- Chapter Two -

Ten Gold Coins

       

 

“I’ll give you five gold coins,” said the man cloaked in shadow.

I could not believe my ears. Why, it was enough money to buy cartloads of food, plus the carts and even a team of the finest horses and a stable or two to keep them in. Five gold coins, he said. Not five silver. Not five gold pieces, but five whole, gold coins. And for what? For an apprenticeship from Amder, probably the most worthless person I have ever known. It was incredible. I just stood there with my eyes wide and my mouth hanging open. Amder, on the other hand, didn’t seem the least bit surprised. He grinned, crossed his arms and turned to the storyteller for a counter offer.

“Too rich for my blood,” said the latter as he darted away.

The man in black remained and waited for our answer. Unsure of how to address him, I asked, “What does Sir do for a living?”

“Sir?” he scoffed. “I’m not a knight or a baronet. I’m a wizard, of course. Haven’t you ever seen a wizard?”

I shook my head and blushed, embarrassed by my lack of knowledge.   Before that day, I had always thought of wizards as thin, wizened, old men. It had never occurred to me one could be no older than our father had been and built as strong as a fortress.

Amder stepped in front of him and asked, “Do wizards travel?”

The man bent close to our brother’s face and spoke quietly as if he was letting Amder in on a precious secret.

“I do,” he said. “There are some who are employed by royalty or noblemen in castles, but I’m not one of them. I work only for myself and go wherever I please. I’ve worked for princes and dukes but also generals, sea captains and merchants. I have traveled great distances and have seen more of this world than you can imagine even in your wildest dreams.”

Amder smiled, and his eyes twinkled. No doubt is was the mention of generals that had won him over. His greatest ambition was to be an officer, and he seemed pleased with the idea of working under a general. He held out his hand to fix the deal, but I was still suspicious.

“Five gold coins?” I asked. “For an apprenticeship?”

“All right.” The wizard straightened once again to his full height. “Six, then.”

Getting no response from either of us, he opened the purse on his belt and began to count the money.

“One, two, three, four, five, six… seven…” Each gold coin was almost as wide as my palm and as thick as my smallest finger. The biggest coins I had ever seen. The sunlight danced off them and made me blink. “Eight…. nine…. ten. Ten, that’s my final offer.”  

Amder triumphantly shouted, “Done!”

I shrugged and held out my hands to take the money. The wizard, however, gave the coins to Amder and, to my horror, grabbed me! Before I even knew what was happening, he ran off through the crowd and dragged me along with him. He pulled me by my wrist this way and that, darting between the stands, stores and people, barely allowing my feet to touch the paving stones. I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t even breathe. I wanted to say this isn’t right. I’m just a girl, a child. He was a stranger, a man. A man who had paid a fortune. A man who would no doubt expect something in return.

Finally, he stopped by a wagon, and as he reached up to unlock its door with a key he wore around his neck, I let out a long, loud shriek. Gathering all my desperate strength, I tried to pry his grip from my wrist. He pushed me up against the side of the wagon and hissed, “Ten gold pieces for an apprenticeship. That was the deal.”

“For my brother,” I cried, “not for me!”

“Your brother isn’t worth that,” he said. “I wouldn't take him even if you paid me a hundred!”

By this time, Amder had caught up with us. I expected him to say something, but he stood there clutching his pouch now heavy with gold.

“Amder, please,” I said, “give the money back!”

He shook his head.

Well, I couldn’t believe it. I stared at him. How could he shake his head? Didn’t he realize what this bargain meant?

“You can’t let a man buy me,” I wailed. “I’m a girl!”

“That’s not a problem,” said the wizard. “I’ll fix that.”

I didn’t know what he meant to do to me, but I knew I didn’t want to find out. I shrieked again and tried to pull away. This time he let go, and I dropped to my knees. I grabbed Amder’s ankles and begged him. “Please, please, please… You can’t do this to me. Please, Amder. I’m your sister. You can’t do this to your own sister! Please, give the money back. Please, please…”

“And what will we eat, then?” he asked. “You said it yourself. The family will starve.”

“There’s the money from the storytelling.”

“That’s very little. It will only feed us for a few weeks. Ten gold coins, Toren – we’ll live like kings for years!”

“You mean you’ll live like a king. But what about me?” I began to sob, loudly and painfully gasping for air.

“Stop thinking about yourself,” Amder growled. “Think about the rest of us.”

It was then I realized what he intended to do. He may have said “the rest of us”, but he wasn’t thinking of Shennen, Din or you. He knew before we had left home the reason he had brought me with him.  I had carried a sack filled with anything we might be able to sell: a small carpet, some beautiful cloth, mother’s silver candlesticks and father’s silver decanter and wine goblets. I had hoped to earn enough to buy a little food. I didn’t think anyone would be foolish enough to pay for Amder, but I also hoped someone might take him for free so there would be one less mouth to feed. I couldn’t sell our possessions no matter how hard I tried, and he wanted money to buy himself an apprenticeship that would take him to distant lands. If I couldn’t get it by selling our things, then he would sell me.  His sister mattered no more to him than a decanter or a pair of candlesticks. He held my life in his hands – those ten gold coins – and none of my begging and none of my tears could persuade him to give it back.

My chest heaved, and my lungs felt as if a hundred tiny daggers were trying to scratch their way through them. There was only one thing I could do.

“Do you swear…” I ran out of breath and had to stop for a gulp of air. “Do you swear on your life that you will use every bit of gold the wizard gave you to help our brother and sisters?”

Amder’s eyes shifted as he considered his reply.

“I do,” he said.

The wizard opened the door to the wagon and grabbed my arm again.

“Are we all finished with this business, then?” he asked.

I looked to Amder one last time, hoping he might realize just how terrible his decision was. He looked at the wizard and replied with a nod. I held my face in my hands and trembled. I had no choice now. It was a short while later before I said, “Yes.”

The wizard lifted me and placed me inside the wagon. Then he climbed in and locked the door behind us. He pushed me onto a padded seat. It took some time for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, and before they did, I could hear the snip, snip of scissors cutting off my long, dark brown hair. I wanted him to stop but was still in shock and couldn’t move. He asked me how old I was.

“Ten,” I replied.

“That doesn't give us much time.”

He cast a spell and spread a powder around me. Its peculiar odor, like a moldy tree, made me wrinkle my nose. He held up a mirror.

“What do you see?” he asked.

“You’ve cut my hair short.”

“Are you sure? Perhaps you see a boy. He looks very much like you, a twin brother you never knew you had.”

I looked again. This time I saw my face transformed into that of a young lad’s and back. I gasped, closed my eyes and pushed the mirror away.

“The spell I cast,” he said, “Will make all those who don’t know with absolute certainty they were looking at a girl see you as a boy.”

He put the mirror down. “Do I understand correctly that your name is Toren?”

I nodded.

“Not anymore,” he said. “If people are to think you are a boy, then you must have a boy’s name. You are to be called Tor. I am Bender, but you shall call me ‘Master.’”

“Yes, Master,” I murmured.

I raised my arm to wipe away my sticky tears on my sleeve. He pulled a handkerchief out of his cloak, poured a few drops of water on it and gave it to me.

“I’ve had enough of your sniveling,” he grumbled. “You are never to cry in front of me again. If you do, I shall beat you. Is that understood?”

I nodded. He told me to clean my hands while I was at it and then straighten the mess. I didn’t know what mess he referred to, so I looked around in the weak light. The wagon was unlike anything I had ever seen. It resembled a little, wooden house on wheels more than a cart. There were books, bottles with potions, tiny boxes with powders, trinkets, paper, quills, horns of ink, and various unfamiliar items on the shelves of open cupboards and spread across the floor. There were mundane objects, too: cooking utensils, containers of food, tools, clothes, candles, and lanterns. The chair beneath me was one of two wooden chests with elegant red, padded lids woven in a pattern of golden leaves. They sat on the floor by a small table built into a wall. The rest of the furniture consisted of more wooden boxes and a smelly mattress stuffed with wool, propped up on its end. There were no windows, but sunlight crept in through cracks in the roof and sides.

I presumed he meant my hair, and I started to pick it up. The wizard peered out of a narrow slot on the door. He turned around and, seeing what I held in my hand, took it from me. He shoved my beautiful tresses under the bottom of the entrance and let the wind carry them away. I wanted to cry as I sat helplessly watching a part of me disappear forever, but I closed my eyes and held the tears back.

He wiped his hands on his cloak.

“Are you hungry?” he asked.

I hadn’t eaten since Amder and I left home before sunrise on the previous day. It was now early evening.

“Yes, Master,” I replied.

The wizard took half a loaf of bread from a high shelf and cut it with a knife the pouch on his belt. He spread strawberry jam on the slice with his fingers and licked them clean as he passed it to me with his other hand.

I devoured the food as fast as I could. He gave me the rest of the bread and the preserves. It was delicious, as I suppose anything would have been for me then. After I finished every last crumb he returned to the door. I wanted to know what he was looking at but was afraid to ask.

“Sir,” I said before I could stop myself. “I mean ‘Master.’ What do you expect of me?”

“Expect?”

“As your apprentice?”

He turned. The roof of the wagon wasn’t high enough to allow him to stand straight, but he still loomed above me. I was terrified as he came closer. With a whimper, I cowered back as far as I could into a corner with my head down and my arms over my face.

“I expect you to do absolutely everything I tell you,” he growled. “I expect you to learn all I have to teach you and more. And I expect you to become the greatest magic wielder who ever lived. Is that understood?”

I nodded, although, in truth, I didn’t understand a thing. The greatest magic wielder who ever lived? Me? How could I possibly live up to such grand expectations?

I didn’t have the courage to ask him that, but I did find enough for one more question.

“Master,” I said, “how long is a wizard’s apprenticeship?”

“For you, seven years,” he muttered, before returning to his place by the door.

I gasped. My life had been shaken twice before, first with father’s death and then mother’s. But despite that, I believed that I would grow into a young woman on my family’s land. I knew who I was. I was the girl my mother had called “little mother,” and I would look after my younger brother and sisters no matter what. Just like my mother and her mother before her, I would marry before I reached sixteen years of age. I would become a loving, hard-working and devoted wife, and some day I would have children of my own. But sitting on that chest, exhausted and bewildered as I was, I suddenly realized every belief – every thought I had ever had about my future – was wrong.

“Seven years?” I cried. “It won’t be over until I’m seventeen?” 

“What do you mean, ‘over’?” he said. “An apprenticeship isn’t the end. It’s only the beginning.”

-*-

As evening approached, the wizard brought out a long, gray tunic, gray leggings, and a heavy, black cloak. He ordered me to change into them. They were much too big. The hole at the top of the tunic fell over one of my shoulders, and a rope he gave me for a belt helped little. The cloak’s rough wool scratched my face as he pulled the hood over my head.  

He gathered all the items that were spread around the wagon, shoved them into the boxes and cupboards and latched all their lids and doors shut. Then he grabbed my arm hard and pushed me through a sliding door at the front. It was a second exit, and I cursed myself for not realizing that I had been right next to it all that time. He ordered me to sit on the driver’s seat and be silent.

“Toren!  Toren!” Amder called. “Is that you, Toren?  Is that you?”

He had been hiding near the wagon. Perhaps he had changed his mind, but it was too late. I wanted to answer, but I had agreed to the wizard’s bargain. As his apprentice, I had to do as he said, and he had ordered me not to say a word.

The wizard reined in the horses, jumped onto the seat beside me and sent the beasts galloping. Amder ran along the side of the narrow street. I dropped the hood of the cloak so he could at least see me, but he looked straight at my face without recognizing me.

His glance shifted once again to the wizard.

“Where’s my sister?” he yelled. “What have you done with her?”

I thought I could still hear him shouting in the distance between the poundings of the horses’ hooves, as Bender the Wizard took me away from the only life I had ever known. I kept thinking, please, please, please, stop. Stop at the city gate. Stop beside the road. Please, stop and let me go! I don’t want to be a wizard’s apprentice. I don’t want to be a boy. I want to go home to my family. I want to be their little mother. I want to be myself. Please, this isn’t right. This isn’t fair!

But the wizard didn’t hear my unspoken cries. He kept driving the horses farther and farther from Pardessia. Soon it became dark, and it terrified me to realize I had no idea what lay ahead.

~~~