Mik’s first memories were of the tower.
It was an ugly, squat thing, so overgrown by moss and ivy that - from the outside, anyway - the building looked completely abandoned. That was on purpose, Savi explained when Mik questioned him about it. If it looked like no one lived there, then no one would come visiting.
Young Mik didn’t understand why that would be such a bad thing, and told the master so, but he refused to explain further. Once every three moons, Savi would saddle the lone donkey they kept in a similarly camouflaged barn nearby, packed high with sachets, potions, and trinkets to be sold, and ride through the woods to the closest market, a good three hours away as the crow flies. He would return laden with food, supplies, and always some new sweet or trinket for Mik.
Savi had brought Mik many interesting things from these excursions. The wing feather of a roc from the Greyhorn Mountains, nearly as big as the child itself. A handful of geodes from the Aegathi Desert, which cracked open to reveal gemstones in a glittering variety of colors. A book with detailed illustrations of various species of drakes, dragons, and wyverns. Mik spent a long time tracing the beautiful colors and wondering what it would be like to meet one of those creatures face to face.
Every once in a while, Savi would return from the market with a parcel tucked into his cloak. Sometimes they would be small, other times large, but they would always disappear into the sorcerer’s private study, never to be seen again. Mik often wondered, with the natural curiosity of every young child, what was in those paper-wrapped parcels, but he felt uneasy asking his mentor about something that was so obviously private.
When Mik was six, Savi brought back a tiny vial of brown dye, the amount of dark liquid barely enough to fill a thimble. When the sorcerer explained that he was going to dye the boy’s hair, Mik frowned, raising his hands self-consciously to his head. “Why do we have to do that?” he asked, proud that he managed to keep the quiver out of his voice.
Savi hesitated for a moment. “Your coloring is… unusual in the outside world,” he said after a few moments. “Not everyone has hair as white as snow.”
“But you do, Master Savi!” the child pointed out in a matter-of-fact tone. “Why do you not dye your hair as well?”
The sorcerer could not help but laugh. “Ah, but boy, I am old. Every man or woman’s hair goes to grey or white when you get old enough.” His face turned serious once more. “But almost never does it occur in a child of such tender age. It is a sign of your heritage and mixed blood. We must hide it, so you may better blend in.”
And so the boy allowed his master to pour the dye onto his head. The enchanted liquid coated every strand of hair, turning each pale fiber a light brown. After rinsing the boy’s hair, Savi taught him the words that would hold the coloring in place for as long as possible. “You must say the verse on the full moon of each month.”
“Why the full moon?” Mik queried as he dried his hair with an old towel.
The sorcerer glanced down at his protege in surprise, then chucked. “An astute question, child. You know the phases of the moon, correct?” When Mik nodded, Savi continued. “The phases of the moon can have an effect on spells. The moon has a profound effect on the world around us. She controls the tides. Wolves howl to her. She is as essential as the sun. When the moon is full, she is at her strongest, and any spells done during that time are also lent her strength. Do you understand?”
Mik was silent for a few moments. He let the towel drop to his shoulder, the damp strands of his freshly-dyed hair falling forward to frame his face. “I think so,” he said finally, nodding. “So if I did the spell during a different moon phase, the dye wouldn’t last as long?”
Savi smiled down at the six year old. “That’s correct. The dye itself comes from a species of henna plant that grows on the far side of the Aegathi Desert. The plant only thrives around oases, and those are few and far between, making it hard to come by. After it is harvested and processed, the dye is then enchanted by sorcerers and sorceresses to vividly color hair and last for a long time.
“For those two reasons, the dye is expensive and difficult to obtain. Thankfully, a new vial is only needed every year or so. While you live under my roof, boy, I will purchase it for you. But know this.” The old man’s white-bearded face was suddenly solemn and slightly sad. “I will not always be with you. One day you will leave this tower, and you will need to pay for it yourself.
“I know that doesn’t mean much to you now,” Savi acknowledged with a laugh, coming back into himself, “but it will one day. Now, go get cleaned up for dinner. I got fresh bread and vegetables at the market, so we’re having goat stew.”
The words were barely out of the old sorcerer’s mouth before Mik was up and running to his chambers. The damp towel was tossed to the floor, henna dye faintly staining the pale fabric. Savi shook his head at the boy’s antics as he picked it up and went to the hearth to light a fire for the stew pot.
Mik’s breath was visible in great pale clouds in front of his face. He shivered, tucking his gloved fingers into his armpits to keep them warm. He glanced up at the sky, color just beginning to bleed into the inky darkness as the sun started to peek over the horizon.
Savi was attempting to hitch the donkey up to their recently-purchased cart, cursing under his breath as he fumbled with the straps in the dim light cast by his lantern. The jenny patiently withstood the abuse, one great grey ear flicking from time to time.
Privately, Mik had named the creature Rosie, for the misshapen white marking on her forehead which looked vaguely like a rose if you squinted at it the right way. He never told his mentor of the nickname, though. The sorcerer was of the opinion that animals didn’t need names.
“They are plain beasts, child, not like you and I,” he had said once. Mik disagreed. The boy, now eight years old, noticed a quiet intelligence shining in Rosie’s black eyes, and nothing could convince him otherwise.
It had been three moons since their last supply trip, and with snow already on the ground and the air getting colder by the day, this could well be their last chance to do trade before the weather made travel more difficult. Savi finally finished hooking Rosie up to the cart. With a satisfied pat of the jenny’s flank, he clambered up into the driver’s seat and took the reins.
He glanced back at Mik, curled between a few large crates with a fluffy blanket piled in his lap. The boy had dozed off, using the crook of his arm as a pillow. Savi shook his head, wishing wistfully that he had the ability to fall asleep anywhere. With a flick of the reins, they were off, clouds already visible in the brightening sky.
A wheel hit a rut in the road, jolting Mik from his sleep. He rubbed at his eyes and blinked. They were no longer in the forest where he had lived all of his life. The openness of the valley always came as a shock. There had been a fresh fall of snow the night before, and it glittered in the early morning light. He sat up and stretched.
“Good, you’re awake,” his master said from the driver’s seat. “We’re almost to Almstead.” The boy craned his neck to look over the sorcerer’s shoulder. Sure enough, they were approaching the hub town which was the closest trading port to their home in the Orlen Forest.
A few scattered flakes of snow fell from the sky. Savi glanced upwards. “Damn,” he grumbled, flicking the reins for Rosie to go faster. “We’ll need to get there quickly to find a sheltered spot inside of the market. These old bones will freeze and crack if I have to be outside all day in the snow and cold.”
Twenty minutes later, they rode into the market. The sorcerer and apprentice were just in time to snag one of the few remaining empty spots inside the Almstead Market's sheltered great hall. It was much warmer inside due to a handful of braziers and all of the people milling around.
Savi set up their table inside while Mik made several trips between the hall and their cart, struggling beneath the weight of the crates of concoctions the elderly enchanter had crafted. Once everything had been brought in, Savi directed Rosie to a nearby stable while the boy began to display their products.
Talismans to be hung over the hearth to bring peace and prosperity to the home. Droughts to help an insomniac fall asleep. Mik was particularly proud of the blackberry ink that he had made. Under his master’s expert tutelage, he had even enchanted it, a simple spell to ensure that the purplish substance would dry quickly and not smear or bleed. Though he had only managed to produce seven vials, he hoped to get a whole silver falcon for each one. Savi had promised to let the boy keep any coin earned from the sales of the ink.
And then there were the crown jewels of their stall, the tools and jewelry that the stooped old sorcerer himself had enchanted. They usually only brought a few pieces with them each time they came to the market. There were two dozen nails which would never bend. Horseshoes which would lend speed to a steed's hooves. Heating stones to be placed in a bed to warm it during cold weather. Unlike normal heating stones, their warmth came from runes and spells, not fire. The scarcity of legitimate enchanted items ensured that they were always purchased in short order.
The pair finished setting up their wares. As was their usual routine, Mik sat nearby the master, observing as Savi hawked their wares to the people working their way through the stalls.
“Children and worries keeping you awake at night? Get some restful sleep with this natural draught, made from chamomile, dandelion root, lavender, and peppermint!” “Stablemaster Avorne! Good to see you, old chap. These horseshoes I enchanted may catch your eye.” “You, sir, I see the stains of ink upon your fingers! Come view this blackberry ink of the highest quality. It is guaranteed not to smear!”
The man with the stained fingers purchased three vials of Mik’s handmade ink. He haggled with the sorcerer briefly before handing over the settled-upon amount of coins. Moments later he walked away, satisfied with his acquisition. Savi handed the brown-haired boy a silver falcon and eight copper beetles. It was less than what Mik had hoped for, but it would be nice to have his own money to spend when his master finally let him loose to explore the market.
As time slowly ticked by, the boy grew restless. The sun had passed its zenith several hours past. Only one more of his vials had been purchased during that time, and he was beginning to doubt the other ones would ever sell. There was a window nearby, and Mik could not help but stare longingly out at the group of children making snow candy ten yards from the glass.
At length Savi took notice of his apprentice’s fidgeting. Taking pity on the lad, he announced, "I believe I can take things from here." He withdrew five more silver falcons from his coin purse and handed them to the child. "Go. Enjoy yourself. Be back here a couple hours before the sun touches the horizon. We have a long journey home, and I'm not keen to travel in the dark."
Mik agreed and thanked his master. Relief and excitement brought a spring to his step. Coins clutched tight in his fist so he wouldn't lose them, he ran through the crowd, dodging stalls and people with ease. After a minute, he came to the exit and stepped outside. The cold near-winter air hit him like a slap.
Mik knelt and stuffed the coins Savi had given him into his shoe alongside the falcons and beetles from the sale of his ink. He straightened and went towards where he had last seen the other children. A light-haired girl with skin nearly as pale as the snow itself helped him pour heated maple syrup onto a clean patch of snow. After it cooled, he broke the hardened candy into bite-sized pieces. He popped one into his mouth and tucked the rest into his coat pocket. The sweet flavor lingered on his tongue as he ducked back inside to purvey the stalls.
There were butchers displaying cuts of meat arranged on packed snow. Jewellers with a variety of beautiful necklaces, rings, and bracelets. Woodworkers sold anything from simple stools and tables to intricate puzzles and extravagant canes.
Mik's attention was drawn to a kennel master who had a space plenty large enough for the litter of pups running around it. There were eight of them altogether, all fighting over a length of knotted rope. One of them, a white and brown pup with a stubby tail, was smaller than her siblings and therefore struggled to gain any sort of purchase on the rope whatsoever.
The pup was not deterred by her larger siblings constantly shoving her out of the way. She backed up to the edge of the pen and took a running start. She leapt onto the back of a dark-furred pup and from there stepped into the head of a small female with one floppy ear. She yelped in protest as the tiny female launched herself at a big grey male who carried the rope in his jaws. Caught off guard, the male fell over and dropped the toy.
The brown and white runt snatched up her prize and carried it off, head held high and stumpy tail wagging proudly. Mik couldn't help but admire her spunk.
The young boy continued on through the throng. Suddenly someone bumped Mik hard from the side. He lost his balance and fell sideways, landing hard on the edge of a woven rug. He rose to his feet and took in the place he'd landed.
The stall was so small and out of the way that Mik doubted he'd ever have noticed it had someone not shoved him. After greeting the stall owner, a greying elf sitting in a chair, he approached the display to observe his wares.
There were only half a dozen pieces, but each one was exquisitely crafted. A silver haircomb shaped like a lily so realistic that he half expected it to be silky as a petal to the touch. Gold and amethyst teardrop earrings, polished and reflective as a mirror. A silver necklace with a pendant of a silver owl with wings outstretched.
But there was one piece that demanded Mik's attention with the intensity of a siren call. A silver ring, too large for the eight year old's slim fingers. It had the shape of a serpent biting its own tail. A chip of emerald formed one eye while a chip of ruby formed the other. Its silver scales gleamed in the light filtering in through the windows. Mik didn't know why he was so drawn to the ring, but he knew he had to have it.
"How much for the snake ring?" he inquired of the shopkeeper.
The elf eyed him with a strangely intense gaze. "Four falcons six."
Mik scowled. That was more than half of the money he had available to spend. "Three falcons one," he countered.
Faint hints of a smile tugged at the aging elf's lips. "Three falcons four," he replied, "and not a beetle less."
Satisfaction flooded through him. "Deal." Master Savi would be pleased to hear of the bargain he'd managed to strike. He retrieved three silver and four copper coins from their hiding place in his shoe and handed them to the shopkeeper. The elf strung the ring onto a simple chain so that the boy could wear it around his neck.
As he looked out the window, Mik realized that more time had passed than he thought. Savi would be expecting him back soon. He thanked the shopkeeper and ran all the way back to the sorcerer's stall, the serpent ring thumping a staccato against his chest the entire way.