One cat's tale of life as an Apprentice Cat paired with an Apprentice Witch.
“We’re supposed to be practicing, right?” asked Lorn in response, not even glancing at the orange tabby.
“Well… yes, but—” Toby shook his head, making his ears sound like the snapping wings of a flock of pigeons startled into flight. Magic always made his ears itch. He hoped he would outgrow it. Who ever heard of a witch’s cat being allergic to magic?
“No worries, then. Hand me that feather.” Lorn pointed in the general vicinity of the desired item, his eyes never leaving the small, boiling cauldron on its brazier. Toby gracefully uncurled his tail from around his toes and padded over to the feather, carefully avoiding the bottles of various ingredients strewn across the large wooden table. The last time he’d accidentally tipped a bottle over in Lorn’s lab the contents oozed into a puddle over his paws. He’d had to endure having duck feet for several days after that. He didn’t relish the idea of changing any of his body parts ever again.
Toby stared at the fluffy white feather, trying to decide what would be the best way to get it to his human. He’d killed enough birds around the school to know that feathers tasted atrocious. No matter how much water you drank or how much you spit, little bits of down would always stick to your tongue. Deciding against carrying the magical item in his mouth, Toby carefully batted it toward Lorn. The human quickly grabbed the feather and dropped it in the cauldron. The boiling liquid emitted a sharp pop as if a cork had been drawn out of a sealed bottle. Toby slit his eyes, expecting the sound to be followed by an explosion of light. When the expected light display didn’t happen, he heaved a sigh of relief and sat back down. Lorn glanced quickly at Toby, then went back to studying the large book lying open on the table. His human was determined to outstrip his classmates in learning magic, though Toby wasn’t entirely sure why. Lorn had mentioned something about living down a family reputation once, but he’d refused to go into detail when Toby had asked about it. It was a touchy subject better left swept into a dark corner, according to Lorn.
“I know we’re supposed to practice, but shouldn’t we be working on the basic spells from class?” Toby balanced himself on three legs so that he could give his right ear a sound scratching. The basic magic they’d been working on in class never bothered his ears this much. He shook his head again, trying to ease the dreadful itch developing inside.
“How am I supposed to advance in skill if I stick to just the basics? As Master Terran says, ‘the only difference between a good witch and a great witch is in how far one is willing to push one’s abilities.’ I’m simply pushing my abilities,” answered Lorn. He continued to study the spell, tracing a column of handwritten script with one finger as he continuously stirred the cauldron with a special ladle he’d purchased with the allowance his parents sent him every month. Unlike most of his classmates who often used their money to buy souvenirs and “what-nots” during their vacations, Lorn always used his allowance to buy magical items that he believed would aid him in his quest toward advancement in magic. Sometimes he would even sneak into the little town just outside the campus to buy some element he “absolutely needed” for some advanced spell he was working on. He rarely took Toby on those little outings, much to the young cat’s relief. It was bad enough to be reprimanded when one of Lorn’s spells went wrong, worse would be to get caught out in the town past curfew. That was a guaranteed expulsion from the school. Toby didn’t even want to imagine the sour reception he’d receive from his mother if he were expelled.
Most likely he thought, I’d be lucky to get off with a bobbed tail and nothing more. He looked down at the fluffy orange appendage curled around his toes and shuddered at the thought of losing it. He looked back up to see Lorn’s lips moving in silent recitation of the spell.
“Pushing your abilities is one thing,” said Toby, “Trying to race ahead of them is quite another. As my dear mama always says, ‘kits shouldn’t try to climb up a mighty oak until they’ve learned how to climb down a sapling.’”
“Does your mama have a saying for everything?” asked Lorn, cutting his eyes at Toby. The orange tabby cocked his head to the side and batted at the air in annoyance. Lorn could be downright rude at times.
“I was only pointing out the obvious,” said Toby, “which is that a witch should be able to do the simplest, most basic spells with ease before trying more advanced magics. That’s the first thing we learned in orientation!”
“Yeah. Yeah.” Lorn waved Toby’s line of reasoning away with a gesture and returned to studying the spell he was working on. Insulted, Toby licked at a spot of fur on his shoulder as if trying to wash away Lorn’s impertinent remarks.
Humans can be so… so… human! he thought, giving his fur one final tug with his sandpaper tongue. He looked back at Lorn. The young boy’s mousy brown hair was beginning to grow back, though it hung in uneven clumps. The elfin points on the lad’s ears had finally disappeared, too. Both were a result of another failed spell several months earlier. In his excitement to try a shape-shifting spell, Lorn made a miscalculation and had ended up setting his hair on fire in mid-transformation. Not even the Head Master Witch of the school could figure out just what the boy had done, so Lorn had been forced to wait for the spell to wear off naturally. Unfortunately, that meant looking like a deformed pixie for most of the semester, much to the amusement of his classmates. During that time Toby had been the only companion Lorn had had, so it was a good thing that they usually got on so well. Some relationships between witch and cat ended disastrously even though every effort had been made to create a workable pairing.
Toby thought back to his first meeting with Lorn. Along with all the other Apprentice Cats, Toby had sat with barely contained excitement in the orientation room. It was the first time Apprentice Cats and Apprentice Witches would be in the same room together. It was also the day when cats and witches would be paired. The several days before had been spent getting to know the basics of the craft, learning what each brought to the relationship and why careful pairings were so important. The Masters, both cats and witches, had been observing their respective students, noting peculiarities that could become either an advantage or a hindrance depending on who was paired with whom. Now, as they sat in the Gathering Room awaiting pairing, Toby’s tail twitched nervously. Occasionally a hopeful apprentice would be sent back home either because he or she wasn’t yet ready to focus on a career of magic or because there was no one to be matched with. In many cases the cat in question never received another opportunity to become a member of the Academy and, thusly, never became more than an extraordinary cat. Toby hoped that wouldn’t happen to him. He’d grown up from kittenhood on tales of Master Cats helping Master Witches cast great spells. His only dream was to be counted amongst that great class of cats. Today he would find out if he’d be able to fulfill that dream.
He remembered sitting quietly, nearly holding his breath, as name after name was called. Each pairing would leave the Gathering Room together to go sort out their belongings and move them from what had been their temporary quarters to what would be their permanent home for the next few years. Gradually, the room emptied until only a handful of hopeful Apprentices were left. Toby closed his eyes and flattened his ears, the cat equivalent of crossing one’s fingers, and prayed to whatever deity would listen that he would be chosen soon. The Head Master Cat called his name. Toby nearly raced to the middle of the floor, facing the remaining humans. Who would it be? The chubby girl with the golden curls? Or perhaps the tall lad who, by the appearance of his ill-fitting clothes, looked like he’d put on a sudden growth spurt? Toby waited impatiently, tail tip twitching, scanning the humans.
“Tarah Nichole,” called the Head Master Witch. A tiny red-headed waif of a girl stepped forward from behind the tall boy. She looked hesitantly at the orange tabby and then back at the Head Master Witch. It was quite apparent that this young lady did not think Toby was a fitting companion. Anxiety squeezed the blood from Toby’s heart. He turned his head to look at the Head Masters. If Tarah and he were supposed to be paired, then there must be a good reason. On the other hand, they had all been warned in orientation that mistakes had been made in the past. It was as much up to the potential Apprentices of both species to be sure the match was correct as it was the Head Masters.
Toby watched the Head Masters intently. The Head Master Cat was pointing at the list of humans with a delicate white paw and whispering something to the Head Master Witch. Try as he might, Toby could not decipher just what it was that the Head Master Cat was saying. The Head Master Witch nodded gravely. Clearing his throat, he looked back at the young hopefuls patiently waiting in the center of the room.
“I’m sorry, Tarah. It seems that my eyes were playing tricks on me,” he said with a gentle smile. “You are to be paired with Dulcinaya.”
Tarah watched a sleek chocolate point Siamese pace forward with measured steps and smiled. The tension in her tiny frame melted away as she curtsied to the elegant cat. Dulcinaya returned the curtsy with a little head bow. Like two genteel ladies, the human and cat left the Gathering Room to go collect their things. Toby watched the doors swing shut behind them. The young girl had seemed so glad to be paired with any cat other than him. He looked behind him at the dozen or more cats waiting in hopes to be paired, then at the three humans left. It was common knowledge that there were always more cat hopefuls than humans. Toby’s heart sank as reality dawned. His odds of being chosen were rapidly decreasing. He hunkered down and began to slowly back toward the rest of the waiting cats.
“Toby! Please do be still!” scolded the Head Master Cat. Toby froze. Upsetting the Head Master Cat was the last thing he wanted to do. Turning her head back to her companion, the Head Master Cat whispered something else as she continued to point to the list of humans. The Head Master Witch bent to read what his companion had been pointing at. Tapping the tip of his nose with a forefinger, the Head Master Witch frowned as he read on. With a sharp nod, he looked up at the remaining hopefuls.
“It appears we have only one pairing left. Before I call the final pairing’s names, I want to encourage those of you here who will not be entering the Academy this season to return in a year. At this present time, while you show potential, it is clear that you are not quite ready to be admitted to this school. We do, however, look forward to seeing you next fall. Now, without further ado, the final pairing is Lorn Wolnosci and Toby.”
Toby quickly scanned the three remaining humans. Which one was Lorn Wolnosci? There, at the end of the line, a young boy had his eyes scrunched closed and his fingers crossed at either side of his face. Toby nearly disgraced himself with a laugh at how alike he was to the young lad. Hadn’t he been doing the same thing just moments before? The young boy’s startled expression turned to one of pure pleasure as he gazed down at Toby. Toby waved a paw at the boy, giving him a cat grin. They’d made it! They were being inducted into the finest witches’ school in the country.
“Toby!” Lorn’s shout brought Toby back to the present with a jolt. Had that really been almost a year and a half ago? He blinked, counting up the months in his head. Sure enough, he came to the total of almost eighteen months. Lorn and he had become good friends in that short time.
“Bring me that bottle of Sprite Crystals,” Lorn commanded.
“The what?” asked Toby, wrinkling his forehead in confusion.
“The Sprite Crystals,” repeated Lorn crossly. He gestured in the general direction of the shelves on which an array of colorful bottles was arranged. Toby stared up at the shelves. He knew all the elements stored on the first shelf. Those were used in the most basic spells. On the second shelf were a combination of elements used in early year spells, which were the ones they were supposed to be practicing, and elements they would be using later on in the year. He was familiar with most of those as well and was relatively sure that there was no such element on that shelf. That left the third shelf. On that shelf sat all of Lorn’s “special” items. That was the shelf Toby hated to climb to because it always meant trouble. He hoped the element Lorn wanted was in one of the few bottles on the second shelf that he wasn’t yet familiar with.
“I’d love to bring you your… what was it you called it? Sprite Crystals?… but I don’t know which one it is.”
“It’s the little grey bottle on the third shelf,” sighed Lorn. “Honestly, Toby, how do you expect to become a Master Cat if you can’t figure out what magical element is in what bottle?” Toby’s head dropped. If he’d had hands, he would have been holding his head in them. Although he’d known Lorn was working upper level magics, he’d hoped the human was only working ahead in one of his class books. Asking Toby to fetch a bottle from the third shelf was as clear a sign as were his itching ears that Lorn had borrowed an advanced spell book from the school library. The whole thing made Toby irritable.
“I could if you’d use better penmanship when you label things,” grumbled Toby under his breath, staring up at the offending third shelf.
“Did you say something?” Lorn asked absently, studying the spell while he stirred the cauldron.
“I didn’t say a thing.” Toby looked at the bottom shelf, eyeballing its distance from the table. With a shake of his hindquarters, he leaped to the first shelf. That was the easy part. Reaching the upper shelves meant balancing precariously on the ledge on his hind legs, grasping the shelf above with his front paws and then hauling his weight up to the next shelf all the while avoiding spilling the contents of any of the various and sundry bottles and bowls. The edges of the shelves were scarred from the number of times he’d had to perform this particular trick. Once he had overheard one of the other cats talking about how her companion had installed little stairs next to his shelves for her convenience. He’d thought about asking Lorn to do that for him, but decided the exercise was probably good for him.
Although he thought as he carefully picked up the bottle containing the Sprite Crystals, exercise is all I ever seem to get around here! He couldn’t help chuckling to himself as he remembered the gypsy moth debacle. He’d rather enjoyed chasing the little buggers around until they had decided to return the favor, chasing him around the courtyard until he was forced to plunge into a mud puddle left from the gardener’s flowerbed watering that afternoon. He’d emerged from the muck looking like a beast straight out of one of Erlgarth’s class books on mythical creatures. At the time it hadn’t been very funny, but looking back he had to admit he must have looked comical indeed.
Toby scrabbled onto the third shelf and peered at the bottles. Unlike normal cats, witches’ cats could not only talk and read, they could also see in color. This was especially helpful to Toby since Lorn’s handwriting looked more like slithering snake trails than words on the labels. Thankfully, the Sprite Crystals were within easy reach. Cocking his head to the side so he could get a good grip on the little bottle with his teeth, Toby picked the crystals up and turned toward Lorn.
“Ith thith whath ou wanthed?” Lorn cast a quick glance up toward the orange tabby, gave a sharp nod, then turned back to the cauldron. Grimacing inwardly, Toby grasped the shelf ledge with his front paws and lowered himself down to the second shelf, repeating the process again for the bottom shelf. He quickly leaped from the first shelf back onto the table and padded over to his human, placing the small grey bottle in Lorn’s outstretched hand. Lorn uncorked the bottle and sprinkled a few crystals into his left hand. Pinching a small amount between his right thumb and forefinger, Lorn took a step away from the cauldron. Toby instinctively did the same.
“FIR eBIR daRISE!” shouted Lorn, tossing the crystals into the cauldron. Toby tensed to run. Lorn stood nearby, an expectant grin stretching across his face. The cauldron hissed for a moment, then died back to a peaceful boil. The two waited a moment longer, Lorn’s grin slowly fading into a confused frown. He let his hands drop to his sides. Toby sat back down on the table.
“What’s it supposed to do?” he asked, looking back at Lorn. Lorn sighed and shuffled back to the table to inspect the spell again.
“It’s supposed to create a firebird illusion. I was going to do it again for the Head Master Witch’s birthday party tomorrow as sort of a present.”
“A firebird?” asked Toby, intrigued. “Really?”
“Yeah,” Lorn sighed again. “But I guess it’s just another one of my failures.” The look on his human’s face made Toby feel like his fur weighed ten pounds. Lorn looked so dejected Toby couldn’t help but want to do something to help even though he knew it would most likely lead to nothing more than trouble for both of them. The young boy looked down at the book, blinking rapidly, and slowly began to close it. Toby couldn’t take anymore. He placed a paw on the page containing the spell.
“You know,” he said, looking up at Lorn’s teary eyes, “I remember hearing something in class about some incantations having to be said a certain way for a spell to work correctly. Maybe we should both take a look at this firebird spell.”
“But I thought—” Lorn began, his grin beginning to return.
“Let’s just say that I think the Head Master Witch deserves a really great present from us, hmm?” Toby gave the young lad a cat grin and winked. Lorn chuckled. He knew exactly what Toby was insinuating. The Head Master Witch had often enough had chances to expel the dreadful duo, but instead had taken pity on them. Oh, they’d always had to face consequences for their blunders, but somehow the Head Master Witch always seemed to make it out to be less of an infraction than it could have been. The two bent over the spellbook, carefully re-reading each phrase.
“Aha!” cried Toby. “I was right!”
“What!” Toby pointed to the incantation Lorn had spoken earlier.
“Right there! See? You had the right incantation, but you misspoke one of the syllables! The accent should be on ‘e’ not ‘bir.’” Lorn squinted at the page. Seeing what Toby pointed out, he stood up suddenly and clapped his hands with delight.
“You’re right! How stupid of me!”
“All you should have to do now is—”
“FIR Ebir daRISE!” shouted Lorn, tossing in a handful of crystals.
“NO!” shouted Toby. Suddenly a spray of light exploded from the cauldron. Toby made a quick leap from the table and dashed underneath, Lorn in hot pursuit. Screaming missiles of sparkling light whizzed past them. Thundering booms echoed in the tiny chamber, nearly deafening the two Apprentices as they cowered beneath the solid table.
“I said you misspoke a syllable!” Toby yelled in the direction of Lorn’s ears. “Not that you needed to add more crystals!”
“How was I supposed to know?!” bellowed Lorn. A dazzling comet of sizzling light shrieked past their noses and imbedded itself in the table leg inches from Lorn’s shoulder. Toby was about to make a retort when Lorn gathered the tabby in his arms, obviously planning to dash out the door before one of those blazing balls of light managed to get any closer.
“CEA SETH ISNOW!” shouted a voice from directly above their heads. As suddenly as it began, the fireworks ended. The Apprentices tried to blink away the after-images. Their ears rang in the sudden silence. Cautiously Lorn eased his way out from under the table, still hugging Toby close. The two peered over the table, only their eyes and tops of their heads visible. There was no mistaking who that voice belonged to.
“Would one of you care to tell me just what you thought you were doing?” asked the Head Master Cat, her tail tip twitching angrily.
“U-u-uh,” stuttered Lorn. “I was just—I mean, we were just…” The Head Master Cat sat silently, waiting for either one of the Apprentices to explain the fireworks away.
“It was all my fault,” Toby exclaimed, squirming to get free of Lorn’s clutching grip. Lorn stood and dropped the cat on the table in front of the irritated calico. She cut her eyes to Lorn who remained silent.
“I see,” she said, looking back at Toby. “Go on.”
“You see, Lorn has been having a really tough time recently and I thought that if we could do something special for the Head Master Witch for his birthday tomorrow, well…” Toby let his sentence trail off. The Head Master Cat’s tail jerked, an obvious sign that she wasn’t buying Toby’s excuse. She looked up at Lorn, her pupils mere slits.
“And you agreed to this… idea?” she asked. Lorn dropped his eyes.
“No, Head Master,” answered Lorn, his voice hardly more than a whisper. “I didn’t agree to Toby’s idea because it wasn’t his idea. It was mine.”
“Mmhmm. That’s what I thought.” She looked from one pitiful student to the other. They both stared at a spot on the table just in front of the Head Master’s white paws. Lorn twisted and untwisted his fingers into knots. Toby flattened his ears.
“Need I remind you, Apprentices, that you are currently on probation for the last stunt you pulled?”
“No, Head Master,” they answered.
“Need I also remind you that advanced magics are reserved for those who have had a minimum of three years training and that you have been here only eighteen months?”
“No, Head Master.”
“Good. Now, I see no reason to let the Head Master Witch know of this… indiscretion,” she began. Two sets of surprised eyes looked up at her. A smile formed on Lorn’s face, brightening his countenance. Toby’s ears perked up. His tail tip began to twitch rhythmically.
“IF…” continued the Head Master Cat, holding up a delicate white paw to forestall them, “if you clean up this mess and promise not to try another such spell until you are truly ready for it.” She looked sternly at the two Apprentices who both nodded. She gave them a sharp nod and rose gracefully to her feet. Leaping from the table she trotted to the partially open door of Lorn’s lab. She paused and looked over her shoulder at the two students.
“I think I’ll take that book with me,” she said, a twinkle in her eye. “It seems to have been misplaced from the library.” The Head Master Cat’s whiskers twitched. The book rose from the table and floated out the door behind her. Toby looked at Lorn. Relief seemed to emanate from every pore.
“What say we get this place back in order?” asked Lorn. Toby blinked and gave him a cat grin.
“Yes, let’s,” he replied. Picking up the little bottle of Sprite Crystals, Toby scrabbled up to the third shelf to put it away. He looked down at his human who was righting a tipped chair. The dreadful itch he’d had in his ears since they’d begun had gone away.
Perhaps he thought, this will be the last time. He watched Lorn grab a broom and began sweeping, a frown of concentration on his face. Toby knew that look well. Lorn was already planning what he was going to try next. Toby sighed.
A cat can dream he thought, beginning his descent from the third shelf. A cat can dream.
For updates on the upcoming Apprentice Cat book, check out Virginia Ripple's blog on wordpress.com.