THE MAZEOne of the village girls saw him and pointed. She called out loud against the wind, "Little Jerome starts his new job today. Better watch out he doesn't turn himself into a frog." All the girls started making froggy noises. One also made froggy movements, waggling a nicely rounded young body in Jerome's direction.He waved over to the girls as pleasantly and with as much dignity as he could manage. But inside, he was harbouring dark adolescent thoughts. 'They'll be singing a different tune when I get the powers. Oh yes, I'll be doing all sorts of things with the girls once I'm apprenticed to the Old Wizard.'He walked on, avoiding the puddles. He had a new spring in his step as he thought over and over again about what things he might be doing with the girls. He barely noticed the miles pass on his way to the cave of the Old Wizard. Soon he was deep inside the dark woods where the village girls would never dare to go.The ancient trees were already casting their late afternoon shadows when Jerome reached the cave. There was no sign of the Old Wizard. Knowing he should not enter uninvited, he sat down on a long flat rock near the mouth of the cave and waited. He thought about the stories. Old stories that were told late at night and behind closed doors. Stories about young lads from the village who were never seen again. After a while, a lone raven glided silently out of the trees to join him on the rock. He pulled his warm woollen cloak tighter around his shoulders.For what seemed a very long time he sat still, all the while peering into the unlit depths of the cave. Suddenly, he realized something had changed. He was no longer alone. The Old Wizard was sitting quietly on the flat rock right beside him.The young apprentice jumped quickly to his feet. "Sorry Sir," he said. "I didn't know you were there. How can you do that?""Don't ask. You have much to learn first. When you're ready, you'll know without asking." The reply came softly and the Old Wizard seemed to be looking far away saying, "I was thinking how much you remind me of my first day in the craft. A day like this but long, long ago. The day when I did The Maze myself.""The Maze?""Yes, young lad. You must do The Maze. We all have to do The Maze before we can start.""Like a test?""Oh yes.""And then I can be your apprentice?""Yes."The Old Wizard reached deep inside his cloak. He drew out a little book bound in old leather and brass. With a shake of his sleeve he had pen and ink to hand and was writing calligraphy in a style of long ago.Jerome thought this book must be by far the oldest thing he had ever seen. He clasped his hands behind his back for he did not want the Old Wizard to know how much they were shaking. It was not seeing his own name being added to the list that had brought on such a feeling of dread but it was the other names, for many had been crossed out.As he closed the book, the Old Wizard gestured towards the dark entrance to the cave. Jerome caught a look in the old man's eyes that seemed to say, too late now."Go in," said the Old Wizard. "Then you must do whatever it takes to come back out again safely. You'll be alright. Ask what you need to know. You're a smart young lad and you've got a good tongue in your head."At this, Jerome found himself alone in the cave with a strange heavy darkness closing around him.And then, nothing. Jerome waited and once again he was glad to have his woollen cloak. Finally, knowing he must do something, anything, he remembered the words of the Old Wizard. He must ask. So he called out in a voice as clear and steady as he could manage. "I'm here for The Maze."At once, the cave floor opened and he was falling gently in darkness. Jerome reached out to touch the rock as he passed through. He quickly drew his hand back when he found it was warm and soft, like a living thing.And then, he was in a narrow tunnel. Here the rock was hard to the touch again, like it should be. What's more, it glistened with countless tiny crystals that glowed a ghostly green all around. There was a fork in the tunnel. One way sloped down. The other sloped up. Not much of a test this, he thought. He grinned as he went to that branch. But he remembered it was a maze, so he took a pebble and scored a rough arrow on the wall. Just in case.Again and again the young lad came to yet another fork in the tunnel. Again and again he took the path that sloped up. Must be near the surface now, he thought, as he tried to gauge how far he had risen. But then came the first of the two great oh-shit-moments of his time in the maze.The next fork ahead looked strangely familiar. Coming closer, he saw his arrow scratched on the wall. The arrow that told him he was back where he had started at the very first fork. Even the pebble he had used to draw the arrow was still these. He picked it up as if to draw a new arrow but threw it away instead. He listened to it bouncing and echoing down the tunnel until all was quiet, then sat down in the dust and tried not to cry.After a while he called out, "What now?"It seemed to him that the walls were answering that he should remember the girls. So then he did remember the girls, and the powers he would soon have to make them do what he wants, and how he had to do The Maze, for everyone had to do The Maze. Soon he was on his feet, dusting himself down.Deeper and deeper he went, now always following the branches that sloped down. They led him far underground.At first the sound was faint and far ahead. He stopped for a moment to listen, just to be sure. Then yes, he was sure. He could hear singing and his steps were becoming quicker and quicker. As he got closer he realized that this was more of a tuneless chant than a song. Something to do with the powers, he thought.Finally the tunnel opened out into a great cavern where the ghostly light was stronger. Jerome felt a sudden chill for he sensed evil all around him. The walls were lined with ancient artefacts that had no place in decent, ordinary life. His fearful eyes were drawn to a line of chanting figures swaying together in long black cloaks. He counted thirteen. This was a coven and they were coming towards him. He wanted to turn and run back up the tunnel, but he couldn't move his legs.The closer they came, the more hideous they seemed. The young lad raised a hand to his mouth for he knew he had to conceal the fact that he was gagging. Their cloaks hid much and Jerome reckoned they had much to hide. What was clearly in view was a succession of grey wrinkled faces, each one punctuated with more hairy warts than the one before. And now they were lined up, each one eagerly waiting her turn to become acquainted with the new apprentice.Jerome used every ounce of self discipline he could muster to hide his disgust. He knew that this was a time above all others in his young life when disobedience or disrespect would surely put him in most terrible danger.Without speaking, the Leader of the Coven looked Jerome straight in the eye as if searching out any challenge to her authority. Seeing none, she beckoned the young lad to follow her into a side chamber.Once in the privacy of the smaller chamber, her voice cackled loudly as if at some timeless and tasteless joke, "There is one way out of The Maze. Only one and you must take it now, or stay here with us for an eternity.""What must I do?" said Jerome.The dreadful old hag now let her cloak slip open to reveal a glimpse of soiled red lingerie that strained to contain a hideously misshapen figure."Well my dear," she said. "You can start by putting your tongue in my ear and we'll just take it from there."endThe Maze was published in Twisted Tongue Magazine Issue 14, 2009, ISSN 1749-9941. First appeared as the Runner-up in Adult Creative Writing Club, CompetitionNo 86, Oct 2008.