The Story of Thalaba
The Meeting of the Magicians
Many years ago there was in Arabia a great Society of very powerful magicians. These by diligent practice of their art had learnt such spells that they could do almost what they would, even to making the sun dark at noon-day. There was no end to the wickedness that they did, and the whole country groaned from the tyranny which they exercised upon it. These magicians had their chief meeting-place in a great cave under the sea, which was called the Domdaniel cavern; and here, when this story begins, they were assembled to deliberate about a very grave matter. It had been revealed to them by their art that a child had been born in Arabia who should destroy them and their dwelling, unless indeed they could first kill him. Further, they had learnt that this child was the son of a certain Hodeirah, an Arab chief who lived in the desert. Knowing this, the heads of the Society assembled together, and drew lots who should go to kill Hodeirah and his wife and children. He had eight children, and as the magicians did not know who among the eight should be the Destroyer, it was needful that all should be slain. One of the Society, whose name was Okba, drew the lot, and went immediately to do his errand, and the others waited till he should return; and as he could transport himself by his art in a moment of time whithersoever he would, they had no need to wait long.
There were three that sat together in the cavern; that is to say, three of greater note than the rest, namely, Khawla, the witch, and Lobaba, and Abdaldar. Before these three burned ten flames, that sprang up from the rocky floor of the cavern, and burned without fuel. One flame was the life of Iodeirah, and one the life of Zeinab his wife, and there was a flame for the life of each of his eight children. "Burn flames," cried Abdaldar, "burn while the race of Hobdeirah lives." As they looked the flames began to grow dim and to waver. "Curse on him!" cried Khawla the witch, "curse on Okba's hasty hand!" The fool has failed; eight only are gone out."
So saying, she turned to inquire of the Teraph, or oracle, which the magicians had set up in their cave. This oracle was the head of a child, fixed on a plate of gold, and on the plate was written the name of an evil spirit. Only the eyes had life, and the mouth could speak. "Tell me," she said, "is the fire gone out that threatens the race of the magicians?"
The head answered, "The fire yet lives."
At that moment came Okba, bearing in his hand a dagger dripping with blood. "See the flames, Okba," said Khawla the witch. "See how they burn; and you know that while they burn, we are in danger. Did your heart fail you? Could you not see? A curse on your weakness."
"Khawla," said Okba, "you should have known me better. Eight times I struck, and I struck home; there needed no second blow. But when I would have struck the ninth time, there came a cloud about me, and my eyes could see nothing. I struck through the cloud with my dagger, and the dagger was driven back upon myself, and I heard a voice that said, 'Cease, son of Perdition. Thou canst not change what is written in the book of fate.'"
Then Khawla turned again to the oracle. "Tell me," she said, "where our enemy is hidden."
The dead lips answered, "I behold the sea, and I behold the land, but the boy is neither on the sea nor on the land."
Lobaba said, "A power that is mightier than we are protects him; but see! one of the Fires burns dim! see, it quivers! it goes out!"
As he spoke, the ninth fire went out; and only the tenth was left, a pale blue flame that seemed to tremble on the floor, as if the darkness would have swallowed it up. But while the magicians looked it grew and grew and spread over all the space where the ten had been.
And from thence it extended itself over the whole cave, so that the eyes of the Teraph, which before had shone so brightly, were dim in comparison with it; and the faces of the magicians were' ghastly pale as they looked at it.
Khawla was the first that regained her courage. She called up the chief of the evil spirits that were her servants, and said, "Tell me, Spirit, where lives the boy whose life is in the fire that burns before us?"
The Spirit said, "I cannot see him either on the sea or on the earth. Ask some believing spirit; I cannot answer thee."
"Bring Hodeirah," said Khawla; and, in a moment, so mighty were her spells, the dead man was laid at her feet, with the blood not yet clotted on his wound, and in his hand the sword which he had grasped in his death.
"Art thou in Paradise?" said Khawla, "or art thou under the throne of Allah? Wherever thou art, thou shalt hear my voice and obey."
And she muttered spells so terrible and so strong that Heaven itself trembled to hear them. And as she muttered them, the eye-balls began to roll and the lips to quiver. She rejoiced to see that her spells had such power, and cried, "Hodeirah, tell me where is thy son?"
Hodeirah groaned and shut his eyes. "Speak!" cried Khawla again. "Answer me, or thou shalt live for hundreds of years in torture."
Hodeirah cried, "God deliver me from this agony." "Speak!" cried Khawla again, and snatched a viper from the ground and lashed him with it. But in that moment Allah heard his prayer, and Khawla had nothing but a corpse on which to wreak her rage. Then the fire spread from its place, and wrapped the body about with flames, and consumed both flesh and bones. But the sword was left. Then Khawla said, "The boy must be slain; but before he can be slain, he must be found. Let us draw lots who shall go and seek for him."
So they took the arrows of chance, and held them loosely in their hands with their points towards the flame. In a little time the arrow which Abdaldar held began to point to him. So the task fell to the lot of Abdaldar. He was to search through every tribe that dwelt in Arabia; not a solitary tent was he to leave unvisited till the boy should be found.
But how should he know the boy? The way that he contrived was this. He had a wonderful ring upon his finger, and in the ring a stone that was more wonderful still. It was made of dew that had been frozen in the very beginning of the world, and had lain with the whole weight of the Caucasus mountains upon it till it had become as blue as the sea. With this ring Abdaldar approached the fire, and caused by his spells that a spark of it should enter into the stone, for he knew that when he should put his hand having this ring on it upon the boy, the spark of fire would go out of the stone. For, being a part of the Boy's life, it would join itself at once to that to which it belonged. So Abdaldar set about his search.