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The Tale of the Apprentice #2

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The morning bell and the sun peering through his window dragged Tarranau out of bed the next day, groggy and bleary-eyed with the early hour, only shortly after sunrise. Walking over to the desk, he reached down and splashed some water on his face, then went to the mirror to try and straighten the horrible mess of hair that sat atop his head. A glance told him that he had used the murky sea water from yesterday to wash the sleep out of his face, and back he went, this time plunging his face into the wash bowl that sat on one side of his work table, the clean water waking him up fully and cleaning off the green and salty residue. Another quick pass with the comb made him at least presentable, and shrugging his robes on over his nightclothes, he went off to the dining hall, in search of some breakfast.

A bowl of oatmeal saw Tarranau on the way to his first class, about the theory and nature of tides and waves. Important for those who planned to be mariners, but the apprentice never gave it much attention, except those times the class was spent on location, examining the waves and tides from a boat. Today was not one of those days, and so he stayed in the back, paying attention with one ear, but mostly dreaming, as much about going back to sleep as any other occurrence.

He struggled through most of the rest of the day, grabbing a quick lunch between two classes, before finally ending up in his last class. Unfortunately, his last class was taught by Magister Gothren, the same one who had sent the bucket of sea water the night before as homework. It was a class called “The Theory and Practice of Transmutation”, and the teaching mainly revolved around the alteration of one liquid into another, similar liquid. The most basic of these was simply purifying water, changing it from a less pure to a more pure form, and sometimes the other way around for practice. Tarranau was not skilled at either of these transmutations, nor any of the stronger ones, and so Gothren drove him hard, especially since the student was generally above average in all of the other classes that he took, although never the top of the class. Extra assignments such as the bucket, which Tarranau was sure Gothren would talk to him after class about, were becoming the norm for the class and resulting in Tarranau spending more of his time on his worst subject than any other. He also knew more or less what Gothren's argument would be this time, since it had occurred several times since the beginning of the term, and always when Tarranau didn't fully complete an assignment.

Sitting down in the middle of the classroom, Tarranau struggled through the class, the lecture about excising the impure elements, leaving the pure element of water behind, waiting for the moment afterwards as Gothren dismissed the rest that he would turn to the unskilled student and crook his finger, indicating that he was to stay behind and talk. The bell finally struck, dismissing the other students and ending the class day, and Tarranau got up and turned to file out of the classroom with the rest. A discrete cough sounded behind him, and he turned around, catching Magister Gothren's eye and his hand, which was gesturing to a seat just in front of the teacher, and on top of which was the same bucket of water that had been sent to his room last night.

Tarranau made his way to the seat, sitting down and waiting for the teacher to begin his lecture. Gothren stood up and began to pace behind the lectern, four steps to the left, then around and four more back to the right, hands clasped behind his back, staring at the ground with occasional glances over at the bucket of the sea water and at the student sitting behind it. He continued this pacing for more than five minutes, drawing it out so that Tarranau began to feel nervous and uncomfortable in the chair, wondering if he should be the one to speak first, even though Magister Gothren disliked being upstaged by students, and was often harsh in the class room on those who tried to make a counter argument to any point he made.

He finally stopped his pacing, turning and looking straight at Tarranau, his face slightly contorted into a face the students had learned as one that meant he was angry or annoyed at something, and even more curmudgeonly than normal. Tarranau sat back in the chair, shifting away from the glare of the Magister, wishing that he hadn't turned around when the teacher had coughed. This was going to be one of the bad times, where the apprentice would have to withstand a long yelling period without saying anything to aggravate it any more.

“Do you know why you have been called here?” “Yes sir. Because I was deficient at water purification.” “No! It is because you are lazy! You do not try. You do not pay full attention in class. Today, you were thinking about something else. You focus on anything but the assignment. Your attitude makes a mockery of the goals of this class, and your work is pathetic. You have barely completed a single task that has been given to you, and those that you do always take far longer than is required. Unless you manage to bring your performance in this class up to a level that is acceptable, I will recommend that you are unfit for service as a ship's mage”. Given that almost every student in the school had a goal of being a ship's mage, this was effectively saying that the student's time here had been wasted, and Tarranau's parents would have scraped and spent a large portion of their income, and it would have come to nothing.

“Well, what do you have to say? Do you have no response? Will you sit there mute and uncommunicative, just as you are in my classes?” “No sir.” There was little Tarranau could say. Talking back would infuriate Magister Gothren, and nothing he could say would help, and so he just had to wait it out. “Well, since I have you here, I want you to finish this task.” Gothren slammed the bucket on the desk in front of Tarranau, sloshing some of the water out onto the student's robes. “Don't wait, student, this is the time for you to show me you can actually work.” Magister Gothren swept his robes about him and sat behind his desk, his eyes a focused stare on the bucket in front of Tarranau. When the apprentice waited before beginning to focus on the water, Gothren sat up and gestured imperiously. “Begin, boy”.

Tarranau sighed, placing his hands on either side of the bucket, leaning over to stare down at the water, and concentrated, clearing his mind of all but the purity of water, and envisioning the water in front of him as pure and as clean as the ideal water held in his mind. He closed his eyes, attempting to blank out of the sight of Gothren, but the image persisted in memory of the eyes focused on his face. He pushed it as far away as it would go, thinking only of the cleanliness of the water, hands grasped tightly around the bucket, his muscles taught.

Tarranau began to sweat, the concentration demanding bodily exertion, the liquid slowly sliding down his face, pooling on the tip of his nose. It held there a moment, beading and swelling as more sweat ran down Tarranau's face, before finally gathering and falling, its grip failing as it plunged towards the salt water in the bucket. The droplet hit the surface of the water, a loud plop as it slapped into the brine, ripples rolling out across the top, little waves rebounding off the sides of the bucket. The sound snapped Tarranau's concentration, his eyes opening as he shifted away from his internal focus back to accepting input from external sources, the water in the pail before him coming into view as the initial blurring disappeared, his eyes refocusing on the desk before him. He looked at the water, and while it had cleared somewhat, there was still a green tinge to the water and algae and other small debris floated in the water, giving it a pungent, unpleasant odour.

Magister Gothren uncoiled himself from behind the desk, standing up and adjusting his robes before walking over to the container, looking down into it, dipping a finger into the water and bringing it to his lips, running his tongue over the tip to lick off the slight covering of moisture, pausing and savouring the taste as if it were a delicacy. Tarranau waited, one hand wiping the sweat off of his face and then onto his robe, leaving a wet smear across his thigh.

“You need work. There is a touch as well as pure willpower. Practice it, and bring me another pail, purified, at the end of next week. Now go home, and clean that mark off your robe. I will not have you look uncouth while representing this institution of learning.” Those words of effusive praise ringing in his ears, Tarranau scampered from the room, looking not to clean his robe, but simply to remove himself from the presence of a teacher who could come up with another task for him to study, one that would take even more of the time out of what he had planned that day for other things. His first thought was to head back out onto the cliffs for a view of the sea and a place of peace and quiet, but that option was quickly taken away when he looked up, as growing winds and a grey cloud bank told him that there was a storm coming towards the harbour, and up on those sheer rock walls and stubbly grass, there was no barrier between him and the wind and rain, and fog could easily disguise the drop. More than one student or other wanderer of the hills had had their life ended by slipping off of the crags during a storm, the most recent being a young boy from the school who was homesick and took to walking the crags alone. He'd not been seen for a day or two, causing one teacher to complain to another that the boy had not showed in classes, and was underperforming.

That conversation had lead to the two teachers asking if any other had seen the boy for the last several days, and when none had, a search team comprised mostly of fishermen from the harbour along with several of the students and teachers who knew what he looked like had been sent out to scour the cliffs, searching for signs of the apprentice's passing. Little had been found, because of the storm that had passed through, muddying and obscuring any spore that the boy might have left behind, and he had been given up for lost after two days of the search. Lost, or having returned to his parents, something he had spoken about several times to other students, a longing to see his mother and brother a stronger calling than the far off promise of life as a ship's mage.

The young boy was put out of the minds of the school and the students, who all assumed that he had gotten a fisherman or a trader to take him up the coast to a place near his family. Tarranau had seen him several times and knew the boy, since they both frequented the same areas of the cliffs, but neither were ever really in a mood for conversation when they strode the rocky mounts, and so had just passed with a wave and a brief hello. Because of that, Tarranau had been one of the students called on to try and find the student when he disappeared, but the two days of empty searching and no discoveries meant that the school had given up on a satisfactory conclusion to the matter, or at least one that answered all of the questions the situation posed.

The next week, after the searching for the boy had concluded, Tarranau was down among the ships and sailors of the dock district, performing a few tasks for one of the boats down there, mostly pointing out where there were leaks and cracks in his fish storage bins and in the hull of his boat, for he'd been caught out in the same storm into which the young student had disappeared. Midway through the proceedings, and down in the hull of the fishing sloop, Tarranau had hear the pounding of feet on the deck above him, the wooden planks reverberating in a fast drumbeat, as the sailor standing look out (up there to ensure none of the cargo was tampered with and no one attempted to sneak onto the sloop) ran down the stairs, yelling for “that apprentice mage” to come up with him, and that “they'd found him”. Tarranau couldn't discern the meaning behind the jumbled and excited phrases, and quickly ran up the gangway after the sailor.

Standing on the gangplank, the fisherman pointed at a motley progression that was quickly forming as gawking onlookers walked quickly over to a small group of sailors, and then away again, shaking their heads and muttering to themselves. Tarranau began walking over there himself, wondering exactly what had caused the display from the usually taciturn sailors, when he saw a blue cloth hanging down from the arm of the central man in the group ahead, who was a big tiller man from one of the larger fishing ships that sailed from this harbour, a trawler that used dragnets to pull up whole schools of fish at once. That blue was the same colour as the robes that Tarranau had on, and when Tarranau stopped for a moment to see what direction the sailors were walking, and saw that they were heading to the school, he knew that they had found the student who had been missing on those cliffs only a few scant days earlier. Knowing that he could do little for the boy now, but could at least prepare the school for the arrival of his sea-battered corpse, he ducked away from the crowded and slow-moving docks, jammed with people staring at the corpse and passing rumour back and forth, and ran for the school along the back streets of the city, aiming to get there quickly and to tell the headmaster or whichever teacher he could find, in order that there be something resembling a proper reception for the deceased.

A formal and dignified progression met the body as it came through the gates into the school, the teachers arrayed behing the headmaster, formal robes hastily arranged and thrown on for this most solemn occasion, a host of students staring and muttering standing behind them and off to the side, placed so as not to dectract from the appearance of the teachers, and all in their blue robes of the apprentice. On the other side was the captain of the ship and several members of his crew, as well as a host of onlookers who had followed the procession up from the docks, through the city, and towards the school, many not knowing the causae of the march, but simply coming along to see if anything interesting could be seen, as well as those pickpockets and other petty thieves and vendors who gathered whenever a crowd formed.

The leader of each group greeted the other formally, exchanging bows and sailor's salutes before the headmaster gestured for two of the lesser teachers to take command of the body, one stepping forward to carry it while the other strode in front, clearing the way of any onlookers with a harsh glare as they proceeded to the infirmary, where the body would be examined and prepared before being sent on to the parents of the boy. While that was happening, the captain and the headmaster closeted themselves together in his office, speaking about the probable cause of death and the details that had surrounded the finding of the body, which would later be dispersed in a formal and long-winded eulogy given at a school meeting on the next day. This would mark the fifth funeral that Tarranau had been to in his years at the school, although the others had all been caused by students being drowned when out on the seas in rough weather, and so there had been no body to formal a ceremonial centrepiece for any of those events. With the disappearance of the body and the two leaders, it was understood by all that the interesting events of the day had finished, and the crowds on both sides departed, although the students were allowed the rest of the day to themselves, and told to contemplate the nature of the sea, capricious and full of life and danger for those who would risk her waters. There was little of the boyish horseplay as they filed off to rooms and quiet areas around the school, subdued by the collective loss, even if the individual knowledge of the boy had been scant.

The Tale of the Apprentice #2 © Stratovarius

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