Like a cat that hides under the barn to have her kittens, a wyvern mother-to-be likes a nice, private spot to lay her egg.
Wycca had inspected several chambers around the castle and rejected them all. This one was unpleasantly hot, that one, drafty; this one smelled of mildew, that one was too close to the privies; and yet another was next to the bedchamber of the king's steward, who snored.
Wycca sighed. It was all very trying to a wyvern in a delicate predicament.
She shifted on her perch on the castle ramparts, doing her best to look inconspicuous while she enjoyed her afternoon bask in the sun. The courtiers in the garden below were gathered around a lute player by the fountain and didn't seem to notice the extra gargoyle high overhead.
Wycca flexed her claws and began to give herself a leisurely manicure, cat fashion. She fit in well among the ramparts, being about the size of the stone gargoyle waterspouts. She was a small, four-legged dragon with a neat, slender head and an eagle's beak. No matter what old bestiaries and modern dictionaries have to say on the matter, wyverns do have forelimbs as well as hindlimbs, and a set of powerful, membranous flapping wings, like those of a bat. Wyverns are the most catlike of the dragons in their agility, intelligence, temperament, and vanity, and like a cat, Wycca had slitted, feline eyes, retractable claws, and a deep, melodious purr.
This morning's nest-hunting had begun promisingly. Hidden behind a tapestry at the back of the queen's chapel, Wycca had discovered a small chest full of prayer books half eaten by bookworms. Their pages would make a fine, soft nest, and the little chapel itself was warm, dry, quiet, and unused, the humans having long ago abandoned it to mice and bats.
She had been happily planning the lining of the nest -- fresh cobwebs, down from young owls, perhaps a few golden hairs from the princess's hairbrush -- when the men came in and began to haul out the broken furniture.
The old king had recently remarried, and his new queen was young, French, and devout. Someone had remembered the neglected chapel. It was to be swept out, given a fresh coat of whitewash, and fumigated. The promising chest was the first thing to go on the bonfire. Wycca hid in the choir loft and watched the monks' beautifully carved pews turn to smoke. She would have to start her search all over again.
There was an easier way. Her master, Gideon, was the king's own wizard, and his chambers were warm and dry and quiet. Gideon knew she was about to lay an egg. He had placed a folding screen around her favorite sleeping place and now gave her a dose of swan-liver oil after dinner. It would have been simple to shred a cushion or two, line the heap with a few mouse whiskers and moth wings, and be done with it.
But Wycca had her dignity. Nests were not provided. They had to be sought with difficulty, discovered by cleverness, and kept hidden from everyone -- especially wizards. Even her own wizard.
The sun went behind a cloud, signaling that basking time had come to an end. Wycca bestirred herself.
The egg made her ungainly, and Wycca could feel it shift as she struggled to her feet. She was overcome by a powerful urge, to dig, to tear something up -- she had to make her nest. But where?
She fled (if you can call a swift waddle fleeing) to the back of the garden by the crumbling wall that was all that remained of a much older castle, leveled in a long-ago siege. She was venting some of her nest-building urges on the ground, clawing out a deep wallow among the melons, when she found it.
At first she thought she had dug through to the wall, but it wasn't stone. It wasn't earth, either, or fire or ice or air, or any other substance she knew -- except one. Wycca sat back on her haunches and snorted in surprise.
It felt like magic.
Her master's magic was kept tightly corked in bottles and jars, to be let out only when the moon was waning and the wind was out of the right quarter, and then only in small amounts, ground up in a mortar with barley wine and ashes until it was the right strength for repelling demons or fetching wyverns.
But this magic had never known the inside of a jar. It was wild and strong and willful. It yawned suddenly, so that it was bigger than the largest melon, bigger than Wycca. The center of it wavered like summer heat on tiled rooftops, only cool and silver and humming faintly. It pulled at her, like the tug of the moon on the sea.
Suddenly, Wycca knew where she would build her nest.
She stretched out her neck slowly until the very tip of her beak broke the surface of the shimmering wildness. There was a ripple and a sound like a harp string being plucked, and in that heartbeat Wycca was instantly and completely Elsewhere. There was nothing in the melon patch but some tangled melon vines and a spot of darker, clawed earth.
When Wycca didn't show up for dinner, Gideon didn't think much of it. It was her habit to dawdle when he called, so that her appearance, when she finally made it, would seem like her own idea. After all, she seemed to say, curling up on the rug before the fire, only dogs and other witless creatures came when you whistled.
But when it began to grow dark and she still had not returned, Gideon began to worry. He hoped the silly creature hadn't gotten wedged into a tight spot somewhere down in the crypt -- or, worse, the dungeon. But most of all, he hoped no one had taken her. Even a fetched wyvern -- one summoned by spellcraft and given a golden collar and a Name -- is still a magical creature. Wycca could be a powerful weapon against her wizard if she fell into the hands of his enemies.
Someone like Kobold, for instance.
Gideon and Kobold had grown up together, and when they turned sixteen, they had been apprenticed to the king's wizard. Both young men had won favor at court, and when the old wizard had retired to the country to raise bees, both of them vied for the coveted position of Sorcerer Royal. In the end, the king awarded Gideon the title and the wand, and Kobold had to hire himself out as an itinerant wizard, riding a circuit between various third earls and aging warlords. Unfortunately, Kobold had a lot of time left over to nurse his grudge and to sharpen his skills at summoning the minor demons. These he sent to the castle to spy on Gideon. If Wycca was missing, Gideon thought to himself, Kobold would learn about it soon enough. And if he could find a way to wreak his revenge, he would.
Gideon threw on his cloak and went out to look for Wycca. He started by checking all her favorite hiding places. She wasn't drinking buttermilk in the dairy or napping beside the fire in the laundry, where the linens were hung to dry. She wasn't hunting frogs among the lilies in the moat or teasing the high-strung falcons in their mews. She wasn't taking a dust bath on the jousting grounds.
He was lying flat on his stomach trying to get a good look under the dovecote when he heard a honeyed voice say, "Have you lost something, Gideon?"
He wriggled out from under the dovecote, brushing off feathers and petrified pigeon droppings. Standing beside the dovecote was Febrys, lady-in-waiting to the queen and one of Kobold's demon spies. She was wearing a gown of blue-and-silver brocade. Febrys was fair of face and would have been beautiful had she not been so unnaturally pale: the pale hair that showed beneath the linen of her headdress was closer to white than gold, and her eyes were like clouds reflected in water. The twilight on the silver brocade made her look more eerie still, as though Kobold had fashioned her out of cold moonlight and dust. Which he probably had, Gideon thought.
"I thought I saw a fox slip under the pigeon coop," he said.
She looked him up and down like an owl eyeing a mouse. "A fox? But why not send your wyvern after it? Why begrime yourself when she could save you the trouble?" Her voice dripped with sweetness, but it reminded Gideon of the honey the palace cook used to cover the taste of meat that was rotten. He laughed and Febrys took a startled step backward. Laughter is a powerful charm against demons.
"Send a wyvern after a fox? That would raise an awful clamor, and something tells me our new queen wouldn't care to have her evening prayers disrupted in such a noisy fashion. In any case, there was no fox -- I merely fancied I saw one. But you can see for yourself." He waved an arm toward the dovecote.
Febrys wrinkled her nose. "Of course I take you at your word, Gideon." She turned and walked away across the courtyard.
Gideon looked after her. He knew he had not deceived her. She would go straight to Kobold. There was no time to lose.
He started back to his rooms. The apparatus required to fetch a wyvern was elaborate and would take one wizard working alone most of the night to set up, but if he worked steadily, all would be ready by the hour just before dawn, when fetching spells are most effective.
He took a shortcut through the vegetable garden, and it was then that he saw the unearthly glimmer coming from the melon patch. Gideon felt his heart sink.
There was no mistaking it: the talon marks in the earth were Wycca's. And there was no mistaking the hazy ring of oily light, shimmering and humming faintly like a spinning top.
Gideon sat down among the melons with a groan. Wycca had gone through a bolt-hole, a kind of magical rabbit-hole through Time, into some other Where -- and, what was much worse, some other When.
He had started to put his hand through the bolt-hole when he stopped himself. It was no use rushing after her unprepared. He went back to his chambers and spent an hour putting his crucibles and books away under lock and spell.
Wycca couldn't have chosen a more inconvenient moment to run away. He was supposed to judge the flight trials of the rising class of yearling dragons, settle a long-running dispute between humans and some trolls about mining rights, host a lavish banquet for visiting dignitaries from the dwarves, and preside over the new session of the Guild's high court. He hardly had any time at all to pursue his own studies in demon genealogy or perfect the new universal antidote. The last batch of the stuff had rendered the king's food taster weightless for a week. Gideon now understood why his predecessor had retired to the country to tend bees.
On a high shelf lay coiled a two-headed snake and beside it, under a bell jar, a cool blue flame that burned without air or fuel. These were Gideon's familiars, the Worm Ouroboros, as old as Time, and Ignus, an intelligent, biddable Fire.
Gideon paused in packing his satchel. He lifted the glass bell and held out an empty coin purse, making a soft clucking sound. Ignus flowed off the shelf and into the coin purse. Gideon snapped it shut and placed it in his pocket. Then he held out his arm for Ouroboros. The snake slid along his master's arm, arranging himself in coils underneath the sleeve of Gideon's tunic. There was a small hole in the seam where the sleeve was attached, and from this the snake could look out.
The wizard's last task was to compose a note to the king explaining his sudden absence. He spoiled two sheets of foolscap before he hit on a likely excuse: a summons to attend an emergency convocation of the Guild of Adepts in the Wizardly Arts. He supposed Kobold would see through it, but by then Gideon hoped he would be back, with Wycca in tow, in time to head off any attempt to overthrow him as Sorcerer Royal. Gideon deftly folded the note into the form of a dove, said a few words over it in Wizard's Latin, and watched the paper bird wing its way to the castle and into the king's chamber window.
He gave the cage of newts their freedom and left out a saucer of buttermilk, just in case Wycca hadn't gone through the bolt-hole after all.
"Lock up," he told the door, and, as the bolt obediently slid to, the wizard shouldered his satchel and made his way back to the melon patch.
Copyright © 2003 by Ann Downer