Forever Boy by Lita Burke
Copyright 2012 by Lita Burke. All rights reserved.
Old Gallows Field, Holcomb Island
“Are you sure the mandrake’s demon won’t hurt us, Kadmeion?”
The wizard crossed his arms and released a sigh. “You worry too much, Bright. We are a safe distance away.”
“I don’t like Meat-Men.”
“Squeamish over a little dirt and drama?”
“I can’t abide the death of a Go Fer in exchange for a homunculus. Tell me again why we’re here.”
“We need to be here.”
Bright turned back to the men and dogs down on Old Gallows Field. Looked like the Meat-Men had dug a trench around the mandrake plant. They now huddled and talked. Two men waved their arms.
“Something’s wrong,” Bright said.
“They argue about which Go Fer will pull out the mandrake root.”
“You can hear their words?”
“Easily. I cast a listening spell before we left the airship.”
The Meat-Men finished their talk. A man left the group, went to the Go Fer cages, and selected a smaller black dog. He and the pup returned to the mandrake trench. The man fitted the mongrel with a pull rope, lowered himself into the hole, then bent out of sight.
“He’s tying the dog’s pull-rope to the mandrake root,” the wizard said. “Soon now.”
“Poor trade. I’ll take the dog any day.”
“You are a true Metal-Man, Bright.”
“I can’t help it. My clockwork automata are cleaner.”
“I agree. That is why you’re my assistant, not a Meat-Man.”
The dog handler climbed out of the hole and walked away from the tethered dog. He turned. Called the dog. Now the dog would run to the man and die. Bright cringed.
The dog instead plopped down his hind quarters. Cocked his head.
“Wait for it,” Kadmeion said.
The man trudged back to the dog, snatched up the dangling rope, and again walked away from the hole. This time the dog came. The pull-rope tightened against the dog’s collar. The animal swung around, grabbed the pull-rope in its mouth, and tugged. Its haunches went into the air, front paws down. Wagged its tail. Doggie playtime. The other dogs howled.
“Here it comes.”
The mandrake plant jerked free. The surprised dog tumbled. An ashen-colored root crawled from the hole. The root resembled a gnarled little man. It ignored the dog and scurried to the man holding the dog’s leash.
The man screamed. Turned. Fled. He made three steps before the mandrake root sprang on his back. The man fell. Twitched. Stilled.
Bright puffed out a breath. “Fools.”
“They didn’t bring a wizard.”
“Lend a hand, shall we?”
“That is why we came.”
Bright trailed Kadmeion down the slope to the shocked troupe huddled near the mandrake hole. Even the Go Fer Dogs had stopped barking. The homunculus sat on the motionless man’s back. Picked its teeth. It watched Kadmeion and Bright with tiny, shiny eyes.
“Good day, Sir Wizard. You’re late.” Despite the gnarled man-shape of the diminutive vegetable automata, the minor demon animating it had the dulcet voice of a society woman.
“Not my party, Miss Demon.”
“You have strange tastes to arise early for this.”
“Why did you pass up the Go Fer?”
The demon shrugged. Bits of dirt fell from its ashen body to the man’s back. “The man was easier.”
Kadmeion faced the onlookers.
“Who tended the spells?”
A pause. The men shuffled and looked everywhere but at Kadmeion.
“Step forward. If you refuse to tell, I will use a spell to discover the magic worker.”
“I saw to the magic.”
The speaker detached himself from the group. Bright pressed his lips together. A pellar. Practitioner of low magic. A homunculus animation needed a wizard’s high magic. These Meat-Men were fortunate to be alive.
Kadmeion and the pellar discussed the faulty magic craft. The other men moved to the Go Fer cages or to the wagons, abandoning their pellar to the wizard’s lecture. No one went to the cringing black dog. The pup had crawled to the furthest extent of the pull-rope that still tethered it to the homunculus. Bright approached the subdued animal.
“I am a friend, little one.”
Bright crouched and presented the back of his hand to the pup. The dog sniffed, gave it a tentative lick, and retreated. Magic tingled on the wet swath left by the dog’s tongue. Bright stood. He rubbed the magic and wetness away with his thumb.
“I don’t recognize your magic. I’ve been a magician’s assistant for a short time. Wizard Kadmeion will know.”
The air shimmered around the dog. Bright’s gut clenched. Nothing happened. The magical nimbus stopped.
“I’m sorry, Go Fer. I still don’t understand your magic.”
The dog whined and sat up. Bright heard the pellar and Kadmeion approach. The wizard’s expression was calm. The pellar looked as if he had swallowed something disagreeable.
“Why are you interested in my dog, Sir Wizard?”
“I have my reasons. Tell me about your spell work. Why did the man die instead of the dog?”
“Don’t know.” The pellar put his hands on his hips and peered at the dog. “He isn’t usually shy like this. Good disposition. Fetches things. I treat all my dogs well, and it shows with their behavior.”
Bright could not stay silent. “Except they die when you summon a mandrake demon.”
“So?” The pellar eyed Bright. “I see. You are a Metal-Man.”
“I make clockwork automata. You kill dogs.”
“Old argument. Men are more important than dog lives. The guild settled it long ago.”
The pellar stooped, grabbed the pull-rope, and tugged the dog to him. He took a small charm from his pocket and used it to deactivate the restraining spell on the dog’s Vassal Collar. The pellar loosened the knot and slipped the pull-rope from the collar’s iron ring. The dog stood and wagged his tail.
“See, Metal-Man? My Go Fer Dogs adore me.”
He patted the canine’s head. The dog growled, then bit the pellar’s hand. The man dropped his deactivation charm and hollered. The dog released his bite and backed away. Blood sprang from puncture and tear wounds.
“You ungrateful cur. Look what you’ve done.”
Again the air shimmered around the dog. “Meat-Man is a murder man.”
Bright blinked. The dog had talked.
It snatched the pellar’s charm from the grass, turned, and fled. The dog streaked up the slope surrounding Old Gallows Field, reached the top, and vanished down the far side.
“Call him back now, wizard.”
“I will not, Sir Pellar. Chase your own dogs.”
Kadmeion nodded to Bright. They turned and walked away from the cursing pellar.
End of Chapter 1
Read about the next Clockpunk Wizard story, Ephraim’s Curious Device.