My very first published story

This was not the first story I sold but, due to the vagueries of publishing schedules it was the first story to see print.  There are certainly things I would change were I writing it today.  For one thing, I use entirely too much passive voice in this piece.  I am of mixed feelings of the very long and detailed description of starting a fire in the opening scenes.  On the whole, I think it was excessive and could stand to be pared back a lot.  On the other hand, it’s deliberate pace helps set up the conclusion.

Jilka and the Evil Wizard was intended as a short, comic piece.  And that’s really the only way I could get away with that ending.  It’s basically the punch line for a joke.  Today, I’d never try to get away with anything so . . . so.  Still, even today after twenty years I still find it a fun read and get a giggle out of it.

So here it is.  Enjoy!


David L. Burkhead
Originally Published in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, Winter 1991

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© 1991 All rights reserved


“Damn,” Jilka said.  That was the second time her firestarter spell had failed.
She tried once more.  She spread her hands over the small pile of brush, focused her mind on the image of the proper mystic sigil, spoke the word of command, and rapidly snapped downward with both middle fingers and thumbs, leaving the other fingers extended.  The brush sputtered a bit.  A small light glowed, then nothing.  The brush remained cold.
“Damn and damn,” Jilka said. “I guess it will have to be the old fashioned way.”
She rummaged in her pack for a moment, coming out with a cottonwood board.  A row of holes had been drilled partway through the board along one edge.  Notches had been cut from the edge of the board to he centers of the holes.  Beside the board, she laid a wooden stake, about a foot long and as big around as her thumb, a stone with a small hole drilled about halfway through it, and a two-foot-long bow strung with rough cord.
Jilka took a handful of the lightest, driest, smallest pieces of the brush and rolled it between her palms.  When it was thoroughly fluffed to her satisfaction, she placed the bundle so that it was half covered by the board and under one of the notches.  She rubbed the pointed end of the stake along the side of her nose for a moment then placed it, pointed end up, in the hole with the notch that opened on the brush.  Next she wrapped the string of the bow twice and placed the stone over it.  Holding the stone and applying pressure with the stake to it, she ran the bow back and forth, whirling the stake rapidly in the hole.  Soon smoke began pouring out of the hole in the cottonwood branch.  When it was smoking to Jilka’s satisfaction, she removed the stake and dumped the black powder that had formed in the hole into the bundle of brush.  A few seconds blowing and it was aflame.  It was then the work of but a moment to transfer it to the larger pile of brush and Jilka had her campfire.
She dug further into her pack to find her rations.  Dried meat and fruit was to be her dinner, rounded out with some tubers that she had found that would go well roasted.
Once the tubers were roasting, spitted on a long branch above the fire, and Jilka was gnawing on tough, dried meat, she had time to brood.
“Master Carolus?” she told the winds, “why did you release me as a journeyman?  I can’t even do a simple firestarter spell right.  I’m not ready.”
She sighed.  Master Carolus could do the firestarter spell with a thought, and she could not manage it with all three parts:  thought, word, and deed.  Those were the three parts to any spell:  thought, the focusing on the mystic sigils that channeled energy into a spell; word, speaking the words of power; and deed, the gestures that directed and focused the spell.
Journemen and apprentices usually needed all three parts to cast a spell: although often some of the spells, the simpler ones, would be so well learned that they required less.  Jilka had learned the handfire spell, the only spell she had learned, well enough not to need to speak the words of power.  Adepts could work magic with only two of the three parts, usually thought and deed, while the masters, such as Master Carolus, needed only one, usually thought.
And Jilka?  Jilka, journeyman mage of the College of the Lady, with a single exception, could not work spells with all three.
It was not that she had not tried.  Jilka had worked long hours to master the magic spells, longer than even Master Carolus had required of her.  Still, no matter what she did, the magic would not come.  She had been expecting to be discharged as unfit; that would have shamed her, but she would have understood.  But what he had done, she could not understand.  He had promoted her to journeyman from apprentice.  A journeyman mage who could not work magic.
And to make matters worse, while she had been brooding, the tubers had burned.  She did not know whether to laugh or cry.
And so it was that, still half starved, Jilka made her bed.
The next day, Jilka reached the village of Embron.  It had a good location, where the North road crossed a fair sized river.  Jilka had no doubt that in time it would become a city of some standing, but that was a concern for the future.  For the time being, she would find the inn and get a hot meal where she would not have to worry about balky firestarter spells or burnt tubers.
The inn was where she would have expected it to be, next to the river.  She found a quiet corner and ordered a simple meal.
It was such a shame that she would not be able to enjoy it.
“Lady?” The boy stood across the table from her.
The table was almost as tall as he was.  He peered up at her with large brown eyes, rimmed red from crying.
“Oh, no,” Jilka said softly.  Whenever anyone addressed a mage uninvited, it was always because they wanted something.  And the thing they always wanted was magic.  She would have to do something about her robes.  Her robes marked her as a mage, of course, and she could not have that.  People would always be asking her for magic charms and spells and curses removed.  Asking her, of all people, And thank the Lady that dragons were extinct of they would be asking her to exterminate them too!
“Lady?” The boy was still there.
“Yes,” Jilka said grudgingly.  Well, when she apprenticed to a sorcerer of the College of the Lady, she had taken an oath to succor those in need.  She would have to try.  And when she failed, well, there went any chance she would ever have of any kind of reputation, even if she did learn magic.  She would be the laughingstock of the profession. “What can I do for you?”
“M’ folks,” the boy said, “Th’ evil wizard took ‘em.  You’re a sorceress.  Can’t you get ‘em back?”
Jilka rubbed her hand over her face, pinching and massaging the bridge of her nose.  Evil wizard.  Why did it have to be an evil wizard?  Well, at least she would not have to worry about her reputation.
“I’ll do what I can,” she heard somebody say and was surprised to learn that it was herself.
Jilka looked up that the tower that the boy had brought her to.  Black, of course.  A dim, green light glowed in one of the upper windows, naturally.  She checked her preparations.  They would not work, of course, not against an evil wizard, but she had to do something.
“You stay here,” she told the boy.
“It’s been a nice life,” she said as she paused a moment at the door.
Strangely, it was unlocked.  Of course, who would barge in on an evil wizard?  Powerful mages and fools were the only two categories Jilka could think of.  Well, she was not a powerful mage, so what did that make her?
There were four guards in the lower chamber.  They stood and faced her with drawn swords.
“I am the sorceress Jilka,” she said and struck a pose.  She gestured and a ball of light appeared in her hands.  That was the one spell she had mastered.  The light was utterly harmless, useful only for finding her way around a dark room, but, hopefully, they would not know that. “Let me pass, or die,” she added for good measure.
They were not buying it.  She could see it in their eyes.  In another instant, they would be on her.  She reached into her belt pouch and grabbed a handful of the powder with which she had filled it.
“Behold the dust of sneezing! She intoned and threw the pepper into their faces.
It worked beautifully, far better than Jilka had hoped.  While they were distracted by fits of sneezing, coughing, and tearing eyes, she dashed past them and up the stairs.
The wizard’s workroom was on the top floor as Jilka had expected.  Her entry interrupted the wizard in the middle of an incantation.  A man and a woman were strapped, in wide eyed terror, onto twin tables.
“What is the meaning of this?” the wizard bellowed.
“I am Jilka, sorceress of the College of the Lady,” she said. “My powers have already laid low your guards.  I have come for the man and the woman.”
“And what do you offer in return?” The wizard fairly sneered.
“I’ll let you live,” Jilka said.
“You’ll . . . let . . . me . . . live?” The wizard howled with laughter.  “You?  A little poppet of a girl, not a true mage, scarcely even a good apprentice?  And you say you’ll let me live?” The wizard was laughing so hard that he could barely stand up.  A moment later, and he could not stand up.  He fell to he floor.
“You dare laugh at me?” Jilka shook her hands in the air and attempted to look threatening.
The wizard, if anything, laughed louder, rolling on the floor.
Jilka folded her arms in front of her, placing each hand within the other’s sleeve, and did her best to look stern.
The wizard, in his mirth, continued rolling on the floor.  He struck the charcoal brazier, dumping its contents.
The wizard’s laughter turned to screams of agony and terror as the coals ignited his robes.  Jilka stepped aside to let him pass as the flaming wizard dashed from the room and down the stairs.
“Well, what do you know?” Jilka said.
“How did you do that?” the woman on the table said in awe as Jilka bent to release her.
Jilka smiled. “Ah, lady.  You know that a magician never reveals her tricks.”
“Of course,” the woman said in reverence. “I beg pardon for forgetting.”
As the man and the woman left, Jilka inspected her new tower.
“To think, all I had hoped to do was to get a chance to use this.” She pulled a dagger from her sleeve. “But I never expected an evil wizard with a funny bone.  Who’d have thought it.”

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