Draugh & Mumble

The only thing that the Masters could never agree on was the matter of the bell. In everything else they were in perfect accord, and the apothecary was kept almost entirely in order.  The items on top shelves were arranged by color, middle shelves by opacity, and bottom shelves by curses and charms. Master Draugh had written neatly, on the sign on the bottom of the front window, “Unattended children will be fed to the basement dragon.” The floors were swept every day, excluding the north and south corners, in deference to the secret small things that made their homes in the gathering dust.

Master Mumble had the burden of proof, as he was in favor of the bell above the door. He argued that the bell welcomed in customers cheerfully, attracted friendly spirits, and would alert the Masters of the arrival of someone into the apothecary, visible or invisible. His unspoken reason was that Master Draugh was losing his hearing, which was particularly noticeable when he failed to be woken up each night by the loud gnomes that had opened up a pub in their ceiling.

Regardless of the numerous uses of the bell, Master Draugh only had to repeat his familiar tirade in order to silence Master Mumble.

“We are not, and have never been, a common apothecary for common folk. If you do require a warning each time we have a visitor, I would be happy to perform the part of the bell, only I will do so with either opera singing or by recitation of ancient chants­ both of which are far more pleasing to the ear than an incessant, unnecessary, and infantile tinkling.”

“I have never desired to burden you with extra duties,” Master Mumble would reassure him. “That is why I wish to have a bell, to save you the trouble.” But the last part would always be beneath his breath, noticed only by anything with wings that happened to be small and stopping by.

At first the bell was their only argument, but soon other problems gathered, like flies in the unnatural green teeth of an unwelcome houseplant. Besides the bell, there were the arguments of blue or red labels, two or three inch margins in the record book, and whether or not to serve trollfolk.

One day a thick green mist visited the apothecary, looking for a cure for the common cold. Master Draugh tried to banish it with a feathery desert amulet before the smell seeped into the entire building, but Master Mumble insisted on being courteous, and tried to help the mist manifest into human form. Neither endeavor was successful. There was also the issue of the hanging flowers on the ceiling beams that had taken to braiding each others’ stems, a practice that Master Mumble encouraged and Master Draugh discouraged, and eventually led to the loss of half of their stock of vain chrysanthemums. Then there was the thief, who slipped in and out one night, leaving behind only the broken pieces of a centaur statue, and a glimpse of a dark purple hat that Master Mumble caught on the thief’s way out the window.

Master Mumble ran out the door, looking up and down and sideways along the street, but the thief, and whatever she had taken, had disappeared. He came back inside to see Master Draugh standing before the broken statue, his large arms crossed over his stomach.

“I suppose you liked that one, then?” said Master Mumble.

“We must begin a comprehensive inventory,” Master Draugh ignored him. He turned away and pulled out the large book that Master Mumble dreaded. “We’ll begin in the back fourth shelf, I think. Lots of nasty magics there that she might have stolen.”

“Is there really any reason?” said Master Mumble, who had resorted to drastic measures before to avoid paperwork. “Suppose we just wait until someone orders what she’s stolen, and then we’ll discover what it was.”

“That is no way at all to conduct business,” Master Draugh hid himself behind a large griffin quill as he set to writing in the ledger book, but his angry eyebrows were still visible above it. “I am disappointed indeed that all of your training has led you to reach such a careless conclusion.”

“If I do not meet your standards of conducting business,” said Master Mumble softly, turning away towards the stairs. “Then I would be happy to leave you to complete it yourself.”

Master Draugh went to work and Master Mumble went to bed, and neither spoke to the other until the thief came again.  Master Mumble found her. He had better hearing, where Master Draugh had better handwriting. The thief hadn’t made a sound, but the little mothwern fairy who sometimes slept on the lids of jars had started practicing her tap dancing at night again, setting the contents of shelves rattling. In a familiar sleepy dance, Master Mumble took the small net from his bedside table and made his way down the stairs into the apothecary, dipping his head under the ceiling before the staircase.

The thief made no effort to escape or speak. She simply sat in the center of the room, a golden urn clutched in her thin, dark arms. Master Mumble, after a few dream­blinks to see if he was awake, asked her the usual questions. Her name, age, guardian spirit, favorite spells and such ­but she was silent, head bent and pressed against the top of the urn, listening for something.

“There’s nothing at all in there,” Master Mumble said, kindly. His candle yawned, marking midnight. Master Draugh had not let him invest in one of the large red armchairs that were in fashion, so Master Mumble took a seat on a hard high black chair near the apothecary counter. He set down his net on the apothecary counter.

“Oh, it went in there to hide, alright,” the girl muttered, not lifting her head. “Hush now, and make it think we’ve gone away. We’ll scare it safe.” She had a dull purple cap pulled down over her short black hair, and her arms were covered with hazy silver tattoos, like a children’s chalk drawing that had been washed away a bit by the rain.

Master Mumble was silent for a moment. Drunk gnomes were making their way up the staircases in the walls, towards the (not very) secret pub above the Master’s bedrooms. Below, in the basement, the dragon was snoring in a 2/4 meter. A fairy from next door began dancing the polka against the wall. The apothecary’s mothwern fairy answered with a little jig, rattling the contents of a top shelf. The candle flickered, a little face in the flame looking between the Master and the thief.

“Do you intend to stay there all night until it comes out?” he said, finally. “Would you like me to wake the dragon to heat up the floors, if that is the case?” Master Mumble was unaccustomed to having thieves as guests.

The thief looked up, startled. “No, sir,” she said, forgetting that she meant to be silent.  “I’m a true hunter. Haven’t got much use for worrying about the cold. It builds strong bones.”

There was a heavy step above them, and a drowsy stomping followed, indicating that Master Draugh was descending the stairs into the apothecary.

“A hunter of what?” Master Mumble continued, curious about the girl and worried that Master Draugh would send her away within the moment he came downstairs.

“The most difficult things to catch,” the girl-­thief-­hunter said proudly. “Made-­up words.”  The golden urn shook slightly in her hands. Her small mouth quickly slid into a grin and then she pressed her ear to the lid again, giving the side of the urn a small pat. “This one’s lovely, sir, I’ve been chasing it for a long while. It’s got at least three syllables, and perhaps a glottal stopI can hear it dancing about now.”

The staircase creaked, not because of Master Draugh’s weight, but because it was annoyed at having been woken up. The heavier Master came down the stairs to face his partner.

“Are you doing the finances in secret again?” said Master Draugh. “Replacing all of the zeroes with tiny eyes? You forget so often that the rest of the world doesn’t share your sense of humor.”

The thief looked up at him, clutching the urn tightly to her chest. Master Draugh paused on the staircase. The mothwern fairy jumped from her perch on a jar to sit on his head.

“That would be Master Draugh,” said Master Mumble, to the thief. “ And I am Master Mumble.” He reached up to tip his hat, forgetting it was the middle of the night and he had never put it on.

She nodded, pursing her lips. “Master Draugh had a cough, Master Mumble took a tumble.”

“What is that? A prophecy? A curse? An insult?” called Master Draugh loudly from the staircase, pulling his thick blue robe closer around his large stomach.

“A mnemonic.” said Master Mumble. “But whatever do you need one for? There are only two names to remember.”

The thief laughed. “Oh Masters, how very like apothecaries you are, supposing that I have all but two names rattling around in my head. I’ll have you know that I’ve got plenty more to remember, prime real estate up here, you’ve got to earn your keep.” She tapped her head.

“And do you fill it with made up words? How do you know this is one?” said Master Mumble, gesturing to the urn. Master Draugh grumbled and came towards them.

“Because it’s so tricky.” The girl lifted her head, looking somewhere just outside the apothecary window. Moonlight and a smile slid across her face. “Regular words, you see, sirs, sit all nice and tame on the tip of your tongue all day. That’s why I have to go a’chasing the special secret ones,­ they don’t like to behave.”

“And what do you mean to do once you catch one?” muttered Master Draugh, who hadn’t thrown the thief out yet because he was hesitant to open the door and let the cold dark in. His feet were bare and shivering, annoyed at the discovery of dust on the floor. Sweeping had always been Master Mumble’s job, mostly because his height allowed him to reach stubborn ceiling corners.

“You know how blood moves all about, on its hidden streets and alleys under the skin? I’m sure you know, sirs, being learned apothecaries and all. When I get a new word, it twists and turns my veins to spell its shape,” the thief said proudly, pushing her purple cap back a bit on her head.

“You mean they take the form of letters?” Master Mumble wondered.

“Not any letters we know, sirs, and none we’ll ever see. We’ve got languages meant to be spoken, written, heard and read, but these tricky ones speak a tongue that’s meant to be lived.”

“Sounds quite silly to me,” said Master Draugh stiffly, stroking the wings of the mothwern fairy atop his head. “Do you know their meanings?”

The thief frowned at him, her brows lowering to meet her dark eyes. “Why do they need meanings?”

Master Draugh laughed. “If they don’t have meanings, then what use are they at all?”

The thief tilted her head. “Have you got a meaning, Master Draugh?”

Master Mumble coughed, and tapped the counter with his fingertips.

Master Draugh, frowned, clearing his throat. “Perhaps I have not quite discovered it yet.”

“You see?” The thief pressed her head back down on the urn. “The only difference with me and my words is that I’m in no hurry to define them. It takes time, and maybe they’ll be real one day, but even I wouldn’t wish that on them, you know. Dictionaries are quite a bit like prisons.”

“So are real prisons.” Said Master Draugh as he made his way to the door. He’d finally decided that his desire for sleep outweighed his dislike of the cold. “Which is where thieves belong, little one, so you’d best ”

“I can’t leave without it!” The thief’s hair was wild about her face in an invisible wind, but Master Draugh hadn’t opened the door yet. “It’s the penultimate!”

Master Mumble raised an eyebrow.

“I’ve been trying, for sixteen years, to do the very first thing everyone does in school,” said the thief, tugging her cap low. “Learn how to spell my name.”

“Well, what is your name?” Master Draugh grumbled.

The thief glared. “That’d be bloody lovely if I knew it, wouldn’t it?” A trunk in a distant room shuddered. Master Mumble glanced up, but didn’t stand, deciding that whatever it was had put itself back to sleep.

“You won’t find any names here,” said Master Draugh, pulling the door open. Greedy night wind tiptoed in, painting goosebumps on the thief’s bare skin. She shivered, and so did the urn in her hands.

“Don’t send her out into winter,” said Master Mumble, standing.

“There’s no use keeping a thief about!” Said Master Draugh, and his friendly whirlwind stirred awake behind the counter. It twisted up into a tornado, taking receipts and tiny sprites along with it. “Send her out now, before you get attached to her like that bloodthirsty pet in the basement!” The mothwern fairy on his head darted away, hiding among vials on a top shelf.

“There’s no reason to be cruel,” tried Master Mumble, but the angry whirlwind was gathering speed and swallowing his words.

“There’s no reason to be unreasonable,” Master Draugh huffed, crossing his arms. He looked past the thief to where his statue had stood. His eyebrows met above his small eyes.

The whirlwind swept past the Masters and danced around the thief, pulling her to her feet. She looked around with wide eyes, muttering in a language none of them had ever heard. Some of the silver tattooed lines on her arms seemed to lift up and sway in the wind to her words, like dancing grasses at the bottom of the sea.

The whirlwind stilled, and the thief’s short hair settled back against her neck. All was calm for a moment, and she smiled, before the whirlwind started up again, tearing the urn from her grasp and smashing it.

Master Mumble rushed forward to grab the largest broken pieces before they skittered away to hide under furniture and prey on unsuspecting toes. Master Draugh wrestled with the whirlwind, his large arms wrapping around it as he coiled it up like tempestuous rope. The thief’s eyes hunted something invisible and quick as it moved around the shop. But her gaze lost the trail, and she was about to collapse back down in the middle of the shards of urn when a small orange stool scooted forward helpfully to catch her. She looked down sadly at the dust beneath her feet.

“I hope those weren’t the ashes of anyone important,” she said, watching Master Mumble brush the pieces of the urn into an orderly line, so that they could march into the dust pan.

“Only the accounting records of the last few years,” said Master Mumble cheerfully.  Master Draugh sniffed.

“Some people actually see the use in keeping track of things,” he said, finally setting the whirlwind to sleep with a pat on its head. “Now, are you going to send the thief out, or shall I?”

“I can’t leave,” the thief said, standing again. She rubbed her hands down her arms, and her tattoos lay flat against her skin again. She pulled her cap back. “That’s the second-­to-­last piece of my name. It’s lost somewhere in your shop, and I can’t let it escape.” She turned and started towards the back of the apothecary. The orange stool shuffled out of her way.

“We can’t let you simply wander about!” said Master Draugh, hurrying after her. Master Mumble carefully shut the door, shooing the shadows out, before following them.

The girl turned, putting her hands in the pockets of her brown vest. “Then let me work here. I’ll help you tidy up, and I can look for my name at the same time.”

“And what skills do you have to recommend you?” Master Draugh crossed his arms.

The thief tugged her hat down over her ears. “I can pronounce absolutely everything you put upon me, Masters, alveolar consonants and nasal vowels alike. I’m not too bright with writing, but I’m especially accomplished at drawing the shingles on roofs and the wings of gargoyles. I do get my numbers mixed up, but dance steps, I never forget.” She was still, looking between both of them, eyes widening until they nearly reached the top of her cap.

“A dancer?” Said Master Draugh, glancing at the corner where the statue had been. Master Mumble reached for his shoulder, but Master Draugh turned and shuffled away. They heard him opening a drawer in a distant corner of the shop. Master Mumble gave the thief a small smile, and was about to try to think of comforting words when Master Draugh returned. He tossed a small pair of gloves to the thief, and she caught them.

“Well,” he said, starting back towards the staircase. “You can start on inventory, and perhaps I’ll consider it.” Master Mumble’s eyes widened, his long mouth curving into a surprised smile. From the top of the stairs Master Draugh called down, “Be sure to mark whatever it was you stole a year ago!”

The thief looked down at the gloves. “Have you got any with the fingertips missing?”

“I wouldn’t be so quick to destroy another piece of his property,” Master Mumble warned. “He can be very­­

“Oh, I knew he’d let me stay,” said the thief, pulling on the thumb of one of the gloves. “He seems like someone who’s been through a great deal of trouble to find his own name.” She wandered off among the shelves in search of scissors.