“Do you have a preference, Your Mageship?”
Kellam frowned at the words swimming before his tired eyes and, with an effort, pulled his head up. The room was full of heavy shadows. Since when had it gotten so dark? The day had advanced without him realizing it, and the eastern-facing windows no longer let in much sunlight. He hadn’t yet bothered to rise and light any candles, intent as he’d been on his work.
Stacks of books surrounded him, piled high on his desk, and he had to push one stack slightly to one side in order to see who had spoken. A familiar bandy-legged figure stood in the doorway of his study. “Oh. Haemir.” Leaning back in his seat, Kellam pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’m sorry, you asked me a question?”
“I asked if Your Mageship would prefer to take tea on the porch to enjoy the last of this fine day? Or would you rather I brought it in here?”
“Tea?” Kellam blinked stupidly. His mind, still full of the reading he’d been poring over, wasn’t quite ready to take in other thoughts. Tea. Food. Right. He nodded and hurriedly said, “Yes, thank you, Haemir.” Then, realizing he hadn’t actually answered his butler’s question, he added, “In here. Please.”
Haemir raised an eyebrow before bowing out of the room. He didn’t approve of his new master, and he didn’t make any secret of it. He had served at Roris Towers for as long as Kellam could remember, always scurrying about at the beck and call of Wysamenor. Wysamenor was notoriously fussy about food, dress, manners, and protocol, and Haemir had lived to fulfill each and every one of his master’s whims to the letter. He was, Kellam knew, finding his new master sadly wanting in fastidious exactness, which Haemir considered a vital part of a mage’s character and proper for a man of his standing in the community. Kellam had foolishly thought the butler might enjoy a less demanding master; his first few days of residence in Roris had quickly disabused him of that notion.
Haemir left the door partly ajar behind him, and Kellam listened to the echo of his crisp footsteps retreating down the passage. With a heavy sigh, he ran his fingers through his hair, trying to push escaped strands back into the neat queue down his back. His eyes tried to refocus on the work before him. Mage Wysamenor boasted an impressive library for a remote county mage. It was nothing compared to the vastness of the Miphates University, but Kellam couldn’t complain. Wysamenor had taken great pains to add to his collection over the years.
But . . . he didn’t seem to have any information on runes. Not that Kellam ought to be surprised. He’d never met a mage who had any interest in antiquated forms of spell-writing. The Miphates were all about the new and the now.
Still, considering Roris Towers’ proximity to Whispering Wood and a well-established witch’s wardship, one would have that that Wysamenor would take at least a passing interest in the old practices.
“Well,” Kellam whispered, shutting the open volume in front of him before leaning forward and resting his elbows on the desk, “it’s a gap in understanding I intend to fill.” Despite his tiredness, despite his headache, despite the nagging worries of his new and still uncomfortable position, another smile pulled at the corner of his mouth. He’d not quite been able to stop these smiles all day, despite his best efforts. After all, what better way to learn of runes and their workings than to apply to the old ward witch herself for instruction? Which would necessarily place him in the near proximity of the witch’s apprentice. Farryn wouldn’t be able to avoid speaking to him. At least now and then. And maybe, just maybe, he would have a chance to—
A sudden stir of commotion erupted outside his door, footsteps and a confused snarl of voices. Kellam looked up, eyebrows lifting in surprise. “Haemir?” he inquired, raising his voice.
His butler’s voice, the usual calm monotone edged in panic, called back, “One moment, your mageship! I shall be with you shortly!” Then it dropped an octave, and Kellam had to strain his ears to hear: “Madame, I must insist that you remain in the kitchen! I will personally present your request for an audience to Mage Leocan.”
“Present my request, will you? Laugh’s on you, ‘cause I ain’t requesting nothing! Stand out of my way, you frog-faced scarecrow, or by Elawynn’s holy amulet, I’ll make sure the rest of your gangly form matches your face and drop you off in the nearest pond on my way home, so help me!”
“Madame, such language is unbecoming, especially in the house of a—”
“Oh, I’m unbecoming, am I? You want to see some real unbecoming?”
Kellam stood, pushed back his chair, and hurried to the study door. He peered out into the hall in time to see two figures coming around a turn. One was Haemir, looking distinctly less polished than was his habit, his fine butler’s jacket pulled askew, and his few wispy strands of pale ginger hair standing up at strange angles from his shiny scalp. The other was an old woman, short, lumpy, dressed in a patchwork gown of many dull shades. She carried a witch’s staff, and Kellam realized at once who she must be.
“Mistress Ulla?” he exclaimed, stepping out of the study and into the passage. He realized belatedly that he had forgotten to don his long blue robe and stood only in his shirt, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Ordinarily, he would not think of presenting himself before a lady in such a state of undress.
The old ward witch turned at the sound of his voice and gave him such a look that he knew at once his exposed shirtsleeves were the least of his worries. “That’s Mother Ulla to you, boy,” she snapped and planted her staff with a hard crack on the floor just beside poor Haemir’s foot. The butler yelped and leaped back as though she had actually struck him, releasing his hold on the old woman’s sleeve. She took the opportunity to bustle down the hall toward Kellam, her bare feet kicking out from under her heavy skirts.
“Tanatar’s buckler,” she swore, looking him up and down, her eyes bright behind a mask of wrinkles. “You’ve grown up from the bony-kneed little scamp you once were, ain’t you?”
Kellam caught Haemir’s eye over the old woman’s frizzy grey cloud of hair. “It’s all right,” he said. “I’m happy to receive company. Um . . . perhaps another cup of tea?”
Haemir’s eyebrows rose so far up his forehead they nearly escaped his face altogether. But his training held true, and he merely bowed and said, “Very good, Your Mageship,” before, with a last scathing glance at the witch’s hunched back, he retreated around the bend.
“Mother Ulla,” Kellam said, careful to use the ward witch’s proper title this time, “would you care to step into my study? And may I offer you a—”
“I wouldn’t care, and you mayn’t offer.” The witch planted her staff in the space between her and Kellam, very much as he had seen Farryn do earlier that day. He half-expected her to start scratching a rune right into his painted tile floor. “I’ve come for your help, boy. And don’t you go crowing over me! My kind and yours, we don’t have much to do with one another. I certainly wouldn’t have come here did I think there was a better way. But knowing your kind of magic and knowing hers the way I do, I think you may be the only chance the girl’s got.”
A cold, hard knot of dread settled in the pit of Kellam’s stomach. “What . . . what are you talking about?” he said, taking a step toward the old woman. He regretted it at once. She drew back, nostrils flaring as though he were a scuttling spider. Hastily he put up both hands in a soothing gesture. “Forgive me, but I don’t . . . I don’t understand. Has something happened? To Farryn?”
The old witch sneered, revealing one white tooth, solitary in an expanse of red gums. “I’m afraid Miss Boddart,” she said, with telling emphasis, “has run afoul of a fae.”
“What?” Kellam blinked, shook his head, frowned, and blinked again. “What?”
Mother Ulla sniffed. “You heard me. A fae. One of the Elfin Folk. A Lord of Eledria.” She twitched her staff around with her long, gnarly fingers. “Need me to paint a picture for you?”
Her words rattled inside his head like beads in an infant’s rattle, all sound with no meaning. A fae. A fae? How could it be? Of course, he knew that fae dwelled in Whispering Wood, but not exactly in this part of Whispering Wood. They lived beyond the borders in their own, strange world. Since the signing of the Pledge, they rarely interfered with mortal affairs. He remembered as a boy occasionally hearing rumors of fae activity—some mutterings of a farmer’s daughter lured into a Wild Dance, coming home magic-dazzled, her feet bleeding, with no memory of where she’d been. Or there’d be talk of a child vanished, only to reappear years later without having aged a day. Such things could only be blamed on the Elfin Folk. These and other stories abounded throughout Ellee County, but they were never really substantiated.
But Farryn . . . He grimaced, forcing his mind to grapple with the idea, the crazy, unbelievable idea. Only, it wasn’t so very unbelievable, now that he thought about it. Farryn always had a knack for trouble, hadn’t she?
“What happened?” he managed, forcing the words through his tensed jaw. “Tell me everything!”
“I don’t know everything,” Mother Ulla replied with snort. “Who knows everything that fool girl gets herself into? But from what I gather, she went dream-walking on her lonesome and had the flutter-brained notion to go wandering into a stranger’s dream. Turns out it belonged to this fae fellow. And he came hunting her in return.”
“What fae fellow? Do you know him?” Kellam pressed.
“I should say so.” The witch pursed her thin lips as though she’d eaten something distasteful before continuing. “He goes by the name Yhendorn. He’s huntmaster of a certain reach of wood, on their side of things, you understand. A very old, very powerful fellow he is. I had the misfortune of letting him learn my real name years ago, and now I don’t dare cross him, not openly, as it were. Besides, I fear my magic ain’t going to be much good against the likes of him.”
Kellam’s mind spun. “What’s a . . . a huntmaster exactly?”
The ward witch rolled her eyes and spat, right there on his floor, next to his feet. “I don’t have time to try to explain the ins and outs of fae traditions or roles to you, boy. What you gots to know is he came with his grievance, he took the girl, and he had every right to do so. Now it’s up to you to get her back. But you gots to do it according to the law, or the girl is lost to us forever. Understand?”
He didn’t understand. How could he? But he nodded anyway. “What must I do?” he asked.
“Find her for starters.” Mother Ulla tilted her staff and tapped the end of it against his shoulder. He could almost feel the burn of the pent-up power inside it, sizzling through the thin fabric of his shirt.
“Yes. Yes, of course.” Kellam turned on heel and hastened back into the study, his mind burning with sudden thoughts and half-formed plans. He caught up his blue mage’s robes first then turned to a small chest on the ground beside his desk. Fetching a key from its chain around his neck, he opened the chest, flung back the lid, and stared down at the assortment of books contained within. They were his spellbooks, his personal collection, brimming with spells he’d worked long and hard to pen over the years of his training.
He picked up the topmost book, flipping through it quickly before tossing it aside and selecting another. He could only bring so many volumes on a mission like this into Whispering Wood, and he needed to be certain he brought his most useful, most potent spells.
A growling harrumph rumbled in his ear, and he became aware of a disapproving stare fixed on the back of his head. He turned and met the ward witch’s gaze. She stood in the doorway of his study, leaning against the doorpost, her staff clutched in both hands.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.
“Arming myself,” Kellam answered, sitting upright and holding out one of his volumes for her inspection.
“You think you just going to dance merrily over the borders into Yhendorn’s haunt and start flinging spells about like some Jolly Jogolor?”
Kellam’s brow tightened. He dropped his gaze down at the book in his hand and chewed the inside of his cheek. Something flared in his breast, a spark of resentment. After all, he was a Miphato, was he not? Trained in the secret arts, master of magic and spellwriting. And she was just a wrinkled, wizened, tottering old woman with a little small magic at her command, who spent most of her days treating rotten teeth with herbal tinctures.
But she knew her wardship. She knew this land and all its denizens with an intimacy of detail he could not hope to match.
Drawing a steadying breath through his nostrils, Kellam set the spellbook back inside the chest. He rose, smoothed out and straightened the folds of his rich blue robes, then turned to face the ward witch again.
“How would you advise me, Mother Ulla?”