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Authors: Kate Thompson

Alchemist's Apprentice

BOOK: Alchemist's Apprentice
10.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The Alchemist's Apprentice
Kate Thompson

For Jacob


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-seven

Chapter Twenty-eight

Chapter One

behind the forge, the cock crowed. Jack was on his feet before he was awake; before William could get to him and drag him out of bed. He bent beneath the dusty rafters of the loft, pulling himself up from ugly dreams which kept trying to drag him back down among his blankets. He swayed on his feet, then stretched and yawned and opened his eyes. It was still dark, but he didn't need to see to know that William wasn't there.

He remembered now. William had hurt his back shoeing a horse the day before and Tom, the farrier they were both apprenticed to, had sent him home for a few days to recover. It meant that Jack would have one less bully to worry about.

It also meant that there would be twice as much work. The cock crowed again. From the street outside, Jack heard the first clatter of buckets and the wheezy voice of the pump handle as the neighbourhood's earliest risers began the day. Propping himself against the slope of the roof, he shook the spiders out of his clothes and pulled them on.

Treading carefully to avoid the crunch of cockroaches beneath his bare feet, Jack crossed the rough wooden timbers of the floor and climbed down the ladder into the forge. Tom was always the last to arrive, but Jack had never been in the forge without William there, bossing and boasting. He stopped for a moment, looking into the silent darkness, breathing in the familiar smells of smoke and burnt hooves. It was a rare, peaceful moment, but he couldn't allow it to last for long. There was too much work to be done.

The bolt on the back door was stiff. It grated and dug into Jack's hand, but eventually slid across. In the little yard behind it, the farrier's pony whickered gently, anxious for his breakfast.

Jack laughed. ‘Coming, Dobbs,' he said.

The morning was dry and clear. The stars were still shining, though dawn was dimming them fast. Cocks were crowing now from every direction and, as he walked across the dew-damp cobbles, Jack could hear the noises of the town as it woke. From behind the thin doors and shutters of the houses around the forge, people coughed and hawked or called to each other or grumbled. Jack gathered an armful of hay from the shelter in the corner of the yard and stood at the door of the tiny stall where Dobbs spent most of his days. The pony grabbed a mouthful, and Jack stood and rubbed his neck while he ate it. Though Dobbs rarely showed any sign of interest in anything other than food, Jack felt a special affinity with him. They were the underdogs at the forge, the ones who couldn't answer back. Sometimes it seemed that they were both there for no other purpose than to bear the brunt of Tom's bad temper, and William's, too. Yet there was nothing they could do about it. There was nowhere else for either of them to go.

Reluctantly, Jack threw the rest of the hay over the door and returned to the forge. With difficulty he pulled back the heavy bolts and opened up the double doors at the front of the building. Outside them, a little way up the street, a queue had formed at the pump. Jack had known most of the people there all his life and exchanged greetings with them as he bolted the doors open. He knew, however, that despite their friendly acceptance of him, he was seen as a bit of a joke; the puniest apprentice ever taken on by a blacksmith in London.

He went back inside and turned his attention to the fire. Sometimes, when the smith had been busy late into the evening, there were still embers glowing in it, but this morning it was quite cold. Jack raked out the ashes carefully, then gathered tinder and kindling and lit them with a spark from a flint. In the dry, summer conditions they burned fiercely, and Jack had to move quickly, piling up charcoal around them before they burnt out. Then, relieved to have got a good start on the work, he began to sweep the floor.

By the time Tom arrived, yawning and stretching, still bleary-eyed from the previous night's ale, the fire had heated up well and Jack was standing proudly above a heap of dusty nail-ends and hoof-parings. The last of the darkness had been washed from the sky and the queue at the pump had dwindled.

Tom peered into the furnace and nodded approvingly. ‘Boost her up, now, lad,' he said. ‘Nicholson's cob has to be done first thing, and I still haven't finished that gate for old Martin.'

He began to sort through some pieces of iron leaning against the opposite wall and Jack watched him, fascinated by his strength.

‘Jack will grow on.' It was a neighbour, Peg, who had brought him to Tom, after his mother died. ‘He just had a bad start, that's all. He'll catch up.'

Tom had stared at him in astonishment, then looked at Peg as though she were out of her mind.

‘Someone has to take him,' she had said. ‘He has no one now.'

Jack still couldn't understand why he had been accepted. If Tom had pity in his heart it was buried very deep beneath his drunkenness and ill humour. He could only assume that Peg, who had been his mother's best friend, had some mysterious influence over Tom or had called upon some favour that was owed. Because as he watched the blacksmith's broad shoulders and muscular arms, Jack knew that what she had said was not true. He would never grow into anything like Tom. His legs were bowed with rickets and his narrow ribcage showed clearly through his skin, above a belly that seemed always to be empty. Beside the bulk of the blacksmith he felt like a puppet or a rag doll, with bony shoulders and tiny, skinny arms. As a blacksmith's apprentice he was a dead loss and he knew it. He was learning to trim hooves and knock down clenches after the shoes were nailed on, but he doubted if he would ever have the strength to shoe a horse from beginning to end. His one advantage, however, was his feeling for horses. Even Tom had grudgingly admitted that he had a knack. Horses seemed to like him.

And he liked them. There were times, climbing into the loft at night, when he felt that every bone in his body had been bruised by the rigours of the day's work, but there was never a morning after when he didn't feel like getting up. The horses made up for all the cuffs and insults he received from Tom and William. Even if he didn't get to touch one of them all day, he loved being near them; loved their sweet smell and their gentle patience.

A stray dog trotted in from the road and began to snuffle around inside the door. Jack tossed him a moon-shaped hoof-trimming, then shoved the rest of his sweepings up against the coal heap. Tom was sorting through a stack of iron rods, filling the confined space with clattering and ringing. The dog took to its heels. Jack added another shovel of charcoal to the fire and began to work the bellows. He had seen Tom do it with one hand, but it took him all his strength to open them and all his weight bearing down to close them. Like a great beast breathing, they drew in air and whooshed it out again, reddening the coals and causing them to spring into flames. A dozen times Jack heaved them open and squashed them closed and then, panting and sweating but satisfied with the fire, he sat down to take a breather.

‘Water, lad. Hop it!'

Jack jumped up and gathered a pair of buckets. He fetched and carried from the pump until he had filled the barrel where the steel was tempered when it had been heated and shaped. Soon afterwards, Nicholson arrived with his smart cob, and Tom set Jack to making nails.

The morning wore on. The sun rose above the line of the buildings opposite and cast bright light through the wide doors of the forge, adding to the heat already spreading from the furnace. Tom's temper began to deteriorate. A pair of carriage horses came in to be shod, and after them came a heavy dray horse with feet the size of dinner plates. Tom sweated and cursed, and began, as usual, to take out his irritation on Jack. He gave him one order after another, to tend the forge, to hand him a hammer, to finish off the clenches. Jack ran from one side of the smithy to the other and Tom scolded him for being slow, and then for not finishing the job he had just pulled him away from. It seemed to Jack that he could do nothing right. He began to get nervous and his nervousness made him clumsy. He spilled a shovelful of charcoal, then spilled it again when he had swept it up. Tom slapped him for it, and made him drop a heavy rasp on to his toe. When he yelled in pain, Tom gave him another slap for alarming the horse he was shoeing. The day that had begun so well was becoming a nightmare.

At noon Tom closed the double doors and sent Jack for bread and herrings for their lunch. They ate in tense silence for a while, then Tom nodded towards the dwindling pile of charcoal.

‘You'll have to go for a load,' he said.

‘By myself?' said Jack. He had been with William before, down to the docks where the charcoal was brought by boat from the forests upstream, but he had never been allowed to take the reins.

‘All you have to do is steer,' said Tom. ‘Old Dobbs knows his job. You're not likely to get into any trouble. You know the way, don't you?'

Jack nodded, and slowly his anxiety gave way to delight at the thought of spending the afternoon sitting on a cart, out of the way of Tom and his temper.

‘Tack him up, then, lad, and get on the road.' Tom nodded at the charcoal pile again. ‘We might even need it before the day's out.'

In the stable at the side of the yard, the old pony stood dozing, oblivious to the clouds of flies which buzzed around his eyes. Jack dragged out the collar and harness and tried to fit them on the pony. It looked so simple when William did it but now, faced with a dozen different straps and buckles, Jack realised that he had no idea how it all worked. He was afraid to ask Tom for help, but the harder he tried to fit the harness, the more bewildered he became. When Tom came out to see what was taking so long, he flew into a rage. He shoved Jack so hard against the stable wall that the wind was knocked out of him. It hurt, but it hurt more to see Tom taking out his anger on the patient old pony. He flung the harness on to him, yanking at the straps with all his brutal strength. Dobbs threw up his head and grunted, then followed the blacksmith at a trot out into the yard, where he was rammed backwards between the shafts of the cart.

Jack ran through the smithy to open the doors, then climbed up on to the seat and picked up the reins. Tom thrust a shilling into his hand. ‘And mind you don't take all day, you hear? Or I'll show you what real trouble means!'

Dobbs trotted along nervously for the first few minutes, driven by the memory of the blacksmith's fury. But when, after a while, he realised that he was safe, he slowed to a jog, then a walk. The empty cart rattled along the rutted cobbles. Around them, the streets were busy with people; life going on outside now that the weather was so fine. Small children carried smaller ones on their hips while their mothers did what work could be done outside. Doors and shutters stood open, the interiors behind them cast into deep gloom by the brilliance of the summer light. Washing hung from every available hook and ledge. A thousand smells, some good, some bad, rose from the city streets and met and mingled in the air. Jack was proud to be riding through it all in charge of a pony and cart, even if they were both a bit wobbly and worn.

BOOK: Alchemist's Apprentice
10.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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