A Debt of Gratitude
Melchior Abanabas Grundwinkle or Barney to his friends, was not your average sorcerer’s apprentice. His master Greywand, against his better judgment, had accepted him when his father had pleaded with the old sorcerer to take his son as his apprentice in lieu of payment for the great debt of gratitude he owed Greywand for getting him released from Baron Shallemont’s dungeon.
Shallemont ruled his lands and the surrounding district with fear and great brutality. No one, not even his own family was safe. Indeed, Shallemont had his firstborn son Magnus summarily beheaded in the town square for daring to speak up for a man wrongly accused of theft.
Greywand was the only person within his sphere of influence that Shallemont truly feared. Twice in the last ten years Greywand had cast a spell over Shallemont to remind him of his fragile mortality, once by turning him into a kid goat in the presence of his entire court, the other in the town square in front of the peasantry by turning him into a toad.
Greywand was untouchable and had to be listened to because he was immortal. In fact he was the only true immortal left in the world. All the others had left this earthly plane centuries ago, disgusted by the way mortals like Shallemont behaved. Greywand made it his responsibility to keep him in check.
Despite being known as Greywand’s apprentice, in reality Barney was nothing more than a sweeper up and tidier of the sorcerer’s bookshelves in the back storeroom. Greywand absolutely forbade him entry to his magical laboratory. It had taken him twenty thousand years to accumulate all of his ingredients and his equipment and there was no room for a bumble footed, seriously accident prone, daydreaming youth.
Barney had one particular talent in his favour, he was a natural learner by observation, a fact he kept to himself. Daily he quietly observed every spell Greywand experimented with, and every spell he used successfully, carefully and methodically learning the way they worked in combination with the relevant potions via the keyhole in Greywand’s locked laboratory door.
From time to time when Greywand was in one of his rare good moods, he would call Barney into the inner sanctum and allow him to watch as he tried out his latest potion or spell on his longsuffering familiar Krark.
Barney always felt sorry for the ancient raven. The last time Greywand had subjected it to one of his experimental potions mixed with its accompanying spell, poor Krark’s magnificent jet black plumage turned bright pink, then a sickly mix of yellow and magenta before falling out altogether.
While Greywand’s back was turned Barney scooped up the old bird, wrapped his naked body gently in his kerchief and took the shivering and humiliated creature back to the warmth of the one blanket he had on his rough straw mattress bed in the tiny chamber he slept in behind the sorcerer’s library. Over time, thanks to Barney’s gentle ministering, Krark’s plumage gradually grew back.
Krark never forgot Barney’s kindness to him. Despite the code of the familiar, which clearly states that under no circumstances was a familiar to talk to a mortal under pain of death, Krark and Barney spoke often in hushed whispers when they both knew that Greywand was preoccupied with yet another experimental potion or spell. In fact they had become the very best of friends, thanks to Barney’s unselfish act of kindness, always looking out for one another.
If Barney got into his master’s bad books by committing some minor misdemeanour or indiscretion by his natural clumsiness, Krark was always there to distract the old sorcerer allowing his friend to escape; far better to be out of sight and out of mind until Greywand calmed down. After all his temper was known by all within a thousand leagues.
If it looked as if another indignity or something extremely unpleasant or possibly life threatening was about to happen to Krark again, hiding behind the locked door with his eye to the keyhole, Barney would knock loudly on the door to distract Greywand allowing his feathered friend to fly out of the window to safety.
Since his first toddling steps, Barney had been in love with Clotilde the daughter of the equally foul tempered village smith – Magg. One particularly cold night Barney blurted out to Krark his fondest hope and dream that one day he would be worthy of his sweet love Clotilde, able to take her far away and for them to marry. The real obstruction in Barney’s love life was her father, who Barney liked to refer to as Maggot in secret. No one was good enough to ask for Clotilde’s hand in his cruel eyes, least of all a bumbling, clumsy, lazy good for nothing sorcerer’s apprentice. Besides which, he needed his daughter to cook and clean for him.
Clotilde always looked kindly on accident prone Barney; she loved him dearly. When they were five, Barney had plucked up the courage to kiss her cheek when they were playing their childish games in the river meadow beneath the village. She had giggled and blushed and kissed his cheek in turn, giving him a token of their innocent love in the form of a pretty mauve primrose.
As if to prove his tale, Barney thrust his hands under the rough straw mattress of his bed and found the precious love token. He carefully retrieved it and held it in his open palm for the old bird to see before sniffing it with his eyes screwed shut, recalling that day when the childhood sweethearts had declared their eternal love for one another.
Over the long winter months, Krark began to hatch a plan in his small bird brain. It hurt his head a great deal, because as anyone can tell you a bird’s brain is not designed to think about complicated problems. Wondering how to extract a wood worm from an old beam is one thing, or to catch a spider. But solving the stumbling block to his friend’s happiness was quite another altogether. But Krark was determined; he had decided that come what may, his friend Barney was in sore need of good fortune when it came to the love of his life.
As usual, Greywand barely noticed as the old bird paced back and forth on its perch, opening and closing its wings, tilting its head from side to side, as it tried very hard to think of a solution to its friend’s problem. After all that was what birds did – pace back and forth; nothing unusual there. Therefore nothing for a busy sorcerer to be concerned about.
Ever since Greywand had carefully selected Krark’s egg from others in the nest by weighing it in his scrawny hand, tapping it and smelling it, to ensure that its inhabitant was fit for the role of familiar, Krark had known nothing of life but his lonely role here in the sorcerer’s home; never once experiencing the pure pleasure of flying through the trees of the forest feeling the breeze ruffle his feathers, or to fly across the open fields and thick hedgerows, or even the joy of companionship of his own kind, nor the joy of a mate.
Over the many long years of his sometimes reluctant service to the sorcerer, the old bird had watched him at work from his perch beside the bench, more often though from the relative safety of the rafters beneath the thatched roof of the draughty old house, out of reach. Then one day in late January, as if someone had lifted a great cloud from his tiny bird brain, Krark knew exactly how he could repay Barney’s kindness.
Over the ten thousand years of his existence, Greywand had steadily accumulated countless thousands of potions and spells, some tried, others not. Five thousand years ago his house was so cluttered with them that in complete exasperation he cast a spell to create more shelf space. Literally every wall of every room beyond the laboratory within Greywand’s house was covered in shelves bursting at the seams and seriously overloaded.
A thousand years ago, the last tiny space on the very last shelf in the attic was filled. So Greywand had to either move to larger premises or conjure once more. All experimentation ceased for several fraught days and nights as the old sorcerer cursed and angrily threw endless numbers of spell books aside in his frustrated search. He poured over his most powerful books of spells looking for just the right one for his needs. Eventually he found what he was looking for.
Greywand disappeared in a puff of smoke and reappeared moments later in his favourite grove deep in the forest. He searched the entire grove for the ingredients for the spell, spending hours sniffing, tasting and crushing all manner of herb, fungus, poisonous plant, root, flower and vine. Next he hunted among the dead and rotting remains of fallen branches and trees, searching out the insects and small animals he needed. All manner of beetle, worm, snake, shrew, mouse, newt and toad were required. Fortunately the one beetle not freshly available to him – the Scarab, he already had in powdered form back in his laboratory.
Krark jumped off his perch and flew into the rafters when a loud crack accompanied by choking smoke signalled Greywand’s return.
Greywand immediately went to work adding the ingredients according to the spell’s instructions while carefully stirring the stinking brew and invoking the many incantations at the precise moment they were required. Eventually the potion was ready.
Careful not to let any of the bubbling mess touch his clothes or skin, Greywand dipped a wooden spoon into the cauldron and walked across to the only remaining free wall space in his laboratory, careful not to spill a drop of the potion on the floor. Uttering the spell’s final instructions, he slowly marked a rectangle on the wattle and daub wall in the shape of a doorway with the mixture. Then he chanted the very last line of the spell. Nothing happened! Perhaps he had got the ingredients mixed up, or perhaps he had mispronounced a line or a word in the spell.
His former companion Osmodious, a horned owl, watched the whole thing in the way that only an owl can. He had his back to the wall, but his head had swiveled round to watch the proceedings. Greywand’s anger and frustration boiled over and Osmodious rapidly retreated to the rafters. He watched as the sorcerer smashed everything in sight in a blind rage, knocking all of his precious equipment to the floor, throwing iron pots, skillets, precious phials, and the book in which the spell lived with its kin, to the floor. Greywand ranted and raved, cursed and cried until eventually his temper and frustration left him. Disheartened he retired to his bedchamber.
The next morning as the first light of dawn thrust itself sleepily through the barred window of Greywand’s laboratory, Osmodious noticed something very curious; where before there had been nothing but blank wall, a brand new door now occupied the space. He flew up to Greywand’s bedchamber and alighted on the bed’s headboard above the still sleeping sorcerer. He screeched as loudly as he could to announce his presence to his sleeping master.
Greywand opened one eye. The owl flew back downstairs screeching all the while and perched directly above the new door awaiting his master. Greywand soon appeared in his grubby nightgown. Osmodious flew down and paced back and forth in front of the new door. Greywand was beside himself with joy, the spell had worked after all. He cackled as he danced a dance of pure joy, hopping from one bony foot to the other, clapping his scrawny hands together, and doing something that Osmodious had never witnessed before – he actually smiled!
Krark had never seen what was on the other side of the door. It was the second month after he had moulted. He had been busy admiring his new feathers in the dish of water on Greywand’s side bench. What fine shiny black feathers he had grown. Greywand had taken the key to the door from its hook on the wall and beckoned his apprentice familiar to sit on his shoulder. Krark watched the shiny new key being inserted into the heavy lock and heard the sound as its sturdy mechanism unlocked.
Greywand and Krark entered through the doorway into an endless room in the ether beyond the physical world, illuminated by magic and filled as far as the eye could see with cupboards and shelves. In this magic room Greywand would never again run out of shelf space.
There was a ladder close beside the door reaching up into the darkness for those hard to reach top shelves if Greywand was feeling fit enough. However, as was his want, the old sorcerer preferred to call out the name of whatever potion, spell or ingredient he required instead. To Krark’s amazement it flew gently from where it was housed into the waiting outstretched sorcerer’s scrawny hand.
In that room Krark hoped he would find exactly what was needed to help his friend Barney and his problem with Clotilde’s cruel father Magg.
That night when they both knew that Greywand was fast asleep, the two friends stole into the laboratory after Krark had silently flown into the sorcerer’s bedchamber and stolen the laboratory key. He now flew across to where the magic storeroom’s key hung, picked it up in his beak and flew back to Barney, carefully dropping it into his hand. Barney very carefully inserted the key, turned it, and then gently pushed the door open. For several hours the pair searched and searched the endless room looking for a particular spell and potion that Krark remembered from his post-fledgling days.
An hour before dawn their search was done, the door and the laboratory door were both relocked, and their keys both returned to their rightful places. Now all they had to do was wait for a day and a night, until Greywand left for his annual meeting with the magic council, in his capacity as its grand master. There were grave matters to discuss and two lowly semi immortal witches to be disposed of for the cardinal sin of revealing a spell to a mortal.
The hours seemed to crawl agonizingly by as Barney and Krark waited for their master to leave on his long journey to the opposite side of the world; but eventually his horse disappeared over the horizon. He would be gone for several months, more than enough time for Krark’s plan to be put into action.
That very night, clothed in Greywand’s cloak of invisibility with Krark sitting on his shoulder beneath the garment Barney made his way to Magg’s smithy. The old bird flew up to Magg’s bedchamber window and tapped loudly on the window’s wooden bars. Magg’s eyes opened as Krark flew back down to where Barney stood completely hidden from view. Magg unbolted the downstairs door and peered into the darkness. Barney deliberately kicked a stack of pig iron sending it clattering noisily to the floor. Brandishing a lit torch in one hand, Magg angrily grabbed an iron bar with the other and began searching for the intruder.
Barney and Krark silently stole past him into the house, hidden by the cloak. Now their plan could be put into action. As Magg searched outside, Barney carefully uncorked the potion they had brought with them while whispering the incantation necessary to complete the spell. Next they stole up the rough wooden ladder to Clotilde’s bedchamber where they silently waited for the spell to take effect.
A commotion downstairs signalled that the spell had worked. Quickly Barney shook his beloved Clotilde awake, and, holding a finger to her lips, he beckoned her to join him beneath the cloak. Krark led the way downstairs once more and the trio disappeared into the night. By the time dawn arrived the two lovers and their friend Krark were many leagues away from the only home any of them had ever known.
On the first day of spring with Krark attending his best friend by holding the wedding rings made from woven flowers in his beak, Clotilde and Barney pledged themselves to each other, declaring their undying love for all eternity, beneath a sycamore tree in the glade beyond their new home.
Krark found love that year and made his home in the old tree at the bottom of his friend’s garden. In time both Barney and Krark became proud parents. In Barney’s case his darling Clotilde gave him a beautiful daughter who he named Erin. Erin was the apple of her father’s eye. Krark and his mate brought their brood down from the nest every day, and between them, Barney and Krark spent hours regaling their adventures when they had both been apprenticed to Greywand.
For some reason Greywand never returned. Perhaps his foul temper had finally got him into trouble. And what of Magg I hear you cry?
The day after Clotilde, Barney and Krark had left; the village was woken by a great commotion within the smithy. Fearful of Magg’s wrath, the villagers nervously peered in through the window of his home. All was chaos. Benches were upturned along with the table, crockery smashed. Something heavy struck the wall where the window was. Then the door was smashed off its leather hinges as the cause of all the commotion burst forth into the daylight. It was Magg, transformed forever into a braying Jackass by Melchior Abanabas Grundwinkle apprentice sorcerer, or Barney to his friends…