Alistair feels something. Is it friend or foe?
Alistair was stacking firewood when he felt a slight twang in his mind. It was faint, yet it made him uneasy. "Did you feel that, Rusty?" He looked around. Seeing nothing, he went into the cabin. Empty. "I guess Rusty's out exploring." There was the weak twang again. "What can that be?"
He went out and gazed at his garden. "Did I really feel something? Everything looks so tranquil." His sense of unease heightened.
He searched the area carefully. The herb garden on the east side of the cottage was a lush and complex pattern of different shades of green. He inhaled the different scents as he searched under the plants. "Nothing wrong out here. But I'll have to harvest these herbs soon." He had been isolated many years and was in the habit of speaking his thoughts aloud.
Beyond the herb garden, oak trees grew. He felt nothing in that direction. He walked behind the cabin and felt nothing to the north, either.
The twang vibrated in him from his head to his toes as he continued to the west. Vegetables grew on that side of the cottage and he inspected the garden to see if anything was hiding there. Neat rows and beds displayed gaps where he'd harvested plants earlier in the season. Closest to the house were the tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes. Next he looked through the last of the beets, carrots, onions, and turnips. He saw nothing under the zucchini, cucumbers or melons. On the outside edge, large orange pumpkins and yellow banana squash peeked from under huge green leaves as they ripened. Everything looked normal. The only sound he heard was the gentle hum of insects. "What in Creation can be wrong?"
While he was in the garden, Alistair picked tomatoes for his supper. He grabbed a basket and added a zucchini with a few shallots and a carrot to the tomatoes. Despite the peaceful scene, the unease in his heart grew. "I hope Rusty is okay. I wish he was here to ask if he knows anything." He looked at the trees, peering as far into the woods as the undergrowth allowed. He walked around the cottage again, seeing the neat rows of raspberry bushes that grew behind it. The berry leaves were rustling softly in the gentle afternoon breeze.
He turned his attention to the cabin. Weathered, gray boards peeked out from behind green leaves. Vines almost covered it; honeysuckle, trumpet vines and grapes. His home blended into the serene landscape, looking almost like it grew there. Hummingbirds darted among the flowers, obviously unconcerned. The sweet scents of the flowers and fruit intensified the peaceful feel of his home. He knew better than to trust the serene surroundings. "I'm sure something is wrong. I just can't put my finger on it."
He spread grain near the cabin and played his flute -- a transforming tune attracted the birds and made them feel safe. When enough birds gathered, he played the tune that put them to sleep. He listened to the thoughts of the sleeping birds, hoping to learn about the threat he sensed. They thought only of grain, feathers and predators. "I'm sorry little birds, but I need meat for my stew."
He moved gently among them, touching one, then another, looking for the perfect meal. "A mother with babes who need you, no.... a plump male, mated for life, sleep safely.... an old bird who leads the flock, I won't rob them of your wisdom.... young, fat, and foolish." Alistair's inner eye saw the close calls of the past few days. "It's sheer luck the hawk hasn't caught you yet. The hawk will miss a meal and you will be my dinner tonight." He took the bird into his cabin, and woke the others, allowing them to eat their grain in peace.
He cut a piece of squash to set aside for Rusty with a small tomato. The rest of the vegetables joined the bird in a savory stew for his evening meal. Cooking gave him time to think. "If the birds know nothing, the chances are Rusty knows nothing. I'll use my transformarian ball once I get this on the fire."
Alistair drew his crystal ball out of his pocket. It was quartz, but the presence of transformarium made it appear to be a blue jewel. Alistair looked into its depths. "That doesn't make sense. It's just a farmer coming for help curing his daughter. That happens all the time." Alistair looked deeper into the ball and reached out further with his mind. He searched until the smell of the stew announced dinner was ready.
He ate a few hours before sunset. "Rusty!" He whistled when there was no reply. "Where is that foolish beast? It isn't like him to miss a meal." He whistled again.
Alistair ate in solitude. He often ate alone when Rusty was gone. People were eager to see him when they were in trouble. They were quick enough to ask for an herbal potion for a sick child or a pregnant cow. But when life went well, everyone avoided the mage.
He didn't look like a powerful mage, even with his piercing blue eyes and long grizzled beard. His faded homespun clothes looked like what the other townsmen wore. When he went to town to buy supplies, no one gave him a second look. It was his reputation as a healer that scared the townspeople.
"Hi Wiz!" Rusty bounded into the room with his usual acrobatic grace. The large squirrel perched a moment in his special doorway before he leaped over to the foot of Alistair's bed. Then he jumped over to land on the back of the chair reserved for guests before performing a perfect double backflip to sit on the table where the squash and tomato waited for him. He started to eat, managing to talk clearly and chew at the same time. "Stew smells good. Plenty of leftovers for tomorrow, I see."
"Where have you been, you dim-witted mammal? I called and whistled."
"Down by the creek. Look at the shiny stone I found. Aw! It isn't so shiny now that it's dry."
Alistair took a deep breath before he spoke. It wasn't Rusty's fault the squirrel was out of earshot when the mage needed him. "Let me see the stone." He spit on the stone and examined the colors. "It is pretty when wet. I especially like the way this white line wraps around the red one." He handed the stone back and enjoyed watching the squirrel strut as he walked over to stash it with his other treasures.
"What'd you call me for, Wiz?" Rusty pointed to the mage's blue ball that was still on the table. "Trouble?"
"The ball shows a farmer coming to ask for herbs for his sick daughter."
"That mean we get to use tea weed tonight!" The squirrel danced with delight.
"Yes, and I'm afraid it's the last I have."
"The squirrel's ears and tail drooped. His eyes opened wide and glistened with unshed tears. "Could we go early to get more? It's almost time to harvest it."
"You know it's a long trip. The garden needs to be harvested first, and we need to have more wood chopped. We'll just have to make do with mint tea for a while. Tell me the news."
"Fardles!" The squirrel held the sad pose a few more moments, but since Alistair ignored him and started preparing for the expected guest, he gave up and began chattering about the happenings in the woods.
By the time the farmer arrived, Alistair put on his healer's robe, steeped the tea and had a cup sitting out for his guest. Alistair stood at the door to greet him. "Greetings good farmer. The Creator has guided you safely to my home. Enter and be refreshed."
The farmer wasn't very old, but he had the weariness that seemed to overwhelm all farmers in late summer
"Greetings Healer Alistair. May the Creator guide and protect you." He entered the cabin and gracelessly dropped into the waiting chair. His eyes brightened when he saw the steaming cup and he drank eagerly. "Good tea. Ne'er tasted anytin like." He spotted Rusty on a shelf drinking his own cup of tea. "Heard y'ad a squirrel. Ne'er saw one tat big."
"He's unusually large for a squirrel. He's been with me for years." Rusty looked like he was about to speak and Alistair gave him a warning look. The farmers tended to be superstitious and a talking squirrel might scare them from ever seeking his help again. Rusty gave him a rebellious look, then went back to drinking his delicious tea.
Alistair turned back to the farmer. "I believe your daughter is sick. Can you give me her symptoms?" He realized he'd made an error when he saw the look of fear cross the man's face. "Or is it your good wife who's sick? I don't believe I've seen you with a son when I visit town."
"Ne'er seen ya in town." The fear left the farmers face to be replaced with puzzlement. "But ya got keen memory. Is me daughter. Got sick Wednesday last. Fever, cough, can't eat, can't get out of bed. Wife says she's bewitched, but I says she's got what Farmer Guise's son had las winter."
Alistair went to his herb cupboard and pulled out a few packets for the farmer's daughter. The cupboard was practically empty and he was relieved it was almost harvest time. He was glad to see were several bottles of elderberry syrup for coughs, and he grabbed one for the farmer. "Why does your wife believe your daughter's bewitched?"
"She got sick the night my three goats were killed. Dinna make a sound, just vanished. Found a few feet, two ears and a horn. Musta been a packa dogs."
The faint twang in Alistair's heart surprised and alarmed him. Was the child bewitched? He hadn't heard of a pack of dogs in the area, but he hadn't heard of anyone in the area who'd been hired to cast curses, either. He stood at the herb cupboard a moment more, fingering the agrimony packets. Most of the people hired to curse others were frauds. No need to waste a good herb. He thought of the bursting herb patch in his yard that needed to be harvested in a few days, and the warning twang that followed the farmer's words. He added the agrimony to the packets he had for the farmer. Better to be safe than sorry.
The farmer looked at the herb packets and the bottle of cough syrup, but made no move to touch them. "Dinna expect sa much. Only got three eggs to pay with."
Alistair looked at the frayed clothes and thought about the loss of three goats. He was about to offer the herbs for free, but then he saw the proud look in the man's eyes. This farmer wanted no charity. "Do you hunt in the winter?"
"Ya. When snow cover ground. Good meat."
"I'd love a nice piece of meat. Why don't you bring me some this winter when I need a fire all day so I can cook it right?"
The farmer gave a big grin, showing a hole where a front tooth was missing. "I bring you the best meat."
"Then we have a deal." He reached across the table and shook the farmer's hand." Now wait a minute while I play a tune to get you home safely. He pulled out his flute and played a tune to get the man home. Then he played one to increase the farmer's prosperity, and to boost his hunting skills. Maybe the man could get enough meat to buy at least one goat this winter. When he finished playing, he gave the farmer directions to use the herbs.
The farmer got up and stowed his herbs carefully, thanking Alistair profusely. He gave the proper words for leave-taking. "Go with the Creator."
"May the Creator guide your feet safely home." Alistair said.
The man covered his heart with his hand and bowed. Alistair did the same. He stayed in the doorway, watching the man walk out of sight; though he was impatient to pull out his ball and seek the cause of that twang.
"Didja properly wow the peasant? Mustn't let them know the giant squirrel speaks." Rusty turned his back and was fluffing his tail in a disrespectful way.
"You just wanted to show off. Look, you're the only speaking squirrel in the world. If I let you talk, you'd monopolize the conversation and I'd never learn why they came." Alistair took off his healer's robe and carefully hung it up.
"Ooh, the mighty healer. Must play the part, use all the props. I notice you never use the red robe with the knots on the shoulders. Saving that for when a nobleman comes for help?"
"Enough, you ridiculous rodent! The tea weed will give us another cup of tea each, then you can have the leaves to play with. Just be silent while it steeps and give me time to consult my ball." He watched Rusty flick his tail and get an offended look on his face. But He knew the squirrel would be silent.
The ball revealed nothing he didn't already know. He found the farm, got a view of the farmer finding the bits of goat and saw the tears flowing down the man's face. But, try as he might, he couldn't get a glimpse of the attacker. He couldn't find a trail showing where it came from or where it went. There was no sign to show the twang he felt had anything to do with the farmer and his family.
The next day he played the tune to attract carrion birds. If any birds knew about a pack of dogs or large predator, it should be one of them. It was only a few minutes before an old bird with a scar on the side of her naked neck appeared. He could talk directly to large birds, and he questioned her carefully. She knew nothing of a pack of dogs or any large predator in the area. What killed the farmer's goats? He shrugged and started harvesting his herbs.