The light streaming in through the open door at the front of the cave woke the boy. After several hours of trying to sleep, with every little noise startling him, he had finally dozed off. The mage CulluC walked in through the door and slammed it shut behind him, he wasn't in a good mood. Last night CulluC had attempted a very difficult spell, it was Phlay's inexperience that had ruined the spell and the mage wasn't going to forget.
"Wake up flea! drag your self out of your pit, we've got work to do." CulluC strode up to the rickety cot and kicked it, setting it creaking from side to side. The boy pulled the thin blanket over his head and mumbled "It's Phlay not flea". The wizard, who had turned away shouted over his shoulder,"Did you say something, boy!".
"No master, just clearing my throat". CulluC disappeared into his quarters behind a crude wooden wall opposite his dark corner. Phlay had never been in that part of the cave, he wasn't allowed. That was one thing CulluC had stressed when he had first arrived here, but since the wizard had changed he wouldn't dare anyway.
Although he was very tired he managed to get out of bed and get dressed fairly quickly. He was just ready when CulluC emerged, "Right boy, go down to the stream and fetch me some cold water.
o...you...understand? Not warm from the puddles, cold from the bottom of the stream. Is that simple enough for you?" With those few quick instructions he hit Phlay on the head, pushed a leather bucket into his arms, put one hand on his head and guided him out of the door. The door slammed shut behind him. Phlay tottered back up the hill a few minutes later with the heavy bucket sloshing icy water down his leg.
Glancing at the sun to check the time, a memory suddenly appeared in his head and he was taken back to his first days here as CulluC's apprentice.
"Now young man", CulluC had said."Your father is a farmer, right?" Phlay nodded in agreement, he was still too awe struck to speak much. Imagine, him little Phlay being trained to be a wizard of all things.
"So he needs to know the seasons so he can plant his crops, do you see?" Phlay nodded eagerly. "But", CulluC held up a finger for dramatic effect. "The seasons take weeks to change, see? Then again there are Blacksmiths, when it's light they get up, when it's dark they go to bed. They don't care what season it is, just as long as people bring in the horses and what not." CulluC leaned closer to Phlay and whispered "But me and thee, my little flea, need to know the time you see?" CulluC straightened up and laughed a jolly laugh.
"It's the magic you see, no good just boiling a cauldron full of stuff till it tastes right, like your mum's stew. We've got to know how long it's been there. Not only that, but what time of day or night as well." He suddenly looked Phlay straight in the eye, "How do you know it's midnight?" Phlay looked at his boots until CulluC ruffled his hair, "Don't worry yourself my little flea, all will become clear" and he tapped the side of his nose, a huge grin on his face.
CulluC had been so kind at first. Not now though, not since he came home from one of his trips wearing that ring. Phlay shivered, not only from the cold.
"About time too!" shouted CulluC as he fumbled the door open. He snatched the now half empty bucket out of Phlay's hand and carried it to the workbench, gruffly he shouted "Go cut some firewood, no, go cut lots of firewood, big thick pieces." Phlay lifted the heavy axe from its place by the door and left without saying a word. Chopping wood wasn't exactly easy but it kept him out of the cave for a while.
The nearest trees of any size, apart from the old Hazel that grew up one side of the cave, were quite a distance away. A dark wood grew at the top of the long valley. To reach the cave from the west meant passing through this thick tangle of trees, very few bothered. Phlay stopped on the edge of the wood and looked around. He kept telling himself he was a wizard, the things hiding in the gloom should be afraid of him, not the other way around.
He got to work quickly, hacking at a tree he had felled a few days ago. Phlay was a pretty skilled axeman for his years and soon had a large pile of logs without too much trouble. Of course ,thought Phlay, CulluC could have cut twice as much in half the time with a spell, but he didn't do menial work these days. At least getting the wood up the hill was no problem, his master had taught him a few things, fairly simple stuff but they made his life easier.
Phlay pulled a long feather from his inside pocket. Then he looked around for some kind of crawling insect. He pulled some bark away from one of the logs, underneath were several fat, white grubs. Holding the feather in one hand, the grub in the other he began to chant. As the last syllable of the chant left his tongue he flicked the grub into the log pile with the feather. A tiny streak of yellow light flashed briefly behind the grub which disappeared between the logs. A second or two later the logs began to move, shaking at first then rising up like a long snake. Phlay concentrated on forming a picture of the cave in his mind, then he issued a command to the log snake, "Home!"
One by one the lengths of wood joined nose to tail as the leader slithered up the hill. Phlay walked proudly beside the strange beast, this was easily the largest amount of wood he had ever managed to move in one go. Phlay opened the cave door and began shepherding the wood towards the fire place. On hearing the noise CulluC turned from his workbench. He suddenly stood up, knocking his stool over. He shouted something and pointed his finger at the head of the wooden snake.
A bolt of blue lightening blasted from his finger and smashed the first four logs to kindling. Phlay stumbled back against the door in fright, scattering the now lifeless logs. The mage stormed up to Phlay and grabbed his arms. The grip was so tight Phlay cried out, but CulluC didn't seem to hear. "I...!" CulluC's face was a mask of anger, his eyes burning with some inner fire, "...am the mage around here, until I say you are ready, you can keep what you have learned inside your thick skull! Understand!"
"Y...Yes, master, but I am supposed to be your apprentice".
"Apprentice! You are nothing but an idle, butterfingered feather brained simpleton! A flea sent to torment me! Why I ever chose you I'll never know, I'd send you back to your family but they wouldn't want you!" Phlay felt a hot tear roll down his cheek, before he could stop himself he had shouted out, "At least I have a family, not even a dog would stay around you for long!" CulluC threw Phlay to the ground, his staff flew to his hand as he lifted his arm, but instead of striking, he stopped as if in thought.
"Let's see how you get on as a dog shall we." CulluC laughed loudly as he tapped Phlay's hands. Slowly Phlay lowered the hands he had held over his head for protection. He felt them tingle and itch, then grow hot. His finger bones began to writhe and crack, becoming shorter and wider, sending waves of pain along his wrists. He stared at his hands in horror as they blackened and shrank, looked on in terror as short claws sprouted from the tip of each finger. Phlay found himself unable to look away, for now instead of hands he had paws!
- Copyright Steve Dean