Say you had a time machine. Not a Delorean, but a real, honest time machine under your control with no strings attached. Say it just makes doors from the modern world to whatever time you like – you can pop back and forth, like commuting. Also, given that time is not linear, you don’t actually have to worry about altering your current timeline if you go back and, say, step on a butterfly or something. Quantum theory accounts for all that stuff – if your timeline gets messed up for whatever reason, you can just travel sideways in time. Time, no matter what the Doctor says, has no fixed points we know of.
Anyway, say you had one: where would you go?
Time machine stories usually answer this question by sending their protagonists to a point in time that is crucial to their character development. Marty McFly winds up in the 1950s because his unresolved issues with his parents are what is holding him back and preventing him from reaching true maturity. The Time Traveler of HG Wells goes to the distant future because the Time Traveler is an Upper-class British Imperialist sent to witness and experience the (proposed) endpoint of the British social system and imperialist doctrine if extrapolated through the aeons. None of this, of course, really helps us in making our decisions. Ultimately, where each of us goes would be a facet of our psychology and personality, perhaps settled upon by factors we are not even consciously aware of.
For my part, I always think about going back to the Middle Ages and becoming a wizard.
I don’t mean to say that I think magic is real – of course it isn’t – but science and technology sure are real and would appear to be as magical as anything else in the context of medieval Europe. Now, mind you, this plan is almost certainly a bad idea. The dangers are tremendous – disease and violence alone would account for most of the reason not to go. Even assuming you weren’t murdered by a bandit or burned as a witch, you’d probably catch something nasty, like the Plague or Smallpox, and wind up in pretty deep trouble. Now, granted, you’re just one short time-machine trip from the good old 21st century, but still it would be a pretty crazy risk. Even all of this stuff wouldn’t be much help.
It would be cool, though, right? To see a medieval tourney, to walk the streets of medieval London, to see the castles when they were still operational – all the stuff of fairy tales. Of course, you’d see the ugly side of it, too: filthy people, suffering and starvation, barbarism and ignorance. You’d be pretty badass, though, with your layer of high-tech body armor under your robes, a stun-gun up your sleeve, and a whole bunch of scientific and technical knowledge to impress the locals. Once you learned the language, you’d be a pretty important and dangerous guy.
Me, I’d build myself a tower off in the wilderness somewhere. I’d fortify it against attack (reinforced concrete, steel doors, tear gas emitters, strobe lights, etc.), stock it with all the supplies I’d want, and let the rumors of my existence spread. I’d be a legend. Hell, even at my age (mid-30s), I’d be pushing old age anyway. I’d get to entertain knights and priests, peasants and kings. I’d give them wise counsel, impress them with my ‘magical’ knowledge, etc.. Perhaps they’d write legends or stories about me.
Of course, at this point in my little fantasy I usually realize something: man, how self-centered! Is my only reason for travelling back to this time to exercise my ‘power’ over the people of that era? Is it all about me? Wow, talk about egocentrism. One might think I don’t feel powerful enough in this world so therefore I’d feel the need to go to another better suited to realizing my ambitions. Its purpose, ultimately, is an ego-boost.
Come to think of it, is such egotism all that far from the vast majority of time-travelling stories? I mean, even if the time traveler eventually realizes he isn’t superior to the people he meets in the past (or future), all too often the storyline involves the feeling of superiority or, at least, of a higher level of cool. Marty McFly is cooler in the 50s and also cooler in 2015 than those he meets there. Sylvester Stallone is superior to the future he encounters in Demolition Man and Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is the story of a guy who goes back to the court of King Arthur and modernizes the whole operation (even if, in the end, he regrets doing so). One wonders, given the prevalence of such a theme, if the very idea of time travel itself is, essentially, egotistical. We, the blossom of modern humanity, wish to travel back (or forward) to a time and place in need of the enlightenment we can bring them and, in turn, hope to receive the adulation of the benighted masses. No imperialist or colonial power of any era could have goals any more selfish, right?
So, on second thought, let’s scrap the time machine idea for the nonce. Let’s see if we can’t clean up the now before we go prancing off to the then.
Never mind looking around for me; I’m currently invisible. No, no, I’m not doing it to impress you or frighten you or any of that nonsense – it’s part of an experiment. I wouldn’t expect you to understand. Just sit down, will you? Not there, thank you very much – that’s where I’m sitting – try over there. On the books.
To begin with, let me make one thing abundantly clear: You aren’t special. Well…perhaps that’s not entirely true; allow me to rephrase. There is nothing genetically or mystically unique to your person that indicates that you can become a mage. It is a common misconception among the common folk that magi (or wizards or sorcerers or warlocks or what-have-you) are somehow ‘born’ with a special gift that sets them apart. That, at least, is the clap-trap peddled in the Twin Kingdoms and in Kalsaar. We live in the West, we are civilized and intelligent beings, and we ought not believe a word of that nonsense.
Please look over here where I’m sitting. I despise speaking to someone who is looking elsewhere. No, not there – a little higher. Yes, quite right. Thank you.
Anyway, as I was saying, what you refer to as ‘magic’ (but what we refer to as the High Arts) is accessible to anyone with a studious disposition, a strong work ethic, and other things that make people good students. It is, at its heart, an academic discipline (well, barring those brutes who focus on channeling the Fey, but that’s a topic for a different time). The point is that anyone with a good head on their shoulders and a good teacher can learn sorcery. This, historically, has been a troubling fact to many rulers, as the prospect that any number of ornery peasants might learn how to conjure demonfire or toss lode-bolts around was enough to give them permanent indigestion. Indeed, that is where the whole ‘wizards are born, not made’ myth originated, no doubt. Better to convince the populace that they have no hope than allow them the knowledge that they might re-make the world as they see fit if only they hit the books hard enough.
Am I still invisible? Good. Be certain to let me know if I start to appear. It might be a bit grisly, mind you – the digestive tract is usually the first thing to show up. If you must, there’s a basin beside you. Make certain not to vomit on any of the books, or I’ll turn you into a frog.
Just kidding. That’s enormously difficult to do and it wouldn’t be worth the effort. I’d probably just Shroud you so you looked like a frog to everyone else. Just as frustrating for you, but much less likely to freeze my lungs solid as I channel that much of the Dweomer.
Now, where was I? Ah, yes, wizards. Well, the first thing you ought to know is that I can’t, technically, train you to be a mage. It’s something of a semantic distinction, unfortunately. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but such is the world we live in. There are three ‘titles’ affixed to practitioners of the High Arts. The first, most common, and lowest is ‘wizard’. A wizard is anyone who can utilize some aspect of the High Arts, no matter how meager. It’s a catchall term. Call an alchemist a ‘wizard’ and he’ll be pretty flattered, since he probably only knows how to use the Low Arts. Call a staff-bearing mage a ‘wizard’, and he’ll react as if you spat in her soup. Fair warning.
The next up the chain is a ‘sorcerer’. A sorcerer is any wizard with some degree of formal training; a conjurer who can only conjure up water is a wizard, a conjurer who’s studied the Art of Ilticaci, a Kalsaari sorcerous art dedicated to desert survival, itself a derivative of the arts practiced by the Salasi Sandmagi of the Century Desert, can rightfully be called a sorcerer. It is a serious term for serious practitioners, not dabblers, and it is that which I could promise to teach you to become, should you pass my tests.
Finally, of course, is the title of ‘mage’, bestowed only upon those sorcerers trained in the ancient halls of the Arcanostrum of Saldor and who have achieved their second mark and, thus, earned their staff. I did this myself, and I have the staff to prove it. It is a unique and special distinction and, should you show talent, I might suggest you tender your application to the Arcanostrum yourself, that, however, is for another time.
In any event, what is most important to remember is this: the High Arts, and the profession of sorcerer, is the most important profession in the world. One man with vision can reshape society, history, and even the land itself using these arts, and this is not to be taken lightly. No, we are the safeguards of the future and it is our purpose, more than any priest, to shepherd humanity to a brighter tomorrow. To become a sorcerer, you must cast off your personal concerns, your lusts for power, your ambitions for wealth, your…AGH! Kroth dammit!
The cat jumped on me again! Stupid animal! Did you let it back in the room? Hann’s Boots, boy! I’ve totally lost my concentration! You can see me, can’t you? You can! I can tell by the way you’re making eye-contact. Dammit all to bloody hell! I was on my way to a record, too. I spent the past three weeks without being able to see my own hands. Do you have any idea how hard it was to get dressed? Kroth, Kroth, and bloody goddamned Kroth. I knew I should have sent the cat to stay with my brother. Dammit.
When the time came, Myreon was the first applicant called. She looked neither right nor left as she walked through the ranks of her wealthy, well-dressed peers. Myreon didn’t need to see the contessa’s face to know what she thought of her, nor was it a mystery what kind of toothy, artificial grin Gold Chain would sport as she passed. They had come back in twos and threes, surreptitiously clutching small pieces of jewelry or tiny vials of dark liquid, not speaking with each other save to offer vague commentary about the weather or the time. Myreon had glared at them all, but they hadn’t returned her look. They looked away, politely ignoring her existence. They were wealthy, and they had a lot of practice evading the gaze of poor people. They were good at it.
Passing through the iron gates of the Arcanostrum was like passing through a thin sheet of cold rain—the taste in the air changed, the temperature cooled, the sunlight became filtered and diffuse. Myreon had done this twelve times before, but even on the thirteenth she was still disoriented. She could never tell if the place she was now was actually on the other side of that gate or not—it looked nothing like the simple paved path one could see from the plaza beyond. It was a garden, of sorts, shaded over by old willow trees and featuring a perfectly circular pool with a rim of mossy stone and filled with yellow-green water.
There, standing around it in a half circle, were the five Archmagi—Cormyr of the Dweomer, Odric of the Fey, Salien of the Lumen, Lyrelle of the Ether, and Lord Defender Trevard. They wore simple cloaks and bore staves as unique as their persons—this one withered and bent, that one gleaming, straight, and true. The Lord Defender was wearing a suit of mageglass armor so spotlessly bright that it sparkled like silver in the twilight gloom. These were the five most powerful wizards in the world, the Keeper of the Balance himself excepted, and they were all staring at simple Myreon Alafarr, with her dog-eared old spellbook and her plain dress.
“You are aware of the test’s requirements?” Cormyr asked, his hawk-nose bouncing a little with every accented syllable.
Myreon nodded. “Yes.”
Salien smiled at her. “Very well,Ms.Alafarr—you may cast your spell.”
Myreon didn’t move. She had been planning what to say ever since Lyrelle left her on the plaza, but now she could think of nothing that wouldn’t sound like a whine or an excuse. She clenched her teeth to keep her chin from quivering.
Salien motioned for her to begin, her every movement soft and somehow fascinating, like the gentle motion of a swan on water. “Go ahead, Ms. Alafarr. No one expects much.”
Myreon’s eyes began to water. “I…I’m afraid I can’t cast a spell, Magus.”
Salien frowned. “Oh. Not a one?”
Odric tugged a twig out of his long, unkempt beard. “Hmph. Did you read the sign?”
Myreon nodded. “Yes, but…but I can’t.”
Lord Defender Trevard nodded slowly. “We understand, miss. It is a very challenging test—you have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Tears were flowing down her cheeks at this point. Myreon was holding her breath so as not to sob. If only they weren’t being so nice about it. If only they mocked her like the others, then it would have been easier. Instead, she stood there feeling like she was being stabbed over and over in the guts, and there was nothing she could do but to stand there and take it. “I…I know…thank you.”
Lyrelle tapped her staff against the ground. “We will be making our final decisions for admission tomorrow, Ms. Alafarr. Please return then to hear our results.”
Odric raised his hand. “You should know, though, that not passing the final test weighs heavily upon our decision.”
Myreon nodded again and dabbed at her eyes with the back of her hand. “Yes. Thank you, magus. Thank you for passing me this far.”
Cormyr shook his head. “We promote on merit and merit alone, miss. You have nothing to thank us for—thank yourself.”
And that was it. Myreon left that magical garden and walked back into the plaza. All of the other applicants saw her face and didn’t need to ask her a thing. They all knew what had happened.
The walk back to the inn was long—longer than usual. It might have been due to the time of day; it was still early, and the streets of Saldor were bustling with all kind of traffic. Myreon, though, wasn’t thinking about the traffic. She was thinking about those glittering spires and ivy-clad halls to her back. She was thinking about the things she would never learn and the places she would never see. She was thinking about winter.
Drython Alafarr was sitting on the steps before the inn to meet her coming home. Mitos the innkeeper was with him, whittling a stick and chewing tobacco. Both men rose when they saw her coming.
“You’re home early!” Drython said, smiling at her.
Myreon didn’t say anything. She didn’t want to cry—particularly not in front of that creep, Mitos. “It was a different kind of test today.”
“Did you fail?” Mitos asked, spitting into the gutter.
Myreon glared at him. “That’s private.”
The innkeeper shrugged and went back to his whittling. His eyes, however, kept straying to Myreon’s bodice.
Her father seemed not to notice. “When do you find out how you did? Tomorrow morning?”
He clapped his daughter on the shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll do well, Myrrie. They’d be fools to fail you.”
Myreon shook her head, her eyes fluttering and mouth pressed into a thin line. Her father saw her expression and she knew he understood. He gathered her up in a warm hug and whispered. “Never give up, Myrrie. If they don’t want you, make ‘em look you in the eye and tell you so.”
Myreon knew he didn’t understand; to think that Archmage Lyrelle would have a problem telling her she failed to her face! The hug felt good, though, and she leaned into it.
When they broke apart, Mitos was still there. He spat again. “If you fail tomorrow, missy, there’s a job for you here, if you like. I pay serving girls better than most.” His eyes glittered over he quivering moustache.
Drython Alafarr gave the Ihynishman a curt nod. “Thank you for the offer, sir, but my Myrrie didn’t fail anything.”
Mitos shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
The next day was cold and wet, with a rainy fog the clung to the stones and the lampposts of the city early in the morning. Myreon wore her patched and faded wool shawl and was wet through and shivering by the time she reached the plaza again. This time, though, she was completely alone. She waited before the gates in the morning mist, glancing left and right for any sign of anyone else, but there was no one.
Had everybody failed? It was possible, she guessed. Probably the archmagi saw right through their fake sorcery and had failed them outright. Or maybe they had all been passed straight away; the archmagi had just looked each wealthy young person up and down and said ‘congratulations, you’re just the kind of clever, wealthy fellow we’re looking for’ and that was it.
It couldn’t be, though. Could it?
The gates opened, all by themselves. Beyond, a Defender of the Balance in full mageglass armor and firepike pointed at her. “Myreon Alafarr?”
“With me, miss, if you please.”
Myreon stepped through and, again, the cold shiver passed through her body and she found herself standing again in that strange garden. It wasn’t raining here, nor was it cold; it was precisely as it had been the day before. The archmagi were there, as well, looking exactly the same as well. This time, however, there was a chair. Archmage Lyrelle motioned for her to sit in it.
“It has been an unusual year for applicants, to be certain.” Lyrelle said, her voice firm and declarative, as though she were reading a prepared statement. “Each year we expect a certain number of applicants to cheat or attempt to cheat, but very seldom do so many of them do so.”
Myreon blinked. “They all failed?”
“They were all eliminated immediately.” Cormyr said, his lip curling. “As you would have been, had you taken Lyrelle’s little offer.”
“So, I was right—it was a…”
Lyrelle raised her hand. “If you please—I haven’t finished. Now, it was wise of you not to accept my offer to cheat, Ms. Alafarr, even if it did mean you failed the test. As some of your fellow applicants surmised—and correctly—the test was an impossible one. It is extremely unlikely for a person without any formal training to be able to perform a sorcerous act to our satisfaction. Indeed, we expressly do not want the progeny of hedge wizards and adherents of petty witchcraft infiltrating these halls.”
“Hmph.” Odric offered, folding his thick forearms beneath his bushy beard.
Lyrelle favored the Archmage of the Fey with a significant glance—one that apparently bore enough weight that Odric un-folded his arms—and continued. “There is a second part to the test, however. We wanted to see if the applicant was willing to fail.”
Myreon’s heart leapt. Could that mean…
“What we do here,” Lyrelle continued, “is train young men and women to manipulate the very fabric of creation itself to their whim. It is a considerable power and with it comes considerable responsibility. There are a great many shortcuts and work-arounds in the High Arts, and all of them are dangerous and unwise. We do not wish to instruct people who would rather cheat than fail—that recipe leads to disaster for all of us.”
Myreon waited, but Lyrelle appeared to have finished. “Ma..magus, does that mean…”
The archmagi all nodded.
“I PASSED!” Myreon leapt to her feet. “I’m an initiate?”
Salien came to her, arms spread. “Welcome, initiate. May your stay here be long and enlightening.”
Myreon hugged her—she was thin and bony, like a bird—but broke away. “I…I have to go.”
Lord Defender Trevard blinked. “Go? Where?”
“My father! I need to tell him!”
“Bah!” Odric barked. “The man already knows.”
“Why?” Myreon said, blinking at the old mage as the other came forward to shake her hand. “Who told him?”
Odric laughed. “My girl, a man doesn’t need a test to tell him his daughter is a winner. He knows. He knows deep in his bones.”
Myreon grinned more widely than she had in weeks. She felt like she could fly away—she was air, the sun. She was the summertime in a wool shawl.
Myreon was not alone in her assessment of the odds of passing. As the plaza before the Arcanostrum’s gates filled up in preparation for the day’s test, more and more young men and women read the note and were thoroughly horrified. Their reactions were, on the whole, more volcanic than Myreon’s own. Many wept, bitterly and openly, and cursed anything and everything nearby, though chiefly the archmagi. Others raged and stormed and shook their fists through the iron gates as though, by expressing their displeasure, the magi of Saldor would relent in their unreasonable expectations. Still others simply deflated, turned pale, and wandered off to various corners of the plaza, heads down, and drew invisible plans in the dust with their feet.
Myreon, for her part, went nowhere and said nothing. She could think of no coherent plan to enact, no preparations to begin, and no reasonable recourse to fall back on. A lot of applicants quit, right then and there—some of them loudly. One fellow, at least five years older than Myreon, wearing an ostentatious ensemble of lace and ostrich feathers, threw his floppy hat at the gate and spat, “I’ve had it with you! To Hell and Damnation with all of you wizards! Jean-Pierre Marsien DuPoirrette is not to be mocked!”
He turned and meant to march straight away, but Myreon was in his path. He glared at her, is pointed nose flaring like miniature bellows, and shooed her aside. “What are you still doing here? Go home, peasant! You failed—we all failed!”
Myreon felt her stomach flip and knew her bottom lip wanted to quiver, but she held them still. “I’m staying because I’m going to pass. You leave if you want to.”
The contessa from earlier lifted her head from her servant’s lap. “What? Do you know a spell, then?”
Myreon folded her arms. The contessa was no older than thirteen, and Myreon had no interest in looking stupid in the eyes of an arrogant child. “Maybe.”
That attracted a lot of attention. A few seconds later, every applicant in the plaza was crowding around Myreon, Pierre, and the young contessa. “Show me the spell you know!” One girl yelled, pulling off a solid gold ring with a diamond setting. “I’ll give you this!”
Another girl, probably Myreon’s age exactly, sniffed delicately at the ring. “Exactly the kind of gift one would expect from a Galaspiner Guild-girl.” She gave Myreon a sickly-sweet smile and unclasped her necklace. It was enchanted with emeralds that changed color in watery patterns and from it emanated a sweet, spring-like aroma, like fresh rain on a grassy field. “There’s much more like this for my friends. Can’t we be friends?”
Myreon’s mouth was hanging open, so she shut it with a click. “I’m…I’m keeping the spell to myself. I don’t know how to teach it, anyway.”
“Selfish little commoner!” The contessa hissed. “You think just because you know some piddling little magic trick that we’d consent to beg?”
The boy in Eretherian livery shook his head. He was at the back of the crowd, but he was taller than almost everybody by six inches, so everybody could see the smirk on his face. “She doesn’t know anything; she’s bluffing. I’d do it, too, if I were her. She needs us to quit so she can be the only one left in an hour. Then they’d have to take her, spell or not.”
The girl who’d offered Myreon the ring laughed. “They don’t have to take anybody. My uncle says there were a few years while he was an apprentice that they took no one.”
Another boy spoke up. “My father says that some years they take up to fifty. Maybe if we all fail the test, they’ll take all of us—we’d all be equally qualified, right?”
Pierrepulled himself to his full height, which wasn’t impressive, and stuck his nose in the air as though he smelled something. “I do not accept a world in which I am ‘equal’ to any of you. The blood of the Griffon Throne runs in my veins, and…”
The girl that offered Myreon the magic necklace rolled her eyes. “You Akrallians and your stupid bloodlines. As though the drop of royalty in your veins even compares to the hearty river of nobility common to all well-born Eretherian families. My grandfather was…”
Everyone began shouting at that point, and Myreon ducked out of the crowd. She sat underneath a nearby tree and watched the sons and daughters of the rich and powerful compare heritage and wave around pieces of heraldry and signet rings each of which would have purchased the whole inn she and her father had stayed in and would have enough left over to knock it down and build their own mansion. Her father had always encouraged her to look at people through their own eyes, but she found it practically impossible with these brats. Even without passing this test, they would all be lords and ladies—second sons and daughters, granted, but still noble. Where would Myreon be? Nowhere, that was where. She hoped they did all quit; at least then she wouldn’t be forced to listen to them bicker.
In the end, the group broke up. The Eretherians formed their own little circle (wherein they still argued among themselves, as Eretherian nobles did), the Akrallians formed their own circle (where they spent much of their time comparing bloodlines and seniority, as was their wont), and the Galaspiner guilders clustered in a little group nearby to Myreon. They seemed a bit more organized, and were pitching to one another various theories on what to do. Eventually, one of the quieter ones—a boy about Myreon’s age with blacksmith’s shoulders and a gold chain around his neck that could have bought and sold any dozen blacksmiths—whispered loud enough so that Myreon could scarcely hear. “What if we cheat?”
Myreon jerked her head sideways to stare at him. He caught her eye and grinned. “What if that’s the test?”
“What do you mean?” A pimple-faced redhead asked, scratching at his collar.
Gold Chain shrugged. “Every year they say the Arcanostrum’s final test, whatever it is, is a trick of some kind. Maybe this is the trick—maybe they want us to give up. Only those of us with enough cunning to find a way to pass make it through.”
Myreon stood up and came closer. The Galaspiners paid her little mind. “If we’re caught, we’ll be automatically failed!”
“We’d fail anyway—they’ve got to know that, don’t they? They want us to cheat.”
“How?” Myreon asked. “How do you cheat with something like this?”
Gold Chain grinned. “Easy—I know an enchanter near here. He can put a simple spell into something like a ring that will last for a few hours or maybe only work once. You get him to enchant it, walk into the test, cast your ‘spell’, and take what comes.”
The Galaspiners grinned like thieves. “Good idea. What’s something like that cost?”
“No more than a couple dozen gold marks, I’d bet.” He gave Myreon a wink. “Not cheap enough for everybody, I guess.”
They laughed at that; the sound of it was like a slap in the face. Myreon blinked and backed away. “What if I tell?”
Gold Chain shook his head, still chuckling. “Your name’s Alafarr, right? Your dad’s a vintner?”
Myreon froze. “How do you know that?”
“You tell on me and my friends, Alafarr, and I’ll see to it that my father buys that rotten little vineyard and throws you to the wolves.” Gold Chain, still smiling, gave her a little half bow. “Now, if you’ll excuse us—we’ve got a test to pass.”
Myreon watched them go, rage and fear making her heart skip in her chest. She wanted to smash Gold Chain’s toothy face with his stupid chain, but didn’t dare to anything other than glare at him. She turned away, just so she wouldn’t have to watch them leave.
Elsewhere in the plaza, those who hadn’t quit seemed to have gotten the same idea as the Galaspiners—they headed in various directions, babbling about potions that could make them float and magic scrolls that could cast themselves. They had relatives or business contacts or retainers who could fashion these things, and in every case the only cost would be money or favors. With every little lordling that walked off with a sly grin on his face, Myreon felt the weight of the test pressing more and more heavily on her chest.
What if she was the only one who failed, and only because the rest of them cheated? What if this was how it happened every year—the rich ones just bought their entry, and the others got brushed aside. Surely the archmagi could see through their tricks—couldn’t they?
What if they couldn’t?
Myreon threw herself under the same tree and put her head in her hands. She didn’t cry—she was too paralyzed by events. She was numb. She was going to fail, and the rest of these spoiled, cheating brats were going to win. It wasn’t fair.
“You’re one of the applicants, aren’t you? Myreon, isn’t it?” The voice was a woman’s, warm and firm like that of a kindly grandmother who doesn’t accept excuses.
Myreon looked up to see a striking woman with golden hair just barely streaked with gray and a firm face barely creased with the cares of age. Myreon didn’t need to see her black robes or the intricate staff by her side to know who she was: Lyrelle Reldamar, Archmage of the Ether and Mistress of theBlackCollege.
Myreon struggled to her feet. “Magus, I…I didn’t see you…I didn’t know that you’d…”
“I take care not to be seen when I choose not to be, child. Why are you crying?”
“I’m not crying.” Myreon said, wiping under her eyes just to be sure. Her hand came back wet.
The Archmage Lyrelle smirked. “Of course not. Are you ready for today’s test?”
“I…no. I’m not. I can’t cast any spells at all.”
Lyrelle’s lips pursed in maternal concern. “My dear, that means you’ll fail. Whatever are you to do?”
“I…I…” Myreon couldn’t hold it in anymore. Her whole body seemed to melt into sobs. It was all she could do to hide her face in her hands. Her cheeks burned with equal parts misery and mortifying embarrassment—here she was, an applicant to the Arcanostrum who had made it all the way to the thirteenth test, and she was crying like a child in front of a woman widely considered to be the most powerful mage in the world.
Lyrelle put an arm around Myreon’s shoulders and patted her on the head. “Now, now, Myreon Alafarr. Stop this nonsense—sobbing makes you look like a market pig.”
Myreon half-snorted. “Wh…what?”
“I’m speaking to you now because you are one of our most promising applicants, and I personally don’t wish for you to fail. However, the other archmagi are unlikely to accept a girl who can’t even cast a simple spell, so…”
Myreon blinked away some tears. “Are you…are you offering to help me cheat?”
Lyrelle clicked her tongue against her teeth. “Cheat? Such a stigmatized term, isn’t it? I’d like to call it ‘surreptitious assistance’.”
“But I don’t have any money and…”
“Do I sound as though I’m asking you for money, darling?” Lyrelle smiled at her and shook her head. “I have all the money I need, I promise you. No, I’m offering you this, free of charge, because I’d rather have a hard-working Saldorian girl in the Arcanosturm than any dozen spoiled Akrallian brats, Eretherian boobs, or Galaspiner sneaks. We Saldorian women should stick together, don’t you think?” The Archmage winked at her.
Myreon felt herself blush. “Thank you, magus.”
“Your answer, Myreon. Do you wish to have my surreptitious assistance in this test or not?”
Myreon looked into the archmage’s eyes. They were a warm brown shade, but there was something sharp about them, too. Myreon realized she was reading Myreon’s facial features—observing, assessing, judging. The words of Gold Chain came back to Myreon suddenly. “What if this is the test?”
Lyrelle tapped her staff on the cobblestones. “Well? Imp caught your tongue?”
Myreon opened her mouth but it took a second before the word came out. “No.”
“Really?” Lyrelle blinked.
“No thank you…magus.” Myreon made a small curtsey. “I…I told my father I’d make him proud.” The last bit sounded very stupid when she said it aloud, so she blushed and apologized again.
Lyrelle pulled herself to her full height and adopted a more aloof expression than before; it was as though the ‘motherly’ part of her was slipped off as easily as a pair of gloves and stuffed in her pocket. “Such a pity, my dear. Such a great pity.”
And then, without so much as a pop, the archmage was gone.
Myreon Alafarr’s father looked brittle and tired, like a rusty hinge about to give out. Still, he smiled his snaggle-tooth smile and handed her the battered old spellbook that had been handed down from generation to generation on the Alafarr vineyard. “You’ll do me proud, Myrrie, I know.”
Myreon smiled at him; it was difficult. “What about the bill, Papa?”
Drython Alafarr looked over his shoulder at the tiny room he and his daughter had shared the past week. Tucked under the eaves of the inn on its top floor, Myreon could only stand upright in one half of the room, and the other half was comprised of a stale straw mat that smelled of mildew and sweat. Her father had let her have it; he slept on the floor. “I’ll settle the bill; worry about the test—that’s what matters.”
“Don’t let that weasel cheat you.”
“Mitos isn’t a cheat—he’s been very kind to us.”
“Mitos is a sleaze, and he’s stuffed us in this hole and taken all our money because he knows you’re too kind a man to say anything.” Myreon glanced down the steep spiral stair to see if anyone was listening—it was still early, and the Ihynishman that owned the inn was seldom awake this early, but one could never be too careful. She’d noticed how the man had been watching her ever since they’d arrived. He would be sitting in a chair by the fire with her father every evening when she returned from the testing. He would be waxing his thick black moustache with his thin fingers while his eyes hugged her hips and slid up and down her backside. The leering only stopped when his wife would happen into the room, and then he would let his eyes flutter up to the rafters or into the fire and continue to nod along with whatever her father was saying. Myreon knew, though. She knew what kind of man he was.
Her father sighed and ran a hand through his thinning hair. “At least my daughter thinks I’m kind. Hurry up—go. You’ll be late.”
Myreon nodded. The knot of anxiety just beneath her breastbone tightened another quarter turn; when she left, it really would be time to face the final test to enter the ranks of the Arcanostrum, the greatest school of sorcery in the world. “Good bye, Papa.”
Her father hugged her tightly. “Don’t be frightened. I believe in you, no matter what happens. Hold your head high, no matter what—it shows good breeding. Do me proud.”
Myreon nodded again, unable to say anything else, and went out into the street.
The Alafarrs were once well-to-do vintners before the war, and Myreon remembered her father and uncles doing well by their families and never wanting for much. The war had changed that, as wars so often do, and left them barely able to keep what little land they still owned. Myreon knew her father had spent the whole of the family’s savings on this trip to Saldor, and just for her. If she failed or if she passed the test today, they would have a difficult winter. She could scarcely stand the idea of her father and uncles and mother going hungry because of her. “I will not fail.” She repeated to herself, over and over, just as she had every morning for the past two weeks. The knot in her chest tightened another quarter turn.
Myreon’s father was too poor to afford an inn inside the OldCity; they couldn’t even afford one just outside. They had been forced to stay in a run-down neighborhood in Crosstown, all the way across the river. It took Myreon the better part of an hour to wind her way through the tangled cobblestone streets, across the river on a water taxi or flat-bottom ferry, and then through the ivy-clad gates into the OldCity, where the impossibly tall towers of the Arcanostrum stood at its heart. Every day the sorcerous academy looked different, and every day Myreon made her pilgrimage to its gates, gazing up at its scintillating parapets and gleaming spires every few seconds. All the while, inside her head, she kept chanting, “I will not fail, I will not fail.”
Each year in late autumn, the magi of the Arcanostrum held a test to admit new initiates into their order. Applicants went through a variable number of tests, depending on who was doing the testing, with each test growing more challenging than the last. This year there were thirteen tests—the most in decades, they said—and today was the thirteenth. Where there had been literally thousands of applicants, there were now only a dozen or so, of whom Myreon was one.
Her competitors were the sons and daughters of ancient noble families or wealthy guildmasters, tutored since birth and afforded every luxury. They, Myreon had no doubt, were staying in fancy hotels or in private villas mere steps from the gates of the Arcanostrum. They had a team of people coaching them—perhaps even magi from the Arconstrum itself who were their friends and relatives. They weren’t distracted by lecherous innkeepers or destitute fathers or the chance of starving this winter. The Arcanostrum rarely took more than three or four new students a year—what were the chances she could overcome and…
“No!” She cursed at herself. “I will not fail. I will not fail. I will not fail.”
When Myreon finally made it to the wrought iron gates of the Arcanostrum, about ten other applicants were already there, chattering eagerly to each other. If they noticed her, they quickly turned away. Some sniggered, and Myreon assumed they were laughing at her. Others, though, looked worried. Some looked positively pale, as though they might pass out at any moment. One girl in an expensive dress vomited into a bag held by her manservant.
Myreon tapped the girl on the shoulder. “Excuse me?”
The girl glared at her. “Did you just touch me?” The manservant moved to block Myreon from physically accessing the girl again.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know…”
The girl pointed to her tiara. “I am a contessa! You don’t tap me on the shoulder like some barmaid.”
Myreon set her jaw. “Look, I just wanted to know what’s going on.”
The reminder of why they were there seemed to hit the contessa all over again, and the color drained from her face. “Emile! The bag!” She spun around and the manservant held the bag up as the rich girl heaved the contents of her probably very expensive breakfast inside. For the first time in two weeks, Myreon was glad she hadn’t eaten anything.
“Hey, girl.” Another applicant—a young man maybe two or three years older than her and wearing the livery of an Eretherian noble house—pointed at the gate. “There’s a note about it there.”
Myreon looked where he was pointing. Pinned to the gates was a note that read “The final test will begin an hour later than normal. You will be asked to perform a spell; come prepared.”
The tension in Myreon’s chest tightened another full turn. Her heart started pounding and she felt suddenly faint. “Cast…cast a spell?”
The young man shrugged. “I know. I’m pretty well cooked—I can’t cast a jot.”
Myreon stepped away from the gate, trying to keep tears from welling up in her eyes. Her whole body seemed to shake at once. A spell? She couldn’t actually cast a spell! That was why she was coming here! How could they expect her to cast a spell? It wasn’t possible!
Frantically, she tore open the little family spellbook. It was a collection of silly rhymes and simple curses—no real sorcery at all, just superstition and mummery with a little bit of common sense. She had been using it to keep notes in the margins and that was all, but now she paged through it furiously, looking for a spell anywhere that might serve. Nothing. Nothing at all. The only real spells in there were too complicated by half and written in a tongue she barely understood. “Oh no. Oh no.”
Myreon knew, beyond doubt, that she was going to fail.
I wrote this a few years ago, after reading an awful lot of Howard’s stuff. Given that a new movie’s being released about the big Cimmerian, I figure it’s appropriate to bring this one back:
ME: So, you are an evil wizard thinking of going toe-to-toe with Conan the Cimmerian, eh? Well, first off, let me say that I don’t recommend it.
WIZ: I care not for your paltry warnings, mortal! Tell me more of this ‘Conan.’
ME: Okay, if you are thinking of taking on the big C, there are three basic rules you must remember.
WIZ: Yes! Tell me these secrets!
ME: Rule the First: CONAN HAS A SWORD! If you are dealing with Conan, you have to remember that he is going to cut you apart with a sword. It is pretty much guaranteed.
WIZ: Bah! I shall simply deprive him of his foolish weapon, and…
ME: You misunderstood. Let me repeat the rule: CONAN HAS A SWORD! That’s it. He has a sword. He has one now, he’ll have one later, etc.. If you break his sword, he will kill you with the blunt end. If you steal his sword, he will get another one. Conan has a sword—accept it.
WIZ: Hmph! I fear no piece of steel. I have lived these thousands of years in slumber, only now to awake and rain my vengeance upon the world. This Conan may strike off my head, if it please him, and I shall not die.
ME: And just how effective a wizard will you be after Conan punts your head down the gullet of the nearest crocodile?
WIZ: Errrrr…touché. The next rule?
ME: Ah, yes—a very important one: CONAN HAS CAT-LIKE REFLEXES! He stalks like a panther, he moves like a tiger, he runs like a cheetah, he fights like a lion, etc.
WIZ: I am unimpressed, but for now let us continue to the third rule.
ME: Rule the third: CONAN IS IMMUNE TO SNAKES!
WIZ: What the hell is that supposed to mean?
ME: It’s pretty self-explanatory. If you think you will kill Conan with a snake, it won’t work. The guy has out-wrestled pythons, struck faster than cobras, hell, he can even rattle better than a sidewinder.
WIZ: But I have no mere snake! This cursed beast hath spawned in my black dungeons for lo these…
ME: CONAN IS IMMUNE TO SNAKES! I don’t care if you’ve got a snake the size of the Acella Train with the cunning of Irwin Rommel and venom that could kill the population of India in an afternoon, Conan will kill it. Remember: CONAN HAS A SWORD and will, therefore, cut it in half.
WIZ: What if I take away his swor…
ME: CONAN HAS A SWORD!
WIZ: Right, right—forgot. Well, what if he fell into a pit…
ME: CONAN HAS CAT-LIKE REFLEXES!
WIZ: Dammit. Well, say I teleported him into a room filled with asps and…
ME: CONAN IS IMMUNE TO SNAKES!
WIZ: Fine, fine! I will simply cast bolts of unearthly destruction at him and…
ME: CAT-LIKE REFLEXES!
WIZ: He can’t dodge them all day, your know. Sooner or later he will…
ME: HAS A SWORD!
WIZ: Don’t follow.
ME: He’ll stab you.
WIZ: Right. But you forget that I have several swordsmen of my own.
ME: How many?
WIZ: Ten of the mightiest warriors ever to walk…
ME: Are their names Conan?
ME: Congratulations, you have earned yourself a whole ten seconds before Conan kills you.
WIZ: But these men are strong…
ME: CONAN HAS A SWORD!
WIZ: There are ten of them, though, so…
ME: CAT-LIKE REFLEXES!
WIZ: And then I make it rain poison snakes.
ME: IMMUNE TO SNAKES!
WIZ: Then I dash away with the princess.
ME: CAT-LIKE REFLEXES
WIZ: Motherfucker! Well, what would you do?
ME: Obvious, really—don’t fuck with Conan.