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Fantasy

“Sir, you must choose someone soon.”

The magician—aged, slightly arthritic and most definitely bald—stared balefully up at the king’s steward. Grabbing his cane and levering himself up out of the quite comfortable chair, the magician said, “No,” and trudged away to his overflowing table, grabbing a tattered book and opening it, swirls of dust issuing forth.

The steward huffed out a breath and joined the magician by the table, staring out the window opposite at the rolling farmland and toiling serfs. He looked down at the bent figure thumbing through his book and sighed again. “The king needs you to begin your mentorship. It should have started years ago! You were in high demand after that dragon heist. And again when you uncovered the false claimant to the throne and thwarted the assassination. You might have chosen anyone in the kingdom, and now you are old, slow, and headed for the grave. Why must you gainsay the king’s wishes?”

The magician tossed his book back on the table. “At least I’m not forgetful, which you seem to think. Repeating my own history to me. Bah!” he grumbled, shuffling back to his chair and collapsing onto its worn cushions. “As you say, I’m too old for such energetic souls. I’d doze off one day and the farm boy or feisty girl would accidentally impale themselves on a rusty sword or fall down a well and drown. It’s too much for me, steward; I will not pick an apprentice.”

~ ~ ~

A week elapsed before the farm girl arrived. The thin girl stood in the middle of the magician’s study, mud coating her boots, shirt consuming her small frame, nose red from constantly sneezing, and hair that must’ve been cut by a blind man.

The girl scratched her leg with a foot, mud falling onto the smooth stone floor. “Sir?”

The magician roused himself and stared hard at the girl. “Do you know how to make simple elixirs?”

“Uh, no, I don’t think so.”

“What about potions?” the magician’s hands gripped the armrests.

“I…well, nobody said nothing about potions.”

 “Can you harvest frog-chairs without burning your hands?” his brows lowered.

“I don’t know what that is…sir.” More mud fell to the floor.

“And do you know the difference between the fire of a dragon and a dragon’s fire?” he leaned forward.

“Is it something phylosical?”

“You mean philosophical, and no, it’s not. But why, if you are so deficient in the basics, are you standing in my study?” he slowly stood, leaning sagely on his cane.

“That man said I was destined from greatness and serving my king is the highest order I could make, or somethin’ like that.” The girl didn’t cower before the magician, another sign of her unpreparedness.

The magician rubbed his brow. Why must these youngsters always be so earnest? So guileless and soft, the stars shining in their eyes, and hearts beating proudly, full of un-burnished hope and honor?

“Why would you agree to be my apprentice?” he asked, struggling to keep the disused but all-too familiar dread from his voice.

“I have no family, no one to care for, and I’m already a trouble to the farmer. One more mouth to feed, he says.” The girl’s shoulders rose in a futile shrug as if her only logical next step led to the magician’s door.

“An orphan,” the magician moaned, almost falling back in his chair. The steward knew how to pick them. “You may imagine that your life with me will bring you some comfort and glory, but there’s something you must understand.”

~ ~ ~

Three months later, the girl died. The magician knew it was coming, waited for the inevitable moment with a fatalistic air, almost turning away in resignation when it finally arrived. But enough of his humanity remained for him to throw out a rope as the girl struggled to keep her head above the bog. The girl’s hand had brushed the rope and for a moment, a surge of hope strengthened the old man’s spirit, but alas…the girl slipped beneath the surface, leaving only a few bubbles in her wake.

And now he sat alone in his study, awaiting the crisp steps of the steward and his stern disapproval. When would he give up and leave the magician to his own mind? The magician dedicated his whole life to protecting the king—and did a good job of it all by himself—and fairly soon both of the old relics would join those ranks of the underground brigade. Let some other errant magician find their way here to impress the new monarch.

But the footsteps approaching now didn’t belong to the steward. In fact, the magician failed to identify the heavy, booted strides.

The door to his study banged open and before the magician could rise from his chair, a large man swept inside and planted himself before the magician, a beatific smile radiating through and beyond his bushy beard.

“At last, I have found you.” This stranger, dressed in homespun shirt and hose, with a well-kept sheathed sword at his side and a feathered cap sitting jauntily on his head, still smiled most alarmingly at the magician. “I thought this might be the wrong castle, but here you are! Ah-ha-ha!”

“Oh. You’re an adventurer.” Any previous interest drained from the magician and he slowly blinked his tired eyes. “Who sent you and what ingredient do you need? I’m running low on some items, so you may have to fetch them for me as part of your reward.”

The adventurer continued smiling at him and at last thrust a thick finger right up to the magician’s nose. “You. I’m looking for you.”

“Eh?”

“You’re famous. All the other magicians talk about you: that codger who won’t take an apprentice because of his curse. Why, every castle from the Northern Mount to the South Shores has sent out adventurers like me to find you and bring you to the High Council. They think they’ve struck upon a cure for your curse. Haven’t you heard about it?” the adventurer scratched his chin and looked about him.

Even though the magician never went out of sight of the castle anymore, he always knew someone would eventually find him, though he did wonder how this jolly figure circumvented his carefully laid traps and misdirections. And with the promise of a cure? Impossible. Nothing existed that might free him of this burden and if it did, he wouldn’t trust the Council to kindly bestow it.

For the last four…no, five decades, those who took up the mantle of the magician’s apprentice ultimately died. It mattered not where they hailed from or what shaped their prior life, sooner or later, by unlucky accident or sudden ailment, each student’s life was snuffed out.

It hadn’t taken the magician long to catch hold of the traces of his curse and even less time to begin trials for a cure. He became a hermit, testing every blessing, prayer, incantation, potion, counter-curse, and regular curse he could manage. But when the next apprentice died—struck by lightening, of all things—he swore off teaching anyone anything about magic. Oddly enough, he did his best work for the king during those student-less years and amassed a large following, each person desperate to be taught his methods. The steward was right: he could have picked from a large pool of eager hands. But always lurking in the back of his mind, like someone whispering too quietly for him to hear, was the curse. 

Then that steward thrust another hapless youth onto him. He told the girl of the danger, and the slim hope that enough years had elapsed for the original curse-bringer to die, and she blithely assured him that it did not matter, and nothing he said could change her mind. And now, outside his window, he could see the freshly dug grave lying beside all the other old bones, a constant memorial to his loss.

“Nothing exists that can free me,” he told the adventurer, his voice sounding broken even to his own ears. “I’ve tried everything. It will be best that I die in peace and some other magician take my place. I’ve documented everything,” he gestured at the overflowing bookshelves, “it shouldn’t be hard to carry on.”

The adventurer knelt before him and gently took the magician’s withered hand in his tanned ones. “They told me the cure will work, but you have to come before the Council. I have horses waiting. We can leave today.”

The magician withdrew his hand and smiled pityingly. “You do not know the Council as I do. There’s nothing they love more than an unsolvable riddle. I’ll not let myself be prodded and drugged, nor will I allow more people to die because of me. You go off and have your adventures, but stay away from them. Here,” he slowly rose and hobbled over to a cabinet, plucking an amber bottle off a shelf and wiping the rounded glass clean before handing it to the adventurer. “This will give you strength in your next battle.”

The magician turned to stare out his window at the world beyond, its many terrors and triumphs as far off and intangible as the clouds filling the horizon. He glanced at his visitor who stood listlessly staring at the bottle, apparently lost without his quest.

The magician shuffled over to the adventurer and rested a hand on the man’s forearm. “Go,” he said. “The world requires ones such as you.”

The adventurer’s gaze sharpened and he gripped the bottle, nodding tersely and swiftly exiting the room, the door closing softly and leaving the magician alone, as though no one had ever entered.

September 26, 2023 15:32

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4 comments

Michelle Oliver
01:22 Oct 06, 2023

The excuses we hide behind in order to justify not moving forward. A fine fantasy tale with a strong moral message, well done.

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Kailani B.
03:21 Oct 06, 2023

Thanks so much for your kind words!

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Michał Przywara
20:41 Oct 02, 2023

That's an interesting burden to bear. But considering he's not even willing to entertain the possibility of a cure existing, maybe the main burden is actually time, and all the death he's caused. Even if the curse vanished, he'd still have all that hanging over him. The death of the girl was abrupt and unexpected, and I think this works very well for the story. It shows just how cruel and quick the curse is. Given the let down the hero experiences near the end, the whole story has a feeling of "it's too late." Thanks for sharing!

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Kailani B.
00:39 Oct 03, 2023

Thank you for your thoughtful remarks! I think the thought of moving on without the familiar weight of the curse is too much for him to face. He'd have to overcome new challenges, but with the curse to hide behind, things can be just fine for a little longer. Like you say, if the option for a cure came sooner, he might have had the will to try.

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