Dion Wayfarer leaned against the massive oak trunk, weary from a Search that seemed endless and fruitless. Patience, he sighed, was difficult to sustain when nothing gave hope. He wrapped his faded, dawn-grey cloak tighter, ignoring the dampness of the tatty wool. Today he felt every one of his actual years and wished they were merely the thirty everyone assumed he was.“You have a hard task,” his master had said. “In the past hundred years we’ve had only three wizard trainees. That is not enough to sustain wizard-kind. It is up to you to Search at least one suitable candidate, more if at all possible. And we need to know how the Talented are being stopped from coming to us.” The rain faded to a light drizzle. Ground damp soaked into worn boots. Dion had just enough time to reach the next village before dark. Rain greeted him again just as he reached the village. He'd been told The Oaken Barrel provided good food and warm beds. He hurried to its doors. The inn was dark-beamed and well lit by candles around the walls. Massive logs burned in an open fireplace. Well-spaced tables filled a room that could easily hold fifty guests. At this time of night the Inn was only one-third filled. Dion ordered mutton stew from the plump redhead who served at the bar, and a mug of the inn's best cider. He needed energy for what lay ahead, and wished he had some of the power commanded by the Masters he served. The meal was every bit as good as its reputation. The thick gravy filled with mutton chunks and vegetables tasted even better than it smelt. He cleaned the plate with a hunk of fresh brown bread. A gaunt, grey-haired woman, the Inn Mistress, joined the plump serving girl. She maintained a pleasant atmosphere, cooling off several disagreements that threatened to become heated and, with a couple of surprisingly risqué comments, soon had the patrons laughing again. Dion drained his mug of cider and rested against the high back of his bench seat. He closed his eyes. He would be ignored, just another weary traveller, and concentration was easier this way. His mind scanned the area. There! A delicate mental touch, definitely within the village, to the east. Tomorrow the Search could begin again. Tonight he needed rest. He could still taste the delicious stew as his tired limbs sank gratefully into the pan-warmed bed. But he couldn't sleep. In the candle's flickering light he watched a spider weave its intricate web between two roof beams. Such patience! He needed some of that for the task ahead. A prickling of magic hung in the air. The next morning he roamed the village, observing as he traded herbs unavailable in these parts for shoes and a new cloak. His wizard-trained memory stored all snippets of information. Everything would be recorded at the College of Wizards. A group of chattering women surrounded the well in the centre of the Village Square. They ignored him, yet he felt watched as he walked toward five children playing on the grass. He stopped. He stared at the children's toys. He forced his eyes to focus, but still the toys' faces remained bland, unformed. They were dolls; no, mere figurines. He studied them from a distance of two body-lengths. Itchy tingling spread from toe to scalp. Once again that prickling taste of magic filled his senses. Dion sneezed. Each toy wore an exact replica of wizards' garb. All five stages of learning were represented. Only a trained wizard would know such detail. He stepped forward. The oldest child looked up, a boy of eight years, underfed and underdeveloped. Cold blue eyes stared at Dion. What lay behind that lack of trust? Dion suppressed a shudder. No child's eyes should reflect such wisdom. "I was admiring your toys," Dion said. "My name is Dion Wayfarer. I travel the country gathering histories, and learning different customs." The boy's expression remained the same. "May I look at one? They seem to have been crafted by a Master Toymaker." Dion's excitement hid behind a friendly smile. "What's your name?" "We don't give our names to strangers." The boy moved to protect his figurine in the crook of one arm. "Very sensible," Dion replied. "I am indeed a stranger to you and I apologise for requesting such personal information." The boy became slightly less rigid, but distrust of a stranger remained in his gaze. The two youngest children skittered across to hide amongst the women's skirts and the two girls remained silent, watching, having tucked their figurines out of sight. "Are you from the temple?" "Have you seen me there?" Dion kept his voice calm. There was something about this child. He was not the creator of the figurines, but he was somehow tied to them. The blue eyes flickered as the boy noted Dion's appearance, the drab brown tunic and hose, the faded and tattered grey cloak. "I've not seen you in Temple, but you could come from a distant one." "If I were Temple trained," Dion said, amazed at the maturity of one so young, "you would at least recognise it in my clothing, as I have recognised the clothing on your toys." Sudden surprise registered on the boy's face. "They remind me of people I once knew," Dion added, allowing his voice to hint at pleasant memories. "Who? Mika said the images came from his mind! He said they were special and he's making one for each of us." "They are indeed special," Dion agreed. "He's making them for all the children?" Mika! The name twanged on Dion's senses. The boy nodded. "How many children are there in the village?" It would be a mammoth task for even a small village, but this one... Dion mentally shook his head. The figurine lay in the boy's lap as he raised his hands, fingers splayed. He frowned, lips moving as if naming each child and counting it on his fingers, then shrugged and lowered his hands. "Lots." Dion guessed a minimum of one hundred children between the ages of five and fifteen. Even for a Master Craftsman it was a task not undertaken lightly. Yet still that taste of magic hung in the air. "Where can I find Mika?" The Search was ended, but in an age when wizardry had lost its following he needed to be careful. He felt a relaxation in the boy. "Down there!" The boy pointed to a lane leading east from the square. "He's at the end." A tiny cottage nestled amongst trees at the end of the lane. Dion stood outside watching smoke curl from the chimney. This was the right place. There was no doubt. Anyone with the slightest gift would see that sparkle of magic dancing around the walls. The door opened in answer to his knock, as if the inhabitant had been awaiting the summons, yet the young man seemed surprised to discover Dion standing on the step. Blonde hair brushed the doorframe above a face that reflected no more than eighteen years. Using magic for good slowed the ageing process and Dion had the appearance of a thirty-year-old, yet he had seen three times that many years. This young man could be anywhere between twenty and fifty, depending how long he'd been using his gift. He stood a full head taller than Dion and the grey eyes showed caution as they gazed down at his unexpected visitor. "Mika?" He could be no other, but Dion needed to be certain. "Yes, who are you?" "I've seen the wizards you've made for the children," Dion replied, avoiding the question. "They're very good." Mika glanced up the lane. "That's not a title for toys that should be mentioned where others can hear. You're taking a risk even being here. You'd better come inside." He stepped back. Dion entered the cottage. A quick appraisal showed one room with the bed hiding behind a ragged brown curtain. A blackened pot hung over low flames in the fireplace; an equally black kettle on a brick shelf off to one side. An empty bowl stood on the hearth with clean plates and utensils stacked inside. The cottage showed signs of a true artist's home; the daily details of living came second in line to a need to exercise his craft. Two wooden rocking chairs, one each side of the fireplace, were the only signs of comfort. A scrubbed wood table stood in the room's centre, blocks of wood strewn across its surface. Lengths of dark cloth draped a wooden A-frame near the door. Sewing implements lay neatly on one corner of the table. Dion recognised that the figurines' clothing was created in the usual way, but he saw no tools for the working of wood. "Have you seen what you came for?" Mika was tense, edgy. He fiddled with his belt, but the grey eyes remained steady as he gazed at his visitor. Dion smiled his apology. "It's not what you think." "No?" Bitterness and suspicion filled the single word. "No! I've been looking for you, or someone like you, for half a year." "Why?" Breaking through a barrier created when one lived outside the village norm was never easy. Trust was not given freely. Dion could not state his place of origin, nor the reason for his journey. He scratched his head. Where best to begin? The incidents of this journey might help ease the tension. "There was one village," he said, "where every stranger was stripped and their clothes inspected for any contraband. I'm still not sure what was meant by that and I received no apologies for the treatment." It was the right point to begin his tale. He saw Mika relax. They sat in the rocking chairs as Dion talked, with Mika interrupting for details on things he didn't understand. Night had closed in by the time Dion finished. Mika served two meals during the telling, and laughed at several of the more light-hearted incidents. Yet he was still wary. Dion guessed at the cause. "You've patiently listened to my stories," he said, "though they're not so interesting when you've not actually lived them. You have questions?" Mika nodded. Dion waited for the young man to gather his thoughts. So far he had given no hint as to the purpose behind his Search. He looked more carefully around the room. He saw nothing out of the ordinary. All was much as he would expect from a Master Craftsman. But then he saw the shelf. Miniature figurines sat on a triangle shelf attached in the far corner of the room. They looked dull silver, but such an ore was past the purse of a lowly villager even one as skilled as Mika seemed to be. The figurines were wizards, seven in all, each in a different pose. "You've not named any of the villages you visited," Mika said, "nor stated your village of origin." Dion turned to look at his host. "I've not identified any villages because my experience may differ from those of others, and it would be unfair to prejudice any whose visit came after mine." "I'm never likely to travel north," Mika stated, "so there's no harm telling me." "Maybe one day you will," Dion said. A journey north may happen far sooner than Mika expected if he fulfilled Dion's expectations. Mika shrugged. He finger-combed his blonde hair. It stood up as if spiked. "Not likely to happen. I'm bound to this village." The phrase sent ice through Dion. For the first time since his arrival he was not conscious of the physical reactions emanating from magic. "Bound?" Mika shrugged again. "I would have been forced to the temple without that promise." Dion slumped in his chair. Here was the one simple answer to the problems that faced the wizards. Wizard training was long and arduous. Few completed all seven stages. Joining the Temple offered a life of easy acceptance, protection and comfort. It guaranteed life's necessities for the trainee and his family. Even the most dedicated wizard trainees were sometimes tempted to switch to Temple life. A rare strength was required to stand alone against the Temple. Those that did would be bound to their home village unable to travel further than a day's journey before a strong call turned them homeward again. No one could fight that call. From here the quest took the western roads, but Dion had no sense of any magical source from that wild coast. It ***could*** be there of course, carefully hidden, and so he would still journey west from here. This one man would have made the whole Search worthwhile. A Binding ruined everything. "How strongly bound?" Mika stared at his hands; the fingers long and slender yet still with a look of strength. "I had to be able to practice my craft," he mumbled. A death binding then! The whole journey had been for nothing. Mika could not leave the village for any reason or he would die. All the wizards together could not save him from that fate. The Temple leaders professed unbelief in magic, yet their people used that very art to ensure Mika was never Wizard-trained. Because of his talent, Mika could live for two hundred years, destined to hide away in this tiny cottage depending on charitable women for his food. Mika's taking of a death binding showed his strength of will. He would not bow to pressure from the Temple. It also showed the strength of those that set the binding in place. Nothing had prepared Dion for this. Disappointment surged through his veins. Icy defeat wrapped around him. "The figurines," he said, "the ones you make for the children. You endow each with magic?" "A tiny spark" Mika admitted, "merely to help each child be the best he or she can be. The magic is carefully controlled. Any sign of the dark and the spell is forfeit." Dion nodded, pleased that Mika understood that much. But the young man was an Outside Talent, unable to attend the College of Wizards for formal training. This required an immediate change of plans. Yet Dion's own talent lay in the finding of wizards, not in testing them. The little sleep he managed to catch that night was from the discomfort of a rocking chair, while Mika stretched out on the bed. Rest was important for one about to be Wizard-tested, and the tests were vital. Dion needed to know the strength of Mika's talent. Vivid dreams disturbed Dion's sleep. The dangers of an untrained Outside Talent were well known. The day dawned grey and cold, matching Dion's mood. His doubts grew strong. He knew what tests were required, of course. No one at the College of Wizards could fail to know because all had been tested and passed. But Dion was not a Master Wizard. He could do no more than watch over the tests, judging the results on what he knew ***should*** happen. He must report every detail back to his masters. The first was simple and Mika completed it with ease. Five times he lit the candle using only magic. Five times he extinguished it by the same method. The second test came with their nooning meal. It was obvious that Mika was accustomed to creating his meals with magic. Subtle herbs flavoured the goat stew, herbs that didn't grow in this region. Mika successfully completed the first five tests, which merely showed that he had Talent. Dion already knew that, but he needed to follow each step so he could report to his Masters. By the end of the day Mika's face had lost colour, reflecting the strain of working magic outside his usual area. "I can't do this again tomorrow," he said, rekindling the fire to cook their evening meal without the help of magic. "You've still not told me what these tests are about. You knew I had Talent when you knocked at my door, I could see it in your face." Mika shrugged, as Dion stayed silent. "I've made promises to the children and I can't drain myself to where I am unable to fulfil those promises." "I can give you two days to rest and recuperate," Dion said. "In that time, if you feel up to it, you can create more of your figurines because that is an area in which you are accustomed to working. It will do no harm. Draining your Talent is not my aim. I am merely testing your strength. There may be some way to train you here." It was enough to give Mika hope and a reason to continue with the tests. But Dion knew that no wizard was ever trained outside the College. He borrowed a lamp to light his return to the inn and slept a comfortable night. He spent the next two days learning village history. The Wizards needed to understand the common folk and why the Temple's influence was so strong. He heard tales of Gods, and promises that seemed to be kept, yet his questioning mind wondered at the form and timing of some 'miracles'. The first thing he noticed on returning to Mika's cottage was that eight figurines lay on the table. There were similarities in the clothing to those he had seen in the Village Square, yet subtle differences made each one unique. "How do you know the correct garb?" Dion asked as Mika cleared cloth scraps from the table. "Have you ever ***seen*** a fully gowned wizard?" "Only in my dreams." Mika tossed the cloth scraps on the fire, where they burned with green flame. "Before I was bound I dreamt of them all the time." "And now?" Dion inspected a figurine, amazed at the detail in stitching and style. Mika shook his head. "Hardly ever." His was an unusual Talent. To remember and recreate so vividly showed a depth of magic that would have made a strong wizard. Now, even if the right training were possible, Mika could not fulfil his potential. Dion felt he would regret for many years this discovery and loss. The magic that Mika used to create his figurines was simple yet effective but Dion sensed there was more the young wizard could do. He hoped it would show up in the coming tests. "What about those?" Dion pointed to the corner shelf. "They're different. I create very few." Mika refused to explain, insisting instead that he try out for the next test. He failed. Dion stared at the lump of clay he had provided that should have formed into a cat. It remained a solid lump. Had he misjudged the man's talent? Worse still, had he rushed Mika into the tests and worn him out? But, no, eight figurines rested on the table as evidence that it was not so. Mika created figures in wood, but failed to do so in clay. He should be able to do both. Dion frowned. Had he missed something? This failed test showed Mika to be a minor Talent, able to place a spell on an object yet not such a spell as the one the young man described. Some clue was missing. Mika slumped in his chair. "Maybe it's best that I'm bound here. I cannot complete even such a simple task." "You definitely have Talent, there's no question of that." Dion shrugged. "I don't have the skills to discover where your talent lies. Only one of my Masters can do that, and you would have to come with me for them to test you." A knock at the door interrupted the conversation. "That will be Kerdran," Mika said, rising from his chair to walk across the room. "He's come for the next batch." The boy from the Village Square stepped into the cottage and waited patiently while Mika gathered up the latest figurines. The boy ignored Dion's presence. "You know which group these are for?" Mika asked. Kerdran nodded. "Make sure each child gets the correct one," Mika instructed. "Each figurine will know for whom it is destined." "How will he know?" Dion asked when the boy was gone. "The toys tell him!" Mika sounded surprised, as if Dion should have known this. "They ***tell*** him?" Dion felt a niggling annoyance. Somewhere he had failed. The ability to create a link-spell was not a minor Talent. Why then was Mika unable to create with clay? Moulding clay was a first-level, linking was fourth. "Each time I make a new toy I tell it the name of a child in the village," Mika explained. "Kerdran has never made a mistake in his deliveries." Hope returned in a surge of warmth. Maybe good would come of this after all. The boy was too young yet for wizard training but maybe sometime in the future Dion could ensure he returned here before the Temple interfered and blocked Kerdran's talent. Once Mika failed the test there was no longer a reason for Dion to stay in the village. He would report his find to his Masters but he must now continue his quest. "It's a shame Kerdran is so young," Dion said, "or he would be company for me on the journey. There's definitely a spark there that could be trained." "When he's older, before the age the temple will want him, I'll remind him of your visit," Mika said. "Then he can make his own choice, as few of us are really able to choose." He lifted a cloth bundle from his table and cradled it for a moment. "I have something here for your Masters." Dion accepted the bundle, surprised at its weight but not surprised at the offering. Custom had once been that gifts were presented at the end of a wizard's visit. "It is carefully packed," Mika said, "You mustn't open it within the village." Dion said his farewell, promising to advise Mika of his Masters' reactions to the news and the gift. He stopped for his nooning meal beneath the oak that had provided shelter from rain. Fresh bread and cider, thoughtfully supplied by the Inn Mistress, formed his meal. Dion satisfied his hunger with half the bread. The remainder could be eaten at his evening stop. The bread would soon go stale, so there was no point in saving it. Mika's bundle lay on the ground. Dion undid the ties and spread out the cloth. He stared at the seven dull-silver wizards. Why had Mika given him these? Was it somehow an apology for what Mika saw as his failure? Dion still could not identify the ore from which these figures were formed but he marvelled at the detail that had gone into their creation. He stared. These figurines were fully formed. The clothing matched in detail that on the children's toys, but the features of these were clearly defined. They showed age and beard growth through the seven stages. Dion inspected one. Hair, eyebrows, nose, mouth, even fingernails, all the detail was there. He held it in his palm, rubbing his thumb over smooth planes and rough edges. He felt warmth, not cold as expected. A flush of life pinked the cheeks of the miniature wizard. Dion gasped and quickly placed the figurine back on the cloth. He rolled up the bundle before sun and body warmth completed the change and the wizard's eyes opened. Its garb was that of an eighth-stage wizard, almost at the end of training. The others were garbed to fit earlier stages. No wonder Mika had asked that the bundle not be opened inside the village. Dion chuckled. This was the ultimate gift. He picked up the rolled bundle, cradling it gently as he finally understood that his quest had not been a failure after all. He danced a three-step. Then he danced another, chuckling wildly the whole time. This one find ensured his graduation to the next level. He stopped dancing. No wonder Mika had failed at making a cat. He needed no training. His talent lay in one tightly focused area; a Talent so rare that Dion had heard of it only in legend. The bundle contained seven wizards who would come to life and grow to full size with the aid of sun warmth. Seven new wizards were far more than his Masters expected from this quest. With Mika, the Wizard Maker, sending a constant supply the future of the College of Wizards was ensured. And there was still Kerdran, and possibly others like him if they could be found early enough. Dion wore a permanent grin as he took the western road.
x x x
Our first tale of the new year welcomes back an old friend. Alyson, we’ve missed you!. Let her know how much on our BBS. - GM