Wizard at Large by Terry Brooks

She smiled then and laughed—a private joke of some sort, Abernathy decided. There was nothing for him to do now but to play along. He lay there and thumped his stubby tail as best he could, trying to appear like a normal dog.

  “Well, well, well! You are a cute thing! All dressed up like a little doll!” The cleaning lady came right up to him, reached down, and gave him a suffocating hug. She was rather stout to begin with, and Abernathy felt the breath leave his body in a rush. “Now what am I supposed to do with you?” she went on, stepping back, giving him an appraising look. “I'll bet no one else knows you're here, do they?”

  Abernathy kept thumping his tail, trying to appear cute.

  “You've sure made a mess of this room—look at these magazines and newspapers!” The woman bustled about, picking up, straightening up. “Did you eat this sandwich, too? Where'd you get that? I tell you, that Elizabeth!” She laughed some more.

  Abernathy lay patiently waiting as she finished moving about, then looked up expectantly as she came back to give him a pat on the head. “None of my business,”she muttered and patted him some more. “Tell you what,”she said conspiratorially. “You stay right here, don't move. I'll clean the room like I'm supposed to and be on my way. It's not up to me to worry about you. I'll leave you to Elizabeth. Okay?”

  Abernathy thumped his tail some more, wishing it were longer. The cleaning lady put a cord in the wall and ran a rather noisy machine about the floor and rugs for a time, ran a cloth over the furniture, picked and straightened up some more, and was done.

  She came back over. “Now you be good,”she admonished, ruffling his ears. “Don't let anyone know you're here. I'll keep your secret if you will, okay? Now give me a kiss. Right here.”She bent down, offering her cheek. “C'mon, just a little kiss.”

  Abernathy licked her dutifully on the cheek.

  “Good dog!” She patted him on the head and rubbed his muzzle. Then she picked up her cleaning gear and headed out the door. “Bye, old boy,”she called back.

  The door closed softly and the footsteps moved away.

  Abernathy wished he had something to wash out his mouth.

  Elizabeth returned around mid-afternoon, unremittingly cheerful. “Hi, Abernathy!” she greeted, pushing through the door and closing it tightly behind her. “How was your day?”

  “It would have been better,”Abernathy replied archly, “if you had thought to warn me that the housekeeper might clean!”

  “Oh, that's right, it's Monday!” Elizabeth groaned and dropped her books on the writing desk with a thud. “Sorry about that. Did she see you?”

  “She did. But she thought I was a pet and said I was your responsibility and not hers. I don't think she plans to tell anyone.”

  Elizabeth nodded solemnly. “Mrs. Allen is my friend. When she gives her word, she keeps it. Not like some I know.”She frowned menacingly. “Nita Coles used to be my friend, but she isn't anymore. Know why? Because she told everyone I like Tommy Samuelson. I don't know why she did that. He isn't even my boyfriend or anything, I just said I sort of liked him. He is cute. Anyway, she told Donna Helms, and Donna tells everyone everything, so the first thing you know, the whole school is talking about me and Tommy Samuelson, and I am embarrassed beyond tears! I bet even Mr. Mack, my teacher, knows! I told Eva Richards, my other friend, that if Nita doesn't take it all back and right now, I won't…”

  “Elizabeth!” Abernathy cut her short with something very much like a bark. “Elizabeth,”he said her name again, this time more gently. She stared at him. “Have you come up with a way to get me out of here?”

  “Sure.”She said it matter-of-factly, as if there had never been any question about it. She dropped herself down on the bed next to him. “A real good way, Abernathy.”

  “How, Elizabeth?”

  She grinned. “We'll send you out with the laundry!” The look on Abernathy's face sent the grin scurrying for cover. “Look, it's simple, really. A truck from the cleaners picks up the laundry every Tuesday. That's tomorrow. Several big canvas hampers go out, full of sheets and stuff. You can hide in one. The guards never check the laundry. You ride out in the back of the truck and when it stops to unload, out you jump. By then, you'll be miles away.”She grinned again. “What do you think?”

  Abernathy thought. “I think it might work. But what about when they load me in the truck? Won't they think the laundry is a bit heavy?”

  Elizabeth shook her head firmly. “No way. The towels and stuff go out wet all the time. They weigh a ton. I've heard Mr. Abbott say so. He's the driver. He won't think anything about it when he puts you in the truck. He'll just think you're a load of wet towels or something.”

  “I see.”Abernathy was undecided.

  “Believe me, it'll work,”Elizabeth assured him. “All you have to do is sneak down to the laundry early in the morning. I'll go with you. If we go early enough, we won't run into anyone. I can set my alarm. On the clock,”she added, pointing.

  Abernathy looked at the time-telling device doubtfully, then back at the little girl. He sighed. “Can you give me a good map of the country to take with me, Elizabeth— something that will help me find my way to Virginia?”

  Elizabeth immediately shook her head no. “I have an idea about that, too, Abernathy. You can't go trekking across the country on foot all the way to Virginia. It's just too far. There are mountains between here and there, and it's almost winter. You might freeze!”

  She reached over and put her hand on his head. “I've got some money saved. I want to give it to you. I'll have to make up something for Dad, but I can do it. I'll give you the money, and here's what you do. You wrap yourself all up in bandages so no one can see what you look like. They'll think you're all burned or something. Then you go to the airport and buy a standby ticket to Virginia. They're real cheap—I'll show you how to do it. You can fly back in a couple of hours. You'll still have to walk a bit when you get there, but not nearly so far as from here—maybe a hundred miles or so. And it will still be warm there; you won't freeze.”

  Abernathy didn't know what to say. He just stared at her for a moment. “Elizabeth, I cannot take your money…”

  “Shhhh, shhhh!” She cut him short with a hiss. “Don't say that. Of course you can. You have to. I can't sleep thinking about you out there wandering across the country. I have to know that you're all right. Really, I should go with you. But since you won't let me, you at least have to take the money.”She paused. “You can pay me back later, if you want—sometime.”

  Abernathy was overwhelmed. “Thank you, Elizabeth,”he said quietly.

  Elizabeth reached over and gave him a big hug. It was a much better hug than the one he had received from Mrs. Allen.

  Abernathy stayed in Elizabeth's room when she went down to eat dinner, waiting patiently for her to bring something edible back for him. He passed the time reading idly through something called TV Guide, which he didn't understand. He expected Elizabeth to return in short order, just as she had the previous night, but the minutes slipped by and she failed to show. He began listening at the door for her and even risked a quick look down the empty hall. No Elizabeth.

  When she finally appeared, she was ghost white and visibly distressed.

  “Abernathy!” she exclaimed with a hiss, closing the door quickly behind her. “You've got to get out of here immediately! Michel knows about you!”

  Abernathy went cold. “How did he find out?”

  Elizabeth shook her head in anguish, tears starting down her cheeks. “It was all my fault, Abernathy,”she sobbed. “I told him! I had to!”

  “Now, now,”he soothed, kneeling down in front of her, paws coming up to rest on her shoulders reassuringly. He wanted nothing so much as to run from that room as quickly as he could, but first he needed to know what he was up against. “Just tell me what happened,”he said, trying to sound calm.

  Elizabeth sniffed back her tears and sobs and faced him. “The watch told Michel about you, just as I was afraid they would. They c
ame up to us just after dinner to make their report and happened to mention it to him. They remembered it because they saw me standing there, and one of them asked if I still had the dog. He mentioned the odd clothes you were wearing and the way your paws didn't quite look like paws. He described you. Michel got this funny look on his face and started asking me questions. He asked me where I found you, and I… Well, I couldn't lie to him, Abernathy, I couldn't! He has this way of looking at you, kind of mean, like he can see everything…”

  She broke into sobs again, and Abernathy quickly hugged her against him, holding her until the tears began to subside. “Go on,”he urged.

  “Well, I told him I found you near the art room. I didn't tell him you were in it or anything, but it didn't matter. He went right to the art room, telling me to stay where I was, and when he came back he was furious! He wanted to know what had happened to his bottle. I said I didn't know. He wanted to know what had happened to you I said I didn't know that, either. I started crying, telling him I just wanted someone to play dress-up with and that when I found you, you were wandering about in these old clothes, so I just put you on a leash and took you for a walk, and… Then he wanted to know if you said anything to me! He seemed to know you could talk, Abernathy!”

  Abernathy felt as if the walls were closing in on him. “Hurry up, Elizabeth,”he urged. “Tell me the rest as quick as you can!”

  She took a deep, steadying breath. “Well, as I told you, I couldn't lie—not completely, not to him. So I said, ‘Yeah, he did!’—as if I was real surprised he knew. I said that was why I sent you away, because I was afraid of you. I just turned you loose and you ran off. I said I hadn't seen you since. I said I hadn't said anything to anyone because I was afraid they wouldn't believe me. I said I was waiting to tell my father when he came back Wednesday.”She took hold of him with her hands. “He believed me, I think. He just told me to go to my room and wait there for him. He ordered the watch to start a search. But he was yelling at them like he was crazy, Abernathy! You have to get out of here!”

  Abernathy nodded wearily. “How do I do that, Elizabeth?”

  The little girl's hands tightened on his arms. “Just the way I said you would—except that you have to go down to the laundry room right now!”

  “Elizabeth, you just said they were searching for me!”

  “No, no, Abernathy—listen!” Her roundish face bent close, brow furrowed with determination. Her nose freckles seemed to dance. ‘They've already searched the laundry room. That's where they started. I told them that was where I let you go. So no one's there anymore. They're looking around everywhere else. The laundry room is down the hall, around the corner to the right, on the ground floor—not far. If you go out the window… listen to me… if you go out the window and down the vines, you can slip around the corner and through the window!”

  “Elizabeth, I can't climb down…”

  “The catch is off, Abernathy! I took it off over the weekend when I was playing hide-and-seek with Mrs. Allen! You can slip right through the window into one of the hampers and wait! If not, just wait in the bushes; I'll come down and open it as soon as I can! Oh, I'm so sorry, Abernathy! This is all my fault! But you have to go! You have to hurry! If they find you here, they'll know I lied, that I helped you…”

  There was the sound of voices and footsteps in the hall beyond, rapidly approaching.

  “Abernathy!” Elizabeth whispered fearfully.

  Abernathy was already moving for the windows. He released the catch, pushed open the twin latticework frames, and peered down. It was dark, but he could just make out a thick tangle of trailing vines. They appeared strong enough to hold him.

  He turned back to Elizabeth. “Good-bye, Elizabeth,”he whispered. “Thank you for your help.”

  “It's the fifth window around the corner!” she whispered back. Then she put her hands to her mouth in horror. “Abernathy, I haven't given you the money for the airplane ticket!”

  “Never mind that,”he said, already swinging carefully out the window, testing his weight on the vines. His fingered paws gripped poorly. He would be lucky if he didn't break his neck.

  “No, you have to have the money!” she insisted, practically beside herself. “I know! Meet me tomorrow at noon at the school—Franklin Elementary! I'll have it then!”

  There was a knock at the door. “Elizabeth? Open the door.”

  Abernathy recognized the voice immediately. “Goodbye, Elizabeth!” he whispered again.

  “Good-bye!” she whispered back.

  The latticework windows swung silently shut above him, and he was left hanging in the dark.

  It seemed to Abernathy that it took him an impossible amount of time to get down. He was terrified of being caught out there, but he was equally terrified of falling. He compromised his fears by making his way at something of a snail's pace, taking time to find each handgrip and foothold as he inched downward through the vines, pressed as close as he could get to the stone block. Lights had come on in the courtyard below, electric lamps—he had read about them—and the darkness was no longer quite so concealing. He felt like a fly waiting for the swat that would end its purposeless life.

  But the swat didn't come, and he finally felt the reassuring firmness of the ground touch his feet. He crouched down instantly, eyes sweeping the yard, searching for movement. There was none. Quickly, he made his way along the wall, staying close against its dark shadow, out of the illumination of the lamps. A door opened from somewhere behind, and he heard voices. He scurried along faster, reaching the bend in the wall that would take him to the promised laundry window. It was darker here, the wall turning back into a deep, shadowed alcove. He slipped along silently, counting windows as he went. The fifth window, Elizabeth had said. One, two…

  Behind him, a beam of light shot across the dark, sweeping the courtyard to the low outer wall and the moat and back again. A flashlight, Abernathy thought. He had read about those, too. A flashlight meant that someone was out there on foot, searching the grounds. He practically ran now, counting three, four… five!

  He skidded to a stop, almost passing by number five without seeing it because it was partially concealed in a clump of bushes. He looked at it. It was smaller than the previous four—smaller, too, than the ones that followed. Was this the right window? Or was he not supposed to count this one? There was light inside, but there was light in the next one as well. He began to panic. He bent close and listened. Did he hear voices in there? He glanced back frantically. The flashlight was coming closer in the dark, the sound of voices back there as well.

  He looked forlornly at the window. There was nothing to do but chance it, he decided. If he stayed where he was, he was certain to be found. He reached down to the window and pushed carefully inward. The window gave easily at his touch. He caught a glimpse of linens in a basket. Relief flooded through him. He knelt down quickly and started to crawl in.

  Several pairs of hands reached up to help him.

  “We found him sneaking in through the laundry room window,”said a guard, one of three from the watch that had captured Abernathy. They held him firmly by the arms. “It was lucky we went back or we would have missed him. We'd searched there first and hadn't found a thing. But Jeff here says he thinks maybe one of the windows was left unlatched, that we ought to check it. We did, and that's when we found him, crawling in.”

  They stood in a study, a room filled with books and files, desks and cabinets—Abernathy and his captors and Michel Ard Rhi.

  The guard speaking paused and glanced uncertainly at Abernathy. “Exactly what sort of creature is he, Mr. Ard Rhi?”

  Michel Ard Rhi ignored him, the whole of his attention centered on Abernathy. He was a tall, rawboned man with a shock of black hair and a narrow, pinched face that suggested he had just eaten something sour. He looked older than he was, his brow lined, his skin sallow. He had dark, unfriendly eyes that registered immediate disapproval with everything in view. He stood ramrod straight
, affecting an air of complete superiority.

  “Abernathy,”he whispered almost soundlessly, as if in answer to the guard's question.

  He took a moment longer to study his captive, then said to the guards without bothering to look at them, “Wait outside.”

  The guards left, closing the study door softly behind them. Michel Ard Rhi left Abernathy standing where he was and moved over to sit behind a huge, polished oak desk littered with paperwork. “Abernathy,”he said again, as if not yet convinced of it. “What are you doing here?”

  Abernathy was no longer shaking. When the guards had captured him he had been so terrified that he could barely stand. Now he accepted his situation with the weary resignation of the condemned, and his acceptance gave him a small dose of renewed strength. He tried to keep his voice calm. “Questor Thews sent me here by mistake. He was trying something with the magic.”

  “Oh?” Michel seemed interested. “What was the old fool trying this time?”

  Abernathy showed nothing. “He was trying to change me back into a man.”

  Michel Ard Rhi looked at him appraisingly and then laughed. “Remember how he changed you into a dog in the first place, Abernathy? Remember how he botched it? I'm surprised you let him come near you.”He shook his head hopelessly. “Questor Thews never could manage to do anything right, could he?”

  He made it a statement of fact, not a question. Abernathy said nothing. He was thinking of the High Lord's medallion, still concealed beneath his tunic. He was thinking that whatever else happened, Michel Ard Rhi must not be allowed to discover he wore it.

  Michel seemed to know what he was thinking. “Well,”he mused, drawing the word out. “Here you are, you say, delivered to me by your inept protector. Such irony. But you know what, Abernathy? Something isn't right about all this. No one human—or dog—crosses through the fairy mists without the medallion. Do they, Abernathy?”

  He waited. Abernathy shook his head carefully. ‘The magic…”

  “The magic?” Michel interrupted at once. “The magic of Questor Thews? You want me to believe that the magic was the cause of your passage out of Landover into this world? How… incredible!” He thought a moment and smiled unpleasantly. “I don't believe it. Why don't you prove it to me? Why don't you satisfy my curiosity? Open your tunic.”

 
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