The Magician’s Apprentice Excerpt
There was no fast and painless way to perform an amputation, Tessia knew. Not if you did it properly. A neat amputation required a flap of skin to be cut to cover the stump, and that took time.
As her father deftly began to slice into the skin around the boy’s finger, Tessia noted the expressions of the people in the room. The boy’s father stood with his arms crossed and his back straight. His scowl did not quite hide signs of worry, though whether it was sympathy for his son or anxiety about whether he’d get the harvest finished in time without his son’s help, she could not tell. Probably a bit of both.
The mother held her son’s other hand tightly while staring into his eyes. The boy’s face was flushed and beaded with sweat. His jaw was clenched and, despite her father’s warning, he watched the work being done intently. He had remained still so far, not moving his wounded hand or squirming. No sound had escaped him. Such control impressed Tessia, especially in one so young. Landworkers were said to be a tough lot, but in her experience that was not always true. She wondered if the child would be able to keep it up. Worse was to come, after all.
Her father’s face was creased with concentration. He had carefully peeled the skin of the boy’s finger back past the joint of the knuckle. At a glance from him she took the small jointer knife from the burner and handed it to him, then took the number five peeler from him, washed it and carefully set the blade over the burner so it would be seared clean.
When she looked up, the boy’s face was a mass of wrinkles, screwed up tight. Tessia’s father had begun to cut through the joint. Looking up, she noted that the boy’s father was now a pasty grey. The mother was white.
‘Don’t watch,’ Tessia advised in a murmur. The woman’s head turned abruptly away.
The blade met the surgery board with a clunk of finality. Taking the small jointer from her father, Tessia handed him a curved needle, already threaded with fine gut-string. The needle glided easily through the boy’s skin and Tessia felt a little glow of pride; she had sharpened it carefully in readiness for this operation, and the gut-string was the finest she had ever fashioned.
She looked at the amputated finger lying at the end of the surgery board. At one end it was a blackened, oozing mess, but there was reassuringly healthy flesh all through the cut end. It had been badly crushed in an accident during harvest some days before, but like most of the villagers and landworkers her father serviced, neither boy nor father had sought help until the wound had festered. It took time, and extreme pain, before a person could accept, let alone seek, removal of a part of their body.
If left too long, such a festering could poison the blood, causing fevers and even death. That a small wound could prove fatal fascinated Tessia. It also scared her. She had seen a man driven to insanity and self-mutilation by a mere rotten tooth, otherwise robust women bleed to death after giving birth, healthy babies that stopped breathing for no apparent reason and fevers that spread through the village, taking one or two lives but causing no more than discomfort for the rest.
Through working with her father, she had seen more wounds, illness and death in her sixteen years than most women did in their lifetimes. But she had also seen maladies remedied, chronic illness relieved and lives saved. She knew every man, woman and child in the village and the ley, and some beyond. She had knowledge of matters that few were privy to. Unlike most of the locals she could read and write, reason and—
Her father looked up and handed her the needle, then cut off the remaining thread. Neat stitches held the flap of skin closed over the stump of the boy’s finger. Knowing what came next, Tessia took some wadding and bandages from his healer’s bag and handed them to him.
‘Take these,’ he told the mother.
Letting the boy’s other hand go, the woman passively let Tessia’s father lay the bandage across one palm, then arrange wadding on top. He placed the boy’s hand over her palm so the stump of the finger rested in the centre of the wadding, then took hold of the pulse binder on the boy’s arm.
‘When I loosen this the blood in his arm will regain its rhythm,’ he told her. ‘His finger will begin to bleed. You must wrap the wadding around the finger and hold it firmly until the blood finds a new pulse path.’
The woman bit her lip and nodded. As Tessia’s father loosened the binder the boy’s arm and hand slowly regained a healthy pinkness. Blood welled around the stitches and the mother quickly wrapped her hand around the stump. The boy grimaced. She smoothed his hair affectionately.
Tessia suppressed a smile. Her father had taught her that it was wise to allow a family to take part in the healing process in some small way. It gave them a sense of control, and they were less likely to be suspicious or dismissive of the methods he used if they took part in them.
After a little wait, her father checked the stump then bound it up firmly, giving the family instructions on how often to replace the bandages, how to keep them clean and dry if the boy resumed work (he knew better than to tell them to keep the boy at home), when they could be discarded, and what signs of festering they should watch for.
As he listed off the medicines and extra bandages they would need, Tessia removed them from his bag and set them on the cleanest patch of the table that she could find. The amputated finger she wrapped up and set aside. Patients and their families preferred to bury or burn such things, perhaps worrying what might be done with them if they didn’t dispose of them themselves.
No doubt they had heard the disturbing and ridiculous stories that went around from time to time of healers in Kyralia secretly experimenting on amputated limbs, grinding bones up into unnatural potions or somehow reanimating them.
Cleaning and then searing the needle over the burner, she packed it and the other tools away. The surgery board would have to be treated later, at home. She extinguished the burner and waited as the family began to offer their thanks.
This was also a well-practised part of their routine. Her father hated being trapped while patients poured out their gratitude. It embarrassed him. After all, he was not offering his services for free. Lord Dakon provided him and his family with a house and income in exchange for looking after the people of his ley.
But her father knew that accepting thanks with humility and patience kept him well placed in the local people’s opinions. He never accepted gifts, however. Everyone under Lord Dakon’s rule paid a tithe to their master, and so in effect had already paid Tessia’s father for his services.
Her role was to wait for the right moment to interrupt and remind her father that they had other work to do. The family would apologise. Her father would apologise. Then they would be ushered out.
But as the right moment neared the sound of hoofbeats drummed outside the house. All paused to listen. The hoofbeats stopped and were replaced by footsteps, then a pounding at the door.
‘Healer Veran? Is Healer Veran there?’
The farmer and Tessia’s father started forward at the same time, then her father stopped, allowing the man to answer his own door. A well-dressed middle-aged man stood outside, his brow slick with sweat. Tessia recognised him as Lord Dakon’s house master, Keron.
‘He’s here,’ the farmer told him.
Keron squinted into the dimness of the farmer’s house. ‘Your services are required at the Residence, Healer Veran. With some urgency.’
Tessia’s father frowned, then turned to beckon to her. Grabbing his bag and the burner, she hurried after him into the daylight. One of the farmer’s older sons was waiting by the horse and cart provided by Lord Dakon for her father to use when visiting patients outside the village, and he quickly rose and removed a feedbag from the old mare’s head. Tessia’s father nodded his thanks then took his bag from Tessia and stowed it in the back of the cart.
As they climbed up onto the seat, Keron galloped past them back towards the village. Her father took up the reins and flicked them. The mare snorted and shook her head, then started forward.
Tessia glanced at her father. ‘Do you think . . . ?’ she began, then stopped as she realised the pointlessness of her question.
Do you think it might have something to do with the Sachakan? she had wanted to ask, but such questions were a waste of breath. They would find out when they got there.
It was hard not to imagine the worst. The villagers hadn’t stopped muttering about the foreign magician visiting Lord Dakon’s house since he had arrived, and it was hard not to be infected by their fear and awe. Though Lord Dakon was a magician, he was familiar, respected and Kyralian. If he was feared it was only because of the magic he could wield and the control over their lives he held; he was not the sort of landowner who misused either power. Sachakan magicians on the other hand had, scant centuries ago, ruled and enslaved Kyralia and by all reports liked to remind people, whenever the chance came, what things had been like before Kyralia was granted its independence.
Think like a healer, she told herself as the cart bounced down the road. Consider the information you have. Trust reason over emotion.
Neither the Sachakan nor Lord Dakon could be ill. Both were magicians and resistant to all but a few rare maladies. They weren’t immune to plagues, but rarely succumbed to them. Lord Dakon would have called on her father for help long before any disease needed urgent attention, though it was possible the Sachakan wouldn’t have mentioned being ill if he didn’t want to be tended by a Kyralian healer.
Magicians could die of wounds, she knew. Lord Dakon could have injured himself. Then an even more frightening possibility occurred to her. Had Lord Dakon and the Sachakan fought each other?
If they had, the lord’s house – and perhaps the village, too – would be ruined and smoking, she told herself, if the tales of what magical battles are like are true. The road descending from the farmer’s home gave a clear view of the houses below, lining either side of the main road this side of the river. All was as peaceful and undisturbed as it had been when they had left.
Perhaps the patient or patients they were hurrying to treat were servants in the lord’s house. Aside from Keron, six other house and stable servants kept Lord Dakon’s home in order. She and her father had treated them many times before. Landworkers living outside the village sometimes travelled to the Residence when they were sick or injured, though usually they went directly to her father.
Who else is there? Ah, of course. There’s Jayan, Lord Dakon’s apprentice, she remembered. But as far as I know he has all the same physical protections against illness as a higher magician. Perhaps he picked a fight with the Sachakan. To the Sachakan, Jayan would be the closest thing to a slave, and— .
She looked at her father expectantly. Had he anticipated who needed his services?
‘I . . . Your mother wants you to stop assisting me.’
Anticipation shrivelled into exasperation. ‘I know.’ She grimaced. ‘She wants me to find a nice husband and start having babies.’
He didn’t smile, as he had in the past when the subject came up. ‘Is that so bad? You can’t become a healer, Tessia.’
Hearing the serious tone in his voice, she stared at him in surprise and disappointment. While her mother had expressed this opinion many times before, her father had never agreed with it. She felt something inside her turn to stone and fall down into her gut, where it lay cold and hard and uncomfortable. Which was impossible, of course. Human organs did not turn to stone and certainly could not shift into the stomach.
‘The villagers won’t accept you,’ he continued.
‘You can’t know that,’ she protested. ‘Not until I’ve tried and failed. What reason could they have to distrust me?’
‘None. They like you well enough, but it is as hard for them to believe that a woman can heal as that a reber could sprout wings and fly. It’s not in a woman’s nature to have a steady head, they think.’
‘But the birthmothers . . . they trust them. Why is there any difference between that and healing?’
‘Because what we . . . what the birthmothers do is specialised and limited. Remember, they call for my help when their knowledge is insufficient. A healer has learning and experience behind him that no birthmother has access to. Most birthmothers can’t even read.’
‘And yet the villagers trust them. Sometimes they trust them more than you.’
‘Birthing is an entirely female activity,’ he said wryly. ‘Healing isn’t.’
Tessia could not speak. Annoyance and frustration rose inside her but she knew angry outbursts would not help her cause. She had to be persuasive, and her father was no simple peasant who might be easily swayed. He was probably the smartest man in the village.
As the cart reached the main road she cursed silently. She had not realised how firmly he’d come to agree with her mother. I need to change his mind back again, and I need to do it carefully, she realised. He doesn’t like to go against Mother’s wishes. So I need to weaken her confidence in her arguments as much as reduce Father’s doubts about continuing to teach me. She needed to consider all the arguments for and against her becoming a healer, and how to use them to her benefit. And she needed to know every detail of her parents’ plans.
‘What will you do without me assisting you?’ she asked.
‘I’ll take on a boy from the village,’ her father said.
‘Perhaps Miller’s youngest. He is a bright child.’
So he’d already been considering the matter. She felt a stab of hurt.
The well-maintained main road was less rutted than the farmer’s track, so her father flicked the reins and urged the mare to quicken her pace. The increased vibration of the cart robbed Tessia of the ability to think. She saw faces appear in windows as they reached the village. The few people walking about stopped, acknowledging her father with nods and smiles.
She gripped the rail as her father tugged on the reins to slow the mare and turn her through the gates at one side of the lord’s Residence. In the dim light of the building’s shadows she made out stable workers coming forward to take the reins as the cart stopped. Her father jumped down from the seat. Keron stepped forward to take her father’s bag. She leapt down to the ground and hurried after as they disappeared into the house.
Tessia caught glimpses of the kitchen, storeroom, washroom and other practical spaces through the doorways of the corridor they strode down. Their rapid footsteps echoed in the narrow stairwell as they climbed up to the floor above. A few turns later and she found herself in a part of the building she had never seen before. Tastefully decorated walls and fine furniture suggested a living area, but these were not the rooms she had seen a few years before, when her father had been summoned to tend a rather vapid young woman suffering from a fainting fit. There were a few bedrooms, and a seating room, and she guessed these were rooms for guests.
She was surprised, then, when Keron opened a door and ushered them into a small room furnished with only a plain bed and a narrow table. No windows let in light, so a tiny lamp burned in the room. It felt mean and dingy. She looked at the bed and suddenly all thought of the décor left her mind.
A man lay there, his face bruised and swollen so badly one eye was a bloodied, compressed slit. The white of the other eye was dark. She suspected it would appear red in better light. His lips did not line up properly, possibly indicating a broken jaw. His face seemed broad and strangely shaped, though that might have been an effect of the injuries.
He also cradled his right hand to his chest, and she saw instantly that the forearm bent in a way it shouldn’t. His chest, too, was dark with bruises. All he wore was a pair of short, tattered trousers that had been roughly mended in many places. His skin was deeply tanned and his build was slight. His feet were bare, and black with dirt. One ankle was badly swollen. The calf of the other leg looked slightly crooked, as if it had healed badly after a break.
The room was silent but for the man’s rapid, laboured breathing. Tessia recognised the sound and felt her stomach sink. Her father had once treated a man whose ribs had been broken, puncturing his lungs. That man had died.
Her father hadn’t moved since entering the room. He stood still, back slightly bent, gazing at the beaten, broken figure on the bed.
‘Father,’ she ventured.
With a jerk, he straightened and turned to look at her. As he met her eyes she felt understanding pass between them. She found herself shaking her head slightly, and realised he was doing the same. Then she smiled. Surely at moments like these, when they did not even need to speak to understand each other, he could see that she was meant to follow in his footsteps?
He frowned and looked down, then turned back to the bed. She felt a sudden, painful loss. What he should have done was smile, or nod, or give her some sign of reassurance that they would continue working together.
I must regain his confidence, she thought. She took her father’s bag from Keron, placed it on the narrow table and opened it. Taking out the burner, she lit it and adjusted the flame. Footsteps sounded outside the room.
‘We need more light,’ her father muttered.
Abruptly the room was filled with a dazzling white light. Tessia ducked as a ball of brightness moved past her head. She stared at it and immediately regretted doing so. It was too bright. When she looked away a circular shadow obscured her sight.
‘Is that enough?’ a strangely accented voice asked.
‘I thank you, master,’ she heard her father say respectfully.
Master? Tessia felt her stomach spasm. Only one person currently staying in the Residence would be addressed so by her father. Yet with the realisation came a feeling of rebellion. I will not show this Sachakan any fear, she decided. Though I guess there’s no risk of trembling at the sight of anyone when I can’t actually see properly. She rubbed at her eyes. The dark patch was receding as her eyes recovered. Squinting at the doorway, she realised there were two figures standing there.
‘How do you rate his chances, Healer Veran?’ a more familiar voice asked.
Her father hesitated before answering. ‘Low, my lord,’ he admitted. ‘His lungs are pierced. Such an injury is usually fatal.’
‘Do what you can,’ Lord Dakon instructed.
Tessia could just make out the two magicians’ faces now. Lord Dakon’s expression was grim. His companion was smiling. She could see enough to make out his broad Sachakan features, the elaborately decorated jacket and pants he wore, and the jewelled knife in its sheath on his belt that Sachakans wore to indicate they were magicians. Lord Dakon said something quietly, and the pair moved out of sight. She heard their footsteps receding down the corridor beyond.
Abruptly, the light blinked out, leaving them in darkness. Tessia heard her father curse under his breath. Then the room brightened again, though not so fiercely. She looked up to see Keron step inside carrying two full-sized lamps.
‘Ah, thank you,’ Tessia’s father said. ‘Place them over here, and here.’
‘Is there anything else you require?’ the servant asked. ‘Water? Cloth?’
‘At the moment what I need more than anything else is information. How did this happen?’
‘I’m . . . I’m not sure. I did not witness it.’
‘Did anyone? It is easy to miss an injury when there are so many. A description of where each blow fell— ’
‘Nobody saw,’ the man said quickly. ‘None but Lord Dakon, this slave and his master.’
Slave? Tessia looked down at the injured man. Of course. The tanned skin and broad features were typically Sachakan. Suddenly the Sachakan magician’s interest made sense.
Her father sighed. ‘Then fetch us some water, and I will write a list of supplies for you to collect from my wife.’
The house master hurried away. Tessia’s father looked at her, his expression grim. ‘It will be a long night for you and me.’ He smiled faintly. ‘I have to wonder, at times like these, if you are tempted by your mother’s vision of your future.’
‘At times like these it never crosses my mind,’ she told him. Then she added quietly, ‘This time we may succeed.’
His eyes widened, then his shoulders straightened a little.
‘Let’s get started, then.’