Aphelion Issue 278, Volume 26
November 2022
 
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Brews from the World Tree

by Seth Mullins




            My teacher’s memorial was a small, quiet affair. Honoring his wishes, I had him buried near the roots of his beloved apple tree, a bundle of Sageswort beneath his folded arms and nothing between his body and the earth. Spring’s outpouring--the pink hue of the morning, the green and yellow meadow painted with white daisies, the drift of heavy pollen--seemed to belie the sorrow of the occasion. Little more than a dozen friends came to pay their last respects. Finlar Kastanas, the great potions master, led a mostly solitary life.


            It fell upon me, as his heir, to open the ceremony. And I realized, as I moved to take my place beneath the tree and address the gathering, that I couldn’t speak of him in the past tense. I couldn’t bear to make references to ashes and dust. I could only deliver my eulogy if it was addressed to my master directly.

            “Our dear Finlar…

            “Who among us can say if perhaps now you chase the scent of new herbs over undying prairies, stepping lightly beneath a close, eternal sun, the trials and woes of mortality no longer even a memory for you?

            “All of these things may be true, or maybe none of them are. All we can know for certain is that our world is poorer for having lost you.

            “Do you grow bored now because there are no ills to cure, no destitute souls in need of your recipes? Know that you can peer down here at folks who can see, who can walk without pain,” --as my throat tightened, and tears threatened, I allowed myself a moment of levity-- “who bid good riddance to pimples, or ran a hand through new hair thanks to your concoctions. Folks who endured your acerbic wit for the cures that they knew no other alchemist within fifty miles could rival.”

            Amidst some scattered laughter, I drew a long breath and tried to compose myself.


            “For myself, I acknowledge that my apprenticeship wasn’t always easy. You were patient but demanding, kind but gruff. Mistakes in a formula you could forgive; but if my work ever lacked for love and commitment, I would receive the sharp side of your tongue.

            “But your devotion to excellence in the Art will always inspire me, dear Finlar--whatever mood I recall you in.”

#

            Afterwards, as the others dispersed, one vaguely familiar man hung back and then approached me. He was a thick middle-aged fellow with an oxbow mustache and a furrowed brow that gave him a look of perpetual deep thought. His auburn hair was bound back in a thick and braided topknot. He dressed like a seasoned borderlander: white sheepskin shirt and matching leggings, and leather boots.

            When he introduced himself-- “Muri Ivarson” --I remembered how I knew him. He owned the World Tree Inn and tavern in Brinstead Common, which I’d frequented a handful of times. “Finlar taught me a lot of what I know about brewing,” he said; and for a while we compared recipes and best practices for some of the beverages that we both knew how to concoct. Then, in the ensuing silence, we shared a look of commiseration.


            “He spoke highly of you as his apprentice,” Muri said, “Said sometimes you jumped ahead in your studies just going on sheer instinct. It’s a shame your training had to be cut short.”

            I winced at this, as it so clearly echoed my own despondent thoughts. “Most of what I’ve got in here” --I tapped my temple-- “is esoteric lore. It’s all theory. I don’t know how to apply all that knowledge and actually produce remedies that I can peddle for money. Ah, listen to me--bemoaning my troubles when it’s our day to be remembering him! But I am feeling a little lost. Alchemy is my passion. It’s been my sole focus since I came of age. I never learned any other kind of trade.”

            “Finlar once told me that you both had an interest in creating elixirs for the mind.”

            “Yes, well… it always seemed to me, with all the concoctions that can help to mend skin and bones, drive away all kinds of fevers, why not something for our inner awareness? Something to ease it, drive away its fears… or open it up to flights of fancy!”

            I laughed, trying to dispel some of my embarrassment. “I’ve dreamt of remedies for war, for hatred, for sorrow... brewing peace!” I shook my head. “I suppose it’s time to leave such childish notions behind me now.”

            “Maybe not,” Muri said, “How would that bode for our future if no one dared to dream of our betterment anymore? But how would you go about developing these kinds of remedies? Would you need folks who’d be willing to let you experiment on them?”

            “I’d experiment on myself,” I said, vaguely noticing how his questions had become rather pointed. “And I’d only do that when I felt fairly assured of success.”

            “There’s your theories, and then there’s the test of truth.”

            “That’s right. But my theories would be more than just guesses to begin with,” I hastened to add.

            My teacher’s final resting place felt like an inappropriate place to be “talking shop” like this, so I suggested we walk to the creek that ran alongside the shanty. (My shanty now, I thought, with some astonishment.) 

            “I’m working to change the image of my inn,” Muri said, “There are plenty of places where folks can drink ale, smoke their pipes, and trade gossip. What I’ve got in mind is something a lot more adventurous.

            “And as far as that goes, I could use another pair of hands. Or in your case, a pair of hands and a good mind.”

            Hearing this, my imagination took flight. On the surface, his offer was initially enticing. Even with my teacher gone, I was still hoping to remain in, or near, Brinstead Common. The town was large enough to provide me with virtually everything I needed and yet small enough to offer the kind of quietude that’s conducive to study. And Muri seemed trustworthy. He was a friend of Finlar’s…

            My companion pursued his pitch. “I’ve committed myself to an experiment that no innkeeper or barkeep has ever attempted before, to my knowledge. We’ve enjoyed almost three years of peace on our borders, right? And trade has never been more open. That means I’ve been able to acquire some more, well, exotic libations--from Shi-inte, and even from as far away as Elmicora. Fae liquor! What do you think of that? I’ve got stuff in stock that you would’ve had to scour the southern jungles and swamps to find the ingredients for just a decade ago.

            “I’ve got the widest selection of draughts in Brinstead now,” he boasted, “all of it made by real craftspeople. They weren’t mixed up by novices in outhouses and cellars.” He shrugged in a self-deprecating way. “Call it vanity. But the rub of it is… I’m talking about some unusual, foreign intoxicants.”  

“Meaning you don’t know how safe they are, or whether they might make someone delirious or deranged.” I folded my arms and paused for a moment to study him, trying to gauge whether he was the kind of man who would be so reckless. “Once you open a forbidden chest, Mister Ivarson, you may find it impossible to get the lid back on it.”

            “I’m not peddling anything that the people of Shi-inte haven’t been using in their rituals for hundreds of years,” he said, “It’s only new to us. That’s why I think I just need someone there who can provide counsel or guidance if it’s necessary. Only partially trained as you are, you’re still the closest thing to a medicine man that we’ve got here in the new territories. You know more than anyone else about the different appearances that reality can take. What is it you call it in your trade?”

            I divulged this reluctantly. “Twistings of the Veils.”

            “Twistings of the Veils. Indeed. So, if anyone should manage to lift those Veils and venture out past them, you’d have the best chance of knowing where it is they’ve gone to.”

            “I would only recognize it if I’d gone there myself,” I said, “And as you pointed out, my training is incomplete.”   

“I’ll not ask you for any guarantees. Just your perceptiveness, your discernment; that should be enough.”  

            I laughed at his earnestness, almost despite myself. “Is the governor aware of your ambition?”

            Muri smiled. “Word of what I’m offering has already drawn foreigners to every inn in town, not just my own--foreigners who had no reason to visit the Common until now. And they spend their coin freely. Can the southern merchants and traders be far behind? I’m sure governor Ferris is happy thinking about how our territory is growing fat under his watch.”


            Muri continued to elaborate upon his ideas, and it became obvious to me that many of them had been ignited by rumors and tales that reached his ears from far-flung travelers--adventurers who painted pictures of revelry and bacchanalia of the sort that’s much better suited to the lawless wilderness than to a tavern. Still, I got swept up in his enthusiasm and in the grandeur of his vision.

            “See, I just don’t know how wild my patrons are liable to become,” he said, “I don’t need satyrs smashing all my crockery. But I can handle rowdy patrons. I’ll have two men there to help me quell any fights that might break out. What I’d ask you to do is be the calm and wise presence in the room. Meet them in their wild flights with some anchoring words, or sympathize with them if they’re having a bad time of it. I want World Tree Tavern to become known as the place where folks find ecstasy, not madness. And you, scholarly young man, you’d get to witness the raw mind at work. I reckon you’ll find that, in some strange way, this work helps you along in your own studies. You’ll get to see all those masks of personality just stripped away. Hell, I find myself oftentimes having to think like a potions master. ‘How well do these two mix? If I put all these together, am I liable to get an explosion?’”


            I laughed at this ludicrous stretch of an analogy, but that laughter was cut short when some of Finlar’s words came to the forefront of my mind.

            How do they complement or repel one another? See, the greater body of this lore is the understanding of relationships.

            Muri chimed in as if he was hitched to the trend of my thoughts. “Consider the potential rewards. What was it Finlar used to say?”

            I knew at once what he was referring to. “Earth has countless ways of letting you in on Her secrets.” It’s a phrase that was, to a certain extent, my teacher’s credo. It summarized his reverence for his craft, the sacred sense with which he approached alchemy.

            Muri smiled and slowly nodded.

            “He was referring to herbs, not to bar patrons!” But I laughed, realizing that my mind had already been made up for some time now.

            “Fine--I’ll see if I can learn something of the alchemy of the social world! You say you need the help; and I do need the work. I guess I’ll be the one to let your patrons know when they’ve had enough transcendence for one night. But let’s do a trial period to begin with. Agreed? I don’t want to make any commitments before I’ve gotten a feel for the crowds.”


            Since he’d come all this way on foot, I offered Muri a bed for the night. In the morning, following a light breakfast, we set off for his inn.

            The shanty where I’d been living, where I’d weathered all the tribulations and breakthroughs of my apprenticeship, was a few miles out of town on its evergreen outskirts. Soon the dirt roads turned to cobble and we traveled in the shade of tall maples in full leaf. Brinstead Common’s north quarter lie in the shadow of Mount Venir for the better part of the day. The neighborhood was quiet, just a handful of bed-and-breakfasts that lie a quarter mile or so apart from one another.

            Mr. Ivarson’s inn was nestled right in the heart of this pastoral scene. Three log houses converged in a “Y”. Two of them were connected by a covered walkway that was raised high enough for folks to pass underneath it. A hanging sign bearing his World Tree symbol proclaimed, in a bright and running rainbow swirl of paint, “Only for The Most Adventurous Souls!”

            As we entered the common room I admired its aesthetic sensibilities: the handcrafted woodwork, elegant wicker-back chairs, dining tables spread with linen… “And we’ve got brass beds and copper bathtubs in all the rooms,” Muri informed me.

            Then we descended into the cellar, where lines of oak casks hemmed us into a narrow pathway. Sixteen giant barrels were stacked down there. A dozen of them were full of the well-known beers and ales that most customers came seeking. The other four were the rarities, the unknowns--the reason for which I’d been invited here.

            “Some will pay pristine coin for this stuff,” Muri said, smacking one of the barrels. And then he proceeded to introduce me to each of his newly acquired and prized libations.

            “Dream-draught: opens our eyes to the unseen world all around us. Or, if you want to hear the Muses speaking directly to you… Regal Crest, the poet’s brew.” I reckoned that Muri invented these names himself, as they had not the flavor of the lands from which he’d imported them. “This one here is called Peace Mead. Oh, what was it? Ebony-skinned man from Shi-inte, must’ve been seven feet tall. What’d he tell me? Oh yes: He said that some of their medicine men, they can leave their bodies through an opening in the back of their heads after consuming enough of this.”

            Then he stopped beside the last barrel, and his wide smile told me that this one was his most prized.            

            “Incandescent Crown. Drink enough of this and you go into a trance where you see things happening a long ways off. It’s as if suddenly you’re looking through the eyes of a hawk in flight.”

            My eyes must have betrayed my apprehensions because he rushed to reassure me. “Look, I’m sure the stories are exaggerated. No doubt these are all potent liquors, but the aura and glamour around them is just the selling point.

            “So, what do you say? You up for a trial night tonight? With any luck, you’ll just be wiping tables and sittin’ on a stool ‘til closing time.”

            Well, why not? Why else had I come all this way? So we returned to the common room, and Muri started cooking and prepping in the back kitchen. I found an out of the way table and savored a bowl of bean stew while I awaited the evening rush.

            The place filled up quickly. Six squat, stout Oskwai tribesmen, tattooed, and padded with buckskin, claimed one of the longer tables. Muri brought them an earthenware pitcher of Dream-draught. They kept hunched over their mugs most of the time, speaking low and scarcely sparing a glance towards anyone else.           

            Workers trickled in from the fields, the smithies, and the shops, bringing along some of the spicy scents of the marketplace. Every fifth pair of legs I saw were hoofed. But Brinstead Common had always been a place where folks mingle without prejudice, for the most part, which is partly why I was keen on living there.

            Twice I saw Muri attempt a toast--no doubt he wanted to comment on what a “historic occasion” this was and what it portended for all of our futures--but both times the crowd was too distracted by its own exuberance to pay him any heed.

            I was drifting along the outer edge of the common room, trying to be unobtrusive, when a Fae (hers was by far the most prominent voice in the room) caught my ear. She was speaking to her two female companions.

            “But imagine, for a moment, that there are no gods existing outside the bounds of the world, but that we each--every creature that possesses awareness--are a portion of the Creator. And so, together, we weave the fabric of the world, much like a spider weaves its web.”

            I smiled. My teacher occasionally spoke in this sort of vein. He claimed that the herbs he utilized for his potions wanted to contribute their healing properties for the benefit of all who would consume them.

            Pipes were lit and songs were raised, two satyrs blowing on mouth organs of bone to hold the melodies aloft. World Tree Tavern began to warm herself like an old woman before a hearth fire.

            Things quieted for a spell, though, when the horse-man walked in. The music broke off, to be replaced by the clap of hooves on floor planks. The man’s hair and beard were long and braided. The thick and richly embroidered shawl that padded his muscular shoulders and torso trailed down over his horse body almost in the semblance of a saddle.

            If he realized that his powerful physical presence was the object of so much scrutiny, he gave no sign. He halted opposite the bar from Muri.

            “I hear that you’re the one man in all of the territories with the guts to peddle Incandescent Crown.”

            “You’ve heard correctly, prairie master,” Muri said. He spoke carefully, eyeing the centaur with wariness. Perhaps he was trying to calculate what his most potent liquor, combined with hundreds of pounds of primal animal force, might equal.

            Finally he shrugged, fetched a jug, and poured a half glass. The liquor was a pale green reminiscent of Bear River’s summer luster. “And you’ll be the first to brave it!”

            The centaur emptied the glass in three quaffs. “Ahh! Grain, wormwood, and well-aged coromin!” He seemed content now to stand at the bar; and the music and conversations resumed.

            In less than an hour’s time, the ambiance grew at once more raucous and more disjointed. The shift was unsettling. Some patrons drifted into their own private pains and apprehensions, and their voices produced discordant notes within the overarching revelry. Some conversed with entities that were invisible to the rest of us. They seemed to plead, bargain, or argue with the air. Occasionally a table here or there united in a moment of laughter, but oftentimes this mirth had a desperate edge. It’s as if there was a general fear that, should humor and buoyancy relax their grip, even for a moment, a trapdoor might open onto hungry, lurking darkness.

            I sank so deeply into reflections like these that I was a moment in noticing the commotion.

            A table was toppled on its side, and a furious satyr was squirming out from under it. Two others nearby were gibbering (presumably) curses in a language that I didn’t understand. All of this was aimed at the centaur, who was looking at the table in bewilderment, as if he couldn’t conceive of how it came to be overturned. He seemed to vacillate in this way, between confusion and lucidity, moment by moment. Several times he shook his head to clear his mind of cobwebs, and his massive body shuddered.

            I moved towards the heart of all this tension and unrest, pushing past the bodies that now formed a partial ring around it--a part of me thinking, The innkeeper can’t have meant for me to mediate something like this!--and the first thing I was able to hear was the horse-man’s apology.

            “No, no… peace, brothers! I ask you to forgive me. For you, at least, are honest enough to wear your animosity openly.”

            He swiveled his head, searching for some other outlet for his ire, and found the table of the three ethereal ladies who’d

been discussing divinity. “Unlike you Fae, who condescend to come down from Elmicora and mingle with common folk but then hold yourselves aloof!”

            One of them regarded him with a languid expression. She was clothed in a nearly diaphanous dress that passed through a spectrum of sunny hues as her slight body shifted. Raven haired, her nose, ears and eyes were all sharp, formed for acute sense perception.  But her voice was soft and unassuming, with notes of indulgence, as of a fond and patient parent.

            “At least we have come, prairie master, with kindly thoughts and charitable hearts. And if we’ve not mingled at other tables, consider that no one has yet asked to join us at ours. But what do you bring with yourself here, aside from your hostility?”

            “Maybe we seek the heart of the same mystery as you,” said another, rising from her seat. This fiery-haired Fae was as sturdy as the other was delicate: built for earthier endeavors. She glared at the centaur with all the haughty heritage of her proud race. “And you presume to read our motivations with a glance? Horse-man, our mere presence in this room has quelled dark undercurrents that could have swept you and the rest of this menagerie on a night-sea journey from which you’d not likely have returned!”

            “Peace, Ashangtu,” said the first. “Can you not see that he berates himself enough?”

            A subtle tremor passed through the centaur when he heard this, and suddenly the interior conflict that the Fae referred to was plainly evident. He bristled and started to rear. Then he reconsidered. He apparently couldn’t decide whether to squash his anger or direct it someplace else.

            That debate was settled when Muri approached him, seemingly in the midst of marshalling up some placating words. “And you, innkeeper! What do you hope to achieve, aside from making a name for yourself? You just encourage everyone to abandon all caution and take a plunge…unto what? Orgy or bloodbath? Is that the extent of your vision?”

            He whipped his head around to address the entire tavern. “I know why you’re really here! You’re all looking for a ritual, for a shared dream that might bind you like soul brothers and sisters.” He waved a hand towards a pitcher on one of the tables. “And you think this will give it to you!”

            For a while he kept flailing in this way, seldom finding effective focus for his ire. Then, suddenly, his belligerence was spent and his voice emerged wounded and raw. “Ever since the gut-clenching sickness destroyed my kin but spared me--That was no mercy!--Since that time, I’ve searched for some other place

where I might belong, some cause worth giving myself to. But profit and prestige are not causes.”

            Now we finally received from him the ring of truth; and it was only after he’d been reduced to this state of vulnerability, when he claimed his pain and expressed it for what it was, that the centaur drew all the ears of the tavern towards him.

            Something in his raw wound tugged at me, and I found myself speaking before I’d taken a moment to rehearse my intentions.

            “I’m looking for my tribe too. I’ve lost the only family I knew, and have been robbed of my apprenticeship. Maybe my loss has not been as severe as yours, but nevertheless, I can see myself reflected in your struggle. I live there too.”

            I can’t explain why, but I felt certain that this was the right approach to take with him. And in a moment my faith was vindicated, as he appraised me with open curiosity and interest and then slowly nodded.

            “That liquor has lit a fire in my belly,” he said, speaking now for my ears only. “Not only that, but it’s spun my mind in a seasick swirl. I need to run it off. I doubt I’ve made any friends here tonight anyhow.” He smiled wryly. “Come lad! Let’s trade our tales of loss out in the night air!”

            And a moment later I found myself hanging on to this force of nature, his hair in my face and his hard spine between my legs, as he trotted through the swinging doors and then broke

into full gallop. I never even thought to look to Muri for his approval…     

            “I am called Tarnagan,” my mount told me.

            “Rinbald!” I yelled back.

            And then I ducked my head and braced for the ride. Tarnagan dove into gulleys and hurtled over ridges without a flicker of hesitation. He seemed to relish our speed. The passing shanties blurred. We left behind the soot-blanketed train house, the granaries, and lumber yards, barely visible in the moonlight, and reached open grassland.

            “You say you lost your apprenticeship. In what trade were you instructed?”

            “Potion craft,” I said, “I was learning how to make elixirs to treat many different things. I’d intended to make my living peddling them--as remedies, for the most part.”

            I felt the muscles of his back constrict, and I feared he’d taken affront to something I’d said. He slowed to a trot.

            “I watched my wife, our son, and the seven other members of our band succumb to the gut-clenching sickness. It was a sickness not seen before, so none knew how to treat it. Their bodies could tolerate no food at all, and so I had to watch them starve.” He shook himself so vigorously that I had to claw his shoulders lest I be unseated. “It was madness for me to think

that any draught could make me forget, or numb me to the pain of that memory.”

            “Had I been there, I might have found a cure,” I said, and immediately regretted doing so.

            This time he nearly halted. “I would rather not hear that they could’ve been helped; that they didn’t need to die!” His voice was the kind of low growl that a dog makes before it snaps.

            “Please forgive me. That was careless.”

            Cradling my chagrin, I considered asking him to set me down. Already my inner thighs ached from the strain of keeping my seat. I should be back at the inn, I thought. No, I ought to be in my own shanty. I ought to be cleansing my mind of the absurd notion of being employed by Muri and dealing with the madness he’s unleashed. And yet I doubted if I could find my way to either inn or shanty in this darkness, where the wheatgrass grew as tall as Tarnagan’s legs and the lights of Brinstead Common were little more than firefly specks behind us.

            And aside from this, I felt a sense of kinship with Tarnagan. Yesterday it would have been exhilarating to behold a centaur from afar; now here I was astride one! But the kinship revolved around the ways in which we were similarly bereaved. Muri said he wanted me in his employ because I was familiar with what may lie beyond the Veils. Well, Tarnagan had ventured into

transcendent terrain that was indeed familiar to me: the longing for an end to exile and a return to spiritual Home.

            “Your race is young in this land, scarcely children by my people’s measure of time. How has this branch of learning, this potion craft, progressed so far?”

            Relieved that he’d changed the subject, I allowed myself to indulge for a while in my love of my vocation. “The books I’ve inherited from my teacher survived a journey over the Land Bridge. They’ve passed through the hands of thirteen alchemists. Each would record everything he or she discovered throughout a lifetime of pursuing their calling. Then they would pass the books on. And so the next person, usually the apprentice, begins from the very edge of his or her predecessor’s knowledge. At least a quarter of the pages in those tomes are still blank and waiting to be filled.” But the memory of my inadequacies finally lent bitterness to this narrative. “I fear I’ll have little to contribute to them though.”

            “It is a study of plants and their restorative powers, and yet you learn from words inscribed on parchment?”

            “You have to know not only the virtues of innumerable plants but also how to best coax those properties. Some need to be boiled, and others minced. Others must be dried, even powdered. Still others must be absorbed through the skin. You may need to eat one kind and smoke another.”


            Tarnagan huffed. “You mistook the whole thrust of my question!”

            The stark contour of Mount Venir suddenly reared up before us, and I knew that this was the centaur’s goal. I marveled at how his powerful legs read the ground and anticipated the changes of gradation. He navigated every turn of the beaten paths with unerring instinct, seldom compromising speed. I had little opportunity to ponder his last remark amidst all the ducking and dodging.

            “So… tell me about your master.”

            I tried my best to satisfy his request amidst my anxiety. I shouted out an abbreviated list of things I missed about Finlar Kastanas: his dry and subtle humor; his erudition and love of knowledge; his almost mystical sense of participation with the natural world. Tarnagan, meanwhile, sniffed out new paths in near-complete darkness. Sometime later we rose above the timberline. Now Mount Venir tolerated no more trails. From here on it was a rock shelf that would have to be scaled hand and foot. Tarnagan’s sprint across the grasslands, and up two-thirds of the mountain, was worthy of a song, but his body was not formed for climbing. He abruptly halted on a ledge that commanded a startling view of the lights of Brinstead Common.


            I dismounted to stretch my legs and feel the surety of ground again, and I took in the sight. But the centaur’s eyes were turned skyward.  

            “My head is filled with the stars. Ever since I was a child—ah! I’ve loved the constellations. That’s not uncommon amongst us. But my hooves find sacredness in the ground.” He stomped once for emphasis. “It has a heartbeat, you know--the earth. It is faint and subtle, but you can feel it if your mind is quiet enough. Is that not a surer deity than anything that abides in the heavens?”

            I’d never conversed with a centaur before, so I had no basis of comparison, no way of knowing to what extent his mental flights might be influenced by the exotic liquor he’d consumed. But I was moved by his poignant appeal.

            “Do we have to make a distinction? Do we have to choose?” I tried to muster up everything Finlar might have said on the matter. “Maybe the ground partakes of the secret fire of the stars, and the stars share in the heartbeat of the earth.      

“Consider the sign of the inn we’ve come from: a great ash tree, its branches and leaves forming a huge canopy like the heavens, but its roots holding fast in the ground.”

            Tarnagan considered this and half smiled. “No doubt a nixie, were she here, could offer us a comparable sermon about the water.


            “Maybe it’s something that can only be felt and not thought about at all,” he concluded. He bent down to scoop a handful of dirt and let it trickle out of his hand to illustrate his point.      He soon began to nod and yawn, mirroring the weariness that had been growing in me.

            “Yes, I can already sense that all of these epiphanies that astound me now will begin to slip away before too long,” he said, “Do you think I’ll retain anything of this night’s wisdom?”

            Feeling utterly out of my depth, I made no answer.

            “Do you think it’s the kind of insight you could set down in your book?” he persisted.

            I sighed, trying to collect my vague thoughts. “My teacher had no next of kin, so I inherited his home and his library. Also, there are those tomes that are mine by right, having been his apprentice. But many of those books are of no value to me without him here to interpret them for me. Their references are obscure. I’ve tried…”

            “Maybe those books took you as far as they could,” Tarnagan said, “Now there’s only one thing missing. You need to learn to listen, to let the healing plants instruct you in their uses in their own way. My folk acquired a body of knowledge, over generations, in this manner. Where do you think so many of those recipes in your master’s books came from originally? Trying to find those beneficial combinations through trial and error would’ve poisoned your race to extinction within a decade.

            “My kindred learn this as foals. I could teach you, if your mind is not too full of noise to receive the lesson.”

            I heard his sincerity, and it startled me so much that I couldn’t respond directly. Instead I skirted around the subject. “There’s something I ought to invent: a potion to quiet the chatter of the mind.”

            Tarnagan laughed. “You two-legged folk could use it. Especially those of you who dwell in the cities. I’ve gleaned something in the stars that concerns your people, something that might be worth pondering. There will likely come a time, perhaps not far off, when you don’t hear the earth’s heartbeat at all anymore. When you forget your deep bonds with all other creatures, your cousin-kin, and think yourselves separate. When that happens, you will truly feel like leaves on the wind, rootless and without home.”

            Just before sleep overtook him, he seemed to argue with himself. “I sought forgetfulness with Incandescent Crown, liquor that scours like snake venom. And if forgetfulness could not be achieved, I wanted a vision. I received neither.” Then he glanced at me and smiled. “But it may be that I found something even more valuable.”


            I carried the unexpected warmth of his regard with me into my dreams.

#

            In the morning, weary and disheveled, I found Muri at a table in the common room, holding a wet cloth to his forehead. I wondered how much he’d slept, if at all. He offered me a wry smile.

            “I’d hoped you’d survived the night! And where’s our mighty four-legged friend?”

            I shrugged. “He let me dismount on the outskirts, after I’d slept the half-night that remained to us with my back against a tree. Then he left without any explanation. I think he’s had his fill of civilization for a while.”

            Muri patted his face a few more times and then tossed the cloth onto the table. “Well, last night was a successful experiment, but maybe it was more success than I’m ready to handle. I think from now on I’ll save the rare draughts for special occasions: solstices and equinoxes, maybe.”

            “Yes--treat them like sacraments,” I said, “Maybe then your patrons will have more reverence for those occasions when they come. And reverence could be the first step towards the ritual that they’re looking for.


            “At any rate, however adventurous you decide you want to be in the future, I’d be interested in continuing on in your employ.”

            “Oh? After the chaos of last night, I was afraid to even broach the question.”

            But that question had already been resolved from my night’s meditation. “It’s obvious to me now that working here can educate me in ways that no grimoire ever could. There’ll be times when I’ll need to disappear for a week or two at a stretch, though.”

            I can no longer lean on you as my intermediary, Finlar Kastanas. I have to go to the land directly, learn its speech; let the knowledge of Earth’s remedies awaken in me in its own way.       

            “Tarnagan claims he knows of a prairie that can teach me everything I need to know, fill in all the gaps in my training, if I just get quiet and listen.”

            I may indeed become a full-fledged healer now, my teacher, but likely it’ll be a much different kind than what you and I originally envisioned.

            “He says he’ll take me there--in exchange for my giving him some lessons in civilized niceties.”

THE END


2022 Seth Mullins

Bio: Seth Mullins is especially interested in the ways in which speculative fiction can shine a light on the inner dimensions of our world and of ourselves. His inspirations and enthusiasms range from dream-explorations and shamanism ("real" magic?) to classical high fantasy and pulp sword-and-sorcery. Learn more about him at http://www.sethmullins.com

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