Short Story: “The Keeper’s Tale”

In the mid-1970s, a friend of mine did something to my head that I will never forget. She was one of those very rare people who sometimes stepped aside and let another speak through her. Some call this ‘channeling’, and wrap the experience in mystery. For her, though, it was just a part of life. For me, it was a chance to ask questions. But the person I spoke with did more than just provide answers, she also demonstrated something for me, something that ensured I would accept as real what I had until then only tacitly agreed to believe — that waking reality is as real, and as mutable, as what we tell ourselves are dreams: she turned on a single-speaker radio, and let me hear the music in full surround. My friend also told me of a dream she had. That dream was the basis for this story, which I wrote soon afterwards.

“The Keeper’s Tale”
by
P. Orin Zack

Part I

Tearfully staring into emptiness, my tombstone dreams of ages past, of a time long since dimmed to myth when I was given my charge. My priestly duty was to guard the Tower, “place of the Gods”, until their return.

The legends had said it was built of magic, dust, and light, and that the Tower had stood, untouched by time, for longer than even time itself. How it was built had been long since forgotten. Yet it stood, and only the mythic caution against the Priests leaving it remained.

I was old then, and there was not another to take my place. I had roamed the grounds, wondering — always wondering, and searching for some remnant of Power in the great Rotunda which would help me to understand the deep mysteries of the Tower. One such day I chanced upon a stone. It was a stone of learning, for it talked to me inside my head, and its words were of the ancient days in the Valley, and of the glory, power, and beauty once surrounding the Tower. What it did not say was how that glory had vanished.

As I wandered the huge vaulted chambers, I began to imagine that I saw images of the time of light spoken of by the stone. My nights were filled with visions of those times, and many were the painful mornings spent vainly trying to re-enter those fleeting dreams. But wishing was not enough. For as much as I learned from that stone, I remained unable to perform any of the Old Magic. For many months, I fought the frustration of having the knowledge, yet being unable to use it. Finally, I gave up trying. I tossed the stone into a gap in the stonework of the Rotunda wall and tried to forget that I had ever found it. Yet it called out to me, lurking there in its dark corner, and I had nowhere to turn. At last, out of desperation, I fell to sitting for days in the single untarnished seat upon the dais, surrounded by the silence of the great Rotunda, grimly contemplating nothingness.

It was then that two visitors appeared. A woman whose manner spoke of the green lands beyond strode stiffly into the echoing stillness of the Rotunda. Behind her, standing barely within the circle of the Rotunda, stood a young girl with a dark and piercing look. I watched as she carefully examined the walls around her, and marvelled that such a young one could be so unaccountably comfortable in those ancient chambers. A word of welcome was clearly in order, but as there hadn’t been a visitor in the Valley for longer than I could remember, I sat and stared in silence.

“Old man!”

I drew my gaze back across the tiled floor to the woman. Her bearing was stark, her stance the uncomfortable puffery of one who clearly wished she was elsewhere.

“Do you hear me, old man?”

“Yes. Yes. What is it you want of me?”

She made a short gesture with her thumb, indicating the girl, who had cautiously approached the dais. “My daughter there needs to have some sense beat into her.” A heavy breath, and an outstretched hand. “I have tried. Gods know I’ve tried. She has these — these ‘dreams’, and she acts like they’re more important than her chores.”

The girl turned her head to look at her mother from the corner of her eye while she idly fingered the surface of the dais platform.

“And what, dear woman, do you expect me to do about it? I am a priest, not a nursemaid. Do you think that I have nothing to do here but wait around for people like you to dump your uncivilized offspring on me? And the idea of bringing her to the Valley for —”

“Now you just hold on right there! Priest? How can you stand there and call yourself a Priest? All tucked away in this convenient little valley? Sole surviving member of a burned out old monastery? The Priests, old man, are out there in the real world. They’re busy, all right. Busy making little models of this place for people to pray to. Those priests, if you will, have been making quite a name for you out there. While you sit here and —”

“While I sit here and what?”

The girl’s attentions were solely on me. She seemed to be waiting for — for a sign of something from me.

The woman gathered up her cloak in her fists for a moment, while she closed her eyes tightly and pursed her lips. Then, releasing her cloak, she looked sternly into my eyes and spoke, in a calm, unwavering, and very controlled voice. “While you sit here and act out the final scene of a story that ended long ago.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Come on, old man. You can’t be that dense. The legends about the last Priest to leave the Tower, of course. You know what they say.”

“That the magic will remain as long as there is someone here to guard it. What of it?”

“When you die, old man, what then?”

Looking up for a second, I noticed that the girl had gone. “I had hoped there would be another to take my place.”

“Doesn’t look like there’s going to be anyone, does there?”

“No.”

“Well? The priests out there say that it doesn’t matter anyway. They say that the magic was just that — magic. They can get along quite well without you, or this place. Only, my daughter doesn’t see it that way. And believe me, that isn’t easy to live with.”

As I sat there, I thought about the words of the stone. What had once been grandeur was now legend. Not even the Priestly training of my youth could clear the mists from the truth, and the myths told by the people outside were even more clouded. What I had learned from the stone would sound utterly beyond belief to her. My own preconceptions were, at least, not totally divorced from the truth. I had accepted what the stone had said, but with great difficulty. Then what of her? I could tell from her tone that she still secretly believed that these wonders were Godly works, and that one day they would return to them. She had made that first step, and perhaps I could help her with the second.

At the risk of strengthening her belief in my foolishness, I hastened to explain what I had learned. I painted word pictures of the visions I saw, but as I did, I began to miss them all the more.

I told her in quiet tones of glistening, shimmering words, how there once had been wisdom to match those works, and more. She grew disturbed as I detailed the facts behind her Gods, but I continued. Slowly, her disturbed countenance faded into horror as I spoke. My story wound around legends and tales of mythical beings, past times long forgotten, and through uncounted years of glory. When I told her that the Gods she knew so well were but creatures like us, she looked at me as though through mountains of pity. Of the magic in the Tower, she could but shake her head, for there was no magic left in her world.

Then I stopped. I could see that my words were not enough as she slowly turned from the dais and walked out into the daylight. And though it had brought me nothing but frustration, I went to the chink in the Rotunda wall and pulled out the stone. When I found her again, she was in the garden with her daughter.

“Hold this for a moment.”

The stone would not speak in her, or perhaps she was deaf to it. She turned it over in her hands and passed it to her daughter. The young girl suddenly looked toward the Tower. I knew that she was hearing the words forming in her head, and I watched her face raptly, nearly reading the story from it.

The Tower is made of curdled light, of thought invested with form. It was built by men, though men no longer remember how it was done. By men it was built, but not like men of today. In those times, men were different. They knew of magic, but to them it was not magic. It was a part of their world as they understood it. They had but to turn their wills to a purpose to see that purpose done. I know this is so because I was there. I am there still, for that time is not a time at all, and only through time can one leave it.

She seemed to accept it as a story of wonder, and as such was not bound to regard it as real. But real it was, and she continued to listen.

Long ago the Tower was built, and its builders thought that it would serve their will. But they neglected to recall that glory gained by birth is all to easily lost. Those who followed did not know how to build even a small thing in that manner, that they could know of its worth. And they forgot.

They forgot.

They forgot, and entered the realms of time. And as that is the only way to leave that time that was not a time, they could not return. But they did not care. They had their lives, or so they thought, and cared not for the past. The future. The future and the present were for them, and in believing that, they grew deeper into time. But the further away from that place out of time they went, the less they knew of it, and slowly they began to believe the stories they told about it. The stories grew. And with every new telling, the truth grew less and less recognizable.

By that time, the woman had gone. But the girl still listened, and so I did not follow her mother. Instead I sat with her as she listened to the tale unfold. As I had done in the months past, she learned of the great houses of learning on the banks of the River-Of-Life, to which came people of every age and from many worlds. The Great Winged Messenger, retold the stone, brought seekers after knowledge from the many worlds in the darkness of space to dwell in the Houses of Light. Returning to their homes with what they had been taught, and with the wisdom to properly use it, these celestial visitors brought an uncountable wealth to their peoples.

The girl laughed a sparkling laugh, accustomed as she must have been to the stories of her nursery, and grew comforted by the warmth of the afternoon sun. Her smile revealed her fascination, and she gripped the stone even tighter.

While she was so engrossed, I slipped back to my quiet place in the central chamber. In my exhaustion, I fell into a welcome sleep. I dreamed then as I had so many times in those days, of the old times when the people lived in the valley.

I found myself entering the chamber, feeling more awake than not, though I fully realized I was in fact asleep. It had disturbed me at first, that seeming wakefulness while fully asleep. But the dreams comforted me, And I grew to treat them as real as they seemed.

The familiar fitted-stone walls of the Rotunda were blanketted by a strange hazy glowing fog which seemed to have a life of its own. It shimmered, and shadows cast themselves through and around the haze, giving it a constantly changing visual texture reminiscent of ripple shadows on a submerged stone. Robed figures came and went in some direction I could only guess at, each one seeming to suddenly appear and vanish nearly unnoticed by the others.

I crossed the sparkling tiled floor toward the dais, and was once again struck by the peculiar way that the inlaid patterns changed as my dream-self moved across them. The gaps in the walls, which I knew as holes to nothingness, revealed scenes from other places. From one I could see a city reaching upwards into clear blue skies, while its neighbor revealed a dark, storm covered seaside, and yet another showed a field of unearthly flowers rolling gently across a grassy hillside.

My attention was broken suddenly by a stillness in the room. One lone cloaked figure stood directing the head of his staff towards the chair upon the dais. He then brought it around, drawing its head across the silver and gold colored tile before him. A pattern formed around the staff’s head from the sparks which resulted, and they remained in position as it moved. He then pointed the spark-encircled metal head of his staff at a suspended crystal centering the dome. Both the crystal and the sparkling staff took on a brilliant glow.

When he had finished, I continued crossing the floor to the great raised chair, and saw that the dais was slightly different than the one I had so often slept on. For whereas the one I knew so well had but one level, this one had three. The first was as I remembered it, but a second rose from it, half as high as the first, and a third, again half as high as the second. The gently purring golden fur was the same, but the chair centering it wasn’t. This one was almost not there, as though it were built of gossamer. As I neared the platform, I turned around to face the entrance again, and found myself waking from my sleep. The girl was seated at my feet.

I looked at her for a time, wondering whether she understood what the stone had been telling her. She still had the stone in her hand, and was gripping it in trembling fingers when I put my own out for it. She loosened her grip and turned it over twice as she studied it again. Then she returned it to me.

The rock felt — different. It had the contented feeling of something finally accomplished, and for the first time since I had first picked it up, it remained silent as I held it.

“It’s happy now.” she said suddenly.

“The rock?” I asked her.

“Yes.” She paused then, her eyes darting about the room, after which she said, “It did what it needed to do. It’s happy now. It can rest.”

I didn’t know what she meant, but something had certainly happened to the rock. She kept looking at me, half expecting me to have said something, I imagine. She knew something that I did not. I, with my priestly training that told me only another version of the truth the rock had held. I, who had stayed with the Tower for the long years of my life. I had found the stone months before, and in scant hours it had given up its power to tell tales entirely.

“What did it do?” I asked her softly.

She swallowed rather loudly, as I recall, and then forced a few short, heavy breaths before answering. This was clearly not an easy task for her.

“It told me —” Her expression seemed to blank out for a moment. Then she just sat there, staring at the wall with an odd smile on her face.

“Go on.”

“It told me that I was, well, that I was right all along.”

“Right? Right about what?”

She tilted her head at that, then looked squarely at me. A small smile crept across her face, and she began talking very quietly.

“I have friends here, you know.”

“Friends?”

“Yes. I have been here before. In my dreams, I visit the valley often. But there are some things missing. Did you know that?”

“Oh?”

“Yes. The chair, for instance. In my dreams, it has a soft furry covering. And it stands higher than it does here.”

She must have continued on for a while after that, but I didn’t hear a word of it. Her description of the chamber was exactly as I saw it in my own dreams. All I could think of was the pain of being so close to the secret, and yet not understanding it.

She fell silent then, and looked idly about the chamber.

“Is that what the stone told you was right?”

“I didn’t only stay in the rotunda, though. My friends here showed me all kinds of wonderful things. They taught me how to do some of the Old Magic.”

“Did they.”

“Yes. And I practiced what I learned, and even tried to show my friends at home how to do it.”

“Magic? Like what?”

“Nothing big. Just how to make cuts heal faster and things like that. But for some reason, none of them could get the hang of it.”

“That is a shame.”

“It was more than a shame. It bordered on heresy.”

“Heresy? But the legends are full of such things. How could that be a heresy?”

But she didn’t answer. In the silence of the rotunda, I could almost hear her shudder.

Part II

Her dreams, as she described them, were clearly about the elder days, when people understood the magic that was in the Tower. She literally glowed as she told me all about the incredible dreams she had had. She said that she was never before free to talk about them openly as she was doing with me. After what seemed like hours, and it might well have been, she fell once again silent.

When I asked if she meant that the stone told her that her dreams had been factual, she said that was so, and went off on another tangent. She told me about what she had said to people because of those dreams. She was wise in what she knew, but foolish in her use of it. Her young, agile mind had gone beyond what she saw in her dreams, and began to work out the basis for the workings of the ancient magic. She secretly talked with her friends, teaching them how to pracice the Old Magic. Some of them were untrustworthy, and soon their parents became outraged. They were not prepared to accept her ideas, and instead, attacked her for them. She told me that her parents at last began to keep her away from other people, and she dealt with them as she could. With her help, they decided to be rid of her, bundling her out of the village, and up to the old valley of the Tower. She was happy because of it, because now she was in a place where the old magic that was not magic had been practiced and understood by all. She would stay, she told me, and help me to take care of the old magical Tower, if I would allow her to. If not, she would leave.

I was silent for a long while after she had finished speaking. I thought of what she might be able to help me with. She had more knowledge of the old times than did I myself. Even with my training, my understanding was poor at best. Her mind was young and agile, and perhaps there was still a chance to bring the magic back. I told her that she could stay, but that she would have to help me. I wanted to learn what she had learned, I told her, and then waited for her answer.

She was overjoyed, and began dancing about the chamber. I watched her silently wheel about the glistening tiled floor for long minutes before I noticed something extraordinary. The tile of the floor was behaving as it had in my dreams, changing with the fluidity of the dance which my young friend was performing. This was truly a special girl, for nowhere but in my dreams had I seen the glittering gold and silver colors of the floor react in such a manner. I marveled at the magic she brought with her, and my hopes rose as I watched.

“What was all that about?”

“Hmmm?”

“Your dance, if that was what it was. There was some magic about it. Where did to learn to do it?”

“That? I was only fitting myself to the music.”

“Music?”

“Sorry. I forgot. When I’m happy, I hear a sort of music. That’s how I celebrate sometimes. But, uh, I usually have to be careful where I do it. They thought I was possessed or something…”

“Right. Well, when I want to celebrate, I have a feast. Are you hungry?”

“Famished. I haven’t eaten since last night, when we stopped at the inn at Cambert’s Pass.”

“Then, by all means, let’s eat!”

After we had finished a veritable banquet of fruits and one of the flightless birds which I raised for special occasions, we sang and talked until we were both exhausted. We learned all we could about each other. Soon we would begin learning together about our glorious past, and with that happy thought, we each took some needed rest.

Would that I were not so hopeful. For all the hopes that I had, she was not able to teach me what she had learned. I was willing to learn, and she was trying as best she could, but for some reason, I could not make the ideas come together. We tried for weeks, and though I could grasp individual concepts, I was unable to progress beyond them to the underlying structure of the old ways.

My failure so tore at me that I forebore to seek solitude away from the girl, wishing to forget that we had ever met. She remained in the valley with me, but we rarely met except over meals, and then in silence. From afar, I watched as she learned more of the old ways, and began to practice with them. Before many weeks, I was once again reposing upon the dais chair, dreaming of those days, and wishing that I could return to them. I even began to refuse to believe in the power of the Tower.

I was in such a state when another visitor came to the valley. I was enjoying a dream visit to the Rotunda in the old days. A stranger had appeared across the room and slowly approached me. The sounds of his footsteps on the tile reverberated hollowly in the crowded chamber as he walked. He opened his mouth to speak, and —

“Priest, are you awake?” he asked in a quiet, but assertive tone.

Reluctantly regaining wakefulness, I took a quick look at my visitor through bleary eyes and a yawn. My visitor wore finely tailored clothing, and carried himself with an air of importance. I looked quickly around the Rotunda, shaking my head with the oddness of his approach within my dream. Yet, his clothing matched what I had seen a moment, or perhaps ages, before.

“I am now. Who —, who are you?”

“My name is Baron Verston. I —”

“Yes. I have heard of you.” Indeed, I had. My young friend’s stories of the outside world were full of such people. Verston, she had told me, was the hereditary ruler of one of the many cities along the coastline. “What do you want here, so far from the sea?”

“Apparantly your information is dated. I no longer rule the port of Grodak. Some trouble-makers from the mountains to the north came into the city and started a revolt. If you know anything at all about me, then you are aware that I have never ruled by force of arms.”

“Oh, yes. I know about your devious methods. But that doesn’t answer my question. What do you want with me? I am not about to fall for your tricks.” By this time, I had regained my composure, and began to use the tricks which I had been taught. Bearing and tone did a lot to sway an argument.

“As I said, I have never used force to rule. We use much the same techniques, you and I. And, it appears, neither of us are, at the moment, in a position to do anything about it. I was warned never to return to Grodak by the petty knife-wielders that took my home. And you, I would wager, have none of the power which you would like, either.”

“Power? What power does a Priest have?”

“Shall we forego the games? You are alone here in this valley. No longer do the pilgrims come to pray at the Tower. Even those outside that call themselves priests discourage such foolishness. They know how to keep their followers in line as well as we do.”

I sat back heavily in the raised dais chair, and thought a moment about that. He was obviously leading up to some sort of cooperative effort. “Come to the point, man!”

“There are many other cities out there. And I mean to have one of them, with your help. I learned from the revolt in Grodak the value of the priesthood. If we work together, we will each have better control. And you can enjoy the benefits of that power if you leave this valley with me. I can guarantee the wealth and comfort which you so obviously deserve. Together, we —”

“I told you, no games!”

“Very well. What do you think?”

In my bitterness, I found his offer of power to be attractive, but still feared to leave the valley. So deeply was my early training rooted, that I maintained my insistance upon not leaving. He kept tearing at my obedience until finally I began to listen to him from a precarious balance between a life-long habit, and the promise of untold wealth and power.

“Come away,” he said, “the Tower will not fall if you go. It was built by men, and will be here for hundreds of years, if not thousands. Surely you don’t think that it will disappear if you turn your back on it. Buildings are made of stone and sweat, not magic.”

Not magic…not magic. I held my breath as the echo died.

“The people out there are willing to be led, eager to be shown what to believe in. They pursue their priests’ tired stories of ancient grandeur in the vain hope that the gods they cherish will return. It occupies their thoughts, but not deeply, for no god yet has made any difference in the affairs of men, and none is likely to. Not now. Not ever. Come with me, and we shall rule together. The multitudes await their new leader. Come away from this nonsense. Join me and we will grow rich together.”

In the end, I agreed. All I could see were endings. The stone had found it’s rightful student, performed the task it had waited eons for, and fell into a satisfied sleep. There was no way for me to benefit from it. I had spent a lifetime waiting for my successor, but my time had grown short and there was no hope that I could discharge my duties to another. So I left. I took a final walk through the rotunda, pausing only to finger the dais chair one last time, and departed without even bidding the girl goodbye. I did not then regret my decision, for my mind remained focussed on the power and wealth which was soon to be mine.

After some little maneuvering with the rulers of the city, a sprinkling of larceny and murder, and a great deal of gold changed hands, Baron Verson was on his new throne.

I discovered that it was not so much that the people would be led as that they didn’t care who sat on the throne. It did not effect their lives except during times of war, and in the amount of the taxes, so they let the high-born struggle among themselves for what power they could take.

In the months that followed, I concerned myself with the myths of the people, and thought less and less about the valley, the Tower, and the girl. My new life afforded me little time for musing over the lost past, and so I fell to planning the future with a satisfaction borne of comfort.

But my comfort was short-lived. I awoke one night from a dream so devastating that I lay frozen with fear and bathed in a cold sweat until the first light of dawn gave me the strength to move.

The dream concerned happenings in the Rotunda, with the usual comings and goings, magical appointments, and robed figures. But the girl was there as well. She sat upon the dais chair, upon that gossamer chair which looked not to be supportive of even her slight weight. The attentions of the dozen or so figures in the chamber were upon her. She rose from the chair, descended the narrow steps from the third level to the floor, and did a dance like that I had seen. As she whirled about the floor, the tiled patterns shifted and changed with her movements. The room began to fill with other cloaked figures of various sizes and shapes as she continued her dance. Patterns in the tiles merged with others in the haze before the walls, enveloping the room in an ever shifting maze of lines, shapes, and dots. She moved among the figures as she danced, fluidly merging with the movement of spaces formed by their arrivals and departures. They, too, seemed to be a part of the motion in the room. Slowly, the girl wound down her dance, returning to the dais as she stopped, and stood before the platform.

She waited there for a moment, accepting the approval of those around her, and then spoke. I could have sworn that she was directing her comments at me, impossible as it may sound. Her exact words escape me, but her meaning will always remain. She had returned to the old days in the valley. She even explained how she had done it. She said that she was not angry with me for leaving her alone there. She had known that I would, and she wished me happiness with my choice. When she had finished speaking, the image of the Rotunda, the Dais, and all the rest, slowly dissolved into he blackness of the night. At that moment I woke with a strong urge to return to the valley once more and a tearing panic about what I would find.

Shortly after the golden light of dawn spread across the sky, I slipped out of the city and set off towards the Valley of the Tower. It took me some time to gather the will to descend from the last turning at Cambert’s Pass, for that was where I first saw the Valley again. The sight was a deathblow. The Tower was no longer there. It had vanished. There was not a trace of it to be found, neither at the site, nor in the surrounding area. It no longer existed.

Neither did the dais. Nor the chair.

It had been true. The Tower could not remain without someone nearby to believe in it. I felt crushed, and fell to crying, sprawled in the center of the rotunda, on the sand where the dais had stood for untold ages. Without the chair, I could make no use of what the girl had told me. It had been the way to return, if one knew how to use it. And she had used it.

I remained there for many days and nights, until finally, Baron Verston returned. I was nearly dead when he arrived, having had no food and little water for days.

He knelt at my side in silence and looked breathlessly at the debris around us.

“What have I done?” I gasped. The Tower was gone. The Gods could not keep their promise. I had failed.

Baron Verston screamed “This will not be forgotten!” his voice echoing hollowly in my ears as I drew my last breath and the world faded around me.

 +—–+—–+

The valley is completely covered with sand now, and the only marker of its passing stares out across the sands of time. It looks directly at what had once been the great Tower, keeping a hopeless vigil for the return of the Gods who had built it.

Another Tower was built. One of brick and of sweat. The fall of that one is remembered in legend. But of the real Tower, the magical one, all that remains is Ozymandias’ blank stare. Ozymandias, the sphinx.

THE END

Copyright 2012 by P. Orin Zack

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