Wilfort ov Hobnosta took the coffee pot from the ornate metal stove that stood in the middle of his small parlor and poured himself a cup. It was early autumn and there was a chill outside that made him welcome the warmth of both the stove and the coffee. He had no appointments for the day, so Wilfort was planning to spend it reading the book his friend Professor Oswold ov Stanfelda had sent him. The shelves that lined the walls of the little room were filled with a huge number of books, but he had no trouble finding the volume he wanted.
There was a large oak desk near the bay window where it would get the most light. Wilfort had just settled in there with his book and his coffee when the doorbell rang. For a moment, he considered ignoring it and waiting for whoever was there to go away, but he decide against that. It might be something important and then he would regret not having answered it.
The young man who was standing outside when Wilfort opened the door certainly did not look very important. He was thin, not very well dressed and he kept glancing about nervously.
"May I help you?", Wilfort asked.
"Oh...yes. Is this the house of Wilfort ov Hobnosta...the Wizard?"
Wilfort nodded, "It is and I am Wilfort ov Hobnosta."
Although the young man tried, he could not hide his surprise very well. "You're the wizard? I was..."
He waited a moment for his visitor to continue, but when it became apparent he was not going to, Wilfort finished his remark for him. "You were expecting someone more impressive...tall, a little menacing, with a long beard." Wilfort was none of those things. He was a short, fat man with a soft face and a gentle smile. He had tried growing a beard several times, but it always itched so much that he soon shaved it off. "I may not look it, but I really am a wizard. Please, come in."
Wilfort led the young man into his parlor and picked up the coffee pot. "Would you care for a cup?"
"What? Oh, no thank you, Mister-Wizard Wilfort." The young man shook his head, "I'm not really thirsty."
The wizard put the pot back on the stove and took his own cup from his desk. "I hope you do not mind if I drink one myself. Now tell me, what is your name and why have you come to see me."
"Timmet, sir. Timmet ov Mazille. It's about my mother." Before he could finish, Timmet's attention was drawn to a movement behind the stove. A brindled gray cat walked from there to Wilfort and began rubbing itself against his leg. "Oh, you have a pet cat."
At the word "pet", the cat turned and glared at Timmet. Wilfort corrected him, "She's my companion. Her name's Mollie."
Timmet watched the cat who had now turned her attention back to Wilfort. "I imagine she wants cream."
"Actually, she prefers it black." Wilfort filled a dish from a shelf near the stove with coffee and set it on the floor. Mollie began to lap it up eagerly.
"I didn't think cats liked coffee."
"Well, Mollie does. You were telling me about your mother."
"Right, I was, Mister-Wizard. She's very sick. She hasn't been feeling very well for weeks now, but this morning she was too weak to even get out of bed. I'm very worried, sir."
"And you want me to use my magic to heal her?"
Timmet nodded, "If you would, sir. We don't have very much money, but if you'll heal her, I promise I'll pay whatever you ask, no matter how long it takes me to get it."
Wilfort smiled at him, "You need not worry, Mister-Patron Timmet. I have never refused to heal anyone because they could not pay and I don't believe in charging people more than they can afford. Now, I think we had best be on our way to see your mother."
It was rather cool out, so Wilfort was glad he had put on his long coat with the braid-work trim and his quilted skullcap. Of course, he had brought along his staff. It was beautifully made and Wilfort was quite proud of it. The staff was made of hand-carved oak, topped with a brass claw clenching a large crystal sphere. With it, he knew anyone would recognize him as a wizard, no matter what he looked like.
As he walked with Timmet through the streets of Tweedon, it struck Wilfort how hazy the sky was. When he was younger, fall days had usually been crisp and clear. This kind of haze had only occurred during the heat of midsummer. It grew denser as they walked and the sun grew dimmer, until it almost seemed like twilight, even though it was midmorning.
They had entered the section of the city between the textile mills and the railroad yards when Timmet said, "It's not far now, Mister-Wizard. Just around the corner." The streets were lined with long rows of the dreary, little houses the mills had built for their workers. They all looked identical to Wilfort, but Timmet had no trouble finding the one that was his.
Once inside, Timmet led the wizard up a narrow stairway and into a small room. A woman was in a bed in the corner of the room, propped up with several pillows to a position between sitting and laying. When she heard them enter, she said weakly, "Timmy?"
The young man walked to the side of the bed and rested his hand on his mother's shoulder. "It's me, Mother. You're going to be alright now. I've brought the wizard." Several children peered in the bedroom door from the hallway, too frightened to come into the same room as a wizard.
Wilfort stood at the foot of the bed and raised his arms. "First, I must determine the nature of her illness," he said solemnly. The sphere on top of his staff emitted a shimmering, blue glow that spread to the woman in the bed and surrounded her.
Actually, the gesture, the staff and the glow were all just for show. Wilfort could have done his magic just as easily without them, but they did serve a purpose. They were a visible indication that he was doing magic, which kept people from interrupting him and allowed him to concentrate.
After a few moments, Wilfort lowered his arms and the glow faded away. He stared at the woman, trying to find the words for what he had to say.
"Do you know what's wrong with my mother, Mister-Wizard Wilfort?" Timmet asked.
"Yes, I know what is wrong, Mister-Patron Timmet," Wilfort said slowly. "She has a condition that is called feeble-lung. People with this condition are not able to breath as strongly as they should, so all the dust and soot in the air starts to accumulate inside them. It is a condition that seems to become more and more common each year."
"Then you have seen this before, sir, and you are able to cure it?"
"I have seen it many times. Normally, it is not at all difficult to cure it, but I can not even try to heal your mother."
Timmet stared at the wizard in disbelief. "I do not understand, Mister-Wizard. Why not?"
Wilfort looked down at the floor to avoid the young man's gaze. "There is a connection between certain events that must be preserved. Wizards call that Destiny. We do not really understand it or know how it comes to be, but we are able to detect it. I must not use my magic to break the flow of Destiny. I know this is difficult for you to accept."
"What if I promised not to tell anyone? You could cure her in secret and no one would know."
"Preserving Destiny is part of the Oath of Wizardry. Like any oath, it binds my will, Mister-Patron Timmet. While I wish I could help your mother, it is, of course, not possible to break my oath."
"And every wizard takes this oath?"
"There are magicians who do not take the Oath of Wizardry, but they are unscrupulous people who prey upon the desperate. Do not go to those people for help, Mister-Patron Timmet. You and your mother would certainly regret it."
Timmet stared at Wilfort. "Is there any hope for my mother, Mister-Wizard Wilfort?"
"Some people do recover on their own. The magic I would use if I was able to would just increase the probability of that kind of recovery until it was virtually certain to happen."
"But without magic, that probability is small, isn't it?"
Wilfort nodded slowly, "Yes, very small, Mister-Patron Timmet."
Wilfort returned to his home and plopped down in one of the big, overstuffed chairs next to the stove. The gray cat jumped onto his lap and studied his gloomy face. Then she rubbed her front paw behind her ear and he gave her a bit of a smile. "I know what you want." Wilfort started to stroke Mollie's head where she had indicated. "You look like you have something else to say to me. Something that needs words."
Mollie's face became slightly different. It was still a cat's face, or at least very catlike, but now it was more expressive, more flexible than any normal cat's face. Wilfort's magic flowed through her, producing subtle differences in her tongue, her throat and even her nerves that were not visible, but necessary to allow her to speak. "Wouldn't it be easier to just leave me this way, Willy? It must be such a bother to change me every time I want to talk."
"You know very well I can't do that Mollie. If I made the change permanent, it would create an anomaly. You would be the only talking cat in the world and the world does not tolerate anomalies."
"Right, maybe all the other cats would start talking then, too. Oh, wouldn't that be terrible." Her expression make it obvious she was teasing him, and thoroughly enjoying it. "Maybe you should just teach me to do the magic myself. No, you've already tried that and it didn't work. They say those who can't do, teach, but what do those who can't teach do?"
"I would say the problem was the student, not the teacher. You do not have the type of mind that can do magic and nothing will ever change that. Now, was something else you wanted to tell me?"
"What I wanted to ask was did you take care of that young fellow's mom, Willy?"
The gloom returned to his face. "No, I couldn't help her."
"Why?" Mollie looked at Wilfort with concern. "Was is some really strange disease?"
"No, just common feeble-lung. But with her, it's a matter of Destiny. My oath wouldn't let me do anything."
"Then that's the end of it. It's a shame for her, but you can't interfere with Destiny."
"I know, but it's so hard to just do nothing." Wilfort looked around the room. "I wonder if there's some way I could help her without exactly curing her. Some way to work around Destiny."
"Those are dangerous ideas, Willy. Remember that's a will-binding oath. You can't talk your way out of it."
"You're right, of course. But it wouldn't hurt to read a little and see if it helps me think of anything. I promise I won't do anything foolish. Let's see how many books I've got with anything about feeble-lung in them." As he said this about three dozen books started to give off a reddish glow.
Mollie looked at the glowing books thoughtfully. "Can you make other groups of books glow. I mean, could you make all the books that have nothing to do with magic glow."
"Yes, but what good does that do?" The red glow faded and a large number of them started to glow green. "Those mundane books are just the ones I've read for fun."
"Now, do both colors together."
Doing two glows at once was a little tricky, but Wilfort managed to do it rather quickly. "I'll make the books glow all the pretty colors you want later, Mollie, but now I've got to..." Suddenly, Wilfort understood what Mollie was trying to do. There amid the red glows and the green glows and all the books that were not glowing at all was a single book that glowed bright yellow. "That's it, Mollie. That's the book I need. Thank you."
Wilfort hurried over and picked the book off the shelf as all the glows disappeared. "Hmmm...A History of Folk Remedies and Cures. Let's see what it says about feeble-lung." He set the book on his desk and started to page through it. "Ah, here it is."
Despite her changes, Mollie was still as agile as any cat. She leaped up onto the desk and looked in the book with Wilfort. "Warts of a speckled rock toad. Mushrooms picked under a full moon. Whiskers from a strangled cat! You're not going to try this, are you?"
"Don't worry, Mollie, I don't intend use anything in here." He turned back to a page near the front of the book. "See, it says most of these remedies are now know to be ineffective, or even harmful."
"Why would anyone ever want to make something so disgusting?"
"Before the empire established the Council of Wizardry, most people feared magicians. They did not want to deal with them if they could avoid it, so they tried to find their own ways of healing themselves."
"So, you still have no way to cure that woman."
"Actually, this has given me an idea. When I was a boy, my mother would go to this little medicine shop and buy some kind of elixir. It was terrible tasting, but it was supposed to keep me healthy. I wonder if that place is still there."
The medicine shop he remembered had closed a long time ago, so Wilfort went looking for another one. It took him all afternoon, but on the far side of the city, he finally found an old, narrow building with a sign over that door that said, "Eldone ov Gronette, Maker of Medicines and Elixirs."
The shelves that lined the walls of the shop held a large assortment of glass bottles, each one containing a different liquid or powder. At the far end of the room, a young woman was standing on a rolling ladder, placing some bottles on the top shelf. She was rather tall and naturally a little plump without the cumbersome padding that most women her age wore. Her hair was pulled back and tied in one of those complex knots what were considered very fashionable. Without turning to look at Wilfort, she said, "Would you wait a moment, please. I would like to finish putting these away while I am up here."
At the height the woman was at, her skirt was not long enough to hide her ankles, so Wilfort politely lowered his eyes. "Certainly. Please, take your time."
"Thank you, Mister-Patron." She put the rest of the bottles on the shelf and started down the ladder. "What were you interested in, sir. We have a new elixir that reduces the need for sleep--very beneficial if you are working long hours at the mill."
"Actually, I have adequate time for sleeping. What I need is a cure for feeble-lung."
"I have never had a request for that before, Mister-Patron. I will..." The woman scowled when she saw the staff that Wilfort was holding. "What is this? Some kind of joke!"
"Certainly not, I am quite serious."
"You expect me to believe a wizard is going to come in here and buy some medicine. If you're sick, go cure yourself with your magic. We don't want your kind in here."
"I do not understand. Have I done something wrong?"
"You've ruined our business, that's what you've done. This is the only medicine shop left in the whole city of Tweedon and we're struggling to stay open. And it's all because everyone goes to wizards to heal them instead of buying medicines."
"I regret that your shop is not doing well, but I really do need that cure. If it makes any difference, it is not for me, Mistress-Medicinier Eldone. I assume you are the proprietor, Eldone ov Gronette.
"Actually, I'm her granddaughter, Herberta ov Cambelle, if you care. And I'm not a medicinier...at least, not yet. She's started to teach me, but mostly I just sell the medicine she makes. But why are you coming here to buy a cure? Are you such a poor wizard that you can't cure anyone yourself?"
Wilfort sounded a little offended, "I cure people very often, many of them with this same ailment. In this case, the woman's disease is bound to the flow of Destiny, so I do not dare treat it with magic. That is why I am looking for another way to cure her."
"I suppose we should be thankful for any business we get." Herberta walked across the room and checked the bottles in one section of the shelves. "I didn't think we had any of it ready. I'll ask my grandmother to prepare some, Mister-Patron...?" She looked at Wilfort expectantly.
"Of course, I should introduce myself. I am Wilfort ov Hobnosta."
"If you'll wait here, I'll go talk to my grandmother, Mister-Patron Wilfort ov Hobnosta."
Wilfort waited for Herberta to return. He lived in a busy part of the city, so he was accustomed to the noise of crowds around him. Here the streets were almost deserted and the only sound in the shop was the ticking of a clock on the back wall. He watched the pendulum swing back and forth, hoping her grandmother would be more agreeable than the young woman had been. His hopes disappeared when an old woman stomped into the room and scowled at him.
Eldone ov Gronette was only slightly taller than Wilfort, but the way she looked at him made him feel she was towering over him. "So, Wizard, you want medicine for feeble lung. That'll cost fifty gliddas. Are you willing to pay that much?"
Herberta had followed her grandmother into the room and from the look of surprise on her face, Wilfort guessed the old woman was asking substantially more than the usual price. It would be very difficult for Timmet to pay that amount, but there was no reason he had to know it cost that much. "Yes, that will be acceptable, Madam-Medicinier Eldone."
"Good. Let's check the ingredients." Eldone pulled a large book out from behind a counter and opened it on top. After studying it a few minutes, she looked up and shook her head. "Looks like you're out of luck, Wizard. I can't make the medicine without stenchberries and nobody grows them any more. They're nasty-smelling things. The only thing they're good for is medicine and with you wizards doing all the healing these days, there's no reason to grow them."
"Perhaps it would be possible to find a substitute...or maybe these berries are available somewhere else." Wilfort offered.
The old woman rubbed her chin and thought about this. After a moment a cold grin spread across her face. "Herbie, are there still wild stenchberries in the woods near your mother's farm in Eweshire?"
"Yes, Grandma, I believe so."
"Good. Then tomorrow you will take the train to Eweshire and fetch me some."
"Of course, Grandma."
Eldone pointed a bony finger at Wilfort, "And you, Wizard, will accompany her."
"What? I do not understand, Madam-Medicinier Eldone. Why would you want me to go with your granddaughter?"
"To protect her, of course. There are men out there who would like nothing better than to take advantage of a young woman traveling alone."
"I do not need anyone to protect me...especially him. I am a citizen of the empire and I am protected by its laws."
"The empire does a better job of punishing wrongdoing than preventing it and there are too many men who are governed more by their passions than their fear of what the empire will do to them. The wizard is going with you. That is my decision."
"He is a stranger, Grandma. How do you know I wouldn't need someone to protect me from him?"
"You will be safe with the wizard, Herbie." The old woman sniffed loudly. "A person's scent always reveals their true nature and the wizard's only passion is for his books."
The next morning, Wilfort and Herberta meet at the railroad station and Wilfort bought them each a ticket to Eweshire. Wilfort had a book along to read and Herberta stared out the window, so they avoided any conversation for most of the morning.
Finally, the boredom was too much for Herberta, so with a smirk she asked, "What does your wife think about this, Mister-Patron Wilfort? Is she concerned that you are going on a trip with an attractive, young woman?"
Wilfort glanced over the top of his book at her. "Why would you make such an assumption, Mistress-Vendor Herberta. I am not married and I have no intention of ever being married."
"Really? That surprises me. I was certain you were the type who would want a nice, safe, secure relationship." She shifted in her seat so she could look at him better. "Most men say they don't marry because they can't choose only one woman, but I don't think that's the reason in your case. I would guess some woman has rejected you and you will give your love only to her or to no one at all."
"My romantic affairs should not be any concern of yours, Mistress-Vendor Herberta, but since you have chosen to pry into them, the truth is I simply do not have time for such things. Magic is a difficult occupation that requires a great amount of study."
"You have no time for love, but you can spend a couple days to go and pick berries?"
"Days I would be using productively," Wilfort said as he tapped the book he was holding, "if you were not interrupting me with this silly chatter."
"I don't see what's so difficult about magic. You wish for something and then it happens. Isn't that all there is to it?"
"It is important to know exactly what to wish for and exactly how to wish for it. Without the proper training, it can be very dangerous. There are many things about magic you do not understand."
"Then perhaps you could explain them to me, Mister-Patron Wilfort."
"Yesterday, you did not even want a wizard in your shop and today, you want to learn about magic. What has caused such a change, Mistress-Vendor Herberta?"
"Boredom, Mister-Patron Wilfort. This is a long trip. If we talk a bit, the time will pass more pleasantly and I imagine you'd rather talk about magic than anything else."
"If you insist, I will give you a brief explanation." Wilfort marked his place in the book with a strip of leather and closed it on this lap. "Maybe then you will let me return to my reading."
"You make talking to me sound like such a chore, but please go on."
"The first thing you must know is that there are four different forms of magic and each one is identified with a different symbolic object. They are easy to remember because they are the same as the suits in a deck of cards." He reached inside his coat and pulled a deck from a pocket. Then he spread the deck and pointed to a card of each suit. "Mirrors, coins, masks and crowns. The simplest form is Magic of the Mirror."
"Is that the kind of magic where someone looks in a mirror and sees something far away?"
"Yes, that is an example of it."
"So if you had a mirror, you could look at your house right now to check that everything was alright?"
"Remember the objects are just symbolic, Mistress-Vendor Herberta. I really do not need to have a mirror to do the magic." Wilfort tilted his head back and his eyes seemed to be focused on a great distance. "The doors and windows are all locked. There are no intruders. Everything is just as I left it."
"It sounds like your house is empty now. You must live alone, Mister-Patron Wilfort. Don't you have any brothers or sisters?"
"No, my mother had no other children, but I do share my home with Mollie."
Herberta grinned, "Who is this Mollie? I thought you had no time for romance."
"Mollie and I do not have a romantic relationship, Mistress-Vendor Herberta!" Wilfort reached into the pocket of his coat and pulled out a small, gray creature. "As you can see, she is a mouse now and that would be a very awkward romance."
"She is adorable! Would it be alright if I held her a moment."
"You may if Mollie agrees." The mouse nodded her head, then crawled onto the young woman's hand.
Herberta gently stroked Mollie's fur with a finger of her other hand. "She seems very intelligent for a mouse. Is she your familiar? A spirit you have summoned and bound with your magic?"
"No, nothing like that. I found her living in the house when I moved in, that's all."
"And you decided to let her stay?"
"Actually, she is the one who decided to let me stay. You seem to be very comfortable holding a mouse, Mistress-Vendor Herberta. Most people would not be."
"I've always liked little creatures like this. When I was a little girl, Mom and Uncle Tory were going to poison the mice in the barns, but I begged them to let me trap them instead. Then I would take them far out into the woods and let them go."
"I would say it was an unlucky day for the mice when you left, Mistress-Vendor Herberta."
"No, the mice are still fine. I made my brother take over for me. There are some advantages to being the older sister."
Herberta rubbed Mollie behind her ears. "She seems to really enjoy this." Suddenly, she stopped stroking the mouse and grimaced. "Ugh! What's that? Some kind of bug has attached itself to her back!"
"That's a spinerider, Mistress-Vendor Herberta." Wilfort replied calmly. "It's a very interesting parasite because it takes control of the body of its host."
"Aren't you going to do something to get that horrible thing off Mollie?"
Actually, the spinerider is Mollie. The mouse is her host for now, but as you've noticed, she does not really act like a mouse."
Herberta stretched out her arm to hold Mollie farther away from her. "Can it attach itself to anything besides a mouse? Like a human?"
"Anything that has a spine, Mistress-Vendor Herberta. Yesterday, she was attached to a cat, but the railroad makes cats ride in the baggage car, so she transferred to something smaller, easier to hide." Mollie rubbed behind her ear with her front paw and then looked hopefully at Herberta. "You were right. She does enjoy that."
"She won't try to control me?"
"Of course not. You have no reason to be afraid of her."
Herberta started stroking the mouse again, being careful to avoid touching the spinerider. "I thought she was really a mouse. You even talked about her like she was a mouse."
"I was not trying to mislead you, Mistress-Vendor Herberta. I do tend to think of her as being her host, although I know she really is not."
"It doesn't surprise me. I wish I never knew she was really that awful, little parasite."
"You know more about her now, but doesn't change her into some kind of monster. She just needs to have a host, like we need to eat food."
"And that's the way the One or the Many made the world and who are we to question it. That's what Uncle Tory always said when he couldn't explain why things weren't the way I wanted. Did you want to tell me more about the forms of magic?"
"Certainly. Another form is Magic of the Coin, which is used to influence which one of a number of possibilities actually occurs."
"Would you explain that again, Mister-Patron Wilfort? I am not sure I know what you mean."
"It might be easier to understand if I demonstrated it." He pulled a deck of cards from a pocket inside his coat, shuffled the, and dealt five of them on top of the book on his lap. "Please, turn over the cards, Mistress-Vendor Herberta."
Herberta turned over the cards one by one. "We have...the ten of coins...the maid of coins...the swain of coins...the dame of coins and...the ace of coins. An imperial flush--you would make a great gambler, Mister-Patron Wilfort."
"Of course, it would not be ethical to use magic while gambling. The point is that while it is improbable I would just happen to deal those exact cards, there is a chance it could happen without magic." He shuffled the cards and again dealt five on this book. "Other forms of magic allow us to go beyond the merely improbable to the impossible."
Once again, Herberta turned the cards over. "We have...the ace of masks...the ace of masks....another one...they're all the ace of masks."
"Yes, and I never would have dealt that hand without magic. This is Magic of the Mask. You must understand that I have not actually changed the cards. As soon as I stop the magic, they will be back to normal." Suddenly, there were five different cards laying on the book and none of them were the ace of masks.
"I understand now, but I would like to see something...more impressive. Change something besides just cards."
"The cards are enough to demonstrate the magic. There is no need for anything, as you say, more impressive."
"Please, Mister-Patron Wilfort, don't be pigheaded. Let me really see what you can do."
"I suppose it would not hurt to do something to amuse you." As Herberta watched, Wilfort's head started to change shape as if it were made out of soft clay. In a few minutes, it looked just like the head of a pig.
Herberta laughed, "Is that just an illusion or are you really pigheaded?" She reached over and touched Wilfort's snout. "It certainly feels like a real pig. I thought you said this magic did not really change things."
"That is correct. My head has not actually changed. It has just been temporarily replaced by one that is produced by magic."
Mollie twitched her ears and suddenly scurried back into Wilfort's pocket. A moment later, a porter walked into their car and announced, "Lunch is now being served in the dining car. We are offering fresh salad, lentil soup and a delicious glazed ham..." When he noticed Wilfort with his pig head, he started to stammer, "If...if you're pork...er...if you don't eat pork...the chef will be happy to cook you...uh...cook you something else." Before Wilfort could say anything, the porter hurried into the next car.
Herberta started to laugh so hard she doubled over. "That was hilarious! The look on that porter's face."
"He was very upset. I should probably check how he is doing." As he said this, Wilfort let his head slip back into its usual shape.
"Don't worry. He'll be fine. You just surprised him, that's all."
"I suppose you're right. Would you like to have lunch now, Mistress-Vendor Herberta?"
"Yes, I would, Mister-Patron Wilfort. Laughter always gives me a good appetite."