by SD Campbell
Wren, an apothecary with memory problems, is accepted as the apprentice to a great wizard.
Sitting at the edge of an unkempt bed, the young man could hardly contain himself. His eyes slid over the text of the letter over and over again, as though making sure they did not change while he wasn’t looking. His lips had long since curled into a smile and now, the feature seems carved into his face. He could hardly be blamed for his excitement, though.
It had been a very long time since he had received good news of any variety. To his left were the other letters that he’d received over the past few months. Each of them had dampen his spirits a bit. But they no longer mattered. This letter was different. This news was different. If he could manage to tear his eyes from it for a second, and the fear of the letter changing somehow to bleaken things further would leave he, he would be able to act on it.
Outside the small room, the sun had already begun to set. The raises of light coming through the open window lessened, casting shadows on the old vellum. Practiced effort slid his hand from he chin to the oil lamp that rested on the small chest next to his bed and sparked fire into the wick. His letter had not changed, and his anxiety faded a bit.
Beyond the window, the commotion of people returning from their work began to grew louder. It was a common sound to him. He never had to leave his little home. All that sought him knew where to find him. And, in his trade, all knew well enough not to bother him much. He might have a customer or two soon, but it still didn’t urge him from rereading the letter again and again.
“Wren!” a bellowing voice shouted from the window. The words shocked the young man and he nearly jumped into the air. His heart pounded for a moment, looking back to the letter before slipping it into the front of his shirt. Finally, he turned to see who had startled him from his joy. At the woman stood a matron, twice his age, plump and short, resting her hands on the sill of the window. She grinned devilishly at the young man who, in his excitement could not place her face to a name.
“Yes?” he asked, meekly, desperately searching his mind for her name. Myran? Mirian? It was hard for him to recall.
“We’ve business.” Her voice was still loud, almost painfully so for Wren. But he couldn’t remember who she was. And without that, he couldn’t remember what business they had.
“I’m terribly sorry...” he trailed off, still trying to remember her name.
The rotund woman’s face fell slightly. “Greta. For sakes above, Wren. You’d think you’d never met me before. Why can you never remember me?”
Greta. It was familiar, but it still didn’t click in his mind. His memory was terrible, beyond just being startled. It always had been. Completely justifiably, considering his profession. Handling the ingredients that he did, he was surprised that he was even able to talk, most of the time.
He closed his eyes for a minute, attempting to recall, while raising a finger to ask her to wait a moment. His other hand pulled a logbook, tied by a string to his belt, out and began to flip through the pages. Finally, his eyes drifted to the book, pouring over his neatly written scrawl for the name. “Gavin, no. George, no. Georgia, no. Georgina, no. Gerald, no. Gessup, no. Gina, no...” he muttered quietly, slipping his finger down the pages until he found the name. “Ah, here we are.”
He slid his finger across the log, to the section where her request was written. “It says here that you are looking for an… I remember now.” He slapped the book shut and jerked his finger over his shoulder, looking up to the woman. She stood outside the window, her hands on her hips, and eyes locked at him. “If you’ll come around to the storefront, I believe I have everything now.”
Greta gave an impatient sigh, clicking her tongue before turning and walking around the left of the building. Wren had enough time to dawdle as she came through to the front door, so he grabbed his oil lamp and tapped the letter in his shirt.
Walking from his room, he crossed through the small kitchen, stopping only to grab a bowl and a burner for his work. Continuing to the storefront, he pulled out his large codex and opened, dropping half the book in one direction with a loud thud. Flipping through the pages, he came to the one he needed just as Greta pushed through the wooden door.
“You’ve much need for a wife to watch after you, Wren,” she said, stepping over the clutter to come to the counter. Wren nodded absently, turning to the shelves behind him and beginning to gather all that he needed. “You know that we all worry over you, with what happened to your family and all,” the woman continued. Wren nodded again, a reflex. He didn’t much care for the idle talk that the towns people all tried to engage him in. His only concern, until receiving the letter at least, was to simply do his work and take his payment.
“Wren, look at me.” He glanced over, a phial stuck in his home, another three in his left hand and four or five pouches tucked into his palm. Greta shook her head. “It isn’t healthy to live caught up entirely in your work. You need to live outside of this place. Elsewise, you might as while just live in a tower.”
Wren smiled. He hadn’t stepped foot out his door in more than a year. Not of fear or anything like that. He simply never had time. He was always studying, attempting to find some way to make his addled mind memorize what he needed to know in order to earn him a letter like he finally received. But that was about to change for him. He was leaving in the morning, and he would never return to the this little village.
Slowly, he put all the ingredients from his hands on the counter next to the stone bowl. From under the counter, he retrieved an empty vial, a set of glass tubing, a fresh root, and a scraper. “I know that, Greta. I truly do, and I thank you for your concern.” He tried to be reassuring, attempting to guide her back to idle conversation.
She shook her head and side, placing her hands back onto her wide hips as he spoke. “Like talking to a wall.” She chuckled at it. Wren began to scrap from the root a fine, waxy substance before looking around. He’d nearly forgotten his mortar. Dipping his hand under the counter again, he brought it up and dropped the root pulp into it.
Greta said lowly, “So this will restore Errol’s… vigor?”
“Very much so.” Wren lit the burner and placed the tubing in it’s place over it. “And, as you asked, it will be odorless, so… guests will be none the wiser.” He filled waiting reservoirs on the contraption with precise amounts of liquids from the four phials. Turning his attention back to the mortar, he began to sprinkle the pouches’ contents onto the waxy residue.
“It’s not so much guests, we’re worried about. He doesn’t want his brother to find out that he has… trouble.”
Wren’s hands moved with purpose, a pair of fingers quickly turning the plug on a reservoir for the first liquid then going back to the pestle to help work the powders, shavings, and wax into a foam. After a silent four count, he released another of the liquids, watching it briefly as it course into the heating chamber. “I suppose that’s understandable.”
“Well, when we were younger, Errol thought that Howard and I were carrying on an affair. We weren’t mind you, but Howard did fancy me. And he thinks that if Howard found out that he was unable… to perform, Howard might try to convince me.”
Wren laughed to himself. He knew far more about the people of the village than he cared to, even with his poor memory. For some reason, they all thought nothing of spilling their darkest thoughts to him as he worked. Talking to fill the silence, perhaps. Or perhaps an unknown reaction to some compound that he kept. He kept his mind on his work, though. And he knew better than to reveal Howard’s own visits to him to attempt to end his desire for men. That sort of thing was what lead Wren to living alone.
His hand continued to work, building the ingredients in the mortar first into a paste, then working that paste into an airy foam. The timer in his mind told him it was time for the last two of the liquids to meet in the heating pot, so he flicked the stops holding both back. They rushed down, into the pot and mixing together with the fluid already there. Next, his fingers moved to the end of a glass stalk connected to the pot and he swirled it gently. The stalk stirred the liquid, turning in an instant amber colored. It would only take a few more moments to boil into the condenser, so he placed the stone bowl at the end of the tilted spiral.
“I don’t think that there will be any complaints about this,” he said, glancing from the vapor rising into the condenser to the codex opened next to him. The vapor turned into liquid again, bright red now, and flowed down the spiral. A detail about Greta sprung into Wren’s mind. “How did that salve for Janine turn out, might I ask?”
“Oh.” Greta smiled, happy that he remembered something about someone for once. “It turned out wonderfully. The rash was gone almost as fast that boy.” Janine, Greta’s daughter, had caught a nasty rash from playing in the river too close to the tannery, Wren knew. But Greta and Errol had blamed a local boy they thought liked their daughter too much. “I swear, some days, it’s almost as though these kids think they invented such things. I remember when I was her age...”
Greta continued to talk, probably about her youth with Errol and their exploits, though sufficiently disguised as innocent. Wren wasn’t really paying attention, thought. He was more concerned with the foam. It wasn’t rising quite like it should. His eyes darted to the codex. Ground fresh ketta leaf. Something he couldn’t get. It would have to do. There wasn’t much that could be done.
He waited for the last of the liquid to drip from the condenser as he turned the burner off and took the foam in the mortar onto a brush. He sniffed at the foam, pulling the bowl filled with red liquid to him. After darting his tongue out to sample the foam, to gauge how close it was to what he needed, he frowned.
“What’s wrong?” She’d seen his face furrow.
“The mixture will not have effect for very long.”
“Why’s that?” Greta sounded rather annoyed at the complication.”
“It will last almost an hour, rather than the full day I intended. Supplies being what they are in so remote a location...” he trailed off again. He knew that the people that depended on him to mix their salves and potions and ointments and tonics didn’t much care for how they were made. Only that they were made and that they worked.
“So, he must take it immediately before?”
“Yes.” He thought a moment, trying to determine what he could add to increase the duration. He flipped through the pages of the codex, from the recipes to the ingredients, trying to find something to increase its potency. Finding nothing, he sighed. “I could add a dash of alterous to it, but that would leave him lust addled for hours.”
Greta’s face perked, then slipped back into a frown. “But he’d not be discerning in his… appetite I take it.”
He sighed again, more heavily. When he spoke, he’d already begun to fold the foam into the red liquid, “There’s nothing in my field that can be so precise, I’m afraid.” As he worked the foam into the concoction, it turned a vivid, vital red. “But it will serve your purpose. And all he needs is a drop. Nothing more. It will last you quite some time.” Finally finish mixing the two, he poured the opaque red liquid into the vial. It looked like blood, but shimmered and seemed to give off its own light. The vial filled, he placed a measuring cap on it and pushed it across the counter.
Greta looked at it skeptically. “How do I know that it’ll work?” she asked, doubting Wren’s work for the first time that he could remember.
“I stand behind my work.” Wren held out his hand, waiting for his payment. “That’ll be eight wholes and a half.”
Greta bit her lip, looking around the shop for a moment, attempting, he thought, to find a way to haggle his price down. “Did you already take off the price for your mistake?” she asked.
“A whole and a half for not being exactly what I quoted, yes.”
The woman grumbled as she reached into her coinpurse and removed nine whole silver pieces. She dropped all saw on of them on the counter. “Got a splitter?”
Wren pulled at his apron and reached into the front pocket, pulling out two pieces of a quartered coin. “No halves, but I’ve got two quarters.” He held his hand out to her.
Her thick fingers dropped the coin onto the pile of the others and snatched the quarters. Her other hand clutched the vial of red liquid and tucked it into her dress. “Discount on a refill?” she asked, impatiently.
“No refill. I’ll not be here much longer.” Wren smiled. Greta did as well, not realizing that he actually had a path away from the town now.
“Then until next time, Wren.”
“Enjoy yourself, Gretchen.”
Greta narrowed her eyes for a moment then burst out laughing, knowing that Wren had made a joke., It was the first one she’d heard him tell in ages. She thought that she was finally getting through to him about opening up to the members of the village. He’d lived there his entire life, after all. She couldn’t blame him for being as withdrawn as he was. Not after what had happened. But she could be glad that he was coming back out of his shell.
She turned and left his little apothecary, closing the door behind her. She didn’t know that was to be the last time she’d see him. His letter. He was finally leaving. All he had to do was finish his orders to get money for the trip. Then pack all his things and set out. Within a month, he would be in a new home. A better home. Within a month, he would be an apprentice.
It was another few hours, long after the sun had full set and the night had come, that Wren had finished with his business for the day. He filled another six orders, leaving only three left in his journal open. And he’d only had to turn away one new order.
It was productive, too. The six other orders had netted him fifty-three wholes and three quarters. That gave him a total for the day of sixty-two and a quarter. He put it with the rest of his savings and smiled. He needed money. For… something that he couldn’t quite remember.
Cleaning up the tools for the day, he took pains to refill each of his used ingredients, filling them as they were labeled and placing them back on the well organized shelf. It helped him to do his work when he didn’t have to hunt for things. Finishing that, he took the bowl and the burner back to the kitchen and set them aside. After he woke, he would clean the bowl and make himself porridge. But for now, he was tired and wanted to sleep.
He entered his room and removed his belt, hanging it carefully on a hook on the wall. Nest, he removed his shirt, and felt the letter tumble from it. That was the important thing. It had to be. Probably another rejection from yet another wizard. He sighed, wistfully as he leaned over to pick it up. The letter was in the form of a scroll, rolled carefully and sealed with a wax and stamp. The stamp was some sort of bird. The seal had been cut, probably with Wren’s knife, at some point in the day.
He rolled out the letter, expecting to read another rejection. That was the way of things. Every day for the last seven years, he’d written a different wizard, asking to apprentice under them. And all of them had replied within six weeks that his memory problem was too severe to all him to study the arcane arts.
Glancing through the letter, he saw the purposeful and looping penmanship of a practiced hand. His eyes scanned the contents closely in the dim light of the oil lamp.
Wren immediately reached for his logbook to write down a note so he’d remember it in the morning. He was suddenly excited, but he was also tired and hungry. He would have to do something about it in the morning. At the top of the first empty page he came to, he wrote carefully, “NO NEW CUSTOMERS.”
The rest, he’d have to deal with in the morning. His fingers tucked the letter into the logbook, a makeshift bookmark for his note. Tossing the book into the pile of letters on the chest next to bed, Wren dropped his pants and kicked them to the side of the room, then hopped into bed excitedly. He felt like a child once more, and he hoped that he would be able to contain his enthusiasm over the course of the next few days.
To Wren Davos of Atland
I would like to thank you, first and foremost, for your candor in writing me. It takes a large amount of courage to admit to your condition, but also to the number of rejections that you’ve already received from my brothers in the art. None, I believe, would risk their reputations for any pupil of less than perfect standing.
I think differently, however. If you take a pupil that is almost as good as yourself and turn them into a wizard of exactly your caliber, you’ve done nothing remarkable. But if you take a student that will struggle and strive and test you, and you manage to transform them into a practitioner greater than yourself, it states that you are the vastly greater teacher.
I will accept you as my apprentice. One of them, at least. I try to maintain three to four at all times. It helps to breed a sense of competition which can inspire some to do much better than on their own with the training. The term of the apprenticeship is at least four years, so it will not be immediate that you get to start calling yourself a wizard. Or mage. Or sorcerer. Or whatever nonsense younger folks are calling us now.
Come as soon as you are able to my tower. It’s in a small city near the southern border of the kingdom. There you’ll need to find yourself some lodging for the next couple of months until my eldest apprentice is ready to leave the town. I’ve been told that the “Lamb and the Lance” is probably the most comfortable. I expect to see you in my tower by the next season.