The Hero's Apprentice

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Ch. 9 Level Four

Cro and Walter woke refreshed by a morning breeze that batted a few leaves at their faces. There was still a portion of mutton left from yesterdays creeping. And Cro and Walter finished the contents of Cros’ gourd. Upon finishing Cro gave the gourd to Walter. A gift? No, Cro instructed Walter to go find water. Walter asked how, and Cro told him to listen and obey. Walter understood. This was training. His first real exercise excluding the ring. That had been easy cause Walters’ magic wanted it to occur. But this was different. Part of him would be thirsty at some point, and the other part would be less willing to exert effort when there was Cro around. Cro assured Walter he’d keep an eye on him, but self-reliance was a wizards’ best friend. You can’t help others till you help yourself. Walter was humble about it. Magic he had, but he still had to jump through the same hoops as every student. Listening was step one. Service was two. And Cro was nice enough to let him kill two birds with one stone. Or he was just trying to speed up the training cause Rye might show up today and Walter would be useless unless he used every hour productively. Walter started to sprint but was halted by Cro.

“It’s harder to listen when you’re moving. Learn to hold still or you’ll go in circles.”

Walter complied, he listened to the ground, water was there. He also caught faint instances of it in the air. Follow it, it would gather at some point. Walter began walking with his eyes closed. Cro smiled from a distance, his student was doing well. The academy would take too long. Repetition, memorization, they were important. But field experience was a trump card, and there’d be plenty of routine and memory involved in it anyway. Why didn’t all students have a mentor and in the field training? You couldn’t always rush learning, and yet Cro realized that was what he was attempting. Still, Cro had found a good place to train for a week. It was a shame they would have to leave in a few days. The giants wouldn’t sniff them out in a day or two, but if they lingered too long, they’d know they had visitors. And there was no telling if Rye had fallen for his decoy yet, and was plowing forward trying to find them.

Cro got impatient when Walter didn’t come back for an hour. Must’ve lost the scent, or worse fell into a pit. Cro began searching for Walter. It was funny for Cro. He had Walter looking for a stream, and Walter had him looking for Walter. This reminded Cro of old times. Master and servant were one and the same. Both were teaching the other, the two always got closer together until there was really no difference except age. And that didn’t really matter. Because now Walter was young and Cro was old. Soon it would be reversed, though technically it already had been that way for Cro. It was strange teaching the same lesson that Walter had taught Cro all that time ago. Cro had been hesitant to obey back then. And Walter had said it was fine and that Cro could go to the academy and learn it the slow easy way. How was it easy if it was slower? Cro found out quickly and had to spend a whole month looking for Walter. When he had finally found him he couldn’t bear how disrespectful he had been and promised to never complain even if Walter did. That month Cro had no choice but to do things the harder but easy way. It would have been easier to not apologize to Walter and just stay with a class. But the class had to pace itself for the other students, and Cro was restless being held back. He tried helping the other students get good, but they settled for the books and scripted lectures of the teacher. Cro realized that Walter was not being cruel, he was trying to show Cro what was really important. And Cro found that Walter wasn’t allowed to go easy on him, because then Cro would never be anything else than a stray cat begging for food. Walter taught Cro the difference between a hunter and a bottom feeder. Turned out the only difference was one was good at both strategies.

Cro couldn’t find anyone who knew Walter at all. That was strange. Where was Walter from? Who were his relatives? The academy dismissed the existence of a wandering wizard in the forest. But Cro knew a young man in a white shirt and strange brown pants had saved him from drowning in the very same river Walter was supposed to be walking towards right now. Cro had heard the rumors about giants, and wanted to see one. He had walked fifty feet closer each day and back getting nearer the borders until finally he was sure he was in Mutton Hollow or close by. Cros’ parents had told him to stay away, but Cro had problems holding still, even in class where they punished you into it. When Cro started going uphill on his walks he knew he was being stupid. But one peek was all he wanted. On that fateful day Cro had wandered a little off his strait course, and sure enough found a giant walking further up the mountain. His back was to Cro so Cro assumed he’d be safe. It was when the giant turned around to swat an eagle who was trying to protect its’ nest that the giant was too close to that Cro got scared and began running. Downhill but not quite on the trail and Cro soon wound up in the woods very scared. Cro didn’t sob because he was afraid of drawing other terrors out of their hiding place.

Cro heard something in the woods but didn’t stay to have a look. He sprinted towards a river hoping somehow he’d follow it back to the village. When Cro did turn his head to see if he was being pursued, he tripped and fell into the river, which was much deeper than Cro could stand, and much wilder than Cro could swim. For a few moments Cro tried his best to stay afloat. He’d swum before, but this water was churning and spitting him out. That was when something had fished Cro up to the surface and got him to cling to an odd pair of brown pants that was somehow floating in the water and keeping them afloat. Eventually the young man grabbed a rock at the bank and pulled him and the pants out of the water. Cro gasped and when he got up found the rescuer had replaced his soaked pants back on. Cro said thanks a little too quickly and asked if he knew where the village in Ando was. The stranger didn’t speak, instead he closed his eyes and became still. A moment later he told Cro the town was on the other side of the river. Cro was frightened again, He’d have to go through giant country to get home.

That was what Cro thought until his rescuer put his hands on a tree. The tree fell over the river making a bridge. Impossible? The tree wasn’t old or dead. The man extended a hand to Cro and Cro slowly walked across the trunk. It wasn’t scary because if he fell again this guy had already saved him once. Cro soon recognized the path he had taken enough times to remember. But then he realized that the stranger was heading back into the forest.

“Wait! Where are you going?”

“The tree helped me when I asked, so now I have to go help him and the rest of the forest out.”

Strange words, what kind of guy served trees? The man uncorked a gourd, filled it from the stream and began watering all the trees in the forest. Cro watched for a while and then said thanks once again and left. But he thought about it a lot when he got home soaked and relayed the tale to his parents. They scolded him for wandering off, and again for not thanking his rescuer by inviting him to dinner. Cro asked if he could thank him tomorrow. And surprisingly the answer was no. He was not to go back into the forest alone ever again.

Eventually the stranger had showed up in town a few days later and took up residence. His spells were impressive, and most of them went without mention for days. He never gave out his name, and could never be found even by the academy wizards who were sent to find him. He always seemed to not be home when someone visited the house he had acquired. Turned out his house always changed location or there was no house. Only Cro knew where he had seen him, and he wasn’t allowed to go there. The strange man did come to the academy one time to ask about yellow, orange, and red wizards, and was rudely dismissed as an outsider who had no business there according to one of Cros’ peers. Cro had eyed him as he headed to class, and for some reason skipped class to ask the stranger his name and if he would teach him. Cro knew he’d get scolded, but that would happen anyway if he wasn’t late. The man said he’d tell his name if Cro found them a place where they wouldn’t be disturbed that was in the academy grounds. That was easy. On the playing field where duels were held.

The man introduced himself as Walter and told Cro the first lesson was listening. Cro knew this and began quoting passages from his book. As if annoyed Walter knocked him to the ground with a burst of wind. Cro complained and Walter cut him off.

“If you were listening you would’ve known I wasn’t listening and preparing to attack.”

Cro was angry and prepared to throw his own batch of spells at this rescuer now turned assaulter. He tried a tongue binder but Walter put up a hand and made it fly back at Cro. Now Cro couldn’t talk. A moment later Walter undid Cros’ binding for him cause he was taking too long trying to undo it. Next Cro tried his best spell, a flame one. He was proud when it hit Walter, but his eyes widened when he saw Walter pick it off his burning shirt and play with it in his right hand. The flame vanished, and Walters’ shirt mended itself.

“Ok I’m listening.”

Walter smiled and instructed Cro to catch a fish.

“Why?”

“Fine don’t listen.”

Walter marched away while the group of wizards who had witnessed the duel were whispering among themselves about what Walter had done. He had turned one spell on its master and made the other one vanish, unless he had somehow converted it into the magic that had fixed his odd but now mended shirt. They were about to stop Walter and have him instruct them but he was now in an argument with Cro. When Cro was told to do things the slow and easy way, Cro was so mad that he tried one more spell, displacement. He shouldn’t have used it cause it was a green class spell, but Cro had managed to find a textbook version that had worked a few times when he practiced. As if expecting it, Walter summoned a tree branch from a nearby tree. It broke off and flew into Walters’ left hand. The entire field was watching now as Walter channeled the spell into the makeshift staff, modified it, and then said goodbye to Cro with a bow and disappeared.

Nobody bothered Cro after that. Not only had he disrespected a wizard who clearly had advanced training. But had blown his one chance to learn from him. The story became common place and many wizards went in search of the wizard who had beaten Cro. The tree with the missing branch was reverenced on the field. And through it all the stories excited the academy students, all except Cro who was bowed down with guilt. That led up to Cro telling his parents he was going to apologize to his rescuer even if he died. His parents grounded him of course. But in his room Cro studied. He listened like he had been bullheaded not to do. Soon he could hear. The forest was happy and other times it called out for help. Cro was certain Walter was there when it was happy, and the forest missed him when he left. So Cro bided his time, and eventually did detect an opportune moment to leave the house and go to the forest. Cro took the familiar route then turned so he’d find the tree over the river. He found it, but Walter wasn’t there. He sat down and listened again. Walter was somewhere, but not here. He had been here recently and had moved on. Cro decided he would come back here each night and mimic what Walter had been doing, watering the trees. So for thirty restless days Cro practiced listening and helping. By the end Cro no longer needed the textbooks that were pointless during class, and he definitely didn’t even need to be at the academy. Cro even got his green tunic waiting for Walter. It was Cro who was practicing with the elements when Walter finally appeared in the forest by the tree over the river. Cro apologized and took off his green tunic as if that would help.

“Took you long enough. Let’s begin level four.”

Cro was shocked, he didn’t even know what the fourth step was. And here he was now already going to learn it. As if repenting for the third time, Cro blurted out.

“I’m really listening this time.”

“Good, hurry and get the fish.”

Cro sprinted before Walter told him to slow down. Cro was happy though.

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