Snippet – The Cunning Man’s Tale

26 Oct

Hi, everyone

The Cunning Man’s Tale is a short story/novella for Fantastic Schools III, set in Heart’s Eye.  It takes place at roughly the same time as Little Witches (more or less.)  It should be more or less stand-alone.

I’m trying two different things here.  First, this story is written in first person (rather than third person).  I’ve done that before, but this is the first time I’ve done it for SIM.  Second, I planned this novella with the intention of eventually filling it out and turning it into a more serious novel.  If you have any suggestions for expansion and suchlike, please feel free to pass them to me.


PS – If you read, please comment from time to time.  It encourages me.

PPS – If you want to write yourself, check out the link below.

Chapter One

I had barely rested my head on the pillow when I was awakened by a terrific banging.

I jumped awake, half-convinced I’d overslept and my master was furious.  Master Pittwater was decent and easy-going, as masters went, but he had every right to be upset if I’d overslept.  The apothecary didn’t run itself, as I knew all too well.  If Master Pittwater had to work the counter himself, he was going to be mad.  He needed to restock on a dozen potions before the rush began …

My head spun as I sat up.  Where was I?  It wasn’t my garret above the shop.  It wasn’t the bedroom I’d shared with my brothers, back in Beneficence.  It was a small room, bare and barren save for an uncomfortable bed, illuminated by a single glowing crystal.  My bag lay in the corner, where I’d left it … I blinked as memory returned.  I’d been so tired, when I’d finally reached Heart’s Eye, that I had very little awareness of being shown to a room and collapsing into sleep.  Master Pittwater had warned me about portal lag, about the body being convinced it was in one time zone while actually being in another, but I hadn’t believed it.  Not until now.  The clock on the wall insisted it was ten bells, but it felt like the middle of the night.

There was another hard knock on the door.  I cursed as I stumbled to my feet and staggered towards the sound.  I honestly had no idea who was out there.  Master Pittwater had promised he’d make the arrangements, and advised me to check in with Master Landis as soon as I arrived, but I couldn’t remember if I actually had.  Everything – the portals, the train – was a blur.  I wondered, as I turned the doorknob, if I actually was in Heart’s Eye.  It was quite possible I’d been in such a state that I’d gone to the wrong place.

“Well,” a feminine voice said, as I opened the door.  “It’s about time.”

I blinked in surprise.  A girl – young woman, really – was standing on the far side of the door, eying me as if I was something particularly unpleasant under her foot.  She was striking, in a way that most female magicians are striking, and yet the sneer on her face made it hard to like her.  Her eyes narrowed with contempt as she looked me up and down.  I looked back at her, noting the long red hair and magical robes.  Her skin was unmarked by life, her hands lacking the scars on mine.  She looked like a person from another world.

“I trust you have been getting ready to attend upon us?”  The girl sounded as though she didn’t believe it.  “Or have you been lollygagging around in bed …?”

She looked past me, as if she expected to discover that I wasn’t alone.  I felt my temper flare.  I didn’t know who she was, or who she thought I was, but I didn’t like anyone talking to me like that.  I was a free citizen of Beneficence, not a serf or a slave or a runaway peasant.  I might be an apprentice, but I had rights.  They didn’t include having to take such … disdain … from someone who was clearly as immature as someone half her age.

I cleared my throat.  “Who are you?”

“Lilith,” the girl snapped.  “Don’t you know me?”

“No,” I said, in honest bemusement.  I was supposed to know her?  She wasn’t a customer at the shop – my former shop – and I was fairly sure she didn’t live in Beneficence.  Even the snootier magicians at least tried to be polite.  Mostly.  “Am I supposed to know you?”

Lilith gave me a nasty look.  “I am” – she paused, clearly rethinking what she was about to say – “I am Master Landis’s apprentice.  And I have to take you to the lab.”

She looked me up and down.  “And you’re not even appropriately dressed!”

“I only got in last night,” I said.  The urge to just slam the door in her face was overwhelming.  “You woke me up.”

“That won’t do at all,” Lilith said.  “Get dressed in lab robes and meet me there in ten minutes and …”

“I don’t even know where the lab is,” I said.  “I can’t …”

Lilith scowled.  “Get dressed,” she ordered.  “I’ll wait outside.  Hurry.”

I scowled back as I closed the door, opened my bag and dug through it for the apprenticeship robe.  Master Pittwater had given it to me as his farewell present, along with a handful of printed textbooks and tomes.  I felt grimy as I shucked my trousers and shirt, taking time to change my underwear before pulling the robe over my head.  I had been far too long since I’d had a proper shower, let alone a bath.  Master Pittwater had been insistent I shower every day, if I lived above the shop.  I’d grown used to the luxury.

Gritting my teeth, I dug out the letters of introduction and slipped them into my pocket.  Master Pittwater had assured me that everything had been sorted, that Master Landis would give me a fair shot at an apprenticeship.  He hadn’t mentioned another apprentice, a girl no less.  I wasn’t sure what to make of that.  Female apprentices were rare, outside the magical community.  And Lilith clearly had a massive chip on her shoulder.  If I’d shown that sort of attitude, I would have been in deep trouble.

“You’re not an apprentice,” Lilith said, when I opened the door.  “You shouldn’t be wearing those robes.”

I glared at her, feeling pushed to breaking point.  “I came here for an apprenticeship,” I said, sharply.  “Shouldn’t I be dressed for the part?”

“You’re not a real apprentice,” Lilith countered.  She held up her palm.  A spark of light danced over her skin.  It was a trick magicians often used to identify themselves.  I tried not to wince as I looked at the reminder I would never be a magician.  “All you’re good for is preparing the ingredients.  Menial work.”

She turned and marched down the corridor, then stopped.  “Did you even think to have something to eat?”

“No,” I said.  I was used to hunger – my family had never been wealthy enough to be sure of putting food on the table – and I could have gone on for quite some time without making mistakes, but I wanted to irritate her.  Just a little.  “Is there something to eat?”

Lilith snorted and turned to walk down a staircase.  “Follow me,” she snapped.  “And stay a step or two behind me.”

I ignored the insult as I peered around with interest.  Heart’s Eye was big, easily larger than anything I’d seen in the city.  The corridors seemed like giant mazes, although someone had helpfully hung signs and markers everywhere.  There were no paintings on the walls, save for a handful of strikingly-realistic portraits.  I frowned as I ran my eye over the names below the portraits.  MISTRESS IRENE.   LADY EMILY … the Emily, I assumed.  CALEB.  MASTER LANDIS … I stopped to study his face, wondering just how closely the painting matched reality.  He looked very different to Master Pittwater.  A pale face, neatly-trimmed goatee, green eyes … I couldn’t help thinking he reminded me of someone, although I wasn’t sure who.

“That’s your new boss,” Lilith said.  She seemed in no hurry, all of a sudden.  “We don’t want people forgetting who runs this place.”

I gave her a sharp look.  “Do you even want to be here?”

Lilith looked thoroughly displeased.  “I have no choice,” she said.  “You do.  Why don’t you leave.”

She turned and strode down the corridor before I could think of a reply.  I glared at her back as I started to follow her.  I didn’t have a choice, not if I wanted to be something more than an apothecary’s assistant.  Master Pittwater had made that clear, when he’d told me I could go no further in his employ.  I could either accept being a lowly assistant for the rest of my life or take a chance on Heart’s Eye.  He hadn’t promised me it would be easy.

I heard people talking as we reached the bottom of the corridor and stepped into a large hall.  It was crammed with people, ranging from students to older men and women wearing worker’s overalls and protective outfits.  The tables seemed to be scattered at random, although I could tell there were dozens of groups and subgroups already.  I glanced from table to table, noting youngsters who were clearly magicians and men who looked like proud craftsmen.  I felt a tinge of envy.  I’d thought about becoming a craftsman myself, but I hadn’t been able to get an apprenticeship.

Lilith pointed to the table at the front of the hall, raising her voice so I could hear over the din.  “Take what you want,” she said.  “Don’t worry about paying for it.”

“Really?”  It sounded as if she wanted to get me in hot water.  “Are you sure?”

“Yeah,” Lilith said.  She walked beside me, the crowd parting in front of her.  I couldn’t help noticing that she – and I – were getting wary looks, even from the magicians.  “Right now, the food is free.”

It was also very basic, I decided, as I filled a bowl with porridge and dried fruit.  Oats were easy to grow, if I recalled correctly; they were probably shipped in by the ton through the portals.  Or something.  Heart’s Eye was in the middle of a desert, but I’d been told the land was slowly becoming fertile again.  I put the matter aside for later consideration as we sat down, Lilith nursing a mug of Kava.  I couldn’t help thinking we were in a bubble.  The others gave us a wide berth.  Even the magicians seemed wary of her.

“Eat quickly,” Lilith said.  She didn’t seem pleased with her seeming unpopularity.  “We don’t have much time.”

I nodded and tucked into the porridge.  It tasted bland, but I knew I should be glad to have it.  My stomach growled warningly, suggesting I should go back for seconds.  There was dried fish too, as well as meats I didn’t recognise.  I wanted to go, but Lilith was clearly impatient.  I drank my Kava – stronger than anything I’d had back home – and stood, carrying the plates and bowls to the collection point.  It looked as if the staff had a full-time job.

“Who does the cooking?”  I asked, as Lilith led me out of the hall.  “And everything else?”

“Depends,” Lilith said.  “The cooks do the cooking” – she wasn’t looking at me, but I could hear the sneer – “assisted by students who are working their way through the university courses.  They do the labour and, in exchange, are allowed to attend courses.  It is quite the arrangement.”

I stared at her back.  “What’s wrong with it?”

“They cannot use it,” Lilith said.  “What’s the point?”

I couldn’t put my feelings into words.  Lilith didn’t seem to notice as she walked down two flights of stairs and along a long corridor.  I felt a tingle passing through me, my hair threatening to stand on end, as we crossed the wards.  Silence fell, noticeably.  I hadn’t really been aware of the background noise until it was gone.  A pair of young girls walked past us, going in the other direction.  They both gave Lilith a wide berth.  I frowned.  Lilith wasn’t that bad, was she?  I’d met people who were worse.

“This is the lab,” Lilith said, as she pushed open a door.  “Master Landis will key you into the wards, once you prove yourself.”

“I proved myself to Master Pittwater,” I protested.  “I know …”

“An apothecary,” Lilith said, in a tone that suggested Master Pittwater was one step above a gutter rat.  “This is an alchemical lab.  The rules are different.”

She muttered a word as she stepped inside.  The air glowed with light.  I felt a thrill, despite myself, as I looked around.  The chamber was massive, a dozen wooden tables – neatly spaced, in line with the rules Master Pitt water had drummed into me – dominating the room.  The walls were lined with shelves upon shelves of potion ingredients, alchemical textbooks and everything an alchemist needed, from cauldrons to glass vials, jars and bottles.  I stepped closer, admiring the collection of ingredients.  A number were so expensive that Master Pittwater had rarely, if ever, used them.  I couldn’t help shuddering as I saw a pickled frog in a jar.

“That was a boy who tried to kiss me,” Lilith said.  I couldn’t tell if she was joking or not.  “I turned him into a frog and pickled him.”

I felt sick.  “Do you think that’s funny?”

Lilith shrugged.  “There’s a washroom through there,” she said.  “I take it you know how to wash your hands and put on a proper apron?”

I didn’t bother to dignify that stupid question with a stupid answer.  I hadn’t worked a day in the shop before I’d learnt the dangers of cross-contamination and injury.  It was very easy to get seriously hurt, even if one couldn’t brew the more dangerous potions.  I’d helped Master Pittwater clean the wounds, after one of his previous ancestors had splashed himself with cockatrice blood.  It wasn’t as lethal as basilisk or manticore venom, but it had still done enough damage to terminate the poor man’s career.  I had no idea what had happened to him afterwards.  I hoped he wasn’t starving on the streets somewhere.

Lilith rattled around in the lab as I washed and dried my hands, then donned a apron.  It wouldn’t provide much protection, if a cauldron exploded, but it might give me a few seconds to tear it off before the boiling liquid burned through to my skin.  I tested it lightly, making sure I could pull it free, then headed back into the lab.  Lilith had laid out a set of ingredients, and a small collection of tools.  I felt a thrill when I looked at them.  I knew how to use them all.

“To work,” Lilith ordered.  She jabbed a finger at the pile.  “Ready these for use.”

I frowned as I stared at the pile.  Some were common, so common a child could prepare them properly.  A couple required almost no preparation.  The remainder were tricky.  I couldn’t prepare them unless I knew what we were going to brew.  The Darkle Roots needed to be sliced one way for a sleeping potion and quite another way for a purgative.  The Candy Seeds needed to be left intact for a shape-change potion and crushed for a healing potion.  And the daises … Master Pittwater had joked about a vile old witch who found daises soothing, but – as far as I knew – they had no real magical applications.  They were useless.

“Interesting,” I said, as neutrally as I could.  “What are we going to brew?”

Lilith sniffed.  “A simple painkilling potion,” she said.  She hadn’t said which one.  There were over fifty different recipes, with varying levels of potency.  “Prepare the ingredients.”

I kept my face under tight control as I considered the recipes I’d memorised.  There were only four that involved all, but one of the ingredients.  The daisies were a mystery.  I shrugged, resisting the urge to ask about them as I started to work.  I chopped up the Darkle Roots, being very careful to avoid mixing them with the Hawthorne Thistles.  They didn’t go well together unless they were blended in a cauldron.  The Jigger Stems were of too poor quality for two of the four recipes, so I angled my work towards the remaining two.  Lilith watched, occasionally tossing in a question.  I was almost insulted.  I’d covered most of them within the first two months of my time in the shop.

“I’ve done everything, but the daises,” I said, finally.  “What are we going to brew?”

Lilith snorted.  “We?  I’m going to brew …”

I felt my temper snap.  “I just prepared the ingredients for you,” I said, sharply.  A thought struck me.  “Did I just help you with your work?”

“It’s your job,” Lilith snapped.  “You prepare the ingredients.  I turn them into potions!”

“I came here for an apprenticeship, not to be a servant,” I snapped back.  I didn’t mind preparing ingredients.  It was part of the job.  But I didn’t want to be just a preparer.  “I need to learn to brew and …”

“With what?”  Lilith turned to face me.  “You have no magic.  You can toss this lot into a cauldron and get what?  Sludge!  You cannot do anything with this.  All you’re good for is preparing the ingredients!”

“I can learn,” I said.  “I can …”

Lilith jabbed a finger at me.  My entire body froze.  I could neither move nor speak.

“I learnt that spell before I went to school,” Lilith said.  She tapped me on the head.  It sounded as if she’d rapped her knuckles against solid metal.  “You are powerless against it.  You cannot defend yourself against even the merest touch of magic.  You have no place here, save as a servant to your betters.  And the sooner you learn it, the better.”

I struggled to move, but I couldn’t.  My entire body was locked solid.  I couldn’t even move my eyes.  I watched, helplessly, as Lilith took the ingredients I’d lovingly prepared and started to turn them into a potion.  She was good, I admitted grudgingly; she was far better than the other apprentices I’d met.  Her fingers moved with easy skill, her magic sparking with life as she worked.  And yet she thought of me as a servant …

My heart sank.  How the hell did I get into this mess?

8 Responses to “Snippet – The Cunning Man’s Tale”

  1. ACYoung October 26, 2020 at 3:05 pm #

    The age-old problem of those who have power thinking that they are innately superior to those who don’t… Lilith definitely has a magical superiority complex.

    This opening chapter whets the appetite, and even better the story can go in any one of a number of directions from here. E.g. we have yet to see Master Landis – is he like Lilith (a non-magician is inferior to a magician) or does he try to respect non-magicians for the abilities and skills that they do have? Master Landis’ attitude will (amongst other impacts on the tale) determine whether he thinks Lilith’s behaviour at the end of this chapter to be acceptable or not.

    In addition there is already a clash between the values of Heart’s Eye (set up to be a place where magicians and non-magicians can learn to work together) and the values of Lilith (at least). How this clash will play out has yet to be revealed.

    I’m looking forward to reading the full tale.

  2. An October 30, 2020 at 7:23 pm #

    Hmm, it was a good start but missing from the beginning is enough info about the character, a boy or a girl? approximate age, 14 or 18?, how long was he/she was an apothecary assistant? what does he/she expect to learn at Hearts eye?… anything so that we can identify better with the character and his /her plight….

    Isn’t Master Landis part of the Old Boy network that wanted to buy Hearts Eye from Emily and that she ask to be on the board simply to include them?

    Why would Mistress Irene allow a “student” like Lilith to be at the school? Lilith attitude is so far removed from what Emily wanted to see at Hearts Eye that I can’t believe that she is there, why is she there? Obviously everyone is aware of what she is like the way they pulled away from her, that it doesn’t make any sense at all. It would be a good story for anyone that isn’t already familiar with the SIM books, but for those that have read SIM, it isn’t really going to make sense.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard October 30, 2020 at 7:33 pm #

      Minor “spoiler”.

      Lilith is the daughter of one of the teachers there. 😉

  3. Holly November 30, 2020 at 1:46 am #

    This is definitely a budding romance….a la pride and prejudice. Both have a lot to learn about the other. He’s poor, while she feels unloved or less special than other magicians.

    • chrishanger December 2, 2020 at 3:47 pm #

      Probably something for the developed novel.


  4. someUnamedCanuck January 2, 2021 at 3:43 pm #

    You said to leave a comment because it encourages you. Well I’d like to encourage you so here’s a comment. For the sake of having some content it seems you like to comment on wider society. I enjoy this and find it interesting on the other hand I also read for escapism so really don’t want too much of it.
    Regards this story as a practical matter I do get sucked into the longer series with a single character at the center such as Emily, but find these smaller stories about less important and powerful characters to be much more relatable.
    Finally I’m amazed at the volume of your output. How do you manage it? What’s your average word count for a day or week? Do you revise much? I do hope you’re not hurting your health with it.
    Above all keep up the good work.
    What’s his face who doesn’t like his name being on the Internet.

    • chrishanger January 27, 2021 at 10:51 am #

      My average word count is around 9000 a day – not counting time spent editing and suchlike


      • Neill B. September 8, 2021 at 7:49 pm #

        Well, that explains why I have 105 of your books (so far)! Please finish the Cunning Man soon.

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