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These seven stories include Third Time Lucky, Tanya Huff's first professional sale to George Scithers at Amazing Stories. Thirty years, thirty novels, eighty-three short stories, and one television show later, this is where it all began.
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Third Time Lucky
The lizard had no idea it was being observed as it lay on top of the low coral wall, its mouth slightly open, its eyes unfocused golden jewels. Its only concern was with the warmth of the spring sun – not that the spring sun was much different from the winter sun.
"The real difference," Magdelene explained every spring to a variety of sweating guests, "is that it goes from being hot to being damned hot."
"How can you stand it?" one visitor had panted, languidly fanning himself with a palm leaf.
Magdelene's grey eyes had crinkled at the corners. "I like it hot." And she'd licked her lips.
The visitor, a handsome young nobleman who'd been sent south by his father until a small social infraction blew over, spent the rest of his life wondering if he'd misunderstood.
The lizard liked it hot as well.
Silk, Magdelene's cat, did not. She was expecting her first litter of kittens, and between the extra weight and the heat she was miserable. She did, however, like lizards.
The lizard never knew what hit him. One moment he was peacefully enjoying the sun, the next he was dangling upside down between uncomfortably sharp teeth being carried into the garden where he was suddenly and painfully dropped. He was stunned for a moment, then scuttled as fast as he could for the safety that beckoned from under a broken piece of tile.
He didn't make it.
Twice more he was lifted, carried, and dropped. Finally he turned, raised his head, and hissed at his tormentor.
Which was quite enough for Silk. She lunged with dainty precision, bit the lizard's head off, then made short work of the rest of it.
"Are you sure you should be eating lizards in your condition?" Magdelene asked. The crunching of tiny bones had distracted her attention from her book.
Silk merely licked her lips disdainfully and stalked away, her distended belly swaying from side to side.
Magdelene laughed and returned to the story. It was a boring tale of two men adventuring in the land of the Djinn, but the friend who had brought it to her had gone to a great deal of trouble, and books were rare – even with that printing device they had come up with in the east – so she read it.
"Mistress, will you be eating in the garden today?" "Please, Kali. It'll be happening soon; I want to enjoy the peace while I can."
"Happening again, Mistress?"
"Some people never learn, Kali."
"One can hope, Mistress," Kali sniffed and went back in the house to prepare lunch.
"One always hopes," Magdelene sighed, "but it doesn't seem to do much good."
She had lived in the turquoise house on the hill for as long as anyone in the fishing village that held her closest neighbours could remember. Great-grandmothers told little children how, when they were young, their great-grandmothers had told them that she had always been there. She had been there so long, in fact, that the villagers took her presence for granted and treated her much the same way as they treated the wind and the coral reef and the sea: with a friendly respect. It had taken them longer to accept Kali and the visible difference of red eyes and ivory horns, but that too had come in time. It had been years since it was considered unusual to see the demon housekeeper in the marketplace arguing over the price of fish. It was, however, still unusual to see her lose the argument.
Occasionally it was useful to have Magdelene for a neighbour.
* * *
"Carlos, there's a dragon in the harbour."
The village headman sighed and looked at the three heaps of kindling that had been fishing boats a very short time before. It had been a miracle that all six fishermen had survived. "Yes, M'lady, I know."
"I guess," Magdelene mused, squinting into the wind, her skirt and the two scarves she had wrapped around her breasts snapping and dancing about her, "I should go out and talk to him."
"I'll ready my boat." The headman turned to go, but Magdelene held up her hand.
"Don't bother," she said. "Boats are tippy, unstable little things. I'll walk."
And she did. She got wet to about the knees, the swells making for uneven footing, but, while the villagers watched in awe, she walked out until she stood, bobbing gently up and down with the waves, about five body-lengths from the dragon.
"Well?" she asked.
"Gertz?" replied the huge, silver sea-dragon, extraordinarily puzzled. He turned his head so he could fix her in one opalescent eye.
Magdelene put her hands on her hips.
"Go on," she said firmly. "Shoo!"
The dragon, recognizing the voice of authority, however casual, suddenly decided there was much better fishing further south and left.
The villagers cheered as Magdelene stepped back into the sand. She grinned and curtsied, not gracefully but enthusiastically, then waved a hand at the wreckage. Wood, rope, canvas, and the bits of metal received in trade for fish, shuddered, stirred, then danced themselves back into fishing boats.
Everyone stared in silent surprise. This was more than they'd dared hope for.
"We don't know how to thank you," the headman began, but his wife interrupted.
"Just say the words, for Netos' sake," she muttered, knowing her husband's tendency to orate at the slightest provocation. "The lady knows what she's done, she doesn't need you telling her."
Carlos sighed. "Thank you."
Magdelene twinkled at him. "You're welcome." Then she went home to browbeat Kali into baking something sweet for supper. She hadn't got halfway up the hill before the boats were putting out to replace the morning's lost catch.
* * *
Two days later the soldiers came.
"It is happening, Mistress."
"Yes, Kali, I know."
"What would you have me do?"
"I think ..." Magdelene shaded her eyes with her hand. "I think you should make lunch for six. We'll eat in the garden."
The captain had been sent by his king to bring back the most powerful wizard in the world. What he and the four soldiers he'd brought with him were supposed to do if the wizard refused to cooperate was beyond him. Die, he suspected. The wizard had been ridiculously easy to find; legends – and the memory of some of them caused him to shift uneasily on his saddle – had led him right to her. He wasn't sure what he'd expected, but it wasn't a woman around his own age of forty, with laughing eyes and a sunburned nose who was barely dressed.
"I'm looking," he said stiffly, stopping his small troop at the gate in the coral wall, "for Magdelene, the Wizard."
"You're looking at her." Magdelene liked large, well-muscled, dark-eyed men with grizzled beards – even if they were wearing too much clothing – so she gave the captain her best smile.
The captain showed no visible reaction, but behind him young Colin smiled back. The most powerful wizard in the world reminded him of his Aunt Maya.
"I am here to take you to Bokta ..."
"And where in the Goddess' creation is that?"
"North," he said flatly; worship of the Goddess had been outlawed in Bokta for several dozen years. "Very far north."
"Why does he always go north?" Magdelene asked Silk, who had shown up to see what was going on. "What's wrong with east, or west, or even further south?"
Silk neither knew nor cared; and as she didn't much like horses, she padded off to find some shade.
Magdelene looked up to find the captain glaring at her and was instantly, although not very sincerely, contrite. "I'm sorry. You were saying?" "I am here to escort you to Bokta so you may prove yourself to be the most powerful wizard in the world. My king does not believe you are."
"Really? And who told him I wasn't?"
A small smile cracked the captain's beard. "I believe it was his wizard."
"I'll bet," said Magdelene dryly. "And if I don't come?"
"Then I'm to tell you that the wizard will destroy twenty people daily from the time I return without you until you appear."
Magdelene's eyes went hard. "Will he?"
"That son of a bitch!" She considered that for a moment and grinned ruefully at her choice of phrase. "We can leave tomorrow. I'd travel faster on my own, but we'd best follow procedure."
She stepped back and the five men rode into the yard. Suddenly, there was no gate in the corral wall.
"Oh, put that away," she chided a nervous soldier, who clutched his sword in an undeniably threatening manner. "If those great big horses of yours can't jump a three-foot wall, even in this heat, you're in trouble. Besides, you couldn't kill me if you wanted to. I've been dead, and it isn't all it's cracked up to be."
The sword remained pointed at her throat.
"Garan!" snapped the captain.
"But sir ..."
"Put it away!"
Scowling, the captain swung off his horse. "Then we are your prisoners."
"Don't be ridiculous, you're my guests. Unsaddle your horses and turn them loose over there. They'll be well taken care of." She turned and headed for the garden. "Then you can join me for lunch. I hope you like shrimp." She paused and faced them again, noting with amusement that they were looking slightly stunned. "And please don't draw on my housekeeper, her feelings are easily hurt."
* * *
A small problem arose the next morning.
"You have no horse?" the captain asked incredulously.
Magdelene shook her head. "I can't ride. No sense of rhythm." She slapped her hands in front of her to illustrate the point. "I go one way, the horse goes another and we meet in the middle. Incredibly uncomfortable way to travel."
As children in Bokta rode before they walked, it hadn't occurred to the captain that the wizard would not have a horse. Or that she'd be unwilling to get one.
"Never mind," she said comfortingly, "we'll stop by the village on our way and borrow Haylio's donkey and cart."
"Donkey and cart?" repeated the captain weakly.
"He's not very fast, but I can sit in a cart with the best of folk." She waved a hand and the gate reappeared in the wall.
"Mistress?" Kali stood in the garden. "When will you return?" "How long will it take us to get to this Bokta place?" Magdelene queried the captain, who, in company with his men, was eyeing Kali nervously. Garan had his hand on his sword.
"About three months."
"Then expect me back in about three months plus a day. Or two. Maybe three at the outside. After all," she added for her escort's benefit, "I don't intend to take the scenic route back. And you," she wagged a finger at Silk who was lying at Kali's feet. "You take care of yourself, and no more lizards."
Silk inspected a perfectly groomed silver paw and refused to answer.
* * *
It was a strange cavalcade that moved north along the coast road: five great warhorses carrying overdressed and sweaty soldiers, bracketing a medium-sized donkey pulling a two-wheeled cart and the most powerful wizard in the world.
Magdelene sang loudly and tunelessly as they travelled, her songs usually the type gently-bred females were not supposed to know.
"Madam!" The captain had stood it as long as he was able.
A bawdy lyric, in an impossible key, faded to silence. "Something troubling you?"
"It's that song ..."
"Really? Am I corrupting your men?"
"No, but you're scaring the horses."
For a moment the captain anticipated being turned into something unpleasant, then Magdelene threw back her head and laughed long and hard.
"Point taken," she gasped when the laughter finally let her talk. "I've no music at all and I know it. Do you sing, Captain?" "No."
She grinned up at him. "Pity. I'm very ..." She paused and her smile grew thoughtful as she remembered. "... amiable to men who make music."
On his way back to the front of the line the captain almost succeeded in not wondering just how amiable this wizard could be.
* * *
The soldiers treated Magdelene with a mixture of fear and respect, fear winning most often, for their king's wizard had taught them to dread the breed; all save Colin, who treated her much the same as he treated his Aunt Maya. Magdelene, who had never been anyone's aunt, slipped happily into the role, and Colin became the only one of the fair-skinned northerners to stop burning and peeling and burning again.
"Well, I don't care what you say," growled Garan. "Ain't nobody's aunt can grab a fistful of fire, then sit there tossing it from hand to hand."
"I don't think she was aware she was doing it."
"That don't make it better!"
* * *
They reached Denada in three and a half weeks. Even forced to the donkey's pace, that was two days faster than it had taken going the other way.
The captain sighed in relief; he'd about had it with the perpetual heat of the southlands. Even the rain was warm. He spurred his horse towards the city gate.
"Now what?" He wheeled around, narrowly missed running down a farmer with a basket of yams on his head, and was soundly cursed. When he reached the cart, Magdelene had removed her small bundle of belongings and was kissing the soft, grey muzzle of the donkey.
"What are you doing?"
She grinned up at him. "What does it look like? I'm kissing the donkey."
Colin snickered but managed to school his expression before the captain could look his way.
The captain sighed. "Metros give me strength," he prayed. "Why are you kissing the donkey?"
"Because I'm sending him home." She flicked the animal between his eyes with the first two fingers of her left hand.
Half a startled bray hung on the air, but the donkey and the cart were gone.
"Can your Aunt Maya do that?" hissed Garan.
Colin had to admit she couldn't.
"Why not send us to Bokta that way," demanded the captain, walking his horse through the space where the donkey had been, making sure it had truly vanished, "and avoid all this damned travelling."
"I know where I've been," Magdelene replied gravely, "but even I don't know where I'm going to be until I get there." She shouldered her bag and headed for the gate. The captain and his men could only follow.
The five northern soldiers on their massive war horses made little stir as they moved the width of the city, from the gate to the harbour. After all, they had been there less than two months before, and Denada, a cosmopolitan city with traders arriving daily from exotic places, saved its wonder for the truly unusual. Only a few street whores took any notice of the men, and no one at all noticed the most powerful wizard in the world.
Denada's harbour was huge: twenty ships could tie up, and there was room for another thirty to ride at anchor. Miraculously, the Raven, the ship that had carried the soldiers across the inland sea, was still docked and appeared to have just finished loading.
"Two months!" boomed her master, bounding down the gangway. "Two months I've sat here since you rode away! First, I have to clean the stink of those abominable animals out of my forward hold, then what happens but my steersman, may his liver be eaten by cockroaches, sets sail with a hangover, and we come up bang on a reef and rip off half the keel. It's a miracle, although no gods have yet claimed it, that we made it back here for repairs. Now, at last, we're ready to sail." He pounded the captain's shoulder enthusiastically. "So, what can I do for you?"
"I need passage north for myself, my men, and our horses. And for this lady here."
"Again with the horses!" He didn't give Magdelene, who was dropping stale journey bread into the water to feed the fish, a second glance. "Still, as I already have a hold that stinks like a stable ... fourteen gold pieces."
"All right, I ..."
"Two," said Magdelene, her eyes glinting dangerously as she dusted crumbs off her hands.
The ship's master stared accusingly at the captain. "I thought you said she was a lady? Fourteen I say, and fourteen it is."
After a spirited discussion, they settled on eight. The captain paid up, and Magdelene deftly lifted four gold pieces from his pouch.
"You're still up two," she said sweetly. "While you load the horses, I'm going shopping."
"Don't tell me," muttered Garan, stopping Colin before he could speak. "Your Aunt Maya loves to shop."
Hours passed, the ship was ready to sail on the evening tide, and Magdelene had still not returned. Both worried and annoyed, the captain walked to the end of the docks to look for her. He was considering a trip into the city when she came barrelling around a corner, a grimy urchin heavily laden with packages in tow, and crashed into his arms.
"Here, take these." She shoved the parcels at him and tossed the boy a silver piece. "Thanks for the help, kid, now beat it before the mob gets here."
"Where have you been?" demanded the captain as they trotted towards the ship.
"We're ready to leave. Why are we running an ..." He stopped. "Mob? What mob?"
Magdelene got him moving again. "I cured a blind beggar. It drew a bit of a crowd. Good thing the kid knew a short cut."
They sprinted up the gangway just as the leading edge of the mob appeared at the end of the docks. A cry went up as Magdelene was spotted.
"Why didn't you do something a little less spectacular," muttered the captain, tossing the packages over the rail, then vaulting it himself. "Like raising the dead."
"I did that the last time." She accepted his helping hand, having somehow managed to become tangled in a stray line. "This time I was trying to keep a low profile."
"You've been here before then."
"Well, maybe next time you can pass through without starting a riot." He shouted to the ship's master to cast off, but it was unnecessary. The instant Magdelene's foot touched the deck, ropes untied themselves and the Raven slipped its mooring just ahead of the first hysterical Denadan.
"Why," asked the captain, using the toe of his boot on a package in danger of going overboard, "does the most powerful wizard in the world have to run from a crowd of shopkeepers and beggars?"
Magdelene collapsed on a bale of rope. "I'll let you in on a secret," she panted. "I'm also the laziest wizard in the world. Running was definitely the least complicated thing to do."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Third Time Lucky"
Copyright © 2015 Tanya Huff.
Excerpted by permission of Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Order of Appearance,
in chronological order,
1. The Last Lesson,
2. Be It Ever So Humble,
3. Mirror, Mirror, on the Lam,
4. Third Time Lucky,
5. And Who is Joah?,
6. Nothing Up Her Sleeve,
7. We Two May Meet,
in the order I wrote them this is the default order, nothing special required!,
4. Third Time Lucky,
5. And Who is Joah?,
1. The Last Lesson,
2. Be It Ever So Humble,
6. Nothing Up Her Sleeve,
3. Mirror, Mirror, on the Lam,
7. We Two May Meet,
Also by Tanya Huff,