Magicians for Good & Ill by Judd Baroff
Editor’s note: The structure of this story is pretty traditional, but I love the surprising little details. And I really wanted to know what happened next as I read through it. A very satisfying read.
Long ago there lived an old king who when young had married a woman he deeply loved. She bore him one daughter and then she died. All the king’s advisers told him to take another wife, one who might bear him a son. All told him this but one tall and gaunt adviser, known as a skilled magician, who said that it was an ill-omen to marry with a heart sore sick with grief. And so the king refused every lady of the realm.
Now in time the princess grew, and all the gentlemen of the kingdom wanted her. Not only was she as beautiful and witty as her mother, not only did she have the strength and tenderheartedness of her father, but any man who wed the princess would inherit the throne upon her father’s death.
And yet still many advisers cautioned him to take a new wife. And yet still the magician said that it was an ill omen to marry with a heart sore sick with grief. The king still missed his wife dearly, and so he did not marry.
Now this magician had a son not much older than the king’s daughter, and he so contrived it that his son married the king’s daughter. The match had not been to the princess’s liking, but the magician had the power of persuasion, and the king did as he suggested.
Now it came to pass that the magician grew old and sickly. Fearing his death, fearing that the king might yet take a new wife, and knowing that his son had none of his powers, the magician decided to poison the king. Every evening when entertainment and supper were had in the great hall, the magician would bring the king his wine but sprinkle some powder with noxious effect into it. Soon the king grew sicker than the magician.
The king’s council quickly called for all the herbalists and hedge-witches in the land to come forward and help cure their king, promising a rich reward. The magician knew not how he could argue against the plan, so he argued in favor of it. In favor of it but with a twist. The magician suggested that he, who had some knowledge of the healing arts, should guard against those who wanted to fraud their way into a kingly reward. And so the king’s poisoner became captain of those who would find the king’s cure.
Week after week herbalists and hedge-witches, midwives and all sorts of cunning folk came to see if they could cure the king. The magician met with them all and questioned them about their knowledge of the healing arts. Whenever any herbalist or hedge-witch, midwife or cunning folk showed any sign of true knowledge, the magician cast them out as simple fools. Whenever they showed no true knowledge, he welcomed them in. And so the king worsened.
One day when the king was especially sick, a woman came to the portcullis wishing to play her lute for the king. The magician still met and questioned her. And he noticed odd equipment in her lute-case.
“What is that powder?” he asked.
“It’s meal from my country, far in the East,” said she.
“And what’re those straw-like objects?” said he.
“Those’re capos from my country, far in the East,” said she.
“And what’re those pebbles there?” said he.
“They’re picks from my country, far in the East,” said she.
He then asked about the healing arts and she pretended ignorance, for it is no evil to deceive a deceiver. Satisfied with the lutist, the magician allowed her to play for the ailing king. Her tone sang sweeter than honey, her melody made the sternest knights cry, and her rhythm carried all before it. To reward her, the king invited her to his table for the meal.
“You played with wondrous skill,” said the king. “do you have other skills, madam player?”
“Many, your majesty,” said the woman, “But you might enjoy these three.”
She showed the king the powder, which she could sprinkle into wine to lessen its effects, and so allow one to drink longer into the night and with greater pleasure in the morning. This trick tickled the king mightily and he poured a heavy heaping into his own drink, and the magician frowned.
She showed the king the straw-like objects, which she said would turn even the sourest wine into ambrosia. The king called to the kitchens, and the cook brought vinegar out. But after three twirls of the straws, the king could gulp the wine and declare it the best he had ever tasted. And the magician grew alarmed.
She then showed the king the pebbles.
“These, sire,” said she, “Will smoke in any poison-touched wine.”
Then the magician stood and tried to end the night.
“Your majesty,” said he, “That’s enough of petty parlor tricks.”
But the king took three pebbles from the woman, and he tossed one into her drink, one into the magician’s drink, and one into his drink. His drink sputtered and smoked.
The consternation and anger of the hall is better imagined than described. They captured the magician and promptly hanged him from the ramparts. And the king announced that he would immediately take the lady magician to wife.
“But dear father,” said the king’s son-in-law, “isn’t it an ill-omen to marry with a heart full of grief?”
And the king said, “I must do what I think best for the kingdom, pray, and bear the consequences if I am wrong. Only a fool trusts a proven liar.”
And so the king and the lady magician married, and though the king never forgot his true love, he had some happiness. The lady magician bore him a son. The son grew strong and just, and as king he relied upon the advice of his brother-in-law who had learnt from his father’s disgrace, his father-in-law’s mercy, and his wife’s tenderheartedness and was always truthful and honest.
Judd Baroff is a subcreator living the the Great Plains with his wife and young daughter. You may find him at www.juddbaroff.com or @juddbaroff.
Image is by Wilhelm, no last name given, from 1890, for a pantomime costume.