This particular chest was locked up with a vengeance – a very personal vengeance. The curses that bound it left wide scorch marks all over the wood. One lock spat a savage claw, which nearly minced his arm then burst like gunpowder. As well as he could for sneezing the smoke back out of his lungs, he did a complex summoning of a Manuet puppet, which he used from across the room, in case of any more booby traps. It was tedious: as dexterous as the wooden imp was (it had every finger joint), it was like using numb hands and a periscope. He was glad of his choice though, when a curse bound and hidden by another curse was released, clothing his puppet in arcing bolts of malicious force, snapping almost every joint apart. He had to summon another puppet.
Before he completely unbound the chest, he used a creeping whisper to worm inside and test the echoes, to be sure the chest wasn’t a disguised trapdoor with a waiting ambush – he’d been told a sad story about such an encounter. According to what he could hear, the chest was packed full of something soft; so not treasure, but there could be any number of useful implements. He also took a special knife of his, with intricate mystical patterns on the blade, leaving one patch clear, in which were always reflected the shining green eyes of a cat. He slid it across the floor to the puppet, which slipped the blade into the chest through the crack between the lid and the rim, and drew it along to scan the inside. All Owl could see through the cat’s eyes was a cloth cover, and a darkish mass at one end which must have been a large oath ball. Perhaps it was a chest of secrets, but such could be as much or more valuable, and if not they usually had a good story behind them.
Clenching his teeth, he directed the puppet to loose the last binding, and open the chest. The lid creaked on its hinges, and Owl jumped when the corner of it struck the wall behind. He approached. As he had seen, a thin undyed sheet was stretched over something smooth which filled the chest, and at one end was the ball of hair, which he now saw was in fact tied into two messy… pigtails. Oh.
He wasn’t sure how she even fit in the chest, if she was old enough to be out here at all. He doubted she was a Manlurer, as those… well, tried things. She was just lying there, if it could be called lying to be packed like blanket in a bread pan. He knew she wasn’t dead – he had gotten to be able to recognise death from ten paces. With a wry face he set a small Limbourg spell to smell for any curses on her. Then with one finger he tentatively tapped her shoulder. She didn’t move; unless he had seen a tiny shiver go through her skin. Was she… scared?
He cleared his throat.
“I won’t hurt you. That is to say, it isn’t my current plan, as I don’t know who you are; so if you turn out to be dangerous, then I’ll probably try to hurt you… anyways, why don’t you come out?”
She made very muffled sound like either a whimper or a snarl.
This time he could just make out some words.
“Why don’t you get me out?”
Get her out? He put out his hands, as if to pull a puppy out of mud, but hovered indecisively over her, wondering what would be an appropriate way to… he gave up.
“No, I don’t think so. Or are you stuck? Can’t you just sit up?”
She said something he couldn’t understand – unless she was just sobbing a bit.
He pinched one of her pigtails, where it was bound with a tiny dark silk bow, and carefully pulled. Thankfully she let him sit her up in this way. She glanced at him with a look mixed of curiosity and suspicion, then looked away, probably to hide her black eye.
“Here, take my hand,” Owl said, offering to help her stand, forgetting that he himself was still on his knees. Not taking his hand, the girl crawled out of the chest past him, and sat in a sort of heap on the floor. She was the smallest woman he’d ever seen, but very obviously a woman. He grimaced to think of how he had unknowingly scanned her, and hastily put the cat’s eye knife back in his pack. She had no pack, or belt, or even shoes. Most enemies would only take food and treasures.
“What happened to you?” he asked.
“There was a rogue venturer – I killed a Grumevisage I didn’t know he was fighting, and he felt I had made him look stupid in front of his friends.”
“He took your book?”
“Yes,” she said in a faint voice. Owl knew the pain; he had actually lost two books, and nearly lost one again the last time he had almost died. Losing your book was like having years cut out of your life.
“How much did you have in it?”
“A lot,” she said, her eyes beginning to look quite wet. As if partly to distract herself, she was shyly stretching out her cramped legs.
“How long were you trapped in the chest?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I already didn’t know the days anymore, I’ve been stuck in the tunnels so long. I think I was locked in more than a day.” Then her voice got quieter. “Thank you for getting me out; I could have died of thirst.” Owl knew the type of rogue: too self-conscious to kill someone face-to-face, but willing enough to let them die slowly and torturously; or to leave a curse behind that would shoot anybody on sight.
All at once it struck him like a hammer: she’d been locked in a chest for more than a day and it only then occurred to him to offer her water. He gave her his canteen, apologising that he had no cup: she clearly did not care about this. He tried not to laugh at the look of blissful relief in her eyes as she drank; it was amazing that she hadn’t asked him for water.
Her left ring-finger was missing: a bad sign. It could be an incidental injury – there were enough of those to go around, and plenty on her person specifically – but if some enemy had a piece of her she could be tracked, or worse; and there were serious evils that could be done with someone’s finger in particular.
She paused to breathe a few times, but finally her thirst was satisfied, and she dabbed her mouth dry with her knuckles.
“Thank you… what’s your name?”
“Owl, son of the Fort. And you?”
“My name’s Peri, daughter of Brand.”
A two-syllable name: curious; he could think of multiple spells this would make more difficult, and wondered if it was an advantage in other spells perhaps. She also didn’t seem to know what “son of the Fort” meant, but then many more people were born than were summoned. Speaking of summoning, he summoned a quail for her to eat. Her shoulders twitched when he killed it. He considered not casting the fuller’s veil, so she could smell the meat cooking, but they were in a dangerous area.
“Haven’t you eaten fresh before?”
“I only ate dried meat.”
“Fresh is the only way, you’ll see. Even when there isn’t time to flavour it.”
He had to keep from laughing again, watching her try to eat daintily with his rough knife and plate, and while she was so hungry. From her face it was plain that the experience of freshly cooked meat was not lost on her. When she was finished, Owl realised there was nothing for her to wipe her mouth or fingers; he used cleaning spells on himself or his clothes when necessary, but that was painful. It seemed quite silly that there wasn’t a stitch of loose cloth between them. He offered to summon a rabbit for her to wipe her mouth and fingers on, but she was afraid it would get killed in the tunnels. He thought of suggesting they kill it themselves, and dry the meat, but decided that would be a mean-spirited jest. In the end, she used her sleeve, though it was short; then he pulled the cloth away from her arm as he used a Feinles purge on it, taking care that she got no indication of how it stung his fingers. It was amazing how something small could become so important.
Now that the more pressing matters were dealt with, the most important matter was next to settle.
“Alright, then,” he said, “let us find you a book.”
2023/03/07 #DailyWrittenOOM #OwlOfTheMaze