"How do you know?" Asa asked indignantly, setting down the tea. "Who are you anyway?"
"You may call me Ferret," he replied, sitting down in an unoccupied chair. "As for you first question—" he held out his hand. A small glass tube rested there. Its insides swirled with vivid orange mist, rushing and twisting in strange patterns. "Normally this mist is white. When something within a ten-foot radius holds poison, it turns orange. The brighter the orange, the stronger the poison. It works," he said as Asa opened her mouth to ask. "It's saved my life on many an occasion."
Asa nodded. That at least seemed likely enough. "Why is your name Ferret?" she asked curiously.
"That question I cannot answer," he said sharply. "Do not ask it again." Asa fell momentarily silent, taken aback.
She recovered quickly, to ask, "I'm Asan—"
"I know who you are," Ferret interrupted. "I know also that you, Vulkhash, do not trust Naelthas Ytan, and that you, Asandhael, do not find the man untrustworthy. I am afraid that I must say that you, Vulkhash, are correct, but you, Asandhael, are not wrong."
"How do you know these things?" Vul asked warily, eyeing the other man's face. It was still difficult to see all of it, but the flickering light of the fire revealed hazel-green eyes.
"That question I cannot answer either. But I will tell you more of Naelthas. He was employed against his will, but the Northern warlord Yral to give you a poison that will pull you to sleep for a long period of time, making it easy for them to transport you through the mountains into the North. There he would question you of the whereabouts of King Ilshu the Fourth, if I had not stopped you from drinking the poison."
"Then we are in your debt," Asa said gratefully. Vul still looked a bit skeptical.
Ferret shook his head. "I do not acknowledge debts, for if everyone I gave help to paid their debts, I would be the richest man in the world. I have little need for money. I need only to supply myself with clothes and food."
"Might we pay our debt with something other than money?" Asa wanted to know. "Our aid, perhaps."
"There is one thing I do ask of you. Let me accompany you on your quest to find the King. I can assure you he would not wish otherwise."
Asa looked hesitant. She picked up a bread roll and began shredding it into bits. "You knew him?"
"Oh, very well. I was, shall we say, his pet thief," replied Ferret.
"You are a thief?" Vul asked sharply, eyes narrowed. His hand went to his sword. There was little that could make him trust this man, even an oath upon Okhithron.
"Yes, and no," Ferret said casually.
"What does that mean?" Vul snapped. Asa placed a hand on the man's shoulder. She could feel him quiver with tension. His eyes glittered coldly, watching Ferret lean back in his chair and but his booted feet up upon the table.
"It means that I am not one of the retched street thieves that live in holes in the ground and steal food and cheap jewelry, but I specialize in the art of lies and trickery," Ferret said softly.
"He's lying," Vul said to Asa through clenched teeth. "He just said he specializes in the art of it." After all his years of fending for himself, Vul knew that instinct was a powerful tool, one to be listened to. And right now, his instinct was telling him not to trust this Ferret.
"No," Asa replied calmly. "I don't think he is."
"I can help you," Ferret whispered cunningly. His words seemed to cast a spell upon Asa; she nodded. Vul was not so easily ensnared; he only glowered. "I know things, paths that others would never see. I can detect poisons—" he nodded to the mugs of tea "—and see through illusions. You will need all the help you can get. Don't deny an offer of aid."
"I want one thing from you, before I will consider you offer," Asa told the mysterious man, in the voice she used when she was playing the merchant she had been born as.
"And what is that?" Ferret wanted to know, voice sharp as a steel blade, and cold as a thousand ice crystals. "You would do well to remember, Asandhael, that I know you, far better than you know me. I have the upper hand in this game, for I have means of killing you that you can imagine only in your darkest dreams. But that is, however, not what I plan to do. I have no intentions of executing the ticket to the king."
Asa removed her hand from Vul's shoulder and leaned forward across the table to look Ferret in the face. The storm in here eyes whirled, gathering strength. She still appeared completely unruffled. "I want an oath from you, upon your honor, that you will not betray us," she told him, in a voice equally as cold.
Ferret smiled, and in a sudden burst of firelight, a thin scar could be seen, running across his right cheekbone. Thick eyebrows shadowed his eyes; they looked haunted. Even when he smiled, no light came to those green eyes. "I have no honor. Therefore swearing upon in would bind me to nothing."
Asa shivered. This man may have saved her life, but she could never like him. "What will bind you to your word?" Asa asked.
"The Book of Memories," Ferret breathed. "My one wish." The man clenched his hand into a fist. "And now, he has gone to find it." He snapped out of his thoughts, and looked away.
Asa stared at him strangely, wondering at the sudden outburst. Vul sat, arms folded, starring at the table as if he wanted to take a knife to it and carve it into something small and insignificant. A worm, perhaps. He didn't seem to have noticed anything odd.
Asa was pitched into a full-out battle with herself. They needed help, and Ferret was right, it was stupid to deny aid. But there was something strange about that man. She wouldn't say that she didn't trust him, but there was an odd feeling about his person. It was a feverish sort of feeling, the way you are too hot, then suddenly too cold. He was unpredictable; he had shown that even in the very short time Asa had known him. Sighing, she made her decision.
"Do you give you word, upon The Book of Memories, to aid I, Asandhael, and Vulkhash upon our quest to find the King and to not do us harm?" she asked ceremoniously. Vul looked up, searching Asa's face for the answer to an unspoken question. Seeing the determination in her gray eyes, he faltered and looked down again.
"Yes, yes, I do," Ferret answered, his former, more careless air regained. "Now, I suggest you sleep. We are leaving at midnight."
"Midnight?" Asa asked, startled. She peered out a window. Rain dripped down the glass, making funny little tracks of water. Boiling gray clouds swirled by over head. "What about the storm? We'll freeze out there!"
She was remembering a time, when she was only ten years old. Another day, another storm, like this one. Asa had never been afraid of storms, instead, she embraced them. But their power and their strength awed her. It is amazing, she would think, what damage Nature can do. It was the damage that they could do that frightened her.
It was a winter day, with that cold beauty that is brought by the sun shining upon the snow. The pines and firs of the forest outside Sanorn were frosted with perfect, glittering untouched whiteness. The air was still and calm, the forest quiet but for the sounds of small animals, making their way from tree to tree.
It was the kind of day Asa liked, the kind of quiet day that didn't often occur in her busy life. For once she had managed to escape from the parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents that plagued her life with chores and tasks. Bundled up in scarves, sweaters, mittens, socks, and a thick wool cloak, she rode her pony, Tyntygawa, into the woods.
The pony was old, and had been Asa's own for three years, ever since Asa's older brother, Oberon, had handed him down when he had grown out of the shaggy brown pony. Tyntygawa was a sturdy, good-natured creature, who didn't mind working.
Asa's ten-year-old self was very proud of that pony, and, when he died a year later, was extremely sad. But, as Asa's mother told the girl, that pony had lived a long time, longer than most. It was only right that now he had a chance to rest.
There was a small animal track that Asa knew, and she followed it. A grin lighting her small mouth, she watched a bushy-tailed red squirrel scamper up a tree truck. Tyntygawa flicked his tail at it as it chattered at her from overhead, scolding her for disturbing its peace.
"I'm sorry," Asa told the squirrel sincerely. "I didn't mean to." The squirrel chattered once more, then climbed further up the tree.
As the morning wore on, the sky grew darker. The sun slipped behind a cloud, and the snow no longer glittered. Asa looked up at the clouded sky, worried. She didn't want to be caught in a blizzard. But she kept going. She wanted to see the fawn and her mother she'd glimpsed a week ago.
But the clouds didn't pass on, and the sun didn't reappear. By mid-afternoon, a light snow had begun to fall, and it was dark as if night come. Asa shivered, glancing around furtively.
Snorting, Tyntygawa halted. Asa urged him to go on, and keep moving, but he would not obey. This, more than anything else, was what scared Asa. The faithfully obedient pony wasn't afraid of much.
"W-what is it?" she whispered, voice squeaking a little. She hopped off Tyntygawa and huddled next to the pony, petting his nose for comfort. She looked around at the trees; they suddenly seemed very large and terrifying.
The breeze blew cold, and became a wind, blowing Asa's two braids into her face. The snow thickened, and fell in layers upon the ground, until it was up to Asa's ankles. She shifted around, puling her feet from their pure white blanket. The girl wasn't that tall, only four feet and nine inches, and the snow was building up fast.
She hugged Tyntygawa around the neck and shivered from more than cold, which pierced her layers of sweaters and shirts, pierced her skin, to wrap around her very bones. Tyntygawa nuzzled Asa's shoulder affectionately. The girl giggled, it tickled when the pony did that.
Suddenly very sleepy, she slid to the ground, and curled into a ball between Tyntygawa's forelegs, and fell under a thin blanket of sleep. The pony looked down, snorted, then went back to guarding Asa, as if she were a foal.
Hours passed. The storm blew harder, becoming a full-fledged blizzard. Tyntygawa remained ever-vigilant, standing guard-duty over his charge. Every so often, the faithful pony bent down to rid Asa of any snow that tried to rest upon her. The small girl shivered in her sleep, and cried out once or twice, plagued by nightmares.
By midnight, the blizzard blew itself out. Calm was restored, odd after the howling of the wind. Asa stirred, the change in the noise level awakening her. She stood up unsteadily, using Tyntygawa's bridle to pull herself to her feet. The girl looked around through bleary eyes and yawned, petting Tyntygawa's neck.
The clouds above had moved on, to leave the night sky clear, revealing the stars. Asa smiled up at the round silver-blue moon, then realized that getting home would be a difficult task, as the snow was nearly as high as her nose, except for the small circle of ground where she and Tyntygawa stood. But before she could become too panicked about getting back to the city, she heard voices, calling through the woods.
"Asandhael! Asandhael!" the first voice called, almost frantically. Her father's voice. Asa smiled wider, then grinned.
"Asa! Where are you, you little Monkey?" That was her brother's voice, calling her by his favorite nickname, Monkey.
"Here!" she replied happily. She jumped up and down, looking over the snow and waving her arms around. Three figures, dark against the snow, appeared over a small slope in the path, coming toward Asa. They walked with an odd swinging gait, and the small girl wondered why, until she realized the two men and boy were wearing snowshoes. Her father, her uncle, and her brother. Her uncle had another pair of snowshoes strapped to his back, presumably for Asa to use.
"Father, I am here!" Asa said happily, when the three people reached her.
Her father, a tall lean man with black hair, who looked considerably like Asa, leaned down and lifted her up out of the hollow in the snow. Holding her in his strong arms, he gave Asa a fierce hug.
Asa's reliving of this day lasted only a moment, though it felt as if she were actually there, and it was lasting hours. Ever since that time, Asa had had a nagging fear of freezing, though she had learned to manage that fear. It had taken some time after that occurrence for Asa to realize that without Tyntygawa to protect her, she would never have lived through that day. It was a scary though, and one she was not sure how to feel about. But, as her grandmother used to often say (too often, Asa thought), all's well that ends well.
"We won't freeze," Ferret replied, startling Asa. She had forgotten what they were talking about.
"What do you know?" Vul asked coldly. "You won't even tell us what your real name is, for its obviously not Ferret." He sighed audibly, and ran a large hand through his hair, as was his habit. "I need sleep."
Asa nodded. "So do I. But first, I want to know why we have to leave at midnight, and how we won't freeze." She coughed into her hand delicately. "I don't want to catch cold."
Ferret twitched his cloak around so that it covered his right knee, picked up a napkin and began folding it into continually smaller squares, and looked out the window. "By midnight, if I had not stopped you from drinking that poison, it would have taken action and begun to work. Our friend Naelthas would go and collect you at that time, with the help of those two over there." He jerked his head toward the black haired man and woman. "If you were not yet in your comatose state, they would suspect something."
Asa looked up at Naelthas, who stood behind the bar uncomfortably. She quickly looked back down when she realized that the man was watching them anxiously. "And how do you intend to keep us from freezing to death?" she asked, his answer still not entirely satisfying her.
Ferret cocked his head and stared at the woman. "You will see. You are a mage after all, are you not? You will understand."
Asa pinched her lips in a grim line, meeting the strange man's cold green eyes. "Very well, she replied. "We will leave at midnight, if you must insist. Now, if I may say good night?" She got up from the table and walked calmly to the stairs, disappearing up them.
"You do know I still don't trust you, even if I am coming with," Vul said with a crooked smile. "We are not friends. But let us not be enemies. Allies are allies, whether or not they are friends."
Ferret did not smile, but nor did he frown. "Then shall we be..." he paused, searching for the right words to express the uneasy relationship, "less than friends?"
Vul contemplated that for a moment, looking at the grain of the wood in Asa's empty chair. "That sounds about right. Now, if you'll excuse me." He nodded curtly, and walked on past, up the stairs.
She was in a carpenter's shop.They must be building something, it dimly occurred to the woman. All that hammering. Indeed, the room was filled with the sound of a steady, loud hammer, pounding away. BANG, BANG, BANG.
Asa woke. She was in the room of the inn, in bed. That carpenter's shop was a dream. But, oddly enough, the hammering did not disappear. Rather, it grew louder and more persistent. The woman looked around the dark room, wondering where the hammer was. Her eyes spied the door. Aha. So it wasn't a hammer, but someone beating on the door.
Am I supposed to be doing something? Asa wondered hazily, sitting up, bedclothes twisted around her bare legs. She ran an unsteady hand through her tangled rat's nest of wavy brown hair, looking blankly at the door.
Vul stormed into the room without bothering to knock, wearing only his tan wool breeches. He yanked open the pounding door, yelled, "Shut up!" and slammed it shut again. Paying no attention whatsoever to Asa, or anything else in the room for that matter, he raged back to his own room and pulled the door shut behind his bare, retreating back.
Suddenly recalling what she was supposed to do with the door, Asa slumped out of bed and shuffled over to open it. Ferret stood there, calmly leaning against the wall.
"Hello," he said conversationally. He smiled, as if nothing at all had happened, and tugged his brown hood forward further. "It's time to leave. Be in the stables in ten minutes." He turned abruptly, and stalked off toward the stairs.
Asa shrugged, still half asleep, and shut the door into the long, dimly lit hall. She turned wearily to face the dark room, eyes adjusting to the blackness. Whispering a quick word for flame, she lit a candle. Though it was generally more convenient to simply conjure a small light, it was harder to maintain. Light took a fair amount of strength to keep alive for long periods of time, but it only took a little to quickly produce a flame to start a candle burning.
Rooting through one of the packs, Asa dug out a pine green woolen shirt and brown leggings. She shed her nightshirt and put them on, whispering a hurried apology to Khavez, god of dreams, for ending her sleep so soon. Still moving slowly, she dunked her head into a basin of water. Now entirely awake, Asa grabbed a comb off the desk and began to rake it through her long, dripping brown hair.
Washed, dressed, and awake, though still wishing she were back in bed, Asa knocked softly on the door to Vul's room. He didn't answer. She knocked again. "Vul wake up," she called. "We've got to go."
The man still didn't answer. The room was silent. Exasperated, Asa pushed the door ajar and peered around it. Vul, visible only as a large lump under the bed covers, had apparently gone back to sleep. "Vul, you idiot," Asa told the sleeping form, grinning. She stomped over to his bed and kicked him savagely.
Vul rolled over and peered up at her irritably. "You woke me up," he said thickly.
Asa laughed. "Exactly. Now, the next step would be to get out of bed. Do you think you can manage that by yourself, or shall I help you? With a jug of water over your head, perhaps?"
Vul shook his head fervently. "I give up. Now, go away and let me dress." He extracted a hand from his blankets and waved Asa away with it.
The woman obliged his request and left the room, grinning wickedly. "Come to the stables when you're ready," she told him, and left the room, closing the door behind her.
Sighing, Asa surveyed her room. Positive that she had emptied it of all her belongings, she picked up the packs that sat on her bed and blew out the candle. With a last furtive look behind her, she stepped into the hall.