June 2008 Volume Two Issue Four
Toil, Trouble, and Rot - Maria E. Schneider
Everyone thinks heroes are strapping young men and beautiful damsels. If that were true, the kingdom of Sage would no longer be a kingdom because the young don't have the patience or experience to protect important territories. Leave them in charge and Sage would become just another territory under the Rats from the West.
I am the castle's first line of defense. Yes, I know, you are thinking I must man the ramparts, or march with the soldiers. Wrong. I am the gardener. I am fifty-five years old with lovely tresses shaped in artful white curls around my dainty head. For a grandma, I sport very few wrinkles and for the record, gardeners never wear skirts whether or not they are Master Magicians, which I am.
When my plants in the garden twittered just the tiniest bit about their far relatives in the valley, I knew instantly who was at fault. "The Rats from the West," I muttered. "What lingers, what complaints?" I asked.
Unfortunately, plants view the world very simply and aren't terribly helpful when it comes to details. The major complaint seemed to be a lack of nutrients, so it was probably just a lazy farmer failing to rotate his crops.
It was a nice morning, so I took myself off to investigate. If the farmer saw me at all, he probably figured I was homeless or looking for a missing kitten. No doubt he failed to guess that I, just five years shy of sixty, was capable of hunting down deviant rat magic.
And find it, I did. "Drat it all!" The evil magic in the farmer's field was rot. It was draped along the ground, professionally left on an occasional stalk where it could spread on its own.
I touched a healthy looking plant and got zapped backwards on my bony butt. "Oomph. Wha--" Magic is rarely confused by age, and it doesn't pull its punches because your hair is already white. Whatever magic was here had enough respect for me to lash out with a surge of black rot that burned my careless fingers but good.
This was far more serious than a lazy farmer forgetting to rotate crops. Fungus enhanced by magic is insidious indeed and dangerous to the entire kingdom!
I hightailed it for the forest. No doubt I looked as though I had taken a few too many sips from the fermented barley barrel. In my defense, let me say that it hurts to run when you're old. There is no way to do it without gimping along and looking like a deranged fool. My fluffy white bonnet flew off and bounced behind me, attached only loosely to a lone button on my green cape.
Foolish looking or not, I needed to get my hand treated immediately. Magical burns are not to be trifled with and for me, a plant wizard, to be infected with rot spells was not only painful, it was dangerous. This magic was the exact opposite of my own, and my blood corroded quickly as the stuff seeped through my skin. "Blimey," I cursed.
Luckily, I knew exactly where thyme grew inside the forest. It's a mild magic so while it kept the fungus from spreading, it was really no more than a compress on a wound.
This vile fungus infection required a visit to the metallurgist and some copper. Rue would have helped also, but the infection was spreading fast, so with only the thyme in hand, I raced to the village to my friend Bridget. The woman is a Master Metallurgist and can work metal like no one I've ever seen.
She didn't need to be told twice either. "Fungus rot," I panted. "I was reading the energy and it got me. I need to purge it with copper."
By now, my hand was swollen to twice its normal size. The thyme was wrapped well and good around my entire hand, but the magical qualities of the fungus were giving it legs. If I didn't stop it soon, I would lose my hand.
"What is needed?" Bridget brought forth a copper pot.
"Boil some of the thyme and leech out copper into the water," I told her. "I need to drink tea with both." I gasped for air, but not because of the run. It was taking a lot of my personal magic to keep the fungus from spreading past my hand.
Bridget added water to the pot and placed her hands inside. She drew herself into a focused beam, her hands glowing as she rubbed the side lightly. Her energy literally melted the finest molecules of the copper into the water.
When she was satisfied, she pulled her dripping hands out. I grabbed a teakettle from the stove, poured a half-cup and put in a fresh sprig of thyme. "Fill the cup with the water from your pot," I pleaded.
"No, this is much too strong to drink. Get your hand in there while I dilute some for the tea."
I didn't argue. My hand looked like it belonged on a diseased corpse. The only benefit to this torture as far as I could tell was that my aged veins had completely disappeared underneath swollen, ugly red and blue skin. The magic pounded my hand and wrapped around my bones.
I swallowed the tea and scalded my tongue.
Bridget held my hand with one of hers and the pot with the other. She controlled the flow of copper.
Relief was slow. The swelling didn't go down, but I felt the copper smack into the fungus. I put my own magic into the mix, leaching the fungus of any nutrients. I probably went too far and sucked several good elements from my skin, but I was so angry, I didn't get control of myself soon enough.
When I felt reasonably safe, I closed my eyes and searched for bits that might have broken off. I needed a live rue plant to fight off the rest of the fungus, but I would have to return to my garden to get it.
I opened my eyes and said, "Thanks."
"It doesn't look that much better." My friend eyed my hand critically.
"I kept it from going outside my hand and that meant the blood pooled. It will get better."
"Do you want to tell me what this is about?"
Bridget is younger than me by twenty years. Her hair is still a soft brown that matches the honey color of her gentle eyes. To look at her, you would never guess she could bend metal with her bare hands.
I shook my head. "I may need a suffusion of copper for some plants, but I haven't time to wait for it right now. Shelby's field--I think that is his name--is under attack. I need to get back to the garden and get some additional treatment for my hand and find out who did this."
Bridget raised a single eyebrow. "Attack? The entire field?"
"Cleverly infected," I said. "Give it a couple of days and it will spread. It will have to be burned."
She winced. No farmer would take such news lightly or well. But there was no other hope for it. Rue, copper and thyme aside, some of the fungus would escape notice even if I stood in the field for days and hunted it down. It simply wasn't a practical use of my powers. Besides, saving one twenty-acre field would drain me--and whoever had done this probably knew that.
"What can I do?" Bridget asked.
"Alert Rhonda and Garth. Get them started looking at other fields. Any field that is as far gone as his will have to be destroyed." Garth and Rhonda owned the most premier gardening school in all of the seven kingdoms and many of the students would be trained enough to help.
"You think other fields are infected already?" Bridget asked worriedly.
"I don't know. They will all have to be checked." And we both knew that if there were too many of them, we would have a fight on our hands. The farmers wouldn't relish burning their crop. But even if we didn't burn them, we had a problem because rotted fields wouldn't produce food. Perhaps that was the Rat plan all along. A hungry enemy is an enemy willing to deal.
I made my way quickly back home, but I was tired. It was only noon, and I had much work in front of me. Unfortunately, my dear husband, Ward, had also come back to our little cottage for lunch.
He towered in the doorway. Bridget, like most villagers, had access to the messenger pigeons and must have gotten word to him before I arrived. He was very angry.
"Demetria, Demetria," he chided. He looked at my hand, his handsome face scowling deeply. You would think that a Dungeon Master would be pale, but Ward spends many an hour in the sun supervising prisoners. His black hair was almost all silver now. As time touched him lightly, making its changes, he grew more handsome and dear to me.
"Oh Ward," I swallowed pitifully. I tucked myself into his waiting arms, and he held me close until he was satisfied that collapse wasn't imminent.
"I could have come with you." His deep voice rumbled through his chest into my ear.
"It should have been nothing more than a crop rotation problem," I told him as I eased myself from his arms. By habit, he reached for my hand to hold it. I winced and yanked away.
Clouds rolled over his face. "I will go with you from now on!" he bellowed.
"Ward," I said, knowing we didn't have time for this argument, "most of the time it is a simple thing! I don't quite understand how this rot got established so quickly, but it is magical. The field is halfway from here to the outer wall. It's likely that whoever did it started the disease in a central region that could then leak all over."
His eyebrows remained furrowed. "I'll get the horses. You need to eat."
I grabbed a bit of cheese, but shook my head. "It's rue that I need, and a live plant at that. I want to make sure there's not any fungus or evil magic left in my hand." Rue has anti-magical properties as well as anti-fungal ones. The problem of course is that I didn't want the stuff negating my own magic.
My dear husband growled, "I'll get the horses. You're not walking about in the hot sunshine after what you have been through. No doubt we'll be checking several fields."
He slammed the door when he left, a stern warning for me not to leave without him. Not that I would. I was very worried about the way the fungus had been applied. Rats are extremely intelligent, and they are sneaky, but even a Rat would expect eventual gain. Did they really think to negotiate with us after the crop was destroyed? Was it merely an attempt to weaken the kingdom?
I chewed my food on the way to the garden. Because rue also causes drowsiness, I was extremely careful when I gently rubbed the leaves.
Like a bolt, it aimed for me, attracted to my magic and the residual fungus. Rue loves nothing more than to assimilate, coat and smother. Like many magics, its nature is a boon and a curse.
I harvested enough leaves for three large packets. Each bundle had to be specially wrapped in silk to keep the anti-magic properties still.
Next, I went to my favorite oak tree. "There is a fungus growing." I described the valley in terms the tree would understand; a vast ocean where few oak roots lived. It was then a matter of Oak sending the request around root paths that stretched even past the kingdom boundaries.
Oaks do not grow fast, but they do talk quickly. I received images so fast, it blurred. We had to backtrack twice so that I could get my bearings. I had gathered eight landmarks when Oak mentioned in passing, "one of those human marks." My mouth dropped. Normally Oak wouldn't bother with our markers, but even to a tree, the wall that borders that part of the kingdom is a prominent marker. For one, the stones go into the ground, and to the tree, this is a root block. For two, the wall is a sun block. "The fungus is all the way to the wall?"
I thanked Oak in a rush, promising a treat later. There really isn't much you can give a full-grown oak that already has decent sunlight and rain, but Oak is partial to me sitting beneath his generous branches and reading him a story, crazy as it sounds.
I hurried back to the cottage to find my husband waiting. "Ward," I gasped out, "the rot is at the wall!"
"The far one." From my agitated state I could well imagine that he had worried that the rot had somehow managed to reach the castle wall.
His lips thinned and he nodded sharply. "Garth and Rhonda set out as soon as Bridget informed them. We will contain it."
As far as magic, Garth was almost my level. That is to say he was already a Master Magician, but I've been around longer so I knew a few more tricks. I taught a class or two at Garth and Rhonda's university when time allowed.
It wasn't allowing right now, and I clenched my jaw even though my husband's next words were meant to be reassuring. "Bridget is making some copper solutions, although she needs you to verify the quantities of copper. At the moment, she is making strong batches for dilution later."
He handed me my leather pith helmet and I buckled it under my chin. No carefree bonnets this time. With an enemy afoot there would be nothing dumber than relying on magic as my only protection. Too many magicians have been killed by no more than a mundane arrow for lack of preparation.
My husband wore a heavier metal visor. He was a likelier target being bigger, male and more than capable of fighting hand-to-hand combat.
We made a fine and elegant pair. I rode proudly astride my black mare, tall and straight (well, my back curves just a tad), wearing long boots (I would dearly love to get out of them), and a clean, trusty green cape whose pockets were full of packets of thyme and rue.
I told Ward more of what Oak had shared, describing the trees as best I could.
"We'll get it under control," he promised. "Garth will have advanced students out in the fields. They can learn a lot from this and we'll need the help."
"Did you send a message to the king?" I fretted.
"Just a minor note. I had no idea that Oak would reveal this much spread."
Tonight would be soon enough for long discussions. We probably couldn't burn all the affected fields today anyway.
We were not even halfway there when a rider hailed us. "Teacher! Elders!"
As we closed the distance, the rider reigned in heavily, panting nearly as hard as her horse. Her young face was bathed in sweat and, good heavens! Her skin showed at least two black patches along her arm.
"It's...it's...madness!" she shouted.
I reached for the rue and the thyme. "Get hold of yourself," I commanded. "Where is your thyme? Did you bring rue?" The girl was not yet in her teens. She likely hadn't the experience to work with rue, so I performed a scant rubbing, keeping the silk between it and me.
She breathed easier the minute the rue touched her skin. I knew the false energy jolt that she felt. It happens right before the rue tricks you into taking too much and knocking you out cold so that it can keep working its magic. I pulled the chemicals up a bit, choking them back into the silk.
"Oh," the girl swooned.
Damn drugs. Too much and she would only remember the instant relief and the giddy surge of well-being without learning the dangers. "Are there other spots?" I demanded.
"No," she sighed. "Just the two on my arm." Her eyes widened as she remembered how it had happened. "The spores exploded! I stood well away as I was told. I was only watching, but Mira!" Her eyes popped and her breathing began hard again. "Mistress Rhonda said to fly to the castle and sound the alarms! The fungus had Mira almost completely before I could get Mistress Rhonda!"
"Where?" I asked.
"At the wall," she wailed. "It was worst there and Master Garth was back at the first farm. I looked, but couldn't find him at all and, oh, I do not think Mira will make it!" The tears started, and I couldn't blame her. I had an inkling of what the fungus could do. What I had seen this morning had taken hold and was strong, but if the magic was worse at the wall...
I shuddered. "Ride on, girl! Get the warning out and make sure it is understood that we'll need Fire Masters immediately!" It would take magic and fire to get this under control and we had best hurry.
We rode hard, flying across the hills and into the valley, still green and giving no clue as to the blight. As we closed in, I could see smoke just beginning. Either the Fire Masters had arrived or someone had gotten desperate with a torch.
"Chaos," my husband declared.
I hadn't the breath to agree, and from horseback, I couldn't talk to my plants to get an update. There was nothing to do but pound our way forward.
It did not take a genius to figure out why my garden plants had not reported sooner. As we passed Shelby's field to the next one, there was old burn. A swath of twenty yards where nothing grew delineated the fields. The field to the south was in worse shape than Shelby's, but the dead ground in-between had kept the plants from getting their complaint to me directly.
Ah, even the sides of the next field had been carefully burned, cutting off all but the deepest root systems from reporting. Unfortunately, the greater plants with the best root systems often ignore the complaints from the lesser ones. They might have told me had I asked, but they hadn't gone out of their way to pass along such unworthy news. Oh, insidious magic indeed!
We reached Rhonda near the wall, and thank the stars for it too. Two students fought a dusty, horrible fungus that grew roots up their legs almost to their arms. Before I could leap from my mount, my husband was off and helping me, keeping me carefully away from the black soot.
I admit my balance was a bit shaky, but I do not know if it was shock from the sickened soil or my age. Either way, I thought it was about time that I considered graduating to that fine class of wizards that use a staff, perhaps a fine Redwood from the kingdom of Sparta.
Yes, I know. You thought the magical staff was to focus energy and power. Phlooey. You don't see young wizards pointing staffs here and there, do you? The simple fact is that the young don't need staffs to lean on occasionally like us more mature wizards.
Drat and double drat my ego!
There wasn't time for my regrets. Rhonda was fading fast, unable to free the students. Running to the nearest scrub oak, I pulled, commanding the bush to borrow energy from every link available.
While I worked, so did Ward. He is, of course, a Master Magician that speaks to stones. Who better to guard the dungeon than a Stone Master?
The soil was contaminated here, and he could little use it, but the protective wall surrounding the kingdom was less than two hundred yards away. Under my husband's command, it hummed and vibrated. A fine line of powdered dirt formed and covered the roots that held the children. The soil smothered the treacherous fungus.
Ready at last, I went to Rhonda and fed her the energy I had harvested. When I touched her, she gasped and tried desperately to drag her hand from the student. I thought she was helping the young man, but instead, he had already become a minion. He was fungus now, and he had a hold of Rhonda and the girl next to him.
"Blimey!" I screeched. "Rhonda, quick." I threw her an entire packet of rue. No young girl, she knew its contents and how to use them, but she was so drained, she could barely hold the packet. Her energy had been sucked nearly dry fighting off the students.
It was too late for them. Their eyes blackened as I stood there helplessly. "Fire Masters," I wished aloud. "Oh...Ward, it is too late."
We needed to free Rhonda and quickly.
My husband was as angry as I. "Curses," he raged, pushing the soil near her, building it up into a wall. The fungus would have to grow through it to get to her.
I hoisted my packet of thyme and began calling the elements, extracting just the parts I wanted into a rounded ball between my hands. Thyme can't cure fungus, but it is a good inhibitor. We had to form a barrier between the students and Rhonda so that she could escape.
When I had every bit of what I could squeeze from the thyme, the ball glowed a rich green, tinted with the healthy brown of mother earth. I wished the soil around us were more pure, but there was nothing for it. I would not be able to ground here. Gritting my teeth I pushed the energy ball to Rhonda, praying the backlash wouldn't send me flying.
The magic slid carefully into place at my command, forming a wall between Rhonda's fingers and that of the student.
Rhonda popped backwards, falling to the earth, sobbing. I knew the burn from the fungus, and it was far worse for her. More than that, she had felt it devour the students, even as she tried to save them.
My husband dragged her to a safe patch of ground and yelled, "Get a torch!"
It is nearly impossible to make a torch from fresh wood, but I went back to the bush to get firewood. "Drain back the elements," I commanded, pushing its water, its nutrients, and its life back into the heart of it. I selected several branches and sliced them free.
My husband started a fire. "We'll burn what we can. This entire area has firebreaks because of the burning that was done around this field. Let's hope the breaks are enough to contain the fire."
"The other...students!" Rhonda gasped. She had treated herself as strongly as she dared with the rue, but I could see that she would be no further help. "Garth..." she muttered, staring off into the distance. She swayed, although she was already sitting on the ground.
"Start the fire," I told my husband. "There is nothing left here. When the Fire Masters come they will have to control it. We must go for the other students." I averted my eyes from the frozen statues that had once been children. Though they were already dead, I could not watch the substance feed on their bodies.
My husband wasted no time. Most of the plants left were nothing but dead stalks. They were dry and easily ignited.
I forced Rhonda onto my own mount with me. She was nearly in a coma. I didn't know if she had gotten too much rue or if the fungus had done the damage. "Where was Garth when you saw him last?" I asked.
The only sound she made was a low, miserable groan.
"Drat," I muttered. She would have fallen had I not been there for her to lean against.
My husband mounted and we began moving north, away from the flames. The whole farm would be gone in minutes. We made our way towards the farmhouse to warn the occupants out.
The back of my shoulders itched, and I had to fight to keep from slapping at my arms and legs. Fungus spores could be landing on me as we rode, and I could not get the picture of the students out of my head. At my age, I can tell you that you think about death, but one does not ever plan to be smothered and eaten by the equivalent of a giant black mushroom.
When I saw the farmhouse, I pulled up in horror. "Oh, Ward..."
There could be no humans left alive. The soot was on the steps, the walls, and the roof. Large holes had already been eaten out of the wood.
We wheeled our horses and ran. Fear crawled through my limbs, and I muttered spells while clinging to a packet of thyme as if it alone could save me.
Rhonda finally spoke though it was but a whisper. "We thought to start at opposite ends. I took the two most advanced students and the youngest one to learn. Garth started at Shelby's. We thought that would be the worst of it, but it wasn't!"
"What of this next field?" Ward yelled, pulling up as we passed the first old firebreak.
I shook my head. "Good as gone," I responded. "Torch it too."
As we rode on, I realized that the line of infected farms had been planned carefully. The first, by the wall, had gone with nary a whimper, taking the owners before they had a chance to realize what was happening. The subsequent infections had likely been slower, perhaps taking hold over a week's time.
The line of decay made its way steadily north towards the castle and the heartland of the kingdom. From there, no doubt, the evil would have spread too fast to control. I just prayed that it wasn't already too late. The crop would be meager this year, and that was assuming we could still contain this blight before it took more lives outright.
The next farm in line was in noticeably better shape, and that is where we met the first Fire Master, Egan.
Ward reined in hard and shouted out what had happened. Egan looked grim.
"You cannot go back south alone," I yelled.
"I will stay here and wait for someone to come and guard my back," he agreed. "I'll make sure the fire doesn't get you from behind!"
There was nothing else we could do. We had to find Garth and the others before we dared fight an escaped fire. Without more gardeners...oh, I did not like to think of the consequences. The war was upon us and we were not prepared.
I shuddered and felt the aches of my exertions.
It is impossible for a mother not to think of her own children at a time like this, even though mine were grown and through their first apprenticeships. Xylia, my daughter, was a woodsman, although not yet a master. She would be called to help here today and might even now be fighting with the others. My throat tightened, and I nearly wept with worry. Like her brother two years her junior, she had my husband's dark locks, but my green eyes.
My son Gavin was blessed with the magic of the winged ones. He might be called for reconnaissance, but it would be his friends that were in danger as they flew over the fields, not his person.
Within moments, there was no more time for my worries. The real battle lay ahead. As Rhonda promised, Garth had stayed at Shelby's farm, but by this time the fungus realized that stealth was no longer a benefit. The battle we had fought earlier had been conveyed across the scorched bands, no doubt by the wind-born spores that I so feared. The fungus was ready for the fight.
"We need the Wind Masters also," I shouted, yanking in my mount.
As I slid from the horse, I could feel little plant magic to call on, but any number of students were trying anyway. Bridget was near now also, splashing copper water around the students. There was no time for dilutions and though she might harm the ground for years to come, that was not a priority at the moment. We had lives to save.
I made my way to her and stopped her from spilling the last of the pan. "Don't waste it! Sprinkle the barest amount, and I can have the plants spread it!" Copper kills fungus. It would kill the plant also, but while the plant lived I would direct the plants to ferry the copper through the stalks and free the area.
Garth was drenched from head to toe. I could only surmise that Bridget had doused him in desperation.
I thought one of the students off to my right was too far gone for us to save, but the girl was struggling mightily. There was no doubt she had talent, because not even I could push back the fungus as she was trying to do. I had thought to leave her for last as a lost cause, but the misery on her face, the freckles across her nose and the green, green eyes...
I scorched the very earth by her feet with that copper. It would have been more clever to feed the copper slowly, but my anger was not the reasoning kind.
How dare someone spread this sickness, something so powerful it would take the life of a young, worthy girl? I could not understand it, but I could kill it, plant life or no.
The fungus screamed and the magic protested, but I razed it anyway.
The girl collapsed when freed. With the immediate threat of death gone, she simply stopped, falling where she stood. On to the next I dragged Bridget and her pot, pounding the creeping tendrils with copper. I knew Ward was turning the ground as we moved.
I heard shouting, but I didn't turn. I don't know if I would have continued to free the students had I seen what grew behind me.
I cleared circle after circle until sixteen students and Garth were completely free. My legs trembled, and I wished again for a staff. Without support, I was unable to remain standing. The dirt was not pure, but the spores had died, and the cleansing copper still sparkled.
It was one of the students that brought the new problem to my attention.
"Mistress..." he moaned. He pointed, his hand shaking as though he were a hundred years older than I.
I sighed and looked around.
Black, creeping, disgusting rot rose behind us. The fungus, propelled by power that I had not begun to imagine, was growing a wall. No longer did it hop from plant to plant. It collected, gathered and grew.
The spores crackled as they built. "Oh...blimey and...and...rot," I whispered. "We should have kept Egan with us!"
I reached for Bridget, but good heavens, half the pot had been leached away, and what could we do against that wall?
"The farmhouse," my husband said. "We need to run!"
Of the sixteen, three students were completely immobile. Ward grabbed two of them and struggled under their weight.
"It's no use," I screamed above the noise of the advancing fungus. "The best we can do at the moment is build a ring!"
The front porch was already cut off from us, and the towering spores were beginning to block the sun. My husband despaired for a moment, but in the end, he dropped the students to the ground.
"Quick," I said to Bridget. "We'll have to do the best we can to keep the copper agitated and airborne in a circle around us."
"What can we do to help?" a youth asked. His hair was matted down as though he had been wearing one of those silly pointed black hats. If he had started out with one, it was gone now and so was most of his strength.
"Look for energy!" I instructed. Any roots would be far away and deep, but there were enough of us that we ought to be able to call roots all the way to the coastal kingdoms.
I had my own tasks and I got to them, standing next to Bridget and building protection around us.
We barely finished the ring in time. The spores and creeping tendrils were upon us, not liking the ring, but advancing from the ground as plants are wont to do. "Blimey," I muttered again.
The students found the barest trace of energy and bless their souls, they gave me every drop they could. My cape was torn and tattered by now, but I took time to discard it and retrieve the single packet of rue and thyme that I had left. It was all I had to offer.
"Can we grow the thyme?" one child asked.
I was surprised by the suggestion. I had thought to use it to sooth their burns...it was fresh, not dried...and thyme requires copious amounts of water in order to be transplanted. Then again, it was a creeper, and I had just plucked it a few hours ago.
If I couldn't do it, it could not be done. We were going to die unless I thought of something. The copper shimmers formed a dome above us, but the fungus kept falling on it. With each attack, copper was scraped away.
Garth, Rhonda and the students joined hands.
I placed the rue along the side of the ring that faced the tower of disease, hoping to sustain our protection a bit longer. The thyme went just inside the copper ring, our last line of defense. I could feel the energy link that the students had found, and I directed it at the thyme.
It was not true growth. This was calling energy to multiply the powers of the sprigs of thyme. I didn't like this magic and neither did the plant. It was dangerous and unclean. Every one of us would pay for it. Pulling the nutrients from the ground was bad enough. Forcing a plant that was already harvested to use up its energy to form the right chemicals for growth...
I was tired. Very tired. Sweat dripped across what I usually call my "laugh maps." I guess I didn't have to worry about the roads in my face getting any deeper.
I thought to plunge the last bit of energy I could find into the thyme, but something stopped me. My hands shaking, I realized there was no sense in using magic this way. It would not be enough, and it would leave behind one more problem to be solved by those that lived.
I stopped pulling from the ground. With regret, I formed the thyme that existed into a warm energy ball like I had done for Rhonda. Of course it wasn't enough, but this was what the good earth had given us, and I would use what we had as nature intended. We would take some of the spores with us when we went, but there wasn't enough thyme to save us.
Barely started, I felt the pressure of the fungus beginning to break through the copper dome. The creeping black roots darted at the ring like sharp spears.
When the thin layer of thyme went up, the gentle shield was a cleansing respite, a breath of fresh air, something to cling to magically. But even as we watched, the thyme began to brown.
There was simply not enough.
In the mist of such danger and mind-numbing concentration, I heard a lilting voice, a shout really. I almost didn't recognize Xylia, but when I did, sharp regret coursed through me. I would never see my daughter again. It was too late for her to reach us.
Something, perhaps her voice, or maybe the shrill cry of a hawk, gave my brittle bones enough energy to pull one last bit from mother earth.
Then, it was darkness. Either I had pulled too much or the spores had collapsed over us.
Just before my eyes closed there was a brilliant flash of light, but I did not know if this was heaven's door or a trick of the mind when darkness is all encompassing.
# # #
All good farmers are crabby. It's too hot, too dry, too wet, too shady. Pleasant, happy farmers can't be honest farmers because they aren't complaining. Be wary of a happy farmer.
Shelby was a cheerful, pleasant soul. Like the smiling farmers in illusion storybooks, his hay was always first in the barn.
The fact is, the hay is never in the barn. It is drying in the field, it is scattered when it should be rolled, it is rolled when it needs to be scattered. Shelby, I heard from neighbors, always lent a willing hand. For the past three seasons, he had helped at least five neighbors bring in their crops and never asked for any payment. Guess which five they were?
The line led right to the wall.
It had been his idea to start burning areas to protect each farmer from "worms and rot." The other farmers didn't care since he did the work himself. I think maybe they laughed at him at first--Shelby had gone somewhere west to apprentice at a great school, or so it was told.
It was my opinion that the west place was Ratdom, but no one recalled the exact university, so it made it hard to pin this one on the Rats.
Hmph. I knew Rat destruction when I saw it. As far as I was concerned, Rats sold him the magic fungus, and he spread it while he was "helping" bring in the crops.
Before we knew he was guilty, the Fire Masters made every effort to save his farmhouse, and let's just say that he had more wealth than any honest farmer I ever knew. The fiend had obviously traveled, because he had plenty of gold and silver from Ratdom and illegal leathers from our enemies in the Slithering Kingdom. When the items were sold, they would help the farmers that lost crops.
There was nothing any of us could do for the first farmhouse. It was burned before anything could be recovered. I did not want to hear of the skeletons that might have remained.
Shelby tried to claim the dead farmers by the wall were the cause. For a time it looked as though he could rallying support for the idea. After all, the worst of the blight was closest to the wall.
He got himself into a deep pickle though when he tried to explain the burned areas around the various farms as a way to stop the blight. His story conflicted with what the other neighbors remembered, as well as his first story that he knew nothing of the blight at all.
I was still recovering when the trial started.
Ward is stronger than I in many ways, but even he had not been the one to carry me home. No, that was left to Gavin, gentle boy that he is. It had been his birds I heard at the end. Brant, the castle's Fire Master, directed flames per the bird's instructions.
Thankfully the Fire Master was skilled. I heard from at least two of the students that Brant dropped a wall of flames between us and the fungus. Since he was acting on information from Gavin's feathered friends, he was skilled indeed. A foot one way or the other and it would have been us engulfed in flames rather than the enemy.
When I close my eyes, I can still see a brilliant flash. I only wish it were not superimposed with the bodies of the two youngsters that we left behind. Their parents wish for it even harder. We never told them exactly what happened, only that their children died while valiantly battling the enemy.
Shelby is in our rat-free dungeon. I secretly hope he is rotting, although my plants inform me he is not. I know, you'd think we would allow Rats in the dungeon as part of a torture plan, but ah, never get in bed with the enemy, not even if he promises to only dispense filth on your enemy. My dear husband is the wisest of Dungeon Masters, and he has the cleanest dungeons in all of the kingdoms far and wide.
I worry still, though, late at night. I know Shelby didn't act alone.
These days, even when tired, an old lady with a white bonnet and a long green cape is often seen traversing the outermost fields and getting reports from students that now patrol remote areas where I cannot go. The University for Gardeners is very helpful and active in this mission, and I am ever grateful. Of course, the sixteen students that stood with me will never lose the edge that haunts them. When they inspect a plant, they are more careful than any student I have ever known.
The painful lessons will serve them well. It is a wise magician that lives to an old age.
One student in particular has captured my attention. Her green eyes remind me of my own dear daughter, and I spend extra time teaching her. Anyone that fought as she did deserves the best. There is guilt as well that I ever considered leaving her for last.
Theresa is a beautiful girl. We watch out for one another because we both know there is a Rat still out there. We felt it in the power of the disease; a subtle hint of the creator of the filth that is not Shelby.
Yes, there is still a Rat. We may have caught the nasty minion of the moment, but this enemy planned and paid well. He will send others and when he does, I will recognize his signature. The day that he ventures here himself will be the day we will see what happens to those that dare to use plants to ill ends.
While there is breath in my body, I will stop those that come.
- END -