Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Master Apprentice

by Todd Nelsen



1

His master had called him rash. The townsfolk thought him to be nothing more than an ignoramus, a fool. Lenora, the girl he had openly admired and loved for as long as he could remember, had shunned his every advance. You have the face of a spotted toad and the body of a tittleberry slug, Kesil Lundfrick, she had said. It was with these thoughts, heavy on his mind, that Kesil the rash, Kesil the fool, Kesil the spotted toad... raised the silver key to the lock of the door and gave it a turn.

"You know you're going to regret this...," the familiar squeaked at his side.

Kesil ignored the warning of the little mouse he called "friend" and "companion" and opened the oaken door.

The musty space before him was dark, much darker than he remembered. He had only been to the workshop a handful of times. His master had always accompanied him, of course; the old wizard had a knack for secrecy and safeguarded his treasures well.

"I find you nosing about in here, boy," the wizard had warned, eyeing a dusty tomb, as wizards often did, "and you will wake with chicken's feet and a thimble for a prick."

Knowing he could easily--and probably would--make good on the threat, the young apprentice did as he was told. In fact, he avoided this corner of the Tower entirely. He spent the majority of his tenure as an apprentice in the kitchen, peeling potatoes and cutting stew meat... scrubbing floors and washing bedpans.

Kesil had resented his duties.

That is, he had resented them until the day he awoke from his afternoon nap to find the old codger slumped over his morning porridge, dead. Other than the key, the wizard had little else on his possession worth keeping. Everything of importance was here, in this workshop, and Kesil knew it.

Yes, Ironthorn of the Deep Mist, Enchanter of the Grove, Grand Master of the Tower... had ended his impressive reign in a bowlful of cold, sloppy porridge... and a flutter of long remembered hope beat in the young apprentice's heart, with the thought.

"Fire," he said, and with the command, the hearth erupted in a bright burst of red and yellow flame.

"You were saying, Grin?" Kesil asked with a smile, obviously pleased with himself.

"A parlor trick," the familiar yawned. "Any magician with half a brain could do it."

Again, Kesil ignored the familiar. Over the course of the last, three years, Grin had shown little appreciation for his abilities, limited though they were, and he didn't expect Grin to start doing so now. Still, the "trick" of fire was comforting to him. It was real magic. It may not have daunted an armored knight or felled a mighty dragon... it certainly hadn't impressed Lenora when he had accidentally set her bonnet to fire last summer, to the town's chagrin... but it was something.

And it was something he held dear.

Illuminated in the dim light, books of calfskin and griffon hide, of a variety of sizes, rested in a shelved case in the far corner. A crucible, alchemy jars, and other assorted magics Kesil could only guess at, lay upon a small worktable. Kesil ignored all of this. The words on the pages, more ancient than the Tower itself, were unintelligible to the young apprentice. To study them, and understand the power and wisdom therein, could take months, years, even for the finest and most apt of pupils. Kesil hardly had the patience or the time for this. And, well, whatever was on the worktable... that was unimportant now, wasn't it? At the back end of the room was a door, not of oak but of iron, and this is what Kesil eagerly gazed upon now.

"You have got to be kidding," Grin said. "You don't even know what's in there!"

Kesil thought, again, of the ridicule he had suffered at the hands of the townsfolk. More importantly, he thought of Lenora. Sweet, sweet Lenora... with her ginger red hair and sea blue eyes. Lenora... with her bursting ripe melons that bounced and wiggled and jiggled and...

Grin sighed. He knew that look. "Well, don't expect me to be joining you."

"You haven't a choice, Grin," Kesil said, "... and you're a coward," he added.

"Better to be a cowardly familiar than a dead one," the mouse retorted. "Just how long do you think you can keep this up, anyway?" Grin asked and bounded to the table. "Somebody will find out he is gone... sooner than you think, I'll wager. Powerful wizards just don't up and disappear without going unnoticed, you know."

"When?" Kesil asked, after some pause. "When was the last time you remember a visit to the Tower?" Ironthorn (he called him by his first name now; he would have never considered doing so when the wizard was alive) had been too tightfisted with his coin to hire a tower keep. Kesil had slaved over his meals, did his cleaning, and ran all his contemptible errands. Whatever acquaintances the wizard may have had in the past, were long since dead and gone, and the townsfolk feared him. No, Kesil thought. He doubted anyone would be visiting the Tower any time soon.

"Besides," he said, "there is no harm in having a look is there?"

Grin watched his rash, and all too eager, master venture to the iron door. He knew, whatever secret magic the Tower held, lay beyond it. Kesil must have sensed it, too, considering the gleam in his eye and the way he was curiously gawking at it.

"It's cold to the touch...," he said, placing a hand upon its surface and quickly pulling it back. "Freezing cold, in fact."

"You'll find more than just a little cold if you open that," the mouse commented.

"I wonder...," Kesil reached for the knob and gave it a turn. "Can it truly be this simple, Grin?"

"You're not really going in there, are you?" the mouse asked. "Wouldn't you rather head back to the kitchen for a bite of honey pork... or a little cheese, perhaps?"

"Yes, I am... and no I wouldn't," Kesil said. "I'm not hungry (Grin doubted this; his master was always hungry). Now, are you coming or not?"

It wasn't a question.

With a sigh, the familiar leapt from the table, took one, final glance at the warm comfort and safety of the workshop, and scurried after him.

2

What greeted the pair was quite unexpected, for the both of them. At first, Kesil thought the door had led to the outer keep. Then, he realized it wasn't winter, and it was snowing.

"Is this... another dimension?" he asked. It felt strange to say aloud, but he had heard of such places.

Thoroughly wishing he were anywhere but here, Grin said nothing. Another plane of existence or an alternate reality, perhaps... but another dimension? Boy, his master's wit was legendary! No wonder Ironthorn had ceased to train him.

"Well, it explains the cold I felt on the door, at any rate," Kesil said, feeling altogether intelligent and adjusting his robes.

Other than the Tower at their backs, all they saw was snow, a fair amount of it, and it colored the landscape white in all directions.

"Wait... what do you think that is, Grin?"

Silhouetted against the horizon, a short walk away, Kesil could see a thin shape in the distance.

"You're asking me?" Grin replied, seein it, too, disgruntled by the cold. "I thought Kesil the Magnificent was Master of the Tower now..."

Despite the familiar's obvious sarcasm, the young apprentice found himself delighted by the thought. What would the townsfolk say? What would Lenora think? Master of the Tower. It had a nice ring to it, didn't it? And when one considered the death of Ironthorn... the position had become available.

"Follow me, familiar," he commanded, with authority.

To Grin's dismay, they started to trudge through the snow. Kesil wasn't a strong boy, and he was heavy. Too many afternoon naps and midnight snacks had taken care of that, and he struggled through the powdery drifts. Grin, however, was quite light and scurried across the top of them. It was his turn to be delighted, and he took full advantage of it.

At first, it appeared to be nothing more than a lump of snow and ice, not an uncommon sight in a frozen wasteland of this sort. Then, as they steadily closed in on it, "See that?" Kesil asked, excitedly. It was obvious he hadn't the faintest notion what it was he was seeing, but it appeared to be a faint outline of a man.

"I see it," the mouse grumbled. Probably the last thing they would ever see, too, he thought.

3

"It's wondrous!"

Kesil had been correct in his earlier assumption. It was a man, but it was the largest man either of them had ever seen. Encased in ice, the form loomed largely above them.

"Who do you think he is, Grin?" Better said, Kesil wondered, why was he here? Kesil ran his hands along the ice and could feel tiny sparks of energy radiating out into them... like the lightning and thunderclap of a storm. Whatever they had found, it was potent magic... extremely potent magic, indeed.

"Release me."

Kesil stepped back and looked down to his mouse companion in amazement.

They both had heard it.

"Master, we must leave this place," Grin said. "Before it's too late. The secret of the Tower is ancient... older than Ironthorn even."

Older than Ironthorn? Invigorated by the thought, Kesil stepped forward, again, reaching out. Again, he ran his hands along the cold ice. Even with his arms fully outstretched, he could only touch as high as the figure's waist. Near the bottom half, however, at the toe, he noticed a crack. It was as if someone had hammered at it with a chisel. Why would anyone bother to do such a thing? Unless...

Grin saw it, too.

"Master... please," Grin pleaded, but his words were lost as he watched Kesil close his eyes in deep concentration.

Kesil knew three spells and three spells only. The first was the spell of fire. With it, he had boiled eggs, stewed onions, carrots, and potatoes, and warmed his master's feet on cold, winter nights. All that was required was something combustible; a little wood or cloth would do. The second was a spell of light. With that, he could illuminate any darkness. It had come in handy in his late, evening visits to town. The third, which he had only used up until now to split wood, was...

"Master, no!"

"Fracture," Kesil said.

It began at the bottom of the figure, in spidery rivulets. These, in turn, made their way upwards and across the surface. As the ice cracked, the large figure started to move. It stretched its arms, twisted its neck and its back, and clenched its hands in great, knotted fists.

The giant bellowed a relieved sigh, freed of the icy shackles that had formerly bound it, and looked down upon the pair. "Who has released me?" it asked. "Where is Ironthorn?"

"Ironthorn is dead," Kesil replied, flatly.

Grin groaned and set to burrowing his head in the snow. Why couldn't they have just remained in the Tower? Where it was safe?

"And you are?" The giant's voice was low and incredibly powerful.

"I am...," Kesil paused, in thought. "I am Kesil Lundfrick... Grand Master of the Tower."

Grin snorted. Oh, this was rich! If Kesil Lundfrick was Master of the Tower, Grin was a hippogriff!

"A little young, are you not?" the giant asked, not sharing Grin's amusement.

"Well, I freed you, didn't I?"

The giant pondered this for some time--scratching its great, bulbous nose with a finger--then replied, "No, I do not believe you are as you say, little one. To be Master of the Tower is to be master of me, and you are neither. You are but a child! How could you possibly...?"

"I am as I say," Kesil replied.

Grin pulled his head from the drift. "Master," he whispered, "what are you doing?" To pester the town and the girl with the ginger red hair with his parlor tricks was one thing... but this?

Kesil ignored him.

"There is a price for the power you seek, young magician," the giant said.

"I will pay it."

The giant chuckled.

The familiar tensed, ready to bolt at the first opportunity. Grin was terrified but nonetheless amazed at his master's foolishness. Kesil opened his mouth, as if to say more, but he failed to detect the faint, killing glow that had already begun to radiate from the giant's eyes. If it could be said that the world is an unfair place, that the dreams we are promised seldom come true, this would be the time. Not everyone comes through in the end; not all can be heroes. Kesil Lundfrick was no exception. He would pay for his credulity with his life.

Lenora.

4

Grin hurried across the drifts, as only a mouse could, dazed and half-blind. To his left, were the footprints of his former master, nearly buried now by the ever-falling snow. He wasn't sure what had just happened. He had seen a blinding flash... and, then, the young apprentice was no more. Too small for the giant's sight, he had scampered away.

Grin followed the tracks to the door and scurried through the opening; thankfully, in this haste, Kesil had left it ajar.

There would be other masters to follow, Grin knew. There always were. They would come, and they would go... just as they always had. Had Ironthorn bargained for the secret of the Tower, just as his own master had... and won? Grin couldn't be sure, but he thought the old wizard had.

Still, it was of little concern to him; there were far more interesting and pressing matters to attend to.

Grin left the workshop and proceeded straight toward the kitchen, not making a single, unnecessary detour along the away.

His stomach grumbled...

Time for a little cheese.

THE END


© 2011 Todd Nelsen

Bio: Todd Nelsen is a Denver, Colorado resident and a huge fan of metal music, old Hammer films, Stephen King, Robert E. Howard, Clive Barker, and Lovecraft. His work has appeared in Schlock!, a webzine based in the UK.

E-mail: Todd Nelsen

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