The Magicians' Birthday
(with thanks to Uriah Heep)
Six women of power, gathered to honour a seventh, the 'Birthday Girl', as they lovingly called her, as each was called, as one was feted each year in turn on the anniversary of her birth. No number, no age marked these celebrations, for such had no meaning among these women. Some were older than others, as must needs be, but all were far older than most people could imagine being.
That is the way of power.
The women sat in a circle, in a courtyard walled in mud brick and shielded by powerful spells. The sun was only just about to rise so shadows of the night still lingered inside the walls. Flowers and herbs grew there, many species common and grown for their beauty, the rest rare and grown for other reasons.
The seven told their tales as they sat under morning's sleepy skies, where all the colours of the sunrise would soon be shining in their eyes. One then another with a story of yester-year's life, or of a struggle lost, or of a moment of strife.
Mazeh was the eighth woman present, one young woman among the others. At this, her first birth day celebration, she was a guest of her mistress, Eely, who's day the women marked this year. To be there was an honour, of which Mazeh was aware, and a test, of which she was not.
Caught up in the moment, Mazeh did not notice the sad eyes with which Eely watched her young apprentice. The girl had such natural talent, such intelligence, such promise, but it might all be for naught in one so vain, so foolish. It was in the hope of opening her eyes to what she could be that Eely had invited Mazeh to sit in this circle, on this night.
To listen, perhaps to learn.
Eely mouthed a silent prayer that it would work, that it was not too late.
Blissfully unaware, Mazeh yawned in the still-pale morning light, her clear blue eyes fluttering tiredly open and closed as they ran over the faces surrounding the smoldering fire.
Al'anah was speaking on Mazeh's left. Watching her, Mazeh shook her head in dismay that the old woman had done nothing to preserve her looks. Staying young took a lot of power, but what else was power for?
At the moment Al'anah was explaining a complicated alchemical experiment she was conducting. It took all Mazeh's concentration just to stay awake. She was only partly listening to what was being said as memories of some of the previous night's tales drifted across her sleepy mind, tales completely unlike Al'anah's current dry discussion or her mind-numbing midnight description of some archival research she had carried out.
To Mazeh that description had seemed to take as long as the three years of actual study Al'anah had done. Three years? What a waste. So what if it had concerned some principle of the fundamental laws of magic?
"Who cares?" wondered Mazeh, fastidiously brushing some ash off her silk robe of red and gold. The garment had cost a fortune, but it was beautiful, it matched her full lips and flowing hair, and Mazeh counted it well worth the cost. Glancing around the circle she dismissed the more sedate attire of most of her elders, such as Al'anah's earth-toned robes, as lacking the taste she herself possessed. Why did they look the way they did?
There was Spareta, a mousy woman in grey who rarely spoke. Mazeh wondered about the stories of the woman's way with animals. Beside Spareta was wrinkled old Av'eau, dreamer and myth chaser. Next to Av'eau black-clad Joseah wore her night-coloured hair in a pony tail which hung down her straight back, moving only slightly as she nodded to herself when she spoke. The stories about her concerned the dead, and watching her pale face Mazeh thought the dark mage might be closer to death than life.
Not so Seauleh. Her burnt orange robe was brighter than the others', although not much, and her shiny silver hair framed glowing red cheeks. When she let out one of her frequent laughs her ivory white teeth flashed in a broad grin. Mazeh knew Seauleh worked with the stars but saw no evidence that it gave her power.
They were all like that, mages whom Mazeh knew were supposed to wield great power but who looked no different than the old women who sold baked goods on market day.
All except Baa'bi, of course. Baa'bi wore a robe in vibrant colours woven of a fabric which seemed alive. Mazeh knew that only the improvident use of potent magic could cause the material to ebb and flow like that, the colours pulsating with every beat of the elder mage's heart. For that robe alone Mazeh would have respected her.
But there was more. Staring at Baa'bi with Al'anah's monotone in the background, Mazeh remembered how thrilling the tales of the flamboyant mage had been last night, stories of adventure, excitement, and war. While Al'anah had been wasting her time in dusty libraries and drafty labs Baa'bi had served emperors and kings, using her power in battle more times than Mazeh had believed possible. For Mazeh the thought of changing the fate of a kingdom with one well-placed energy spell was bliss itself. Who needed research when the use of such power was already understood?
Watching Baa'bi earlier that night Mazeh had swept her wide eyes around the group. She had been surprised at the looks the others were giving Baa'bi, looks which were polite, slightly indulgent, even a little condescending. Disappointed, Mazeh had dismissed the other women's judgment of Baa'bi. "After all, what do they know, they've never been to war."
Then Mazeh had sighed. Baa'bi was everything that the young apprentice dreamed of being, a mage of surpassing power whom rulers feared and the masses honoured. For Mazeh, mages like Al'anah, poring over dusty tomes or endlessly discussing obscure questions of magical lore were a tragic waste of the power they carried.
As Al'anah had droned on in the dark of midnight Mazeh had tuned her out. The young woman's eyes had half-closed as she dreamed of the day she would wield power even Baa'bi would respect.
Inevitably her eyes had shut completely as her weariness overtook her dreams.
Then had come the sharp pain, jolting her into consciousness.
"Do you think it polite to snore when a guest is speaking?"
Shaking herself awake, Mazeh had seen Eely sitting beside her, her fingers still holding Mazeh's hand where she had pinched it.
"No, of course not," Mazeh had stammered. "I am very sorry, but very tired. In fact if you will excuse me, I will take my leave and retire to my chambers to sleep."
At that Al'anah had turned on Mazeh with stunning vehemence, the others joining in.
"No thought of sleep ever dwells upon the wise ones' minds."
"Some task or orient steals every moment of their time."
"Thus we have learned to live while mortal men stand waiting to die."
"How can we do what must be done, in just one short life?"
Reeling back, Mazeh had regarded the suddenly animated group, their words ringing in her ears. "I ... I am sorry. But it is so late, and I am so tired ... "
Al'anah had shaken her head ruefully, her eyes leaving Mazeh's face to glance knowingly at Eely before once again fixing themselves on the young woman. "Late? Tired? There you sit, tomorrow's child, so full of power, so full of life ... "
Baa'bi had interrupted, her words soft but her eyes hard when Mazeh met their gaze. "So full of power, so full of life, yet you must rise to meet the day, lest you become just another tale ... " Her brilliant robe had seemed to darken.
Not understanding what she had done that was so wrong, her fatigue-fogged mind barely awake, Mazeh had whispered, "I am sorry."
"Sorry? Sorry indeed." Eely looked from Mazeh to Al'anah. "But what does it mean?"
Shamed, but still uncertain of why, Mazeh had remained in the circle for the rest of the night, struggling to stay awake when bored, riveted when Baa'bi spoke. Until the first hint of dawn, until Al'anah's endless explanation of her alchemical research, until Mazeh's eyes could be kept open no longer ...
"But there must be something we can do!"
The force of Eely's words jarred Mazeh awake. The young woman blinked her eyes, seeing that the sun was almost fully risen.
Beside her Eely continued. "We must find some corrective, something to counter the power which you have discovered, something to protect the innocent."
"Some way to put the Genie back in the bottle, eh Av'eau," winked Seauleh to the wizened mage across the circle from Mazeh.
Av'eau answered in a dreamy voice. "The Genie back in the bottle? I have been pondering that question for some time ... " Her green eyes glazed over as she continued to speak to herself, so softly that the others could not hear.
"You have been pondering that question for more years than most of us have memories, without finding an answer." Eely smiled warmly as Av'eau straightened her back and clenched her teeth. "I mean no disrespect, Av'eau, but now we must ponder a different question, and we must hope for more success than you have known in your quest."
Mazeh had lost track of the conversation while Al'anah had been discussing her interminable research. Now something interesting was taking place and Mazeh's attention was caught, a moth to the flame. Looking about in the still dim light of the courtyard, where night's dark yet clung to the edges of the gardens, she forced herself awake.
Concentrating on the members of the circle again, Mazeh saw women twisting strands of hair in their fingers, chewing lower lips, and whispering among themselves.
Curse it! Why had she fallen asleep? What had she missed? Who had spun a tale of such power that it seemed to have everyone concerned, even her unflappable mistress?
"I just find it hard to believe," sighed Eely. She shook her dark grey hair, staring into the fire.
"Yet, it is true," said Al'anah. "All too true."
What? What was true? Mazeh hated this. What was true and how did boring old Al'anah know anything about it? "So, anyone who knows how to mix the right ingredients in the proper proportions can do this?" Eely asked Al'anah, who nodded.
Al'anah nodded again.
"Such power." Shaking her head, Eely looked back into the fire. Then, raising her brown eyes, she looked around the circle. "It must be controlled before mortals ... "
Baa'bi spoke. "This I do not understand. With the components rare and expensive surely we need have no fear of mortals practicing this art?"
"I am afraid that is not the case," Al'anah replied.
Mazeh leaned forward, staring at Al'anah. Could what was being discussed have come of Al'anah's work? Had she found some ancient relic or a lost spell?
Al'anah herself interrupted Mazeh's musings. "As I said, it is not magic. It is something I discovered accidentally during my alchemical research."
Not magic? That stupid research? Mazeh again cursed whatever she had missed.
Baa'bi dismissed Al'anah's reply. "Yes, we understand. An accident. But still the components must be as rare and expensive as are all spell components for magic of such power ... "
"No." Al'anah voice was calm but firm. "Baa'bi, you do not understand. This has nothing to do with magic."
"But everything to do with power." Eely smiled an apology for interrupting Al'anah, who went on.
"Power, yes. Magic, no."
"And the components?" Baa'bi's brow furrowed as she leaned forward.
"Ingredients, not components, my sister," Al'anah insisted. "Ingredients any mortal, any peasant can obtain. Many such already possess them, in the coals they use to heat their hovels, in what they dig out of the mines, and in the mixtures they spread on their fields."
Mazeh's mouth hung open. Peasant coals and manure? How could the women around her think such things mattered?
"So, you are saying that any peasant could combine common ingredients and produce the effect which you have described?" Baa'bi's words were slow and precise, mirroring the fear of misunderstanding in her eyes.
What effect? Mazeh could barely contain herself.
"Exactly," Al'anah replied.
"As much power as an Energy Spell?" Baa'bi stared at Al'anah.
"As much or as little as the quantity of the ingredients one combines. It could be equal to a weak Energy Spell, or more powerful than your mightiest conjuration."
At first Mazeh could not believe her ears. Had Al'anah been right in her pursuits? Was there power in what she did? It merited thought. Biting her finger nails, she concentrated on the discussion at hand.
"And any mortal could do it?" Eely focused everyone's concern.
"We must not allow this," Baa'bi said as the others concurred. "Such power must only be held by those who understand it, and such understanding is not possessed by mortals."
Mazeh was confused.
"But we must share the secret," Al'anah pleaded. "It could do so much good. It could be used in mines, to build roads, to unblock clogged rivers before spring floods ... "
"To destroy city walls, to collapse mountains, to kill innocent people." Eely reached out and took Al'anah's hands. "Do you trust mortals to do the right thing? With power such as this?"
A tear formed in Al'anah's eye as she met Eely's gaze. "I was so excited. I thought this would be a great discovery. I ... "
"Do you trust them?" Eely squeezed Al'anah's hands. "To understand? To only use this power for good? To do what is right?"
Crying freely now, Al'anah shook her head, her reply a faint sob. "No."
"Then we must put the Genie back in the bottle." Av'eau nodded as she spoke.
Eely raised a hand. "The Genie will not go back into the bottle until a mortal has made a wish. That we cannot allow, so the Genie must remain free."
"Free, but hidden." Baa'bi stood. "Only Al'anah knows this secret. She will keep it to herself. The mortals will not know the Genie is out. They will make no wishes."
Mazeh was beginning to realize many things, but there was much of which she was still unsure. Al'anah had discovered something of great power, yet these women were saying it would not be used. Why not? With power such as this they could rule the world.
Mazeh looked at Eely. She saw fear in those eyes, but fear of what?
"I discovered the secret by accident," Al'anah pointed out. "How long is it before some mortal makes the same unhappy mistake?"
"That we cannot know, nor may we be able to control it," replied Eely. "But the act will not be our doing. That we must all swear. Here. Now."
The swearing was done in the dawn's growing light, the red-hued sky a grim back-drop to the ritual.
As the women swore the rays of the sun reached over the courtyard walls and fell upon the gathering in their full strength, driving away the last of the lingering darkness. To Mazeh the coming of the morning sun was a light unto her soul. She wondered what she had been thinking before. What a fool she had been. All those wasted days and nights spent spinning childish dreams, time she could have been training, studying, learning, preparing to join this circle, to belong here.
There were so many questions in her mind, so many answers to be found.
She looked at Baa'bi. The mage's once-vibrant robe, which had pulsated with power, now flickered dimly, its light mimicking the quivering lip of its owner. Al'anah sat quietly, her withered face and drab attire providing no indication of the terrible knowledge she had uncovered, the awful secret she possessed. Yet dull dreary Al'anah was the one who had brought real fear into this circle, not the flashy Baa'bi.
Mazeh thought about Baa'bi, about her power. What Baa'bi wielded was force, not power. She used her magic for war, for personal gain, for her own aggrandizement. In this way she had become wealthy, famous, and feared.
It was what Mazeh had hoped to do, had hoped to become.
Now Al'anah had discovered a secret far more powerful than all Baa'bi's magic combined.
Looking at her mistress Mazeh thought of the spells Eely most often cast. They were spells of healing, of a safe birth, of blessing on a newly-wed couple. In return Eely was paid eggs and grain, of which she rarely took all that was offered. At times she had cast spells to end droughts or stop rain which threatened floods. On those occasions she had been paid in chickens, goats, or swine, most of which had somehow managed to escape from her and find their way home to their owners.
Now Eely and the others were one question away from the sort of absolute power Mazeh had always craved yet they were planning to hide the answer. Mazeh began to understand what true power meant, what the role of these women was. How could she have been so wrong about what it meant to be a mage, about the true meaning of power?
In the growing light of day Mazeh's blue eyes were clear and they saw the truth. It meant that everything she had believed in was wrong. It meant she had wasted so much of her life, so much of her time, so much of Eely's time.
Was it too late?
Glancing around the gathering Mazeh saw that the session was winding down. The sun was shining in its full glory and the heat of the day was chasing away night's cool comfort. Soon the mages would drift out of the circle, going each to her own chamber, or perhaps to eat.
Trying to be unobtrusive, she slowly stood up.
Eely noticed her rise. "Where are you going?"
Stretching, struggling unsuccessfully to subdue a yawn which rose unbidden, Mazeh apologized, "To my chambers, if I may have your leave."
Eely's eyes darkened, the long night and strain of Al'anah's discovery wearing her down, but she spoke in a civil voice, hiding her disappointment. "Of course, you know what you should do."
Then she turned back to the circle, shaking her head. "Good night, child, sleep well."
Mazeh grinned, her eyes twinkling in the morning light. "My Lady, you misunderstand me. No thought of sleep dwells upon my mind."
For a moment Eely looked confused, then, remembering the previous nights events, understanding dawned in her eyes and a broad smile creased her face. "Oh, indeed."
Mazeh bent over and kissed Eely's cheek. "Thank you for letting me join in this celebration. Happy birthday."
Eely took Mazeh's hand, squeezing it tightly. "Yes, a happy birth day, for both of us."
After paying for his undergraduate degree as a soldier, scuba diver, and marine archaeologist Edward Stack spent eight years teaching high school history at American International Schools in Africa and Latin America. Now he is back in Canada as a faceless bureaucrat in Ottawa, with two children who he says are far more wonderful than anything he has ever seen or will ever write.
His epic fantasy novel Ily's Dream is available from Roxybooks.com, and at Barnes and Noble. Roxy is also publishing his collection of speculative fiction, Wizards, Wonder & Worry, due out July 2000. Many of the stories in 'WWW' have been printed before, but others are available here for thefirst time.
His web site has some free samples, come and see.