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by Susan Dexter
Description: "A young wizard's apprentice gets into trouble in this sweet, rather old-fashioned, short fantasy novel. A foundling raised by his wizard master, young Tristan has led an isolated life, and is frustrated because he has no friends and can't do anything right, even small tasks like frying fish, drying clothes, or cleaning the hearth going dreadfully wrong. Then a talking cat with a practical attitude comes into his life and helps him when things go wrong once his master goes away for a few days and problems snowball, until Tristan has to set out into the forest on a quest--to find a hive of bees. The most magical moments come when he encounters a unicorn trapped in the swamp, but the story's real charm is in the down-to-earth details of dealing with things like chickens and foxes, which ought to appeal to fantasy fans both young and old."--Carolyn Cushman, Locus
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 2001
eBookwise Release Date: January 2002
35 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [169 KB]
Reading time: 106-149 min.
Wizards can't cross running water.
Tristan's hands clamped tight to the sides of the rowboat. Splinters stabbed him. Ignoring the pain, he held on anyway. He struggled to swallow down his fear. This is the harbor. This water doesn't truly run -- it just sloshes from one side to the other. Like a bucket. A really big bucket.
The other two boys were laughing at him. He'd shut his eyes the second they'd pushed off from the quay, which they found hilarious. Tristan opened his eyes. No use. The sky, the diving, shrieking gulls, the moored boats -- nothing he saw had reality. Tristan's attention could not stretch so far as the weathered buildings that lined Dunehollow's shabby wharves. All he was aware of was the water. He was surrounded by it. Running water. Water wide as the world. It stretched forever.
The oars squealed and clattered in the rowlocks. Every stroke pulled the battered dory farther out into the harbor.
Rho, the butcher's boy, elbowed Jock, whose father owned the boat. "Ever see a face that color?"
"Only on a fish!" Jock scoffed.
"I'm all right," Tristan said faintly. He held his lips stiff and ordered his eyes to stay open. A wizard needed a strong will. Rather than look at the water, he fixed his gaze on the boys' faces. Jock with his freckles as numberless as fish-scales. Rho pale, spending most days indoors, holding his master's knives to the grindstone.
"Maybe he should row," Jock suggested nastily. "Come over here, you," he ordered Tristan.
Tristan stared. The command made no sense to him. The dory bobbed, losing headway as Jock stopped working the oars. Ripples too small to be waves slapped its sides.
The fisherman's son rose up from his seat into a crouch, facing Tristan. Evidently he meant them to change places. Tristan shook his head and stayed where he was. His grip on the dory's sides tightened till his fingers went white as bone.
"Come on -- rowing won't kill you." The dory dipped and jigged. Jock adjusted to the motion effortlessly. "What are you afraid of?"
"We'll tip," Tristan answered honestly. As he spoke, a tiny wave broke over the left side. The boat's bottom already had an inch of water sloshing back and forth across it. How much more would it take to sink them? Tristan had no idea and feared every incoming drop.
Jock sat back heavily -- likely being rough on purpose. The boat bucked like a horse on a cold morning. More water cascaded in. Tristan shut his eyes helplessly. His fingers struggled to grow into the boat's wooden sides -- except all magic was useless over running water. Like wizards. And wizards' terrified apprentices.
"If you're sick in this boat, you'll swim home," Jock told him.
"If he can," Rho snickered. "My Gran says wizards hate water worse'n cats do."
"Oh, cats swim fine -- once they're taught to!" All the harbor cats walked wide of Jock, for whenever he saw a chance, Jock "taught them to swim" by booting them off the edge of the quay. Tristan had seen him hard at his work, last time he came to Dunehollow.
And still Tristan had been tricked, just the same as the cats. Jock lured cats with bits of food. He'd tempted the wizard's apprentice with friendship. Jock had casually invited Tristan to join him and Rho for a trip to the jetty. They'd look for gull's eggs, Jock said. Tristan knew better than to get into any boat, but apparently he wasn't as smart as the cats. He got into the dory anyway.
Tristan's master, Blais, sent his apprentice to Dunehollow-by-the-Sea regularly. Tristan delivered potions to folk who'd ordered them the week past, took orders from any who didn't need to consult with Blais in person. Gentle salves for hands crippled by damp and hard work were popular. Women wanted charms to keep fishermen safe, or lovers faithful. Tristan doled out paper-labeled dark bottles, clay jars sealed with red wax. He collected whatever payments were due in exchange, though too often of late he got only promises. His last chore before heading home would be to buy a fresh-caught fish, which he'd cook for the evening meal. Leftovers would enrich the mess of vegetable stew that simmered perpetually in the pot.
Blais hadn't ordered his apprentice to get himself straight home once his work was done. It wasn't necessary. At fourteen, Tristan was no child -- he was a wizard in training. He was expected to know better than to waste his time idling about the village. He had no reason to linger in Dunehollow anyway. It wasn't as if he had friends there.
The hope of friends was the bait that coaxed Tristan into the wretched boat. He'd ignored the sly look behind Jock's open words, though he'd seen it. Tristan wasn't a fool. But he'd wanted -- just this one time -- for the offer to be real. He'd wanted to believe that if he wasn't being called "wizard's brat" every other breath, it might just be possible for him to make a friend.
He was, after all, a fool. Jock and Rho didn't want or need a friend panicked by something as commonplace in their lives as ordinary open water. They'd only wanted a victim. One more fun to torment than the wary cats. And Tristan had obliged.
The rowlocks shrieked abruptly. The dory swung. Jock was, incredibly, putting the boat about. He was making for the quay. Tristan put his head on his knees, relieved and bitterly ashamed of his weakness.
The dory bumped the stone quay, bobbed and bumped again as Rho scrambled out. Tristan made to follow the butcher's boy, but Jock shoved past, carrying the mooring rope. Probably he was going to tie up the boat, Tristan thought.
Instead, Jock gave the rowboat a mighty shove as he left it. The dory shot back a dozen feet. Emptied of two-thirds of its cargo, it rode light as a water bug. Tristan stared astonished at the broad reach of water suddenly separating him from the quay.
"Swim for it," Jock suggested pleasantly. Behind him, Rho leaned over and held his sides, laughing himself breathless. No question that pushing the boat off had been deliberate.
Tristan sat frozen, his hands still on the boat's sides. He tried to will the craft to stop moving. Of course, no magic worked across or upon running water, and certainly not mere wishes. He couldn't make the boat drift back to the quay. Tristan stared helplessly up at Jock,who still held the end of the mooring rope. The rope was the dory's only link to dry solid land.
"Please," Tristan whispered. He didn't want to scream. He didn't want to beg. He knew he might need to do both, all the same, to make Jock pull the boat back to land. His tormenters hadn't had nearly the fun they could expect to wring out of him. Not yet.
"Did you hear something?" Jock cupped a hand around his left ear. Rho was still doubled over. He shook his head weakly at Jock's question.
"Please," Tristan repeated, a bit louder. "Please pull me back." As if they didn't know what he wanted! He noticed that Jock had taken the oars with him too.
"Pull you back?" Jock pretended to be confused. "What with?" He tossed the rope toward the boat. It missed. One end was tied to the dory, but the other end sank straight into the black water. Tristan's heart sank with it.
Maybe he could paddle with his hands? Tristan dipped a finger into the dirty water, experimenting. He did not, of course, know how to swim. Wizards couldn't learn to swim. But he had seen that the oars pulled through the water. Understanding things was important, to a wizard. Blais had taught him to keep his eyes open. Tristan did, mostly. The oars pulled, the boat moved. If he could use his hands like oars . . .
The boat moved. It swung left when he used his right hand, and right when he switched to his left. That was fine, Tristan decided. The movement was consistent. He could steer, knowing that. Jock had pulled both oars together and the boat had gone straight ahead. Tristan's arms were long, always too long for his sleeves. If he could reach water on both sides of the dory at once . . . maybe he could make the dory move without swinging to one side or the other.
The instant Tristan worked the boat close to the quay, Jock used an oar to shove it away again. Tristan had been expecting the trick. He doggedly coaxed the boat back. It was no use moving to another spot -- wherever he went, Jock would be there waiting for him. Jock could walk along the quay, or even run. Tristan's paddling improved, but he did not think he could take the dory clear to the next village. Being out on the water made him dizzy. He was cold. He could barely feel his fingers. And the dory was still taking on water. Much caulking was missing from between its splintery planks, and water trickled in steadily.
If it actually sank, would Jock be in trouble? Tristan decided he would likely drown before he found out. He wouldn't have a chance to enjoy the justice of whatever punishment Jock's heavy-handed father dealt out.
Next time he got near enough, Tristan grabbed hold of a piling, one of the quay's wooden supports. If he dared to crawl around the thick post, maybe he could climb out onto the quay. It wouldn't be very much harder than climbing the apple tree beside the cottage. Unless he fell out of the boat, trying.
Jock used his oar to rock the boat, then jabbed Tristan hard in the ribs with the butt end. Tristan let go of the piling. He wobbled and sat down, missing the narrow seat. He landed smack in the water washing over the dory's leaky bottom, a stinking mess of fish scales and old bait Jock had left in the dory after its last use. Tristan's clothes were soaked before he could get back onto the seat. He felt fortunate, though. Probably Jock had intended him to miss the boat entirely.
"Must be lovely to be a powerful wizard," Rho said conversationally.
"And never have to work for his keep," Jock agreed. "No nets to mend. No fish to gut."
"Just waggle his fingers and have whatever he wants."
"Why don't he try that now?" Jock wondered. "Suppose he don't know what he wants? I thought wizards was clever."
"Please," Tristan begged. "Let me get out."
Jock exchanged a glance with Rho. "All you needed to do was ask," he said cheerfully, as if a mystery had been cleared up.
Jock flopped a rope ladder out over the edge of the quay. The tide was going out, and the harbor water was dropping. Rho had only needed to scramble, but now climbing straight from the boat to the quay would be difficult.
Tristan stared at the dangling ladder. The rope was black with age and dripping wet. It looked as inviting as a garden slug, all softness and slime. Tristan adored it. To his eyes, it was as precious as if it had been woven of spun gold. He splashed the rowboat closer, reached out, and caught hold of one of the ladder's sides. Shakily, he raised himself to a crouch. He put one foot on the side of the boat and tightened his grip on the ladder. Leaning forward, he stepped for the lowest of the rope rungs.
As his weight came onto it, the ladder whipped down the side of the quay. Too late, Tristan realized that it wasn't fastened to anything at all! Jock wasn't even still holding it. Tristan flailed, struggling desperately to fall into the boat. He knew he wouldn't make it. The dory tipped hard under him, then turned turtle.
As he went headlong into the water, Tristan heard shouts of laughter from the quay above. Then the water clogged his ears, and he heard nothing more except his own heart, pounding in terror.
Copyright © 2001 by Susan Dexter