Bruce Coville's Book of Magic
I.The Hungry Heart
“Hey Aaron!” jeered a tall, dirt-smeared boy. “Got any magic to show us today?”
“Careful!” cautioned his companion. “The little wizard might turn you into a toad.”
The tall boy made a fake display of terror, holding his hands in front of himself. Then he and his companion collapsed against each other, laughing helplessly.
Keeping his eyes on the under-ripe melons he had been picking through, Aaron pretended to ignore the boys. But their teasing comments burned inside him. When he finally finished the marketing and returned to the cottage he shared with the wizard Bellenmore, he went to stand in front of the old man and demanded, as he had so many times before, “When will I be ready?”
The wizard glanced up from the lizard he had just picked up. Peering through wire-rimmed spectacles, he scowled at the skinny youngster he had taken in so many years ago. Though he was very fond of Aaron the boy’s impatience was beginning to annoy him.
“When?” asked Aaron again.
“I don’t have the slightest idea!”
“Aaron!” The old man’s voice was sharp. “We have gone over this time and again. High Magic is not a toy, not something you play with. Nor is it possible to use until something in you can reach out and touch it. You can’t will yourself to be ready for it, any more than you can will yourself to be… oh, taller, for heavens’ sake. Some people are ready very young. Some are never ready. It’s different for everyone.”
“You don’t want to teach me!” cried Aaron. “You want to keep the power for yourself.” A wrenching sob rose in his chest. Rather than release it, he turned and fled the cottage.
Bellenmore dropped the lizard into its lavishly decorated cage and went to the door. Silently he watched the boy leave the clearing where the cottage nestled. Once Aaron had disappeared into the forest, the wizard shook his head sadly, causing his long white hair to ripple over his shoulders. Why were youngsters always so eager for something that was really so very painful?
Well, the boy would get over it. He always did.
He sighed and returned to the lizard, which looked up at him from its favorite rock and said in peeved tones, “I wish you wouldn’t drop me like that. I think I sprained my tail.”
After Bellenmore apologized, the lizard added, “Don’t worry about the boy. If I remember correctly, you were much the same at that age.”
The wizard snorted, then pretended that he hadn’t heard.
Aaron stumbled blindly through the forest. The air was cold, and a sharp breeze rustled the blood red leaves. He ran until his breath burned in his lungs. Finally, when he could go no further, he stopped and pressed his forehead against an old oak that had a trunk so thick his arms could barely reach halfway around it.
For a time, he just stood, panting and gasping.
Then he began to walk toward the ravine.
He regretted his sharp words now. He knew they came more from frustration than anything else. He didn’t really believe Bellenmore was trying to keep anything to himself. But it was so hard to wait—especially with the boys in the village constantly tormenting him about it.
Aaron sighed. Their jeers and teasing were partly his own fault. When he saw them with their fathers, on the days that he went to town to do the marketing, he was jealous—so jealous he had begun to create stories about his life with the old wizard who had adopted him, wild tales about the great magics Bellenmore was teaching him. Carried away with his own words, he had boasted of how he would soon be a powerful magician himself, while the town boys remained mere apprentices and hired hands.
Naturally, the boys had asked him to show them some magic. Equally naturally, once they found he couldn’t, they never let him forget it.
It wouldn’t have been quite so painful if he had been able to work even some minor spell to prove he had hope. But no matter how he tried, the magic (both High and Low) refused to come to him. And the truth was, it wasn’t that Bellenmore was unwilling to teach him. It was that the teaching did no good; no matter how he tried, Aaron could not touch the currents of magic.
He walked on, his eyes on the ground, so consumed in his misery he failed to notice the enormous creature that flew overhead.
He did notice, however, the heavy, four-toed footprint that sank deep into the soft ground at the edge of the next stream he came to. He bent to examine it, then wrinkled his brow in concern. It looked like a troll print. But that was ridiculous. There had been no troll sightings in this area for several years now, not since Bellenmore had driven the last of the creatures away.
Aaron glanced around, looking for more footprints. But the leaves that covered the forest floor would not take an impression.
He stood at the edge of the stream, uncertain what to do next. It might be best to go back to the cottage, to report this to Bellenmore right away. But it was too soon; neither his anger nor his chagrin at his own foolishness had cooled enough for him to feel comfortable going back. Besides, it was only one footprint.
Using stepping stones so familiar to him he didn’t even need to look at them, Aaron crossed the stream.
The sun was sinking lower in the sky. The breeze seemed to be picking up. An eerie cry in the distance made him shiver, and he thought again about turning back. Bellenmore was quick to forgive. It would be no problem to return now.
But the cry wasn’t the sound of a troll—he knew enough about them to know that. Besides, he had made up his mind to go to the ravine, and he didn’t want to give up on the idea. Walking its edge helped to calm the storms that raged within him.
Bellenmore won’t be worried, he told himself. And I’m no coward, ready to run home because of a weird noise.
Still, as he walked he found himself glancing around more often than was his habit.
Aaron had another reason to go to the ravine. He had a special spot beside it that he used for practicing. It was where he sat to try and find the quiet place inside himself, the place where Bellenmore claimed the Magic dwelt. Once or twice he actually thought he did catch a touch, for the briefest instant, of some deep power running through him. But it always vanished as soon as he became aware of it. Usually, there was nothing.
He sighed. Maybe Bellenmore was right after all.
The magician was still on Aaron’s mind when he reached the ravine. He did love the old man. How could he not? Bellenmore had taken him in, reared him like a son. And if his temper was a bit quick, his tongue a trifle sharp, all in all he treated Aaron very well. Aaron knew that many a boy in town would gladly trade places with him, despite all the teasing they gave him.
He stood gazing pensively into the ravine. Far below, at the base of its rocky, brush-cluttered banks, ran a swiftly moving stream. It caught the last of the sun’s light now, which made the water look like blood.
The deep silence was shattered by a screech. Aaron spun, aware as he did of the sound of giant wings beating somewhere above him. Suddenly he screamed and threw up his hands to protect himself. A hideous creature was swooping toward him. It was leather-skinned, twice the height of man, with a wingspread like a house. Its knife-like talons stretched for his throat. Its oddly human face leered with malevolent glee. “Come to me!” it hissed.
“Get back!” cried Aaron, as he stumbled back himself. His foot crossed the edge of the ravine. He lost his balance and went over, bouncing down the steep, rocky slope.
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