A Flash of Lightning
Sara's master was difficult to please, but she had ambitions...
A Flash of Lightning
Despite herself, Sara flinched when the crack of thunder shook the tower. Moments before, lightning had lit up the night sky as though it were daylight. The thunder frightened the great brown bear, too, and it gave a mournful roar as it stood in its cage against the wall.
“Perfect,” said Sara’s master Izak, who was standing at one of the arched windows looking out at the gathering storm. He turned and snapped his fingers at his apprentice. “Jonthan! Raise the spike. Be quick about it, now!”
There was a disapproving look on the master’s face as he addressed the younger man. Jonthan returned the look with a barely suppressed scowl but shuffled over to the centre of the tower and began cranking a padded handle. Gears turned, and with the shriek of metal on metal, a shaft began to move upwards through a hole in the ceiling.
Sara smiled to see the on-going discord between the two men, but next moment Izak looked across to where she was scrubbing the long stone bench. “Girl! Stop gawking and get on with your work. Make sure the bench is dry. We’ll need it soon enough. And then you can mop the floor.” Sara’s smile vanished, and she returned to her miserable task. It was boring, but at least it left her mind free for thinking, and didn’t get in the way of her observing everything that the master was doing.
All around the high tower, the storm was gathering its strength, building every moment. The wind was howling, louder and louder. There came another flash, and this time the thunder followed almost immediately. The caged bear roared again in fear.
“Is it raised?” Isak demanded of the apprentice. “All the way?” Jonthan, panting a little with the effort of cranking, nodded. “Right then, now the lever, quick, no time to lose!”
Jonthan moved over to the wall of the circular tower, where a massive lever had been erected. Thick wires ran over the ceiling to it from the central spike, and from the lever through to a complicated apparatus. From the apparatus, thinner wires ran along to dozens of huge glass bottles plated with beaten metal and part-filled with water. Sara knew those bottles well. She had been made to wash and polish every one until it gleamed, with not a single spot of grease or dirt, before the plating began.
“Now!” bellowed Izak above the storm. “Damn you, pull it!”
Jonthan hauled on the lever by its wooden handle. Outside the windows, lightning stabbed down.
And then it was inside the tower! Sara gave an involuntary gasp as sparks fountained from every connection of the metal cables. Jonthan stepped back from the lever with a curse. Lightning seemed to flicker across the array of bottles, and little arcs played around their mouths where the wires connected with them. She saw the poor bear shrinking away in its cage as far as its chains would allow it.
Izak laughed, a deep booming laugh of satisfaction. “All right, boy, throw the lever back, quick now. And lower the spike before we’re hit again. We’ve done it.”
The old man paced along the array of bottles, careful not to touch them, smiling and stroking his short grey beard.
“Very good, very good. But if we are to please the King, we must take the next step. Girl! Are you done with that bench? Is it dry? Completely dry?” Sara nodded, but Izak still came over and examined the bench carefully as though still expecting it to be filthy. Her master was like that, she knew. Everything he dealt with had to be clean beyond any reasonable standard.
Satisfied, the master donned thick leather gloves and went to the array of bottles. Each metal-clad bottle was about three handspans across, and twice as tall. Izak carefully unhooked one of them from the wires and brought it across to the bench.
“Now, you!” Izak said, looking across at Jonthan, who was still glowering. Much good it did him, Sara thought, as she picked up her pail and mop so as to look busy. “Bring the weapon and its pack. Set it down here.”
Jonthan brought out from a cupboard a leather harness and a long metal pole, about the length of a long sword. He put it down on the bench and the master, despite his thick gloves, deftly strapped the bottle into the harness. “Now,” he said to his apprentice, “turn your back.”
Jonthan muttered something in a resentful tone, but nevertheless turned and allowed Izak to fasten the bottle in its harness to his back. He took the long pole in his hand. “Not like that, you fool,” said Izak. “Put on this glove first.” Once Jonthan had on the glove, the older man connected a wire from the mouth of the bottle to the end of the pole.
“Now for the bear!” Izak strode over to the cage. “By my calculations, the trapped lightning will easily be enough to kill it. What a weapon this will make for the King! How terrified his enemies will be when he and his knights wield it!” He reached up to unlock the bolt on the cage.
Sara could see Jonthan tremble with fright. “No, master! Pray you leave the beast in its cage… just in case. Perhaps the weapon will not work!”
Izak nodded grudgingly. “Perhaps you are right, though I was keen to see a real contest of man against beast. Then again, you are not much of a man, are you?” he said with a sneer.
Perhaps, thought Sara later, that was one humiliation too far for Jonthan. Or perhaps he had been plotting his revenge for a long time and just seized the opportunity when it presented itself.
Jonthan stabbed forward with the pole. Not at the bear. At his master Izak, standing next to the cage.
There was a loud snap, a flash from the end of the pole, and suddenly Izak jerked like a puppet and crashed back against the cage, then fell to the floor, twitching in every limb, his eyes rolled back to show only the whites. The bear shrank back in terror. Sara gave a shout of dismay and dropped her mop.
Jonthan turned to her with a mad grin on his face. “I’ve done it,” he said in wonder. “I’ve killed the old bastard. I’ve killed him!” For a moment Sara thought he was going to break into a dance. But instead, he paused for a moment, thinking. “I have all his books, all his drawings. I’ll tell the King it was a terrible accident, but I can do better. And I will, too. But…”
He looked strangely at Sara. “You mustn’t tell. If you tell, I’ll kill you. Better yet…” he hefted the metal pole. “I’ll kill you now, why not? The accident could have killed you both. Such a pity.” He began to step toward Sara, the pole outstretched.
Sara stood her ground for a moment, considering. Then she snatched up her pail and threw the water right in Jonthan’s face. As it drenched him, there was a flash and another loud snap. Jonthan jerked just as Izak had, though not so violently. He didn’t fall over, but sank to his knees, gaping with shock. Before he could regain his senses, Sara picked up her mop and swung it with all her strength. Sara was no weakling, her muscles honed by the endless mopping and cleaning she had been forced to do. There was an ugly sound as the hard pole connected with his skull. Jonthan crashed over, hitting the stone floor with a thud, twitched once and then did not move again.
She ran to where her master lay and bent over him. He was still twitching, but his eyes had returned to their normal position and she could hear him gasping for breath. Not dead, then. She ran to fetch a cup of water and dribbled it through his lips. He choked and tried to sit up. His gaze was wild for long moments before it finally settled and he stared at her.
“Master Izak,” she said. “You are in need of another apprentice. I pray you take me.”
“You?” he gasped out. “But you’re just…”
She compressed her lips, controlling a surge of anger. “Just a girl, yes. But I was taught my letters, master. I have been reading your books when I was alone here, and I have watched and marked everything you do.”
Still gasping, Izak struggled upright. He looked across to where Jonthan lay, blood spreading in a pool around his head. “Your weapon worked, Master Izak. Jonthan used it against you. But he won’t do it ever again.”
His returned his gaze to Sara. He tried to speak, emitted only a croak. He cleared his throat and tried again. “It seems… it seems I owe my life to you. So yes, yes I will teach you.”
She gave a broad smile and ventured a slight joke. “Perhaps we can find a boy to mop the floor?”
Many years passed by, until one day Sara sat in sorrow at the Izak’s deathbed.
His breath was laboured, as he fought to retain consciousness and tried once again to speak to her. It wouldn’t be long now, Sara knew. Her heart was as heavy as any of the stone blocks which made up her master’s tower. He had been good to her over the years, had Izak, and she had served him to the limit of her ability as he taught her the mysteries of his art. Well, some of the mysteries. She suspected that the reserved old man had kept back from her much of what he had discovered. Not that she held that against him. That had been his right.
My world is coming to an end, she thought. Izak’s imminent death was bad enough. But within hours Sara herself could be dead, or enslaved. Or worse. Outside the walls of the castle she could hear the ongoing battle raging. King Rizzard had sent out a last desperate sortie of mounted men to try to lift the months-long siege.
Despite all of Izak’s ingenuity and the seemingly magical mechanisms and weapons he had devised for the King, the forces arrayed against them were now too strong. Duke Villiers had conspired with the neighbouring kingdom to overthrow Rizzard and put himself on the throne. A dangerous piece of treachery, now about to succeed, it seemed.
“Sara…” gasped out the old man on the bed. “Sara…”
“Hush, now,” she said, fussily rearranging the blanket he had thrown off. It was almost winter, and the weather was cold. Whenever he was without the blanket he shivered miserably. But he seemed to be burdened by its weight. An unpleasant, musty smell came from Izak’s body as she put back the covering. The stink of death, she thought sadly.
“Sara… the key.” He gasped again, tried vainly to sit upright. “The door… must open it.”
He was delirious, babbling. “There is no key,” she said. “No door. Don’t worry, don’t worry, it’s all right.”
A small flame of determination flickered in Izak’s eyes. “Must escape! You. Sara. Must… The key. Take the key… the only key.”
He fell back, exhausted. A minute passed as he tried and failed to speak again. Finally, an ugly sound escaped from his throat and a shudder ran through him. Then he was still. No more gasping breaths came from the lean figure on the bed, no movement. He was gone at last.
Sara sat looking at him, tears now beginning to run down her face.
In the new silence, from outside she could now clearly hear the screams of injured men and the shouts of others, yelling out their triumph or despair. She went to the window. The King’s men were fighting desperately to cover their retreat back to the gate. The sortie had failed, then.
She turned back to the bed. What had Izak been trying to tell her? There was no key on his body. She ought to know, she had been bathing and dressing the dying man for weeks now. She had never come across any unexplained keys in his rooms. For that matter, there were no locked doors in the three rooms in the tower — the bedroom, the workshop and Izak’s precious library. The dying man must have been out of his wits at the end. Still… he had seemed desperate to get out those last words. It would be doing him a disservice not to at least make some effort. And besides, what else was there to do now, except wait for Duke Villiers’ forces to storm the castle, for the men to come surging up the tower, to kill, or more likely, to rape?
Moving from room to room, she opened every drawer again, though she could already have made lists of their contents from memory. Looked on every benchtop, felt on top of every cupboard, scanned every shelf in the library. No key. She could, she supposed, take down every book off every shelf to see if there was a key hidden behind it or tucked inside its pages. But there were many hundreds of books. Such a search would take hours, and she didn’t have hours.
She smiled sadly at the futility and probably the folly of her quest, resigned but not despairing. She had had a long time to come to terms with her fate.
Just as she was about to leave the library and return to the workshop, her eye was caught by the glint of silver. She looked back, but her hopes were instantly dashed. It had only been the light glinting off the embossed lettering on the spines of some of the books.
She paused, though, her eye running for a moment or two over the titles of the books. So many! Izak had often talked about books being the key to knowledge. Is that what he had meant? But dying, he had talked about opening a door. Perhaps that, too was just a figure of speech.
Then, as she started to turn away, her attention was caught by the prominent title of a thick book sitting on a high shelf. Unica Cui Clavis. One of Izak’s many old volumes, probably a transcription of some ancient Latin text. Under his tutelage, she had learned a little of the language of the long-vanished Empire. But not very much, not enough to translate the title, let alone the contents, of such a book.
But nevertheless she frowned, thinking about the words. Clavis. Didn’t that have something to do with the musical instrument, what was it called? The clavichord. A keyboard instrument. In that case, could clavis mean key? Was that, could that be the word for the same kind of key which opened a lock?
She went back to the bookcase and, standing on tiptoe, took down the book.
In the space where the book had been, she could see something. She went to fetch a chair. Standing on it, she could now see that there was a gap in the stonework, and in the gap, the bound end of a rope. In the dim light which filtered into the gap, she could faintly see that the rope ran over a pulley. Typical of Izak’s clever mechanisms.
She pulled on the rope. Nothing happened, the rope didn’t seem to move. Grimly she seized it in both hands and put all of her weight behind it. There was a grinding sound and then the rope went slack. The grinding sound continued, accompanied by a new sound, a whirring and clicking. Somewhere, wheels were turning. And now she could see that the bookcase next to the one where she was standing was beginning to move upwards, sliding with a slight juddering motion towards the high stone ceiling. Behind it was a dark gap.
She stepped down from the chair, picked up the thick book, and returned it to the shelf. She also moved the chair back to the table. No point in leaving clues for Duke Villiers’ men.
Outside, she could hear a renewed surge of noise. It sounded as if the fighting was now at the very gate of the castle. A profound thud which seemed to shake the tower indicated that a battering ram was now in action against the gate.
In the gap revealed by the risen bookcase, she could see a flight of stairs, leading upward. But surely Izak’s rooms were already at the very top of the tower? It seemed not. Sara stepped in to the gap. Another short piece of rope was visible in an opening high in the wall here. Cursing Izak’s tallness and her relative shortness, Sara jumped up to catch the rope and swing from it. She felt it move. The grinding sound was renewed, and she saw the bookcase begin to descend again.
She ran up the spiral stairs.
At the top, she came out into a large dim room. An attic room, hidden under the sloping roof. One shuttered window was jammed into the short side wall. No ceiling above, just the undersides of the slate tiles. Izak must have continually been in danger of knocking his head up here, Sara thought, as she quickly went to the window and opened the shutter.
As the light spread into the room, she saw that it was cluttered with tools and parchments. On a low workbench lay a large, symmetrical construction made of folded cloth and wood, with a metallic mechanical device attached at the centre. It took Sara long moments to make sense of it. It had leather straps in several places, and it appeared to be designed to be attached to a human body. A small body, perhaps that of a child. Or a small, slight woman like herself.
From outside she heard a sound of splintering, followed by a wailing of despair from many throats. The gate had gone down, then. Not much time left.
Frantically, Sara picked up scattered drawings and tried to compare them with the mechanism on the bench. Izak’s handwriting had been difficult to decipher even at the best of times, and the urgency now made it all the harder.
But then it all came together in a sudden flash of insight. Sara strode to the workbench and began turning the winding handle on the clockwork mechanism. It took all of her strength and took a long time, minutes she knew that she could not afford to waste. But there was no point leaving it only partly wound.
Then she began to strap herself into the thing.
She could hear the harsh laughing of the Duke’s men as they entered the rooms below. She prayed that they would not discover the hidden door too quickly. Or at all. But they would be bent on destruction, would tear down all of the books. She couldn’t rely on them not being curious about the rope in the wall.
It was done. She turned to the window, her heart thudding. So what if I die?, she thought. Better this way than being forced by the soldiers and then having my throat slit.
Moments later, standing on a ledge in the cold wind, she pressed the lever at her side. Something on her back began to spin, driven by the clockwork. Summoning all of her courage and her respect for her master’s genius, she leapt out into space.
Her wings spread wide.
© Copyright David R. Grigg. All rights reserved
About this story
This story was written, in two separate parts, in 2012 and 2013 and partially re-written recently. I was intrigued by the idea of a medieval-type world with a wizard whose magic is actually science and engineering.
I think there’s the core of a novel here, but it would need a lot of work, a lot more plot and some good world-building. Perhaps I’ll do that one day. Real Soon Now…
Thanks for reading. I’ll see you next time.