The Apprentice

As the heavenly bodies above sewed and threaded themselves in neat and twinkling alignments in the night sky, down on earth, Old Frizzlefish stood watching this display with rapt attention. He shivered apprehensively, feeling a tingling ecstasy rise from deep within his archaic bones at what he knew was coming. All his life seemed to have lead to this moment. The type of star traversement he was hoping to observe had not been seen in these parts for almost seventy years; even the ancient Hornpipe, who lived above the Castle’s armoury, could recall little of the last one, save that his dark old eyes had turned to an eerie shade of blue for a few hours afterwards from, they said, too much exposure to the sacred light.

Frizzlefish hurried to waken his slumbering apprentice, who was wrapped in bear furs and curled up in the tent behind him that was pitched slightly askew to the now dwindling fire.

“Evercreech, wake up, we must watch the skies tonight if we are to make any sort of headway with our plans!”

The flat-out Evercreech grumbled an unintelligible response, a gurgling and whirling deep down that seemed to emerge from the guttural recesses located at the bottom of his stomach. He felt in no mood to awaken just yet, still steeped as he was in the potions of the pub he had frequented the night before. The darkness above was wading its last wallows through the landscape and a heady dawn lay but a few hours away. The celestial bodies would align just before first light. Old Frizzlefish had made sure that they would be in a suitably isolated spot, many days travel from the Castle’s reeking lights and foul kitchen vapours that drifted down to their usual encampment beneath its towering ramparts and ivy-strewn fortifications. This journey, the abandonment of the usual spot and the hazardous travel would all be in vain if Evercreech slept through the event. Someone had to take notes and make adjustments to the lenses after all.

He tried again. “Wake up!” His voice was filled with age and had a croak to it. “Evercreech, this is when I need you most!”

The hairy mass levered and tumbled itself upwards, so that it was hard to tell where the apprentice’s body ended and the great bear skin he was sleeping under began. In the scattering firelight, a chimera silhouette was cast on the canvas tent behind him, its pointed ears definitely bear-like in contrast to its all-too-human arms and hands which were now outspread and distinctly clawless.

“ ’Ere, wot’s goin’ on?” asked Evercreech indignantly, “this best be better than that stupid old frog spawnin’ ceremony we had to endure last time.”

“My dear boy,” Frizzlefish retorted, “that frog fiasco was entirely your mistake, if you had, as I had asked, sat still when they climbed into your breeches, you would never have fallen in the pond. Care and attention are required in our lines of work.”

The apprentice mumbled something incomprehensible and thought bitterly about the frogs that had been wedged down his backside for days after. He thought about his pounding headache too. Dragging himself up, he and Frizzlefish set forth from the campfire and headed off through the wooded confines, away from the camp and towards a man-made hill fort of antiquated origin.

The hill’s palisade fences and gates had ceased to exist some time ago, yet the outline of this feature was still clearly visible on the landscape, grazed and regrazed by sheep unaware that it had once had regular human inhabitants who had smelt swords and spells here in the glistening, now-vanished furnaces. Frizzlefish himself was probably the only man who could have recounted even a trace of the hill fort’s history, but he had no time to think of its sorrowful wars, exuberant feasts or the broken magical objects that undoubtedly lay buried deep within its heart. All trace of this former activity had gone. Only the sheep remained, grazing guardians of the landscape’s forgotten memories.

Reaching the top of the mound, Frizzlefish hopped down from the rim of the fort, his swivelling eye immediately latching onto the eyepiece of the telescope he had had Evercreech drag out here a day earlier. The telescope was big and bulky and bronze coloured; incanted along its length were all kinds of magical signs and symbols. Evercreech was unduly familiar with it, it being primarily his job to oversee that the mule carrying it from the castle did not in any way damage it. He had been entrusted to carry it alone to this barren hilltop only yesterday.

“Can I ‘ave a go?” asked the young apprentice mournfully, feigning disinterest at his master’s enthusiasm for the event. “Only I did bring the bloody thing out ‘ere and that.”

“All in good time, all in good time, we still have some time to await the planetary invocation, and then we will see what no human eye has seen for nigh on seventy years!”

Evercreech had heard this rhetoric an awful lot in the last week, but still he was mildly excited at the prospect of the ‘blue eyes’ that he had heard could result from looking directly at the cosmic glare. Ever since he’d been apprenticed to Old Frizzlefish this was the only subject, so far, that had held any interest for him. He had turned it over in his mind, and had in fact grown so curious as to make the trek up to the attic rooms above the Castle’s armoury to question the ancient and trembling Hornpipe who, seventy years on, still lived there. In his washed-out voice, Hornpipe had retold in shuddering words his own experiences of many moons ago. He had recalled for Evercreech how he had been walking across the dunes of the Florid Coast when the planets had swung through a gap in the rolled up clouds, and with full awareness he had looked into the heart of the cosmic bundle and had seen the shining reflection of eternity thrown back at him. He had had a wonderful sense of displacement, a bodiless unity with the entire cosmos, or so he claimed. “And the eyes? What about the eyes?” Evercreech had repeated to him breathlessly, bent forward on the tips of his toes in the candlelit attic room. That was what everyone had said of Hornpipe when he came back from the dunes that day. That his eyes had changed from darkest brown to the lightest, frailest blue imaginable. They seemed to soar like an azure sky, yet be as soft as a baby’s eiderdown, a cool nursery blue, a sea of calming serenity. And then, less than twenty-four hours later, the colour had gone. Hornpipe’s eyes were dark again, perhaps even darker than before.

“Dear boy, you must understand,” Hornpipe had squeaked to Evercreech on the evening that the boy had crept up the twisting staircases to find the old master in his attic compartment, “you must understand that you may not see the event and even if you do, there is no guarantee of your heart being opened to the cosmos.”

“But what about the eyes?” Evercreech had asked again, “will they change too? If I see it properly will they?”

Hornpipe sighed and looked at the dusty floor boards, his ancient face browned and shrivelled. He creaked his dented head forward, closed his eyes and said no more. Evercreech slipped away, leaving behind the bowl of figs he had brought for the elder.

Back on the hill fort, Evercreech was slowly defogging his mind of the hangover he had inadvertently brought upon himself. He had intended to go to bed early as instructed, but had instead been caught up in drinking pints down at a local pub. He had not meant to get so drunk, but that was always the case. All that afternoon he had been dragging equipment to the hill fort from their latest haphazard encampment which was spread out like a muddled picnic, a few miles beyond a particularly remote village. In the hot sun this was thirsty work for a young apprentice; who could resist the dark, cool, shaded doorway of a welcoming inn? Beyond the opening he could sense the leering glasses of dark liquids that the barmaid was so delicately arraying on the bar. He had drunk till he could drink no more. He had jousted half-remembered rhymes with the regulars, had guffawed with the lovely maid and sung a tune that he remembered the old boys of the fields used to sing in his boyhood. It had taken him back to when he was but a simple cowherd. Before Frizzlefish. Before the wizarding communities had started taking an interest in his so-called abilities, his promising talents. Before the half-heard conversations, of him somehow being different to the other more willing apprentices, the ones who had chosen the spell-full life themselves, the ones that had not been cajoled, bullied and sweet-talked into a role that often seemed totally beyond Evercreech’s abilities.

But now he demisted mentally and concentrated his gaze through the eyepiece of the telescope. All he could see above was cloud. He swore loudly. Frizzlefish hissed something in his ear, but the young apprentice could sense his master’s equal displeasure at the grey edifices stacked above them.

“Wot if they don’t clear? Will we still get the eye thing?”

“There are no guarantees, there are no guarantees of anything,” Frizzlefish shook his head sadly. “We must have faith, dear boy, we must have faith in our hearts.”

The sightless minutes drove onward, each a deep crunching heartbeat of anticipation. Frizzlefish, in his impatience to look through the telescope, pulled Evercreech roughly away, causing him to slip backwards. Frizzlefish ignored his falling apprentice and kept his eye jammed to the scope, furiously beaming his vision at the heavens, sweat-beading fury and malcontentment etching itself onto his brow as he continued to see nothing in the skies above. “Damn and blast!” he juddered. “Wait! I can see something, a… a… oh drat, it’s gone!”

Behind him, Evercreech, still lying on the floor, began to laugh. He laughed and laughed, more and more until his voice turned to a roar. Angrily, Frizzlefish turned from the telescope to reprimand his feeble-minded apprentice, but before the words of reproach could even begin to fall from his mouth, an overwhelming shock of pure, unadulterated awe enslaved his faculties. For before him lay Evercreech, staring up at the skies with his naked eyes. His grinning face twinkled with other-worldliness, with a shining radiance. The once dark eyes of Evercreech glowed with a pale blue dazzling hue! Frizzlefish sat down suddenly. All this time he had been so sure that he and his telescope, with all his expensive equipment, would be the one to witness the event, to witness the unwitnessable and gain True Knowledge of The Nature of Man and The Universe. He, the Master! He who had trained in academies, in seminaries, he who had trod the boards of libraries. Instead it was Evercreech, the cowherd, who was rocking back and forward, hooting with pure laughter, tears of unbridled joy jetting from pearly blue eyes. Oh, those eyes! To look into them was to feel lost in twin whirlpools, jetties into the cosmic mind. It wasn’t fair, it just wasn’t fair! Frizzlefish stood and scanned the skies bitterly, but no trace of stars, moons or planets could he see, nothing at all, just banking clouds reeling off into a void, a lifetime’s worth of wisdom and study, rendered useless by happenstance.


Andy Dean

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