Part One is here.
Finally, the sorcerer reached his destination, a lonely tower set atop a jagged spire of rocky cliffs. Picking a way up the sides would be nearly impossible, with long stretches of smooth rock without footholds, jutting overhangs, stretches of sharp rocks, unstable areas that triggered deadly rockslides, and the enormous raptors that lived in the spires, large enough to carry off a man to their nests.
Magnus fed them a cow a month to patrol those cliffs, and so far no one had climbed the rocks to his tower, though thieves had gotten in by other means. As a bonus, the birds carried away anyone who died on the rocks. Some sorcerers might feel that rotting corpses and moldering bones created a warning atmosphere, but Magnus had never been overly fond of the smell of decay.
He halted his horse at one of the tunnel openings in the cliff base, and swiveled to peer back into the forest behind him. It ended some distance from the cliffs, the soil turning rocky and thin, supporting patches of grass and moss clinging to life, and nothing else.
The Jabberwock was nowhere in sight.
Feeling a little ridiculous, he called, “Daisy?”
No reply, no rustle from the trees.
“Daisy?” he called again, louder.
A brief rummage in his saddlebags turned up the silver flute, and he played the three notes, and waited.
Moments later, he saw the tree tops tossing, and the Jabberwock slid out between the trunks, the bloody haunch of a deer caught in her jaws. She paused as soon as she was clear of the branches, and dropped the haunch to the rocks, ripping off great bites, flesh and hide tearing, bones crunching under her powerful teeth.
The last swallow traveled in a noticeable lump down her long throat, and she rubbed her bloody muzzle on a patch of grass, before taking several surprisingly dainty nibbles of a nearby bush. The scraggly shrub disappeared under even these small mouthfuls, sheared neatly to a stub of a trunk.
Daisy crossed the distance between her and the sorcerer with flowing and lightning-quick strides, so fast Magnus recoiled in his saddle. His construct, without the nerves of a living horse, stood steady under him as the Jabberwock loomed above him.
Cocking her head to the side, to study him again out of one eye, the Jabberwock burbled inquiringly.
“I need you to stay close to me in the caves,” Magnus said, wondering if she understood him. The intelligence he saw in her eyes could be a mere illusion.
But the Jabberwock nodded, bobbing her head up and down.
The caves he’d carved into the rock, shored up with magic and metal supports, were more than large enough for the Jabberwock to pass through, and so Magnus rode his horse into them. Daisy followed closely, and when he glanced back to check on her, not trusting his ears in the weird echoes of the caves, she was studying the way intently.
As they emerged from the darkness into the bright light bathing the exposed cliff-top, the Jabberwock stretched her wings and neck, enjoying the freedom from the tunnels. A yawning roar echoed from her throat, bouncing off the rocks and startling the cattle in their pens. Daisy shook her head, and folded her long legs neatly under herself, wrapping her tail around her bulk, and peering down at the sorcerer.
“This is my tower, where I keep some of my treasure. I want you to monitor the forest beyond the tunnels, the tunnels themselves, and patrol the base of the tower. Can you do that?”
The Jabberwock gave her sinuous nod, head bobbing up and down on her serpentine neck.
“You will be free to roam the area, so long as you don’t let thieves by. And you are welcome to hunt the woods, but I will supply food, so long as it is reasonable.” Magnus surveyed the mass of tightly packed muscle before him, wondering if those wings were functional or decorative. If the Jabberwock could fly, she likely burned a great deal of calories.
Daisy huffed, craning her neck to study the cattle, who had settled, since the wind blew the wrong way to carry her scent to them. She scraped the dirt smooth with the side of her long fingered front feet, and then folded down her claws until one protruded.
Carefully, she dragged that talon through the dirt she had smoothed, forming a neat number two in the dirt, and under it, a circle next to the word ‘moon.’
“Two every full moon?” Magnus repeated. “Is that enough?”
Daisy snorted, tipping her head to fix him with one eye, before tapping her foot to the words she had written.
“Very well, I suppose you know best,” Magnus said, though he made a mental note to have his herder constructs keep a careful count of his cattle. If Daisy had lowered her answer to increase her pay, and planned to steal from him, she’d soon learn it was a poor choice.
“I will pay you every year, with bonuses for a job well done,” he continued. “Do you prefer gold or gems? Or something else?”
The Jabberwock scraped the dirt smooth again, and wrote another word slowly in the crumbling dirt.
Magnus blinked down at it, reading it again and again, disbelieving his eyes.
She’d written the word that magicians used for a powerful healing crystal, not one of the handful of nicknames commoners had for them. Underneath she wrote the name of a long-lasting light crystal, one that created a burst of fire, and another that would rust any metal near it to dust within minutes.
“Those are… all obtainable…” Magnus said after a long moment. “We can negotiate the amounts at the end of a year, but I will pay you one of each of those, at the least. Is that acceptable?”
The Jabberwock nodded again, and raked her claws through the dirt, obliterating the words she’d written and leaving a space that looked similar to the patches around it, a random tumble of dirt.
“Let me show you what you’ll be guarding,” Magnus said, leading her up to the tower. She’d never fit inside the halls, but she stood patiently on the elevation disk he used to lift them to the top of the tower, and he gestured through a window he flung open with a spell to the room full of his treasures.
Rare spell books, and others full of esoteric knowledge about poisons, medicines, magical beasts, and other secrets filled shelves lining the wall, sharing space with magical artifacts, and a few beautiful pieces of metal and jewels. On the floor stood a large wooden trunk banded in metal, the wood thick and scarred from years of mistreatment, but stubbornly whole.
“My most precious treasures are in that trunk,” Magnus said, pulling a chain from his neck. “It takes three keys to open it.”
Daisy bobbed her head.
“I am entrusting these to you,” he held out two ornate metal keys, one gleaming darkly, the other a bright silvery metal.
Delicately, the Jabberwock caught the chain on one claw, and pulled it to her body, her long neck dipping down and blocking his view. When she set her foot back on the ground, the keys and chain weren’t dangling from it.
Magnus wondered where she had put the keys, but decided it probably didn’t matter. On her somewhere was far more secure than in a spot she had to guard, and if he couldn’t see it, neither would people trying to steal his possessions.
After a few weeks buried in his work, the sorcerer realized he hadn’t seen Daisy once since he had brought her to his tower. Bemused, he went looking for her, wandering through his tunnels and then returning to circle the base of his tower.
He paused, staring up at his tower, frowning. Had she left?
Something nudged him from behind.
Magnus froze, and slowly, carefully, looked over his shoulder. Stretched on the ground behind him, weaving between rocks, and hardly visible except for the end that twitched in the air next to him, was a long fine-scaled tail.
Crouched in a circle of boulders, a coating of dust dulling the gleam of her brown and green hide so she looked remarkably like a stone, was the Jabberwock. Her head poked out over the top of a boulder, watching him.
She chortled, and then ducked back out of view.
Magnus could only imagine the surprise on some thief’s face when she rose up from those boulders, wings spread. In fact, he was almost looking forward to it.
“Carry on,” he said, with a dignified nod, and made another circuit around his tower, before heading inside. When he glanced out the door, even knowing where the Jabberwock was, he couldn’t see her among the rocks.
Daisy appeared for her monthly cows, and he caught occasional glimpses of her if he searched especially hard. Otherwise, life continued the same. Two and a half months into her guardianship, he heard screaming, and she came galumphing into view, a man clutched in one foot.
Holding the man in front of her, she skidded to a half, throwing up dust.
Magnus watched as she extended the man forward, and gave him a little shake. When he didn’t stop screaming, she shook him again, hissing like a teakettle.
The screaming cut off abruptly, though the sorcerer could still hear the man panting.
Daisy delicately pressed him into a sitting position, long scaled front feet banding his rib cage.
“Thank you, Daisy. Were there others?” Magnus asked.
Daisy nodded, snapped her jaws twice, and then shook her head.
“It ate them! Kiff and Pol! The blood and the screamin’ and the teeth! Monster!” The man glared at Magnus, dirty and bleeding from a few cuts, but still indignant.
“You were trying to steal from me,” Magnus said, crossing his arms. “What did you think would happen? A stern warning?”
“It didn’t have ta eat us!” He began railing against the general injustice of the world, the evilness of rich wizards who wouldn’t miss some of their dusty hoard anyway, and the vile nature of monsters that ate human beings.
Daisy gave him another firm shake to cut off the stream of invective.
“What now?” the thief asked, after he’d caught his breath.
“You tell me who you were stealing for, and what you were after,” Magnus said, and though he swore he wouldn’t, the man eventually did, without more than the threat of Daisy’s sharp teeth and claws.
“Are you still hungry?” Magnus asked, after the man was finished.
He groaned, but didn’t start yelling again.
Daisy shook her head.
“Very well, then. Follow me,” Magnus headed toward his tower. “Since you were so eager to see inside, I will indulge you.”
That made the man start screaming and squirming again, but two of Magnus’ human-shaped constructs stomped out of the tower door and each took an arm, and carried him inside between them, feet dangling several inches from the ground.
Daisy burbled as Magnus started to close the door.
She carefully drew an abstract but recognizable horse outline in the dust.
“They have horses?”
“Where are they?”
Daisy pointed to the forest, toward the left, and held up four fingers.
“I will send some constructs after them,” the sorcerer said, and Daisy nodded and raced away, in the opposite direction. The constructs returned with the horses, as well as discarded pieces of armor, and an impressive array of weapons, all pocked with rust, and stained a viscous dark red with Jabberwock blood.
Magnus frowned at the evidence of a battle, unable to recall any damage to Daisy. But then again, he realized, she likely had healing crystals in her possession.
* * *
And the final part is here.