It was in my sixteenth year that I saw the illusionist for the first time, little knowing how his existence would alter the course of my life forever. Long before seeing him, though, I’d heard about him. We all had heard about the Evil Illusionist that lived in the plains near the foothills I grew up on from birth, spoken of by hags near fires in rasping voices broken by the gasps of children, or the nervous laughter of older ones.
Being a serf was never easy, but especially so for me. I’m of a mind to think I wasn’t meant to “serf”, as it were, although I did it and had planned to pursue my serfdom faithfully regardless of what inclinations I had otherwise. My father was a yam farmer and was his father before him, and this chain of subsequent yam farming moved back in time as far as anyone living knew like a rope stretching beyond sight into a chasm of fog. There was no reason to think I would do anything else.
The foothills stretched far, but we only lived on a small part of them. They were treeless except for a few scrub oaks that would somehow scratch out a life in the ravines, but they never thrived. The ravines were sometimes filled with small streams, in the autumns or springs, and they twisted and wove their way to the plains to the north, turning them to sponge in wet seasons that only dried in the most arid weeks of the year. The plains were a marshy waste most of the time, one in which no one cared to set foot. It was in this plain that the illusionist’s tower sat, curling upward as if it had grown out of the head of the earth like a great horn. There were dots where windows were set within the tower lending at least some semblance to more familiar habitations, but it was peculiar nonetheless, as it never seemed wider around than four men standing side-by side. No one could imagine how anyone could live in such a place, and that convinced everyone that he who could was very suspicious.
The most suspicious thing about the man who inhabited that tower, however, was that no one ever saw him. It seemed, at least to those who watched, that nothing ever happened there, and they would have supposed him to be long dead if there wasn’t the occasional delivery from time to time. Sometimes it was a cart that would pass the village, then wind its way through the marsh along the one solid and thin pathway that led to his front door. Sometimes, arousing ever more suspicion, the couriers would seem to appear out of nowhere, for one would be watching and perceiving nothing one moment, then blink and see a fellow by the door. Nothing was ever explained, and thus the serfs became more and more embittered as the years passed with lack of information. Besides this, he never bought yams from us, and I am certain that went a long way towards cementing the serfs I knew into regarding his existence with both fear and loathing.
My home was brown, fashioned of a type of cement we made using cut grass and clay, and the roof was brown, too, although a lighter brown as it was made of bundled grasses only. The fence that bordered it was brown, the chickens in my yard were brown and auburn and brown again, the dirt in the gardens was brown, my clothes were brown, the wooden handle of my hoe, polished by my hands and my father’s hands rubbing across its surface, was brown. We lived in brown, grew in brown, and my eyes reflected that as, like they had been drawn straight from the earth, they were brown as anything in my world could hope to be. Even so, I’d never really seen them. Serfs didn’t own mirrors, but I was told about it, as if brown could be special in this brown land. Sometimes the sky seemed to take on a brown cast even, the clouds hazing above us into a stagnant miasma that would seem to stand still for days. Pink and orange would blush the surface and the wind went away for a time.
I was told somewhere to the south the brown faded slowly to yellow, then white as a vast desert stretched through the south and southeast. I’d never been that way, and most people didn’t care to talk about it. Our village wasn’t large; there were perhaps forty huts bearing all the things necessary to eek out survival. We had a rudimentary blacksmith, a small store, two women who did most of the baking, and some hags who were self-proclaimed healers but tended to be better for telling stories. It was a small village, but we grew the yams for most of the eastern world, for brown might be dreary but it grows great yams.
Every year in April and October, the carts came from far away to take the harvest to the rest of the world, and it was always an exciting time, for this was the time we met people from outside. People from outside brought stories, and most of them touched us in a vague way that didn’t seem like it could be our world at all, but something written in a book and truly only may or may not have happened, for all it affected us. We were removed, like all serfs are. Dirt was what we knew.
I was born with an inquisitive mind, and even though there was nothing to encourage it, a creative mind as well. I looked for that which was different. The scattered greens, or blues, or reds in this brown landscape intrigued me. In the spring, pale pink flowers would dot the hills that sloped like the backs of reclining dogs. It grew wetter, and there was green. The sky opened grey and misty, and fed the world for a time in a generous way not to be seen at any other time of the year. After these times would end, I would wonder if they ended so we could appreciate them when they came again.
As far as appreciation goes, I was often confused by those who surrounded me. Perhaps a better way to state it would be to say I was exasperated. It was rare that anything I wanted to talk about was accepted as normal conversation. My friends who worked with me either didn’t understand or found my ruminations extremely dull, and even strange. In order to fit in as well as I could, I would pretend not to have them. They preferred low humor and the discussion of everyday, present things. I can’t fault them for that; everyday, present things were all around us, and to ignore them would be ridiculous. However, along that same vein, I recognized those things, but only lived among them. I did not live with them. That is the distinction between my friends and I.
Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, or waxing philosophical where there is no cause to do so, nor reason behind it, but I found the everyday to be the necessary, and I refused to devote more than the least of my mind I could to them, and instead spent my thoughts on what I saw beyond them. I saw the general form, but instead I looked for what cannot be seen. This is what I wanted to know; all things that are not readily apparent. I never cared for the idea of adventure or travel, but I desired to know the hidden parts of that which surrounded me already. I felt that if I were to travel all I would find is more of the same, for wherever one goes the everyday and mundane is there. Perhaps the mundane takes on a different shape elsewhere, but to someone, it is plain and ordinary. If I could understand what makes the ordinary extraordinary, however, then I would have something special and compelling no matter where I went.
During that April, the one where everything started, the hills bristled with green grasses and the spring crop was being washed in the ravines. I was digging holes with my friends, preparing the soil for the next planting, for there was always another planting as soon as the last one ended. We grew yams at all times of the year because the seasons barely changed in temperature. The only thing that changed from season to season was the rain. The carts came, and the people came with it, their clothes different from ours, and often finer. The fabrics they wove were of different stuff than what we had to work with, and the dyes they used made colors we saw as extravagant. They treated us well, however, and with what we made off of the yams we were able to purchase for our village that which would get us through the next six months. Times weren’t often lean, but they were never generous.
On this day, we were the last to know the carts had come, as two of my friends and I were in the field farthest from the road that led out, and closest to the marsh where the great tower sat. I had been looking over my shoulder time and again in the process of digging holes, since, even though I was intrigued by the tower, I never let anyone catch me looking at it for too long. Observing the tower with too much interest had ruined more than one man in our village, which was wracked with superstition, and I chose not to find myself in such a fate. Even though I was with friends I still knew they might talk to parents, and that would lead to questions. I was already peculiar enough as it was; I didn’t want to become suspiciously peculiar.
So, as a result I was sly about it.
“Oy, the carts!” called Resh from across the field. He was near the fence, and he pointed. That call was like a siren, as we dropped everything and began to run though the thick dirt, scrambling over fences and around troughs that might be in our way. Our enthusiasm was youthful, and it was at these moments when I had much in common with my peers.
The carts were the same as usual except for one difference. It was a very large difference. As I’ve mentioned before we were serfs, and being a serf means we owe fealty to a vassal. That vassal was Lord Mortimer, who wasn’t a bad sort regardless of what the name portends. On this day he came, whether it was to view his serfs or to understand what goes on in his lands wasn’t clear, but he was there and his entourage would be legendary.
Never in my life had Lord Mortimer come to our village, but I was only sixteen years old. The older ones spoke of the last time he came, how there was pomp and circumstance, how he had three handmaids for each of his seven butlers, but none for himself. How his flags flew midnight blue with golden ribbons against the brown of the land, throwing hope into the hearts of serfs who didn’t know they needed hope until they felt it. Today there were the flags, the handmaidens, and the butlers. There were also mages with spells, musicians with instruments, and animals of which I didn’t know names, and all of these trod through the street with light step after light step until the road had been churned to chocolate butter. It was as if there were a carnival, but I could only guess because I’d only heard of carnivals from people who had also never seen one. I wondered why Lord Mortimer should show this outpouring of generosity for us, but that didn’t appear to be on the mind of anyone else.
“Oh, Henry! Look how magical it all is!” This exclamation came from a girly voice behind me that I could not mistake. I was probably going to marry her, after all. Her name was Cherry, and she was pretty like a peasant who blooms, then fades, but always would retain something of happiness about her. I liked her well enough, although I knew she would never understand me.
Her face was round, her hair dark, being near to something like sable, and her eyes matched her hair. The most remarkable thing about Cherry, though, was her ready smile, and how it relieved me on so many occasions. Although I had trepidations about marrying someone that I could never really talk to in any depth, I knew her disposition would never depress me. It gave me some solace. At this time, she was giddy, it seemed, at the appearance of Lord Mortimer, and I was able to enjoy the event more because of her positive reaction to it. I smiled at her.
“Cherry, it is magical,” I said. “But why do you think the Lord is doing this?”
Cherry laughed at me as if I were a crazy man, and so I was left alone with my thoughts.
The day was filled with song, dance, and performances. Lord Mortimer sat at the head of it all, shaded from the light by a dark blue over-covering, and cloaked in the same color, only richer, and trimmed with golden yellow ribbons and embroidery. His hair was black, his skin pale, and he had a neatly trimmed black beard to match it. He was a handsome man of indeterminate age who didn’t look to be old enough to visit our village at twenty-year distances. On either side of him were servants in matching livery who stood silently and still, knowing each thing the Lord should need as if precognizant. We watched and cheered and reveled in the excitement, and I knew quite well the story would be told again and again for twenty years, or until the day Lord Mortimer came once more. Through it all, it wasn’t possible for me to discern what might be going on in Lord Mortimer’s mind; he was a flint who laughed when necessary and sighed when appropriate.
At the end of that night, as everyone was weary but hardly ready for the day to end, Lord Mortimer sent forth his storyteller, who was The Storyteller, for from this wizened hag came the stuff of most of our own stories. There was a fire and near it she stood, her rags, doubtless left ragged for effect seeing how she worked for such a rich patron, flapped around her though there was no breeze, and the fire whipped into the sky, grasping the air and devouring it around us. The drama of the moment caught even me, and I breathed in the air as if it would be my last breath.
“There you see it, children!” she rasped, her voice raking us all with claws, leaving burning lesions of curiosity, fear, and wonder. Her arm bowed straight at the elbow, her hand crooked, and a single finger pointed with shaking passion at the tower behind us within the marshland. Gasps were around me as everyone realized it was the mysterious tower of which she spoke. “There he lives! He who is evil incarnate! Do not go there, ye curious, for that will be the last thing you ever do!”
She seemed very intent on frightening us. Oddly so. Suspiciously so. I wondered if I was to blame for such suspicion because of my mind, which had never been in the same place as all of my friends, and if it was only a figment in my already overactive imagination that this old woman seemed to be frightening us purposefully for an unseen reason. For all of my life I had lived near the tower, and never had anything untoward happen to me. I had never seen anything come out of it, except for the stray deliveryman or such, and so I wondered why it was to be feared to such an extent as this old wretch demanded of us. I did not regard the tower with fear myself, because of what observing it had proven to me. Still, she went on.
“If there is a dearth, ye can be sure it is his doing! If there is plague, ye can know it was him, for he delights in misery given to those around him!” Her voice lowered into an ominous rasp in the flickering firelight, and even though her words were soft, they were crystal clear to all. Brimstone glowed in the fire and crusts of spark and flame flittered up, up into the crisp night sky, dimming all stars and elsewise light, lowering a blanket of confidence and fear around the sum of us. “He is so inhuman as to not even have a name!”
Everyone gasped in simultaneous shock, although I suspected it was the intense atmosphere that made it seem worse than it was. If the fellow didn’t have a name, then he didn’t have a name. That didn’t mean he was evil incarnate. Cherry touched my arm, then grasped it, which I didn’t mind. I looked at Lord Mortimer. He was watching the proceeds impassively. I was certain Lord Mortimer was not afraid of the illusionist without a name by looking at his face. Then, I wondered, why should we?
The old hag launched into a specific tale of the illusionist’s cruelty, having something to do with a village like ours (but not ours) which was struck with drought and the illusionist laughing over their failed crop and subsequent deprivation. I thought to myself it would be much more rewarding to let the crop grow, then profit from it, but it was her story, which I more rapidly realized was playing on the deepest fears of my kinsmen. I had fallen to disbelief, and now felt certainty the hag was lying, although the reason wasn’t clear.
From the crowd a voice cried, “Can he not be stopped, old marm?”
She appeared to be surprised by this interruption to her monologue, but also expecting it, as if feigned and schooled in acting and behavior. She looked at the man who spoke, then looked over the rest of us, as if gauging our worth, then, crooking one eye, and pointing one gnarl, said, “There is, son, only one way… Only one way to defeat that horrible illusionist!”
Several voices fell out of the crowd in wonder, imploring the hag for the answer to all of their now-present woes in the personage of this illusionist. The hag sighed, perhaps sighing for the loss of innocence in these poor, sweet villagers, perhaps sighing to put across the effect, but she sighed nonetheless as I was pondering the fact that an illusionist, by definition, would not be capable of creating a drought, as it was technically impossible without the use of-
“He must be burned!” she cried. “Burned at the stake!” She pointed suddenly, like a pouncing cat, with force and anguish, her rags flapping, her body stiff and anxious, at a post nearby. “Like that one!”
I didn’t remember that post being there before. They all cried a cheer for the hag, who was brilliant, but not for the reasons they seemed to think.
“He must be tied to the like and burned! Then you will never be accosted by his horrors again!” Her voice began to be swallowed to her pleasure by the voices of the villagers around me. They had become incensed, and had that sharp action about them that meant anything could happen.
“We’ll do it now!” came a yell from a brave, foolish soul near the far side of the crowd. To my chagrin a number of voices cried out in reply, and in fact, like fire, it burned through everyone like a sensation. I myself was effected, even though my rational mind knew it was all a farce, it had to be a farce, but to feel the energy around me made me want to be swept into it and ride through its waters with everyone else. It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened in my lifetime, and many of the lives around me. Cherry looked afraid and also thrilled. She turned to me, and I to her, and her breath was quick, and I found her arousing in that state, even though I knew it was all wrong.
“Oh, Henry!” she cried, then kissed my cheek with as much passion as can be put into a cheek-kissing, which is actually a lot, when done right. “Be safe!”
My eyes opened wide at her last words, as I wasn’t aware I was going anywhere, until I looked around me and saw some rope being gathered, rakes, torches, even pitchforks being hefted as weapons, and men bidding goodbye to women all around. Resh pulled me along, and some others, and suddenly I was in a great crowd that was off to kill the illusionist, even though he was probably very benign, as far as I could tell.