A story of overlords, underlings and inhuman resources, The Outsorcerer's Apprentice is the hilarious new novel from comic fantasist Tom Holt.
Once upon a time there was a story. It was about magic and the magical land, and the right here and the very much now. It was about wizards and dragons, profit and loss ratios, doughnuts, manpower coefficients, crystal portals, a handsome prince, a poor but feisty peasant girl, Vivaldi, a unicorn, a LoganBerry XPXX3000, coffee stirrers, goblins and high-speed broadband. It starts off “once upon a time”. It goes like this—
The long shadows of a summer evening were falling across the meadows as Buttercup walked from the village to the big woods. In the basket over her arm she carried her father’s supper: bread and cheese, an apple and half a jar of pickled walnuts. As she approached the eaves of the wood, a rabbit poked its head out of its burrow and looked at her.
“Hello, Buttercup,” it said.
She looked at it. “Get lost,” she replied.
The rabbit twitched its whiskers. “It’s a lovely evening,” it said.
“It’s always a lovely evening,” Buttercup replied. “Go nibble something.”
“You seem upset,” the rabbit said. One of its ears was drooping adorably across its face. “Is something the matter?”
Buttercup reached into the basket, found the apple, took a quick but sure aim and threw. She hit the rabbit just above the eye, and it vanished back down its hole. Buttercup retrieved the apple, wiped the smear of rabbit blood off it with her sleeve and put it back in the basket. She felt a little better, but not much. A song thrush perched in the low branches of a sycamore tree opened its beak, thought better of it, and flew away in a flurry of wings.
Twenty yards or so inside the wood, Buttercup met an old woman sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree. She was wearing a big shawl, with a hood that covered her face. “Hello, little girl,” she said, in a dry, crackly voice. “And where might you be going on such a fine evening?”
Buttercup stopped, sighed and put down her basket. “You’re new here, right?”
“I come from a village twelve miles away, across the Blue Hills,” the old woman replied. “I’ve come to visit my son. He’s a woodcutter.”
Buttercup slowly shook her head. “I don’t think so,” she replied. “Look, we both know the score, right? Now, since you’re not from round here, I’m going to give you a break. I’ll count to five, and if you just get the hell away from me and don’t bother me again, we’ll pretend none of this ever happened. If not,” she added, “well.”
The old woman laughed shrilly. “What a funny girl you are,” she said. “Why don’t you—?”
The old woman hesitated for a moment. “Why don’t you come with me to my cosy little house, and I’ll make you a nice cup of—”
“Tea,” the old woman said, but there was a faint feather of doubt in her voice. “And biscuits. And gingerbread. You like gingerbread.”
“Three,” Buttercup said. “And gingerbread sucks.”
“All nice little girls like gingerbread,” the old woman said. “Everybody knows that.”
“Did I mention that I’m actually your long-lost aunt from over Green Meadows way?” the old woman said, edging a little closer. “I haven’t seen you since you were—”
Buttercup breathed a long, sad sigh. “Five,” she said, and put her hand inside the basket, which also contained, as well as the bread, cheese, apple and pickled walnuts, the small but quite sharp hatchet her mother used for splitting kindling for the fire. “Sorry,” she said as she swung the hatchet; and the wolf wriggled frantically to free itself from the old woman’s clothes, but it wasn’t quite fast enough. The hatchet caught it right between the eyes, and that was that.
Buttercup stooped to wipe the hatchet blade on the moss growing on the side of the fallen tree. She looked at the wolf. It was lying on its side, its eyes wide open and empty, its tongue poking out between its jaws. She felt sorry for it, in a way, but what can you do?
Five minutes or so later, she found the wolf ’s little house. Sure enough, there was a round table covered with a chintz cloth, a rocking chair and a small upholstered stool. On the table she found a teapot, two cups, a plate of scones, ham and watercress sandwiches, jam, clotted cream and the inevitable gingerbread; also butter knives, forks, spoons (electroplate rather than actual silver, but still worth something) and, on the wall, a cuckoo clock. She emptied the teapot, the butter dish and the cream pot, then scooped everything into her basket (apart from the gingerbread, which she chucked out for the birds) then closed the door behind her and walked away, doing sums in her head. Sixpence for the tea set, maybe a shilling for the cutlery; no idea what the clock was worth, but—
“Buttercup?” She looked up and saw a tall, fair-haired young man standing in the path looking at her. He had a big axe over his shoulder. He’d been running. “Are you all right?”
She shrugged. “Hi, John,” she said. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
John was peering at her, as though something wasn’t quite right but he couldn’t quite figure out what it might be. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “Though they’re saying there’s been wolves seen in these parts, so I thought—”
”John, there’s always wolves in these parts,” she said wearily. “Also bears, trolls, lions and at least six gryphons. Which is odd,” she added, frowning. “Makes you wonder what they live on.”
A shadow fell across John’s face. “Children, mostly,” he said. “Which is why—”
”Yes, but they don’t,” Buttercup pointed out. “Think about it. When was the last time a child got eaten this side of the Blue Hills?”
John gave her a bewildered look. “Why, only last week, little Millie from the mill was nearly gobbled up by a troll at Cow Bridge. If my uncle Jim hadn’t come along with his axe at just the right—”
”Exactly,” Buttercup said. “Sure, there’s ever such a lot of close shaves, but somehow there’s always a woodcutter passing by at exactly the right moment, so no harm done. Doesn’t that strike you as a bit—?”
“Lucky.” John nodded. “Just as well. I’ve killed seventeen wolves, two trolls and a wicked witch already this week, and it’s only Tuesday. Really, it’s not safe for a nice girl like you alone in these woods.”
“John, it’s perfectly safe, that’s the point.” She sighed. “Don’t worry about it,” she added, as John’s puzzled frown threatened to crush his face into a ball. “And thanks for being concerned about me, but I’m fine, really.”
John slumped a little, then shrugged. “OK, then,” he said. “I guess I’ll go and chop some wood. But if you do happen to run into anything nasty, you just holler and I’ll be—”
”Yes, John. Oh, one other thing,” she added, as he turned to go.
“Want to buy a clock?”
A little later, lighter by one clock and richer by ten shiny new pennies, Buttercup arrived at the shed in the woods, where her father and three uncles were busy at their trade. She opened the door and walked in. “Hi, Dad.”
“Hi, poppet.” Her father looked up from the forty-foot plank he was planing. “Is that supper?”
“Just put it down on the bench,” her father said. “We’ll get to it as soon as we’ve finished these boards.” He crouched down, squinted along the plank, marked a rough spot and stood up again. “Guess what,” he said, “we had a visitor today.”
Buttercup was unpacking the basket. “Don’t tell me,” she said. “The wizard, right?”
“Sure. How did you guess?”
“It’s always the wizard, Dad.”
With just the right degree of pressure, her father eased a wisp of wood off the plank and brushed it away with his hand. “And he had someone with him. A man.”
“Yes, Dad. Hey, I got you something nice for your supper tonight. There’s scones, ham and watercress sandwiches, jam—”
”Sounds great. No gingerbread?”
“Never mind,” her father said indulgently. “Put the kettle on and make us all a nice cup of tea.”
Obediently she knelt to light the stove, which had gone out. “I met John the woodcutter’s son on the way over,” she said.
“He’s a good boy, that John,” her father said, pausing to put an edge on the blade of his plane. “You could do worse.”
She knew better than to tell him what she thought about that. “Dad,” she said, “I was wondering.”
“What do John and his dad do with all the wood they cut? Only they’re always out there working, when they’re not killing wolves and all, so they must cut a whole lot of wood.”
“Very hard-working family,” her father said with approval. “Not short of a bob, either. I heard they got a clock.”
“Two now,” Buttercup replied absently. “So, they cut all this wood, and then they sell it,” she said. “In the market?”
She nodded. “Dad,” she said, “who buys it?”
He looked at her, as if she’d started talking in a language he couldn’t understand. “Well, people. You know. People who need wood.”
“But everybody’s got plenty of wood, Dad. I mean, there’s John and his dad and all his family, and there’s you and Uncle Joe and Uncle Bob and Uncle George, and you’ve got all the offcuts you could possibly use, and there’s old Bessie in the cottage down the lane, and every time you see her she’s out gathering sticks in the forest, and that’s it. So, who buys all the wood?”
Her father’s face froze; she could see him thinking. It was like watching a small man dragging a big log uphill. “Folks from the town, I guess. They’ll buy anything, townies.”
“I see,” she said. “They come all the way from the town, through Silverleaf Forest and Big Oak Forest, fifteen miles on potholed roads, just to buy wood. And then they cart it all the way home again. Dad, what’s wrong with this picture?”
“What picture, poppet?”
She sighed. “Forget it, Dad. Your tea’s ready.”
She poured tea into four tin mugs, and started dividing up the wolf-spoils between four tin plates. It’ll be different, she thought, once I’ve saved up enough money to get the hell out of here. And, at the rate she was going, that wouldn’t be too long now. Every wolf-in-granny’s-clothing she ran into netted her at least a shilling − three, if they had gold earrings − and, at an average of two a week, the old sock under her mattress was starting to get encouragingly heavy. There was, of course, the small matter of who bought the stuff, but she preferred not to think about that.
“Seriously, though,” her father was saying, “it’s about time you were thinking about getting wed, settling down. You’ll be nineteen in October.”
“Sure,” she replied, looking away. “And then who’ll bring you your supper?”
“Well, you will, obviously. But—”
”I have no intention,” she said firmly, “of getting married. Not to anybody, and especially not to any of the boys round here.”
Her uncles were grinning. “Is that right,” her father said.
“Yes. For a start, there’s only three of them. And they’re all woodcutters.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Are you serious? You know what happens to woodcutters’ families while the men are out all day.”
Her father shrugged. “Well, there’s wolves and witches and trolls and goblins and stuff, but it’s all right. The woodcutter always comes home in the nick of time and − well, it’s all right. I mean, when was the last time anybody actually got eaten this side of the Blue Hills?”
She felt like she was chasing her own tail. “That’s not the point,” she said. “Think about it, will you? Being married to a woodcutter, I mean. Quite apart from the danger from wildlife, you’ve got an entire community whose livelihood depends on selling firewood to people who travel twenty miles over bad roads to buy something they could get just as cheap, or cheaper, a couple of hundred yards from their own front door. I mean, what sort of economic model is that?”
She stopped. Her father and uncles were staring at her, and she couldn’t blame them. She had no idea what she’d just said. It was as though the words had floated into her head through her ears and drifted down into her mouth without touching her brain. Except that she knew − dimly − what they meant. “Ecowhatty what?” her father asked.
A sudden flash of inspiration. “Sorry, Dad,” she said. “I was talking to the wizard earlier. That’s a wizard word.”
Her father scowled at her. “I told you,” he said, “you’re not to go talking to the wizard. Didn’t I tell you?”
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly.
“Things happen,” her father said gravely, “to young girls who talk to wizards.”
Her father looked blank. “I don’t know, do I? Things. You’re not supposed to do it. All right?”
She nodded meekly. “Yes, Dad,” she said. “It won’t happen again, promise. Only,” she added (and if there was a hint of cunning in her voice, she masked it well), “what’s wrong with talking to wizards, Dad? You do it. All the time.”
“And the wizard comes in here all the time, most days, in fact, and nothing bad ever happens. Well, does it?”
“No,” her father admitted. “But that’s because I talk to him. It’s different.”
“Sure it is, Dad.” She paused, choosing the moment. “Dad.”
“Why does the wizard come round here all the time?”
Her father relaxed a little. “To see how we’re getting on with his job, of course.”
“Remind me,” she said. “What exactly does the wizard want all these planks for?”
Her father smiled. “He’s building a house. You know that.”
She nodded. “That’s right, so he is.” Another pause. “How long’ve you and Uncle Joe and Uncle Bob and Uncle George been making planks for him?”
Her father frowned. “You know, that’s a good question. George? How long’s it been?”
Uncle George counted under his breath. “I reckon it’s been upwards of forty-seven years now, Bill.”
“Forty-seven years,” Buttercup repeated. “The wizard’s been waiting to build his house for forty-seven years. Don’t you think—?”
“Well, isn’t that a bit odd? I mean all that time. And there’s other carpenters. Don’t you wonder why he hasn’t gone and got some of the planks he needs from somebody else?”
“Ah,” Uncle Joe broke in. “That’s because we make the best planks this side of the Blue Hills. And wizards want only the best. Isn’t that right, boys?”
A chorus of agreement, against which she knew she’d make no headway; so she nodded, and said, “Right, I understand now. You can see why I was puzzled.”
“Course you were, poppet. You’re a girl. Girls don’t understand about business.”
No, she thought, but I know what an economic model is. How do I know that? “Dad,” she said.
Her father sighed. “Yes, poppet?”
“Just one more thing, Dad.”
“Well, sweetheart? What’s on your mind besides your hair?”
There would never be a better time to ask. That didn’t necessarily mean that this was a good time; just not as bad as all the others. “That pair of shoes Cousin Cindy sent me,” she said. “For my birthday.”
Her father smiled. “The red ones.”
“They’re good shoes,” he said. “Really well made and stylish. And plenty of wear left in them.”
“Hardly worn at all, in fact.” Her father grinned indulgently. “Of course, now she’s married to that prince, she can have all the shoes she wants. Must be great to be rich, hey, poppet?”
Her father sighed wistfully. “Still, it was good of her to think of you. And they fit all right, don’t they?”
“Yes, Dad. They fit really well.”
“Well.” He shrugged. “That’s all right, then. Everybody’s happy.”
“Yes, Dad. See you back at the house.”
She walked home slowly, deep in thought. She was so preoccupied that she didn’t seem to notice the bird with the gold ring in its mouth, or the old woman gathering sticks who, if she’d stopped and offered to help her with her heavy load, would undoubtedly have granted her three wishes, at least one of which would’ve been worth having. Dad had been right, she decided, about two things, but not the third. The shoes from Cousin Cindy did fit, really well. And everybody was happy. But it wasn’t all right. Far from it.