February 1, 2011

The Hedge Wizard by Elanore Hall

      Once upon a time, there was an old hedge wizard named Ben who loved children. He was a shy man, but very kind and gentle, and he lived in a little house with a beautiful garden by the river. When people came to him for advice or charms, he always did his best to help with his meager magical skills.

      The children of the village loved him like a favorite grandfather, and Ben loved them like his own grandchildren. Whenever the children would come visit, he’d let them help tend his garden, referee their games in the streets, teach them to swim in the river, or entertain them with magic tricks. When the children came for charms, Ben always gave them with a kind smile and a twist of candy.

      Like all wizards, Ben had a thick tome of spells. It had been in his family for generations, but even though it contained many powerful spells, Ben had only had the power to do the simpler charms. Sometimes he’d look through the tome for something new he could try, and sometimes he would notice a dark spell among the pages. He knew he would never use such foul magic even if he were able, so he never gave any of them a second thought.

      One day, the king’s daughter was put under a terrible curse. Although the perpetrator was caught, the spell could never be undone. In his grief the king ordered all wizards in the land to be searched for dark magic. The king’s men eventually came to Ben’s house, led by the village magistrate, and they searched through his old book of spells and charms.

      When they found the dark spells that were scattered throughout the pages, the magistrate was furious. “Why do you have such black magic in your book?” he shouted. “Only an evil wizard with dark designs on the good people of this village would have such spells. And what about these ‘simple charms’ you do? How are we to know you aren’t using them for nefarious purposes?”

      Ben was confused. “Why would I want to hurt anyone?” he asked. “Yes, there is dark magic in that book, but it is far beyond my ability. Even if I could use those spells, even if the charms were dangerous, why would I want to do anything to hurt the children I love?”

      The magistrate wouldn’t listen. “There is no possible way we can trust you! We must destroy your foul book and banish you to north to where the river runs wild, far away from the village. Only then can the children be safe from your evil!”

      Ben realized that he could not reason with the magistrate, so he sadly left his old home to live where the river ran wild. He tried to make do, but his life was never the same. He sent messages to his friends, but many never replied when they heard what happened. He planted a new garden, but the land was rocky and hard to work alone. He swam in the river, but the water was often cold and rough. He tried to practice his magic, but there was no one around to do magic for, and without his book of spells he forgot much of it.

      Every week the magistrate sent his assistant to check on Ben, making sure he stayed away and did no dark magic. As the months went by, the assistant saw how quiet and kind Ben really was, how harmless his charms were, and eventually they became friends, making Ben feel a little less lonesome. One day, Ben learned that the harvest festival was being held a little ways down the river that year. Ben had always enjoyed the harvest festival and very much wanted to go, but he was afraid the magistrate would say no. Still, he tried to ask the assistant if it would be all right.

      The first week he asked, the assistant said, “There will be children there, and the magistrate said you must stay away from them.” The second week the assistant said, “I don’t think you would cause trouble, but if you are caught it would be bad for both of us.” The third week Ben pleaded, “If you help me, I will do my utmost to not be caught.”

      The assistant finally agreed, giving Ben a fine suit of plain brown tweed and a matching hat. The hat carried a tiny golden feather that made anyone who wore it appear a stranger to everyone. The assistant warned Ben to leave the festival before sunset, as the hat’s magic lasted only until dark, and then the magistrate would be sure to discover him.

      The next day, Ben dressed in his fine clothes and hat and went to the festival. He did his best to stay away from places where children gathered and anyone who might recognize him, but the cheery atmosphere kept tempting him. He wished he could chat with people or do his tricks for the children. By mid-afternoon he decided that he shouldn’t have come.

      As he was about to leave, a little girl came up to him and tugged at his sleeve. “Let’s play!” she said in a loud, happy voice.

      “I can’t,” said Ben. “I must leave before dark.”

      “Nighttime is a long way away!” said the girl. “Come on! You look nice, and I need someone nice to play with me!” She started to pull on his hand.

      Ben didn’t know what to do. “Perhaps we should find your mother,” he said.

      “No!” insisted the girl. “I want to PLAY!” With that, she dragged him back into the festival lights.

      The two had a grand time, but as the time passed pleasantly, the sun sank lower and the sky grew darker.

      Finally, the two stopped to rest on a bridge that spanned the river.

      “I really must go home soon,” Ben said. “We should find your mother.”

      The little girl made a sour face and climbed on the bridge railing. “My mommy’s a big meanie.” She bent over to peer into the rushing river. “I’d much rather go home with you!”

      Ben felt very nervous. “Still,” he said, “I really think we should find-” The girl’s shout interrupted him as she plunged into the river.

      Without thinking, Ben began to shout, “Help! A girl has fallen into the river!” The people turned to look at him, but their reaction was very strange. Several women ran towards the festival tents, but the men stood in place and looked uneasy.

      Ben realized that they were not going to help, so he dove into the rushing water. Between breaths he cast charms to slow down the rushing water and speed his swimming. He quickly caught up with the girl and dragged her to the shore. Suddenly a woman ran up to him with fury in her eyes.

      “Lottie!” she cried as she picked up the girl, dazed but unhurt. “What has this foul old man done with you? Did he hurt you with his evil magic?”

      “Your daughter fell into the river,” Ben explained. “I simply used a charm to slow the river so I could rescue her.”

      “Nonsense!” said the woman. “I know your kind, wizard! You must have pushed Lottie in when she was trying to get away from you, then you tried to cast a spell to spirit her away!”

      Ben was dumbstruck by the woman’s anger, so he tried to explain again, but then he saw the magistrate running up to the scene. “I know you!” the magistrate shouted. Ben suddenly realized that he had lost his magic hat in the river. “You are not supposed to be here! You admit to using magic on this girl, plus everyone saw you! You will be punished severely for disobeying!” Ben tried to speak, but one look at the gathering crowd told him that it was hopeless.

      The next day, it was decided that Ben would be sent the king’s dungeon for his crime. As he was led away by the magistrate, he saw the little girl, Lottie, running up in tears, her mother trying to restrain her. In her hands she clutched his brown tweed hat with the little golden feather.

      “Why are they doing this to you!?” she cried. “You didn’t do anything wrong! Why don’t you fight back?”

      “Don’t talk to him!” her mother said sternly. “He is an evil wizard who hurts children. They’re going to take him far away to where he can’t hurt anyone.”

      Lottie’s tiny fists railed against her mother. “You’re a big meanie!” she cried. “Everybody here is a meanie except him! He tried to help me!” She started to sob into the hat.

      Ben turned and smiled at her with kind, sad eyes. “My child,” he said, “look upon me and always remember how subtle and pervasive true evil can be.” Then he was led away by the magistrate.

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