By Kevin du Plessis
Sometimes, when travelling, one starts seeing the world with different eyes. On top of a small hill around which the road made a bend stood a single lush green tree with the smallest of white flowers adorning its canopy. There were very few trees in the area and many a traveller must have taken refuge under it as it was the only shade not ridiculously far from the road for leagues around.
But to the runaway boy who had seen very little kindness in the world the tree stood atop that hill as a beacon of something more. Hope. The tree was hope.
He sat under it for hours simply staring out at the plains of golden grass that surrounded him and his tree. Sometimes he would feel like the loneliest person in the world and at others he would be content with where he was; at one with nature. He listened to the wind on the grass and watched the confetti of fine white flowers dance in the air and then come to rest on the hill upon which he sat.
He fell asleep as the day wore on and the dark haired boy dreamt. He dreamt of finding his way. He also dreamt of food, having last eaten almost two days ago.
As he lay there, far away, from the same way that he had came, a dark spec appeared on the road; moving slowly along. Later it became discernable as a rider. It was another traveller. He got closer and closer until he reached the hill and, like those before him, he left the road seeking rest under that same tree. A narrow footpath had been established up the hill and the newcomer followed it, aware of the fact that he would not be alone up there as the boy’s horse tied to the tree could be seen from far away.
It was the whinny of his horse that woke him from his slumber and he started when he saw the most bizarre looking man standing at his feet with a camel by his side seeming just as curious as its rider.
He was a fellow well in his fifties and he wore the silliest attire one could think of. It was all flashy colours with moons and stars. His cloak was long and sweeping and perched on his head was a wide brimmed tall pointy hat. There was no denying that he had a shocking presence, provoking either mockery or awe from any beholder. He sported a long plaited beard that was mousy brown and the top of his head was completely bald when he removed the hat. The camel had the very same air as he was painted all over with mystical patterns intended to provoke admiration and was thrown with the most intricate and exotic materials.
The boy, now sitting up, was startled at first but the fear quickly left him as he drank in the sight before him. He wanted to laugh. Surely this man was a jester of some kind.
‘Mr Owl,’ the man said in a loud whisper. ‘And this here is my dear friend, Camille.’ At the introduction the camel shook her head and blew out of her nose as if trying to greet and get rid of a tickle in her nose at the same time. The boy raised his eyebrows at the pair but said nothing.
Again in his loud whisper, as if he refused to use his voice, the man asked, ‘You are? But only answer if you have a name, of course. I once knew a man who had no name and refused to respond to any name I would give him. Odd fellow he was; never quite got on good terms with him. Oh, I’m babbling again! What is it that you said your name was?’
‘I didn’t say anything,’ he replied.
‘Well, seeing as I now know that you are neither dumb nor deaf I think it would be safe to ask again. What is your name boy?’
He hesitated but answered shortly. ‘Alban,’ he said. ‘I was just leaving, so you can have the tree if you want.’ Alban stood up and started untying his horse’s reins.
‘No, no, no,’ Mr Owl said. ‘No need for you to leave, in fact I beseech you to stay. That is if you would at all care for some magic?’
Alban’s attention was captured and he stopped what he was doing, still facing away from Mr Owl.
‘What silly trick can you offer me that I have not already seen, master jester?’
‘Jester?’ Mr Owl asked, offended. ‘No, I am a wielder of the gift that will be forgotten! A magician, one might say, but another might think “wizard” more fitting.’
‘Oh, really?’ Alban asked sarcastically. ‘Show me your magic then.’
Mr Owl bowed a sensational bow in obedience. He stretched out his hands and the wide sleeves of his cloak made it look like he was spreading his wings, preparing to fly. There was a subtle movement of his hand and suddenly the air was full of a thick red smoke and in his confusion Alban could hear the impressive whisper of Mr Owl saying something in a strange tongue. Slowly the smoke cleared and a good trick as it was that the camel and the horse had switched places Alban was not too impressed.
‘Well done,’ he said with a mock applause. ‘You must make a fortune on the streets?’
‘Oh yes, indeed!’ he replied. ‘The bigger the show the better. It’s what they crave, Alban; it’s what they come to see.’ Mr Owl made a silly leap of joy in the air and smiled. He moved Alban’s horse back into the shade then sat down against the tree finding a comfortable spot between the roots and indicated that Alban should join him and he once more sat down.
‘Mr Owl…’ Alban said thoughtfully to himself.
‘Very strange name for a person, I know,’ Owl said. ‘So strange in fact that people think I made it up.’
Alban raised his eyebrows questioningly seeking confirmation whether it was not perhaps true.
‘No, no, I didn’t make it up.’
After a while Mr Owl said, ‘Somebody else made it up,’ and Alban laughed. It seemed to please the old man that he had brought some merriment to the hill.
After resting for a while and talking about the long way he had come, Mr Owl got out some things and prepared a meal for them. They ate their full and Alban found himself thinking that the funny old man who sat there as if it were the most natural thing in the world was a friend and he almost felt that he could trust him. Perhaps it was the food he had needed so badly, but he warmed up to the idea of having someone to talk to after almost half a year of being nearly totally alone.
‘Where are you headed?’ asked Mr Owl taking a small sip from a flask he got from inside his cloak and then returning it.
‘The next town,’ he said and returned the question.
‘Ah, what can I say? Where does a pleaser of the crowd say he travels to? I suppose I’m off to where the road will end.’
Alban smiled at this. It seemed to him that Mr Owl simply had a very weak voice as traces of it could occasionally be heard but he was forced to speak mostly with the use of his breath. It gave his speech a certain atmosphere that one could not help but cling to.
‘You do not, perchance, know the name of the coming town?’
Alban shook his head and Owl replied with a thoughtful look as he slowly nodded knowingly. He took out a pipe with a bearded face carved into the dark wood and lit it up. Soon he was puffing merrily and Alban fell in love with the sweet smell of his tobacco.
‘I have a proposal,’ said Owl in his strange voice. ‘How about you come with me and Camille to Vaden? We have quite an impressive show and if you agree to help out a little I will let you keep some of the profit.’
‘Actually I’m meeting someone there,’ he said looking away.
‘Oh yes I’m sure that you are but there are many people in that town. Why not spare yourself the trouble and replace that meeting with ours?’
Alban’s mouth fell open. ‘Are you calling me a liar?’
‘I’ve said no such thing. Think about it though, my boy. You will be surprised what the wisdom of a crazy old magician combined with that of a camel can bring you. She’s quite brilliant, by the way,’ said Mr Owl indicating Camille. Alban considered her but didn’t see anything special outside of her adornments, especially not after she dropped a heap of steaming dung on the grass.
‘How far is Vaden?’ asked Alban.
‘About another day’s ride,’ he said.
‘I do need some money so if I like what you’re planning to do I’ll help you.’ The old man nodded with an extremely broad smile stretched across his face.
‘Very good, but for now I just want to enjoy the peace here. We ride in the morning?’ Alban followed Owl’s example and stretched himself out on the grass and the entertainer took this as a yes.
Alban lay there in complete fascination of the stranger beside him. What a remarkable man. Alban did not trust readily though; he had accepted some help from Mr Owl but trust would not be so easily acquired. Alban was on his own now and it was because of trust. It had been his hope, however, to make a friend and even if Owl was not exactly what he had had in mind he would certainly do. Talking to his horse had become very unsatisfying and Alban had a lot to speak of.
The two of them started a fire later that night and Camille came to share in the heat it provided. The camel made occasional sounds during their conversations and sometimes it seemed to Alban that she changed her expression and mood to fit that which her master was showing. Later, he did not even bother to look away and kept staring at the captivating animal that lounged in their company.
The next morning came and Alban was up early, woken by Mr Owl who had been up at exactly the time he’d said he would be the previous night.
They rode well and it turned out that Mr Owl was wrong about how long it would take since they arrived just after midday. Alban confronted him about his miscalculation but Owl defended himself and made it clear that he was not expecting the wind to blow with them. Alban laughed. He realized that he was enjoying laughing again and that the last few hours had been the best he had had in a while.
Vaden was a nice town. The people from Gala had not yet infiltrated it and Owl pointed out how nice it would be not to have to get a permit to perform his tricks. He had explained the act to Alban on the road and it was interesting to know how he did things but the most prominent part of it all was the presentation; the acting and the so-called “show”. Mr Owl emphasized it a lot.
‘Methinks there might be time for us to do a quick round or two, Camille!’ Owl said excitedly. ‘Do you remember everything I told you, my boy?’
Alban answered that he did but as it turned out that was merely some background, and he would in fact be attracting people and picking up Camille’s dung for the most part. He wasn’t out of his skin with excitement but he had agreed to help so he didn’t complain directly. Instead, he was overly enthusiastic.
He made it seem that he took particular delight in picking up every piece of dung that he could find and was constantly in search of another. Also he started calling out people from their houses with a loud overbearing voice that travelled all the way down the main street.
People started to gather, of course, but Alban had a point to make so he moved away from where Mr Owl was getting ready, to shout out his announcement to the rest of the town.
‘Come see Owl the Awesome in performance all the way from distant lands travelled to bring to the town of Vaden magic that will drop your jaw and have you shout for more! Come now to see it all! He brings smoke from the east, jewels from the north, ice from the south and from the west he brings sands of time! Come and be amazed!’ Alban shouted this over and over and excitement stirred in the streets. The children came running by and people left what they were doing and headed down the main street to see what was going on for them self.
Mr Owl had his ways of making something otherwise mildly interesting spectacular. It was in the way he spoke and the way he moved. It was the sound of his drums and the explosions of smoke. It mainly revolved around the allusion that he and his camel could do magic and it was a performance that amazed and really made the crowd shout for more.
As Owl and Camille took their bow, the former balanced on the back of the latter, Alban frantically scurried around cleaning up anything that could be cleaned. He pushed the people standing in front back to get to everything and caused some commotion at which Owl frowned before announcing that that would be all for the day. The people moved slowly away, all chattering happily about the old magician and his camel. One could not expect to see a camel every day and when it was trained like Camille was it made it all the more interesting, especially this far from the desert.
‘Very nice, Alban,’ the whispery voice said. ‘You are an excellent clean-up. We’ve surely found your calling in the show.’
As Owl said this Alban stopped picking up a scattered deck of playing cards and looked around with his mouth hanging open. That was not what he wanted to hear and he was not about to become a servant boy.
Mr Owl first put on a face of mock-confusion then resumed his speech, ‘Unless I’m interpreting your actions wrongly? Surely not, I’m hardly ever mistaken. But, I suppose, it is possible that a mere confusion of goals may have transpired. Did you wish to, perhaps, set off a smoke box?’
‘Set off a smoke box? No, Mr Owl, I’d like to be part of the show.’
‘Part of it? I haven’t thought of that. You’re no longer meeting up with your non-existent friend then?’ he asked curiously, extending his neck as he waited for Alban’s answer.
Alban mumbled something and Owl turned his head, still waiting on the answer. Then he said it louder. ‘There is no one.’
‘Oh!’ exclaimed Owl pretending to be startled. ‘No need to shout…and, quite right.’ The older man turned around and returned the last of his items to Camille’s saddlebags.
‘Oh, yes, very good proposal and Camille doesn’t seem to mind the idea.’
The three of them eventually made their way up the road in search of lodgings for the few days they were in town. Mr Owl pointed out a place called The Flying Pig and compared to where Alban had been sleeping the last few months it was a welcoming sight. To his disappointment though, they were not given a key to one of the rooms. The innkeeper had agreed that they could do their shows in the tavern-part of his establishment and at the request of Mr Owl they got a nice stall in the barn with fresh straw. Apparently he wasn’t keen on leaving Camille outside alone and was saving his earnings for something else. What someone as strange as him would want to buy evaded Alban altogether.
‘Besides,’ said Mr Owl as they rounded The Flying Pig and the stables became visible, ‘we will need the extra space since you have deemed our company acceptable enough to join in our trade. I dare say it’s going to take a while for you to get the idea and to really be part of it.’
Alban was okay with sleeping in a barn as nice as the one they were allotted with. It was fairly well built as the wind stayed out and it wouldn’t leak if it started to rain. Also the smell that generally hangs where animals stay wasn’t too significant, especially in their stall. The stall was the first one in the line of quite a few and it seemed to have lodged people before as there was a washing bowl, two lanterns and two beds of straw.
Owl smiled as he entered. ‘Just as I’d hoped; seems to me, Alban, that the innkeeper has given the stable boy a little holiday. At least there’s no dung where our heads must lie.’ He unpacked Camille’s saddle as Alban tied his horse in another stall where it immediately started chewing on the feed.
Mr Owl washed off all the paint from his camel as Alban unpacked a few bags containing some curious items as he had asked. When both of their tasks were completed and the lanterns lit, as it was almost completely dark inside the stable, Owl beckoned the boy to come closer as he moved back to Camille with a few brushes and small pots of paint.
‘Alban,’ he said as he opened the pots and carefully placed them on the edge of the table upon which the washing bowl was. ‘I’m going to let you in on one of my many little secrets. In fact, this one is almost like the key to all the others. As I paint the patterns on Camille I will explain to you what they all mean and in what order they must be read.’
At first he was rather confused but as the wrinkly hands gracefully dipped the brushes into the different colours of paint, forming intricate patterns with easy seeming strokes of his wrist while pointing out the meaning of each, Alban realized that Camille’s hide was like a map of instructions of what tricks to do when and what to say at the right times during a show. Mr Owl explained that he no longer needed the symbols but that they looked nice and would certainly help Alban. He made Alban repeat the meanings and names of all the symbols as he continued to paint her yellowish brown body with his map where the saddle and materials did not cover.
Alban recognised the strange names of the symbols as the words that Owl had spoken amidst the red smoke on the hill where they had first met and during the performance that afternoon. Sometimes when he repeated these sounds Camille started moving at which Owl calmed her and explained that they were merely practising. Apparently she knew them too.
‘What you have to understand,’ Owl said painting the last few curls under the camel’s tail, ‘is that the commands here painted almost never come in the same order and that you, as well as Camille, have to listen to my voice for the instructions. When I say, for instance “smarag”, then you have to know where the symbol for that particular coloured smoke lies and read the instructions for yourself and Camille accordingly. That is if you aren’t sure of what to do. If you can remember, just do it.’
Alban nodded that he understood and felt confident as he was picking up fast on this magnificently strategic way of controlling a magic show. From here they moved out of their stall and attempted some of the tricks. These, however, weren’t so easy to get right. He was forgetting key points in the “act” of doing a trick. At the end of a few tiring hours he had managed to learn only about three things that fully satisfied Owl. He said that those would be all that he needed for their first show the next day and in their completion would resume his former duties.
They went inside to share a meal in the tavern and Alban lay awake for some time on his bed of straw afterwards, trying his best to remember everything he had learned as he slowly dozed off.
The sounds of the barn grew sharper each second to slowly wake the sleeping Alban. First he stirred under his blanket then his hearing grew sharper until, last of all, his thoughts escaped that blissful state of dreaming to fall suddenly into consciousness. He leaped from the bed as he realized how light it was. Someone could be heard whistling as they replaced the water a few stalls away and Alban realized that he must have slept through the first hours of his first day on the act. He had never gotten dressed that quickly. He splashed his face with water before he ripped open the door and ran out to look for Mr Owl.
To his disappointment he wasn’t to be found in The Flying Pig. Alban asked the barman if he’d seen the magician and he replied that there had been a small crowd in there earlier and that Owl had done a few tricks for them before taking his camel and leaving after a few words with the owner.
Had Owl deemed him unfit to work with since he couldn’t even get up in the morning to do his part in the show? Did he decide to leave town before he could wake up and be nagged with questions and pleads to stay? These were the paranoid thoughts running through Alban’s head as he ran through the streets of Vaden looking for that unusual shape of Mr Owl and Camille.
Alban was fit enough and he broke a sweat before he finally found who he was looking for in the marketplace. Owl was casually browsing through the stalls that sold beads and all kinds of funny adornments. He seemed to be asking the attendants a whole series of questions about each article that he picked up. Though he was as calm as a soft breeze on a hot summer’s day the people burdened with answering his strange questions seemed a little frustrated. Apparently the bangles in his hands weren’t the first things he wasn’t buying.
‘Listen, if you don’t buy something I suggest you go find conversation somewhere else,’ a dark skinned woman with a purple turban said impatiently to Mr Owl and before he could make a reply Alban touched his shoulder.
‘Mr Owl, I thought you’d left. Why didn’t you wake me?’
Mr Owl turned his back on Alban and led Camille to the next stall. ‘If you are going to insist upon sleeping all day who am I to stand in your way? But know this if you do not do better I might just really leave you behind.’
‘I didn’t realize you weren’t going to wake me. I can try waking myself. Really, I can.’
‘Yes, we shall see about that. You will be receiving no payment for today’s work as you caused me terrible inconvenience this morning. You can, however, make up your debt by working on the other performances I have planned.’
Alban didn’t like what he was hearing but was so relieved that Owl had not left him behind that he didn’t complain. He accepted his lot and started by taking Camille’s reins. After all their errands had been run it was about midday. They performed a trick in the street at the request of a few townspeople then moved back to the tavern where Alban finally got his chance to do what he’d practiced the previous night.
Not only was the innkeeper giving them money for every person they attracted to the tavern but the people were putting coins in the basket on the floor whenever they felt amazed. By the end of the afternoon alone they had done several tricks and people came in until there wasn’t even space for a mouse. He was finding it easier to follow the prompts that Owl spoke as though they were incantations every time he did them. Camille knew every one of the words and it was something amazing to see an animal so intelligent. It must have taken years to teach her all those tricks because Alban had never heard that camels were particularly trainable animals.
They stayed in Vaden for a few more days until they had truly done everything they knew to everybody they could, Alban all the while being trained. The profits were very good and Mr Owl seemed to be pleased with them too. They left with good spirits and it was nice to be back on the road, especially with someone to talk to.
Alban loved the countryside and the time for his thoughts to run free that it provided. It was always good for him to have time to figure things out in his head. The thing was, however, that he wasn’t getting closer to his answers. In the long silences they sometimes experienced Alban caught Owl occasionally glancing at him. It felt like the old man was somehow sensing the conflicts in his mind.
‘I wasn’t always like this, you know,’ Owl said randomly one morning as they filled their water skins in a merry little stream beside the road. ‘Oh no, there was a time that I was respected, even feared by the people who didn’t know me. Being a petty magician in the streets was definitely no goal of mine.’
Alban listened as he let the flowing water touch his fingertips. He felt emotion crawl up inside of him as Owl continued.
‘The world is changing and we are all forced to change with it. I have been ruined, Alban.’
‘You aren’t alone there,’ he said almost inaudibly. ‘I’m not from the streets either.’
‘The streets, you say?’ Owl shook his head with raised eyebrows as he laughed dryly. ‘At birth I was taken away from my parents to be trained. My masters were some of the greatest men this world has ever seen and now, as we speak, their names are being burned out of the history books in that corrupted city that is spreading this cursed disease from the very heart of Micanea.
I call it a disease because it is killing off the true people of this land. This new government wishes to ensure their rule over Micanea by eliminating any opposition. Look at the elves. They are leaving us, Alban. They leave their homeland to immigrants.’
You could see in Alban’s eyes that something was happening inside of him. That carefree look had disappeared and there, beside the stream sat a boy with his problems. Owl saw that he was touching a sensitive spot so he sat down and continued. He told Alban his story.
‘The masters of magic chose my parents to give birth to the next wizard of the stone towers. The day I saw light they came to take me to my tower for extensive training. Micanea was a land where all prospered and those who wielded the gift of magic was thought of above all others.
We were seen as healers of the land and it was to us that people would come for wisdom. Like the elves, wizards lived longer than normal for we were a race on our own; not human, not elf but wizards! and keepers of Micanea. It was in us that the long line of kings and queens trusted and when the last of them died without an heir, the lands were thrown into a panic.
It would have been our task to choose from among the people a new family to rule over Micanea, whether elf- or humankind. But treachery was afoot. A council of men had made them known and took it upon them to take the reins in Gala. Before the king was buried in his tomb they put them self on thrones in the senate temple slowly manifesting their council as the new rulers of Gala. They were seen men and to the people everything seemed alright, until things started changing,
They uprooted everything that had been built up through centuries and applied their own methods. It is the council’s goal to change Micanea into a place similar to that where they came from. You see, a new race of men came to this land long ago and as it seems, they came to take over.
Magic was banned from being practised and elves were being driven from their cities when they wouldn’t accept the supreme rule from Gala. I can tell you so much about the mayhem that has been caused but it would take me very long.
The wizards in the stone towers, all over the land were unexpectedly ambushed in their different regions. We were thrown into jails and no magic could set us free. The governors were far more evil than they seemed at first.
While stuck in a dungeon for months I came to realise that everything had been planned to the last detail. It was a plot that has overthrown everything we know. They have, in a sense, stolen Micanea.’
There was a short silence and then in a deep powerful voice Mr Owl said, ‘I found a way out though, and here I stand today, in a disguise. I wear a constant mask.’
Alban jumped up. ‘Mr Owl! You have a voice!’
‘Yes,’ said the old man in his previous whispery voice. ‘I have a voice but I have kept my entire identity hidden behind this street magician act for so long that I barely even notice the difference anymore.’ Owl looked down at his silly cloak and removed his overly large pointy hat. ‘Ironic disguise, isn’t it?’
‘You really can do magic?’ he said, confused. He looked over at the camel. ‘Camille, that’s how you trained her?’ Mr Owl nodded. Alban felt extremely overwhelmed by all this information. Owl sat there merely looking at him as he processed everything. Slowly tears started running down the boy’s face. Alban looked back at the old man and tried to stop his crying but tears kept streaming out of his green eyes.
Owl didn’t seem too surprised at this reaction. Later Alban realized that he must have intentionally opened his own thoughts so that Alban would feel free to talk of what had been bothering him for so long.
And he did. He told him everything, from the afternoon that he returned from schooling to his house where it started. From where he grabbed his things and ran away; escaped.
He spoke of his parents who cornered him, because he had shown strange behaviour. He could move things with his mind, and when he had told them about what he could do, being confused beyond comprehension, they wanted to take him to the oracle to have the powers removed from him.
Naturally, Alban had to run. He’d seen people coming back from the oracle, and it was never good. And that, as he explained it to Owl, was how he had become a lonely young traveller.
Owl stood there. He smiled, as if everything was alright.
“Yes, Alban. Thank you for openeing up. I think you are ready now.”
“Ready for what?”
“To do what I came looking for you to do. Be trained. You are the last generation of my kind, I have come to train you…”