A Potion of Uncertain Fortune

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A Portion of Uncertain FortuneThere is a potion that can be made from the bright yellow mushroom that grows in the vales beyond the blue grasses.  The potion must be made in a certain way or it would contain no power at all.  The potion had to be made twice, once at sunrise and once at sunset, of the same day.  So in truth, it was two potions.  Whatever the potion made at sunrise did, the potion made at sunset could undo.  

A potion made at any other time would do nothing at all, some said.  Others said that the mushroom was poison, and so if it was not prepared at the proper times, any who drank the potion might die (or be struck by poxes or mysterious maladies).  The potion had to be made by the one who intended to use it.  If the potion was made by one and used by another, disastrous consequences would follow.  So said the old tales.

Those old tales said the mushrooms were descended from an ancient ring of bright yellow mushrooms that was raised by the merry dance of an enchanted people who passed from the world long ago, and were beginning to pass from memory and legend.

But it was also said that the only thing the mushrooms could conjure was illusion.  And it was also said that the only thing the mushrooms could conjure was a not-so-tasty soup.

So it was that many contrary tales were told of the mushrooms and the twilight potions.

The effects of the potion differed depending on the maker.  In one legend, the sunrise potion granted the potion-maker dominion over fire and the sunset potion granted dominion over water.  In another legend, the sunrise potion if drunk by any but the maker could kill and the sunset potion could heal.  But the potions were not always so powerful and grand.  There was one potion-maker who made a pair of potions that could make him cry or laugh.  So when he was sad, he would drink the laughing potion.  Never did he use the other.

Many a potion-maker was asked how they could know what the powers of the potions were.  Their answers were as mysterious as the potions they made.  Some said the nature of the potions just came to them and they understood right away.  Others said that they simply took a sip of each.  Indeed it was written that many potion-makers died in this way.  And some almost died.  For if the potion they drank killed them, then the other one—called the anti-potion—should resurrect them.  So some were resurrected, if there was a friend or ally present to administer the anti-potion.

Many potion-makers, mages, magicians, witches, wizards, and the like attempted the feat if they managed to find the mushroom.  Both to test themselves and to gain power.

***

It came to pass in a recent age that one wizard found the mushroom and made the potions.  One at sunrise and one at sunset.  His apprentice was with him, a young girl of only eleven years.  But she was trained as a scribe and recorded the account with notable skill at the quill.  When the wizard finished making the potions, he studied both.  Their color, their fragrance, their texture.  Both appeared identical.  He received no visions or notions of what the potions might do or be.

So he asked his apprentice to stand ready, and so she did, with fear and worry in her eyes.

“Take heart, dear apprentice,” the wizard said.

For he knew that she could save him if he were to succumb.  He reminded her that if he were poisoned by one potion, he could be restored by the other.  And he took a sip.

***

The apprentice watched the wizard, her beloved teacher.  He was most certainly the most powerful wizard in the region and quite possibly the most powerful wizard in the whole realm.  Many feared him, and so did she when she first arrived at his cottage.  He had many apprentices, seven in all, and all were older than she.  But it was she who was chosen.  The other apprentices jested that it was because she was eleven years of age, and eleven was a lucky number.  But the wizard heard them and scoffed that a potion-maker with true skill would have no need of luck.

She did not call him “master” as the others did, as she was instructed to do.  She called him “grandfather,” for she had come to him soon after she had lost her true grandfather.  She was told the wizard would be cold and harsh, but fair and kind when such were deserved.  And so it was, though she was met more often by his fairness and kindness than his coldness and harshness.  She asked him why this was one day.  And he answered her thus.

“It is your humility that inspires me to soften to you, dear apprentice.  But such is a thing that cannot be taught, even by as great a wizard as I am.”  With that, he chortled and guffawed.  A whole year passed before she realized his jest in praising her humility only to show no such quality himself!

In time, he even allowed some of the other apprentices to call him “grandfather.”

But those others were not with him now.  Only she was with him, his youngest apprentice.

“Grandfather?”

The wizard wore a cloak of smoke-gray and a wide-brimmed hat of brown.  He had a short beard and long eyebrows and both were as white as clouds on a happy day.  But a sudden shadow fell upon all his colors, leaching them, deadening them.

The apprentice felt a chill in her heart as she looked into the wizard’s eyes.  His brown eyes no longer twinkled with bright notions.  They no longer squinted in thought or reprimand.  They gazed at the apprentice with some force that filled her with dread.  And she felt fear, not for the wizard, but of the wizard.

She almost did not see the burst of fire that he threw at her.  But she was quick and lithe.  She tumbled out of the way.  He struck again, conjuring fire in his other hand and casting it forth like a whip to lash her.  She dove behind a tree.

She knew at once, despite her terror, that it was the potion that had changed the wizard.  She saw the other one, the anti-potion, sitting in a vial beside the cauldron in which the wizard had brewed it.

She was small and nimble.  Had she not been sent to the wizard, she might have ended up as a pickpocket or a sneak thief and broken her poor father’s heart.  The wizard had taught her letters and symbols and spells.  He taught her enough for her to return home and help her father with his trade, perhaps even to become wealthy.  But she stayed, for she found that she loved to learn new trades and crafts.  And she loved the crackly old wizard.

The potion must have driven the wizard mad, or perhaps it drove him into a rage.  But if that were so, it was a quiet rage.  For he stood by, stewing and seething it seemed.  The apprentice used what he had taught her.  Had he been in his right mind, he would not have been deceived.  She left a brew of her own in the bushes where she hid.  And she crept slowly closer to the wizard and the cauldron.  When the brew in the bushes burst with a flash and roar, the wizard turned toward it.  He threw flame at the unfortunate bush and burnt it to the root.

But as he did, the apprentice dashed forth and swept up the anti-potion, the one the wizard had not drunk.

As she fled, she heard the wizard speak in a calm and measured voice.

“Run if you must.  I will find you.  I will finish you.”

***

She knew that the wizard must drink the anti-potion, for it would reverse the effects of the first potion. But he was so consumed by the foul effects of that first potion, that she feared he might not drink the other.  The apprentice ran straight to the elders of her village, and they sent word to the orders of potion-makers, wizards, witches, and the like.  She warned them all, for she knew they faced a powerful foe.  Her teacher was more powerful than most of them.  That was why he was able to find the rarest of rare bright yellow mushrooms and make the potions.

The village elders sent spies to watch the wizard, only their most cunning spies, so they would not be spotted by him.  When word reached the village elders and the orders of magic-makers that one of the spies had been killed, any who might have doubted the apprentice were convinced that the wizard was now evil.  The spies who survived brought more news.  The wizard though slow in his coming was heading for the village.  And as he came, he muttered of looking for his dear young apprentice.  She was the first person he saw after drinking the hateful potion.  So he seemed to hold a special hatred just for her.

The magic-makers of the region all banded together and set a trap for the wizard, so when he came looking for his apprentice, he would be caught, fed the anti-potion, and made to answer for the crime of killing one man, and stopped before he killed any others.  But the magical trap they set failed.  The wizard broke free of it, and with a wave of his hand, he killed all the magic-makers that had sprung the trap.  One of them held the vial of anti-potion that was to end the evil that had taken hold of the wizard.  She never had a chance to remove it from the pocket in her sleeve.

The wizard marched into the village.  When the people saw him, they saw that he was much changed.  He was stooped as with the weight of some great burden, and yet he loomed over the village like a sudden doom.  He spoke in that same calm and measured tone that was devoid of any feeling or warmth, not even the fire of anger.  He spoke of striking his little apprentice down, cooking her, and sucking the marrow from her bone.  He spoke of how he could not suffer her to live, or ever to have lived, for even the thought and memory of her was insufferable to him.

Terrified, the poor young apprentice hid behind the protections of her fellow apprentices and the other magic-makers.  The wizard destroyed the village, drowning it in waves of flame.  And while many were saved by the magic-makers who faced him, many more perished.  Among those were all the older apprentices.  Among those was the youngest apprentice’s father.  Her only family in the world was gone.  And though she prayed and prayed that it was a nightmare from which she could wake, she did not wake.  All whom she loved were gone.

And so it was that she began to hate the wizard as much as he hated her.

***

A villager had called out to the apprentice, through the chaos of the dying village.   A villager who was shuffling her own children out of the carnage waved the apprentice over to her.  But the apprentice turned away.  She wandered through the woods, still afraid, but also filled with fury.  She found the place where the trap had been laid for the wizard.  She saw the fallen bodies of the magic-makers.

She found the anti-potion.  She looked at it for a long while.  She knew what it was.  The other potion had filled the wizard with hatred.  This one, the anti-potion, would do the reverse, fill the wizard with love.  The apprentice, her face streaked with ash and blood, her heart torn with grief, her mind mad with rage, put the potion away in her pocket and walked on along the road.  She still feared the wizard, still wanted to escape his grasp.  But she wanted something else as well.  Vengeance.

She walked for a long way, and she hardly remembered where she went, for it was as if she walked in a dream.  It was all that the wizard taught her that helped her to survive.  The moon waxed and waned several times, and then she came upon a far country, where the magic-makers were known as magi.  She had been, for a long while, a wanderer.  She became once again an apprentice to a powerful magus when she showed him what she could do.  She hid her true purpose from him, though he could see her intention.  He taught her all he knew, for he saw in his visions that she intended to use what she learned to stop the wizard, and he saw that the once-good wizard had become a great scourge and a terrible evil in his land.  The magus did all he could to keep his apprentice from the same folly.

He succeeded in helping her to temper her rage.  Many years passed and the apprentice grew in knowledge and skill.  She settled down and started a family.  As her son took his first step, she ached for the family that was no more.  For the grandfather her son would never know.  And for the grandfather she had lost.

The day came when she told her teacher the magus that she was ready to return to the home of her youth and face the wizard.  She believed she could defeat him.  For he was filled with hate for her, and that was his weakness.

The magus had taken the anti-potion from her when she first came to him.  He returned it to her and spoke wise words.

“Out of the wizard’s hatred was born evil.  Perhaps out of love, good can be born.”

“Even if that were so,” the apprentice said.  “I cannot forgive him for all that he has done. No penance will repay what was taken.  It can never be enough.”

“He drank from a potion and became as he was.  It might have happened to any of us.”

“Perhaps, or perhaps it was his own folly that led to his fate and mine.  He never should have made the potions.  Or if he did, he should have foreseen that his powers might need to be contained.”

“Go then and face him.  You are no longer apprentice, but not yet magus.  You are master.”

But the apprentice—now master—still doubted herself. “Hatred consumed him because of a potion,” she said. “But it consumed me because I let it.  If I had used the other potion sooner, I might have saved all the people he destroyed.  I might have saved him.”

“You were a child.  He would have killed you.  He might still.  Be wary.”

All those years, she had held onto the anti-potion and finally had her chance to use it.  It would be a worse punishment then death for the wizard to suddenly be filled with love for everyone and everything.  Keeping his memory of all he had done, he would be tormented for the rest of his long, long life.  It would be a fitting vengeance.  But the master no longer sought vengeance.

***

Wizards lived long.  But it was not his age that weakened him.  It was the hatred that had seeped into his heart and mind from a single sip of an unknown potion.  The master planned a trap that the wizard could not resist.  She put herself in the very center of it.  Wizards controlled the elements and the forces.  Their minds were strong.   Their eyes sharp.  But they were as susceptible to trickery and illusion as anyone else.  The magic-makers of the long-forgotten village where there once lived a little apprentice of eleven years had made a trap to contain the wizard.  And it would have contained him, if he hadn’t seen it and destroyed it.

The master made an illusion.  When the wizard found her and faced her, he attacked at once.  He engulfed her in flame and burned her skin to her bones and her bones to black ash.  And when he went to inspect the pile of ash, to see with both glee and regret that the subject of his hatred was gone for all time, he stepped into the trap and became frozen to the spot and powerless.

The master stepped toward him.  For while it seemed she was being burned, it was merely a scarecrow made of twigs and stones that she had enchanted.  She had hidden herself away.  When she saw the wizard at last, her grief and rage burst through her, fresh as the day she saw him destroy her village.  Her thirst for vengeance returned.

She produced the vial of potion, reached into the trap, and forced the wizard to drink.  Then she stepped back and watched the wizard, her eyes wide with fear and anticipation.

The wizard laughed and licked his lips, as if savoring the taste of the potion.  It didn’t work.  The wizard was as wicked as ever.  His threats only grew more gruesome.  He spoke of broken bones, flaying, and impaling.  Terrible things that one being could do to another being, even without the use of magic.

“Why don’t you drink it?” the wizard said.

“This potion is for you.  Nothing will happen to me if I drink it.”

“Then drink it.”

The master was afraid.  The potion had not worked.  The wizard would free himself from her trap soon enough.  She would have to kill him to end his evil.  But as she ended his evil, so would begin hers.  She looked at the potion and for the first time wondered if she had taken the wrong one.  She knew she had not.  She remembered now.  The wizard had dropped the vial of potion he’d drunk from and it had spilled all its contents on the dirt, never to twist the heart of another.  She had even visited the spot again on her wanderings.  A patch of evil-looking grass grew there.  The cauldron that once held the potion had corroded.  The master was certain she had the right potion.

She brought the vial to her lips and sipped.  As soon as she did, she cast the vial away.  Why she had drunk, she did not know.  It could be poison to her and from the cackling of the wizard, she thought it might well be poison.  She thought of her husband and son as she felt the effects of the potion, and cursed herself for her folly.  But she did not feel pain or even discomfort.

Her heart, which had been mangled and bitter for so long, shed its bitterness, its rage, its hatred.  She was filled with a sudden compassion, even for the wizard.  It could not be.  She was not the one for whom the potion was intended.

***

“The other potion will not help you.  Only ill can come from such a theft.”

The apprentice opened her eyes and blinked.  Her arm was reaching for a pair of vials that were just a bit too far for her fingers to grasp.  She lay on the ground, but not directly on the ground.  She lay in the arms of the wizard.  She felt a sudden fright and scrambled away.  As she did, she saw her arms, her legs.  They were the arms and legs of a child.

The wizard looked at her and his eyes twinkled as he tipped back his head.  “I have used all my power to bring you out of the spell.  We have been sitting here like this for three days and three nights.  Such a fright you gave me.”

He raised a cup of water and offered it to her, but parched as she was, the apprentice knocked it away.  She had drunk the potion.  The potion that was meant for the wizard.

The wizard watched all his apprentices, and he watched them well.  But he had also trained them well.  The apprentice knew that she could not steal the potion from him.  But she thought she might steal a taste.  And so she had.

And the potion she drank had given her a nightmare that lasted a lifetime.  But if that potion was nightmare, the other was dreams, sweet dreams.  The apprentice reached for it.  But the wizard knocked away her hand.

“Your youthful folly has brought you to this.  But so has my arrogance.  The age of such mysterious magic has passed.  We are not strong enough to wield it, and so it wields us.”  The wizard swept up the potions.  “You are but a child.  I cannot let you choose your own fate, lest you choose a deadly one.”

His words were sweet and filled with love and care, but the apprentice was loathe to hear them.  She knew now, believed now, that the terrible life she had known was only a nightmare, but it was so real that she still bore a lifetime of hatred for the one who hated her.  The one who had turned against her.

She began to weep.  She told the wizard what she had dreamed.  She had feared and despised him, but if it was only a dream, if all was well…she need not.  When she gazed upon him, when she recounted her nightmare, she felt the fury, the cold burning hate.  But when she gazed upon him, she saw the wizard as he should be.  She saw a beard of brilliant white, eyes full of vigor and life.  And when he gazed upon her, she saw what she never thought she would see again.  She saw that he loved her.

“Grandfather, forgive me.  I did not intend to steal the potion from you.  I only wanted to be sure it was not poison.  Forgive me for doubting your skill.”

The wizard’s long brows turned up in surprise.  He saw that it was not doubt, but fear born out of love, fear for him and for his life, that had compelled his apprentice to do as she had done.  And he saw that she would be forever changed by the nightmare.  For if she did not doubt him before, she would now.  She had seen horrors no child should see in that nightmare.  She had felt pain no one, whether small or grown, should feel.

The wizard rose then and stood before the weeping child, his eyes filled with wonder at her foolhardy sacrifice.  She had sullied her pure heart, though only a bit, by the crime of her theft and deceit.  She had judged that it would be worth tarnishing her soul to save one she loved.  And for that she was repaid with an illusion of a life filled with horror and despair, made all the worse for the few moments of sweetness with a new teacher and a new family.

“It is you who must forgive me,” the wizard said.  “For it seems I am the one who doubted you.”

The wizard had not the power to control her mind.  He could not wipe the memories of the nightmare.  He only prayed that in time they would fade.  He was wise enough to know that he should not embrace her, for that would cause her great pain and confusion.  Her father and her fellow apprentices would comfort her when he brought her home to them.  But he, he was a wizard of great power and renown.  There was one thing he could do and should do.  He turned away from his little apprentice.

And he poured both potions onto the ground.

 

Copyright © 2015 Nila L. Patel

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