Last year, for May Madness, I published a story about Mandrake, a necromancer.
I liked this character, and wondered how he got involved in necromancy.
Without further ado, I present to you Mandrake’s origin story: A Simple Errand.
After school, Mandrake walked home with Edgar. He liked walking with Edgar, who was a skinny child because he didn’t care much for food, and often shared what was left over from his lunch with Mandrake.
“I’m walking the long way today, through the woods,” Edgar said.
Mandrake shrugged. He was in no hurry to get home. He motioned for the other boy to hand over his lunch pail and started to root through the contents.
“Alric said he’d give me a shilling if I collected something for him.”
Mandrake stopped in his tracks. “Mad Man Alric?”
Edgar gulped. “Don’t call him that, he doesn’t like it.”
“It’s a bad idea.” Mandrake shook his head. His father beat him for even walking along the road that passed by Mad Man Alric’s hovel.
“No, it’s not. He’s not like what people say. He’s a man of letters. He knows things.” Edgar clenched his fists, and the color rose in his cheeks. “He says after another year of schooling I can apprentice to him.”
Mandrake gnawed on a sandwich crust. There was still a little piece of ham stuck between the husks of dark, dry bread, and his probing tongue even found a hint of butter.
Edgar leaned towards him and whispered.
“He’s a necromancer.”
Edgar’s eyes shone with a greedy light. It was the first time Mandrake had ever seen him hungry for something. “He can make magic, from the dead.”
Mandrake shrugged and started walking again. There was some sliced fruit at the bottom of the pail, he wasn’t sure what it was, but he popped it into his mouth for the sweetness. It all turned into brown mush inside him anyway.
“What’s he want?”
“He said to bring him the heart of the wood. He said I’d find it at the crossroads, and I’d know it when I saw it,” Edgar said.
The stop of the woods, where the roads crossed beyond the village. Mandrake’s father called it the witch’s graveyard, because that’s where they left the dead who didn’t deserve proper burial. He didn’t mind it though. It was just trees and road. Sometimes he’d hear the animals in the forest. Nothing to bother him, especially if he had a stout stick with him to chase off any wolf or bear that might peak out at him. He didn’t have a stout stick with him today, but he had Edgar, and that was just as good. He knew he could run faster than Edgar.
He’d finished all the food in the pail, and licked his fingers clean thrice, by the time they reached the stop in the woods. Mandrake whistled a jaunty tune, because he was enjoying the adventure, but Edgar walked slower as they neared the crossroads.
“Look.” He clutched Mandrake’s arm and pointed a shaking finger at a tree.
Mandrake looked up and saw a beautiful tawny owl perched on the branch. It opened its yellow eyes and looked at him, the feather tufts sticking out of its head looking exactly like ears. It was a fine specimen.
“It’s an omen,” Edgar said.
Mandrake continued walking. If he was too late home, he’d get a beating, and he was still sore from the one he had got the day before for tearing his shirt sleeve on the brambles as he herded the cows into the milk shed.
The trees grew close across the path where the two roads met and the wooden post marked the stop in the wood, planks nailed crudely to it to mark the way. The light was dimmer, and the air a little cooler, and on a summer day Mandrake welcomed both these things, but it was cold today and he didn’t want to linger in case he caught a chill.
Edgar gasped, a frightful sound, that made Mandrake want to laugh at the theatrics of it.
There was a dark shape lying at the foot of the sign post, in the shade of the trees. Mandrake moved towards it to get a closer look.
“Don’t,” Edgar said. “It’s a body.”
Mandrake squinted. He could make out the basic form of a body, all right. A head pointed towards the trees, arms, torso, legs, feet pointed towards him. A grey shroud covering the whole thing.
“Is that it?” Mandrake asked.
Edgar paled, and the light died in his eyes. They looked sunken now, and shifty, like a fox caught in the hen house trying to avoid the axe.
“I can’t carry a whole body.”
“Must be something on it then,” Mandrake said.
The two boys stepped closer. A young woman lay at the foot of the sign post. She looked a few years older than them, and so perfect she could have been asleep, expect Mandrake knew she was dead because she was too still and silent. He didn’t recognize her from school or from the village, but he didn’t know a lot of people, especially the girls, so that didn’t mean anything.
She was simply dressed, but around her neck was a thick gold chain, and hanging from the chain was a large green jewel. It looked like it was worth a lot, although Mandrake thought he saw smoke swirling inside it out of the corner of his eye. He wondered why the body hadn’t been robbed long before they arrived.
Mandrake pointed to the pendant.
Edgar bit at the skin around his nails. “How can you tell that’s what he wants?”
“Like a heart.”
Edgar took a step closer to the body, but then he backed away, shaking his head. “Who is she? How did she get here? How did she die? She must have family. This is wrong, Mandrake. I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to do it anymore.”
His voice rose in pitch with each word, until he squeaked, and ran out of breath. Mandrake thought he might have been crying by the time he turned and ran away down the road.
Mandrake turned back to the body. It was a shame she was dead, but it was nothing to do with him, and a shilling was a shilling. It would be a shame if he’d walked the whole way for nothing.
He stepped forward and reached out to take the pendant. Up close, the girl didn’t look so young. Her face was wrinkled, her hair grey. She wasn’t so recently dead either. The stench of decay was sweet and ripe. Something wriggled behind her eyelids.
Mandrake shrugged. Dead was dead. Couldn’t hurt him.
He plucked the pendant from the chain. It felt strange in his hand, softer than he expected, spongey almost. He thought he could hear voices, a woman calling his name softly from a great distance. He didn’t like it, so he threw the pendant into Edgar’s lunch pail, climbed back on the road and started whistling as he walked home.
He wondered what other errands would get a shilling from Mad Man Alric.