The Alphatian Ferret
Lana descended to the lowest level of her tower where the cells were located. Carefully she placed the snail on the flagstone floor, retreated beyond the row of steel bars, pointed her finger and performed her first ever casting of Dispel Magic. Poof! The threads of her enchantment unravelled, causing the snail to resume its true form – that of a three-foot-long, golden-haired ferret. Startled, it looked around before springing to its feet, hissing and arching its back as it backed away from Lana.
"Hush," Lana soothed through the bars. The creature cowered in the corner of the cell, its fur bristling. Its tail was upright, bushy and waving slightly while its head bobbed from side to side, clearly agitated. Its gaze passed to the metal bars, or more specifically the gaps inbetween. The creature was larger than Lana recalled, certainly bigger than as Whiskers; when she had selected the creature she had cast her spell from afar so her memory of its appearance wasn’t accurate.
The ferret fitted its head through the gap between two of the bars, and applied pressure with the remainder of its long, sleek body.
"No!" Lana said sharply, waving her hands. The ferret displayed its teeth and yapped, prompting Lana to recoil slightly. In the instant that followed the ferret's sleek body passed between the bars. Without hesitation it dashed past the startled Lana and up the stairs.
Lana gave chase to find the ferret facing off with Whiskers. Both were standing in the entrance hall, regarding one another curiously. The two ferrets sniffed one another while circling. They then began chasing each other around the vestibule. Whiskers seemed to be inviting the golden ferret to chase him. He went as far as to allow the larger ferret to grab him by the scruff of his dark-brown fur and flip him aside. The two ferrets became an amalgam of brown and gold as they rolled around the hall. Watching this continue, Lana felt mildly apprehensive however a voice inside her head told her to relax. Despite his age, Whiskers had seen his fair share of physical action. He had gone as far as engaging a many-headed hydra at the Dragontree magic point. It became apparent however that Whiskers' physical prowess had diminished; he yelped as the golden ferret clamped its jaws on his hind section. The brown-furred ferret attempted to shake his opponent loose. It got poked in one eye by Whiskers' hind claw, loosened its bite and darted to a nearby table. In a single bound the golden ferret mounted the table, overturning a porcelain vase in the process, and scrambled upward to reach an unshuttered window a foot or so above. As Whiskers retreated beneath Lana's skirts, the golden ferret squeezed its slender body through the gap and vanished.
"Oh balls," Lana said. "It's loose in the grounds."
She went to open the front door. "Come on Whiskers," she beckoned. Unenthused, the older ferret stared at her before starting to lick his wound. She noticed a patch of blood on the tiled floor. Whiskers clearly didn't want to go anywhere for the time being.
Lana walked outside and looked around. A blur of gold could be seen bounding away from the tower in the direction of the wooden outbuildings – the barn, stables and henhouse. Before giving chase Lana dashed to her kitchen and grabbed a few morsels of food – a couple of hard-boiled eggs, plus a roasted chicken which had been partly stripped of its flesh. While in snail form, the creature had spent weeks living off leaves. Lana thought it likely that the ferret's appetite would have reasserted itself after being suppressed for so long.
Almost immediately she heard a commotion coming from the henhouse. It seemed the ferret had clambered inside and was causing havoc; visibly so, since the wooden structure could be seen rocking from side to side. Feathers issued from the doorway and windows, several chickens emerged squawking as if fearing for their lives. Rightly so, as the ferret emerged moments later with a lifeless and bloodied bird clamped between its jaws. It bolted towards the nearby barn.
Lana observed this with admiration. Even carrying a dead body, the ferret bounded and sprang lightly as it passed through the grounds, its motions fluid and elegant, more dainty and sprightly than Whiskers.
"Do you need a hand?" came a call. Apollinus and one of the Glaston villagers were tending the crop gardens a short way away.
"No thanks," she replied, "we don't want to frighten it. But if you could close the gates…" she visualised the ferret escaping into the Dymrak, never to be seen again, "… that'd be great."
Apollinus nodded and ran to do as he was bid. The villager headed in the opposite direction, to check that the gate which led into the deeper Dymrak remained secure.
If all else failed, Lana thought as she progressed toward the barn, she would attempt to Charm the ferret. She had mixed feelings on the subject; she had never subjected Whiskers to formal training, let alone a Charm spell, and he turned out alright. Well, sort of alright... She had always disliked the artificiality of Charm magic, despite never having cast such an enchantment. She resolved to employ mundane means of subduing this new ferret unless no other option presented itself.
She entered the barn. The ferret was devouring the chicken, its front covered in blood and feathers. It appeared determined to see its feast through but allowed Lana to observe. Once finished it set about cleaning itself. Lana seated herself calmly and quietly on the straw-covered floor, looking on silently. The ferret seemed satisfied but still peckish. Lana laid out the morsels from her kitchen. With a pang of nostalgia she recalled feeding Whiskers in a similar manner years before, coaxing him to trust her. As if summoned by her thoughts, Whiskers appeared in the barn's open doorway, regarding Lana and the new ferret with calm curiosity.
The golden ferret took its time walking round the interior of the barn, inspecting its surroundings, rubbing its hind quarters against sections of the wall and the ladder leading to the mezzanine level where bales of hay were stored. Its gaze passed to Whiskers every so often though otherwise it appeared indifferent toward him. Whiskers gave a couple of yelps, but remained where he was. The golden ferret came to within a few yards of Lana and sniffed the air. Its attention turned to the scraps of food. It eyed Lana dangerously before approaching. It snatched a mouthful of food then darted away. It chewed the morsel, swallowed and returned for more. This occurred several times in a row.
"There now," Lana said in what she hoped was a friendly tone. "Nobody here wants to hurt you. You're far from home but you have friends here. Me and Whiskers."
She gestured to Whiskers in the doorway.
"Nothing to be worried about…"
Whiskers was no longer sitting, instead he was padding softly into the barn, hesitant but curious. It struck Lana that he hadn't encountered another giant ferret since his escape from to the Specularum docks a couple of years before when Denkris had resulted from his union with a giant ferretess.
"I know this isn't Alphatia," Lana continued softly, "but Karameikos is sunny, we have trees and fields and meadows like what you're used to. There's a duckpond not far from here, think of it as your very own lake like in Vertiloch."
Whiskers was now within feet of the other ferret and was sniffing.
"And you have another ferret for company," she added. "I'm sorry for taking you from your home but you could be happy here."
The door to the barn nudged open somewhat forcefully and a shaggy mound of fur entered. A smile came unbidden to Lana's face; she regretted having missed much of Grunt's transformation from a cub into a full-grown bear. Now of adult size, Grunt was peering through the barn door as if questioning what the disruption was about. He sniffed the air; something seemed to displease him. He ambled toward the corner of the barn into which the golden ferret had backed. As he drew near the ferret held its ground and did not bolt. Grunt and the ferret came face-to-face and stared at one another, both equally curious. Lana watched in fascination. After a while the ferret pushed its nose against Grunt's side, making a chirping sound. Grunt put out a paw and in a single, strong movement, pushed the ferret aside. It did not take entirely kindly to this, springing back to where it had been a moment before. Grunt repeated the gesture, which caused the ferret to roll into it, seeking to dislodge the bear who refused to budge. Whiskers' ears pricked up and he joined the pair; soon all three were sniffing and pushing one another around in a playful manner.
"Grunt," Lana instructed after this continued for a while, knowing Whiskers would not respond to her request. "Heel." Obediently the bear withdrew from the game and plodded the few steps to join his mistress. She ran her hands through his thick fur. The golden ferret surveyed Whiskers with disapproval; evidently it wished to continue playing with Grunt. It turned its back on Whiskers and bounded over to Grunt's new location, by Lana's side. The two continued to interact, while Lana watched from within arm's reach.
As the display continued, Lana attempted to pet the golden ferret's sheening fur. It withdrew as she reached out. "There now," Lana murmured, lifting one of the hard-boiled eggs and extending it on her hand. "There's nothing to be worried about."
The ferret regarded Lana dubiously before moving in calmly. It deftly removed the egg from Lana's outstretched hand and swallowed it after a couple of chews. It proceeded to seat itself by her side and began washing itself, licking the last of dried chicken blood from its fur. Whiskers, while Lana's attention was diverted, had swallowed the other egg.
"Perhaps in time," Lana said with a sigh, "we'll come to trust one another."
Whiskers approached and lay down beside the golden ferret in what Lana hoped was a conciliatory gesture. The golden ferret sniffed the bloodied part of his leg then, perhaps remorsefully, began to lick the wound clean. Lana smiled. There was hope they would all get along after all.
"So it'll stay here?" Apollinus asked later that night. "In the barn or in the Tower?" Teldon's book on the history of magic sat open in his lap. Lana had thought it would be of interest for him to read.
"Isn't that the same page you were reading ten minutes ago?"
Apollinus nodded after thinking for a second. "I'm trying to take it all in."
"Or perhaps you're not maintaining attention and wondering about giant ferrets instead."
He looked embarrassed. "You're right, sorry."
"It's okay. I won't be docking points off your aptitude score."
Apollinus smiled. "I'll pay better attention if I know what your plans for the ferret are."
"I'll probably pay for training. There's bound to be somebody in Specularum who's worked with ferrets before. I never got Whiskers trained, he turned out sort of okay. This new ferret has a different temperament and is completely wild, I'd rather not take the chance of her turning out to be dangerous. Especially when people besides me are going to be around her."
"You said she?" Apollinus echoed. "Have you determined that it's a female?"
"I can't say for definite," Lana said, "but I was trying to watch while she played with Grunt. And she doesn't appear to have a, erm…" Apollinis' eyebrows rose. "You know… a thingy on the underneath. So I'm going to assume for now that she's a she."
"What about a name?"
A smile lit Lana's expression. "I had this great idea for a name. Seeing how the ferret's from Alphatia and probably female, I was thinking of Edna. Like Eriadna, but contracted." She made a condensing movement with her hands.
Apollinus didn't know what to make of this, and shrugged. "I suppose a name's a name."
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