The Wizard’s Mule
by Charles C. Cole
Kisa sat stiffly on the stone floor, his knees tucked under his stubbly chin and his thin arms hugging his legs. He was crouched in a self-protective bundle with his hands gripping opposite ankles. It was an uncomfortable position yet, in his mind, the least vulnerable to being blown off the high, wind-whipped balcony. As the oldest man in the village, he had recently earned a dubious honor: the Wizard’s Mule, a disposable servant to do menial but essential tasks unworthy of a busy intellect.
While weak with anxiety, Kisa had arrived at his new post punctually but had since done nothing but observe clouds waxing overhead. The pastime was unusual for someone who had spent his most productive years in a small. sunless studio manipulating intricate jewelry; now he was significantly closer to birds in flight than to the village streets below.
The fluffy white blossoms in the sky appeared to turn gray from his evaporating worry. Filtered through his morbid imagination, they twisted and bloated like the bellies of flying serpents orgiastically digesting a herd of cattle.
For a brief time, he had leaned upon the chest-high parapet till a cold draft rushed up the wall of the stone tower, pulling at him on its return journey to the heavens. Then he had slumped in the small lee behind the barrier, waiting interminably for his instructions.
“What do you want from me?” he mumbled. He reached up once more and tugged at the still-locked chamber door. There were two loud smacks on glass. Kisa turned about and stumbled to his feet, expecting his new master. “I am here to serve.”
Three more knocks answered, from within a dark blue double-paned window. Kisa feared the glass would break outwardly from the force and shower him in its stinging spray. When the noise paused, he squinted at the face within. It squinted in return, looking tired and frightened. He realized the pitiful person with shriveled eyes and near-bald crown was no stranger.
The image was not behind the glass, but merely reflected on it, though largely distorted. The window was divided into many fragments by interlacing strips of black lead. The result was an apparent inscription in arcane symbols. He attempted in vain to interpret them, ending by reviewing the only figure familiar to him, his own segmental likeness.
The reflection was swelled by the unusual craftsmanship. On the blue glass it looked deathly starved for air. It reminded Kisa, uncomfortably, of his own future corpse, perhaps drowned and saturated. Kisa stared at his reflection, which was soon no longer his at all. As he gaped, it glared. While he was dumbfounded, it hissed mockingly, teeth threateningly bared. Kisa found he could not turn away from the cold indigo eyes.
“You should have announced yourself!” scolded the image. “Are you the help? The new mule? The last one took a nasty tumble. Or are you what passes for a human sacrifice? We haven’t had a volunteer since Monday. Maybe you can smell him on the roof. He’s getting quite leathery.” The face laughed, not expecting or wanting an answer.
“You’re not the wizard Brelauger.”
“Not at all. You could say I’m his sentry. He tricked me out of my body once. It’s surprising what conditions we’ll accept when death is the only other option. The wizard stalks about the woods and halls as a bear or lion or a combination, his daily constitutional, leaving me to entertain myself by taunting the staff. He promised me immortality! He promised me much more than he has offered so far!” The window rattled violently. “Release me, and I’ll carry you through the air like Aladdin on a magic carpet. I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.”
“Your home is between the window panes?”
“If you can call it a home. I call it a cage.”
“What are you, if I may ask? An elemental?”
“I’m a man minus his body. Do the math,” moaned the reflection. “Today I’m a breeze confined to a box who wants more than anything to travel the world. But the wizard doesn’t trust me. He’s afraid I’ll return with a more powerful wizard, out of a base sense of vengeance. But I just want to get away. You trust me, don’t you?”
“We’ve only just met.”
“I look like you. Feel sorry for me like you feel sorry for yourself. Free me!” wailed the image. “Up here the winds are everywhere. Have you noticed? All day long I hear them soaring and whirling and prancing. I am cursed with wanderlust. Free me! Smash the glass!”
Although they shared a similar goal, to travel so distant that it would not be worth tracking and recovering them when there were others conveniently waiting nearby, the old man held little faith in the image’s sanity and less in its loyalty. He wondered, in fact, if this were an imaginative test of trust set by the wizard.
“I will consider helping you.”
“My new best friend!”
“First, I must know you better, perhaps over a week’s time.”
“Free me!” said the image, its indigo eyes glowing maniacally.
“You,” began Kisa, slowly adopting an air of authority, for of the two of them he seemingly had more power or at least more liberties, “are obviously the wizard’s representative. You must relay his orders to me. If I do not keep him satisfied, then I will not be here long to scheme with you. When my chores are done, we’ll talk.”
Kisa swallowed nervously. He hoped he sounded convincing. If this were some outlandish ploy of the wizard’s, if it were a question of loyalty, then the old man wanted to avoid answering for as long as he was able.
“Listen!” said the image. Kisa heard the wind whining somewhere below the parapet. “A she-breeze is asking me to dance. She asks all the time. I think I will delay my answer for one week. The restless she-flurry may not wait. In a world where one is not bound by roads and rivers, where every direction is possible, I may lose her. But that would be her loss.”
“I’m Kisa. What do I call you?”
“I don’t remember. Isn’t that sad?”
“We’ll work on that. Maybe it’s written in there somewhere. You tell me more about yourself and more of the wizard. At such time as I feel that you have confided testimony to me that Brelauger would not want shared, when I feel you have risked yourself to the extent that I will be risking myself by liberating you, then I will make my decision.”
Kisa received the wizard’s instructions, almost eager to fulfill them. He had been uncomfortable holding a mutinous conversation with a stained-glass version of himself. According to the bodiless man, the magician was roaming the forest. Kisa was inclined to believe the story since it made him that much more at ease working on the Wizard’s Walk. It was also the first time in too long that he had spent a day away from the local military’s bullying. All considered, this most dreaded post was actually a not-undesirable option in the short run.
* * *
Kisa’s first job was watering the herbs and spices nestled along the inside of the parapet. They appeared brittle and near death. Sympathetic to their drooping leaves, Kisa dampened them liberally. There were at least two scores of varieties, and he was ignorant of all of them. The image listed them like a practiced herbologist. There was ginseng and balm and henbane and belladonna and mandrake. The only rules of thumb — safety precautions — were to avoid being scratched by thorns and to hold one’s breath around large white blossoms.
Amazingly, there was no shortage of water so high up. A wooden trough ran across the floor opposite the outer wall, below the tower’s steep eaves. Kisa didn’t need coaching to figure it was filled by more than mere rain water. While the afternoon sky had been chaotic for weeks, nothing more than cat-sneezing drizzles had resulted in a fortnight. If he chose to believe the bodiless man, the water supply magically drained upward from a secret source beneath the palace.
Some plants grew inside the trough and drank at their leisure. Kisa called these “scum” and he left them alone. They were actually exotic algae and very precious to the wizard. Although few were incorporated in poultices, most were ingredients of Brelauger’s strict diet.
The imprisoned breeze attributed the diet to the magician’s metabolic foundation. There were two predominant types of sorcerers: water wizards and fire wizards. Brelauger was one of water. Accordingly, the magician sustained himself on all manners of sodden dishes. To the bodiless man, his magic potions were no more than different variations of the same soup.
“What I hate,” complained the breeze-man casually, “is when he piddles about the floor like an excited puppy. Users of magic must stay very calm. He’s been pacing the tower room lately, to distraction. His magic exudes from his pores like sweat. He doesn’t wear shoes, something about being in touch with his surroundings, so there are puddles with every step he takes.”
The imprisoned breeze, “Windy,” Kisa decided, lived up to his name. Any time Kisa returned with a question, the image took it as an excuse to gush forth like a geyser. He had apparently decided Kisa was certain to help him.
After caring for the herbs, Kisa fed some specially prepared grains to the sorcerer’s mice. Giving them sufficient time to digest their meal, he then fed some of the mice to a hissing dipsis and a half-dozen cursing, miniature harpies. Neither the snake nor the birds exchanged pleasantries, for which he was most relieved. One supernatural voice was too many.
Lastly, Kisa swept, a difficult job to do thoroughly when Windy’s peers were scampering like invisible fairies in and out of the dust. According to Windy, it was the first chore the wizard would evaluate on his return.
“You see,” Windy explained, “eventually his sloppy puddles evaporate. In the same way that tidal pools leave a trace of salt when they dry, Brelauger’s dehydrated dew separates from a heavier sprinkle of crystalline magic.”
For the amount of trouble involved, the toil yielded the least sense of accomplishment. As this was nearing the end of Kisa’s workday, his discipline was waning. There was no encouraging gratification from sweeping the invisible residue of an unseen sorcerer.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Charles C. Cole