Magister Rumbold Crucible woke up feeling that someone had been using his head as a bell clapper. That, he groggily reasoned, probably accounted for the sickening swaying sensation as well. He groaned and turned over heavily in bed, reached out a scrawny foot to lever himself gently from beneath the covers … and went on reaching. It was only when the bed tipped alarmingly and he fell out that he realised something was wrong. In glazed disbelief he just had time to witness the stained and pitted flagstones hurtling towards him through the gloom before his feet struck. The shock waves travelled up his spine and exploded in his head, turning the dull thumping that had awakened him into a full bodied kettledrum overture. Moaning, he lay there on the floor, with his rump presented to a draughty and suddenly unfriendly world like a cyclopean carcass on a butcher’s slab until, slowly, the stark bollock-nakedness of his scrawny body seeped its icy way into his consciousness. “Grundle!” he screamed, and then wished he hadn’t.
He dragged himself erect, nursing a head in which a squad of Palace Guards were now apparently dancing a hob-nailed gavotte, to the accompaniment of the tympani, and collapsed into a chair, kicking over an empty bottle, which caromed into another, then another, setting up a delicate, tinkling counterpoint to the thumping rhythm in his head. He pulled the drape from the adjoining table roughly around his body and risked another yell. “Grundle!”
There was a rustle of straw in the corner of the chamber, illumined by a shaft of diffident sunlight that looked as though it had got up far too early, and a tousled head poked out, squinting bleary eyes into the dusty gloom. “Wha...?Unnh?”
Crucible pointed animatedly to the bed, gently oscillating ten feet above the floor. “Did you do that?” he rasped, resolutely trying to ignore the Guards who were now marking time on his eyeballs.
The head emerged further, followed by the rest of Grundle’s diminutive body. “Unhh...? Wha...?” The magician’s scruffy manservant crawled the rest of the way out of his nest and knelt on all fours, slowly shaking his head to clear it. “Do you know what time it is?” he complained, looking up.
Crucible winced. “For pity’s sake, don’t shout!” he whimpered, nursing his head. “How many times have I told you not to go browsing in the Spell Book without asking? If you were meant to be a magician you’d have had a beard and fiery eyes.”
Grundle struggled to his knees and looked at the suspended bed in amazement. “It weren’t me!” he denied strenuously. “What do I want to go and hang a bed on the ceiling for? It’s me what has to make it!”
The shaft of sunlight withdrew hastily, as if deciding it was much too early in the day to go poking about in other people’s business, and the corners of the chamber were once more plunged into anonymity.
Crucible shivered and ran his tongue over his lips. It felt like a large, hairy caterpillar, and tasted as if the Guardsmen’s boots had trampled it to death some time ago. His expression obviously spoke volumes, for the servant scowled at his master. “Stewbother Swamp Water,” he announced, scathingly, stretching and scratching at his crotch. “And don’t blame me if your bowels start acting up again. I’ll light a fire, since I’m up!”
Crucible stared at the collection of bottles rolling around on the floor as the manservant brushed past him. He ran a hand gingerly through his lank, greying hair. “Six bottles! I can’t drink six bottles of Stewbother!”
Grundle grunted, his voice echoing up the chimney as he bent over the hearth. “Well it must be the mice then. That lot weren’t there when I went to bed. Why did you have to bring them back with you? What were you doing last night? And you came in through the window again, didn’t you? No wonder it’s perishing in here!” He moved over to the casement, jettisoned the contents of the night-soil jar outside, and slammed the window shut, peering down into the murky depths of the street below just showing the first, reluctant, stirrings of another day in Ramshot, Capital of Ransidd Province, the Mecca of Mages from all over Ramidor. And seeing that most of them lived in the city, they didn’t have that far to go.
Reinforced by a hardier band of brothers, the sunbeam burst back into the room as the molten globe of Ratarse, Ramidor’s third sun, thrust above the distant Palace walls across the vista of pantiled roofs. Crucible yelped and covered his eyes.
Grundle eyed his master with distaste. “What do you look like?” he asked. “And where’s your nightshirt? You never go to bed without your nightshirt. Not,” he added fairly “that your bed has ever been ten feet up the wall before. It’s warmer up there, is it?”
Crucible groped for his robe and drew it over his head. “Well, if it wasn’t you, who was it?” he groaned. “If I was as drunk as these bottles say I was, I couldn’t have cast a rune, let alone a spell. And as for levitation ...”
Grundle sniffed. “Well you must have had a good fairy with you, then, that’s all I can say. Do you want any breakfast?” Crucible retched and Grundle sniffed again. “No, I didn’t think so.”
Just then there was a clattering of nail-shod feet in the street that roused Crucible’s own little clog-dancers and he clapped his hands to his head again. Grundle crossed to the window. “Turning out the Guard early this morning,” he remarked. “Looks like Fred Shovell and his mate, Brunt. And they’ve got that old crone Doris the Diviner with them. Those rods of hers are going around nineteen to the dozen, She’ll take off in a minute. Somebody’s been up to no good if they’re using her this early in the morning. She never usually gets up till gone dinner time.”
At mention of Doris’s name, Crucible blanched and sat up. “Grundle,” he whispered urgently. “Where did I go last night?”
“Tcchha! Am I my master’s keeper?” said Grundle, spreading his arms. “The day you tell me where you’re going is the day Ratarse only sets once! It’s bad enough trying to get food on the table when you decide to come in, never mind keeping track of where you’ve been. Not to mention making beds on the ceiling. How’m I supposed to manage that?” He tossed his head. “If my mother knew I was dog’s body for a drunken magician ... she thinks I’ve got a proper job, you know.” He gestured to the floating bed. “Are you going to get that down or not?”
Crucible ignored him, looking anxious. “Who else do you know who drinks Stewbother?”
“What, and still alive?” Grundle counted out on his fingers. “Three. And one of those drags his own coffin around with him now, just to save anyone else the trouble. That leaves you and Calparthia, the Emperor’s Sorcerer ... and everybody says he’s mad” He eyed the empty bottles. “And that wouldn’t surprise me.”
Crucible looked worried. “If he wasn’t, he is now.”
“And what would you know about it?” Grundle scoffed. “Are we moving in elevated circles now?”
Crucible looked icily at the servant. “As a matter of fact, yes - I’ve just remembered where I was last night. And I’ll thank you to remember who pays whose wages around here.”
Grundle started to grin in derision, but the grin died on his face as he saw his master’s expression. He had seen the same sort of look on the face of a thief who had just been drawn and quartered before being properly hung, and hadn’t particularly wanted to see it again ... ever.
Crucible turned to the bed and clicked his fingers. It came crashing down from the ceiling, splintering the flag-stones and making Grundle leap in alarm. The magician pointed a wavering finger at the dishevelled bedclothes. “Look!”
Grundle looked, then moved closer and looked again. Then He looked back at his master. “A stick,” he said, and shrugged. “So, you slept with a stick last night. Each to their own.” His face assumed a curiously dreamy expression. “I once knew a girl who slept with a live snake - and it made it a difficult act to follow I can tell you ...” He checked himself .”.. but a stick’s all right. If you like that sort of thing. Mind you, I’m not surprised you hid the bed on the ceiling. Personally I’d have hung it from Ratarse and prayed that no-one saw me ever again, but there’s no accounting for taste. What is it, self-abasement, knot fetish or do we poke ...?”
“Don’t be so disgusting!” Crucible exclaimed, incensed, making a pass with his hands and enchanting the little man’s waistband up towards his chest until his eyes watered. “Sorcerers don’t waste energy on such base matters.” He approached the bed with trepidation. “That isn’t just an ordinary stick,” he said with awe. “That is Supreme Magister Calparthia’s own, personal, wand.”
Grundle tugged his trousers to a more comfortable position and wiped his eyes. “Gah!” he said, “No wonder the Guard’s out. What’s it doing here?”
“I won it,” Crucible said simply, biting his fingernails. “I remember everything now. And I wish by the gods I didn’t!” He dived to the cupboard and began throwing things into a trunk. “Get packed!” he shouted to Grundle, over his shoulder.
“Won’t help,” came a tiny voice.
Crucible threw things into the trunk even faster.“Who said that?” Grundle asked looking round nervously.
“You might get away for a little while ... but he’ll find you,” the little voice piped in a self-satisfied manner.
Grundle followed the sound and then leapt backwards, for the stick had suddenly grown tiny limbs and was leaning back on the pillow with its legs crossed, holding its little knobby head on crooked hands. He grabbed at his master’s sleeve, mouth working soundlessly.
“I know, I know!” Crucible snapped irritably. “If you can’t do anything better than flap your mouth, go and do something useful instead and look out for Doris and her cronies.”
Grundle regained his composure. ” ...but it’s talking!” he exclaimed, indignantly.
“But it’s talking,” mocked the little voice, “Of course it’s talking. You’d be talking too if you’d just been kidnapped!”
Grundle turned to his frenzied employer. “What’s it mean, kidnapped?” he said. “I thought you said you’d won it.”
“I did,” Crucible replied, chewing worriedly on his lower lip. “It’s just a bad loser, that’s all. Like its master.”
Grundle turned his head to and fro between his master and the stick, which was just clambering down from the bed. “But what ... how ... where ... wh ...?”
“Stop floundering, Grundle!” screamed the magician. “Just get some things together and let’s go!”
Grundle backed away from the wand, which was approaching at a curious, hobbled, gait, and finished up against the wall just as a loud, imperious hammering came from the street door.
Crucible jumped in consternation and crossed to the window, flattening himself along the wall to squint through the dirt-grimed panes. “Too late!” he moaned. “It’s the Guard. And that old crone Doris looks as smug as a cat in a dairy.”
“Told you so.” The wand waddled over to the window and hauled itself up Grundle’s legs to peer through the glass. “Hey ...” it began, raising its stubby little hand to rap at the pane, but Crucible, in panic, clapped his hand over its mouth until it bit him and he dropped it with a muttered curse. It clattered onto the floor and lay there, looking balefully at the magician. “You shouldn’t have done that,” it said, “I can get very nasty when I want to. I hope that turns septic.”
Crucible sucked at his injured hand with an air of distraction verging on hysteria as the sound of bolts being shot back came from below and the landlord unbarred the door.
“Do something!” Grundle screamed, the vision of twenty years’ hard labour in the Emperor’s prison dragging chains before his eyes.
Crucible raised his hands to his head and screamed back. “What?”
“I don’t know. You’re the magician. Do some magicking,” Grundle shrieked, hopping up and down in agitation.
Raised voices and the heavy clumping of boot-shod feet negotiating bare stairs racketed up from the ground floor and stopped outside the Chamber door. There was a heavy hammering, accompanied by a cackle from Doris, when the Chamber door suddenly splintered under the assault and flew in, depositing Private Brunt on the floor.
As the door flew off its hinges, revealing an out-of-breath Sergeant Shovell and the sinister figure of Doris flitting about in the background, Crucible shrieked. Then he grabbed the wand, which gave a strangled squawk and, catching hold of Grundle by the scruff of the neck, brandished the struggling stick and muttered a hasty incantation. The last thing he heard was the exclamation of surprise at the sudden popping of air imploding to fill the space previously occupied by two anxious bodies and a struggling stick.
Grundle shook his head to clear it, gazing about him in disbelief. The dingy chamber and imminent threat of disembowelment had disappeared, and their place taken by a bustling, early-morning market-place. The trundle of heavy wagons bouncing over cobbled alleys formed a grating backdrop to the snarl of sleepy-eyed shoppers doing their level best to haggle with traders who had been up since well before dawn and were in no mood to argue with anyone.
As Grundle and Crucible fell in a shower of sparks created by the enchantment, stall-holders and buyers skittered out of the way. Crucible grabbed Grundle’s arm and quickly bundled him away through the crowd to the shouted imprecations of one of the more vociferous and liverish traders: “Bloody Sorcerers! One of these days one of you lot is going to show up in a space that somebody else is occupying - and I hope they make you clear up the mess. Gerrof out of it!” The invitation was punctuated by a hail of over-ripe vegetables. Grundle made the mistake of looking back and received a liberal helping in his face. Satisfied that the point had been made, the trader turned the tirade back on to his customer who, in making a justifiable observation about the maturity of the produce, had just poked a finger through a ripe and juicy melon.
Crucible dived down a dark alley, dragging a dripping Grundle after him, and ducked down behind a pile of crates and noisome garbage to catch his breath. Grundle squatted beside him, clawing vegetable matter from his face and spluttering. “Gah! Graww! Where are we?”
“Who knows? Who cares?” Crucible replied. “Away from the Guard, that’s all that matters.”
“Oh, that’s all right then!” Grundle snorted. “Never mind that we’ve got no luggage, no money, and we’re totally lost, nothing matters. Fine. Absolutely fine.” He sighed.
“Oh, stop complaining, Grundle. I’ve enough to contend with, without you moaning. Would you rather split rocks in the Imperial chain gang? I got you away, didn’t I?”
There was a rattle from behind Crucible’s back and a muffled voice piped out “And I suppose I had nothing to do with that, then?” The wand pushed its way out from between Crucible’s back and the wall. “Since when has a third-class sorcerer been able to cast the ‘erehwesle’ spell?” It removed a decaying cabbage leaf from its head distastefully, and sat stiffly down.
Crucible ran a hand tiredly down his face. “Well you know what they say. When the devil drives ... why don’t you run off home to daddy like a good little stick?”
“Sorry. Doesn’t work like that. You won me fair and square. I’m yours until my Master claims me back. I’m honour bound to stay with you, through thick and thin, fair and foul, grief and pleasure, disaster and ...”
“Yes! Yes! I get the picture,” Crucible interjected, snarling.
”.. although I don’t know why I should. It’s like putting a lighted torch in a baby’s hands. Every inch of this knotty little body is packed so full of energy you should really wear gloves just to pick me up. Don’t forget I’m a Supreme Magister’s Magic Wand.”
“Am I likely to?” Crucible moaned.
“Not if you’re wise,” cautioned the stick.
Crucible distractedly picked at the debris surrounding his feet, whilst Grundle glared at the wand and tried to settle himself more comfortably against his rubbish bin. “Is it asking too much for someone to explain to me just what is going on?” he demanded.
The stick leered at him. “Ask your Master. I’m just a possession, like you.”
Grundle bridled. “Less of the possession, if you don’t mind. I’ll have you know I’m a freed man. I choose to stay with this no-hoper because I … well, I just choose to, that’s all.” He raised his hands to what could be seen of the sky beyond the overhang of the clustering buildings. “I’m arguing with a stick, so help me.”
Crucible sighed. “Get used to it, Grundle. It’s here to stay ... until Calparthia catches up with us.”
“Us!” Grundle exploded. “I was fast asleep when all this happened, remember? But do fill me in. I’d be absolutely fascinated to know how you came to end up with a magic wand belonging to the most powerful and demented magician in the whole of the Three Kingdoms. Did you get his autograph as well? Because I’ve heard he signs it in baby’s blood with a human finger for a pen!”
“Absolutely ridiculous,” the stick broke in, “baby’s blood is much too thin. It’s actually the coagulated residue from a ...”
“Arrgh!” Grundle shuddered. “Spare us the details.” He snatched up a decaying fish head and threw it at the dejected sorcerer. “See what you’ve landed us in now, you and your drinking?”
There was a rattle of sliding casements from above and someone out of sight emptied a pail of slops out of the window. The stream spattered rancidly on the ground between the sorcerer and his servant, drawing a further exclamation of disgust from Grundle. “Can someone tell me why we’re sitting in this pile of garbage when we’ve got the whole of Ramidor to hide in?” he snarled, “Because I take it we are hiding? You can’t just go and hand the damn thing back?”
Crucible heaved himself wearily to his feet, clawing rubbish from his beard. “And compound the felony? That would be adding insult to injury ... and tantamount to suicide as well. Once a sorcerer loses a magic wand, it’s up to him to get it back. They don’t grow on trees you know ...” he checked himself, “… well, they do, but they say there’s only one of those left now and so far away it may as well not be there. That’s why they’re so valuable. You spend a lifetime pouring energy into a bit of wood, you want to get a return from it. But once the connection’s broken ...” He picked up the smirking wand and stuffed it in his belt. “They’re funny things, wands. They get personalities. Once a sorcerer loses one, they get a sulk on. It’s no use just handing it back: it’ll just refuse to work. It figures that the one who lost it should have gone to the trouble of finding it again. They’re worse than any woman.”
Grundle fell into step beside his master as they made their way deeper into the alley. “What I can’t understand is how you came to win it in the first place ... nor how Calparthia came to risk losing it!” he said. “And since when have you been in the habit of mixing with the nobs anyway?”
Crucible groaned. “It was the Stewbother, wasn’t it? Calparthia and his cronies came into ‘The Spotted Boar’, slumming it. He does that from time to time, apparently. I’d already had a couple, and one thing led to another ... you know what Stewbother’s like. Before I knew what was happening, I’d challenged him to a drinking match, one magician to another, and then left him and his bodyguard sleeping it off under the table while I staggered off with the proceeds.” He patted the wand, grimly. “This!” The stick wriggled itself more comfortably against Crucible’s hip and went to sleep. “What makes it worse,” Crucible continued, peering down the dark alley “is that I don’t rightly know what to do with it, not having had one before, especially not a Supreme Magister’s that’s got more life in it than most people.”
“Not to mention more lip!” Grundle put in, glaring balefully at the wand, now appearing no more than an innocuous piece of wood stuck in the Sorcerer’s belt. “Are they all like that?”
“Animate? More or less. Some more than others. Supreme Magisters’ more than most. And it all depends on what quality, of course. Which cut of the tree they came off. This one is obviously a top-notch cut, taken at the full of the moons on the seventh day of the seventh month with solid silver shears … when someone could find the tree. You don’t get many like that.”
Grundle snorted. “It’s easy to see why.”
They came to a fork in the alley-way and were debating which way to go when the door in a coffin-shaped building set at the intersection suddenly burst open to a brief blast of hellish music and a huge man ran out, straight into them. Crucible yelped and skipped out of the way, knocking the stick out of his belt as he did so. It struck the ground on its knobby head and bounced between the pistoning legs of the fugitive bringing him down. Grundle tried to get out of the way, but the man’s bulk was too great and he and the little servant fell in a threshing of arms, legs and money purses accompanied by fearful curses, not the least of which emanated from the wand itself at its rude awakening.
You hulking great scumbucket!” the wand swore, as it disentangled itself from his ankles.
The scumbucket roared and clubbed a fist above Grundle’s head, thinking it was he who had spoken. Grundle shrieked and tried to draw his head into his shoulders before the blow landed, but Crucible took the initiative. Recovering from his surprise he automatically snatched up the cursing wand before he realised what he was doing and brought it down with all his might on the scumbucket’s head. There was a solid ‘clunk’, accompanied by a sudden glazing of the man’s eyes and the cessation of all further interest in proceedings on both his part and the wand’s. The two of them lost consciousness immediately
The door burst open again and fell off its hinges as an even huger individual ran out wielding a pole-axe in hands that made the cumbersome weapon look like an ice-pick, followed by a anxiously hand-wringing money-lender, purse strings flapping where they had been cut. The gigantic man stopped short at the pile of bodies, as though undecided what to do, but the usurer fell with a cry of pure pleasure on his money pouches, scooping them into his arms and stuffing them into the voluminous pockets of his robe, gabbling the insane catechism of the once-more-criminally-wealthy.
Crucible stood transfixed, looking in horror at the rigid stick in his hand and wondering what on earth had possessed him to mete out such summary punishment with a Supreme Magister’s Magic Wand. Rapidly his mind permutated the possible consequences that might ensue. When his thoughts turned to frogs and pillars of salt he dropped the stick with a small yelp, and turned to help Grundle, who was struggling from beneath the thief’s limp body with a great deal of difficulty. However, the giant pre-empted him by the simple expedient of hauling the prostrate felon off the ground by his hair and then dropping him when Grundle had scrambled clear.
“Thanks, friend,” Grundle gasped, then turned to Crucible. “And you. I didn’t know you had it in you.”
Crucible shuddered. “I don’t think I will much longer when this wand recovers. I don’t know what came over me.” He groped his way to the wall behind him and sank to the ground as his knees buckled
Grundle hopped out of the way as the wizened little usurer scrambled about at his feet, picking up the loose change. “Whatever it was, it did us a favour” he said “If anything deserves a reward” he continued pointedly, directing his words at the back of the moneylender, “felling a thief does.”
Immediately the man stiffened as if someone had just rammed a pole up his unprotected rear and clutched his pouches to his chest. “Reward? Who said reward?” he looked fearfully over his shoulder. “There’s enough thieves willing to steal it, never mind giving it away voluntarily. If you hadn’t got in the way Haarn would soon have caught up with him. I didn’t get where I am by throwing money around friend.” He scrambled to the side of the giant who was still looking bemused, as if something unintelligible had just got in the way of him hitting something very hard and he didn’t quite know what to make of it. “Haarn hit!” he rumbled, raising a fist that made Grundle’s eyes water just to look at i
“Yes!” urged the moneylender. “Harrn hit! Small man want take away money. Haarn hit hard!”
A cloud passed over Haarn’s face as he struggled with the information and Grundle’s jaw dropped in disbelief at the usurer’s injunction. “Why Haarn hit?” the giant faltered, “Midget no steal. Big man on ground steal! Midget stop.”
“Never mind the niceties!” shrieked the moneylender. “Haarn hit like Master pay for, otherwise Master no have money pay Haarn.”
The complexity of the sentence was too much for the big man and he ran a hand down his face. “But midget not bad man. Haarn only hit bad men,” he explained, patiently. “Haarn hit man on ground if catch, but man already on ground and Haarn no knock him down.” A dawning comprehension lifted the cloud over his face. “If Haarn no hit man on ground, midget hit man on ground. Midget stop man run away with money. If midget stop man run away with money, midget good man! Haarn no hit.” The giant delivered himself of this speech with the air of one who has solved a great truth, and plucked Grundle off the ground with one enormous hand, planting a huge kiss on both cheeks. He deposited him back on the ground, face to face with his Master. “Midget friend. Master friend. Midget stop thief. Master pay friend. Is only fair.” He folded his arms in evident satisfaction and beamed an alarming grin that tipped his helmet rakishly over one eye.
Haarn’s master took a step back and clutched his money bags even tighter. “Are you mad, you heathen half-wit? If you’d have been quicker off the mark he wouldn’t have got out of the door. What d’you think I pay you for?”
“Ah, but he wasn’t quick off the mark, was he?” Grundle chipped in. “If it wasn’t for me and my friend here, sleeping beauty would’ve been long gone, and your money with him. It’s only common decency after all.”
“Piss off!” snarled the moneylender, backing towards the door. It was a mistake, because the door was lying on the ground behind him. With a yell he tipped backwards landing on it with his feet in the air and his money pouches once more scattered in all directions. Haarn hooked a booted toe casually under the door and flicked it up, catapulting the usurer back into the tavern where he could be heard roundly cursing the occupants and scampering about after his coinage which had spilled out of his bags.
Haarn snorted, and picked up a loose money pouch tossing it to Grundle who caught it, surprised. “Haarn finish with Master. Master bad man. Haarn not clever, but Haarn know right from wrong. Midget deserve money. Haarn give midget money.”
Grundle peered inside the bag and whistled. “There’s close on 20 gold pieces here!”
Haarn shrugged. “Master got plenty. You keep.”
Grundle needed no second bidding and tucked the pouch securely under his jerkin. He motioned urgently to Crucible to make themselves scarce. Fifty yards further on he stopped and turned back to see Haarn standing forlornly at the crossroads and, exasperated, waved the giant on to join them. “What the hell,” he said to Crucible who looked at him in amazement. “We might need the protection.”