Part two in my Knack for Powders serial. A table of contents for previous episodes.
Merph pushed the mortar and pestle across the stone table in Healer Kluvenstrom's workshop. His wrists ached from the constant pounding. Two days since the healer's wagon had arrived at Lord Calle's tower. Outside the window, clouds skipped across the sky. Merph had thought magic would be more fun than playing in the fields. Merph mumbled under his breath and dropped his head to rest on his crossed hands on the stone table his head drooping to meet the support of his hands.
Kluvenstrom rested his book on a bench. "You can't be done with the grinding yet. Do you have a fine powder like the sand you'd find on the banks of a river?"
"Done," grumbled Merph.
The healer licked his finger and dipped it into the mortar where it picked up a layer of dust. He stuck his finger in his mouth and the eyes watched Merph. The boy felt uncomfortable under the healer's gaze. He didn't want to do anymore grinding.
The healer wrinkled his nose. "The mastic needs to be finer or it won't dissolve in the tincture that you need for the next step."
"Why am I doing this? It's makework. Worse than staying at home while they work the fields."
Kluvenstrom ruffled Merph's hair. "It's the first stage of making your own powders."
The way Kluvenstrom's fingers stroked through Merph's hair reminded him of his father. "I want to know about the magics."
The healer tapped one of the two books on the table. "This book describes how the powders work and the magic." Kluvenstrom smiled.
Merph set his elbows on the table and let his face sink into his hands. His voice sounded muffled. "Can't read."
In the courtyard outside, a wheeled carriage bounced behind the staccato hoofbeats of two horses. Merph looked out the window and saw a young man nearly as old as his oldest brother. The man wore all black and tossed his reins to one of the servants before hurrying towards the Lord's tower.
"Who's that?" asked Merph.
The edge of Kluvenstrom's lips turned downwards when he looked out the window. "Don't bother thinking about Mortok. He's a noble's son." Softer as if he didn't realize what he was saying the healer continued. "The man should know better than to study with a runeworker."
Merph didn't know why but something about the way the man walked -- a self-confidence -- made him want to speak to the man. Merph exhaled. The sons of farmers didn't get to socialize with nobles.
Kluvenstrom tapped the other book. "We were talking about reading. This book has pictures with the words underneath. If you want to become a master of the powders, you must learn to read."
"Why? Can't I be smart?" Merph tapped his forehead. "Keep all the knowledge in here."
Kluvenstrom laughed. "Too much to know for even the wisest prodigy. Each book contains the wisdom of dozens of powder workers." Kluvenstrom paused and seemed to notice the frown on Merph's face. "Don't worry, it will become easier."
"But I want to learn about the magic now."
Kluvenstrom pushed the mortar and pestle in front of the boy. "I'll make you another deal. If you work on grinding that powder, I'll tell you about mastic."
Merph eyes gleamed. "You will?"
Kluvenstrom nodded. "Mastic resin comes from Bakha trees overseas. They speak a different language over there. The word Bakha in their language means weeping tree and it is this resin that forms the underlying power of the magic. But not the form."
Merph pounded the resin crystals as he listened to the healer's words. A lot of it didn't make sense to him. Why would people speak different languages, but he tried not to let his thoughts wander too much tried to concentrate on what he said. Magic. He imagined the smiles and pleasure on his dad's face when he'd return home and show his Pa the magic powder he'd created.
Merph's stomach growled as he waited in the hallway outside the kitchens. A girl with blonde hair tied into pigtails walked down the hallway. She wore a simple dress and the front of it was stained gray. She smiled at Merph and his stomach growled. "Hungry?"
Merph looked down at his shoes. "He said I'm supposed to wait until after the Lord and his guests finish their meal."
The girl tugged on a curl at the end of one of the pigtails. "You must be the healer's apprentice. I'm Katja, one of the chambermaids. Come on, my Ma works in the kitchen. We'll snitch something so you don't interrupt the Lord's meal with your rumbling."
Merph's eyes widened. The healer would never invite him to the tower again to study after this one time.
"I'm kidding. Come on, get some food while it's hot."