Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Bard's Apprentice: Chapter One

For the past few months, I've been posting stories from my Hundred Nightmares, an unpublished collection of horror short-short stories that I wrote some years ago, when I was making a stab (or rather, a series of stabs) at writing fiction. Nothing ever came of my efforts, besides the satisfaction of the writing itself.

But my horror stories have gone down pretty well on this blog, after a shaky start-- or so my readership statistics tell me. So I thought I might risk serializing one of my novels. It's The Bard's Apprentice, a children's fantasy. An Irish publishing house actually mulled over it for a whole year before turning it down.

A cynic might think that the choice of genre and subject matter was an attempt to ride the coat-tails of Harry Potter mania. And a cynic would not be entirely wrong. Still, that doesn't mean I didn't put my heart into it. I was also trying to say some things about the importance of tradition and community and heritage, things that were burning issues to me at the time (and still are, though less so).

Catholic readers might like the fact that it features an an ancient, mystical, hierarchical order much like the Catholic Church. Or, um, the Jedi. And, uh, not so different from the Aes Sedai, in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series.

Anyway, I'll post a few chapters. If they die a death, I'll put it back into moth-balls.

Chapter One

Fox was eleven years old, and home was all he knew.

It was an old, shabby house in Silvershore, the second-biggest city of an Empire that was being torn apart by war. Since his parents had died of a fever, he lived with his grandfather and one bad-tempered maid named Jasma. He didn’t remember his parents. He knew nobody outside the small world of Grandy’s house, and the few people who called to it.

But everything changed the day the crow tapped on the window.

Fox jumped when he heard it. He knew what was there, even before he looked around. He knew it was one of the Shaddak’s crows, demanding entrance. He rose from his book and unlatched the window.

The bird flew in immediately, almost brushing past Fox in its eagerness. It gave a warning caw as it landed on the floor and looked around it, seeking any hint of conspiracy in the almost empty room. Finding none, it hopped towards the open door, moving onto the rest of the house.

There was no treason to discover, of course. Fox’s grandfather was one of the Shaddak’s most loyal supporters. Not that he discussed politics much. He was more interested in Spiral, the board game he played with his friends for hours and hours. Be that as it may, Grandy had helped to design the Empire’s railway system, and been granted a life pension as reward. Few of the Empire’s citizens could have less motive for rebellion.

But the guilt-crows made no distinction between the loyal and the suspect. They visited every house, searched through every room and barn and shed. When everybody was being watched all the time, nobody knew whether they were under suspicion or not.

Fox left his book lying open, on a picture of the Treaty of the Three Keys, and followed the bird.

The crow did not make him uneasy, as it made many others. He had the serene courage of an eleven-year-old to protect him, along with an easy conscience. Grandy said the Shaddak was their protector. That made the crow their guardian.

“Open”, it cawed, standing in front of a cupboard door. Open was one of the words in its meagre vocabulary. It sounded more like orpan.

With difficulty, he pulled open the door on its stiff hinges. Inside, there were hundreds of rolls of parchment, Grandy’s designs for the railway system. They were all Fox had ever seen of it; he had never travelled on a train, or seen a drawing of one. Most had stopped running by now, as the Empire was torn apart by rebellion. Fox had pored over these designs for hours, but Grandy refused to talk about the trains.

“I lost all my interest in trains when the first journey was made”, he would say, not taking his eyes from the Spiral board. Spiral was fascinating-- Fox loved watching Grandy and his friends playing it-- but how could Grandy forget his entire life’s work?

“Good” squawked the crow, and began to half-flutter, half-hop downstairs. Not for the first time, Fox wondered how it identified treasonous documents. Surely it could not read?

“Did you find any traitors on this street?”, he wondered out loud, following behind it as it moved into the Reveriem. Neither Fox nor Grandy used the Reveriem; Jasma, the maid, would occasionally emerge from it, looking wistful.

Fox couldn’t see the point of a room that was-- as far as he could tell-- meant to make you feel sad. He hated sadness more than anything in the world. Sometimes a fiddler would play his fiddle two streets away, when he had been put to bed. He would often play a slow song with the line, “But her boy will never come home to her again”. Fox would put his fingers in his ears when he played that, frightened his heart would break. He’d heard about that; he believed it could happen. He could picture the blood dripping out of a crack in the heart.

The crow stopped at a huge decorated mirror that hung on the door of the purple room. Fox called the Purple Room because of its purple wallpaper. He sometimes used it as a battlefield for his tin soldiers; nobody else used it for anything. It had some tables and chairs and a cabinet with nothing inside. Jasma dusted the Purple Room once a week.

“It’s a crime, having all these rooms empty”, she would mutter, “when my entire family are sleeping in two rooms”.

The mirror showed the crest of the Redspring alliance, the twenty-four families that had built this city, two hundred years ago. He had heard Grandy’s friends talking about the mirror. He knew the Redsprings had got into trouble with the Shaddak before he was born, and had been in disgrace ever since.

“And so they deserve to be, the fools”, his Grandy had said.

The crow seemed to recognise the crest. It twitched a few times, half-lifting its wings, looking very troubled. The very sight seemed to agitate it. It cocked its head towards Fox, seeming to take an interest in him for the first time. It hesitated for a moment. Then it hopped through the door of the purple room, that was lying ajar.

Of course, it found nothing in there to detain it, and moved on. There were twenty-three rooms in their house, and most of them were never used. The only rooms used were Grandy’s bedroom, Fox’s bedroom, Jasma’s bedroom (the smallest in the house, by her own choice), the “library”-- which contained only one book, in thirty volumes-- the kitchen, and the dining room. And there was the Spiral Room, where Grandy and his friends spent all their time.

The guilt-crow came to that one last. He stood for a few moments before the heavy oak door, as if overawed. Fox could understand why. It was just a plain brown door, but to him it seemed like the centre of the world, the portal to all wisdom.

“Open”, cawed the crow.

Fox turned the heavy iron handle, and pushed the door open. There was no point knocking. It just irritated them.

He walked in, followed by the guilt-crow. It had trotted ahead of him in every other room. Pipe-smoke hung in the air, as always. Fox loved the smell of the Spiral Room more than anything in the world, even the scent of hot cakes from the Kingdom of Delight baker’s shop down the street. He imagined himself getting wiser with every breath of smoke he inhaled.

Grandy was playing Spiral with his friend No-Sooner. No-Sooner had helped him build the railways, and seemed to take as little interest in them now as Grandy did himself. They were both smoking their pipes, staring at the board, and neither of them looked around as Fox entered. They probably didn’t even realise the crow was there.

There was nothing in the Spiral Room except for the round, black table in the middle of the floor, four deep armchairs around it, and a smaller table in the corner with bottles and glasses, sheets of paper and pens, and the wooden boxes full of Spiral boards and pieces. Underneath the table was a red metal box, Grandy’s most precious possession. The room’s red carpet was so old that its pattern was almost impossible to make out.

Grandy and No-Sooner were playing on the yellow board. There were seven different boards for playing Spiral. Yellow, pink, brown, orange, white, grey and green. All had a figure like a winding, spiral staircase painted in the centre, but apart from that, they looked very different.

People thought that Spiral was a weird game, whenever Fox tried to explain it to them. Most of them had heard of it, but they had no interest in its rules. In some strange way, people almost blamed Spiral for the fall of the Empire. They said that the people who were supposed to have been running the Empire had spent more time playing like overgrown children.

Spiral wasn’t like most other games, where one player played against another, and each game was forgotten as soon as it was over. A Spiral player was really playing the same game for his entire life. The value of his pieces, their number, their position on the board, all of it was decided by every game he had previously played. Every single move was written down. That was what was in Grandy’s red metal box.

Players didn’t just compete against each other in Spiral, either. They were trying to beat each other, but they were also helping each other reach the highest score they could. There had never been more than a thousand players, and every game impacted on every other game. Because even the rules changed in Spiral. They changed slowly, over years. They were meant to change. Fox’s favourite moments in the Spiral room was when Grandy and one of his friends had reached enough points to make some small change in the rules. They were never more excited, and the debates on what rule to change would sometimes last days.

No-Sooner looked up from the board, and saw the crow. No-Sooner was even older than Grandy, and where Grandy’s face was smooth, No-Sooner’s was heavily lined. But he smiled more often.

“We have a visitor from the Shaddak, Grandy”, he said. Everybody called Fox’s grandfather Grandy. No-Sooner's voice was rather crow-like itself, rasping and high-pitched. His green eyes glittered as he spoke. He seemed to find everything funny.

“It‘s been too long since the last guilt-crow came”, said Grandy, not looking up from the board. His voice was dour and deep.“I just hope that they drag you off to the Murk for all of the rebellion you spout”.

No-Sooner seemed delighted by this remark, and his eyes almost disappeared in crinkles of laughter. He waved his hand dismissively, one of his favourite gestures.

“I think the Shaddak might have more to worry about that one old man who can hardly raise his head from the pillow, never mind a rebellion”, said No-Sooner.

“Well, the cells of the Murk are all empty”, said Grandy. “The convicts have been sent to the front line. There’s plenty of room for every trouble-maker, even the clapped-out senile ones.”

The crow’s head went from one player to the other as they spoke. No-Sooner looked at Fox, his eyes still alight with laughter.

“Would you like to see me locked up in the Murk, Fox?”, he asked, putting on a face that was supposed to be comically sad. “Wouldn’t you miss your fairlady biscuits?”

Fox hated the fairlady biscuits that No-Sooner brought. They were salty and too hard. He fed them to Jasma’s cat. But he liked No-Sooner.

“I’d be sad if you were locked up”, he said, looking at the crow, knowing there was no danger of that happening. When grown-ups joked, it meant that everything was going to be fine.

“Thunder and butter, I’ve reared a sentimentalist”, growled Grandy.

The guilt-crow flew up to the ledge of the little frosted window, and tapped on the pane with its beak. Grandy rose from his armchair with his customary briskiness, and opened the stiff window just long enough to let the crow fly out.

“I wonder what will happen to the guilt-crows”, he said, musingly.

“Probably get slaughtered for being servants of a tyrant”, said No-Sooner, still looking at Fox, though he did not seem to see him. He seemed to be looking at something else. The past, perhaps.

“Jasma says the Hammer are going to be here by midsummer”, said Fox, trying to sound like the old men when they discussed such things. They never seemed to be worried about them, or excited. Just mildly curious.

“What have I told you, Fox?”, snapped Grandy, suddenly furious, just like Fox expected him to. He hated making his grandfather angry, but this had kept him awake three nights in a row. “Don’t listen to anything that brainless girl tells you. The rabble won’t reach us for another three years at least.”

“It’s true, Fox”, said No-Sooner, smiling at him softly. He didn’t even seem to care how his yellow and black teeth showed when he smiled. “Your Grandy knows more about these things than all of the Shaddak’s counsellors put together”.

“Not very hard”, muttered Grandy, back to staring at the Spiral board, his anger gone in a moment as always.

“And even when they do break through”, said No-Sooner, leaning down towards Fox, “you have nothing to worry about. They’re not really savages.” Grandy grunted at this. “They’re not going to go around slaughtering ordinary people. Or anybody else, for that matter. Things might be difficult for most people”-- the old man’s face was troubled as he said this-- “but you’ll be all right. Your Grandy has a lot of friends, for a cantankerous old man.”

“I have a lot of people in my debt, he means”, said Grandy, though he gave one of his crooked grins. “But it’s all true, Fox. The world isn’t going to end when the Empire falls.”

Fox could never remember a time when people weren’t talking about the Shaddak’s Empire falling. It had started years before he was born. An alliance of dozens of armies, that called themselves the Hammer of Justice, were determined to smash the Empire forever, to revenge three and a half centuries of domination and high taxes. Almost everybody said the Hammer would win in the end.

Even the children on the streets chanted about it:

The end of the world is coming
The end of the world is coming
The end of the world is coming
Make sure you wash your face

The bad men will come marching
The bad men will come marching
The bad men will come marching
Make sure you tie your lace.

“But what will they do to Grandy?”, Fox asked No-Sooner, and he could feel his heart battering his chest.

“Oh, I’ll be dead long before they reach us”, said Grandy, frowning in irritation.

No-Sooner was shocked, Fox could see. “Grandy”, he said reproachfully, and Grandy looked up from the board in surprise. His face slackened in regret for a moment, then tightened in defiance and anger.

“Don’t be such a little girl”, said Grandy. “I was working a twelve-hour day in the shoe factory when I was his age. I watched dozens of executions when the mob took over Starcrest. Why should we cocoon him, make him into a little pet dog?”

Fox felt like his entire body has frozen, while his mind was racing. No-Sooner was watching him closely, concern and anger plain on his face.

“Do you do want him to grow up like you, full of bitterness and spite?”, asked No-Sooner. Fox had never seen him angry before. His face was white, and the creases of his face were suddenly taut.

He had often seen Grandy angry, and he was angry now. His eyes flashed with fury. They seemed ridiculously bright at moments like this. The two men looked at each other, and for a moment Fox thought one of them was going to reach across the board and strike the other.

But at that moment there was a knock on the door.


  1. I really like this story already. I'm big into fantasy to begin with, but I like a lot of what is going on. I like the homely mood of the chapter, and I also love having some lore from the world being thrown in here and there. It's a shame your story was rejected for publishing. Would you not try again or try a different publisher?

  2. Thanks! I hope you like the rest.

    I can't imagine trying to get this one published again...if I were to try working on a novel again, I think I'd try something different.

  3. Oh, I forgot to say that just because it's a fantasy story I can't see how someone would draw a connection between this and Harry Potter. Sure HP is practically taken from an older series of books called The Worst Witch.

  4. Well, it is quite Potterish in that my central character goes on to become somebody's apprentice, as the title suggests. That's really all I meant!

  5. I quite like it, not the least because the little boy really does think and act like a real child (weeeel, at least the way I remember it). The paragraph about the fiddler and the sad song two streets away was poetry. -Molly

  6. Thanks! I only remember now that my whole initial idea, apart from having a vehicle for my social philosophy, was to have a story in which poems and poetry could feature heavily, and that way I could actually sweeten the pill of poetry with the sugar of fiction. But I lost sight of the idea as I went along and there are only a few poems in it.