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Monthly Short Story Winner: Apprenticeship

We’ve been getting such good feedback for the short stories our members have submitted in our Monthly Short Story Competition that we have decided to post them on the main site at a rate of one a week. Today we will be looking at the winner from our July 2014 contest.

In July we were going with the theme of apprenticeship. We can find apprentices everywhere throughout genre, the two most popular probably being Magician by Raymond Feist and Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb. But many other authors explore this theme too: Pat Rothfuss in The Name of the Wind, Tamora Pierce with The Circle Opens quartet or Terry Pratchett in his countless books where witches, wiz(z)ards or watchmen learn their trade.

Apprenticeship by Louis-Emile Adan

This month it was the contestant’s job to write a story about an apprenticeship. It didn’t matter if the chosen trade deals in gold, wood, magic, death or soap bubbles but somebody had to learn it. Either through a private craftsman, a guild or…?

Rules:

1. This can be prose or a poem.
2. An apprenticeship must be a relevant part of the story.
3. Prose must be 500-1500 words long.
4. Poetry must be 100-500 words long.
5. You will be disqualified if you exceed the limits, full stop. That’s why they’re called limits.
6. Your entry can’t be published somewhere else first.
7. This is a writing contest, not a “I wrote something like this ten years ago” contest. So if you pick an already existing piece of your work, I’d like it to have a major overhaul/edit. Work for it. 😉

July’s winning story was “A Dangerous Talent” by LisaElle, one of our writing contest regulars. In her story we learn that it’s not always the young ones who learn and the old ones who teach. Congrats, LisaElle! 🙂

You can find the other entries here. You can also get updates on our monthly contests on Twitter by following @ffwritingcomp. And now on with the story!

– – –

“A Dangerous Talent”
by LisaElle

Caralyn’s brow creased with worry as she watched her granddaughter. The child was crouching over a pile of pebbles that she’d gathered outside, arranging them to her liking on the floor of the cottage. If it had been any other task, Caralyn might have smiled at the girl’s diligence, but her heart clenched with dread when she imagined what might come of this strange errand.

Elli giggled, as if the pebbles had shared a joke that only she could understand. The sound brought a small measure of comfort to the old woman. Laughter was as rare as birdsong on the wind-torn hills that circled the waters of Mortannum’s Isle. It was best enjoyed in secret behind closed doors. In these dark days, even a child of Elli’s age wasn’t too young to sense that happiness was a fragile treasure, easily shattered if it fell into the wrong hands.

“Are you watching grandma?” Elli was saying. “You’ll miss it if you don’t pay attention.”

Caralyn realized she’d been staring out the window, keeping an eye on the village road for signs of the militia. The patrols arrived with little warning at any time of day. The soldiers hoped to catch dissenters unawares so they could march them to the village square and make an example of them. If Elli showed the potential that Caralyn was afraid of in the next few minutes, it would make their home more vulnerable to a raid and a whole host of other difficulties would be soon to follow. All she could do was hope that the ten-year-old’s imagination was more vivid than she’d come to expect.

“I’m watching my love,” Caralyn said and sat down beside Elli. She rested a gnarled hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Show me.”

Elli drew a breath and looked at the stones that she’d arranged in concentric circles on the ground. “This is how you’ve got to do it,” she murmured. “So all the light gets caught inside the circles and can’t leak out. It goes in here, see?” The girl pointed to the empty space at the heart of the circles, then pressed her finger onto the packed earth of the floor and held it there.

Caralyn watched Elli, offering a silent prayer to all the gods that nothing would come of this experiment. “What are you doing?” She whispered to the girl when the silence grew too heavy to bear.

Elli didn’t answer her.

They sat quietly for several seconds more. Caralyn was about to speak again when her voice hitched on a gasp. Elli’s hand had started to glow with pale light. Caralyn stared in horror.

“Oh Elli,” she despaired. “Not you too….”

But the child didn’t hear her; she was too intent on her task. The channels between the circles were flooding with light as it flowed from the girl’s fingertip. The light was anima – Caralyn was certain of it. She’d seen it before, many years ago, channeled by Elli’s mother in a similar way. The pebbles trembled with its influence then jostled together as if commanded by a magnetic force, absorbing the light that Elli had given them. A tiny stone figure stood where the circles had been, turning an eyeless face towards its maker.

Caralyn clasped a hand over her mouth.

Elli looked at her, her face shining with pride. Then, seeing her grandmother’s fear, she dropped her smile and slanted her brows with worry. “He won’t hurt anyone grandma,” she said quickly. “He’s a good pebblekin. He won’t do anything bad unless I tell him to.”

Caralyn pursed her lips as she looked at her granddaughter. There was no denying the fact that the girl was an animancer – the evidence was as clear as a fresh mountain spring, much as she longed to believe it wasn’t true.

When Elli had told her that she could bring stone to life, Caralyn had hoped it was only child’s play. The curse of animancy was rare and didn’t always run in the same family. But as she spoke more often about playing with her creations, Caralyn had grown more worried. She’d asked Elli to show her. Now it was only a matter of time before Queen Saneeth sensed the new animancer and ordered the militia to bring her to the island. They would force the girl into the service of the Black Legion. In a few short years she would be animating bigger and darker creatures than this pebblekin, channeling her essence into them until she had none left inside her to stay alive. Caralyn couldn’t bear to think of the end that would await her then.

“Elli love,” she said urgently. She gripped her granddaughter’s hand and braved a smile. “This is a beautiful but very dangerous talent. The queen will learn about you soon. No budding animancer escapes her notice, especially not this close to her island.”

“What will I do?” Elli asked. “Should I stop using it?”

“I don’t think you can, love. It’s not safe to hold the anima inside you. You must release it, a little every day, or it will do you harm.”

“Then I have to keep it secret, don’t I?”

Caralyn nodded.

Neither of them mentioned Elli’s mother as the child felt the full weight of her burden for the first time. Her eyes dropped to her lap and she screwed up the folds of her dress in her fists. “I’m scared grandma.”

Caralyn wrapped her arms around her. “Shhh now. I’m here. And besides that, I have an idea. I think you should teach me to be an animancer too.”

Elli sensed her grandmother’s fear and tightened her hold around the old woman. “But I don’t want to be an animancer,” she sighed. “I thought you didn’t like them grandma. I thought they did bad things.”

“Not all of them, my love. You’ll be different.” Caralyn leaned back to look down at her granddaughter. “We just have to make sure that we stay together, okay? That’s what’s most important now. The queen will want you to join her legion when she senses your power.”

The girl’s eyes flew wide open. “No. No I’m not going! I want to stay with you!”

“I know Elli. That’s why you have to teach me, so that I can help to protect you.”

Caralyn looked down at the motionless pebblekin. It stared up at them without a hint of compassion or intelligence. From afar, Caralyn had seen the great mountainkin standing in the war camps of the Black Legion. That’s what they looked like when they were waiting for a command from their makers. Caralyn had never developed an ability to channel anima or command any variety of stonekin. Maybe if she’d taken the initiative to learn all those years ago, Elli would still have a mother to this day.

“If you teach me animancy, and the militia do come to take you, you won’t be alone. They will have use for me as well and we can keep each other safe. We’ll do this together my love and you can be my teacher for a change. Now how does that sound?”

Elli reflected on this. “I think you’ll like learning it grandma,” she eventually said. “If it’s a secret that’s just for us. Watch what I can get him to do!” Ellie looked at the pebblekin then pointed to a vase of rushes and wildflowers that stood on the hearth. “Go get a flower from the vase and give it to grandma.”

Caralyn watched as the pebblekin turned and pulled itself up onto the hearth. It strutted towards the vase and plucked the lowest hanging blossom, as instructed. The stone figure approached Caralyn, its pebble feet clicking like a dog’s claws as it marched across the hearth. It offered her the flower but the old woman didn’t take it.

She looked at Elli. “Will he crush it if you ask him to?”

Elli looked unhappy at the suggestion. “Yes… But I don’t want to.”

“You have to be able to give him orders like that, Elli. So you can protect yourself if the militia come to take you.”

“But I don’t want to be like that!”

“Elli…”

“No! And I won’t teach you either if you try to make me!” The girl jumped to her feet and ran to her bedroom.

Caralyn heard her door closing down the hall. She looked back at the pebblekin that was standing on the hearth. “Maybe she won’t give you the command to kill,” she whispered to it. “But I will learn to. I’ll give it a thousand times over if that’s what it takes to keep her safe.”

The pebblekin said nothing and stayed as still as the statue that it was. All it did was stare at her with its sightless face, the flower held out to her in its tiny hand.

– – –

Congratulations again to LisaElle! If you’d like to enter our monthly writing contest, check out our forum for my information. Happy writing! 🙂

Title image by Louis-Emile Adan.

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