I’ve given away a lot of copies of the first two books of Precog in Peril. I’m prepared to give away more. If you haven’t gotten yours yet, comment on the previous post and I’ll email them to you. End of the world today!
Yeah, right. We should be so lucky.
You have until midnight! After that, I shuffle back into my hermit’s cave. Which reminds me, I started a story about such a cave. I wrote about eleven thousand words and stopped cold.
As it happens, this occurs fairly often with writers. We begin something, our minds aflame, and then, somewhere along the way, we lose interest or get distracted by something else.
I think you know what I mean.
I read the first few chapters of the cave story tonight and wondered why I ever quit. It’s kind of fun. What do you think? (I warn you, I haven’t edited it yet but it’s still damn good.)
My sister, Ghala, and I were finishing breakfast in the palace kitchen when Father requested our presence. Giving each other raised-eyebrow looks, we trooped to the private quarters he shared with mom. Given they were King and Queen of the small country of Marovia, these quarters were luxurious beyond belief. I never felt quite comfortable there, but hey, live and let live. They had their lives, we had ours, and rarely did the twain meet.
The parents were wearing what they considered casual clothing, i.e., they weren’t dripping with fur and jewels, but they still had rather a formal look about them as we approached their painstakingly embroidered, over-stuffed couch. Ghala gave them a curtsy. I merely nodded and waited, wondering what this was all about. Last time I’d seen Father was a fortnight ago; he was always busy with affairs of state. I’d seen Mom just this morning, when she passed me in the hall with a smile and small wave, on her way to tea or something.
Father looked unusually serious, even for him. “Children. We have something to discuss with you.” Even as he said this, his eyes were on me.
Ghala and I dropped to the pillows on the floor before them. She was a dutiful daughter, and arranged her skirts modestly. Me? I didn’t give a shit. I sat as I fell, and if the pose was not entirely respectful, I did nothing to remedy that.
Father frowned at me, even as he adjusted his clothing in a feeble attempt to subliminally suggest I do the same. I grinned at him, making no change at all. “Word has reached us this day that Bartholomew requests an assistant be sent to him at once. As always, he insists it be a young male.”
Bartholomew was the royal wizard, vouchsafed to protect our country and its borders. For the most part, he did a grand job. Tall and dark, a long black cape swirling around him as he moved about, he showed up at the palace occasionally to work some spell or other before returning post-haste to the forest. “Uh…what happened to the other assistant?” One had been sent to him only six months previously.
“That has not been ascertained,” Father said, still frowning. “But the privy council has determined that this wizard is costing our kingdom more than we can afford to pay. Therefore, we have come up with an alternative plan.” He pointed his golden scepter at me. “You, Con, will become the new assistant. You are charged with learning Bartholomew’s secrets, whereupon, we will dismiss him, thereby saving the gold we give him.”
I glanced at Ghala, who looked at me with furrowed brow. She and I shared similar physical characteristics. We were both of average height, slender, and had blond hair and blue eyes, though hers were pale as a robin’s egg and mine were so intense a sapphire, they often made people nervous. “Might this be considered unwise, sir, given that I’m next in line for the throne?”
He shrugged. “You have to break eggs to make an omelet, and if anyone can bring this wizard to heel, it’s you, Con. You have shown a certain… headstrongness and boundless curiosity that may see you through to the desired end.”
Wonderful. Flaunting my disregard for all things royal had come back to bite me in the ass. “And if he turns me into a newt?”
Father didn’t hesitate to respond, even as Mother gave him a stern look. “Ghala will rule in your stead, when the time comes.”
Ghala inhaled sharply while I picked lint off my pants. I’d always been sure he thought little of me, and here was the proof. “Am I to go to the wizard immediately?”
Father nodded. “He expects you on the morrow.”
So they’d sent word already? What the hell. “Does he know who I am?”
Mom spoke up then. “He knows your name and nothing else. We wish him to treat you as all others.”
“You mean, like a serf. That will be interesting.” The idea did have its merits. If he didn’t know I was royal, he might allow me to get closer than if he knew I was a prince of Marovia. “I’ll have to pack my poorest clothes. No fur or jewels allowed.”
I was being sarcastic, which I often was in their presence, and as usual, they took no note of it. They had lived such insulated lives they had no concept of how those who served them lived. But I did. Unbeknownst to my parents or Ghala, I’d often donned plain clothes and moved among them.
“Then I should return to my rooms to pack,” I said, rising. An adventure! The thought of it inflamed me.
Father held out a hand. “My son, be careful. He is a sorcerer, after all.”
I rolled my eyes and exited from their presence. How like him to give me a warning after he’d decided my fate.
In my rooms, I chose carefully what I would take with me when I went to the wizard. Sturdy pants, good boots (but not too good), two shirts, and a wool cloak. I reluctantly left my books behind; such things were available only to those of wealth.
Long had there been stories about him. While part of me was afraid, a larger part was intrigued. Why ask for an assistant if he meant only to kill him? It was not logical, and so I found myself looking forward to the morning’s journey.
Ghala came to me as I prepared for bed, rapping on the door before entering in her usual boisterous manner. “Con! Whatever shall I do without you?”
I hugged her with much warmth. “You will do as you always do, dear sister. My absence should make no difference at all.”
“I would like to know you are safe. You know the old oak tree at the edge of the clearing to the west? If you should need help of any kind, tie this around the lowest branch, and I will muster the troops to your aid.” She handed me a scrap of red cloth. “I will plan my daily ride so I pass near that spot.”
I placed the scarf in my bag. “I’ll be fine, but thank you for your concern.” I drew her close once more. “I will fulfill the King’s mission and return, sister. Never fear.”
“If anyone can do this, it is you, Con.” She kissed my cheek before stepping back. “Know that I love you, brother, as do our parents.”
Yeah, right. If they truly did love me, they wouldn’t have sent me forth in the first place. But I was resigned to my fate. I trusted in my ability to triumph against any evil, and that included that of Bartholomew, the sorcerer. “I shall be back before you know it, Ghala. Go now. Sleep well, as shall I.”
I ushered her out and retired to my comfortable bed, knowing I might not find anything nearly as nice when I entered into service with the wizard. Watching the stars slowly move across my window, I eventually slept, content to give my soul into the keeping of that which directed my life.
After a rather disquieting night, I awoke tired but determined. I ate a hasty but filling breakfast of bread, eggs, and potatoes washed down with ale, picked up my bag, and set forth on foot, into the forest. The sun was barely above the horizon and few in the palace were awake yet. The only one to see me off was Ghala, and she waved until I was out of sight.
Everyone knew Bartholomew lived in a cave, and everyone knew where it was located and purposefully gave it a wide berth. No one wanted to draw the attention of the wizard, in case he was in a bad mood that day. Fascinated as I was with him, I’d avoided him myself. His magic was powerful, and I’d heard my parents comment that his loyalty was sometimes in question. It was suspected he also took pay from Ashelt, a neighboring kingdom, and as we’d butted heads with them from time to time, part of my mission was to find out if this was true. A sorcerer who worked both sides of the fence could not be borne.
I walked quietly along the deer trails, alert to everything around me. Always, I remembered being enamored of the woods, and escaping to them whenever possible. I liked the earthy smell of wet leaves in spring, and the dry crunch of them under my feet in fall. I loved lying in tall grass, arms folded under my head, watching the movement of the trees in the wind. I enjoyed finding new creatures, large and small, to observe and study.
The natural world was amazing, but I was also enamored of the magic Bartholomew practiced. Father had no idea how much he’d pleased me by choosing me to go, and if I’d thanked him, he might arbitrarily have changed his mind and sent someone else. Grinning, I kicked at a small stone in the path, sending it lobbing off into the brush. I would learn what the wizard had to teach, and gladly.
My steps slowed as the cave appeared in the distance. It opened into the side of a tree-covered hill, like the hungry maw of some fantastical beast. If I squinted my eyes, I could turn the bushes above the opening into mean eyes that watched me approach with evil glee. Shifting the pack over my shoulder a little higher, I resolutely went forward, determined to meet my fate.
It was a warm day in late summer, the sky that particularly clear blue you only get at such times, with no clouds to mar its perfection. The area in front of the cave mouth was clear of all save a flat rock to one side, upon which sat a collection of fruit in a rough-woven basket. An offering from the shy people who lived in the hills? Belatedly, I realized I should have brought something from the palace kitchen.
The sand in front of the cave was brushed smooth. I stopped just short of it, standing in thick grass that looked cut; did he have a horse then, that it was so uniformly cropped?
I allowed my pack to slip to the ground, where it rested against my legs. “Hello! Is anyone home?”
I heard a sharp squawk and moved into a position that allowed me to look into the cave entrance, dragging the pack with me. I saw a bird, about ten inches long from head to tail, bright indigo, and perched untethered on a five-foot high stand made of branches. It cocked its head at me and squawked again, ruffling its feathers before laying them flat. I had never seen such a bird in all the forest and wondered where it came from.
“Is your master home?” I asked it, and then laughed. What a fool I was, attempting to converse with a bird.
-squawk- “Are you the new apprentice?”
This time I laughed with delight. “I am. You talk!” Its voice was a bit thin, but I understood it clearly.
“Of course I talk,” it said, its neck ruff fluffing irately. “All creatures of intelligence do.”
“You must have a name then.” I took a few steps forward. The entry was shallow, about eight feet high and only a few feet across. A shadow at the back indicated a sharp turn to the right, which might lead one deeper into the cave. The bird sat on its stand just inside the entry, in the warmth of the sun but out of the breeze.
“You may call me Damien.” The bird lifted one leg, stretched it back as far as it would go, and then perched upon it again.
I swallowed hard. “The last apprentice sent to Bartholomew was called that.”
“Just so.” He preened his chest feathers for a moment. “I am the only warning you will get. Do exactly as he instructs or you may end up like me.”
A shudder of fear went through me. “Why do you remain here then? Why not fly home?”
He reared back and spread his wings, beating them against the air. “Like this? No, I’ll remain here and take my chances that he will come to forgive me and change me back.”
I whispered it, “What did you do?”
Damien shook his head. “I’ll not speak of it. Just make sure you follow orders, stay out of his way, and you’ll be fine.” He hopped about on his perch, neck stretched, bright yellow eyes staring past my shoulder. “I spy a worm! If you’ll excuse me….”
He darted past me, a streak of indigo moving quickly to secure his breakfast. Made nervous by Damien’s words, I shouldered my pack with trepidation and stepped into the entrance. I’d been correct; there was an opening in the back wall that led to the right. Leaning into it, I saw the narrow passage was broken by another opening on the left, which glowed with light.
Taking a breath, I called again, “Hello?”
The voice that answered was deep and rough. “Come in then. I’m in the mood to eat something, and you’re just in time.”
Heart suddenly in my throat, I wondered what that meant. Was he inviting me to breakfast with him, or had he just announced I was on the menu? I backtracked long enough to grab the basket of fruit off the rock outside before proceeding along the short passage and turning left into the opening, where I paused.
The first thing I noticed was the cave’s size: it was large and filled with things things things. They crowded shelves and packed every corner and glittered in the torch light, and I didn’t look closely at them because the second thing I noticed was the man sitting at a desk against the right cave wall, bared to the waist, writing something on parchment with a quill. His dark head was bent over the task, his thick hair cut in shaggy layers, as if he couldn’t be bothered with proper grooming and so had taken a pair of shears to it, lopping strands off at random. The lean muscles in his arms and back moved as he wrote, rippling under smooth skin that was as pale as moonlight. He wore a gold ring on one hand, set with a green faceted stone I thought might be peridot.
As I continued to stand there, shifting from one foot to the other, he finally put down the quill and turned to face me. I saw chest hair and under that, the beautiful curves of toned pectoral muscles. He wasn’t old, as I’d expected, but young and beautiful in a dark, compelling way. I smiled at him, feeling marginally better.
He, in turn, frowned at me, and gestured. “Bring the basket here. How old are you? What’s your name?”
I walked toward him slowly, never taking my eyes from his. “You’re Bartholomew?”
“Who’d you expect, the King of Marovia?” He held a hand out. “What did they leave this time? And answer my questions.”
Most caves I’d been in were damp and cold. This one was warm and comfortable, even if the resident wasn’t exactly welcoming. “Call me Con. That’s short for Constantine.” I stepped closer to him, handing him the basket. “I’m twenty. Should I call you Bart?”
He snorted, pawing through the fruit. “You do, and I’ll turn you into a newt. Twenty! I was already changing the weather at that age. I’m thirty-two. Want an apple?” Without waiting for my answer, he tossed one to me.
Only my incredible reflexes saved it from a certain splat against the ground. “Jeez, that’s old.”
He glanced up sharply, saw the humor in my eyes, and bit down on a smile. “You don’t look like someone who can make magic. Why’d you agree to come here?”
I polished the apple on my pants and bit into it. The crunch was gratifying. Still chewing, I said, “The King commanded, so here I am.”
Peeling an orange with long fingers, he smiled from under straight black brows. “If you’re here on behalf of another, get the hell out. I can’t use you.” He popped a section into his mouth and chewed, the juice dripping down his chin. “But if you want to learn magic, stay. The ladies will fall at your feet, longing for your mystical touch.”
I chomped my way around the apple core, grinning. “They must pile up like firewood at yours.”
“Mm….” His eyes dropped to the parchment. “Can you write?”
“Then I will dictate and you shall copy my words. Consider it your first duty as my apprentice.”
I dropped my pack and moved to take his place at the desk as he rose and stepped aside. Treatment of Boils was written at the top of the parchment, and I struggled to hide a smile.
He noticed. “If you think that is funny, you have not ever had to deal with a boil. Not all magic is fire and brimstone or calls down celestial power from the stars.”
He paced behind me as he spoke, and I wrote down his words as quickly as I could, dipping the quill into the ink as needed. In due time, he finished and came to a stop. I hurriedly finished the last of it and stretched my fingers, already sporting ink stains, aware of his heat behind me as he hovered. A shiver went through me at his closeness.
Drawing in a breath, I became aware of a light scent very like cinnamon, and wondered if that was him or something in the immediate vicinity. Almost afraid to move, anxiously awaiting what was next, I watched my hand, half-expecting to see flesh change into lizard skin or sprout fur if he decided he was displeased with me.
“Your hands…” he said softly. “They are not calloused from field work, but soft, like a girl’s.”
Shit. Never thought of that. “My widowed mother needed my help in the house,” I said, somewhat hesitantly, keeping my eyes down. “There were others to deal with the crops.”
He hummed one long low note, and ice water ran through me. Could he tell if someone was lying? What would he do if he discovered I was a prince and heir to the throne? Hold me for ransom? If he suspected me of spying, would he hang me up by my heels until all the blood ran into my brain and burst out through my eyes?
My favorite hunting knife was tucked into one boot, and I debated whether I should retrieve it or not, but then I remembered who I was dealing with and knew no mere knife would stop him if he wanted to harm me. I held my breath, and a moment later, heard him move away. Relief flooded through me, making me babble.
“What’s next then? It’s been a little dry lately. Want to show me how to make it rain?” I swiveled to face him then, and saw him standing about ten feet away, staring at me intently from under lowered brows. He’d put his shirt back on. I flushed bright red; I could feel the heat in my cheeks and blood pounded in my temples. There was nothing for it but to go on the offensive. “What? Did I do something wrong?”
“Did you see a bird outside?”
“Yes….” I said slowly, puzzled at the question.
“He used to be my apprentice. You should keep that in mind.” He turned and walked out, saying over his shoulder, “Do not touch anything while I am gone.”
My heart stuttered in fear and for a moment, I thought I’d piss myself. This sorcerer was no fool. I’d have to remember that. Spending the rest of my life as a bird, however beautiful, did not appeal to me. You can’t rule a kingdom if you’re feathered and eat worms.
He didn’t return for a long time, but I never moved a muscle. I didn’t want to touch anything even by accident.
Reading this now, I wondered why I didn’t continue. I mean, there are a few more chapters, but then I hit a wall and oooooh, shiny! I never got back to it.
And you thought writing was easy. *snicker*