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Until We Find Better Magic
Once upon a time there was a young magician, and he fell in love with a dancer. He was a good magician by affiliation, having neither the desire nor the ambition
to be properly dark, but he was not an entirely good magician, and he often
suspected himself of vanity and selfishness and other traits not strictly light.
Sometimes he was ashamed of this, and would try to do something good with his
magic, like cure a sick child. Once in a while he succeeded, which pleased his
vanity and made him feel selfish. Most of the time he didn't worry about it. He had
a job in a circus, making the fireworks, and it was good work for a magician just
starting out. The dancer was a year older than him, and she was the best dancer in the world.
She was tall and graceful, with thick dark hair that tumbled to her waist and eyes
the color of the filling in apple pie. She had lived in the circus with her uncle the
acrobat since she was a little girl, and it was because of her that the magician had
joined. He would watch her practice in the evenings, until it got too dark to see,
and pretend she danced for him. It wasn't a very fulfilling fantasy. "Why don't you ever look at me when you dance?" the magician asked the dancer
one day. It was Midsummer. He was eighteen, made of limbs and dark hair and
potential, and she was beautiful. "You must know I watch you every night." "I didn't know that was what you were watching for," she said. "It was," he said, though he didn't know it until that moment. Maybe it wasn't
even true. "It is." "Well," she said. "Maybe one night I will. Just to oblige you." And she kissed him
and walked away. The magician was so happy at that evening's performance that he conjured the
best and grandest fireworks ever made, which everyone agreed were rubbish. A
frenzy of first love is never a reliable source of artistic inspiration. She didn't look at him that night, anyway. She didn't come out to practice,
because her uncle the acrobat had been taken ill after the performance and had to
be nursed. The next morning he was better, but she was ill, and the morning after
that she was dead.
by H.G. Parry
Artwork by James Owen
Once upon a time there was a young magician, and he fell in love with a dancer.
He was a good magician by affiliation, having neither the desire nor the ambition to be properly dark, but he was not an entirely good magician, and he often suspected himself of vanity and selfishness and other traits not strictly light. Sometimes he was ashamed of this, and would try to do something good with his magic, like cure a sick child. Once in a while he succeeded, which pleased his vanity and made him feel selfish. Most of the time he didn't worry about it. He had a job in a circus, making the fireworks, and it was good work for a magician just starting out.
The dancer was a year older than him, and she was the best dancer in the world. She was tall and graceful, with thick dark hair that tumbled to her waist and eyes the color of the filling in apple pie. She had lived in the circus with her uncle the acrobat since she was a little girl, and it was because of her that the magician had joined. He would watch her practice in the evenings, until it got too dark to see, and pretend she danced for him. It wasn't a very fulfilling fantasy.
"Why don't you ever look at me when you dance?" the magician asked the dancer one day. It was Midsummer. He was eighteen, made of limbs and dark hair and potential, and she was beautiful. "You must know I watch you every night."
"I didn't know that was what you were watching for," she said.
"It was," he said, though he didn't know it until that moment. Maybe it wasn't even true. "It is."
"Well," she said. "Maybe one night I will. Just to oblige you." And she kissed him and walked away.
The magician was so happy at that evening's performance that he conjured the best and grandest fireworks ever made, which everyone agreed were rubbish. A frenzy of first love is never a reliable source of artistic inspiration.
She didn't look at him that night, anyway. She didn't come out to practice, because her uncle the acrobat had been taken ill after the performance and had to be nursed. The next morning he was better, but she was ill, and the morning after that she was dead.
For seven days, the magician shut himself in his caravan, and neither slept nor ate nor spoke. He thought it was the most terrible thing to ever happen, and it was.
The circus had a good deal of sympathy for him for the first three days. After that, their patience began to wear thin. Having just lost the best dancer in the world, they thought it was a bit hard on them to lose their magician as well, on the basis of a fleeting kiss and the possibility of a future glance. And it was. They gave him until the end of the week, and when he showed no signs of sleeping or eating or speaking, much less doing magic, they left him in the next town under the care of a homeopathic witch. They meant to come back for him, but as it happened they never did.
The Tuesday after the dancer's death, the magician got up and stretched. He hadn't moved for some time, and was very stiff.
The homeopathic witch sat in her chair and watched him without surprise. She had been a witch for a long time, and alive a little longer, and she knew a great deal about magicians. "Tea and toast?" she asked.
"Please," the magician said.
He ate and drank what she put in front of him, slept for a few hours, and when he woke had some more tea and toast.
"Your circus left you," the homeopathic witch said as he ate. "They said you could catch them at Spindle End if you finished grieving in time."
"I don't want to catch the circus," the magician said. "And I don't want to grieve any more. I want to stay here, if you'll have me."
"What is there for you here?" the witch asked. "Just cobwebs and potions and books."
"It's the books I want," the magician said. "I'm going to study them, and any others I can find. I plan to read every book a hundred times over if need be, and keep notes, and talk to travelers coming through. And in this way, I'll find a means to enter the Underworld, and bring her back."
"It would take the greatest magician in the world to enter the Underworld in that way," said the witch.
"Then I will become the greatest magician in the world," the magician said. "I always suspected I had it in me somewhere."
The witch might have smiled, but if so the magician didn't see. He was buttering more toast.
"Do you love her?" the witch asked him.
"I don't know," said the magician. "I don't know her. But she was beautiful, and kind, and clever, and the best dancer in the world. And she was going to dance for me."
The witch looked at him for a long time. "I know how you can reach the Underworld," she said. "It's easier than you would think. All you need to do is die."
"I don't want to die," he said. "I want to live. And I want her to live again too."
"It would be far easier to die for her," the witch said. "And more conventional, for a lover. Instead, you want her to live for you. Are you really so selfish?"
"I'm not a lover," the magician said. "I'm a magician. And yes. I am so selfish."
This time, the witch did smile. "I have a draught of living death," she said. "It will allow you to die without losing your life. In that state, you can enter the Underworld, and leave again. How you use that time with death is up to you."
"Give it to me," he said.
"It will cost you," she warned. "Seven years of your life. And not from the end of your life either. I want seven years now, seven years of hard, true labor. You will be my apprentice, and learn the ways of herbs and potions and healing. And at the end of it all, you will be given your death."
"How shall I begin?" he asked.
She threw him a broom. "Sweep the floor," she said.
On the day his apprenticeship ended, the witch called him to her fire.
"I asked you to serve me for seven years, and you have," she said. "The living death is yours, if you still want it."
"I do," said the magician. He was twenty-five, grown strong and clever from his labor, and he was in love with a ghost.
"Going to the Underworld is nothing, you know," she warned. "People have been doing that since time began. Bringing someone back with you is far more difficult. Heracles managed it, but he was a hero."
"I'm a magician," the magician said. He said it proudly. He was twenty-five.
The witch sighed. "Take it then, and drink. While you are there, eat nothing that grows there, or you will be lost forever. Apart from that, be polite. You can't go wrong being polite."
The magician took the draught, drank, and died.
The Underworld was dark, and mists, and night. Some of the mists were ghosts, and all of them were cold. The magician found himself walking along a road; and though he could hear screams and laughter from all around him, he could see nothing and the light never changed. He walked for what seemed like hundreds of years, and was. Finally, he came face to face with death.
The magician stood in the middle of the road, and faced death. He was young and selfish, and it made him brave.
"I've come for the dancer," the magician said. He tried to say it politely.
"I know," said death. "Why should I give her to you?"
"She wasn't ready to come," the magician said. "There are still things left for her to do."
"There are children here who died before they were born and ancients who lived over a hundred years," said death. "They all had things left for them to do. Does your dancer deserve the time they didn't have so much more?"
"She was going to look at me," the magician said. "One night, when she danced. She was going to dance for me."
"Now," death said, "she will only dance for me."
The magician felt a rush of fury and despair, and swallowed hard to choke it back down. "Is there nothing I can give you that will change your mind?"
"I don't have a mind," death said. "Or a heart, or a soul, or anything else that can change. There is nothing you can give me, because there is nothing I can want."
"What about novelty?" the magician suggested. "Surely, after so many centuries, you must crave something new."
"After so many centuries," death said, "I know there is nothing new."
The magician thought of pleading, but he knew death wouldn't listen, and he was no good at pleading. He thought of challenging death to a game, as he had read of in the witch's books, but he was no good at games. And there would be no time. As he spoke, he felt himself growing insubstantial with life, the mists thickening and the ground around him shimmering.
In the mists he saw the dancer.
"You grant wishes sometimes," the magician said. It might have been an inspiration. "I studied the witch's books, and I read it."
"Sometimes," death conceded. "If I meet a traveler on a road at midnight."
"I'm a traveler," the magician said. "And it's always midnight here."
For a moment, death was silent, as it had been when it had come for the dancer. That was the most terrifying thing of all, but the magician did not flinch.
"Very well," said death finally, and the magician thought he heard a note of satisfaction. It was hard to tell over the ringing in his ears. "I will grant your wish. The dancer will come back with you to the world of the living. She will be given the body in which she died for one day, and one day only."
The magician opened his mouth to protest.
"If, however, you still wish to keep her at the end of the day," death said, "all you will need to do is sing the song I will give you. As the clock strikes five, she will be reformed, to dance for you again. If you tire of her, however, all you need to do is keep your mouth closed, and she will return to me."
"And I will have killed her," the magician said.
"Yes," death said. "You will have killed her. You will look at her every day, and decide whether you want to spend one more day in her company. When you no longer wish to stay with her, you will kill her."
"What if I never decide to kill her?"
"Then accident or fate or your own death will make that decision for you," death said. "As I say, there is nothing new."
The magician was nearly alive now, but he tried to meet death's eyes. Unfortunately, death had no eyes.
"None of that will happen," the magician said. "I'll take her, and I'll sing her to life every evening. But one day I'll find better magic, and you won't have either of us."
"As I say," death said. "There is nothing new."
They opened their eyes on the witch's floor, in front of the fire. Hers were the color of the filling in apple pie.
The magician was very weak for the next few days, and slept a good deal, only waking to be fed thin chicken broth and to sing the dancer her next day's life. The dancer walked in the forest, stretched her day-old limbs, and helped the witch prepare her homeopathic spells.
"You'll have to leave me soon," the witch said, as they crushed armadillo quills. "It's only right."
"Yes," the dancer said. "A carnival is coming soon. We may be able to join them. We'll travel the world, paying our way."
"Together?" the witch asked.
"It will have to be," the dancer said. "Until we find better magic. I don't want to die again."
The witch nodded. "And if you do find better magic?"
"I don't know," the dancer said. She paused in her crushing, then shook her head. "We can talk about that if it happens."
"He worked seven years for you," the witch said. Her voice was carefully neutral.
"He worked seven years for a dance and a glance," the dancer said. "That I will pay him, and with gratitude."
The carnival was an old one, its caravans shabby with peeling paint and faded acts, but there were a few among it with a glimmer of true magic. When the magician approached them, letting off a few fireworks from under his fingernails to make an impression, they cautiously agreed to take the two of them on. When the dancer joined him, their caution fled quickly.
He sang her a new day's life that night, and she danced for him.
"Do you love me?" the magician asked as they lay together in their caravan afterwards. There was a storm outside, and though the fire kept them warm he knew the roof would be leaking by morning.
"I don't know yet," replied the dancer. "When I saw your face in the Underworld I knew I wanted to follow you back with all my soul. But perhaps I would have followed anyone." She paused. The magician heard the blankets rustle as she shifted in the darkness, but didn't know whether she turned towards him or away from him. "Do you love me?" asked the dancer.
"I don't know yet," replied the magician. "But when I saw your face in the Underworld I knew I didn't want anyone else to have you, not even death."
It was a good carnival after all, the one they had found themselves amongst. The performers loved the dancer because she had been around people like them all her life, and knew all the same the songs and jokes, and they didn't choose to notice that she never aged past a day. They were more wary of the magician, because he was awkward and a magician, but after a while he became their awkward magician, and they did like his fireworks.
The magician asked around every town they went to, trying to find someone who could help them toward better magic. He read every book he could find, until he almost ruined his eyes and had to wear glasses by candlelight, and he journeyed into strange and desperate alleys until he was almost knifed and had to promise the dancer not to be an idiot. He found nothing, but he kept trying.
One winter the caravan became stuck in the mud, and the magician went out in the rain to push from behind while the dancer drove the horses. The caravan was freed, but the next day the magician had caught a bad cold from sitting around too long in his wet socks, and lost his voice so that he was unable to call the crowds to their performance. It wasn't until late that afternoon that he realized that he would also be unable to sing the dancer another day's life.
The magician knew how to ease a sore throat, of course, and so did the dancer: he had spent seven years under the tutelage of a homeopathic witch, and she had helped one mix potions while the magician slept. But armadillo quills were hard to come by, and the town in which the carnival was sojourning had no homeopathic witches, only stone wizards and necromancers. They had cures too, but they were far less wholesome, and the prices were very high.
Finally, with an hour to go until the clock struck five, the dancer told the magician to wait in the caravan, and while he was still trying to question without a voice, she took her cloak and left. On the edge of town, there was a house, old and falling down. A dark magician lived there, one with the ambition and the cruelty that her magician lacked, though his roof leaked even more than theirs. The dancer disappeared into his door.
The magician stared at her when she came back. He was already pale from the flu, but he went paler.
"I know," the dancer said, handing him the potion that she had sold her left hand to get him. Her face was calm, but her voice trembled. "Sing it back."
The magician swallowed the potion in one gulp, made a face, and sang. The dancer closed her eyes, and breathed in deeply, and when she opened her eyes and looked at her arm her body was new and whole and young again. She flexed the fingers, and sighed with relief.
"We can't go on like this," the dancer said later as she mixed the magician a hot drink with honey and an infusion of wild herbs. "It's making slaves of the both of us."
"Slaves to what?" the magician asked huskily. "Everything alive is bound to something. Maybe you were free in the Underworld, and if so you're welcome to return to it if you want - I'm no slave master. And maybe I was free before I brought you back, but clearly it wasn't a freedom I much relished, or I wouldn't have gone to such lengths to let it go. Either way, I don't see that there's any other way for us to go on."
"Maybe not," the dancer said, and sighed. "You do talk nonsense when you're ill."
"I know," the magician agreed, and sneezed three times in rapid succession. The dancer wordlessly handed him a handkerchief.
"Anyway it's only temporary," the magician added as he took it. "I'll find better magic one day, and we'll both be free."
"Your hot drink's ready," the dancer said.
One summer the carnival stopped for a week between performances in an acre of farmyard, resting and making repairs while the weather held. The days were clear and perfect, and the magician and the dancer took a picnic over the hills and down into the valley, a half-day's walk from the other caravans. They walked, and played, and swam, and when they were tired they lay together in the sunshine and watched the swans on the lake.
"Someone told me once that swans have a song inside them, that they keep secret all their lives, and only sing in the instant before they die," the dancer said.
The magician snorted. "That's rubbish."
"Oh, and you've seen a swan die, have you?"
"If a swan died and wanted to make a noise, it would honk or hiss or something," the magician said. "Like it had been doing all its life. Death isn't that important."
"Then why is someone's last performance called a swansong?" the dancer said.
"Because somebody made something up about swans, and told it to somebody like you, and somebody like you believed it because it was beautiful," the magician said. "Doesn't make it true."
"I disagree," the dancer said. "If it wasn't true in some way, you wouldn't think it was beautiful, and you do. You're just trying to be clever. And swans don't honk. They sort of grunt."
"You're beautiful," the magician said, matter-of-factly. "Did I ever tell you that, back at the circus?"
"No," she said. "I sort of guessed you thought so, given the way you used to watch me from the bushes every evening, but it would have saved time if you'd said it earlier."
"I was young," said the magician. He was now thirty-two.
They sat there in silence as the sun crept towards the horizon. It was warm, and the swans stirred lazy ripples across the lake.
"I should have said something earlier," the magician said. "But I used to enjoy watching you dance every evening."
"You can watch me this evening," the dancer said. "But you have to sing for me first."
Years passed. The magician still looked for better magic, but not in every town, because he was now on the committee to help organize the carnival and it took a great deal of his time. The dancer still danced every night, and was learning the violin.
"Why did you bring me back?" the dancer asked one day.
"I ask myself that every day," the magician said shortly. He was trying to get a card trick right. The magic was fiddly, and he was in a bad temper.
"I mean it," the dancer said. "Were you in love with me?"
"I suppose so," the magician said. His cards were shuffling themselves backwards. This would have been a good trick, but it wasn't what he asked them to do, and he wasn't sure how he'd made them do it. He thought perhaps they'd done it on their own, just to spite him. "How should I know? Maybe I was in love with the idea that I could bring you back."
The dancer stood. "I'm going for a walk."
"Bring back milk," the magician said. "We're running out."
The dark magician came back one night, as they sat in their caravan eating dinner. The hand the dancer had given him had vanished into smoke when the five o'clock chimes had died away, and he had come seeking vengeance.
The magician was middle-aged, still strong and selfish but with streaks of gray silvering his temples, and he held back the other magician's dark power with fireworks. They were as brilliant and as blinding as the ones he had made the night the dancer first kissed him, though by now they had something more of skill. They illuminated the world outside with flashes of clarity and soared into the air like stars on fire.
While he was doing this, the dancer crept up behind the dark magician and hit him over the head with a cooking pot. He crumpled and fell.
The blow should have done no more than render him unconscious, but when they checked they found that his body had melted away and left only a pile of rags. Perhaps he had died long ago, and was relying on his will alone to give him physical form, or perhaps the dancer had hit him harder than she had meant. They burned the rags, just to be safe.
The dancer lost no sleep over his death. He had been a dark magician, and more importantly a truly unpleasant magician, and he had caused the deaths or mutilations of dozens. Vanquishing him was what good magicians should do. The magician didn't mind too much either, given that his life had been on the line, but he felt a little sorry for him without knowing why.
"I didn't ask to be tied to you like this," the dancer said. It was a rainy day, and both were bored and fed up. "I didn't ask to have to rely on you for my very existence."
"I didn't ask for this either," the magician said. "I wanted you alive. I didn't want to hold your life in my hands. You don't know how much I want to just put it down sometimes, and I can't."
"At least you're free to do that, if you really want it," she said. "You're not depending on another person for every breath you take."
"Do you really think I don't depend on you?" he said. "My life is built around you now. If I gave you up those years were all for nothing."
"Oh stop being so dramatic," the dancer snorted, and stormed out of the caravan into the rain.
Later that night he came to her. "I didn't mean I disliked it," he said. "Not most of the time."
"I know," she said. "Neither did I."
Years passed. The dancer became not only the best dancer in the world, but possibly the best dancer who had ever lived, then grew tired of it and took up the flute instead. She still danced the big performances, though, and every now and then she would dance for the magician. He still searched for better magic, but only in the big libraries.
One day, when the dancer and the magician were walking through a town doing their shopping, they were stopped by a man. He was younger than the magician, clad in leather and armour, and had the staunch gray eyes of a hero.
"Excuse me," he said. "I saw you dance last night, and knew you must be the best dancer in the world. And I saw you with her, and knew you must be her lover the magician."
"Can we help you?" the dancer said.
The hero reached into his cloak, and pulled out a wrapped parcel. "Years ago, you slayed a dark magician. He lured my brother into his house one day, and tricked his heart from him, and I made myself into a hero to slay him for it."
"I don't know about slayed him," the magician said. "She hit him with a pot."
"My brother's ghost is at rest because of what you did," the hero said. "Please accept this from me."
The dancer took the package, and there was a flash of silver as she unwrapped it. It was a sword.
"Made by the hammersmiths of the Iron Mountain," the hero said. "Its edge will never fail any one who can wield it."
"Thank you," the dancer said.
"What on earth are we going to do with that?" the magician asked, after the hero had gone. "Chop carrots?"
"It's a beautiful thing, and we did some good in the world," the dancer said, sternly. "Stop complaining."
"Fine," he said. "But you can carry it. I've got all the apples."
They were quiet on the way home, and afterward, and when it turned out one of them had forgotten to buy tea it didn't seem to matter. They drank hot chocolate by the fire instead.
The magician was old when the dragon came. His face had grown less selfish and vain over the years, as his hair turned to white, but there were lines around his eyes and his back would twinge when he stood too quickly. The dancer was a year older, but she had not aged at all.
The first the carnival heard was a roar from the mountains, and a wind that carried the smell of ash and brimstone through the camp. Then word came that the creature had alighted in the nearby mountains, to terrorize the village that had been waiting for the carnival. It was fifty feet long, or more, and green or red or gold, and had teeth as sharp as knives, or frost. In any case, it meant death.
The ringmaster ordered the carnival to come to a standstill. Going on or going back would draw the dragon's attention, and shortly afterwards the dragon. Their best hope was to sit it out and hope that it would move on.
"How many people has it taken?" the dancer asked.
The ringmaster shook his head. "Seven, or twenty, or thirty. Either way, they're only the first. It'll have the town, probably, and then fly off to sleep for another hundred years. It's what they do."
"Oh," said the dancer.
The magician was busy all that night and much of the following day, and the dancer didn't see him until the following afternoon when he came back to the caravan.
"Are you going to slay the dragon?" she asked him, before he'd even taken his boots off.
The magician snorted. "You must be joking. I don't slay dragons."
"Why not?" she said. "You have a sword."
"We use that sword as a letter opener," he said, dropping heavily into his armchair. "Once or twice to cut the carrots when all the other cutlery was dirty."
"What kind of a magician are you?" the dancer demanded. "Any good magician would try to slay the dragon. Any dark magician would try to help it."
"Wrong," the magician said. "Any self-respecting magician would spend all night fire-proofing the carnival, then sit here by the stove and have a sleep because fire-proofing is very difficult. By astonishing coincidence, that is what I have done, and am about to do. Try not to make too much noise."
"People are dying," the dancer said.
"People are always dying," the magician said with a yawn. In his defense, he really was sleepy. "You've done it yourself. I've done it myself. Someday I'll probably do it again, but I don't want it to be today. I haven't yet found better magic."
The dancer folded her arms and glared at him. "Sometimes I wonder why I even like you."
"If I thought I could slay a dragon, then maybe I would," he said, turning to face her for the first time. "Probably I would. But I doubt it's possible. And if I die, it's your life as well, you know. You need me to sing you another day."
"If we all thought only about what we needed," the dancer said, "there wouldn't be any heroes."
"I'm not a hero," the magician said. He stretched out in his chair and closed his eyes. "I am a magician."
The dancer sighed. "I know. I wish you'd stop going on about it."
The magician fell asleep almost at once. He wasn't sure what woke him, only that it did so with a start. It might have been a log falling in the fire, or it might not have.
When he woke, the dancer was gone, and so was the sword.
The den of the dragon was in the midst of the mountains, filled with ash and rock and bones. The air was heavy with smoke and heat, and the magician clambered through it for what seemed like a hundred years, but was really an hour. Then suddenly the dragon's glowing head rose out of the smoke and fixed on him, and he was face to face with it.
The magician stood amidst the shards of broken rock and faced the dragon. He was no longer young and selfish enough to be brave. He was tired and his back hurt and the hot smoke made him cough, but he faced it anyway.
"Have you seen the best dancer in the world?" he said. "She's tall and graceful, with thick dark hair that tumbles to her waist and eyes the color of the filling in apple pie. She's very brave, and I think she would have been carrying a sword."
The dragon arched its neck and drew closer to him. Its skin was scaled and leathery, and emanated heat.
"If you have her," the magician said, "then I want her back."
The dragon was startled into speaking for the first time in over a hundred years. "Do you know who I am?" it asked. "I am a dragon. I am older than the earth. I am crueler than an April frost. I can burn whole cities with a breath, and make the mountains shake when I walk. I am fire, and pain, and death."
"I'm none of those things," the magician said. "I'm just a magician, and not a very good one. But I'm at the end of my life, so I'm more old than you'll ever be. I'm so selfish that I died and came back again just to get what I wasn't even sure I wanted. I can make truly rubbish fireworks in a frenzy of first love, and a fairly decent cup of tea. And I will not let you have her."
"I have her," the dragon said. "Her and her sword. I bit her in half and swallowed her before she could scream."
The magician laughed then. His laugh was one of the few things he had never thought to be vain about, but it was a good laugh. "Oh, is that all? Then you don't really have her at all. Death does. And he gave her back to me a long time ago."
In the den of the dragon, for what he knew would be the last time, the magician sang the song. His voice was another thing he had never thought to be vain about, this time because it had never really been very good. It wasn't very good now, because the den of the dragon had terrible acoustics, and because at some point he felt the tears on his cheeks and realized he was crying. But it was something the dragon had not heard in all his long life, and he stopped to listen in amazement, and for a moment all the world seemed to stop and listen too.
Then, as the final note died away, a bright point flashed in the dragon's belly, and a bright sword burst through its scaled and leathery hide.
The dragon roared, in pain and surprise and dismay, and the sound was so loud the magician clapped his hands to his ears and was forced to his knees. He barely even felt it when the dragon lashed its tail and knocked him flying, nor when he hit the ground and lay there broken.
Swans are supposed to have a song inside them, that they keep secret all their lives, and only sing in the moment before they die. They don't, of course. But dragons do. The dragon sang his now, in a single note, and the magician heard it. It was the most beautiful thing he ever heard, except for one, and that was the thing he heard next.
The dancer emerged from the dragon's belly, whole and beautiful and alive, and called his name.
He called back to her; faintly, but she heard him.
She ran to him.
"You slayed the dragon," he said. "I told you it wasn't a job for a magician."
"We slayed the dragon," she corrected him. She knelt down by his side. Her eyes were the color of the filling in apple pie, but they were filling with tears. "I'm so sorry."
"Death was right," the magician said. "There are no new stories."
The homeopathic witch was waiting when the dancer carried the magician back to their caravan. They were many miles from her house, but neither of them questioned that she should be there. She had made tea and toast, and stoked the fire, and changed the sheets, and by the time the dancer came back after washing she had laid the magician gently on the bed and cleaned the blood from him.
The dancer sat down next to the magician, and the witch closed the door behind her. For a long time, neither of them spoke. Outside, the sun was setting.
"I think perhaps I do love you after all," the dancer said. "Because when I think of you in the Underworld, I find that all I want is to follow you there."
"That's very strange," said the magician, and he said it very softly. He was dying, of course, but perhaps he would have spoken softly anyway. "Because when I think of myself in the Underworld, I find I don't mind the thought of going, if only I could find you there again. Is that selfish?"
"Very," she said. "Do you think love is?"
"I don't know," the magician said. "I'm fairly sure I am." He was quiet for while, so long the dancer checked for the rise and fall of his breath. "I'll sing the song for you for the last time tonight," he said. "Then I'll teach the song to the person you tell me, whoever that may be. You'll wander the earth one day at a time with them, until they find better magic. And then -"
"Oh shut up," said the dancer, and she kissed him. They were still kissing when the clock struck five, and when the chimes died she disappeared like smoke in the wind.
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