The Merry Companions (and servant) were now well into the fern forest that covered much of the southern peninsula. Locals usually called it the Finger, at least in polite company. There was a snaky feel to the area. The path looped and curved, sometimes to avoid grey rocky outcrops and sometimes for no apparent reason. The fern trees and fern bushes and fern undergrowth all seemed to be uncurling new branches, which for the trees and the bushes were the size of medium and small snakes. And there was something to the smell of the place. It was earthy and a little ripe and ammoniac in places, reminding anyone who had ever kept them, that the snakes pens needed to be cleaned.
Narnemvar was leaving the lookout for snakes to the others, concentrating only on watching the curse on Shortbread’s back and on not tripping. It was a small curse, but it was cast by someone who was used to having a small talent. It gathered. It didn’t do much at any given moment, but it gathered information and ill health. It also released. It released the ill health. It could release it in two different ways. That meant that the information it gathered was key, as was what it did with that information, of course.
“I think it would be safe to stop soon. In fact, if we want to learn more about the curse, we’re going to have to stop and watch it.”
Satbada did not comment. It wasn’t his place to make decisions, it was the master’s. The master’s companion could make comments, but they weren’t of any import unless the master agreed with them. The master was accustomed to this, though, and so he asked.
“Perhaps a little information about what you’ve learned so far would be nice, before we decide if we want to stop.”
“It’s a little tiny curse. It’ll be as hard to remove as a fern burr. If you hold still or move in any way that isn’t away from where we were, if gathers ill health. It doesn’t let it go quickly. So you can move around and as long as you’re generally going away, it will leave you alone.”
“How much ill health can it store?”
“I’m not sure. You see, as long as you’re actively going in the right direction – and for us, in the long run, that would be north – it also releases the ill health back into the magic. It’s only if you don’t go away that it releases the ill health into its host. Actually, I’m not sure if what it does if you stop or just move about. The store of ill health is pretty much empty, now. That’s why I suggested stopping. It would be good to know how long we can stop without it picking up more ill health and how much we can stop without it releasing ill health in the wrong way.”
“Yes, it would be good to know if we can stop to eat and sleep.” Postlavanderon did not seem perturbed. Perhaps, he thought, the Good Master was happier now that they were working to help Shortbread. He felt a twinge of quilt, but the nickname was just too apt. From the moment Narnemvar had discovered the name, it had stuck. Postlavanderon doubted that he would ever stop thinking of the dapper little man as Shortbread although, of course, there would come a time when he would no longer use it.
There was a pang. A sense of, what? Loss? Narnemvar had said loss. Grief? Postlavanderon tried to savor the feeling like wine, in hopes of identifying it. A piquant little emotion. From the shaded side of the vineyard. There was a soft chair and a fireside in it, but those desirable things were receding.
Ah. Despair. Not a big despair. It was only a sense that perhaps there would never come a time that he would stop calling Shortbread Shortbread. Perhaps he would always be the Merry Companion and Dutiful Son and never become. . . what?
This was a clue. He was going to have to think about this. As hilarious had been to . . . act up this morning, he did know that such acting up should not become a habit.
“Sir, there are some rocks over to the side that might afford us a place of repose. Some are flat enough to sit on and to lay a fire.”
“Yes, it looks likely. Perhaps we should check for snakes before reposing.”
“Just a moment,” said Narnemvar, speaking words they could not properly hear and making gestures that the eye could not follow. It was a short spell, followed by a little rustling and whirring. “Thought I’d send off the bugs, too, while I was at it.”
Satbada climbed onto the small stretch of broken rock and picked out a place to set his pack. The tea things came out. That is, the things for making tea came out. The masters were expected to carry the tea drinking things. Narnemvar was in Satbada’s bad books for only carrying a battered tin. Besides being inelegant, its awkward size made it too big to be a proper cup, two small to be a proper bowl, and too curved to be a plate. And yet the man insisted that, since it could do the work of all, he need not carry any other utensil, besides a wooden spoon (too big for eating and too small for stirring) and a knife. How do you deal with a man whose mind works like that?
Soon enough the tea was steeping and a small griddle was being heated on the fire. Postlavanderon poured while Shortbread assembled small bits of meat and cheese on a plate. Once the plate was handed off, he mixed up a thick batter and grilled small trail biscuits. They were almost like cracker, only softer inside. As each was finished, he popped it into an empty space on the plate.
The master ate properly, but Narnemvar took random, sloppy bites in among some muttering and hand movements. He was concentrating on nothing that anyone else could see. Assuming that he was doing some good, it was best to just ignore him. It was always restful to do that and good to have a proper excuse for doing so.
Once the food was gone, Postlavanderon wandered off a gentlemanly way and left Satbada to get on with cleaning and packing up. It did not do to watch the servants clean. It was a sign of distrust. The master would never be so cruel. He left Narnemvar doing whatever he was doing, which for once was not watching the cleanup. Narnemvar had actually once commented on how nice it was to watch someone else work. Satbada would have shuddered at the memory, if he had allowed it to cross his mind.
Postlavanderon returned to a servant packed and ready to continue and a friend still looking at the great beyond. At least that was how his friend had described it, when he had asked. The great beyond that lay behind reality. The place where magic lived. Postlavanderon could only see one world and was usually grateful for that. He sat on a nice, flat rock and looked about him. A noble man should always appreciate beauty, if it came into his vicinity. It was one of the signs of nobility.
There were no butterflies or sunbeams. There was nothing that drew the eye and announced its beauty. All of the ferns and rocks looked a lot like all of the other ferns and rocks. He tried for a moment to concentrate on the uncurling fronds of a very small fern, but lost interest. He admitted he’d lost interest. Or maybe he’d never owned it in the first place. He gifted his interest to the world at large and closed his eyes. He was surprised to find that the random clicks and whirrs that had been the ambient sound around him became clear and soothing with his eyes closed. Gratefully, he let the sounds lull him.