THE APPRENTICE-BOOK1-THE CALLING – CHAPTERS 26 – 27

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

“M, my what? The way I’m going to, to, die!?” Shane asked in a very small voice that was coming from a throat that had suddenly gotten very dry and constricted as the sight of the edge of Brill’s sword and his threat to kill him hit home inside of his brain.

“That is correct. I said your way of dying,, yes,” Brill growled, his voice now back to it’s normal gruffness again. “You can either choose to die quickly and somewhat painlessly, or, you can choose to die slowly and quite painfully.”

Dark Star was listening and heard every word the fake monk was saying about robbing and killing his boy and when Brill finally dropped the false falsetto voice he instantly recognized it from the stables at the Pig And Whistle Inn. He also remembered it from hearing him speaking to Crandle on the road a few nights before when they discussing their plans to rob Shane, and kill him .

The veteran warhorse was ready to spring to the boy’s defense, but as long as Brill held his sword close to Shane’s throat there was nothing he could do except to watch and wait for a chance to intervene.

He quietly told Vanna and Genny, in equestrus, that the two strangers were really their former masters, Brill and Crandle. He told them about their plan to rob, Shane, and kill him. The sisters suggested that they should all three attack the bad men but Star vetoed the idea. Armed as they were with broadswords they could easily kill, Shane and all three of them as well with only two quick strokes each.

He told them to just stand still and act as though nothing was wrong and be patient. He told them both to be ready to spring to Shane’s defense if the opportunity should present itself.

“Can I choose not to die at all instead?” Shane asked, but Brill and Crandle’s cruel laughter gave him their answer before Brill could sneer it back at him.

“No, you cannot choose not to die instead. But feel free to beg for your life if it makes you feel any better,” he laughed.

“Yeah, yeah. Beg if you want to,” Crandle said with an evil laugh.

“You shut your big fat mouth fool!” Brill snarled at his accomplice. “and keep your eyes on that stallion. Make sure he doesn’t try to pull any heroic stunts on us.”

“Okay, Brill,” Crandle said. He turned to watch the stallion, fixing his gaze on the animal, that last big caper that was going to make them both rich beyond their wildest dreams. He could picture in his mind all of the fine things he never had before that he would be able to buy with his share of the loot. Like some fancy new clothes for instance. Clothes that were fit for a courtesan to wear at Buckingham Palace. After that he was going to purchase for himself a nice little plot of land out in the country. One with a nice little cottage on it .

Maybe then he would be able to lure some saucy little wench to stand beside him in Holy matrimony and they would have ten children, maybe even more! He didn’t hear what Brill was saying any longer, nor could he hear the thunder rolling up through the maountain pass. He had become totally immersed in his own dreams of avarice, meanwhile the rest of the world spun out of control all around him, unnoticed. Lost in his own fantasy world,

Brill didn’t notice that his partner in crime was off in LaLa Land but the blank far away look in his eyes had not escaped Star’s notice. He watched him closely and stood waiting silently, poised like a coiled spring, he watched for his chance to strike.

The thunderheads were all but past them now and slowly fading off to the North. Every now and again a stray bolt of lightning would come down from the clouds and strike nearby sending a thunder boomer at the little party of six alone and exposed atop Mount Thunder.

“Now then, how do you wish to die, my friend, fast, or slow? And be quick about it or I shall be forced to choose for you,” while saying this, Brill thrust the point of his sword beneath Shane’s chin. and forced his head back, exposing his throat to the keen blade.

“Uhm… Can’t I at least think about it a minute or two, sir?” Shane asked as he looked down the edge of Brill’s sword. He could see the sword had been lovingly honed and it was as sharp as any carving knifes blade. If that wasn’t convincing enough, Shane could feel the keenness of the edge as it rested lightly against his throat just as well as he could see it.

“Can you think about it? Did you hear that, Crandle? His nibs wants to know if he can have a minute or two to think about he wants to die! Isn’t that rich? Har har har!”

Crandle laughed absentmindedly. “”Uh huh, oh yeah! Ha ha, yeah that’s a real corker that one is,” he agreed stupidly before he went back to daydreaming about the saucy young baker’s daughter he was going to marry, and their brood of little Crandle’s, and Crandella’s. He could even open a bakery of his own, and…

Then he drifted away again.

“Sure kid, go right ahead and take a minute or two and think about it while I warm myself in front of this fire. You won’t be needing it three minutes from now anyhow” Brill pulled the tip of his sword out from under Shane’s chin, but he slid it out making sure Shane could feel the cold steel that he would be tasting soon enough. “Put some more wood on the fire while you’re thinking about it,” he ordered Shane as an afterthought.

As Shane reached over and picked up a thick length of firewood, Brill warned him, “Don’t even go getting any crazy ideas about trying to fight a duel with a tree branch either. I have killed 3 men before in duels and I am certain that I can take a boy with a stick any day.”

“No, sir I was not going to try anything, I promise I won’t,” Shane swore as he used the stick to stir the coals with before he tossed it into the fire along with a couple of smaller branches.

“So now what’s it going to be my friend?” Brill wanted to know after he had warmed his buns a bit. “Shall it be quick and nearly painless, or will it be slow and excruciatingly painful?”

“You know, I’m not really settled on one way or the other just yet. I’m still thinking about it okay?” Shane said, attempting to stall for more time. Maybe he could think of some way out of this mess. The only trouble with that was he was too scared to think at all. As far as he could see there was no way out. Nobody was going to come and save them. The only thing that was going to save him from dying on Mount Thunder was a miracle.

“What do you think, Crandle, should I chop his head off, or should I chop him in half from top to bottom? Or, should I chop him in half across the middle?” he asked without looking at his daydreaming partner.

“Huh? What?” Crandle sputtered as he came up from his reverie of women and free pastries. It took him a second to bring himself back to the matter at hand. “What it is Brill? What’s the matter?”

“I said, how do you think I should dispatch our young friend here? Should I chop his melon off?” Brill asked him as he touched the side of his sword lightly to the base of Shane’s throat. “Or do you think I should cleave him in two?”

“I uh,. I guess you should cleave him in two, Brill,” Crandle replied before his mind drifted back to thoughts of his new life. It awaited him once Brill killed the kid. In his daydreams his wife was already hand feeding him the most delicious cakes and pies that were fresh from their own oven while their children played all around their large home.

“You know, Crandle I think you’re right, but which way should I cut him? Should I cleave him across the middle, or should I chop him from top to bottom, like so?” As he said this, Brill set the keen edge of his sword on top of Shane’s woolen hood.

“Uh huh, yeah. That’s what I would do,” Crandle said absently. In his daydream he was watching his saucy wife putting extra icing on a double chocolate devil’s food cake. “Yeah, just like that.”

“You heard my silent partner master Shane. He says that I should chop you down the middle from top to bottom. And for once I have to agree with him. “

Brill’s cruel laughter rang like a cold, hollow death knell in Shane’s ears not unlike the tolling of a graveyard bell. He knew that if he didn’t think of something fast he was a dead duck for sure.

“Wait just a minute now, sir!” he cried , “what about me? I thought you said I got to decide how I was going to die! Remember the choices you gave me? Fast and relatively painless, or slow and excruciatingly painful, remember? You said it, I heard you.” he pleaded.

Brill laughed again. “Yes, I did, but I’m afraid you took too much time to make up your mind so I had to go ahead and do it for you myself.”

“Hey! You can’t do that!” Shane protested angrily.

“Oh yeah? Why can’t I? Brill said mockingly.

“Because it’s not fair, that’s why not!” Shane informed him.

“Oh I see,” Brill said, mocking him again, “Well nobody said it was going to be fair then, did they? This actually has nothing to do with being fair or unfair lad. It’s all about us robbing you of everything you have and then taking your life too. When we leave we’ll hide your corpse so the wolves can pick the meat from your bones and then carry them away one by one to gnaw on later,” Brill said as he pulled his sword away from Shane’s head.

“Will it at least be quick, Brill?” Shane asked him stalling again for time. He hoped the man would respond to him calling him by his name and it worked.

“Oh, well you know I’m not really sure about that, but yes I would think it will be very quick indeed.,” Brill assured him.

” I see. But, what about painless? I don’t know if I can take a lot of pain. Is it going to be painless too do you think?” Shane asked Brill and the tears brimming in his eyes were not feigned either.

“You know, it’s hard to say to tell you the truth, Master Shane because I have never been chopped in half as you can plainly see so I am afraid that is a question I cannot answer for you. But, if I were to venture a guess I’d have to say probably not. I think it’s more likely going to hurt you a whole lot but it will only be for a very short time. But then you will be dead and it won’t matter because you won’t ever feel anything again.” Brill assured his victim to be.

As far as Shane was concerned, however; he was the victim that was determined not to be. The only question was, how in the world was he ever going to pull it off?

“Are you ready to go and meet your maker now?” Brill asked him after several long moments of deadly silence and tension.

Just then a distant flash of lightning lit up Brill’s face, and a peal of thunder went rumbling through the pass. They had to wait until it had faded away down into the valley below before either one could speak.

“No, I am not ready to meet my maker just yet, thank you,” Shane said to his executioner. “In fact, if it’s all the same to you I would like to have a few minutes to prepare myself before I die.”

“A few more minutes??” Brill asked in surprise.

“Yes, sir. So that I can say my prayers, confess my sins and all that,” Shane explained patiently.

“Why certainly, my young friend, I don’t mind at all. In fact I want you to take all the time you need and get straight with your God before you meet Him face to face at the Pearly Gates. How does that grab you?” Brill sneered at him. “But whatever you do be sure you put in a good word for Crandle, and me with the Man on the throne, okay?” He laughed mockingly.

Shane was at a complete loss for what else to do except to say his prayers and ask God fora miracle to save him. Or to at least have mercy on his soul and save a place for him in Heaven.

As he closed his eyes and bowed his head, Shane prayed like he had never prayed before in his life. He prayed for deliverance from the evil men that had come out of the stormy night to take his money, his property and his life. He said a long heartfelt prayer for every single person and thing that he could think of. He prayed for his parents, for the Lynn twins, for Old Charney, for Dark Star, and the mules, and he prayed for the old sorcerer who had left this world with nothing to remember him by but his ironwood staff that was now…lying…at…his feet.

As he prayed, Shane had his head bowed down low over his crossed legs and his hands were folded in his lap. When he opened one eye just a teeny bit there was the old ironwood staff lying at his feet where he had dropped it after foolishly trying to challenge the power of the thunderstorm with it.

Brill, of course could not see what Shane was looking at and there on the dark ground where it was lying the dark wood was not easy to see. The Orleanstone looked like it was nothing more than a shiny rock sitting there all alone. But as, Brill had pointed out to him earlier, a stick was a poor match for a broadsword in a fight.

Be that as it may, when one is about to fall from a precipice, even the smallest weed can mean the difference between life and death.

“All right then, lad,” Brill said after a few minutes. “I think you have had more than enough time to set things straight with the Lord. Now kindly hand your purse over so that it doesn’t get all bloody and messy when I cut you in two.”

Shane reached inside his woolen pullover and pulled out the homemade silk bag that held all of the money he had in the world.

“”That’s it. Toss it over here then. There’s a good lad,” Brill said, holding out his grubby hand. “You need not bother to get up,” he sneered again as Shane drew the purse strings closed and tossed the bag to hi. Brill caught it deftly with his left hand. “Are you certain it’s all here? I would hate to have to search your dead body if I don’t have to,” he added hefting the weight of the money.

“Yes, sir that is all I have to my name. I swear it,” Shane said, still hoping the thief would show him mercy and let him live if he was cooperative, but Brill quickly let the air out of that theory.

“Are you sure about that?” He asked , as he held Shane’s purse to his ear and gave it a little shake. The clink-clanking of gold and silver coins inside sang a siren song of precious metal to Brill’s ears and he seemed satisfied that Shane was telling him the truth.

Yes, I’m sure, Mister Brill. Now can’t you please just take whatever else you want and leave me in peace? I promise I won’t tell anyone anything about this.”

“I too can promise that you will never say a word to anyone about Crandle, and me, or what’s about to happen to you, my friend,” Brill said cruelly as he dropped, Shane’s purse into his pants pocket. “Peace was never an option, lad. I intend to leave you in pieces, and be done with it.”

“You keep a close eye on that stallion, Crandle. If he tries anything sneaky on you, knock some sense into his head with the flat of your blade,” he told, Crandle. He had no idea what Brill was talking about as he replied, “Okay, Brill, yeah sure. I’ll do that,” before he was lost in his wealthy dreams once more.

Distant thunder rumbled and roiled up through the snowy mountain pass as Brill took the hilt of his sword in both of his big, grubby fists, ” And now we’ve come to the place where you will be departing for another world. For your own sake, my unlucky young friend I hope that it’s a far better place than this one did,” A brilliant flash of white light illuminated the clouds above them as Brill slowly raised his sword above his head.

The pealing thunderclap from the stray bolt framed, Brills words eerily as he held the deadly blade high and laughed out loud.

“Believe me, Master Shane, this is going to hurt you a lot more than it is me. Say goodnight sweet prince!”

Dark Star and the sisters could do nothing but watch, horror stricken, as did Shane himself, as the huge steel blade began descending downward slicing through the ar in an arc. It cleaved the night with a growing hiss and flashed in the light of the fire as it fell toward Shane’s unprotected head.

“Oh no!” Star heard Genny and Vanna gasp in unison. The black stallion was a veteran of numerous wars, campaigns and massive bloody battles between armies. He had fought for his own life alongside knights, peasants, warriors, and kings, carried many distinguished noblemen and had proven himself steady in battle. Dark Star decided that he had to act now to save his boy, or die trying along with him.

Star had long since noticed that Crandle was more concerned with staying close to the fire than he was in watching the livestock. He was still completely lost in daydreams of the fantastic wealth that he would reap from Shane’s estate. No pun intended.

As Brill’s sword began to fall, the big stallion had sprung into action and was already moving. He swung his great, shaggy head into, Crandle’s chest, and it caught him completely off-guard knocking him backwards. His left heel struck the circle of stones around the fire and he lost his balance. He tried desperately to catch himself but could not and down Crandle went. He landed on his fat backside with both big cheeks squarely sitting on the bed of red hot coals, and burning embers.

His hands landed on either side of the pit and he didn’t even drop his sword but his stole robe burst into flames instantly from the intense heat of the fire. One large coal burned its way through the heavy fabric and burned the skin beneath. By then his butt was fully engulfed in flames and the fire began climbing up his back hungrily as it fed on the old dry material.

“EEEYAUGHHHH!” he screamed and Star watched him closely as Crandle dropped his sword and leapt to his feet. But standing up meant that the flames climbed up his back quickly, and unhindered. Only the cowl saved, Crandle from receiving serious burns to his face and head as the flames raced upwards consuming the robe greedily as they climbed.

Foolishly, Crandle decided to try and outrun the fire and he tookoff into the dark, and stormy night screaming like a banshee. The golden light from the licking flames climbing up his back framed his retreat, but only for a moment before he vanished as if behind a wall of darkness and heavy snowfall and Crandle was quickly gone from sight

Dark Star had hoped he could get to Brill before his sword blade could follow through on its predetermined course, but he was clearly too late to intervene by the time Crandle realized that his biscuits were burning in the campfire and beat feet out of there.

Genny and Vanna were braying shrilly, their whinnies sounded more like terrified screams as the blade came down inexorably.

“Oh no! I can’t bear to watch!” Star heard Vanna saying behind him. Her voice seemed as though it was coming to him from across a vast gulf of cold and empty space and time.

The blade was already a third of the way down and was picking up speed and momentum as it descended. To Star it seemed as if time had slowed down to a crawl and every single heartbeat spanned an entire lifetime between one and the next. He felt like he was struggling to move through thick mud,and he could see that he was never going to reach Brill in time to stop him from killing Shane.

As he watched, transfixed by the horror he was witnessing, Star saw Shane bend down quickly as though the slow-motion time warp he was caught up in had no power over him. He struggled harder to move as Shane grabbed for something on of the ground in front of him. Star saw in a flash from the firelight that It was the staff of Choralys, but even a stupid old horse knows that a wooden staff (even one made of ironwood), was incapable of withstanding a heavy blow from such a great broadsword as the one that Brill wielded now.

Beside Star, Crandle was just beginning to understand that his butt was aflame. As the scream burbled up from his throat, Genny and Vanna were braying loudly behind him and thunder rolled over them all as Shane grasped the old wooden staff in both of his hands and threw it up over his head, directly across the path of the downward rushing steel blade.

Brill had it in his mind that he was going to cleave Shane in two so he really put his back into the task. He brought the sword down with everything he had so there was a lot of force behind the blade as it fell. Physically speaking it was an irresistible force of nature.

The blade met the staff of Choralys, just below the midpoint of the arc.

Brill laughed with evil glee as he watched Shane raise the staff in self-defense because he knew no old man’s walking stick was going to stop his blade. He knew that it would cut through the gnarled old wood like it was a loaf of fresh bread and still cut the boy in half.

Shane could see the keen edge of the sword coming straight down toward his upturned face and he too thought the blow would slice right through the old staff, or shatter it like an icicle and do the same thing to him. He wanted to close his eyes and look away but he couldn’t do it. He was completely transfixed by the gleaming steel blade like a Sparrow caught by the fatal stare of a Cobra’s dead black eyes.

As the flashing steel blade met the old wizard’s staff, Shane actually did squeeze his eyes shut, tightly too. As the force of the blow began to radiate through the ironwood, it traveled outward and down from the point of contact and resonated down the lenght of the staff, Shane let out a scream indignant rage at the injustice of his ignominious and undeserved end at the young old age of 16.

“NO!” he screamed and he involuntarily turned his head away from the force of the blow.

Across the fire, Dark Star saw the sword make contact with the staff and he tried to make himself look away but he too was transfixed by the Cobra’s eyes.

Shane’s voice , like those of Vanna and Genny, were coming to him from across a million light years of empty space. Like a voice heard underwater he heard his boy holler, “NO!” as time slowed again for all of them. The black stallion knew that this was the beginning of the end of his boy’s life.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

But the same moment that the sword made contact with the staff something amazing happened.

The Orleanstone mounted on the head of the staff flashed, throwing out a brilliant white flash of light that rivaled the face of the sun. Just then a jagged bolt of lightning came snaking down from the storm clouds overhead.

It struck the face of the Orleanstone and was absorbed by the brilliant white fire inside of the stone itself. The lightning bolt seemed to infuse the ironwood with a light that was painful for Dark Star to look at even indirectly. It was like looking into the eyes of the sun. It stopped Dark Star in his tracks and caused him to jump a step back . He somehow managed to avoid the flaming figure of, Crandle as he took off, running for his life into the dark and stormy night.

As Star, and the sisters watched, the brilliant white fire engulfed the staff and the length of Brill’s sword to the hilt. Static electricity rent the air displacing air molecules. As the powerful mega-volt bolt went into Brill’s hands, the empty space it had just occupied slammed shut at the speed of light. This produced a thunder clap that erupted outward from the source traveling at the speed of sound.

Miraculously the ironwood staff held firm but the steel blade exploded into a thousand fragments as though it was made of glass. The force unleashed by the lightning strike hit Brill in the face like a bag of bricks. Shane and the horses were spared the brunt of the fearsome blast that was directed, as if by magic, at the man who wielded the weapon that had awakened the staff. They scarcely heard the roar of the thunder. But for Brill, it was like a volley of cannons had gone off under his nose. The awesome power of the thunder clap was discharged in Brill’s face simultaneously, and he heard it all loud and clear.

His big broadsword now lay in shattered ruins, like the pieces of Crandle’s broken dreams of lemon tarts and marital bliss, on the ground at Brill’s feet. Even the huge bronze hilt was shattered by the force that emanated from the staff.

Shane opened his eyes just in time to see Brill, swordless now, and looking a bit dazed and confused, clasp his hands to his ears . He grimaced from the pain as the blast hit him in his gaping mouth.

“What the…?” Shane wondered aloud. He turned his head to check on the horses just in time to see Crandle’s fiery form running for the proverbial hills. All three of the horses were staring at him and at Brill. Their eyes were fixed, and their jaws hanging wide open in shock, their eyes waere rolled back in terror. Much like Brill’s.

Shane wasted no time turning his attention back to the one bad guy who still remained in his camp. He didn’t see the bolt of lightning that struck the Orleanstone, nor had he felt anything other than a slight tingling sensation as the magical white fire coursed through the staff and passed through his hands.

Then again it didn’t take a catapult scientist to figure out that the tiny pieces of shattered bronze and steel laying all around him were the remains of Brill’s sword. Nor did he need a psychic friend to send him an owl to tell him how it probably ended up that way. Obviously the old man’s staff had a spark or two of power left in it yet. He mused for a moment on this but he could always figure out what happened later on. The first thing he had to attend to was the murderous thief that was still in their midst.

Power or no power a strong six foot wooden staff is a very deadly weapon in the hands of a skilled shepherd who has used one similar to it to fend off marauding wolves who got too brave.

Shane switched the staff over to his right hand and then swung it in hard hitting Brill in the left kneecap with the Orleanstone. It connected with a solid crunch and an audible crack. Brill screamed in agony as the damaged nerves in his knee told his brain what it felt like to get whacked there with a great big rock on the end of a long stick.

“AHHHH!” he cried as his knee gave way under his prodigious weight. Brill was able to keep himself from going down but to do so he had to hop around on his right leg. He didn’t have long to hop, however. Shane spun the heavy staff around in his hands like a baton and struck Brill’s right ankle with the gold heel of the staff. He made a quick sweeping move and took the thief off of his feet, flipping him exit over intake onto his back.

Brill landed hard on the frozen Earth with a heavy thud that sent snowflakes flying up around his body. Shane could feel the vibration from the solid impact was it traveled though the ground on which he sat. Shane leaped to his feet and moved in to finish subduing his would be assassin even if it meant beating the fire out of him with the staff to do it.

Dark Star had not stopped moving the entire time save but for a moment when the staff had come to life and drawn down power from the sky. He got to Brill first so when he looked up he found himself face to face with an enraged war horse whose visage, if such a thing was actually possible, was a steely mask of violent hatred, and murderous rage. Heh heh. Nice horsey?” Brill said in a very small voice.

Dark Star bared his huge white teeth in Brill’s face and shook his head slowly back and forth. Nope.

The black stallion was straddling him with both of his front legs so, Brill was unable to get up unless he could somehow get out from under Star’s nose first, and that was far beyond unlikely. Not only that but Brill’s left knee and right ankle were no shape to be walking or crawling around on just then either.

“Good job, Star!” Shane said as he ran over to cover Brill with the end of Choralys’s staff.

“If he so much as moves to do more than breathe I want you to stomp the life out of him until you get tired of it” he instructed the war horse as he lovingly stroked Star’s glossy black mane and neck. Star snorted in agreement but didn’t take his eyes off of Brill. Not for a heartbeat.

“Aww. Come now, Master Shane,” Brill croaked weakly from the ground. “You, you don’t really mean that now do ya, lad?”

At this, Dark Star put his nose right in Brill’s face and looked him dead in the eyes as he nodded his enormous head, yep. “I was afraid you might say that.” Brill chuckled nervously. His eyes were wide and full of fear now. Dark Star snorted loudly in Brill’s face giving him a snoot full of hot horse breath that was full of moisture from condensation. Brill spit and sputtered but he dared not move and incurr the wrath of the big stallion. Star could easily kill him nany time he chose to.

“It appears that the tides of fortune have left you high and dry, Brill.” Shane told his prisoner as he squatted down by his head. The staff standing upright in his hand.

Aye, so they have.” Brill agreed glumly. I guess you can’t win them all can you, lad?” he added, with a sigh of resignation.

“I should say not,” Shane agreed. “Tell me something, Brill. What happened to your sword? He asked, indicating the shards of steel laying all over the place.

“Lightning struck your staff just as my sword did, and it covered it in a white light that shattered it into these hundreds of little pieces here.” He said indicating the shattered pieces of his sword. He shuddered to think how much he had paid for that sword, but he was glad it didn’t happen to him instead.

“Hmm. It looks to me like Crandle left you behind in a hurry. Like a chicken with its tail feathers on fire you might even say. So it looks like it’s just you now and my friend here does not like you at all.” Dark Star shook his head menacingly. Nope.

“Yeah, I get the same impression.” Brill said drylyas he stared up at the angry visage of the war horse. “What are you going to do with me?”

“I am not really sure yet. I want to let you go but I’m worried that if I do I’ll have to worry about running across you and Brother Crandle again on top of the next mountain, or in a dark alley somewhere down the road,” Shane said.

“Oh no no no! You won’t! I I give you my word as a gentleman that if you let me go you will never see me or Crandle again. Honest!”

“Oh, I think I can actually be the one who can promise you that you will never show your faces to me again.,” Shane said with a wicked grin.

“You wouldn’t kill me would you?” Brill said worriedly.

“Let’s just say I am in the process of weighing my options at this time and one of them is to let, Star have his way with you.”

“You don’t really want to do that. Do you?” Brill said his voice trembling.

What do you think, Star? Should I let you have your way with him?” Shane asked the stallion who nodded his head yes, emphatically.

“Come on now you guys,” Brill whined, Can’t you see that this was just a huge misunderstanding? Can’t we let bygones be bygones? Can’t we all just get along?”

Dark Star answered him by shaking his head, nope again before he began using his teeth to tear away the front of Brill’s stolen robe.

“I’ll take that to mean, no. ” Brill sighed. “But what about, Crandle? He was here too. Shouldn’t he be punished too?”

“The last I saw of Crandle he was running for the river like his butt was on fire.” Shane said, laughing at the memory.

Why would he just up and leave me hanging like that?” Brill wondered.

“I would imagine it was because his butt was on fire,” Shane explained that Crandle’s robe had been engulfed in flames when last he’d seen him.

“That figures,” Brill growled. “I should have set him on fire years ago. He was as dumb as a log anyway,”

“That may be, but you are the one who got caught,” Shane pointed out.

“The story of my life, Master Shane. With Crandle it’s always something.” Brill lamented.

“What I want to know is, how did you two come to be up here looking for us in the first place?” Shane stated. “I warn you, Brill, if you lie to me even one time I will let Star kick you around the campfire a few times to see if that doesn’t make you a more honest thief.” He said, patting Star on the neck.

“Anything you say, I swear. ” Brill said earnestly and he told Shane the entire tale of how he and Crandle had first seen him at the Pig And Whistle and hatched the plot to follow him out of town then rob and kill him for the stallion and his other property. He told Shane how Dark Star took their mules away from them . The same two mules who now stood there nearby staring at him with undisguised hatred burning in their eyes.

“Those mules belong to you?” Shane asked incredulously.

“Yes they do.” Brill said before relating the remaining events that had lead them up there to ambush him on top of Mount Thunder and the jam he now found himself in.

“So Star knew what you were up to all along. Shane observed.

“Yes, he did. He heard us in the stables when, Crandle and I were talking about stealing him and killing you. We had no idea he was an enchanted horse,” he explained.

“Obviously, not huh?” Shane deadpanned.

“Obviously not,” Brill repeated forlornly. He snuck up on us while we were in the middle of planning an ambush in Gallows Gap. He brought you up this way to avoid us. We were able to get ahead of you only after we inherited more more mules and supplies from some traveling monks the next day. And now here we are and you know the rest of the story,” Brill said, wrapping up his story. He laid there not daring to move a muscle while, Shane considered all that he had learned.

“Indeed” Shane said at long last. “Here we all are indeed, mister Brill. The problem now as I see it, is what are we going to do about you being here in light of the fact that you just tried to kill me. I’m of two minds on this myself. What do you think, Star?” He asked the stallion.

Dark Star bared his huge teeth and blew his nostrils out in Brill’s face then he stomped the ground beside his head with a hoof the size of a dinner plate. Tiny drops of muddy slush spalsed against the side of Brills head and face but he didn’t move a muscle.

“I see, My friend here also uses sign language Brill. He said I should let him teach you the error of your ways in his own little way.” Brill’s face was ghostly white under the withering gaze of the big stallion’s cold black eyes.

“I’m sorry lad, truly I am.” Brill sobbed his voice cracking now under the strain. His bluster and false bravado were all gone as he began to realize it might turn out to be his own bones the wolves would gnaw on and carry away to bury in forgotten graves all over Mount Thunder. “We had no idea that you were a sorcerer your worship, I swear it.”

“Hmm. I don’t know about that Brill,” Shane said, he was enjoying having Brill on the spot and savored the moment. “What do you think, Star?”

The stallion’s reply was a violent shake of his head and toss of his mane.

“My friend here says your excuses are lame, Brill. What difference does it make if you knew I was a wizard or not? You tried to cut me in half,” Shane and Star wanted to know.

“We never would have dreamed of trying to rob and kill you if we had known, that’s what,” Brill told the boy, in the hopes that he’d see all just a big misunderstanding.

He did no such thing of course.

“I’m sorry but that changes nothing. Nor does it excuse the fact that you tried to kill me. According the the Wizard’s Code of Conduct, which I just happen to have a copy of right here with me.” Shane said as he went over and retrieved the Apprentices Handguide from its place by the fire. “Can you read, Brill?” he asked, as he went to get it.

“No, I cannot read your, lordship.” Brill admitted when Shane returned and squatted own beside him. He had the book in his hand.

“Then, allow me to read it for you.” Shane told him as he began flipping through the pages. The book was resting on his knees as he said, “Ah yes here we are. What to do if someone tries to kill a wizard.”

“What does it say?” Brill wanted desperately to know after watching, Shane pretending to read the instructions for several long minutes.

“Hm. You may not like this, Brill,” Shane began slowly. “It says that I’m required to take your life.”

“”Oh no! No please your Lordship I beg of you please don’t,” I didn’t really mean to try to kill you I swear. It was all that idiot, Crandle’s fault, Shouldn’t he be the one you want to kill instead of me?”

“Mm, nope. Sorry but it says right here in black and white that I am to put your neck to the sword because it was you and you alone that tried to kill me, not Crandle.”

The news was a little too much reality for Brill to cope with so he broke down and began bawling loudly. Star rolled his eyes, and shook his head in disgust. The grim reaper has an uncanny effect that tends to separate the men from the boys and the warriors from the whiners.

“No please! Please don’t kill me!” Brill pleaded, blubbering between wracking sobs. “Have mercy on me please, I beg of you. Please don’t kill me-he-he.” Brill bawled.

“I don’t want to kill you, Brill, I have to. to kill you, and I don’t see that I have a choice in the matter because I am bound by the Sorcerers Code of law. And it says I must kill you or else I could lose my job,” shane said with mock sadness. “So as you can see my hands are tied here.”

“Oh no! Oh, no,please!” Brill blubbered pitifully. “I said I was sorry!” he offered but Shane was not buying his act.

“Nope, sorry but I’m not buying it,” he said flatly. “Sorry isn’t nearly good enough.”

“Can’t you just let me go with a stern warning or something?”

“You know, I’m not sure if I can or not. To be honest with you I’ve never had anyone try to kill me before so I haven’t had to deal with the issue until now,”

“Can you at least look through your book and see if it says anything about mercy or other alternatives to execution?” Brill asked through tears.

“Well… yeah I could. I’m not so sure I want to though. I mean you did try to kill me. That’s a little hard to overlook you know. Just out of curiosity I’ll look anyway, though” Shane said drawing out Brill’s agony.

Brill’s gratitude was boundless then, “Bless your heart!” he said as Shane leafed through the pages of the Apprentice’s Handbook. He opened it to the chapter that dealt with washing clothes for a wizard and pretended to read a few pages. He rad them very slowly so, Brill could snivel some more. “Hm. That’s a very interesting point,” he said, closing the book.

“Really?” Brill exclaimed, happily, “tell me what it says, master Shane. Please?”

“It says I have two choices. I can pardon you if I choose to do so but only as long as I punish you by putting a spell on you to make sure you can never come after me again,”

“A spell? What sort of a spell?” Brill wondered. Hopeful it meant a happy ending for him.

“A spell that’ll turn you into a monkey,” Shane said straight-faced.

“A monkey!?” Brill cried in his best’ oh woe is me’ voice.

“That’s right, Brill. The book says I either have to 
turn you into a monkey before I can let you go, or I have to kill you,” Shane said as Brill began blubbering loudly. He sounded pitiful but it fell on eight deaf ears. Brill’s crocodile tears fell on ice and stone. Shane knew they were as phony as the tears of a murderer pretending to be a monk could be.

“But I don’t want to be turned into a monkey!” He sobbed.

“I’m sorry, Brill,” Shane said, shaking his head slowly, “But you should have thought about that before you went so far out of your way to rob me and kill me,” He pointed out.

“Ah, hahaha, ha!” Brill cried. “Please your Lordship! Not a monkey! Anything but a monkey!”

“Would you rather I put you to death instead?” Shane asked.

“No, of course not! I don’t want to be turned into a monkey either!” Brill explained through racking sobs. “What will I eat, how am I going to make a living?”

“You will live in a tree and eat bananas I expect,” Shane told him as he rolled his sleeves up. “And now, unless you prefer to die I might as well get on with casting the spell,”

“Please don’t your Lordship!” Brill wailed.

Nope. I am truly sorry Brill but it’s your own fault. Now then, if you don’t be quiet while I cast the spell it won’t be my fault if you are turned into a dung beetle or something even worse,” Shane warned as he stood and pulled back the hood of his pullover.

Brill did not want to be a monkey. Who does? But the last thing he wanted to be was a dung beetle. He couldn’t imagine what might be worse and didn’t care to know either. Still the images of worse things came to mind unbidden so Brill kept his big mouth clamped shut when Shane began to cast his spell.

Shane quite naturally had no more idea how to change Brill into a monkey than Brill did, but he wasn’t going to tell Brill that. It was never the point of the exercise to begin with. He preferred scaring the life out of the thief to killing him as Star would have him do.

Taking the staff in both hands, Shane held it out then upward in the most dramatic fashion and pointed the Orleanstone at the flashing clouds overhead. Speaking in a low voice at first he began to rattle off a litany on nonsensical verses he had made up long ago in school before throwing in a smidgen of Latin from Sunday services.

“Vindi vidi vici!” He cried out in a loud commanding voice that boomed in the close shelter of the surrounding boulders, his face was a mask of dancing shadows cast upon it by the dancing firelight. “En dominus entres pactum permant sanctum!”

Swinging the stone head of the staff straight at Brill’s head and holding it there, he gave Star a wink and cast this spell.

“Drizzle frazzle frizzle crone, banana tree and monkey bones. Izzum, frizzum, frazzum, frue! Monkey see, monkey do! Dribble, drabble droozle, drail! Give this thief a monkey’s tail! Spirits of power spirits of might turn him into a monkey tonight! he ended with a dramatic flourish as he waved the Orleanstone around Brill’s head three times.

That said he stepped back, set the heel of the staff in the ground and held it at his side and said no more.

“Wait, what? Is that it then, lad? Brill asked him after several moments had passed and nothing had happened to him yet.

“Yep. That’s it. The spell is cast,”

“I don’t feel no different,” Brill said.

“Well of course you don’t, not yet that is ,”

“What do you mean not yet?” Brill ask suspiciously.

“The spell doesn’t take effect right away” Shane replied.

“It doesn’t?”

“Of course not. Don’t be silly. It would be mean to turn you loose as a monkey right away so it happens gradually to give you time to get used to the idea of living in a tree.”

“Oh no! Why me Lord?!” Brill cried to the Heavens but his only answer was the sound of distant thunder fading away in the night.

The big stallion’s breathing sounded loud in his ears , and now Brill imagined he could feel his ears beginning to change shape already.

“I’ll tell you why monkey man,” Shane said looking down at his captive. “It’s because you are a very bad man and very bad things happen to very bad men all the time. It’s called Karma,” then to Dark Star he said, ” You can let him up Star, but don’t take your eyes off of him for one second.”

The stallion nodded close enough to Brill’s face that everyone understood, and then he snorted wetly in Brill’s wide eyes before he slowly stepped away from Brill and placed himself squarely between Brill and Shane.

Brill sat up and wiped his face of horse slobber with the sleeve of his robe. The taste of his own tears were like caustic acid in his mouth as he begged, Shane, “Please, please won’t you have mercy on me, on my poor soul?”

“I did have mercy on you. In fact I have shown you far more mercy than you showed me. You were going to kill me outright, I only turned you into a monkey. That sounds like justice to me,” Shane said. “You should be happy, and a little more thankful that you’re even alive to talk about it. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“No, not really,”

“I can always carry out your death sentence if you prefer. Just say the magic word,” Shane offered.

“No, your Lordship, that won’t be necessary. I do believe I’m beginning to see things your way,” Brill said with a new perspective to guide his decisions just then.

“I thought you might,” Shane said. “And now I think if I were you I would get lost before I change my mind and carry out the death sentence just because I don’t want to look at you any longer. Go find your friend Crandle and tell him if I ever see him again I’ll turn him into a dung heap,”

“Of course I will tell him, your Lordship,” Brill stammered as he rose wobbling and got up on one knee. The one that still screamed pain at his brain by way of the entire nervous system. His right ankle felt no better either. He nearly fell twice as he rose unsteadily to his feet and got his balance.

“You busted my knee up pretty good with that staff,” he told, Shane.

“Awww,” Shane cooed, “Poor baby. That is a real shame too, because if you are not out of my sight in the next ten seconds I am going to crack the other knee for you. Be gone, Brill. Now!” He said, in no uncertain terms.

“Is it okay if I take Crandle’s sword with me?”

Shane looked him square in the eyes and said, “One…Two…,”

“All right all right! I’m going!” Brill cried “I’m going!”

As he began limping away, Shane called out Four…five…,”

“I said I’m going! I can’t hardly walk you know!”

“Six…,”

“I’m going!” Brill yelled pleadingly back over his shoulder. He was quickly swallowed up by the darkness as he went hopping off in a big hurry.

“Seven…eight…nine…” Here Shane paused for a few moments and by the time he reached, “TEN!”Brills tracks were almost covered by the heavily falling snow. Shane breathed a heavy sigh and sank down on the only spot not littered with fragments of Brill’s former sword. He laid the staff across his lap and stared at the fire for a minute before he sighed again and opened the Apprentice’s Guidebook to read for a while.

He had not been reading a moment or two when suddenly Shane put the book down in his lap and slapped his forehead with a resounding smack that made the horses start. “Aw crud! I completely forgot to get my money back from Brill before I ran him off, Star,” Now we will be broke all the way to Darvonshire,” he moaned. “There’s no way we can find him in this storm.”

Dark Star tossed his mane and shook his big head as he wheeled on his rear hooves and raced off into the storm in the direction Brill had gone. Shane tried to tell him to stop but he was already gone. In less than the time it took Shane to rekindle the flames of the campfire Star was back again. He was covered with clinging wet snow and in his teeth he carried Shane’s purse by the drawstrings.

“Hey! You got my purse back! Shane cried out as the stallion pranced up to him and dropped it into, Shane’s outstretched hand where it clinked from the weight of the coins inside. “You are the best horse ever, my friend,” he told the horse as he threw his arms around his neck and hugged him tight. How in the world did you ever get it back, or do I not want to know?”

Star whinnied and shook his head, laughing that maddening horsey laugh that he had come to know and dread so well over the course of the past two weeks. Dark Star shook his head and then pranced over to see Genny and Vanna who were waiting for him to tell them what they had witnessed meant. The mule’s had a perspective of human behavior that differed greatly from that of the stallion because he could understand what the humans were talking about.

Shane was left to wonder, while Star and the mules put their heads together to talk amongst themselves. Star told the mules that Brill had not gotten far before he caught up to him. He was cursing Shane, and his stupid horse to the devil, and rather loudly too. He had to go along in stops and starts so it was not long before he heard the clop clop clopping of heavy hoof beats pounding along the frozen ground behind him. He didn’t need a fortune cookie to tell him whom, or rather what that must be.

The black stallion ran past Brill at a full gallop then he wheeled and ran straight at Brill. but stopped short blocking his path. “What do you want now you bedeviled horse from Hell? I’m going away like I was told to ain’t I,”

Star used his nose to nudge Brill’s pocket. The one with Shane’s purse in it.

“What,” Brill growled again, but Star was not in the mood to be trifled with by him and he nudged the pocket once more only harder. He almost knocked Brill off of his feet. “AHHHHHHH!” He screamed as pain as he caught his balance on his injured knee and white hot pain shot through his entire body.

Once he regained his balance, Brill tried to tell Star a lie about losing Shane’s purse in his haste to leave but the stallion was not buying it. “I swear it on my sainted mother’s grave! I gave it back to your master. Go ask him!” Dark Star was old but he was not senile. He shoved his nose up under Brill’s pocket again and shook his great black head. The clinking of precious metal coins was unmistakable even over the noise of the swirling North wind.

“Well what do you know about that? Brill laughed sheepishly. “Heh, heh, heh. How in the world did that get back there?” he asked as he pulled the purse from his pocket. He even managed to look at it as though it had gotten there by magic. “I’m so embarrassed,” he said to the now glowering horse staring death at him.

“Would you like me to count it for you to make sure it’s all there?” he wanted to know. He was loosening the purse strings as he spoke. Star was hardly the caliber of fool Brill obviously took him for. He reared up on his hind legs and pawed the air. His huge hooves flashed past Brill’s face with a whoosh.

“Fine! Here, take it! And I hope your bloody master chokes on it too!” he spat as the stallion dropped down on all fours and snatched the purse from Brill’s hand with his teeth. He snorted wetly in Brill’s face and then took of at a run past Brill who spluttered back, “Stupid horse!” through the horse slobber on his frozen lips.

He was still balancing himself on the one good leg and steadying himself with the toe of the other foot when Dark Star hip checked him on his way by. Brill felt like he had been body slapped by a gigantic hand as weight and momentum sent Brill flying face first into a puddle of slushy snow and freezing mud. The front of his robe was soaked all the way through to his underwear. The shock of the cold and the agony singing in his knee sent an electric current of hurt surging through his body.

His boiling rage echoed off of the high rocky spires above his head when he lifted his mud covered face out of the puddle and screamed, “Arrrrrrghhh Curse you!!” while frozen black mud and ice dripped from his face and beard.

Over the swirling storm Brill could hear the high pitched laughter of a horse chasing his own echoes on the wind as Dark Star ran back to rejion Shane beside the fire. “”You stupid stupid stupid horse!” he cried as he pounded his fist futilely into the puddle which sent more frozen mud splashing into his face.