Chronicles of the Court Rogue: Witchcraft
Pulling her cloak tighter around her, Mareian wondered how she managed to land herself into such messes. She was a city girl -- going out into backwater towns to pick up a package for the Meridellian King of Thieves wasn’t her thing. Still, Harper had sent her, and the best she could do was just get it over with quickly. The pirate Lupess glowered at the road. She was far enough from civilization now that cobblestone was only a dream -- the muddy dirt track far more deserved the term ‘footpath’ than the grander sounding ‘road’.
“Stop right there,” a voice commanded. The speaker was obviously trying to sound intimidating, but the crack in his voice ruined the effect. “What’s your business here?”
Just great; not only is it a dank, backwoods town, but it’s one with a wanna-be militia. Mareian was far too grumpy to be charitable. “I’m on my way to Woodfen to pick up an order for my master,” she snapped at the blue Ixi. “And since when was it polite to greet a traveler like that?”
Several bushes rustled, and more people appeared. All were hard eyed, and armed with various farming implements. “Well, congratulations for making it to Woodfen,” the blue Ixi drawled. “Unfortunately, we’re having a bit of a witch problem at the moment, and all travelers are suspect.”
Mareian stared at him. “A witch problem. You mean... like Edna or Sophie?”
Several of the surrounding farmers gasped, and the group had a quick, whispered argument. The Ixi seemed to be the spokesperson for the village, as he raised his hands for silence. “You know the names of witches! You must be consorting with them!”
“They’re kinda famous...” Mareian’s voice trailed off as a red Moehog poked her in the back with his wooden pitchfork.
“And look at her fur! No one’s ever been colored like that -- grey, with black tipped ears and tail.”
Mareian turned towards the voice, but couldn’t make out who had said it. “Never go to Krawk Island,” she said tartly, “because it’s a pretty common color there.”
“I’m not a witch,” Mareian snapped. “And I’m from Meridell.”
“Prove it,” the blue Ixi said.
Mareian stared at him. “Prove what; that I’m not a witch or that I’m from Meridell?”
There was another hasty, whispered conversation. Mareian rolled her eyes; this was ridiculous. The pirate Lupess debated leaving them and figuring another way into town, but the red Moehog still had his wooden fork still pushing against her back. She had no particular desire to find out if the wooden tines were actually sharp enough to stab her or not.
Finally they seemed to come to a consensus. “Come with us,” the Ixi demanded. “We’ll take you to Eduard.”
Mareian had the slight, brief hope that this Eduard would be some sort of official. Or at the very least, someone who had been outside this fortune-forsaken swamp and had a grasp of the real world. Her hopes plummeted when she saw a red Cybunny, wearing an assortment of feathers and amulets that seemed to be made from very small skulls. The only word she could think of that described him was “witch-doctor.” All things considered, the fact that this Eduard was the one witch hunters ran to for advice would be absolutely hilarious if she wasn’t the one with a pitchfork poking her.
“Eduard,” the Ixi began with a surprisingly florid bow. “We have need of your wisdom.” Pointing to Mareian, he continued, “Is she, or isn’t she a witch?”
The Cybunny shuffled up to her, peering though dark beady eyes. He grabbed the Lupess’s face and stared into her eyes, then inspected her hands. “It’s impossible to say,” he croaked. “She must face the trials!”
The ragged group of village folk cheered at his pronouncement. Mareian had the sneaking suspicion that these ‘trials’ were the only form of entertainment they had in their soggy, mud filled lives. “Don’t I get a say in this?” she asked.
“No,” the red Moehog growled, pressing his pitchfork harder against her. His scarlet face paled to a blossom pink when Mareian told him what she thought he could go do with his trials.
“Put her in the cell,” the Ixi growled. “We’ll start the trials first thing in the morning.”
Mareian stumbled as the Moehog shoved her with his pitchfork. They led her into a small wooden shack, the windows were haphazardly boarded up and there was a very old rusty lock on the door. The whole thing looked like one good sneeze by someone walking by could knock it over. The things I do for my guild, Mareian thought in disgust. On the bright side, the lock looked so primitive that she could have probably picked it with her fingers, and the chances of her still being around tomorrow for this farce of a trial were slim to none.
They didn’t even bother planting a guard; after the door was slammed shut and the key to the lock pocketed by the Ixi, everyone wandered off. Probably to do the chores they’d been neglecting all day. Other than a very mud splattered Spardel, who Mareian privately thought was probably the second most intelligent creature in this village after herself, Mareian didn’t see a soul until after the sun started to go down.
“Psst!” a whisper came from the furthest back window. “Wake up!”
“What do you want?” Mareian grumbled irritably, crossing the cluttered dirt floor and peering though the cracks in the slats. She saw a green Ixi looking anxiously in.
“Hey, I’m sorry about all this,” he apologized. “You must be the person sent by Harper to pick up that package. Listen, I’ve hidden it about a mile down the road in a rotten tree stump. Right where the path bends in an S shape, you can’t miss it.”
“What makes you so sure I can get out of here?”
He snorted. “Please, after the locks in... well, anywhere else in the world, the lock to this place will be a piece of cake. I’ve just got to make sure I’ve got an alibi after you get your supper. I’ve only lived here fifteen years, so I’ll be the first person they’ll suspect for letting you out when they find you’re missing tomorrow. Oh, I took the liberty of adding some grease to the lock so it won’t squeak quite so loud when you pick it tonight.”
Mareian grinned. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it; now I’ve got to go make sure I’m seen by lots of people. Say hello to Harper for me.”
Mareian shook her head, wondering what in the world the green Ixi had done that he felt the need to hide this far off the beaten track. Then again, it sounded like he was good friends with Harper, rather than just a business associate; Mareian could get a rough idea. Her musing was interrupted by a clatter of a wooden flap, and the arrival of a rather depressing looking bowl of gruel. Still, it was food, and she doubted the locals were imaginative enough to poison it. It didn’t taste very good, but she ate it.
She waited a couple hours after sunset, giving the locals enough time to fall asleep, and then reached into a pocket hidden in her belt and pulled out her lock picks. Reaching though the slatted window of the door, she reached down and quickly picked the lock. Amateurs. Harper would have had the head of anyone who used a lock like this in anything but a museum.
Trying to walk as quietly as she could, Mareian crossed back towards the dirt path that led out of this... she couldn’t bring herself to call it a town. She was almost into the safety of the forest when someone grabbed her around the waist and brought something sharp against her throat. “Going somewhere, witch?”
It was that dratted red Moehog. Mareian was starting to develop an extreme dislike of that fellow. “Looking for the bathroom,” she snapped. “You didn’t leave me a toilet, and I’m not about to go on the floor.”
He snorted. “Nice try.” He gave her a hard shove. “Now get moving.”
And we’re back in the sagging hut. Mareian sighed. That certainly didn’t go as planned. She could have taken the Moehog out, but the last thing she wanted was a hoard of vengeful farmers chasing her all the way back to Meridell City. She’d just have to either escape or find a way to outwit these trials... whatever they were.
At least she didn’t have to wait too long; it seemed farmers were early risers. Though she wasn’t entirely sure what they were farming out here, she hadn’t seen a single field of crops with any sort of produce, only a lot of farming implements which the farmers were wielding as weapons. Mareian shrugged it off; it wasn’t like she knew the first thing about farming. Only that food managed to miraculously sprout out of the ground, and then it came to town in the back of wagons.
A face appeared in slatted window of the door. Mareian scowled at the blue Ixi’s smug expression. “Good morning, witch. Walgren tells me that you tried to escape last night.”
“You can’t tell me that you didn’t expect me to at least try,” Mareian countered. “It would be so dishonest if I didn’t.”
“Keep your mouth shut,” he snapped. “You’ll be laying no charm or curse on me.”
Cautiously he opened the door, and gestured at her to come out. A group of pitchfork and scythe armed farmers surrounded her. Apparently security hadn’t gone down much. Mareian couldn’t help but be slightly amused; how dangerous did they think she really was?
“So what are these trials?” she asked the Ixi. He glowered at her, but the rough voice of the Cybunny... witch-doctor-thing answered her.
“The traditional test is to see if she floats in water. However, too many kids these days have learned how to swim, so we’ve had to develop something new.” He scowled darkly. Apparently swimming was something he considered evil, probably along with free will, and soap, Mareian thought. Hobbling in front of her, the Cybunny reached into a crate and pulled out a flapping mass of green and white feathers. “We decided the only true way to see if someone was a witch or not was if they weighed as much as a Mallard.”
Mareian blinked hard, trying to follow the logic of that. She wasn’t having much success. “I’m sorry?”
“Mallards float in water,” the Cybunny explained as if it should be obvious. “Witches float in water. So therefore, a witch must weigh as much as a Mallard.”
Mareian stared at him. She was sure there was some kind of comment she could make, probably a rather sarcastic or witty one, but words failed her.
“Yesterday,” the Cybunny continued, “we built a large set of scales. You’ll sit on one platform, and we’ll put the Mallard on the other. If you weigh the same, we’ll know you’re a witch.”
The amount of effort and enthusiasm for this adventure disturbed the pirate Lupess.
In a procession that was probably supposed to look somewhat grand and ceremonious, the Cybunny put the Mallard on the scale platform.
The Mallard jumped off, and flapped its wings.
The Cybunny scowled, and put the Mallard back on the scale.
The Mallard jumped off, and started to peck though the grass for food.
“Stop bewitching the Mallard!” the Ixi cried, pointing at Mareian.
“I haven’t done a thing to your Mallard!” Mareian protested.
“You’re bewitching it,” the red Moehog accused. “Just like you magicked the lock to let yourself out last night!”
“I didn’t use any more magic to open that lock then the key uses when it unlocks it,” Mareian retorted.
There was a general murmur around the crowd. “There is only one answer,” a voice cried from the crowd. “We must test the key for magic!”
“How, you nitwit?” a second snapped.
“Well, if a witch weighs as much as a Mallard, wouldn’t a magical key weigh as much as a Mallard too?”
The blue Ixi produced the lock’s key with shaking hands. Quickly, he dropped it on the scale. “Quickly, put the Mallard up!”
The Mallard calmly walked across the scale’s platform, causing the hanging plank to swing, and the scale to tip back and forth alarmingly. It jumped off the other side.
The Ixi swept up the Mallard and set it firmly on the scale once again.
The Mallard flew over the group and landed by a well, quacking its discontent loudly.
“Quit bewitching the Mallard!” the Ixi scolded.
“I’m not!” Mareian protested. “I’m not doing a single thing to the Mallard.”
“Why won’t it stay on the scale?” the Cybunny muttered.
“Does a dead Mallard weigh as much as a live one?” the Moehog asked.
Mareian signed, and placed a hand over her eyes. “Why me?” she muttered. “Why do things like this always happen to me...”
“Well, we don’t have two Mallards, so it’s not like we can check,” the Ixi pointed out, crossing his arms and glowering at the Mallard.
The Mallard wandered back over towards the scale. “Look,” the Cybunny pointed, “maybe the Mallard will get on the scale on its own!”
The Mallard surveyed the odd looking wooden contraption curiously, then jumped onto the same platform as the key was on. The shiny metal attracted it, and it pecked at the key curiously. Then, with a quick jerk of its head, it picked up the key it its beak, and swallowed the bit of metal.
“The key!” the Ixi cried. “It ate the key!”
“So, does a Mallard who’s eaten a magic key weigh as much as two Mallards?” the Moehog asked, looking at the Cybunny.
“We don’t even know if the key was magic, you dolt, and now I suppose we’ll never know!”
The warped logic of all this was giving Mareian a headache.
“So what are we supposed to do with her now?” the Ixi asked, jerking his head towards Mareian.
The Cybunny pondered for a moment, obviously thinking hard. “The Mallard is still a Mallard,” he said, in a tone that suggested he was trying to sound wise. “And a Mallard weighs as much as a Mallard. So if the Lupess weighs the same as the Mallard, she’s a witch.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Mareian saw the green Ixi from the night before grab his forehead like this whole thing was physically hurting him. He must have really, really needed to lie low to still be here, Mareian decided. When she got back to Meridell she was going to pour over the old wanted posters until she found his picture, then have someone who could read tell her what it said. The story had to be good.
The Moehog pushed Mareian. “You, get on the scale.” Mareian moved toward the unoccupied platform. “Not that one! That’s the one for the Mallard. You get on that one.”
With a shrug, Mareian approached the Mallard-occupied platform. Seeing her approach, the Mallard looked up and flapped his wings. Giving a loud quack, the Mallard flew over her and the rest of the crowd, and disappeared over the trees.
The town stared at the spot where the Mallard had disappeared. “Well,” the Moehog grumbled, “now what are we supposed to do?”
As one, they all turned to the Cybunny. Mareian unsuccessfully tried to suppress the urge to roll her eyes. The red Cybunny appeared to give the matter a great deal of thought. Finally he shuffled over to the pirate Lupess.
“Since we can’t test you by the Mallard,” he said in a grudging voice, “we only have one alternative. We shall banish you from our town, witch. You will leave, and never return to Woodfen.”
Thank you, sweet fortunes, Mareian thought giddily. The pirate Lupess was positive that just being in this town was steadily draining her intelligence.
Pushing away from the Moehog, Mareian headed though the town and slipped down the trail back to Meridell City. The Moehog followed her for about half a mile, probably making sure she wasn’t going to circle back and curse the town or something. He was far enough back where it seemed like he was trying to be discreet about it, but the pirate Lupess simply ignored him until he turned back.
Reaching the S shaped curve, she found the hollow stump and pulled out the sturdy leather bag hidden inside. At least this fiasco hadn’t been for nothing. Shaking her head, Mareian headed back home, still slightly confused, and very, very weirded out.