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The Great Wizard Zaradzagus was a perfectly ordinary human being. Not at all scary.

And not a kid. He was around twenty-five, I supposed. He was wearing an ordinary, plain cloak, and an ordinary, plain cloth wrapped a couple of times around his waist and reaching his knees, the surplus thrown over one shoulder. His hair was startlingly yellow, even more so than Hawk’s, and yet his face was dark-skinned, darker even than the farmers around here, and far darker than us Tent Folk. He was skinny, especially his legs, but his arms had good muscles.

He stepped forward with his hand held out. “Hawk, Stack and – Seer, doesn’t it?” He shook our hands farmer-fashion. “But it wasn’t to me to get your name, young man?” He put a hand on Whisper’s shoulder. Whisper shook it off and stepped back – I didn’t blame him.

Now don’t misunderstand me. Like all girls, I know that hunting is one hour’s action and nine hours’ acute boredom, and, like all girls, I know better than to ask what the Hunters and the Braves get up to during the boring bits – any more than they are stupid enough to ask how we girls and women pass the time while the men folk are all away. But how boys and men play with each other within the Tribe, that’s one thing; a stranger pawing my son and almost drooling as he did so was quite another.

And I now understood why the boys – and only the boys – at Dae’s Farm had called him creepy.

Anyway. “Yes,” answered Hawk. “I am Hawk, the Chieftain, Stack here is the Champion, and Seer is the Shaman.” He took the Wizkid’s hand and shook it.

“I’d heard of you, of course. Even your brave young man here.” He put his arm round Whisper’s shoulder. It did not seem to please Whisper. “It’s quite a reputation you made for you at Brothy, what with your adventure at Toram’s Farm and your woman’s very effective sales patter for your equally effective salves.” Your woman? I’m nobody’s woman, thank you very much!

“And of course your spectacular escape,” he went on, as Whisper slipped out from his arm and stood behind me. “It is said to me that you’re fearful warriors, but there’s nothing about you that gives me fear. Therefore that you come with peace, doesn’t it?”

“We come in peace to a welcome, but in war to an unwelcome,” answered Hawk. The formal, old-fashioned phrase seemed exactly right; Hawk is just so good at that.

Whisper was too busy making sure I was between him and our host; Hawk was doing the Chief bit; so I took the chance to look round – and so, I was pleased to see, did Stack. Not that there was much to see.

The room was huge and circular, as I’d assumed from the outside, but it wasn’t high; only a foot or so higher than us at the walls, but higher in the middle; like a very flat tent. It was lit by thin slits and small holes in the walls, no one big in itself, but lots of them – consequently it was very light, but freezing cold and smelling of damp. There was no fire and not much else: some long wooden bars leaning against the walls, a pile of bags over to our left, another pile of what looked like hides against the right hand wall – quite a tall pile, this, almost up to Whisper’s height, a plaiting frame for hide ropes, and a ladder against the far wall.

The floor was wooden. I didn’t trust it.

“So, all’s good to us all. So: is it neighbourliness that brings you to visit me? Or is there business with you?”

He had a very odd way of speaking, I thought. Not just that his words were in a funny order – everyone round here speaks their words in a funny order, especially ‘not’ – but the way he spoke: all in the front of his mouth, with the sounds flattened and blurred.

“Neighbourliness, I hope you would call it,” answered Hawk. “We have set our Winter Camp up a few thousand paces northwest, and our new neighbours spoke of the Great Wizard Zaradzagus as someone we should offer courtesy to.”

‘Offer courtesy to’? Where DOES Hawk get these phrases from! Stones, he’s good!

Of course, he’s got the background; his father was always good with words, too. I imagine you need to be, if you’re going to stay Chief.

“But omitted explaining my approach, doesn’t it. When it’s the time for your visiting again, please stand opposite my tower and call me. Throw a stone against the tower if you have to, to get my attention. I may not be at hand to hold the traps on the slow way, else, and I’m not wanting hurt to you – especially Whisper here.” He smiled. Whisper moved even further away.

“But you have strong hearts in you,” he went on shrugging slightly. “Mailoy frightens away most unexpected visits.”

“Mailoy?” I asked.

“The horse in my workshop, dear Lady.” He looked back at Hawk. “She showed herself, doesn’t it – that’s that warned me you were here. But she scared neither of you – that’s strong.”

That is what a horse skeleton looks like? Nothing like the horse it came from! And Mailoy must’ve been a giant against the horses we’d ever seen.

And just a minute – neither of us? There’s three here; four, counting Whisper.

“I believe we noticed her,” I said.

“But it takes more than a heap of bones to frighten us,” said Hawk, and Stack nodded.

The Wizkid – I must stop thinking of him as that! – the Wizard looked impressed – though surely he’d seen them jumping out of the door? Perhaps I’d pulled them back in in time – lucky boys to have such a brave shaman with them! Of course looking impressed and being impressed are not the same, necessarily.

Anyway, he nodded, and then manufactured a smile. “But it’s here where I deal with business.” He waved a hand around. “Let me be more – er – hospitable. You’ll follow me?”

We followed him to the ladder, which turned out to be further away and much more substantial than it looked. It led up, to a new surprise: a second room actually above the first! We were standing on the ceiling of the room below – it felt solid, but you couldn’t help but remember the void below you. When I say the ceiling of the room below, that’s not quite accurate. For a start this room was only a quarter-circle of the tower, that was clear enough; and then you realised that the conical ceiling of the floor below had been converted into four levels, one on top of the other – terraces, perhaps you’d call them, or wide steps – each one about two paces wide. The ceiling of this room was stepped in just the same way. We were in a room of steps.

The lowest and narrowest terrace, against the wall, had a dull fire on a stone firestead like the ones in Dae’s Farm, but no proper chimney – just a soot blackened wooden hood over a hole in the wall. The next terrace had three comfortable looking stools with seats woven from leather strips, and a couple of tables. Our host strode up to the top terrace and fetched another two stools down to the second terrace.

“Good,” he said. “Be seated, of your kindness.” We sat – nervously, in my case at least – on the stools in a rough semicircle. I noticed Whisper sitting as far as possible from the empty stool.

“I will make us a hot drink?” He waved his right hand in a complicated gesture, and the fire flared on the firestead. Hawk and Stack gasped; I didn’t, because I’d seen him backheel something by the step. Shamans see what can not be seen – or at least, what you’re not meant to see.

He strolled down to the fire and back. “Sansurrow, you are happy with that, doesn’t it?” He placed a steaming bowl on the table and arranged five cups around it. Then he spooned some liquor into each bowl. “Drink as friends, doesn’t it?” He took a sip from his bowl.

We looked at each other and shrugged. And sipped.

“Forgive my asking if it is discourteous,” I said, “but you are not from this area originally?”

“My speaking still betrays me, dear Lady, doesn’t it. No, I’m from away, east and I think a little south.” He looked at Hawk. “You are from the west, doesn’t it?”

Hawk nodded. But why ask Hawk and not me? Is he trying to split us up?

I felt more and more that Whisper was right: this man was creepy. But there wasn’t much I could do about it – bearing in mind that he’s told us that the only way we know out of his tower is booby trapped.

Anyway, sansurrow is apparently elderflower and camomile. Nice combination, not exactly new to me. And I make it better than he does.

“Very nice,” I said, trying to sound as if I meant it. “You have your own garden?”

“Yes, a little way across the road, doesn’t it. Of course, a woman will naturally be interested in gardens. I will show you, if I may, dear Lady, but perhaps in the spring, when there is something to see. Till then I’m growing some things in pots in here as well.”

“Of course. You have no problem protecting your garden from animals?”

“No, dear Lady. Not a big problem for me.”

“The hunting isn’t good around here, then?” asked Stack.

“Not close to the road, er – please forgive me; but is it right for me just to call you Stack? Or is it Mister Stack, or something else? I do know not your customs, and I want to give no offence.”

And yet he’s been calling me ‘dear Lady’ without worrying about it offending me. Which, incidentally, it did.

Stack looked across at Hawk.

“We won’t take offence, I assure you,” answered Hawk. “I have realised that we Tent Folk are very formal about such things, compared with the Farm Folk.” He gave the impression of thinking on his feet – well, since he was sitting down, I suppose thinking on his bum. “To be formal, you would address us by our Tribe titles, as ‘Hawk-on-high-bough, Chief of the Causeway Tribe’; and surely there is no need for that here? But ‘Hunter Stack’, ‘Hunter Hawk’ and ‘Lady Seer’, they would be courteous.”

Isn’t ‘courteous’ a gorgeous word – so much chewier than ‘polite’ – which is the word everyone except Hawk or his father would have used.

“But you yourself – how should we address our host?”

“Just Zaradzagus, please. I know it isn’t a very natural name to you, but it is my formal name, and my family – I amn’t a member of a Tribe any more. I do title myself the Great Wizard Zaradzagus when I’m trying to impress, but I know that wouldn’t work with you, doesn’t it.”

Piles on the flattery, doesn’t he. And going for sympathy as well. This man makes a snail shell look straight.

“What is a Wizard, exactly?” I asked. Shaman’s job, asking questions.

He looked at me. “I think you know that, Lady Seer!” he said, getting my title right at last. “What is a Shaman? I think we be not the same, because I am a man and you are, are a woman; but I suspect we’re in the same – the same – territory? Does that mean anything?”

“It might,” I said. He’d been going to say ‘only a woman’, hadn’t he! And he was certainly paying far more attention to the others than to me. This wizard is really getting up my nose. Deliberately? Could well be. I need to be so careful!

“I think you and I – we deal in knowledge, yes? And knowledge from a particular direction. From the Powers that we know.”

“From the Spirits, yes.” And if you think you can split me off from the others, you are very wrong. “That is why I belong to the Tribe, and not to any man.”

“The Spirits? Yes, a good name. By belonging to the Spirits of the Tribe, you pass knowledge to your Tribe. Because that knowledge is only useful when brought out, doesn’t it.” He sipped his drink. “But if it is brought out, and accepted, then it’s very useful indeed to those who run the Tribe.” He sipped his drink again. So he needed time to choose his words? Good! A pity he doesn’t choose them better. “A wizard is someone from outside the village – from outside the Tribe as you would say, and therefore has to get that knowledge across by – well, by doing what you did at Brothy to sell your salves.”

“I don’t belong to the Spirits either – if I did, what chief would trust me?” Which is the official answer, but the real one is: I belong to me, and only me, you arrogant male bastard. “But as one shaman to another, or one wizard to another, I’m not quite clear how that works. Perhaps you could explain to me – well, what about a practical example? How do you explain the doors, for instance, to people not of your village?”

I was aware – had been for a few minutes – that Hawk and Stack had gone very quiet, and even Whisper had stopped shuffling.

But now so did Ziggy. Had he read my words as an attack? A challenge? I’d tried to keep them light, but perhaps he isn’t quite stupid. I thought quickly. He has three options: explain, sidestep, be angry. Sidestep would be the worst from my point of view.

“I – suppose that it may be good to do that, but perhaps not in this place, or company?”

He sidestepped. Stones. But he’s left me an opening. “What place do you usually teach such things in? I might come too?”

“Oh, here! People collect on the area between here and the road, and I talk to them there. Every moon – the tenth day after Brothy Big Market – I still take not note from the new market at Bulken.” Bulken is a new market – newer than Brothy? That’s strange.

“Anyone can come?” The hunger in Hawk’s voice was unmistakeable.

“Of course. It is open to all. On the area outside my tower, there is room for anyone.” He stood up. “So three days. Why do you all not come along?”

“We’d love to!” Hawk and Stack stood up too, no doubt assuming like me that this was our dismissal. The Great Wizard Zaradzagus led us towards the (apparently featureless) shoreward wall of the room, and snapped his fingers. A section of the wall, tall and narrow, outlined itself and then sank away from us like a slowly falling tree, until it was a pathway from our feet to the dry land. Four great ropes guided it down, each thicker than my arm.

I heard Stack gasp, and Hawk go “Wow!” I was more concerned with trying to see what Zaggy did with his other hand, but I missed the critical moment. Sloppy of me – I need to tighten up around this Wizard if I’m to get anywhere.

On the walk home the boys didn’t seem able to talk about anything except the ‘wonderful’ things they’d seen and the ‘magic’ that the Wizwaz had at his command! I mean – how stupid can you get? Eventually I just ignored it all.

But I must say Whisper at least was on my side. “How did he do that trick with the skeleton?” Trick, you notice, not magic like the boys were saying. Whisper was becoming a real shaman. If boys could be shamans. Which they can’t.

I picked up a dead twig with a pair of side twigs opposite each other, so that I could twirl it between finger and thumb. “It was fixed to the floor, and started off upside down. Like this.” I demonstrated with the twig. “Then opening the door pulled out a peg or something, and let it swing over – like this.”

He nodded. “I knew it was a trick. It was all tricks, wasn’t it.”

“Yes,” I said. “All tricks.”

“He was just so creepy. His hand, when he touched me with it. I hated it. But…”

Oh oh. “But?” I said, as casually as I could.

“But he’s a shaman, ben’t he. That’s what a wizard is. I know he’s not as good as you, cos you’re the best, but… I mean, he is a shaman, ben’t he?”

“Well…”

“So I could be a shaman too, couldn’t I?” He rubbed his head against my arm, all affectionate. I wasn’t fooled.

“Just remember how it was all tricks and lies.”

“You’re horrid!” He started a tantrum, but not his most convincing. “Boys can be shamans, can, can, can!”

“Oh come on!”

“Can!”

I put my hand on his shoulder. He shrugged it off. “Can!”

“And remember the feel of his hand.” I added. “Do you want to be a shaman like him? Really?”

There was a bit more sulking and muttering of “Can!” but he came round in the end, and snuggled into my arm. Really, he’s supposed to be eightish! I never know whether I’m dealing with a five-year-old or a twelve-year-old. He never, ever, seems to act his age.

Never mind. At least he’s on my side. Which is more than the boys were that night.

But it was the same all the next day too: the two boys muttering to each other on one side, while Whisper and I kept ourselves to ourselves. We could have contradicted them, I suppose – in fact, we did a bit, especially Whisper, but they didn’t listen.

In fact they actually accused me of being disrespectful! Me!

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Bio: Just a retired mathematician who likes writing stories about the beautiful part of the world he lives in.

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