The next few days were fairly uneventful. I’d purchased a few heavy sheets of canvas to cover the cart with, so no one could easily tell that we were hauling treasure and not something boring like vegetables or timber. As we made our way into Anduin, we started to see patrols of knights more frequently, and we didn’t get harassed by bandits. My biggest fear was actually the inns where we stayed each night. We had to leave the cart outside, where curious eyes and hands could get up to all sorts of mischief. And trying to hire someone to guard it would only draw attention to the fact that it contained things worth stealing.
After a bit of thought, Aylwyn resolved the issue as best she could, by arranging with the stable-keepers each night to leave Wyntaf hitched to the cart. But she actually arranged it so the horse only looked like she was securely tied to it; in reality, she could easily get free and kick the crap out of anyone prowling around in the back. It wasn’t a perfect arrangement, but it worked well enough.
Having separate inn rooms to sleep in again really helped. Contrary to what she’d though, I didn’t find myself wanting her any less when we got away from the mountain, but not having the temptation right there made it a lot easier to deal with.
We were about four days on past the mountain when our course took us through the moderately large city of Tary. This is where Patrick Hill had told me that April lived, so I convinced Aylwyn that a short detour would be worthwhile. She agreed much more willingly this time than she had when I wanted to visit Gerald, as she was curious about the long-lived archmage who wielded such influence in the highest levels of the Circle.
Of course, having Aylwyn around would make it a bit awkward to discuss things about home with April. It took a bit of doing, but after a while I managed to convince her that, because I had been invited to speak with April whereas Aylwyn had no actual business with the sorceress, it would be better for me to approach her alone, see what she wanted, and then secure an invitation for my companion to meet her as well. She was suspicious at first, wondering what my motive for wanting to go off and hold shadowy meetings without her was. And the truth is, that’s exactly what I was trying to do, so I told her the truth.
“Yes, Aylwyn, you got me. I’m trying to get out from under your watchful eye so I can go meet one of the highest and most trusted members of the Circle, who has invited me to come conspire with her on the subject of performing nefarious works of magic and mischief.” When I said that, she scowled at me, but couldn’t seem to come up with an objection that didn’t sound utterly ridiculous, so eventually she backed down. She would stay behind, caring for the horses and ensuring that we were well-stocked with provisions for the remainder of the trip, while I went to meet the Archmage.
Not that things are ever that simple. It took me almost two hours to find my way to the manor. I had to keep stopping and asking for directions, because the city’s streets were all twisty and turny and organic, not laid out according to any sort of logical plan, much less a proper grid. But eventually I found it, a small estate on the edge of town, near the river but well upriver from the warehouse district. There were guards present, so I walked up to the gate doing my best impression of a messenger.
“Good day, sir. Is this O’Neil Manor?”
“It is,” the guard I’d addressed nodded.
“I bear an important message for the lady of the house, and it’s vital that I deliver it to her.”
He frowned slightly. “I’m sorry, young man, but–“
“Sorry?” I puffed out my chest indignantly and began to unleash a torrent of self-important verbal abuse upon the poor man, in my best Sam the American Eagle voice. “This is a vital matter, I tell you, sir! Why, if you cannot let me pass on my recognizance alone, seek her out. Tell her that this is a most urgent message for her eyes only, a message from her close friends Mr. Washington, Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Kennedy. Give her those three names, and she will have you send me in, if she does not come out to greet me herself, sir!“
Unfortunately, he had the most effective anti-social engineering defense of all on his side: reality. “Again, I’m quite sorry, but the Archmagus is not in today. She is away on Circle business.”
Bah. Stupid important people, never being around when I’m looking for them! “…oh. Well, what a bother that is. Do you know where I might find her?”
He shook his head. “I do not. She should return in two weeks, though.”
There was no way Aylwyn would be willing to delay that long. On the other hand, we were about a week away from Declan, which meant that catching her on the return trip might easily be feasible. I’d need to make sure she would stick around, though, and that meant leaving a reminder that I could be sure would get through. The guards would most likely lose a message that I tried to leave in their care for that long, though. “Hmm… in that case, I don’t suppose you would know where I could find Patrick Hill?” It was a bit of a long shot, but if he was around I could probably count on him for this much at least.
To my surprise, the guard nodded. “Mr. Hill should return shortly, if you wish to speak with him.”
Wait, what? Return? As in, he lives here? Wow; so he wasn’t just a friend of April’s; apparently she was his patron as well. Which meant that the excuse he gave me that first night we met about seeking patronage from the lord of another city was almost certainly bunk. What had he been doing, then, apart from looking for an opportunity to speak to me in private? I’d have to ask him when I saw him, then.
“Very well, sir. Thank you. I can wait, if he won’t be long,” I said, trying not to show too much surprise.
The guard nodded and invited me into the courtyard, where I could rest in the shade of one of several pine trees growing outside the house; he simply asked me to keep to someplace visible, and I nodded. A basic matter of professional courtesy.
I hadn’t been waiting long before something interesting happened. Unfortunately, it wasn’t Hill returning; it was a girl screaming from inside the manor house. Whatever had happened must have been powerful magic; it made my skin tingle all over, even well outside the building. The guards turned, looking alert, and I got to my feet quickly. Every instinct said “trouble”.
Then trouble came running out of the house, as fast as two legs could carry her.
She looked to be about my own age–my apparent age, that is, in her late teens–and she was clearly terrified. But the first thing I noticed wasn’t her facial expression. It was her tail.
People with feline features did exist in the world, though there weren’t too many of them around. I’d only met a couple in my time here. They had some name for themselves that was apparently quite difficult to pronounce, so most people just called them cat-folk, or occasionally “werecats”, though I’d heard that the latter term was considered offensive. Cat-folk walked on two feet, but they were covered in soft fur, had long tails, and had heads that more closely resembled a cat’s head than a human’s.
The girl before me looked nothing like one of them. If anything, she looked like a catgirl, like someone who had just stepped out of some obnoxious Japanese cartoon or something. She had a tail, and fuzzy, triangular ears sticking out of the top of her head, but she otherwise looked completely human. And completely terrified, looking around in a panic, her tail darting back and forth.
The guard seemed to know her. “Sarah?” he asked, looking concerned. “What happened?”
Seeing a friendly face, she dashed over and pounced him, clinging tight to him as she trembled and cried into the poor man’s shoulder. I couldn’t make out everything she was saying, but apparently the gist of it was that she had just been minding her own business and then suddenly she found herself transformed and taking on these feline features.
Poor girl. She must have stumbled over something in the manor, some magic that April or somebody had left carelessly lying around–or, possibly, magic that she had placed deliberately to guard something from nosy servant girls?
The guard clearly had no idea how to handle the frantic girl, so I walked over slowly. “That sounds like a curse,” I said. “Something happened, and you ended up transformed.”
She looked at me, growling slightly in the back of her throat. “Who are you?” she asked, eyes narrowing a little.
I took a step back, trying to look all non-threatening. “A friend,” I said soothingly. “I’ve come to deliver a message… but I think I might be able to help you.” I was close enough now to see that under all the freaking out and the panic and the tears, she was actually quite pretty, and that made me want to help her even more.
“What do you think you can do?” she asked curiously, starting to calm down a little. It’s always surprising how much social power you can gain in a moment of crisis, simply by keeping calm and making like you know what you’re doing.
“I have some abilities in that area,” I said. “If you could give me your hand?”
The guard looked at me suspiciously, but the girl–Sarah, apparently–held out a hand to me. I clasped her hand in mine, and immediately felt the magic tingling all over her. So I let the Twist do its work.
That was when things really went wrong.
It felt right at first. I felt the magic Twisting under my touch. But then I felt something I’d never experienced before: resistance. It was almost as if something caught hold of the Twist, and Twisted back. And suddenly I cried out in pain, letting go of her hand and falling to the ground as my head started to feel as if it were about to split open!
Somewhere, some part of me understood that this pain didn’t last long, but it felt like an eternity. And when it was over, Sarah was staring down at me in shock as I started to recover. I looked up at her, blinking tears of agony out of my eyes. “I’m all right,” I said. But then I realized I wasn’t. When I’d said that, my own voice sounded subtly wrong to me. I raised my hands to my head, and was horrified to find that my ears were gone, replaced by cat-ears atop my head, just like she had!
Feeling dread creep over me, I reached back behind me, hoping all I’d feel where my butt was supposed to be would be my butt… nope. I had a tail too, sticking up out of my trousers. The curse had somehow spread to me. I glanced down at my chest briefly, and was relieved to see that I was still a guy, at least.
The guard looked completely freaked out, as if the thing might somehow be contagious, and he quickly took several steps back. Sarah looked like she was about to cry again, when the guard turned and looked down the road, beckoning frantically. “Master Hill! Come quickly!”
Sarah perked up a little when she heard that, actually looking hopeful. She turned and ran to the gate. “Daddy! Help me!” she screamed.
If nothing else had freaked me out so far, that would have. Hearing those three little words ignited a primal fear somewhere deep in my gut. It’s just a simple fact of life: there is just no way that being caught with a girl, by her father, while she’s screaming for help, is going to end well for you! But then the rest of my thought processes caught up, and I realized who it was she was saying that to, and started putting two and two together, and the fear turned to anger. Between that and the magic and a handful of other things, the only explanation that made sense was that he had told me an enormous lie.
“Sarah! What happened to you?” the bard asked as he came into view, enfolding the terrified catgirl in a protective hug. Then he turned and saw me. “And who is th–” his eyes widened with recognition. “Clark Kent?”
Phew. At least he had the presence of mind to not call me Paul Twister!
I nodded to him. “I’ve come to see the Lady of the manor, to deliver an important message,” I said, sticking to the cover story for appearance’s sake, hoping he’d pick up on it and follow along. “Some accident has befallen this girl, and I attempted to use a bit of magic I know to dispel the curse, but it seems to have rebounded upon me.” I gave a sheepish little half-smile.
“You know this messenger, Master Hill?” the guard asked.
He nodded. “We’ve met,” he said. Turning to me, he hugged his daughter against his chest protectively. “Come, let’s head inside and talk.”
I followed him, moving slowly and deliberately since the tail seemed to have a mind of its own, swishing back and forth and playing all sorts of nasty tricks on my balance. I sure hoped that this would wear off soon!
As soon as we were inside, and I’d looked around and ensured that there was no one around, watching, I looked Hill in the eyes. “Who is the mother?” I hissed. (Woah. Why was I hissing when I got angry?)
He looked back at me, nodding. “…my wife.”
“The Lady of the manor? The archmage?” I asked in the most accusatory tone I could come up with. He didn’t even bother denying anything. “You lied to me!”
Sarah snarled at me. “Leave my father alone,” she hissed, her back arching forward just a little.
Hill just hugged her gently, and with forced calmness, he said “I think we all need to sit down, and get properly introduced.”
I took a deep breath, then nodded, and he led me to an open room with several couches seated around the edges. He sat in one, with Sarah leaning against him and nuzzling at him a little–I wondered if she normally did that, or if the transformation was bringing out feline behavioral quirks in her–and I sat nearby, where I could look at them easily. I had to turn to the side a little when I sat down, to give my tail some room.
“All right, I should start, as the host. I am Patrick Hill, Master Bard, second-grade initiate of the Circle of Magi, and husband of the lady of this manor, April O’Neil. And this is our daughter Sarah.” He looked down at her and smiled gently. “Sarah, this is an acquaintance of mine… Paul Twister.”
Her eyes widened at that. “The real Paul Twister? From the ballad?” She looked over at me and grinned broadly, then cleared her throat.
Oh I’ll sing you the tale of a daring young lad
of his great misadventures, the good and the bad!
Learn his tricks and his follies, if you’ll but give eeeeear…
to the Lay of Paul Twister! Come, gather round here!
From behind his daughter’s head, Patrick rolled his eyes and cast me an apologetic look, laying a hand on her shoulder and squeezing gently. “Yes, that’s really him, but I’m sure he’s heard the song before,” he sighed.
She purred and smiled over at me. “So that’s why you thought you could help with the curse,” she said, looking all excited. “You tried to use the Twist on it! But… why did it curse you too, then?”
“Why indeed?” I asked. “That is truly a perplexing question.”
She turned to look at Patrick. “Why does he say you lied to him about Mom?” she asked.
“He’s mistaken,” the bard said smugly.
I hissed at him again. “You said that you were–oh. No, you just let me think that, didn’t you?” That was supposed to be my trick! Argh!
“Think what?” Sarah asked, puzzled.
Hill smirked at me a little. “That I was but a stricken admirer of your mother’s, loving her from afar, that she never knew the depths of my devotion… silly, romantic nonsense. It always surprises me the conclusions some people will jump to when given just a little bit of knowledge.”
I nodded, glowering at him. “Indeed.”
Sarah giggled at that. “So you tricked Paul Twister? Like the dragon in the ballad?” she said, grinning at her father mischievously.
He looked back at her and nodded, returning the grin, an almost identical expression. She definitely got it from him! “I suppose I did! So, what were you doing when this happened to you?”
“Nothing, Daddy!” she protested. “Practicing the harp, nothing more, and then suddenly a great pulse of magic came upon me, and my head felt as if it were splitting apart!”
I looked at Hill. “She came running outside, hysterical and terrified. I tried to calm her down, and thought I might be able to use the Twist to remove the curse from her, but something went very wrong. I felt the magic Twisting back at me somehow.” I paused, chewing on my lip momentarily. “Have you ever heard of anyone else who has an ability like mine, who could have placed a curse such as this on your daughter?”
He shook his head. “As far as I know, your… gift… is entirely unique.”
I scowled. “Well then, there’s something going on that you don’t know about, and neither do I.” Then I gasped and grabbed my head as the splitting pain started again, bringing tears to my eyes and making me double over. But it was over much more quickly than the first time, and when it faded, my ears were back where they should be, and the tail was gone. “Unngh,” I groaned. “That was not as bad the second time, but it still hurt…”
Sarah looked over at me, then pouted a little. “Why am I not changing back?”
“I wish I knew, Kitten,” Hill said.
hiss “Don’t call me that, not now! It’s like you’re saying I’m stuck this way!”
His face reddened as he realized that what he’d said–probably an ordinary, affectionate nickname for his daughter–suddenly held much harsher overtones. “I’m sorry.” He looked over to me again. “So Paul, what brings you here today? I wasn’t expecting to see you so soon.”
“It’s a long story,” I said, not really wanting to get into it. I surreptitiously slipped my hand into my pocket, sliding my ring back on now. Best to keep the Twist inactive, in a place like this, now that the effect had worn off. “I was passing through on my way to Declan, and I thought I’d stop by and visit April.”
“Declan?” He grinned. “Well, not that I’d expect you to want to walk directly into a lion’s den, so to speak, but she’s visiting Ken’tu Kel to work out certain issues of interest to the Circle. His tower isn’t far from there; if you really wanted to speak with her…”
I pretended like I hadn’t already known about him. “Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind. But can I ask a simple favor?”
He nodded slowly. “What is it?”
“If she returns and she hasn’t spoken with me yet, I’ll come by here on my way back. Ask her not to go anywhere until I come back around? I don’t anticipate this will take too long.”
“I think I could do that,” he nodded, smiling amicably at me.
“In that case, I should probably take my leave,” I said, getting up. “I still have some errands to run before I head on.”
He nodded. “May your journey see you safely to its end.” He stood as well, and crossed to me, clasping hands with me.
Sarah stood behind him. She took my hand once her father stepped away, flashing me a shy little smile. “Be well, and come back soon, Paul Twister,” she purred softly.
I smiled back. “If I can.” And then I headed out. I was really glad that the curse had worn off of me so quickly, I mused as I went back to meet up with Aylwyn at the inn. Having to tell her how she wouldn’t be able to speak with April afterall was bad enough, but it would have been amazingly awkward to try to explain my transformation to her!