“A Sourcerer’s Apprentice”

A Soucerer's Apprentice


Old Mother Hibbard went to the cupboard to get her poor dog a bone, thought Tabitha, for perhaps the jillionth time. Only Mother Hibbard was not old, or at least she did not look old, and her dog was not at all poor. He was a smooth fox terrier called Francis, and a better fed, healthier, sweeter animal you never would want to meet.

Mother Hibbard often went to the cupboard while she and her girls were working. She kept lots of supply items in her cupboards, as any good sourcerer would – tongue of bat, eye of newt, tooth of frog, that sort of thing. Actually, that was one of Mother Hibbard’s jokes.

In point of fact, there were plenty of animal products and byproducts inside her cupboards, along with herbs, roots, leaves, bark, tinctures, extracts, distillations, evaporations, and premixed compounds of all these items, in numerous forms, but nothing that might be considered the least bit arcane or suspicious. Mother Hibbard was a practical sourcerer, and she kept her sources simple.

No one knew how old Mother was. Depending on her mood, the time of day, even the phase of the moon, she could appear thirty-two or seventy-two. In all cases, however, she retained the erect posture, firm jawline, and clear green eyes of a classic beauty – a screen star in her prime, or perhaps just past it, but well maintained and determined to age gracefully.

She and her assistants concocted and sold lotions and potions, salves and emollients, tonics and fever reducers, all from purely organic sources. True, there were phials and retorts, tempered glass tubes and blue-hot jets of flame involved at times, but what she and her girls did had more cookery than chemistry about it.

Tabitha Pennywhistle was Mother’s newest apprentice-cum-protégé. She had been apprenticed right out of primary school at sixteen, worked for almost two years and was starting to catch on to what Mother was trying to teach her.

The other apprentices were out collecting simples in the woods and fields. Tabitha wished she were with them. As the new girl, she got all the scut work. At that moment, she was taking sting venom from a couple hundred stunned red wasps. Her eyes ached from peering at a microscope screen while inserting the point of a hair-fine hypodermic needle, over and over again, into the venom sacs of creatures no bigger than the end of her finger. It was not the worst job Mother had ever given her, but it was right near the top of Tabitha’s not-to-do list. She dearly longed for the day when she could call someone else Newbie and show her how to harvest wasp venom and collect raccoon urine.

Not that Tabitha begrudged the effort. Mother always was very forthcoming with explanations as to why, as well as how, tasks were to be performed.

“The venom is quite beneficial in tonics, my dear,” she had said as she held Tabitha’s hand to guide it during her first few harvesting attempts.

“Isn’t it poisonous, Mother?”

“Certainly, as is alcohol. But with correct preparation and handling, that, too, can benefit humanity.”

“Like wine, you mean?”

“Amongst other things, yes.”

Tabitha set down her hypo, flexed her fingers, and smoothed the fur of the chipmunk that lay asleep in her lap. “I wish I had some wine,” she said, more to the chipmunk than to Mother. “My hands are starting to cramp.”

“Not while you’re working, dear. But if you get this lot harvested, you may have a small glass before bed.”

It was not often that Mother offered such an overt carrot rather than a stick to motivate her assistants, but neither was she an unreasonable taskmistress. Despite the stories the other girls told her about the bundle of switches that hung from a peg near the cottage’s back door, Tabitha had never seen Mother even threaten, let alone use it on anyone. Mother usually needed nothing more than the force of her will to keep order in the household. However, there was an incident just after Tabitha’s arrival when Mother’s will was not sufficient, at least in her own eyes, and she called in reinforcements.

Esmeralda, the apprentice whose place Tabitha had been given, was at the time preparing to depart as a journeyman sourcerer. She was tall and pretty and smart and had been a calming influence on the somewhat mercurial temperaments of the other girls, Ariel and Sybil. With the prospect of her absence looming, those two had got quite out of hand, to the point that they had talked back to Mother when she had giveb them tasks that they thought should go to the new girl. Although Mother had insisted, the girls had further demurred. Little as she knew of Mother, Tabitha was amazed that the sourcerer had not lost her temper.

Instead, Mother had simply given instructions for the usual evening and bedtime routines, then said she would return on the morrow. Meanwhile, she said, her cousin, Mr. Rodcaster, would call at the house first thing in the morning to deal with the issue. All the girls had been shocked, most of all Ariel and Sybil, who immediately began to apologize and beg Mother’s pardon for their behavior, but it was too late.

***

Mother had grabbed her cloak and car keys from the pegs by the front door on that fateful evening nearly two years earlier. In a moment, she and her had dog disappeared into the twilight. The rest of the night had been filled with fretful speculations and conjectures, especially from the two culprits under sentence.

“What is this cousin going to do, Esme?” Sybil demanded as the girls went to the kitchen to prepare supper.

Esmeralda patted the girl’s arm, but Sybil shook her off. “You can bet he’s not going to give you a medal. Heat a little olive oil and we’ll sauté some of that spinach.”

“Esme, please!” Sybil puffed petulantly but took a sauté pan from the rack above the cooker. “Is he … is he going to yell at us?”

The girl shook her head. “I only ever saw him once, and I didn’t stay to watch because I had to feed Pippin. He never yelled, as far as I know, but I heard a lot of squealing coming from downstairs, and I saw the girl later. She was very, very sorry she hadn’t done what Mother told her to.”

“Oh, gawds,” Sybil moaned. She pointed at the bundle of switches. “Did he …?”

Esmeralda shrugged and handed Sybil a colander full of washed spinach. “I know she had a tough time sitting down for a while.”

Sybil Transom was the next oldest apprentice, and the next tallest. She was even prettier than Esmeralda. Unfortunately, she knew she was beautiful and had grown quite full of herself. The eldest of three sisters and her father’s favorite, at home, she had ordered her sisters about while taking little notice of her mother’s discipline, secure in the knowledge that Daddy always took his favorite daughter’s side in any disagreement. But Adolphus Transom was a kind man and always managed to smooth matters over with the other family members, somehow. He even agreed with Mrs. Transom that his coddling of their eldest daughter was doing her no favors, though he did nothing to change his ways.

Mr. Transom was a horticulturalist by profession and predilection. Their large property was dotted with greenhouses and potting sheds, so Sybil learned about plants as if by osmosis. She shared Daddy’s enthusiasm for learning, though not his dedication. Still, she had enough self discipline to get her through school.

One of their neighbors was an herbalist who borrowed greenhouse space from Mr. Transom. The woman was not nearly on a par with Mother Hibbard, but it was from the neighbor that Sybil found out about Mother and decided that being a sourcerer would suit her right down to the ground.

Sybil’s father agreed eagerly and set about arranging the apprenticeship as soon as Sybil suggested it. Her mother, too, had thought that it would be a very good idea, indeed, for Sybil to leave home for a long time.

“Get last night’s chicken out of the fridge, Tabitha, and I’ll start stripping the bones,” Esmeralda said. “Then break off a bowlful of florets from the broccoli.”

Tabitha nodded and went to the fridge. Ariel stared, wide-eyed, at the switches on the wall until Esmeralda called her name.

“Slice a couple of tomatoes and put the oil and vinegar on the table. Oh, and the pepper grinder.”

“All right.”

Ariel Crewkerne, like Tabitha, had wanted to be a sourcerer for most of her young life. Where she came from, the local sourcerer was the only form of medical care available for miles around and was, therefore, an indispensable member of the community. Somerpark Province, a small and mostly rural area just south of the much larger Bulkawhozits Province where Mother lived, was a sheepherding region of grassy downs in central Neverwasnia. Both Ariel and Tabitha had grown up in Somerpark, and the girl even resembled Tabitha somewhat, in a fresh-faced farmer’s daughter kind of way. She was a bit taller than Tabitha, though shorter than Esmeralda and Sybil.

When she had first arrived at Mother’s cottage, she already felt overwhelmed by the size of the town where the motor coach had deposited her. The town of Solemn was, in fact, quite small, at least compared to the nearby metropolis of Flosston, but it was huge in comparison with the two-street village closest to Ariel’s family farm.

Being from a large family – four brothers and five sisters – Ariel had grown quite used to the idea of a pecking order within a household. She had two older sisters and one older brother, so it was obvious to her from day one in Mother’s house where she fit, and she resolutely took her place beneath Sybil.  Esmeralda treated her very well from the first, but Sybil seemed not to get it for a while, and she often spoke harshly to Ariel. Esmeralda called her on it a few times, and eventually Sybil realized that Ariel already had capitulated. Then she simply took Ariel’s subservience as a given, and they got on splendidly.

Unfortunately for Ariel, her ability to adapt to the new environment also entailed her inadvertently adopting some of the less appealing mannerisms of her fellow apprentices. She greatly admired Esmeralda, and tried to emulate her as much as possible, but Sybil demanded so much of her time and attention that it was her personality that had had the most impact on Ariel. Slowly, and without her noticing, the farm girl became almost as snobbish and dismissive as Sybil. Now that this fact had been brought decidedly home to her, Ariel deeply regretted allowing herself to fall so completely into Sybil’s sphere of influence.

What was done was done, of course, but Ariel did enjoy one advantage over Sybil in this particular instance. Her mum had used a switch, and her dad his wide leather belt, on their children’s bottoms when they thought it necessary, so Ariel knew what they might expect.

Sybil had scarcely ever been scolded, not effectively, at any rate, let alone physically chastised. And now, with no daddy to intercede on her behalf, she could only imagine the worst. She pouted all the while the girls prepared their supper and glared into space while they ate it, playing the surly teenaged girl part to the hilt, though her teen years were rapidly drawing to a close.

Once the kitchen was spotless, Esmeralda made everyone go to bed early. Tabitha slept on a daybed in the upstairs sewing room. The other girls had the large dormitory bedroom across a narrow hallway, where she would sleep once Esmeralda had gone. Voices came from the dorm room for a long time after they retired, and Tabitha read for a while in bed. Finally, Esmeralda told the other girls, quite firmly, to hush and go to sleep. Tabitha turned out her reading light and drifted off.

The girls were up with the sun, as usual. Tabitha washed and dressed in the small bathroom next to Mother’s bedroom, while the others did the same in the big, dorm-style lavatory.

“Let’s go, Sybil,” Esmeralda called from the hallway. “We have to eat a quick breakfast this morning.”

“I’m not hungry!”

“You don’t have to eat but you do have to help cook and clean up, so quit dawdling.”

“I’m not dawdling, Esme! I’m trying to do something about these stupid bags under my eyes! I didn’t sleep a wink!”

Esmeralda shook her head. “There’s a little bottle of witch hazel in my makeup kit. Dab a tiny bit of that on and rub it in gently, but make sure your eyes are shut tight when you do. Then get your butt downstairs, do you hear me?”

“All right, all right! Gawds!”

Mr. Rodcaster had arrived just as the girls finished the washing up. His dusty and battered pickup stopped in front of the carport, and he came in through the front door without knocking. He was a big man, and rough looking, not particularly handsome, though well set up and completely self-assured. Clear, hard blue eyes shone from beneath a battered, wide-brimmed hat. His nose was bent slightly to one side, as if it had been broken and not set well. He looked the sort of man that no sensible person would knowingly offend. The hat swung slowly side to side when he hung it on a peg by the door.

All four girls stood in the hallway, Esmeralda a pace or two in front. Mr. Rodcaster nodded.

“I’m looking for Sybil and Ariel. I need to talk to them.”

Esmeralda stepped aside. Ariel and Sybil, heads up but chins aquiver, shuffled toward him. His face showed no sign of emotion as he turned and went into the front parlor, motioning the girls to follow with a twitch of his head. The two, on leaden feet, complied.

Tabitha looked at Esmeralda. “Should we go in, too?” she whispered.

“I guess so. If he doesn’t want us there, I expect he’ll say so.”

The two stood just inside the parlor doorway. Ariel and Sybil shivered a few feet farther into the room, their fingers fidgeting while Mr. Rodcaster easily moved the heavy settee away from the wall. He looked at the girls and crossed his arms.

“I heard that you did not want to do what Mother told you. Is that so?”

“No!”

“No, sir, we will! We do! Always!”

He held up a hand and the girls put their fingers to their mouths. “But you did not want to. You did not want to very much, and you told Mother that, several times.”

“Yeah, but we changed our minds!” Sybil wailed.

“Yes, after Mother lost patience and told you I was coming here to punish you.”

“No!” Sybil’s shriek made everyone in the room wince. “She never said that! She never …”

“Hush, Sybil. When you are disobedient and disrespectful to Mother, you will be punished.”

“Bu-but we said we’re sorry! We did!”

“Yes, Ariel, afterwards, after you had been willful and disobedient, when it was too late. And when you have been that wicked, saying sorry is not enough. You must be made to feel sorry.”

“But I do! I really, really do feel sorry already!”

Sybil put her hands over her eyes and wept. Ariel sobbed when Sybil began to cry. Both girls quaked like aspen in a summer storm when the man took their arms and led them behind the settee. They bent readily enough when Mr. Rodcaster pushed them forward, but Sybil’s wails doubled in volume when he furled her skirts up over her back.

“That’s quite enough, Sybil. Save your breath. And my ears.”

“But I, I never got pu-punished before!”

“Then I expect you’re overdue.”

She turned and gasped in alarm when, without ceremony or warning, he quickly and assuredly downed her very plain, very white, short-legged drawers, the only sort of panties the girls of the household were allowed to wear. Half naked before a strange man and shocked near to paralysis, Sybil could only groan and look away. Ariel swiped at tears, and whimpered when he touched the buckle of his wide, black belt. He paused for a second, then leaned over, pulled the girls closer together, stretched his left forearm across both their backs, and lifted his right arm.

The crisp, loud smack of flesh on flesh rang out, accompanied by heartfelt wails. The sounds filled the room as he peppered both round bottoms with hard spanks, going back and forth at random, slapping first one pair of smooth cheeks a dozen times, then giving the other a half dozen before heading the other direction. Very, quickly the soft, pale skin turned warm pink, then hot pink, then an uncomfortable looking shade of crimson.

Tabitha and Esmeralda clutched each other’s hands. They bit their lips, both their tummies writhing with horrible, nervous butterflies while their fellow students received a most terrible punishment.

At last he stopped spanking, lowered the girls’ skirts, and made them stand up and turn to him. He lifted their chins so he could see their eyes.

“Tell me why I had to spank you.” His voice had softened considerably.

It took a while, but between the sniffles and sobs and hiccups, and both girls speaking at once, they managed to get across the idea that they had been disobedient and disrespectful but had totally seen the error of their ways and were ever so sorry and most repentant, even if neither girl thought to use that word. He nodded.

“And you won’t do it again?” Fervent headshakes and numerous nos and nevers ensued. “Good.” He patted their arms and stepped back. “Then on Mother’s behalf, I forgive you.”

He made his exit quickly, without taking notice of the two onlookers beside the parlor door. Tugging on his hat as he went out, he shut the front door behind him with a very final-sounding click.

The girls’ knickers had fallen round their ankles as they writhed beneath the punishment, and Sybil whimpered as she struggled to pull hers up. She jumped when Esmeralda laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.

“Just take them off, honey. You don’t really need them at the moment, right?”

Sybil stamped her foot, wailed, shook her head as she kicked off the drawers, then grabbed them from the floor, and ran out the door and up the stairs.

“Wow. Was it something I said?” Esmeralda looked at Ariel. “Are you okay?”

The girl shrugged and sniffled. “At least he didn’t make us stand in the corner. Mom used to make us stand in the corner after.”

“Oh, I hated that,” Tabitha said.

“Yeah, me too. I better go see about Sybil.”

“Sure.” Esmeralda shrugged and smiled. “Uh, take your time.”

Ariel left, also carrying her knickers. Tabitha looked at Esmeralda.

“What now?”