The Sage and the Apprentice
The months drifted by, and eventually summer turned into autumn. Whilo was not one to pay attention to the seasons changing, but he noticed something today. As he stood on his roof, hammering shingles together on the extension to his house, his eyes were open to the majesty of autumn. The entire meadow was now a blazing glory of orange, red, and yellow, and those evergreens which crowned the mounts in the distance remained a stark contrast to the colors, causing them to shine more vibrantly, and the air was filled with the dry smell of leaves. For some reason he thought of Lilly. The excitement he now felt for the change in season reminded him of when he first met her what felt like ages ago. Her eyes which were brought to mind by the evergreens. Her auburn hair which was conjured up by the red shades of leaves all around him. And her radiant smile which seemed to reflect the image of the sun itself. Never in his life had he been caught up in such romantic thoughts, yet he stopped hammering, and stopped for a moment to let the emotion sink in. What was he doing here?
“Oh hello, Whilo.” Said a man who was approaching his house. “Hello, Uncle Tom.” Whilo answered begrudgingly. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to talk.”
“Talk away.” Whilo did not start down the ladder to greet him. The man lowered his head, almost as if to apologize. “I know that I haven’t exactly been warm to you since you came back, but honestly, do you think it’s my fault? I did my part in keeping you from going down there to a place where there’s nothing but trouble. And I can see it all over you that you have gotten into trouble. You don’t talk to us anymore. You just hang around your house obsessively building atriums that add nothing to your home. You’re never happy, and the whole town of Shane is fearful that you stirred up whatever it is that lives down there in those woods. That place took something from you, Whilo, and you were stupid enough to let it.” Whilo began climbing down the ladder. “Whilo, I’m only saying all of this because…”
“The woods did take something from me, and I’m not happy, and I’m stupid for a number of reasons.”
“Nephew, where are you going?”
“Down the road that goes right. I’m taking back what it took from me.”
“Tell the family that I’ve been possessed by a spirit, and that I’m never coming back again.” The sound of Uncle Tom’s shouting was drowned out by the sound of the forest calling him back in.
When Whilo reached the boathouse, it was not Alder, but Lilly who greeted him at the deck. Before Whilo could even open his mouth, she hopped into the boat, untied it, and rowed over to him. “Come on in,” she giggled. He gingerly stepped in, with a smile growing on his face. She threw an oar at him, and he almost dropped it into the water. “You’re going to learn how to row.” Lilly said emphatically. “Is this going to help me with something?” He asked as held it in place. “No,” she answered, “It just makes for easy fun.” Whilo placed the oar into the water and began to push it against the water, unsure of what he was actually supposed to do. The boat began rotating in circles, and rocked back and forth violently. Lilly’s laugh was clear and vibrant almost like a wood wind instrument. “You see? Fun.”
“The water…is going to be so cold!” Whilo’s sides were hurting. Suddenly, the head of a giant catfish emerged out of the water and rammed into their boat. In one split second, Whilo was convinced he was about to die, and then the fish was gone. Whilo was now lying on the floor of the boat struggling to get up, still chucking. Lilly pulled him up, the boat rocked again, and they were knocked to their knees in each other’s arms.
It all ended with a dart in Whilo’s neck. His vision blurred, and his head began to swim, and the last thing he remembered before going unconscious was the sound of Lilly screaming.
When he came to, it was no different than when he had been unconscious. He could not see anything. But it was cold. Not brisk and dry as it had been out in the autumn, but damp, grimy. He quickly realized that his hands were stretched above his head and strapped against a stony wall by a metal bar. He tried to twist his wrists, but they wouldn’t budge. It took him a minute to process what had just happened. This was only something that happened in the stories, his family would warn him about as they sat around the campfire looking down the road that went right. “Lilly?” he shouted. “Lilly are you alright?” The air going into his lungs as he yelled was sharp and painful. His voice echoed upward as though there were a large shaft reaching high above him. He jumped at the sound of chains rattling from across the chamber. There was the ugly sound of a dry cough, and the weak reply, “I don’t think we’re fine, Whilo.” He breathed a sigh a relief anyway. “Lilly, what happened?” Another cough, and then, “We were kidnapped by the Goblin King’s henchmen…”
“But we weren’t anywhere near his land, why would he go to the trouble of…”
“That’s a good question. We’ve had a truce with the Goblins for almost nine hundred years, but lately, they’ve been giving us trouble. First it was the curse that they put over our fields, now they’ve come scouting our land. There’s only one explanation for this…”
“They want to extend their borders…”
“They’re going to kill us all; and if they ventured as far as my boathouse, nothing will prevent them from reaching Shane.” Whilo shook his head. “No, that’s not going to happen. We’re going to get out of here, and we’re going to warn everybody.”
“If we get out of here, I know only one person who can help us, and that’s the sage.” Lilly barely finished before starting a full-on coughing fit. Whilo’s eyes began to adjust to the thin ray of light that trickled through many stories above them. He could see Lilly’s silhouette moving across the chamber. Her hands were lifted above her head, presumably chained to the wall as his were. “Lilly, are you going to be alright?”
“Not if we don’t get out of here. Whilo, there is a sharp stone lying at your feet. I’m able to reach the floor, so if you kick it over to me, I’ll be able to break these chains and come to you.” Whilo obliged, and he felt for the stone with his feet, all the while bewildered that she was able to see it. Someone had removed his shoes, and the sole of his foot felt the jagged edge of the stone. “Aggh, alright, here it is,” he shoved it over in her direction with as much force as he could. He could see her struggling to reach it now. Perhaps he hadn’t sent it far enough. He could hear a lot of grunting, and then to his relief, “I’ve got it.” Lilly began hammering the stone against her chains, and more quickly than he’d expected, she stood up with her hands moving around freely.
“Those chains were not very strong.” He pointed out as she came over to him with the stone in hand. “They’re old and rusted, and they’re easy to break if you have a strong enough tool.” She explained. “It would seem that this isn’t your first time being kidnapped,” Whilo observed as his hands came free, and she pulled him up. Lilly covered her mouth and coughed again. This time it rose to a frighteningly high pitch. “It’s definitely my first, but I learned a thing or two from the Sage who lives just outside this land.”
“Did he teach you how to pick a lock?”
“I’m going to need to see the door first.”
They both felt along the wall and made a full circle around the chamber. To their dismay, it was all smooth stone. Whilo began scratching his head. “The door must be somewhere above us. This cell was designed so that it would be out of reach to the prisoners, especially in the case that they broke out of their chains as easily as we had.”
“But there’s got to be a way to climb up to it.” Lilly began feeling for holds in the wall. Whilo shook his head. “They didn’t throw us down here, seeing that we’re in one piece, and they took the time to chain us down here. They must have some kind of pulley system up there that they used to lower us.”
“Which means, we could potentially find a way to get it down.” There was the abrupt noise of the cell door swinging open from high above, and light from a torch became visible. Then there was the sound of wheels turning and two Goblin voices cackling. “Quick, Lilly, sit back down where you were; I have an idea.” She nodded, apparently knowing exactly what he had in mind. They resumed to where they had been chained up and pretended nothing had happened.
“I can’t for the life of me figure out why his Majesty wants us to go to the trouble of feeding them when we’re just going to kill them tomorrow. In fact why did they take them back here alive to begin with?” The torch wielder complained as they continued on down the shaft. “It has something to do with luring the Old Man here. The girl is his apprentice, and I’m not too sure about the other one, but the idea is to get our hostages to cooperate—which they won’t if you keep going on about how we’re going to kill them.” Their voices were carrying fairly well.
After what felt like hours, the dumbwaiter finally reached the prison floor. The torchlight revealed two creatures who stood on two legs like men, had two arms but whose skin was laired with fishlike scales which were the color of scarlet, and ram’s horns protruded out from the sides of their heads. “Alright, you dead-beats. Eat up while you still get to…wait a minute…” A chain draped around both of their necks and abruptly tightened around them. Whilo and Lily emerged from the shadowy corners holding the other ends of the chains, continuing to tighten them as their captors struggled to break themselves free.
The Goblins died at their hands. Whilo pushed their bodies off from the dumbwaiter and grabbed their sword. Lilly held on to the torch, and they began pulling themselves up by the rope. “Do you think the others heard that?” asked Whilo. “We certainly heard their plans for us from down here,” answered Lilly. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”
The pulley got stuck in place, and the dumb waiter began swinging back and forth high over the dungeon floor. Whilo could feel his pulse from inside his neck, and he struggled to catch his breath. “This…isn’t looking good.” He stammered. Lilly glanced up and looked around above them. “I see it…I see the door…I think it’s close enough…to climb…” her voice grew weaker as she spoke. In the torchlight, Whilo could see that her face had turned crimson. It was a look he was all too familiar with. “Lilly, are you dizzy?”
“Are you sure you’re able to climb?”
“I’ve got no choice.”
“Here, give me your torch.” Whilo took it from her and motioned her to climb up first. He placed the torch in his mouth and continued after her. Meanwhile the dumbwaiter continued to swing underneath them. They reached the level of the door, but it was just out of their reach. The swinging rope did not have enough momentum to get them across. “The dumbwaiter…s holding us in place…” Lilly observed, but she sounded as if she were nodding off. Whilo looked down, and then he unsheathed his sword. With one strike he severed the rope beneath him, and the dumbwaiter went crashing to the bottom. It certainly would have gotten anyone’s attention in the dungeon. He began using his legs to propel the rope forward. It continued to swing back before he could reach his feet for the door, so he continued the motion in order to get it further with each time it returned to the opening. Lilly made the jump first and struggled to get back on her feet. She turned to face him through the doorway and held out her arms to catch him. Whilo let go of the rope with its last return but landed square on his heels and fell backwards.
“Whilo!” Lilly dove and caught him by the ankles. He hit his head against the side of the wall, and suddenly the room was spinning. She managed to pull him back in before collapsing to the floor.
The fluid stopped swimming around in his head long enough for him to stand upright, but then he realized that Lilly was not moving. “Lilly? Lilly!” He put his hand up against her crimson forehead. He barely needed to touch her before he felt it burning up. It was happening all over again. “Whilo…I’m sorry…” He looked over to his right. A stone staircase wound up and out of sight. There was no telling what was up there, but it was their only chance of escape, if they had any. “Here,” he lifted her up and placed her arm around his neck, then held her upright with his left arm and held his torch forward with the other. “We’re getting out of here, Lilly, and that Sage of yours is going to make you well.”
They struggled up the winding staircase for a good, long while with the torchlight illuminating their path one step at a time. For a while, the only sounds were the rumbling of the flame and Lilly muttering incoherently under her breath. Then a low moan emitted from further up the stairs. They curved up around a bend, and Whilo could not see that far ahead. Strange shadows were moving along the wall as revealed by the torchlight. It wasn’t until he was staring it down face to face that he saw it.
An enormous creature guarded the top of the stairs. Its body was similar to that of a bear, but it was covered in black wool and had cloven hoofs. It had a head fashioned in the likeness of a bison’s, yet its eyes glowed like red embers and its mouth opened to reveal rows upon rows of sharpened teeth. Before Whilo could move, the creature yelled angrily and slammed its hooves down into the ground. The whole chamber shook, and Whilo lost his footing and tumbled back down the stairs losing both Lilly and the torch as he went.
He hurriedly scrambled back up, withdrawing his sword. The beast reared up on its hind legs directly above her and prepared to bring its front hooves back down with the fullest of its weight. In one moment of final desperation, Whilo lounged forward, snatched the torch, and held both it and his open blade above his head as the hoof came crashing down on top of him. One second, he was being crushed flat against the stairs. The next, the monster was rearing back again and hollering in pain. Whilo wasted no time. He charged forward and began hacking at the creature’s hind leg. Its yell raised to a blood-curdling scream as it keeled over backwards and landed with a crash that shook the chamber even more violently.
Quickly, he lifted Lilly into his arms and made his getaway, as the monster continued to writhe in agony behind them. The hinges of the door above them were broken off from the quakes, and the cold wind of the night blew freely through the opening.
They emerged out of a hole in the ground underneath a canopy of evergreens. It was cold enough for snow flurries to coat the ground and crystalize as ice. The air felt as though it were biting down into Whilo’s naked feat, and his thin coat did nothing to shield him, but he hoped it would reduce Lilly’s fever long enough to get help for her. “Ten miles west…” she muttered. “…sage will help…you…”
Lilly did not think she was going to make it. Whilo remembered sitting alongside his mother and his father’s bed as their faces showed with the same violent red hue, and on the day that they died it was as if they knew, “Be good for us…live well…make a family of your own someday…” He had not known Lilly for very long, but she was already more family to him than anyone his parents had left him with. He wasn’t going to let her die out here. With the face of the moon in site, he followed it west as far as he could make it.
Even now, as the sensation left his feet and hands and his body ached, he was comforted by the woods. The oak trees, and the spruce and maples stood over them glimmering like silver in the moon’s dim light. Nothing could be heard except for the wind, and it made the world feel empty, quiet. When Whilo was the most alone, it would suddenly feel as though he were accompanied by someone else. Someone he could not see. Whilo felt him there when his mother and father closed their eyes for the last time. When his Uncle took him in and berated him for the remainder of his life. When he spent that night in the woods when all the stars were out. Suddenly it felt as if his dear old friend had returned to be here with them tonight.
“Here…” Lilly whispered. It was the first she’d spoken in nearly three hours. But no matter where Whilo turned, he saw nothing. Not a house. Not a shack. Nothing to indicate a person had lived here. “Tree…over…there.” Directly in front of them was a large oak tree, and as he drew toward it, he noticed that among the roots was a hole going underneath the tree. Whilo did not know if he was doing the right thing by climbing in, but he received no further instruction from Lilly, so he continued. There was a steep drop, and he violently twisted his ankles upon meeting the bottom. Lilly stirred again, but did not say anything. There was a tunnel leading further underground, seemingly affirming that this was right. He lifted her up again, but struggled to walk as pain shot up from his ankles into his head. He didn’t know how long he would be following this tunnel.
To his fullest surprise, he came upon a door. It had brass hinges, a knob, and even a traditional knocker in the shape of a lion’s head. Well, it can’t get much more obvious than that! With a sigh of relief, he took the brass handle and knocked it. From within he could hear low grumblings of a man approaching through a hidden corridor. Whilo tensed for a moment. The mean old hermit.
The door swung open. “I don’t know who the hell you are or what the hell you want, but…Lilly!” The man in the doorway was tall, standing well over six feet. He was nothing like Whilo had pictured him. He wore similar attire to what Alder had on the day that he met him complete with the buttoned shirt and overalls. His hair was neatly trimmed as was his beard and both were jet black with streaks of white running through it, and surprisingly enough, he even had on the bridge of his nose a pair of spectacles. He carried with him a lamp which now illuminated his presence. “Come inside, quickly!” he motioned for Whilo to enter.
Inside the corridor was no different than the inside of a rich man’s house. The floor was tiled and the walls, paneled. Several framed paintings lined the walls, and here and there was a bookshelf filled with dusty, old volumes with decorative coverings of red, green, and yellow. At the end of the corridor, the man hung his lantern in place and took Lilly into his arms from Whilo. “Go ahead and rest by the fire, son. I have dinner started.”
“Tell me you can save her.” The old man nodded, “You’ve already done that. She’ll be fine in three hours once she’s been properly medicated.” Such a weight was lifted from his shoulders, Whilo felt that he would collapse in front of him, but he chose to do so on the big red sofa in front of the fire place. He was on his way over, when a raccoon ran up to him and began pawing at his legs. “Patch?”
“Whilo! What on earth happened?” Alder appeared out from one of the doorways from the side and rushed to join them. Whilo put an arm around his friend and led him over to the couch. “A lot happened. I’m not even sure where to start.”
“You can start with why you two look like you’ve been buried alive.”
“We practically were.”
“Were there monsters?”
They sat on either end of the sofa in front of the grand fireplace. It cast a warm orange hue over the den. In the light of the fire and with the gentle sounds of wood crackling in his ears, Whilo reminded himself of an old storyteller, telling tales of adventures in his childhood that the parents new were highly fabricated, but still the children listened wide-eyed and captivated. Alder had that same expression on his face, but Whilo wished he’d made the whole story up; because then none of these horrible things would be happening to them. “The Goblins have gone too far, this time.” Said Alder, his face darkened. “If they’re planning on attacking us—which by now, there is no question—then we need to strike first.”
“Which is what I wanted to discuss with you, Alder.” Came the voice of the old man. Having treated Lilly, he left her alone in one of the guest rooms, and carried with him a pot of hot water. “We can do this over a game of cards and some hot tea. You’ll like the mixture I used; I’ve been perfecting my craft for well over eight hundred years.” Alder nodded and patted Whilo on the shoulder and joined the old man at the side table. He poured a cup for Whilo and handed it to him before dealing out the cards. Whilo struggled to pay full attention, but Alder and the old man did not get down to the point until long into their game.
They joked and laughed and told stories, and seemed to bond as fast as Alder and he had on the day that they met, for Alder revealed that he had just met the old man today and did not know that Lilly was his apprentice. But Whilo smiled. The mean old hermit was not so mean after all. Two and a half hours passed by, and the old man served them broiled fish from the kettle in the fireplace. It was the most delicious thing Whilo had ever eaten. Finally, he became too drowsy to sit upright on the sofa, and his eyelids began to close.
“Hey,” whispered a soft voice into his ear. His eyes parted. The fire had died down, and it cast shadows over the living room. He could no longer hear Alder and the old man talking. Lilly stood by him. In the dim light, her face was warm and happy. Whilo sat up and rubbed his eyes, bewildered. “Lilly, you’re…” She climbed onto the couch with him as he spoke. Whilo took notice of his blanket, and he removed it and handed it over to her. To his surprise, she drew up against him and pulled it over the both of them. “I never thanked you for what you did back in the serpent’s den.” He said quietly, thinking back on their previous adventure. She leaned her head on his shoulder, brushing her auburn hair against his cheek. “It was a group effort, Whilo. We all owed each other...and I still owe you.”
“What do you mean?” he objected. “You’re the one who broke us free. You took out one of the guards and saved me from falling to my death, not to mention you led us here to safety.” Lilly shook her head. Her eyes widened endearingly. “I’ve never been so scared in my life, Whilo. I thought it was over, but you were there with me. Just the sound of your voice made me feel safe, even though I thought we weren’t going to make it. When I collapsed from my fever, all I wanted was for you to run, but you picked me up and took me with you. You protected me against everything that came in your way. Whilo, you come out of the pages of a fairy tale.” Whilo could not remember the last time he’d blushed. Whatever it was, it was nothing like this. “I’m glad we had each other, Lilly.”
She bit her lip and lifted her head up to where her eyes met his. Her long hair fell over his neck, tickling him. “Will we have each other again?” she asked him.
Before he could think twice, he drew her in to where her lips met his. “Yes, we will.” He said, and he kissed her. They laid still there that night as the fire burnt out, and fell asleep comfortably in each other’s arms.