"Sometimes I despair that you will ever become a true wizard," mumbled the elderly Master Dravidian. "When will you finally grasp that the core of the wizards' life and power lies in cycles?"
"Like the cycle of the seasons, master?" asked Apprentice Hirudin respectfully, while refilling his master's flask.
"Yes, exactly!" mused his master. "Like the fruit of the orange trees outside. A child is a seed inside the fruit. Cut free from its womb, it may die, or it may grow into a great tree. But what happens to every tree when it grows old?"
"They become kindling, master?" hazarded Hirudin, wiping some spilled tea off of his master's beard.
"No, no. They grow new fruit. And that fruit, those seeds must undergo the same trial as they! Everything goes in cycles, even... even wizards. Does this bread taste a little stale to you?"
"I cooked it this morning, master."
"Hm. Where was I?"
"Wizards, I think."
"Ah, yes. Even the mightiest of wizards live in cycles. Cycles within cycles. The renewal of each year's leaves is a cycle. Each fruit that bears... um... each seed that grows is a cycle. You see, wizards are like trees!" he declared, waving a fork in Hirudin's face.
"They are?" commented Hirudin flatly, keeping his eyes on the wickedly sharp instrument dancing dangerously close to his eyes.
"Yes... When spring is upon them they find likely seeds in young apprentices like you... Or unlikely apprentices like you. Um... Then they teach them and let them go to find their own roots. Or to take root, I guess."
Hirudin looked pointedly at his master's flowing white beard. "Begging your pardon, master, but you seem to be in the winter of your life, not the spring."
"Ah, well," muttered Master Dravidian with a self-conscious smile. "I waited a bit late with your training, yes. My mind is not what it once was. I needed an apprentice to carry on my knowledge... You see, my tree is my learning. That is what must go on."
"Of course, master," smiled Hirudin, scooping a few more spoonfuls of softened carrots into his master's plate. "Do try to eat some more, master."
"Of course, of course," mumbled Master Dravidian through a mouthful of food. "Of course my mind is weakening. All the knowledge I have acquired... it could go to waste, if I die without passing it on. I could die in peace if I knew that my knowledge would be passed on."
"Please don't talk so morbidly, master," said Hirudin. "Your soul is hidden away in your totem, after all. That should make you immortal."
"No, dear Hirudin, not immortal. I have lived many centuries, but Time... Time has slowly gnawed at my flesh until it has begun to betray me."
"But couldn't you make yourself young again, master?" Hirudin asked with sudden earnestness.
"No, no..." Master Dravidian sighed. "Once, perhaps, but I have waited too long... I no longer really care enough to want to pay that price. I am willing to let Time sweep me away at last. I am too tired to try very hard to stop Him."
"But I could help you, master. If you would show me how to make a soul-token of my own, it would double my powers. Then I would be strong enough to help you become young again."
"No, no," muttered Master Dravidian sadly. "I made that mistake, coming into my powers too young. Oh, the abuses I made. I wooed women with magic, I cast spells of death on those I disliked, oh, the shameful things I did!" He waved his spoon at Hirudin, not noticing the stewed carrots that he was hurling from it as he did. "When you are a bit older, a bit more seasoned, then you will be ready."
"You are looking a bit peaked, master. Perhaps we should cut up one of those oranges for you to eat."
"No, no," Dravidian shook his head. "Fruit is too valuable for mere eating, you know that. Why, can you tell me why fruit is so valuable to magic?"
Hirudin sighed, and recited the old litany. "Fruit is magical because fruit is a seed in a womb, waiting to be born." He paused, groping for some original comment to add. "It's like... like those ancient, mad wizards who sacrificed babies to make their magic stronger. When you sacrifice an orange for magic, you are sacrificing a baby tree."
"Hm. Very true," sighed Master Dravidian, his old eyes growing misty. "Not a pleasant way to put it, but true enough... Every orange on that tree is a possibility waiting to be born." He stared at the remains of the food on his plate unhappily. "My teeth are beginning to ache. Hirudin, clear all this away."
As Hirudin knelt to pull the plates aside, he added a hopeful comment, "You should accelerate my training regardless, master. You wouldn't want to die too soon and leave it incomplete."
Hirudin carried the plates away into the kitchen. Master Dravidian raised his wavery voice to call out to his retreating back. "Never you worry, Hirudin. I've taken care of it all. I've written down all my spells and locked the tomes in the chest in my study. When I get truly weak, I shall mail the key to old magus Distarum in Sarrub. He will gladly take over your apprenticeship and make sure that it is done rightly by you."
"Why not leave the key with me, master? The mails are quite unreliable, you know," Hirudin called out from in the kitchen. There was a clatter of plates being stacked.
"Ah, poor Hirudin," Dravidian laughed. "You mean well enough, my boy, but temptation would have you opening the chest long before Distarum arrived. No, I shall call a travelling spirit to deliver it to him and bespell it with enchantments of certainty. You need have no worry on that part."
There was a sound of a cork being pried out of a bottle, somewhere back in the kitchen. There was a pouring sound, and Hirudin came out of the kitchen holding a small glass in his hand. "If your days are running out, master, then there is no need to apportion this old wine so meagerly."
"Why, thank you, Hirudin," smiled the old man, taking the glass in his wrinkled hand. "I just wanted to do right by you, my boy."
"I appreciate everything that you've done for me," smiled Hirudin as his master downed the small glass.
Master Dravidian gasped, and tried to say something, but could only cough.
"Is something the matter, master?" smiled Hirudin.
Master Dravidian shuddered, then finally collapsed across the table. The sound of his labored breathing slowed, then stopped.
"Ah, well," muttered Hirudin to himself. When there was no reply, he said, "Oh, yes!"
"No more masters!" he smiled, though his hands were shaking. "No, you old fool, I'm not going through another four years of hell learning another old man's whims."
He rifled through Master Dravidian's robes, searching carefully for something. Finally, he drew forth a small loop of metal with two ornate iron keys.
"Ah, yes. That box would be in your study, wouldn't it?"
He strode over to the study door, casting a nervous glance back at Master Dravidian's corpse. "I suppose you probably realized what happened, in the last few moments, eh?" he commented to the body. "You might be a bit upset with me, really. Might be thinking about some revenge from beyond the grave, and all that."
"Come on, open!" he shouted at the door's lock as he struggled with the first key. He pulled it out and tried the second in the lock. It turned with a well-oiled click. Hirudin let out a breath of relief.
He pulled the door open gently and strode into his master's study. His gaze was drawn to the eastern wall, where a carven statuette of a man sat in a small alcove, like a shrine. He walked over to it carefully, a strange light in his eyes. Up close, he could see that it was made from a piece of dark wood, carven in the shape of a proud, young mage in the prime of his life.
He lifted it carefully from the alcove, muttering small words of protection as if fearing that it might bite him. "You always said that it took time for a man's consciousness to get a grip on its new surroundings, didn't you?" His eyes danced around the room and settled on the fireplace across from Dravidian's desk, where some small embers were burning.
"I bet it was a bit of a shock, losing your body and finding yourself back here." He practically ran to the fireplace, talking to the wooden statue as he carried it.
"I bet it takes a few minutes to get used to working magic without a body, DOESN'T IT!" he shouted, tossing the statue in the embers. Moving hurridly he ripped a pile of blank sheets off of the desk and threw them on the fire on top of the icon.
It had already begun to smolder. As the paper caught fire, it began to burn more rapidly. Hirudin watched it burn with a feverish look in his eyes. Finally there was nothing left but embers. He stirred them with a poker, looking for any remnants.
Finally he sighed and slumped with released tension. "So now I am the master," he smiled to himself. He looked around the elegantly furnished study and smiled. The furnishings in this room were worth more than all the rest of the furniture in the house put together.
He sat back in Dravidian's chair, savoring the cushioned back. "And I had to make do with wooden, benches, didn't I?" he asked the room. "Yes, yes I did!" He smiled. "And I couldn't even eat any of the oranges I picked, because you needed every last one for your spells, didn't you?"
He looked at the fruitbowl on the desk, which still held a single orange. His smile broadened. He picked up the orange and began to peel it with the small, sharp knife that he kept hidden in his boot.
"You miserable old fool," he smiled and took a bite out of the orange. The juice that poured down his throat was strangely bittersweet.
Master Dravidian sighed. He looked at the orange that had been his soul-token sadly and set the rest of it back in the bowl. It was true that he was young again, but he had so hoped that this apprentice would work out better than the others.
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