Mandaleb bounded up the nine hundred forty-seven steps of the Stairway to the Skies, squinting against the sun-glare on their white marble surfaces. Unaware of the magnitude of the occasion, the Imperial guards watched with the same disinterested expressions most often found on water buffalos.
Panting, Mandaleb reached the top of the stairs without mishap (barring a few near-slips that would have sent him plummeting to the bottom had he not recovered). A long stretch of marble corridor sneered at him, but at least there was a roof above to shade him from the pitiless sun. He set off gamely towards a tiny booth at the far end, tattered, travel-stained robe flapping around his ankles and worn sandals slapping the floor.
The two Archivists manning the booth watched his approach with considerably more interest than the guards had. They perked up even more when they recognized him.
“Mandaleb!” The bigger of the two greeted him with a glint in his eyes that would have made a more cautious man hesitate.
Mandaleb slapped a roll of parchment down on the table. It made a most unsatisfactory whup sound, but Mandaleb covered it by triumphantly exclaiming, “There! My last five points, right there.” He stood back, arms folded across his chest.
The smaller man, Cruzoc, delicately picked up the scroll between two fingers. His nostrils flared slightly at the smell it had picked up from its sojourn in Mandaleb’s moist hand, and he unrolled it with the air of one certain that there was nothing of import in its contents.
“Hmm, yes.” Cruzoc scanned the writing. “One Plague of Locusts, cast out on the third day of the Flood-month, by bearer, one Mandaleb, signed by one Viliac, Governor of Livian, province of the Empire of the Sun... Write it down, Borrell.”
Borrell produced a ledger and carefully inscribed the information in the crabbed paper-saving handwriting beloved of all bureaucrats of the Empire.
“And make that four points for Mandaleb,” instructed Cruzoc. Borrell’s smile widened.
Mandaleb’s jaw dropped. “That was worth at least five points! As per the Manual of Plague Exorcism!” He pulled out his battered copy, stained and scribbled-upon, hole-punched pages held together with string, and flipped to the correct section. “Look here!”
Cruzoc barely glanced at the page thrust under his nose. “Yes, yes. But it also dictates that the Plague be cast out in a timely manner.”
“It took me only three days.” Mandaleb bristled with indignation.
“Ah, but you reported the cessation two months after you set out for your journey.”
“Livian is at the Sun-forsaken edge of the Empire!” Mandaleb gritted his teeth.
“No province of the Empire is more than two weeks’ journey from the Sun City,” proclaimed Cruzoc, while Borrell hee-hawed like the blasted donkey that Mandaleb had ridden for the last week.
Mandaleb’s fists clenched. It was an official creed that no province be farther than two weeks’ ride from the capital, but that had never stopped the Empire from expanding its borders. One look at the Archivists’ faces showed him that appeal was hopeless. They were enjoying denying him the status of Magician.
Mandaleb’s aching feet finally made their complaints felt. He limped to a bench and sat down, the stone hot under his rump. Once again, he cursed the ill luck that had caused him to rhyme “Emperor” with “distemper” in the written examination for the Magician’s position. Everyone said that the examiners never read the original poetry they were required by law to set. Well, he had proved everyone wrong. Someone had read his stupid, clever lampoon and now he was paying for his folly. Never mind that he had been the only examinee in seven years to successfully exorcise a plague of the dreaded Bullfrog from the Empress’s Nightingale Garden. He had begun his career as a lowly journeyman, working his way up to Magician through the point system.
Mandaleb grew more hostile as he sat. One plagued point! He should be sitting in the Magicians’ Pavilion right now, drinking wine, while lovely girls massaged his feet and his new red robes were hastily tailored in the palace machinery below.
“It must be the Plague of Fools today!” cried Borrell. “Here’s another one of them, Cruzoc.”
A bent old man in dusty brown shuffled towards the Archivists’ booth. Mandaleb dimly recollected passing him in his mad dash up the Stairway to the Skies.
“Go away, old grandfather,” Cruzoc called in his bored drawl. “There is no such thing as a Plague of Chicken.”
The man stopped and straightened, his shoulders set in stubborn defiance. “I will be heard, Archivist.” His voice was the voice of stone: implacable, immovable, and endlessly patient.
Mandaleb watched, interested. He found most of his clients by loitering near the Archivists’ booths where distraught villagers came to report swarms of locusts and carpets of crop-eating beetles. The easier jobs, such as exorcising a Plague of Moths in Lady So-and-So’s wardrobe, fell to the Imperial Magicians.
“Aren’t you tired of climbing those stairs yet, old man?” said Borrell.
“We’re telling you—the Imperial Government is not obligated to help you with your livestock issues,” added Cruzoc. “Go talk to your Governor if your village can’t handle it.”
Mandaleb stared hard at the older man’s face, rock-hard and weathered by age. There was something about the set of his shoulders, something about the arrangement of his cloak...
Mandaleb got up from the bench and bowed deeply to the man. “Forgive me for my discourtesy in not acknowledging you, Senator,” he said loudly and obsequiously, giving the Archivists a nasty sideways look as he did so. He was gratified to see their expressions change to consternation as they hoisted their bulks off their stools.
The old man’s fingers flew up to touch the tarnished olive-leaf-shaped brooch pinned through his cloak.
“I am no longer a Senator, young man,” he said in his bleak, stony voice. “Only a village Headman.”
“You deserve respect, sir, not impudence, from the likes of these dogs.” Mandaleb sneered at the Archivists, relishing their discomfort. “And when an ex-Senator talks, they have to listen. He turned on the pair. “Why haven’t you filed a report and sent a man to deal with the problem?” Cruzoc and Borrell were red in the face. Mandaleb grinned evilly at them.
“There are no Magicians in the Palace,” blurted out Borrell. “None to be sent to the Senator’s village in Corsia.”
Corsia! That was even further away from the capital than Livian.
“Well, then,” Mandaleb purred. “The law dictates that it falls to one of the Archivists to see into the matter.” He examined his fingernails, pretending not to notice the horrified looks exchanged by the two Archivists. “Pity,” he said aloud, “that I am a mere journeyman, and therefore not worthy to look into the affairs of so high a personage as a Senator...”
Cruzoc, quicker on the uptake than the stupidly staring Borrell, said smoothly, “That can be remedied...Magician Mandaleb.”
There had not been much time to partake of the privileges of his new status; the Senator had wanted to leave for his provincial home the next morning. Mandaleb had his robe fitted by an insolent tailor, and had only gotten a regretful peek into the rose-colored marble chambers of the Magicians’ Pavilion, with its orange trees in huge brass urns, drifts of silken cushions, and sunken tiled baths. This was the last of the menial jobs, Mandaleb promised himself. Next time, he would be catering to the very rich and exalted, traveling in cushioned litters instead of ox-drawn carts, dining on roast peacock and dainty sweetmeats instead of coarse bread and lentil soup. Such pleasant daydreams occupied his mind on the long, slow journey to Bethsa, the site of the Plague. His companions—the grim ex-Senator Gaiacus, a taciturn, heavy-built carter, and his scared, shriveled urchin of an assistant—were not the best of conversationalists. The ex-Senator had fallen into a gloom, the carter only replied in grunts and the urchin was over-awed by the newly made Magician. Mandaleb was left to his own reveries of the luxuries now available to him in the capital as he fondly stroked the red material of his Magician’s robe.
Occasionally, Mandaleb roused out of his daydreams to ask a few half-hearted questions of Gaiacus. Was there just one chicken? A nod. Was it in the village itself? A shrug. Had they tried to catch it? “Yes, but it wouldn’t let anyone come near it.”
Mandaleb gave up. He knew a hundred charms to lure or banish animals of all persuasions. He’d catch this chicken in a bag, hand the sack over to the grateful owner, and leave. It shouldn’t take more than an afternoon, and most of that time would be spent in locating the creature. He dimly regretted not looking at Gaiacus’s report, now filed away in some pigeonhole in the Archives, and then dismissed the thought. He’d see for himself soon enough.
The cart trundled into Bethsa one hot afternoon, long after Mandaleb’s red robe had faded with travel dust and he had begun to be heartily tired of the unvarying scenery of flat fields and scrubby pastureland. Somehow, in the mysterious way it had, news of their arrival had reached the village ahead of them, and a crowd of villagers, silent and stolid, waited for their Headman and the city Magician.
Mandaleb sprang from the cart in a manner he fondly imagined conveyed energy and expertise, and waited expectantly for some sort of introduction or applause. The villagers stared at him with the same intent and uncurious eyes as those of the statues in the Temple of the Sun. They had none of the servile, scraping mannerisms of the serfs who tended the estates of the nobles. Mandaleb did not know whether he liked this.
Gaiacus was holding a low-voiced conversation with a large young man. The conversation over, the man retreated and Gaiacus beckoned Mandaleb.
“It’s over there, down the main street,” he said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder.
“Then let’s get it over with,” said Mandaleb with a bright, false smile. He wondered how long the carter was staying, and glanced quickly at the village time-keeper, a stone obelisk surrounded by a circle divided off into sections. A narrow charcoal shadow revealed it to be mid-afternoon.
The main street was a long brown scar gouged down the middle of the village, rutted with the passage of wheels. Mandaleb turned onto it, and stopped. There, in front of him, directly down this laughable excuse of a road, was the chicken.
Like all the chickens Mandaleb had seen in cities and villages all over the Empire, it was gawky, with overlong legs, ruffled feathers and small mad eyes.
It was also pecking at a tall apple tree.
Mandaleb stared up at the chicken as it vigorously stripped off foliage. Its beak looked like a competent steel sword. It was taller than the tree by a head.
“How did this happen?” he murmured to Gaiacus standing just behind him.
“Wizard,” said Gaiacus. “Playing around. Wanted to make a chicken that could defend itself from foxes, cats, wild dogs, everything. The fool.” He spat on the ground in a most un-senatorial manner.
“What happened to him?”
“Pecked to death,” said Gaiacus with grim satisfaction. Mandaleb winced. The chicken’s sharp beak was displayed to excellent advantage right then.
“Have you tried shooting it?” Mandaleb asked.
“Arrows bounced off its armored hide.”
“They would have,” muttered Mandaleb.
“Governor sent a whole troop of men. Chicken chased them all away.” Gaiacus didn’t seem displeased by that. Mandaleb eyed him sourly. He knew that parochial mind-set. It may be a bloody giant killer of a chicken, but at least it’s our chicken. They’d probably feel the same way when they collected his holey corpse after the chicken was done with it. A city Magician is no match for our chicken, he could already hear them saying.
Mandaleb shook away his morbid thoughts and strode forward, looking more confident than he felt. Halting in the middle of the travesty of a road, he raised his arms, the sleeves falling back majestically, like he had always imagined they would. He struck a dramatic pose.
“Nekla! Paninday!” (Go away! [Gender-neutral] feathered, two-legged creature!)” Maybe the confidence in his voice would fool the chicken.
The chicken looked at him, cocked its head, and gave an inquiring cluck that was about as loud as the boom of the bronze gong hanging over the capital’s main gates. Mandaleb winced. The chicken stretched its neck forward.
Gaiacus grabbed Mandaleb’s arm. “Run!”
The chicken lunged at them. Gaiacus cleverly foiled it by pushing Mandaleb into a narrow alley between two of the houses. The chicken ran past, houses shuddering in its wake.
“What about the rest of the villagers?” whispered Mandaleb.
“Long gone.” Gaiacus went on, while Mandaleb struggled to keep up and pull out the Manual from his capacious pocket at the same time. He tripped over a dog cowering against the wall, but the defeated-looking canine didn’t even yelp.
Gaiacus led them through a narrow archway into a small, square, enclosed courtyard packed with villagers. Men and women held their children close, and trembling, terrorized dogs pressed against their masters’ legs. An expectant, fearful silence lay over the group.
Mandaleb rifled through the Manual, looking for the True Language word for “chicken.” Fleas, locusts, even boll weevils—there were extensive instructions on how to deal with those. There were even the True Names of such rarities as tree frogs and snowflake butterflies, of which there had never been any recorded plague. But no chickens. Mandaleb realized, his hopes crashing, that any previous plagues of chickens had been dealt with by snapping dogs and men with sticks and sacks. No one had ever hunted down the True Name of chickens, though some bureaucrat had probably written a memo about it that had been promptly filed away and forgotten.
This was beyond him. He’d have to recommend the assistance of the Imperial Army. Mandaleb raised head to break the bad news, but his gaze was transfixed upon a small, aged-leather face with big bright eyes and a malicious grin peeping at him from between the branches of a sparse bush. Of course! One of them had to be involved.
The face, realizing it had been seen, disappeared. Mandaleb roared and surged forward, scattering villagers. A child-sized figure shot out from behind the bush and skittered towards an archway. Mandaleb hitched up his robes and ran after it.
“The chicken, the chicken, you fool!” cried Gaiacus. Mandaleb ignored him.
Sweat ran in streams down Mandaleb’s back as he followed the sprite out of the village and into the fields. The sprite danced nimbly around the young plants; Mandaleb trampled them under his broad feet. He filled his lungs for a shout.
“Urk!” (Stop!) The sprite faltered, but recovered. Mandaleb searched his vocabulary for the creature’s True Name. “Ilf-lepr!” (Water elemental!) “Er...alf-lepr!” (Air elemental!) “Googa!” (Mischievous sprite who lives near human habitations, and plays nasty tricks!)”
The sprite’s feet rooted to the spot, so fast that it fell over onto its knees. Mandaleb pounced on it.
“Geroff!” yelled the googa in its tinny voice. “Geroff me, you stupid Babbler. I’m Stopped.” It sank its teeth into the flesh of Mandaleb’s palm. With a yelp, Mandaleb shook it off and scrambled out of reach of its small sharp teeth.
“Are you responsible for that giant chicken?” He glared at the creature as he cradled his bitten hand.
The googa’s eyes widened in unconvincing innocence. “No, sir,” it said demurely.
Mandaleb let his breath out with a hiss. He had to be careful with his words around these sprites, else they’d have him twisted and tied in knots before he could say “Plaguey Morse.”
“Did you help the wizard in any way with the making of his chicken? Did you, perhaps, give him the True Name of chickens?” Mandaleb’s look was stern.
“No, sir.” The googa’s wide-eyed stare was beginning to irritate him.
“Do you know who did?”
“Who was it?”
The googa’s eyes narrowed shrewdly. “Promise that you’ll let me go if I tell you.”
Mandaleb hesitated. Careful. “I’ll let you go,” he said slowly, “after you lead me to the one who gave that wizard the True Name for chickens.”
“I can’t do that,” muttered the googa.
“Then you can stay here and sprout leaves.”
The googa eyed him resentfully. “We don’t like each other, the ilf-lepr and I. It won’t be in a good mood if I'm with you.”
Mandaleb winced. A full half of plagues were caused by the sprites quarreling with one another. They never could live peaceably; it was always “it stole my plant” or “its river is too close to my well,” and before you knew it the area was infected with a Plague of Boils, or a Plague of Small Localized Floods.
“What was this quarrel about?” asked Mandaleb. He might as well forestall a future plague by setting things straight, if he could.
“It complained that my bog was too close to its stream,” said the googa sulkily.
“It probably is,” said Mandaleb. Ilf-leprs were notoriously territorial. “Can’t you move?”
“Where to, O Lord of Creation?” snarled the googa. “The village’s been growing, and I’m pushed to the limit. I can’t go any further out.”
Sprites were also geographically bound.
“Maybe the village Headman will let you have a place in one of these fields,” Mandaleb gestured vaguely at the empty space around them.
“Maybe the sky’ll fall down and knock you dead,” muttered the googa.
Mandaleb was hurt. Why were these sprites so prickly? “I will talk to the Headman,” he said with dignity. “He will listen to me.” I’ll make it part of my payment. And Gaiacus can go jump down a well if he doesn’t like it.
The googa bowed, mockingly. “Much obliged to you, sir.”
Mandaleb gave a cool nod. He’d had enough of the wretched creature. “Now, where’s that ilf-lepr?”
The googa pointed. “Across that field, down the ditch, past the bog—that’s my home, I’d be obliged if you didn’t walk all over it—and follow the sound of the water…you can do that, right?”
Mandaleb resisted the urge to wring the creature’s neck. “Yes, I can.”
“Oh? You’ll be the first of your kind to actually follow instructions then,” said the googa. “Had everything, you had, just don’t touch that tree, but no! You had to, and now all of us are suffering, pushing against each other, being driven out of our homes…” The googa fell into a mumbling rant and Mandaleb retreated. He halted as a shrill voice behind him cried, “O-ho! Can’t keep promises either.”
Mandaleb turned to see the googa shaking a fist at him. He snapped his fingers, muttered “Khul,” and had the satisfaction of seeing the sprite fall sprawling into the mud. He strode away, ignoring the invectives rising up behind him.
Mandaleb stood by the side of the stream, wrinkling his nose. The stench of the nearby bog was powerfully apparent. It was such a pretty place, too, with small waterfalls trickling over artistically placed rocks and green fronds trailing in the frothy waters. Pity it smelled like a pigsty.
The ilf-lepr seemed to think it, too. The water elemental sat dejectedly on a boulder, its thin, reedy body swaying. Long, wet-looking strands of silver hair flowed down its back and over its face. It looked up listlessly as Mandaleb approached.
“Good day,” Mandaleb called from a safe distance, not wanting to frighten the creature into striking him with a Plague of Drenching.
The sprite sniffed. It had large blue eyes set in a delicate-featured, pointed face that might have been feminine if it hadn’t been so alien.
“What is so good about this day?” it said in melancholy tones as it waved one languid lily-white hand.
“Well,” said Mandaleb heartily, “I’ve come to tell you that the googa has agreed to move its bog away from this charming place of yours.”
This did get the sprite’s attention. Hope flickered over its face like sunlight on water.
“Of course, the googa needs another place to live,” continued Mandaleb with the same manic cheerfulness, “near the village, of course.”
The ilf-lepr’s face clouded over. “The Mud Folk will never allow it.” Its voice was flat and hopeless.
“I can persuade the village Headman,” said Mandaleb. “But of course, I need to offer him something valuable in return for having the googa’s smelly abode so near the village. You understand?”
The ilf-lepr looked at Mandaleb guardedly. “What do you want?”
Mandaleb pretended to think about it. No need to let the ilf-lepr know how desperate the chicken situation was, otherwise it would ask for other concessions—more land to flood, no children swimming in its stream, and who knew what else. “Well, what can you give?”
The ilf-lepr thought for a bit, then brightened. “I have some beautiful pebbles I found in my stream.”
Mandaleb shook his head. “The Headman can get as many pebbles from the fields as he wants. He wouldn’t appreciate yours.”
“This is true,” said the ilf-lepr. “I wouldn’t want to give them away to anyone who wouldn’t polish them every day, and talk to them, and keep them in a bed of fresh sassa-grass, like I do.”
Mandaleb tried to keep a straight face at this inside look into an ilf-lepr’s life.
“I can make purses out of fronds,” announced the ilf-lepr. “Would he like those?”
“Alas, the Headman is not the sort to appreciate such wonderful crafts as you have to offer.” Mandaleb had no qualms about vilifying Gaiacus. “He is an imminently practical man. He’d like things such as charms to keep the sheep wandering, and such.”
The ilf-lepr shook its head. “I direct fish, not sheep.”
“Perhaps you have a smattering of the One Language?” asked Mandaleb, making it sound like an afterthought. “Maybe you know a few words, useless to folk such as you?”
The ilf-lepr frowned. “There was a man who came to me and wanted the True Name for chickens. Nasty, clucking, water-fouling creatures! I was having trouble with them, and the man said that if I told him the True Name, he would keep them away from my stream. Now, how long ago was that?”
The elementals were hopeless at time-keeping. Mandaleb steered the conversation back to True Names. “Chickens,” he said musingly. “That sounds useful.”
“Does it?” The ilf-lepr perked up. “I can tell it to you, right now. Will you give it to the Headman? When will he move the googa away?”
“Soon,” promised Mandaleb. “Now, what is it?”
The ilf-lepr said it. Coming from the mouth of such a being, it was flat and foreign. Only humans could use the True Language with any power. Mandaleb mouthed the syllables, nodding his head when he got them right.
“Will you tell the Headman now?” asked the ilf-lepr with pathetic eagerness.
“Right away,” said Mandaleb and, with the sketchiest of bows in the sprite’s direction, hurried away to find the chicken.
The chicken was once again indulging in its favorite activity—pecking. This time, it was poking holes in the thatched roof of an unfortunate family while the erstwhile inhabitants watched gloomily from the safety of a narrow alleyway.
Mandaleb stepped into the street. Someone grabbed his arm from behind, and Gaiacus hissed in his ear. “We’ve decided to call for soldiers from the Imperial Army. Let’s go.”
Mandaleb shook him off. “No need,” he said breezily. “I know how to deal with this. The only thing I require of you is to find a place in your fields for a bog.”
“Yes, a bog,” said Mandaleb. “As part of my fee.”
“You want me to give over a fertile field for a nasty, stinking bog?” Gaiacus’s voice rose. It was a good thing the chicken was so single-minded, or the noise would’ve attracted it.
“Yes,” said Mandaleb. “Unless you want the Imperial Army coming in, conscripting houses and barrels of wines and trampling your fields. Oh, and taking a look at your tax records, too. They always bring a bureaucrat or two with them. I hope you haven’t fallen behind in your payments.”
The silence behind him answered him adequately. Then Gaiacus said grudgingly, “One of the fields further away is stony. You can have that for your bog.”
“Thank you,” said Mandaleb. He walked forward into the middle of the road.
“Mur!” This was the strongest banishment he knew, one that he had never used before. “Guri!” (Fowl that lays eggs, goes cluck, and can’t fly high or far!) He pointed a rigid finger at the creature.
The chicken looked at him with mild surprise. Its beak opened in a faint cluck. Its eyes glazed and, without further ado, it fell over onto the house it had been attacking, flattening it completely. Groans escaped the lips of the owners. Mandaleb stared, for once speechless.
Gaiacus trotted past him and went over to the prostrate chicken. After ruffling around in its feathers and kicking its head, he announced, “It’s dead. That was quite an incantation, Magician.”
Mandaleb looked down at his hand in awe. The sleeves of his dusty red robe flapped in the slight breeze. A huge smile filled the lower half of his face. Behind came a shout—“Mandaleb!”—a cry that was taken up by other voices.
“Mandaleb the Magician!”
“Mandaleb, Exorciser of Chickens!”
Was that a smile cracking Gaiacus’s face? Mandaleb wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t seen it. “Looks like you’ve won yourself some admirers,” Gaiacus said, nodding at the cheering villagers. “You’ll stay for the celebrations? We can’t offer much, but they’ll be disappointed if you leave right away.”
Mandaleb’s chest swelled. “Of course I will,” he said graciously.
The smile flickered on again. “Then, Mandaleb Fowlbane” said Gaiacus, “I hope you like roast chicken.”
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Copyright 2009, Rabia Gale. All rights reserved.
Rabia Gale's work has appeared in "The Sword Review" and "OG's Speculative Fiction". She lives in Vermont with her husband and three children. Her virtual home can be found at http://www.rabiagale.com.