Saturday, July 25, 2009

Fantasy Novel: The Stone Dragon, Chapters 1-3

by Tom Kepler

Chapter 1
Saith the Gnome:
To scorch this cabbage with y’r fire
Or with talon plough this cabbage soile,
F’rst taste this bitter cabbage bloode
And know of gnome-wrath in its flood.

Saith the Dragon:
Better treasure ’neath my golden wing
And lesser warrior ’fore my fire—
Emeralds come with lesser wrath
Than cabbage gnome in cabbage patch.
     “Ballad of Heart of a Cabbage”
     Lays, Chiefly in the Gnomish Dialect


Sun blazed bright fire, and wings flamed in the silent void. And if wings, why not sinew and tendon, why not muscles to stretch and pull fire on its flight through space?

Scales of fire flexed beneath his body, and he heard the flap of wings, a sound like flame guttered by wind. He felt the surge upward and then the downward beat. Like a crown or halo, wings of light curved before him into the empty darkness—wings, and then a burning length of serpentine neck and triangular head rising to balance the stroke of wings. The viper’s head turned, eyes like coals burning into his.

Breaking the fiery gaze, he traced the flaming line of the dragon’s neck to his own body and saw fire astride fire. The flaming dragon he rode stooped like a raptor to the world below. One mass of land grew as flight narrowed to a destination, a land bordered by sea to the west and tall, white-capped mountains to the east. 

His face grimaced as he approached the land. He could feel the pain that lay below the clouds. Fear distorted his mouth to a searing scream, but the vision tempered, darkened at the edges to indistinct shadows reflected on a convex surface. The perspective widened until vision was fringed with dark patterns of geometric regularity: black feathers surrounding a raven’s eye. The world existed as he had dreamed it: a world dreamt through a raven’s eye, a dream that shattered with a raucous caw.
Spreading its wings slightly, a raven shook itself and then flapped into the sky, wings rising and falling, head bobbing to the beat of its wings. It circled a young man who had risen shakily to his feet, unsteady, disoriented by the bird’s cry. 

Always this daydream, Glimmer thought, but never in such detail or duration, only fragments, elusive bits of fire and flight. 

The raven circled as the young man shifted his awareness from the dragon of his dreaming to the bird flying the sky. He watched it fly full circle and land again on the grey stone of a garden wall. The young man stared at the obsidian eye, the bird’s head cocked and steady. Then he shook himself, his eyes taking in the summer light falling warm upon a vegetable garden. The garden space was contained by grey walls of fieldstone, the north side of the square being the grey stones of a country manor. The garden lay green upon the soil, vegetables flowering and fountains of green leaves lifting toward the sky. Beyond and to the south and east, the land dropped in soft shoulders of pasture to a slender river that edged the base of the hill. 

The daydream paled in the glare of the sun, and the young man turned back to his work with a shrug. Day was nearing noon, and it was difficult to determine which was louder, Glimmer’s grumbles and sighs at the early summer heat or the hungry complaining of his stomach. Flaxen hair framing his face, he squinted at the sun and glowered, wiping sweat from his flushed cheeks with a sleeve of roughly woven linen. 

One might as well be a turnip, he thought, as to be pulling weeds in a heat not even broken by the faintest breeze. Peas and carrots and cabbage! he complained in the silence—but the sun-warmed earth in his hands was too exquisite to be overshadowed by the willful ways of weeds. 

A smile broke Glimmer’s thoughts. He liked this garden, after all. He liked this stone-walled sanctuary, this humid soil in his hands, these rows of vegetables neatly formed, peas primly trellised, cabbages like buried rings set with pale green gems of lapped leaves. And all by his hand, Glimmer’s . . . apprentice magician. Glimmer, abruptly wiping his cheek with a sleeve again, scowled at the thought. The only magic here was magic made by sweat and busy hands, all the magic he could manage. 

Glimmer turned to reach for his hand mattock and saw it twenty feet away at the head of the cabbage row. He surveyed the garden and realized, lost in his dreams, he had weeded more than he had expected. Starting early morning with the potatoes, although they had needed surprisingly little attention, he had weeded beans, parsnips, carrots, turnips, and what was left of the peas, methodically traveling the rows, scooting along, diligent enough to satisfy even a master of gardens. With never any doubt as to the task before him, Glimmer had worked with an easy energy, happily lost in the rhythm. Very little mind was needed to pull weeds, after all, especially as the plants matured—just the ability to tell vegetable from weed, the ability to pull weed and pat the warm soil flat. The stone walls, chest high, cupped the silent air, the rich earth-smells, the green magic of the growing plants. 

If only I weren’t a mismatched apprentice—an odd shoe nailed to a wayward horse, Glimmer thought, his mouth tightening in old habit. Not a gardener’s apprentice, nor a cook’s apprentice, nor a miller’s apprentice. An apprentice of nothing, that’s what I am, Glimmer thought with disgust. 

He levered himself up to fetch the mattock for a nettle sprouting among the cabbages ahead. A magician’s apprentice with no magic at all. An apprentice with a mage of a master who doesn’t mind a little time wasted—as long as it isn’t his time. A master never around, who doesn’t practice magic anyway, much less teach it.

Feeling sorry for himself, Glimmer was, and then a graveled voice interrupted his thoughts: “No need to sour th’ soil with iron when I can do the job just as well, if ye don’t mind my sayin’.” 

Glimmer turned at the sound of the voice but saw no one—the garden as neat as always, filled with silently growing plants bathed in late morning sunlight. Then a cabbage tilted one way, tipped the other, and stood—not a cabbage at all, but a small, bow-legged, pot-bellied figure of a man with skin as mottled as all the shades of the earth, thick, lank hair the color of cabbage roots clumped with soil—a garden gnome. Shirtless and beardless (and Glimmer had thought that all gnomes had beards), the gnome wore a pair of trousers that appeared to have been tailored from cabbage leaves cured to the consistency and color of bleached leather. The trousers were so loosely and unevenly sewn, however, that the gnome’s lower body seemed wrapped in swaddling bands like an untrained infant’s.

His eyes as dark and bright as sunflower seeds rich with oil, the gnome continued, “I can get that nettle for ye,” gesturing down the cabbage row. “No need to stick yer hands with nettles, now is there?” and with that the gnome reached into the soil up to his elbow with a movement that caused Glimmer’s vision to blur, reached just as easily into earth as one would reach into pond water to pick up a stone sparkling below. The gnome set his heels to the earth and pulled, leaning back with a grunt, the nettle shaking free, roots focusing in a spray of soil. He tottered at the sudden release of the roots and then steadied himself, a smug look upon his face. “I’ll just toss this in th’ compost heap, Glimmer, and finish up easy on th’ way.” 

The gnome’s words were shouted back, as familiar as you please, as he ambled his bow-legged, confident way down the cabbage row. “Now don’t worry about th’ nettles and me. No nettles can hurt my thick ol’ skin.” The only thought that popped into the young man’s mind was that he had imagined magical creatures like gnomes to be more soft-spoken, not as loud as a field hand at a wrestling match.

The gnome hummed to himself as he sauntered down the garden row, his left hand balancing the nettle on his shoulder, garden weeds in the cabbage row leaning their lanky stems toward the gnome as if he were a lodestone and they were iron. Weeds leapt from the soil, nestling into the crook of the gnome’s right arm, forming a blanket of luxuriant green. The gnome laughed as a choker vine flew from the soil, wrapping itself around his neck. “Ornery little rascals,” he chortled. 

Then, nodding to the young apprentice again, the gnome’s pebble-round eyes squinted up at the sun, adding even more wrinkles to his leathery face. “And I worked with th’ ’taters a bit for ye, Master Glimmer, only don’t spread it ’round too much, me being cabbage gnome an’ all.” The gnome grunted and actually looked furtively over both shoulders as he straightened with his load again. He nodded knowingly. “Y’coulda started with th’ cabbages, y’know. Didn’t have to leave ’em till last, as ye did. A gesture of respect, ye might say. Always start with highest first.”

“How do you know my name?” Glimmer blurted out, finally finding his voice.

“Yer name an’ ways is known by me an’ others of my kind,” the gnome replied, turning and bowing, bobbling his load of weeds.

Bitterness rose in the young man as he spilled out, “I’ll just bet you know my name. Not a Glimmer of Magic, not a stinking glimmer of magic, that’s what they call me, but that’s not calling me by name; that’s name-calling.”

“Say what ye will, but where there’s gleam there’s gold, so th’ sayin’ goes.”

“I thought it was ‘All that glitters isn’t gold,’” Glimmer retorted sarcastically.

“Glimmer, gleam, glitter—it’s not name but person that makes th’ worth.”

With that, Glimmer’s vision blurred again as the knee-high gnome walked straight into the compost heap as if it were a curtained doorway. The gnome disappeared, leaving the nettle and weeds lying atop the heap of rotting herbage. Then a muffled voice drifted back, “A good day fer magic, ain’t it, though?” The gnome’s head appeared again, topped by a wig of green weeds. “Hey, you!” the gnome shouted, the volume so great that the young man started. “Like that better?” he chuckled. “Th’ fact that yer seein’ me must count as at least a glimmer o’ magic, hm? An’ where there’s glimmer, there’s gold.”

Then the stone-walled garden stilled to a tableau of silence. Glimmer drew one deep breath, shifting his weight from one foot to the other; he drew another deep breath, waiting for the gnome to reappear, but the enclosed garden, its weeded rows straight and freshly cultivated, was silent. 

A magical being, Glimmer thought to himself in bemused shock. A garden gnome! No wonder the weeds seemed so few! He could make neither heads nor tails of it, having never seen nor spoken to anything magical. But the garden was weeded and his work more than done, so with an air of practicality, young Glimmer let himself out the garden gate. It was just a gnome, after all, not like a dragon or anything.
As he crossed the road and descended the soft shoulder of the hill to the river, there to cool and clean himself before eating his midday meal, the young man did not notice, bright as black obsidian chips, a gnome’s eyes solemnly following his steps, nor did he notice the raven leap into the sky, black flight following his path like a second shadow.

Chapter 2

“Contrarie to common beliefe magicians do not existe, only magick.”
      The Philosophie of Magick

“Dreme magick is the most dangerous of magicks because it is the most difficult to control.”
     Confessions of a Dreme Mage

Glimmer leaned the ladder against the wall of his master’s stone tower. The perfect house for a magician, Glimmer thought . . . built all of stone, cold in the summer, colder in the winter. No wonder he doesn’t spend much time here.
The country manor consisted of a stone tower, the original edifice, two stories in height. Glimmer’s master called the second floor his study, but the locals called it “the magician’s lair,” somewhat presumptuous, Glimmer felt, since his master spent little time in it, and also since his master was hardly a magician. The kitchen and Glimmer’s living quarters were on the ground floor. The tower’s architecture contained no underground rooms, or “dungeons,” as some speculation had it. 

In times past, a large, two-story addition to the tower, also composed of fieldstone, had been built by an order of the Brothers of Hospitality. Since Glimmer had never been able to find anything out about the Brothers and their stay in the house, he assumed the Brothers’ stay had not been very hospitable. The upstairs of the addition had been two large rooms, a dormitory for the brothers and a room for guests, Glimmer assumed. The ground floor had functioned as a communal dining and work area. 

A country squire had then acquired the house, constructed living quarters upstairs, and made a go at farming. However, either the land surrounding the manor had been too hilly and woodsy to sustain the country squire and his aspirations, or the aspirations of the squire had not equaled the demands of the land. Whichever the case, the squire had returned after a few years to the safe haven of family estates along the coast at Knight’s Landing, leaving the manor unmanned, as it were. 

Eventually, a mage had been given the manor as payment for his interactions with the local villages. The unnamed and forgotten mage had left for better prospects, and the manor had been abandoned for years before the coming of Glimmer’s master.

Glimmer mounted a rough-hewn ladder leaning against the tower’s north face, careful of splinters even though the rungs had been worn smooth from use. Daub the window casements to keep out summer hornets and winter winds. And this one needs it, Glimmer thought, surveying the wooden frame containing pale blue squares of leaded glass seated in the tower wall. It was almost ready to fall out, if not for the chocks, so much mortar had sifted away with the seasons. That was when a thought occurred to Glimmer, something he had never considered before. 

He could remove the whole window, carry it down the ladder, set it on the ground, and then climb through the hole the window occupied. “That’s how to get into the study without invoking the spell,” he said aloud, the thought was so clear. 

Glimmer remembered the last (and only) time he had been in his master’s study. It had been five years ago when he was twelve years old, his first day as apprentice to Mage Alma-Ata.

His mage, a lean man with informal manners, wore the clothes of the local farmers. No one would know him from an apple farmer with an orchard on a hillside or a wheat farmer from the valley, Glimmer had thought as he had followed the nimble old man up the stone steps to the second floor of the stone tower. 

“Now that you are an apprentice, I suppose you would like to see some magic,” Mage Alma-Ata had said as they reached one of three wooden doors on the landing. “And to satisfy you, we will use a spell already in place.” The mage turned to his apprentice and added ingenuously, “To tell the truth, we’re going to see if the spell actually works by what happens to you.” Even the mage’s smile had not stopped Glimmer’s heart leaping in his twelve-year-old chest. 

The mage had unlocked the door with a large iron key and then had pushed the door open, the hinges squeaking as if unused to such activity. With an elegant, friendly gesture, Alma-Ata had invited Glimmer into the room. 

“This is my study, my library,” the mage had said, gesturing to the shelves and tables filled with dusty leather-bound books and fragile paper scrolls. He added with an upward turn of his mouth, “I don’t use it much.” The mage had paused, surveying the room, and then continued. “Hence, the spell, my boy . . . to keep out the over-curious, the greedy, and those desiring power over others.” 

Alma-Ata had pursed his lips. “Actually, the first task I am assigning you as my apprentice is to dust this room.” These words had been followed by a silent pause and then a violent sneeze. “As I said,” the mage had continued after blowing his nose loudly, “I don’t use this room much. You see, knowledge needs to be here,” he tapped his temple with his forefinger, “and not just in books. But we should make this room more presentable, in case I have a scholar visit me . . . or in case I need to find a book for you to read some day. I have been told that the grandfather where you lived taught you your letters.” 

Mage Alma-Ata had smiled down at Glimmer. “Who knows when you may get a book, hmmm? Do you know your letters? Can you read?”

“Yes, sire,” Glimmer had replied, although he was somewhat confused by the mage’s manner. The mage might as well be a miller or a grower of apples, he’d thought. Mages should be more . . . magnificent.

Almost as if he were reading Glimmer’s mind, Alma-Ata had added as he absent-mindedly tucked his jerkin to fit more smoothly beneath his belt, “I suppose you’d like to see some magic?” The mage’s expression became mischievous. “Perhaps I should make the table sprout green leaves . . . or perhaps light the candles with a flick of my hand.” 

Alma-Ata had scanned the room, colored light filtering from the stained-glass windows, colored squares of light warming the dim interior, the east window an elongated rectangle of amber falling on the wooden beams of the floor, books and specimen cases beneath the windows in shadows. “No, I think there is enough light for cleaning . . . so maybe a dragon, hm?” Glimmer had gazed up with round eyes at the mage’s suddenly serious face. “Dragons are nothing to trifle with, though. Summon a dragon to satisfy a boy’s curiosity? No . . . large magic only for a large need.”

The mage had lifted a stack of faded parchment from a stool fronting a writing table in the center of the room, dusting the seat idly with a sleeve. “I’ll tell you what, boy,” his tone now as focused as his gaze. “A magician,” Alma-Ata spoke slowly, “could possess any book in this room that he desired. Do you know why?”

As the mage had bent down, his face closer to Glimmer’s, his eyes locked upon the boy’s eyes, Alma-Ata had whispered, “Because a magician would know which books were his; a true magician would desire only books that he deserved.” The mage had straightened and turned to gaze at the stacks of manuscripts and books that surrounded them. “I’ll tell you what—let’s have a test. You may have any book in this library that is yours, but—” the mage, laying a skinny forefinger against his bony nose, had turned back to regard the boy “—if you take a book you should not have . . . well, some might call that stealing.” With those words and a lingering gaze from beneath bushy, grey eyebrows, Alma-Ata had silently handed Glimmer a dusting rag and had strode from the room.

Glimmer gazed through the north window from his perch on the ladder. He thought that he could see the book through the distorted blue of the ancient glass pane in the tower’s north window; he thought he could see the one that had found its way into his pocket five years ago, a slim volume bound in leather, plain and unadorned, a small book, one that could lie flat against the thigh, tucked down the breeches. Yes, that might be the volume he had possessed once for a brief time. Glimmer began to scrape the powdery mortar away from the window frame, his breath quickening with excitement.

Five years ago, Glimmer had dusted the books on the shelves of his master’s study. He had dusted the piles of manuscripts, careful not to disturb the sheaves of loose sheets of handwritten paper. Finding a broom, he had swept the dusty planked floor, progressing to the stone landing outside the study and to the stone steps connecting the first and second floors. He had turned at the study’s entry and surveyed the room. 

Done, his twelve-year-old mind had decided. The silent majesty of the room had enthralled Glimmer, the motionless books and parchments of the mages waiting for eyes to read, for a mind to connect with words and receive knowledge. 

Glimmer had stepped back into the study, leaning the broom against the stone wall, and had turned to the books, reading the titles, ink on leather or silken cloth, or cramped script on curling, fragile paper—all this dyed by the blue, amber, and green glass of the windows set in the round stone tower—small, leaded squares of colored glass comprising each window: north, east, and west.

Something small, his mind had whispered: something small and not so important . . . or easily missed. Something easy to tuck away. And he had found just such a volume. 

Or perhaps the volume found me, crossed Glimmer’s mind as he finished whisking away the last of the mortar. Now the window was held in the opening by three wooden wedges, two on the sides and one at the bottom.

The book Glimmer had discovered five years ago was a handwritten journal, bound in plain, undyed leather, the paper hand-stitched into a simple and unadorned book. On the front cover in black ink were printed the words Confessions of a Dreme Mage. He had opened the volume to a random page and had read: Safety lies only in silent witness

I can read this, he had thought, pleased with himself, and the mage wants me to read. Otherwise, why leave me with the books? 

And Glimmer on the ladder watched the memory of himself slip the book inside his breeches flush with the skin—leather to skin, lie to truth—watched his younger self stride from the room. 

Onto the cold grey of the stone landing and quickly down the worn stone steps, young Glimmer had progressed, and with that progression, the air had cooled and he had felt the chill sheen of sweat as his body, warm from exertion or excitement, had met the quiet, chill stillness of the tower’s rough stone. His steps had echoed as he spiraled downward to the ground floor, and the echoes spoke to him, whispering his innermost thoughts. 

It is not yours. When your master wishes you to have the words, he will deliver them to you. On the first day of your apprenticeship, you steal. Be true and all will be well. This is a test your master has given you, and you have failed.
Glimmer’s breath had rasped in his throat like a sob as he’d stopped his descent and sagged against the stone wall. The inner well of the stairs were dim, flecks of dust floating in the diffuse light of the well. The words had beat at him as his heart had beat within, the cells of his body leaning to the truth like plant to sun. 

Nowhere to go, you have nowhere. The mage chose you, and what are you choosing?

Desire had risen in Glimmer not to just return the volume to its place in the mage’s library but rather to confess his actions, to tell the magician what he had done. The desire to place the thin sheave of pages in the mage’s slender, labor-roughened hands had consumed Glimmer. 

“Mage Alma-Ata?” he’d shouted. “Master, where are you?” he’d cried, his face wet with tears and voice ragged with emotion. 

Only silence had met his frantic searching as he had descended the stairs to the kitchen. Out the east door and to his right, a rush along the crushed stone pathway fringing the straight length of the building connected to the tower, Glimmer had turned into the east entrance of the kitchen garden at the south end of the building: stone and stone, building and fence, and on a stone bench warming himself in the sun had sat the mage, his head nodding like a flower caressed by wind. The young man had stopped abruptly, caught by the absolute silence that had seemed to surround the old man sitting on the bench, the old mage who seemed to be so perfectly still, doing nothing.

Then Glimmer had thrown himself at his master’s feet, hugging the old man’s legs. “I took the book and I am sorry. Please forgive me!” Glimmer had stared up into the old man’s eyes. “I told myself that the book was mine, but deep inside I knew it wasn’t.” 

Then Glimmer had reached past his belt and pulled the slender book from hiding, placing the volume in his master’s hands. The sun had suddenly seemed brighter, the day lighter. Glimmer had smiled as the burden was lifted from him; he had smiled, content to place his head upon the mage’s lap. He’d felt the mage shift the book to one hand and then place the leather-covered pages upon the bench. Then the mage’s hand had absently smoothed Glimmer’s tousled hair that had glowed like pale morning sunlight.

“So now you know magic,” the mage had murmured. When Glimmer had raised his head to see his master’s face, Alma-Ata had kindly gazed back. “You kept the book only minutes.” 

Alma-Ata had smiled softly at Glimmer’s puzzled look. “A self-centered boy would have kept the book longer, perhaps even for the night, would have read some of the book, absorbing the words like seeds tossed to infertile soil.” 

The mage, raising his faded, blue eyes to the horizon, had stroked Glimmer’s hair again. “A truly evil, powerful mage would have kept the book, reading and studying it, truths not belonging to him curling within like encysted parasites, the book eating at him. Over time he would learn to enjoy the sensation, would come to define himself as that sensation.”

Shaking himself slightly, Alma-Ata had finished, “Well, enough of that. You are not that person, my thief-of-one-minute. Water runs swiftly down a straight channel.”

Glimmer had sat up, cross-legged before his master. “I don’t understand. You said magic? What magic?”

“The magic that returned my book to me.”

“There was no magic.” Glimmer had brushed his hair away from his eyes. “I did a wrong thing and told you.”

“And you think that is not magic?” the mage had responded, standing now, tall and straight before Glimmer. An ambiguous smile upon his face, Alma-Ata had reached down to touch Glimmer’s head. “At least we know the spell works.”

Glimmer had listened to the mage’s words, confused in his heart. Magic? he’d wondered. Of his own choosing he had returned the book. Where was the magic in that?

“Now go to the kitchen and find something to eat,” Alma-Ata had advised. “After all your work, a growing boy like you needs sustenance.” 

The mage had followed the retreating boy’s frame with thoughtful eyes, and then reached to the bench, picking up the book and reading its cover. He pursed his lips, breathing in a sudden breath. 

This book, the mage had wondered. Why, of all the tomes, had the boy chosen this one?
A coldness had entered Alma-Ata, even in the heat of the summer’s day. His shoulders had slumped as if from a heavy weight, and then his spine had stiffened, straightened. The old man returned to his magic, his only safe haven, and sat quietly—breathing out, breathing in, nothing more.

Glimmer stood upon the ladder rung, staring through the pale blue stain of the glass at the room below, books and papers lying random and loose, an unfurled map on the scarred table. He pulled a trowel from his belt and pried the bottom wedge from between the frame and stone; then he removed the wedges from the sides of the frame, careful not to allow the window to tilt and fall to the ground. 

If a pane cracks or a rectangle of glass breaks free from its leading, will I evoke the spell, Glimmer wondered, or is there really a spell at all? Maybe Alma-Ata had just amused himself by playing with the mind of a twelve year old.

Nonetheless, Glimmer gingerly eased the frame, cradling the latticed window sash from its blank-eyed rectangle on the curving north wall of the tower. He lowered himself carefully down the rungs, sliding the frame on the angled ladder above him until he reached the ground. Then Glimmer leaned the frame with its glass against the stone wall, making sure the glass was stable and would not tip and shatter.

As Glimmer gazed upward at the hollow socket in the tower wall, he placed a hand upon the ladder rung at chest height and then remounted the ladder, step by step, gaining the stone-grey empty eye at last. Turning on the ladder so he was facing outward, the young man surveyed the land about him. Nothing moved; no one interrupted the solitude. Facing north, before him was a meadow dotted with maple, oak, and apple trees, the young apple trees encircled with fences of woven saplings to keep away the deer. To his right, a road ran a parallel course with the river past the house, the river flowing south and west, out of Glimmer’s sight, to the sea. The land due north rose in gradual undulations, and in the near distance lay the green upland foothills that rose to distant mountains.

With one last furtive glance, Glimmer slithered through the opening like a worm entering a fallen apple. He dropped to the floor and froze, his breath quick with excitement, closing his eyes and casting his attention within, waiting for an emotion to rise, a desire to cast himself back out the window and confess his intentions to anyone, everyone. His heart beat; he breathed in, exhaling slowly through his nose. 

Maybe, he thought, I have to actually take a book, to leave the room with it.
And at that moment, Glimmer realized it wasn’t any book that he was considering but rather the book, the one he had chosen five years ago, the thin hand-written journal by the dream mage. 

Rising from his crouch on the floor below the window, Glimmer followed the wall of the study to the bookshelf from which he had taken the journal five years earlier. Was the thin volume he had seen from the window the book by the dream mage? Had Alma-Ata returned the book to its original spot, or had he hidden it to keep it from curious eyes? There, lying on the bookshelf as he had seen it from the window, not tucked in among the other volumes but on the lip of the shelf which fronted the books, lay the volume, its plain leather cover a warm brown in contrast to the time-stained wooden shelves. Written on the cover of the book in an economical hand was the title. Glimmer reached out and picked up the book. It was smaller, even thinner and less substantial than he had remembered.

As Glimmer held the book in his hand, he felt no strangeness in his chest, no upsurge of emotions, no guilt. He slipped the book beneath his belt and hoisted himself onto the window sill. Sitting with his legs dangling out the window, Glimmer still felt no remorse, no compulsion to cry out in confession. He turned and placed his feet upon the rungs, now half in and half out of the window opening, the book still tucked beneath his belt, the book now outside the building by a finger’s length. Placing one hand on the book, ready to flip it through the window at the slightest twinge of regret, Glimmer descended one step on the ladder. Feeling nothing, he slowly descended step by cautious step to the ground. 

He had done it. His emotions somersaulted in turns of glee and—not remorse—caution. I may not have a glimmer of magic, he thought, and I may have a master who likes me only for my strong back, but I’ve got the book. I’ve thought of something he didn’t think of, and how I will enjoy telling him of it when I see him again, he thought, for he had never considered taking the book and keeping its taking a secret from his master. 

Glimmer turned to peer up at the window opening. He would not replace the window yet, he thought. No, not just yet. I will read for a time, and if I begin to feel anything, then I’ll scramble up the ladder and return the book. Or perhaps I should climb the ladder now and read the book in the study? I could take a handful of crumbled mortar and toss it onto the floor beneath the window. I could say that I’d wished to clean the floor before sealing the window back into the opening. Mix some mortar first . . . no, if it dries, there would be the explaining of that. All the materials are ready, just climb the ladder and slide to the floor, open the book and read . . .

Following his thoughts, Glimmer found himself on the floor before the bookshelf. Is this, he thought, part of the magic? I feel outside myself, watching myself.
He scooted to the end of the bookcase and leaned against a stone pillar rising through the wooden floor to support the beams and the roof. A sharp angle of rock gouged his back, and Glimmer shifted again. Then he opened the book and read.

“Dreme magick is the most dangerous of magicks because it is the most difficult to control. What is a dreme but a phantom of waking, a phantasm that can walk the halls of night and conjure walls to fleshe and fleshe to walls? One is not apprenticed to dreme magery but born to it. One dremes with intente deep within the interstices of one’s being, and then the dreme becomes. It is in this becoming that the danger lies, to dip into the mouthe of the springe from which nature arises to nourish one’s dremes. One must not seeke to do; rather, one must humbly do what needes to be done. Safety lies only in silent witness. Nature acts and one witnesses and celebrates its splendore.”

Glimmer shifted again, quickly leafing through the scant pages of the journal. No spells, he thought, disappointed. It’s just a lot of talk. But what does it mean? He settled more comfortably against the stone pillar, against its safe and secure solidity. 

Am I born to dream magery? he asked himself. How does one dream with deep intent yet not seek, only humbly witness? The phantom of his thoughts wandered more deeply the corridors of his mind, wandered the stone-lined hallways and stairwells of the magician’s lair. Glimmer closed his eyes, safe within his master’s den. His heart eased. He had learned no spells and practiced no magic; he had done nothing, really, just read a book—and a rather boring one at that. Worked hard all day, he had, and the room was cool and peaceful after all the excitement. Glimmer’s eyes grew heavy, his breathing deepened, and then he slept.

Chapter 3

“With minde absolutely awake, one dremes without fear.”
     Confessions of a Dreme Mage

Glimmer awoke to the awareness that he had been sleeping deeply, so soundly and restfully that even the hardness of the floor had not disturbed his slumber. Stretching and opening his eyes, he saw that he had slept through the afternoon, an early moon now rising on the horizon. He sat up, admiring the moon’s wan light, a cool streaming through glass-paned doors which led to the north balcony. That the doors and balcony had not existed when Glimmer had dozed off was of no importance. They existed now. He felt a vitality flowing through him, a vibrant coursing energy. How deep his sleep must have been! How alive he felt! How beautiful was this study, so full of light, even by moonlight!

Standing, Glimmer strode through beams of moonlight to the glow of the doors and opened them. The rich scents of the warm spring season flowed into the room with the moonlight, scents of plants in blossom, of crop pollen and rainwater. The earth whispered promises of bud and birth, of possibilities, potentialities. So many and marvelous! Earth pressed its seeds into his hands; grow these as you will, it whispered in a breath of wind, and take joy in the growing. Fireflies flickered in the grasses below as Glimmer strode to the balcony’s edge, his hands caressing the smooth texture of the marble balustrade. Constellations of fireflies below and constellations of stars above: microcosm and macrocosm, the same fire burned in each. Glimmer breathed deeply, let the breath escape his lungs. Breath or breeze, it was all the same: all was one. He raised his hands before him, raised them to the sky and felt an energy flowing within them, blood of existence; closed his eyes, at one with all that surrounded him, each mote of matter the same life force that surged the life-blood of his body.

Exaltation, a physical vibration, flowed from him like light: energy emanating from his hands, rivers flowing to merge with the ocean of the sky. Filled with silent laughter, Glimmer reached out to touch the stars, grew huge in his joy and stepped from the moon-drenched marble of the balcony to the goat-cropped meadow below. He turned and touched the smooth stone walls of the tower, white-veined stone no different than his flesh, reached to the stars and stood taller than the tower, a self-contained massif of power and portent now gazing upon trees smaller than his knees, their rounded tops a rabble of shrubs to his majesty. Like an oak he grew, hard-grained sinews reaching to sky, ecstasy flowing from his fingers, his eyes shining with starlight. 

The moon glowed in the sky and flowed its drifting course. I could sail the moon, thought Glimmer, fill sails with cosmic wind and hands with stars. They would be an icy fire, and I would drink their crystal waters and burn with the cold purity of that light. Oh, stars! Oh, my brothers and sisters! Let me burn to nothing and be as you! He swayed in his vision, and when he brushed an ancient apple tree with his giant’s calf, the tree burst into flame. Glimmer praised its light, reveled in the warm caress of leaves and branches burning, but watching the flames falter and then subside, felt a sadness. Too transitory was its light, not the ancient radiance of the stars. 

I shall sift the sky for the souls of stars, he thought, the fire that does not burn, the wings of light which fly the firmament. And he reached his arms wide and wider, opening his palms to capture light. Three stars shot the sky—north, west, and east, flaring and fading to darkness. Glimmer filled himself with energy; it flowed to him. He glowed and grew. Tilting back his head, he inhaled the breath of the stars and opened his eyes, his gaze penetrating sky above, clouds about his shoulders like a mantle. 

A single star glimmered in the sky, brighter than the other stars: yes, a glimmer, a flicker, a sparkle, a movement, an expansion of winged light. Let me touch it; let me drink its light. A silence settled, the crackling flames of the apple tree fading, limbs black and burned beneath him. Wind faltered to calm; clouds drifted, aimless as sullen fog. The burning star expanded, white light with laving coruscations the colors of dawn. It grew, and now Glimmer could see a rhythmic pattern to the light, light swimming darkness—no, light winging darkness, wings of light and not star but form, the body of the angel of a star, wings like dawn. 

Oh, angel of stars, he sang, shine more brightly and deliver unto me your soul; and the star obeyed, and flight became the pitching dive of a raptor, and the flaming light of the angel became curling flames of breath, the body of light lucent scales, an immense serpentine swimming: fire-breather, worm sleeping in the mother of fire till woken! 

Oh, apple-cheeked dream mage, your soul of stars, your angel of light, your dragon cometh! Find your freedom in my flames, and burn in the bliss of my fire!
Wings spread and spanned the world, tucked as the dragon dropped like molten stone, its body a serpentine sun hurtling down upon the young man, scales aglimmer, mouth an open, fiery maelstrom, flames curling and spitting. 

Glimmer’s heart cooled and blackened as the dragon hurtled downward, far distant yet still immense. The dreamer’s fingertips, still outstretched from the ecstasy of his vision, felt the promise of fire. He shrank back, ducking below scattered clouds which had crowned his head. His hands to his face, he cringed, crouching and shrinking, smaller and smaller, elation dissipating like smoke, spent and acrid. Foolish mage-boy, an inner voice keened, dream and die! But then Glimmer thought, Who dies with me? The trees and animals, the green grasses and garden? Which village and which farmstead? 

Standing now back on the dream-balcony of white marble, Glimmer turned, clutching his blackened hands to his chest, his hair singeing, curling like leaves sucked to flame. Into the tower he staggered, his lungs burning with cosmic fire. Before the bookcase, a crumpled form lay in well-used, rustic clothes—himself, he realized in awe, his sleeping form. Grey ashes settled on white marble, world collapsed to waking, yet still the crumpled form of Glimmer the apprentice lay before the standing dream-form of Glimmer the mage, lay upon a floor of rough wooden planks worn to smoothness by countless footsteps. The glamour of the dream dissipated to walls of plain grey fieldstone, the curved walls of the tower, his mage’s study, the north window a rectangle of late-afternoon sky, cloudless and serene; yet Glimmer the mage could still feel the heat and pain approaching, could see through the roof as if it were a transparent pane of glass, could see the lethal bolt of serpentine fire descending upon the stone of the silent house beneath the dream-darkness of a night sky. 

Oh, the silent, safe, solidity of stone! his heart moaned. Even stones will slag, will sag and ooze like so much basaltic pitch spit from earth. The dream-mage cast himself upon the sleeping form of the apprentice-mage, providing his burning body to shield the sleeping form. 

One raw hand clawed the stone pillar next to the bookcase: so cool the stone, so much calmness and safety in stone. Safety in stone! Safety of stone! the young apprentice thought, sitting up, the mage now no more than incense in the dim interior of the study, but Glimmer could still feel the descent of the dragon, the awful, terrific weight of it descending upon the stone house, upon the meadow and its fruit trees, upon the river sparkling among its stones and the valley nestled among foothills, green and golden. 

Safety of stone! thought Glimmer, stone the color of dragon skin, scaled armor of the earth. Dragon to stone! Dragon in stone, the carved safety of stone, Glimmer’s mind chanted in a litany of desperation and fear, and the world whorled, his wits a dust-devil in a dervish dream. 

Glimmer awoke to the plain grey stone of waking state, awoke to wipe his face of tears with hands no longer ravaged by fire, brushed back blonde hair fire-like only by its faint, reddish tinge. He gasped a stone-cooled draught of air and shuddered in the silence, drew in another breath and opened his eyes. The thin volume of dream magic lay on the floor beside him, and he edged from it as from a threatening snake. Through the window, a meadow lark called out its jubilant song. A dragonfly landed on the stone of the window ledge, its thousand eyes evaluating the young man.

A nightmare, Glimmer thought, remembering every piece of it. The nightmare! Or is it a daymare, since I dreamt by daylight? No, no, too dark a vision to place beneath the sun. Burning flames of sun! He staggered to his feet, picking up the book and tossing it to the shelf where he had found it, adjusting it with a desperate jab of a finger to its original position. Turning to the north, the apprentice heaved himself to the hollow eye of the window, shooed off the dragonfly, and slithered through to the ladder and down to the green grass of the earth. Leaning against the rough wall, he dumbly gazed into the silent blue of the sky, his hands abstractedly fondling tufts of grass, cool and succulent. The nightmare, he breathed, but still just a nightmare, his body seeking reason for releasing the terror—a dream more real than real. He shuddered.

Then his eyes focused on the masonry tools, the mortar and water before him. Frantic with energy, Glimmer rose, grabbed the latticed frame of glass, tools tucked within pockets and belt, and mounted the ladder, sliding the window before him. He chocked the window into its space and then, descending the ladder, mixed mortar and sealed the window from winter winds—and your own meddling, his mind whispered. Collecting his tools, he rounded the tower to the west side of the house to the tool shed and stable. 

Before him lay the waste of an ancient apple tree, its limbs contorted in the rigor of its burning. The acrid stench of charred life mingled with the fragrant incense of apple wood. An ancient life was dead, a few black, burned apples still dangling from the branches. His limbs moving with the woodenness of a puppet, his mind numbed by the blackened branches of the tree, Glimmer walked past the tree to the wattle shed, returning the tools to their shelf, carefully closing the door, and then returning to the north face of the tower. There he tipped the ladder from wall to ground, hefted it in the middle, adjusting his hands to balance the weight, and returned it to its place among the rafters of the stable. 

Casting himself upon a puncheon bench beside the stable door, the mellow afternoon light warmed the stable wall, yet Glimmer sat on the side of shadow. He felt the chill of winter in his bones, felt the fear of dragon in his blood, felt sadness for the loss of the apple, its fruit so crisp and sweet, its branches so welcoming. Glimmer felt wonder that the dream had been true—and wondered what it meant that he could sleep and dream and destroy. He stood and rounded the tower again to gain the east side of the house and its entrance. Something liquid would be good, he thought, tea and then a swim in the cold clarity of the river—tea, a swim, and then sleep. He was so tired. 

As Glimmer entered the kitchen, a thought occurred: to sleep but then to dream! How could he ever sleep again? It wasn’t safe to sleep. Then he remembered: safety in stone! Those words, so powerful—but what could they mean, what could be true?

“Thought y’ might like some tea,” a gravelly voice stated as Glimmer entered the dimness of the kitchen. Looking down, on the hearthstones he saw a small man-like form no taller than his knee, skin mottled in shades of earth, thick, lank hair the pale color of cabbage. 

“Have a seat, if it pleases ye,” the gnome said even as Glimmer sank to the hearthstones in shock, his mind beyond surprise but so tired and drained. “Magic has a way about it, that it does, and sometimes th’ best thing is an earth gift, so it’s a tonic I’ve fixed for ye.” The gnome lifted a cup to Glimmer’s hand, a gesture simultaneously gracious and ingratiating. “Red cabbage tea with a touch of balm. It’ll invig’grate yer blood and calm yer nerves.”

Glimmer sipped the tea and grimaced.

“Yessire,” the gnome chortled, rocking on the hearthstones with glee. “It’ll do the trick.”

“Had enough tricks,” Glimmer muttered but took another sip. The homey taste of cabbage did settle his nerves if not his stomach as the gnome acknowledged, “A bit o’ honey would’ve helped, but there was none t’ be found.”

Glimmer watched as the gnome gazed, dreamy-eyed, into the crackling fire, and then the young man said, “I know what you are, a gnome, but who are you and why are you here? Why are you doing this? You know my name, but . . .” Glimmer felt his fear and fought it back with anger that focused on the gnome. 

“Thank ye for askin’,” the gnome replied with a gracious tug of his forelock. “Ye were sum’mat surprised this mornin’, so I didn’t spend more time than needed.” The gnome cocked his ankle upon his knee and looked up at Glimmer, mischief in his eyes. 

“First, there’s not much use in just sayin’ gnomes, no more than there’s just sayin’ trees or animals. Oh, ye can say it, but to what point? Ye see before ye a cabbage gnome, Cabbage-pants of the cabbage gnomes, at y’r service.” Cabbage-pants bowed at the waist with a flourish of his hands, almost unbalancing himself and toppling from the hearthstones before the fire. “Whoa, easy now!” he admonished himself. “Fire’s getting’ to th’ head!” Then he continued, “We cabbage gnomes, as I said, are th’ royalty of gnomes. Of course, there are other, lesser opin’ons, but ours prevail—in my opin’on. We protect what’s ours, perhaps ye’ve heard. ‘Don’t tread me cabbage, an’ I willn’t be savage,’ ye might say,” the gnome observed, chuckling to himself at his cleverness. 

Silence lapsed as Glimmer was at a loss of what to say. Calling him Count Cabbage-pants seemed excessive. “I didn’t know gnomes used fire,” he finally commented, something to say. 

“Leave off wi’ ye,” scoffed the gnome with a snicker. “Afraid o’ a little fire—and especially now, with all that’s here an’ ’appened! Leave off pullin’ m’ leg! What, only eat th’ cabbage raw? Now mind me, I’ve got nothin’ again’ plain ol’ cabbage—there’s yer slaw and yer salad and yer picklin’ . . . but give up boiled cabbage?” Cabbage-pants stirred the fire with a smoldering branch and sipped his cabbage tea, lost for the moment in memories delicious. “Give up yer cabbage pie? Bubblin’ cabbage? Stuffed cabbage rolls?” He shook himself at the thought. “O’ course, you would be askin’ about the fire, considerin’ everything.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Cabbage-pants winked at Glimmer’s words. “Right, right. We’ll just keep it ’tween you, me, an’ the garden gate. A’right, I don’t mean a thing, nosire, not a thing. Or should I asaid ‘’tween you and the hearthstone’?” the gnome said with a wink. “Ye both’ll have much t’ talk about, an’ I’ll be leavin’ yer to’t,” and with those words and a simple bow, the garden gnome Cabbage-pants, his diaper-breeches low on his hips like those of a toddler, left the kitchen and house, turning right and heading for the garden, Glimmer supposed.

The silence of the kitchen and its ancient darkness suddenly seemed oppressive to Glimmer. The magic of the gnome seemed almost normal, homey, in comparison to Glimmer’s dream of fire incarnate. But, he thought, the apple tree stands outside, a charred skeleton, that beautiful old friend climbed so often, which had given its sweet yet tart fruit. Back and again returned the image of the dragon’s gleaming eyes, its wings widespread, scales glowing like gold and silver fresh-born from the primal forges of the earth. The wide maw of the mouth, teeth to tear and tongue to taste his blood! Not dream magic, no—rather the magic of nightmares. And how did that nightmare connect with his daydream of riding a flaming dragon? Glimmer stared blankly into the fire, weariness heavy upon his shoulders.

There was nothing nightmarish about the kitchen, though; the solidity of its rounded walls of stone, the worn, blackened fireplace and hearth were reassuring images to Glimmer’s mind. He leaned against the stone mantel of the fireplace, sipped his tea and grimaced again at its flavor . . . definitely an acquired taste, he thought absent-mindedly. The stones had absorbed the warmth of the fire, and tendrils of warmth massaged the tenseness of Glimmer’s muscles. He half-closed his eyes, languidly perusing the room, its rounded tower wall like the muscled roundness of some huge creature’s shoulders. He idly mused on Cabbage-pants’ words, considering the fire and hearth in the communal room on the other side of the stone against which he leaned. He remembered the grey fieldstone set in a smooth and regular pattern, like a snake’s scales, and on the stone arch above the firepit, one stone, an oval darkness more polished than the other stones, almost glass-like, like an eye . . .

An awful knowingness entwined Glimmer. Like the tightening coils of a constricting serpent, an intuitive knowingness encircled him until all doubt left, like breath crushed within muscled coils. “Ye both’ll have much t’ talk about,” Cabbage-pants had said; “. . . ’tween you and the hearthstone,” he had said. Placing his mug carefully upon the flagstones, Glimmer slowly stood, strode with heavy deliberateness to that legacy of when the tower had stood alone, strode to the ancient, reinforced door that connected the kitchen with the house’s communal room. Opening the door, he stepped into the large room, empty and dusty from disuse, his footsteps echoing. He turned and faced the room’s hearth, his eyes without surprise taking in the sight of a lively fire crackling in the firepit, a fire of dancing and glowing light vibrant with energy, and all this manifesting from a meager collection of sticks and branches bunched upon the firestones. Light rippling upon the mantelpiece, light drawing arabesques upon Glimmer’s arms, light reflecting off stone—and then one stone high upon the stonework above the firepit—a single, oval obsidian stone captured light . . . and blinked.

Glimmer started back a step and then steadied himself, gazing at an eye the size of a platter that scrutinized him from the stone mantel. Now Glimmer could see how stone was shaped in the suggestion of brow above the eye, and to the right and left of the firepit, he could see stone patterned to suggest a jaw. 

Already knowing, Glimmer spoke in a raw whisper into silence the question that embodied his fears. “What are you?”

That which you summoned, reverberated upon his consciousness.

“And what is that?” 

That which you perceive.

The fire flickered, tongues of flame tasting the air, reaching toward Glimmer. He could feel heat emanating from the fire, heat seeming to emanate even from the stone walls.

“Are you made of stone now?”

Rather the stone is made of me.

“Am I safe? Can you hurt me?” Glimmer asked, advancing one step closer to the hearth. “Am I in danger?”

It seemed to Glimmer that an emotion flickered, a harsh expression of light and shadow upon the stonework. 

Fear and danger are the children of duality. You perceive danger; therefore, I am dangerous.

“But am I in danger?”

In danger from your own folly . . . indubitably.
Glimmer advanced to the fireplace and put his hand flat to the stones. The grey rock was cool, and yet beneath the coolness was a deeper warmth. He closed his eyes and felt energy radiating from the stones, just as in night he had felt sun-warmed stones still radiating heat. “Can you get out?”

And get you? As I said, I am not of stone; stone is of me. 

“What does that mean?”

Stone remembers its greater self. You speak of danger. There exists no danger here. Death comes only at your bidding.

“I didn’t command you to kill.” Glimmer remembered the blackened branches of the ancient apple tree in the meadow next to the house. “I didn’t command you to burn the tree.”

You summoned me, mage-child, you and your nightmare of fire and death. The death of this day rests upon the stones of your hearth, not mine.
“And what now?”

I am the dream, young mage; you are the nightmare. The obsidian eye gleamed with crystalline light, talon-sharp. You conjure destruction so easily. Show me how easily you conjure life. Then call yourself “mage.”
With those words the fire extinguished with not even a sour curl of smoke lingering. Glimmer touched the hearthstones in front of the firepit and found them cool, as cold as bedrock beneath soil and home. Passing back through the doorway to the kitchen, he pushed the door closed with both hands, hearing the muffled echo of its closing, feeling it through his hands, through his entire body, the quarry stone of the floor echoing with his desire to push away his memories, his nightmares, to again merely be Not a Glimmer of Magic working in the garden, alone and neglected, at peace with his petty miseries.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved


  1. It seems to be a very interesting idea: that one's dream life can change one's waking life.

  2. @Timothy Tolzmann

    For me, the idea that waking, dreaming, and sleeping arise from a more comprehensive consciousness that is at the basis of all three relative states--that was the key to working with the "magic" in the story.