Robert was on his way to the orphanage when the wizard appeared in a flash of light, dressed in rich blue and gold robes and holding a staff.
Most citizens of the kingdom wouldn’t have recognized the Grand High Wizard, though he looks in every way how an old and powerful wizard should. His face wasn’t on the coinage, like the Queen or her ancestors, nor was he on the law proclamations, like the Minister of Justice. But Robert recognized him instantly from the inked sketch on the back of the Basic Book of Sorcery that his orphanage had in its small library; he’d read it countless times as a child, hoping (in vain) that he might unlock his own magical potential, and always ended up staring at the face of the man who wrote and distributed it around the kingdom, wondering what he was like.
The Grand High Wizard looked a little older now than when the book was written, though not noticeably so compared to the forty years that changed Robert from an adolescent boy into a middle-aged balding man with a paunch.
“Robert Landson,” the most powerful man in the kingdom intoned, piercing blue eyes on his. “I come to tell you of a prophecy.”
Robert’s heart, already having lurched into a gallop at the sudden appearance of the powerful (politically and magically) figure before him, redoubled in speed.
“About… me?” he whispered, hardly able to believe this was happening. He’d dreamt of this day for so long… the day a wizard (even this wizard!) would show up at his orphanage and declare that he had the spark of magic in him, and so must be whisked away to the Academy, or, when the Queen’s father died, that he was a long lost heir, now needed to be brought to court and trained in the ways of rule, or…
“About you,” the Grand High Wizard confirmed, only to then add, “We think.”
Robert blinked. “You… what?”
“Prophecies are difficult to fully understand,” the Grand High Wizard said, tone grave and serious, and not at all apologetic.
Robert looked around as if for help, but as usual he took a quiet road from his home to the orphanage that he grew up in, which he now runs. There was no one else around to see his world utterly changing. “Well… yes, of course. What does it say?”
“It is sixteen stanzas of an ancient tongue, written in a style where the cadence of the couplets give vital context to their meaning. It would take years of study for you to understand it.”
“Right. Of course. But… it’s probably about me?”
“Mm.” The wizard took one hand off his staff and rocked it side to side like a seesaw. “The word probably implies that the weight of chance is in your favor. I would say it’s possibly about you, and while normally rational beliefs follow probabilities and not mere possibilities, in this case the cost of covering every possibility is low, and the potential value if it is you too high to not tell you anyway.”
Robert stared at him. This was not the way he imagined being told by the most powerful wizard in the land that he was destined to save the kingdom and/or world. Not that he imagined being in his forties, balding, and with a paunch, either. Also the wizard didn’t seem to have a magic sword. In the prophecy daydreams, there was often a magic sword.
He rallied himself with a deep breath. “I understand. I need to tell my wife and children, and get the affairs at the orphanage in order, but after that, I am ever at the kingdom’s service. What must I do?”
“That will not be necessary. There will be a girl who may come to your orphanage soon,” the Grand High Wizard intoned. “With hair like raven wings and skin like mahogany. Her eyes will be like coals, her stature like that of any her age. She may help save this kingdom, in its darkest time.”
Robert swallowed as a mix of emotions played through him. Fear at the darkest time mentioned; fear for his children (both biological and non), his wife and himself, the people of his town. Disappointment, that the prophecy didn’t actually require he save the kingdom… but also a quiet sense of relief, given the way his back aches when he sits for too long and the pain in his upper arms when he lifts his children up. Part of him wished all this had happened earlier, that he could be young again and off on an adventure, but… with a loving wife at home, and two children who needed him, not to mention all those at the orphanage, this…
Well, it made much more sense. But he also felt confusion as he considered the grave words again. “That… description. It could apply to half the girls at my orphanage.”
“Yes. As I said, prophecies are difficult things to understand. This was the best we could do.”
Robert almost asked how he would identify her, then realized maybe it would become obvious in some other way… “Am I to guide her, then? Protect her? Raise her as my own?”
“No,” the Grand High Wizard said. “You are to treat her in every way as normally as you would any other. Punish her when she misbehaves. Do not give her extra food or treats. See to it that she is clothed, fed, and educated the same as everyone else at the orphanage… with one exception.”
Robert’s confusion grew with each command… it seemed like he would have treated her the same way he normally strived to for all his children, in which case the prophecy, or at least telling him about it, seemed pointless… until the exception was mentioned. “Yes?”
“It may be difficult,” the Grand High Wizard warned. “I do not know the depth of your character, or the hardships that may have forged you into who you are. Perhaps this will require great fortitude, and faith that it is for the greater good.”
The bottom dropped out of Robert’s stomach, but no, he wouldn’t be asked to kill the girl or mistreat her, not after everything else he was told, would he? “I understand. What is it the prophecy said I must do?”
“She will have a roommate that torments her.” The Grand High Wizard leaned forward, piercing blue eyes seeming to pin Robert in place. “She will be bullied subtly but cruelly, for years on end, all without letting you or others know.”
A flare of indignation comes at hearing that one of the children at his orphanage will mistreat one of their “siblings” so terribly… as as well as deep sadness. “The poor girl.” As if being responsible for the fate of the kingdom would not be enough to darken her life… “I should try to find who will do this to her, then?”
“No. Would I be right in guessing you may offer her a glass of milk with honey, if she finally comes to you one night in tears to speak of it?”
Awe stirred in Robert’s chest. Perhaps the prophecy was about him! “Yes, I do that often with children who need solace!”
“Then what you must do is not put honey in her milk.”
Robert stared at him.
The wizard stared back, brow like angry raptor wings.
“That’s it. Will you?”
“Will I… put honey in her milk?”
“If she comes to you in tears after being bullied by her roommate.”
The Grand High Wizard straightened. “Then our business here is concluded. I wish I could offer some further advice, or a reward for such a monumental task as falls to you, but I cannot risk such a thing interfering with the flow of Fate in unforeseen ways. Goodb-”
“Wait,” Robert said. “Hang on, just… I don’t understand. What would… why can’t she have honey in her milk? Is she allergic? Should I stop purchasing honey for the orphanage, just in case?”
“The prophecy does not say. I assume she may have honey in her milk at other times, even, or else the prophecy should have mentioned it. But on this occasion, when it occurs, she must not.” The Grand High Wizard eyed him. “Would she normally have it other times?”
“Er… I give it to children on their birthdays, or the anniversary of when they arrived if their birthdate is unknown…”
“That seems acceptable, so long as she would normally receive it, as any other child at your orphanage would. Just not if she comes to you in tears after being bullied by her roommate.”
Robert raised a hand to rub his forehead. “Right. Of course.” He’d have to stop giving all girls who matched this description honey in their milk if they came to him in tears about bullying… perhaps he would have to stop the practice entirely, which pains him. “What of the matron? She lives there full time, should I tell her, in case it happens while I am at home?”
“No, or else the prophecy would have been for her. It specified a male.”
“Yes… yes, I see.”
“Then I bid you farewe-”
“No, hang on, sorry.” He knew he was being impertinent, and the Grand High Wizard’s time was very valuable, and there were probably others who ran orphanages that he needed to tell this to, but… “Are there other prophecies about this girl?”
“Not that we’ve encountered yet.”
“Then… is it possible that there was some misunderstanding?”
“The word possible is-”
“Yes, sorry, I meant is it likely?” A part of him felt quietly horrified and in awe of himself for cutting off the Grand High Wizard, but the larger whole was still too confused to let it end like this.
The Grand High Wizard eyed him a moment. “Is there a chance you will give a girl with hair like raven wings and skin like mahogany honey in her milk if she comes to you in tears after being bullied by her roommate if I do not answer any further questions?”
It took approximately a second for Robert to say, “Yes,” and he did not even feel that bad about the (probable?) lie, only fearing in retrospect that maybe the Grand High Wizard could sense it.
Instead he sighed and waved a lazy hand. Two chairs appeared with quiet pops, fancy and comfortable as any Robert had seen, and he sat on one. After a moment Robert sat on the other. “What do you believe a prophecy is, Robert Landson?”
“Erm. Well. It’s… the gods, isn’t? Or… Fate. Or… some force, trying to right some wrongs in the world, ahead of time.”
“Could such a force not find some more direct way to do it, if it wanted?”
“Well, the gods perhaps. Though I suppose if ‘Fate’ or a similar force has the intelligence and desire to change something in the first place, it might as well be considered a god…” He shrugged, feeling a bit ashamed now of bothering the Grand High Wizard with his questions when he clearly lacked any understanding of such things. Not ashamed enough to stop, however.
“Perhaps,” the Grand High Wizard said. “But still, such forces rely on humans to act, evidently… and risk failure to act correctly, if the prophecies are not interpreted well enough, or in time. We have found prophecies that foretold of other calamities already passed, with commands in them that often seemed as strange as the one I have explained to you. Other times they had much clearer directives that could legibly have prevented the catastrophe. Most of the time, however, they seem to be pure nonsense.”
It did help, a little, to hear the wizard admit that the prophecy’s directive was strange. “Then… we need to listen to them, as best we can. I understand that. But… if this is the only prophecy we’ve heard of and deciphered about this girl, why is it not about something else? Surely there will be other, more important moments in her life and struggles against whatever threat is to come?”
“Perhaps from our perspective that is so,” the Grand High Wizard said. “But perhaps the gods do not find it such. Here is the question I pose to you, Robert Landson; all your life, you have lived in such a way that has grown you into who you are. The kind of man who overcame your hardships, and decided to give back to the institutions that shaped you. The kind of man who will help raise this future heroine into the kind of heroine that she apparently will need to be. Did you need prophetic prompting, at any time, to become who you are? Did you need divine intervention?”
Robert felt a bit uncomfortable being so praised, as he considered what he did humble work. He shrugged. “Not that I’ve been aware. Perhaps… was my own orphanage head influenced by prophecy, to shape me into who I am?”
“Not to my knowledge. Just so, perhaps she will carry in her all that she needs, combined with what she gains from you and others around her, to do what must be done. But perhaps, on top of all this, there will be one such nudge that is needed, in addition, for a better future to come to pass. Perhaps she would save the kingdom regardless, but some other, worse catastrophe will occur. Perhaps nothing meaningful would change, except in how she then treats someone else who is destined to save the kingdom; the prophecy doesn’t actually say she will be personally responsible for the feat.”
Robert slowly rubbed his face. “So… the reason I’m going to deprive this girl of some honey in her milk at a particularly low moment in her childhood is that it may at some point in the future contribute to her contributing to the saving of the kingdom.”
Robert lowered his hand to look at the Grand High Wizard. Despite the serious set of his face, there was a gleam in his eyes.
“Then why a prophecy? Why would you even frame it as a prophecy, yourself? Why not find some other way to get me to do the same thing?”
“Is there something else you can imagine me saying, that would have a higher chance of getting you to act in a way that you normally would not act in? That would so utterly change your behavior and character, without changing anything else?”
Robert thinks for a minute, then five. The Grand High Wizard lets him. Finally, slowly, he shakes his head. Unlikely as it was to contemplate, he could see how even something like a reward or a threat might make him feel too protective of the girl when the moment comes, if he didn’t understand why he was doing it.
“And thus you likely will, because you have been told a prophecy possibly told you to. By the time it actually occurs, the fact of its occurrence will remove even that doubt.”
Somehow, as much as Robert pushed for it, this explanation left him feeling… hollow. As if he is but a puppet being moved by strings. The notion that his will was his own, that important things he might decide or accomplish are the result of something intrinsic to him, felt entirely undermined by the thought that, if prophecy does not specifically intervene, he’s little more than the wheel of a watermill, turning by the river’s tide, and that other than this one act, the rest of the decisions of his life may well be meaningless in the grand scheme of things, or if not meaningless, outside of some “true” choice… despite feeling consciously constrained now, in ways he wasn’t before.
Of course he had thoughts like these before, in moments of dark contemplation, or when heavily in his cups. But it suddenly seemed more plausibly true, now that the divine had interfered in such a direct and minor way with his life.
The Grand High Wizard seemed to understand, and stretched out a hand to pat his knee before he silently rose to his feet. Robert did the same, feeling in a daze. The moment’s surreality was not helped by the wizard waving his hand to banish the chairs with another pop, nor by him raising his staff to trace a glowing ring of light large enough to walk through in the air… and least of all by then, with a sigh, tapping himself on the head with it, and transforming into a giant chicken.
Robert stared at the chicken.
The chicken gave one imperious, not remotely embarrassed glance back, and squawked, “Because prophecy,” before walking through the portal.