17. In Which We Converse with a Scholar

Half an hour later, stomachs filled with a quick breakfast, we arranged ourselves comfortably in the library on the various squashy chairs clustered around a large wooden table. The dusty light of a nearby window settled upon the mess of books, papers, and quills almost completely concealing the dark surface.

"So… who exactly are you, then?" Daystar enquired of the new arrival.

"My name is Varonyr," he said with a flourish and bow, mostly directed toward Kazul. He obviously knew enough about dragons to make sure to be extremely polite.

"You're Varonyr?" I had expected someone a bit more... scholarly.

"You've heard of me? I must admit, I'm surprised; I realize some of my work is unique, but I didn't think it was so widely publicized—"

"Actually we've been waiting for you. We're looking for the Royal Stick."

"Really? Fascinating coincidence! For that is the very thing I have brought back from my latest travels!" Olemer jumped at this statement, and the rest of us exchanged startled, but hopeful glances.

"But before I bring it out I think you should tell me why you need the Stick and how you knew I would be the person to ask," Varonyr suggested. And so we filled him in on everything that had happened since we decided to begin our quest. He was very excited about the whole tale, interrupting frequently to ask apparently irrelevant questions as he paced energetically around the room.

Finally we concluded with that day's encounter with the thieves and their connection with the wizards.

"Absolutely fascinating! I daresay all this is somehow connected to why the wizards have been after me… but enough talk for now. I think it's high time we try the thing out!"

"No, wait. Explain about the wizards. Harol mentioned something, but he seemed fuzzy on the details." Daystar interrupted. Olemer, who had started to lean across the table in anticipation, sighed and slumped back in his chair.

"Yes, the wizards have been a tricky business; very nosy lot, they are. It's thanks to them I had to leave my hut—and a great deal of my work—behind and hide out here."

"Then that hut on the plain is yours?"

"The one in the middle of nowhere? It is indeed, or was. Nice sort of place to get a lot of thinking done in, though the roof's rather leaky. Unfortunately it would be hard to go back now and still maintain the pretense that I'm dead."

"Well, I'm afraid it would be hard anyway; the whole place burned down a few days ago," Morwen broke the news bluntly. "Now would you please explain why you feel you have to maintain the pretense that you're dead?"

"Oh dear, did it really? Then it's a good thing I decided to bring that book on the Lost City of Agramar with me; fascinating but awfully large, not the sort of thing one wants to haul around when you're escaping from death—" he broke off upon noticing Morwen's impatient expression and coughed nervously.

"Well, anyway, carrying on. You see, about a year ago I found out from a friend of mine that some funny folk were after me because of my work concerning the Royal Stick. He didn't know they were wizards, but I recognized the description. He said a couple men with staffs and beards came into his shop—he sells a variety of scholarly publications—asking for anything about the Royal Stick. He showed them a few of my works and they started questioning him about who I was, where I lived, and so forth. Fortunately for me he claimed he didn't know and sent someone to warn me. Otherwise I'd never have had time to set up a passable mock death. As it was, I just managed to get the bones laid out, smear them with some poison from a venomous sheep, wreck the house a bit, grab my most important papers, and run. I had to leave most of my stuff or it would have looked suspicious."

"And poison from a venomous sheep isn't suspicious?" Brandel asked sarcastically. "What on earth is a venomous sheep?"

Olemer answered matter-of-factly, "Oh, they're quite common in some parts of the plains. It's not unusual for them to attack people. But… where did you get the bones?" he asked, sounding as if he were afraid to find out.

"Skeleton for anatomical study, of course. No scholarly residence would be complete without one. But, to finish my story, if I may?" Without waiting for an answer, he continued, "I did not yet know whether they were after my life or my research, so I thought it would be prudent to eavesdrop as they discovered my supposed demise. I was hiding on the roof while they investigated, having managed to find out my place of residence. I distinctly heard one of them say, 'Well, our job's taken care of for us. He won't be helping anyone now.' I gather, both from this statement and what you have just told me, that their purpose was indeed to kill me, likely to prevent me from doing exactly what I shall do now."

And without further ado, he drew a rather shabby bundle out from under his cloak and set it down on the table with an elaborate flourish. "Behold, the Royal Stick itself!"

We stared at it.

"Well, go on, Olemer, or should I say, Your Highness, it's yours!"

Olemer reached out and started unwrapping the bundle carefully, as if expecting it to explode at any moment.

"What exactly is it supposed to do?" Daystar enquired.

"That I'm not sure about... but according to my research, when the Stick is in the hands of the true heir, something quite unmistakable will occur. Possibly it will glow, or emit sparks; maybe even sing! Who knows? But if all goes well we should find out in a second."

The last fold of cloth was pulled off the Stick, revealing a smooth, dark wooden rod about six inches long. Olemer picked it up.

Every one of us watched with bated breath and great anticipation as…

…nothing happened.

Olemer, his expression betraying his stunned disbelief, voiced the question—one of the questions—on all of our minds: "Does this mean I'm not the rightful king?"

"No, no…" Varonyr's impatient muttering interrupted the looks of dismay that had begun to pass around the room.

"Well how do you know?" Morwen snapped when the scholar didn't continue.

"The decoy was a decoy for the decoy," he replied, "I should have realized that instead of wasting a trip… But there's one more place to check. If I reread the ancient texts… You see, the word malna can be alternately translated as—"

"Where?" Brandel demanded, getting right to the point.

"I don't know yet, I just know there's one more place to check."

A collective sigh of exasperation rose from the company, and Olemer buried his face in his hands.

"But," Varonyr held up his hand, "given time, I'm sure I can figure it out; it's simply a matter of first transcribing the texts into—"

"How long?"

Sounding slightly flustered at the constant interruptions, he answered, "Oh, only a day or two for the translation itself, I should think. But place names have changed a great deal over time; it may take a while to determine the modern appellation—"

"Best get started, then," Morwen instructed. "We don't have a lot of options."

While Varonyr hurriedly gathered his papers and books to begin his task, Morwen, accompanied by myself, sought out the guard to see if he had noticed anything concerning the events of the previous night. He had some interesting tidbits to share.

"The only thing unusual I noticed was the fairy. Though, really, unusual isn't the right word; she's been hanging around me for the past few days, so it wasn't any surprise to see her last night. She tried to convince me to wander off with her. She seemed very put out when I told her I had to continue my rounds, and she flew off in a huff. It was a couple hours before anything else happened, but then I saw some sparks and heard something crashing through the brush a little ways off, and I went to investigate. Not surprisingly, I didn't find anything. Nothing happened the rest of the night, but this morning your friend was gone. I'm guessing the whole time the fairy was trying to get me away so the kidnappers could get in and out. Not that they needed anything that elaborate; it's kind of hard for one guard to effectively patrol the whole building. That's what the invisibility barrier is supposed to be for."

"The little traitor!" I burst out. "I wouldn't be surprised if she had something to do with the thieves picking the wrong window, too. She was hardly on good terms with Shiara."

"You're probably right. If you see her again you have my permission to eat her," Morwen graciously replied.

The rest of the day passed in suspenseful boredom. Being deficient in knowledge of obscure ancient dialects, we could do little to help Varonyr, and we had to wait for the cover of darkness before attempting to rescue Shiara.

"Sir" Harol subjected us to a lengthy and grandiloquent apology around midday, assuring us that he was shocked beyond belief that such events could have occurred at his own magnificent oasis of refuge. I'm betting that he spent the entire morning composing it and staying out of the way of any real form of help.

Lotis had made herself scarce, which was probably very wise.

The afternoon wore on. Having failed to fall asleep (which shows you how tense the atmosphere was) I watched through slitted eyes as Kazul sharpened her claws, Brandel shot sparks at the ceiling, Morwen calmly read a volume on rare herbs, and Daystar gazed blankly out a window facing north. Olemer kept tossing a pen in the air but couldn't manage to catch it. The repetitive clatter it made as it hit the floor was getting on my nerves.

Time passed. The sun sank. It was time to leave.

A/N—The idea of venomous sheep is not my own, much as I'd like to take credit for it. I found it in a book of Celtic legends once and have been intrigued ever since.