Authors: Toby Forward
It's no use trying to be cleverâ
we are all clever here; just try to be kindâa little kind.
âDr. F. J. Foakes Jackson of Jesus College,
Cambridge, to a newly elected don
Kindness is a much underrated and undervalued virtue.
Many people have been kind to me over the years,
especially at times when it was greatly needed.
This book is dedicated to them.
which was a shame, because he always ate a trout for dinner on Friday, and it was his favorite.
Sam said good-bye to him at three o'clock and went off to catch the fish, and when he returned just before five, Flaxfield was dead.
Sam was annoyed because the old man hadn't told him he was going to die, and Sam missed him. He waited till seven o'clock, then put the frying pan on the range, dug his fingers into the butter, and took a piece as big as a walnut. He let it bubble in the pan and fried the trout, dusted with flour, salted, and, just before the cooking was finished, sweetened with flakes of almond.
Starback got under his feet more than usual. Sam reached down absently and scratched him, but that only made him more of a nuisance.
The trout tasted good with fresh bread and more butter, but
not as good as Flaxfield must have thought, because Sam didn't think he'd want one every Friday. He didn't finish the fish and put his plate on the floor for Starback.
He knew what to do with the body, because it was one of the first things Flaxfield had taught him when he started as the old man's apprentice, six years ago. He didn't much like doing the bodies, nor did he much mind, usually. But he
didn't like doing it this time. He kept thinking Flaxfield would sit up and tell him he was doing it wrong.
Anyway, he did it right, of course, and then, when he had finished, he sat down on the floor and cried so long that he hurt his throat.
He was twelve years old.
Sam stepped outside the house and looked up at the sky, as Flaxfield had taught him to. There were many messages there. There always were, but though he sought for something about his old master, there was nothing plain to him. Starback scratched his way up the almond tree by the gate and looked up as well, as though he could understand the heavens, which perhaps he could.
Sam slept well, and though bad dreams were no stranger to him, he had none that night. He was still sleeping when the door opened, and only half-awake when a hand shook his shoulder and said, “Breakfast, boy, and be quick.”
Sam was dizzy with sleep and stumbled to his feet. Starback cowered behind him.
It wasn't fair. Sam's eyes were less than half-open, he was staggering to stand, and the throw was too fast. He still managed to get one hand to it, slapped it into the air, grabbed with the other; it slipped, and he ducked to slap it up again; tossing it from hand to hand he finally secured itâand found it was a folded bag of greasy paper that squelched in his hands and had a fine tang of faintly scented urine.
“Enough for two there; you can share it,” said the stranger.
Sam was used to strangers and used to being ordered about, so he did as he was told. He laid the parcel on the oak table, turned, and felt for the tinder box.
“By the clouds, you're slow,” said the stranger. “What are you? Kitchen boy? âPrentice?” He looked at the parcel and gave a grin that showed long teeth. “No, I know. You're Flaxfield's juggler.”
Sam scowled, put a little paper and kindling on the ashes of last night's fire, and struck the tinder box, raising a spark but no flame. He rearranged the tinder.
“Well? Which is it?”
“Apprentice,” he mumbled. Again the spark raised no flame.
Starback huddled against his legs, with a comforting scratchy feeling. But Sam needed more than that to stop him from fumbling nervously.
“Flaxfield must have been getting desperate in his last years.”
Sam ground his teeth together.
“Put that rubbish down and light it yourself.”
Sam pretended not to understand, and stood dumbly staring at him.
“Well, at least you know not to give everything away all at once,” said the stranger, and for the first time a suggestion of respect crossed his face. But not for long. “Light it yourself. I know you can.”
“Flaxfield said I shouldn't. He said it wasn't for that.”
“You shouldn't. It isn't. But Flaxfield's dead and I tell you to do it. So do it. I was his apprentice once, too.”
Sam looked the man in the eye, really taking him in for the first time. He was awake now and his wits were returning. Long hair, with ringlets at the side, made the stranger's face look longer than it really was. His nose was long, too, and not quite straight. Long teeth and a long tongue in a wide mouth. A friend would have said he looked like a wolf. An enemy would have said a fox. Sam decided fox, a judgment that was supported by the russet cloak and brown shoes. A wolf would be gray. And a wolf would fight you face to face. Sam decided that this one would fight behind your back. This one was sly, not brave. And all the more dangerous for that.
“Do it!” he snapped, “or I
think that Flaxfield took on idiots at the end.”
“You were his apprentice, you do it,” said the boy. Starback coughed and whined and clung tighter to his legs.
He lifted his hand and Sam raised his arm in defense. But no blow fell. Instead, a shaft of fire leaped from the man's open palm, streamed across the room, and flashed into the range. The dead
ashes flared up, licked the kindling, crackled, and settled into a cheerful blaze.
Sam lifted his eyes. The old face was grim and set. He looked at Sam with new interest. “You're not as stupid as you look,” he said. “You'll need watching.”
Not by you,
swore Sam, silently.
“What's your name?”
“And your real name?”
Sam looked down at the floor, then put his knuckle in his mouth and sucked it.
“What's yours?” he asked.
“You can call me Axestone. All right. Now cook the breakfast.”
The kidneys were fresh and sweet, with butter, salt, and fresh pepper, bread, and tea.
“I see I'm the first,” said Axestone.
“Will there be others, then?”
“Stars help us! And just when I thought you weren't quite the idiot you look. Of course there will be others. Before the day is out. Now, clear this lot up, then gather the willow and keep your eyes open for the others. Let me know as soon as you see someone.”
“I can't leave you alone in the house,” said Sam.
The door flew open. Sam felt the floor tilt steeply, and he stumbled through the door, tumbled to the ground, with Starback sprawled on top of him, legs everywhere and claws scratching him. The door slammed shut.
“Keep your eyes open for the others,” Axestone called.
Sam made a sign with his finger at the door. It was the one that Flaxfield once beat him for when he caught him doing it, but he was safe now that the old man was dead and he was hidden from the stranger's sight by the heavy door.
“Do that to me again and you'll regret it,” said Axestone.
Sam put his hand down quickly. Starback found his feet and raised an embarrassed face to Sam.
“All right,” said the boy. “It's not your fault. He made us both look stupid.” And he swore quietly that he would repay Axestone double for the insult.