- Chapter One -
The Wizard’s Secret
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.
helped bring you into this world,” said a gentle voice, “and I want to make
sure you stay in it. Promise to let me?”
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
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
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.
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
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
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…
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...
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.
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.
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
you my little mother?” Noa asked, her whole body tense, their faces almost
touching. “Are you my sister, Toren?”
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.
were only three when I left,” Toren whispered. “I’m surprised you remember
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.”
shouldn’t believe everything Amder says.”
it’s true, isn’t it? You were a
took a deep breath and slowly exhaled.
not any more,” she said. “I’ve completed my seven years, and I’m glad of
you’re a wizard now?” Noa’s voice was voice full of wonder.
shook her head, and Noa quickly frowned.
you’ve completed your apprenticeship!” Noa cried. “That means you’re now
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
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?”
sat and began to eat. She ignored the question, so Noa repeated it.
a long story,” Toren finally replied. “You’ve been ill for days, and
it’s late. You need your rest.”
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?”
mumbled something to herself and ran her fingers through her hair.
well, if you must have it. I’ll tell part of my tale –”
cheered and clapped her hands.
but only if you agree that the moment you yawn or show any other sign of tiring,
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.
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
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.
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
“‘What do you want?’ the wizard
“‘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
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.
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
“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
“‘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
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
“‘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
“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
“‘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
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.”
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
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?”