Aphelion Issue 218, Volume 21
June 2017
 
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Eye of Newt

by Mike Phillips




"Eye of newt, eye of newt, why does it always have to be eye of newt?" said the wizard Cuninmagis to himself. "It's not like they're easy to come by."

He looked up at the not yet midday sun, feeling his stomach rumble. What meager provisions he had in his sack would never last if he gave into hunger so early, not with how things were going. He had been out since before dawn looking for the accursed creatures, and had no more reward than sore feet.

"Well now, what else can a wizard do? Steady on man, steady on, you can't exactly go down to the market and expect the local grocer to have a dozen of them ready, all wrapped up in a nice little box." He sighed, trying to will his hunger to pass, thinking that a drink of wine from his flask might be helpful. "No, you'd raise a few eyebrows for sure if you did that. There'd be questions aplenty from the rabble, wouldn't there? Don't need that. Don't need to take any chances with townsfolk with too much time on their hands and a good lynching to bring a little excitement into their miserable lives."

"On with it," he decided after a thoughtful moment. "Go on and maybe your luck will change." Thus fortified, Cuninmagis began again, slower than he had before the stop, feeling starvation already beginning to work its effect.

The light of the august sun danced upon the forest road, playing tricks of light and shadow by the sway of the heavy limbs of broad-leafed trees. Birds gave cheerful homage to warmth and light while squirrels complained of the waning hours of day in which to stock their winter horde. The wizard walked on.

Then he saw it, down at the edge of a little glen, in a patch of sun on a dilapidated stone fence. It was the silver gleam of reptile flesh, caught by a flash out of the corner of his eye. He waited, watching the spot to be sure it wasn't some illusion of a desperate mind. There it was again. This time Cuninmagis thought he could see the faint outline of a head peeking up from the rock. It looked as if the little creature were sunning itself there on the wall, almost like it was waiting especially for him.

"Providence shines kindly upon me," Cuninmagis said happily, gathering himself for the chase. He crouched low and began, placing each foot carefully on the forest floor, avoiding the sticks and leaves and other dry litter that were certain to give him away.

Ten or so steps from the road, the greater part of the distance to his quarry, the wizard saw the newt hop away from its place on the wall. After it he went at a run, quickly closing the gap between them. Up over the wall he sprang, feeling the thrill of the chase come totally upon him, feeling himself some jungle cat ready to strike its prey. He heard sheep bleat noisily all around as he dropped to the grass on the far side of the wall, following the hopping movements of the newt. A dog barked.

"Hey now, hey! What's all this?" a man yelled.

Cuninmagis froze. The newt, what he now recognized in great disappointment as a big brown toad, hopped on its way.

"Hey there you," the man called out, making his way to the spot at a quick walk. Two dogs were ahead of him, coming fast. "Come, Betty. Come, Sweets. Hold up now, stay."

Gathering a regal countenance, Cuninmagis stood and turned toward this newcomer. "Good day, sir, and gladly met," he said in a fine, well-bred voice.

The man was tall and broad, his arms thick and gnarled with a lifetime of hard labor. He eyed the wizard suspiciously and said, "Aye, and it's a good day to be tellin' what it is you're about, scarin' my sheep and such."

"My apologies kind sir," Cuninmagis replied. "I was only about a little fun. I thought I saw a new sort of lizard, and being a curious man, often held in wonder at the bounty of God's Creation, I thought I might collect it for study."

For all the reassurance, the sheep man didn't relax the scowl on his face. He came right up close, within striking distance, and looked the wizard over, saying, "Lizards? Say you're after lizards?"

"Why, yes, my kind sir. I am a traveling astrologer, advisor to the houses royal."

"Oh yes, 'houses royal' is it?" the man said with a laugh. "I'm sure you're a fine advisor, nearly all in tattered rags as you are. You'd do better advisin' yourself into a little honest work I'd say."

Cuninmagis looked down at his clothes. Though a little travel worn over his long journey, they were of a fine cloth and make, in point of fact much superior to that of the sheep man. Deciding to avoid a confrontation, he said in a kindly whisper, "Oh, don't let my appearance fool you. I am on an errand of great importance."

"I should say not so important if you have time to go chasing after hop toads."

"I thought it was a lizard," the wizard explained, his face beginning to flush.

The man howled with delight, saying to his dogs, "You hear that girls? This great 'advisor to the houses royal' of ours doesn't even know the difference between a snake with legs and a froggie!"

"You won't be laughing when I finish my spell," Cuninmagis said to himself, subtly patting the small volume in his pocket. "I'll remember you. I'll make you pay like all the others. I'll have real power then. You wait and see. Only one ingredient left and I'll turn you inside out and hang you on a fencepost for all to see."

But the wizard could think of nothing to say in reply to the sheep man's jeers. He looked at the ground and absently kicked the dirt, trying not to do anything that would make the man angry.

When he had finished laughing, the sheep man fixed Cuninmagis in his gaze and said, "Well, livin' so close to the forest road as I have all my life, I knows the sort as brings trouble and I'd bet my dog Betty here that you're one of 'em. You've got the look of trouble to ya'. I don't know what it is you're up to old man, but just you make sure it's no bother to me and my stock or I'll ring that scrawny neck of yours from now 'till Tuesday, 'advisor to the houses royal' or not."

Unable to control a fearful shiver, Cuninmagis said meekly, "I'll be on my way."

"Yes, you had better be straight away. And I'd better not never see you round here ever again. Understand?" The wizard nodded meekly in reply. "Good. Now get before I give you a lickin' to remember me by."

Cuninmagis returned to the road by the way he had come, feeling the watchful eyes of the sheep man upon him the entire way. He didn't dare look back. He was never one for physical confrontations, not even when he was a boy. The other children had picked on him just as mercilessly as that sheep man had, and that was why he would not allow himself to fail now. That was why he would find what he needed to work the spell.

Back to the road, the wizard traveled on until he was sure he was no longer near the sheep man's lands and then he made a cut deep into the forest, more determined than ever to find a newt. He wandered aimlessly, thinking all the while of what he should have said, suffering again and again the indignities of the sheep man's taunts.

And then there it was, a little four legged creature with a long tail sunning itself on the branch of a recently fallen tree. It was small, much smaller than he expected it would be, but he knew that at last he had found what he was looking for. The newt would finally be his. Throwing caution to the wind, Cuninmagis found a new vigor and raced after the thing with all his speed. Just as he was about to leap upon the tree, his foot caught a branch that lay hidden in the forest floor, it felt as though he had been grabbed by bands of iron, and he went heavily to the ground.

"Oh, no," he groaned painfully as he rolled over onto his side, unable to find what it was that had tripped him up.

A flash of color passed over him as a young girl in peasant clothes leaped onto the trunk of the fallen tree and nimbly ran to the spot where the lizard lay. Cobra quick, she reached out with one hand and snatched up the newt, sticking it into a little fish basket that she had slung over her shoulder on a bit of rope.

"Hey, that's mine!" Cuninmagis shouted, suddenly aware of what had happened. The little girl turned and stuck out her tongue. Rising to his feet, the wizard let his full height and regal bearing be revealed. He said, "Little girl, I demand that you give that newt back to me."

"Shows what you know," said the girl in return. She had a net fixed to the end of a thick stick that was as tall as she was. Shifting the stick to her empty hand and flourishing it menacingly as she spoke, she said, "That's not a newt at all, it's a striped lizard."

"Well it's mine and I want it back."

"No," she said, stepping away, down along the trunk of the fallen tree and deep into the cover of the still green leaves. "What good is it going to do you anyway? You want a newt and it's not a newt. It's not like it is going to change into a newt all by itself, you know."

"Little girl, my patience has limits," Cuninmagis said with irritation. "I think I know a newt when I see one."

"Not if you think that lizard is one," the girl replied, disappearing completely into the foliage. In the privacy of the leaves, she whispered a word of thanks to the lizard and placed it gently on a branch.

Just as the wizard was becoming concerned over her whereabouts, the girl reappeared at the far end of the tree. "I could help you find a newt, you know. Not just lizards or salamanders, but real ones. I know where to find lots of 'em."

"Why do I sense this offer doesn't come from the kindness of your heart?"

"Well," she began slowly, "now that you mention it, I thought that maybe some kind of reward for helping you would..."

"Out with it. I don't have any money so it will have to be something in trade."

"How 'bout one of those shiny buttons from your jacket?"

"Certainly not."

"Then how about that pointy hat?"

"No."

"Don't you have anything good?"

"Well," Cuninmagis said, thinking to make the best of the deal, "I have a silk handkerchief. It is old but very fine. For twelve newts I'll give it to you."

"Let's see it."

The wizard searched several pockets but then found what he was looking for. He unfolded the handkerchief carefully and held it up, a sky blue that was delicately embroidered in yellow.

"It's a deal!" the girl said eagerly.

"Wonderful. Now, we might as well get started. It's past midday and I don't have a mind to sleep rough tonight if it can at all be helped."

"You bet, let's go." The girl turned and began chatting happily. "You'll see. I know all the best places to get newts."

Thinking they were headed in the general direction of the sheep man's lands, the wizard said, "Where are we going?"

The girl said, incredulous, "Why to the swamp, of course."

"Don't be silly. Newts don't live in the water."

"Well, no, not in the water like fish, but they like wet places like under logs and rocks and stuff like that."

"I don't want to go to some smelly old swamp," the wizard complained. "Besides, this time of year the insects will eat us alive."

"Yeah, and that's why newts like it so much. They eat bugs."

Giving the little girl a look that hung on disbelief, the wizard nodded his head and motioned for her to continue on her way. "Lead on."

The girl smiled and started off in an altogether new direction, chattering about the habits of newts and salamanders and grass snakes and other such creatures she was likely to capture. After some time she said, "My name's Agnes, what's yours?"

"Cuninmagis," said he, taken by surprise, having stopped actively listening to her long before.

"What?" the girl said with a laugh. "What kind of name is that? I bet your parents didn't name you that."

"No, Cuninmagis is not my given name. It is my professional name, my title."

"Yeah, well, if I could make up my own name, it'd be a better one than that."

"Little girl, that name is respected far and wide. I am a well traveled man with an illustrious career."

"Yeah?" Agnes said eagerly. "Are you a fortune teller with a carnival? That's what you look like."

Cuninmagis raised his chin haughtily. "No. You see before you a great astrologer and advisor to the houses royal, not some backwater charlatan. Never would I use my talents for the petty amusement of the unwashed masses."

"Oh, so what does an astroglicer want with a newt then?"

"That's astrologer. I am also a wizard." He added self indulgently, "Well, I dabble in the enchanted arts every now and again."

"My Auntie Beatrice says you shouldn't never mess with things you don't know nothin' about."

"Well goodie for your Aunt Beatrice," the wizard answered scornfully.

"Oh, you wouldn't say it like that if she was here. She's mighty powerful in magics and that sort of thing. Some says she's the most powerful in all these parts."

"In all these parts?" Cuninmagis scoffed, looking around him. "Well, I do suppose that with a rural population even a midwife can earn a certain amount of fame."

"That's right, she births the babies, calves, and lambs too if there's trouble. More than half the farmer's round here even named their dogs after her."

"An honor I'm sure."

"Yeah, well, that's not all. She does all kinds of medicines. I'm her apprentice. I work for her. That's how's come I know all about newts and frogs and spells and stuff. I get all of them things for her and then she teaches me what to do with them."

"Well, if we are successful in our hunt, I will just have to send your Aunt Beatrice some token of my appreciation."

After they had walked together a short distance, hardly enough time since the last conversation for silence to fall, Agnes said, "My Auntie Beatrice says that sometimes what they mean by eye of newt is really poop, I mean the droppings. If everyone went around poking the eyes out of the poor little things every time they wanted to mix a love potion, there'd be no more of them around. That's what you want, isn't it? The eyes? It's always eye of newt, not tail, not tongue, not toe, always the eye. What are you going to do with it anyway? I can probably tell you what they really meant, or maybe we can go ask my Auntie."

Cuninmagis considered for a moment what the little girl had said, studying her closely, seeing just the hint of a smile that she was too self satisfied to hide. "Little girl, you are trying my patience."

"Oh, come on," Agnes said innocently, looking away. "I'm just trying to have a little fun, that's all. You like to have fun sometimes, don't you?"

The wizard replied sternly, "Magic is a serious business. The great powers of the universe are nothing to toy with. I would have thought your Aunt Beatrice would have taught you that by now."

Agnes sniffed. "Oh, as you say. I was just trying to make you smile, that's all. You can smile sometimes and be serious too, can't you?"

"No," he said, putting an end to the conversation.

Agnes didn't remain quiet for long. "Well you're not really going to hurt the poor little things, are you? You wouldn't do that, would you?"

"You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet."

"I don't know what an omolent is, but I wouldn't never break no egg as what has a whole new chicken inside it."

"You would eat the chicken, wouldn't you?"

"Well, yeah, but you got to eat, that's different. Hurting some poor little thing like that, making it suffer before you kill it, well that's no good at all. That's black magic, that's what my Auntie Beatrice says it is. And I tell you what, black magic is no good, nothing can come of it but bad things."

"I think I've heard enough of what your Aunt Beatrice says."

"Well, all her friends say so too."

"Do they?"

Nodding, her head, Agnes said incredulously, "Yeah."

"Well, good for them. Let them mind their own business."

"Don't you let them hear you talk like that."

"Why not? Are they going to put a hex on me? Are they going to sentence me to seven years bad luck?" Cuninmagis laughed mockingly. "I'm talking about magic, real magic, not about some silly leech craft or other superstitious nonsense. I'm not afraid of your Auntie or her stupid friends."

The little girl said quietly, "It's not a matter of being afraid of them. It's a matter of right and wrong."

"I'll keep my own council in that, thank you." He cleared his throat loudly. "Why don't you just get me my newts and I'll give you your handkerchief and then we can both forget all about it? We can pretend that we never met. How would that be?"

"Fine, we're almost there anyway."

"Good. Why don't you just shut your little trap for a while? I'm tired of listening to your endless prattle."

Agnes sniffed, "Well, if that's really what you want..."

"It is," he interrupted coarsely.

They walked on for a mile or so more. All the while Agnes tried to hide that she was crying, but every now and then she wiped her eyes and whimpered piteously. The wizard was peeved by the childish display and said nothing to console her.

"Here we are," Agnes announced as they came to another clearing, utterly unremarkable from any of the others they had passed before. Yet perhaps the place was familiar in an odd sort of way. There was a newly fallen tree in the clearing. Its leaves were green and growing, still ignorant of their demise. Sheep bleated in the distance.

"Follow me." Humming an unusual melody Cuninmagis had never heard before, likely some bawdy tavern song he would care little to hear even if sung in tune, Agnes skipped off toward the fallen tree. Looking back, she urged him to follow, saying, "Come along then, will you? This is it. A bargain's a bargain after all. I promise you'll get just what you've got coming to you."

"I thought you said newts live in swamps," Cuninmagis said doubtfully. "I don't see how this place is any different from the score we've visited thus far."

"Oh, but you will," the girl said, returning to her song. She got down on her hands and knees to have a look at a spot where the trunk of the fallen tree was yet supported by a few of its thicker branches, over a foot above the ground at the highest spot.

"There we are, my good sir, and with my compliments," she said, her quick hands plucking something small from one of the branches. Standing and turning to face the wizard, Agnes proudly held the thing up and announced, "Got one!"

"Well, well," said Cuninmagis, very pleased, "nicely done." He reached out to take the little animal, but before he could get hold of it, the thing sprung from the girl's hand, landing on the ground and darting back under the tree.

"Oh no, there it goes," Agnes said, biting the side of her lip pensively but making no effort to retrieve the escaping animal.

"Well, go and get it you stupid girl," the wizard said impatiently, clouting Agnes roughly on the side of the head. "What are you waiting for? The thing will certainly scurry down some hole or other and then we'll never find it again."

"But there's prickers down there," Agnes protested, shying away in fear.

Taking the girl by the collar, Cuninmagis yanked her out of the way and cast her brusquely aside. Agnes landed hard on her bottom with a cry of pain as the wizard chased after the fleeing creature.

Just as the girl had said, it was thick with thorns under the tree. Wild blackberry vines reached out with many fingers in the relentless search for a better place in the sun. Cuninmagis ignored the twisting vines, the pain in his hands and his face, looking desperately for the final element that would allow him to work his spell and change the evil luck that had dogged him all his life. Then he saw it.

The newt had only gone as far as the other side of the tree. It was almost within reach. Cuninmagis was suddenly glad to have found the young peasant girl. If he hadn't so cleverly employed her, then he might never have found the correct article. He might have even ruined the spell without ever knowing the reason why.

Perhaps thinking to make itself look like a branch to some lesser predator, the newt stood very still in the shadow of a few leaves. Though he quickly dismissed the thought as foolishness, now that he had time to get a better look at the thing, Cuninmagis was struck for a moment by the idea that the newt was very like the lizard he had seen near another tree in another clearing.

Ignoring the impulse to question the girl about it, the wizard slowly and carefully stretched out his arm. He was almost able to grab hold of the newt. His fingers were only just short, a few inches more would have made all the difference. In frustration, he lunged forward and made a swipe with his hand, but missed.

Surprised, the little animal scampered away. It did not go far. Before long it again stood still, doomed to follow the patterned behaviors of its kind. Methodically pushing his body forward, the wizard squeezed as far under the tree as he could go, hoping that when he reached out once again, he might be able to lay hands on the wicked little thing.

"Well now, I believe the situation has progressed to its inevitable conclusion," came the girl's voice from above, now carrying with it an altogether different tone, one that bespoke learning and refinement. "It is time we get down to business."

Words were spoken in a strange language and Cuninmagis felt a heavy weight bear down upon him. The tree sank into the soft earth just deep enough to pin him beneath it. Somehow Agnes' voice had changed as she had spoken, becoming deeper and richer, more womanly. She spoke again in the strange language and the blackberry vines came to life, wrapping around the wizard's arms and legs and neck, holding him tightly in its grip. Thorns bit mercilessly into his flesh, harsh as a thousand beestings. Struggle as he may, the wizard could not work himself free.

Hardly able to move at all, his face pressed into the litter of the forest floor, Cuninmagis took a desperate breath and cried out, "What is the meaning of this? What do you think you are doing?"

"Quiet now," Agnes commanded softly as she sat down. Cuninmagis felt the tree trunk drive the air from his lungs, the weight too heavy a burden to be accounted for by a young girl, and he found that he had lost the desire to protest.

"My friends and I have looked into your mind and have found you full of malice. Indeed, we have discovered you only just in time. You have labored long to collect all the components you would need to cast your spell. But thankfully, some justice has been served, and now you will pose no hazard to yourself or others."

Reaching into the hidden pocket of the wizard's robes, Agnes carefully removed the book. She stood. The pressure Cuninmagis felt on his chest instantly lessened. He took a deep breath, hoping it wouldn't be his last.

Agnes opened the small volume and absently rifled a few of its pages, saying, "I don't know where you got this, but I think it best that the book should be looked after by, shall we say, a more skilled practitioner, don't you? And it shall make such an excellent addition to my library. Thank you for that."

Not waiting for a reply, Agnes continued, "Good, then we are agreed. Now, if you work at it, you should be able to free yourself before nightfall. I would hurry if I were you. The wolves in this forest are dreadfully hungry."


THE END


2013 Mike Phillips

Bio: Mike Phillips is the author of Reign of the Nightmare Prince and the soon to be released The World Below: Chronicles of the Goblin King Book One. His short stories have appeared in ParABnormal Digest, Cemetery Moon, Sinister Tales, The Big Book of New Short Horror, World of Myth, Dark Horizons, Mystic Signals and many others. Online, his work has appeared in Darker, Lorelei Signal, Midnight Times, and Fringe. He is best known for his Crow Witch and Patrick Donegal series.

E-mail: Mike Phillips

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