The Way of the Word

27. September 2010

The Gatherers – Chapter 8

“I think I already told you,” Habbassin said, “that where I come from I used to be the great and powerful wizard of a great and powerful kingdom. My people call themselves the djinn, and we are all powerful magic users. I was simply better than the others.

“There is, however, a major drawback. While we djinn are very powerful magic workers, We become rather helpless when we are locked into tiny, confined spaces. In my case, it was a beautifully wrought colored glass bottle. I won’t bore you with the details on how I was tricked to enter the bottle. That is a rather long story in itself, and it has nothing much to do with my present plight. And cease snickering. Yes, my part in that story is not too glorious. Suffice it to say that I was in that bottle, which then perforce became my home. To make a bad situation worse, the bottle was then acquired by a thieving rogue whose name was al-Haddin. I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of him? Thought so. He wasn’t remarkable. Before he acquired my bottle, he was nothing but a petty thief who barely managed to steal fruit at the bazaar without getting caught. And a good thing for him it was too. The soldiers cut off the hands of thieves.

“Having possession of my bottle changed his life, and not for the better. Well, he certainly thought it was for the better. With my help, and I assure you I never assisted him voluntarily, his dreams grew slightly at first. He didn’t have to steal any more, but had me conjure him everything he needed to prosper. And prosper he did, but he grew bored quickly. I suppose it had something to do with having lived in constant danger all the time. He actually missed the danger, and so we went on a quest. Well, he did, and dragged me along.

“Now, there’s nothing wrong with going on a quest. In principle, anyway. It can be a noble and worthwhile endeavor. Rescue princesses, conquer evil wizards, slay dragons, recover long-lost holy objects — that’s all wonderful and worthwhile.

“Unfortunately, al-Haddin had not a single altruistic fiber in his entire body. He used me to recover lost treasures, which he hoarded in a cave. He robbed caravans and tormented pilgrims. Hey, I told you he thought small. Which wasn’t such a bad thing, for him. He was a pest, but somehow the authorities never bothered to hunt him down. To understand why, you must understand the land where all this happened. Let’s see, how can I make you understand. Imagine a beach. A very big beach. A beach so huge that it stretches beyond the horizon in whichever direction you look. There’s no water anywhere, only a couple of damp mudholes every few hundred miles. There is no shade anywhere, and the temperature is only slightly less than inside Wakano’s Throne. By day. At night, it freezes over. Now, if you were a soldier, would you want to go out there and spend days, or weeks, or perhaps months searching for one man who robs caravans? You might never find him. Or wouldn’t you rather simply tell the caravans to hire more guards and hope that more guards frighten the robber away?

“With my magic to do his work for him, al-Haddin soon grew bored again. So bored that he did something unique. He opened the bottle and let me out, not to command me to kill, rob or maim anyone, but to talk with me.

“‘ Tell me, Habbassin,’ he said, ‘how it comes that all the things I only used to dream of now bore me.’

“‘Is that a command, master?’ He insisted I call him master.

“‘Would you tell me otherwise?’ he asked.

“‘Hardly,’ I replied. ‘Unlike some people I could mention, I still care for my fellow man.’

“‘They aren’t your fellow men. You’re a djinn.’

“‘It’s the principle of the thing.’

“‘All right then,’ al-Haddin sighed. ‘I command you to tell me why I can find no pleasure in the realization of my dreams.’

“‘It is because it’s too easy, I think.’ It rankled me to have to tell him. “‘You just point at whatever you want and say ‘fetch.’ That isn’t much of a challenge. All you do is sit down, count your dinars and get bored to death. You need a challenge, something to do. You know. When you have a dream, and you’ve realized it, you’ll find that a considerable part of the pleasure comes from pursuing that dream. Often, having accomplished your desires is a major let-down.’

“‘I do believe you’re right,’ al-Haddin said. ‘This is all too easy. The caravan guards have not the power to oppose you, and since the soldiers can’t be bothered to come out here and chase me, I am undisputed ruler of …’ At this point he looked around and for I think the first time really saw the cave he had made our home. I had used my powers to make it a little more comfortable, but it was still a cave. ‘Of tons and tons of dirt,’ he finished. ‘No wonder the soldiers won’t come out here. There is nothing of value here. Except what I have gathered here, and that doesn’t mean anything at all. Tell me, djinn, could you have provided all this without having to rob caravans?’

“‘Naturally.’

“‘I was afraid you’d say that,’ he sighed. He actually looked sad. ‘What good is having the power to work miracles if there is no challenge?’ he wailed. ‘What good are great accomplishments when … when there isn’t anyone around to admire them?’ He clapped his hands, delighted. ‘I have it, djinn,’ he cried. ‘We shall conquer a city, no, a nation, and lord over those puny mortals. That will give us a lasting challenge, and something they will write poems about in eons to come.’

“Me, I thought he’d finally lost it. And I couldn’t help but pity the poor sods who’d fall under his spell. But so long as he held the bottle, there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Well, there was one thing. You may have noticed that he wasn’t too bright. I had to obey his commands, but I’d sooner let Shaitan take me than do his thinking for him.

“‘I need to know where everything is,’ he said. ‘Show me a map of the land.’

“I conjured a map, a nice one with a red X to mark the spot where we were. It was an accurate map too, showing every dune and hill and mountain and city of the land.

“‘I like that one,’ al-Haddin said, pointing at one of the cities a little farther north. ‘I like its name. Zuhayr. The Sparkling. Think you that name might come from an abundance of sparkling jewels, djinn? No, that’s no command. Forget it. We shall conquer that city, djinn. And when we have, we shall rule it. Well, I shall. But I’ll see to it that you’ll get proper respect.’

He thought about it, or pretended to. I’m still not sure he ever really thought at all. ‘I command you to transport us both to Zuhayr with no time wasted.’

“‘Instantaneously, you mean.’

“‘That’s what I said, didn’t I?’

“‘Hold on to your stuff, then,’ I said and wove the transport spell around us, the same spell I used to transport all of us into this cave.

“I put us a few miles outside the city. It was quite a large city, sprawling, with thousands of people living inside. I wanted al-Haddin to see it before doing anything, hoping that perhaps he would see the folly of his ways and abandon his mad scheme.

“I should have known better.

“‘That’s quite a bit we’ve bitten off,’ al-Haddin said. ‘Are you sure we can chew it?’

“‘No,’ I replied. ‘A city this huge has to have a wizard in residence. Perhaps more than one. If he’s good, or they, we might lose.’

“‘We’ll never know until we try,’ al-Haddin said, rubbing his hands. ‘Let’s get on with it.’ He pointed at the city. ‘I command you to conquer that city for me.’

“I had no choice but to obey. The first thing I did was issue a challenge.

“‘I claim this city for my master, al-Haddin,’ I declared, loud enough for everyone in the city to hear me. ‘You have no choice but to obey. All hail your new master, al-Haddin the Magnificent.’

“They were less than impressed.

“‘It seems they refuse to simply surrender their city,’ I informed al-Haddin.

“‘Then I command you to conquer it with force.’

“I had no choice. The first thing I did was call up a sandstorm. Not a big one; I didn’t want to hurt anyone, only scare them.

“Mind you, it was a magical sandstorm. That means it wouldn’t blow until its force was spent, it would blow until I’d tell it to stop.

“But it stopped without my say-so.

“‘There must be a wizard in that city,’ I told al-Haddin.

“‘Then destroy him,’ al-Haddin said. ‘But before you do, I want an orange. I’m hungry.’

“‘I gave him an orange and flew toward the city. I was met halfway by a man flying toward me from the city.

“‘You’re a djinn,’ he said when he reached me.

“‘And you’re observant,’ I replied.

“‘What are you doing here? I thought you djinn were peaceful.’

“‘I’m under a bottle-geas, and the man who commands me wants to rule your city.’

“‘Not while I’m around to prevent it,’ the wizard said.

“‘I was afraid you’d say that,’ I said. ‘I suppose that means we have to fight.’

“‘Unless your master sees reason…’

“‘Hardly likely,’ I shrugged.

“‘Then we fight.’

“And fight we did. It was a great battle. I was compelled to fight, so I don’t think I really did my best, but the wizard was no slouch either. After an hour of trading spells, I decided that perhaps he was even better than I. Slowly but surely, he drove me back into the desert.

“I think it happened during the earthquake he caused. It distracted me for a while, as I had to save myself, but when I took to the air to escape its effects, the compulsion to fight him, to do my master’s bidding, had vanished.

“I instantly realized what had happened. Somehow, the earthquake the wizard had conjured had broken the bottle. And without the bottle, I was free to do what I wished.

“I retreated back to the camp, where al-Haddin stared at he and shook his fist at me.

“‘What are you doing retreating?’ he yelled at me. ‘I command you to beat that wizard and conquer that city, so that I might rule it.’

“‘Oh, stuff it,’ I said and changed him into a toad.

“The wizard, close behind me, arrived and saw what I had done.

“‘I thought you were under a geas,’ he said. I rummaged through al-Haddin’s pack and pulled out a couple of glass shards.

“‘It broke when this bottle did,’ I said, showing him the shards. ‘I’m my own djinn again.’

“‘I’m glad. The city was in serious danger from our fight.’

“‘I’m glad too. But what do we do with al-Haddin here?’

“‘That is the least of our problems,’ the wizard said. He cast a fireball and incinerated al-Haddin. And good riddance, I say.

“‘That’s all nice and well,’ I said, watching the smoldering remains of the toad. ‘But I have a major problem now. You see, my home isn’t in this dimension.’

“‘So?’

“‘I’m stuck here. I don’t know how to travel dimensions. Do you?’

“‘I fear not. But I have many books of ancient knowledge. Perhaps the answer you seek is in there somewhere.’

“The wizard, whose name was Salazar, let me join his entourage and took me to his home. He lived in a palace. I mean that quite literally. Salazar served a great and mighty sultan and was charged with Zuhayr’s magical defense. Al-Haddin had attacked the city, and Salazar had defended it. Now he brought me to live with him in the palace.

“That was the life. There were beautiful wenches who lived only to serve my every whim. I studied magic with Salazar and became even more powerful than I had already been. I studied the books in his library, looking for a way home. I kept the shards of my bottle, to remind me what I had lost and regained. And there were strange and exotic sights to marvel at.

“But it grew stale after a while. I was the only one of my kind. Despite the friendly people who were all around me, I felt lonely after a while. Servants do not replace friends. Admirers can’t replace family. Strange and exotic sights and hard work cannot replace excitement and adventures. Truth to tell, while I had hated working for al-Haddin, I had grown accustomed to it. I’d even come to appreciate the finer points in that existance. I found life to be stale without the rush of danger and excitement al-Haddin had unwittingly provided.

“So I started to provide some distractions.

“It wasn’t that much I did. I spread a rumor that our sultan considered conquering a neighboring city-state. They promptly sent their wizard to fight Salazar. We won, of course. Then, there was that mad prophet who had come to Zuhayr to preach of his god. I helped him with his miracles, without revealing myself of course. He thought it was his god working through him. You wouldn’t believe how quickly a couple of miracles can convert the unbelievers. It was quite amusing for a while. Until the prophet decided he was powerful enough to force the sultan off his throne. Those stupid converts actually followed his order when he told them to rebel. We put the rebellion down, of course. You should have seen the prophet’s face when he tried to work his miracles against me and found his god had abandoned him! Hmm, I don’t think Salazar or the sultan were as amused as I. I think it’s a blessing they never found out what I had to do with it. At least I think they never found out.

“There were another couple of pranks I played on them. They are too numerous to mention, and I can’t quite decide which ones I should amuse you with. Hmm, perhaps I won’t go into details on any of them just now. Just trust me when I say, they were some real hoots.

“I think the one where I went too far was after that argument with the vizir. I don’t even remember exactly what the argument was about. It had something to do with the sultan’s harem, and a prank I’d played on them. The sultan hadn’t seen the humor in the prank, and the vizir always toed the party line. Anyway, I soon tired of the argument, so I told the vizir he was nothing but the sultan’s parrot and turned him into one. A parrot, that is, not a sultan. You should have heard him squawk as he waddled away. I don’t think he ever figured out how to fly. He wasn’t a parrot for long, though. I suppose he waddled straight to Salazar and somehow convinced him that he wasn’t what he seemed. On the other hand, aren’t politicians always? Well, Salazar came to me with the parrot on his shoulder and asked me what it was all about. Right there in the courtyard, with all the courtesans and courtiers gathered round. The situation had a great potential for embarrassment, for me, so I turned the tables on them and changed the vizir back right where he was, which was perched on Salazar’s shoulder. So the joke was on them. Everybody found it very funny, except for Salazar and the vizir.

“‘Salazar, you brought that demon into the palace,’ the vizir cried. ‘It’s your duty to remove it now before it does real harm.’

“‘You’ve gone a step too far, Habbassin my friend,’ Salazar said.

“‘ You know I held back the last time we fought,’ I reminded him. ‘I won’t go so easy on you this time.’

‘I care not about that,’ Salazar said, raising his hands. ‘It is my duty to defend my sultan. Have at thee!’

“With those words, he began his conjurations. While he’s delivered his speech, though, I had prepared for his attack, and was ready. Oh, what a battle it was. The magic we wrought to defeat the other was mighty and terrible, worthy of a conflict the gods themselves might carry out. The spells we created to defeat each other were the likes never seen again in Zuhayr. And better off for it they are, I’m sure. I don’t know how much time has passed since then, but if the time has been long enough I’m sure our fight has since passed on into legend. It levelled the palace, that much I remember.

“I told you that Salazar taught me most of what I knew. Unfortunately, he only taught me most and not all of what he knew. Eventually, I fell to my knees, exhausted from spending so much of my power in such a short time.

I looked at him closely and saw that he too was close to exhaustion. Had I marshalled my remaining strength for one last effort, I would have beaten him.

“‘Do you yield?’ he said.

“‘I didn’t start this fight,’ I told him, ‘but I choose to be the one to end it. If that means I must yield, so be it.’

“‘I am glad,’ Salazar said, ‘that this battle is over. But I fear you can not remain in this sultanate. You must go into exile.’ The vizir had other plans, though.

“‘You must banish this creature,’ he demanded. ‘Canst you not see what damage it has caused.’ He obliquely avoided noticing that the entire fight had been his fault. ‘A creature of such power cannot remain unchecked. It might return and wreak terrible vengeance on what remains of our once beautiful city. You must do something about him.’

“‘But I cannot send him home,’ Salazar said. ‘I don’t know where his kind come from. And banishing him anywhere else would be cruel.’

“‘To those who live there, aye,’ the vizir said. I considered changing him back into a parrot. ‘But don’t you forget one thing? He’s a djinn.’

“‘Yeah?’ I said. ‘So what?’

“‘Djinn live in bottles, don’t they? Just put it in a bottle, put the stopper in and we can forget about it.’

“‘Our fight most likely destroyed every shard of glass in the city,’ Salazar said. Had I said my former friend before? He was my friend still, trying to find a way out of this dilemma for me.

“‘Then imprison him in anything else. I care not what, so long as he can not harm the city any further.’

“Rubbing his chin, Salazar looked around the grand room we had fought in. Among the rubble, something caught his eye. He went to fetch it.

“It was a lamp. Out of many lamps that lit this room, when it had been a room, one had survived.

“‘That must be an omen,’ Salazar said. The vizir nodded eagerly. ‘Habbassin, you must get into this lamp.’

“‘What if I don’t?’

“‘We will kill you,’ the vizir said helpfully.

“‘Can I turn him back into a parrot?’ I asked Salazar. Salazar laughed.

“‘No, my friend,’ he said. ‘But it is banishment or death. Before you choose, think about it. Sooner or later, someone will release you from the lamp. Nothing can release you from death.’

“Now, being imprisoned in a bottle in every djinn’s worst nightmare. It’s terribly cramped in there, and you can only get out if someone pulls the stopper. Even worse, when someone lets a djinn out of a bottle, the djinn has to… But that is not for children to hear.

“The lamp, I noticed, had no stopper. There was the opening where the oil was filled in, and the opening where the wick is stuck in. No stopper, that meant I should be able to get in and out at my leisure.

“‘I choose the lamp,’ I said. ‘But before I go…’ I wove one last spell and turned the vizir back into a parrot. Then I turned myself to smoke and went into the lamp.

‘I spent a little while laughing about the vizir’s face when he squawked instead of speaking. After I felt enough time had passed, I decided I could safely get out of the lamp.

“Only I couldn’t. I was stuck in the lamp, as surely as if it were a stoppered bottle.

“And that ends my tale. I resigned myself to spend eternity in the lamp. Obviously, the same rules apply to djinns in lamps as to djinns in bottles. Anyway, you found me, rubbed the lamp and released me. That’s the first thing I’ve known since Salazar trapped me so ignominiously. I don’t know where your island is in relation to Zuhayr, or how the lamp ended up here. But then,” Habbassin shrugged, “I don’t think it’s worth the effort to find a way to go back.” He stared into the fire for a moment. “I’d love to go back home, however. I expect everybody I knew is dead by now, but still. There’s no place like home, children, never mind what kind of a place it is. And don’t let anyone ever tell you anything else.”

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