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Chapter 12: Wolf Pack

“Hello, the tower!” I called out as I rode past the treeline. It was midday, and the sky was nice and clear, and so I’d been able to vaguely see the top of the tower from a ways off, but that had been through the tops of the trees we’d been riding through. My salutation went unheard as I realized I’d badly misjudged what I’d seen. Gerald had cut a treebreak pretty far back, maybe half a mile in all directions, and the tower was about eight stories tall. That’s the sort of thing that can really play with your depth perception; until I got through the trees, I was expecting something a lot shorter and a lot closer by!

It had to be the busiest Wizard’s Tower I’d seen, with outbuildings set all around it. Guardhouses, of course, but also a forge, a windmill, a few warehouses, and even what looked like a handful of homes! It was as if, instead of following the usual wizardly practice of retreating from civilization when building a tower, Gerald had brought it along with him! As I got closer to his private little village, I was surprised to see that there was a small network of roads between the various buildings, and they were paved with cement. As far as I knew, the Royal Engineers had never been out this way.

Aylwyn was staying a good fifteen yards behind me, as if to underscore the idea that she really didn’t want to waste time on coming here. Things had been cooler than usual between the two of us for a couple days now. I’m not sure why, but apparently she got somewhat offended when I asked why Wyntaf, being a celestial horse, didn’t have wings too. She just looked at me with a slightly shocked expression, as if I’d just made a horribly racist remark about angels, and indignantly pointed out that of course she didn’t have wings; she was a horse and was much too heavy to fly. Now, the square-cube law notwithstanding, even I had enough tact to realize that pointing out that she was as well wouldn’t be such a good idea, so instead I asked about dragons, which are much larger and heavier than horses. She replied that dragons use the force of their will to bend reality and make it possible for them to fly. And apparently this is nothing like magic, and the Twist would almost certainly not help me much against a dragon’s will. But ever since then she’d been a bit huffy. Maybe she was just frustrated by having to explain simple things to me?

Sigh. Sometimes I think I’ll never understand magic. Or Aylwyn.

But when she saw all the buildings, she rode up alongside me. “I had heard rumors,” she said, “but… look!” She pointed to a tall building, partially obscured from view by the tower. “That’s a granary. He really is building his own village.” That was the most words she’d spoken to me since the flight conversation.

I shook my head. “I don’t know. I mean, what’s missing? Look around. Every village needs two things that aren’t here.”

The angel looked around, then her eyes widened a little as she realized what she was looking at–or more specifically, what she wasn’t. “You’re right. How can he build a village with no easy access to fresh water, and no cultivated land for food?”

But then we were getting in among the buildings, and there were people approaching. A pair of guards walked up, wearing leather armor, carrying some form of polearm, with shortswords at their hips. Nothing about their attitude suggested that they were hostile towards us, or viewed us with suspicion. Having an angel around probably helped a lot with that. “Greetings, travelers,” one of them said.

I smiled. “Good day to you, sirs. I’m looking for Gerald Wolf. Where would I find him at this hour”

“The Archmage is in the tower,” the second guard said, “probably at work on some experiment. Should I announce you?”

I nodded. “My name is Paul Cameron,” I said, after a few moments. It was the only name for me Gerald knew that wouldn’t cause trouble if I told it to the guard. “I’m a friend of Mr. Wolf.” I slipped the ring off my finger and pressed it into one of the guards’ palms, then closed his fingers over it. “Take this signet to him,” I improvised. “He’ll know me by it. Give it only to the Archmage and no one else, and if you can’t find him quickly, bring it back right away. Can you do that, sir?”

The guard nodded. “I can.” He glanced at his companion, and they nodded to each other, then he left, walking towards the tower at a brisk pace.

“I’ll show you to the stables?” the other guard offered, looking up at us. He seemed a little bit in awe, mostly of Aylwyn. Yeah, having an angel around really does help when dealing with lawful authority figures!

“Yes, please,” I said, dismounting and taking the reins in hand. Aylwyn did the same, and the man led us through the streets. It wasn’t far to the stables, and we got a few of the stableboys to help us with cooling down and caring for our horses. Even Wyntaf needed some attention. Turns out she wasn’t as tireless as I’d originally assumed. She was a celestial horse–as much bigger, tougher and just generally more awesome than my horses as a Celestial was versus an ordinary human–but she still got worn out after long days of traveling. But we took good care of them, and as we headed out of the stables, I saw a heavyset man in a red robe and a long, white beard waiting patiently outside, with the guardsman at his side.

His face broke into a grin when he saw me, and he tossed the ring at me with a flick of his wrist. I caught it out of the air and quickly slipped it on my hand, then walked over to greet him. And you should have seen the look on that poor guard’s face when the great and mighty Archmagus reached out and pulled me into a bearhug all of a sudden! “Paul, my old friend!” he boomed. “What has it been now? Three years?”

“About that,” I nodded, stepping back and grinning up at Gerald. “Three years that have been very good to you, it would seem. An Archmage, with a beautiful tower like this? And never a word to me? We’ve got some catching up to do!”

He glanced over behind me at Aylwyn. Lowering his voice, he murmured in my ear, “I see you found your ‘being of great power.’ It seems you have a story to share with me as well!”

I just grinned and clapped him on the back. “Let’s go inside someplace and talk.” I beckoned to Aylwyn to join us. “Aylwyn, this is Archmage Wolf. Have you met?”

She shook her head. “I know him only by reputation,” she said, starting to follow as Gerald and I headed towards the tower. She kept her tone carefully neutral, but I already knew that she was rather unimpressed by what she had heard of his reputation. I hoped that actually meeting him would help improve that.

“It’s always an honor to meet an angel,” said Gerald, nodding his head politely to Aylwyn.

“Have you met many?” she asked as he led us inside. There was a sitting room on the ground floor, with a soft couch and several padded chairs. I can’t speak for my traveling companion, but I for one was very happy to have something to sit down on that didn’t move under me, for once. Riding a horse isn’t a passive thing, and keeping up with its movements without it chafing your legs horribly can be exhausting! I slumped down on the couch, relaxing almost immediately and not caring what anyone thought of me.

“Only one before yourself,” Gerald replied, looking my way and chuckling a little. “You’ve had a long trip, I can see! Are you hungry?”

I grinned at him. “More weary than hungry, really…” Then a thought struck me. “But if you have the right supplies… hmm. Do you have any stores of vegetable oil? The more mild the flavor, the better. I have an idea.”

Now Gerald was the one to grin. “Another of your wild ideas, Paul?” He turned to Aylwyn and smiled. “I’m sure he hasn’t told you this himself, but have you heard about the concept of Germ Theory that’s been making the rounds among healers in the last few years?”

She looked thoughtful, then shook her head. “I’ve heard the term mentioned once or twice, but I’m not familiar with what it entails. Why?”

The Archmage chortled happily. “Oh, it’s a truly novel idea! The theory is that, just as there is life that is much larger than us, and life that is much smaller than us as well, that there is also life smaller still, living creatures so small that they cannot be distinguished by mortal eyes. Creatures small enough to live and breed within our very bodies, like tiny parasites, and that it is these ‘germs’ that cause disease, and that by knowing their nature as living creatures, they can be killed to arrest the progress of a disease.”

The angel nodded slowly. “That is a very interesting theory,” she said slowly. “There is probably some grain of truth to it.”

Wolf nodded back. “Well, I’m the one who’s been spreading the idea around, and the more I study it, the more evidence I find to support the idea. It’s led to remarkable advancements in treating illness already! But the thing that nobody knows… the healers got the idea from me, but I got it from Paul Twister!”

I sighed and shook my head a little, laughing softly. “Oh, don’t be so modest, Gerald. I only made a few remarks that turned out to be close to the truth. All the research was yours.”

He grinned. “Now who’s being overly modest? This is a great time in history! We have the Circle, stamping out black magic and saying they will bring improvements in the quality of everyone’s life by magical research. And I’ve heard tales of a mad visionary down in Keliar who’s behind these nice roads the engineers have been putting in over the past few years. They say the man thinks he’s Ken’tu Kel, except without the magic! He has these wild dreams and tells people to act on them, and strange new things come out. Silly toys, mostly. Smooth roads for wealthy nobles in carriages, steel that doesn’t rust, turning water into lightning and storing it in jars of acid, bizarre ideas that do as little for common men and women as the Circle has, really. But there is one man in this whole land who has actually truly improved people’s lot in life, and that was Paul, with his theory of germs!”

Wow. I wasn’t expecting that. How to respond without compromising myself somehow?

I rolled my eyes. “I’ve actually met the ‘mad genius’ you’re referring to. Man by the name of Anthony Stark. He’s quite a pleasant fellow, when he isn’t caught up in another of his wild inspirations. But I think you’re being a bit hard on the man. I mean, building better roads itself can be as significant as our research into healing if it helps a man bring fresh food to market more quickly, so it will stay fresh longer. Germ Theory can help to heal a sick man, but would it not be just as good if he never took ill in the first place, because his food is good instead of bad?”

“Perhaps, perhaps,” Gerald muttered. “And now you want to cook something with mild oil. Would peanut oil work? I believe we have some stores available.” I nodded, and he clapped his hands, and I heard the sound echoing down the corridor, much further than it should have.

“Yes, Mr. Wolf?” a woman’s voice asked, out of thin air.

“Jenna, I am entertaining guests, and one of them has an idea for a recipe. Could you accommodate him?”

“Certainly, sir. Give me a moment.”

Aylwyn glanced over at Gerald. “So how do you know each other? Paul has only said that you are a friend.”

Gerald glanced at me questioningly, as if to ask if I was trying to keep something from her. I just gave a little shrug of my shoulders and nodded my head subtly. He turned back to the angel and smiled. “It was years ago. We spent several months together doing research on magical theory. I learned a good deal from investigating his unusual ability, but a good deal more by simply conversing with him. Don’t let his rough tongue deceive you, m’lady; Paul is one of the most intelligent men I have ever met, and well-educated also, though not without some strange ideas.”

It was about then that the kitchen-maid, Jenna, walked in. She looked to be in her forties, about average height and a bit on the plump side, but not unpleasantly so. Her eyes widened a little at the sight of Aylwyn, but Gerald had asked her to accommodate “him,” so she looked to me. “You have something you wish to cook, sir?”

I nodded and stood. “Paul Cameron,” I said. “Can you show me to the pantry?”

“Be careful, Jenna,” Gerald teased, his eyes twinkling. “He’s likely to eat us all out of house and home if you let him!”

I just sighed and rolled my eyes at him. “I’ll make it worth the burden,” I snarked. Jenna led me down a hallway and into the kitchen, leaving Aylwyn and Gerald behind to talk. The pantry was off to one side, and I found some decent stores of food in there. “All right,” I said, looking things over. “Mr. Wolf said you had peanut oil?”

She nodded, and quickly located a container of it. It looked to be about two gallons in size, and I looked inside and found it mostly full. “This will do. Do you have a pot that will hold all of this, and have some room left over?”

She raised an eyebrow in surprise. “All of it, sir?”

I nodded. “But you will be able to use it again once we’re finished. Don’t worry about that.”

She looked skeptical, but she found a pot. “This would hold it,” she said.

“Good. Can you put it on the stove and stoke the fire?” I poured the contents of the jar of oil into the pot. “We need to heat this to boiling, then cool it just a little bit, so it is almost boiling but not quite.”

She set about heating the stove up, while I poked around in the pantry. It only took a few moments to find what I was looking for: a sack of potatoes. I brought several of them out and set them on a countertop.

Jenna looked over at me. “Potatoes, sir? I know how to prepare fried potatoes, and it does not require a pot or that much oil!”

I just grinned. “You know one way. I’m about to show you something new.”

She nodded, then moved over from the stove, gathering up the potatoes. I was very gratified to see that she took them over to a basin and started scrubbing them thoroughly. Looks like Gerald had instilled good habits of sanitation in her. I was a bit surprised to see what she did next, though: once they had been washed, she retrieved a container of alcohol, poured it sparingly over the potatoes, and then took some tongs, retrieving a hot coal from the stove, and lighting them! It was only a little bit of alcohol, but the stuff burns pretty slowly, and so I watched them roasting in blue fire for several long seconds.

“Why did you do that?” I asked her, curious.

“Master Wolf says that the water washes away dirt, which is clear enough. But then he says that the alcohol and the flame will drive out infections that the water leaves behind.” She gave a little shrug. “I know little of his magic, but no one has ever taken sick from eating my food since I began to cook by his rules.”

I nodded slowly. A bit unorthodox, but it make a kind of sense. When the flames went out, I asked her for two knives. “All right, the secret here is in the cutting. We are preparing a different kind of fried potatoes. Instead of thin slices, we want square strips, as long as the potato and as thick as a finger.” I started cutting to demonstrate, and she caught on and started on one of her own, and after several minutes we had a nice pile of raw potato strips ready.

“These look good,” I said. “Now, we want to dump them in the hot oil.” It was just beginning to boil, and she did something with the coals to reduce the heat. “Wrap some sort of cloth around your hands first, to protect against splashing.” She nodded and retrieved some cheesecloth from the pantry, then gathered up the potato strips. “And I simply dump them in the pot?”

“Yes,” I nodded. “But slowly. You don’t want to splash the hot oil out, even with the cloth to protect your skin.” She slowly poured them in, and I smiled. “Now we wait. They should cook for two or three minutes, until they turn a few shades darker than the oil. Until then, we’ll need another pot, of about the same size, but wider at the top.”

While she retrieved one, I went into the pantry again, looking for salt. I found some, but it was a fair bit coarser than I’d have liked, so I spent the next few minutes grinding it with a mortar and pestle until we had some nice, fine salt. When the fries were ready, I brought the second pot over, and stretched the cheesecloth she had used over the top of it, to act as a filter. “All right. Now you pour the whole thing into here.

She grabbed some padded gloves for handling the hot pot, and poured the contents through the cloth, and we had a batch of fries! I sprinkled the ground salt over them sparingly, then we both waved plates over the fries, fanning them until they had cooled enough to touch safely. Some of the ones that had been on the bottom of the pot had gotten burned, but the rest looked surprisingly good, especially for a first attempt! I tried one, then had her taste the next one, and her eyes widened just a little. “This is quite good, sir!”

I smiled. “They’re called deep-fried potatoes, because they’re fried down deep in the oil. You could probably keep from burning them if you had a way to suspend them in the oil so they didn’t touch the bottom. Perhaps if you could get a smith to make a basket of metal to hang inside the pot, that would let the oil flow through but hold the potatoes up…” I went about gathering the pile of fries in a big bowl, leaving a portion behind for Jenna to enjoy. “I’ll take these back to the sitting room.”

She nodded. “Thank you, sir.” She ate another one, and grinned. “This is truly a fine preparation. The villagers will love it!”

“I’m sure they will.”

* * *

Gerald loved them as well. Aylwyn… ate them, about like she ate most things, quietly and without much comment.

“These deep-fried potatoes are a fine thing, Paul!” the portly wizard grinned. “Perhaps not as useful as your theory of germs, but a good deal more satisfying!”

I laughed. “It’s an old trick I learned as a child, from Old MacDonald, the farmer down the road.” But we had more important things to discuss than food. “I have to wonder, though. Why do you have a village built around your tower? I thought the point of a tower was to isolate yourself somewhat from society.”

He nodded slowly. “From ordinary society, perhaps. But this is not your average village. Every person here either has magical talent, or is an immediate family member of someone who does. Ken’tu Kel wants to use knowledge of magic to spread helpful ideas around, but he’s too tied to the system of masters and apprentices. I’m trying something new: an academy of magic!”

Well, I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting, but that wasn’t it! Wasn’t such a bad idea, though. “How interesting! How’s it coming so far?”

“Slowly,” he said, “but things are going well.” Then he surprised me. “I’d like to ask you to give a lecture tomorrow in our Healing Arts class, on Germ Theory.”

That kind of floored me. “Tomorrow? Umm… I don’t actually know what you’ve covered already,” I protested, the words tumbling out.

“How long would this take?” Aylwyn interjected. “We really should continue on…”

Gerald looked over at me. “Oh, are you involved in something that needs to be done quickly?”

“Sort of,” I said. The two of us explained the basic idea of our current quest to him.

When it was over, Gerald looked at me a bit strangely. “If you’re working against Ryell,” he asked slowly, “…then why are you carrying around a dragon-attuned stone?”

Aww crap!

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