Here is my entry for the WEP Apr 2022 challenge – A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall. It is another story about Altenay, the Finder, the heroine of my 2022 WEP flash fiction. Altenay is a magician: her magic allows her to Find what is lost. The story is a bit longer than 1000 words. Sorry.
“A hard rain is gonna fall,” the elderly zookeeper mumbled. “Me bones ache.”
Altenay glanced at the heavy gray sky. It had been drizzling for the past three days, on and off. Not a good time to search for anything out in the open, but she didn’t have a choice. She was a Finder. She found things. And this time, it was a Council-paid job.
She eyed the empty cage in front of her with disfavor. No point in asking how the m’riffin had escaped: the cage door gaped open, its lock broken.
“Dogs wouldn’t pick up his scent in all this rain,” the grumpy zookeeper informed her. “You need to find him quickly, or he would get a cough. Poor little Mory.”
“I don’t hunt by scent like dogs,” Altenay said sharply. She huddled in her cloak, but the cold moisture seeped inside, making her shiver.
“They said you need something of his.” The zookeeper shuffled back to his office. “Here are a couple of wing feathers from his last molt. Would they do? Poor Mory.”
Altenay took the feathers. Brownish with golden highlights, they were longer than her palm.
Poor little Mory indeed, she thought morosely. An m’riffin was almost as tall as she was, with two powerful chicken-like legs, a body and tail of a cat, vestigial wings, and a head of a monkey on a long sinuous neck. It was a magically created monstrosity with long rabbit ears, an amalgam of several species that should never coexist in one body. It couldn’t fly, but it could run like the wind.
Of course, m’riffins were rare and expensive, and someone had stolen this one last night. Why? Who would want such a pet? What if the thief was dangerous? Would he fight her? What if the m’riffin bit her?
“How do I trap it?” Altenay asked. “Does it bite? What does it eat?”
“Meat,” the zookeeper said. “Fish. Ham. He likes smoked octopus. Poor Mory.”
Altenay really didn’t want this large carnivore wandering the streets. Smoked octopus, right!
“These guys will go with you.” The zookeeper nodded at the two guards with a small donkey wagon waiting outside his office.
“Thank you.” Altenay climbed into the wagon.
“Where to?” one of the guards asked.
She fingered the feathers and unfurled her Finder magic. It pointed straight south. Hm. South of the city lay the sprawling river delta. Then the swamps and the mountains. And behind the mountains, the Sultanate.
“Let’s go to the river port,” she told the guards. “Maybe someone wants to smuggle the creature up the river.”
The guard flipped the reins, and they started rolling.
“Do you know why there is such a rush with this job?” Altenay asked.
The younger guard looked at her over his shoulder. “The Council wants to send it to the Sultan as a gift,” he said with a smirk. “For his zoo, I suppose.”
“Oh, right,” she remembered. Everyone at the market had been talking about it. The ship with the delegation to the Sultanate was scheduled to depart in two days.
Altenay rubbed her arms and watched in dismay as the sky opened up. The rain pounded the wagon’s canvas roof and danced in the puddles between the cobblestones. At least she was under a roof. The guards on their bench were drenched already.
At the port, she could do nothing but swear. Repeatedly. Her magic kept pulling south, across the river, into the swamps. She hoisted a bag of ham bits over her shoulder and jumped down from the wagon.
“Guys. My magic still points south. I guess I’ll have to go alone from here. A boat across the river and then on foot. Oh, I hate this job.”
By now, the rain fell in sheets. She tried to wipe the water from her face with her wet sleeve and giggled at the futility of the gesture.
“Sorry, Finder. There are no roads for the wagon down south.” The older guard shrugged apologetically.
“I know. Bye.” She turned away.
“Wait.” The younger guard offered her his pike. “You might need it … as a staff, maybe, if not a weapon. It’s sturdy. You’re all alone.” His wet cheeks pinked.
“Thank you.” Smiling, Altenay accepted his offering.
The older guard snorted and shook his head but didn’t say anything.
Altenay headed to the port. Finding a boat to ferry her across the river wasn’t hard, but after that she was on her own. Nobody lived in the swamps but loonies and criminals. And all sorts of predatory animals. Fortunately, most of them were nocturnal, and it was still early in the day, not even noon yet, but the sky was so dark and leaden, it could be evening. She couldn’t tell the difference. Maybe the swamp denizens couldn’t either? Not a comforting thought.
Resolutely, she started walking. The swamps were not all mire. Trees and shrubbery and tall reeds grew in profusion, and walking paths zigzagged among the waterways. It was tricky to follow her magic here, but overall, she made progress in the right direction. The muddy path squelched and slurped under her boots.
She didn’t realize at once when she arrived. Nothing looked different, but her magic stopped pulling and just hazed disconsolately under the weeping sky. Then a thicket of reeds in front of her resolved into a crude hut. Beside it, the m’riffin was feeding from a big bucket suspended off a tree branch. The beast’s motley brownish coloration – wings, pelt, and all – made it almost invisible in the swamp.
A boy of around seven or eight darted out of the hut and glared at her. Altenay glared back. How had these people transported the creature here?
“You can’t take Mory,” the boy said fiercely. He was clutching a wooden club almost as big as he was.
“Your grandpa is the zookeeper, isn’t he?” Altenay guessed. She should’ve known. Who else would’ve fed an animal smoked octopus? Most people couldn’t afford the delicacy. Only someone who loved the m’riffin would give it such a treat.
“He raised Mory from a chick. And they are going to send him away.”
“Look. If I go back and tell the Council who stole Mory, the guards are gong to arrest your grandpa and put him in prison. What’ll happen to you then?”
The boy’s eyes grew round, and his lips started trembling.
“How did you bring it here?”
“In a boat,” he said in a small shaky voice.
“Then we are going to take Mory back the same way. And we are not going to tell anyone that it was your grandpa who stole it. If nobody knows, nobody will arrest him.”
The boy stared at her for a while and then nodded mutely.
“Get the boat,” Altenay said. “I’ll do all the talking. You keep mum.”
When they got back to the port, the rain lightened up. Altenay talked to the city guards. She said she found the creature roaming the swamps. The boy who lived there offered to help with his boat, but she had to pay him.
The guards accepted her explanation, and so did the Council. The ship with the delegation to the Sultan, including the m’riffin, departed on schedule. Nobody arrested the old zookeeper. She saw him later, ambling around the zoo, as grumpy as ever.
Tagline: Rain or shine, the Finder always finds her m’riffin.