By Cortni Fernandez
Luca sat apart from the quiet crowd and worried that Darius, the storyteller before him, was dying.
It wasn’t as though he looked ill or weak; Darius was as tall and strong as any of the gods, with eyes bright as the sun, and the grin of a mischievous goblin. When he spoke, the stars themselves surely listened. Sometimes strangers called him mad, but Luca knew otherwise. He didn’t mind that Darius’ cloak was patched beyond its function, or that he strapped all his belongings to his back like the spiky conch of a hermit crab. Darius wasn’t really Luca’s father, but if he could choose any father in the world, it would be him.
And now, despite his apparently excellent health, Luca couldn’t help fearing that he was about to lose him.
The usually harsh sands of the Coraldust desert felt cool and soft beneath Luca’s hands, where he and Darius had arrived amongst a camp of nomads that evening. Their colourful tents waved in the night breeze, and their jangling copper fell silent before Darius’s voice. Wolf lay curled up beside Luca’s knees, a warm lump of shaggy fur, and the only one around the campfire who wasn’t wide awake.
Darius stood near the fire, glowing with its warmth, and peered around at the watchful crowd. He was in the middle of Luca’s favourite story, and usually chose this moment to pause for dramatic effect. The eyes of the young ones on their knees before him were wide with interest.
“I awoke,” said Darius, his voice delicate as the desert breeze as he turned his gaze on the children. “To the sound of a baby crying…”
Darius pretended to listen to the night, and some of the children looked around to hear the baby’s cry. The elders smiled, many turning their dark weathered faces and crinkled eyes on Luca.
“I picked myself up off the sand,” Darius was saying, his cloak sleeves rising. “And I looked far and wide… and do you know what I saw?” One of the children shook her head. “A roost. A great tower of grey stones – the nest of a mighty wyvern. Yes! The cries of a baby, from a wyvern’s nest. So… I approached. I was careful, quiet, tiptoeing across the sand. I began to climb the tower, rock by rock, and when I reached the top…”
Darius caught Luca’s eye and winked. “I found a baby boy, crying and wailing like it was the end of the world. He had a shock of red hair, just like mine, like the down of a baby phoenix. And when I scooped him up into my arms, he looked at me, and I looked at him, and I knew.” Another pause. Many small heads now turned to look at Luca, who grinned.
“But then!” Darius said suddenly, making everyone jump, and pointing off into the distance. “A dark shape on the horizon! A great beast, a hungry monster, its wings like dripping moss on tree branches, its snarling snout sharp as a blade, its tail whipping the air as it shot towards me like an arrow… the wyvern, come home to its nest, to find me stealing its ill-gotten treasure!”
The gasps and excited muttering made Wolf’s ears twitch, and Luca scratched them as Darius recounted his terrifying battle with the wyvern, his daring rescue of the kidnapped baby, and his heroic escape with the boy that now sat before them. The end of his harrowing story was met with cheers, laughter and applause from all around the nomad camp. Darius gave a grand bow around the circle. The young ones fell over each other with questions, demanding to know if he had been scared, if the wyvern had really stumbled away with a broken wing, and if it had all truly happened.
“Of course it did,” said Darius magnificently.
“How come you didn’t run away?” said a young boy.
“And leave my son to be wyvern food? Certainly not. Besides,” he whispered down to them. “I already knew I was going to win.”
The bright desert moon rose high overhead. As the nomads stretched and shifted, and the dull murmur of talk arose once again, Luca opened his cloth bag, which clinked with coins. Donations fell from tiny hands, and the children ran away giggling at Wolf’s friendly tongue.
“Much appreciated,” Luca said to a smiling nomad elder, who was wreathed in copper beads and a long trailing beard.
“Your father is an excellent storyteller, young man,” said the elder, giving Wolf a gentle pat on the head. “You look quite like him.”
Darius waved goodbye to the young ones who were called to bed by their mothers, and hummed to himself when he came to Luca’s side. Luca wasn’t as tall or broad as Darius yet, but he was sure he would be getting whiskers any day now; he always liked it when anyone pointed out their shared shade of red hair. “I like these people,” said Darius, folding his arms with proud approval. “They’re truly kind.”
“And generous,” said Luca, tying up the jingling coin bag. “This is enough to-”
“Keep us fed and watered for a week,” said Darius. Luca gave him a flat look, but Darius’s bright eyes twinkled.
“Well, it will,” said Luca, ruffling Wolf’s floppy ears. “Might even get-”
“A prime cutlet for Wolf.” Luca rolled his eyes. “We are given many gifts, boy. Never forget which are most precious – or you might lose them,” Darius said, with his maddeningly knowing grin.
“You mean your precious gift of being able to finish every sentence I start?” said Luca. “I could do without that.”
Darius gave a barking laugh, which Wolf answered in good measure. He cuffed Luca on the shoulder before heading off to his discarded traveling pack. Luca grinned as he watched him go, but something continued to gnaw at his insides. Maybe Darius wasn’t dying, then; maybe he just knew that he was going to die.
As far back as Luca could remember, Darius had always had an uncanny ability to see things before they occurred. There was never any hint or warning to tip him off; Darius just seemed to know.
“Welcome to Keelstrum, boy,” Darius had said to him one day, when Luca was ten years old and had first set foot along the bustling streets of the cape town. He had been so busy dodging the wheels of shellfish carts and stacks of kelpie traps that it was all he could do to stay in Darius’s shadow. Wolf was firmly attached by a leather strap to Darius’s belt, though he desperately tried to head in every direction at once. “I know just the place for us to set up. We’ll wait until dusk – the lanterns are like stars.”
“What is that smell?” Luca had said, trying not to trip over the cobblestones.
“Delicious, isn’t it? Alright, it takes some getting used to, but it has its charms. You should appreciate our time here. Mark me, the next time you visit this place, you’ll change your tune.”
“But how can you stand it?” Wolf sniffed the air in excitement, but Luca held his sleeve over his nose. “It smells like a-”
“Oh, it does not,” Darius said, marching along purposefully down a packed thoroughfare between the spiky-looking houses. “And you’ve never even seen one, so you don’t know anyway.”
“But isn’t this-”
“Heavens, no. And that won’t work,” he said cheerfully over his shoulder, before Luca could even open his mouth again. “I’m too clever for you.”
Luca tried again, and got as far as an intake of smelly fish air.
“No, this is the place for us, lad. I have a good feeling about Keelstrum. We’ll have a good time here, and the smell will wash out once we reach the river at the end of Whistling Wood. Yes, the one I told you about. Three days, so that we’ll be here for the kraken sighting day after next. No you can’t go swimming you silly boy. Old? Who are you calling old? I’ll eat you for breakfast with a side of oysters and toss your bones to the kraken. Now hold this.” Darius suddenly seized the lid on a barrel of starfish and placed it on Luca’s head, so that he had to reach up and catch it awkwardly.
“What the-” Luca said, feeling equally bewildered and foolish walking down the busy street with a barrel lid held over his head. Darius and Wolf edged a few feet away from him just as a passing cart hit a dip in the road, and a netful of slimy silvery trout cascaded right over the top of Luca’s head, slapping wetly against the barrel lid.
Wolf immediately bounded up to start licking his clothes. Once a deep shudder had run all through his body, Luca lifted the barrel lid to see Darius waiting for him, a wide smile on his face and laughter in his eyes.
“Are you a clairoyal?” he asked him one day. Luca and Darius lay on a grassy knoll and watched a cloud of sylphs dancing across a meadow, while Wolf dozed in a patch of dandelions.
“Yes, that. You are, aren’t you? You can tell the future and everything.”
“Who, me?” said Darius, scratching his bristling red beard in thought. He took a long time to think about it, and years later, Luca realized he was just amusing himself. “Nope.”
“But you know things before they happen,” Luca said, stunned and disbelieving. He flipped onto his elbows and came right out with it. “You knew that storm was coming in Starblum valley. And you knew about that cavetroll when we went into the Atrayan caverns, but you said it wouldn’t find us until we found the blue diamond, and we’d get out in time because one of the tunnels would cave in – and it did!”
“Yes, that was a good story,” Darius said, grinning to himself.
“You told it before it happened!”
“I am a good guesser. It’s one of my many talents. Aren’t you glad I made that guess? It was a fun trip into that cave.”
Scowling, Luca flopped back onto the grass and tried to adopt a smug tone. “Well you can’t fool me,” he said, knowing he had won the argument even if Darius didn’t want to admit it. “I know you’re a clairvoyal ‘cause you never let me-”
“Finish your sentences?” he suggested.
One day, Luca had returned from a trip to the market with a black eye and in a furious temper. He had stormed back to where he and Darius had made camp the day before, to find Darius ready and waiting with a compress of herbs and medicine.
“You knew it would happen, didn’t you!” he demanded, fighting back tears.
“I know lots of things. Sit down, and don’t touch it, come here.”
Luca pushed him off. In the last town they had visited, some of the boys had been skeptical of Darius’ stories. Luca hated hearing them call Darius a crackpot old loony, a pathetic old man who should be put in the stocks, and a raving liar who swindles people out of their money. He had finally shouted at them that they knew nothing, and they had left him sprawled in the dirt. “Why didn’t you stop them?” he nearly yelled. “You could have, but you didn’t! Why didn’t you?”
“Because – sit still – because sometimes it’s not enough to avoid the bad things,” Darius said, grabbing him and making him sit still while he treated his eye. “If I’d told you to stay away from those boys, would you have done so?”
“No,” Luca snapped. “You didn’t hear-”
“What they said about us. So you would have done it anyway, even if I told you you’d come back looking like this?”
Luca fumed silently while Darius wrung out a damp cloth. “Exactly. Some things have to happen, even if they hurt. That’s called learning. Now think. What did you learn?”
Luca kicked at the ground moodily, but his anger ebbed away. “I dunno… duck?”
Darius laughed. “How about, ‘don’t concern yourself with things that don’t matter, for that path leads to black eyes’? Think you’ll take that path again?”
“No,” Luca grumbled.
“Hm. Learned something already. Keep that up and you’ll know as much as I do one day.”
After awhile, Luca suspected that whenever Darius let him finish asking a question, he was humouring him. Sometimes Luca greatly amused himself with any question he could think of, since Darius always seemed to know the answer.
“What are we going to see when we get to Serafine Forest?” Luca asked him, while they sat on the back of a bouncy hay cart as it followed a caravan across the hillside.
“Oh, a lot of trees, some bushes and flowers… and you’re going to give a wood sprite a terrible surprise when you trip over his tree roots.”
“What about… that story you told back in Milandria, with that mad old shepherd and the manticore – when will we meet him?”
“In about a fortnight. Which reminds me, I’ll need to pick up a decent shield in Grystold… and you’re getting too tall for that tunic, we’ll find you a leather one instead. Don’t worry, we’ll have enough to afford it; there’s a wealthy lord in Grystold who’s going to be absolutely captivated by our excellent adventures tomorrow night.”
Luca grinned and kicked his feet over the edge of the cart, while Wolf lay in Darius’ lap and sniffed at the juicy berries he had scooped into his hand. When Luca looked at up at him, Darius raised a bushy eyebrow in amusement.
“Father, why do we travel so much?” he asked. “You know, telling stories in different towns and having adventures all over the world. Didn’t you ever want a home somewhere, with a front door and a bedroom and a fireplace and all that?”
“We’ve got a home, boy,” Darius said, flicking the last berry at Luca’s nose. It left a small smear, and Luca laughed in dismay as Wolf got up to lick it. Once Luca had pulled his arms around Wolf in a headlock, Darius ruffled Luca’s hair with his large hand and paused before continuing. “I always wanted to have adventures with my son,” he said, grinning. “Show him all the places I’ve seen, make him see how wonderful the world is, and why we’ve got to appreciate what’s here in this land. And that’s what I’ve got, my greatest blessing. Never wished for anything more.”
Luca didn’t say so, but he thought he felt just the same way – that nothing could make him happier than his adventures with Darius. He had wished, as he had always wished, that it could go on forever.
But Luca wasn’t a carefree little boy anymore. When he was young, he had never been afraid that Darius really was mad for bringing him to the dens of savage beasts and sailing mermaid-infested seas, always insisting they would be perfectly safe. He trusted Darius and whatever gift gave him the ability to see their futures, and somehow he knew that no matter how dangerous their journeys tended to be, they would both be alright in the end.
He was a man now, even taller than Darius, and yet he felt as young as a child the day that Darius stopped at the base of a mountain path. “Aha!” Darius said, as though the rocky formations leading up the trail were signposts. Wolf had stopped too, and looked up at Darius curiously. “This is it, then – I knew the time was coming.” Darius gave Luca a roguish wink. His face was lined and weathered, and his hair had greyed long ago, but he still had the energy of a fire spirit. “This way, boy, to something truly wonderful.”
Wolf began to sniff the path and investigate, but Luca placed his hand on his sword instinctively. He didn’t know anything about these mountains, or what lived there – but he was sure Darius did. “Up on the mountain?”
“It’ll only take us a night,” Darius said, turning from their path and beginning to climb the rocky trail, Wolf at his heels. Luca resisted the urge to tell him to take it easy; Darius would probably demand a race if he did.
“You’re sure it’s on this path?”
“Not on it,” he called back, now several feet away, his voice echoing over the wind. “At the end!”
Luca hesitated for only a moment, then hurried after him.
That night they made camp by a small spring, almost near the top of the mountain. Wolf liked to sleep more than he used to, but his nose came up whenever a lonely firefly hovered near. Luca sat by them, his back to a flat boulder, and tended the fire with a long stick.
“I think Starblum valley deserves another trip after this, you know? They liked the manticore story; I think they’d like the one about those griffons you ran into in the far hills.”
Luca didn’t like that Darius hadn’t mentioned himself in this suggestion. “That was your fault, if I recall correctly. Are you sure you won’t need a rest after all this mountain climbing, old man? I don’t need to listen to you complain about your creaky bones all day.”
“I’m still tougher than you, boy, and don’t you forget it. You’ll be sorry one day if I’ve got to save your skin because you’re still working off your baby fat.”
Luca’s insides seemed to ice over in spite of the fire. Was that what was going to happen?
“You’re going to wear a hole in those boots in a few days,” Darius remarked. “Three days, actually. Don’t forget to get a new pair, or you’ll regret it.”
Again, Luca’s stomach squirmed.
“And what about you? You’ve got holes everywhere. The wind’s blowing through your cloak like a tin whistle. What if you catch a fever and fall over and I have to carry you over this mountain?”
“Hah! I’d sooner stay here in the dirt than let you carry me like some prized hunting game.”
Luca tossed his stick in the embers and let it catch fire. He stared at the flames, and they made his eyes burn as he watched them. Darius didn’t seem to notice his silence; he was busy staring up at the stars in the sky, grasping idly at the ones that moved and turned out to be fireflies circling his outstretched hand.
“You’re going to die, aren’t you?” Luca said. As soon as the words escaped him, he felt ridiculous, like an infant child in tears, longing for a parent’s hug. Perhaps Darius was right; he might look like a man now, but he was still working off his baby fat.
“Everyone dies,” said Darius. Luca forced himself to look at him, and met his bright-eyed face and gentle smile. “Of course I’ll die one day. So will you. Haven’t I taught you anything?”
Luca managed a weak chuckle, and kicked the smouldering stick the rest of the way into the fire, where it crackled and burned to a crisp. He thought Darius wouldn’t answer him properly, but then he spoke again.
“You think I’ve seen my own death, don’t you?” Luca looked back at him, but didn’t want to admit anything out loud. Darius gave him a sly grin. “You think I haven’t noticed why you took up the sword? Why you feel the need to go ahead of me into anything you think is dangerous? You pester the market vendors for the best food, and you keep trying to carry everything we’ve got yourself. You’re a stubborn little mule, Luca. Not too bright either. It’s a good thing you look so much like me.”
Luca laughed this time, letting his head fall back against the dusty boulder. The stars were really beautiful tonight; Luca didn’t think he’d ever been this close to them before.
“Everything ends, Luca,” Darius said, settling back with his arms behind his head. “Best not to regret things ending, but rejoice that they began.”
Luca gave a theatrical groan. “Oh no, not more of your wisdom, old man, let me at least set up my bed first.”
Darius’ laugh boomed around the mountain top. Luca gazed up at the stars again, trying to count the fireflies amongst them until he finally fell asleep.
The next day, Luca felt as though he had been recharged with a lightning bolt.
“Alright, which way?” he demanded, hopping down the rocks that led into the mountain’s cavern. His feet were light and springy, his sword drawn, and his head clear. Whatever was waiting for them in this mountain would have to contend with him first.
“Keep going,” came Darius’ cheerful voice from right behind him, Wolf trotting along at his side.
“In here?” said Luca, turning slightly sideways to make it through a gap in the rocks. The morning had been exceptionally bright, and though Luca had brought several torches to light a pitch-black journey, golden sunlight filtered in through the top of the mountain and lit their way through the small canyon. For some reason, the warm and radiant stone made Luca even more apprehensive.
“You wait ‘til you see it, it’s quite a marvel,” Darius called from behind him, for Luca dashed forward as quickly as the rocks would let him, determined to find the end first. “Never found anything to match it, not even that incredible fairy feast we stumbled upon. Remember that, Wolf?”
Luca climbed a series of chunky rocks to reach a platform above.
“Yes, we’re almost there – just inside,” Darius said, waving Luca forward as he looked around. “Go on, have a look.”
Luca heaved himself up into a smaller cavern, sprang to his feet, and stared around, feeling sure that Darius was playing with him again. The cave opened to the sky so that sun flooded the stones with peach-gold light, and he saw a patch of bright blue high above. The walls rippled unevenly, but in the middle of the open space stood a strange stone archway. Luca couldn’t imagine how it had got there – or rather, why anyone would carve an archway at the top of a mountain in the middle of a sunlit cavern. A trickle of water ran in from above, and streamed down the archway like a shimmering curtain.
“There it is… truly spectacular,” Darius said, coming up behind him with Wolf at his heels. Darius walked up to the arch and placed a hand on the stone, with something like fondness in his expression. “Haven’t seen it in years.”
“This is what we came here to see?” Luca said, following the trail of the water where it disappeared somewhere into the stone.
“This is it,” Darius said, looking back at him. “The end.” Luca gripped his sword, but Darius said, “You don’t need that now. You’ll lose it soon in a duel anyway – though it’s well worth it, I promise.”
“But-” Darius raised an eyebrow at him, like he had done so many times whenever Luca objected to what he said. Luca lowered the sword reluctantly, confused, and more anxious than ever. He looked around the cavern again, failing to understand. “But why?”
Darius took a step back from the archway and toward Luca. “This is where we part ways,” he said gently, as though he was softening a blow. “You see, only you will pass through the waterfall.”
Luca blinked at him, stunned. He started to speak again, stumbling over his words in his anxiety, but after a moment, he let them die away. Darius watched him calmly as the realization finally came to him.
“It’s not you…” Luca said quietly. He knew Darius’ silence was assent. Luca had got it wrong. It wasn’t Darius’ end that had been coming closer: it had been his own.
Luca closed his eyes as a small measure of understanding came. Darius must have seen this happening – known that Luca would, for whatever reason, walk through this waterfall at the top of the mountain, and it would all be over. It didn’t even matter why, really. Even when he had known Luca would come back from a lost fight with a black eye, Darius had known what had to happen. Just like that day in the market all those years ago, this must be how things had to be.
“What if…” he started, trying in vain to defy what he knew must be the truth. “What if I don’t want to?” Luca glanced at the waterfall, then back at Darius, not caring any more that he sounded like such a small child. “What if I want to stay here with you?”
Darius smiled. “You’ll go,” he assured him. “I know you will, Luca. You’d do anything to save your son.”
Luca nearly grinned in disbelief. “I don’t have a son.”
“Not yet,” said Darius, continuing to smile in his all-knowing way.
Luca stared at him, feeling the same confusion he always felt whenever Darius declared anything strange or impossible. He was always right in the end, of course; Darius always knew. Luca chuckled this time. “If you say so, old man.”
His feet felt heavy as he turned towards the waterfall. The stream of water was clear as rippled glass. Strangely, it didn’t scare him, or even make him anxious. He just felt sad, as though he was about to leave a part of himself behind. Padding footsteps approached beside him.
“No, Wolf, you stay here,” Luca said, crouching to let Wolf lick his face, and wrapping his arms around the shaggy fur in a hug. “Stay with Darius, okay?” With a final pat, he sent Wolf back to Darius, and stood up again. He looked into the man’s face, so much like his own, and found himself giving an identical smile. “I wish we could have done this forever, old man,” he said. “I really do. But all…” he trailed off, knowing Darius would finish.
“Things end,” he obliged, giving Wolf’s ears a reassuring stroke.
Memories came to him now – perhaps his life flashing before his eyes – memories of everything he and Darius had been through together, all the adventures they had had, and all the times Darius had known that they would be safe. Darius had always told him to cherish what he had, to treasure his gifts while he had them, and appreciate the time he had been given. Now Luca truly knew why: Darius had forseen Luca’s death all along.
“What will your next adventure be when I’m gone?” he asked.
Darius looked momentarily stumped by the question, something Luca had never seen before. “You know, for the first time, I really don’t know.” He grinned again, bright-eyed and mischievous. “But I think that makes it all the more exciting.”
Luca returned the grin, and took just one more moment. “Goodbye, father,” he said. Then he stepped through the streaming waterfall that veiled the stone archway, and vanished.
Only the sound of trickling water remained after he was gone. Darius sighed deeply, and Wolf gave a soft whine at his side, looking up at him for comfort. “Don’t worry,” said Darius. “He’ll find us both again.” Darius turned away from the archway, and Wolf followed him as they headed back the way they had come.
“Well, Wolf – do you know what’s going to happen next?” Wolf wagged his tail, bouncing on the pads of his paws, and looked ready for another adventure. Darius gave him a pat and sent him running ahead. “Then I suppose we’ll just have to make it up as we go.”
Water streamed over Luca’s head, and gently lifted his body like it was made of air. He felt himself lying on something that was soft and firm, and though the water tickled his skin, it wasn’t what had woken him.
Somewhere in the distance, someone was crying.
Luca opened his eyes and sat up in the sand of a long dust-coloured beach, afternoon sunlight glinting off the ripples of the vast ocean before him. He turned and saw the coast, where the dusty sand formed into towers of hardened rocks. Luca heard the cries; they came from one of those towers, a big thick one that widened at the top.
His sword knocked into his leg as he pulled himself up off the sand and started towards the rocky tower. The cries continued, and when Luca reached the base, he began to climb. All he could think was how strangely familiar it was to hear someone crying from on top of a rock tower, and in no time, he had reached the wider summit.
In the shallow dip of gathered grasses and straws, a baby boy lay swaddled in a ragged cloth, his mouth wide open in an agonized wail. Luca bent down to pick him up, and saw that the little hair he had was a soft red colour. The baby whimpered and coughed, but when it finally opened its streaming eyes, it reached for Luca’s fingers with its tiny grasping hand.
Another cry rent the air, this one farther away, but much more deadly. On the horizon, a dark shape grew closer, like a storm cloud intent on reaching the nesting tower as fast as it could.
Luca felt himself grinning broadly at the furious wyvern heading straight towards him and the baby he held in his arms.
He already knew how this story went. And he knew he was going to win.