By Chris Garson
Copyright 2014 Chris Garson
Elgin Andelcorn slung the rabbits over his shoulder and glanced through the trees into bright, blue Esel, where the three suns shone overhead. Not a cloud touched the sky. All in all, he had a great day, snagging five conies with his sling. A new record. He’d have had a sixth too, if that crow hadn’t cawed and ruined his aim.
He was late getting home. He promised Ma he’d be back by the top of Imma’s Watch so she’d have plenty of time to whip up a stew for supper, but he lost track of time swimming in the creek. At twelve years old, he ought to be more responsible, at least that’s what Pa said, but Elgin was late more often than not. Most days, being late meant extra chores and a good yelling from Pa, but today of all days he could get away with it.
At the edge of Falmouth Wood, Elgin broke into a trot. Another ten minutes and he’d be home. His family’s farm was just over the rise. From the crest of the hill, he spotted Pa’s wagon, pulled up next to the well, badly in need of repair since the lightning bolt struck it.
Elgin crept through the grass, tall after the heavy rains, getting mud all over his heavy cotton pants and the leather boots he made that spring under Big Sammard’s watchful eye. He snuck up on Pa, who had his back turned, and leapt up from the grass when he was almost upon him. “Boo!”
Pa turned and chuckled as if he was Garruth the Laughing God. “I heard you comin’ a mile away, boy. You gotta break in them new boots.”
Pavid Andelcorn was strong, hardened into an oak of a man from years of farming. Like his father and grandfather before him, Pavid was happiest tilling the fields, pulling the plough and reaping the harvest. Jorgan, Pavid’s eldest son, took after him, but Elgin was cut from different cloth than his brother. Elgin yearned for life beyond the farm. He couldn’t bear the thought of spending his life planting and harvesting, year after year.
“I can never fool you, Pa.”
“Yer late, Elgin. Yer ma’s gonna be ticked off at ya. If this wasn’t yer last night home, I’d give ya a whippin.”
Elgin didn’t like letting his folks down. He wanted them to make them proud. He meant to be on time, but chasing those catfish was too much fun. No wonder Pa still thought him a boy. He didn’t take Pa’s warning seriously though. Pa threatened often, but had only hit Elgin twice – once for lying and once for talking sassy to Ma. “Sorry, Pa.” Then, he brightened, nothing could damper his mood on his last day of freedom. “Look! I got five conies, my most ever.”
“Well then, get yer butt on home so’s yer ma can cook em up nice. But first give me a hand with this here wall.” A pile of bricks to repair the retaining wall lay in the back of the wagon, along with a bucket of pitch. “It’ll do ya good. Ya need to put some muscles on ya, boy, if yer gonna work with Kaldor Smithson. He don’t need no weakling helpin with his forgework. Now start unloading those bricks.”
Elgin didn’t know what he wanted from life, only that farming wasn’t part of the equation. Praise Deridean, for all Pa’s bluster, he was an understanding father. Once Pa got over his initial disappointment, he didn’t object to Elgin leaving the farm. Luckily for him, Jorgan wasn’t going anywhere, so Pa could afford to let him go. In the morning, he would begin his apprenticeship with the smith of Woodmere village. He thought he’d be excited about starting a new life. This was what he wanted, life away from the farm, but a future of shoveling coal and pumping bellows didn’t thrill him either. “Maybe I shouldn’t go to Kaldor’s until I put more meat on my bones?”
Pa made a sour face. “Nonsense, boy. Yer twelve years old. It’s time to earn yer keep. You and I both know you ain’t made for farming, like yer brother is. You take after yer ma, Lillandra bless her. After that mess with Big Sammard, you gotta make it work with Kaldor.” Pa could tolerate him leaving the farm, but laziness was out of the question. A hard day’s work, that’s what a man put in.
Elgin’s time with Big Sammard hadn’t worked out. After two months, the shoemaker sent him back to the farm, hollering about Elgin’s clumsiness and daydreaming. All Elgin had to show for his time with Big Sammard were his boots and a cracked thumbnail. After that, no one in Woodmere wanted to take Elgin on. Pa would never have convinced Kaldor Smithson if the smith hadn’t lost his apprentice two tendays back to an errant horse kick.
“Sure, Pa. “ He set down the rabbits in the grass, went to the back of the wagon and started hauling bricks while Pa straddled what remained of the retaining wall.
“When you’re done, stir the pitch. Once I’ve cleared away the rubble, we’ll lay the new bricks.”
Elgin studied the wall where Pa was sitting. The bricks were cracked and the mortar was loose. “Careful. That doesn’t look so strong.”
“Don’t you worry. I’ve fixed this well since before you were born.” Pa slapped his thigh and laughed, a deep, hearty laugh that echoed in the well below. He kept laughing right up until the laugh turned into a raspy cough rattling from his chest like a Dark One’s war cry. His face turned red and his eyes began to water.
“Pa! You okay?” Elgin asked in a quivering voice. The last year or so, Pa had bad fits. They’d taken him to the old lady in the hills, but her herbs or prayers hadn’t helped.
Pa opened his mouth and gasped for air. “Give me a minute. It’ll pass,” he choked out before succumbing to more coughing spasms bringing up brackish phlegm. Unable to breath, he doubled over and brought his hands to his throat. His eyes bulged out like a frog’s and his red cheeks began to purple.
Elgin watched in horror as Pa toppled over and fell into the well. He heard a splash and then nothing. No coughing, just silence. “Pa,” he screamed.
After what seemed like forever, a weak voice answered. “Elgin …”
He ran to the edge of the well and looked down. In the afternoon Suns, he could clearly see Pa floating thirty feet below. There seemed to be blood on Pa’s face, but he couldn’t be sure. “Are you hurt bad?”
Pa coughed, spitting up bright, red blood. “Erlik’s Eye! Something stuck me on the way down.”
Elgin’s mind raced. He had to help Pa, but didn’t know how. There was a length of rope in the wagon, but he could never haul Pa up and his father was too injured to climb out, even with the rope. “I’ll go find Jorgan.”
“Don’t go,” Pa sputtered, so weak he could barely keep his head above water. “You’ll never get back in time. I love you, Elgin. You’ll make good some day, I just know you will. You just need to find your true calling. Tell your mother I love her. Jorgan too.”
“No, Pa.” He sobbed, terrified at the thought of losing him.
He reached down towards Pa at the bottom of the well, fearful that he was close to taking the Long Walk to Bangal’s Halls of the Dead. The thirty feet separating Elgin from Pa might as well have been the Long Walk itself. It made no difference, thirty feet was as infinitely far away as the Firmament.
Elgin couldn’t let Pa die. He loved him. He didn’t love the farm, but he did love Pa. He needed Pa. His mom needed him. The farm needed him. Jorgan couldn’t keep it going all by himself. Life without Pa flashed before Elgin’s eyes. He saw himself, older and stooped over, wearing Pa’s breeches and planting seed. Suddenly, working the forge with Kaldor Smithson didn’t seem so bad. The moment Elgin had that thought, a pang of guilt struck his gut. Had the Lady of Esel smote Pa to punish Elgin for wanting to leave?
Pa slipped underwater. Only bubbles marked where he’d been treading water.
“Pa! Pa, come back. Come back, Pa!” Elgin strained, stretching his arm until it felt like it would fall off, but it still wasn’t nearly long enough to reach his father. Fear of losing him, of apprenticing to Kaldor Smithson, of accepting responsibility, crashed upon Elgin like a demon from the Dark Lord. It whispered at him to give up, that no one would blame him if Pa died. He’d done all that anyone could do.
He stared at the bottom of the well until the bubbles vanished, heartbroken. There was no trace of Pa, no trace whatsoever. He shouted into the well for Pa to come back. He sobbed, realized he had to tell his mother, and sobbed even more. He shook his fist at Esel, cursing the Lady and her terrible judgment. He almost didn’t hear the splashing.
Elgin looked back down into the well and saw Pa gasping for air and thrashing like a wounded Grush. Still alive, though Elgin didn’t know for how long. It had taken most of his strength to swim back to the surface. Elgin could see the life slipping away in his eyes and thought furiously. There had to be something that he could to do save Pa. He remembered Pa teaching him to make a sling, aim, and skin the rabbit after you’d taken it down, how swim in the creek, bait a hook, and cast deep where the trout would bite. He remembered all this and so much more and swore to himself and Finbardin, King of Heaven, that he would not let Pa die.
Elgin felt a sharp tug in his head, like a rubber band snapping, and the world changed over. Time seemed to crawl, moving as slow the world must seem to a hummingbird. He could follow the movement of every drop of water in the splashes below, and count to ten while Pa blinked. He became aware of a glow in the air, a palpable energy infusing the world around him. The glow had always been there, but he hadn’t seen it. Only now, with strength of will born from desperate need, did the veil lift from his eyes. This glorious light came from beyond Esel. It came from the Firmament, from the Outermost Heavens, its source the Spires of Thought, built by Harnor, the patron of magik, when the gods were still young.
Through his outstretched hand, the Spire’s energy came to Elgin, filling him with elation and power. His senses were on fire. He heard flies buzzing in the field, the wagon creaking in the wind, Pa’s anguished breathing. He smelled rain upon the grass, the pungent tar, and his father’s blood in the water.
The hairs on his arms bristled. His fingertips tingled. The glow of the Spires warmed him better than the farm’s wood stove when Kandalla’s icy breath blew strongest. The energy swelled, begging for release and Elgin reached for Pa again. He clenched his fingers, as if he were grabbing Pa by the collar and pulled with all his might. He looked up into Esel and imagined the crystal Spires glistening from above.
Invisible fingers lifted Pa. Elgin felt as if his arm was ripping out of it socket, but he wouldn’t let go. He tugged. Like a feather upon the wind, Pa’s body rose from the water, until it was up and over the edge of the retaining wall. He gently lowered his father to the ground and let go of the energy. He wanted to whoop with relief that Pa wouldn’t drown, but they weren’t out of the woods yet.
Without the Spires sustaining him, exhaustion overcame Elgin and the world dimmed to usual, no longer vivid as a painting. He panted, out of breath, and was sweating like he’d plowed the back field. His shoulder no longer hurt, but his entire body was numb and weak, like he hadn’t eaten in a tenday.
He shoved his wonder and his weariness aside and crawled to Pa. A piece of wood the thickness of an arrow was sticking out. It entered through his lower back and went nearly all the way through. His breathing was shallow. He’d lost a lot of blood.
His father’s eyes were full of questions, but there was no time to ask them. “You got to pull it out,” he wheezed.
Elgin bit his lip to keep from crying. “I can’t. You’ll bleed out.”
“Not … not if you use the pitch.”
Elgin knew right away what Pa meant. A pitch fire burned down the barn two summers back. He could do this, he told himself. He hadn’t saved his father from drowning only to lose him now. “But …”
Pa clenched his jaw. “There’s no choice. You gotta do this, Elgin.”
Elgin scooped a trowel of pitch from the bucket and lit a torch, which he set down a safe distance from the trowel. Then he put his hands around the protruding shaft of wood. They were shaking. He tried not to think how much this would hurt. Instead, he forced himself to remember the wonder and glory of the Spires. “Ready?”
Pa nodded and closed his eyes.
Elgin inhaled and tugged sharply. The shaft came out cleanly. Blood spilled from the open wound. Hands still aquiver, he began the dreadful task of caulking the wound with pitch. Elgin did his best, but Pa squirmed, bravely quiet at his touch. When he finished, he handed the shaft to his father and picked up the torch. “That was the easy part, Pa. Bite down.”
Pa gazed up at Elgin, eyes brimming with newfound respect and fatherly pride. “I guess there’s some good come out of this. No Kaldor Smithson for you, boy. It’s off to Colcester with ya.” He squeezed his eyes shut and bit down.
Colcester! Where wizards went to learn magik!