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In Which Mendanbar Receives Some Advice from a Witch

Before Mendanbar was halfway across the garden, the door of the cottage swung open. Seven cats of various sizes and colors trotted out, tails high.

They flowed over the stoop, collecting the sleepy white cat on their way, and lined themselves up in a neat row. Mendanbar stopped and looked down at them, blinking. They blinked back, all eight at once, as if they had been trained.

"Well?" said a voice.

Mendanbar looked up. A short woman in a loose black robe stood in the open doorway. Her hair was a pale ginger color, piled loosely on her head. Mendanbar supposed she must use magic to keep it up, for not one wisp was out of place. She wore a pair of glasses with gold rims and rectangular lenses, and she held a broom in one hand.

"You must be Morwen," Mendanbar said with more confidence than he felt, for she was quite pretty and, apart from the black robe and broom, not witchy-looking at all.

The woman nodded. Giving her a courteous half-bow, Mendanbar went on, "I'm Mendanbar, and I was advised to talk to you about-well, about a problem I've discovered. I hope you weren't on your way out." He indicated the broom.

Morwen examined him for another moment, then nodded briskly. "So you're the King. Come in and tell me why you're here, and I'll see what I can do for you."

"How do you know I'm the King?" Mendanbar asked as the cats exchanged glances and then began wandering off in various directions. He felt disgruntled, because he had not intended to mention the fact. At least Morwen wasn't curtsying or simpering, and she hadn't started calling him "Your Majesty" yet, either. Perhaps it would be all right.

"I recognize you, of course," Morwen said. She set the broom against the wall behind the door as she spoke. "You've let your hair get a bit long, but that doesn't make much difference, one way or another. And Mendanbar isn't exactly a common name these days. Are you going to stand there all day?"

"I'm sorry," Mendanbar said, following Morwen into the house. "I didn't realize we'd met before."

"We haven't," Morwen said. "When I moved to the Enchanted Forest five years ago, I made sure I knew what you looked like. I'd have been asking for trouble, otherwise."

"Oh," said Mendanbar, taken aback. He had never thought of himself as one of the hazards of the Enchanted Forest that someone might wish to be prepared for, and he did not like the idea much, now that it had been pointed out to him.

Morwen waved at a sturdy chair next to a large table in the center of the room. "Sit down. Would you like some cider?"

"That sounds very good." Mendanbar took the chair while Morwen crossed to a cupboard on the far wall and began taking mugs and bottles out of it. He was glad to have a minute to collect his wits. He was not sure what he had expected her to be like, but Morwen was definitely not it.

Her house was not what he had expected, either. The inside was as neat and clean as the outside. The walls of the single large room were painted a pale, silvery gray. Six large windows let in light and air from all directions. There were no gargoyles or grimacing faces or wild tangles of trees and vines carved into the window ledges or the woodwork around the ceiling, and no intricate patterns set into the floorboards. One of the cats had come inside and was sitting on a big, square trunk, washing his paws; another was lying in an open window, keeping an eye on the backyard.

There was a large black stove in the corner by the cupboard, and three more chairs around the table where Mendanbar was sitting. It was all very pleasant and uncluttered, and Mendanbar found himself wishing he had a few rooms like this in his castle.

"There," said Morwen as she set a large blue jug and two matching mugs in the center of the table. "Now, tell me about this problem of yours."

Mendanbar cleared his throat and began. "About an hour ago, I ran across a section of the Enchanted Forest that had been destroyed. The trees had been burned to stumps and there wasn't even any moss left on the ground. I'm afraid it may have been a rogue dragon. I found dragon scales in the ashes, and a squirrel suggested I come and see you."

"Dragon scales?" Morwen pressed her lips together, looking very grim indeed. "Did you bring them with you?"

"Yes," said Mendanbar. He dug the scales out of his pocket and spread them out on the table.

"Hmmm," said Morwen, bending over the table. "I don't like the look of this."

"Can you tell anything about this dragon from his scales. Mendanbar asked.

"For one thing, these scales aren't all from the same dragon," Morwen said. Her frown deepened. "At least, they shouldn't be."

"How can you tell?" Mendanbar asked, his stomach sinking.

"Look at the colors. This one is yellow-green; that one has a grayish tinge, and this one has a purple sheen. You don't get that kind of variation on one dragon."

"Oh, no," Mendanbar groaned, shutting his eyes and leaning his forehead against his hands. He had so hoped that it had been a single dragon.

It would have been a nuisance, sending letters of complaint to the King of the Dragons and waiting for an answer, but it would have been better than a war. If a group of dragons had attacked the Enchanted Forest, war was almost inevitable. "You're sure there were several dragons involved?"

"I didn't say that," Morwen snapped. "I said that these scales look as if they came from different dragons."

"But if the scales came from different dragons-" "I didn't say that, either," Morwen said. "I said they looked as if they came from different dragons. Have a little patience, Mendanbar."

Mendanbar opened his mouth to say something else, then closed it again.

Morwen was staring with great concentration at one of the scales, the one that was the brightest green, and she didn't look as if she would welcome an interruption. Suddenly she straightened and in one swift movement scooped the scales together like a pile of cards. She tapped the stack against the tabletop to straighten it, then set it down with an air of satisfaction.

"Ha! I thought there was something odd about these," she said, half to herself.

"What is it?"

"Just a minute and I'll show you." Morwen went back to the cupboard and took down a small bowl and several jars of various sizes. As she spooned and mixed and muttered, Mendanbar felt magic gather around her, like a tingling in the air that slowly concentrated itself inside the bowl.

At last she capped the jars and carried the bowl, brimming with magic, over to the table.

"Stay back," she warned when Mendanbar leaned forward to get a better view.

Mendanbar sat back, watching closely, as Morwen spread the five dragon scales out in a line. She set the purple scale at one end and the bright green one at the other. Then she held the bowl over the center of the line, took a deep breath, and said, "Wind for clarity, Stone for endurance, Stream for change, Fire for truth: Be what you are!"

As she spoke, she tilted the bowl and poured a continuous line of dark liquid in a long stripe across the middle of the five scales.

There was a flash of purple light, and the liquid began to glow. The glow spread outward, like fire creeping around the edges of a piece of paper, until it reached the rims of the dragon scales. Then it flashed once more and vanished.

Five identical scales lay side by side on the table, all of them bright green.

"I thought so," Morwen said with satisfaction. "These scales all came from the same dragon. Someone altered them so that they would each look different."

"Oh, good," Mendanbar said with some relief. "How did you know?"

"The scales were the same shape, and very nearly the same size," Morwen said. "Different dragons might have scales about the same size, if they were the same age, but there's as much variation in the shape of dragon scales as there is in their color."

"Really?" Mendanbar said, interested. "I didn't know that."

"Not many people do. But look at these-they're all round, with one flat edge. If they'd come from different dragons, I'd expect one to be, say, squared off, another oval, another long and wiggly, and so on."

"In that case, it shouldn't be too hard to find the dragon who destroyed that chunk of forest," Mendanbar said.

Morwen looked at him severely over the tops of her spectacles. "I'm not sure it was a dragon at all."

"Why not?" Mendanbar asked. "Because the scales were changed? But if he didn't want to be blamed-"

"If some dragon wanted to avoid being blamed for burning up a piece of the Enchanted Forest , he wouldn't have left his scales lying around, changed or not," Morwen said dryly. "Picking them up would be a lot easier than enchanting them. Besides, a healthy dragon doesn't shed scales at this rate. Unless you think your rogue dragon burned down a lot of trees and then stood around looking at them for a week or two."

"I see." Mendanbar picked up one of the scales and ran his fingertips across it.

"It's a good thing you were the one who found these," Morwen went on, waving at the dragon scales. "If it had been one of the elves, there would have been trouble for certain."

"Why do you say that? Whoever found them would have had to bring them to the castle-" "And long before he got there, word would have been all over the forest that a lot of dragons had burned half the woods to powder," Morwen said. "Most elves mean well, but they can't keep a secret and they have no common sense to speak of. Flighty creatures."

"Do you think someone was trying to make trouble between the Enchanted Forest and the dragons, then?"

"It's possible," Morwen answered. "If you hadn't come to me, you probably would have thought the scales came from different dragons.

Plenty of people know about the color variation. I doubt that you'd have figured out the transformation, though. Only people who are fairly familiar with dragons know about the differences in the shapes of their scales, and I don't think anyone at the castle understands dragons very well."

"How do you happen to know so much about dragons?" Mendanbar asked, nettled.

"Oh, Kazul and I have been friends for a long time," Morwen said.

"We trade favors now and then. She lets me have a spare scale when I need one for a spell, and I lend her books from my library and pots and pans that she doesn't want to keep around all the time. In fact, Kazul was the one who convinced me that it would be a good idea to move to the Enchanted Forest."

"Kazul," Mendanbar said, frowning. "That name is familiar. Who is she?"

"Kazul is the King of the Dragons," Morwen said. "Drink your cider."

Automatically, Mendanbar lifted his mug. Then the implications of what Morwen had said sank in, and he choked. Morwen was a good friend of the King of the Dragons? No wonder she knew so much about dragon scales! Morwen gave him an ironic look, as if she knew exactly what he was thinking. To give himself time to recover, Mendanbar sipped at his cider. It was cold and sweet and tangy, and it fizzed as it slid across his tongue. He looked at the mug in surprise and took a longer drink. It was just as tasty the second time. "This is very good."

Morwen looked almost smug. "I make it myself. You may have a bottle to take back to the castle with you, provided you take a bottle to Kazul when you go see her about these scales you found."

"Thank-wait a minute, what makes you think I'm going to see Kazul?"

"How else are you going to find out who these scales belong to? I may know more about dragons than most people, but I can't tell whose scales these are just from their color and size. Kazul can. Besides, you should have paid a call last year, when the old king died and Kazul got the crown."

"I sent a note and a coronation present," Mendanbar said. He sounded sulky even to himself, and he felt as if he were being lectured by his mother, who had died when he was fourteen. "I was going to visit, but the Frost Giants decided to come south early, and then some fool magician tried to turn a rock snake into a bird and got a cockatrice, and-" "-and it's been one thing after another, and you've never found the time," Morwen said. "Really, Mendanbar. Haven't you learned by now that it's always one thing after another? Being busy is no excuse.

Everyone's busy. You take those scales and a bottle of my cider and go talk to Kazul. At the very least, you'll get some good advice, and I expect you'll get some help as well. You look to me as if you could use it."

"The castle staff is very good," Mendanbar said stiffly. "And my steward does an excellent job."

"I'm sure he does," Morwen said. "But one good steward isn't enough to run a normal kingdom, much less one like the Enchanted Forest. It's perfectly plain just from looking at you that you're wearing yourself out trying to do everything yourself."

"It is?"

Morwen gave a firm little nod. "It is. And it's quite unnecessary.

All you really need-" "-is a wife," Mendanbar muttered resignedly, recognizing the beginning of Willin's familiar complaint.

"-is someone sensible to talk to," Morwen finished. She looked at him sternly over the tops of her glasses. "Preferably someone who knows at least a little about running a kingdom. An exiled prince, for instance, though they don't usually stay long enough to be useful.

Someone who'll do more than make lists of things you need to attend to."

Mendanbar thought of Willin's endless schedules and could not help smiling. "You're probably right." He suppressed a sigh; he didn't have time to spend hunting for a capable adviser. "Do you know anyone suitable?"

"Several people, but they're all quite happy where they are right now," Morwen said. "Don't worry. This is the Enchanted Forest . If you start seriously looking for good help, you'll find some."

"I hope I recognize it when I see it," Mendanbar said. He took another long drink of cider and stared into the mug. "You're the most sensible person I've talked to in days. I don't suppose you'd consider moving to the castle?"

"Certainly not," Morwen answered tartly. "I have quite enough to do here. However, I'll have the cats keep an eye out for any more burned-out patches of forest, and if I think of anything that might be important I'll let you know. Finish your cider and go see Kazul before you talk yourself out of it."

"I won't talk myself out of it," Mendanbar said, taking another sip of cider. "It's a good idea." He picked up the dragon scales and put them back into his pocket. He hoped Kazul would be able to tell him something worthwhile.

The Enchanted Forest was large, but it could disappear in a hurry if someone started punching holes in it. He frowned suddenly. "Do dragons eat magic?"

"Not that I know of," Morwen said. "Why do you ask?"

"That burned-out place I told you about," Mendanbar said. "There wasn't any magic left in it. It had been sucked dry. I've never seen anything like it."

"I don't think dragons would have done that," Morwen said. She considered for a moment, then rose. "Wait here a minute; I want to look something up."

She walked over to the back door, the one through which Mendanbar had come in. He watched, puzzled, as she opened the door and stepped through into a room full of tall, dark bookcases. Morwen left the door open and disappeared among the shelves. Mendanbar blinked. The windows on either side of the door looked out on the garden, and the one on the right still had a cat in it. Oh, of course, he thought.

It's one of those doors that go where you want them to. There was a door like that in one of the castle attics, which was convenient for getting back to the ground floor without actually climbing down seven flights of stairs. Unfortunately, you still had to climb up all seven flights in order to get to the attic in the first place.

Morwen reappeared, holding a red book with the title The Patient Dragon printed on the cover in gold. She closed the library door behind her and sat down at the table again. She flipped rapidly through the book, then slowed and read half a page with great care.

"I thought so," she said. "Dragons don't eat magic. They generate their own, the way unicorns do."

"You're sure?"

"See for yourself." Morwen held the book out. "Austen is very reliable, and the more obscure the fact, the more reliable he tends to be. If he says dragons make their own magic, they do."

"I'll take your word for it," Mendanbar said. "But the more I find out, the less sense any of this makes."

"Then you haven't found out enough," Morwen said.

They talked for a few more minutes while Mendanbar finished his cider.

Morwen told him how to find Kazul's cave in the Mountains of Morning but refused to advise him on what to do when he got there. Finally, she packed him off with two bottles of alder, the red book about dragons, and a recommendation not to waste any more time than he had to.

Mendanbar headed straight back to the castle. Visiting the King of the Dragons was going to take more preparation than simply talking to a sensible witch, and Morwen was right about wasting time.

2 In Which Mendanbar Discovers a Problem | Searching for Dragons | 4 In Which a Wizard Pays a Visit