Science Fiction & Fantasy

CHOSEN ONES

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Fiction

The Silent Familiar

The Wizard Niccolo was not happy. At the age of 183—youthful for a wizard, but improbable for an ordinary human—he had thought certain things well out of his life. Sudden changes in his daily routine were one. And romance was another—even if it was his familiar’s romance, and not his own.

“Could make an omelet with it, I suppose,” he grumbled to that familiar, the tiny dragon Olivia. She sat on the cluttered mantle, wrapped around her egg, still marveling at its production and entirely too pleased with herself. A pair of alabaster candelabra sheltered her in a thicket of gilt spirals, and a stuffed salmon, labeled “First Prize—Thornstone Village Centennial Celebration,” regarded her with a sour gaze.

“Master,” she said, blinking luminous eyes. “Have I not served you well?”

“For the most part,” he admitted.

She stayed silent, so after a pause, he said, “Yes, invariably, Olivia. But who will hold your loyalty, that egg or I?”

“Both,” she said and stoked her scaled cheek along the egg’s smooth surface. “But I will never value it higher than my service to you.”

Wizards’ familiars are unnatural creatures. Some are much like any other animal: a cat, perhaps, with black fur, a droop-winged crow, or a snake with emerald scales. Others look less innocuous and more fantastical—homunculi and tiny, perfect dragons like Olivia, or shaggy-warted mandrake plants. Given this, it is surprising that two of them had managed to have compatible body parts, let alone produce an offspring. And yet, three months after a purely platonic sojourn of Niccolo with a sorceress whose library was vast enough to entice all sorts of other mages to her door, this had happened. Niccolo had been researching how the gods manifested themselves, and the library tomes had been unfamiliar enough to hold all his attention. Enrapt in ancient texts, he had overlooked Olivia’s activities.

Niccolo scowled at her. “Do you intend to make a habit of this?” he demanded.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Olivia said absently. “I didn’t like the last part, the laying. The getting ready to lay, though…”

Niccolo put up his hand. “I do not want to know.” He turned away. “How long till it hatches?”

“I don’t know,” Olivia said. “I’ve never done this.” She crooned deep in her throat, an unsettling noise Niccolo had never heard her make before.

Grumbling, he stalked out. It’s probably not even viable, he thought. How long would Olivia fool herself into believing it would hatch? When he had created her, coaxing her winged form from a malachite shard, a bit of bone, and a lizard’s scale, he had endowed her with a sardonic wit and a capability for banter—requisites for any wizard’s familiar. But he had always prided himself that Olivia was smarter than most. Smarter than this deluded maternal ambition would seem to indicate.

Had he erred when making her? Familiars were repositories for wizards’ emotions, one of the means by which they stripped away their humanity and became immortal. Perhaps he’d put too much in her, though. He considered thoughts of a new familiar, but reluctantly. At times, when Olivia rested on his shoulder or curled in his lap, he felt the struggle of his emotions, the desire to pet her like a cat warring with a shrinking away, a don’t-touch-me shudder. He was still young for a wizard, still trying to learn what magic meant. Still trying to become more than human.

He sighed. After a few months, he’d try to get Olivia to see reason and abandon her effort.

• • • •

Three months later, Olivia still spent most waking hours curled around her egg, drowsy contentment evident in the set of her wings. Niccolo had resigned himself to her absent-mindedness. He had been working on a set of experiments involving aqua vitæ and a supposed phoenix feather, coaxing bits of down away from the shaft. He hoped to evoke fiery gold, but so far all he had was soggy fluff.

He looked up from the alembic on his worktable as Olivia chirped.

“I’ve told you before, don’t make noises while I’m…” he began, but she ignored him.

“It’s hatching! It’s hatching!” She unwrapped herself, backed away from the egg, eying it. “What do I do?”

“It’s your egg!”

“I’ve never done this before!”

They both gazed in fascination as the egg wobbled.

“Should I get some hot water?” Niccolo said.

“What are you planning on doing, cooking it?”

“They always seem to fetch hot water for babies.”

The egg rocked back and forth as its occupant shifted.

“Maybe it can’t get out,” Olivia worried. “Should I help it?”

“Give it time,” Niccolo said.

They stared as though mesmerized. The egg tipped, tottered… toppled from the mantelpiece. Olivia shrieked even as Niccolo dove for it, his heart almost stopping.

The egg shattered in his hands and what he held there almost made him drop it. For an instant he thought it dead. Then the tiny lizard mewled and Olivia’s wings were fluttering in his face even as he tried to set the infant down. Chaos reigned for a moment before Olivia was curled around her offspring while Niccolo crouched on his knees, ignoring the arthritic twinges.

The baby was, despite all of Niccolo’s thoughts about mutants and monstrosities, perfect. Like Olivia, it had a miniature dragon’s form, with frilled, lacey wings that stretched out now, trembling, to dry. Glistening amniotic fluid hung in thick strands from them.

Niccolo took a damp cloth and tenderly cleaned the wings as Olivia fussed and twined around his hands.

“You did well, Olivia,” he admitted, looking down at her child. “You did well.”

• • • •

Almost all wizards have hobbies, and they refuse to taint these grand obsessions with magic. Niccolo’s was fishing. He knew every trout stream in the forest surrounding his retreat, and his favorite was an unnamed brook that made its way through beech groves and sandy sloughs, past a stand of willows whose roots had gnawed away at the bank, creating holes and riddles where trout might lurk in the hot afternoons, waiting for evening. A fallen tree formed a bench where Niccolo could sit, his creel beside him lined with fresh moss and ready to hold his catch.

He threaded his rod and attached a caddis fly lure Olivia had helped him create. He wasn’t sure that using her to assist didn’t count as magic, but his fingers shook, and she was still as deft and nimble-clawed as when he had first created her almost a century ago. The lure’s underbelly was yellow as daffodils and its wings were bits of brown feather. Deep in its guts was the hook, barbed to catch hold of a trout’s tender mouth and let Niccolo coax it ashore.

Hours passed as he cast and drowsed, waiting with the patience only a fisherman knows. A few times he felt the tentative twitch of the hook and paused, but the trout were wary and skittish that day. With the coming of dusk, he knew, though, they would grow hungry and strike hard at the insects lighting on the water, his lure whirling among them.

His purpose was not to catch fish, but to think. He contemplated Olivia. Every wizard needs a familiar, like a second voice speaking the things that she or he has left behind, the barbs and commonplace facts of life that a wizard tries to divest themselves of in the quest for immortality.

Familiars were like second souls, advice you could trust. You could make a familiar, as Niccolo had, and place bits of yourself in it, but it was hard. Few had accomplished it, and most wizards relied on familiars already fit to speak. Ravens were popular, and a line of talking cats in Loudontown had furnished familiars for the wizards’ school there for decades.

Talking. That was what distinguished familiars from most animals, aside from various prophetic creatures. It worried Niccolo that the offspring, which Olivia had named Hrist, had yet to speak. Was it possible that—unlike its parents—it lacked intelligence? As the months passed, he had watched it, trying to determine what was passing through its mind. It seemed to respond to words, to “no” and “dinner” and such, but after all—a well-trained hound might do as much. Had Hrist lapsed to an animal’s natural state, lacking the spark that his parents had possessed?

Olivia rejected this notion when Niccolo proposed it to her that night over a dinner of fresh-caught trout and bread from the nearby village.

“Hrist is as smart as you or I,” she said indignantly. “Perhaps even more so, in your case.” She looked over at Hrist.

By now, the winged lizard extended six inches from snout to tail, half his mother’s size. He lay on the windowsill in the sun, regarding his reflection in the dust-flecked glass with a placid gaze.

“Indeed,” Niccolo said dubiously.

Hrist swiveled his head, looked Niccolo in the eye, and nodded once.

Niccolo blinked, astonished.

“If he can understand us, why can’t he reply, Olivia?” he said.

Olivia’s tail swished. “He can’t talk,” she said.

“You and his father both have fully formed—perhaps even more so, in your case—vocal apparati. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t.”

Of course, there was no reason why Hrist should exist in the first place, Niccolo thought, but Olivia would become even more furious if he said that.

And Hrist was, Niccolo admitted, a charming little creature. He loved to hunt and would spend hours in the vegetable garden, haunting the zucchini and pepper plants in order to eat squash vine borers and yellow-and-black striped cucumber beetles.

As the little dragon grew, Niccolo worked at teaching Hrist how to write instead. The dragonling quickly learned, using his long tail much like a ink pen, dipping it with a sinuous twist in the inkwell and employing the pointed tip to scrawl on parchment. He shared his mother’s quick and sometimes sardonic wit, but his observations were written out in a meticulous, careful hand.

He took to reading like a duck to water, and Niccolo would find him draped over a volume, carefully scanning the words and turning the pages with his flexible, almost prehensile tail.

“I don’t know why I can’t talk,” he wrote when Niccolo questioned him. “I try to speak and nothing comes out but air.”

He could make noises, the hisses and chirps and rumbles that Olivia regularly engaged in, which comforted Niccolo somewhat. But try as he might, he could not give his familiar’s child a voice.

“What will he do?” Olivia worried. “No wizard will take him on as a familiar if he can’t talk.”

“You don’t know that for sure,” Niccolo argued, but in his heart he knew that Olivia was right. Wizards were proud. No one would want a defective familiar. Familiars were reflections of one’s heart and soul.

Still, he would try.

• • • •

Niccolo consulted one of the few non-human wizards he knew. Most of the magic users he was acquainted with shunned Slith, a wyvern’s child whose scales, slit eyes, and sinuous, boneless grace unnerved them. His tower, perched halfway up a volcano, was rarely visited and as Niccolo ascended the mountainside, he wondered whether Slith blamed his race or his location for his isolation.

Slith listened, his golden eyes considering, as Niccolo described Hrist’s condition, concluding, “How will any wizard take him as a familiar? He’s defective!”

“Have you ever thought,” Slith said, “that your problem may be your solution?”

Niccolo looked, puzzled, at the other wizard, and Slith’s eyes took on a self-congratulatory gleam. Wizards love riddle games, and confounding another wizard was a rare prize in that competition.

“A familiar’s powers develop in response to their wizard,” Slith said. He nodded towards his own familiar, a lop-eared, brindled tomcat named Slasher.

Slasher yawned and said, “It’s true. Before I became a familiar, I couldn’t talk.”

“Truly?” Niccolo said. He was not well-versed in familiar lore. Most wizards weren’t, but rather took their familiar for granted, a tool like an athame or a well-crafted amulet.

“Truly,” Slith said. “Find the right wizard and the problem will no longer be a problem.”

• • • •

“Get the house ready,” Niccolo told Olivia. “We’re going to take on an apprentice.”

She gaped. “But, Master, you don’t like apprentices! You’ve always said they were more trouble than they were worth!”

Hrist was outside, chasing bumblebees, so Niccolo spoke freely. “Yes, but what do apprentices grow up to become?”

Olivia was quick-witted as ever. “Wizards! You think that one of them will . . . ”

“Perhaps,” Niccolo said. “Don’t get your hopes up too much, Olivia.”

“How will you get them here?”

Niccolo tapped the thick envelope on his desk, which had arrived that morning. “I’ve offered to instruct them in hydromancy,” he said. “I knew the College had no one specializing in it. It’s obscure enough that the Dean couldn’t justify the expense, but I’ve agreed to allow myself to be hired, for a small fee, to instruct them. Each will arrive, spend one month learning its basics and then depart. Sooner or later, the right one will arrive for Hrist.”

Olivia’s eyes held admiration, and Niccolo allowed himself to run a fingertip along the smooth skin of her sides in an almost-caress. Surely, Niccolo thought, there was no harm in the trace of affection he felt. Wasn’t that the basis of sympathetic magic, after all, a fondness of one thing for another?

• • • •

The first apprentice was Albert. He had red hair that stuck out like a ransacked haystack and bright, merry blue eyes. Hrist hated him on sight, and Albert bore out the little familiar’s judgement in full measure.

Niccolo, unfortunately, liked him. The apprentice reminded him of Olivia in the quickness of his quips, the slight barb to his wit. Much like Niccolo had been at his age, before he put away that side of him to focus on magic. Albert’s pranks amused Niccolo more than he wanted to admit, despite Olivia’s exasperation with household upsets, with salt in the sugar bowl and spiders in the tea.

Albert sensed Niccolo’s mood, and his pranks expanded exponentially, knowing that punishment would not fall on him. Albert went so far as to involve the elderly wizard as a conspirator at times, much to Olivia’s fury, since she or Hrist were the target.

And then one day as Niccolo and Albert were working out the Seven Aquatic Principles, Albert said, “I have a fine idea for a prank on the Dean of Loudontown.”

“What’s that?” Niccolo asked, intrigued. The Dean was a stiff and formal woman, and Niccolo found the thought of her discomfited in some way an appealing one.

“We’ll ship Hrist to her and say that he’s under a curse, that’s why he doesn’t talk. Either the Dean will try to lift it herself or she’ll set it to someone as a test.” Albert laughed. “Imagine how much time they’ll spend on the runt, thinking they can fix him!”

“Hrist…is not broken,” Niccolo said slowly.

Albert didn’t catch the warning undertone in his teacher’s voice. He continued, “Might as well use him for something, he’s useless for much else besides catching spiders.” He laughed.

“Pack your things,” Niccolo said. “You’re going back to Loudontown. And if you want to be a wizard, Albert, you’ll put away this sense of humor. When you have a familiar that you can store it in, you’ll understand.”

And so, bewildered, Albert departed to play his tricks elsewhere.

• • • •

The second apprentice was Chloe. Niccolo had to admit, he was pulling for her as well. She was clear-eyed and grave, and wore her pale hair tightly knotted atop her head. She played chess well, and she and Hrist would sit for hours over the chessboard, the dragonling studying the pieces from a higher vantage point before fluttering down to move a pawn or bishop with his tail.

And yet, once Chloe had finished her studies with Niccolo, she came to him and said, “I do not want Hrist as a familiar.”

Niccolo found himself awash in denials. “I didn’t . . . I mean, we weren’t intending . . . ”

Chloe’s eyes were remote. “You want to find him a wizard. I picked up that much. After that it was simply a matter of thinking why a wizard who had never shown any previous interest in teaching would have suddenly acquired it. It’s very kind of you.”

He was not sure whether or not the words were a compliment.

But Chloe was young enough that they were the praise they seemed—though she might not think the same in another century or two. She smiled at him.

“Have you ever thought,” she asked, “that Hrist might find some path other than familiar?”

“I had,” Niccolo said. “More than once. But Olivia has her heart set on it—she doesn’t want him to become ‘some ordinary pet,’ she said.”

“A chess-playing dragonling whose penmanship is as good as any monk’s?” Chloe said. “I do not think anyone will ever consider Hrist ordinary.” She smiled again and Niccolo decided it was a good thing that she was moving on, perhaps. Chloe made him think of altogether too many human things, and that would be good for neither of them.

• • • •

The third apprentice was Ibbi, who had a rounded face and the merest intimation of fuzz on his cheeks.

He was a disaster. He arrived with the bottle of brandy the Dean had sent to Niccolo shattered and dripping through his luggage, which retained the smell of expensive alcohol for weeks. He broke three plates, a mug, and Olivia’s favorite candlestick washing up the first night. Things went downhill from there. He could not master the simplest cantrip that Niccolo set him, his pronunciation of Latin was atrocious, and his fingers seemed all disjointed thumbs.

Hrist adored him. And so, despite misgivings, Niccolo let him stay and be taught. And at the end of a month, when Ibbi had failed to learn even the simplest water-based charm, Niccolo lied to the Dean and said that Ibbi was doing so well that he intended to keep him an extra month, continuing through till Samhain.

Privately, he thought perhaps a clumsy wizard and a defective familiar might fit well together. Perhaps Hrist could give Ibbi the assurance he needed. And Ibbi . . . well, Hrist needed a voice.

But the days went by, and Ibbi showed no signs of improving, or of bonding with Hrist.

Samhain was celebrated in the nearby village, and when Niccolo went there a few days before it, he saw the preparations underway: festoons of ivy disguising the doorways, plump jack-o-lanterns set to illuminate the square, wood piled for the holiday’s bonfire. When he mentioned it at home, Olivia clamored to attend, while Ibbi’s eyes sparked with enthusiasm. Even Hrist seemed intrigued, asking question after question on a parchment scroll as Ibbi tried to answer.

“Why is this celebrated?” Hrist wrote.

Ibbi stammered, “It’s when the veil between worlds is torn. Barriers drop on Samhain.”

“Barriers?” Hrist wrote the word in a single twist and flick of his tail.

“Barriers,” Niccolo said. “Things are thinner on Samhain. Things disguise themselves as each other, and alliances that might not be made on other nights are enabled.”

“The God of the Darkest Night, Cerunnos, appears,” Olivia said. “He will grant one boon. But no one ever asks.”

“Why?” Ibbi said.

“Have you learned nothing? Because gods twist wishes,” Niccolo said. “It takes a well-trained mind to construct a wish that a god can’t weasel out of. They split hairs finer than any lawyer. So the god appears and blesses the participants, and then we are done.”

Ibbi gave him an uncertain look. Increasingly he was nervous in the older wizard’s presence, as though he sensed Niccolo’s growing disappointment with his performance. Niccolo felt a surge of compassion and for once did not try to battle it back.

“We’ll all go for the bonfire,” he said. “You will need a costume, Ibbi. Samhain is a day for pretending to be something other than you are.”

“Will you wear one as well, Master?” Olivia asked.

Niccolo snorted, but Olivia was not to be deterred.

“You’ll make the villagers uneasy unless you do,” she said. “I’ll find something.”

• • • •

Early in Samhain eve, Olivia presented Niccolo with his costume. He snorted once again, but put on the dress and wig. She had chosen to clothe him as a tavern maid, and he thought irritably that if he could still feel the emotion of embarrassment, he would have objected. But Samhain was a day for fools and opposites, and he would play along, for her sake and that of Hrist and Ibbi. Olivia had clearly taken care with his costume. The dress was snug, but he could fit in it, along with a false bosom. He drew the line at the cosmetics she had somehow procured and laid out. He made an ugly woman, he thought, looking in the mirror, but that was mostly the beard.

Olivia had outdone herself, though, with Hrist and Ibbi. Ibbi wore a scaly cloak, and green mask, while Hrist simply wore a tiny wizard’s hat and clutched a matchstick wand.

“You’ve disguised them as each other!” Niccolo realized, and Olivia nodded, looking smug. She had chosen to drape herself with beads and jewelry till she was simply a glittering heap.

“What are you?” Niccolo asked.

Olivia peered out from between the links of a tarnished golden chain. “A dragon’s treasure horde!” she announced. “Can’t you tell?”

Despite himself, Niccolo laughed.

• • • •

Cheerfulness continued to buoy him, despite his best efforts to dampen it, as they made their way to the village. Niccolo was not the only person to have chosen a costume that depended on gender. Several other men minced about in dresses even more gaudily decorated than his, and the owners of the local tavern, the Greasy Eel, wore gentlemen’s dress coats and buckled breeches.

Usually the villagers were standoffish (except when making their way to his cottage to ask for luck charms or philters to ward off disease) and Niccolo was pleased to note that his costume dissolved some of the usual social ice. Olivia rode his shoulder, jingling and jangling like a paste and brilliants brooch, and Hrist stayed curled around Ibbi’s neck, occasionally jabbing his ear with the point of his cap.

As the darkness grew and the bonfire blazed, as the mugs of cider were passed around with potatoes roasted in the embers, Niccolo fought to keep from enjoying himself. Instead, he watched Hrist, whose presence fascinated the village children. One held Hrist in his hands, holding him up to admire him in the firelight and the little lizard permitted it, his mother looking fondly on from Niccolo’s shoulder.

“Master?” she whispered in his ear. “Master, you can construct wishes. You are a well-learned man. Could you not ask Cerunnos that my child be given a voice?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Olivia!” Niccolo snapped. “I thought you claimed you would not put the egg before me, and now you’re asking that I meddle with a god on its behalf? Have you no concern for my well-being? I am a poor enough wizard as it is, letting emotions sway me as I have!”

“But…” She subsided into silence as he scowled at her.

“We will hear no more of this,” he said.

In the fire’s dancing light, her eyes glittered like the jewels of her costume, but he could not read the emotion there.

• • • •

At midnight, the crowd gathered around the fire, and masks were doffed. Niccolo took off his wig, sticking it under his arm. Ibbi stood beside him, having reclaimed Hrist from the reluctant children.

The faces across the fire were horns and feathers, slips of skin and eager eyes that stared, like Niccolo and his tiny group, into the heart of the fire, waiting for the God.

He grew so slowly from the flames that no one knew when he arrived. Great curling ram’s horns, dripping with ash and fire, sat his shoulders. His cloak was night, and its lining gleamed with subdued stars.

He did not speak, but looked about the circle, waiting. There was resignation in his shoulders. Niccolo wondered how long it had been since anyone ignored the thousand cautionary tales and asked the god for a boon.

And then, from his shoulder, impossibly, Olivia spoke.

“Cerunnos, hear my plea!”

“No,” Niccolo said, and grabbed at her with panicked fingers, but all he caught was a netting of gilt and rhinestone, and she was hovering in the air before that patrician figure. “Olivia, no!”

The god gestured, and Niccolo could no longer speak. The massive face, still as a statue, listened.

“My child . . . and my master,” Olivia said. “Let them be what they want, what they aspire to! Grant me this, Cerunnos!”

Fire coursed through Niccolo, chasing away the panic.

The god considered, spoke. “No matter the price?”

“No matter the price,” Olivia said, and Niccolo knew she was doomed. He was being pulled into the fire, with Hrist, and somehow Ibbi, the three of them among the flames but not burning. He glimpsed Hrist, the doll-sized wizard’s hat askew, clinging to Ibbi, and hope surged in him before he was pulled inside the shadow of Cerunnos’ cloak, and darkness overtook him.

• • • •

After the god had gone away, after the villagers had scattered, as the dawn began to glimmer over the forest like an uncertain plea, Niccolo raised his head and spoke to Ibbi and Hrist beside the smoldering ashes of the fire.

“Well?” he said. His voice was rough. In his hands was Olivia’s body, broken by the magic that had surged through her in answer to her prayer.

Ibbi and Hrist stared at each other. Then Hrist spoke. “I can speak. But I am still not a familiar,” the little lizard said.

“No.” Ibbi stretched out his hand and suddenly laughed. “But I am no longer a wizard.”

“What?” Niccolo said, trying to understand.

They turned to look at him in eerie unison. Olivia was heavy in his hands.

“I am a familiar,” Ibbi said, and looked at Hrist.

“And I the wizard,” Hrist said. “You will bear the sorrow for me, Ibbi.”

So Ibbi wept obediently as Niccolo and Hrist buried Olivia’s tiny form in the garden, between the rows where Hrist had hunted flies and pill bugs in the summer sun. They placed her finery beneath her, as though she were in truth what she resembled, a dragon curled on a horde of gems and coins and precious metal and a caddis fly lure. She lay with her snout laid atop her paws, eyes closed and tail curled about her as they took handfuls of dirt and closed her into the earth’s darkness.

Ibbi wept.

But Hrist and Niccolo were true wizards now, and they felt nothing at all.

Cat Rambo

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Their 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. They are an Endeavour, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award nominee. Their most recent works include Hearts of Tabat (novel, WordFire Press), Neither Here Nor There (collection, Hydra House Books) and Carpe Glitter (fiction, Meerkat Press). Forthcoming in 2020 are Exiles of Tabat (Wordfire Press) and You Sexy Thing (Tor MacMillan). For more information, as well as links to fiction and online school The Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, see kittywumpus.net. They are represented by Seth Fishman of the Gernert Agency.