- Chapter One -

 The Wizard’s Secret

 

 

“Who are you?”

Each frozen breath clawed Noa’s lungs. In the darkness a hand reached out and wiped away the perspiration from her forehead. She repeated her question.

“I helped bring you into this world,” said a gentle voice, “and I want to make sure you stay in it. Promise to let me?”

Noa nodded and relaxed. Before losing consciousness again, she saw a blue glow rise from her body. The voice sang sweetly in a strange language, and the light disappeared.

As the days passed, Noa drifted in and out of sleep. She had forgotten she had been too weak to climb the stairs, so she was startled to find herself on the couch in the sitting room. Across from her lay a stranger, a young woman sleeping in an old trundle bed – Noa’s healer. The stranger lay there each time Noa opened her eyes, but the changing lengths of the shadows marked the passage of days.

On the fourth evening Noa woke to the scent of squab, sweet onions and dried fruits. She took a dish off the mantle and helped herself to a few spoonfuls from the iron caldron in the hearth. A silver plate with olive flatbread and a jug of water waited for her on the wooden table in the middle of the room. She sat, drank, ate, and felt a bit stronger. She lifted her legs and folded them on the chair under her dress. Her eyes remained glued to the stranger, as she tried once again to unravel the riddle that was her healer.

Noa guessed her to be about sixteen or seventeen. Long hair, as dark as Noa’s but much less curly, framed her pale face. The stranger curled her slender body into a ball and pressed her eyes and mouth tightly shut. From time to time she whimpered, clutched her right leg under her blue dress, and trembled. A wooden staff topped by something that sparkled with silver, leaned against the wall at her side.

The stranger’s leg seemed to hurt her a great deal, and she used a staff. She was probably lame. Noa always found her asleep, but there must have been times when she was awake, times she prepared food, probably at night. It had been night when the stranger had saved Noa’s life. It had probably been night when the stranger made her long, difficult journey up the mountainside alone. No one ever came to this house by chance. Noa’s healer must have known Noa needed her. But how? 

A black cloak and a full sackcloth pack with leather straps rested at the stranger’s feet. Only wizards and witches wore black cloaks. Witches were expert healers, and the stranger had sung… was it a healing spell? Witches were also midwives, and what was it the stranger had said? I helped bring you into this world…

Noa was ten, so the young woman would have been six or seven on the day Noa was born, an apprentice. But no apprenticeship lasts more than eight or nine years. She would have to be a witch by now, and witches wore only black – black cloaks, black robes, black dresses. But the stranger’s dress was blue...

Noa’s jaw dropped, and her eyes widened. She shook her head. No, it can’t be, she thought. I’m only seeing what I want to see… Yet the lines of the stranger’s face – the long nose, delicate chin and deep-set eyes with thick, dark lashes – seemed right. If only those eyes were open, then I could be certain. They’re olive green, I just know they are. They have to be.

The following day, determined to conserve her strength, Noa slept as much as she could. In the late afternoon she sat to a meal of the fish and vegetables that waited for her in the caldron, and as darkness fell she lit candles. She sat on a small carpet at the head of the trundle bed and watched.

The stranger cringed and whimpered, just as she had before. A few hours later her body uncurled. Eventually she stretched and sat up. She flinched when she opened her eyes.

“Are you my little mother?” Noa asked, her whole body tense, their faces almost touching. “Are you my sister, Toren?”

Slowly, the stranger nodded with a smile. Her eyes glowed olive green in the candlelight, just as Noa had remembered. The two held each other for a long time in silence, tears trailing down their cheeks.

“You were only three when I left,” Toren whispered. “I’m surprised you remember me.”

“How could I forget?” said Noa. “I cried for days when you didn’t come back. Amder said a wizard took you away and I would never see you again.”

“You shouldn’t believe everything Amder says.”

“But it’s true, isn’t it?  You were a wizard’s apprentice?”

Toren took a deep breath and slowly exhaled.

“I’m not any more,” she said. “I’ve completed my seven years, and I’m glad of it.”

Noa smiled.

“So you’re a wizard now?” Noa’s voice was voice full of wonder.

Toren shook her head, and Noa quickly frowned. 

 “But you’ve completed your apprenticeship!” Noa cried. “That means you’re now –”

“That means…” Toren raised her hand to stop her in mid-sentence. “… I’m now free to make my own choices. I don’t want to be a wizard. I never have.”

“But why? I can’t imagine anything I would want more!”

Toren shook her head again and sighed. She shifted her body, reached for the staff behind hers and stood. Noa also stood and was surprised to discover that her much older sister was only a little taller than her. Toren steadied her body and hobbled toward the table, keeping her weight on her left side. The stick hit the tiled floor with loud thuds. The sound echoed off the white stone walls, overpowering Noa’s words. “What happened to your leg?”

Toren sat and began to eat. She ignored the question, so Noa repeated it.

“It’s a long story,” Toren finally replied. “You’ve been ill for days, and it’s late. You need your rest.”

But Noa didn’t want to rest. She wanted answers, and she raised her voice in frustration. “If I go back to bed now, you’ll be asleep when I wake up!  You always sleep during the day, don’t you?  And you’re always in pain, aren’t you?”

Toren mumbled something to herself and ran her fingers through her hair.

“Very well, if you must have it. I’ll tell part of my tale –”

Noa cheered and clapped her hands.

“— but only if you agree that the moment you yawn or show any other sign of tiring, we stop.”

Noa nodded. She hugged and kissed her sister before returning to the couch. Toren finished eating, pulled a chair closer and sat. She glanced through the parchment window. Her finger rose to make a little circle in the air, as if she were trying to trace the full moon in the starry sky. She closed her eyes.

“So, you want to know who I am,” she said. “It seems a simple question, ‘who are you?’  And we always give it such simple answers. ‘Who am I?  I’m Toren. I’m Noa. I’m the eldest daughter of Omri the vintner. I’m the youngest…’ 

“Of course, these answers aren’t true. They are simple, quick and easy, while the truth is none of those things. Even a mouse has a story as grand as the sky.

“You want to know why I’m not a wizard. The simple answer is I do not wish to be. But you want the truth: you want to hear my tale. Let’s see. Where should I begin?  On top of a pile of empty crates in Pardessia’s central square is as good a place as any…”

 

-*-

 

“Fantastic riches!” I shouted down from my wobbly perch, with my hands cupped around my mouth. “Eternal life! The love of the most beautiful maid in the world! Come taste what I have to sell! I guarantee you’ll like what you see!”

The people stopped what they were doing and gathered around, but there was one whose attention I desired above the rest. The storyteller stood off to the side in his traditional uniform, a cloak of patches with each patch depicting a scene from one of his tales. He pretended to look at some leather goods on a stand, yet I could tell I had the foreigner’s sunburned ear, and that was enough.

“See here, girl,” one merchant shouted back. “What are you going on about?”

“I’m talking about the most tantalizing offer ever made in this market!” I replied. “Not ‘onions, two for a copper!’  Not ‘best baked buns in all the land!’  A man stood on this very spot not so long ago and shouted, ‘Wealth beyond compare! Love! Life!  What would you be willing to pay to make your dreams come true?’” 

A farmer standing below me turned his head and licked his lips.

“And this was not just any man,” I continued. “This was a wizard. He was dressed all in darkness like the night. He opened his coat, and on his tunic was a mirror, sparkling with the promises of wishes that had never been fulfilled. One man saw a woman he had loved who had married another; an old hag saw herself young and beautiful; a peasant saw himself rich and powerful beyond belief!  And all this was offered by one who seemed to have the power to breathe life into their grandest fantasies.”  

A donkey ceased its braying and cocked its ears. The voices of the nearby sellers and workers slowly quieted. Eager faces of every size and shade, from creamy pink to cinnamon brown, gathered around me. Here was a man with a handsomely curled, dark mustache. There was a ginger-haired boy and holding him was a woman with straight, gray locks gathered into a bun under a white scarf. Peasants and their children in homespun linens and woolens in the browns, greens and dull oranges of the earth mixed with merchants and aristocrats in rich, colorful silks, velvets, and brocades glittering with gold. Two lacey fans stopped fluttering, like butterflies holding their breath. A group of soldiers clad in leather armor and with quivers on their backs stopped their conversation and leaned a bit closer. I had them on my hook, and I only needed to pull them ever so gently in.

My heart raced with such excitement that the sound of it drowned out the grumblings of my empty stomach. It was just a little over seven years ago, and I still remember every detail. Yet the child I was then seems almost a stranger to me now. I was ten years old at the time, little sister, the same age you are now. And I was desperate. Our parents were dead. The grapes Shennen, Din and I had worked so hard to grow were destroyed by summer storms. Our family was on the verge of ruin.

It was our eldest brother Amder’s idea to take me to Pardessia to help him find an apprenticeship at the autumnal fair. Merchants came from great distances to sell their wares and taste the best the vineyards of our region had to offer. But Amder was too old to get work in any of the professions he wanted, jobs that would carry him as far away from us as possible. He said there were those who would take him if they were paid. I tried to get him to approach the local craftsmen – the tanners, masons, and the like – but he would have none of that.

When he showed interest in the unsuccessful storyteller, I devised a plan. Our father used to delight us with the most wonderful stories, and this one, I thought, would be perfect for my purpose. I went over it in my mind. It originally dealt with a potter, but I could see the potter’s shop just across the way. If he heard me, he might dispute it, and the illusion would be ruined. I therefore changed the main character to a wine merchant. 

“Now I heard this tale from a vintner who stood right where you are standing, yes, you.” I pointed at one young man. “He looked in the mirror and saw only himself and his family. For what else was for there for him to see?  He had everything he wanted: a beautiful, loving wife and healthy, clever children, a grand home, a vineyard of his own and a thriving business. As far as he knew, he lacked nothing. But he was curious. Surely, the price for such grand commodities must be enormous. And how could the wizard grant eternal life?  What if the buyer died and proved to be mortal after all?  Would he get his money back? 

“As I said, the vintner was curious, so he shouted back at the wizard, ‘How much?’

“The enchanter replied, ‘That depends on what item is purchased and by whom.’

“’I’d like to buy that,’ said a poor farmer in a dirty tunic and leggings. He pointed at the vision he perceived in the mirror and licked his lips.

“‘Then step inside,’ said the wizard. He closed his coat and lifted the flap to his tent with a flourish of his hand. The farmer walked, no, skipped inside. The enchanter followed him and tied the flap shut.

“The vintner wasn’t the only one who was curious. Every man and woman pushed and jostled each other to hear what was happening inside. But no one could. Then someone shoved the wine merchant just a little too hard, and he found himself inside on the ground at the wizard’s feet.

“‘What do you want?’ the wizard asked.

“‘I don’t want anything,’ the vintner replied, wiping the dust from his jacket.

“‘Then you may go.’

The wizard opened the flap once more. The would-be customers on the other side, who had pressed their ears to it, suddenly fell on top of one another.

“‘Wait!’ cried the vintner. ‘There is one thing I want.’

“The wizard closed the flap again.

“‘Well, what is it?’

“‘I was first,’ the farmer called out from a low stool by the table in the middle of the tent.

“‘I want to know how you are going to give this man what he wants, if at all,’ said the vintner, ‘and how much it will cost him’.

“The wizard stroked his long, white beard and thought. ‘We have agreed to the price of one chicken. As for the rest, you will have to pay me.’

“‘How much?’ the vintner asked.”

Here I stopped and reminded Amder to pass his cap around. Several people put in no money at all, so I placed my hands on my hips and called out to them.

“If you don’t really want to know the answer, then I see there is no point in my continuing. We are talking about a wizard’s secret. Surely, you would be willing to pay something for that?”

Only after most of the crowd had dropped at least one coin in the cap, did I continue.

“The wizard considered the question for a moment.

“‘It will cost you some time,’ he replied, ‘plus whatever you deem to be a fair price once you have learned what it is you wish to know.’

“The vintner agreed.

“The wizard told him to stand by the entrance of the tent and remain silent until he had finished with his patron.  Then he sat down by the table and lit a candle. He asked the farmer to look into the flickering flame.

“The wizard continued to talk in a soft, melodic voice until the farmer fell under a trance. He told him to close his eyes, and the farmer obeyed. He asked his customer questions about his life. The farmer answered honestly. His wife was deformed. His children were stupid and sickly. He hated his work and could never grow enough. His cramped house was as hot as an oven in the summer and cold and damp all winter long. He had bought out his plot of land from his lord and deeply regretted that decision.

“The wizard told him that from that day onward, he would see everything in his life differently. He would look at his wife, children, home and work with love and hope. His wife was the most stunning woman in the world, he said, and she loved him dearly, whether she told him so or not. His children were handsome and clever. He would do his best to make sure they grew up knowing that. The farmer would enjoy working on his plot of land, and it would thrive under his skillful hand. He would marvel at the snow in the winter, the rain in the spring and autumn and the sunshine in the summer. Never again would heat or cold be a bother to him. Finally, the wizard told him that the moment he returned home he was to forget everything that had taken place. Nevertheless, he would continue to see his world with love for the rest of his days.

“When the farmer awoke from his trance, he was all smiles. He thanked the wizard profusely and continued to thank him as he skipped outside. The wizard closed the flap after him and held out his hand for payment from the wine merchant. But the vintner was angry…”

“As well he should be,” shouted one of my listeners. “The wizard tricked him.”

“That is exactly what the wine merchant thought,” I replied.

“’This whole thing has been a lie,’ said the vintner. ‘That man didn’t get anything. You tricked him!’

“The wizard didn’t like the vintner’s tone.

“‘The farmer got exactly what he wanted,’ he said.

“‘Riches?’ scoffed the vintner. ‘A beautiful wife?’ 

“‘No,’ answered the wizard. “Happiness. People only think they want wealth and love, but the truth is all they ever really want is happiness. The more wealth a man gets, the more he wants and the worse he feels. The more desirable his wife, the more suspicious of other men he becomes. It eats away at him. Happiness is all a person truly wants.’

“‘But that man’s happiness is based on a lie,’ said the vintner.

“‘No, it’s not,’ the wizard replied. ‘It is based on a new perception of the truth. Who are you to say his new truth is not better than his old one?  It brings him happiness, so it is better.’ 

“‘But it isn’t the truth!’ the vintner protested. He shook his head and sighed loudly. Then he removed two copper coins from his pouch and held them out, but the wizard refused to take them.

“‘I will not be paid until I know the customer is fully satisfied,’ he said.

“The vintner shrugged and was about to leave when the wizard asked him, ‘Don’t you think it odd that you were the only one who didn’t see anything in my magic mirror?’ 

“‘No,’ the vintner replied. ‘I have everything anyone could possibly want.’ 

“‘Or at least you think you do.’

“The vintner stopped and looked at him with a curious expression on his face.

“‘What if I were to tell you,’ said the wizard, ‘that you were in my tent before. And all the contentment you find in your life you owe to me?’ 

“The vintner laughed at the suggestion and hurriedly left the tent on his way home.

“‘Surely,’ he told himself, ‘if I had seen that wizard before, I would have remembered.”

“But then he recalled how the enchanter had told the farmer that after he returned home he would forget. Could the wizard have spoken the truth?  Could the vintner have bought the illusion of happiness and not remembered it? 

“Upon his return, the vintner looked at his home and saw how fine it was. It seemed to glow with warmth in the light of the setting sun. His wife and daughter greeted him with hugs, while his infant son sat on the bed and smiled at them.

Are they really as beautiful as I think they are? he wondered. 

He looked into his wife’s face and tried to find some ugliness. Was that a wrinkle?  Was there a vein sticking out of her forehead?  Were her freckles unattractive?

“He was so plagued by doubts he couldn’t sleep. Midnight had already passed when he returned to this spot, but the tent he was looking for wasn’t here. He sat on the potter’s doorstep and began to weep.  Eventually he cried himself to sleep.  It was just before daybreak when a hand on his shoulder awakened him. It was the wizard.

“‘Please,’ said the vintner. ‘Please, tell me. Is it true what you said?  Is my wife really beautiful, or have I been living a lie?’ 

“‘Do you want to know the truth – or the lie?’ asked the wizard.

“The merchant raised his open palms and shrugged.    

“‘I told you,’ the wizard said, ‘I never leave a customer unsatisfied.’

“He sat on the doorstep at the vintner’s side and put his arm around him. 

“‘Your wife is beautiful,’ the wizard whispered. ‘Your children are bright and healthy. Your home is magnificent, and nothing could give you more satisfaction than to taste your sweet wine and know you are the one who made it.’ 

“The vintner smiled, reached into his pouch and pulled out two silver coins. And since that day he has been a happy man. Although sometimes he wonders, and often he wishes he had never asked to know – the wizard’s secret.”

The audience greeted the end of the story with sighs, smiles and applause. I smiled too and took a bow, careful not to lose my balance. A few of my listeners tossed more coins into the cap in Amder’s greedy hands. One man, however, said he didn’t understand the ending, and I could hear a friend trying to explain it to him as they walked away.

The professional storyteller remained stuck to the place where he had stood during my performance. I climbed down and asked him what he thought. He said he was impressed, so I continued to the next part of my plan.

“My brother here,” I said, pulling Amder over, “is twice the storyteller I am. He happens to be looking for an apprenticeship. I’m sure if you were to take him on, he could help make you a small fortune in no time.”

The teller looked inside Amder’s cap, and his mouth watered at the sight of all the copper there. Amder jingled the coins for added effect. The man, however, shook his head.

“I have no need for an apprentice,” he said. “And I can’t afford to keep one. Besides, you may have convinced me you know how to spin a tale, but I don’t know about him.”

“What do you mean?” asked Amder. “Of course I can!  She’s only a girl. I can do anything better than a girl can.”

“I don’t know about that.” The teller’s eyes narrowed. “If there are two things I know girls are good at, they are spinning thread and telling tales. You ask them the simplest question in the world and out pops this long yarn. Trying to get the truth out of a woman is nearly impossible, but they tell tales as easily as they breathe.”

We did our best to change his mind, but the teller remained unswayed. Our brother was still talking to him, when I noticed a shadow almost covering the three of us. I looked to see where it came from.  

A giant of a man with wide shoulders, reddish-blond hair and a neatly trimmed beard stood in front of the sun. He was dressed in a black robe covered by a black cloak with a hood. His low voice rumbled like an approaching storm.

“Do I understand,” he said, “that you wish to sell an apprenticeship?”  

 

~~~