An Unexpected Apprentice

Jody Lynn Nye

Tor Books

Chapter One
The merry piping stopped.
Tildi Summerbee looked up idly from the book she was reading, which was propped on the carved shelf beside the huge bubbling stew pot.
How strange, she thought, lifting the stirring spoon to her lips for a taste. Her youngest brother, Marco, usually played his flute all the way home from the fields as he, and the rest of her brothers, and the farmhands headed toward the big old house. Teldo, Pierin, and Gosto would sing along.
That was how she knew without looking out one of the round windows that it was noon, and that they were coming in for lunch. Now, at the beginning of June, the first crop of Daybreak Bank Farm’s sweet-smelling hay had to be cut. The work was hard, and it made her brothers hungry. It was a big job to feed them and their farmhands on an ordinary day, but even bigger at the times of haying and harvest, when hosts of neighbors came to lend their strength so that the expanded workforce could swiftly clear field after field. By the week’s end, all the hay around Clearbeck would be cut and drying, its sweet scent wafting in through the open windows, along with a fair bit of chaff.
She didn’t mind sweeping up. At least there wasn’t a mess of mud to scrub off the floors. The fine weather kept the ground dry. It was perfect for cutting hay.
A long wisp of her soft brown hair drifted down from her modest white cap and over one eye. Tildi tucked it back into place.
Where were they?
She strained one leaf-shaped ear to listen for the distant music to begin again. Instead of the friendly chatter of men and women she heard faint frightened shouts and cries.
One word rose above the others, and was repeated over and over.
Tildi threw open the nearest window and raised her eyes to the heavens. Her heart tightened in her chest. The greatest terror in her life had come again.
Against the expanse of pure blue she saw the black shadows swooping and diving. The torsos of the airborne devils resembled her people, the smallfolks, except that the monsters were four times their size. The thraik’s green-black skin glimmered as though it had been painted with grease. As did the wings, each a fan of long, yellow, spearlike bones with dark greenish skin stretched between them. Their faces were death’s-heads, the skin barely painted on the gaunt bones. Sharp yellow teeth crowded their jaws, giving them drunken, evil grins.
A huge thraik floating high on the air opened its maw and emitted an earsplitting shriek. The sound echoed on and on. Tildi gasped as she saw what was going on beneath it.
In the field below, a hundred yards away, a flock of thraik circled and struck at a tiny band of smallfolks. Marco had cast aside his flute and was defending himself with swipes of his scythe from a huge devil that slashed at him with its talons. Marco’s sunbrowned, round, normally cheerful face was set and pale. His fluffy brown hair was slicked to his scalp with sweat. Tildi knew what was in his mind. Not again!
Five times over the seventeen years of her life the thraik had returned to the Quarters. The winged monsters appeared in the sky from nowhere, and descended to maim and kill whatever they could find. Usually they attacked farm animals, swooping down too swiftly for the landowners to stop them. Once in a while an unlucky smallfolk not fast enough to get to shelter had become their prey, torn apart or carried off. No one knew where they roosted, since no one had ever returned to tell. The horrible beasts didn’t remain in any place for long, but their visits wreaked tragedy.
In her mind’s eye, Tildi saw the same horrible sight, an event ten years gone.
Waiting for their parents to return from town, she and her four brothers had been standing in the doorway of their house when thraik fell out of the sky, like black, rotting leaves. Tildi remembered screaming a warning to her mother and father. The devils swooped down upon the cart containing Bernardo and Gelina Summerbee. Her father had smashed at the beasts again and again with his walking stick. The beasts had not seemed to notice the blows at all. The largest thraik had tucked Gelina under its arm and hoisted her right out of the cart. Heedless of his own safety, Bernardo fought to save his wife, driving the creatures back, but they had the advantage of flight. He slashed at two hovering before him, but another dropped behind him and clasped him around the neck. Bernardo kicked and thrashed, but the thraik effortlessly lifted him up into the air. Struggle as they might, the elder smallfolks were helpless to break loose. Tildi remembered stumbling after her elder brothers, running desperately, trying to get to her parents. The monsters flew up out of reach long before Gosto and Pierin reached the cart. The children leaped, screaming and yelling threats at the thraik, begging them to bring their parents back. The thraik ignored them, and vanished through a tear in the sky. Tildi’s last vision of her mother had been Gelina’s frightened eyes staring back at her children as the sky swallowed her up.
Tildi saw that moment in her nightmares, and she was seeing it now. Not again! Not her brothers! She clutched the windowsill, wishing she could do something.
Marco thumped his opponent in the chest with the butt of the scythe. The thraik was knocked backward a yard or two in the air. It let out a tearing cry and flew at him, all four limbs reaching for his flesh. Marco braced himself. He brought the blade around in an arc. It bit through the thraik’s wrist. The creature shrieked as its left hand tumbled away. Blood sprayed from the limb, covering Marco in a black mist. The smallfolk spat, but he brought the scythe up, ready to defend himself again. The thraik opened its wings and rose high over the young man’s head, angling for a new strike. Tildi quaked with fear for his safety.
Beyond the slashing wings and whipping tails behind, Tildi could see the rest of her brothers and the farmhands fighting for their lives, wielding hoes, billhooks, rakes, even sticks as makeshift weapons. Tildi dropped her spoon and sought about for a weapon. She seized the poker from the fireside. They would not die if she could prevent it! What if she was a mere female? They were her family. She must help.
“Mistress, what should we do?” Mig and Lisel pleaded. Tildi had forgotten about them. The smallfolk sisters were daughters of the Summerbees’ farm manager, Mirrin Sardbrook, who must be out there somewhere with the thraik. They clung to each other, trembling, their large brown eyes round with terror. Tildi could see they would be of no use at all.
“Bar the windows,” Tildi said crisply. “I’m going to go help my brothers!”
Another shriek split the air. Tildi left the girls and dashed outside. She raced up the footpath and plunged into the swaying, chest-high hay grass, wielding her poker.
“Get back in the house!” her eldest brother Gosto shouted, waving her back. He swung a reaper twice as tall as he was at a black-winged creature hovering over him. The thraik lunged down. Gosto slashed the long blade across, severing a wing tip, but a talon caught the flesh at the corner of his eye. Red blood beaded down his cheek, mixing with black ichor. He grimaced. “Tildi, go! Take the field women with you!”
The thraik hovering over him turned to scream at her.
Trembling, Tildi stumbled to a halt and gazed up at the dark-winged beast. She had never seen her enemy so close before. It was huge, and ten times more horrible than it had been from a distance. The lumpy skin looked as if it would creep, maggotlike, under her fingers if she touched it. The thin bones in the wings seemed ready to tear free from the fragile sails, but that fragility was an illusion. Nothing about a thraik was weak. She had seen one snap the neck of a dray horse like a candy stick. The beast’s sinuous neck undulated from side to side. Its round, heavy-lidded eyes were the color of dried blood. As soon as its gaze settled on her, a gleaming, irregular golden shape like knotwork appeared in the dull brown-red orbs. Her hand brandishing the poker sagged as if the thraik’s stare was enough to drain the strength out of her body. She thought she heard it speak to her inside her mind.
You’re next. It left Gosto, lifting ominously into the air like a storm cloud, and began to glide toward her.
Never, Tildi vowed. She would never let her family fall prey to them again! To her own surprise, she broke free of the glamor of terror. She raised her poker on high, and pressed forward toward the thraik. Her short legs threshed with difficulty through the high hay grass. Tildi shook with fear, but she would not turn back. She braced the poker in both hands to strike.
Just before the thraik descended, a heavy body landed on her, bearing her backward to the ground.
“What in hell’s imagination are you doing, silly girl?” hissed Mirrin, the Summerbees’ farm manager, the father of Mig and Lisel.
“Saving my brothers! Let me go!”
She struggled to get up, but the big man held her limbs pinned. He smelled sharply of sweat and fear.
“What can you do, girl? You’re no warrior! Aargh!”
Mirrin stiffened. The thraik landed heavily on his shoulders, pressing the breath out of both smallfolks. The swaying head lowered, and Tildi cowered from the terrible, glowing eyes glaring down at her. She couldn’t move. Mirrin cried out as the horrible creature pawed at him with its talons, digging to reach the girl beneath. Tildi was terrified to see cloth and flesh alike rent in furrows by the sharp claws, but Mirrin would not give up. At the cost of his own pain, Mirrin shifted from side to side to defend Tildi from it. The girl pressed her head into the grass, turning her head to avoid the talons, making herself as flat as possible. The thraik grew tired of the game and pushed a stinking palm into Mirrin’s head, holding it down and out of the way, and stretched its other taloned hand past his shoulder, reaching for Tildi’s throat.
Quick as thought, Tildi sank her teeth into the web of flesh between the long fingers. The thraik screamed. Tildi fell back, gagging on the bitter ichor. The thraik lifted clear, still howling its outrage.
Mirrin rolled off, and lay on his back, panting, as other smallfolk ran in to attack the beast. He was covered in blood. Tildi scrambled to her knees and spat the dirty, burned taste of the thraik’s flesh out of her mouth, then bent to tend to Mirrin. He pushed her away.
“I’m all right. Go back to the house. Now!”
“I have to help.”
His voice rasped hoarsely. “You’re in the way, girl! Away!”
The thraik descended again, avoiding the farmworkers. It reached for her. Tildi dodged it, seeking the fallen poker in the long grass. Mirrin sprang up and clung to the creature’s leg, weighing it down long enough for Tildi to escape. The thraik screamed. Tildi found her poker and half-ran, half-stumbled toward the fray.
“No, girl!” Mirrin shouted behind her. “Go back!”
Tildi paid no attention. All she could see was her second brother, Pierin, at bay against a towering thraik that dipped and bobbed at him, lashing out with its claws. She ran to help him. She fetched up short, nearly falling over an outflung arm. The battle had claimed casualties. Her eyes filled with tears as she recognized them. Jinny, an older woman who had lived on the farm since Tildi’s father was a boy, lay dead on the ground with her throat gashed to the backbone. Nevil, the dairyman’s boy, was huddled in a tight ball, rocking and sobbing with pain. Tildi couldn’t see what was wrong with him, but there was a lot of blood. She dithered for a moment, wondering whether to help him, but the thraik seemed to be ignoring him. Pierin needed her.
He and a field woman, Franne, fought off the beast with harvesting hooks. The thraik’s claws flashed with rusty redness. It was missing a foot, and dark blood ran from tears in the thin wings, but it had taken its revenge on the smallfolks. A gash in Pierin’s scalp ran with blood, and Franne tottered to the left to favor the wound in her right leg. Tildi surprised that monster from behind, whacking it at the base of its spine with her poker. It let out a shriek and spun in the air, looking for its new assailant. The distraction gave Pierin a chance to draw back his scythe. He plunged it as high as he could reach. The curved point sank into the creature’s back. The thraik let out a shrill, tearing cry and sagged. Its wings flipped upward. No longer able to hold itself in the air, it plummeted. Tildi jumped back just in time to avoid having it collapse on her. The ground shook with its weight. Franne limped forward and hacked at the dead beast with her reaper like a predator savaging its kill. Tears ran down her plump, lined face.
“Don’t waste your time!” Pierin shouted, almost right in her ear. “Go take shelter! Take Tildi with you!”
Franne ignored him. She raised her arm again and again, hacking at the fallen thraik with a grim-set jaw. To her there was nothing else in the world. Tildi and Pierin tried to pull her back.
“Look,” Pierin said urgently. “Mattew is in danger!”
That was Franne’s son. Her face didn’t change.
“Her mind’s away with the elves,” Pierin said grimly. “We can’t leave her.”
“Pierin, look out!” Tildi cried, pointing.
A thraik lifted away from the trio of smallfolk attacking it and made for Franne’s unprotected back. Together Tildi and her brother struck at it. The thraik curled its tail in annoyance and snapped at them. Pierin swung the scythe. The winged beast flapped its wings and lifted straight up. Pierin brought the long pole around again. The blade just missed the creature’s tail tip that time. It hissed at him. The other smallfolk stumbled and threshed over the unmown hay to help.
The largest thraik let out another cry that pierced through Tildi’s whole body like needles. Her arms and legs felt weak. The poker slipped in her hand.
Pierin faltered, too. His scythe trembled and dipped for a moment, just long enough for the thraik to stretch its long neck past his guard. It seized him by the shoulder with its teeth and lifted him up into the air. Pierin cried out. The scythe fell from his hands. Tildi screamed.
The others slashed at the ugly beast, leaping up to get in a strike at it, but it rose swiftly out of reach. Tildi jumped up and down, trying to grab its leg.
“Put him down, you monster!” she shouted.
The shrill cry of the lord thraik tore through Tildi’s hearing once more, driving her to her knees with the pain. Many of the smallfolk clapped their hands over their sensitive, leaf-shaped ears.
Tildi spun. Her eldest brother Gosto struggled in the claws of another thraik. With a triumphant look on its obscene face, it spread its wings and flapped upward.
The smallfolk snatched up rocks and threw them at the beast. It dodged away from them, screaming. Gosto kicked and pushed at his captor. Blood and smudges of dirt could not disguise the pallor of his face. His life was through. He knew it, and so did all of his kin. Tildi refused to accept it.
“Bring him back, you monster!” she screamed.
The beast grinned down at her.
“Save yourself, girl!” Gosto groaned. The translucent wings wrapped around him, hiding him from Tildi’s view.
“No! Gosto!” She flung her poker at the beast. The iron rod missed its mark, tumbling end over end to earth. The creature rose high into the air, clutching its prey.
The smallfolks were powerless to save one of their own. Stunned, they watched the bundle’s struggles grow more and more feeble. Gosto’s strength was no more than a sparrow’s against a wolf. One last kick, and the figure concealed in the sheer sails went limp, his head hanging back.
“Gosto!” Tildi screamed.
Shrieks brought Tildi back to earth. More thraik still threatened their lives. Gosto was lost, but the rest of them were still at risk. She scrabbled around in the trampled grass for fallen rocks, a scythe, a rake—anything.
“Back, hellbeast!”
A few paces away, Teldo, the brother who was only a year older than she, stood facing a hissing beast, holding a billhook in one hand and a ball of green fire in the other. Tildi blinked. For the last two years Teldo had been studying magic out of books bought from traveling peddlers and shops in the human village where the smallfolk took their crops and other goods to sell. The making of fire was one of the first spells he had mastered, yet Tildi had never seen him able to create more flame than could be used to light a candle. Necessity must have driven him to reach deeper inside himself than he had ever done before.
The thraik did not seem impressed to see a smallfolk wielding fire, no matter what color. It stuck its long neck out and bared its teeth at him. Teldo heaved the fistful of fire. It struck the thraik in the middle of its chest.
To everyone’s astonishment including the thraik’s, the fire adhered to the greasy flesh and began to burn. The thraik yowled in surprise. It tried to scrape the fire away, but only managed to spread it to its claws and forearms. The flame spread up the arms to the shoulders. It screamed in agony, tossing its head. The lord thraik howled an answering cry.
Teldo, his face drawn and looking decades older than his eighteen years, held his palm upturned. Tildi knew he was trying to will another ball of flame into existence. The burning thraik did not wait for him to add to its pain. It opened its great wings and flew away. Teldo looked grimly triumphant.
But the threat had not departed—in fact, it had doubled. The lord thraik shrieked out an order. Two of the black-green beasts flapped away from the smallfolks they had been attacking, and homed in upon Teldo. His mouth moved. Tildi could not hear the chant, but she knew the words. Teldo had taught her what he knew and encouraged her to practice. Another green flame bloomed in his hand. He held it out, keeping it between him and the circling thraik. They kept their distance, darting their long necks at him. Teeth snapped close to his wrist. Teldo faked a throw at the nearer beast. It hissed and retreated a yard. He could only attack one of them, and they knew it. He threw away his reaper and held out his hand, palm up. He meant to make a second flame.
He needed help. Tildi held out her hand and desperately said the ancient words to herself.
Ano chnetegh tal, she thought firmly, willing the spell to work. I create fire!
Her hand remained cool. Not even a flicker of light bloomed in her palm. Had she gotten it wrong? Come now, she knew how to do this! She thought the spell again, begging for a boulder-sized blaze, one that would consume every thraik at once. From the bottom of her soul, she invoked every whit of power inside her. She pictured the thraik withering away. Nothing happened.
Light crackled into being in Teldo’s other hand. He glanced down at it. The moment’s distraction was all that the terrible beasts needed. Two of them swooped down on him at once. He threw the mass of fire at one of them. It shrieked, bleeding gouts of green flame, but the other was waiting behind. It took him by the back of the neck, and lifted him up, struggling, as if he was a kitten carried by a grotesque cat.
“Help him!” Tildi cried. She invoked the spell again. A minute fire bloomed on her palm. She threw the pathetic dot of flame at the retreating beast, then followed it with all the rocks and stones she could find. The beast rose into the air. Teldo seemed to reach out to her. Tildi stretched out her arms as if she could drag him back.
A handful of farmworkers had one of the smaller thraiks at bay. It hissed and screamed, bending its snakelike neck. Marco, possessed of dead aim, kept hitting it in the eyes with sharp stones as the others battered at it with flails and rakes. It was seeping black blood from a hundred wounds, and becoming more unsteady by the moment. The lord thraik let out a bellow, and all the remaing thraiks descended upon the smallfolk en masse. Tildi and the others ran to help. The beasts plucked two of the smallfolk out of the group and flapped upward into the sky with them. One of them was Marco.
“No!” Tildi screamed.
The leader, high above their heads, tilted his ugly head back and let out a scream that rose up and down the scales. A tearing sound made Tildi’s ears ring. A black gash opened in the sky. The thraik flew through it, bearing their prey. It sealed, leaving the world soundless.
Tildi stood staring at the empty sky.
Mirrin came over and put his hand on her shoulder. Tildi hardly felt it. All her consciousness was focused upon that spot in the blue expanse. It had closed up like a door, and her brothers were on the other side! With all her heart she willed herself to follow the winged demons so that she could drag them back. Her brothers! Her brothers were gone! She couldn’t believe it. Her hands were in tight fists against her chest. Her eyes flooded with unshed tears. She couldn’t draw breath. Mirrin wrapped an arm around her and pulled her to him, burying her face in his torn tunic, patting her back as if she had been one of his own daughters.
“There, there, little one.”
At his kind words, the pressure loosened. Tildi fetched in a deep gasp and began to cry. Mirrin patted her shoulder absently as she wept. The farmhands came by to touch her arm, offering sympathy. The kindly words bounced off Tildi’s hearing. Over and over again she saw the thraik carrying her brothers away through that scar in the sky.
One by one, the farmhands helped one another stagger off the field and down the hill toward the farmhouse. They carried the bodies of the dead into the shed at the rear of the house. One of the unwounded ran for the road, to tell the families the bad news and to come fetch their loved ones. Tildi had no bodies to bury. They would be eaten by the thraiks, torn apart in the invisible nothingness behind the sky just like her parents had been.
Mirrin let Tildi weep herself into empty gasps, then guided her gently into the hands of the women, who surrounded her. They took her hands and turned her away from the torn field. Tildi let herself be gently towed down the slope and into the house. Lisel, with a gravity greater than her years, took charge of her and helped her to sit down on her little stool at the foot of the table.
“I’m so sorry, Tildi.” There were tears in the girl’s voice. Somewhere in the back of her numb mind Tildi recalled that Lisel and Pierin had been courting for a month or two. She lifted her eyes to Lisel’s and tried to find the right words, saying that she understood that the girl shared her misery. Her lips trembled so much she pressed them together. Lisel ducked her head and went to serve the men.
“There, Tildi,” Mig said, briskly setting a bowl down on the table. She put a spoon in Tildi’s limp hand. “Eat. It’ll help.”
The heavy smell of the stew turned her stomach. Tildi shoved it away from her. She couldn’t look at the people gathered around her. She knew they were staring at her, wondering if there must be some kind of curse on the Summerbee family, to have all but one of them carried off by the demons. Tildi knew there couldn’t be any reason but chance. Her brothers must have attracted the thraik’s attention because they fought harder and more bravely than anyone else. The scene played itself out in her mind over and over, always ending with the thraik lifting into the sky as lightly as snowflakes falling up instead of down, belying the horror they had just wrought. Nothing, nothing that Tildi recalled her brothers doing could have provoked the thraik unusually. Oh, why couldn’t she have saved them? Not even one of them?
Mirrin cleared his throat as the hands finished their silent meal. “There’ll . . . there will surely be an emergency village meeting this evening in Clearbeck, Tildi. You’ll be there.”
Tildi nodded without looking up.
Copyright © 2007 by Jody Lynn Nye. All rights reserved.