It was a moonless, starless, lightless night, and the old wizard slouched in his leatherback chair, dozing in the old cottage, chin to chest, with a cup of lemongrass-and-ginger tea on a small round table beside him, its steam a wispy trail floating thinly above its chipped ceramic rim. There was no sound except the grumbling blaze in the stone hearth, and the heavy rain muffled upon the thatch roof, and sloshing in the grass, forming rivulets that trickled downhill to the surrounding forest beyond the summit.
The old wizard wore a faded green robe with an expansive hood— large as a potato sack—and it enveloped much of his hoary head, keeping off the chill of the rain as it breathed faintly through an open window. He had a long, distinguished nose, as wizards sometimes did, and from his snoring nostrils there spilled hair like whitewater, curling down either side of his pale lips, the confluence gathering again at his chin and jaw, then tumbling down as a waterfall beard that cascaded over his shallow, heaving chest.
Books lay open in every nook and cranny of the room, or else were closed and piled high in tottering stacks on the floor, and atop these tomes were amphoras with skinny necks and large bellies full of strange liquids. Runes were scattered here and there, made of faintly glowing stones, and charts and maps and drawings of various creatures spread themselves lackadaisically upon the old oak table, and between the stacks of books; all forgotten after zeal had run its course and given way to lethargy and exhaustion. There was a rusted bird cage hung from one corner of the cottage, long abandoned to disuse, the droppings gone to dust and the dust carried away by the winds alongside other dust— mountains of dust from a mountain of discarded ages.
All was still in the world, save for fire and rain and the wind through the window, and all was restive.
Suddenly, there was a gentle knock at the door, as if by someone patient and measured, with endless days ahead and all of the time in the world. The wizard was roused but by half an eyelid of care.
“Come in, if you must,” he muttered.
In stepped the sunrise, or so it seemed, as the lovely young lissome lady entered, illuminating rain and cottage and wizard alike. She was golden-haired, and a youthful bloom of cherry flush betook to her cheeks, and her radiant garb was of golden gossamers. Within the spiraling tresses of her hair sat a diadem that rainbowed its golden triangles above her childlike forehead.
“Hello, Wagnard,” the young lady said.
The wizard opened his eyes a little more, flinched at the luminosity, and pulled at his overlarge hood, squinting painfully from behind its sheltering shade.
“Haven’t you some place to rise over today?” he muttered.
“Always,” she said.
The wizard snorted, then shifted uneasily in his chair. He sighed with fatigue and irritation. The young lady came to his side. The teacup’s steam was a ghostly strand.
“I wished to see you one final time,” she said. “Many times have I smiled upon your works, Wagnard, and, even unto the end, you always did well by others where others would have done well only by themselves.”
“It is easy enough to do,” the wizard confessed, “when it means they should cease their whining. I cannot abide that, you know. It is like shepherding a bleating flock of sheep.”
“And yet you aided them in their times of need,” she said.
The wizard waved a dismissive hand. It was knotted about the knuckles, like the boles of a tree, and veined blue through the paleness of his mottled skin. “As you say.”
The radiant lady came nearer to him, still, leaning over him and his hood. He stubbornly turned away from her, and yet she nonetheless snatched at his hood with deft, albeit, dainty fingers and pulled it back, thereupon planting a girlish smack of lips upon his wizened forehead. When she released his hood, he pulled it over his head once again to shield his eyes from her bountiful radiance.
“Thank you, Wagnar,” she said.
She headed toward the open door— blazing more brightly than any hearth or dragon’s fire.
The wizard roused suddenly, his eyes wide. “Wait!”
She paused at the threshold, turning toward him with a sad smile. “Yes?”
“In my youth,” he said, “I loved you most of all.”
She nodded. “I know, Wagner. I know.”
Beyond the threshold, she receded over the horizon to some other place in the world.
The door somehow closed, now, the wizard fell asleep once again.
The rain continued, generous as ever, and the fire blazed on, ever so warm, but the teacup’s steam narrowed to a strand like spider silk, wavering in the cold wind. The wizard’s snore became a labored wheeze. His shallow chest trembled as it rose and fell beneath his green robe and waterfall beard. The wind through the window became colder, promising another Winter in due time.
There was an assured knock on the door, as if by someone who had accomplished all they needed to that day and was sure that whatever remained undone, there would be time for it tomorrow. Wagnar did not hear the first rapping. The second rapping roused him reluctantly.
“Come in,” the wizard said, “if it please you.”
The old oak door opened and in bounced a buxom madam in a crepuscular dress. Her hair was dark auburn, like the wooded shadows at dusk, and held her freckled fists to her wide hips, her arms akimbo.
“It does please me to come in,” the woman said. “The question is, ‘Does it please you?’”
The wizard squinted at the woman in the dark evening dress, but whether in irritation, or in wry amusement, he did not himself know.
“Your company was once a pleasure,” he said. “So, I suppose, at one time or another it pleases me to have you here.”
“Ho ho!” the woman said, the wide smile making dimples in her round cheeks that glowed like a full Harvest Moon. “Ever the wit, my dear, even by a whit!”
She bustled over to him, knocking over books and maps and things with her womanly hips. He did not seem to mind the mess, for his sleepy eyes were entranced by the pillowy expanse of her bosom. His head slumped toward her cradling chest as she leaned over him. She was a large woman, with welcoming brown eyes that were warm as a fireplace after a long day in cold woods. Her freckles reminded him of falling Maple leaves— blazing orange and lovely on dusky skin tanned by years of toil in fields and fens and forests alike.
“I remember your many evenings of study,” she said, “and the many evenings when you laid aside your frets and surrendered yourself to my embrace. But I also remember the aching evenings when needs meant your pulling away from me and braving the cold and the rain and the snow to see to the care of a sick child, or a woman in labor. You are a good man, my beloved Wagnar.”
“Am I?” he said. “I did what I did to stop them from pestering me, and much of the time wished to be left alone, especially in our evenings together.”
The woman smiled sadly. “But you sacrificed your own peace for the sake of theirs, and did it with a committed heart.” She twirled the curls of his long beard with her meaty, calloused fingers. “Even if you masked it with a quarrelsome mouth.”
She leaned down and kissed him deeply on the lips—as a wife would her husband–then held him close to her broad bosom, his wrinkled face relaxing amidst her cradling cleavage. When she withdrew from him, he swayed, half-asleep again. She walked to the door, less swagger in her hips; her stride hesitant and slow.
Wagnar sighed tremulously. “I looked forward to you most,” he said, “in my manhood. After a day’s work was done and I could relax and smoke a pipe, or lay with my loves, and be content for an evening. After the struggle was done and the embers of the day cooled in my heart.”
“I know, my dear,” the auburn-haired madam said. “Now rest. It is well-deserved. You always deserved a rest.”
A gilded tear in the outer dark revealed a dusky horizon, and she sauntered through that tear, mingling with the dusky gold of another place, and another time.
There came a hush upon the rain, and a silence to the the grumbling blaze in the hearth, and the wind at the window was less than the husk of a whisper. The steam from the cracked lip of the teacup was a wobbling wisp, like a pinch of frail cobweb in a billowy breeze. There was no knock at the door. The door simply opened and the old crone stepped in, cloaked like midnight, her withered face and wintry white hair veiled with a shawl of shadow. She said nothing as she approached his slumped body. Her tread was silent, as was the sway of her black garments as they swept the dusty floor. The cottage was cold, but he did not feel it.
“So it is time,” the wizard said, his eyes unmoving behind their lids. “Time for rest. Time to let go of the worries of this world.”
The old crone said nothing. Her face was illegible behind the veil.
“I feared sleep when in my youth,” the wizard said, “lest I miss the busy world and all that happened within it, and, in my manhood, I thought sleep welcome, but also a bother, commanding so much of my time that I could have employed otherwise— with more work…more studies…more efforts in bettering the earth. But now…now I welcome you more than the others. My bones are brittle. My lungs are frayed. My heart hesitates at times, doubtful that it should go on, and my mind is not a bright candle, but the melted wax with a drowning snub of a wick. Take me. I go willingly to my final sleep.”
The crone said nothing, but covered him with her deep, dark shawl, pressing her lips to his. He sighed, but whether in peace or surprise or restive resignation, it was never known. The steam guttered out and the tea went cold. The rain and the fire and the wind carried on.
It was a rainless, shadowless, cloudless dawn, and the birds sang loudly in the crowns of the trees while the squirrels chattered and chased one another, gathering acorns for the coming Winter. The old wizard lay in his leatherback chair, in his old cottage, unmoving and dreamless and untroubled. His hearth was but black ash and his scattered runes but cold stones upon the cold floor. His door remained open, and the dawn smiled brightly upon him, reaching her light inward upon his many tomes, and the evening moon, too, was increscent with love for him, her milky glow gleaming upon the fat amphoras, and the nightfall embraced him and all about him, as had all nights for millennia before when he had fallen asleep after a long day of selflessly serving the troubled world beyond his magnanimous doorway.