“Let me tell you a story.”
“Jesus!” The Magician – who, until moments before, had been sat very much alone, in a cafe – swept a hand over the spilt coffee (flat white) so that it disappeared. “You scared me.” The Witch, as was his wont, had appeared seemingly from nowhere, though the Magician knew that he didn’t possess the power to actually materialise from thin air. “When did you get here?”
The Witch smiled, a small, humourless twist of lips. “Now this is a story you’ve heard already, but bear with me.
“There was once a Magician,” Jack continued. “A learned man, an educator, who cast his magic with his hands, with words of dead and foreign tongues. He travelled the world in pursuit of knowledge. On his travels he met a Witch, the last in a long line of Witches, magic made blood and bone. He became enamoured, obsessed. His desire to learn the Witch’s secrets was only rivalled by his desire to possess the Witch.”
“But the Witch loved another, a man whose only magic was all too human, whose charm lay in his lips and his eyes and the wounds of his soul and the fact that he did not love the Witch back.
“The Magician vowed – unbidden, might I add – to do all he could to alleviate the pain the Witch felt. ‘I will never betray you,’ he said. ‘I would never hurt you.’ But the Magician fell spellbound at the feet of the man, and betray the Witch he did.”
“Jack I’m sorry-”
“Shut up!” The Witch hissed. The lights in the cafe flickered, and all the shadows elongated to points, all bent towards the Magician. “Just listen.
“The Witch was shattered. And something felt the cut of his anguish. Something answered his pain with the promise of pain returned.” The Magician saw something move in the depths of the Witch’s eyes. “The Wild Hunt is after you. For all your knowledge, you can maybe stay a step ahead of them for a while, but there is nothing in the known or unknown universe that can call them off besides blood. And they have the scent of yours.” The shadows had fled to the corners of the room now. Lightning flashed outside the windows.
“What? Jack, how did you even- it – you don’t-”
“I know. But it’s true. I’m sorry. The Hunt is terrible; they will hunt you relentlessly, and when they finally catch you they will tear you apart and feed you to their hounds. You will not be afforded the luxury of death, you will feel every bite as they tear chunks from your legs, your arms, your gut. But that’s not what I came here to say.”
“Then what did you come here to say?”
Flames danced in the Witch’s irises making infernal portals of his pupils.
“Let me tell you a story.”
Let me tell you a story, a tale of two boys. One with hair like coal and eyes dark as a moonlit forest, the other fair as Prince Charming, whose eyes are robin’s eggs rimed in frost. They were the same, and they were different. Those who knew them called them Night and Day. And as we know the Night is inquisitive by nature, and especially curious about the Light; the Day equally so about the Dark. Night creeps closer and closer toward the Dawn until at last they touch, a spectacular kiss that lasts only moments, that lasts a lifetime. The Dark is consumed by the Day.
But, like I said, the Sun’s light is also inquisitive, it touches many, and after a while His heat is focused elsewhere. The Night is returned to starlight and shadow and a cold lingering mist that it cannot shake. The Light is saved for someone else, and the Night is left longing for the Dawn.
There once was a dragon, the last of his line, tainted by his father’s human blood. He was not as tall or as large or as loud as the other dragons, what few there were, but his command of fire was second to none. The other dragons teased him, thought him weak, and, because he was not prone to grandstanding like they were, he kept his silence and let them believe what they wanted, choosing instead to focus his energies on devouring every word of every book he could get his hands on. He was often found haunting the libraries of his ancestors, hiding behind a tome.
But as the years went on the taunts turned to jibes, jibes became cruelty, and the youngest dragon decided something needed to be done.
The same boys that taunted him spoke of a man – and, indeed, the dragon had read tales of this man – who had the uncanny ability to talk to animals. It was said that his voice could charm the birds from the sky and the bears from the woods; animals from all around flocked at his call.
“He is so beautiful that no man or woman can resist him,” the dragon overheard. “He holds sway over both the animal kingdom and humanity. What chance does a dragon have against him?”
“I’m telling you,” the boy insisted. “He is the reason we are so few. The humans feared our power, so convinced him to charm our ancestors into a sleep so the humans could then kill them.”
The path before the dragon lit before him like a lake of fire, leading straight to this man. He would find this Master of Beasts and he would bring back his head, and along with it the respect of his peers and peace from his tormentors.
As soon as night fell the dragon took flight, resting by day. At a stream he overheard a girl tell her friends that the lions had left and all the snakes had gone back into hiding. Another girl mentioned that the Owls only sang at night now, and wasn’t it nice when the foxes and wolves used to help carry the water pails back to the village.
“Excuse me,” said the dragon, whose voice could hold its own charm when he wanted it to. “Has something happened to the man who speaks to the animals?” If he is dead already then my journey is for naught.
“Nobody knows,” said the first girl. “No one has seen or heard from him in days. But the animals have gone.”
“Where is his home?”
One of the boys pointed. “At the top of the hill.”
“Thank you.” The dragon set off in the direction pointed, leaving in his trail a cloud of confused mutterings about men with beguiling voices.
The Beastmaster’s house was the only one atop the hill. The dragon tried the door and found it unlocked, and so crept into the waiting gloom. The house was so dark that the dragon, whose night-vision was excellent, had to call fire to his hands to guide his way. He crept through the house, silent as winter, eyes straining for any sign of the Master of Beasts. With every step he took his heart dropped into his feet and bounced back up into his throat. His eyes watered with the attempt to pierce the shadows. Any minute now he will jump out, and he will charm me, and then he will kill me. The flames on the dragon’s hands sputtered. Sweat beaded along the top of his brow.
One of the stairs creaked and the dragon thought he would choke on his own tongue. This time the flames went out completely.
He stood in the dark, coloured spots whirling before his eyes, waiting for the voice that would be his demise. His ears – which were not the best – pricked at the sound of muffled sobs coming from somewhere nearby. He called the fire back to his hands and moved swiftly onward, all thoughts of his own safety forgotten.
“Hello?” He called softly. The light from his flames burned brighter, dancing shadows around the room. In that room he found a young man sat on a bed crying into a pillow. His hair was a lighter brown than the dragon’s own, with russet tones, and he looked up at the dragon with tear-stained green eyes.
He was indeed as beautiful as the tales had said.
“Are you the Beastmaster?”
“I am. I was. What do you want?”
The dragon faltered. “I… I’ve come to make you answer for your crimes against my ancestors.”
“What?” The Beastmaster wiped at his eyes.
“The dragons you killed. You will answer for every life you took.”
“I-I didn’t kill any dragons.”
“Oh really?” The dragon scoffed. “It was some other Master of Beasts then?”
“The previous owner of the keystone, perhaps. Certainly not me. I would never…”
“The stone that allows me to speak to animals – or, at least, it did. The man who possessed it before me was not very pleasant. It must have been him.” The Beastmaster stared at the dragon. “I’m sorry.”
The dragon sat down on the end of the bed. “Where… Where is he now?”
They sat in silence, the dragon reeling. Finally, he said, “you said ‘it did.’ Why does it not let you speak to animals anymore?”
“Because it is no longer in my possession.” The boy’s voice cracked.
“I’m sorry,” the dragon said. “Tell me what happened.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“No, please.” The dragon shuffled closer and laid a pale hand on his leg. “Tell me.”
So the Once Master of Beasts told the dragon his tale, one of infatuation and adventure, betrayal and loss. The Emperor had charmed the charmer and taken from him the very thing that gave him his sway over others, an emerald stone.
“He keeps it on him day and night. He has a guard of both beast and man. He sleeps high in a tower, close to the stars, behind a moat, behind high walls. I have no hope of getting my stone back.”
The dragon was silent for a moment. “I will get it back for you.”
The dragon stood and smiled. “I have ways. How will I know it?”
The boy looked doubtful. “It is strung on a gold chain around his neck, shaped like a heart. But how-”
The dragon laid a finger on his lips. “I will get it for you. Rest until I return.”
The dragon waited for night to fall before flying for the Emperor’s castle. He gained entrance easily, his smaller size and dark scales helping to hide his approach. In the tower he found the Emperor asleep, as the Beastmaster had said, with the keystone around his throat. Moving silently as smoke, he unclasped the chain, thinking how easily his quest had been, when a low growl sent ants crawling down his spine. He turned to see two lions blocking his escape. Heart pounding, he placed the chain around his own neck, fumbling with the clasp and almost dropping it. The lions were a few feet away.
“Go. You’re free.” He whispered. The lion on the left shook his head. The dragon didn’t hesitate, he darted between them and leapt from the window, changing as he fell, diving and then soaring high into the clouds.
The Beastmaster woke with a start, and was of course overjoyed at the return of his power.
“What will you do now?” He asked the dragon.
“Well, without you predecessor, my quest was for naught.” He told the Master of Beasts of his troubles with the other dragons. “I’ll just have to think of some other way to make my tormentors leave me alone.”
“Why go back if they do not accept you?”
“Where else will I go?”
“Stay here with me if you like.”
The dragon smiled brightly, fire dancing in his eyes. “Really?”
The boy laughed. “Yes. But I’ve only just got my heart back,” the Beastmaster warned. “I’m not ready to give it away to anyone just yet.”
The dragon grinned. “That’s okay, you keep it. I’ll just steal it again.”
“I don’t know.”
“I do. You’re ready.”
“Trust me, you can do it. You’re healed.”
The Owl hesitated. “Now? Here?”
“Why not? There’s no one around.” They were strolling around the reservoir near the Wolf’s place, dusk falling rapidly and as the Wolf had pointed out, no one about.
“Okay.” The Owl stopped and at first turned to look directly at the Wolf but then changed his mind and turned away. One moment there was a man with brown hair and a reddish beard, the next there was an Owl whose feathers looked blood red in the fading sun.
“Good.” The Wolf watched the Owl ruffle his feathers and spread his wings. “Go on, you can do it.”
The Owl turned to face the Wolf and twisted his head one way and then the other like he was cracking his neck. Then he opened his surprisingly expansive wings, beat once, twice, and was off into the trees. When he could no longer see him the Wolf closed his eyes and tracked his progress with other senses. The Owl circled the reservoir twice and then dropped down below the tree line, landing and changing in one fluid motion onto the gravel pathway in front of the Wolf.
“I did it!” He laughed and hugged the Wolf.
“Yeah ya did.”
“I fucking did it.”
“Told you, you’re fine.”
The Owl kissed the Wolf on the cheek. “Thank you. C’mon!”
The Owl was healed. He took on even more work, he played more gigs, worked on an album, spent less time with the Wolf, Whose job was done. For his part the Wolf was glad for the other boy, happy to have had a part in the Owl’s recovery, understanding of the need to seclude himself and lay to rest some of the demons that had been haunting him. The Owl gave the Wolf a copy of his new album, signed with love and gratitude. He listened to it surrounded by the scent of nag champa incense, face buried in the t-shirt that the Owl had worn when he first became the boy amongst the feathers on the Wolf’s bedroom floor.
“I hate him. I mean, I don’t hate him, but I hate him. You know?”
“I just… I can’t…” The Owl put down his guitar; the Wolf put down his book.
“I didn’t tell him.”
“Tell him what?”
“About me. What I can do.”
“And there was stuff he didn’t talk about, too. Stupid things, inconsequential things.”
“It seems odd that you would keep things from each other.”
“Yeah.” He sighed, picked his guitar back up and continued to play, singing softly under his breath. The Wolf watched him a few seconds longer then followed the other boy’s lead.
The Owl felt well enough to take a gig at a local bar filled with boys with fresh beards and glasses they didn’t need and girls with dreadlocks and festival bands crawling up their arms. The Wolf had a tendency to avoid large crowds and loud noise, but he was there, tasting the Owl’s sweat on the air even over all the body spray and the spilt beer. His scent had undergone a subtle but significant change.
The Owl stepped onto the stage, sat at the piano, cleared his throat and then began to play.
“At night the demons crawl from my head,
I’m memories of a long lost man,
I am the feelings that you had,
All of the love and damage done.”
That night the Owl performed like a warrior; that night witnessed those demons crawling from shattered minds wrestled and slain. The Wolf smiled and cheered with the rest of the crowd, though a solitary tear escaped the corner of his eye.
“I want to go home.”
“Okay. You’re not a prisoner, you know; you are allowed to leave.”
“I know.” The Owl cleared his throat. He stared unblinking into the Wolf’s green gold eyes. “Will you come with me?”
The Wolf blinked, marked the page and closed the book. “Of course.”
The Owl’s home was spacious yet cozy, filled with treasures and CDs and vinyls and movie paraphernalia.
“Do you want a cup of tea or something?”
“Please.” On a small table next to the sofa was a framed picture of the Owl with his arm around a young man with blond hair. “Have you got biscuits?”
“So what happened?”
“He didn’t love me. I gave him everything and he let me. He didn’t bother to tell me not to plan my life with him.”
The Wolf stroked the Owl’s arm. “He’s an idiot.”
“I know. I just… no one’s ever fulfilled me on so many levels before.”
The Wolf made a sound. A breath or a snort. “Love is blind, you’ll see.”
The Wolf and the Owl spent their time between both houses, talking into the early hours or reading to each other or listening to music or watching movies or building dens out of blankets and chairs or staring at the stars with steaming mugs of hot chocolate. The Owl went back to work teaching music and his arm continued to heal. The nights he spent alone the Owl wore one of the Wolf’s t-shirt’s, “I sleep better in your scent.”
One night the Wolf let himself into the Owl’s house after knocking a few times to no answer. The now-familiar scent of nag champa incense wrapped around him like a favourite jumper.
From above came a thud and a crash. The Wolf leapt up the stairs, covering half of them in a single bound. As he came up into the living room he barely had time to duck, narrowly avoiding a red glass lantern to the head.
“Shit.” The Owl jumped to his feet. “Are you okay?” He wiped at the tears on his cheeks and delicately picked his way through the carnage that was the living room floor.
“I’m fine.” He took the Owl into his arms, assessing the destruction at their feet. The coffee table was upturned, there were bits of broken glass and reddish brown feathers all over the carpet, DVDs and CDs and books and records were strewn across the room, a lamp was on its side and a plant had been divorced from its pot.
The picture of the Owl and the blond boy was face up on the sofa along with the Owl’s phone and an open notepad.
“Do you feel any better?” The Wolf asked, stroking the back of the other boy’s head.
“A little. Mostly I feel stupid.”
The Wolf held him tighter. “Don’t. You’re not.” He kissed the Owl softly on his temple and moved away. “Stick the kettle on and I’ll start tidying.”
“Try not to use your arm too much. The magic is… delicate.” The Wolf handed him a mug of tea, humming under his breath.
“Okay.” The Owl stared at his arm. “It looks well enough.”
“The bones are still mending.”
“Oh.” The Owl poked his arm, stretched the skin a little. “Where did you learn to heal?”
The Wolf hesitated. “From a witch.”
“Is that where you got the mark on your back from?”
“… Yes. It’s… complicated.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means, little Owl,” he said, tickling the Owl’s ribs. “That I have an angry demon caged in my soul.”
The Owl stopped laughing. “Oh.”
“Don’t worry, I’m kidding. It’s… It’s a curse. There are charms in place to keep it contained.”
“Okay.” The Owl smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes.
“The spells that keep it are strong magics.” The Wolf swallowed. “Death magics.”
“Oh.” The Owl held the other man’s gaze. “I’m sorry,” he said eventually. He took the Wolf’s hand and squeezed it before going back to poking his arm.
The Wolf woke one night to find the bed next to him empty. For a moment his heart throttled his throat, but the soft sound of singing stayed his pulse. He crept from his bed like a shadow. The Owl had built a fire in the living room and was singing quietly into the flames.
“I have a thousand score words,
And an infinity in which to arrange them all,
But not one of them can adequately describe
The feelings you stir.”
The Owl’s voice was surprisingly high and sweet. The slight hitch in it broke the Wolf’s heart. He stood and listened for a little while longer, still as a painting, to songs of love and loss and bitterness and rage and regret, then made his way back to bed before the call to howl grew too great for him to suppress.
“I just want to love you, that’s all.”