The Junke Lot was far enough away from Shade Howl that Root thought she’d be safe. No one would think to look for her here, among the rusted heaps of scrap and metal. She wheeled her wagon under the iron arch and peered around. It was another cold night. A dim lamp showed her breath and the frost that had already bit along old pipes and siding.
It would have to do. She was dead tired. Tired of hiding, tired of hurting. She just wanted to settle somewhere now, somewhere far away from the Guardian and his Badges. No matter the monstrous consequence.
It had not been an easy migration. Foremost was the hand itself, withering as it was. Decaying from the inside out. At first, when rebellion was fresh and screaming, Root had attempted to repel the Marrow Bind. She had ransacked Fledger’s books and poured over the Secondhand Stamps. Of the hundreds lining the pages only two offered deflection Heat.
By the time she finished them the Copper Quill, having already sustained the Guardian’s venomous attack, now suffered the loss of part of its ceiling and several holes in the walls. Worse – the tips of her blue-boned fingers were now black and the nails curling away.
It would be another solid week of hysterics before Root would resign to the idea of fleeing the Copper Quill. And several more days of burdensome collection, sorting through the broken bones of the shop, packing a mixture of practical and wistful. Of the practical came a pot, a pan, utensils, an axe, a lantern, a scraping of junos and other such survivalings. Root also packed one of Fledger’s bows and a quiver of arrows, planning to forage memory for the casual lessons he had given her when she was still stubbing tender toes. Of the wistful, Root carefully pocketed Fledger’s stylus, an actual quill of copper, the one she’d seen him ink and scrape across countless moonlit pages. His favourite.
A great many of Fledger’s books also made it into Root’s little wagon, most of them what she deemed he treasured most and the rest on the topic of Heat. If she couldn’t get some Perse mileage out of them they would at least make good kindling for a fire. So far, she’d managed one Stamp, a sleeping balm, for she’d found herself endlessly without rest. She knew it was due mostly to the dark wanderings of her mind; one minute Fledger in a lifeless heap, the next minute the gangrene mess of her hand detaching itself. And in between this the haunting fear of becoming another casualty of Shade Howl’s unforgiving winters. Another dead Bone Grit unclaimed. Unloved.
These thoughts were bad enough. But what was also keeping her beyond sleep was the onslaught of foreign voices, unfamiliar tresspassings that had pushed their way in her mind since her Wits Pyre had Kindled. She thought she would go mad from their constant intrusion. She needed sleep desperately.
Perhaps it was this desperation, the same of which fed her first Stamp that night so long ago when she faced Popky’s Simp, that brought her sleeping dictum so effortlessly to life. She’d focussed down to the sharpness of a nail, letting the intent sail along her blood lines and eventually off the tongue, a concise matching of unexpected words.
She awoke the next morning, having slept as if her soul had surrendered her to the sea. Its great blue waves had cradled her endlessly and then she realized that it had been the ribbon of blue that looped in her mother’s long ebony hair. She lay in that reverie for a long peaceful time.
Wingbit on the other hand seemed to have no problem sleeping. Root discovered her in the backyard of the Copper Quill, her little black and orange body wrapped and hanging along the handle of the abandoned wagon like the icicles along a roof. She didn’t seem to mind Root wheeling the wagon indoors and heaping it. Nor was she bothered when Root steered it from the beloved shop into Shade Howl’s alleys. Having already lost track of her Fledger, she was not about to do the same with Root. And so the two of them spent the dark wintering days in sleeted shadow wondering if time would eventually render them forgotten.
It would be the fresh evergreen leaves and berries of a door wreath that would suddenly snap Root back to life.
Had it been a whole year already? A whole year come and gone? That would make her eleven in Fledge years, when they began counting. Eleven years since he caught her barefoot in his garden and warmed her little belly with tea. Surely she’d’ve forgotten entirely, but Lanlynne doesn’t forget its birthdays. Or rather its Birthday. One day, set aside and faithfully observed. Birthday was a celebration for all those born. Everyone. Young and old and in between.
It was a splendid affair with its gatherings and song and feasting. Fire Blossoms were always strung between shops. Swags festooned along halls and on the fronts of doors. Beautiful sparkling centerpieces were placed upon tables. Happy Birthday was put to every greeting. And from the neighbouring forest greens, the deep rich aroma of bark and maple drifted heavily, as if Théall’s special spice. It was a joyous occasion and Root was thrilled when she and Fledger had shared it together last year. A party indeed, complete with treats, games and a capper of Chorm around the fire. And when Fledger had pulled out a replica of his favourite copper quill and given it to Root, nothing could have topped it.
A late winter frost had spilled a crystal veneer across the shop window and Root scraped the words ‘Best Birthday ever’ across it with her fingernail.
They toasted themselves well into the evening and fell asleep on warm fat chairs while Jinter Twostep’s warbled recording got stuck on the same line over and over.
Be not ye careworn
Be glad ye were born
Be not ye careworn
Be glad ye were born
Root would have sunk to her knees in the unbearable sorrow of this year’s Birthday but there was no time for such things. Birthday meant winter had peaked. The abandoned streets of Shade Howl would not shelter her much longer.
In the end, the Junke Lot was her last resort. There would be no long scrutinizing gawks. Even the Aunts wouldn’t think to find her here, where rock and iron choke out the living.
By now, Root’s hand was a mess of rotting flesh. It hung at the wrist like a dead thing. She wondered how much time she had left. And what would happen at the end, when the Marrow Bind reached its deadline. Would she lose it altogether and drain away like the stories she’d heard? Or would she survive? Would the Junke Lot pity her and salvage her as it had the rest of its cold, mangled orphans?
Root spied a large metal box turned upside down. Shelter. For now, at least. She dragged the wagon closer and, after a brief rest attempted to lift up one end of the box with the intention of bracing it and slipping underneath. It was much heavier than expected and its iced surface made gripping nearly impossible. With the last of her strength she eventually had the box tilted. But now she could feel herself about to give under its weight. Just as her footing slipped she felt a sudden boost and looked beside her. Under the edge of the box a creature of some sort was helping her. She looked closer. It was a dog, a mechanical dog with little dented silver spoon ears. When its fieldglass eyes met hers a curly spring on its rear end lifted and wagged. Root felt a rush of warmth and pushed harder. A set of four wheels extended from the dog, upward under the box until together they managed to push the side high enough to slip in a brace.
Just as Root was wondering who would do just that, another sound, something of a whirring was heard on her other side. She looked to see another mechanical creature, this one a fat bumblebee. Its little legs had magnetically grasped a long iron bar and it was now lengthening a pair of pewter wings to accommodate a move to the box. Once the bar was securely under, Root and the dog released with a sigh.
“Thank you,” Root smiled and stood up to formally greet her helpmates.
“Eeb! What’re you two up to?” came a gruff voice.
Root turned and was surprised to see a woman approaching. She was dressed in her own scrap metals and leathers with a long coat studded in brass knobs and countless pockets. Her head was topped with a tall, rumpled hat that housed a clock, a keyhole and all manner of gadgetry.
“Oh!” the woman said when she saw Root. A large magnifying glass unfolded from her hat and placed itself in front of her eye, which now looked disturbingly huge as it scrutinized Root from top to bottom. “Didn’t know we had guests,” the woman said at last, her magnified eye blinking and swiveling to meet Root’s.
“I’m sorry…” Root said nervously. “I didn’t know…I mean…is this private property?”
The eye was now peering curiously at Root’s sickly hand. Root slipped it away with a grimace and put it in her pocket. The woman stiffened and allowed the glass to return to its slot on her hat.
“That it is not, m’dear. This here’s the Junke Lot. A common rejectamenta to some, but t’others, myself I’m speaking of now…and Eeb, o’course and…” she pet the mechanical dog now at her legs, “good ol’ God.” God barked and licked the woman’s hand. “This is what we call home.”
“Mew.” A robotic cat sprung out from behind Root’s wagon.
“Yes, and you too, Tac!” the woman laughed.
Root heard a tiny machine-like sound as the cat turned to look at Root and adjust its brass ears. Its neon eyes turned from blue to green and soon it was purring and rubbing its dull copper body up against her legs.
“Well now, looks like Tac’s taken a liking to ya,” the woman said. “What’s your name, girl?”
“The woman threw out a hand bound in leather save for the fingers. It was offered to Root’s bad hand but Root kept it in her pocket. She awkwardly offered her other instead and was relieved when the woman received it heartily.
“Root, eh? Well, I’m Sussim. And well, you’ve met the gang.”
“You plan on stayin’?” Sussim asked.
“If…I mean, if it’s alright.”
“Well, you’ll need a good fire if y’wanna last the night. Gets more’n cold here. Frost’ll have ya b’fore morning.”
“Okay…thanks.” Root said.
Sussim spent another few seconds eyeballing Root, who could see the woman’s leadened teeth now and a curious stiffness in one of her eyes. A movement inside Root’s wagon broke the moment. Root looked to see another mechanical creature peering out from her supplies. The creature turned an eye toward Root and she recognized it to be a frog of fine silver.
“Gorf!” the woman yelled. “Get on outta there! That doesn’t belong t’you!”
The frog puffed up its marbled chin and let out a croak before leaping onto Sussim’s shoulder where it slipped under her hat.
“Sorry ‘bout that.”
“It’s okay.” Root smiled. She was actually rather smitten with these Junke Lot inhabitants.
“Right then, c’mon Eeb, God, Tac…let’s let our new neighbour get ‘erself all settled.” She nodded to Root.
“We’ll be over there, if y’need anything.” She pointed at a giant duct halfway up a cliff of debris. A fire in its middle made it look like a blazing eye hovering over the whole of the Junke Lot.
Root watched the woman leave with her trail of creatures in tow. She had half expected to come across at least a few Jiggers, being that she was moving into a Junke Lot, but she hadn’t expected a woman to be living among them, claiming them as pets no less.
The Jiggers she’d heard about were shapeless scurrying scraps of hardware and bolts that had somehow found life in Junke Lots, though no one knows how. There are some theories. Chronicler, Irma Bentshoe claimed they drew life from ancient underground graves, while a few mystics thought it more the effects of rusting. According to them, rust was to Jiggers what blood was to humans. The metalsmiths chocked it up to the randomness of sparks over time. To them all life sprang from a spark. At any rate Jiggers were known as pests, certainly not pets. At least that’s what Root had thought until now. Now when she thought of them she felt a little less lonely in the world.
She peered into the night sky, wondering if she’d spy Wingbit, but her little friend had taken to hunting down some dinner and would most likely not return until morning. Root smiled and turned to tend her new Lodge. She would surprise Wingbit with a warm homecoming. Several woolen blankets were placed along the flooring under the box. A small pile of books went against a wall and a fire was assembled before Root went back to the wagon for a fresh bandage.
As she rifled through her supplies she noticed an opened canister. Her heart stopped. She snatched the canister and looked inside. Empty. Her entire pouch of junos, gone! A wave of sickness swept through her and she had to lean against the wagon’s side.
Panic took over as she reached into memory for clues, carefully establishing every step leading to the Junke Lot. A thought struck her. That frog. That Jigger frog!
She replayed the recollection over and over until one image came into clear focus. The frog’s mouth. There had been an unnatural shine inside it just before it croaked. And after it croaked the size of its mouth remained the same. It must have had the junos in its mouth! That little tin brute!
Root looked way up to the Jiggers’ fire in the duct. Her eyes narrowed into deadly slits.
By the time she climbed halfway up the junke pile, her good hand was as bashed and cut up as the other. The sky had spilled its ink across the moon and stars making Sussim’s fire a burning banner to hold target. Goaded by anger and shame at her naivete, Root gingerly made her way over a fence of iron slats and arrived at the duct. It was much bigger than what it had looked from the ground, a massive throat of echoing steel. Sussim was there with her creatures, sitting at the fire and humming a tune. She was tearing up strips of paper and adding them to the flames.
God saw Root and barked. Before she could react Tac came up from behind and twined around her legs. Sussim looked up.
“Ah, decided to join us, didjya?”
“Your frog took my money.”
Sussim paused and then went back to tearing up her kindling. “Gorf, didjya hear that? She says you stole her money.”
Gorf peered out from under Sussim’s hat, bloated its chin (now noticeably smaller, thought Root) and swiveled its mechanical eyes toward her before shaking its head.
“Yes, you did! I can feel it all around you! This whole place stinks of my Lost!” Root stepped inside the duct, accidentally tripping on Tac, who hissed and swiped a brass paw across her leg. Root bent over in pain. A clean gash was already streaming blood.
“Tac!” Sussim cried, “That’s enough now. You too God!” She snapped her finger. At once the dog dipped its tail and sat. Sussim turned back to Root who felt her stomach drop from the sudden nastiness of the woman’s smile. “Now why would he do a thing like that? Why would he take a few measly junos from you…” Sussim held up the paper in her hand. “…when we can get two thousand from the Guardian.”
Root’s cheeks drained. A picture of her own face looked back at her from the paper’s folds. The word Reward loomed above the image in large black letters. Below this she read of her Dodging status and two thousand junos to the person who would lead to her whereabouts.
Sussim snickered and casually tossed the page into the fire. Root watched the poster burn away before looking back at the woman in horror. Sussim’s smile now spread across her whole face.
Root heard a noise. She ran to the mouth of the duct. From here she could see beams of light flashing around the Junke Lot. Badges! Looking for her!
She heard a bellowing laugh and turned back to Sussim now flanked by her loyal pets. “Sic ‘er,” the woman said with chilling calm. The Jiggers erupted in pursuit.
Without thinking Root leapt from the duct’s mouth onto the landslide of ore and cast iron. She toppled most of the way down, slicing her skin while trying to avoid the glaring searchlights. She reached the ground and was about to set off running when one of the light shafts found her.
“There she is!” she heard a Badge yell. She darted from the white glare into a maze of lead shackles. There was no light here save for the grainy attempts of a lot lamp. She took to shadows and when she reached a particularly dark corner paused to get her bearings.
Pain suddenly struck her heel with an intensity that drew her to her knees. When a second stab took her shoulder she turned to see Eeb’s shining metal stinger slip away before rounding back toward her head. Root swatted the bee but wound up with another stab in her palm. She stifled a scream. It was her bad hand and the pain was unbearable. She crouched and held it while Eeb came in yet again for another sting.
Something swooped. There was the sound of jarring circuitry and a moment later, in the dim slant of the lot lamp Wingbit flapped over to a jagged perch and spit out what was left of the jigger. Root thought she would cry in relief. She lifted herself up and, with a nod to her companion, set for escape. As the calls of Badges grew louder she limped around a stack of pipe and scanned the lot. Aha! A hole in the fence! She ran.
A moment later Gorf landed in front of her with a non-chalent croak. Root grabbed a large iron pipe and wielded it threateningly despite the searing pain in her hands.
Suddenly Gorf’s two mechanical friends landed with ease on each side of the frog. Tac hissed with glowing red eyes while God bared a set of metal teeth.
“No offense er anything, love. But two thousand junos is two thousand junos.” Sussim said, appearing like a ghost out of the soot. “So, if y’don’t mind, how ‘bout you be a good girl and…” Sussim’s hat extended a robotic arm toward Root. As it reached her it formed into a cage of metal bars. “…step into this here receptacle.”
Root swung her iron pipe with all her might. The cage splintered off the arm and landed at Sussim’s feet.
Sussim grit her teeth.
“Shouldn’ta done that, love.”
She clicked her tongue. At once God and Tac flew together like magnet to steel. Root watched as their parts began to meld. Then, to her shock pieces of random junk metal also flew from surrounding piles toward them and connected. Soon the machinery was churning and growing into a massive unit right before her eyes. A furnace erupted within its clunking pistons and a platform loaded Sussim onto a brass nest at its top. She looked down at Root from her towering perch and smiled as the final scraps of iron morphed into a new, much larger mechanical arm. And this one did not have a little cage at its end. This one had contorted into a life-size mouth of steel. Its long, corroded teeth seemed to be learing.
Root turned and ran as the teeth snapped at her heels and the metal monster stomped after her. Now too the Badges were on their way. She dodged around a corner and was about to duck into an overtipped bin when Wingbit caught her attention flapping about a tangle of accordion tubing of varying sizes.
“Are you sure?” Root asked.
Wingbit squeaked emphatically. As the snapping jaws of the steel trap appeared once more, Root dove.
She heard Sussim laugh as the monstrous Jigger lunged into the twisting labyrinth of tunneling hoses. Root had found her way into one large enough to fit her and was now desperately wriggling farther and farther from Sussim’s grasp.
She could feel the claustrophobic weight around her but crawled on while Sussim, joined now by the Badges, shreiked and tore at the heap. Just when Root thought the pile might collapse over her she caught a whiff of fresh air. The hose was leading back out onto a different side of the lot! She wriggled faster now, making her way toward the end of the tubing. She could see some light now, the dim glow of another lot lamp. And Wingbit!
She paused at the end, exhausted, making sure no one was around before allowing herself to fall out of the hose.
She hadn’t expected the Badge waiting quietly in the dark, nor the rough fabric of the bag over her head.
Root was lifted to a carriage and laid down in the box. She heard the sound of approaching steps.
“You found ‘er? The Dodger?” a Badge asked.
“Caught ‘er comin’ outta the ducts!”
Root heard a whistle and a host of voices running toward her.
“Where’re y’takin’ ‘er?” another Badge asked.
“Where d’y’think? Death Flat, of course!”
“Good! Teach ‘er a lesson! ”
Root felt her heart thumping in her throat.
“How now, dear sir. About that there reward.” Sussim’s voice raised over the others. Root could hear the rumble of her enormous Jigger gathering into the centre of the crowd.
“I think you’ve received more than enough compensation, madam.” said the Badge who had caught Root.
“Beggin’ yer pardon, sir. I’ve not received one lowly juno.”
“Oh?” the Badge said. “And what of those you’ve gathered from the pockets of my comrades here?”
Root heard a collective gasp and the rustling of hands in pockets.
“Empty!” a Badge cried out.
“She stole from us, the Junke witch!”
“I did no such thing! How’s that possible when I was with you lot the whole time chasin’ the girl!”
Root could feel a tense pause as the Badges tried to reconcile Sussim’s words with their suspicions.
“It’s her frog!” she cried out. “She has it raid when you’re not looking! It hides under her hat!”
A sudden commotion broke out. Root could hear Sussim trying to fight off the Badges who seemed to be literally climbing her giant Jigger to reach her.
“The Dodger’s right!” A Badge snapped at last. “Look here! Can’t even croak for the weight in its bloated chin!”
“Why you!” another Badge growled.
There was now a greater clash of metal and man, as Sussim and her pets met with the Badges’ anger. With the attention off her, Root jostled for escape. She found the wagon’s edge and dropped, but was caught by a pair of strong arms.
“Oh no y’don’t.”
Root was placed back in and the ledge drawn up. A moment later the carriage started moving away from the fight and even further, out of the lot itself.
An image of Death Flat overcame her. There were so many rumours surrounding its horrors, most of which she laid down to myth, but remaining truths of it made her hair stand on end: an endless wall of bones rising up around a lake of fog and fire; a sky with no sun; a single, flimsy raft of twigs upon which the prisoner would be thrust into the waters and left alone to fend for him or herself; shores of quicksand; and makeshift raft islands where the cruelest prisoners gathered to break the others.
Root’s heart thumped and fear rose to choke her. She began to squirm, feeling the loss of fresh air as she laboured against the scratching fibers of the suffocating bag.
After a while the carriage came to a stop. Root heard the Badge dismount and walk toward her. When she felt his hand on hers she revolted with all her strength.
“Root. It’s okay. Stop fighting.”
It took a minute before she realized what she’d heard and paused in disbelief.
The bag came off. She looked into familiar eyes.
“I’m sorry. It was the only way I could get you safely out of there,” Jorab said.
Root felt tears erupt from her eyes. She threw herself into his chest as he lifted her from the carriage.
A blanket and fire warmed them. Jorab had filled Root with a meal and now he sat quietly beside her, both of them awaiting the fire’s promptings.
“I still can’t believe you found me by using Wits,” Root said at length.
“And not an easy task, I might add. You have quite a busy set of marbles in there.”
“It’s not me!” Root protested. “It’s all the others with Wits. I keep hearing them, so many voices, day and night. I didn’t realize one was yours.”
“Yes, it takes a great amount of focus to begin tuning. The good thing is that I was able to gather your surroundings and when I saw the Jiggers I knew where you were.”
“Just in time.”
“Indeed. Which leads me to wonder what drove you to such dire circumstances.”
Root poured her heart into the flames, sharing everything of her last few weeks with Jorab; the cruel ending with Studaben Picklepug, the destruction of the Copper Quill and Fledger’s disappearance, the resulting weeks in hiding, desperately trying to repel the Marrow Bind, the scrimping survival and the last straw in the Junke Lot. When she was emptied, there was a long pause.
“May I see your hand?” Jorab asked at last.
She nodded and offered it to him. He gently took it into the firelight. It was a grotesque thing and Root herself was hardly able to look at it. “I think my Stamp attempts may have made it even worse,” she said.
“Yes, Dodging is pretty advanced Heat, Root.”
“I know.” She looked down. “How much time do I have?”
“For your hand? Very little.”
She nodded again and bit her lip.
“You are certain this is the answer?” Jorab asked.
“I can’t work for him, if that’s what you mean. He’s evil, Jorab. Worse than a Tall…I’d wind up worse than this, I can tell you that!”
“I suspect your hatred is justified, little Root. Indeed, I too find these acts most concerning and grievous.”
Root looked at him surprised. She hadn’t expected agreement.
Jorab held her in his eyes. “But how much more grievous are the consequences of hate than the causes of it.”
Root flinched. At once her pain swelled around her. She looked at her dying hand and knew its torture had come by the actions of her own revolt. And that her grudge would only spur a long journey into further suffering. But how could she resign herself to a life under the Guardian’s cruelty?
She looked at Jorab. “I…don’t know what to do.” Again, to her embarrassment, a torrent of tears streamed down her cheeks.
“My dear, a primary lesson in the living, and not just those with Wits – Being solitary does not mean you are alone. If you want victory you must silence the chatter inside first.”
“Right,” Root scoffed. “And whose chatter would that be? There’s only a hundred voices to choose from.”
“Yours. The loudest one, the one that has declared war on the world.”
“Wha’d’y’mean? I haven’t declared war!”
Jorab leaned in with a sturdy challenge. “Do you accept that you’re a Bone Grit?”
Root went silent.
He let the words sink in before continuing. “Until you can respect who you are, you can’t expect anyone else to.”
“How can I respect this?” Root gestured to herself. “I became the one thing I set out not to become! I’m nothing but a pathetic pouch biter!”
“Don’t flog yourself for a decision that was the best you could do.”
“Right. Tell that to Fledger. My best dragged him into this and now he’s probably…” she stopped, choking on the thought.
“Dead,” Jorab said.
Root looked at him, horrified.
“Or alive. The probably is up to you.”
Root let out a frustrated sigh, resigned once again to Jorab’s reasoning. “Fine!”
She slammed her eyes shut and took in a deep breath. She focused inward and became instantly bombarded with transmissions.
“Ignore the others,” Jorab encouraged. “It’s the one sneaking behind them.”
Root felt like she was physically casting away the foreign voices that were vying for her attention. She zeroed in on the one that stood out above them all. It startled her at first, a ragged bark that snapped and frothed like a wounded animal. Her heart instantly claimed its rage and fear.
“Don’t identify with it,” Jorab warned calmly. “Just notice it.”
With difficulty Root pulled away from being the voice and simply observed it. And as she did she suddenly wondered who she was that was observing. In that moment a flood of light swooped in and peace overtook her.
“Good,” she heard Jorab say and then realized he was using Witspeak. “Very good. This is the true space of a Wits master, where thought gives way to silence.”
As her voice receded into the overwhelming stillness, Root’s hand occurred to her as a precious thing, a beloved note in the orchestral hush.
An outside noise brought her back to her immediate surroundings. She opened her eyes to see Wingbit fussing along the gate of the carriage. The peace promptly faded. But it had managed to leave a tiny fissure in its exit, a hope. It was enough for Root to realize there might be another way. She looked at Jorab both uncertain and certain…and moreover willing.
“You will help me?” she asked.
The moment they arrived on Dominion land, Root’s hand, hanging by a thread, drew itself up. She watched in amazement as the flesh merged anew and a pink layer of skin wrapped over it. Strength coursed back and she happily exercised it by organizing her belongings, grateful that Jorab had placed them in the carriage before retrieving her.
She came across the two books Fledger had given her for the first Marrow Bind so long ago. Magical Firsts was still torn where the Bulk had mangled it and Opus of Wits had been read so often now the dog-eared corners were splitting off. Jorab recognized Opus with a raised eyebrow. “I’m not sure you want to flaunt a banned text in Dominion lands.”
Root drew the book to her chest protectively. “It is? I didn’t know. You won’t tell, will you?”
Jorab smiled. “And risk them finding my copy, too? I think not.”
Root smiled and released her grip. “Why is it banned?”
Before Jorab could reply, she clued in. “There’s mention of a Dodging Stamp.” She immediately turned to the page. “Right here. It says that a Dodging Stamp is best served by a Wits Master…for they dwell in Crossroads. What’s a Crossroad?”
“A meeting place. An intersection of sorts where most Wits Pyrists Touch.”
“You mean communicate?”
“Yes. However, a Master meets not only another kindred but the minds of much more, including the body, its cells.”
Root leapt to understanding. “So, it’s possible to Witspeak with the body and convince it to repel a Marrow Bind on its own!”
Jorab smiled. There was a long pause before he added. “Yes, I will teach you.”
Root’s face began to glow. It had been so long since she’d felt warmth in her cheeks. Then a thought occurred to her. “Why, Jorab?”
“Because though the Guardian is convinced of some noble purpose, I cannot deny the warnings in my heart. Especially in light of recent events, the Copper Quill inclusive. A Marrow Bind was never meant to be used in such a way. I fear a very slippery slope indeed.”
Root nodded. She remembered once overhearing Jorab speaking to Sir Wilbury Heart of the Guardian’s recklessness. And she knew that others in Jorab’s company, namely Mordge and SmitherWeed also harboured deep concern. Moreover she could not deny the same warnings in her heart.
“It will take some time, you understand.”
Somehow Root knew that Jorab was speaking of both the Dodging Stamp and the deeper attainment, truth, where Fledger hung in the balance. She nodded in agreement.
Spring wasted no time reclaiming her throne. Jorab dragged the wheels over her new wet grasses, forming a fresh rut of slush and mud. The smell of drying rain lightened their hearts. When Root caught sight of Mammoth Rock, her heart began an anxious thump that came with memories of her friends, Lian and Dwyn, Elgart, Mordge. But also the Guardian of Lanlynne, Studaben Picklepug. She stowed the nerves away and set her jaw.
“Jorab, you had mentioned certain… concessions…”
“Ah yes. I believe private Parleys have been installed in Finder rooms now. Though I wouldn’t count on them being entirely private.”
“And my rune pattern is available if…if Fledger calls?”
Root nodded approvingly. “And--”
“--Waiting rather impatiently in the stable.”
Root nearly bounced out of the carriage, her heart swelling with anticipation. Jorab winked and drew the carriage airborne to the top of Mammoth Rock where Mirror Lake greeted them in grand sparkle and blossoming gardens hemmed the cliffside all the way to the once-proud citadel and its lurking Krux.
“I’m afraid this is where we part. I have an engagement with Madam Mordidika who’s a rather demanding barber.”
“Mordge cuts your hair?”
“Indeed, and I’m afraid she’s bent on removing the braids this time.” Jorab wistfully stroked the short totem of beads at his chin.
Root laughed and threw her arms around him. “Thank you so much, Jorab! For everything!”
“Farewell for now, little Root. I’ll ensure Elgart has your things taken to your room.”
Root leapt from the carriage and waved before racing through Guardian’s Gate, past the glancing statues to the old stone bridge, which gladly welcomed her.
There was never a more heartsick howl than that which came from stable stall number sixty-seven. Stogie nearly broke down the gate to quicken the embrace. The cries and coos of both he and Root continued well out into the crisp air where nature could begin to heal their losses at last.
A glorious sun basted leaves into tender witness while Root inspected every inch of her beloved Hovermutt. The neglect was impossible to ignore. Stogie’s inner ears were caked in black and his coat was weighed down with burs, dirt and mats as thick as her thumbs. Benoline Crabbit would have been appalled to see one of his fine beasts suffering so.
But whereas Root found his condition heart breaking, Stogie, now rid of grief, filled to complete by their happy reunion decided a nice romp in fresh Bulk poo would be the perfect celebratory capper.
Let it be known there is nothing…no thing in the entire universe worse than the smell of a wet Hovermutt freshly rolled in Bulk poo.
“Hold still, Stogie!” Root now pulled her shaggy companion closer to the spouting mouth of a water pump. But Stogie was much, much bigger than her and according to Stogie there was nothing worse than a bath.
“Aw, c’mon, Stogie! You stink!”
Root sighed. How could she be upset watching that joy? He was whizzing about the courtyard, sniffing grass, licking bark. There was so much to see in this new Spring awakening where the last bits of snow slushed. The spired leaves of tulips were nudging into the air. Everything dripped and dropped in a warm breath. Mud glistened. Puddles grew. A million smells woke from great sleep. All finding their way to Stogie’s wet, black, happy nose.
Hmmmmm, thought Root. This calls for extreme measures. When it came to harnessing Stogie, there had been one thing she could always count on. Thank goodness she had picked some up along the way. A limited supply, but this was a matter of life and death. For her nostrils at least.
“Stogaloo!” she chirped and reached in her pocket.
Stogie’s ears shot up.
“You want your squeaky, Stogers?”
The stiff grass flattened under the beating of his tail.
He did a stand sit stand sit stand kind of dance and looked like he would surely die if he didn’t have that squeaky toy in his chompers right this second.
Root eased him toward the water. Squeakity, squeak, squeak. Once there, with the poor toy in his jaws she knew he wouldn’t move. But she also knew he’d have it destroyed in mere minutes. She’d have to act fast.
Water, soap, spray, scrub, rinse. All in record time.
As the last squeaky remains spit out into a bright yellow pile and a fluffy blanket darted about drying the contented Hovermutt, Root spied another little friend.
Wingbit joined them on a homecoming tour of the grounds, whisking around the Shack’s turrets, swooping the shoreline of Mirror Lake and darting on and off the great Rock’s plateau, until Root was filled once more with the bright breaths of hope.
From the gardens, Root noticed the first signs of human life, a gathering of some kind. She encouraged Stogie onward to investigate.
By the time she realized its dark purpose, it was too late.
Blood had already been spilled.