“Fox!” Wren yelled as he entered the headquarters. She rushed over and threw her arms around him. “What happened? Did that mage let you in? Are you going to learn magic?”
Carthinal grinned. It was good to see her and he hugged her back. “Yes, Mabryl has accepted me as an apprentice. I’ll be learning magic.’
“What have you learned so far?”
Carthinal’s grin disappeared. “Nothing, yet. Not even how to get that little flame every time. Mabryl says I’m too ill-disciplined and that magic needs concentration. Apparently I’m not able to concentrate well enough to learn any spells safely. Nor am I disciplined, he says.”
“You’ve got new clothes. And you’re clean. You smell good. Come on, let’s go to our room.”
But that had to wait, Rooster strode across the room. “Fox. How is it going.” He shook Carthinal’s hand.
“It’ll take some time. Magic is difficult to learn. Harder than picking pockets, it seems.”
“Well, we can wait. Time is something we have plenty of. As long as we eventually get the upper hand and become top gang, then we can wait.”
Carthinal stayed all night, but as the birds started to sing, he rose from the bed he was sharing with Wren. She woke.
“I’ve got to go, Wren,” he told her. “I shouldn’t have stayed so long. I only came to tell you what was happening.”
She reached up and pulled him down, kissing him. “Can’t you stay for another hour. I’ve missed you so.”
Carthinal protested, but eventually, Wren had her way and after an hour of love-making, he left.
The sun had risen and people were beginning to fill the streets. Mabryl would be up by now. Had his master missed him? What would he say? Would he refuse to teach him, now? After all, he had been insistent Carthinal stay in his house, and made a big thing about discipline.
As he approached the tree he had climbed down, the door opened and Lillora emerged carrying a basket.
She stopped and put her hands on her hips. “Well, the truant returns.”
Carthinal groaned. So his escape had not gone undetected.
“Mabryl thought you had decided not to learn. After all, it’s hard work, learning magic. You’d better go on in and see what he says.”
Carthinal plodded up the steps and entered through the door Lillora had left open. He paused in the hallway, looking around.
Emmienne came rushing down the stairs. “Oh, are you in trouble! Mabryl is both anxious and angry at the same time.” She grinned. “Where’ve you been? Going out at night to see a girl, are you? Who is she? Is she pretty?”
“There you are!” Mabryl’s voice came from in the study. The man himself strode out, lips pressed tightly together and hands clenched by his side. “What do you mean by sneaking out at night? What have I told you about magic needing discipline? It needs honesty, too. Where have you been that you needed to sneak out like that?”
Carthinal took a deep breath. He would be honest. His Grandfather had taught him not to tell lies, and now Mabryl was talking about honesty. “I went to see my old mates. They needed to know where I am and what I’m doing. If they didn’t know, they’d think I’ve betrayed them and come after me.”
“Hmm. You could have told me that. I understand.” Mabryl’s tone softened. “But no more of it. You have had no one to discipline you or teach you right from wrong for a long time. I expect no more of these night-time excursions.” He swung around and entered his study. His voice came back. “Come and start today’s lessons. I think more writing practice is needed.”
Carthinal groaned and followed his master into the study. Writing and reading. That’s all he seemed to be doing. That and learning the names of plants and the stars. When was he going to learn some real magic?
The days passed. Carthinal read the books and copied spells and other things Mabryl gave him. Soon he was writing a fair hand, and his reading improved. Still Mabryl made no move to teach him any magic.
His mind wandered when he was reading the books on the history of magic. What was the point of learning about things long past?
He voiced this to Mabryl one day.
“We need to remember what has gone before, and the results of these things,” his mentor replied. “If not, we will be condemned to repeat the mistakes of those who went before us, and also we can’t benefit from the good things, either.”
“Hmm. I suppose so.” Carthinal went back to reading about how King Sauvern united the warring kingdoms of Grosmer into one kingdom.
He still wanted to see his old friends, though, especially Wren. They had been good to him, and saved him from starvation. He could not forget them, and so, one night, a few weeks after Mabryl had forbidden nightly excursions, he climbed out of his window once more.
He made his way to the Beast’s HQ. Tapping on the door in the usual way, Porcupine admitted him.
She grinned to see him. “Wren thought you’d forgotten her. She’s…”
“Never.” Carthinal made his way along the hallway.
As he entered the main room, he spotted Wren on the other side. He called out to her.
She stopped what she was doing and stood stock still, eyes wide.
Her hand flew to her mouth. “F…Fox.”
Carthinal frowned. Why did she look like that? Her attitude was not one of pleasure—more like fear. He’d never done anything to make her afraid, so what was going on?
“Hi, Wren. I managed to get out again. I had to be careful, though. Mabryl caught me last time, so I waited until he thought I was going to be a good boy.”
Wren smiled, but Carthinal thought it looked a bit watery. Something’s wrong.
Cat entered and called to Wren. “Are you coming to bed?”
Carthinal whirled round. So that was the way it was. Cat had taken advantage of his long absence to make out with his girl. Well, that was going to end right now.
As soon as Cat saw who stood there, he paused. Carthinal took the opportunity and reached his erstwhile friend in a second. He swung his fist and it met Cat’s chin. The smaller man staggered back, but did not fall. He ducked in time to avoid Carthinal’s next swing and rolled into his legs, grabbing and pulling as he did so.
Carthinal fell heavily and Cat jumped on top of him.
The pair rolled around the large room, grappling each other and punching whenever the chance arose. Carthinal did not know how many of his punches hit Cat, but he knew he occasionally hit the floor. The young man he fought was agile while Carthinal had led a fairly sedentary life with Mabryl.
A loud voice sounded. “What do you think you are doing? One of the rules here is NO FIGHTING. At least, not where I can see.”
It was Rooster. Hands grabbed both young men and pulled them apart. When Carthinal looked round, he found himself held by Bull, and Cat was being detained by Ox, another one of the Beasts’ security men.
Rooster stood in front of them, hands on hips, looking at the pair through narrowed eyes.
Carthinal breathed heavily as he stood unable to move, with Bull holding him. He frowned and shot a look at Cat, his erstwhile friend. He wanted to smash the small man’s pretty face. How dare he take his girl?
Rooster was speaking, a severe look on his face. “Now, what’s this about? Fox, Cat?”
Carthinal balled his fists again and pressed his lips together. He took a deep breath. “Cat took advantage of my long absence to take my girl.”
Cat’s eyes flashed. “You were gone for months. We thought you’d decided the life in the comfort of a proper house was better than with us, and had gone over to ‘them’.”
Carthinal struggled against Bull’s iron grip.
“Wait,” Rooster said. “Fox, did you say Cat had stolen your girl?”
Carthinal nodded. “Yes. Wren was my girl before he took her.”
“Hmm!” Rooster looked at Cat. “What do you have to say?”
“What I just said. I thought—we all thought—Fox had left us. I decided he didn’t want Wren anymore. Perhaps he’d found someone else. He’s got a pretty enough face for any woman to want him.”
Rooster sighed. “Didn’t either of you think to ask Wren? She’s not a piece of jewellery to be argued over. She has a mind and she uses it. She will decide for herself who she wants to be with. You can’t make that decision for her, whoever wins the fight.” He turned to Wren. “Do you want to be with either of these two?”
Wren looked down at her feet, then at Cat. Carthinal felt his heart sink into his boots.
“Sorry, Cat. I’ll take Fox. I thought he’d gone for good, you see. It’s been so long.”
She walked over to where Carthinal stood, still being held by Bull. “Sorry, Fox.” She leaned her head against him.
“Let them, go,” Rooster said, and walked away.
Carthinal put his arm around Wren and held her tight. “I’m glad you chose me,” he whispered.
Cat approached, eyes glancing around. He stopped a good arm’s length away from Carthinal.
He took a deep breath. ”Please accept my apology, Wren. I should not have treated you like a possession.”
“No, you shouldn’t.” She turned to Carthinal. “And neither should you.”
Cat turned and walked away. After a few paces, he stopped and looked back. “Fox, we were good friends once. I hope we can be again sometime.”
Carthinal watched him go with a sad expression. He put an arm around Wren. “He’s right. We were good friends. I shouldn’t have hit him.”
As usual, Carthinal’s anger dissipated quickly and he went over to Rooster. “I apologise for causing a disruption. You are right. Wren is her own woman.” He looked to the door where Cat had vanished, then turned back.
“This magic business is going to take longer than I thought. I’ve hardly even started. Mabryl won’t let me start learning spells until I’ve learned discipline, he says.”
Rooster looked him up and down, then put his head on one side. “He’s right. It’d be dangerous to have someone with an uncontrolled temper able to do magic. Think what you could have done to Cat, and possibly others in the vicinity, if you had spells at your fingertips. Go back to your Mabryl and stay there until you’ve learned some control.”
Carthinal hung his head. He looked at Wren, still at his side, and hugged her.
She looked up into his indigo eyes and sighed. “I think that was an order, Fox. I don’t suppose I’ll see you for quite some time, then.”
“I can still come out at night and meet you.”
She shook her head, looking sad. “No. That would be ill discipline. Rooster, and Mabryl, have both ordered you to learn. I promise I’ll wait for you.” She reached up and kissed him, before turning away, tears in her eyes.