The Dragon’s Apprentice

Evann and his friend Rufous, now elevated to the status of wizard-in-progress and Solon of the dragons, both have a lot to learn—and not much time to learn it before chaos erupts. An evil dragon is up to no good and the goblins are up to worse.

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Evann, having survived meeting dragons and becoming a wizard, is in a tough situation. He has no idea how to handle the spells he’s learned. So he’s come to the city of Morshton to find a wizard to teach him. He’s taken on by Quinton, reputed to be the best wizard in the city, who tells Evann he’s in much deeper trouble than he realizes. He’s not supposed to have these spells at all. They could burn his mind out.

Meanwhile, Evann’s friend Rufous, the new Solon of the dragons, finds himself on the verge of a war with the goblins, who have accused a dragon of stealing some of their magic weapons. In the course of his search for the supposedly guilty dragon, he learns some of the history involved and begins to suspect there’s more going on than the goblins had told him.

Evann’s training progresses, despite some frightening episodes, as does Rufous’ search. But when the search finally uncovers the lair of the mysterious dragon, Rufous finds he has come into a trap. Meanwhile, Evann witnesses a triple murder which seems to have been committed by a goblin—and a spell marker painted on a wall in the victims’ blood.

The fate of the dragon and his apprentice are welded together again. They’ll need each other just to survive, much less triumph against their enemies.

It was well past nooning when Evann stood before the north gate into the city of Morshton. He had trudged up the rise to the gate in the trail of a long ox-drawn wagon hauling rough-cut lumber. He’d seen the wagon well ahead of him when he’d finally stepped onto the main road, and it had taken him longer to catch up to it than he’d thought it would. In fact, he hadn’t managed to do that until the wagon was approaching the gate.

The gates were standing wide open with the leaves folded back inside the gatehouse against the walls of the gate tunnel itself. Evann had never seen a city wall or a gate before, so he stared at the stonework with interest. Already he could feel questions bubbling up as to how the stones were cut, and hauled, and especially how they were lifted up to the upper levels of the wall and gate tower. He wondered if his friend Rufous would know, or if whatever master he was able to study with had the answers.

The gate itself seemed wide at first glance, but a second examination showed it was not as wide as all that, since the wagon before Evann would barely fit between the gate leaves. And why did they need a gate, anyway? That thought just started more questions to form up and get in line in Evann’s mind. He really needed to find someone who could—and would—answer them.

But for now, the wagon was moving through the gate after the ox drover had spent a few minutes talking to a couple of men with spears. As it cleared the way, Evann hesitated. He was a bit uncertain as to what he was to do next. One of the men the drover had been talking to beckoned to him. Taking a deep breath, Evann stepped up to face them.

“Haven’t seen you here before, have we, lad?” The speaker was the older of the two. He was a bit taller than Evann, with lines on his face and grizzling grey in his short beard. His eyes were tired, but seemed kind.

“No, sir.”

“First time to Morshton, then?” Evann thought the guard’s voice sounded funny, but he could understand him well enough.

“Yes, sir.”

“What’s your name, lad?” The speaker smiled at him.

“Evann, sir.”

“Where you from?”

“A little village called Chesserlin, from the other side of Carryl.”

The other spearman snorted, but the speaker just said, “That’s a long walk. What are you here for?”

“My master sent me to ask a question of a wizard.”

The other guard started chuckling, and the speaker smiled again. “Right. Well, get on with you, and good luck.”

Evann started through the gate. He almost turned back when he heard the other guard mutter, “You’re going to need it,” but he stiffened his resolve and kept walking.

The gateway was long enough and dim enough that Evann blinked when he exited into the morning light at the end. He stood there for a moment, taking in the scene before him, until he was nudged from behind. “You want to get out of the way?” a raspy voice said.

“Sorry,” Evann apologized as he quickly stepped to one side to let a trio of dwarves tromp past him and join the flow of people.

The space the gate opened into wasn’t very large, and the streets that led out from it appeared to be rather narrow. People were moving through all of them—men pushing carts, men carrying boxes or baskets or sacks of some kind. And there went two men carrying what looked like a chair with poles with an old man sitting in it, walking stick propped in front of him, studiously ignoring the crowd as they thronged around him.

The throng included women, of course. Most of them were carrying loads as well, although some of the better dressed had empty hands.

No one was just walking, it seemed like. Everyone was moving quickly, in a hurry.

“So where do I start?” Evann muttered.

“Did you say something, lad?”

Evann looked around to see another spearman gate guard. “I’m not from here, I don’t know anybody . . .”

“And you don’t know where to begin, do you?” The guard gave a gap-toothed grin.

“No, sir.”

“Don’t sir me, lad. I’m just a common trooper in the city guard. Now what you need is a guide, right?”

Evann nodded vigorously.

“You have any money?”

Evann took a half-step back instinctively. “A little, I guess.” Looking back at the crowd, remembering the cautions Rufous had given him, “Actually, not very much at all.”

“Well, if you’ve a copper or two, that will do.” The guard gave a shrill whistle. In a moment a skinny boy not much shorter than Evann popped out of the throng in the open space and hurried across to stop in front of the guard.

“Whatcha got, Tom?”

“Be polite, brat,” the guard said with a chuckle. “The lad here needs a guide. You think you could do him?”

The boy looked Evann up and down. “Might could. What’s in it for me?” That was said directly to Evann. His voice had the same accent as the guard’s, only in a pleasant tenor instead of a scratchy bass.

“My thanks.”

The guard snorted, and the boy just lowered his brows.

“Maybe a copper,” Evann added.

“A copper and you buy me something to eat.”

Evann considered that. He was hungry himself. “Something cheap to eat.”

The boy held out his hand. Evann shook his head. “Food now. Copper at the end.”

The boy dropped his hand, considered, and said, “All right. Shake.” He stuck his hand out again, and Evann took it this time.

“Chander,” said the boy.

It took Evann a moment to realize that was his name. “Evann,” he replied.

“Right. This way to the food.”

Chander took off. Evann tried to follow, but the boy was sliding through the crowd so fast that Evann couldn’t even keep sight of him, much less follow him. He crossed the open space as quickly as he could without running into or over people, then stopped.

Evann turned slowly, looking for the boy. He heard a rustle beside him, and looked around to see Chander staring at him.

“Not getting nowhere if you keep stopping like that,” Chander said with a frown.

“You’re not doing me much good as a guide if you don’t stay with me,” Evann retorted. “You want your food, you want your copper, you’ve got to lead me, not make me chase you.”

Chander exhaled sharply. “All right, if that’s the way you want it.”

“I’m buying, and that’s the way I want it.” Evann stared back at the boy, not giving an inch. He’d known kids like this in the village when he was younger, always on the make, always trying to get an edge on anyone and everyone. They’d gotten him into a lot of trouble when he was younger, until he’d learned a little common sense and quit letting them talk him into their schemes. He’d also learned to give as good as he got.

Suddenly Chander grinned. “You’ll do, friend Evann. You’ll do. Come on, this way.” He pointed down the street, and fell in at Evann’s side.

Before long they were standing at the side of the street, each munching on a piece of sausage on a stick just dripping grease. Evann savored the flavor of the hot meat. He was hungrier than he had realized. Of course, he’d had a pretty good hike this morning, so he should have been hungry.

Evann matched Chander bite for bite, grinning at the boy as the grease ran down his chin. After pulling the last bite off the stick into his mouth, he followed Chander’s lead and tossed the stick into the sausage man’s little fire that kept them good and warm. He swiped his hand across his face, then, mindful that he was wearing his best clothes, wiped it on his sack rather than his pants.

“So,” Chander said around the last bite of meat he was still chewing, “what are you looking for, really?”

“Wizards,” Evann said.

Chander’s eyes widened, and he stopped chewing. “W . . . wizards?”

“Uh-huh,” Evann said, enjoying the boy’s surprise.

Chander started chewing again, then swallowed such a large lump of sausage that Evann almost hurt watching it go down his throat.

“You want wizards, we got wizards,” Chander said, affecting nonchalance. “What do you want wizards for?”

“Just take me to the best wizard in the city, please,” Evann said.

“All right,” Chander replied with a shrug. “It’s your copper. Come on.”

Evann fell into step beside the boy. “So how many wizards are there in Morshton?”

Chander looked up at him sort of sidelong. “Three,” he said after a moment. Evann nodded. That matched what his friend Rufous had told him. “That everyone knows of, anyway. There might be more, but . . .” he shrugged again, “. . . if a wizard is on the quiet, who’s going to know?”

“And who’s going to tell?” Evann said after a moment’s thought of his own.

Chander nodded. “There’s that. It’s said that wizards are chancy folk. Wouldn’t want to be on the bad side of one.” Having been in exactly that position not too long ago, Evann could only agree wholeheartedly. He didn’t say anything about it, though. He didn’t know Chander that well.

The conversation dropped for a while. Evann was content to follow his guide, trying to keep some idea of where they were in relation to the city gate through which he’d entered. The buildings they were walking by got larger, and cleaner, and began looking even a bit on the fancy side—at least by the estimation of a lad from a village on the other side of Carryl.

With Chander leading the way and more walking than Evann had expected, they arrived in front of a large house with windows set on each side of a large and ornate door. Chander stopped across the street from it and leaned back in a corner formed by a projection from the house wall on this side of the street. “That’s it,” he said, nodding at what was apparently the wizard’s house.

Evann looked at it. Since he’d never known a wizard, he had no idea how one would really live. But from all the old stories he’d listened to growing up, he’d really expected something a little grander than this. He looked back at Chander. “Really?”

“Really,” the boy replied.

“So what’s his name?”

“Her name is . . .”

“Her?” Evann interrupted.

“Her,” Chander confirmed.

Evann considered that. All the wizards in the old stories were all men. But none of the stories said that women couldn’t be wizards, either, so he guessed he didn’t have a problem with that.

He looked back at Chander, who had been waiting impatiently for his attention to come back to the present. “Her. Got it.”

“Her name is Alemandra—or at least that’s what she says it is.”

“Alemandra,” Evann repeated. Chander nodded. “Wait here.”

Evann looked around, then hurriedly crossed the street to get out of the way of an oncoming dray with large barrels stacked on it. He walked up the three steps to stand in front of the door. It took him a moment to realize that the big brass ring with the ball on it was a clacker like they had back in the village. He lifted it, then let it go to thunk against the brass baseplate.

The ball on the clacker had lines on it. He leaned forward to peer closely at it, and just as he realized that the lines made an image of an eye, the door opened and he found himself starting at the chest of a very tall man.

“Yes?”

The voice was deep, perhaps the deepest Evann had ever heard from a human. And it had a very gravelly tone to it that almost reminded him of Rufous. He straightened and stared up—quite a ways up, as it turned out—into the face of what just might have been the homeliest man he’d ever seen.

“May I speak with Wizard Alemandra, please?” Evann was being as polite as he knew how to be.

Evann wasn’t sure how he knew, but at that moment he realized that the big man was looking down his nose at him.

“The mistress is not available. Be gone.”

The door shut firmly. Evann stared at it for a moment, perplexed by the man’s attitude. Maybe if he explained it better.

He raised the clacker and dropped it again. This time when it opened, the man said nothing, but the frown that appeared on his face was almost frightening in its severity.

“I, uh,” Evann started, “I need the wizard to teach me,” he completed in a rush.

If anything, the frown got deeper, and the man bent forward until he was almost nose to nose with Evann. He couldn’t help taking a half-step back, barely mindful of where the step he was on ended.

“Listen, boy,” the man almost spat at him, “the mistress takes her students from only the best families. You have nothing to offer her, you village bumpkin, and if you don’t get off her doorstep and away from her house I’ll have you thrashed within an inch of your life.”

The door was slammed this time, and its impact on the doorframe was no less of a shock than the impact of the man’s words on Evann’s mind. He shook his head sharply. If this was the manner of house the wizard ran, Evann was pretty certain he didn’t want to be a part of it. He went down the steps and back across the street.

Chander looked at him. “Didn’t get what you wanted, huh?”

“No,” Evann said curtly. “Next wizard, please.”

Chander started to say something, closed his mouth, then just said, “Right.” He led off back the way they had come, staying by Evann’s side but not saying anything.

They crossed a rise a few streets later. From the top of it, Evann was able to get a glimpse of the northern and northwestern parts of the city. Lots of houses and buildings close together, with narrow twisty streets, lanes, and alleys running between them. He was very glad at that moment that he had a guide, because he would have very likely gotten lost otherwise.

Chander gestured to their right, and they turned down another street. Evann followed Chander quite a ways down this street.

The houses on this street were smaller than Wizard Alemandra’s house. The outsides were all plain wood or plaster, with an occasional small window.

Chander stopped in front of a house that looked much the same as the houses all around it. “This one,” he said with a jerk of his thumb.

Evann looked at the door; smaller and plainer. After his reception at the previous house, he had no complaints about smaller and plainer. “Name?”

“He goes by the name of Thosapater.”

“Thosapater,” Evann said it slowly, to make sure he was saying it right. “Seriously? That’s his name?”

Chander chuckled. “Someone said his real name is Sammo, but he insists that everyone call him the other.”

“Thosapater,” Evann repeated, trying to keep a grin off of his face. Chander chuckled again.

Taking a deep breath, Evann crossed the street. It was only one step up onto the porch in front of the door. It had a clacker as well, also brass, but smaller and very plain. Evann lifted and dropped it. Thunk.

There was no response for a long moment, but just as Evann was about to use the clacker again, the door opened to reveal a youth somewhat older than Evann, not quite as tall, dressed in what would have been nice clothes had they seen soap and water sometime recently.

The youth straightened in apparent surprise to see only Evann on the porch. “Deliveries go to the back door,” he snapped, and started to shut the door.

“Wait,” Evann said, placing the bottom of his spade handle in the path of the door. The door struck it hard and rebounded, shivering. The youth turned to him with an outraged expression. “I would like to speak to Wizard Thosapater about teaching me.”

“Ha!” the youth exclaimed, outrage changing to snarky laughter in a moment. “The master charges twenty silver pieces to take on a student, plus five silver pieces a month thereafter, and you have to find your own dragon’s blood. So unless you’ve got more hidden under those rags of yours than an empty belly, be gone, and don’t bother coming back without the money.”

The youth kicked Evann’s staff out of the doorway and slammed the door. Evann noted with detachment that it slammed almost as well as the door at Wizard Alemandra’s house.

He walked back to where Chander had stood, observing the encounter at the door. “Next wizard?” the boy asked.

“Next wizard,” Evann said in an even voice.

Chander turned and led back toward the main street they had been walking down. Evann paced beside him, throttling back his anger. He was really beginning to wonder if this idea of Rufous’ was any good. The two best wizards in Morshton had turned out to be rather less than polite, much less courteous. Well, he couldn’t exactly say that about the wizards themselves, but he could for sure say that about the people in their houses, and if that was the kind of people the wizards wanted around them, Evann was pretty certain he wouldn’t like the wizards. Crows only flock with crows, as the old saying went.

That jogged a thought in Evann’s mind, and he looked around at the roofs and the sky. Not a sign of a raven. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.

Chander looked at him with lowered eyebrows. “Thought I saw something,” Evann said.

“Well, you’d better keep your eyes down here starting now,” Chander muttered. “This next part of town isn’t one of the better ones. You know how to use that stick for anything besides propping yourself up?”

“I think so,” Evann replied with a slight smile.

“Good. Just pay attention to me and to what’s going on around us.”

“I was warned about thieves before I came to Morshton,” Evann said. “I haven’t seen any yet.”

Chander snorted. “Friend Evann, the ones that you could see at work are not out on the streets right now. They work at night, because it hides their lack of skill. Only the best work during the day, and you don’t have the eye yet to catch them. And don’t go patting yourself,” the boy added. “You’ll just give away where you have stuff stashed.”

Evann stilled the hand that had just started to move to do that. “Ah, right.” They walked a few more steps. “So why haven’t I been thieved, yet?”

Chander looked at him sidelong, and snorted again. “Partly because you’re a kid from out of town, who doesn’t look to be carrying anything more valuable than a sack and a big stick. Although,” the boy dropped his voice, “if you’re going to wear a belt under your clothes, you need to either wear a flatter belt or looser clothing. And don’t touch it!”

Evann stutter-stepped as he swung his hand away from his belly. “I’ll remember that. Partly? What’s the rest of it?”

“I’m with you, of course.” That was said in a matter of fact tone. Chander kept his eyes moving around them as they walked.

“So you’re a guard as well as a guide?” Evann tried to put some humor in his voice, but he wasn’t sure how well he succeeded.

“No, but anyone who screws up one of my jobs knows I get my own back. Always.”

That was said in a very hard tone. Evann looked at Chander. The boy’s face matched his tone, and for a moment Evann felt a chill run down his spine. “How old are you?” Evann asked after a moment.

“Older than I look.”

That Evann now believed. “So why are you doing the guide to the city bit for a copper and sausage?”

Some of the hardness leached away from Chander’s face, and he looked up at Evann with a bit of a gamin’s grin. “I’ve got my reasons. And hey, if nothing else, I get to meet new people almost every day.”

The grin dropped off of the boy’s face. “We’re almost there, but this is the worst part. Eyes up.”

“So why does this wizard live in such a dangerous part of the city?” Evann asked. His eyes were moving left to right and back again.

“I didn’t say he was a good wizard, did I?”

“So is he not-good in the sense of not-a-nice-person, or not-good in the sense of he can’t do much?”

“Yes.”

Evann had to think about that response for a moment before he got it. He chuckled, but before he could say anything, Chander led him right up to a door.

This house was nothing like the other two. The walls had long since lost their last coat of whitewash, and the plaster had sloughed off in places, leaving bare wood here and exposed wattle and daub there, all now a muddy almost uniform grey color. The sagging door still showed traces of a bright blue paint having resided there once upon a time. That only served to contrast with the time-bleached wood.

There was no clacker. Evann raised his hand to knock on the door, but paused to look at Chander and raised his eyebrows.

“Rogier.”

“Rogier.” Evann hefted the name in his mind, then shrugged. He rapped his knuckles on the door three times.

After a moment, the door eased open and a beady eye appeared in the open crack. The eye looked Evann up and down. He was apparently judged innocuous enough, because the door eased open and revealed a gaunt-featured man with straggling oily grey hair and beard, wearing a threadbare robe that might have originally been brown in color and had obviously been made for someone of a larger frame.

“Yes?” Despite his appearance, the man’s voice was firm. “What do you want?”

“If you are the wizard named Rogier,” Evann said, again trying to be pleasant and polite, although that was getting harder to do as his day progressed, “I would like for you to teach me.”

“Hmmph.” The old man measured Evann with his eyes again, consciously ignoring Chander. “I’m very busy right now. You bring me two measures of powdered dragon’s blood, and I’ll consider it. Now if you’ll excuse me . . .”

The wizard moved to shut the door. Unlike the previous encounters, Evann made no attempt to reason with him a second time. He turned away as the door closed behind him, and slowly walked away.

“Hey,” Chander bustled up beside him. “We’re not out of the rough area yet, friend Evann. Keep your head up and your wits about you for a while longer until I can get you back to the better streets, all right?”

Evann straightened up. He was bitterly disappointed, but Chander was right. This wasn’t the time or place to give in to those feelings. “Right. Let’s go.”

Just before they reached the end of the street Evann learned why Chander was on edge. Three youths stepped around the corner and barred their way.

“So, Chander, what’s your friend carrying in that sack of his, hmm?” the boy in the center said with a swagger. “Anything we’d like to see?”

“Be off with you, Lorsh, and take your friends with you. You really don’t want what we’ve got to give you.” Chander’s voice was very even, but at the same time very sharp.

“Tired of you talking big, Chander. Time for you to put up or shut up. Either that, or your friend here gives us what he’s carrying.” Lorsh’s voice was going increasingly harsh.

Evann shrugged his sack off his shoulder and caught it with his left hand. “You want this? Here,” and he tossed it to the street between them. As the thieves moved toward it, he sprang into action.

The bottom of his staff swept up and hammered the left knee of one of the youths. At another time, Evann might have laughed at how his eyes bulged and he fell clutching his knee, moaning. Evann recovered and backed a step to stand beside Chander, holding the staff sideways in both hands. He looked over to see a slim and wickedly sharp knife in Chander’s hand.

“Tch, tch,” Chander said, shaking his head with a nasty grin plastered on his face. “Looks like your boy tripped and fell, Lorsh. Now, you want to clear out of our way before someone else takes a tumble?”

The other youth was already edging back out of their way. Lorsh looked around, and apparently decided he had no reason to get thumped that day. He stepped back without a word.

“Always knew you had more brains than people said you had, Lorsh,” Chander said as he went by, snagging Evann’s sack up from the street as he did so. “Even if it’s only a little bit more.”

Evann stepped clear of the downed thief, and kept an eye on the other two until he and Chander were some distance away. Chander set a brisk pace, and Evann kept up with no questions. Before long, they were in streets that had a better look, and Chander slowed down a little. “Over here,” he said, and led the way to where two trees stood nestled next to each other in a planting outside a larger home, branches rustling in a breeze that was passing above Evann’s head.

The two of them stood in the shade of the trees, regaining their breath and letting their nerves calm down. At least, that was what Evann was doing, and he suspected the same was true of Chander. He didn’t think the boy was all that much older or experienced than he was.

Chander handed the sack back to Evann. “Thanks,” he said as he slung it back on his shoulder.

“So you weren’t kidding when you said you knew how to use that stick,” Chander said.

Evann shrugged. “A little, anyway.”

K-k-k-k,” sounded above them, softly. Evann jerked and spun away from the tree trunk to stare upward. A gleaming black eye stared back down at him from among the branches. If it wasn’t the raven from the forest, it would do as a twin.

“What’s wrong?” Chander said, staring from Evann to the raven and back again.

“Do you see ravens in town very often?” Evann asked, hefting his staff into both hands.

“Sometimes,” Chander replied. “Mostly in winter, but sometimes we’ll have one or two flying around town even in summer.”

“You know this one?”

“No. Do you?” Chander sounded rather nonplussed by Evann’s fixation with ravens.

“I . . . might,” Evann finally responded. “Leastways, I saw one an awful lot like this one at the edge of the forest before I walked down to the city this morning.”

Chander snorted. “Raven, shmaven, they all look alike to me. Forget about it.”

Kwourk,” the raven pronounced. It then defecated, the thick greenish slurry splashing on the roots of the tree, after which it launched itself a-wing, flapping strongly to clear the peak of the roof on the other side of the street.

After a moment, Evann relaxed. “Sorry, I’m just not sure I know what to make of that.” He leaned his staff against one of the trees and swung the sack around to cover his other hand as he reached into his purse. “Here,” he offered a copper to Chander. “You took me to see the wizards. You earned it.”

Chander reached out and took the coin, but just stood there holding it. “So what are you going to do now?”

Evann shrugged again, this time with a grimace. “I guess I’ll find someplace to sleep tonight, then head for another city tomorrow. Surely somewhere I can find a wizard who is a worthy teacher.”

“That’s really why you are here? In Morshton, I mean,” Chander said slowly. “You want a wizard to teach you?”

The repressed disappointment welled up in Evann, and he wrapped both hands around the staff and leaned on it. “Yes. R . . .” he remembered just in time that he wasn’t supposed to mention Rufous, “. . . a friend of mine told me that I should be able to find a wizard in Morshton to teach me. Looks like he was wrong. All the wizards in Morshton are more interested in gaining wealth and power than in teaching me.”

Chander pushed the copper back at Evann. “Here. We’re not done yet. Come on.”

Evann let go of the staff with his left hand and took the copper. “What do you mean?”

“Just come on!” Chander wouldn’t say any more, only took Evann by the arm and urged him forward.

Several streets later, Chander halted in front of a building that could only be a tavern, in front of which hung a painted board sign which even in its faded condition had a red boot on it. Now Evann hadn’t been in too many taverns so far in his short life. There was the one in his village, where he sometimes did odd jobs, and where he occasionally was sent by his mother to remind his father that it was time to come home. There was one in Carryl, where he had bought some food and a mug of new beer a couple of times. And Farmer Charymann had taken him to the one in the town near his farm one time when Evann had helped take a load of tubers to the local market. So he had been to a few taverns; and of course some of the old stories had a few words to say about taverns, not to mention what his mother had muttered from time to time when exasperated with his blacksmith father. All in all, taverns sounded a bit chancy to him.

“What’s in here?” Evann asked, disengaging his arm from Chander’s hand.

“The man I want you to see,” Chander said. “If anyone in Morshton knows of a wizard who might teach you, it’s him.”

“Oh. Is he a wizard?”

For the first time, Evann saw Chander exhibit uncertainty. “I don’t know for sure. He might be, and he might not. But if he isn’t, he knows as much as any wizard, I’d wager.”

Evann squared his shoulders. “Well, he can’t waste my time any more than the other three did. Lead on, guide.”

Evann found the inside of the tavern to be lighter than he had expected. He stopped short as Chander paused in front of the bar at the front of the room. “Quinton here?” he asked the man behind the bar.

“Usual place,” the grunted reply came as the barman shifted a small keg to its place on the back counter.

“Thanks,” Chander said. He led the way to the very back corner of the room, well away from all doors, where two high-backed benches flanked a table that was large enough to allow three people to fit on each bench.

Chander led the way directly to the table, and slid sideways onto one of the benches, gesturing to Evann to slide in beside him. He did so, slowly, because he was staring across the table at the man sitting on the other bench.

The first thing that Evann saw clearly was a pair of large knobby-knuckled hands laying out thin rectangles of wood with brightly painted pictures on them in a pattern on the table top. There was an oaken mug to his right at the outside edge of the table, and a very battered low-crowned wide-brimmed hat to his left against the wall.

The man’s head was down as he stared at what his hands were doing, so his face was very shadowed. His hair was thick, long enough to brush his shoulders, and was a dark brown color shot through with many threads of grey. His shoulders were wide, giving a hint that there might be some strength to his body.

“Quinton,” Chander said quietly as the man continued to lay out the pictures, “Evann here needs a wizard.”

Quinton, since that was who the man across the table had to be, grunted, and said, “What for?”

Chander looked at Evann. Evann still wasn’t sure what was going on, so he said nothing. “To teach him,” Chander finally replied.

Quinton grunted again as he laid down the last wooden picture and folded his arms along the edge of the table, head still down, apparently studying the pattern of pictures. “So take him to the wizards.”

“I did. He wants somebody better than them.”

At last Quinton raised his head, and piercing blue eyes focused on Evann from under very bushy eyebrows. He lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. “I applaud his good sense and his apparent taste in teachers. But why is he here?”

Quinton had a beard, too. It was short, not quite bushy, with more grey in it than his hair. He stared at Evann for a moment, gave Evann’s staff a glance where it was gripped by Evann’s left hand, then lowered his head to look at the pictures again. Evann’s anger started to burn again, as the older man basically seemed to be ignoring him.

“I thought maybe you might know of someone who could help him,” Chander said.

Quinton grunted for a third time, didn’t look up, didn’t speak.

Right, Evann thought. He still had the copper in his fist, so he slapped it down on the table by Chander. “Here’s your fee, Chander. Thanks for trying, but I don’t see that he’s much different from the real wizards. Goodbye.”

Evann ignored Chander’s call of “Wait!” He was on his feet the next instant, and as he took his first step toward the door, he heard Quinton say, “Why is a shovel pretending to be a walking staff?”

That froze Evann for a moment. Then he slowly turned back to the table. He stood, looking down at the back of Quinton’s head.

“It’s not a shovel,” Evann said. “It’s a spade.”

“Shovel, spade, either way it’s a tool for moving dirt.” Quinton looked up at Evann again, his gaze even sharper than before. “The question is, why is it hiding?”

Chander was looking back and forth between them, a confused look on his face.

“To help me,” Evann said, holding on to his anger with both hands. If Quinton could tell the real shape of the spade, then there was more to him than met the eye.

Quinton’s eyebrows rose into an expressive arch across his forehead. But Evann could still tell that the older man was skeptical. He pulled the spade around so that his body was between it and the rest of the room and the bar keeper. He focused his gaze on it, and whispered, “Come out.”

There was a very small flash of blue light, and the spade once again was in his hand, pulled up against his chest. There was a sense of a giggle, and a sense of stretching stiff muscles, then things quieted down except for an occasional glint of blue from the edge of the blade.

Chander’s eyes were big and round, and his mouth had dropped open. Quinton’s eyebrows were still elevated, but in surprise now, not in skepticism. They lowered abruptly, and he pointed a long bony finger at Chander. “Not a word,” he hissed. “Not to anybody. Got it?”

Chander’s mouth snapped shut, and he nodded with energy.

Quinton’s eyes tracked back to Evann. His expression looked somewhat on the grim side, now. “You’re already a wizard, it would seem.”

Evann nodded.

“Been one for very long?”

“No.”

“So why do you want a teacher? You’ve already had the blood, obviously, and you’ve already found your staff,” Quinton gave a pointed glance at the spade, “such as it is. What do you want a teacher for?”

“To teach me what to do with the stuff I got from the other wizard,” Evann blurted.

Quinton’s eyebrows went up again. From the rest of his expression, Evann gathered he was shocked. “You’ve already survived a wizard’s duel?”

“I guess so,” Evann said. He shrugged. “I broke the other guy’s staff, and now I’ve got a head full of stuff I don’t know what to do with or how to keep . . .” His voice dwindled away.

Before Quinton could respond, Evann heard steps behind him, and he saw Quinton’s eyes look beyond him. Evann shifted his gaze back to the spade, and whispered, “Hide. Please.” Another sense of giggle, this time mingled with a bit of pout, then the staff was back in his hand.

Evann heard voices behind him as the bar keeper talked to the new customers. His eyes were focused now on Quinton, who was scooping the painted rectangles into his hat, which he clapped on his head as soon as the table was cleared. A moment later, Quinton was on his feet beside Evann. He reached a long arm down, picked up the mug and drained it, then wiped a sleeve across his mouth as he grabbed Evann’s arm with his other hand. “Come with me. We need someplace a bit more private than here.”

Quinton was as strong as Evann’s blacksmith father. Evann found himself turned and taking long steps to keep up with the older man before he knew it. Chander was apparently right behind them, from the sound of his light footsteps.

They burst out the tavern door into the sunlight. “This way,” Quinton said, swinging Evann around like a weight on a string before settling into a path down the street in the opposite direction from which Chander and Evann had approached the tavern.

Seen standing up and moving, the older man was indeed of a size to match Evann’s father, and the strength of his hands was certainly no less than the blacksmith’s. Evann tried to pull his arm away from the older man’s almost punishing grip, and Quinton released it.

“Do keep up,” Quinton said as he lengthened his stride. Evann had to stretch to match the older man, but he did so, step for step. Chander fell in on his other side, and the three of them hurried down the street.

“Where are we going?” Evann asked, puffing a little bit. Quinton was charging ahead like a bull splashing through a creek, and people moved out of his way as if they were water droplets.

“My rooms, for now,” the older man replied curtly. “Say nothing more until we’re there.”

Evann followed down the street, past two cross-streets, around a corner at the third, then around another corner into a dark and curving lane. At that moment, he had no idea where he was.

They were far enough around the curve when they stopped that Evann couldn’t see the street they had left, but at the same time couldn’t see another street at the other end. They stood in front of a three story building which was taller than Farmer Charymann’s tallest barn, which made it tall indeed to Evann. The plaster facing it was a dull green. A sign swung in the slight breeze that had a bundle of plants carved and painted on it. As paintings went, Evann decided, it probably wasn’t very good because he couldn’t tell what the plants were. It looked more like a bunch of mouseweed than anything, which was silly, as he’d never heard of mouseweed being good for anyone or anything.

“What’s this?” he asked, pointing at the sign.

“Granny Cosan’s herbal shop,” Chander said. “She lives on the floor above the shop.”

“And I have the third floor loft,” Quinton interrupted. “Come on.”

Evann looked back at the sign just as a raven alit on the sign pole. “Wait,” he said, pointing at the bird.

“Ignore him,” Quinton said. “Come on.” He opened a door that was at the corner of the building, revealing a steep flight of stairs up which he charged with the same energy he had shown in the streets. Evann sighed, and started after him, with Chander bringing up the rear.

The stairs ran the full length of the building, and Evann was definitely slowing down when he finally got to the landing at the top. There was a low door off the landing which was standing open, so Evann ducked his head and stepped through it.

Thump.

“Ow!”

Evann had tried to straighten up as soon as he had cleared the doorframe, only to ram his head into a beam. He crouched and looked around, and realized that the top floor was all one open room. There was no ceiling, as such. The unclad roof sloped steeply down from the center peak to side walls that were about three hands shorter than Evann’s height, but a couple of steps away from the wall he could stand tall. There were windows in each wall, two of which had their shutters thrown open to admit light. The breeze flowing through the left from them was pleasant at the moment. Evann was certain it wouldn’t be so nice in the winter.

Quinton was standing in the center of the room. He took his hat off and threw it. It landed on a nearby table with a soft plop. Evann looked at the hat for a moment. Weren’t those little wooden plaques . . . ? Chander perched on a tall stool to one side.

“How old are you, boy?” Quinton had turned and was facing Evann with crossed arms.

“Almost seventeen years.” Not an out and out lie, but not the utter truth either. Evann wanted to be seen as older than he was.

“How long have you been a wizard?”

Evann thought for a moment. “Not quite two weeks, maybe.”

“What?” Quinton’s tone indicated he didn’t believe that answer.

Evann took the staff in crook of his elbow, and counted on his fingers. “Yes, that’s right. It was two days after the new moon, so a week and a half.”

Quinton’s eyebrows lowered. “And how soon after that did you have the supposed wizard’s duel?”

The room seemed a little darker.

“Right afterward,” Evann replied.

Quinton’s frown deepened. “Two days later? A week later? How long?”

Evann considered, trying to figure out exactly how long it had been.

Quinton apparently ran out of patience, for he uncrossed his arms and took a step forward. “Let me see your staff,” he said as he reached for it.

Evann started to flinch back just as Quinton’s big hand made contact with the staff. There was a crack of sound, a flash of blue light, and Quinton staggered back two steps, shaking his right hand. The spade had reappeared, and there was an angry buzzing in Evann’s head which died down to a very low mutter after a moment. Blue light gleamed from the sharpened edges of the blade.

“Ow!” Quinton exclaimed, rubbing his one hand with the other.

“Twelve breaths,” Evann said.

“What?” Quinton said crossly, still rubbing his hand.

“Twelve breaths. That’s how long between the time I took the dragon’s blood and the fight with the other wizard began.”

Quinton shot him a hot glance. “I don’t believe it. You mean you stood there and took the powdered blood and then immediately got into a fight?”

Evann shook his head. “I didn’t have any powdered dragon’s blood.”

Quinton inhaled deeply. “Boy. Did you or did you not take in some dragon’s blood?”

Evann bobbed his head. “I did.”

“So how much dried blood did you have? A measure? A half-measure?”

“I already told you,” Evann said, starting to get cross, “I didn’t have any dried blood.”

Quinton stopped rubbing his hands and crossed his arms again, obviously trying to keep from yelling. “You took in some blood, but you didn’t have any dried blood. Is that what you’re saying?”

“Uh-huh,” Evan said, glad that the older man seemed to finally be understanding.

“Then where did the blood come from?” Quinton’s voice was soft and level, but his face was getting red.

Evann tilted his head a little. “A dragon gave it to me.”

Quinton’s voice got flat and hard. “A dragon gave it to you. What, some dragon just walked up to you and handed you a packet of dried blood?”

“No,” Evann sighed. He wasn’t sure if Quinton was being difficult, or if he just didn’t understand, but either way it was getting frustrating. “He offered it to me from his tail. From a hole he punched in his tail,” he elaborated.

Quinton froze. He didn’t move for a very long moment; then he slowly unfolded his arms and leaned on the table.

“Boy, are you telling me that you have tasted living dragon’s blood?”

Evann smiled. “Uh-huh.” At last Quinton seemed to get it.

“Is the dragon still alive?” Quinton’s voice was hushed.

“Yes.”

Quinton slowly sank down on his stool, facing Evann. “Name of the Name,” he said softly. “Who would have guessed it?”