The wolf watched it's prey intently and silently, preparing for the lunge that would bring the kill. The intended victim was drinking contentedly from a small forest stream, apparently unaware of impending doom. Just as the wolf coiled to spring, the
slight figure stood and spun around.
"Nice try, Trax" Tam patted his leg with one palm. The wolf sighed and padded up to the boy, accepting the consolation prize of a scratch behind the ears. "It's time to try the apple for today, big fellow." Tam braced his bow against one instep and the opposite leg, bending the ash wood to slip the bowstring into place, then set off through the woods with the big wolf trotting at leisure a pace or two behind.
Tam had found a wolf puppy caught in a spring trap three years ago. The puppy was too exhuasted, scared and hurt to put up a fight as Tam gently pried loose the trap, dressed the wounded leg and gathered up the little wolf, carrying him back home to
nurse back to health. The two had been unseparable since, with Trax sleeping at the foot of Tam's bed, or the boy snuggled up to the wolf's back for warmth on one of many nights spent out in the forest. The tiny pup had grown into a massive animal
whose head came up to Tam's chest. Some of the village bullies who had tormented Tam as a small boy now...left him quite
Tam practically lived in the forest, spending all his time there aside from doing chores or reading by the fire on winter nights. The pair now came to one of their frequent haunts, which Tam had named apple clearing. This meadow in the middle of the forest had a gigantic old apple tree at one end. From the top branch of this tree, about 25 feet off of the ground, hung an apple, which was now the size of a blacksmith’s fist and getting to be quite ripe in the early autumn. Tam had been shooting an arrow at this apple all summer, once a day from a distance of 60 yards and had not yet knocked it down, although it had a scar or two from near misses. Tam allowed himself only one try per day, otherwise practicing on straw targets. He knelt and selected an old, dry leaf from the forest floor at
the clearing's edge, crumpled it in one hand and threw it in the air, watching which way the fragments drifted on their way to the ground. He then knocked an arrow to the string, drew the bow and sighted above and a bit to the left of the apple, which appeared as a mere speck in the air. Breathing steadily, Tam relaxed his three draw fingers and let the arrow fly. The arrow, powered by the 75 pound draw weight of the bow sped in a flat arc and pierced the apple dead center. The force of the hit plucked the apple from the tree. The added weight of the apple sped the descent of the arrow, causing it to fall in clear view 30 yards from the base of the tree.
"Well Trax, what do you know? Today must be my day" The wolf sat panting in the warm autumn sun, suitably unimpressed.
Tam jogged over to the apple tree, patted the trunk, and went to fetch the arrow. The apple was pierced dead center and equal parts of the arrow stuck out fore and aft. "I'll take this home and dry the apple in front of the fire; quite a keepsake!" thought Tam as he gingerly carried his trophy and set off for
Tam cleared the forest just as his uncle was ringing the supper bell.
“Ah, there you are, my boy! Supper’s on. And we’ve got a certain visitor. One that came looking for you.”
“For me? Whatever for?” Tam asked lightly, already knowing. His fifteenth birthday had been a few weeks before. He knew of the King’s decree and had been expecting this day. A few of his closest friends had gone the year before. If these facts and his uncle’s clue had not given away who the visitor was, the forced cheerfulness in his Uncle’s voice that hid the underlying sorrow surely did Although he was very happy in the woods and would miss his aunt and uncle, he was eager to prove himself, and the lure of adventure and the unknown. filled his head with all sorts of foolishness. He was all excitement, with the tiniest drop of dread.
Walter draped a massive arm around the boy’s shoulder as they walked toward the house. “Well, I guess it doesn’t take a mage to figure out this puzzle. But right now, my stomach’s doing all the thinking.”
Twilight was beginning throwing shadows across the yard as they came up to the back door. As they went inside, Tam noticed a weary looking yet dignified older man sitting at the dinner table. Aunt Cira had given him a generous mug of hard cider to cut the dust of the road. Uncle Cedric, holding his cap somewhat nervously in both hands, half bowed toward the old gent and addressed Tam:
“Tam, this good knight has come all the way from Issnalirrandil to bring you a message. One of some importance, I believe. Good sir, may I introduce my nephew, Tam. Er, his full name is Tamarith Ilsyn Varsele.”
In response, the elderly knigh arose in an unfolding of stick-like arms and legs. This manouever put Tam in mind of a marionette designed by a spider. The man elaborately straightened his mustache, drew himself up to an even spindlier height, produced a small scroll from his satchel, and addressed the boy:
“Master Tamarith Ilsyn Varsele; I am Heironymous Bartholomew Ignatius Reginald Twig (Tam choked back a laugh at the ironic appropriateness of the surname), Minister and Executor of Majority to His Majesty the King. I bring you a message of great import and honor. Having reached the age of majority, that being fifteen years, you are hereby charged by His Graciousness, King Tendar, to report in person at the royal court, no later than ten days hence, to receive your preliminary evaluation and appointment to serve at His Majesty’s pleasure for a period of no less than two years.” He handed Tam the small scroll, and saluted the boy, strongly resembling a martial scarecrow. “I welcome you to His Majesty’s service and bid you to treat the appointment with the gravity such an honor merits” Then, a bow.
Flustered by the elaborate verbiage, and excited by the sudden reality of waited for event, Tam could only stammer “Th…Thank you sir. I shall do my best, sir.” With a clumsy bow in return. Aunt Celia, who had been watching this impromptu ceremony with a mix of joy, pride and sorrow, let the latter emotion overtake her, and suddenly rushed off to the kitchen, very very busy with the final preparations for supper. So busy that she had to pause several times to dab off the sweat that streamed into her eyes.
Dinner passed in a pleasant, although subdued manner. Cedric engaged Heironymus in a discussion about the travel conditions on the royal roads. Tam said little, absorbed in thoughts about what was to come in the weeks ahead. After dinner, Cedric offered their visitory hospitality for the night. Heironymus respectfully declined.
“I thank you sir, but as it is still early in the evening, with a full moon, I have a few miles to travel to deliver one more decree in the next hamlet, then I shall stay at a royal waystation a short distance yet from there. I thank you for your gracious hospitality, and wish you all the best. With a final bow, Hieronymous took his leave.
Tam made a special point of helping Celia clear the table that evening. At one point, as they both went to clear the same dish, Tam took his aunt’s hand and squeezed gently. Celia blinked once,smiled wistfully and squeezed back somewhat harder, then hustled into the kitchen to set a pot of water to boil for hot chocolate.
When the after supper chores were complete, Cedric threw a final log on the fire, and pulled two chairs over in front of the blaze. He addressed Tam:
Well, my good boy, have a seat. Since you’re embarking on this journey to manhood, I have something to give you. Something I believe your father wanted you to have.
Tam gulped and nodded. The death of his father and mother had hit Cedric hardest of all the family. This was the first time that Tam had heard his Uncle speak of his brother. He watched with keen curiosity as his uncle disappeared into an adjoining room. By listening to the emerging sounds, Tam could hear the opening of a chest that had been locked for as long as he could remember. He caught his breath as Cedric returned to the living room, holding a plain looking sword sheathed in a simple wooden and leather scabbard. His uncle pulled the blade out a short way and pressed his thumb against the blade
“Hmm” he held up his thumb with a drop of blood from a slight cut “kept more of an edge than I remembered. Now, if you show up for training without a weapon, one would be made for you. But I’ll bet my workbench and all my tools that none would be more finely crafted than this one here. Your father did his service in a time when one of the finest blade crafters in recent history was in residence, training the King’s blacksmiths. By a stroke of luck, your father’s blade was hammered out by the master himself. Have a care with this. Weapons deserve respect, and this one is a work of art, to boot.” He handed the blade to an awestruck Tam. Carefully drawing the blade the rest of the way out of the scabbard, he examined the old weapon. The firelight dancing on the unadorned polished blade made it seem as if it were glowing hot. It was so plainly designed that it seemed almost cheap to look at, until it was held, then its balance and solid construction told a tale of supreme craftmanship. A small letter q stamped directly above the tang was the mark of Querlock, greatest weapons maker of recent history.
For the second time that night, Tam was at a loss for words “Thank you uncle” was all he could stammer out.
Himself a bit at a loss for words, Cedric clapped him on the shoulder. “I can see we’ll spend at least part of this week on some basic fencing lessons, so you’re not a danger to yourself as well as others! Ho ho.” Tam quickly resheathed the sword, smiling at his Uncle’s well intentioned teasing. “Now Tam, there’s one other matter we’ll have to discuss, one not so happy.” He looked at Trax, who was by the fire, head resting on front paws; motionless except for yellow eyes watching all the action.
Tam had a sinking suspicion “What are you talking about?”
“Trax..he, he won’t be able to come with you. I’m sorry Tam.” Tam got up a paced tensely around the room
“I…but..he’s…” more pacing, as he tried to get his initial anger under control. He stopped, leaning against the hearth and pressed his fingers into his temples. “Alright. What’s the reason?” Cedric heaved a mighty sigh.
“There’s a strict ban on any kind of pets or livestock during initial training. I interrogated Heironymus thoroughly: no exceptions. Apparently some years back, a girl smuggled in her beloved pet rooster. Well, the change in routine upset the bird’s equilibrium, causing him to crow from midnight until dawn. Meanwhile, she had the mouthy fowl quite well concealed, and being terrified of his being slaughtered, let on to no one. So nobody got a wink of good sleep the whole training period. The master of service was so disgusted that he decreed an absolute ban on any animals of any sort, under pain of three months in jail! Apparently, the worst damage was done when the sergeant at arms, being startled awake at the stroke midnight by the rooster’s crow ran out to the courtyard, shouting the alarm. The entire city guard sprang to action, pouring into the courtyard, torches ablaze and swords drawn to find the sergeant at arms, in nightgown and cap, brandishing a broadsword in one hand, and a teddy bear in the other! Among the cadets that streamed out to investigate the ruckus, the few that were unable to stifle their laughter found themselves assigned to the most unenviable duties for the rest of the training period, that’s for sure.” Cedric was careful to draw out this story long enough to allow Tam to check his emotions and regroup himself.
Tam smiled, and chuckled a little at the story in spite of his distress at having to leave Trax behind. He then fell silent, sitting crosslegged on the floor, absently scratching the wolf’s haunches and staring at the dancing embers of the fire. Celia joined them with 3 mugs of steaming cider, and a bowl of hot milk for Trax. The wolf feigned indifference at the treat, but when the woman had turned away, he slurped it up readily enough. For a while, they sipped in companiable silence. Tam eventually came out of his reverie, with a heavy sigh:
“Well, I suppose one can’t gainsay a teddy-bear wielding sergeant at arms. A year seems like a long time…may I at least stay out in the forest with Trax these last few nights? Celia drew her shawl around her in a vicarious chill.
“Now, Tam these nights are getting awfully…” Cedric cut her off:
“Alright, Tam, but you make sure to bundle up.” Holding Celia’s hand, he squeezed an apology and an assurance.
The stayed awake awhile, watching the embers slowly die, stifling yawns and taking sips. Finally Cedric and Celia arose, gave Tam hugs that were a little more bearish than on typical nights, and went off to bed. Tam fetched his warmest woolen cloak, a blanket , snitched a bit of bedtime snack of leftover beef for himself and the huge wolf, and tucked his dagger into his belt. After a moments thought, he took up his father’s sword and belted it, a bit awkwardly, around his waist. At its tightest notch, it was still a little loose, The boy and wolf then stole into the forest. A harvest moon that was just clearing the forest canopy lit their way to Apple Clearing. Tam tromped around on a patch of tall grass to make an impromptu nest. Trax did his part by walking in a circle in place. The night air was chill, but not frigid: just enough to make exhalations visible. Tam laid the blanket on the ground to keep the earth from seeping the heat from his body and settled down, snuggled up to the wolf, who promptly and prudently went to sleep. Tam sat up for a while, watching the moon creep to it’s apex. As his eyelids grew heavy, he drew his hood up to warm his head, and gradually drifted off. Various dreams wafted through his slumber: arrow pierced apples, knights in nightshirts brandishing swords and stuffed toys, a hidden rooster’s crowing that transformed into the forlorn crying of a wolf pup, lost, alone and cold: crying so as to break your heart; so piteous that he wept himself awake. Sitting bolt upright, he found that he had fitfully rolled away from his wolf friend and off his blanket. Shivering, he snuggled back up to his lupine friend and threw an arm across the massive furry body. Trax responded by heaving a great, groaning, contented sigh and licking the boy’s hand. Tam went back to sleep: troubled no more by dreams the rest of the night.
Tam’s final week at home passed congenially and all too quickly. During the days, Cedric instructed him in the rudiments of fencing: the octave, quarte, feint, thrust, and parry. After several days training, Tam could pass for wielding a weapon and not simply waving a poker. In the evenings, Celia fixed the boy’s favorite dishes in order from somewhat favored to absolute favorite. At night, he was allowed to stay in the forest with his best friend, even though the he caught a mild sniffle on one of the chillier nights.
On the final night before departure, the village held a small feast to send off the cadets of that year. Tam sat at a table with his few, close friends; the lasses Alina, Vandy, Lellja and the lads Trere and Vis. They chatted excitedly about the upcoming journey and training. They made plans to travel together, and make a party of the trek. Tam showed his new, yet old, sword to his friends to murmurs and gasps of appreciation all around: he was the only child in the village to inherit his weapon. Everyone made a fuss over saying goodbye toTrax, who made a show of graciously enduring all the fawning and petting, while taking great pains to conceal his relishment of all the attention. They sang songs until the moon rose and told ghost stories until it changed from dusky gold to argent. All were friends tonight, even the bullies that Trax had previously held at bay came up to wish Tam and his friends good luck, and the sentiment was sincerely returned: childhood grudges seemed to lose their rancor on this night of passage. As a final gesture,Tam invited his friends to Apple Clearing for the night. They built a cheerful bonfire and settled down in front of it, growing solemn and sleepy from the warmth of the blaze. One by one they drifted off, not one of them staying awake for the magical moment in the wee hours when girls and boys made the first step toward being men and women.
Despite only a few hours of sleep, Tam arose before all the others: he had a couple of important goodbyes and a favor to ask. He set off to a northern part of the woods, the wildest and darkest part. Coming to a small clearing amongst century-old trees, he approached the hut of Mai Liniafir the Healer. Years ago, on one of the rare occasions that Tam had gotten lost in the forest,he had stumbled upon the woman’s hut. This woman, while respected by the other peole in the area for her knowledge of herbs and healing lore, was a loner and somewhat eccentric although deeply kindhearted. She had been especially kind to a lost boy accompanied by a gangly half grown pup, both of them putting a brave face on near panic.; encountering a wild appearing woman in a strange hut in the scariest part of the forest nearly pushed them over the edge, but Mai’s cheerful greeting calmed them and they soon became fast friends. In later days, months and years, Tam visited often, learing about all the herbs and beneficial plants of the forest.
Now, as Tam and Trax approached the hut, Mai was characteristically already bustling before the sun rose. A sturdy woman with large, serene gray eyes, long gray hair and a slightly feral ageless beauty, she greeted the still sleepy pair cheerfully
“Good morning, my scraggly raggamuffin and his overgrown pup!”
“Good morning Mai” Tam responded, scratching his head, trying to get the blood moving. Trax promptly sat down and thumped his tail on the forest floor. Mai greeted the wolf by gripping his snout between v-shaped index and middle fingers and shaking gently, then scratching the spot between his eyes.
“Well, what brings you here at this hour, when the bats are not yet gone a-bedding?”
“I came to say goodbye; I got my call to service, and the group from the village is leaving today.” The thrill of adventure and sadness at leaving were still at war in his expression. “I also came to ask if you’d help me break the news to Trax, here” Mai’s eyes registered pity for the boy.
“Ah, young fellow, he has to stay behind? I know that will be hard for you. I’ll talk to him and keep him company while you’re away.” While Mai could not strictly talk to animals in the usual way, but she did have an unusual rapport with those who wore the fur and feather. “I’ll make sure you can get on your way with no trouble. Now, I think I have some bread, honeycomb and milk for our two legged forest creature, and some left-over chicken bones for the this glorified coyote!” Mai fetched some breakfast,while Tam sat on a log, his shoulder touching Trax’s. He murmured to the wolf:
“Well, wolf friend, I won’t be seeing you for awhile, at least not until Christmas” Trax nuzzled the boy’s shoulder, implying understanding. “I’ll miss Aunt and Uncle, but you…” The sadness that the boy had been able to suppress so far burst to the surface, and he pressed his forehead into his bent knees, sobbing softly. The wolf, attuned to his friend’s emotions, licked him once and sat in silence. Mai, who had been returning with food, saw what was happening and discreetly diverted her course for a few minutes.
When Tam had regrouped a bit, Mai came up with a plate of bread and butter with honey, a cup of fresh milk, and some chicken bones, with a generous bit of meat left on. As she set the plate down beside the boy she, squeezed Tam’s shoulder and then busied about some other morning tasks. Trax fell to the bones right away, with some vigour, while Tam started nibbling the bread mainly to distract himself, but being hungrier than he realized, started to tuck in more earnestly.