Chapter Eight

A Place to Stay

Morning dawned upon even the farthest reaches of the land with equal enthusiasm—which is to say, none. Clouds spilled through the sky, casting a melancholy gloom everywhere. And although they seemed pregnant with rain, it did not come. The sky stretched over the towering golden fortress in the forest, it wrapped itself around the small cottage in the depths of the swamplands, it reached for the palace to the west with hungry fingers that could never quite reach their goal. The sisters awoke to gloom.

Within the swamp-bound cottage, morning came as an unwelcome guest intruding on an important event.

"Good morning, girlies!"

Selena heard the coarse voice as if through a tunnel. As she was dragged from the depths of sleep, an angelic face taunted her thoughts...My, how beautiful it was...

She jerked bolt upright.

Gabriel.

"That's the spirit," said the sickly voice. It had an unpleasant ring to it, like an ill-wishing person attempting to sell you candy.

Selena scrubbed furiously at her eyes and whipped her head around. The room was the same as it had been in the night, if more hollow-looking in the daylight somehow. She couldn't help but think how accurate it was in comparison to her without the spirit there...

"Now," continued their proprietor, "Get that sister of yours up 'n jumping, and we should all be set. There's a good girl..."

Selena shifted her gaze to the doorway just as a rounded, apricot-like head vanished from it. Where were they? Or more importantly, had Rachel actually seen Gabriel as he appeared the in the night? Selena wanted to avoid question, but she didn't think it would be that easy.

"Rachel," she said. Her voice rasped slightly. "Rach, get up."

Groaning, her sister made a face without opening her eyes. "Uhn..."

Minutes passed, and, somehow, both managed to get out of bed and attempt to tidy themselves to some degree. Their working clothes were torn and crusted with mud; Rachel refused to wear it longer than necessary, and mused vehemently over whether their host would have a suitable wardrobe arranged for them. Finally, they sucked in deep lungfuls of air and strode out to meet their mistress.

"There you are!"

The sisters froze. Before them stood a dwarf, maybe just above five feet tall, with a small beard that was tailored to look more stylish than surly. She sported a stained apron and a ruffled, dirty blouse. Just as Rachel began having second thoughts about borrowing from their host's wardrobe, the dwarf seized them both by the arm and swept up a cramped flight of stairs.

"Up, up, up! This is the attic, but it serves as my sleeping quarters, or whatever you might call it, so we'll get you into some right good clothes, then—the name's Merda, by the by..."

The girls just nodded and tried to keep up with the frenetic dwarf as they ascended the steps. Merda, as she called herself, turned into a room simply adorned with a bed, desk and wardrobe, and only then did she relinquish her vice grip. Shelves ran along the far wall, supporting trinkets and ingredients of all natures. Selena and Rachel exchanged covert glances; it all looked identical to the supplies Medaerus had carried when he appeared at their home.

Home...The thought struck their hearts like a hammer blow. Selena's fingers found their way to her pocket, where the magicked stone sat, lumpy as coal. Her mind drifted to the warlock Icharius; it was incredible to think that finding him had been their original goal!

Selena paused. Original? She had assumed this whole time that it still was their final destination, but, in hindsight, she saw for the first time how worried her mother must be. Why, she didn't even know where they were! For all she was aware of, she and Rachel could have been lost, or kidnapped, or hurt—

It was just as Merda the dwarf came bustling back from the wardrobe that Selena realized all those things had happened to them.

"There, dears," said Merda. She pressed baggy tunics and breeches into Selena's arms. "Afraid that's all I've got that'll fit two kitties like you! Now, go slip them on while I prepare breakfast. I simply refuse to let two underfed beauties such as you go starving in my house."

"Er—Merda, my—my sister and I, we need to talk—" Selena started.

"Yes, yes, all in good time, all in good time...Now go get changed! Food awaits!" said Merda, and swept away with more grace than perhaps any normal dwarf should have.

Then again, who ever said anything about this was normal?

x-x-x-x-x-x

Selena and Rachel had no time to speak as they changed, what with Merda squawking at the door every few moments about how they liked their porridge and how much sugar they preferred in their tea. When the pair had finally arranged the oversized, masculine clothing into a somewhat comfortable position, they stumbled out of their bedroom and emerged in the kitchen.

"There y'are!" exclaimed Merda. "Ah, glad to see they fit, perfect, just perfect..." And she went about the room in her bustling work. Selena watched in amazement as the dwarf flapped her arms in synchronized motions; with each twitch of the finger a dish rag sprang to life and began dusting every available surface, utensils spiraled to the table, and curtains were thrown open wide to allow honey-like sunlight in. Selena had the impression that this room of the house typically lay in a sad state, as Merda wasn't the ideal person—or rather, the depths of a swamp wasn't the ideal location—for frequent visitors. Her stomach did a little flip at the thought of how it would typically look.

"Well. What are you waiting for?" prompted Merda.

Rachel was the first to answer. "What...are you doing?"

The dwarf looked left and right, seeking the subject of Rachel's interest until she realized it was her ridiculous movements. "Oh, this?" She twirled a hand, did a graceful turn, and landed facing Rachel with a ladle clutched lightly in her grasp. "My, you are sheltered. This, my dear, is magic!" Before either could react, Merda was making a kicking motion with her leg. Two chairs zipped over behind the sisters. The host gave them each the slightest nudge and they fell backward into them.

"Wh—"

"A-tut-tut!" chided the dwarf, who had already ventured to a cobwebbed cupboard to remove a vial of tar-like liquid. She tossed it to Rachel. "Rub some of that on your poor scalp, dear, and that horrid bald patch will be removed in a snitch. Good. Now, just have to..."

Within minutes, the dining table had glided halfway across the room to accommodate their seating positions; two steaming bowls of porridge sent foreign fumes spiraling in the girls' direction. Everything was more or less prepared.

"Eat up!" said the dwarf. She herself dropped some dishes in a wash basin and collapsed into a chair. "Spellwork can get so wearisome at times, you have no idea..." Always she kept her eyes on her visitors, who began picking warily at their food.

Selena gulped down a few spoonfuls—it wasn't terrible—and promptly shoved her bowl away from her. They needed to talk.

"We—we're not exactly intending on staying here, erm—Merda," she said. "See, our mother, and our sisters, for that matter, don't know where we are. Which is to say, neither do we. They will be v—"

"Sisters? Good lord, how many can there be?"

"Five," piped Rachel, "Seven including us."

Merda nodded, curious. "Well then, however did you end up here?" The dwarf leaned in a bit, showing them that she was arrested by their words.

So they told her.

They told her of Medaerus the mage, and his promise of the reward. They told of how they "acquired" a mysterious stone from his personal supplies (here the dwarf proprietor's eyes lit up twice over). They told of being abducted by the Royal Guard, of seeing Grouth and, touchily, meeting the spirit Gabriel. Rachel explained her disarming of the guards and her valiant ride into the night, traveling through swamps for hours on end until she reached the cottage. Selena told, finally, of their sole desire to get home safely. The whole time Merda took it all in attentively, like any good listener should.

When the story wound to an end, she said, "And these guards you took out, did they follow you here?"

The sisters exchanged glances. "Oh—well, we didn't really check, but I didn't see them behind me as I rode." Rachel furrowed her brow, trying to recall the exact scene.

"Are you sure?"

"Have you ever carried your dead-weight sister through leagues of marshlands in the dead of night?" she retorted.

Merda eased off. After a pause, she said, "Finish your food, girls, lord knows you need it...Now, tell me about the spirit stone."

They stared blankly.

"The rock you stole from the mage," she clarified.

Rachel looked at Selena. Selena became exceedingly uncomfortable, and drew the stone out from he pocket. A sparse web of hairline cracks adorned its surface. She felt it a shame that such a beautiful rock was treated with such disrespect, then she considered how she had treated it lately.

Both of the others were staring at her expectantly, so Selena gently placed the orb on the table, resting her hand just inches away from it. "What did you call it?"

"A spirit stone," Merda murmured, picking it up without invitation. A wondering glance stole across her features. "I haven't seen the likes of this for years...My, my..."

"The leader of the Guard—Grouth, he had one. He used it to—to summon the spirit-boy. Gabriel." Rachel watched the stone, glaring at it as if trying to discern its true meaning.

"Yes," said Merda absentmindedly. "It is known to do that. This is deep magic, girls. You'd do best to keep away from it." For a moment, Selena thought the dwarf was going to pocket the stone, and maybe she was, for she stared at it distantly for some time, but in the end she replaced it on the table. "Very few people are entrusted with such magic. Very few..."

They were silent for a few minutes as porridge was finished and dishes put away. When finally all were seated back at the table, Selena posed a crucial and rather obvious question.

"Why do you live out here, Merda? Where...is 'here'?"

Leaning back in her chair, the dwarf toyed with her beard. Selena couldn't help but see a twinkle of amusement kindle in her eyes, leering from her lined, careworn face, whenever they alighted on her or Rachel.

"It's a rather long story, dears," she said, "So I'll have to start from the beginning and try to make it short as I can."