The idea for this story came to me when I had some trees pruned in my garden. One of the resulting branches got left behind and dried out in the sun. It, of course, looked like a wizard’s staff, although I have yet to produce a single fireball with it or make myself invisible. I came to the realisation that it was just a stick. J.K. and J.R.R. both use the device of wands and magic staves (the plural of staff in some contexts) and this has become something of an accepted trope. In many other fantasy works, this is not the case. This contrast, in a very roundabout way, led to this story.
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The old man was dragged across the clearing and thrown to the ground several paces from a seated figure. He tried to stand but was unable to manage more than a kneeling position. Using his sleeve, the man wiped blood from his face and looked over at the raised platform, the carved chair and the woman seated on it. She was of about middle age, dressed in fine white linen with a coat of black fur over the top and decorative leather boots. She stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the clearing and the people in it, who were all dirty, crudely armoured and carrying large but word weapons.
“Please, could I have my staff? I’m old, you see. I need my staff.”
“You will address me as Queen Estamia of the Greenwood, or majesty when you talk to me, or lose your tongue!”
“Yes, majesty, of course. Could I trouble you to return to me my staff?”
The woman turned to one of her warriors and summoned him closer. “This thing?” she said, taking the crudely carved walking stick from the man. “It looks like a stick you found in the hedgerow.”
“Indeed, majesty, you are most wise. It’s a walking stick, no more.”
The woman looked at him. “So, if I were to throw the stick upon the fire, you wouldn’t be at all vexed?”
“Majesty, have mercy on an old man. I need my staff to stand with some dignity before your presence.”
The queen stared at the old man. “You didn’t answer the question.” She jammed the stick through the arm of her chair and pushed against it, causing it to flex, watching the old man’s reaction.
“What would happen if I broke it? Would it burst into magical fire and burn us all to ash?”
“No, majesty, of course not. It is but a stick.”
She removed the staff and leaned forward with it as if to offer it to him, then snatched it away when he moved to grab it. “I think you want this stick all too much, master wizard!” She smiled in triumph at her cleverness.
“Majesty, I am but a humble old man, making my way in the world as best I can. I certainly am no wizard, or I would have much coin and would surely ride in a fine carriage.”
“Yes? Then why do you want this stick? And why were you so afraid when you thought I was going to break it?”
“No reason, majesty, other than my bones are old and I very much would like to stand.”
“Bring him a stick from the wood pile,” The queen ordered with a grin.
A young and dirty child appeared a few moments later carrying a rough branch. The old man took hold of it and levered himself upright with much drama and many sighs.
“Thank you, majesty. You are most kind.”
The queen watched him for a while, moving the stick around and smiling as his eyes followed it. “Does this staff give you power, master wizard? Could I take that power for myself?”
“No, majesty, I assure you it is just a stick.”
“Really? Then why have you not taken your eyes off it since you got here?”
“I merely wished not to offend your majesty and have been averting my gaze.”
She laughed. “Well, you certainly have the slick tongue and quick mind of a wizard. But what should I do with you? You trespass on my lands and have nothing but a stick and some dry bread to your name. Those who cannot pay the toll have to work off their debt. You are too old, I would say, to labour in my camp. So, you must find something else to do. Magic, perhaps?”
“Majesty, I have no magic. Please have pity on an old and penniless wanderer.”
“There’s no room for pity out here, master wizard. You work to feed yourself or you starve. If you have nothing to offer, I will have you executed before the sun sets. Now, what spells can you do that would help me and keep you alive?”
“Please, majesty, I have nothing to offer but my life. Make it swift, is all I ask.”
“And I suppose you would like to die with your staff in your hands, like a warrior and his blooded axe?”
“Whatever is your will, majesty.”
“You are a stout fellow I will say that. But we have no use for such as you.”
The queen stood. “Gather together, all of you. We will see what happens to those who take and cannot give.”
People began to approach from all directions until the clearing was full of dirty, thin and poorly clothed individuals. Those who gathered near the queen were tall and stout and well-fed, with thick armour and sharp blades. One of them stepped forward, a long sword in a scabbard at his side.
“Master wizard, my executioner will take your head, the dogs will take the rest. Have you anything to say before my judgement falls upon you?”
“No majesty, I will not bore you with any last words.”
“Executioner, take his head.”
The man drew his sword and approached the old man, ready to strike. The old man watched him for a moment, then lifted his hands and made a circular gesture. A screech like a winter gale was heard and the executioner’s head fell from his shoulder. The noise continued, expanding outwards and taking the head from every adult present, passing over the younger ones.
The queen sat in complete shock as her entire army fell to the ground. “What have you done?” She screamed.
“I was sent by the real queen of this realm to stop you and your bandits robbing and murdering across her territory. It was good of you to gather them all together, saved me a lot of work. Now you will be taken into her majesty’s presence to receive her justice.”
The queen grabbed the stick. “I’ll break it and burn the pieces to ash.”
“I’ve already told you, it’s not a staff, just a stick. It’s a myth that wizards need wands and staves to perform their magic.”
The queen raised the stick and screamed in anger, lifting her knee and cracking the stick across it. There was a flash of light and the queen was engulfed in sticky threads like she’d been trussed up by a giant spider. The old man, who was looking younger by the second, smiled. “Well, maybe not just a stick.”