A thump in the night brought Merrif abruptly from his dream into the cold reality of his Dargon home. “Illiena!” he screamed. Breathing hard through his mouth, Merrif clutched the blankets and tried to relax.
“The same dream again?” Niatha asked from across the room.
Merrif sat up in his bed and wiped the sleep from his eyes. “Yes,” he answered, breathing a little easier. “Was that you caused the thump?”
“It was me. I jumped through the window. I tried to be quiet, but you piled the table with your books and scrolls again, and I slipped on something. I think it was a scroll.”
“It’s too dark to see anything,” Merrif complained. “I’ll make us some light.”
“No!” Niatha said, but it was too late. Merrif had spoken and the air turned crisp with energy. The fireplace roared to life. “Well,” Niatha said, “at least you got the fire in the right place. But you weren’t trying for a fire, were you?” Niatha looked a lot like a large black cat. Smooth, soft fur covered his body from his nose to the end of his long tail. Two wings were folded back, and down, to blend with his body.
“Oh hush and move so I can see the scroll you destroyed,” Merrif replied. “It was too cold in here anyway.” He got out of the bed and walked over to the table on the far side of the room. His home consisted of one room that functioned as his working area, his kitchen, his bedroom, and any other room he happened to need.
Merrif was an old man who didn’t have a wife or children; his one-room home suited him just fine — until it got too cluttered. When it got too messy, Niatha complained until things were organized and put away.
Niatha hopped from the floor to the bed. His front two legs touched the bed first and he used them as a balance until his stronger back legs settled and supported him. He stretched out, turned around, and got comfortable as he watched Merrif.
Merrif watched as Niatha settled on the bed. Merrif had given up long ago on claiming sole ownership of the bed. He had fought with Niatha on that point for months before he had given up. He didn’t know if the actual losing of the fight or the smug expression Niatha had worn for days had been worse. Picking up the scroll on the floor, he realized whichever had been worse was a moot point. He would rather have Niatha around, even if that meant cleaning the room every once in a while.
“Are you going to watch me all night or see what that scroll is?” Niatha asked. “If you would keep the table clear, I wouldn’t knock things off of it.”
“You can jump over the table.”
“I have to jump up to the window and through it. The table makes a nice perch. You could put the bed over there. That would make a much better landing place for me.”
“I’d like to put the fireplace there,” Merrif retorted.
“And burn up all your scrolls and books?” Niatha teased.
“To put a fire under your tail,” Merrif chuckled. “That’d be something to see. You hopping and flopping about, trying to put your fur out. Wings a-flapping about,” he laughed. Bracing a hand on the table, Merrif bent down to pick up the scroll. His laugh turned to a groan as he stood back up. “Maybe I should make myself younger.”
“No!” Niatha replied, sitting up suddenly. His wings twitched upwards and outwards slightly which gave his body a bigger appearance while his tail flipped back and forth.
“Ah, keep your fur smooth,” Merrif chuckled. “I was joking that time. I know better than to try that. Who knows what would happen? I’d probably end up as a woman. What would you do then?”
“Eat better,” Niatha replied, laughing. The fur around his face ruffled up and he shifted his weight onto one front paw while bringing the other up to rub his fur back into place. Laughing as he was, his fur just got ruffled more.
“Yer going to choke on your laughter if you keep going.” Merrif harumphed and opened the scroll. “It isn’t ruined.”
“Which one is it?”
“The history of Illiena,” Merrif sighed. Niatha sucked in a gasp of air and shifted backwards a step.
“I’m sorry,” Niatha said. “I thought you kept that one in the scroll tube?”
“I do, but I was reading it again earlier this eve.”
“Do you think you dream of her because you’re reading about her or you’re reading about her because you’re dreaming of her?” Niatha asked.
“It’s been so long, I can’t recall which happened first. It doesn’t matter now. It’s all that my dreams are about.” Merrif pulled the chair closer to him and slowly lowered his aged body onto it. His grey straggly beard hung uncut from his face, though his hair was still the dark color it used to be. His tall, thin frame sat awkwardly in the chair and his back was bent forward as he stared into the scroll.
“How was your evening?” Niatha asked, trying to shift his thoughts to other things. Merrif looked up and smiled, understanding shining from his tired eyes.
“It was a disaster for me,” Merrif said. “As usual, I didn’t get the magic I cast. I got something else. If it wasn’t for me being invited by one of my customers to perform, I wouldn’t have gone. It’s hard to say ‘no’ to nobility, though.”
“I know,” Niatha replied. “I was there when you were asked, remember? Duke Dargon didn’t belittle you in front of everyone, did he?”
“No,” Merrif replied. “I’ve come close to that several times, though. No, this time was different. Even though everything I tried didn’t work the way I wanted it to, the audience loved it.”
“You didn’t catch anyone on fire? No one was hurt?”
“Not this time. Either I’m getting better or I’m getting luckier,” Merrif laughed. “I’ll label this evening’s festivities as a grand success. My casting was a disaster, but the outcome was a success.”
“Magic isn’t the easiest thing in the world to control,” Niatha replied.
“Aye, I’ve got you as a reminder of that.”
“Yes, you never have told me how you conjured me. You weren’t purposefully trying to get me to come here, were you?”
“No. I told you,” Merrif huffed. “None of the magic I’ve tried has ever worked the way I wanted it to!” Merrif started to say more, but stopped and paused for a moment. “Let me get back to the duke and his festivities,” he said.
Niatha bobbed his head. “What happened?” Niatha asked.
“Oh, it was quite the gathering. There was more finery there than I’ve ever seen. Polished silverware and silk tapestries. There were not as many in attendance as I had expected. Especially since it was being held by the duke. The ladies were dressed quite beautifully and the men tripped over themselves fighting for their attention.
“It was amusing to watch. I caught the duke watching them, and he seemed to be enjoying the sight, also. His wife and daughter were there. All three were dressed nicely, but I expected more flair from them. You know how some of the fashions are these days.
“The guard was dressed in colorful dress uniforms. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it before. Either something new or something not used often. And the room was big. It had a nice tall –”
“The magic,” Niatha hissed. “I don’t care about them. What about the magic?!”
“Quit swishing your tail! I’m gettin’ to it! Now, the room was big and had a tall ceiling. That was good because it provided the space for what happened. I was called to perform and I walked to the center of the room. They made a circle around me and gave me some space to work.
“I wanted to send out this colorful ball to weave its way between the guests. Nothing large and nothing hard. I stretched out my arm and opened my hand.” Merrif laughed hard and rocked back in the chair, almost tilting it over.
“The brightest lights I’ve ever seen blazed out of my fingers. Every color imaginable streaked out among the people and showered them all. The colors rolled and moved and streaked and blazed as if it was a thing alive. Each color seemed like a living thing making up the entire whole.
“At first, the guests shrieked and shouted, but once they saw there was no harm, they settled down and made funny noises at the lights. ‘Ooohing’ and ‘aaahing’ at everything. Some of them forgot to close their mouths and the lights would enter their mouths and come out their eyes and ears. It was the funniest and grandest thing they had ever seen.”
“And no one got hurt?” Niatha asked.
“Hush,” Merrif replied. “Just because of one instance, you ask that every time.”
“Well, it was my tail!”
“Good thing you don’t burn easily. And I thought you wanted to hear about the magic.” When Niatha didn’t reply, Merrif continued. “The lights finally faded away and the guests cried out for more. I wasn’t sure if I could do anything more amazing than that.
“I tried for something small, again. No need to push things too far. I wanted to swirl out a small breeze to blow through people’s hair. After my gestures and tossing out some powder, I got a swirl, right enough. Wind gathered and formed in front of me in a milky human shape. It flowed over to the nearest girl, grabbed her, and started dancing with her. People were pushed aside by wind as the two danced through them. The girl seemed to love the dancing. The wind picked them up and they started floating above the floor, still dancing.
“There wasn’t any music playing, but the girl acted as if she heard some. She was smiling and her hair was swished back from the wind. Her feet moved in time to some tune and the wind moved her effortlessly throughout the room. They danced back down to the floor. The wind moved closer and kissed her on the cheek, then stepped back from her, bowed once and disappeared.”
“And no one was hurt?”
“Will you stop asking that question?!” Merrif shouted. “Of course no one was hurt!” Niatha’s laughter rang out and interrupted any further rebuke by Merrif. “One day, I’m going to try some magic your way again. We’ll see what catches fire.”
Niatha’s laughter stopped. “You wouldn’t!” Niatha replied.
“No, but it made you stop laughing.” Merrif laughed.
“What happened at the keep next?” Niatha asked.
“Nothing. They asked for more magic and I feigned that I was tired. I told them that working magic took a lot of energy and that I couldn’t do any more. I told them I had to rest. They didn’t ask again. The duke himself thanked me.”
“He did? You must have made some impression.”
“Not only did the duke thank me, but so did everyone else as I left. Considering how my magic usually turns out, the evening went very well.”
Niatha moved his tail around to the front of him where he used his front legs to grab it. He pushed his fur aside on his tail and looked closely at his skin. “Yes, considering –”
“Hush! Now, move aside and let me get back to sleep.”
Dawn’s light crept upon the town, over the buildings, and through the windows. On this particular morning, just like every other morning, particular or not, the light flooded onto a bed. While the bed never objected, one of its occupants did.
Soft, black, velvety fur shimmered and glistened in the light. The once motionless form twitched and muscles rippled. Niatha’s eyes closed tighter in an effort to block the light, but failing in that, he flipped his tail in annoyance.
“Merrrrrrifff,” Niatha yawned. “Why can’t we put something over the window?” The other occupant of the bed snored in response. “Merrif,” Niatha repeated a bit louder. Turning away from the sun, Niatha used his powerful back legs to push against Merrif. Instead of moving Merrif as planned, he only succeeded in pushing himself closer to the edge of the bed and into more sunlight. “Merrif!” Niatha cried in annoyance.
“Huh?” Merrif snorted. Long, skinny arms stretched out from under the blankets. His wrinkled, aged face appeared and blinked against the sun. “Niatha, why do you have to wake me every morning?”
“Because the sun wakes me every morning,” Niatha replied. He lifted his feline body and arched his back, wings unfurling and reflecting the light in a multi-hued fashion. Bending his neck, Niatha placed his head under one wing and let the wing rest on top of it.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Merrif said. “I’m awake and you’re going to stay awake, too.” Tossing blankets aside, Merrif rolled Niatha off the bed. Niatha hissed as he rolled and turned, landing on the floor on back legs, only to have his momentum push him further. He flopped over on his back and lay there.
“That,” Niatha said, “was cruel.”
“You should have seen yourself,” Merrif laughed. “Rolling and twisting and turning, only to land on your back.”
“You’d better hope I don’t grow any bigger. It may be you rolling and twisting, then,” Niatha warned. Merrif laughed harder. “What’s so funny about that?” Niatha asked.
“Can … see me … arms and legs … flailing?” Merrif managed between short intakes of breath and his laughter. Niatha rolled over and sat up, twisting his head as he tried to picture Merrif rolling off the bed. As he glimpsed what Merrif had seen, he started laughing. “Those long arms and legs of yours would really be a sight to see!” Both of them laughed harder.
“It’s good that you aren’t larger,” Merrif said as he got out of bed. He placed his feet on the floor and then lifted them, saying, “Another cold morning. You’re lucky you have fur.”
“I still get chilly,” Niatha replied as he leaped back onto the bed. “Are you going to start a fire this morning?”
“No, today is market day for us. Did you forget?”
“No, but I was hoping you did.”
“Hmmph. My magic may not work as it should, but my memory does. Are you going to sit there or are you going to help me pack?”
“I’ll sit here,” Niatha smiled. His smile showed some of his small sharp teeth.
“That’s what you do all day. When you aren’t sleeping, that is.”
“It’s better than knocking your powders and herbs off the table, isn’t it? Besides, I don’t exactly have hands to grab with.”
“Tell that to all the rats. You grab them very well.”
“That’s different. I don’t have to be gentle with them.”
“No, I suppose not.” Merrif walked over to the wall where a row of herbs hung on twine. He grabbed a couple of dried leaves from several different plants and walked back to the table. He used a mortar and pestle to grind the individual leaves. After crushing all of the leaves, he mixed a few of them together and put the mixture in a small cloth bag, which he tied shut. He did this until he had filled all fifteen of his bags. He gathered them up and put them in his pack. He grabbed a couple of small vials filled with creams and salves and set them carefully in the pack.
“Don’t forget your wand,” Niatha told him.
“Heh,” Merrif snorted. “Don’t want to forget my *magic* wand. It’s amazing what a little bit of a performance can do to sell something. You know, sometime soon, someone is going to recognize that the wand isn’t magic.” He placed the wand inside the pack.
“You’ll have to do some real magic, then.”
“Illiena help me. I just hope I don’t burn the whole marketplace down.”
“Or no one gets hurt.”
“Oh, hush! I haven’t hurt anyone yet.”
“You aren’t anyone and your fur grew back fine. Are you ready to go?”
“I am, but I don’t have to get dressed. You, however, should change before you leave,” Niatha said. Merrif looked down at himself and noticed that he was only wearing a pair of thin breeches. “You were saying something about your memory?”
“It’s fine!” Merrif replied. “I was going to change first.” Merrif walked over to the wall where his clothes hung. If hanging herbs off of the wall was a good place to keep them, then hanging clothes on the other wall should be a good place to keep them, too. Changing quickly, he grabbed his pack again and started for the door. Niatha jumped down and followed him.
“While we walk to the marketplace,” Niatha said. “This would be a good time to tell me how I got here,” Niatha said.
“We’ve been over this. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You said you didn’t deliberately call me, so what were you doing?”
“Nothing,” Merrif answered, taking long strides down the alley.
“Nothing?” Niatha asked, trying to catch up.
“Then how did I get here?”
“Whose?” Niatha asked.
“It was mine, I think. But I don’t want to talk about it,” Merrif replied, slowing a bit so that Niatha didn’t have to run.
“I need to know.”
“Because I do,” Niatha replied.
“Tell me why you need to know.”
“If I do, will you tell me how I got here?”
“No,” Merrif replied.
“Were you trying some sort of spell?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Niatha sighed and let the matter drop. The two walked in silence, each in their own private world, until they reached the marketplace.
“What a beautiful cat,” a young woman remarked upon seeing Niatha sitting on the table. Her voice was shrill and piercing and her body was short and slightly stocky. She started to reach out to pet Niatha.
“I’m not a cat,” Niatha hissed. He knew she couldn’t hear him, but he thought maybe baring his fangs would work.
“Beautiful but mean,” the woman replied, bringing her hand back quickly. “I don’t see many cats that are that black. Where did you find her?”
“I’m not female,” Niatha hissed louder. He got up and turned away from the woman and jumped down to the ground behind Merrif.
“It’s a he,” Merrif responded, smiling. “And I just found him one day. He followed me home and hasn’t left since.” Merrif could hear another hiss behind him. His smile got bigger.
“Her fur looks so soft,” the woman said. “But I doubt she’d let me pet her, would she?”
“No, *she* is rather wild still.”
“She?” Niatha asked, his voice going higher than normal. “*She*?”
“Do you have any potions for sickness at sea? My husband insists he’s fine, but all the other hands on the ship tease him about being sick.”
“I do indeed have a potion for curing that,” Merrif told her. “It is an old remedy and not only will it cure the sea sickness, but it will also cure the head aches from drinking all night.”
“Truly?” the woman asked. Her eyes opened largely and she leaned in closer to Merrif. “How much?”
“There is one minor failing of the herb. It leaves the breath smelling slightly bad.”
“How bad and how much is it?”
“It smells almost like an onion and it is a mere Sterling.”
“A Sterling! For something that will make the breath smell like an onion? You jest?”
“Ah, but young lady, it will also give you a reason to turn down his advances at night. Is it not worth a Sterling just for that?”
“Hmm … There is that. Five Floren.”
“Seven and no less.”
“You’d better take it,” Niatha remarked from behind him. “She’s liable to suggest three.”
“Just how long does my husband have to take this potion?” the woman asked.
“For curing the sea sickness, just before he goes out to sea. For the drinking, when he wakes up after drinking all night.”
“Each time he goes out to sea? That’s nigh every day!”
“Yes, but one bag will last several weeks. Unless his sickness is strong, then you’ll have to make the potion stronger.”
“How does it work?”
“Just mix two pinches in a cup of some liquid. Have him drink all of it. If you use tea, it masks the flavor somewhat.”
“And you said six Floren?”
“Straight. Seven it is.” She paid Merrif the Floren. He picked up the bag in one hand and picked up his wand in the other. He moved the wand in circles over the small bag and then snapped the wand down on the table. Several loud cracklings exploded out from the wand. The woman jumped back. Merrif opened his other hand and the bag was gone.
“The powder and the bag are now in the wand,” Merrif explained. “Watch the wand closely.” He spun the wand several times and twirled the end in a circular pattern. The tip of the wand left a glowing circle in the air. Suddenly, Merrif moved the wand to his once empty hand. The bag had magically reappeared. “Your powder,” he said, handing the bag to the woman. She reached out and with trembling hands, took the bag. She turned and quickly left without a word.
“Why didn’t you correct her when she called me a she again?” Niatha asked.
“Never argue over something insignificant with someone who might buy your potions,” Merrif chuckled.
“Insignificant? *That* isn’t insignificant. It’s bad enough that people see me as a cat, let alone get my gender wrong.”
“I sold the powder, didn’t I?”
“We have money to spend.”
“Yes,” Niatha sighed, knowing when to give up. “We have money.” Niatha turned his head sideways and used his front paw to scratch behind his ear.
“Here,” Merrif said, “let me help.” He reached down without waiting for a reply and rubbed behind Niatha’s ear.
“Sometimes, I wish I had round soft fingers,” Niatha replied. “These paws are great for hunting, but not much else.” Four curved, sharp claws extended out from Niatha’s paw. As he set his paw to the ground, the claws retracted back, his velvety fur hiding them.
“That’s an interesting creature,” a man said.
“Eh?” Merrif rasped, looking up. “What was it you said?” Merrif saw a man of medium size, albeit wider in the shoulders than most, short cut brown hair, and a piercing gaze. Leaning on a cane, the man was looking at Niatha.
“He said I was an interesting creature,” Niatha replied.
“I said that is an interesting creature.”
“It’s a cat,” Merrif said.
“That isn’t like any cat I’ve seen,” the man said.
“He can’t really see me, can he?” Niatha asked.
“What do you mean?” Merrif asked.
“Lylle! Come over here,” the man yelled.
“What is it Raphael?” Lylle responded, moving towards the table. Lylle was a young teen, small framed, slightly skinny, and had long, tangled brown hair. His face was dirty and his clothes were ragged.
“Come look at this creature,” Raphael said.
“What do you mean ‘creature’?” Merrif asked again.
“What?” Lylle asked. “I see a cat.”
“He does see me,” Niatha said.
“Oh, hush!” Merrif hissed.
“Who are you telling to hush?” Lylle asked, his eyes narrowing.
“You just see a cat?” Raphael asked.
“It’s just a cat,” Merrif responded.
“That is not a cat,” Raphael replied.
“Looks like a cat to me,” Lylle said.
“Meow,” Niatha replied.
“Like that is going to help,” Merrif said, rolling his eyes.
“What is going to help?” Lylle asked.
“What is it?” Raphael asked.
“Yes, what am I?” Niatha asked.
“Ah!” Merrif yelled. “You never quit, do you?”
“No,” Niatha and Raphael replied at the same time.
“Straight!” Lylle said. “I’m going to go look around some more. I’ll be across the street. Come get me when you’re done, Raphael.” Lylle shook his head and started to leave.
“Stay for a mene,” Raphael said. Lylle stayed.
“Can you hear anyone else talking besides me?” Merrif asked.
“No, why?” Raphael answered.
“At least he can’t hear me,” Niatha said.
“Unfold your wings,” Merrif said.
“What?” Raphael asked. Niatha opened his wings. Raphael’s eyes opened wide for a brief moment. “Definitely not a cat.”
“No,” Merrif responded. “He isn’t.”
“What is he? He talks to you, doesn’t he? Why can I see him and not hear him, then?”
“He’s a magical creature,” Merrif answered.
“And I came from where?” Niatha asked. Merrif ignored him.
“I’ve never seen anything like him and I’ve walked half of ‘diar.”
“That narrows things down by half,” Niatha quipped. “Some help he is.”
“Hush,” Merrif snapped.
“What is he saying?” Raphael asked.
“Why is it I never say anything important?” Niatha whined. “One of these days, you’ll listen to me and it will be important.”
“It is a beautiful creature. What kind of magical creature is it? What’s its name? Can it hear me?” Raphael asked.
“I like him,” Niatha said. “He’s more curious than I am.”
“I don’t know what kind of creature he is. His name is Niatha and yes he can hear you.”
“Why can I see him while everyone else sees a cat?”
“A good question,” Merrif answered. “A good question, indeed.”
“Just what am I?” Niatha asked.
“It’s a cat,” Lylle said, unaware of what Niatha had asked. Agitation was beginning to show in his face. He shifted around almost as much as Niatha.
“No, it isn’t,” Raphael replied. His one hand rested on top of a straight wooden cane, but he wasn’t leaning on it. His body was relaxed and there was a smile in his eyes.
“You called me back over here to argue about a cat? Or whatever it is?” Lylle asked.
“Have you heard it make any sound?” Raphael asked. Merrif stood silently while the two talked. He was curious as to where Raphael was taking the conversation.
“No,” Lylle replied. “I haven’t.” Lylle reached down to touch Niatha and Niatha hissed.
“I don’t like to be touched,” Niatha said.
“That isn’t a hiss from any cat I’ve heard,” Raphael said.
“No,” Lylle agreed. “But cats make all kinds of noises.” He shrugged.
“Can he pet him?” Raphael asked.
“No!” Niatha hissed again.
“Hush, Niatha,” Merrif said. “I want to see what happens. Let him pet you.” Niatha gave a low growl but didn’t say anything else. “Go ahead, he’ll let you.” Lylle slowly lowered his hand to Niatha and then ran it lightly over his head, neck and back. Niatha’s wings were folded down and Lylle ran his hand over them.
“I don’t feel anything different,” Lylle said.
“Unfold your wings, Niatha,” Merrif said. Niatha stretched his wings out. Lylle ran his hand down Niatha’s neck and up part of his wings and down to his back again.
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” Lylle said. “Just a cat.”
“Your hand went up the wings and down to his back,” Raphael said.
“No, there wasn’t anything there. I just ran my hand over his back,” Lylle disagreed.
“You’re the only one who can see him as he is,” Merrif said to Raphael. “I don’t know why.” Niatha moved out of Lylle’s reach and turned to smooth his wings back down. He used his front paw to brush his fur.
Raphael stood mesmerized as he watched Niatha. Lylle looked at Raphael and then looked at Niatha before looking up to Merrif.
“Will someone explain what’s going on?” Lylle asked.
“Yes, what is going on?” a man asked behind them. “Is this Merrif’s table? Someone told me to come here for, um, potions.” The man squirmed his way between Raphael and Lylle. He bent over the table and whispered something to Merrif.
“Ah,” Merrif said, “a love potion!” The man started to run, but Raphael and Lylle blocked his way.
“No need to be ashamed,” Merrif stated. He reached out and motioned for Raphael to move to one side. Raphael and Lylle stepped to the side. “I am Merrif and I just happen to have enough powder for one more love potion.” Raphael continued to watch Niatha.
“Make him quit staring,” Niatha testily spoke. “Why is he staring at me?”
“Make it strong,” the man said, his voice cracking just a bit. He was a tall, muscular man with a mustache that grew down around his mouth to hang below his chin. His clothes looked to be made of fine silk and smooth leather. “She ignores me and I want to capture her love.”
“Strong?” Merrif queried. “I make it only one way and it works. I wouldn’t want to mix something different. It might get so strong, she’ll end up hating you instead.”
“Oh!” the man replied, a startled look on his face. “Then make it so that it works.”
“What is that?” Lylle asked the man, pointing at Niatha.
“What?” the man asked, his eyebrows raised.
“What is that?” Lylle asked again, his finger still pointing at Niatha. The man looked over at the feline creature.
“I should bite his finger,” Niatha said, smiling.
“It’s a cat,” the man replied, turning to look at Lylle as though he was a child. “What do you think it is?”
“Your powder,” Merrif quickly said, holding out a small bag. “Mix it all in a mug of water.”
“Thank you,” the man said, reaching for the bag. Merrif pulled the bag back out of reach.
“A Sterling,” Merrif said.
“Sterling!” the man yelped. “That’s five Floren more than I’m willing to pay.”
“You would put such a small, small price on love?” Merrif asked in a soft flowing voice. “To have your love returned by the woman you seek, is a Sterling such a high price?”
“Uh … well …”
“Should she not notice you and give you a chance to be together, I will give you half the money back,” Merrif said. “But hear me, you must have her full attention for two bells after she drinks the potion. If not, the potion will not work.”
“A Sterling, it is,” the man agreed, handing over the silver coin and taking the bag. Raphael and Lylle watched the man go.
“If I could do that, I wouldn’t have to steal,” Lylle remarked, enviously.
“Do what?” Merrif asked, confused.
“Get a Sterling out of someone who doesn’t want to pay it,” Lylle answered. “You really are a mage. Does that powder work?”
“I just sell them what they want. Yes, I am a mage. And yes, it will work if he uses it the way I instructed.”
“Straight!” Lylle spurted. “You have to show me what that powder is.”
“If I did that,” Merrif laughed, “I wouldn’t be the only one selling it, would I? And I don’t doubt that many of the young ladies in the town would suddenly find themselves in your arms.”
“Yes, mage,” Raphael laughed. “I would agree. Much too powerful for someone so young.”
“He won’t even let me try it,” Niatha said. Then realizing that the other two couldn’t hear him, he flipped his tail angrily and said, “I *hate* not being heard.”
“I heard you,” Merrif said.
“What did he say?” Raphael asked.
“He’s complaining that I don’t let him try any of my powders.”
“You’re not going to let me have some of that powder, are you?” Lylle asked.
“Only if you can get me an audience with Illiena,” Merrif chuckled.
“Ugh,” Niatha groaned. He turned around and started grooming his fur. “Not her again.”
“Illiena?” Lylle asked.
“Goddess of the Manifest,” Raphael replied. “She’s normally pictured as a young, beautiful woman holding a wooden staff. Then again, most goddesses are pictured as young and beautiful. I’ve heard her described as being loving and caring until angered and then she has a rather nasty, fiery temper.”
“Are you a follower of Illiena?” Merrif asked. His eyes were wide and his mouth was slightly open. He stroked his long beard with one of his hands while the other pushed down on the table, holding him up. He leaned towards Raphael waiting for an answer, an intense look in his eyes.
“No, I’m not,” Raphael replied. The light behind Merrif’s eyes dulled and he blinked, long and hard. He gave a small imperceptive sigh as he stepped back.
“There aren’t very many true believers,” Merrif stated.
“You are one,” Raphael stated.
“How do you know so much about Illiena?” Merrif asked.
“He’s cursed them all,” Lylle answered and laughed, not caring that the subject had turned serious.
“You’ve cursed Illiena?” Merrif spurted, stepping back away from Raphael. His hand had grabbed the wand from the table and clenched it tight.
“No,” Niatha warned. “Even if he cursed her all night, it doesn’t mean anything. People curse gods and goddesses all the time.” Niatha leaned back, muscles taut. His tail swished behind him. His front claws were out and digging into the ground. Niatha knew that Merrif would use magic to defend Illiena, no matter how unstable the magic was.
“Not Illiena,” Merrif replied.
“No, not Illiena, Raphael stated. “I’ve cursed a good many gods, but Illiena wasn’t one of them.”
“I think I like Ol the best,” Lylle said. “His have been the best. Ol’s piss, Ol’s blood, Ol’s –”
“Enough,” Raphael snapped. There was a tightness to his voice that hinted at anger.
“It’s true,” Lylle defended himself. “You’ve cursed the whole lot of them. And all for a woman –”
“Enough!” Raphael warned.
“Not Illiena,” Merrif restated. He had relaxed and had let the wand settle onto the table.
“No mage, not Illiena. I spent time learning about a good many of the gods just to find one to heal a wound that wouldn’t heal. When they didn’t heal it, I cursed them. When I finally came across Illiena, I was all cursed out.”
“Not all,” Lylle said. “I seem to recall an incident with some Stevenics.” Raphael grunted in response.
“No loss there,” Niatha replied.
“Blasphemous lot,” Merrif agreed. “Heathens, all of them.”
“I’m glad I’m not Stevenic,” Lylle said, looking at Merrif.
“Did they say something bad about Illiena?” Raphael asked.
“They tried,” Niatha laughed. “They tried and tried and tried!” He rolled onto his side and kicked his feet out.
“What’s he doing?” Lylle asked.
“Nothing,” Merrif replied, quickly.
“Oh no!” Niatha said. “You have to tell them!”
“What is it?” Raphael asked, watching Niatha roll on the ground. “He isn’t hurt, is he?”
“He wants me to tell you about my encounter with the Stevenic priests.”
“What happened?” Lylle asked.
“I used magic on them,” Merrif huffed. “And they deserved it!”
“Tell them all,” Niatha urged. “Aaa-all oo-of –” Niatha stuttered. At that point, his laughter returned in force.
“Strange cat,” Lylle said, watching Niatha roll over and over on the ground.
“As you asked,” Merrif began. “The Stevenics blasphemed and called Illiena a false goddess. They called Cephas Stevene the one true prophet of the one true god. I’m a bit quick to lose my temper when it comes to Illiena and I cast a spell at the priest. I wanted to burn his tongue for saying those things.”
“Ouch,” Lylle said. “Burn the tongue? That would hurt.”
“Yes,” Merrif agreed. “I regained control over my temper in time to just cause the priest to stutter rather than permanently harm his mouth.”
“Control?” Niatha asked, his laughter gone. “I recall you did want to burn his mouth. Stuttering was what you got, though.” Merrif ignored him.
“Stutter?” Raphael asked.
“Yes, the priest couldn’t say anything about Illiena or false gods without stuttering horridly,” Merrif explained.
“I would have paid to see that,” Lylle chuckled.
“Yes, it would have been a sight to see, or rather hear,” Raphael replied, grinning. Niatha had regained his sitting posture.
“I wouldn’t tell them the truth about your magic, either,” Niatha told Merrif as he finally understood why Merrif had changed the story. “You’d probably not sell any more potions after that spread through town.”
“As nice as this talk has been …” Lylle began as he watched a cute, young woman walk by him. “I see that there are other things in this marketplace that need some attention.”
“Later,” Raphael replied. “It’s near mid of day and I could use some food. What about you, mage?”
“Merrif,” the mage replied.
“Merrif,” Raphael stated, deliberate and curt, “are you hungry?”
“I am,” Niatha quickly answered. “All this talking has gotten me hungry.”
“You haven’t been talking,” Merrif said, looking down at Niatha. Raphael waited for his answer. Merrif looked up and said, “Yes, I could use some food.”
“Lylle and I will go for food, if you’ll enlighten us with knowledge of Illiena,” Raphael proposed.
“What is the word all these youngsters use? Straight?”
“Straight,” Lylle agreed. “That’s the word. Now, quick before that lovely young woman gets out of sight.” Raphael turned to leave, a small limp evident in his walk. His cane clicked on the ground at every other step. Lylle followed him in their search for food. Looking ahead, Lylle noticed they were headed in the same direction as the young woman. Smiling, Lylle picked up his pace and moved ahead of Raphael.
“Raphael is someone to watch,” Niatha said once they were gone, a serious tone in his voice.
“Yes,” Merrif agreed. He lowered himself into a chair and stretched out a hand to scratch behind Niatha’s ears. “Finding us, seeing you and knowing of Illiena is too much a coincidence. There is something here.”
“What do you mean?” Niatha asked. His head was tilted to the side to allow Merrif’s hand better access to scratch. A low rumbling growl could be heard coming from Niatha as he enjoyed the attention.
“Something is starting. I can feel the magic gathering around us. It’s like a storm brewing on the horizon. A large storm full of wrath and destruction. I can feel that energy building.”
“Where is it centered?”
“On all of us, dear friend. On all of us.”
Raphael and Lylle returned shortly with their hands full of food. Raphael placed all of his food on Merrif’s table. Pointing to part of the food, he said, “This is what I got for Niatha.” Merrif set the food down in front of Niatha.
“It’s cooked!” Niatha whined. “And it smells burnt.” There were several slices of fried lamb amidst various vegetables on a thick slice of bread. He moved to the left of the pile of food and tentatively sniffed it. “They think I’m going to eat this?” he asked.
“What’s wrong?” Raphael asked. He watched as Niatha moved to the left and then to the right of the food. Smiling, Raphael shook his head and said, “I got meat and vegetables for him because I didn’t know what kind of food he ate. I didn’t think about the meat being cooked. Does he likes to hunt for his food?”
“Yes and he is complaining that it’s cooked,” Merrif replied. “He’ll eat it, though.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Niatha complained. He reached out with a paw and moved the pile of food. “It isn’t like a rat. No fight, no squealing, no warm blood. All the good things have been taken out of it. What did you say this was?” He sniffed at the meat again. “Lamb, I’m guessing.”
“Yes, it’s lamb,” Merrif answered.
“I wonder what a lamb would be like before it’s cooked? They get kind of big, don’t they?” Niatha smiled as he contemplated the hunt and kill. His fangs showed through as his smile grew wider.
“Those are some teeth,” Lylle remarked. “Still looks like a cat, though.”
“Tell me about Illiena,” Raphael interrupted. “Does she really use magic?”
“Ah, Illiena …” Merrif said, running his long fingers through his scraggly beard. “Why, she’s the brightest, most beautiful goddess ever. She …” and so Merrif continued.