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Makers of Fine Wands by CanisMajor

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The day's first sunbeams fanned out above Athens' roofs, brightening the dust over the manufacturing district. In the narrow streets below, an early chorus was warming up: the chipping chisels of the masons and sculptors, the carpenters' rasping saws, the antiphonal ringing of the bronze-smiths' hammers. At intervals, as if waiting for their cue, hides splashed in the tanners' pits, potters' wheels whirred, and a master bellowed to some underling to fetch and carry. It promised to be another warm day, but few here -- except perhaps for Helios, the sun himself -- could expect the leisure to enjoy it.


As Callias the son of Timandridas threaded his way between the workshops, he heard all of their more or less tuneful noises, but paid scant attention to most of them. Not through over-familiarity: Timandridas the wand-maker, a skilled artisan himself, lived in a rather quieter part of the city. Rather, Callias already knew where he was going, and had no need to listen to find his way. The same, he reflected, could not be said of the man he was going to meet.


Erastos the carpenter's workshop was full today: a dozen men crowded into a space too small for them. Some were Athenian citizens, some metics, and the rest slaves, but in this place they were hard to tell apart, for all worked alike on the same tasks. They laboured over bow-drills and saws; one plied a broom, sweeping up the first sawdust of the day. The back doorway was blocked by a clay pot of varnish being vigorously stirred by a long-haired Macedonian. Despite the feeble attempt at ventilation, the sharp stink of the stuff was everywhere.


Halfway down the ladder from the storage loft above the rafters, Ollivander paused to run his fingers through his dense black hair. It didn't feel any tidier than usual, and he made a mental note to Summon a bowl of water to examine his reflection in. Then his attention was caught by the door swinging open on its leather hinges, and Callias -- looking slightly out of place in his best tunic -- squeezing his way in. Ollivander waved furiously, inhaled a lungful of balsam resin, and called out to him.


“Callias! Come in - I have something to show you!”


Leaping to the ground, he beckoned Callias over to the rear of the workshop, elbowing his way past the sweeper as he went. There in a corner stood a large oak couch-frame, the backrest elaborately carved with laurel wreaths and a representation of Apollo.


“What do you think?” Ollivander gestured grandly.


Callias stumbled over a loose plank as he attempted to follow his friend. “That's very fine,” he said, admiring the piece. “The man whose house this will furnish must be wealthy indeed. But surely it isn't all your own work?”


“I did the sunbeams, here, at the top.” Ollivander ran a forefinger along the wooden contours, as if to give them a final smoothing with his own skin. “Your father shot close to the mark when he suggested I apprentice with Erastos. He's an excellent teacher, and just being here all day is giving me ideas. Like -- see this.”


Ollivander looked around hurriedly at the workshop floor, before spying what he wanted: a hand-sized offcut, poplar by the look of it, with the bark still on one side. He picked it up and turned carefully so that only he and Callias would see what happened next. Drawing a wand -- pale golden, but with a striking dark grain -- he waved it slowly over his wooden scrap, muttering. The offcut seemed to stir itself briefly, and then, in an instant, it was gone, Ollivander closing his fingers as it vanished.


“What?” exclaimed Callias with quiet surprise. “I was sure you were Transfiguring it--”


“I was.” Ollivander opened his hand to reveal a splinter the size of a toothpick. “Here you are, best Lebanese cedar.” He held it up to the light for Callias to inspect.


“Mostly cedar, though I wouldn't call it the best,” Callias frowned. “Certainly not wand quality. Where did you learn that trick?”


“I thought of it just last week. Plenty of room for improvement, with practice. But think, Callias. What are we surrounded by a great shortage of?” Ollivander waved his arms in a way that encompassed the world in general.


A bemused Callias regarded the busy workshop. It didn't suggest a shortage of anything, except perhaps idleness and free time. “Ah--”


“Wood! I noticed it as soon as I got off the ship. This part of Greece has hardly any good timber trees, just olives and a few scrubby bushes. Nearly all the wood in this shop was brought to Athens from lands far away. Wood is so scarce and precious, Erastos tells me, that when Athenians move house, they take their doors and window shutters with them, like furniture.”


“Well, yes,” Callias conceded slowly. “But it's not a serious impediment to wand-making. Wands are expensive: my father can well afford to buy exotic timbers from far-off places. Actually, he throws away at least half of what he buys, because it turns out not to be good enough.”


“Wand-makers are small fish.” Ollivander's hand caressed the couch-frame again. “Every rich man's symposium in Athens needs one of these for every guest, and the smallest of them has more oak than a hundred wands.”


Callias took a deep breath. “Speaking of wands,” he said, “how's your new one performing, the olive and Siren hair? Has it accustomed itself to you yet?”


“It's not perfect -- I'll have a better one someday -- but I can manage with it for now. I must remember to thank your father for the loan of it.” Ollivander spun the wand between his fingers, the light catching the patterned wood-grain. “But let's not tarry here! Erastos has given me the whole day off to attend the Dionysia! Let's be going, and make sure we get good seats.”


“In the Athenian theatre, all the seats are good,” Callias smiled, as they made their way out through the workshop. “But it wouldn't hurt to get there before my mother and sisters do, and save them places in the lowest tiers.”


It was an odd and strangely uncomfortable feeling, Ollivander thought, to be idle when the potters, the cobblers, and the rest were hard at work all around him, the feet of their slaves and messengers pounding the dusty ground as they hurried past. Only he and Callias had the luxury of dawdling, with no obligation more pressing than their presence -- some time later that day -- at a play being staged for their appreciation.


It wasn't even the first time. Only a few days before, the work of the whole city had halted for the opening day of the festival of Dionysus, a holiday for all. Ollivander had been there in the crowd, cheering like a native, as the ceremonial procession wound its way through Athens, leading the unwilling sacrificial bull to the theatre where the drama festival would take place. He had looked for Callias and his family amidst the politicians, foreign ambassadors, and wealthy citizens parading in their finery -- but in vain. Nor were the daughters of Timandridas among the high-born young women carrying the golden bowls of produce, spring flowers, and wreaths of laurel and ivy. Callias, he knew, had taken a direct part, one of fifty men in a chorus representing his deme in the dithyramb-singing competition the next day. But they had not won, and in any case Erastos' demands had not allowed Ollivander to be there to hear them.


Prompted by memories of the girls in the procession, Ollivander recalled that he did have some work, of a sort, to do today after all. He was wending his way to the Theatre of Dionysus not merely to enjoy the dramatic performance, but for the serious business of meeting with the mother and father of his prospective wife. And with Simaetha herself, of course. He was unsure, as yet, how he intended that meeting to go. Certainly, it was a chance that should not be left to wither. But how would his plans, such as they were, be affected by his marrying into a family with the status of Timandridas'? He was a foreigner: wouldn't that create legal complications? Or could those be resolved with some well-timed magic? And, could he decently get married at all? Any self-respecting bride would expect to immediately move into her husband's house -- and the space where he slept above Erastos' workshop would not do. He hoped Simaetha wasn't in a hurry.


“They're here.” Callias waved at a group standing by a Hermes statue at the junction of two streets. By now they were near the Acropolis, and Timandridas, Thestylis, and their daughters were breaking up a steady flow of excited theatre-goers like a rock in a spring spate. Within moments Ollivander was out of the stream and among them, assuring them that yes, he was in fine health, and that Erastos was a lenient master, and that he was almost as capable with the new wand as with the old. Before he knew it he was giving a demonstration for the curious Hermione, Transfiguring a pair of fraying threads from the hem of his tunic into white lilies and presenting one to each sister with a bow. Hermione slipped hers into her shining black hair at once, tucking it behind a golden diadem engraved with wheat-ears and thanking him graciously -- and then hinting, teasingly, that he'd chosen lilies because everyone knew they were the easiest, especially when in season. It crossed Ollivander's mind that perhaps she needed footwear more than flowers: she was barefoot on the hard ground. But this was surely by choice rather than necessity, and her shapely feet did look fine just as they were.


It was the first time he'd seen Simaetha since he'd sheltered in her father's house on the night of the Alastor attack. Like her mother and younger sister, she was loosely draped in a full-length white woollen peplos, wrapped several times around herself and secured with jewelled pins. The red and blue threads embroidering the peplos were repeated in her hair, which was tied into a voluminous brown bun, made glossy with olive oil, and further adorned with myrtle flowers, red ribbons, a tiara like her sister's -- and now, one white lily. Red-agate earrings brushed against an orange-dyed scarf of some very fine material, beneath which a necklace of bright yellow beads peeped out. Unlike Hermione, Simaetha was fully shod in tight-fitting half-boots lined with cat-fur. The overall effect was of elaborate profusion, and Ollivander wondered how early she'd needed to rise that morning, to prepare her appearance for the day.


Simaetha was a span taller than her sister, almost of a height with Ollivander himself, and he found her smiling nervously into his gaze. Her deep brown eyes, he noticed, had been carefully shadowed with charcoal. “You look magnificent,” he managed, “and by Athena, that scarf, is that really--”


“It is,” she replied eagerly. Ollivander had heard of silk, but until this moment had never seen any. “It's very precious and mysterious stuff. It comes from somewhere beyond Persia, but no-one seems to know how it's made.”


“By magic, I suppose,” Ollivander shrugged. “No great wonder that those eastern magi keep their secret to themselves. I would, too, if I knew lore like that.”


“Perhaps,” said Simaetha thoughtfully. “Although one trader spun me a tale of raising worms--”


“And shearing their fleeces in the spring?”


They both laughed at the absurd image. Ice broken, Simaetha seemed to relax a little, and turned to the rest of her family to urge them onwards to the theatre.


“I'm afraid you'll have to pay,” Callias whispered to Ollivander. “Entrance is free for citizens, but for anyone else it's two obols a day.”


Ollivander began a reply to the effect that he didn't mind, and was sure it would be a worthwhile investment, but he was cut off by Callias' sharp-eared mother.


“Nonsense,” she snorted, gently pushing Callias aside with one hand and proffering a little grey disc with the other. “Take this ticket, it's our gift.” It was a small gift, but heavy -- lead, by the feel of it -- and Ollivander reflected once more on his good fortune in falling in with these generous people.


The theatre of Dionysus, once they got there, was becoming crowded. Rows of long wooden benches mounted the slopes of the Acropolis like breaking waves; in the lower half of the amphitheatre, they were already submerged beneath a flood of chattering Athenians. Callias took charge, bounding up the hill to claim a slice of the remaining space, then holding it until the others arrived. Places were dutifully allocated to Timandridas and Thestylis, and Ollivander found himself seated between Simaetha, on his right, and Hermione, on his left.


Despite being so far up, he had a good view. At the foot of the slope lay the circular space, or orchestra, half-inclosed by the lowest tier of seats, with a few late-arriving spectators scurrying across it to reach their places. Beyond the orchestra circle, a long, low building served as a backdrop for the actors. On the side facing the audience, its wooden wall had been painted with marble columns, stairways, and fountains, depicting the Theban palace that would be the only scenery required for this play.


“Do you know Oedipus Tyrannos?” Simaetha was asking him, drawing his attention back to his immediate surroundings.


“I remember most of it,” Ollivander was willing to claim. Well, he had seen it once. “A travelling company performed it in Croton a few years ago. But they had only three men in their chorus, and their words might have been changed a bit from Sophocles' original.”


“Simaetha knows all the words,” said Hermione peevishly. “She has all the scrolls at home, the complete Oedipus series and dozens of other plays as well. She reads them to pass the time.”


“Well, what else should she do with them?” quipped Ollivander lightly, with an inward pang of envy that he did his best to hide. All of his own books had been left behind when he came to Athens; there hadn't been any plays among them, but there were several works on magic he suddenly wished he had at hand. “Better than leaving them rolled up, collecting dust on their outsides.” He smiled at Simaetha and was rewarded with a quick smile in return.


Hermione sniffed. “Plays are for poets to recite, and actors to learn, and audiences to appreciate. No-one with a proper memory needs to read. Words get all dried out when they're squashed onto papyrus without any spaces between them.”


“Hermione takes after our father,” said Simaetha, unperturbed. “They can both remember anything after reading it once, even without saying the words out loud. But Timandridas never writes anything down. He remembers perfectly every wand he ever made, its core, its nature, and the wizard or witch it chose. I think it's important to keep records, though. My children” -- she met Ollivander's eyes and coloured slightly, but kept going -- “will know of every wand that passed through my hands, even the ones that were sold before they were born.”


Ollivander considered making some comment on Simaetha's future children, but was surprised to discover that for once his nerve had failed him, and his tongue remained still. He was saved from the need to change the subject by a sudden lull in the noise around him. Chattering faded to murmurs; heads turned; the circle below was empty.


The double doors in the centre of the backdrop swung open with a bang. Out onto the stage limped King Oedipus, an actor in an ankle-length golden robe, wearing a golden crown, and holding a dark wooden mask -- with unruly long hair attached -- in front of his face. He paused for a few long, patient moments until complete silence filled the amphitheatre; then he began to welcome the imaginary throng that had awaited his appearance. His oration reached every ear -- audible even, it seemed, to the ponderous clouds drifting above the audience's heads, and to the gods presiding higher still.


Before Oedipus had drawn a dozen breaths, Ollivander's concentration was broken by Hermione tapping on his shoulder. With a silent, inquiring look, she proffered a small clay jar, which proved to contain walnuts dipped in spiced honey. Ollivander took a handful for himself, only to discover a dilemma: Simaetha was clearly hanging on Oedipus' every word. Which would be the greater solecism: to interrupt her enjoyment of the play like an oaf, or to fail to pass on the snacks like a glutton? After a short pause for thought, he surreptitiously extracted his borrowed wand, held the tip momentarily over the nuts -- just long enough to acquire the aroma -- and then raised it to his lips.


“Nasim bedam!” he murmured under his breath, blowing gently in Simaetha's general direction.


Her tongue flicked out; she turned and saw the jar. “Oh, thank-you,” she whispered. She inclined her head towards the masked voice on the stage. “He's good, isn't he?”


Ollivander had to agree that he was. The actor certainly seemed sure of his role, which was more than could be said of the character he was playing. King Oedipus was vowing at length to punish the murderer of his predecessor King Laios, who (the other characters helpfully explained) had been slain on a road in a right-of-way dispute. (Ollivander silently gave thanks for relatively safe magical forms of travel.) But the crime was years old, and Oedipus seemed to lack any clues as to whom, or where, the killer might be. So, inevitably, he called for the wizard Teiresias, and commanded a Divination.


“I wish him much luck with that,” Simaetha murmured sardonically, unconscious of Ollivander still watching her. It was, evidently enough, not what she would have done.


Suddenly self-aware, Ollivander glanced over his shoulder. Hermione's attention had already begun to wander; she stared upwards, as if wondering whether it would rain. Further down the bench, Thestylis listened while carefully not glancing in her daughters' direction; Ollivander guessed that was for his benefit. A respectable family could hardly have allowed Simaetha to leave the house in the company of a young man she barely knew, but social convention would -- just barely -- permit an outing like this one. Perhaps he should be making the most of it.


In time, Oedipus' queen Jocasta appeared on the stage, her femininity indicated by a white-painted mask, a long-sleeved white robe, and an almost-believable falsetto voice from the actor playing the part. She (or he) could almost have been the sensible witch in a crowd of hare-brained males. Put no trust in oracles and auguries, she declared scornfully. Why, a seer once told my first husband that he was doomed to be murdered by our own son, and look what happened to him! Killed on a road by a foreigner, and we never did have any children. Well, except one, but that false prophecy was the end of him:


My poor baby was only three days old
when Laios had his feet pierced together behind the ankles
and gave orders to abandon our child on a mountain, leave him alone to die,
in a wilderness of rocks and bare grey trees...


Simaetha's mouth opened in a shocked, silent “Oh!”, although she must have known the revelation was coming.


“That was a terrible thing to do,” Ollivander found himself saying under his breath. “Even in a tragic drama.”


“It wouldn't be much of a story if they hadn't,” Hermione sniffed at him.


Ollivander was half-inclined to dispute the point. Surely the poet could have made a different story out of it, if Laios and Jocasta had chosen to let their child live? Apollo might reveal pieces of the future, but was it not still left to mortals to assemble them?


Deciding that this was hardly the time or place for such a discussion -- though it was worth remembering for later -- he looked past Hermione and her mother, to her father and brother. Neither man seemed to be paying much attention to the play; instead, they were conducting a whispered conversation with a thin young man leaning forward from the row behind them. Ollivander's eyes widened in surprise as he recognised Perseus, the Academy scholar he'd last seen on his first day in Athens, in the company of the philosopher Plato. How in Athena's name, he wondered, could a man like Perseus possibly have any need to communicate with a wizard? Timandridas' stock-in-trade didn't even include the finding of lost objects, cursing of enemies, messages from the underworld, and other minor services an Athenian consulting sorcerer might be expected to provide. He was a wand-maker: someone for whom a follower of Plato, jealous rival of wizards, would surely have little use.


Ollivander leaned closer to Hermione. “Who's that?” he asked her as quietly as he could. “The man talking to your father?”


She glanced briefly in Perseus' direction. “Just an acquaintance,” she replied off-handedly. “Probably talking about money and the state of business, the way men do.”


Ollivander wished he was close enough to hear what they were saying. He silently vowed to introduce himself to Perseus at some later opportunity; for the moment, he was trapped where he was, watching Oedipus limping towards his destiny.


It was a destiny being outlined ever more clearly. Oedipus belatedly recalled a rather regrettable violent incident from his journey to the city many years earlier, before he became king. Then it transpired that he had left his home in Corinth and travelled to Thebes in the first place only to avert another of Apollo's prophecies: that he was doomed to marry his mother and murder his father.


“Slow to catch on, isn't he?” muttered Hermione.


“He knows,” whispered Simaetha. “He doesn't need the silly Divinations, he knows his fate already. Oh, stay there!”


This last demand was addressed to a fly making a determined assault on the sticky nut-jar, which she was holding in one hand. It buzzed around her head, landing occasionally on her shoulder or hair-jewelry, but never remaining stationary long enough to be caught by any of the soft little curses she was flinging at it from her wand.


Ollivander drew his own wand. It had the same deep black-on-gold patterning as Simaetha's, he noticed; the two might have been fashioned from the same tree. Perhaps olive wood was a favourite of Timandridas'; he imagined a room full of olive wands, hidden in a secret room somewhere inside the house.


“Zalizo!” The magic cracked sharply past Ollivander's ear; the fly, hit as it launched itself off Simaetha's orange scarf, arced lifelessly into the aisle, where it bounced once on the ground. He turned to see Hermione holding a cedar wand, rather like Callias', between two fingers of her left hand.


“Thank-you.” He wished he had thrown that spell himself, but he could at least be gracious.


“Don't mention it.” Hermione was once again staring disinterestedly at the sky, as though something of vague consequence might soon be arriving from the distant sea. Beyond her, Perseus seemed to have disappeared, and Timandridas and Callias were watching the play again.


The chorus' final lines were sung, lamenting the sad end of Oedipus, no longer king. The flute-player's last few notes were engulfed by cheers and thunderous applause; Ollivander found himself joining in, standing up and stamping his feet on the wooden benches in time with thousands of others.


Hermione shuddered. “I don't know what you see in such a horrible play,” she shouted to Ollivander over the din, although the remark seemed addressed to Simaetha.


“I think it'll last,” said Simaetha quietly, as they filed out past the statue of Dionysus at the theatre entrance. She looked happy. “I shouldn't be surprised if Oedipus is staged again, at some time or another.”


Ollivander decided that when it came to Simaetha, he was still undecided. She seemed nice enough, at least when doing something she enjoyed. But she was rather old for a would-be bride -- past twenty, he guessed -- and he wondered, not for the first time, why that was.


When had he become so hesitant? He was used to knowing what he needed, and reaching for it without delay. But the last time he'd been so sure of himself had been outside the olive grove at the Academy, watching Plato walking confidently up the path. Now his own path was unclear in front of him, and he knew not how to interpret it. Should he resort to Divination, to questioning the gods, after all? No, he thought at once: on that point, at least, he knew his own mind. A man of any worth would not rely on oracles and foretellings. He would find his own way.


Chapter Endnotes: Lines from the play are taken from the 1978 English translation
Oedipus the King, by Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay.