The Curse: Part Four
Lockwood stood shivering, silently regarding the depressing, frosty rows of shriveled cabbages.
“It’s been like this nigh on a month now,” reported the farmer Erwin, a sturdy yellow Nimmo. “It was that necktie did it. Just as elegant as you ever saw – a little like that one he’s wearing.”
He pointed at Lockwood’s lovely white cravat in an accusatory sort of way, as though the whole thing were his fault. Lockwood did not fail to appreciate the irony.
“Like that, but fancier still.”
“Ahh... yes, I see,” said Lord Ashford. “You know, I hate to sound cynical, but it really seems unlikely that a cravat could have caused all of your problems.”
“Agricultural experts,” muttered Erwin disparagingly. (He and the other villagers had been told that Ashford and Lockwood were from the Meridellian Department of Agricultural Affairs, positions upon which the real farmers looked with some disdain.)
“Well, you know, weather curses are usually much more general,” said Ashford cautiously.
Lockwood was content to observe their argument. For his part, he could feel his icy sorcery everywhere around him; it saturated the earth, and the air, and also his coat. He could only surmise that the unnatural chill affected him so much because he was more closely connected to the spell than anyone else, but it was all conjecture, really. He knew astonishingly little about the curse and somehow he had not yet felt motivated to read the parchments Lord Darigan had sent. He had, however, a vague idea that he had replied to Darigan’s letter, which was a rather comforting notion.
Perceiving that Ashford was preparing to leave, Lockwood joined him.
The brown Scorchio looked at him a little anxiously. “I am afraid you must find this town terribly dull, Mr. Lockwood. Even I am rather bored, and consider the experience I have had.”
“Not in the least,” answered Lockwood colorlessly.
“Well, Miss Johnson did mention having met you, I suppose. She seemed quite taken with you, I might add – was interested to know whether she might see you again.”
“Miss Johnson?” he echoed. He did not recall anyone of the name. Surely he had not forgotten it? – which left him to puzzle over why he should think that he would forget anything, as to his knowledge he had forgotten nothing lately...
“The village belle: Celeste, I think her name is.”
“Ah,” said Lockwood, somewhat relieved that he had not forgotten after all.
“Poor girl, she is obliged to take care of her small brother since their parents died – I am quite affected by the story, but I don’t see how I could... Mr. Lockwood,” he inquired, breaking off, “do you feel quite well?”
“I cannot imagine why you should ask,” Lockwood replied with a sudden tinge of cold annoyance; it proved quite enough to deter Ashford, and they walked the rest of the way home in silence.
When Lockwood entered his room, he was vastly astonished to find Lord Darigan seated by the fire waiting for him. He had, however, the presence of mind to close the door behind him and sit down.
“I would say that you were very well-kept,” remarked Darigan with a frown, “except that I’ve seen you before. In any case, I received your letter. I found it disturbing and uncharacteristic enough to leave the Citadel immediately after contacting Lisha.”
“Letter?” Lockwood said slowly. He cast his mind back to yesterday – or had it been the day before? “Yes, I wrote you one, I think...”
Darigan stared. “Good grief,” he murmured. “If Lisha had had any idea, I am certain she would never have – very well. Stay there for a moment, will you?”
“If you like,” Lockwood replied helpfully, and went to sleep.
Lockwood thought that he awoke to a sort of grayish purple haze; but before he could really turn his powers of observation to it, the cloudiness was gone. Fortunately, the unpleasant feeling of having been knocked out and then revived seemed inclined to persist.
“I have done my best to set up a kind of magical ward around you,” explained Lord Darigan from the other side of the room, where he had, presumably, been patiently waiting for Lockwood to wake up. “Judging by your rather, ah, irritated expression, I surmise I have succeeded.”
“So it would seem,” the shadow Gelert replied dryly, pulling himself upright and sorrowfully regarding his very rumpled suit.
Darigan poured him a cup of coffee. As he drank it, Lockwood began to regain a full sense of the situation; gratitude was one of the first inevitable emotions to sink in.
“You must allow me to thank you,” he said; it was a mark of his sincerity that he uttered the phrase with only the slightest touch of irony. “I am exceedingly grateful to you. I am not certain how long I would have been stumbling around under my own spell, but upon the whole I am rather glad not to have found out.”
“Not at all,” Darigan replied. “It seems that your magic is capable of more than I previously believed. To be truthful, I’ve rarely seen such an actively malevolent spell in my life.”
“Excellent,” Lockwood said under his breath. Then, “I can think of several thousand things to ask you at the moment, but I suppose I will have to settle for one. How in the world did you get here?”
“That is quite an involved question, as a matter of fact. Well – of course I realized when your letter came that something was terribly wrong, because, if you’ll excuse my saying so, it really sounded nothing like you. I wrote to Lisha and then left straightaway.”
Lockwood had a faint idea that he had heard this somewhere before, but he could not for the life of him think where.
“The journey took some time, since I was unfamiliar with the area and have no sense of direction at all.” He chuckled. “When I first arrived, I found myself some miles away in the middle of a field and was obliged to fly the rest of the way. I decided that my appearance would cause quite a stir, so I took on the semblance of a young red Korbat – perfectly effective until someone touches it, or until I run out of energy.”
“Why was it harder to find this town than the place where Lisha and I were stranded in the woods?” Lockwood still felt slightly hazy, but he was determined to make use of his time with Darigan by seizing every available scrap of magical information.
Darigan smiled, guessing his intentions and pleased to be of help. “In that case, you see, there was the book to follow. It already had a great number of tracking spells on it – routine for any volume in the Darigan Library. I could have consulted a faerie for help, of course, but those methods are shady at best; and in any case, it would hardly have been worth the trouble.”
Lockwood considered this with some interest, but even gifted with his own rather relativistic scruples he was forced to conclude that he had gotten himself in quite enough magical trouble for the moment.
It was possible that Darigan had inferred his train of thought; either way, he continued quite briskly. “As it would be a little imprudent for me to remain too long from the Citadel and I will still have to travel magically back there afterwards, I propose that we both return to Meridell Castle by carriage, where –”
Lockwood shook his head wearily, as though the motion cost him a great deal of effort. “I do not intend to leave.”
Darigan looked at him in the greatest astonishment. “I wouldn’t want you to think that I don’t respect your dedication, Mr. Lockwood, but this is hardly necessary. I cannot guarantee the strength of my wards, and you would be putting yourself in an unnecessary amount of danger...”
“The danger, now that I am fully aware of it, is not nearly as great as it was before. My principal weakness was in being totally unprepared.”
“Perhaps, but...” Darigan began with a frown.
“And,” persisted Lockwood. “Peculiar as it may seem, I cannot say that the spell has done anything to harm me as of yet.”
“That is giving ‘harm’ a very loose definition.”
Lockwood, however, was not to be dissuaded. “If I should leave now, Ashford and everybody in the town would be placed at risk.”
“Why would you think that?” asked Darigan, arching an eyebrow.
Lockwood shrugged, turning his cup around in his gloved hand; he had no real inclination to say that it was precisely what he would have done to his enemy – and the spell had an unsettling similarity to the more malicious aspects of his character. It was clear that the spell wanted him here – it had, after all, gone to great lengths to stop him from contacting Darigan. He knew the inner workings of his magic far too well for comfort; and, if he had been at all tempted to examine his true motives, his thoughts would very likely have come to rest upon a pretty green Cybunny and her small Ogrin brother.
“Come back to Meridell Castle,” urged Darigan. “Really, I do not like to leave you under my own rather shaky wards.”
“I am excessively sorry for any inconvenience or worry that it may cause you,” replied Lockwood, “but there are matters to which I absolutely must attend. If I discover that the wards are no longer effective, I will leave at once.”
After a lengthy silence, Darigan sighed. “I see there is nothing I can say to change your mind. I only hope your bravery will be rewarded as well as it deserves. Would you be offended if I asked this one favor of you – that you write to Lisha at the first opportunity? I believe she is very worried about you.”
“Yes, naturally,” Lockwood assured him without really attending. “Lord Darigan, I cannot thank you enough for all of your help. If I ever become aware of some way to repay you I assure you that I will do my utmost.”
Darigan, perceiving that Lockwood wished to begin his business straightaway, got up to leave. “I will be back when I can.”
“I will be vastly delighted to see you,” answered Lockwood, and began readying himself to go out.
He hurried, because a sudden fear had overtaken him: an uncharacteristic fear, in that it had nothing at all to do with himself. It had rather to do with a small white gift he had given to a small green Ogrin.
To be continued...