As if on cue, Borysko...doesn't turn up

About Madame's evident keenness toward seeing Borysko sometime soon, Urska plainly held another opinion:

"Hah! You come back for boy — and Borys' — I see! Liar say hunt bear no'more no'more — Liar he hunt me! Maybe he catch girl'me — little girl'thing fall down n' fall down — and cold all the time. But! But — bear'me — Hah! I know your boy'blood. Small'small bite n' I am bear'me — strong, again! Carry boy my back over waterground fast'fast. Borys' not ever catch me!—"

Drakon only part caught Urska's most specific grievance with Borysko. And missed, he grasped only after, Madame's temper spark at hearing it. Though Madame was correct, as Madame always was correct in whatever her suggestion and the practical reasons for her charges to do as suggested — here, that he and Madame could not this moment discuss the matter that Madame was in fact Mother — suddenly was the matter of paramount importance burning in his heart. He dammed back hot tears. The effort already blurring his sense of the words he should strike. Understood, though, he was but a boy, perhaps with no words in him for the affairs of King and...Madame. However, the boy could clearly speak his King's words, his father's, for these were faithfully chronicled in the histories and under the circumstances the best example a boy might mimic. Madame, herself, had always praised Drakon on his book learning.

"I should still ask, Madame, after your...absence. The why." Drakon's throat tightened.

She turned reddened, tearful eyes upon him.

"You're so son. You might not go wrong simply imagining the why. We have not the time, we both know it. You and I shall talk. And your father. Just a little more patience, Drakon. Only a small count of days more. But you must tell me what you do here."

Urska growled, "I hurt not your boy."

"You take his blood. I will not allow it! He is mine and wonder you are — but try take him again and I will destroy you!"

Before him, his mother's shrieking fixed Drakon in the glade, in the moments he comprehended all they might have for some time, because she must rescue Steiffa and all the adepts, and he must lead three bears north. Taking up her trembling fists in his small hands, he drew her eyes to him.

"A wonder, Urska is...Mother. She explained, she did. We needed speed, and ease, across a marsh. Really a very small bite. Instantly healed, Mother. The hand you hold. See? Think of Borysko!"

"I see. I know it, Drakon. But say how I could leave you with her—"

"Because you must go, Mother. For Steiffa and all my friends. And I go north. Perhaps the old ones can undo what I've done to Urska. Now, before that, with Urska, perhaps undo the poison done to Borysko!"

Madame laid a mother's gentle hand upon Drakon's cheek. She glared over at Urska, she-bear again, hairy and big and strong, and puffing, like a bear insulted. Marron nuzzled her broad neck. And the cub with him mewled for her attention.

"Wait, then, for Borysko—"

Urska swung her head — "I BITE BORYS' DEAD!"

Chuckling, for chuckling seemed best, Drakon went to Urska, trailing Madame, tugging at his shoulder. The cub lifted his muzzle under Drakon's comforting hand. The boy locked eyes with the puffing she-bear.

"Borysko hunts for me, Urska. You remember how he is. He will always look for me. He won't ever stop. Borysko is my friend. I trust him, and will all my days. You remember he promised that we will make you you again — as we are trying to do — and why we are going to the mountain—"

"Borys'Liar, he same like liar'girl he no let me kill — "

"That's not right, Urska. You're being stubborn now. Remember he promised you he will not hunt bear ever again. I know Borysko, and I know he will not ever hunt bear again."

"Hunt Boy — hunt me — is same. I no like it!"

"Remember Khoreia made Borysko very sick—"

"No let me kill, I know."

"He won't go home, sick as he is. Borysko stays, to keep me safe, and keep you safe, because he knows Khoreia wants me, and she wants to take you, too. I want Borysko to find us soon, Urska. He will keep us safe. And I hope to make him well, strong, again. When he comes, together we all go north. Far away from Khoreia, and safe."

Drakon leaned close, so Urska should see only the sincerity he hoped there in his eyes.

"I hear, Boy. You I hear. Tell her I not hurt you — because you must make me me. I no hurt your boy, You hear?"

"I hear." said Madame.

Urska settled on her haunches. "Boy, I stay. Borys' come — all go."

The matter settled, the bears comforting each other and Madame seemingly satisfied with the outcome, she posed Drakon a small smile, said, "I should go, son."

Mother drew son to her embrace, held him so wondrously long that Drakon thought it might hold back the morning.




Madame could not feel less satisfied. However, in witnessing Drakon, but a boy, speaking most easily with the irritable she-bear, and handling her better than a grown man might, mother grasped that the pair were partnered. And her little son able, if perhaps not wise.

And Madame had now to be going. She willed the change. Felt its sweeping through her, even as she settled back, and the log behind bore her swiftly diminishing weight. And her heart leaping, as when she was young in the world. Wonderfully close now, and great, the influence of the mountain of the Mother.

Drakon stared so at her. Nyssa the falcon, the Assessor of adepts, his mother, cautioned herself. She must set this right the earliest she can.

Shrilly wishing Drakon farewell, the huntress took wing, swinging swift wingbeats through the open places amid the beeches, enough, until satisfied here the forest safe surrounding her son, then shot, a dart, brushing the treetops.

There was not time for her to lift high into the brightening blue as she would have liked. Her students needed her too. She winged south, staring across the darkness of a marsh.

Madame heard them then, dreamers, from the vast watered gloom below.

Borysko, she heard first, the man dreaming — and of her — so fitfully he might as well have shouted his passion in the dawn. Madame reminded herself quickly, before she might idle on his inappropriate and presumptuous subject, that his dream but a playground, and rightly consequence free, as the Mother intended. Still, she noted her blood did quicken.

She sensed Alastor awake. Her King, in her wilderness again, so many years after. She remembered. In their golden longago, when all had seemed possible, peace and the kingdom he had won uniting, and love, those many mornings as she rose, and him there beside her, present like his promise he always would be, her man of worries usually already lay awake. His worries now circled Drakon. And the boy he kept under his arm, and should properly stir himself to hate.

The boy, his thoughts transparent as smoke. The spy, again, just as Borysko had forewarned.

She called it no challenge at all for her to tell Borysko where Drakon waited, and keep it from this Donovan.

Snapping over steeply on one wingtip, she sensed below within the archipelago of beech islands scattered over Urska's vast waterground the one beech island where her men rested.




Borysko stood, unsteady, beholding Nyssa miraculously become the woman again. His heart bounded. He worried he might embarrass himself, tip over, giddy before her as a green boy.

He managed a strangled, respectful, "Madame."

"Borysko, I must share this with you." she said.

But Borysko saw the spark, the something in her eyes that did not match this beauteous vision of her, unencumbered by any fashions and aglow as the new day, rushing to embrace him in her arms. That was all the preparation he got. It was enough. Otherwise, Nyssa's sudden and relentless kiss should probably have killed him.

And just the same as so much else that had happened in this strange summer in service of the King, naturally Nyssa's was no ordinary kiss. Transporting him, as the bards say it, though in no way like any other wished for kiss. Here, yet more magic, and his heart seemingly taking it in stride. The vision hers: a bird's eye view, swinging, dizzyingly, above the island and across the wide marsh, then plunging through the treetops of the other waking forest. With a start, Borysko knew where Drakon was.

Nyssa held him only longer for speaking this more inside his soul: Find Urska, Borysko, and you find Drakon. You must not lead the spy to him.




Ah, but how the one-time king chortled at the instant Nyssa of Vagara foisted her smooch on broken Borysko! His witch. Alastor's one-time lover. And traitor to a homeless people.

Hers certainly no ordinary kiss, Donovan reasoned, and likely another of the witch's well-intentioned healing spells — for all the good of it! — and, true to her wanton reputation, showily applied.

Her excess at last registering, despite Alastor's set grin, his eyes narrowed in royal suspicion just that telling enough.

Sneering hardly at all, Donovan mused he might not ever try slip the rope chafing his neck, and fly, though the mountain so near he felt it in his blood, and he might do, even without silver.




"Y'talked, Uh'said. Talk again."

Jack the ratter swung Steiffa before his face, balled up in his ratcatching net, as if that little swing might coax her to speak as she never had in the cage at the circus.

Steiffa tried as best she could to calm her jangling thoughts. She counted, forced the pause between, number after number, and breathed especially deeply, as properly as she remembered how. This the calming device Drakon had taught her when their blundering about the sleeping school very nearly put them in plain sight before the gateman on his rounds. From what she knew of Jack the ratter, the tattling and gossip of neighbours, Steiffa guessed how best to impress the man. The guess would do. He might in the very next instant swing her and the net overhead, and dash her dead against the street.

"I, uh...w'w'we...are Steiffa, Queen of the Maggie's Town rats...and we are most displeased!"

Jack's instantaneous silence buoyed Steiffa's hammering heart. Healer Quant had reacted similarly, that kind man with demonstrated sorrow, after tricking Madame inside the charmed cage, because Madame had shamed him so. This could be child's play, little Steiffa saw, if she gave Jack the ratter no moment to question.

"We have watched you, Jack the ratter."

"Y'watch me?—"

"Biding our time, Jack the ratter. Deciding how...most right to...assess you. Jack, the ratter."

Saying the man's name, along with his profession, clearly unnerved him. Madame had demonstrated the technique during the talking to after the regrettable, innocent incident of rattie discovering the boys at gymnasium.

"What uh'do that uh'gotta be...assess'd? Jus'me doin' m'job. Ly'dy. Wha's...assessed t'do wiv'me?"

"We've been assessing you a very long time. Under our...scrutiny, Man. Maggie's Town in considerable doubt." — Steiffa began quite to enjoy herself — "You have on more than one occasion failed to answer summons to appear—"

"Wha' summons? Uh'done nowt fer the guard t'come take me, Ly'dy! Do m'job — peace'ble n' NO fightin' — NOT A SWING!—"

"Failure to answer our summons, and see us, after y'job. Because you'd like the beer at Pig n'Bee better. We see. We know. We...are not concerned y'do y'job. Jack, Ratter. Rattie'kind understand all living creatures in the end are meat for other creatures. Rattie'kind no different. Ending our days in cat, or bird...or...or your net. Our concern, Man — you LIKE killing rattie'kind—"

"Uh'gots no learnin', Ly'dy. Uh'couldna knowed uh's doin' m'job wrong—"

"Wagerin' on how long a rat can tread water in a bucket? Cat on rat for a penny, Man! Can y'not sense right from wrong?—"

Little'Ears chittered hysterically close by.

"Listen...bad Man...the weeping of the widows. You have lost your way. Murdered, even—"


"Widows — and Daddy'less kiddies!—"


"Silence, Man!"

The wrecked man whimpered, puffing onion over the Queen of the Maggie's Town rats.

"Be calm, Little'Ears. We have him now as we can use him." Steiffa called down in the rattie tongue.

Steiffa even had the words for dispensing with the former menace. She had witnessed one public execution, secretly, without her parents' knowing. The experience could now show its usefulness. She saw that her momentary silence only prepared him more.

"Jack, the ratter," she intoned, in her steadiest rattie voice, "also known as The Ratter, Jack, you have been assessed. We're finished assessing you. You are a great disappointment to us. You've lost your way. Best then that you leave us, and Maggie's Town. This instant. Put down the net and the bag. Leave the town."

The former ratter sobbed, his voice the smallest Steiffa ever heard squeak from a grown man — "Mercy, Ly'dy—"

But this was well past the time for mercy. Queen Steiffa called down in rattie — "Cut'Tail. Cut'Tail, show yourself."

"I hear. Very dangerous, girl."

"No danger at all, Cut'Tail — but look your fiercest."

Balled up in the net as she was, it was quite the gymnastic effort, but she could just glimpse him under her left arm, below in the sunshiny lane. Cut'Tail reared up, swaggered about on hindlegs, clawing the air with his tiny forepaws.

"EEEE! — WHA'S HE ABOUT?" Jack shouted, bounding back, and swinging her in the net.


"S's'sorry, Ly'dy—"

"Jack, the ratter, Cut'Tail here will show you to the end of town—"

"Pleeease, Ly'dy! Teach me — Uh'wants t'learn Right...and t'other!—"


Two of the red guard, advancing out of the morning sun along the lane of shops. Steiffa glimpsed Cut'Tail scuttle to safety under the butcher's shop.


Then Jack veered her in the net close to his nose and whispered, "Leave 'em t'me, Ly'dy. Uh'll show ya uh'can be a new man yet!"




"Look, Sarge. Doggie's got his'self a hawk."

Esben looked, saw a sight more peculiar than any, and he had seen many in his ten years posted to the provincial little town that hosted the school for mages.

Quite apart from the camp proper and the soldiers packing for the day's march, that Calla, that loyal mutt, indeed had got himself a hunting bird. A dappled beauty of a bird any hawker should give his other arm for having to hunt. She perched on a sunny stump so close his snout that he could have snapped her up, had he wanted her. Oddly, instead the mutt seemed intent on staring at her. His tail even wagging.

Oddest of all, then bird and mutt together turned heads, eye-balling the curious sergeant...who had his soldiers to move out.

"She's a falcon, lad." said Esben. "Probably more that's not our concern. Pack your kit, while it's only your sergeant telling you."

The End

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