The Wizard and the City

Susan Denholm

Down the shrunken river Sangwa to the high-towered city of Aubacor, on a flesh-searing day of high summer, came the wizard Yuudakh, steering a coracle of leaking hippopotamus hide. When the wizard had climbed the granite steps from the landing-stage, he came to the crowded market-square and paused, meeting the hostile eyes turned on him in sudden silence by the stall-holders and their customers. It was not the hour for deliveries by river and though the wizard's features might almost have passed unremarked in Aubacor, his dark hair and eyes and his nose, curved like a bird-of-prey's, marked him as a stranger among the fair and straight-nosed folk of the city.

The wizard's eyes glittered for a moment, noting the hands that twitched here and there above fruit or vegetables, then grew dull and rolled heavenward as, clutching at his throat with a muffled cry of "Najin", he measured his length on the flags of the market-square. Hostility vanished like desert dew to the first rays of the morning sun, and stall-holders and customers hurried forward to render him assistance. He was carried to the nearby home of a rich merchant, where a hastily summoned physician diagnosed heliosis and treated him with icy compresses and diluted sherbet.

His recuperation was long and faltering but he learnt the tongue of Aubacor with astonishing speed and facility, and the whole city soon knew his story. He had fled persecution, he said, by the folk of a land far upriver, who had been roused against him by native artisans and soothsayers resentful at the living he had scratched among them. Particularly moved to pity by his tale was the merchant's eldest daughter, the tender-hearted Lilétha, who was the especial tutoress of Yuudakh in the tongue of Aubacor, and whose pale beauty seemed only to increase with the hours she devoted to the wizard. Indeed, she broke with her betrothed, the aristocratic scion Mardraco, over her kindly solicitude, for he nursed an unreasoning suspicion of the wizard and sought to persuade her against him with passionate but stumbling words. Rather than listen, Lilétha broke their betrothal, returned his girdle and had her father ban him the house.

Yuudakh himself smiled pityingly to hear of the lad's enmity, and began to exculpate him with a fluency and breadth of vocabulary few natives of the city could have surpassed. But the very skill with which he argued turned Lilétha further against her erstwhile betrothed: never could he have shown such magnanimity to an opponent, or championed him so articulately. And indeed, when Yuudakh was fully recovered and had left the merchant's house to set himself up in business, he and Lilétha were already bound by pre-nuptial vows.

The wizard had fled his persecutors with a surprising quantity of gold carried in a belt beneath his robes, and he was easily able to purchase a shop and hire workers. His speciality, as he had long explained, was the manufacture of glassware, and particularly of what he called gatuulin, or scrying-spheres, from which, by the burning of a certain specially compounded incense (also of Yuudakh's manufacture), the folk of Aubacor would be able to catch glimpses of distant lands and of futurity. Soon, for, though he paid them sparingly, Yuudakh drove his workers hard, the spheres and incense were available for purchase, and the most fashionable of the city flocked to acquire them. Indeed, Mardraco watched in dismay as his own family succumbed after a fortnight to the new fashion and set a newly purchased sphere in the gaming-room on a copper tripod, and eagerly set incense smoking before it.

He refused himself to gaze into the sphere, but he was unable to escape the excited descriptions his family passed one to another, for each, it seemed, saw different visions within the sphere, though all were of surpassing interest. One of his siblings, for example, saw the flower-strewn, fruit-offering rites conducted by a gentle, black-skinned folk of a distant clime; another, the roofs of the temples and shrines of Aubacor glittering with new-fashioned gold, as though in promise of great future prosperity; yet another, a splendid and publicly acclaimed wedding of the present Aubacoran king's youngest daughter to a noble black-skinned scholar who seemed, from her description, to be of the same race as the flower-strewing, fruit-offering folk of the first-named vision. All of the family save Mardraco were enchanted, and all save him clamoured for more incense to be burnt when the first sprinkling was exhausted.

Hereupon Mardraco left the house in disgust to half-mocking, half-sympathetic farewells, and turned his footsteps, as was ever more his wont, to the street wherein Yuudakh traded. Palanquins were drawing up and departing from its portals, and he knew the sale of gatuulin was as flourishing as ever. Then, as he watched from the shadow of an alcove shrine, his hand tightened on his staff, for he saw a palanquin he knew well drew up before the shop: the silver-painted scallop of Lilétha. He watched the girl, for whom his love was as strong as ever, emerge with a female servant and enter the shop; then waited, jealousy burning sourly in his throat, till the first stars of evening were shimmering gem-like on the purple arras of the western heavens.

Now it was he watched Lilétha leave the shop, but how strangely changed! Where a few hours before she had stepped lightly and eagerly, head erect, now she stumbled on the arm of her servant, head bowed and face gleaming paler than milk through the disordered tresses of her hair. Mardraco stepped involuntarily from the alcove, calling out to her, but Lilétha did not seem to hear him and the servant, whom he had long suspected to be in the pay of the wizard, merely shot him a glance of surprise-succeeded-by-dislike as she assisted her mistress into the palanquin and urged the waiting bearers to carry them home before she climbed aboard herself. Mardraco struck his staff against a wall, swearing with frustration and anger, for he knew that to follow the palanquin and seek an interview with Lilétha would only allow the servant an opportunity to have him beaten by its eight burly bearers.

Turning his back on Yuudakh's shop, lest sight of it choke him and provoke him to foolishness, he walked quickly away. Yuudakh was responsible for his beloved's condition, of that he was certain, and he was more certain still that marriage to the wizard, now fixed for the following month, would be the death of her. As ever, he could see no solution save the assassination of Yuudakh, but encompassing it seemed almost impossible: the wizard never emerged from his shop save in the company of four well-armed bravoes hired from a desert tribe only distantly related to the folk of Aubacor, and the wizard's influence over the king and city guard was increasing daily. He was said, indeed, to be advising the king on his troubled finances, and urging that the ishakal, or the black-skinned and gentle frugivores already familiar to the city through the gatuulin, be brought to Aubacor to rejuvenate trade, for they would work harder and for less than the long-pampered proletariat of the city.

In three months the private fears of Mardraco and the public rumours of Aubacor were both fulfilled: Lilétha, having wed the wizard, was dead, and a delegation of ishakal had arrived in the city from the south, invited by the king and royal council. Mardraco, who had taken lately to wearing chain-mail beneath his robes, shuddered as he watched the king greet the delegation, for the broad smiles of the ishakal revealed oddly pointed teeth, and they seemed indifferent to the gifts of ripe fruit handed them by courtiers, though not to the plumper and more youthful among the courtiers themselves. But the youth could spare little gaze for the gifts and greetings, for Yuudakh, dressed in fine silks and satins, was also present, serving as translator between the king and his honoured southern guests, and Mardraco could never stare his full of hatred for the wizard. Lilétha had wasted to nothing within a month of her wedding-day, and Yuudakh was already rumoured to be wooing another maid, the daughter of an even richer merchant who would bring an even larger dowry.

Rumour was now the way of the city, in which all had once freely spoken their minds, for the king had declared Yuudakh a most trusted and faithful adviser, and had recently passed a law against defamation of any foreigner, whereby to protect both the well-established wizard and the soon-expected ishakal. Many murmured at the infringement of liberty, Mardraco knew, but few protested openly and these very briefly, for the city guard had become heavy-handed of late, and handed out buffetings and beatings with increasing relish. Now, as though to confirm these thoughts, Mardraco saw a pair of guards shouldering through the crowd towards him, and quietly slipped down the mouth of an alley that he had been careful to keep close at hand.

After a moment he heard shouts behind him but already he was running, and he arrived safely at the lodgings he had now occupied for some weeks in the city's poorest quarter, where few knew him and he hoped to able to conspire against the hated Yuudakh in security. A week later his determination was raised to new heights, for new rumours were sweeping the city: children had begun to disappear in the district wherein the delegation of ishakal were quartered, and Mardraco shuddered anew at the recollection of those broad smiles and pointed teeth. But he could rouse little indignation in the men and women with whom he discussed the matter, for none would accept the slightest connexion between the foreigners and the disappearances, urging on him the visions they saw daily in the gatuulin, wherein the customs of the ishakal were established as strictly pacific and their diet as strictly vegetarian.

Despairing at last that he could waken his folk to the dangers, Mardraco decided on a frontal assault: that night he would enter the house of Yuudakh, confiscated from a xenophobic noble and long familiar to Mardraco, and seek to slay the evil wizard in his bed. By withdrawn favour of the king, the disgraced confiscatee had been permitted to dwell in the shadow of the city's great temple of Wlemh, to whom Yuudakh was now unsurpassed in his devotion. Accordingly, Mardraco, formerly a lukewarm worshipper at best, paused a minute before he attempted the wall of the wizard's new house, entering the temple of Wlemh to pray for success. There was a superstition among the lower folk of the city that the success of an especially important petition would be signalled by a chime on the great silver bell of Wlemh that hung directly above the altar in a cupola pierced to the wind; and when Mardraco rose to his feet after making his prayer, his heart flamed suddenly to hear a soft chime far above him.

A minute later, he was dropping over the wall of Yuudakh's house and running crouched across the wizard's luxuriant gardens, nostrils tickled by the scents and pollens of a hundred unknown blooms. The wizard was said to employ spiritual wardens as well as fleshly, but Mardraco hoped that Wlemh had closed the eyes of the former and that, with Wlemh's help, he could evade the vigilance of the latter. His hopes seemed fulfilled, for within a further minute he was climbing across the sill of the house's central bedchamber and drawing his newly sharpened dagger from its sheath as he concealed himself behind an arras by the bed.

The chamber was more richly and profusely decorated than any he had seen before, and in pride of place at its centre, resting on a tripod of gleaming copper, was a gatuul easily ten handsbreadths across. As Mardraco waited, peeping out through a slit he had made in the arras and straining his ears to catch the approaching footfalls of the wizard, he perceived a fugitive glittering in the heart of the sphere, as though visions slumbered there ready for wakening. Then his breath stopped: footsteps were hastening towards the chamber, and he gripped the handle of his dagger, breathing a further prayer to Wlemh.

But the footsteps were of more than one man, and Mardraco groaned inwardly with disappointment as he saw Yuudakh enter the chamber in company with his four bravoes, whose presence rendered suicidal any assault on their master. Even in private, it was evident, the wizard was ever careful of his own safety. So it was that Mardraco watched impotently as the slayer of his beloved set incense smoking before the gatuul and the visions woke fully within it. Even peeping out through the arras Mardraco could see them, and his heart congealed as with envenomed ice, for they were not the beguiling visions of beauty and peace described to him by his family and kinsfolk, but visions of death and horror in which he watched Aubacor overwhelmed by thousands of the black-skinned ishakal, whose bestial fleshly lusts and insatiable cannibal appetites were revealed in all their savagery and horror.

As was the still blacker heart of Yuudakh, for he laughed long and heartily as he watched, throwing fresh incense into the burner and exciting further visions of disaster in his gatuul. True visions, Mardraco was convinced: this was the future of Aubacor, should the scheming of the wizard have its way. Seeming to glut himself at last on the visions, the wizard allowed the incense fumes to die and left the chamber with his bravoes. Mardraco slipped from behind the arras, wishing now only to emerge from the house alive, that he might nurse slender hopes outside of some future strike at the wizard; but he paused a moment, his eye caught by a brightening in the heart of the sphere, as though a further vision wakened there.

And yes, as he gazed a vision did indeed rise within the sphere, bringing a look of amazement and delight to his face. Then, swiftly as it had risen, it died, and the Aubacoran youth slipped over the sill back into the night. By some intervention of Wlemh, the wizard's own pernicious invention had been turned against him, and Mardraco had the key to his enemy's destruction. He already knew that next month, at the most sacred festival in the calendar of the temple of Wlemh, Yuudakh had been selected by the king to lead the worship, and would ring the great bell of Wlemh by tugging on a rope woven from the donated hair of the city's most beautiful maidens. Tears came afresh to Mardraco's eyes as he ran crouching back across the garden and threw himself at the outer wall of Yuudakh's house, for Lilétha had freely donated hair to the bell-rope every year of her full maidenhood till now, the year of her fatal marriage, in which she would donate post mortem, for her skull had been shaved by the priests of Wlemh after the immemorial custom, when a married woman died as Lilétha had done, childless and in full possession of her youth.

He returned swiftly to his lodgings, but was on the streets of Aubacor again almost at once, for his aged landlord met him on the stairs with the news that three of the city guard had been enquiring after him with threats to the old man to say nothing, lest he be arrested in the youth's stead. Thanking him, who had been more loyal to the past spirit of Aubacor than that of its corrupted present, Mardraco fled, and thereafter was but one step ahead of the pursuing guard, who were apparently now under orders to extirpate all possible opposition to Yuudakh. As the day of the festival approached, Mardraco polished his plans to the gleam of his own shaved skull, for he intended to pass himself off as a priest to gain unrecognized entrance to the temple in pursuit of private vengeance and public welfare.

When the day of the festival arrived, he had everything in place, and required only the blessing of Wlemh. He rose before dawn and, clad in stolen priestly robes, mingled with the crowds that were already gathering before the temple doors. When these were opened and the crowds streamed in, he entered with them, eyes pricking again as he saw that the rope of hair was already in place, hanging slender in the matutinal gloom from the great silver bell many lagor above. He slipped away from the worshippers unheeded, and returned unheeded a quarter-hour later, his pale face flushed and his breathing a little heavier.

The first ceremony of the festival, the ringing of the bell, was to be performed by Yuudakh in less than an hour, but Mardraco's impatience stretched the time agonizingly, till he trembled with the fear that the wizard had been vouchsafed the same fatal vision in the gatuul, and would never arrive. But then trumpets struck up outside, announcing the arrival of the king and his party; and when they were seated in the first rank the congregation murmured with awe as Yuudakh, flanked by his bravoes and wearing robes of a splendour never before seen on any priest of Wlemh, strode down the central aisle to the altar, where he turned and saluted them.

"My king and my people!" he cried, his Aubacoran now flawless after less than a year of residence, save for an almost imperceptible lingering on certain sibilant consonants. "My king and my people!, for so now I presume to regard you after your hospitality and kindness, let us sing in praise of mighty Wlemh before I invoke His presence in customary fashion."

Then he led the congregation, king, noble, and commoner, in a hymn of praise before, smiling thinly with pleasure, he turned to seize hold of the rope of hair and draw the first peal of invocation from the great bell of Wlemh. Mardraco, kicking heart suddenly stilled in his chest, watched as the wizard heaved downward on the rope. For a moment there was nothing; and then came a flash as of silver lightning and a clangour of metal meeting stone. A great wail of horror went up from the congregation over the soft thappa of hair-rope coiling as it fell, for there before them, writhing in death agony on the temple floor among the gaping bravoes, its triangular skull smashed by the bell fallen from high, high above, was not the wizard Yuudakh but a huge and leprous serpent.

Guide to pronunciation:
Yuudakh -- YOO-dakh (like loch or chutzpah)
Sangwa -- SANG-gwaa
Aubacor -- AWE-ba-cor
Mardraco -- mar-DRAC-o
Lilétha -- lil-EH-thaa
Wlemh -- Wuh-lem (m pronounced like hmmm)

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