THE TOWER OF ELAN
Elan of St. Omer sighed as he wrote the notice. This tower had been good to him over the years, but he was old, even for a sorcerer, and ready to retire. Requests for rain during droughts, for victorious armies, for harvests and prosperous unions and auspicious reigns; it was all getting to become so tedious. He found that when he dreamt, it was of sun-dappled beaches and red vintages by the sea. His friend Jacques, who had sold his practice and melted away to Nice, made it sound so appealing. Quiet, peace, time to read and think and be left alone, this was to be devoutly desired. Four hundred years as a professional wizard was enough for any man. And yet he sighed. It was an excellent tower, round and tall and thick-walled, with lots of full bookshelves and tables for concocting and alchemy, accessible to the public if desired, defensible from the same if necessary. He made sure to include those features in the advertisement, along with the other salient saleable qualities. Nearby villagers accustomed to magic. Tolerant local gendarmerie. Cellar doesn’t flood.
A few flourishes with his quill, and it was done. Elan sat back in his swiveling chair and put his hands behind his head. He lacked the long white hair and beard so many peasants seemed to expect from wizards of his stature, and the flowing robes. He preferred breeches and a leather jerkin, and his head was shaven clean except for a tight fringe of white curls from ear to ear. Of course, Elan was a Jewish wizard, a bit of an anomaly, and little about him fit seamlessly with oral tradition or peasant gossip. Medieval Western Europe was an enlightened magical community, but even enlightenment had its limits. The godless, pagan rites of most continental magicians excluded him, as his faith demanded. He was powerful, respected, and yet the upper offices of conclave continued to be denied him because of his creed. And so, retirement. He folded the paper he’d been writing on, tore it in half, and watched as the halves vanished into the night air. It wouldn’t take long for word to get around to
Elan sighed again. He rarely used magical-sounding phrases; he wasn’t an enchanter reliant on so-called words of power. Occasionally, when a little showmanship was required for a crowd or a particularly eminent (or rich) noble, he would throw out some impressive-sounding gobbledygook, but it always made him feel like one of those cheap village charlatans. If he had a signature utterance, it was the sigh of long weariness. Ennui was his chosen milieu. With a glance, he extinguished the flickering candle on his desk and retired. It was like to be a busy day tomorrow.
When the sun came up, Elan had long been awake, writing in his upstairs library. The tower had eleven libraries, being more spacious than it seemed to an outside observer. The downstairs library, where Elan usually received supplicants, was the largest, though the books there were mostly duplicates or common volumes. Adjacent to his sleeping chamber, near the very top of the tower, was his collection of rare and unique tomes, first editions. Most of the rest, scattered throughout the premises, were given over to specific subjects, including a modest cell full of ancient Hebrew wisdom. The upstairs library was his favorite. Spacious, paneled in handsome cherry, windows all around gave natural light all day, when weather cooperated. An enchanted fireplace kept the room at precisely the temperature Elan desired, and leather couches perfect for comfortable reading beckoned. He still used a large, stationary writing-desk, uninterested in the recent pisati models from Dalmatia that were all the rage with his colleagues, with the flexible legs capable of following a wizard about the room as he moved, so that it might always be at hand.
A lumbering shadow filled the doorway. It was Jeremiah, his golem, a masterpiece of shambling paper and wood and cloth Elan had magically animated half a century before. Jeremiah cleaned and cooked and performed a variety of other domestic tasks as Elan’s valet, butler, and major domo, never speaking and yet a comforting presence all the same. He rustled slightly as he moved, a whisper of turning book pages and creaking floors, his parchment face fixed in a permanent, slightly sardonic expression.
The first prospective buyer to visit Elan in his tower was an impressive specimen. If Elan were not as old as he was, he might have been aroused, but it had been nearly a century since Sofia, and that part of his life was over. The sorceress wasn’t pretty in the traditional sense, but at well over six feet tall, lean and taut, she exuded power from every inch. Her robes were a demure charcoal, her black hair drawn back in a sensible braid that snaked down her back. He hadn’t really thought about the possibility that a witch rather than a wizard might buy his tower, but it neither surprised nor bothered him. Since antiquity, women had been regarded as equal to men in magical talent by all but the most troglodytic members of conclave.
“Good evening,” Elan said in greeting, and her pale, thin lips barely twitched in response. When she said nothing, he continued. “I am Elan of St. Omer.”
“I know who you are.” He could barely hear her, and had to lean in to make out the words, which were deeply accented from the east. Not Russian or Czech, Elan thought, but definitely Slavic. Maybe Romani, though she didn’t look like a gypsy. There was a scent all about her, a heady miasma of musk that left a spice on the tongue, cinnamon or mace, Elan couldn’t tell. It was heavy enough to drive him a step back, though not entirely unpleasant, almost intoxicating. He waited, while her eyes, dark and shaded above with indigo, studied him without blinking.
“There is much light,” she said again, in her husky whisper.
“St. Omer is a pleasant location.”
“Too much light. Too many windows.”
“Well…” Elan shrugged, and turned to look around. There were a few windows between the bookshelves, tall and narrow, casting slender shafts of light along the uncarpeted oaken floor. “Some people like windows.”
When he turned again, she was gone, only the musk lingering. She had never mentioned her name. Probably just as well, thought Elan. He couldn’t imagine the smallfolk of St. Omer embracing such a brooding creature.
“I am Ethelbeard the Learned,” declared the second caller.
“The Learned,” repeated Elan with his sigh, emphasizing the final syllable in echo of his visitor, not meaning to be mocking but struggling to keep it out of his voice. This wizard was young, blond-whiskered, and red-robed. Elan understood that red was the new gray when it came to robes. These certainly met the nouveau standard, crimson beyond doubting, impeccably dyed and bound about the midsection with a fashionably thick belt, higher on the right hip than the left. Left, right, thought Elan. In another hundred years it would switch back. It was all too much to keep track of after a while.
“Will the books be staying?” Ethelbeard asked.
“Some of them,” Elan replied. “Some selected tomes I will be keeping. Graubitter’s Brew Folio, for instance, has a delightful chapter on tequila.”
“Yes. Graubitter was a friend, some years back.”
One of Ethelbeard’s thin, sculpted eyebrows rose a trifle. He’s practiced that in a mirror, Elan thought, with mild amusement.
“You knew Graubitter?” There was a doubting tone in the question that was less amusing.
“Yes. We all knew each other back then. Graubitter, Chretien, Hyle the Dane…” He trailed off, not wanting to sound like the old man he had become. Most of the warlocks he had known well were long dead, victims of botched experiments, violently superstitious neighbors, or jealous rivals. Some even grew bored, and stopped bothering to prolong their lives. Elan recalled his last letter from Hyle the Dane, in which the famously taciturn conjurer had declared, “I am going. H.” The idea of ending his own life did not appeal to Elan. For one thing, while the Talmud was unclear on the degree of punishment involved, Jewish teaching did hold that suicide was a sin punishable in the hereafter. He figured he already had some answering to do for flouting Leviticus 19:26, “You shall not practice augury or witchcraft.” No sense in compounding his sins. As importantly, Elan still enjoyed life. There were books unread, mysteries unfathomed, bottles in his cellar unemptied. What he really wanted was peace and quiet, and he would never get them here. He realized he had wandered off in his mind, and Ethelbeard was staring at him with mounting impatience.
“Someday, young man, age will come for you as well, and your own mind, however learned, will wander.”
“I think not.” The smile was toothsome and white behind the glossy yellow beard.
“No. Eternal youth, eternal vigor. I am very close to the secret.”
“That’s why I need a sturdy, reliable edifice.” Ethelbeard’s eyes were running over every inch of the downstairs library, caressing as if it were a girl, or a boy, or a sheep for all Elan knew. Lust glittered in his gaze. “I intend to defeat death and infirmity.”
“Well, death, that’s easy,” Elan replied. “There are several well-established magical means for prolonging life.”
“All flawed,” Ethelbeard said. “What good is immortality when your body and mind still decay, however slowly? No, I would remain as I am forever.”
“I have no doubt you will.” Elan meant it. He had little doubt this foolish wizard would never learn or grow, never experience the agonizing doubt and failure that came with all true learning, magical and otherwise. “Thank you for coming, Ethelbeard.” He paused. “The Learned. I will be in touch.”
If the first two are any indication, this is going to be a more irritating process than I had thought. He considered putting a stop to it, changing his mind, staying in his tower for another few decades, but the prospect of another harvest season with the anxious farmers of the valley steeled his resolve to carry on.
More came, and Jeremiah was kept busy shuttling prospective buyers from the front door to the downstairs library. There was a slender, frumpy druid from the Ardennes, spattered with mud and redolent of mushrooms, asking if the grounds were good for growing herbs. Gordo the Grand, a portly Iberian wizard Elan had known for decades, found the tower insufficiently majestic. A pair of well-scrubbed German witches of indeterminate age declared the tower too musty for their taste, and cast disapproving glances at Jeremiah, though Elan suspected their discomfort was rooted more in his Jewishness. From Bavaria, Naples, and Macedonia they came, and even farther afield. A tired, exceedingly polite young man from Persia intrigued Elan, who had never met a Mohammedan wizard before. He would have invited him to stay the night for dinner and conversation, as it was late afternoon, but the Arab declined, courteously.
Evening was falling when one more visitor arrived. The knock was tentative, hesitant and tremulous. As the heavy wooden door swung inward, Elan stood from his chair with a slight grunt. The sun setting behind the western hills was turning the downstairs library into a glowing bauble of buttery yellow, and he was getting hungry. With an offhand gesture, he ignited the candles throughout the room, and it was in their flickering light that he first lay eyes on Ingrid of Visby.
She was small, almost childlike, and at first Elan thought she was a child, or perhaps eleven or twelve, she was so timid and small. As she stepped across the threshold, the last rays of the sun bathed the valley of St. Omer, framing her in a brief corona that turned her white cloak into gold. Once inside, as the door closed behind her, the hood fell back, revealing a mess of honey hair over a narrow, almost elfin face that was paler than new milk, with eyes the color of the clear spring sky. Beneath the robe she wore all yellow and white, and her thin arms clutched something to her chest, something that twitched, something alive. The blue eyes darted about, wondrous and wary, until they found Elan. When they did so, her mouth fell agape and she dropped to one knee.
She’s genuflecting, he realized, embarrassed. Perhaps she wasn’t here about the tower, after all. Perhaps she was a peasant, here about some banal need. He peered at the thing in her arms, and could see that it was a brown rabbit. Maybe she needs help with her rabbit.
“Oh, come now,” he said, approaching her. He extended one hand, meaning to help her back to her feet. Instead, she seized it with both hands and actually kissed it. The rabbit, finding itself on the floor and unattended, hopped into the room and under the table, where it regarded the scene with beady indifference.
“Enough,” Elan made himself say, and pulled her up. He was not a tall man by any means, but he was a still a full head taller than the girl.
“You are Elan of St. Omer,” she said, and her voice was bigger than she was. No need to lean in this time! Her eyes were wide and awed, and she trembled, just a bit. “Oracle of Flanders. The Jewish Adept. Thaumaturge of the West. ”
“I am all of those things, though generally the first is sufficient.” Oracle of Flanders? That was a new one. He sighed. “Please, young lady…”
“Oh, I’ve read everything you’ve ever written!” she cried.
“I doubt that,” Elan replied, attempting an avuncular smile. “After all I’ve written…”
“Forty-five major magical texts, two hundred and twelve folios, and over nine hundred scholarly articles in juried publications.” She never stopped for breath, rattling off titles and dates, some of which Elan wasn’t sure he’d ever read, though he’d written them all. “My favorite is Divine Interventions, though I’m also partial to the Gematrian Dialogues…” She never really stopped talking, but eventually the prattle subsided into a sort of muttered monologue that he didn’t think was really intended to be out loud. Elan seized upon the not-quite-silence as an opportunity to speak.
“Young woman,” he said, for he was certain now that she was a woman and not just a girl. “I appreciate your dedication to my catalogue, though I’ll admit I have no idea how you availed yourself of some of the more obscure selections…” It was just the opening she needed, and she was off again, a cart and horse with no driver or reins, unbridled words hurtling downhill.
“Oh, it was fun hunting them down! I’m from Visby, on Gotland, and we have a wonderful old library there. That’s where I met Aldras, and he told me that he’d never met anyone who could read as fast as I could and still understand it and remember everything. He’s the one who suggested I come here. The day I met him I was looking for a book because I was running out of things to read in the house, and my father…” she trailed off into another stream of words, only some of which belonged in the same narrative. This time Elan held up both hands in front of him, begging her to stop.
“Enough!” he bellowed, commandingly. She fell silent, mid-sentence, and her eyes grew even wider. “Did you say Aldras? A one word answer only, please.”
“Yes.” If she was chastened by his tone, she gave no sign.
Aldras the Bookbinder was one of Elan’s oldest friends, and one of the most respected minds in Europe amongst the intellectual and magical elites. If that tyro Ethelbeard wanted to see what Learned really looked like, he should visit Visby and spend an afternoon in Aldras’ tutelage.
“And you’re saying he sent you here. Aldras did. Again, one word, please.”
“Yes.” He could tell it was a struggle for her to restrain her runaway tongue, and she vibrated slightly with the effort, but she succeeded, for the moment.
“So you’re not here about buying my tower?”
“Buying your tower?” She looked at him quizzically, as if he had offered to sell her beets. “I’m not old enough to buy a tower! I’m only twenty!”
“Twenty?” Elan tried to conceive of twenty years of age. As a span of time it was a pleasant afternoon, a weekend at the vineyard, a month of editing a new manuscript. He could not clearly remember his own life that long past, but his mind struggled even more with her claim that she had already devoured all of his works.
“I’ll be twenty-one at Christmas.”
“And you’ve read all of my books.”
“All of them?”
He resisted the urge to quiz her on their contents. Any wizard with multiple centuries in the field was capable of determining truth from falsehood when spoken aloud, especially by one so guileless. The speed at which she must consume the written word…he performed some calculations, and the result was unsettling. Even I don’t read that fast.
“Impressive,” he said, and meant it. He folded his arms across his chest and stared at her.
“What is your name?”
“Ingrid. My father is Garth Rikker of Visby, first scrivener to the Burgher. His father…”
“What do you want?” He hadn’t intended to be so blunt, but she seemed unbothered, perhaps even accustomed to it.
“To be your apprentice,” Ingrid replied.
Elan stared at her, realized he was staring, did not care, kept staring. One of his hands drifted behind his left ear and tugged at a fringe of hair, an indication that he was too unmoored even to sigh. He had not had an apprentice for nearly a century. He did not want one now.