Spelling Lessons

Part Three in the Impractical Magic Series

by Lori Bush (lwbush@gw.total-web.net)

Disclaimer: Not only are the characters not mine, but certain parts of the underlying theory of this whole series are heavily borrowed. Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer belong to Renaissance Pictures and Universal/USA Studios. The atmosphere of the series, along with a few specific concepts, lean heavily on the Discworld books; if you have read them, you will recognize a lot of Terry Pratchett's spirit in these stories. As always, I beg of you not to sue.

Rating: Probably PG-13. There are some adult concepts.

Violence: Not in this one.

Sex: Nope. A bit of suggestiveness again. A concept that has been reoccurring in this series.

Archive: GJRS, JFFG, TedTalk, TRIS, Raye. Anyone else with permission, probably.

This is story number three in the series, the first being "The Gift That Keeps On Giving", and the second "Ooops, I Did It Again." You can find them at my website, http://tedjoxertimandmore.homestead.com/ in the "Serial Stories" section, where this will soon be archived as well. If you want to understand this story, you have to read them first.

This should ring bells with those familiar with Granny Weatherwax and the Unseen University. I had just finished reading "Equal Rites" when I began writing this. Yeah, the staff is sort of Esk's. Oh, and the deal with eight being a magic number is all Discworld, as well.

Thanks again to Rebecca Littlehales, who helped me make it better by pointing out mistakes, inconsistencies and things that needed further elaboration. Thanks also to my pre-readers, a marvelous cheering section any author would appreciate.

Rebecca says that this story and the next dovetail so closely that I should release them almost at the same time, so I will be putting number four, "Every Witch Way," out shortly as well.

Hope you continue to enjoy these. This series will be the longest ever written in the GJRS fandom, I believe. g

"No, I really don't need another scrimshaw amulet, thank you. Why, of course, it's lovely and all, but."

Xena watched in amusement as Joxer soothed the agitated sailor and finally reluctantly accepted his gift. At last count, he had at least two dozen of the hand carved amulets, each one unique and beautiful in its own way. He had given both Xena and Gabrielle their choice of as many as they would like, and had stuck all the rest away, to be dealt with later. Then there were the seashells, the pearl necklaces and the coral sculptures. At least one of the sailors had been practical enough to give Joxer a heavy chest, so he had storage space for all the gifts. A superstitious lot at best, a crew of sailors who had seen a man going to visit Poseidon and being returned by the god himself, still alive, were not about to ignore that miracle. Most of the crew fell just short of worshipping the awkward young wizard, if the truth were told.

At least they were nearly to Britannia, where Joxer could enroll at the Wizard's Academy and be less likely to stand out like a sore thumb. At least, she hoped he could get in there. She was planning to ask her old friend Merlin to sponsor him.

After the sailor left, Xena fingered the fabric on the wizard's arm. "Hey," she commented, "Nice shirt. Another new one?"

Joxer nodded glumly. "The boatswain is quite a tailor, it seems. This is number four, so far."

Xena choked back her laughter at the young man's discomfort. It seemed that Joxer the Mighty may have sought recognition and admiration once, but having actually achieved it, had found he preferred anonymity. Instead she just nodded. "That color purple suits you."

Joxer just snorted and turned, stuffing the amulet in his already overflowing case. "Aren't we almost there yet?" he whined, sounding like the Joxer Xena had known and, well, cared for, before he became a wizard. He also sounded a little like her brother Lyceous when he was ten and they had taken a trip to Corinth with their mother.

"Actually, that's why I was coming to see you, Joxer. We are almost there, and we need to go over what we'll do once we find Merlin. He was pretty young when I first met him but so was I. Hopefully he'll remember me and be willing to help."

This elicited the first genuine smile she had seen on the young wizard all day. "You aren't the type of person people easily forget, Xena. I'm sure he'll be glad to help if it's you asking."

She really hoped so. The trip had been long, and outside of Joxer's little adventure with the sea god, fairly uneventful. The Warrior Princess was bored, truth be told, and was beginning to really long for the feel of dry land beneath her feet. She'd hate to get all the way to Britannia and have to turn around and come home right away.

Gabrielle had done a scroll on Joxer's underwater activities, pointedly rolling her eyes at Xena during his story of the Nerieds who had thought he was "cute", but writing it just the way he told it. Xena got a feeling the bard was secretly relieved that he had apparently shown no interest in the underwater beauties, though. Albeit with Gabrielle, it was hard to tell.

Outside of that and Joxer's daily processional of adoring crewmen, there was little to break up the day-to-day monotony of sea travel. Xena visited Argo in the hold frequently, climbed the rigging on occasion, and found ways for Joxer to vent his magic to prevent any accidents, but she was really used to having more to do. At least she hadn't had to listen to her best friend complain daily about being seasick. Joxer made a point of touching her each day, and the women could only assume he was renewing some kind of anti-seasickness spell on the petite blonde, who really didn't seem to mind the man's hands grazing her shoulders the way she once might have. After all, he was fairly brisk and businesslike about it.

The warrior woman's thoughts were interrupted by a cry from above decks. "Land ho!" She and the young man moved quickly to see, meeting the bard in the passageway. She had spent a great deal of the trip editing her older scrolls, and the rest of the time working on her tan. Joxer wistfully thought her golden glow lit the entire area. The three friends made their way to the ships railing, and could make out in the distance the quaint Brit town of Hythe, which Xena had remembered as the home of the Wizard's Academy. They were too far away from the shore to see the port, but it was just a matter of time, now. They returned below to pack for their departure.

They shuffled off the ship at the dock with some uncertainty. This was not a passenger vessel, and so they were, as a result, the only passengers to disembark. The crew bustled busily about their business, aided by rough looking dock men, who seemed to be the same ones that had seen them off in Greece. The townspeople, few though they were, did appear to have a different style of dress than those they had left behind, however. More lace and brocade, mostly. One of the less occupied of the crewmen had lugged off Joxer's huge chest and deposited as gently as the type knew how at the bottom of the gangplank. Xena led Argo, after a somewhat rough disembarking for both horse and owner.

A tall and portly older man in a long, somewhat dusty dark blue robe scurried over to the Greeks. Xena stepped forward and spoke in Anglo Saxon with slight effort. "You appear to be a wizard." Joxer strained slightly, but found himself able to understand her words, although he'd never heard the language before.

The man spoke as he moved, hurriedly and inelegantly. "Yes, yes, and you appear to be the people I'm looking for." His eyes roamed with indifference over both Xena and Gabrielle, settling on Joxer with anticipation. His language changed, and Joxer found he could understand the magic tongue that apparently controlled his staff when he heard it. "You must be the wizard I was sent here to meet."

"Sent here? No one knew we were coming." Joxer replied easily in the odd tongue.

The older man nodded tightly, unrolling a scroll, pulling a quill from the air, and speaking in Anglo once again. "Knows the Mysterious Tongue. Check." He looked up at the tall young man. "Do you have a familiar?"

Xena stepped forward and touched the man's arm, giving him The Look. He glared at her, but the Warrior Princess was not one to back down. Finally the wizard dropped his gaze, and Xena spoke. "How did you know to look for us? I came looking for Merlin, an old friend, but even he was not expecting us. Who are you, anyway?"

The man shrugged. "Mother Wigglewort saw it in her tea leaves this morning. It's been a long time since her breakfast beverage spoke to her about anything, so she insisted I come find you. The name's Porticullis. I'm the headmaster of the Wizard's Academy." The old wizard paused significantly. "You know Merlin? Interesting."

Xena shrugged. "It was a long time ago, really."

"One of our best students. It's a shame he never finished." He seemed to want the subject dropped. Turning back to Joxer, in a businesslike tone, he repeated, "Familiar?"

Gabrielle was getting peeved. Everyone knew what was going on except her. She couldn't understand a word that was being said, although she did realize that Joxer and the old man had been talking that funny language that the staff understood. She tugged on Joxer's sleeve, and asked him in Greek, "What's that language they're talking? Do you understand them?"

Joxer nodded absently. "Xena," he asked in Anglo, "What's this language called?"

"Anglo-Saxon. Why?"

"Gabby can't understand it." He turned to the bard and said something quietly. "There, is that better?"

The bard answered in the same tongue. "Is what better?" Then her head snapped up in shock. "Did I just speak Argo Sections?"

Xena looked mildly surprised herself. "Anglo-Saxon. Yeah. Thanks, Joxer."

The young wizard shrugged. "It's easier than explaining it all to her."

The older man was scribbling notes madly in the margins of his scroll. His face, at first a mask of barely maintained neutrality, relaxed back into its previous superior grimace. Tapping his pointy-toed boot, he repeated with exaggerated patience, "Familiar?"

Joxer thrust his staff forward. The staff tried to draw back, but the young man held it out for inspection like one would a recalcitrant child.

"A staff? Interesting. Only Oswald ever used a staff as a familiar. Where did you get it?"

Xena, at Joxer's urging, told the story of the old man's bequest, the Warrior Princess only scowling slightly at the young man's constant interjections. When they finally slogged through the entire story, the older man scribbled some more notes, having to turn over the scroll to find more blank space. "So, Oswald left you his power. Hmmm. Since you were made heir, I doubt we need the family history, but I hate leaving sections blank. Father?"

Joxer patiently outlined his family's background, spending a great deal of time on the circumstances of his birth as a triplet at the older wizard's insistence. Again the man was making copious notes. He could feel Gabrielle growing restless beside him, and saw Xena eyeing a shabbily dressed drifter as if hoping he would cause some trouble so she could go do something. Finally, he heard the man mumble, "Gotta get Mirabelle more of that tea." Then he rolled up the quill inside the scroll and tucked it under his arm, where it promptly vanished. He smiled brightly, an expression that fit his face like a frilly apron would fit Xena. "Shall we go off to the Academy, then?"

On the way, Xena attempted to pull from Master Porticullis information about her old friend. The man kept shaking his head and muttering, "Such a pity," but would give her no specific information about Merlin. In spite of her growing irritation, she didn't feel that it would be a good move to put the pinch on Joxer's future Headmaster.

Gabrielle stared openly at the town. Dirty. Not that Greece was spotless, but there just was an unpleasant smell about this place that seemed to have to do with the odd piles of what appeared to be garbage along the sides of the road. She wondered how long Joxer's training would take, and if she and Xena would have to stay the whole time. She was torn about whether she wanted to do that or not. She guessed this would be one decision she'd leave up to Xena when the time came. She looked hard at Joxer's back. Unless of course Xena decided to leave him here.

Joxer was confused. It was a pretty comfortable and familiar emotion for him, and he settled into it. How had he understood that language? He'd never heard it in his life. He'd done no spell to make it possible either. Come to think of it, he had done no such spell with Poseidon either, and yet both spoke and understood the water language easily. Another puzzle he hoped would be solved by his admission to the Academy. If Master Porticullis planned to let him in. He'd acted somewhat oddly during the interview, and Joxer wondered if he was just taking him to the Academy so that he could find a quieter place to tell him to go away. The young man sighed. Story of his life. He shifted his case from one hand to the other. It had taken a very strong sailor to carry the thing down the gangplank, but once Joxer realized that he was going to have to get it to the Academy under his own power, he had placed a spell on it lightening the case so he could carry it easily by himself. He suddenly realized that he was doing magic now without even thinking about it. Joxer wondered if this was a good or a bad thing.

Ahead loomed a walled compound that appeared so completely unwelcoming that Joxer was sure it couldn't be the Academy. Maybe the gaol, but not a place people actually wanted to get into. It was dark and foreboding, with doors of a strange metal that seemed to gyrate in the sun. A group of women, mostly young and many dressed all in black, stood not far from what appeared to be the main entrance, a few eyeing Joxer with obvious interest. The Headmaster smiled that alien smile of his again and announced, "Welcome to the Wizard's Academy." He waved his hands at the doors, and they swung open on their own.

Xena asked the question that was on all of their minds. "What kind of metal is that?"

"The doors? Just iron. But they've been enchanted for security. There are lots of people who'd like to get in and grab a young wizard to do their bidding, but they can't this way. The walls carry the same spell." The headmaster didn't bother to mention that between the hijinks of young men emboldened by magic abilities and the group of young witches that hung around outside the walls looking for a wizard to wed, the spells were as much to keep the students in as anyone out.

The Headmaster turned to Xena and Gabrielle. "I'm sorry, but rules say that only family is allowed beyond this point, and even they're only to come in on Admission Day."

That unfamiliar steel crept into Joxer's backbone that he was beginning to recognize as bad temper. "They are my family. Just not by blood."

The older man saw Joxer's stiff posture and the angry glint in his eyes. He knew that he didn't really want to set this one off, not until he had a better grasp on his abilities, anyway. Rules were made to be broken, on occasion. "But, of course. Right this way, ladies."

The three entered through the eerie doors, to the anxious chittering and giggling of the group of watching females. The doors swung closed behind them.

The courtyard through which they entered was a rush of activity, men of all ages, shapes and sizes all dressed in long robes and scurrying in every direction. Xena leaned over and whispered to Joxer, "Well, maybe I was wrong about the dress code thing." The young wizard groaned. A few of the bustling wizards did take the time to pause and gaze admiringly at the two lovely women who had just entered. Females were uncommon in the Wizard's Academy - attractive ones even more so.

The entered a small building, which appeared to contain a very large hall once they were inside. Porticullis noticed the three staring about trying to figure out how the room they were in fit into the building they had walked into. "Magic," he said briefly. "Saves on Real Estate costs." Gabrielle was the only one of the trio that seemed not to fully accept this explanation.

Several dark robed men were assembled on the other side of the hall. The headmaster took Joxer's arm and moved him to them, the women trailing slightly behind. "This is Jokester," Porticullis began in the magical language.

"Joxer," the other snarled.

"This is Joxer," the headmaster went on, unperturbed, "and he wished to become a novice. He has inherited Oswald's powers, and desires training. He comes to us from Greece."

"He doesn't look like Oswald," one of the men murmured.

"Oswald never married," said another, who then shrugged. "Not that that means he didn't have a son." Several low conversations broke out, speculating on this titillating idea, and offering possibilities for the mother.

Porticullis raised his voice. "Ahemmm." The group quieted. "He is not Oswald 's child, he was bequeathed his power. He is the youngest of a set of Greek triplets." The group buzzed again. "Ahemmm," the headmaster repeated, a bit louder. Once he had regained their attention, he pointed to one of the other wizards. "Barelyn," he ordered, "test him on languages."

"But, sir," Barelyn protested, "that's an ad."

The headmaster shushed the professor. "Test him. Now, please." He turned to the young Greek. "Barelyn heads our Language Department. Just answer his questions the same way he asks them."

The chubby professor was mumbling to himself. "Knows the Mysterious. Start with the classics, I guess." In Anglo-Saxon, he asked Joxer, "Where were you born?"

Joxer answered in the same language. "Athens, Greece, two blocks from Akbar, the meatman."

In Greek, the professor asked, "How many brothers and sisters do you have?"

"Two brothers," Joxer began in Greek, but the headmaster interrupted.

"He IS Greek, Barelyn. It's no surprise he understands that one. Go on."

In Latin, the chubby man asked, "How did you get here?"

Joxer paused a moment, processing the question. In Latin, he asked, "Do you mean the birds and the bees thing, or here, like to Britannia?" Some of the other professors tittered. Porticullis frowned at them.

Barelyn switched to Arabic. "To Britannia."

"This is an island, right? Isn't a boat the only way?" Joxer had never heard Arabic before. He thought it sounded quite interesting as he listened to his own answer.

Finally, the round faced man asked, in a truly strange language that seemed to consist of mostly chirps and whirrs deep in the throat, "How long have you been able to understand everything that was said to you, no matter what the language?"

Joxer chirped and whirred thoughtfully in response. "I only noticed it when I met Poseidon. It could have been longer, I'm just not sure."

The rest of the professors wore blank looks. Finally a tall pale redheaded one asked, "Say, Bear, what was that last language? None of us know that one, it seems."

"Garden Fairy," the stunned looking man answered absently, "an ancient dialect. I did a thesis paper on it." He looked at the nervous initiate before him. "You met Poseidon? I've been trying for years to get a grip on the Nereid's language. Could you stop by later and we could talk about it?"

Joxer nodded anxiously. "Does that mean I passed?"

The headmaster stepped in front of the Professor of Languages, who seemed incapable of speech in any language at the moment. "Of course you did, lad. Let's show you to your room, and introduce you and your," he groped for a moment, "sisters, to your new roommate."

As they left the hall, the voices of the professors behind them rose to a crescendo, with Barelyn's awed tones floating just above the rest. ".prodigy. Amazing natural ability - didn't even have to stop and think." Porticullis shooed them quickly outside, thankful that Joxer hadn't appeared to hear that last bit.

"You'll be in with the newest group, of course," the headmaster explained to Joxer as they walked through the courtyard. He stopped for a moment, eyes on the Greek. "You aren't having hot dreams anymore, are you?" Joxer looked puzzled, and the wizard explained. "Nocturnal magical emissions. It's a problem for some of our younger initiates. We have a special dorm by the water reservoir." He caught the misery on the young man's face, and realized what he had been discussing in mixed company, and had the decency to blush. "Um, ah. well, are you?" Joxer shook his head, his face burning. "Good."

They entered another deceptively small building, and trudged down the long hall to a door in the middle. Porticullis rapped on the door, and a very plain-looking young man of about twenty answered, dressed in one of the ubiquitous robes. "Miller," the headmaster announced, "You have a roommate. This is Joxer. Do be a good fellow and show him the ropes, would you?" Turning without pause to Xena and Gabrielle, the man announced, "And now, to show you two out," in a tone of voice that clearly indicated there was nothing he would like more.

"Bye, Joxer," the bard called over her shoulder as she was being hustled down the hall.

"Bye, Gabby. Bye, Xena. See you soon, I hope." Joxer waved at their backs as they disappeared through the door. He turned back to examine his new quarters. It appeared to be a single room with two pallets on the floor. There was a high opening that passed for a window in the outside wall, which seemed to distill the town's distinctive smell from the outside air, to be concentrated in the room. There was a basin and pitcher on a rough table in one corner, and a chamber pot in the other. A rat was asleep in the third corner in an open box lined with hay. Joxer turned to the other fellow. "Which one's mine?" The young man pointed, and soon the case, staff and pack were arranged neatly at the bedside.

The two men stared at one another for a moment before the younger one stepped forward. "Hi, my name's Miller. My friends call me Milt."

Joxer grasped the boy's outstretched hand. "I'm Joxer. My friends call me, um, Joxer." The two shook hands a bit longer than need be, neither confident enough to pull away first. Finally by some unspoken agreement they simply stopped.

"Miller is an unusual name, isn't it?" Joxer queried, breaking the awkward silence.

"I was the eighth son. My father ran out of good names around number five, and just started around the market square. I got lucky. You should meet my older brother, Butcher."

"Gods. I thought being a triplet was rough. Although Jett would probably have liked being called Butcher." Joxer thought for a moment. "Actually, sometimes he was."

"A triplet, huh? That could explain it. You the youngest?"

"Yeah, so?"

Milt shrugged. "A lot of magic's by the numbers. That and the Rules. I was stuck - the eighth son of a wizard. I had to come here. Never got a choice, eight is a magic number. Youngest of any multiples over twins is the same way, if they survive. Most don't, you know."

Joxer nodded. "Stuck? You wanted to do something else?"

"Sure," the young man nodded, "Always wanted to be a bean counter. My uncle has a farm, and the inventory on it is fascinating! Thousands of beans, all of 'em in need of careful counting and tracking." He sighed dramatically. "But, alas, the choice was never mine to make."

The two felt comfortable with each other quickly. Joxer decided they would get along fine, although he wasn't that terribly fond of beans.

Out in the courtyard, Porticullis was moving as quickly as his feet would carry him to a small door in the wall, pushing Xena and Gabrielle subtly in front of him. "I'll let you out through the Witches' Door, it's quicker." The door opened at a wave of his hand, and as they all stepped outside the walls, he let out a sigh of relief. Looking around in the group of women, he caught sight of one in particular. "Mother Wigglewort!" he called out, waving his hand frantically. An old woman dressed all in black with a high pointed hat waddled through the crowd. Almost before she was close enough to hear, the headmaster began babbling. "These two women came here with the new initiate you were kind enough to tell me about. They need a place to stay before they go back home, which will be soon, I'm sure." He gave the Warrior Princess a pointed look, which she stared down impassively. "Anyway, if you would just."

"Don't you get your knickers all in a wad, Port. I'll take care of them. Run on." The woman's voice was tinged with smoke and had a rural accent. The headmaster acted like a little boy who had gotten off easy after wrongdoing, turning and scurrying back through the small door, which closed behind him.

The witch turned to the two Greek women. "Don't mind old Port. He doesn't like women. Doesn't like men, either. Really, he don't like much of anyone." She motioned for the pair to follow, and melted into the crowd.

Inside, the headmaster scurried back to the hall where the interview had taken place. The assembled professors fell on him as one man when he entered. "He's incredible!" "Where did you find him?" "As good as Merlin was!" "Maybe better."

Porticullis let them all go on for a few minutes before shushing the group. "He's staying. I've put him in a room with young Miller and sent those women of his off. Now, none of what just happened is to leave this room. You cannot tell your staff. You cannot treat him any different than the other novices."

The voices rose in a questioning hum. The headmaster raised his hands, and the other men fell silent. "Magruder," said the wizard, pointing to the redheaded professor of Theoretical Incantations, "You were the one to mention Merlin. Has anyone here forgotten what happened with Merlin?"

Guilty expressions painted all the faces. Merlin had been the best student the Academy had seen since the days of old. It had been so long since the country had seen a wizard that impressed them - not since Oswald had left, sneezing and sniffling, for his homeland in Greece. The young man was the talk of the entire continent. He was better than his professors, and they all knew it. Still, to turn out a wizard of such magnitude would certainly raise the Academy's stock, and perhaps they would once again be able to recruit among Britannia's finest families, instead of taking in the endless procession of eighth sons from poor farming families that paid tuition in eggs and milk. So they talked Merlin up, everywhere. Before long, kings and noblemen from far off countries were at the doorstep, seeking to lure their star student away.

It was several years before the dark cloud of being The Wizard's Academy, home of magic's most prestigious dropout, cleared. Some of the farming families started paying in hay, even. It was not a repeat performance the school could afford.

Soon the professors were united on a plan to keep this one from getting away.