house-sized bedchamber was dominated by a great mirror large enough to show several people in full-length reflection.
All this Breen took in at a glance. Now his attention fixed on the woman who sat before that tall mirror. Clad only in a negligee of diaphanous black silk and cobwebby lace, Queen Islaina was unquestionably the most beautiful woman in the realm. She sat on a high stool in fine display of her superb figure. Finely formed arms and long legs were bare as the day she was born, and much improved since then.
Her back was to Breen. As her fingers ran a gold-chased ivory comb through the spun gold hair that streamed down past her shoulders, the youth could see the beauty of her smile in the mirror. The negligee, only casually draped about her, parted with her motions. Breen swallowed.
Behind the queen, a male throat was cleared.
Startled, Breen looked in the direction of that sound and his eyes went wide in amazement. At attention just behind Her Majesty stood three palace guardsmen, all in full dress uniform of red and gold and jet!
Damnation! I’d heard things were a bit odd here in the palace, but.... the Queen? Carelessly showing herself naked to her guards?
“Have you,” she whispered in delicately soft tones, “completed the task I assigned you?”
“Aye, Your Majesty,” the tallest guard answered mechanically. “All is in readiness. The packing crate is strong, well-cushioned, and large enough to hold Your Majesty’s mirror. It awaits downstairs, and a squadron of the Royal Lancers is ready to mount beside a wagon with four of our best horses hitched to it. As soon as Your Majesty gives the word, her mirror can be in the crate, the crate on the wagon, and all on their way to safety.”
* * *
The watching Breen was puzzled. Only vaguely annoyed that he was in the wrong form to appreciate properly the queen’s nudity, he felt the beginning clutch of fear. Something was surely very wrong.
“Very good,” the queen whispered. “The time, however, is not yet. Bide here a while.”
As she spoke, Breen shuddered. His rodent ears were not playing tricks on him. The queen’s soft voice came not from her lips but from her reflection in that mighty mirror.
Knowing that something of surpassing evil was hidden in the scene he watched, Breen stared in horror and fascination. The queen was still combing her hair; her mirror image, however, dropped its comb. It rose, unconcernedly letting the negligee fall from her/its body. Stark naked and truly golden-haired indeed, the image stood and stretched her limbs And then she walked off leaving the queen still combing before an empty mirror.
Breen felt the hair standing erect all over his diminuitive body. Terrified by this most unnatural of events, he bit his tongue to keep from squealing and rapidly pulled his head from under the door. For a moment, when his head caught, he knew terror. Then he twisted free.
In the cavernous corridor, he was strongly tempted to run away and run some more. Best to forget the whole incident. He wanted no such knowledge and the worry it brought. He realized now that he had been tricked into the role of pawn in a nightmarish war between powers beyond the human and the natural. Those powers were castled at opposite ends of the board; Breen was very much in the open between them, and all but helpless.
Still, tricked or no, the fact remained that he had set out this night to learn what his cousin Druin was about, and Breen had a strong predilection toward finishing what he started. Not without some tremors, he scurried down the carpeted corridor. A boy in a rat’s body with a man’s resolve.
Since Druin wasn’t in the queen’s chamber, the next logical place to seek him was the king’s apartment. That, Breen reasoned, should be next door.
Upon pushing his head under the door, he saw only darkness and heard only snores. Further, the room seemed empty save for moon-softened shadows. He was about to withdraw to look elsewhere when something furry brushed past his face. He froze while it prowled sinuously past: a large cat, blacker than darkness.
How Druin had gained entry to a closed room was a further mystery. However accomplished, Breen was sure Druin was here to do the king no good service. A dozen half-forming plans flitted through his mind like swirling water (with a bit of mud) while the cat paced across the room. With the easy grace of its kind it hopped onto a table in the darkest corner.
Breen saw only the eyes, eerily seeming to float high above the floor. From there the cat spoke, in the strong, clear voice of Sir Druin: “King Thilloden! Awake! King Thilloden!”
“Uh? Hrum? Gumph huh what? Who — who’s there?”
The cat’s tone was cold as death. “Druin, son of Aradam, the man you had murdered for a jar of polish. My crossbow is leveled at your heart.”
The king stayed where he was. “You can’t get away with it!” he warned, but the terror in his voice betrayed him,
“That is my concern, ignoble king. Before I shoot you, however, there is one thing I’d like to know. Unworthy monarch, what was so important about that polish?”
Lady of death, Breen swore mentally, beginning to comprehend. Could Druin be innocent of the massacre at Paragas?
After a period of silence, Druin spoke again, softly and seemingly without passion, “Thilloden, I know. If you tell me what I don’t know, I shan’t release this bolt. Otherwise I’ll shoot you now and depart.”
“No no! It — it wasn’t my fault!” The king was babbling. “All her doing — the Queen’s! All! Ever since she acquired that accursed mirror, she has been different... strange!”
“The polish,” Druin insisted.
“It was her idea. Your father had a jar of rare and extremely fine polish — you know there’s no other like it! She wanted it to make her mirror absolutely perfect.”
All those lives, Breen thought sickly. Her doing for that awful mirror!
“Ahhh,” Druin murmured in a vastly appreciative tone. “I believe I understand. One question more: for all that Zadok and Thesia are nominally at war, I know of your treaty with the king of Thesia. You are secretly at peace! In exchange for a bit of gold and certain other considerations, His Majesty of Thesia sends his soldiers here to slaughter those of your subjects you find inconvenient. The city is invested, but I know your agents have left these walls — and returned. Why? To see that your own capital city is besieged by foreigners who might... slip?”
“It was her idea!” the terror-stricken monarch bleated.
With each hideous new revelation Breen’s head spun the more in a horror of unbelief. He scarcely noticed the first tap on his tail...
Abruptly that tapping became sharp pain and he was being dragged backward. His head thumped the door’s bottom and a whisker hurt him sore. In the corridor he twisted his head to see a horrific monster towering above him, its fearful teeth closed on Breen’s tail: one of the palace cats! How pleased the violet-collared monster looked!
Breen fought whelming terror. This was the wrong cat! Not his cousin Druin but a real cat that killed and ate rats!
Next Episode... Human Again!
Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon