The Pointed Pencil
Ilien Woodhill was dead.
Twice before he had foiled their attacks, once by hiding at daybreak in a thicket of brambles whose prickers left claw marks down his face, next through sheer luck, overhearing their whispers of revenge as he hid behind a tree at dusk. Then he was able to avoid their trouble. But now, this third time . . . three times was a charm, but not always a lucky one. He braced himself as his enemies approached.
The two figures moved from behind the stand of trees and stopped a dozen paces away. The leader, small and thin for a boy his age, shoved his larger companion ahead of him. "Get it," he commanded.
The other boy lumbered forward, his wide face creased in delight. There was nothing to fear here, that much he knew. After all, he was the biggest twelve-year-old in town, and taller than most thirteen-year-olds as well. Heck, he'd even made a few high schoolers cry. This little one would go down easy.
"Give it to me or else," he said, advancing and raising a meaty fist.
Ilien looked hopefully up the dirt road. Farmer Parson sometimes passed this way with a load of hay from his outer fields, bound for his tall grey barn, but it was only mid-April. A lone hawk circled above, a black spot in the sky above. As usual, Ilien was on his own.
"I said, give it to me or else," the boy growled, opening and closing his fist, knuckles cracking like shots.
"Or else what?" piped a voice that sounded, oddly enough, just like Ilien's.
Ilien groaned. He knew he should've left his enchanted pencil at home. An "A" in math was little consolation for a beating.
The boy left the fist in the air and turned to look back at his impish leader. "Did you hear that, Peaty? Now I'll hafta hurt him."
Peaty laughed him on, his lips drawn back in a sneer. "Do it, Stanley. Do it."
Ilien held the pencil at his side as Stanley approached, his feet frozen to the ground. He might still escape unharmed. There was still a chance. If only . . .
The pencil made a sound as if clearing its throat.
"Shut up!" Ilien shouted. "Why can't you ever shut up?"
Stanley's fist streaked forward and Ilien's head flew back with an audible snap. He stumbled back and tumbled to the ground, clutching the stinging wound beneath his eye, tears blurring his vision.
The boy leaned menacingly over Ilien, sweat beading on his meaty brow. "Don't tell me to shut up. Now give me that pencil. Give it to me, or I swear I'll break your arm."
"Why?" piped the pencil, mimicking Ilien again. "I bet you don't even know how to use one. Besides, I'd be afraid you'd poke yourself and pop. Someone in your condition should be careful around sharp objects."
With a bellow, Stanley fell on Ilien, hammer fists raining blows. Ilien threw his arms across his face. Pinned beneath the sweating Stanley, he could do little more than shield his wounded eye and gasp for breath, but his thoughts were racing.
Peaty's face twisted with spite, reddened with sudden blood-lust. "Kill him, Stanley! Kill him!"
The barrage of strikes was short-lived as the fat boy quickly tired. Stanley climbed off him and struggled to his feet, and Ilien scrambled back as his attacker stood swaying and exhausted before him. Both eyes stung now, and a tear of blood trickled from his nose.
"Is little Ilien afraid to lose his pencil?" Peaty mocked, his eyes cruel slits in his feverish face. "Are you gonna cry, little baby? Is that pencil your only friend?" Spittle flew from between his lips as he continued in angrier tones. "I bet your deadbeat daddy gave it to you right before he ran out on you."
Ilien squeezed the pencil in fury. It didn't matter that he never knew his father. No one talked about his dad like that. A few choice words of his own came to mind as anger swept through him, words that would do more than just sting.
"Ilien Woodhill! Don't you dare!" a voice cried behind him.
Ilien winced. It wasn't Farmer Parson come to the rescue, that was for sure.
The two boys backed away, fear clouding their faces.
"It's that crazy old man. Let's get out of here!" Peaty yelled. Ilien watched from the ground as the two boys ran off, casting back menacing looks. "Look! It's freak and geek!" they called, laughing. Then they were gone.
Ilien climbed to his feet and wiped at the blood running from his nose. The old man stood before him, leaning on a thin wooden cane."Don't worry, I'm fine!" Ilien snapped in answer to the sudden withering stare.
The old man merely squinted. "It wasn't you I was worried about." His eyes followed after the fleeing boys.
Ilien summoned tears and hid the talking pencil by his side, praying it would keep silent. He had learned to summon tears on cue since Gallund had come to stay at the house. A most useful skill.
Gallund leaned in and pointed a finger at Ilien. "Don't give me that look, boy! You know what I mean. It's a good thing I got here when I did."
Ilien straightened and began to speak, but fell silent.
"So I was right!" Dust swirled around the old man, the product of an angry foot upon the road. "And to think I trusted you." His eyebrows furrowed into a single grey line. "What is rule number one?"
Ilien's shoulders resumed their usual droop. "No spells whatsoever outside the house," he muttered, "unless confronted by dark magic of the worse sort."
"And it seems I can't stress that enough, can I?"
Ilien's hands balled into fists. "But you didn't hear what they said!"
"I hear more than you think," Gallund said. "And if you're talking about what mister Peaty Wilson said concerning your father, he should be as lucky. His father's a lying, cheating drunk. He beats the boy, I know. Better to have no father at all than one like his."
Ilien doubted that, but he kept his arguments to himself as he looked up the dirt road. He was in enough trouble already. Besides, he suddenly didn't feel like talking about it.
Gallund tapped his cane on the road to garner Ilien's attention. "Now back to the point at hand. You know better than to use magic outside the house."
Ilien stared at his shoes. "I wasn't really going to electrocute them."
Gallund nearly jumped. "Electrocute them? Electrocute them!" he cried to the sky. "You cannot be serious!" He drove a finger into Ilien's chest. "Not only have I been careful not to teach you offensive spells, but I am quite sure I have never taught you anything as low-down and ordinary as electrocution. Surely you know that I myself would never consider using such a crass, and frankly, low class spell when Phlaming Phalanges would do a much better, and might I add, more impressive job. And let me remind you that Lightning spells are about as predictable as the weather. For all you know you might have electrocuted yourself."
Ilien kicked at the ground in front of him. "Well, I think Lightning spells jam," he mumbled.
"Jam? Jam?" Gallund looked around as if addressing an unseen jury. "What is that language he's speaking? Where in the world did he ever think that one up? Jam indeed. I never will understand you kids. Jam. Jelly. Marmalade. Really!"
Gallund turned and walked up the dusty road, carrying his cane like a sword and ranting under his breath about everything, from what kids say to what kids smell like. "And how your mother ever gets your britches clean after god knows what you've been rolling in. If she wasn't away visiting your uncle—. Why I ever decided to teach you magic behind her back, I'll never know!"
Ilien stifled a laugh as he followed behind. The old man spun and grabbed him fiercely by the shoulder. He drew Ilien close, his face suddenly pale. "This is not a game, boy. I warned you to keep your studies to yourself. There are those who would do worse than schoolyard bullies if they discovered out little secret."
Tense silence hung between them. A gust of wind kicked up a cloud of dust around the two still figures. Gallund released his iron grip and Ilien rubbed at his arm.
"And don't think I didn't see that pencil in your hand," continued the wizard. "I didn't give you an enchanted pencil so you could cheat on your geometry test. It's for spellwork, not schoolwork. Your mother hired me as a private tutor and entrusted me to keep an eye on you while she's gone, and that's what I'm going to do. One more stunt like this, just one more, and you'll lose that pencil for good. Now let's go. If you can't play nice then you won't play at all."
To Ilien, the short walk back to the house felt as long as a forced march to certain death. He trailed behind his teacher, kicking along a small rock that had been unfortunate enough to get in his way. The flat land surrounding his small town of Southford stretched out around him like a taut, green blanket with an occasional wrinkle where a sudden hill dropped down to a flooded gully or trickling stream. Luckily, he had to pass only one house along the winding road, Farmer Parson's, and no one there was home to witness his humiliation. Study! On a Friday, no less! He shoved his hands to the bottom of his pockets in disgust.