Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Twelfth Hour

Void of stars. How can that be?
I search for a reason. I try to trace the lines back in my memory…
what could I have possibly done to turn the sky black?
The trouble is that I can’t remember.
It seems that I fell asleep.

When I was young and the sky was still littered with stars, the Sorcerer came to visit Yantel. He had been seeking a pupil for many years, and no doubt he visited many other villages and hamlets and perhaps even great cities, all to no avail. There were a handful of applicants for the job in my village and a crowd gathered to witness the trial.
The Sorcerer lined the prospective apprentices up. To each one he posed the same question:

“Who is the great magician who makes the sky blue and the grass green?”

“You are, oh great Askander!” one tried and the Sorcerer shook his head and moved on.

“It must be Philoneous the Second, council to the wise King in Arander.” Tried another. Again the sorcerer merely shook his head and continued down the line.

Various mythic Sorcerers and fairytale witches were named. One somber youth suggested it was the King of the Gods, but all were met with a shake of the head.

“No apprentice here.” The sorcerer announced and the crowd sighed with disappointment.

I laughed and the Sorcerer turned and caught my eyes with his. There were stars in his eyes too, if I remember rightly, or at least there was the fire that burns in stars.

“What is your answer?” he asked.

“Mine? I, I’m not an applicant.” I stammered.

“But you think you know the real answer. Tell me.”

I swallowed, slowly recovering myself.

“The answer is me. I am the magician who makes the sky blue and the grass green.”

“Tell me why you think that is the answer.” The magician demanded.

With a shrug I obliged.

“Well, have you ever had a dream? How do you know that this is not a dream? If life is a dream, if I am a dream, then I am also the dreamer, and if so then I am responsible for giving sky and the grass their color.”

“But life is life, it is not a dream.” One of the flustered applicants informed me.

“Then you have not dreamed as I have dreamed. Nor lived life as I have lived it.” I retorted.

The young man began to object again but the Sorcerer waived a dismissive hand at him and said to me,

“Get your things and come with me if you are ready to learn The Terrible Way and one day become a Sorcerer.”

I did not tell my parents I was leaving, they wouldn’t have let me go, and I did not gather my things. I left the village right then with Askander. I left my family’s land and the sheep it was my job to tend and the girl my parents would have wanted me to marry in a few years. I left my brothers and bread baking in the oven and warm sleepy afternoons watching clouds pass over the hillsides. I asked my younger brother to tell our parents goodbye for me.  With Askander leading the way I walked out of the village and along a lonely road and up the mountain path under millions of stars and a new white moon. There were most definitely stars then, and if the sky was a color, then it was indigo.

I spent 12 years in Askander’s tower doing as I was told each day. There were stars in all of that time. Most often I was told not to do this or that. Do not open that book. If a door appears in the west end of the tower, do not open it. If a maiden arrives and begs for help or sanctuary, do not let her in and do not go out. Do not eat garlic. Do not drink wine. Do not touch my hat.

There was so much that I did not do, but there were some things that I did. Mostly sweeping, mopping, cooking, washing, emptying chamber pots, feeding goats and chickens, weeding the garden. Sometimes, however, I was shown how to do something extraordinary, though I think I occasionally failed to notice precisely how extraordinary they were at the time.

I learned how to breathe as the dragons breathe and walk in the shadow land between worlds. The technique for turning lead into gold was revealed to me but I found it hard to master and was stuck in practice each day. I also learned the names of many stars and looked at them through a magickal glass studying their movement across the sky. Thus I know they were there then, for I was a careful observer of all of their habits and color.

I worked from dawn until midnight each day with time split between chores, basic education, and my more obvious magickal studies and practices. There were never enough hours in the day to complete the tasks given me, and I was always tired when it was time to lay my head upon my pillow of straw. Askander himself was tireless. He worked furiously at his alchemical practices all through the morning as I did my chores, saw to my education through the afternoon, resumed his own research in his vast library as I practiced my magickal work, checking in on me from time to time to critique and adjust my practice, and then when I lay down to sleep he continued his own work all through the night, never sleeping a wink.

In 12 years Askander never slept. I would, now and then, awake in the night and tip toeing from my chamber, observe him on the balcony in his study of the night sky with the magickal glass, or find him creating charts of the stars, or maps of the shadows. Some nights I dared not open a closed door, transfixed in terror of the frightful sounds and voices vibrating through the walls. Other nights I would go down to the garden in the walled courtyard to see the sparks of light showering out of the windows of Askander’s chambers at the top of the tower. Most nights I slept, too exhausted to entertain curiosity.

The night came, I remember there were still stars, when Askander told me that he would sleep. I was now told that Askander would at last take his respite for a period of 24 hours. He unveiled for me a device for keeping track of the time. I was charged with remaining awake as he slept, and awakening him by ringing a bell after the 24th hour.

He went into his room and lay down on his much unused mattress. I covered him with the blanket and watched him close his eyes and fall almost instantly asleep. Sitting with him for a while my eyes scanned over the titles upon the spines of the walls of books surrounding us. When I was sure that he was asleep I stood and removed one volume from the shelf and leafed gently through the pages before sliding it softly back into place. Askander was truly deeply asleep. It had certainly been a lonely 12 years, but now for the first time in so long I was actually alone.

I went out on his balcony and beheld the constellations blazing bright. I was struck then, by the certainty that each star was a Sorcerer just as Askander and I, and that we drew power and light from one another. In 12 years I had felt cut off from the world and alone with my teacher who was sometimes my beloved father and sometimes an unbearable tyrant as the situation demanded. Now I saw that I could never be alone, that we were multitude, that I was one of a school of stars populating the great abyss.

Lost in thought I nearly did not hear the soft weeping coming from below, but soon it distracted me from my reverie. Peering down I saw a young woman in a torn dress tapping on the tower door. It seemed clear that she had been through some ordeal, so tattered were her garments, so pale her tear streaked cheeks. I hurried down the spiral staircase. I opened the door.

“Please sir, we were attacked by bandits and my father was killed. I escaped but have been lost in these mountains for days. I am so hungry. Can you not help me?”

I invited her in. She was cold so I clothed her, and hungry so I fed her, or rather I showed her to the kitchen larder and she cooked for us both. I had not enjoyed a meal since beginning my apprenticeship as I was the cook, and not good at it. Full and content I sat next to the hearth with her and asked her name. I do not now recall it. She told me that she had seen a bottle of wine in the larder and went to retrieve it. At first I declined when she offered to fill my cup.

“One drink is not vice.” She said as she filled her own cup. I accepted.

 We sipped our wine and watched the flames dance for a while and she began to sing.

It was a beautiful song. One might say, enchanting. It reminded me first of my youth in Yantel, of being a boy watching the grass of the fields sway in the breeze and wondering about the world and the heavens and myself. Then it carried me away to Arander to the white city walls and blue and gold flags whipped by the wind. A princess stood on the wall looking out over the forest, waiting for her father’s return. Inside the forest a starving Cobbler’s son was hunting a golden stag but when the Cobbler’s son drew his arrow the stag saw him and said,

“Spare my life and I will grant you a wish.”

So the youth asked for the hand of the princess. He let the stag go, not really believing his wish could be fulfilled, and left the forest still hungry, but on the road he saw a man besieged by bandits and once more drew his bow. This time he shot true, killing one bandit so the others fled. The man on the road was the King returning from a pilgrimage to the fountain where he had been praying for a worthy husband for his daughter. He brought the Cobbler’s son back to the castle to wed the princess. At the wedding the princess played her lute and sang to her bridegroom with a voice like golden honey. Thereafter she sat the foot of the bed and played for him each night until he fell asleep. On the twelfth night as he was close to slumber, he opened his eyes and beheld an old woman sitting at the foot of the bed, strumming the loot and singing. She was not the fair beauty he thought he had wed, but a gnarled and bent creature with stringy, greasy grey hair hanging limp under her crown. She leered at him with hallow eyes and grinned with a cavernous mouth lacking many teeth.

That was when I realized that my own eyes had shut. Startled, I opened them and found that I sat alone in the darkness before a cold hearth. I searched clumsily in the darkness for a candle and a match. When it was lit I fumbled in my pocket for the time keeping device. Its many moving parts had stopped and the indicator had frozen upon the twelfth hour. How much time had really passed? Full of dread I raced up the stairs to Askander’s chamber at the top of the tower. He was gone. I called out his name. I found the bell and rang it and called for him before I came here to the balcony and beheld the sky. Void of stars.

How can that be?

Even now that I have remembered so much, I am unsure. When was it that I fell asleep? In the field as a child? Have I only dreamed that I was selected to be a sorcerer’s apprentice? Or am I truly the apprentice that failed his master and let all the stars die? My foolishness, my disobedience, my failure to keep my master’s way as it was taught me resulting in disaster. Perhaps I am the Sorcerer himself who is yet to reach the twelfth hour, quietly dreaming of being my own apprentice, letting the fear that he will fail me take sway.  

Or am I really a Cobbler’s son fallen prey to some plot and wed to a witch? Now she sits at the foot of my bed singing me a nightmare of fallen sorcerers and fallen stars. Are any of these dreams more or less dreams than any of the others? More or less real? I search for a reason. I try to trace the lines back in my memory.

What could I have possibly done to turn the sky black?
It seems that I fell asleep, but when?

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