Short story: The Sorcerer and the Servant

sorceror-and-servant

A fantasy short story I wrote for fun a while back, in my YA (young adult) phase. A light read I hope you’ll enjoy!

The Sorcerer and the Servant

I encounter Artemon in the wide marbled passageway that runs along the front of the house. His well-tailored velvet doublet, edged in gold thread and bearing the insignia of the Lykos family, is a stark contrast to my plain servant’s shift. It reminds me that this isn’t home.

At least, not yet.

Artemon is accompanied by the young Lady Kyra Lykos, the only daughter of Archon Lykos. She’s half a step behind him, and her lady-in-waiting trails them both in a microcosmic parade.  We’re under the fresco of the trickster god Silvanus revealing his true face to a dismayed mob. Artemon catches my eye as I glance away, and we exchange a look of shared acknowledgement.

Our gaze is broken as the Lady Lykos steps forward and clings to Artemon’s arm like a limpet. We’ve only been here one week, but that doesn’t seem to deter the strumpet in any way.

“Know your place, peasant,” she hisses. If she had fangs, they’d be bared. “You may be his servant girl, but you have no right to meet the gaze of the great Sorcerer Artemon.”

I look down, clenching my hands in my cotton shift and rubbing the rough material between thumb and forefinger to keep myself calm. I can hear Artemon’s fingers tapping a frantic pattern against his pants. I’ll talk to him when I bring his lunch—a selection of sliced breads, cold meats and cheeses, though he won’t touch the cheese. He should be eating with the rest of the family, but they wouldn’t dare turn down his request for privacy.

“I believe I know what my father wishes to discuss with you this afternoon,” Lady Lykos says.

She’s about to step past me, Artemon’s arm in tow, when he releases his arm from her grip. He brings it around her waist and pulls her close. I try not to stare. I should curtsey and leave them be. Instead, I stand there like a fool and rub the cotton between my fingers faster and faster, the same sound as rubbing wood together to start a fire.

“And what business would that be?” he asks in the lazy, amused drawl of one who already knows the answer.

Her giggles raise gooseflesh on my skin. There’s a furious pounding in my head, and I wonder if it’s possible to start a fire from cotton—but hurriedly rein in the thought.

Artemon leans into her, stretching out the arm around her waist. In that motion, he brushes his hand against mine. And with that brief greeting of calloused fingers, the same texture as the cotton that keeps me in check, his whisper echoes in my mind.

You have the easy job—you don’t have to spend the day with that horror. There’s a strain that belies lightness of his words. Join me for lunch? Someone has to eat the cheese, after all.

I uncurl my fingers from the shift as my breathing evens and the pounding fades away. Then I give them a quick curtsey, and scurry off.

#####

I struggle up the stairs with the heavy silver tray laden with far too much food for Artemon’s lunch. Not only are his rooms in a distant, unoccupied wing of the house, he’s also chosen those on the second floor. I silently curse him as I stumble out of the chilly stone stairwell and into the relative warmth of the large, well-lit corridor.

I come face-to-face with Lady Lykos, who whisks the tray from my hands. She stumbles under the sudden weight, but to my disappointment, she doesn’t fall.

“You are dismissed,” she says, turning away. Layers of lace crisscross her back and hint at the flesh underneath. I have a strong urge to tear both of them to shreds. “Go attend to your other chores, peasant.”

How long has she been waiting here? There’s no point arguing, so I slip back into the stone passageway and eavesdrop as she knocks on his door and it swings open.

“I took the liberty of bringing you your lunch, Sorcerer Artemon. The cheese from our lands is famous throughout Messina. You simply must try some.”

I snicker at the long silence before Artemon finally replies, “It sounds lovely, Kyra. Thank you.”

“Allow me to take this meal with you, so I can tell you about each one,” she says, and I clap my hand over my mouth as my shoulders start to shake. “This is a mild cheese, used as a starter. Its rich, creamy taste—” Her voice is cut off as the door shuts behind them.

I roll my eyes, and leave to fetch my own lunch.

When I return in the afternoon to clean his room, it’s empty. I push open the large oak shutters on both walls. There’s the smell of freshly-cut grass from the extensive lawns, mingled with a hint of sweetness from the rose gardens where new bushes have been put in for the winter as the last of the summer varieties wither away.

The gardener’s cottage sits in the distance. A pile of chopped wood is stacked neatly against one wall. I reach a hand out the window, wishing I could use magic to summon it here. Lady Lykos comes into view with a small entourage of fawning girls in tow, and I yank my hand back inside.

Better to avoid all attention. The wood can wait.

I take the whisk broom by the marble fireplace and kneel down before I realise it’s already been swept and cleaned. Looking around, I see the bed has also been made, linen stretched tight so there’s not a single wrinkle.

I wonder if it was recently made, then dismiss the notion as foolish. Artemon would keep a polite distance from her. Flinging myself on the bed, I take a perverse pleasure in destroying the perfection. I’m sure nothing happened.

Satisfied that the linen is sufficiently wrinkled, I get up and open the large beech chest at the foot of the bed.  His cloak sits atop of the piles of neatly folded clothes. Stretching it out on the parquet floor, I feel along the folds for the tear. My searching fingers can only find a line of stitches, which I examine. Small and neat, even if they are bright red.

Replacing the cloak, I sit on the floor and lean my head against the feather mattress. Surely this is better than a “home” where whispers follow every action, and the closest thing to a kindly glance is one of wary deference. At least here, the hostility is outright. I tilt my head back further and roll my eyes up to glance at the bed, then fix my stare on the ceiling instead.

This can be home. I have to make it so.

#####

My arms and legs feel like limp noodles, trembling as I carry the amphora of wine around for the lunch guests. There’s a numb buzzing in my head, and the world occasionally splits in two before joining back together in a disorienting flash. When no one is looking, I take a moment to put the amphora down and admire the nearly-transparent shield shimmering in the gentle autumn sun. It encloses the entirety of the house and gardens.

“It won’t protect from the weather, or physical attack,” Artemon is explaning to Archon Lykos and a small crowd of well-dressed men and women who have been invited to admire it. “It will, however, withstand any and all magical attacks.”

“You’re sure of this?” one of the women asks as she prods at it with her lace parasol, which passes right through the shield.

“I have the utmost confidence in it.”

Artemon steps through the shield and stretches out a hand. A small bolt of lightning issues from his palm, in the general direction of the crowd. There’s some screams but, as promised, the bolt hits the shimmering barrier and dissipates. Everyone applauds, the younger Lady Lykos’s the loudest, and Archon Lykos claps him on the shoulder.

“It has only been one week, but already Sorcerer Artemon has shown himself to be a man of power,” the Archon says. “I am proud to call him a member of my household.”

I’m so pleased about Artemon’s acceptance that I forget my weary muscles long enough to pick up the amphora and make my way over to the nobles who crowd around him, offering their praise.

He spots me as I serve the parasol lady. His features relax and his arm twitches in my direction. I stop him with a slight shake of my head. Lady Lykos takes the offending arm and spins him around, but not before glaring at me. He shakes her off and turns his attention to one of the men asking him about the semantics of magic usage. It’s all I can do not to snort at the conversation.

Lady Lykos stands perfectly still for a moment, then tries again. This time, he allows her to slip under his arm and pull it around her shoulders as he continues to talk to the man. Turning her head fractionally, she shoots me a triumphant smile.

I ignore her, just as I ignore the sourness that has doused my good mood. The weariness returns with a vengeance, and I nearly drop the amphora—no doubt it would please her greatly if I did. I can feel her stare following me through the crowd like a vulture guarding its prey from an enemy. I turn my attention to the conversations praising Artemon instead, though I keep Lady Lykos in the corner of my vision.

She summons her father over and whispers something in his ear. Minutes later, as I trudge back to the kitchens for a refill, the house steward beckons me over.

“The Archon has requested that you go to the stables and muck it out. He wishes it to be clean when the guests retrieve their horses after lunch.”

The household has a stable boy, and the Archon has no right to order me around. If I said anything to Artemon, he would kick up a fuss. The steward stares at me, arms crossed and foot tapping. As I consider my words, a chilly wind heralding the incoming winter blows through the garden, and I shiver. With a sigh, I pass the empty amphora to the steward.

#####

I feel the steady emanation of power even from inside my room. I sit bolt upright on my straw mattress, despite the aches that still linger from the stable cleaning yesterday. Footsteps approach in the corridor—a shuffling of slippers—and I instinctively shy away as the aura passes me by. As it fades, I find myself sweaty and clammy as though I have awakened from a nightmare. I suck in a breath of air and try to stop my body from shaking.

A stifled, high-pitched giggle brings me back to my senses more effectively than any slap could. Lady Lykos. I scramble out of bed, fumbling for the candle and matches. The wick flares to life, highlighting the stark room. I unlatch the bolt, and gingerly pull open the heavy wooden door so the iron hinges don’t creak. Then I follow the aura.

The candle is my only source of light in the back quarter of the house. I try to keep my hands steady so I don’t put out the small flame.

I keep my distance from the aura—there’s a disturbing familiarity to the power that niggles at the cowering core of my memories. I dig away at it, trying to remember.

Laughter… a boy’s. Taunting. Mocking. “Put it on,” he says.

My body freezes.

The sound of crying. Mine, I think. It must be. There’s no one else around.

I nearly drop the candle, but manage to place it on the ground as my legs crumple below me. I couldn’t have been more than two or three years old in the memory, or I wouldn’t have forgotten.

The same aura. It’s getting closer. Suffocating. Chains jangle. And in the background, the laughter doesn’t stop.

I curl up and cover my ears, my body imitating the memory. I clamp my lips together, stifling the cry that’s fighting to escape.

An angry voice. “You keep that thing away from your sister, you vicious brat!”

Strong arms, marked with the scars of daily training, wrap around me. Calloused fingers wipe the tears from my eyes.

I bite down on my lip, tasting the salty tang of blood. And I remember.

I must get to Artemon. I scramble to my feet, fire blazing from my hands and scorching the walls until I’m able to exert a measure of control over it. There’s nothing left of the candle but a puddle of wax. The fire rages against my restraints, refusing to go out.

With no other choice, I compress it until there’s two marble-sized infernos contained in my palms. They light the darkened corridors like small suns as I sprint along the terracotta tiles seeking the shortest path to Artemon’s rooms. But if the need arises, these little balls contain enough power to destroy a stone wall.

Just like the walls of this house.

#####

I burst out of the servants’ door shoulder-first, my bare feet slipping on the cold marble floor. Artemon’s room is only a few steps down the hall. I know Lady Lykos is close because my stomach is churning and an invisible hand squeezes the air from my lungs. It takes all my concentration to prevent my little infernos from escaping while keeping my hands hidden.

I see the outline of a figure in front of Artemon’s door and I throw myself between the two. My shoulder hits the cloaked form and sends it flying backwards to land on the marble floor. The cloak spreads open to reveal nothing but pale flesh. The Lady Lykos, fully exposed.

A small gold ring flies from her mouth, glinting unevenly in the escaped light of my dancing flames. It lands on the floor with a heavy sound that seems more fitting for a metal like iron. The aura shakes like water jostled in a skin.

She scrambles to pick up the ring and get to her feet, screaming all the while as though she’s being attacked.  Using my blazing fists to hammer on Artemon’s door would not end well, so I raise a leg to kick it instead. But before my foot connects, the door swings open, and I stumble forward instead.

“What the blazes—” He catches me by the shoulders, and his face darkens at the sight of the fire in my hands.

I push past him and hit the door shut with the heel of my back foot. Lady Lykos slams herself against the wood. It’s all I can do to shift my weight so I can use my own body to counteract it. The oak is smooth and polished, and I can feel myself slipping. Then Artemon reaches out and firmly shuts the door with one hand.

“Bolt it!” I gasp, and he obeys.

“Prin—,” he starts, but is interrupted by pounding from outside.

“Sorcerer Artemon!” comes the cry from the other side. “I implore you, do not trust your servant! She attacked me as I was coming to warn you of her treachery. She may look innocent, but intends you harm. Please open the door and let me know you are well!”

Artemon raises an eyebrow as I sit panting on the floor, leaning against the chest at the foot of his bed. I close my eyes and slow my breathing.

Artemon is safe. Artemon has not been bound.

Finally, the fire starts to flicker uncertainly, then dies out. It leaves me feeling deflated, like a bellows with all the air blown out of it, and there’s a buzzing in my head. Uncontrolled bursts of magic will do that to anyone. Food and an hour or two of rest will fix some of it… if we have that luxury.

Lady Lykos continues shouting, pleading with Artemon and threatening me in turns. Then it goes quiet.

“I, too, have power,” she says, triumph edging her words. “I may not be on the same class as Sorcerer Artemon, but I’m more than a match for a filthy peasant!”

The metal bolt trembles, and creeps to the right. At this pace, it will be minutes before she gets the door open. I glance over at Artemon. The corner of his lip is twitching upwards, and his face splits into a full grin when our eyes meet.

That’s it?

“Keep her out,” I tell him.

“Why don’t you do it yourself, princess?” he replies in a low tone, for my ears alone. “I wouldn’t want to deny you the pleasure.”

He knows me too well. Though I feel like a dried-up well, this is personal. It also doesn’t take much effort. I flick the bolt shut, breaking off her magic and sending it back with a lashing twist that contains the brunt of my fury. There’s a yelp of pain, and for the second time that night, the slap of flesh on marble as she’s flung backwards. She’ll be out for the rest of the night.

“Is she wearing anything?” Artemon asks, eyes dancing. “Are you going to make me regret that I didn’t open the door for her?”

“Dirty old man.”

He crouches in front of me, all seriousness again. “What was the commotion about? Why did you lose control?”

Nearly lose control,” I correct him. “Can’t you feel the aura?”

I shudder, and he puts a hand on my shoulder to steady me. His muscles are taut as he strains to find it, but after a short while he shakes his head.

“I was trained to use cold steel, not magic. Just like you wouldn’t be able to sense someone coming at you with killing intent, I can’t feel a trace of this aura you mention… and it might help if I had more than a dab of power.”

I grip his hand in mine, letting its warmth spread through me as I struggle to say the words. “Do you remember? When I was a child, and Orpheus tried to—” I swallow hard, “—to bind me to him.”

Artemon’s face goes still. The last time I saw that look was six months ago when my brother accused me of using sorcery on our rapidly deteriorating father. A few seconds later, Orpheus was on the ground with a broken arm. Artemon was whipped and nearly dismissed for laying hands on the Thyrian prince.

“Lady Lykos attached the binding magic to a gold ring. Silvanus only knows how long it took her, with such pitiful powers. I suspect she bought it.”

His voice is tight, anger roiling beneath the surface. “And if I’d accepted her ‘gift’…”

I think of where she’d hidden it, and laugh. “Well, that depends on your predilection for naked women knocking on your door in the middle of the night.” He tilts his head slightly and doesn’t say anything, so I add, “She had it hidden in her mouth.”

“Oh.”

He peers outside. It seems her ruckus hasn’t carried into the other wings of the house.

I pull him over to the innocent-looking gold band on the floor.

“Take the ring.”

Now that Lady Lykos is unconscious and no longer feeding the magic, the intensity of the aura has diminished to a dull throb. Even so, my stomach churns at the thought of making contact with the thing.

“Is it safe to pick up?” Artemon’s hand hovers over the ring, nearly touching but not quite. “I won’t…?”

After the past week, it’s easy to forget he knows nearly nothing about magic. “It’s no longer given with intent. She has to be conscious to initiate the binding, for a start. And it must be touching both of you.”

He picks it up by the tips of his fingers, keeping it at a distance from me. To my surprise, the aura weakens and all but disappears. Then Artemon takes my hand in his. It completely dwarfs mine. I wriggle my fingers, feeling the raised bumps of skin from his many years in the Royal Guard. From his many years training to protect Thyrian royalty at any cost.

“I think it’s time we left,” he says, glancing down the hallway, then back into his room. “No more arguments; I’ll fetch your belongings and ready our packs. Although I’d wish otherwise, this isn’t a safe place for you to rest from our travels.”

I nod toward the Lady Lykos’s unconscious form. “I think you were in more danger than I.”

“That’s my job, princess. The one in the most danger is always the powerful sorcerer. I promised your father, on his deathbed, that I’d protect you.” He looks down at the ring in his hand. “Though you seem to be the one protecting me instead.”

I look around at the extensive grounds and at the small barracks where Lord Lykos’ personal guard is housed.

“How can we simply walk out of here? Sorcerer or not, I’d still struggle against a company of hired swords. If I could defeat an army, we wouldn’t be here to begin with.”

Artemon grins, teeth gleaming in the moonlight. He stalks back into the room with the primal grace of a hunter—the most beautiful contrast I can imagine to the smooth, urbane Sorcerer Artemon he’s been playing since we arrived.

“Just follow my lead.”

#####

Artemon thrusts out both hands at the walls of his room. I take my cue and hit them with a shockwave, shielding us from the falling stone and splinters of wood at the same time. Sharp wintery winds slice at my thin woolen nightgown, and he reaches through my shield to grab the woolen blanket from his bed and toss it around my shoulders.

It’s not long before the guards come to investigate the commotion, as does Archon Lykos. We have just destroyed one corner of his house, after all. Despite being sorely tempted, I’ve left the hallway containing the unconscious Lady Lykos intact.

“Sorcerer Artemon, what are you doing?” he exclaims in dismay as his men form up around him and brandish their swords.

Artemon draws himself up to his full height, the effect helped by the fact that we’re standing a whole floor above them. I augment his voice as he holds out the ring and thunders, “Do you know what this is, Lykos?”

The low rumble echoes over the vast Lykos lands, and the men below break out into uncomfortable murmurs.

Lord Lykos squints up at it. “A… a ring?”

“Your daughter carried this to my room this very night,” Artemos says in the same ominous tone. “It is one of the foulest sorceries invented, to bind a sorcerer as a slave against his will. Tell me, Lykos: Why you have put your daughter up to this?”

The Archon shakes his head in panic. “I did not, I swear it. I have no reason to! You must believe me, Sorcerer Artemon, I do not know why my daughter decided to do such a thing!”

Artemon walks toward the edge of the floor, lifting his arms to either side. His steps get fractionally smaller as we approach, so I levitate us before the drop. The strain is incredible—levitating myself is easy enough, but an additional person of Artemon’s size is much harder. It doesn’t help that I’m still exhausted from earlier tonight. I slowly lower us to the ground, releasing my breath in a huff when I feel the grass under my feet.

“Then let me tell you why,” Artemon says as he strides toward the terrified man. I drop the shield and remove most of the magic on his voice, leaving a touch to accentuate his growl. “You and your wife have spoiled the girl senseless. She believes that if she wants something, she can take it. Even her family’s sorcerer.”

There’s a long silence after his words. The blood drains from Archon Lykos’ face. “That stupid, stupid girl,” he whispers. “Just when I’d finally found someone with enough power to protect us from rival families…”

Artemon thrusts the ring in his face. “Were I to show this to other sorcerers, you would never find one willing to work for you again.”

“Sorceror, please!”

He clutches at Artemon’s sleeve, but Artemon simply shakes him off.

“I will withhold my judgement for now,” he says. “But you must do something about that girl.”

Archon Lykos reaches for Artemon’s sleeve again. Artemon gestures at him, and I freeze the Archon’s arm in place.

“I am not done, Lykos. I am leaving this place tonight. If you attempt to hinder me in any way, either now or later, I will ensure every single sorcerer in this land knows of what your daughter attempted to do to me tonight.”

He waves a hand at the shimmering shield around the house and I bring it down. It’s much easier than putting it up. There’s a loud, satisfying crack as the energy is released. The Archon looks about in alarm, his face going white.

Then Artemon gestures at the beech chest, and I pull it toward us. It lands on the grass by our feet with a thud, cracking the wood. I open it and retrieve our travelling packs.

“I beg you, Sorcerer Artemon.” Archon Lykos is on his knees now. “I will discipline Kyra well. There is no need to leave. I am offering you the privileges of having an influential patron, and a permanent place to stay.” His voice rises in pitch. “I’m offering you a place to call home, so you no longer need to wander this land.”

His words are targeted at Artemon, but I’m almost ready to give in. I look up at Artemon, wondering if he’s also been swayed.

Artemon’s features are emotionless as he regards the man. “I would rather take my chances than spend another night here. It was not just your daughter, Lykos. For although you saw how she treated my servant, you never stopped her. Not. Even. Once.” He shoulders both our packs and turns to me. “Let’s go.”

I throw up a new shield around us as we turn our backs on the guards and walk toward the road to resume our journey. No one tests it. I don’t hear any movement until we’re almost at the road. Even so, Artemon’s right hand keeps moving toward the place where his scabbard normally rests.

“Raise your hand in the air and click your fingers,” I whisper to Artemon.

As he does, I drop the shield and bend the light around us. There’s a low moan from the men, and Artemon raises an eyebrow at me.

“They can’t see us now,” I say with a grin. “It’s a complex spell, but Orpheus provided very good motivation to perfect it.” I tug his arm to stop him. “Meanwhile, you need to turn your back while I change into proper travelling clothes and put some shoes on. We have a long journey ahead of us, now you’ve spurned his offer.” I say the last with a grateful smile.

Artemon doesn’t sigh, or slump his shoulders, and no other emotion clouds the relaxed smile on his face. He simply puts down both packs and turns around.

“Don’t give up hope, princess.” I don’t know what he sees as he stares down the road, but there’s a confidence in his words that makes me forget my aching muscles, and the fact that I don’t know where our journey will end. “We won’t rest until we find a place we can both call home.”

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