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Makers of Fine Wands by CanisMajor

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Story Notes:

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Hypatia and Kerichi for thorough beta-reading, and to Golbon and Shahin for help with the Persian spell incantations.

A special mention is due to Daniel Ogden, for his book "Magic, witchcraft, and ghosts in the Greek and Roman worlds" (which he probably never imagined would be put to this particular use), and all its insights into a culture where everyone knew that magic was real.

A gentle Mediterranean breeze rocked the handful of triremes as they dozed at anchor on the sunlit bay. The bright arch of the sky was a magnificent blue; its few ragged white clouds clung diffidently to the horizon, like emigrants from some lesser foreign place. No-one was present to appreciate the splendour of the scene, for on a day as fine as this, all but the most idle citizens had business of their own to pursue.


In the hour before noon, a little ship -- a boat with ambitions, no more -- wafted into the anchorage and shrugged off its heavy square sail. The sailors plied its oars for just long enough to break a sweat in the morning heat, and then the hull was bumping lightly into the wooden jetty. Ollivander was the first to leap ashore, a small leather bag bouncing at his shoulder.


“Many thanks!” he called back to the captain, who was growling at his crew to secure lines and might or might not have heard him. “If I need to return home next year, I'll look first for Euthymios the Cretan's ship!” He turned and strode away, sandals slapping against the rough-cut wooden boards until he reached the shore and disappeared between the boat-sheds. With his brisk pace, he completely overlooked the close-shaven figure in the cloak of foreign cut emerging from the shade of a cypress tree, and following deliberately after him.


It was a day for starting things, for getting on with matters at hand. Ollivander was certainly in the right place, at long last: where better than Athens in the springtime, the centre of the world? A more leisurely traveller might have taken half a day to walk from the harbour to the gates of the city herself, but Ollivander was in no mood to spare even that much time. He was a tall, athletic young man, with jet-black hair and beard framing an angular face of determined set. His tunic was plain, in the Spartan style, and soon damp with sweat as its wearer marched along the dusty road. Mirages danced in the unseasonable warmth, and both ahead and behind the way was hidden in haze.


He'd intended to make directly for the Academy, but once inside the city he couldn't help pausing, to weigh it in the balance against all he'd hoped and imagined it would be. Athens' citizens seemed no better-dressed than those of Italy, its thoroughfares no wider, its houses just as modest and of much the same low mud-brick construction. But the overall effect was much grander, somehow, than anything at home. This was, after all, the home of Plato and Sophocles and Falco Aesalon -- and to prove it, Ollivander had only to lift his gaze to the city heights. There, upon the Acropolis, stood the famous giant-sized statue of Athena Who Leads The Charge, with the sun glinting off her bronze helmet and spear-tip. They didn't have one of those back in Croton.


After a time, he realised he was gawping like the provincial boy he no longer was, and also that he was ferociously thirsty. A colourfully painted wooden sign offered assistance in the second respect, if not the first, and he crossed the street -- three impulsive steps -- to enter the open door of a wine-shop.


The place turned out to be a single cramped room with a dirt floor: cool, dim, and redolent of spilled wine. The three benches along its walls were all fully occupied, except for a space at the end of one, next to a pudgy-looking young man with green eyes and a neatly-trimmed brown beard.


“Mind if I sit here?” Ollivander asked.


“Be my guest.” The man proffered his hand. “Callias, son of Timandridas the sorcerer.”


Ollivander's eyebrows flicked up. “Ollivander, the son of Ostanes of Croton,” he introduced himself carefully, shaking Callias' hand. “Perhaps we might share some honey-cakes, if there are any available here?”


It was as good a way as any of letting Callias know that he, too, was of magical descent. Wizards needed excellent memories, and throughout the Greek world they often had heads filled with stories about accomplished mages from the legendary past. Usually they were happy to collect one or two new ones over the customary sweet morsel.


As Callias waved at a hovering slave to order the honey-cakes, Ollivander could see him thinking about the story he would tell. Evidently, the Athenian expected to go first, even though it was Ollivander who had suggested the game.


“Perhaps you have heard,” Callias began, “of the witch Medea, and her bounteous knowledge of herbs with magical or healing properties. The uses of aconite, hedge-mustard, cassidony, and white hellebore -- all of which you're familiar with, I'm sure -- are among her discoveries; others still have since been forgotten. She could make herself either crone or maiden girl at will -- altering not only her appearance, as with any common rejuvenation draught, but her true age. She is said to have once transformed an old ram into a lamb by boiling it in a pot. After her death, Medea's ghost was sure that she had died untimely, and her son Thessalus had to use his mother's own methods to convince her otherwise.”


Ollivander listened appreciatively. Medea was a fairly well-known figure, but even the more common honey-cake stories, like this one, were seldom written down.


“Let me tell you of an ancestor of mine,” he reciprocated, as the honey-cakes arrived and Callias bit into one. “Many stories are told of Pythagoras of Samos: a sage, seer, and supremely powerful sorcerer of six or seven generations back. If I were to mention all of his achievements in arithmancy, mysticism, charms, and local politics, we'd be here all day.” He sipped from his wine-cup, hoping Callias wouldn't already know all there was to know about Pythagoras.


“Go on,” smiled Callias, waving negligently at the honey-cakes. “Don't let these get away, they're good.”


Ollivander took one of the cakes; it filled his mouth, heavy with unfamiliar spices. “Yes, well,” he continued, speaking through the crumbs. “One day, news reached Pythagoras that Midas the vine-dresser, one of his strongest and hardest-working slaves, had been bitten on the toe by a viper and lay close to death. Pythagoras rushed to the house where Midas was, and drove the poison out of him with a charm. It was such a powerful spell that Midas picked up the stretcher he'd been brought in on, and returned to work in the fields within the hour. You might think this an unremarkable cure, except for its speed. But after that, Pythagoras went out to the farm, and circled it three times, calling out in a strange language. At once, a host of asps, vipers, darting-snakes and puff-toads came crawling out before him. The mage said that someone was missing, and chose one young snake to go back with a message. Shortly, it returned with an old snake which had been too deaf to hear Pythagoras' command. When at last they were all assembled, Pythagoras blew upon them, and they were all burned up by the blast.”


“Very good,” said Callias approvingly, as Ollivander took the opportunity to finish his honey-cake and drink more wine. “Are you truly descended from Pythagoras?”


“I am. I arrived in Athens only this morning.”


“By ship?”


“Yes. I'd have ridden a Thestral, but they're hard to catch. Even for those of us who can see them.”


Callias nodded credulously. “Well, if you do catch one, I'd refrain from riding it in daylight, if I were you. Not that Athenians aren't broad-minded people; we take quite calmly to the notion that there are wizards among us, who pass their time working charms and conversing with ghosts. Magic is a moderately respectable profession here, and perfectly legal, of course. All the same, there's no need to flaunt it in public. Mugloi like these” -- he gestured at the wine-shop's motley collection of other inhabitants -- “don't like to be reminded that we can do things they can't.”


“I understand,” murmured Ollivander. He'd expected no less, from this most enlightened of city-states.


Callias drank the last of his wine, then seemed to notice that there was only one honey-cake left. He pulled out a slender red-golden wand, waved it wordlessly over the plate -- and suddenly, one cake had become two. “One each,” he explained.


“Nice wand,” Ollivander observed politely. “Cedar?”


“Yes, cedar and cyclops eyelash. Yours?”


Ollivander drew his own wand, darker and more variegated in colour. “Elder and sphinx tongue.”


“An elder wand,” Callias remarked with surprise. “You don't see that every day. Some say elder is an ill-omened wood.”


Ollivander shrugged. “Not for me, it hasn't been. It was my father's wand; Mother wanted to bury it with him, but that seemed such a waste.”


“Some wands do seem to choose whole families, don't they? Forgive my curiosity; my father Timandridas is a wand-maker.”


“There's wandlore in my family, too,” said Ollivander, pleased to have discovered another point in common with his new-found friend. “My mother's made wands for half the magical folk in Italy, dozens of them. But I never wanted to stay there and do that. I came to Athens because of the philosopher, Plato. My father used to tell me all about the philosophers: he met Socrates himself once, when he was younger. The essence of water is to moisten things, the essence of the moral man is to make others moral--”


“--and the essence of philosophy is to go on about the true natures of things,” Callias declared. “That's Plato, all right, carrying right on where Socrates left off; he loves his essential qualities and ultimate substances. They have a lot of application to some forms of magic, I've often thought.”


“Well, yes -- and then we heard that Plato had opened his new Academy a few years ago. I've wanted to be there ever since, immersed in all the knowledge of the world's finest minds. Now at last I have the chance, and here I am.” The words tumbled out quickly: Ollivander could be a fast talker, given the chance.


“But that's what I'm doing, too!” Callias burst out, sounding genuinely delighted. “I've been studying philosophy at the Academy for almost a year now. Let me take you up there this afternoon, and I'll introduce you to the tutors, and to Plato himself, if we can find him.” He gulped the rest of his wine, and wiped his grinning lips with the back of his hand. “Finish your honey-cake” -- there was again only one remaining -- “and we'll go at once.”


Chapter Endnotes: Just to keep the record straight: the story of Midas the vine-dresser is usually ascribed not to Pythagoras, but to a period about 600 years later.
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