by Bruce Golden
I stood waiting at the entrance to the den, my few meager possessions stuffed into a satchel. I was here because I had been unable to summon up the courage to make a decision, and in not deciding, a course of action had been thrust upon me.
My father, who had never been too pleased with me, became angry when he learned I had applied for an apprenticeship. When he discovered the truth, his roar resounded through our den, his scent dominating every echo that careened through the cavern.
Of course he wanted me to be a warrior--like him. He looked with dignified disdain upon any other calling. My mother didn't offer her opinion, she simply assumed the traditional position of submission. I knew she wouldn't speak against my father, even if she disagreed.
Personally, I quivered at the thought of combat. I saw no sense in escalating conflict, and the idea of intentionally killing or even injuring another being made me ill. Leus knows, I would go out of my way to avoid stepping on a tong beetle.
So my father cast me out and marked my departure with the formality of a ritual urination. The ceremonial display had been wholly unnecessary. I knew I could never return home.
The irony was, I didn't have any particular desire to become an apocryphist. I wasn't even sure exactly what it was those mystical sages did. I knew they were considered wise counselors, but I was a little vague on the details. I imagined some form of sorcery was involved.
By far the most noted apocryphist in the land was Grrrmon. It was said he had the ear of sovereigns and simple folk alike. He was very old and had reportedly been plying his trade for more than 50 winters. However, it wasn't his trade I was interested in, it was his daughter.
Ever since I’d first laid eyes on Tesla, I was unable to get her out of my mind. Her winter-white fur, her delightfully wicked green eyes, the playful way she wiggled her tailstub when she was playing a trick on someone. She had this look that said she was untamable, but I still dared to desire her. I would do anything to be with her.
So I applied for an apprenticeship with her father. Of course, my fervent wish to escape the "honorable life" of a warrior had something to do with it as well. You would be correct if you described my application as deceitful, yet applying for that apprenticeship was the bravest thing I had ever done. You see, I wasn't exactly known among my companions for my courage and strength of character.
I had survived 16 winters, a piecemeal education, and endless taunts by my father's warrior compatriots when my petition for an apprenticeship was answered with a summons to appear in the presence of the venerable apocryphist. Fortunately I had shown some aptitude for language and letters--the one requirement I knew an apprentice candidate must possess.
I arrived at the den at the exact time instructed, then waited outside, as tradition required, for an invitation to enter. As domiciles went, it was rather crude-looking. No embellishments adorned its entrance, no markers of prestige, only a wood carving which read "Apocryphist."
I’d been waiting so long, my legs began to wobble and I’d shifted the satchel from one side to the other and back again. I whiled away the time staring up at the moons. Leus was bright and full, while Lia and Liet were phased like two halves of the same whole. I saw Leus' face clearly through the night sky and imagined he seemed rather benevolent tonight. I took that as a good sign.
Finally my presence was acknowledged. An elderly female motioned me inside, but just as quickly she disappeared, leaving me standing there to wait some more.
As I stood there, I couldn't help but notice the strange odors that blanketed the den. There were scents of tanglewood and mewleaf and other spices I couldn't distinguish. I could also hear the soft, melodious sounds of a slute echoing through the den’s chambers. I wondered if it was Tesla who was making the music.
I’d never been inside her home before. We had only spent time together at school and in the forest where we all gathered to stray and play. The thought I might actually be close to the place where she curled up and slept made me shiver slightly. My romantic fantasy, however, was interrupted by a mocking voice.
"Not for you...not for you."
At first I couldn't tell where the voice was coming from. I cautiously took a few steps deeper into the chamber, not wanting to appear too bold.
"Not for you...no, no, no."
I didn't have to go far before I discovered the sound was coming from a simp. The household pet clung to its perch and scratched itself behind its oval ears. It looked at me and put its smooth little hand against its flat face as if it were thinking about what to say next.
"No, no, no...work, work, work," it jabbered as it fell from a polished limb, catching itself with its tail and swinging around to sit once more. "Not for you...no, no, no."
My mother had gotten me a simp when I was much younger, but something it said upset my father and he ate it. I never wanted any pets after that.
"So, you want to learn how to weave wit and wisdom out of thinnest air?"
It wasn't the simp speaking this time. I turned to find the ancient apocryphist standing there staring at me as if I were a hen he was preparing to pluck and roast. In contrast to Tesla, his fur was black, though flecked with silver-gray splotches. His fingerclaws were long, though not particularly sharp. I could tell, because he was pointing them at me.
"Speak up! You are the apprentice petitioner, are you not?"
"Yes...yes I am."
"Not many young stalkers wish to apprentice in the apocryphal arts. I recall only one other. I rejected him."
He stared at me with intense yellow eyes as if to discern whether I might waver and run for it. Believe me when I tell you I wanted to. I was doubting whatever sense, or lack thereof, had led me to this place. My leg muscles were coiled, and I was ready to spring past him...except I realized I had nowhere to go.
"Do you know how to read?" he asked.
"Can you write?"
"While it's true brevity is often the soul of communication, can you speak any words other than 'yes'?"
"Yes...I mean, I can speak...I mean I know many words."
"What is progeny? Define genus...appellation...colloquy."
Of course, at the time, I didn't know any of those words, so I stood there like the simpleton I was, blurting out, "I’m not sure."
"I did not think so. What about your memory? An apocryphist must have a keen and voracious memory."
"I have a good memory," I replied weakly.
"So? What were the four words I just spoke of?"
I was so nervous and unsure I couldn't think clearly.
"Quickly! What were the words?"
"Genus, appellation, colloquy...and progeny."
"Hmmph," he murmured, continuing to look me over. I'm sure what he saw didn't impress him--a scrawny young stalker with a bent tailstub and dirt-red fur still spotted by patches of immature white. I was never more prepared for rejection than I was at that moment.
"It takes many winters of hard work and study to become an adept apocryphist. It is not an art, which is learned easily. There are subtleties and fine lines of distinction. You must study science and psychology, politics and social dynamics. You may spend a lifetime and still never master the craft and its arcane techniques. But if you are determined, you may stay and work as my apprentice."
It was not the response I expected. I had already shifted my weight in the direction I’d entered and was preparing something I hoped would sound intelligent, something I could say as I departed. Instead, I stood there dumbfounded, with my whiskers twitching and a look on my face that was probably making him second-guess his decision.
And that was how I became the apocryphist's apprentice...all because of a pretty tail.
He put me to work right away. However, it was not the kind of work I'd anticipated. Each household task he assigned me was more tedious than the last. When I wasn't seeing to his needs, I was studying. When I wasn't studying, I was cleaning pots and burying refuse. And what did he have me study? His life's work, of course. At least that's what it seemed like. Parchment after parchment of his scrawled, often illegible writings, consisting of biographies, anecdotes, a variety of individual forecasts, combat reports and directives, historical accounts, and other documents I couldn't categorize. He told me to memorize each piece and write down any words I didn't understand. However, he failed to advise me what to do if his scribblings were so poor I couldn't decipher them.
I was occupied thusly when Grrrmon entered my chamber one day.
“Come. I have petitioners to see, and it's time for you to begin observing." I followed him to another, much larger cavern where both the walls and floor were ornately decorated with many intricately woven rugs. Pieces of pouncemelon were set out in ritual fashion, and I noticed the powerful scent of mewleaf.
"Sit there." Grrrmon motioned to a stool in an inconspicuous corner and I complied. "You're not to speak, only to observe and learn."
What I observed, in short order, was the arrival of an older female whose saffron and red coat was likely once beautiful. But now it was shabby, bare in patches and graying in others. She limped in, each step painful, and took no immediate notice of my master, who sat in the middle of the room in a grand chair woven from the clawbark of some ancient tanglewood tree. He said nothing and made no attempt to help her, despite her obvious discomfort.
She removed a piece of jewelry from her satchel and placed it in a bowl next to the simmering mewleaf. Taking two painful steps toward my master, she said, “A disease of the blood is ravaging my body, great apocryphist. I need your healing words to ease my pain and prolong my insignificant life. I pray to Leus you will look favorably upon my petition."
At that she backed away, turned, and departed.
I started to speak, but barely a sound had escaped my mouth when my master raised his fingerclaws for silence. So I shut-up, sat and waited as he did. Soon another petitioner walked gingerly into the cavern. From his dress I guessed him to be a merchant, though not a particularly successful one. He did not place anything in the bowl, but halted in front of my master and waited quietly.
"I have considered your petition," said my master after a calculated pause, "and have decided to grant it. Your business is failing and you wish to find a way to lure more patrons into your shop. In order to entice customers away from your competitors, you need something which distinguishes you from them. I advise you to tell everyone that your fowl tastes better than the fowl being sold by others because you have the happiest birds in the land. Make signs for your shop, both inside and out that say, 'A happy bird is a tasty bird.'"
"But how do I know if they're really happy?" asked the merchant.
"How do you know they're not?" retorted my master. "Go. Heed my advice and be prepared for prosperity."
"Blessings to you, great apocryphist," he said, backing out of the cavern. "I will send you another bird, a very happy, very tasty bird."
When he was gone, my master rose from his seat and looked to me.
"Well, did you learn anything?" he asked, running his fingerclaws through his whiskers.
"I...uhhh, I'm not sure, Master. What was it the female put in the bowl?"
"That was her offering. I will examine the offering, consider her petition, and decide whether to grant it."
"What do petitioners offer?"
"It is different for different petitions, different petitioners. The merchant offered several of his finest birds. It was a wise offering for what he asked. The female, obviously from an impoverished family, has likely offered a thing which she prizes above all."
"Will you grant her petition?"
"You will learn that when she does."
"Enough talk now. You have pots to clean and errands to run before the sun rises."
It wasn’t long before I realized that in all the time I’d spent in the den of the apocryphist, I had still not seen the object of my desire. I was curious, but many days passed before I gathered the courage to broach the subject with Grrrmon. The ragged furrow in his brow told me immediately it was not a subject he cared to discuss, especially with an apprentice. Tesla, he told me curtly, had run off with a warrior and was no longer welcome in his den.
I was surprised I felt no disappointment at the news. I’d gotten so caught up in my work and my studies, I’d spent little time thinking of Tesla.The realization sparked a quiver of guilt. However, I was actually beginning to think I had an affinity for the apocryphal arts. I liked learning new words and new ways to use them. I’d begun to think longingly of the day when my own voice might both aid and influence others.
The old apocryphist had approached so silently I hadn’t heard him.
“Come, let’s put your energy to work at more useful things.”
I followed him into the petitioners chamber and made the room ready as was my custom. Then I took my seat in the corner, prepared to observe the master at his craft and learn another lesson.
The old female who had claimed a blood disease limped slowly into the room. Her condition had noticeably deteriorated in the nights since she had first petitioned my master. I found myself hoping he would grant her petition, while at the same time wondering how he could possibly help her.
She had already made her offering, so she stopped in front of him and waited in silence. He looked at her sternly, as was his way, and rose from his chair.
"I have decided to grant your petition," he stated in ritual fashion.
Her eyes seem to spark with new life, her tired old ears erect with attentiveness.
"Be warned my healing incantation only wields the power of the conviction which lies in your own heart. You must be strong to feed upon its strength."
She nodded, but when my master approached and spread his fingerclaws across her head she looked frightened.
"The mind is strong, it must know the affliction is wrong. Let darkness into your soul, confine evil to its bright hole. Truth and goodness are the way. If not, the sickness will stay. Let your blood burn and boil--soon the disease will be foiled. Your health restored, your illness severed from your inner chord." As he ended his chanting refrain he removed his fingerclaws from her head. "Go now, be well and live life."
The old woman nodded again, almost a bow of respect, and turned to leave. I thought she moved a bit livelier than when she'd entered, but it was likely only my imagination. When she had disappeared into the long cave my master turned to me.
"Will your incantation actually heal her?" I dared to ask.
"It might," he replied with uncharacteristic melancholy, "if she believes in it strongly enough. The mind is a source of great power, remember that."
"Grrrmon!" A great warrior, bedecked in lavish battle pads, strode into the cavern, interrupting my query. He didn’t bother with ceremony, addressing my master as if he were the apprentice. “The sovereign approaches. Prepare yourself.”
He turned and marched out.
"Sit and remain silent," Grrrmon commanded me, returning to his own chair.
Shortly I heard several footfalls proceeding towards the cavern. Gruff commands followed a brief silence, and then the sovereign himself walked in. At least I presumed it was the sovereign, never actually having caught his scent before. It was a scent I would have remembered. A powerful scent. One that made me want to run and hide. But it wasn't the only thing which gave him an air of command. His fur was royal saffron in color and his bearing confident and brusque.
"Grrrmon, you old prevaricator, how are you?"
The sovereign made no attempt to comply with ceremony, walking past the offering bowl and straight to my master. I knew by the way my master's whiskers twitched that the omission irritated him.
"I’m well, Sovereign. But tell me, to come all this way you must have a problem which only my skills can address."
The sovereign put his powerful arm around my master, increasing the old apocryphist's discomfort by visible degrees.
"Indeed, I do have a problem, old friend. One that I hope can be solved with your counsel and your craft." The sovereign noticed my presence for the first time, but promptly ignored me. "My warriors are howling and spitting demands to avenge the recent attack on our river-land province. However, I know the warriors of the Fangclan are well prepared for such an attack, and it would prove costly. How am I to avoid appearing weak before my own warriors without committing strategical suicide?"
My master thought for a moment before he replied.
"I can see it’s a precarious position you’ve been placed in, Sovereign. I realize the political hold you have on your military is a tenuous one, and that any sign of weakness could prove fatal."
"As could a rash attack," added the sovereign.
"Let me contemplate this a moment," said my master, interlocking his fingerclaws and placing them against his mouth as he tended to do when deep in thought.
As he waited, the sovereign took notice of me once again.
"You there, have you been sharpening your claws so you can join in the glorious hostilities against the Fangclan?"
"I? No, I--"
"He's my apprentice, Sovereign. His training is for a purpose even more glorious than battle."
"Hmmph. He doesn't appear to have the vocabulary for it."
"Sovereign, I believe I have a solution for you,” said Grrrmon, thankfully shifting the sovereign’s attention away from me.
"Yes? What is it?"
"First, you will relate to your warriors the historical tale of the Fangclan warrior who rushed into battle seeking revenge and made a fool of himself in defeat."
"I know of no such tale from history."
"That is because I have not written it yet. The tale will give your warriors pause. You will then turn your attentions to the Fangclan’s sovereign. You will send him praise on his victory and admit that, under an ancient treaty, the river-land province was rightfully his anyway."
"Praise? Treaty? What treaty are you talking about? Have you lost your mind, old one?"
"My mind is perfectly sound, Sovereign, I assure you. By praising your enemy and admitting the land is rightfully his, he will not expect a counterattack...at least not soon. The season of mating is almost upon us and it could provide you with the perfect opportunity. When the bloodlust of both your warriors and your enemies has given way to a lust of a different kind, that is when you will order an attack and reclaim the river-land province."
"Yes, I see. It could succeed."
"It will succeed, Sovereign. I will prepare for you both the history and the treaty."
"Yes, yes. I knew you’d find a solution, Grrrmon. Excellent! Now I must go keep a clawgrip on my captains until you're done. I'll be anxiously awaiting your work."
The sovereign strode from the cavern with the same flourish with which he’d entered. Passing the offering bowl, he tossed in a bagful of what sounded like coins.
My master rose from his chair, his whiskers still agitated, and approached the bowl.
"War," he said with contempt, "is a game for fools." He reached into the bowl and pulled out the sack of coins, testing its heft. "Still, it keeps the coffers full."
"Master, I have a question."
My voice seemed to remind him of my presence and he turned to look at me. "Yes?"
"How can you create history? Isn't history, by definition, that which has already taken place? The true course of past events?"
"History," he said, pausing to lock his eyes onto mine, "is simply the distillation of rumor. When necessary it is the burden, even the duty of the apocryphist to refine those distillations."
I wondered at this, but couldn't make sense of it. He recognized my perplexity.
"History, young Siam, like truth, is whatever I make it."
"...and when the flying machine finally descended, the young stalker emerged from its belly and discovered a queer sort of world. The sky was as red as blood and the land barren and flat as far as he could see."
I was gratified beyond description to see their little faces fixed upon me in wonder. The more narrative I spun, the more their whiskers twitched and their little tailstubs wiggled. The group of youngsters gathered around me had grown from a mere trio to an even dozen as I spoke.
I’d begun with a simple idea, one intriguing flourish of imagination, but their wide-eyed interest had prompted me to expand the details until I was leading them on an adventure to a province they would find on no map.
"There were massive holes burrowed into the ground--like dens, only dropping straight down. Leaning down to gaze into one of these holes, he caught an alien scent on the wind. It was a scent with such power it knocked him back. Before he could recover his balance, a monstrous creature emerged from the hole."
They were on their haunches now, clinging to every word. One little stalker, who couldn't have seen more than five winters, looked too frightened to move.
"The beast had eight legs and fangs the size of my arm. It raised up on its four back legs and reached out with its others to ensnare the--"
"Siam! Come here!"
It was my master, standing at the entrance to his den with that irate expression he was so fond of using with me. It was only then I realized I was late for my lessons. I had become so enthralled with my storytelling I’d lost track of time.
"I'm sorry, young stalkers, I must go." Their disappointed cries touched me in a way I found pleasing. "Don't worry, we'll finish the tale tomorrow."
They ran off, scurrying with ease across the logwalk which spanned the nearby ravine.
"Flying machines and eight-legged creatures? What are you doing, Siam?"
Grrrmon’s vision may have been failing him but his ears were as sharp as ever.
"I was only entertaining the small ones, Master."
"Entertaining? I have not taught you the arts so you can use them to amuse the masses. Your words are not to be given away casually like pieces of pouncemelon. They are a commodity of high value. Do not cheapen them on my own doorstep."
"I'm sorry, Master. I didn't think I was doing any harm."
"You’ve been under my tutelage for countless nights, yet sometimes it seems you have learned nothing."
"Actually, I have counted the nights. I have been here for--"
"Do not attempt to cross wits with me, fledgling! I will cut your words into pieces and gag you with them."
"Yes, Master," I responded meekly to appease him. I had never seen him so angry, and that was saying something.
"Inside now," he said and limped away without waiting for a response. His old bones had started to bother him, and he didn't move as quickly as he had when my apprenticeship began. I paused so as not to overtake him and followed him inside.
Instead of going to our work area, he stopped in the outer cavern next to the simp's perch and stroked the little brute.
"I’m afraid I have some news which may distress you," he said to me, though his attention was still focused on the simp. “You've undoubtedly heard of our sovereign's great victory in reclaiming the river-land province from the Fangclan."
I’d heard the battle talk, but had not paid much heed.
"There were many casualties of the combat, and I regret to tell you your father, the warrior Miam, was among them."
"My father is dead?"
"Yes, Siam, regrettably the clan has lost another hero. But it has been reported to me his death was glorious. By the tongue of his own commander I was told the tale of how brave Miam withstood an onslaught of enemy warriors, protecting a strategic passage until reinforcements could arrive. He cut and slashed, growling his war cry until the very end, when he was finally overcome by sheer numbers, buried beneath a sea of Fangclan vermin."
My master proceeded to extol the Miam’s virtues, describing the battle in detail, but I no longer focused on his words. All I could think of was that my father was dead. My father, who had cast me out of his home--my home. My father who thought of me as a coward, not worthy of his family. Yet, still my father.
"...and when his fellow warriors had beaten back the crimson tide of the enemy, they found Miam still fighting for life. With his last breath he told them to pass the tale of his death to his son, the apocryphist's apprentice."
It was a good tale, but even before its improbable ending I knew my master had embellished it in the telling--or more likely, created it whole from his bountiful imagination. My father would never have relented to recognize his banished son, even standing at death's den.
"Thank you for the telling, Master," I said with all sincerity. For I knew, in time, his prevarications became truths.
"Do not dwell on these sad tidings, young stalker," he said, mistaking my reflection for grief. "Look towards tomorrow. For an apocryphist, foresight is a much better thing than hindsight."
My master was right, of course. He was always right. But today I would choose to reflect on the past. There was plenty of time tomorrow to look forward.
Over the next two winters the remnants of my white fur matured into the dirt-red that was my family's color. Despite all of my tedious and often mind-numbing work, I felt little closer to becoming a full-fledged apocryphist. At least that was my perception of my master's opinion. It seemed no matter what I did, it wasn't enough. It wasn't good enough, correct enough, thoughtful enough, traditional enough.
In spite of his obvious scorn for my abilities, I truly believed I’d begun to excel. I decided I would not let his denigration of my talents sway my determination. I’d also come to believe the art of apocryphy could be used for something more valuable and enduring than misrepresentation and mummery. What that would be...well, I had an idea, but I was keeping it to myself.
My master hobbled outside the cavern one day, bumping into a clawbark tree which had been there long before I ever arrived. He’d grown feeble and his eyes were as weak as a newborn's. However, his temper was as strong as ever.
"What’s this? What’s this?" he repeated loudly, waving pieces of parchment in the air. "What’s this about a giant river on the moon of Leus where creatures travel on trees?" Apparently his failing eyesight had not prevented him from discovering the story I was writing. However, I’d already decided I was not going to let him intimidate me anymore. "These profane tales show how little you have learned in all your time here."
"I believe I’ve learned quite a bit, Master."
"Oh? Do you think you are an apocryphist now? Do you think you have the power to move sovereigns and change worlds? What do you think you know? Knowledge may arrive naked and alluring on a white stallion, young stalker, but wisdom lingers in its finery till the saddling of the deathbed. You'll never have that wisdom, Siam, because you were never meant to. I took you in and called you my apprentice because I needed a laborer, and that's all you've ever been...all you'll ever be. This isn't the art of apocryphy," he ranted, waving my story in the air and then tossing it away. "You've learned nothing of the true art."
The true art? What was truth? Was it true he’d only taken me into his home to perform menial tasks? It was certainly true I’d spent more time toiling than learning. Could it be true I had no aptitude for apocryphy? No grasp of what the art really was?
No. I believed old Grrrmon was only speaking out of anger. I knew what I’d learned and how my mind had expanded with time’s passing. I was certain my writings were worthy. If my master refused to call them apocryphal then another designation would do.
"You are no longer my apprentice, foolish stalker," he said, his ears turning to focus on me because his eyes couldn't, "you never were."
He swung about in as dignified a posture as his aging limbs would allow and strode away towards the logwalk. I watched him go down the path, the same path I’d seen him travel a thousand times. But this time old Grrrmon's failing balance and feeble eyesight betrayed him. Once atop the logwalk he took a single misstep, teetered, clawed at the air for a grip that wasn't there, and fell into the rocky chasm.
I paused for dramatic effect, their little faces turn towards me in anticipation, their whiskers twitching, their eyes open wide.
"Then the great Grrrmon turned and hurled a magic incantation at the onrushing monster. The words he used were powerful, ancient words, and they struck at the heart of the creature, killing it even as it leapt at the old apocryphist. The beast's huge corpse hurtled through the air like a falling tree, striking Grrrmon and knocking him into the abyss." I paused again, soaking in their wonder. "Though he was killed in the fall, crushed beneath the monster’s body, the great Grrrmon had saved the province."
I didn't know if my old master would approve of the way in which I’d memorialized him. But I had done so using all the skills he’d taught me, intentionally or not. It was true I would never be the apocryphist he was. Instead, I would be the one I was meant to be.