Storm and warfare raged on Mt. Isolla, but the day passed mildly over Thimble’s small boat once Y’lanna Sparti was back on it and Beau Bergeron was not.
Thimble had to admit a certain disappointment at losing the despicable assassin so quickly, before they could begin to play properly, but if the fool couldn’t even manage to keep a boat under his feet, perhaps the faerie had over-estimated the eorman. All for the best, then, for a bother missed is no bother at all. Thimble turned his thoughts to his mission.
The two remaining Calinda-men, having accepted that their boss’s disappearance over the side had left them with nothing to do, had spent the rest of the voyage doing just that — nothing, aside from ogling Y’lanna. Their boating party relaxed into a sense of near-recreation as the river carried them effortlessly and the sun lowered into dusk. Thimble watched the men watching Y’lanna dry herself from her fall into the river. Pleased, he felt a song rising within him again.
“I’ll tell my ma when I go home
The boys won’t leave the girls alone
They pull my hair, they steal my comb
But that’s alright till I come home,” he warbled.
“She is handsome, she is pretty
She is the belle of the Golden City
She is a-courting one, two, three
Please won’t you tell me who is she?”
The men’s ears turned red, and Thimble laughed. “Aye, ‘tis a fine, rare night a-brewing, is it not, lads. How soft the air, and what larks and treasures a man might find in his way, eh?”
Larks and treasures indeed. Men such as these thought of little else, and on that Thimble was counting. Let dreams of pleasure and gain calm their tattered nerves.
Dusk had turned to twilight when they reached the bridge at the high road to Teur. Without question, the Calinda-men set about tying up the boat as Thimble bade them.
“Pull it up the bank, you laggards,” he scolded them, “or it’ll be hung up on that piling.”
While the men hauled the boat up over the mud, Thimble turned to Y’lanna and pulled a small leaf of a certain plant from his waistcoat pocket. “Pardon me, milady, if you please,” he said, and he touched the leaf to Y’lanna’s head, saying a single word in Atul. “Naiko.”
With the barest sigh of displaced air, the voluptuous, purple alien vanished, leaving a tiny, gray mouse in her place, amongst the grass. Giggling, Thimble put away the leaf.
“Oy, where’d the purple lass go?” said one of the Calinda-men, looking up and about.
“Who?” said Thimble, and before the they could respond, he thought another word, ‘avr’, and turned into a speckled owl with the same round, glaring eyes as the man he’d been a fraction of a second before.
Thimble-owl hopped onto Y’lanna-mouse and, grasping her in his talons, spread his great wings and flapped away into the forest. He was fairly certain the men would be standing there and blinking there for a few minutes before the next ‘oy’ came out of their mouths. By that time, they would be utterly irrelevant.
Technically, the spell he’d cast was dangerous, even questionable, but it one that came naturally to the fae of Aeldreth. Other folk might burn a lot of aura to transform both themselves and another, but shapeshifting was second — no, first nature to his kind. A thought and a word were all he needed to alter the energies that defined the forms of things. Thus, with little more than the imagining of it, lady became mouse and man became owl, and off they went. There was no vulgar bending of bones or crushing down of mass. Some wizards might do such things, but that was not shapeshifting. With this magic, the change was at the level of fundamental concept. Was woman, is mouse. Was man, is owl.
Few in the magical world of Aeldreth truly understood magic, because few ever stopped to think about it. Magic was simply the natural condition, but the fact was that physical manifestation was inherently unstable here. The force called “aura” kept everything in a more or less fluid state, which made it easy change the flow, as it were, if one knew how. For some, this came as an inherent talent while others had to learn it with varying degrees of success. But easy or difficult, it was not bizarre to the natives of this reality. Thimble’s trick would be no more amazing to the dimwitted air-pirates than it was to Thimble himself, though they would certainly curse him for being quicker than them off the mark. But for foreigners like Lady Y’lanna or, as Thimble was sure, Beau Bergeron and Captain Lafitte — well, who knew how things were wherever they came from. For all Thimble knew, all worlds might be the same.
Howsoever be it, what mattered in the end was that, for a faerie like him, shapeshifting was as easy as sitting in a chair.
The transformed faerie owl beat a swift and wild route through the forest, covering the distance in a fraction of the walking time. The light had not yet gone completely by the time he swooped into the town of Teur, over the market square and high lane, right to the very gate of the garrison base. There, with another thought, the owl poofed into the valet of the Lord Magus of the Grand Navigators. A wave of the leaf, and Y’lanna-mouse stood up as Y’lanna-woman again, with nary a button out of place.
The guard at the gate raised an eyebrow and looked them up and down.
“My good man,” said Thimble, bowing briskly, “We come from His Serene Highness, Peino of Ereon, Prince of the Sovereign Duchy of the Grand Navigators, under marque of the High King of Lyrion, to speak with your commander with utmost urgency. Conduct us, if you please.”
The guard looked them up and down some more, and then pulled a cord hanging down the wall beside him. A bell rang within.
“If you are as you say,” said the guard, “you’re expected.”
Indeed, they were expected. Apparently, the High Court in Sesus had psychegraphed the situation upon their departure days ago. The commander of the Garrison of the North had a platoon ready to mobilize. As soon as King Iviar’s letter of marque had assured him that Thimble and Y’lanna were indeed the agents of the Prince of the Navigators, he ordered his forces into action.
Thimble outlined the brothers’ plan and pointed out on the commander’s map who was where and what forces were in play as far as he knew.
“We shall leave before midnight,” the commander said, and left Thimble and Y’lanna to their own devices until then.
For his part, Thimble sat himself down on a barrel on the parade ground where the platoon was mustering, and lit his pipe.
“Aye, it is a fine, rare night, after all,” he said. “I hope, milady, you don’t mind the liberty I took, but under the circumstances, I thought you’d rather be carried by me than by your two would-be suitors.” Laughing again, he settled down to hum a tune along with the hustle and bustle of the soldiers.
They were a fine company in their shimmering uniforms of the Army of the Water Realm, their weapons all aglow with spells, and their thousand-league boots and impenetrable cloaks. Fast and stealthy would clearly be the watch-word of this night.
An armorer stopped by with a hand-cart. “Captain’s compliments, and I’m to offer you your fit of boots and cloaks for the journey, if you’re coming along.”
“Of course we are, you insulting dolt,” Thimble snapped in the perfunctory manner of one expected to respond a certain way. “Do you think I’m not eager to rush to my master’s side just because I’ve stopped for a pipe? Come, let me see what you’ve got.”
He looked to Y’lanna. He liked this strange lady, yes, but after all, who and what was she? She’d fought well and managed her many adventures nicely enough so far, but was that a matter of her character or just an accident of being carried along by a swift river of events? Now they’d had some time to think about what they were going to do. It was one thing to fight in self-defense as she had up to now. Would she be prepared to take up arms and go to war? It was time to find out.
“Come, milady,” he said, “suit up if you will march with us. You’ll like these boots. They’ll carry you a mile in a step and a thousand leagues before you know it. Of course, we’re not going that far, so try not to get ahead of me, or yourself for that matter.”