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The Outsorcerer's Apprentice
By Tom Holt
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Try telling that to an army of belligerent goblins. Or the Big Bad Wolf. Or a professional dragons layer. Who is looking after their well-being? Who gives a damn about their intolerable working conditions, lack of adequate health insurance, and terrible coffee in the canteen?
Thankfully, with access to an astonishingly diverse workforce and limitless natural resources, maximizing revenue and improving operating profit has never really been an issue for the one they call “the Wizard.” Until now.
Because now a perfectly good business model — based on sound fiscal planning, entrepreneurial flair, and only one or two of the infinite parallel worlds that make up our universe — is about to be disrupted by a young man not entirely aware of what’s going on.
There’s also a slight risk that the fabric of reality will be torn to shreds. You really do have to be awfully careful with these things.
Table of Contents
A Preview of Doughnut
A Preview of When It's A Jar
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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.
At the last moment, the dragon miscalculated. As the knight crouched before it, frantically scrabbling for his fallen sword, it couldn't resist the temptation to rear up and spout a flowery jet of kingfisher-blue fire through its craggy nostrils. A little voice in its head said, No, you really don't want to do that, but it paid no attention. It had won, and it loved to show off.
Which is why, at the very last moment, the knight managed to get one finger round the pommel of his sword, hook it towards him, catch it with his other hand and hold it out quite still as the dragon lurched down on him for the kill. The sword's point went into the dragon's armpit with the minimum of fuss, like a needle into cloth.
The knight let go of the sword and staggered back. The dragon looked slowly down and saw the hilt, which was all that remained visible. "Oh," it said.
The knight had regained his balance and was walking backwards. He stopped after nine paces. Dragonfire, as they both knew, has an effective range of eight yards.
"Sorry," the knight said. "Nothing personal."
For the first time in its thousand years of existence, the dragon knew what it was like to feel weak. Suddenly, all that strength, which it had taken for granted for so very long, wasn't there any more. It took all its reserves of courage and determination to lift its head a little. Then it fell over. The ground jarred its head as it landed, making it wince.
After a little while, it heard the knight say, "Excuse me, are you still alive?"
"Fine," the knight said pleasantly. "No hurry. You just take your time."
He wanted his sword back. Well, of course he did. The dragon tried to draw in a deep breath, for a final foe-incinerating blaze of glory; but it was hard, so very hard, and deep inside it could feel the embers of its internal furnace starting to go cold. Oh well, the dragon thought; it's been a good life, plenty of flying around and crunchy people and expensive armour glowing cherry-red. No hard feelings. Then it remembered there was something it was supposed to do at this point; and, being a conscientious creature, it resolved to make the effort. It opened its cavernous mouth–painful and difficult, like flexing a knee after you've been sitting in one position for too long–and said, "Listen to me."
"Sure," the knight said amiably. "Fire away."
"Learn your destiny," the dragon said. It had no idea where the words came from; they were urgently inside it somewhere, like a large egg in a small chicken, and they needed to come out before–well, the end; because otherwise it wouldn't be right, somehow. Dragons have a strong sense of right and wrong, which is why they always wipe their feet after bursting into a crowded mead-hall. "You must ride to the forest of Evinardar, beneath the White Mountains of Glathinroth, where you will find—" The dragon hesitated. "Excuse me. Are you listening?"
The knight looked up from the book he was reading. "Sorry?"
"I said, are you listening to me? This is your destiny."
The knight marked his place with a dandelion and closed the book. "Sorry, yes, that's fine. Go to the forest of Evinardar, beneath the White Mountains of Gladinroth—"
"Whatever," the knight said. "And there I shall find a crystal cave where awaits a twelve-fingered giant; if I overcome him, I get to claim the golden chalice of Northestroon, and so on and so forth. Sorry," he added with a slight smile, "heard it all before, actually. And to be honest, I can't say I'm all that bothered. All a bit too New-Agey for me, I'm afraid."
It occurred to the dragon that maybe it wasn't the first of its kind this knight had killed. It felt a faint pang of irritation, but no matter. "I forgive you," it sighed. "Go in peace."
"Jolly good," the knight said absently. "How are you feeling?"
"I go to join my ancestors in the heart of the Great Fire," the dragon said. "Soon I shall be at one with the elemental force from which we all derive our being, and from whence—"
"Splendid," the knight said, munching an apple. "Don't let me keep you."
"But you must know—" the dragon started to say; and then it stopped, because it didn't feel at all well. And then it died.
The knight saw the light in the great creature's eyes go out. He finished his apple and stood up, wincing as his horribly abused muscles made a formal complaint to his brain, then went over to the corpse and pulled out his sword, which he wiped carefully on the grass before sheathing it, because swords cost money. As he turned and walked away, he was doing mental arithmetic under his breath.
They were all waiting for him at the bottom of the hill. He paused to flick out an apple pip that had got lodged between his teeth, then strolled down to join them.
"Sir Turquine," the king said, in a strained voice. "Have you—?"
The knight nodded. "All done," he said. "Now, I'll be needing a large cart—"
His words were drowned by an eruption of wild cheers from the soldiers and courtiers, while the king closed his eyes in silent thanksgiving. The knight waited politely until they'd quietened down a bit and he could make himself heard. "A large cart," he repeated, "and if you could spare a dozen men for the afternoon, I'd be ever so—"
A choir of local children broke out into a hymn of thanksgiving, while a large, plain girl tried to hang a garland of flowers round his neck. He fended the flowers off as tactfully as he could, and cleared his throat loudly. The king raised his hand and the children fell silent, though their mouths continued to open and close for some time. "Sir Turquine," the king said. "We are forever in your debt. Thanks to you, the long night of horror and fear—"
"Yes," the knight said. "So, as I was saying, if you just let me have a large, stout cart and ten men—"
The king looked at him as though he'd suddenly turned green. "Nothing," he said, in a slightly snarky voice, "will ever be able to express our true gratitude. However, half the kingdom and my daughter's hand in marriage is, I believe, the traditional reward."
The knight's lips were tightly pursed. "Terribly sweet of you," he said. "But, thanks but no thanks. Really."
The knight sighed. "No offence," he said, glancing briefly upwards as though gauging the time of day by the position of the sun, "but honestly, I'd rather not."
The king frowned. "Perhaps I haven't made myself clear," he said. "As a reward for your heroism, I would like you to rule half my kingdom and marry my only daughter, the heir to the throne. To bestow any lesser reward would—"
"Yes, got that, thank you," the knight said, in a very clear voice; so clear, in fact, that the children all took a step back, and the chancellor ducked smartly behind the archbishop. "Like I said, desperately generous of you, but I'm not what you'd call the ruling type. Also, if memory serves, your northern provinces are in open revolt, your economy's just gone into triple-dip recession and the dragon burned down all the frog-apple trees, whose fruit is your country's only export and source of hard currency. It's terribly feeble of me, I know, but I prefer my rewards just a bit less challenging."
"My daughter—" said the king.
"Don't let's go there," the knight said. "No, honestly, it's been a real treat for me, and a privilege to have been of service, but what I'd really like is a nice strong six-wheeler hay cart and the loan of half a dozen strong men for a couple of hours, and then we can call it quits. Agreed?"
It occurred to the king that taking offence with the man who'd just killed the invincible dragon might not be the wisest thing he'd ever done. "Agreed," he said. "One cart, six men. If that's what you really—"
"Yes. Thank you."
A soft red sunset had begun to fill the sky when the knight, seated on the crossbench of a heavily loaded cart, rolled up the long, narrow road that led through the high pass in the Blue Mountains and down into Sair Carathorn, the Wizard's Vale. Pulling gently on the reins, he paused for a moment to gaze out over the harsh, wind-scorched fells towards the obscure horizon, beyond which lay the Seven Kingdoms and, further still, his half-forgotten home in Westeresse. One day, he thought; one day, perhaps, but not yet. Not, in fact, for as long as humanly possible, unless they'd eventually got around to doing something about the drains, and his people had finally lost their ancestral passion for double-fermented pickled cabbage. With a soft word of command he urged the horses on, and began the long descent into Sair Carathorn.
When he reached the gate in the stockade, the gatekeeper grunted reluctantly and let him pass, although technically it was already past curfew. He drove across the empty square, jumped down and tied the reins to the hitching-post in front of the great bronze doors of Enith Carathruin, the Abode of the Wizard. The night shift could take it from there, he decided. What he wanted most of all was a drink.
The taproom of the Blue Boar was almost deserted, but for a solitary figure sitting beside the fire, his hood drawn down to obscure his face. Nevertheless, the knight took his pint of ale and sat down beside him.
"Bedevere," said the knight.
"Hello, Turkey." Sir Bedevere yawned, and put his mug down on the floor. The innkeeper's whippet got up from under his chair, sniffed the mug and walked slowly away. "Any luck?"
Sir Turquine shrugged. "One," he said. "Bit on the small side, but what the hell. You?"
"Three," Bedevere replied. "Mind, you should've seen the one that got away."
Turquine suppressed a frown. "Three," he said. "Not bad."
"Small ones," Sir Bedevere said. "I'll be lucky if I get nine shillings for the lot. Still," he added, "nine bob's nine bob."
- "Entertaining.... Holt has a zany humor that will appeal to fans of Terry Pratchett and Christopher Moore."—Library Journal on The Outsorcerer's Apprentice
- "Holt adds to his repertoire of comedic sf, one of the most difficult genera acts to master. Theo is an engaging hero; his brilliance is counteracted by his laziness and his compassion, which is matched by his sense of survival. Place this title alongside Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's Good Omens, Pratchett's "Discworld" series, and the absurdist works of mainstream authors such as John Barth and Gilbert Sorrentino."—Library Journal (Starred Review) on Doughnut
- "A light read from the prolific humorist; a romp round the multiverse."—SFX on Doughnut
- "Like the deep-fried snack after which it's named, this sci-fi novel is sweet and fun."—Sun (UK) on Doughnut
- "Blonde Bombshell is a clever, funny, tirelessly inventive, apocalyptic leg-hump of a book."—Christopher Moore, New York Times bestselling author
- "Tom Holt's Doughnut presents a roller-coaster ride through the world of physics and the origins of the universe."—Library Journal
- "One for physicists as well s Krispy Kreme-loving policemen."—T3 on Doughnut
- On Sale
- Jul 15, 2014
- Page Count
- 400 pages