In the back of the shop I scrubbed three large cauldrons clean, stripping the seasoning from them because Master Aloz insisted on it once the trade caravans stopped coming at the end of summer. Tallow, he called me, on account of my paleness. I used a brush made of iron bristles instead of horse hair, scraping away the brown muck inside, various plant and animal parts rendered into sludge like droppings from a sick bull. My book lay on the floor beside the cauldrons. Sir Tannis and the Hydra. It seemed I wouldn’t get to read much of it today…
The Apothecary’s Apprentice
by Craig Lincoln
In the back of the shop I scrubbed three large cauldrons clean,
stripping the seasoning from them because Master Aloz insisted on it
once the trade caravans stopped coming at the end of summer. Tallow,
he called me, on account of my paleness. I used a brush made of iron
bristles instead of horse hair, scraping away the brown muck inside,
various plant and animal parts rendered into sludge like droppings
from a sick bull. My book lay on the floor beside the cauldrons. Sir
Tannis and the Hydra. It seemed I wouldn’t get to read much of it
today. Even after these cauldrons were clean I’d still be scrubbing,
staged back here so when Master Aloz got some stragglers looking for
cure-alls he could show them how busy the shop was, tempting them to
buy what they could for surely the stock would not last.
Master Aloz stepped into the stockroom and I watched him
as I scrubbed away. He often said that I had a wandering eye. Aloz
frowned. His face was deep set with lines like cracks in a clay pot
and they moved when he spoke, as he spoke now, cursing to himself,
asking himself where he last put it, pausing to rub his bald head,
disturbing the last few wisps of hair. “Have you seen it?” Aloz said.
“Seen what?” I said.
“My cauldron, you twit.”
“I’m scrubbing them right here. Do you have more white
spots on your eyes?”
Aloz massaged his forehead. “I wonder sometimes what I’ve
done to deserve you. The small cauldron, the one for special orders.”
I jumped up and rubbed my hands together. “Who’s it for?
Is there a wizard? Some exotic tribal chieftan? A king?”
Aloz smacked the side of my head. My ear burned.
“Compose yourself. Have you seen the cauldron?”
“I was sitting on it while I cleaned.”
Aloz’s hand drew back and I flinched. No blow this time.
He picked up the cauldron and hugged it against his hip. “Wash
yourself up and meet me in the front. I have need of you outside
I came from the back freshly washed and wearing my
apprentice robes. Master Aloz always said half of an apothecary’s job
was looking the part. The shop was dark despite the windows. Wooden
shelves lined the walls and on them sat glass jars with all manner of
ingredients from plant to animal to mineral, all labeled in Aloz’s
There were two patrons in the store, a man and a woman. The man was
tall with long hair pulled back into a ponytail and wore clean hunting
leathers, as if blood had never touched them. He moved cautiously,
almost hesitantly. Hunters I have seen were quick. Brinn’s father
hunted and he’d shoot his hand out like a snake when he wanted
The woman inspected the shelves holding potions, salves, and
poultices, her hand poking out through billowy sleeves of her robes to
rotate a bottle, shake a jar. She walked around, pausing to stomp on
certain parts of the floor. Her robes were voluminous, covering her
like bedsheets, but she moved stiffly in them. The man looked over
every corner of the shop before speaking.
“Is it safe?” the man said.
“I checked everywhere,” the woman said. “No trap doors,
no false walls.”
“There are no curious ears here,” Aloz said.
“Good,” the man said. “For I am no common huntsman.”
“I apologize for the charade. You, good apothecary, stand
before the Great Viscount Perrigrew. Lady Atha accompanies me, the
captain of my guard.”
Atha threw her robes back in a way that looked practiced,
revealing a polished steel breastplate and greaves. A sword hung from
“What can this humble apothecary do for such powerful nobles?”
Perrigrew narrowed his eyes. “I intend to overthrow the Dark Lord.”
“Which Dark Lord?” I asked.
Aloz pinched my arm. “What my apprentice means is there
have been many rulers in a short span that have carried that name.
Who specifically is it you’re after?”
“Emperor Baegan, of course. Have you not felt the
stranglehold of his tyranny here in Idleslade?”
“We’ve seen soldiers,” I said. “Once. No, it was twice.
They vacation here, mostly buy things.”
“Forgive my apprentice. He’s a simple soul. There have
been soldiers but Idleslade has as of yet stayed outside Dark Lord
“Your luck won’t last,” Perrigrew said. “Baegan has
forced his power over Almar, my city. He corrals our children into
internment camps, forcing on each one the burden of literacy.”
Aloz shook his head. “Gods save us.”
“These poor bakers. Smiths. Even farmhands. Once they
can read, what then? Literacy doesn’t better their trade. It only
complicates their lives. Gives them a false motive. For instance, in
Almar, there are few apprentices for our blacksmiths, and these
children now thumb their noses at the trades, aspiring to be scholars.
While the libraries crowd with children my city has metal left
“What of stories, my lord?” I said. “How would someone
learn of another’s deeds without books?”
“Bards, boy. Song. Stories are meant to be heard, not captured with
static words. Where’s the emphasis? It is too easy to lie in a book.
Easier to catch a man lying when you hear him. I have caught many
“Pardon, my lord, but I’ve heard it said that literacy betters our knowledge.”
“The more we learn, the less skilled we become. An overabundance of
knowledge cripples the soul. Best left to men like me, who must
shoulder such afflictions. Baegan breeds chaos.” Perrigrew looked
down and sighed. “He also has no right to the throne. My mother,
Countess Adoline, gods keep her soul, was the fifth cousin to the late
emperor, leaving me the closest living relative. Some of my court
tell me it is possible Baegan doesn’t know this, but I’m sure he
“You are a most wise man,” Aloz said. “It’s always best
to assume rather than question.”
“Assumptions have kept me alive in these uncertain times.”
“What can I do to help?” Aloz said. “You said earlier you
needed a special potion.”
“It is destiny that I overthrow Baegan and restore order
to the land. The gods have decreed it. In a dream the goddess Valana
appeared and told me to seek out a potion of invulnerability, to aid
my destiny. She guided me here, to you, apothecary.”
“She guided you true,” Aloz said. “I can make such a
potion. Most of the ingredients are here. Heart valve of a bull, for
strength. Shell of a tortoise, for endurance. Thistle buds for holy
protection. Only one is lacking: I need the cap of a draken mushroom
to bind the others together. There is a cave nearby where they grow,
but they are guarded by nezachudeks, beasts said to be spawned from
flakes of the dead god Seethel’s scalp.”
Perrigrew drew his sword. “I swear I will vanquish these
abominations and return to you with the draken mushroom.”
Aloz held up a hand. “I humbly ask you to reconsider. My
apprentice, Tallow, is slight, and the chamber that houses the draken
mushrooms has but a small opening.” Aloz handed me a dagger and a
torch. I started to protest but he gave me a sharp look, one that
told me more than a stray backhand might find my face if I misspoke.
“Besides, I’d rather risk an apprentice than the future ruler of all
Perrigrew hesitated, then sheathed his sword. His eyes
fell on me. “Can you read, boy?”
Aloz’s hand poised on my arm, ready to pinch. “Not
terribly well, my lord.”
“Gods be praised.”
Master Aloz gave me a map and told me to be swift. I knew
where the cave was; the map was more for Perrigrew’s sake than mine.
I laced the sheathed dagger through my belt. After Perrigrew and Atha
left, I had asked Master Aloz for a sword and he had shoved me, saying
I’d get a sword once I’d proven myself with a dagger. He was sending
me to die; perhaps I didn’t clean fast enough. I could run, but to
what? Back home, to farm turnips? There were no soldiers coming, no
danger but in the task laid before me, this much I knew. But I saw a
chance to do something grand, like Sir Tannis in the stories. I would
confront these nezachudeks, spawned from godly dandruff though they
may be, and slay them. I would claim the mushroom or die a hero. But
before that I’d see Brinn.
Most of the markets were closing early. Ramshackle
trading stalls were set up outside each farmhouse. The stalls were
hastily made, more an outside shelf with a roof. The better built
ones had chairs. Homesteads lined the road, separated by acres of
fields yielding tomatoes, carrots, turnips and beets. The farmhouses
ranged from compact little cottages, simple and wooden, to grand
sprawling things, combining wood shingles with stone masonwork. I
liked to nod at each one and recite the names of the families to which
each belonged in a grander fashion than they deserved, fabricating
titles like Knight Commander Beetle or Sage Mudbottom.
There was a sweet smell coming from the Rolfe stall and
Tilly stood there with her hands folded, plump and smiling. Fresh
strawberry tarts lined the shelf, some still steaming. She charged
ten onyx, but I got her down to eight and bought one. Perhaps Brinn
As I walked the dirt road, gouged by horse hooves and wagon wheels, a
truthsayer monk walked towards me, black swirling tattoos covering his
scalp and face. They sometimes wandered in from the monastery up the
mountain to buy vegetables. I kept my eyes down and my mouth shut so
as not to tempt him to speak some prophecy at me.
Last time I saw one I was with Aloz. We were gathering herbs and Aloz
had pulled me behind a bush as the monk passed. He had said they can
only speak three times a day, and when they did they would reveal some
truth that would come to pass. He told me they were best avoided.
I kept on forward, my eyes steady on the road after he passed me. I
worried that he might be following me, waiting for some cruel moment
to spout his apocalyptic truths. I looked back and he turned as well,
his mouth about to open. I screamed, running, kept screaming all the
way to Brinn’s house.
Brinn lived with her father on the edge of town in a great
log home, the kind made by notching whole trees and coating the seams
with pitch. The house was just inside the forest and branches hung
over the gabled roof, keeping the whole yard shaded. Smoke rose from
the chimney in a steady gout. From the back yard came cutting sounds,
blade on flesh, rising over the birds calling to each other. I walked
around to where Brinn worked.
The smell of pine and my strawberry tart was overwhelmed
by the metallic stench of blood. She had a deer strung up by its hind
legs, gutted and half skinned. She sawed through with precision,
keeping the hide free from unnecessary punctures. Her freckles were
the best part about her. I liked her hair, too. And her breasts, of
course, but her freckles, no one else had anything like that. Her
arms were thin but rippled with muscle as she worked. “Tallow, was
that you screaming down the road?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. I held the tart behind by back. “There
were bandits. I drove them off.”
“Did you? That was kind.”
“Do you fare well?”
“I fare well, as…well. I’ve been given a very perilous
task. I’m to slay beasts guarding important mushrooms. Nezachudeks.”
“I’ve heard of them. Master Aloz won’t let my father go
near them, he even pays father as compensation for staying away.
Sounds dangerous.” Her arms were red to the elbow, and I looked to
the ground to keep from retching.
“It is,” I said. “I might stop by after. When it’s done.
Maybe you’ll be free for a pint?”
“I may be. I may not be. Father’s hunting and plans on
bringing back more game. Perilous game.”
“Can you smell that?” I sniffed the air. “Strawberries?”
Brinn held up her hands. “This is all I smell.”
“Right. Well, I’ll come back after I’m done. Are you hungry?”
“Look, Tallow, I’m busy here.”
“What did you say? I couldn’t hear. Anyway, I have to
get going. The cave and all that.”
Many words came to mind that I could use to emphasize the
peril, the countless ways the beasts of the cave might ravage me. But
I spared Brinn such thoughts. I gave her a nod she didn’t see, as her
attention was already back to the deer, her blood-covered hands
cutting away hide. I placed the tart on the ground behind her.
The detour to Brinn’s house cost me precious time and the
sun started down, only fingers of it penetrating through the trees.
The cave was just ahead, the opening made from two rocks leaning
against each other, large boulders with cracks down the sides
sparkling with small quartz deposits. The mouth was like a wall of
blackness. I recounted brave tales written about men like Perrigrew
vanquishing kingdoms, slaying wild beasts and rescuing those in need.
I dared think tales might recount my bravery here, if Lord Perrigrew
succeeds. That my lowly actions today might trigger some kind of
I lit the torch with flint and crept in. The cave smelled
like clothes left damp for too long. The walls wept with moisture and
lichen covered it in patches. I was careful not to touch the sides
and leave my scent for any other beasts that might roam outside. The
ground was slick, and I nearly slipped twice. I thought how Sir
Tannis never slipped on wet mud. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to have my
own legend quite yet. Still, I practiced how it might sound, might
The Legend of Talbert Hallow. One wouldn’t guess such an ordinary
young man, an apprentice to the cruel Master Aloz, might rise to
become a champion against abominations born from the dead skin of a
god. With only courage and his sharp mind, Talbert Hallow drove the
dagger’s blade deep into the heart… No, the eyes. Maybe the throat?
It would gurgle then. Or perhaps the lung, it might wheeze, what
sounds best in verse? Wheezing, sputtering, choking, or shrieking
The cave grew darker, and I gasped as the torch flames waned. Behind
me there was no light; the cave took many turns as I ventured deeper.
The torch was almost out when I found the opening, just large enough
to slither under. I could run back, ask for another torch, but then
it would be dark. Too dark to come back with the wolves out. I
remembered Sir Tannis and continued, sliding on my belly underneath.
I extinguished the torch to save what little fuel might remain so I
could find my way out after. That’s how heroes think, always sure of
The chamber beyond was only blackness to me. I crouched and waited
for my eyes to acclimate to the darkness. Around me were horrible
noises beyond telling, throaty huffs and snorts. I felt a warm spot
on my crotch. Urine. Only a spurt. That was something else the
tales failed to mention. I crept slowly forward until I came to a
bend and saw a green glow, just what Aloz said the mushrooms would do
in the darkness. I was close.
I dared peek around the corner and my breath caught as I saw the
horrible beasts. The nezachudeks. They were hog-sized, bigger even,
covered in what should’ve been white fur but looked green in the
light. Each foot had three talons which they used to dig the earth.
Their lower jaws jutted out far and countless sharp teeth lined their
gruesome maws. They had eight eyes on their heads, like a spider,
black, soulless orbs they seemed to me. Beyond them, just a hundred
feet or so, the mushrooms grew, but it might as well have been
leagues. I could not move.
Behind me came a grunt and my hand trembled as I clasped my dagger’s
hilt. There must’ve been some passage I missed where it emerged.
Clever beast. I tried to pull the dagger out slow to keep quiet, but
the blade scraped as it came free from the leather. I lofted the
weapon high and tried to think of some bold utterance to make clear my
might, my worthiness of survival over this murderous creature. I
turned to face it.
The nezachudek locked its gaze on me and we were frozen there,
measuring each other, waiting for the precise moment to strike. I
still wasn’t sure what noise I wanted it to make, trying to suppose
where its heart might be, where its lung might be. The nezachudek
snorted at me and turned away, lazily pawing at the ground.
I watched, sure it was a ruse, and yet the beast lumbered toward the
rest of them, clawing up soil. They chewed dirt, possibly grubs as
well, but dirt, I was sure of. They milled about like merchants at
the stalls. I stalked toward the mushrooms, keeping an eye on the
beasts. They could still strike. All those teeth.
One of the nezachudeks howled, spitting out a rock. I screamed back,
lofting my dagger once more. They wailed, one at a time, until all
three brayed like donkeys as they scampered out of the chamber into
some darker recess.
I plucked a mushroom cap and looked around. There was no grand tale
here. But there might be. I saw next to the spit-out rock was a
tooth from one of the nezachudeks. A start. I looked at my dagger
and inspected the ground, paying careful attention to how far apart a
nezachudek’s claws were spaced in the dirt they’d dragged through.
I entered the shop with my sleeve torn off and tied around my forearm,
carrying the draken mushroom. I made sure dirt covered my face.
Master Aloz ushered me in.
“This is just the thing, boy,” Aloz said.
I drew the blood-covered dagger and placed it on the counter.
Perrigrew and Atha watched me.
“Was it fearsome?” Perrigrew asked.
“It was,” I said. “Most fearsome. But I was able to best it. I
stabbed it first in the lung, and it wheezed monstrously. Then I
slashed its throat and it gurgled as life faded from its cold eyes.
Eight eyes. They closed one at a time.”
“Impressive,” Aloz said.
Perrigrew clasped my shoulders. “Well done.”
“That’s not all,” I said. Aloz’s eyes widened in warning as I
unwrapped my forearm. “It clawed me during the struggle.”
Perrigrew inspected the wound, three red tracks already congealing.
Aloz bit his lower lip. “This is folly,” Perrigrew said.
“Let’s not be hasty,” Aloz said.
“Stay your tongue, apothecary. I say this is folly. That a boy be
sent out to aid my cause and come back with a grievous wound. Folly.”
Perrigrew grabbed my cheeks. “Once I overthrow Baegan I will make
sure the ballads sung in every tavern include an entire couplet for
your actions here, young Tallow. You will be immortalized in song.”
I bowed my head. “My actions are not worthy of such praise.”
Aloz took Perrigrew on one arm and Atha on the other. “The potion
will take time to brew. It should be ready by sunrise. Meanwhile,
why don’t you find lodging? The Fox and the Rat should have rooms
Aloz closed the door behind the pair as they walked out. “Let me see
your arm.” Aloz held my arm, turning it over, squeezing it,
scratching it with a fingernail which drew a cry from me. “Well done.
Even the spacing is right. Though nezachudek claws leave wider
wounds than that.” Aloz turned and dropped the mushroom into the
heated cauldron. “You’ll make an apothecary yet.”
“Is the mushroom magical?”
“In a way. It makes the potion glow. No one believes anything’s
magic unless it glows.”
“Does the potion work then? How long will it last?”
“I suspect Lord Perrigrew will feel invincible right up until the
moment he drinks it.”
“What do you mean?”
“You still have plenty to learn. Go on, take the rest of the day off.”
I was rewrapping my arm when Perrigrew and Atha returned. “One more
thing, apothecary,” Perrigrew said. “What sort of duration can I
expect from this concoction?”
I drew in a sharp breath, not at the question but because the
truthsayer came in behind them, hands tucked into opposite sleeves.
Black lines coiled around his face like snakes, up and over his head,
eyes were all milky white, dead-looking, save his black, piercing
pupils. His mouth opened.
“That potion isn’t poison but it will kill you all the same,” the
truthsayer said. His voice was higher than I expected.
Perrigrew shook his head. “What rubbish.”
“My liege,” Atha said, “I’ve heard of these men. It’s said they’re
incapable of lies.”
“Please. These monks are the most literate people within hundreds of
leagues. Celebate as well. Their lives are a lie.” Perrigrew nodded
to Aloz. “You can tell me the specifics in the morning.” Perrigrew
and Atha departed once more, leaving us alone with the truthsayer.
The monk stared at Aloz. “You will die in three years,” the truthsayer said.
Aloz stepped back once, twice, and then fell into a chair, his mouth open.
The truthsayer’s eyes locked on me. The stockroom wasn’t far and I
could scream away with the door shut, drowning out the monk’s voice,
but I stayed and stared right back. He said nothing, just kept
watching, and I thought maybe he spoke before he came, maybe his third
utterance was to Aloz, but then his mouth opened once more.
“You,” he said, “will drink ale tonight.”
I stood motionless. Aloz told me much about truthsayers. I’d heard
they can fall, that if what they speak ever fails to occur their skin
turns black, their tattoos turn white, and they are cursed to only
lie. No one would have to endure this one’s furious honesty if I
stopped him. I could make that happen, I could make his prophecy fail
because truth is monstrous, it is the destruction of possibility. I
realized the freedom in lies just then.
Brinn came in the shop behind the truthsayer holding the strawberry
tart which was now crushed and brushed with dirt. “Did you leave this
for me, Tallow?”
It took some effort to take my eyes off the monk and focus on Brinn.
“I thought you might be hungry.”
“You should’ve just given it to me. I stepped on it by accident.”
“It was yours to step on.”
“The way I see it, I owe you ten onyx. Fancy a pint?”
I looked back at the truthsayer. “Sure,” I said.