The Magician

(1400 words)

In a town in Morocco lived a man named Gilad Hebron. Having no other means of gaining a livelihood, he used to ride every day into the forest to cut wood, which he would then hawk around the streets for sale.
One day, upon returning to the town, Gilad encountered a man on a white steed, accompanied by a number of other men, mounted upon fine horses and dressed in jackets of leather and chain mail. “Greetings!” called out the white-horsed man. “What sellest thou?”
“Why, sir, I have firewood of the highest quality. ‘Tis true, a little green, but it will burn brightly, once the smoke has diminished.”
“My name is Augustus de Casablanca, and my men are knights of the Court of Casablanca. We are headed homewards but it has just come to our attention that the bridge over the Gorge de Mort was damaged recently by a most tremendous storm.”
Gilad bowed. “Well, I hope that your way will not be too much disadvantaged, and I wish you ‘bon voyage,’ Sir Augustus.”
“Well, my good man, it could be that the gorge is somewhat impassable and some excellent firewood may help to summon assistance from the natives who dwell on its far side. I would therefore desire that you accompany us thus far!”
Not really understanding how firewood would help cross a gorge but thinking that he might be rewarded handsomely for his co-operation, Gilad let the men transfer the wood to their horses.
The gorge was narrow, a rocky slash in the earth, perhaps forty yards wide at the widest part they could see, as it snaked out of sight through the boulders and trees of the forest. Gilad saw that the bridge consisted of metal cables fastened into the rock on either side. Across the cables were planks of wood, though many had been blown away by the storm. Two wires, stretched across the gorge above the sides of the bridge, were attached to an archway at either end. Other wires descended from these to the edges of the footway to support panels of wire mesh. But now, thanks to the storm, there was precious little of it left to stop a careless walker from plunging into the ravine.
Augustus commanded the men to untie the sacks of firewood attached to their horses. Gilad proceeded to inspect the bridge, whilst the knights began to build a fire. He could see that it might be possible to cross on foot, by reaching up to a support wire and treading on the metal cables where the wooden planks had been blown away. But it would be risky and dangerous.
As he grew closer to the edge, he saw the rocky face opposite going down and down, with just the occasional stunted tree or bush somehow growing out of its vertical face. He trod cautiously to the very edge. Then he could see a stream at the bottom, for all the world looking like a piece of string. He stepped back hurriedly, feeling dizzy and sick.
He turned to see a knight offering him a skin containing water. “Thank you.” He took it and drank deeply, surprised at how cold the water was, despite the day being now quite warm. Behind them, smoke curled up into the air from the fire.
As the sun moved across the sky, Gilad wondered how long he would have to stay there. He wanted to mount his horse and ride home, never mind whether he was paid for the wood or not. Then there came a cry and a small brown man clad in a loin cloth appeared on the far side. He had a bushy black beard and wore a headdress of brightly coloured feathers.
Augustus came forward and called out to the man in a language Gilad couldn’t understand. There was much gesticulating and shouting, even some laughter, before Augustus turned to the group. “Listen, this man tells me they have a great magician. For fifty crowns he will transport us all across the bridge. Horses, luggage and all.”
Gilad felt relieved. “That is good, Sir Augustus, now, may I go home?”
The knight smiled. “Not so fast, Gilad. This man tells me we must pay the fifty crowns before the magician is summoned.”
“But how?”
“Well, one of us must cross the bridge with the money.”
“Cross the bridge!”
“Yes, but don’t worry, we will draw lots. Sir Asilah, go and collect some grass stems and cut them to different lengths. One for each of us.” He pointed at his chest, then counted around the knights, finally ending with his finger pointing at Gilad. “Seven will be needed.”
Gilad clasped the cross wire with hands running with sweat, cursing his bad luck at having drawn the shortest stem. In the absence of any wooden planks, his feet groped their way along one of the thick metal cables that held the remaining beams. Don’t look down, don’t look down! His eyes flicked from the group of knights on one side to the brown man and a small group of companions on the other side. He could see their staring eyes and sweat on their brows. Both groups seemed near enough to reach out and touch.
Nearly there, Gilad told himself as his feet once more found solid wood to tread. Just one more gap, perhaps three feet across. He wondered about jumping it, but there wasn’t enough footway for a proper run-up. Again, his shoes found the cable. He realised that if he wasn’t suspended hundreds of feet up in the air, he would have no problem walking along it. Then he was slipping, his sweaty hands losing their grip, his feet scrabbling furiously on the cable, then slipping off into space, into the air with nothing between his shoes and the rocks, ten seconds of free fall below.
Frantically, he reached out, managing to grab a piece of remaining mesh, pulling himself up on it and hugging it to his chest, feeling it tear but managing to get his feet back up onto the cable. He could hear men shouting as though through a dense fog. Probably Augustus de Casablanca was more worried about his fifty crowns than him plunging to his death, he found himself thinking.
The man with the headdress thumped Gilad on the back and a cheer went up from both sides of the gorge. Gilad didn’t know how he had regained the decking, but he had, and now, with hands throbbing with pain, he handed over the precious bag of money which had been lashed securely to his back. Then he gasped as something came out of the forest. Something grey and shiny with two red eyes, carrying a curved pipe and a small animal-skin bag. A naked man coated in clay from head to foot.
The man began to shuffle around in a circle, chanting and occasionally blowing discordant sounds on his pipe. Then he took some dried herbs from the bag, which he placed on the ground, sheltering them from a warm breeze with a circle of small rocks. He took a match and set them alight, raising his arms in the air and circling, chanting the same strange sounds over and over.
Then, to Gilad’s utter astonishment, as if reality had shifted sideways in that instant, he found himself joined by Sir Augustus and the other knights, complete with horses and luggage, on the magician’s side of the gorge. The magician himself and the small group of companions were nowhere to be seen. Only the native with the headdress remained.
“Gilad, you have done well,” said Augustus, counting out ten golden five-crown pieces. He put them in a small cloth bag and handed them over. “Come, my good knights, let us proceed homewards apace!”
“Wait a minute!” Gilad cried. “How do I get back?” but there came no answer from the departing knights.
Gilad and the small, brown man watched the horsemen ride away, then the native turned. He eyed Gilad’s cloth bag, jabbering some unintelligible words and gesticulating into the forest. Then, in a language Gilad had no difficulty in understanding, the native reached out a hand and raised his eyebrows.

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