Good Sister, Bad Sister

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Excerpt from GOOD SISTER, BAD SISTER, the first book of the series, HEART OF THE STAFF.

This is a tale about two sorceresses who happen to be sisters, their desire for the same man and the effect their struggles have on their entire world.                                 

            Minuet sat in the sunshine of the upstairs sewing room, between the tall wool wheel and the loom, embroidering a sketch which she had made of her ewe and lambs grazing by the hollyhocks she had planted by the house. A breeze came and went as a vireo called from the crown of the maple just outside the window. She hummed ever so faintly, turning her hoop this way and that. Suddenly she sat upright with a gasp at the screech of a chair to return immediately to her work, determined to ignore that Ugleeuh was now sitting directly across from her.     

            Hubba-Hubba finished preening his stubble of pinfeathers and gave himself a thorough shake, nearly losing his balance on the edge of his box of rags. Ugleeuh champed away at the fistful of hazelnuts she had brought in with her and crossed her legs. She dangled a slipper from her toe. Hubba-Hubba hopped onto the rags in his box and peered out over the edge with one eye. Ugleeuh heaved a sigh and crossed her legs the
other way as she dug at the cud in her cheek with her tongue. She popped another hazelnut into her mouth, rubbing her nose as she chewed.          

            "Do you actually want something?" said Minuet as she cut her thread and began hunting for another color.

            "Well why else would I be sitting here?"

            "Hard telling..."

            "I was sitting here because you've gotten 'way too-too..."

            "You could have spoken, first thing, and I would have answered," said Minuet as she threaded her needle on the first try and picked up her hoop. "But you didn't, and since I was enjoying myself before you sat down, I was hoping that you just might let me go on with it."

            "No, no Minnie-Min. You're just full of yourself since your victory in our little tug o' war, aren't you?"

            "Look Lee-Lee. If that's all you want, I've no time for it. Think whatever you must, but just go somewhere else and do something nice.

            "Well. Since you were polite enough to ask me, I came in here to find out when Father will get back, since he never tells me anything anymore."

            "I can't imagine why not," said Minuet as she turned her hoop over and cut a thread, "but in this case, you could have seen him off just as easily as I did. Besides, he told you he'd take you with him, the first chance he gets. Surely your birthday present isn't more important than saving everyone from the plague."

            "I don't suppose it ever occurred to you that I might be concerned about him, did it Miss Perfect?"

            "No. That would be a shock."

            Ugleeuh gave a whooping sob and sprang from her chair, smacking Minuet's embroidery hoop out of her lap as she tramped across the room. "You used to be my best friend!" she wailed as she yanked open the door and wheeled about. "You used to be my champion! You were the one person in this world I could always count on and trust! Now you've turned awful and I'll never, ever forgive you!"

            "I sure was, sweetheart," said Minuet to the closed door as she knelt to pick up her broken hoop, "but then I woke up to find that no matter what I did for you, every third thing you ever said was a lie."  

            "Do some-thing nice... do some-thing nice... just go some-where else and do some-thing nice..." said Ugleeuh in a giddy sing-song as she whirled and skipped down the hallway. At the head of the stairs she stopped short and leant out the window, straining to hear a couple of hands who were singing grandly as they rode a wagon load of timothy hay to the barn. "Oh my!" she said with a sweet little bounce as she clasped her hands under her chin. "You two are so tone deaf. I need to do something nice to each one of you. Big sister says so..." And with that, she floated down the stairs and skipped outside.

                                     ***

            Minuet had had quite enough of Ugleeuh by supper time. It had taken much of the afternoon to repair her hoop and get her embroidery mounted again to her satisfaction. Even so, she politely dipped out a bowl of Bethan's stew for her and quietly sat across from her at the board to eat.

            Ugleeuh sipped her stew without a word, stirring it from time to time and glancing up as though she were trying to think of something to say. "Did you hear that hideous loud singing the hired hands were doing, today?" she said at last.

            "I suppose. I don't know about 'hideous.' I wasn't paying attention..."

            "Well it was hideous, just plain more than anyone should ever have to listen to."

            "That bad, aye?" said Minuet, finally looking up. "So who was this rotten songster, Enid, Nudd, Yvain or old Mister Philpot?"

            "Who cares who they are," said Ugleeuh, grabbing up a napkin as she smiled around a dribbling piece of lamb.

            "Philpot wasn't ugly until you scorched him with your weather..."

            "Not him," she said, hiding a giggle as she blotted her chin. "No, no. The really ugly blotchy one. You know, the one with a face like some kind of red squash, the one with the awful orange hair..."

            "Orange? Two of the field hands have red hair, Lee-Lee, and if you mean the freckled one, he might be ordinary, but he's not one bit ugly."

            "Well his hair is orange, but maybe not ugly to you because of your red hair."

            Minuet squinted at her and waited.

            "Well anyway, we're done with his stupid singing. I was out picking a bouquet for you... All right. I'll bring you one sometime. I was out picking flowers, and I hear this hollering and carrying on, and the fool had run his own foot clean through with his very own pitchfork," she said, stifling her laughter with a snort. "What an idiot..."

            "You caused it, didn't you?"

            "How could you say that to me, Min-Min?"

            "Easy. You're having 'way too much fun with this. You're not even hiding it. Were you at least good enough to heal his wound for him?" 

            "Heal Him?"

            "Yea. They'll have to hold him down and run a red-hot wire through his foot if you didn't..."

            "Of course I didn't heal him," she said, growing louder as she stood up to tramp across the floor. "He got what he deserved, passing himself off to the old man as skilled help. I dismissed him on the spot. I did us all a favor. If the world was fair, you and Father would owe me!" And with that, she slammed the door.









Good Sister, Bad Sister: Book 1 of Heart of the Staff





Chapter1
 
 
 
 
"Happy birthday!" cried Wizard Razzmorten with a grand whirl of his cape, leaving a round wooden box with a gawking baby parrot sitting on the board by the cake.

"What is that thing, Father?"

"Why a popinjay, dear. They're almost impossible to come by..."

"It's all pinfeathers. You surely don't intend for it to actually be my gift, do you?"

"Well it's right young, Leeuh," he said. "When you start with them at that age, they can actually be talking to you before they're quite a year old."

"Not if I drown it first..."

"Lee-Lee!" cried her sister. "You don't mean that! What an awful way to treat your

Father..."

"Oh go on! He surely knows better. Here I am, still waiting for you to serve me, and he runs up and plops down this dirty box full of muslin, fowl and green poop, right where I was expecting my cake. And by the way, dearest Minuet, just how long are you going to stand there with my saucer in your hand? It is my birthday, don't you know. And since that thing in the box is my birthday gift, I certainly get to drown it."

"Don't you dare!" said Minuet. "I'll take it if you don't want it..."

"Please!" said Razzmorten, throwing up his hands. "Let's you and I take the morning tomorrow and find you something special in the market, or if you know of something better just..."

Ugleeuh wasn't listening. "You can have the stinking popinjay, Minuet, if you give me my cake before it slides off the saucer."

"You mean it?"

"Sure sister dear. The cake now, and it's yours, but you'll still owe me."


"So how would that be, Leeuh?" said Razzmorten as he slowly sat on the bench beside her.

"What?" she said, suddenly peering sweetly at him."The market, dear. What do you say?"A lost look passed across her face as she hooked her raven black hair behind an ear.

"We spend the morning tomorrow and find you something."

She tapped at a tooth with her finger. "Maybe," she said, "so long as it's not something else stupid."

"Now," he said with a nod of resolution, "shall we finally have this wonderful cake that Minuet baked for your birthday supper?"

At that moment there came a knock at the open dining room door. "I regret the intrusion, sir," said the hired man, "but there's a Captain Strong here from Castle Niarg with something urgent. Shall I...?"

"By all means," said Razzmorten, yanking his napkin from his collar as he got to his feet. By the time he had turned about, the captain was in the room.

"Good evening, Karlton. So what's up at the castle?"

"A matter, sir, that needs to be discussed in private, I'm afraid."

Alarmed by the captain's haunted look, Razzmorten quickly showed him to a sitting room at the far end of the hall, leaving Minuet and Ugleeuh to eat their cake.

"I was hoping it was Razzorbauch," said Ugleeuh, licking icing from between her fingers. "At least he's capable of giving decent gifts. But it only turned out to be this rude captain..."

"Rude?" said Minuet. "I'd think something awful has happened by the look of him."

"He should have at least acknowledged us with a polite nod. We are ladies after
all."

"It was urgent, Lee-Lee."

Ugleeuh curled her lip and took a bite of cake.


Down the hall, Razzmorten offered a chair to Captain Strong.

The captain shook his head. "I have saddled unicorns waiting for each of us."

"My word, what's happened?"

"King Henry has sent for you. Princess Branwen..."

"The one who's to be Prince Hebraun's betrothed?"

"Yea. Princess Branwen's retainer came yestereve with some kind of message about all that, but he arrived with a fever. This morning he awoke with two big knots onhis neck, just below his jaw..."

"Fates!"

"Yes indeed. And it's all got right personal for me, you might say. I mean my own brother, Awstin, saw him to his room and now he's shaking something awful with the fever."

"So what am I to do?"

"King Henry wants you to come have a look at both of them."

Razzmorten went wide eyed. "I'm no physician. Doesn't the Throne have a couple of doctors?"

"Yes sir, and they've each declared that the retainer and Awstin have the plague."

"So why am I examining them?"

"The king says that if anyone alive would have the magic to turn the plague, it would be you, sir."

Razzmorten gave a great sigh as he removed his hat to run his fingers through his hair. "I'll go tell my girls," he said as he replaced his hat and gave a nod. Meet me at the stable."

They were underway at a canter with scarcely a word between them. Lightning winked in the towering wall of clouds to the west. By the time they reached the road, they were at a pounding gallop which they kept up the entire four miles to Castle Niarg. The rain was drenching the walls of the castle in sheets as they tramped inside the echoing hallway, flinging water. As they came to the room of Princess Branwen's retainer, they were startled at the sight of a figure wearing a leather bird mask and a full length cloak of waxed linen step
out the door with a short stick and a smoldering pot of incense. "Ah, Razzmorten," said the figure in a muffled voice, as he removed his glove to shake hands. "I'm Doctor Pryce..."

"I'm sorry, but we're not going to shake your hand," said Razzmorten, taking a step backwards. "How is the patient?"

"Just now deceased, I'm afraid," he said as he took his mask by the beak and removed it. "We were expecting you. I've a clean suit like this one, if you wish to examine him."

"I don't see the point," said Razzmorten. "We both know it's the plague. How's Awstin?"

"He's already developing large buboes behind his knees and in his armpits."

"Where is he?" said the captain.

"Still in his room, one storey down."

The captain started for the stairs at once. "Karlton!" hollered Razzmorten. "I'm coming with you."

"I have that suit..." said Doctor Pryce.

"Just stay right where you are, if you would, Doctor," said Razzmorten, breaking into a sprint for the stairwell. A dozen steps down, he overtook the captain. "Wait!"

"I'm sorry. I must see him."

"Stop!" cried Razzmorten, pinning him against the wall. "Listen to me! If you go in there, I'm certain you'll die. He'll be too far gone to even know you're in there..."

The captain tore himself away from Razzmorten's grasp and jogged down a step.

"Damn it Karlton! Niarg needs you!"

The captain stopped short and nodded. "I'm sorry sir," he said, turning away as he blinked his wet eyes.

"What do you think I should do?"

"Do I need to see the king or do you reckon I could leave here this minute?

There's somewhere I'm certain I need to be."

"I can tell him it's urgent..."

"Then by all means do. But listen. Those doctors are dead men. I'm sure of it. Did you go to Awstin's bedside after he took sick?"

"No. I was sent to fetch you."

"Good! Then we both might live. Listen. Make those doctors stay where they are. Don't let anyone get within three or four rod of them. And don't let anyone touch or move any dead bodies, no matter how they might get to stinking. Got that?"

Karlton nodded, quite wide eyed.

"I'll be back before a fortnight." And with that, Razzmorten vanished down the stairs.
***
Minuet dried her hands in a wad of apron and sat down with a sigh in front of the doddering baby parrot. "You're curious, little bright eyes," she said as she carefully tried a scratch of the pin feathers on his head. "Why, you're not afraid of me at all. And all this excitement, all this hubbub. Why, nasty old Lee-lee wanted to drown you. Will you let me pick you up? Oh, you're going to! You're brave, little Hubbub. That's just what we'll call you..." She looked up with a start to find Razzmorten taking a seat beside her.

"Leeuh's not here?"

"No Father," she said as she rocked Hubbub in her arms like a wee babe. "I think she's having a bath, but she wanted me to leave the cake out. What happened at Castle Niarg? You look like you've seen a ghost."

"I nearly have, something dreadful out of the vapors, anyway," he said, standing up and stepping back over the bench. "I'm sorry, but I simply can not discuss this until I've returned. I can't imagine that you'll be in any danger. You'll be safe..."

"So where are you going?"

"I'm traveling by spell, so you can see that it's urgent, but to say just where would be discussing it," he said, giving her a squeeze and a peck on the cheek. "I'd allow that I'll be back in time to take Leeuh, tomorrow, but if I'm not, don't worry if I'm gone for as much as two weeks. I'm leaving from my study. Goodbye, and say goodbye to Leeuh for me." He turned away at once and disappeared 'round the corner.

"Right," said Ugleeuh, sauntering in in her nightgown. "And the old fool isn't telling you because he doesn't trust his own birthday girl..."

"Leeuh! How can you say such a vile thing about your own father?"

"Easy, sweetheart. He's gone and you won't have the heart to tell him out of consideration for his feelings."

Minuet gave a growl of exasperation, gently put Hubbub back into his box and began pacing the kitchen. "I can't believe you, Lee-Lee. He was so excited about your birthday, and he went to so much trouble to get that bird..."

"And to think: he still couldn't do any better for my birthday than he did," she said as she plopped down in Razzmorten's seat at the head of the board and drug her finger through the icing on the cake. "But get this.Stuck up little Princess Branwen is probably dying of the plague as we speak. Isn't that great? So I still might have a chance at Hebraun after all..."

"What are you talking about? You're not royalty. You have no chance in the world..."

"Well not if Princess Branwen makes it..."

"What are you talking about? What makes you think Branwen has the plague?"

"Well her stupid retainer's got it. That's what Yum-Bum Karlton came and got the old man for. He's on his death bed with it at the castle. So wouldn't Brannew have it by now? I mean she could, couldn't she? At least one could hope..."

"That's awful! I don't care who she is, how could you ever want her dead?"

"Easy, Minny-Min. She's most inconvenient..."

"And how dare you eavesdrop! What else did you find out?"

"That I have a goody two shoes sister..."

"No! What else did you overhear?"

"Here," said Ugleeuh as she smacked her lips and pushed the platter across the board. "You need some cake. You're supposed to be celebrating my birthday."

Minuet crossed her arms with a sigh, studying her half sister.

"Sit," said Ugleeuh. "You're hair's red enough without the rest of you being on
fire."

"Plague," said Minuet, giving in and having a seat. "That's really awful. What else? Why did they get Father?"

"Why would you want to know if it's so terrible for me to eavesdrop? Aren't you too good for any of this? And why is the plague any concern of yours? Our old man's a wizard."

"You think that magic will help? Don't you know that the First Wizard died of the plague?

"Pooh, Min-Min. The Crown wants Father to stop the plague with his magic, so somebody knows it can be done. And if it's too much for our dear father, that's probably where he's gone. He's probably off to see Uncle Razzorbauch for some real magic. And if he'd taken me, maybe I'd have gotten some kind of decent birthday present."
***
Razzmorten appeared in the moonlight amongst the tall basaltic rocks of Demonica's keep on Head (or Pennvro). He clambered about with his staff, listening to the pounding surf far below as he paused here and there to feel for the presence of magical wards and protections set by Demonica. "Well, Razzorbauch's not here," he said. He removed his hat, and for a time stood with his face fixed into the breeze, feeling the
air. At last he found a place amongst a tumbled colonnade of stones and went to sleep until morning.

Just before the sun, he awoke to find himself in the midst a colony of very agitated puffins. He was on his feet at once, clambering up the rocks.The towers of her castle rose behind the crown of the great barren prominence as he climbed. There was no drawbridge. Her portcullis was up, in fact it was unlikely to
have been closed that night. He could definitely detect magical wards, but none laid for someone afoot. He walked right in. He found her reading a letter as she sat in her great scarlet and white chair on the dais, legs crossed, having egg in a hole and tea. She looked up with a gasp.

"Good morning," he said.

"Good thing you explained that," she said. "I'd never have considered any morning 'good' which had you standing in the middle of it. Now how would you like for me to arrange your death?"

"Oh go on, Dee! We both know better. I'm not here to arrest you. You made that more difficult than it would ever be worth years ago. And besides, I stepped in here fully prepared to turn your head into a cinder at the first sign of trouble. I'm only here for a brief chat."

"You went to a good deal of trouble."


"Well, yes. Years ago, you told me that you knew of a tribe of heathens (as I believe you called them) who were supposed to have gotten through the plague which killed the First Wizard without any deaths at all. Do you remember anything about that?"

"Well no, dear. It's very difficult indeed to recall anything at all for the likes of you or Niarg. Does anyone there have the plague?"

"I have," said Razzmorten as though he were merely speaking of tickets in his pocketbook, and now you have it as well. So if you wish me to come back and cure you, it might be best if your memory returned."


With a yowl, the snow white cat sitting in Demonica's lap shot across the throne room and vanished. Demonica stared off into the distance for a moment. "Ngop," she said, heaving out a sigh. "The Ngop, 'way down the west coast, here. The plague simply decimated everyone throughout the continent, everyone except the Ngop. It's said that they came out of it completely untouched. Down the coast. Talk to their shaman. I think he goes by Ngerrk-ga. And talk to their chief, Dort-da."

"Ngerrk-ga!" cried Razzmorten. "I know him. He and Dort-da were the Aboriginals I once met at the Hanter Koadou. They mightn't have worn clothes, but they were well respected."

"Well, you've managed to disarm me, Razzmorten. You always did have your skilled moments. Do me a favor. If you were indeed telling the truth, would you be so kind as to return with the cure? My cat needs someone to feed her."





Chapter 2
 
 
 
 
Razzmorten appeared on a lonely beach amongst the cries of terns, just as a wavsoaked his feet, sending small snails vanishing into the sand as it rushed back to sea. Beached jellyfish glistened in the mid-morning sun. He stepped away from the water and scooped up a double handful of shells to admire for a moment before squinting under his hand at the arid hills of white limestone dotted with grey shrubs which lay inland. He pulled out his scrying ball from his shoulder bag and squatted in the sand to stare into it, shaded by the brim of his pointed hat. At once he was underway through the marram grass, making straight for the hills.

By the time the sun was overhead, he had crossed over three great ridges of hills.A savannah sparrow called nearby. He paused to mop his brow and look about as he felt of the ball in his bag. "Maybe I need another peek," he said. Suddenly he held his breath. "Could that be children?" A pebble skittered across the rocks at his feet, just as he spied a curly haired head slipping behind some rocks. He heard hushed giggling. "Hello?' he hollered.

There was dead silence.

"Hello? Is someone there?"

"Mamin!" cried a brave naked boy, prancing into view.

"Mamin! Mamin!" shouted another, "Dirdawung, mamin lamang gahan!"

"Menuny mamin mawu ga-yu-ma wutjjurrh-ma!" cried a girl, taller than the others, leaping to her feet.

Soon there were eight naked children dancing around him, just out of reach, chanting sing-song: "Ma-min...ma-min...ma-min..." After a bit of this, they took turns crying: "Mamin!" as they leaped forth to tug at his clothes and jump back as if he would bite.

"I say," cried Razzmorten, looking 'round about, "would you all be Ngop?"

The children broke out in such laughter that they could scarcely stay on their feet.

"If you all are Ngop, could you take me to Dort-da?" he said, nodding with wide eyes of encouragement. At this, a middle-sized girl with the merriest eyes of all dashed up and began yanking and pulling on his arm. He followed her at once.

Up through the next ridge of hills they led him, pattering through the dust and rocks, until they came to a wide dusty valley. The merry eyed girl kept a relentlessly tight grip on his hand, pulling him along through the dust and shrubs as they came to scattered acacia trees with ruminating cows bedded down everywhere in the shade. He could see low domed mud huts in the thickest of the trees. At the far end of them against the rocks
of a limestone bluff was a whitewashed hut, larger than all the others. They hurried with him, straight up to it. "Dort-da! Dort-da!" they shouted. And the next thing he knew, he was standing in front of the hut's triangular door without a child in sight. As he was glancing here and there at the paintings of animals chasing each other across the breadth of the whitewash, trying to gather his thoughts, Dort-da stepped into the light, adjusting
his long gourd cod piece. For a moment he looked as though he had been asleep. Suddenly he smiled. "Razzmorten!" he cried. "It's been ages since Hanter Koadou. Come inside."

Razzmorten removed his hat and followed Dort-da inside, finding that ducking was scarcely enough to navigate a triangular doorway. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust. "Why, it's as cool as a cellar in here," he said.

"Sit here," said Dort-da, giving a slap to one of several fat rolls of blankets on the floor in front of a great chair made of cow bones. He sat in the chair and crossed his legs. He clapped his hands and a girl clad only in a skirt appeared with a jug of water and two large cow horns. He took the first drink and nodded at Razzmorten. "What brings you here?"

"It wasn't too many years before our meeting at Hanter Koadou that there was a great plague which swept through the Dark Continent..."

"Douar-Noz might be better," said Dort-da. "The house of Dark hadn't taken over yet."

"Certainly," said Razzmorten carefully. "So, when the plague swept through Douar-Noz, of course, it killed thousands upon untold thousands of people, including my progenitor, the First Wizard, who was visiting here at the time. It killed half the people living here as well as half the people on the Northern Continent. Well, I've just heard that when the plague came, not a single Ngop died from it. Is that true?"

"Has the plague returned after all this time to Norz-Meurzouar?"

"Yes. One and by now, maybe two have died at Castle Niarg."

"Who brought it?" said Dort-da as he studied the backs of his hands. "Do you know where it came from?"

"Far," said Razzmorten, keenly aware that Dort-da was being careful. "The one who died just before I left was a retainer of Princess Branwen of the House of Far. I have no idea how many have died there."

"I've only heard of them a time or two. Do you know if they trade with the Gwaels of Gwaremm?"

"The last I knew, the Gwaels made them uneasy..."

"We have a lot to lose Razzmorten, but you convinced me years ago at Hanter Koadou that you have a true heart. You need to see Ngerrk-ga. His dreams are strong. If he doesn't want to help you, you are not to return here until seven years after this new plague has run its course." Dort-da studied Razzmorten carefully for a moment, then clapped once more. The young woman appeared with more water. "Nu-jabing-nga," he
said. "Razzmorten-ga-ndi lahan Ngerrk-ga."

"Nu-jabing-nga quickly set down her jug. "Di-nya," she said, motioning to Razzmorten with a nod. "Di-nya." Waving him on, she disappeared out the door.

Razzmorten bowed to Dort-da, thanked him and hurried out into the heat and blinding light to find Nu-jabing-nga. He saw her at once, but found her even more difficult to keep up with than the children. He had to jog to catch her before she disappeared beyond the huts along the meandering path in the thorny wait-a-bit bushes that the Ngop used for fences which ran along the limestone bluff from acacia tree to acacia tree for a very long way, sticking up in the roasting heat like great parasols which gave shade to the resting cattle who languidly chewed their cuds and swished at flies, watching them pass.

At last the path rose into a break in the bluff which led to an isolated mud hut, whitewashed and covered with red ochre hand prints in the shade of a pair of especially large acacias. Ngerrk-ga was out front with his back to them on his knees feeding the fire under a large kettle that he was stirring. Nu-jabing-nga held her finger to her lips and motioned for Razzmorten to sit on the ground at Ngerrk-ga's back before grabbing her nose and dashing away, back down the path. Ngerrk-ga went right on stirring as if no one had arrived at all, chanting quietly: "Nja-min-ah... nja-min-ah... nja-min-ah... nja-min-ah..."

"Fates forbid!" thought Razzmorten. "I hope he notices me before I pass out from the smell!"

***

Ugleeuh lay propped on her elbows in the close-cropped grass of the orchard on the hill behind their manor house, listening to a nearby oriole as she watched the men below with their bull rakes making windrows in the pungent hay. Sheep bells tinkled behind her. She gave a bored sigh and lay back to study the fluffy white clouds overhead in the deep blue sky, tracing their shapes with her finger. "Ta, ta-taa, ta-taa..." she said as
a particular cloud directly over the hay field quickly turned brooding and black. "Ta, ta-taa, ta-taa..." she said as the cloud began thoroughly pelting the field hands with huge drops of rain. "Ya-ha!" she cried, springing to her feet, furiously flinging wide her glowing fists, as a bolt of lightning connected the cloud with the big oak tree in the hayfield, blowing away a great strip of bark down its trunk. The hands ran for shelter as she squealed with delight, skipping through the grass, ending with a cartwheel.

"Lee-lee!" cried Minuet, spying Ugleeuh and tramping straight over to her. "Don't you dare pull a stunt like that!"

"What? Yesterday you were so jealous of my birthday that now you're jealous of a good cartwheel?"

"What is the matter with you, Leeuh? That's Father's hay! Look how much you soaked! And old Mister Philpot, did you see him?"

Ugleeuh nearly let slip a giggle, silencing it with a look of wounded innocence.

"You little witch! He was standing so close to the tree, you singed off his hair. I sure hope he can still hear!"

"And you're unladylike. You stamped clean across the orchard and you're still shouting. And I don't even know what you think I'm supposed to have done..."

"You know very well what you did!"

"No, I don't!"

"Father's hay...!"

"So?"

"The cloud! The Rain...!"

"Why are you jumping on me? I don't control the weather..."

"You certainly don't! You meddle with it..."

"I did not," said Ugleeuh with a sullen growl. "You're imagining everything, just like you always do, you sicky goody-goody. Besides, if I actually did do it, wouldn't I have a right to? The old man stood me up. He owed me my gift this morning, and it's 'way past noon."

"Don't try it again, Leeuh."

"Or what?" she said, grabbing up her quilt from the grass."

"Or I swear to Fates, I'll stop you!"

"I'm not listening, sweetheart." she called as she walked away through the apple trees.

***

Just as Razzmorten was thinking over how he might manage to vomit discretely, Ngerrk-ga stood up, doused the fire with a bucket of water and covered the kettle with a large wooden lid. "Razzmorten..." he said without having ever so much as glanced behind to see. He turned square about and smiled grandly. Suddenly he paused to bow his head and shake a wooden rattle in three distinct places in the air before stepping forward to shake hands. "Razzmorten. This is a wonderful day since you've come. Please sit and tell
me how it is in the civilized parts of the world."

Razzmorten didn't know what to say for a moment. "Well, I'm most relieved to see you again, Ngerrk-ga, "he said, finding a rock to sit on. I'm sorry to say that I've not come to enjoy a visit, and I'm also sorry to say that things are suddenly urgent in the civilized parts of the world."

Ngerrk-ga nodded gravely. "And you've come for a cure for the rotting death plague..."

"My word! How could you possibly have known such a thing?"

"I dream well," he said, as he sauntered to the door of his hut and reached inside for a clay bottle. "I knew you were on your way. In fact I knew for a day or two before you left home, so I had time to make up some cure for you."

Razzmorten was stricken wide eyed and speechless.

"There is just one thing I have no way of knowing, yet," said Ngerrk-ga. "Are you willing to teach me your way of traveling without walking?"

"Well certainly," stammered Razzmorten, "but I'm not at all sure that I can. As far as I know, the only reason that I am able to myself is because my Human grandmother married a very powerful Elf. But I swear that I will do everything in my power to teach you."

"Well," he said as he began scratching the chin of a panting sheep that had sauntered up, "I've no Elf blood, but as you can see, I do have some skills of my own, so you might manage, if you try. Will you?"

"You have my word."

"Then hold out your hand," he said, turning aside from the sheep and pulling the stopper from the bottle. He put a drop of oil from it onto Razzmorten's finger. "Put your tongue to it."

"My! That's hot. Spicy. Why, this reminds me of an Elven spice...umm, um. Elven hyssop. They call it oregano. This wouldn't be oregano, would it?"

"I have no idea. I never heard of Elven hyssop nor oregano. I don't know all the words in the civilized places. We call it worrobobo. It means: damned hot plant. But here's one of the very plants. Have you seen it before?"

"My land!" said Razzmorten, staring at it minutely. "I'd swear it is indeed what they call oregano. It is indeed Elven hyssop."

"So you have it where you live?"

"On my continent, at least, I'm right sure. I've collected it for my herbarium in arid limestone hills there, much like the hills you have between here and the sea."

"Good," he said with a strange laugh, as he resumed scratching his sheep, "because we're not giving you any of ours. We do reserve the right to stay alive, don't you know. But since you do have the plant, I'll show you how to get the oil." He rose and led Razzmorten to a recently used contraption a short way beyond the sight of his hut, a huge kettle with a lid ending in a long pipe used to collect the condensed oil."

"Why, we'd call this a still," said Razzmorten.

"Yes," said Ngerrk-ga. "The bad woman from Head brought us that one. She tried to talk us into drinking the liquid from corn mash. You saw her on the way here."

"Razzmorten shook his head in astonishment. "So how do I use the oil?"

"Six drops under the tongue, six times a day, and a drop or two on each swelling, six times a day. And you need to give this same amount to each one handling the sick," he said as he sat back down in front of his panting sheep. "And you will come straight here when the plague is passed and show me how to travel without walking?"

"I will, I will indeed," said Razzmorten.

***
Razzmorten appeared on a stone bench in the shade of a great white trellis smothered with blooming red roses. "This is taxing," he said, closing his eyes for a moment as he propped himself on his knees. He opened his eyes and saw his staff lying in the gravel at his feet. "And these roses are simply stunning." He sniffed at one of them, picked up his staff and steadied himself. "Well here we are, in one of the gardens of the
inner ward. This may be awkward, but it's quick." He hurried along a path to the first door he saw and stepped inside.

"Halt!" cried the guard from the middle of the hallway, immediately tramping forth in the echoes with his pike leveled. "Put down your staff!"

"I shall indeed, good sir," said Razzmorten, carefully stooping to lay it down.

"Who are you?" said the guard.

"Wizard Razzmorten at the service of the Crown."

"Well, I do beg your pardon, sir. We were instructed to watch for you just about anywhere, but I'm sure dumbfounded by how you turned up out there with the roses. Anyway, I'm supposed to take you straight to the king and queen."

Weary of the scuffling of its nearly grown brood, the barn owl under the ridge pole flew noiselessly to a nearby truss and peered down at what was going on below, as the guard brought Razzmorten into the throne room. Presently, the guard bowed and backed away from the wizard, leaving him standing before King Henry, Queen Helina and Leigheas, the Elven court healer for the Throne of Niarg. The king motioned for the guards to leave them in private.

"Wizard Razzmorten," said the king, the moment that the great doors went shut. "You already are acquainted with Leigheas, are you not?"

"I have been for years," he said, exchanging nods with the Elf.

"It was he who's advice I took when I summoned you to the castle upon Princess Branwen's steward showing up sick," said the King.

"Have you seen the patients?" said Razzmorten.

"No, I have not," said Leigheas. "I allowed that the patients stood a better chance of surviving if I didn't die from exposure to them, but it certainly stirred the indignation of the court doctors. They seemed not to share my urgent sense of a need to quarantine..."

"Seemed?" said Razzmorten.

"Well, perhaps they still seem..."

"This is right quick," said the king. "Is there any chance at all that you bring good news?"

"There is..."

The king paused to give the queen a quick nod as he squeezed her hand. "Then please have a seat. What did you find?"

"The very medicine which a large band of aboriginals called the Ngop used to keep themselves alive on the Dark Continent, south of Head, when the First Wizard died of the plague..."

"You surely found evidence that it works, aye?" said Leigheas, scooting the cuspidor closer to his chair with his foot before leaning aside for a spit. "I know about a number of cures without any."

"Multitudes all around died during the plague, while not one of the Ngop did more than fall ill, which I well realize is not full proof. But which I'd certainly think at least makes it a damned good gamble for us, right now."

"So do we have to trade for it?" said the King as he put his crown into his lap and rubbed his temples.

"I was given about a pint of the stuff, which I have right here," said Razzmorten as he pulled the bottle from his shoulder bag. "If we want any more, we'll have to make it ourselves." He carefully removed the stopper and fished out a drop on the blade of his pen knife.

"Is that enough to cure one person?" said the Queen.

"What, the drop or the jug?"

"We've had a number of people fall ill in just the short time you've been gone," said the king as he replaced his crown and sat on the edge of his chair. "You know about Branwen's steward..."

"And Awstin Strong, I suppose..."

"No actually, or at least he was alive at noon. But both doctors are in very bad shape, along with four nurses. And we had just found out about the third guard coming down with it, right before you came in. And word getting out...hooee! It hasn't yet, but the prospect's almost as scary as the plague itself..."

"There's no way to know for sure, but this might give you some hope, Your Majesty," said Razzmorten, as he leant forward where he was sitting to pull back one finger at a time as if he were counting. "A sick person is supposed to need six drops of the oil under his tongue, six times a day for maybe a fortnight. He'll need half that much put on his swellings. And at that rate, this pint might save thirty-six people..."

"So how do you come up with another pint?"

"That's harder," said Razzmorten, standing up suddenly to begin pacing. "It takes a hundred pound of the plant to make the pint..."

"What kind of plant? Say, what's this oil called, anyway?"

"The Ngop call both worrobobo, but I learnt about it as Elven hyssop a very long time ago. The Elves call it oregano..." He looked aside to trade nods with Leigheas.

"Then who do we get it from?"

"Not from the Ngop. I had to promise that we'd come up with the plant on the Northern Continent in order for them to share the cure."

"Well, I can see that," said the King as he twirled his moustache and studied the banners on the far wall. "The Elves then, I reckon..."

Razzmorten was already shaking his head. "We could go to the big Elven apothecary in town and talk to their head herbalist, Talamh Coille Graham, but it would waste precious time, because I don't think it's ever grown in the Jutwoods."

"You're right," said Leigheas. "It's not."

"Well where, then?" said the King. "Any idea?"

"I've collected samples of it for my herbarium over the years," he said, shoving away from the back of his chair and pacing another circle. "I know of two good places. One is the chalky hills at the south end of the Gulf of Orrin, though that spot may be quite limited, and the other one is the Black Desert along the Dread Sea. I'd think that the Black Desert supply would be neigh unlimited."

"Good Grief!" said the King as he squirmed on his great chair. "The south end of the Gulf of Orrin is a good week away by ship, and the Black Desert, at least three or four weeks. Well when you return with a shipload, then what? How do you get the oil out? Do you press it?"

"You have to heat up an infusion of it in a distilling vat and catch the oil when it collects as droplets at the far end of a pipe coming off the lid of the vat."

"And what you're saying is that you'll have to try setting up such a thing before you'll know how to have it work right?"

"I saw the distillery which produced the oil I have, but I'm afraid you're right."

"That means that the oil we have here might be long gone before the next batch gets made, doesn't it?"

"I have a couple of ideas about that, if you'll give me a moment," said Razzmorten as he took his seat again. For the safety of the kingdom, this first oil needs to be limited to You, Her Majesty, Prince Hebraun..."

"Wait, wait, wait. We don't have the plague."

"No, but if you take the oil drops, you won't get it. So. You three, Captain Strong, Leigheas and me, and all of those in the castle sick this minute, and my two daughters get the oil in this jar. And everything about this wee jar of oil must be kept in strictest secrecy." He held up his hand for a moment. "The other thing to keep in mind is this. I seldom use traveling spells because they take such a huge amount out of me. I've now
gone all the way to the Dark Continent and back. I think I have enough energy left to make it clean to the south end of the Gulf of Orrin and return with a hay wagon. Now if I do that, I will be spent for weeks at least, so this means that I can only make such a journey once. However, I'll surely be able to oversee the setting up of a distillery when I return. Meanwhile, you must send separate ships immediately."

"So what happens if someone else falls ill while all of this is going on?" said the queen.

"Strict hushed quarantines for any further ill," said Razzmorten, "We don't share the oil, or it jeopardizes us all. That's precisely why we must keep it utterly secret."

"That means that not one further soul must discover the plague," said the king, "particularly not within the walls of this castle." He stood up and looked at Razzmorten.

"Go to Captain Strong for the wagons and supplies you'll need. He should be able to arrange for a ship to leave at once for the far shore of Orrin. We will try to find a place for a distillery inside the outer ward by the time you get back with your hay wagon." The king held out his hand. "Fates' speed, my good wizard."

Razzmorten left the throne room and raced to find Captain Strong grieving over the news that Awstin had just been found dead.





Chapter 3





Karlton stood before Captain Cadwalader Pryce on the quay in the early evening calm between sea breeze and land breeze, carefully un-wadding the wilted oregano plant which Razzmorten had brought back in his bag. Captain Pryce watched carefully with blue eyes that had reminded Karlton of a wolf from the time they had played together as children. 

"That's it?" said Pryce, looking up.

Karlton nodded.   

Pryce said something to a burly man who tramped a few steps down the pier, stopped rigidly and blew a whistle. For a moment, the planks thundered with bare feet  as the crew of the twenty-six oar galley, Centipede, hurried down her gang way to line up on the quay. Three pelicans decided to land on pilings elsewhere. Pryce spit his chaw into his hand and flung it into the water, shifted his cutlass on his hip and strutted down his line of men. "Gentlemen!" he declared in a voice like dry leaves that everyone could hear as he paced. "We are on a secret mission to save the Crown. You will not discuss thimission with a soul beyond this crew, not with your wives, nor with your children, nor yet with the very Fates themselves until I tell you to do so, unless you want to hang fotreason. Do I make myself clear?"

"Aye sir!" came the shout of many voices.

Commencing with: "Atten-tion!" Pryce introduced three officers of the Royal Guard, marching them into place in line with his own men in spite of their scarlet uniforms. "These men are part of this crew for the duration of this mission!" he cried, looking from face to face. They are along because of their knowledge of this mission, their knowledge of putting up hay and their keen marksmanship with the longbow. They outrank most of you. Don't forget it, and I promise that you'll have the pleasure of showing them how to toughen up their feet like Navy men!"

At this, a roar of cheers broke out, silencing the moment that Pryce introduced Captain Karlton Strong.

"Gentlemen," declared Karlton, "you are the pride of Niarg!"

Again there were cheers, silencing at once.

He held out the oregano plant as he started down the line. "Gentlemen, I have something for each of you to see..."   

***

"Well, I'm finally here," said Razzmorten as he stepped into the kitchen and took his chair at the head of the board.

"Father!" said Minuet, getting up at once to fetch him a cup and a bowl from the shelves. "The tea's right hot. There's only been one cup out of it. Bethan left a kettle of soup for us over the coals, out in the summer kitchen. I'll be right back with it."

Ugleeuh sat at the far end of the board, ignoring Razzmorten completely except to glance up at him with a glower of contempt as he put a spot of milk into his cup and stood up to reach down the table for the pot.

"So it's salsify and green onions, aye?" he said with a hoary browed squint at her and her bowl before he sat, as Minuet tramped in, waddling quickly to the table with the heavy kettle.

"Oh, but it's good," said Minuet as she filled his bowl. "She's used just the right amount of new onions and black pepper, and there was some parsley just up, but that was the very last bit of salsify in the cellar." She put the kettle aside and returned to her bowl of soup. "It's good you're back. I allowed that you'd be gone longer than this."

"Well I'm only scarcely back, since I'll be leaving first thing in the morning..."

Suddenly Ugleeuh's stool smacked the stone floor with a clatter as she threw down her napkin and stamped away from the table.

"My word, Leeuh!" said Razzmorten, blotting at the milk running down his chin. "I can't imagine what could suddenly have you so upset. It can't be the salsify running out..."

"That's obvious as can be!" she shouted, wheeling about. "You'd not forget a promise to Minny-Min. "She gets my stinking popinjay so that I can't even watch it drown, and then you go off with Captain Strong and completely forget your promise to take me to the market. You both owe me, big!" And with that, she tramped out.

 "You're just awful!" cried Minuet as she threw down her napkin and stepped over the bench she was sitting on.

"Please Minuet," said Razmorten. "Just sit down and finish your supper. It'll give her time to calm down. Besides, if she must be childish, should she be able to drag us along?"

"I'm sorry," she said as she stepped back over the bench and sat down. I'm just fed up with her. "What is the matter with her, Father? She's never nice to either of us anymore, unless she wants something out of us."

Razzmorten sighed and found where to get his next spoonful of soup. "I swear," he said with the slightest shake of his head, "Demonica didn't spend any more time raising her than it took her to give birth and flee, but she still has far more influence over her than I've had in all my years raising her. And you know? Just now, she struck me more like Razzorbauch than either one of us." He looked up with a wince of a smile. "I have no business saying any of this. Let's just eat. We'll go have a talk with her when we're done."

"Your leaving first thing tomorrow?" she said, sipping from her spoon. "Is still it all hush-hush? I mean, Leeuh says the plague's in Niarg and probably Far, too."

"Fates!" said Razzmorten with a look of alarm. "She's not told anyone else, has she?"

"I can't imagine how. She's not set foot off Peach Knob, and she's such a horrid snot to the help that they'd never pass the time o' day with her." She stopped eating. "Father. The plague's really here, isn't it?"

"Oh, it is, it is. You look scared. I don't think you need to be, because I think I've actually had an impossible stroke of luck. But tell me: how in all thunderation did Leeuh find out about the plague if she's not left the place?"

"Quite simply. And it's my fault. I'm so sorry..."

"What?"

"Well she overheard you and Captain Strong before you left. I let her out of my sight because I swallowed her saying she was going to her room."

"Fiddlesticks, sweetheart!" he said, giving her hand a squeeze. "Why would anyone suspect?"

"Because its her nature."

"Of course. Now, I'd not be upset with you, even if she did let the word out, but with what's at stake here, please tell me again. You're absolutely certain that she's not told a soul?"

"Well, not that I can possibly imagine..."

"That's good enough."

"Say. I feel mean, Father. Let's eat her cake. She's already had 'way, 'way more than us put together, and we can still leave her some..."

"Shhh!" he said, looking up at the sound of muffled barking overhead. "Was Fifi out when I got home?"

"As far as I know."

Upstairs, Ugleeuh was pacing her room in a furious huff all the while. "Hey!" she said with sudden smile and a snap of her fingers. "If they both owe me so bad, that means I get to drown the stinking popinjay, right now. My bird. Too bad." With a surge of giddy glee, she raced into the hallway, stepping right out in front of Razzmorten and Minuet, who were walking up behind. "Oh, say Leeuh," said Razzmorten. "If you're off to have some fun in Minuet's room, we'll join you."

"My bird," she said, going on her way without turning about. "You both owe me, and you never got me a replacement, so it's still my ugly little popinjay, so I'm on my way to pull out every last pinfeather and drown it." Suddenly she sprinted for Minuet's door as if it were a game of tag.

"No!" cried Minuet with a furious slap at the air. Down the hall, her door slammed shut with a deafening bang, immediately in front of Ugleeuh.

Ugleeuh froze, pieces of plaster still peppering down all about her.

"You'll not think of going anywhere near Hubub," said Minuet calmly as she folded her arms. "Will you, Lee-Lee-pooh?"

"Hubub?" said Razzmorten with a sudden toothy smile, as if none of this was going on around him. "That's perfect! And after Min-Min and Lee-Lee, it would have to be Hubba-Hubba..."

"Oh it is," said Minuet. "I've already called him that once."
 \
Ugleeuh was still looking at the closed door.

"Ears still ringing, sweetheart?" said Minuet.

Ugleeuh jerked away her gaze from the door with the look of a flat eared cat.

"Good," said Minuet. "Now that you remember that you gave me little old Hubba-Hubba, Father wants to have a talk with us, back in the kitchen. We can even have some of your cake."

By the time Razzmorten took his seat at the head of the board in the kitchen, Minuet and Ugleeuh were already sitting on either side of his chair. "Well Ugleeuh," he said, getting her eye, "I'm keeping my promise of taking you to the market, in spite of your awful behavior this evening, just as soon as this emergency allows." He paused to shake his head at her drawing in a passionate breath. "Now I was all ready to explain my secrecy when I was called away, but since you eavesdropped and think you know all about it, I'll skip that part.

"But I have quite an announcement," he said, pausing to see that he had the gaze of each one of them. "In fact, I'm still finding it hard to believe that I have indeed stumbled onto a cure for the plague. It's the oil from a plant, and I'm taking the big hay wagon, a brush scythe and a pitch fork first thing tomorrow to see how big a load I can come back with. When I get back, I'll have to work night and day for a while to set up a distillery to extract the oil. There's a ship which is also leaving in the morning to bring back more."

"So there will be delays before you have this oil ready?" said Minuet.

"Oh I'm afraid so. All kinds of them. And there will undoubtedly be a lot of people who die before I get caught up..."

"You left out where you came up with this cure," said Ugleeuh.

"Maybe I am getting ahead of myself," he said. "I got it from the shaman of the Ngop tribe on the Dark Continent."

"Tribe?"

"Well, yes. That's how they're organized. They still use stone tools, as a matter of fact..."

Ugleeuh gave a snort. "No wonder you left that part out," she said. "You got a cure for the plague from a heathen witch doctor, and you expect it to work when not even the Elves nor the First Wizard nor any of the rest of the world's learned people could stop it? He was the most powerful wizard ever, and you think some stupid tribesman could actually have the answer? No wonder you forgot your promise..."

Minuet gasped at this.

Razzmorten caught her eye and shook his head. "So all knowledge comes from learned people, aye?" he said, squinting at Ugleeuh.
           
"You have to ask me?"

"Well certainly," he said with a thoughtful nod. "And I see that I have indeed seriously overlooked things. And what frightens me is that you might not be ready to learn from everything around you as do the truly learned minds. Well then. You'll be especially amused to learn that when the First Wizard went to Douar-Noz and died of the plague, thousands of people everywhere there were dying of it, but not one single Ngop did. Doesn't that make you curious as to why that would be?"

"So? Maybe they were so isolated that they were never exposed, or maybe they have some kind of natural born strength. Just because they didn't get the plague, doesn't mean they can cure it."

"That's quite true dear, and I'm still considering these possibilities. But the difference between you and me is that I'm not afraid to entertain the further possibility that the Ngop did find a cure. If I don't, we don't even have a gamble on a cure, since none of the learned have found one."

"I suppose not," she said, rolling her eyes with disdain, "but I'd think you'd at least have the wits to make up a small sample of the oil to try out on some of the sick before you go wasting time sending off ships."

"Well I actually don't have wits like that, particularly since we don't have the time, but you'll be delighted to know that the heathen witch doctor gave me enough of the oil that I might be able to keep you and Minuet protected until I can come up with more," he said with a twinkle in his eye as he set out two small glass vials and two glass pipettes. "These are to put six drops under your tongues, six times a day..."

"But we don't have the plague," said Ugleeuh.

"Well, not if you take the drops."

"How will you know you have the right plants, tomorrow?"

"I compared this plant from the Dark Continent with ones in my herbarium, just before you saw me this evening," he said, pulling out a wilted stem from his bag. He suddenly put it away and stood up. "And I simply must get sleep. But if I don't see you two tomorrow, keep the drops secret at all costs." He gave a sigh of resolution and pushed away from the table.    

Minuet stood up and began gathering up dishes. "I caught your look, dear little sister." she said, reaching in front of Ugleeuh for a spoon. "And I don't trust it. This stuff is serious. If you dare..."

"You'll what?"

"It's obvious that you don't have any respect for him, but he does know what he's talking about..."

"Goody, goody, Minnie-Min. One of these days I'll find out the things the old man's showed you and not me. You can count on it."

Minuet watched Ugleeuh leave the table and walk out. "Looks like I'll be keeping Hubba-Hubba where I can keep an eye on him for the next few days," she thought.