The alchemasters apprent.., p.30
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.30

           Walter Moers
 

  His eyes strayed to the forest itself, which looked from up above like a huge, sleeping beast. Somewhere in its depths a plump toad was lurking in a grave, waiting for him. ‘You’re in for a long wait!’ Echo called down from the roof. ‘I’m not going to wind up in the Toadwoods, nor in Ghoolion’s cellar! I’m going to the Blue Mountains and far beyond them!’

  He shouted the words as loudly and confidently as he could, but his voice trembled all the same.

  Green Smoke

  One morning Echo saw a thin plume of green smoke rising into the air from Izanuela’s chimney. This was the prearranged signal that the day had come. He set off at once for Uggly Lane.

  ‘We can’t wait any longer,’ Izanuela told him as she strapped the little wineskin to his body. ‘Tomorrow is full moon. You must find an opportunity to slip the potion into his wine before the day is out. When you’ve done that, come back here and I’ll release you from the wineskin. And don’t get caught, my young friend, not by Ghoolion or anyone else!’

  ‘I feel sick,’ Echo said plaintively, ‘sick with fear. Don’t pull that strap so tight.’

  ‘How do you think I’m feeling?’ said Izanuela. ‘I didn’t sleep a wink all night, and sheer nerves made me eat a whole slab of Troglotroll cheese. What if Ghoolion sets eyes on me and the perfume doesn’t work?’

  ‘Now you tell me!’ said Echo. ‘You were so certain before.’

  ‘Nothing in life is certain, especially when you’re dealing with someone like Ghoolion. Oh dear, what have I let myself in for? We’ll both end up grilling on that barbecue of his.’ She waggled her ears nervously.

  ‘You really know how to buoy a person up,’ said Echo. ‘Hold yourself in readiness and don’t leave the house. I’ve no idea when I’ll be back. Possibly in an hour’s time, possibly not till tonight. If the worst happens, never.’

  Echo left Uggly Lane and turned off down the next street. This time, on the spur of the moment, he decided to take a short cut. He was less likely to encounter any wild dogs on the longer route through the busier streets, but the wineskin was heavy and conspicuous - someone might take a fancy to it and try to catch him. That being so, he went by way of the backyards in Hospital Lane, where the stench of disease was so repulsive that few people cared to linger.

  That this was a mistake did not dawn on Echo until he had turned into the alleyway adjoining Hospital Lane. He rounded the corner and there they were: the pack of wild dogs he’d harassed as a Leathermouse - all of them except the one that had run full tilt into a wall. Perhaps it had given up hunting little animals.

  ‘Look, boys,’ said the leader of the pack, a jet-black bull terrier as chunky as a blacksmith’s anvil. ‘Our meal has brought us the wine to go with it.’ The other three tykes yapped appreciatively.

  Without a moment’s hesitation, Echo turned tail and sprinted back down Hospital Lane.

  ‘Come on,’ barked the black dog, ‘after him!’ And the whole pack set off in pursuit.

  Echo felt as if the wineskin had ceased to exist. It amazed him how nimbly he could run and what good shape he was in. His training had clearly paid off. He no longer needed to pretend to be chased by wild dogs; he really was being chased by wild dogs.

  The lane ran downhill. Echo went bounding along it, then paused for an instant and drew a deep breath. Vaulting over the kerb, a dustbin and a low wall, he disappeared into an overgrown garden. The dogs, who had been brought to a halt by the wall, milled around barking angrily. Then it occurred to them to look for another way in.

  Echo looked around. He was in the hospital garden. Refuse bins brimming with bloodstained dressings were standing in the tall grass. A few patients were hobbling about on crutches. There! The hospital’s rear entrance. No use, locked. He was trapped.

  The mongrels had found their way into the garden. They came crashing through the hedge and got caught up in some bramble bushes, which made them twice as furious. Echo heard human voices and a creaking sound. He looked back at the rear entrance. Two orderlies were carrying someone out on a stretcher. The door was wide open. Now was his chance!

  A few vigorous strides took him out of the long grass and on to the gravel path. Keeping low, he darted under the stretcher, between the orderlies’ legs and into the hospital. In his Leathermouse guise he had found the smell that hit him thoroughly inviting; now it almost made him turn back and provide the dogs with a free meal. Blood, ether, iodine, ammonia … Nauseating! Heedless of the screams and groans issuing from the wards and threading his way between patients on crutches, Echo pressed on into the hospital.

  The dogs continued to pursue their quarry. They knocked over the orderlies, together with the stretcher and its badly injured occupant, and rampaged along the corridors like a gang of noisy drunks. Patients hurled themselves aside in panic, a nurse shouted for help.

  Following a powerful scent of blood, Echo went racing up some stairs with the dogs in hot pursuit. A patient hobbling towards them on a stick went flying. Just then, a door opened and a nurse came out. Echo stopped dead, then darted between her legs and into the big room beyond.

  He had guessed correctly: it was the hospital’s operating theatre. He came to a halt. Even before any of the surgeons and nurses engaged on the current operation had time to notice him, pandemonium broke out.

  The dogs upended the nurse in the doorway and stormed into the hospital’s holy of holies. Hadn’t they seen the notice on the door, which strictly forbade unauthorised persons to enter, or couldn’t they read? Echo grinned to himself.

  Confronted by several surgeons with bloodstained scalpels and scissors in their hands, the dogs suddenly stopped barking. Before they could gauge the full extent of their mistake, orderlies armed with broomsticks came rushing in. One of them was even carrying a fire axe.

  Echo took advantage of the tumult to slip between their legs and escape through the nearest door. He heard the dogs howling in pain as he scampered down a flight of stairs to the main entrance, which was wide open.

  He went out into the street and looked down at his chest. The wineskin containing the love potion seemed to be intact. And so was Echo himself.

  Red Wine

  Ghoolion was in his laboratory. There were several old tomes lying open on the workbenches and he was consulting them all in turn. He bustled from one book to another, muttering arithmetical calculations and alchemical formulae. Echo watched him from the doorway without showing himself. The Alchemaster wasn’t drinking wine at present, but it would have been unusual for him to do so at this time of day.

  Echo went off to a room Ghoolion seldom visited and lay down on the threadbare carpet. He would have to be patient and wait for a more opportune time. The Crat hunt had tired him out. He shut his eyes. A minute later he was asleep.

  He dreamt that he himself was the Alchemaster’s castle and that all the Ugglies in Zamonia had moved into it in order to hold a curious celebration of some kind. They tore off their clothes and went cavorting along the passages, which were his own intestines, tickling the inside of his tummy with their dancing feet until he was awakened by his own laughter.

  The sun was already low in the sky. ‘Oh dear,’ he thought, ‘I’ve slept through half a day’s worth of opportunities to slip the potion into his drink.’

  He hurried back to the laboratory and peered in. It stank abominably of sulphur and phosphorus. Ghoolion was nowhere to be seen, but there beside an open book on a workbench stood a glass of red wine. It was half full.

  What should he do? It was growing late and this might be his last chance of the day. Perhaps Ghoolion hadn’t liked the wine and wouldn’t touch it again. Where was he, anyway, and when would he return? In an hour? Any minute? A hundred questions raced through Echo’s mind. What would Izanuela do in his place? That was beside the point, though, it was up to him to decide. Why hadn’t she brewed enough of the potion for more than one attempt? Now it was all or nothing!

  He jumped up on the workbench and circled the glass irresolutel
y. Was there anything wrong with the wine’s appearance? Not that he could see. He went closer and sniffed it. Hm, not bad. Or was it? He didn’t possess Ghoolion’s powers of discrimination, his nose or palate, his familiarity with the noble juice. This might be absolute rotgut or a superb vintage wine. He didn’t know.

  He sat up on his haunches and rested his forepaws on the rim of the glass. They had practised this manoeuvre often enough. Right, now to remove the stopper from the wineskin with his teeth. Careful now … Pop! Done it!

  The potent effect of the love potion caught Echo wholly unprepared. He’d forgotten all about it! The strangest sensation came over him. Must he really waste this precious nectar on an old bogeyman like Ghoolion? Out of the question! It was his alone!

  His head swam. He swayed, the glass wobbled, the wine slopped to and fro. He came within an ace of falling over complete with the glass and the unstoppered wineskin, but he let go and came down on all fours. A drop or two of the precious fluid splashed the tablecloth.

  ‘That’s a good start,’ he thought. ‘I nearly botched the whole thing. Pull yourself together! This potion is for Ghoolion, nobody else.’

  There! He could hear the Alchemaster’s clattering footsteps - he was coming up the stairs already! ‘Start again from scratch!’ he told himself. ‘Up on your haunches, one forepaw on the rim of the glass, the other on the wineskin. Now squeeze!’ A thin, arcing jet of clear liquid spurted into the glass.

  ‘But not all of it, surely?’ he thought. ‘Surely I’m allowed a taste? Just a taste?’

  He put out his tongue and craned his neck. Instantly, everything went haywire again: Echo himself, the glass, the whole of their well-laid plan. He thrust himself away, and the last few drops of potion spurted into the air. The glass wobbled on its circular base, the wine sloshed against the rim. Then the glass came to rest in its original position.

  Echo listened with a pounding heart. Ghoolion was just outside the door now. Mission accomplished! Only a little of the love potion had been wasted, but it was too late for him to beat a retreat. He mustn’t be seen with the wineskin strapped to his body, so he would have to hide somewhere in the laboratory itself. He jumped down off the table and darted over to a bookcase he knew Ghoolion seldom used. Squeezing between two thick tomes, he lay down flat in the space behind them. Then he cautiously peered through the crack between the books. The Alchemaster was just coming in - with a bottle of wine in his hand.

  ‘Damnation,’ thought Echo, ‘he didn’t like that wine. I knew it! He’s gone and fetched himself another bottle.’

  Ghoolion went over to the wine glass. Held it up to the light of an Anguish Candle. Sniffed it.

  ‘Surely his sensitive snout won’t detect the love potion?’ Echo thought. ‘Please not!’

  Ghoolion’s face betrayed no reaction of any kind. He put the glass down again. Held the bottle up to the light. Read the label. Put the bottle down beside the glass. And came straight over to the bookshelf where Echo was hiding.

  ‘He’s spotted me!’ thought Echo. He only just suppressed an urge to make a dash for it.

  Ghoolion bent down, took hold of a thick book just in front of Echo’s hiding place and pulled it out. If he had bent a little lower, they would have been looking into each other’s eyes. But he turned away, browsing through the old encyclopedia.

  In the hours that followed Ghoolion made no move either to drink the wine or to leave the laboratory. He checked the temperature of his bubbling cauldron with a thermometer several times, studied some slides under the microscope, walked up and down reciting numerical tables, and made notes. He also drank all kinds of beverages. Tea, water, coffee, his revolting slimy black concoction. But no wine.

  The longer Echo persevered in his hiding place, the more exasperated he became. ‘Drink that confounded wine, you old devil!’ he felt like shouting. ‘You’re only doing all this to torment me. You know perfectly well I’m here.’

  But he controlled himself with difficulty. He endured the disgusting stench Ghoolion created by boiling up his balls of fat. He endured the sighs of the dying, his uncomfortable position, his fear and uncertainty. An hour went by. Two hours. Three. Now he was having to fight off fatigue. The stifling atmosphere and his physical immobility were making him sleepy.

  ‘For goodness’ sake don’t go to sleep!’ he commanded himself. Nobody snored louder than a sleeping Crat.

  There! Ghoolion was going over to the wine glass at last. He picked it up again and put it to his lips. Then he had a sudden idea. He put the glass down and hurried over to a blackboard. Quickly covered it with formulae. Wiped them out and scrawled some more in their place. Stepped back and submitted them to lengthy scrutiny. It was enough to drive anyone mad! Echo writhed with impatience in his hiding place.

  Then Ghoolion walked briskly back to the wine glass. Picked it up. Put it to his lips. And drained it at a gulp!

  Echo gave a delighted start and hit his head on the shelf above. A book fell over. Ghoolion pricked up his ears. His face registered no reaction to the love potion. He took a ball of fat and tossed it into a saucepan. Picked up a basket and hurried out to fetch some more supplies from the cellar.

  With a groan, Echo scrambled stiffly out of his hiding place.

  The Wedding Gown

  Rather than risk another encounter with feral dogs, Echo returned by way of the busiest streets in Malaisea. A few passers-by stared uncomprehendingly at the empty wineskin strapped to his chest, but most were too preoccupied with themselves, their aches and pains, heartburns and gastric disorders, coughs and colds. Not for the first time, Echo realised how little he had missed these universally diseased surroundings.

  When he reached Izanuela’s house he found the entrance to the cellar open. The usual weird music could be heard, but this time it had taken on a solemn, uplifting quality.

  ‘Down here!’ Izanuela called. ‘Come and kiss the bride!’

  ‘But no tongues!’ Echo insisted as he made his way down the stairs. ‘Good news! Mission accomplished! I managed to administer the love potion!’

  ‘I expected no less,’ she said. ‘Mind you, I haven’t been idle in the meantime.’

  A long cord had been suspended below the roof of the subterranean garden, and draped over it like a curtain was a big length of red cloth. Izanuela had concealed herself behind this.

  ‘Just a moment,’ she trilled. ‘I’m nearly ready.’

  ‘Ready for what?’ Echo demanded. What had the demented creature dreamed up this time?

  ‘Twitchstik!’ she cried, and the Song of the Ugglian Oaks rose in a dramatic crescendo. The curtain was drawn aside and Izanuela stood revealed.

  ‘Tadaaa!’

  She wasn’t dressed in her usual attire. Instead of her shabby old cloak she now wore a gown like none that Echo had ever seen before. It was completely woven out of flowers and other plants: red and black roses, white and yellow tulips, marguerites and poppies, pale-pink marbled carnations, flame-red orchids, blue violets and violet hyacinths, daisies and plum blossom, snowdrops and lilies, asters and bleeding heart, lavender and lotus blossom, deadly nightshade and eyebright. Also woven into the gown’s elaborate ornamentation were herbs, grasses and foliage: celandine and love grass, clover and cardamine, myrtle and melissa, oat grass and silver sage. On her head Izanuela wore a shady, broad-brimmed hat woven out of white waterlilies. Butterflies were fluttering round her and settling here and there to sip at a blossom. To Echo, it looked as if an entire meadow were advancing on him. She smelt like a day in springtime.

  ‘Well, what do you think?’ she demanded coquettishly, performing a pirouette that made the leaves rustle. ‘Is it worthy of the occasion? I originally intended to make my wedding dress out of red cabbage leaves, but cabbage smells so strong.’

  Echo couldn’t tear his eyes away from her. She was still the same old Uggly underneath, admittedly, but she seemed transformed. She smelt better. Her movements were more majestic. She radiated a kind of inner beauty. Th
e glorious flowers blinded the eye to all her shortcomings.

  ‘You’re a knockout,’ said Echo.

  ‘Thank you. And I still haven’t put any perfume on.’

  ‘You’ll bowl the old man over.’

  ‘How did he react to the love potion?’ she asked, patting her dress down.

  ‘Hard to say. He didn’t react at all, to be honest, but I scarcely had time to watch him. He drank it and left the room at once.’

  ‘The potion takes time to develop its full effect. An hour or so should do the trick.’

  Izanuela proceeded to relieve Echo of the wineskin. ‘Was it difficult?’ she asked as she unbuckled the straps.

  ‘He took an age to drink the stuff,’ Echo replied, ‘but then he downed it in one.’

  ‘That’s good.’ She shivered ecstatically. ‘I’m so excited.’

  ‘It’s all gone swimmingly up to now.’ Echo stretched and yawned, glad to be rid of the cumbersome wineskin. ‘Still, we ought to be prepared for any eventuality. What if the potion doesn’t work?’

  ‘I’ve given the matter some thought,’ said Izanuela. ‘If Ghoolion doesn’t react to my appearance as we hope he will, I’ll simply tell him I’ve come to pay my respects. On the occasion of the … er, full moon. An old Ugglian custom which I’d like to revive, hence my ceremonial attire. Something along those lines. He can hardly grill me on his barbecue for that, can he?’

  ‘That would let you off the hook,’ said Echo. ‘Where would it leave me, though?’

  ‘Hm …’ she said. An awkward silence fell.

  Her ‘Hm …’ hung in the air for a moment or two. Then she threw up her hands and cried, ‘No more dire imaginings, everything’s going to be fine! I only have to titivate myself a bit more and put on some perfume.’

  She vanished behind the curtain, humming to herself like a beehive, while Echo waited patiently. Izanuela looked even more attractive when she reappeared. Her glossy lips were a dark shade of red, the worst of her warts had been masked by make-up and she was wearing a pair of long, silky eyelashes Echo had never seen before. Her cheeks were a healthy pink.

 
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