Saturday, February 2, 2013

Edited Story - Thirteenth Beginning: Should Auld Apprentices Be Forgot

[Our writing group are doing the writing challenges from Writing Excuses.  This is the first:  going back to a previous piece of writing and changing the dialog to show more of the speakers character.  The previous piece of writing I used is here.]
Should Auld Apprentices Be Forgot
The Puzzlebark Inn did a brisker business than you would expect for an inn with no sign and no door. Catering, as it did, to sorcerers, wizards, and other magic users, the lack of both advertising and point of ingress was no deterrent to custom. In fact, it served to preserve the safety and exclusivity of the clientele.
There were many rooms in the Puzzlebark Inn, though how many was a subject of speculation. There was a dining room with a magic harp, for quiet enjoyment, and a dining room without one, for lively debate. There was a library for study and meeting rooms for meetings and a feast hall that no one could ever find unless the proper deposit had been paid. There was even a bar for boasting and carousing and meeting other wizards.
But the heart of the Puzzlebark Inn was the taproom. The taproom was for reminiscence. This was not enforced by either the owner or the guests. It just seemed to be an effect of the room.
The night was a warm spring night. Only the western hearth was lit, washing the room with deep blue flickers. The tap, hanging firmly in midair in the center of the room, had been liberally employed throughout the evening and tales of past magic were well underway. Old sea magic had been explored for awhile, but, as often happened with the older denizens of the taproom, the subject had turned to the shortcomings of past apprentices.
" A slipshod bondling can be watched," stated a balding court mage named Durstan. "The need for added vigilance may, indeed, stimulate a master, increasing one’s alertness. It is the tempestuous and vengeful follower who is dangerous.
As an example, I once accepted into my craft-bond a South Sloper whose surges of emotion convinced him, first, that I was jealous and trying to retard his progress, then that I was trying to poison him. Before I was aware of the fervor of his feeling and the depth of his delusion, he had turned my cook into wood. My Cook!"
"Piffle." An ore dowser named Roswyn flipped a graying braid over her shoulder. "Angry apprentices are dead easy to handle. Slap a mood geas on them or pop them into the Labyrinth of Mind. Then if they don't learn to control their emotions, they can't do magic. The sloppy ones are always doing something so slightly wrong that you don't notice until it's too late."
" Perhaps. But are not the negligent more of a danger to themselves than to others, Roz?"
"Only if they live in a cave on a mountain. Even then, watch for avalanches.
I had an apprentice named Opal, once. Auspicious name for cave work, you'd think. But, no. Things were always going wrong about her. We were crawling through an old 'tween hole one day and disturbed a troll. I got out the copper blade smart enough and she knew to scramble for the jar of salt.
But when she opened it, the salt was one solid mass stuck in the jar and no good at all for tossing on troll wounds. She'd not fastened the jar lid tight enough and the salt had pulled moisture out of the cave air and locked itself up. The troll kept healing and coming at us and healing and coming at us. It was sure we’d both be troll food, soon as my arm tired.
Then, lucky us, she lost control of her torch. I guess she hadn't soaked it in lime and lichen long enough. Suddenly it was a real, burning flame instead of seaflame, like in the hearth, yonder. With all the sulfur in it, it nearly took her eyebrows off when it went.
She dropped it, of course. But I only had to curse her a little to get her to cauterizing troll with it. Once the troll was burning well, I doused the torch. She yipped about the dark for a bit before she remembered why it had to go. We crawled back to the surface in the dark with troll soot in our lungs. I hope none of you ever gets a lungful of burning troll in a confined space."
"For the benefit of we who only walk above, Roz, why did the torch “have to go?”"
"Why, the phlogiston, man! Living beings and true flames both give out phlogiston. When the air gets filledfilled with it, then the flame or being smothers. Caves are enclosed and can't release the phlogiston into the wider air. It's easy to smother yourself in a cave."
"What did you do with your girl?" an old seamage inquired.
"Not a thing. She was silent and chastened the whole way home. Concentrated on her work better than I'd ever seen. I thought maybe this had been the shock she needed. But, no.
She quietly packed our gear and quietly hiked home. She quietly stowed all the equipment and cleaned herself up. Fixing dinner that night she didn't drop a dish or add a salt measure of pepper or any of the small missteps she usually made. She quietly ate and quietly tidied after. Then she went to her room and quietly packed all her things. Nothing I said could convince her to stay.
What did you do with your South Sloper, by the way?"
"I performed a small, but necessary transition, of course and shifted the flesh to wood spell onto him. As I explained while doing so , if I could have been sure of lifting the spell properly, I would have done that instead and let the incident drop . . . after proper instruction and proper penitence. Fits of temper can be forgiven if they are left behind. .
But wood to flesh is trickier than flesh to wood. There are simply more kinds of flesh than of wood. It is finicking to get the typing done properly and deadly to miss. Much better to do a reverse curse with full correspondence. I also explained that, while talented apprentices are easy to find, good cooks willing to work for a mage are not.
I told him that if the cook died or left me, I would shift him back and we would continue with our instruction."
"As if the cook won't outlive you!"
"Ah! I made arrangements with the Mayor. If I die, then our wooden boy will be placed for auction to any magic user willing to liberate him . In fact, he's in the Mayor's office as we speak, to be sure."
"Why would anyone pay for the opportunity to cast wood to flesh?" Roswyn was puzzled.
" Casting wood to flesh will not be required, merely a relaxing the reversal spell. That will be much easier. Almost any hedge worker could do it."
"Again, why?"
"As an execution, of course. There aren't many Princes on the Worldshore, at least not many worth mentioning. But we have a lot of Mayors and Constables and so forth who have occasional need of a flamboyant execution. A retransfer of the curse will leave the body of the wrong-doer for permanent display while preserving the hope, in any followers or relatives, that he might be revived at a later time if they are patient and clever.
There may be any number of political reasons why such an execution would be desirable . Yes, the resale could be quite profitable under the right circumstances. So much so that my cook is willing to take the resale value as his inheritance."
"Bah! Sometimes I don't see how you court mages can stomach it."
Durstan chuckled over his mug of red beer. "You slog through muck and dark and breathe the occasional burning or salting troll and you ask how I can bear a little social maneuvering! Dear Roswyn, I sometimes wonder if you. . ."
It was not a large sound that stopped Durstan's speech, that, indeed, halted all conversation in the taproom. It was merely the shifting of the blankets tucked about the shoulders of the eldest mage in the room. But though the sound was small, it was unexpected, for the eldest mage seldom moved or spoke. And since magic users habitually attend the unexpected, when the eldest began to speak , the entire room was already listening.
He spoke in a soft, lifeless voice, and cleared his throat several times at the beginning. "I never had any trouble with either sloppy or angry apprentices." he intoned.
"But beware an apprentice with an uncontrollable sense of humor. Especially beware the apprentice who cannot forgo the opportunity to form that perversion of speech known as a pun. Puns and spells do not mix.
Ignore the affability and charm of the aspirant. Inveterate punsters are invariably affable and charming. It is a defense they adopt to prevent them from being bludgeoned to death. Ignore their nimbleness of mind. Sadly, a certain nimbleness of mind is required for punning. But once a person's mental agility has been harnessed to such an engine of perversion, it cannot easily be unhitched. No. Avoid the apprentice with an uncontrollable sense of humor."
Here the eldest mage seemed content to mumble himself back into quiet. But the curiosity of the taproom had been aroused. Standing folk gathered about the eldest and seated folk leaned in. A general murmur of interest sounded and faded. When that was insufficient, Durstan spoke.
"Venerable one. Pardon my curiosity, but can you give us an example? Can you speak of a time when spells and puns brought disaster?"
"I can easily name an embarrassing incident. But the true disaster is painful to relate. Durstan, have you ever been called upon to form a nimbus of light about a princeling setting forth to parade before his people? You will understand how seriously they take it and how angry they become when the spell is ill cast.
The particular prince in this incident was a preening example of his kind. He decided that not only he, but also his horse should glow. He spouted some rot about symbology and loyalty. If the horse could glow by association with his greatness, then the peasants and merchants and petty nobles must flock to greatness by association or some such.
It was a suitable spell for this apprentice, whose name I will not speak. In light of his unfortunate tendencies, I required him to write out the amended version of the spell he would cast. It contained an unfortunate repeating phrase: '. . .and the horse you ride", an obvious allusion to the common curse. But the prince would never hear the words as the magic would distort them as they were being said, and it was a mild enough aberration.
Unfortunately, when he actually recited the spell, he could not prevent himself from punning. The change in pronunciation was slight enough that I did not notice it. I was merely surprised when the horse failed to glow. The apprentice looked appalled and ran, which was the proper course when things went badly about this prince. So I thought nothing of it. I stayed to apologize and almost lost my head."
You see, I only knew that the horse wasn't glowing. I didn't know that other things were. During the parade, several well known ladies of the evening were noticed to be glowing in the nooks where they watched the parade, as the prince passed. Once it was noticed, it was chuckled at. The prince had made such a fuss about his horse not glowing that many courtiers understood the switch that had been made. And they only glowed for a few moments, so it could be politely ignored and then tittered about later. It was a good bit of gossip.
Unfortunately, that gossip had spread by the time the main festivities started. At the ball that night, any young lady who had accepted both a fleshly and a more lasting token of favor from the prince glowed if she was in the same room. Dabbling in street merchandise was worthy of a chuckle, but the collection of the favors from the daughters and wives of those around him was an entirely different matter. To say nothing of the state those women got into when they discovered they were part of such a crowd.
The prince had to call his guard to clear the party. He needed his army to hold the manor in the weeks that followed. Eventually, an advisor breathed into his ear and he married a princess from one of the northern isles. There was a great deal of publicity given to the magical backing that their vows of fidelity were to be given. If he had gotten his hands on me while he lived, he would have executed me."
"How dreadful!" Duran was appalled, though appreciative snickers peppered the room. "And you consider that to be merely an embarrassment? Pray what would you consider to be dire if that was not?"
"As many princes as there are and as short as their reach is? No, it was only an embarrassment for me. I popped somewhere safe. Left the punster to find his own way which, unfortunately, he did."
The eldest emitted a sigh like a slowly deflating buffoon's bladder. Everyone leaned in again, encouragingly. Another dry sound wheezed from the eldest. Upon repetition it was discovered to be a chuckle.
"And I made a few coins from the situation. Finder's fees. I spread the word to other mages that there might be those attending the wedding who would be interested in an expert opinion on the strength and validity of the magic performed. Likely every fifth attendee at the solemn occasion was there as a consultant. Very remunerative.”
The eldest grimaced, a slow clenching of his entire body within its woolen cocoon that left behind a frown when it relaxed.
“Now I suppose you want to hear about the disaster. It's a painful thing to remember, let alone to relate."
Durstan found the eldest's glass and filled it from the tap. Everyone waited patiently as the eldest fumbled a few small sips of support.
"I had decided that the southern isles would be the safest place for us for awhile. And the southern isles mean boating. As you know, all the southern isles are small, most supporting less than a dozen inhabitants. To do any sort of business at all requires a boat or boats. The sort of magic most in demand is therefor the sort that deals with boats: bits of wind to puff your sail one way without pulling nearby boats along, woodwarp to seal cracks, lightness to increase cargoes, that sort of thing.
After his difficulty, he had been chastened for awhile, rather like Roswyn's Opal, and he was affable enough to easily attract customers. All was well until the Pizan fleet arrived. The Pizans come from a land beyond the Worldshore, where most of the land is surrounded by other land. But they had come to trade and had been generous enough with their goods to find great welcome. The south islanders invited them to sail their seas freely, giving them maps to guide their deep-keeled ships away from shallow waters. They also hired us to bless the ships of the fleet.
Blessing a ship is a simple enough thing. It does little more than attach a bit of extra luck, which might be handy for strangers with deep-keeled boats tootling around islands, but which is impossible to measure, except by other magic. No one would ever know if the spell failed, you see. I It was a guaranteed success. Trusting it to an apprentice should have been no risk at all.
Blessings are complicated, though, with much naming of boatly parts. My unfortunate apprentice had been spending time drinking with islanders and knew well all the parts, which I did not. Unfortunately, he had also learned all of the local phrases of color and his infirmity was still with him, though hiding.
Still, the disaster might have passed us by, had not one of his drinking companions been aboard the main ship of the fleet. There we were, on our little boat, floating among the ships and there he was, watching us. . . listening to us. . an audience for my apprentice's perversion. Again, I was unaware of the danger.
And I was as unfamiliar with the local insults as I was with the names of the parts of boats. I did not notice when my apprentice's chanting of hulls and masts and spars and rigging, of booms and gaffs and jibs, slipped sideways somewhat. I did, however, notice with sinking heart, when his friend slapped his thigh and doubled over with laughter. I glared, but did not dare interrupt. Then I heard him add a cantrip. As a final jibe at his laughing companion, he recited an untying spell, meant, I am sure, for the man’s pant-string.
But it was recited too close to the other, mangled spell. With horror I watched as each and every connection in the fleet disconnected. Board parted from board and rope parted from sail. The cargo of the Pizan fleet plunged through the separating pieces of their ruined ships. I fled immediately, teleporting to safety. He was too stunned to move, and was taken captive, though he bartered his way to freedom quickly enough. From that day to this I have avoided humorous apprentices."
Magic users are a cunning and subtle lot. So the horrified hush that fell over the taproom had nothing to do with thoughts of maritime economic setbacks. For every wizard and witch could piece the rest of the story together quickly enough. The name that the eldest had refused to speak was known to them all, was, indeed, know to all the peoples of the Worldshore: the great mage, Narnemvar, discoverer of the shipblast spell upon which the safety of the Worldshore now depended.
Heads nodded about the taproom as all within agreed with the thing that the eldest had left unsaid. The apprentice who surpassed you so completely that his name became a part of history while your name crumbled slowly to dust - that was the apprentice to be avoided. That was the worst apprentice of all.

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