Stars glistened in the darkness above the house. Konom stared up at their tiny lights, floating about the soft, shadowy outlines of the high roof and the surrounding trees. For all these decades, this place—the weathered stone walls swathed in ivy, the cluttered kitchen, the quiet tower room, and oh, the East Wing—had been his home and his life. What was to happen now?
Abruptly he shook himself and strode back toward the front door. Having taken his time as usual, he had about made up his mind concerning the next order of business. He only had to go back and review the day’s records.
Once in the vestibule, he took the flickering lamp hanging just above him, as the house was mostly dark now. He turned left, as he nearly always did. Right was the East Wing, and while he brought guests there more days than not, he hardly ever had occasion to go there himself. After all, his life was so simple . . . usually.
Konom made his way through the hall and across the kitchen, still lit and still strewn about with herbs, leaves, vegetables, grimy pots, and other things. Yes, it wanted tidying; he would see to that later. Coming to the stairs, he began ascending—carefully, as he grimly recalled the proofs in recent days that his body required more caution now. The winding stone steps spiraled upward for two flights. He paused at the top of the first flight, not because he meant to enter the library, but because he was tired—well, it had been a long day!—and in order to give an affectionate, half-sad glance to the intricately carved doors that guarded the books. Yes, it was a fine collection in there, as no one—or almost no one—knew better than he. He would ensure that they continued to be appreciated.
Breaking again out of reverie, he turned back to the stairs and climbed up to the top. Here was the tower room, not really mounted on much of a tower, but high enough to be fairly secluded. For Konom, it was a sort of study, containing a battered, stained desk, a few books for his own personal purposes, a pad of blank pages and some loose papers, some dried leaves of various kinds, and, of course, the Record Book. Were there any more of its kind left in this part of the world? Not likely. Standing upright against the back wall, a little taller than Konom himself, it collected within its fine brown-green leather covers all that transpired in the house each day.
With a short sigh, Konom set the lamp down on the desk and approached the book. Its back was facing toward him, of course, so that the most recent records would be on top; but the two covers were identical, both bearing the Chari-King’s seal and the house’s name, Domus Horoma. The House of Vision—a lonely but steady beacon, Konom thought, more needed than ever in this fogged world, when men had forgotten the higher powers and wonders of the world, once their source of guidance and security. Folk always needed guidance—they were foolish at the best of times—but now they really had grown blind, blind to a better existence that could be theirs. At least there were still places like this to which they could come.
Lifting the back cover, Konom briefly glanced across the nearest page, where the shimmering images, pale but quite lifelike, depicted all that had gone on that day. It had been a busy day, with several calls, but the important part had not come until the evening. Once he located its beginning near the bottom of the page, without further ado, he stepped in.
He could clearly see what had been happening three hours ago. There he was, scrubbing a pot in the kitchen, not expecting any more calls that day. Then suddenly came the knock at the door, three soft raps. Surprised, he put down the pot and hurried to the door.
There she stood, just a young girl, no more than thirteen or fourteen, a sack slung over her shoulder. That sack and her plain but neat garb suggested that she came from a simple, hardworking family; the Konom of the present now noted a bit of very precise patchwork on one side of her skirt. The Konom of that moment looked down in growing surprise to see a child appear alone at the door. “What brings you here, lass?”
“Please, I’m supposed to be in Irgo by nightfall,” she explained, looking mildly worried. “I need to get there for the market tomorrow, to sell these apples.” She gestured toward the sack. “But the road got a little confusing, and now I’m not sure of the way. Can you help me?”
Konom looked intently at her for a moment, then nodded and stood aside. “Come on in.”
“Thank you!” she replied warmly, stepping in. At a gesture from him, she set her sack down in the vestibule.
He thought as he led the way toward the kitchen. Of course, this girl was looking for more than the way to a nearby town. All who came that way were led there for a reason. Besides, he had learned to recognize the lost and searching souls, the looks in their eyes, the peculiar strains on their faces. It only remained to be seen what her quest might be and whether she was ready for what the house could offer her.
At the kitchen, he paused and turned back to her. “Have you had supper?” She shook her head. “Well, will you stay and have some here? Irgo’s not far. You’ll have time yet to be there before sundown.”
She looked a little surprised, but nodded again. “That’s very kind of you, sir.” Then, as she looked around the kitchen, her eyes widened. The look on her face indicated both wonder at the endless shelves, full of various provisions, and bewilderment at the mess. Konom of the present smiled now at her expression, which he had not noticed at the time. Ah, he should keep it cleaner for guests . . . but on days like this, what was one to do?
Konom of that moment took a pot in which some stew remained and began ladling it into a bowl. “What might your name be?” he inquired.
The girl jerked to attention. “Oh, I’m Zitona,” she replied, looking a little abashed to have forgotten this courtesy.
“Mm,” he nodded, taking a spoon and mixing the bowl’s contents a bit. “Well met, Zitona. You can call me Konom. And my apologies for the disarray—I’ve had much to do.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” she answered quickly, with a little smile.
Pleased so far with this visitor, he handed her the stew and waved her after him, leading the way to a door across the kitchen. This one opened not onto the stairs, but into a small, round room centered around a table. The large windows and white walls made the most of the fading amber light. As many times as he had used this room, Konom always felt a sense of satisfaction in having someplace to bring guests where he could sit and talk with them. It was simple, but clean and pleasant, and the polished wooden table stood with an air of modest dignity on the woven wool rug.
He gestured for Zitona to sit down, then took his seat in a chair near hers. Konom of the present noticed his past self grimace slightly as he noticed how tired his legs and feet had become—yet another of the signs that grew less welcome every day. The girl thanked him again, then began eating. For a minute or so he said nothing. Sometimes it was best to let guests make themselves comfortable before probing them; they might even begin to explain on their own. When a while had passed, however, and she remained silent, he cleared his throat and asked, “So what’s troubling you, child?”
Zitona blinked and looked up at him, evidently as startled as if he had inquired about her parents by name. Konom gave a slight chuckle. “I’ve been here a long time; I’ve seen enough faces like yours. It’s been in your eyes all the while you’ve been here. All’s not well for you, is it?”
Still looking rather shocked, she stared down at her reflection on the polished wood. Slowly she said, “Well . . . things are very different from how they were for me. My older sister got married not long ago, so now she lives all the way in Macrinos, and I can’t see her . . . much. And since times have been hard on our farm and all, my parents both have to work harder—Father is always bent over something, and Mother is always weaving when she’s not doing chores. And then they’re always worn out, and they’re cross more often. They don’t talk to me like they used to. It’s like their work is using them all up.”
Konom listened attentively, as he was accustomed to do. “Is it only your parents and you?”
She shrugged. “I have three brothers, but they never pay any attention to me.” After a moment’s pause, she added, “I feel something’s happening to me too. I don’t know what it is, but I always seem to think about things harder and worry about them in ways I never did before. It’s almost like everything is changing or disappearing, all leaving me . . . even my own self.”
Konom nodded thoughtfully. This was always the hardest part, to hear the guest’s account of unhappiness. Silently he reflected, thinking what he could say to help her. The last guests hadn’t come out of the East Wing yet, and in any case, it was better not to send someone there without some words to prepare them.
But before he could speak, Zitona spoke again, this time surprising him. Even the Konom of the present, though he knew to expect it, was surprised afresh. She sighed, “Sometimes I wish I had lived in the old days—when the enchantments were still about . . . and the Chari-King.”
At this, something jumped inside Konom, and he stared at her. Seldom did any visitors, especially so young, bring up supernatural things on their own, let alone name the Chari-King. Trying to cover his reaction for now, he quietly asked, “Why do you wish that?”
Looking slightly surprised herself, Zitona answered, “Well, my life feels like it’s made of pieces that keep coming apart . . . and, when I hear of the old world with the Chari-King—his world—I, I don’t know, but it seems that when he was there, the world just made more sense. Whatever happened, it was his world. I guess that might not stop my problems, but I feel that they wouldn’t feel so big—that I wouldn’t have to be afraid of them. The way it is, I just feel all alone.”
A moment of silence followed. Until he had determined the right response, Konom was not yet ready to express the joy rising in him at her words. Zitona, however, seemed to mistake his silence for confusion or disapproval. “Do you think that’s foolish of me?” she asked, anxiously and a little sadly.
Looking away into the air, with a frown part grim and part thoughtful, she added, “My brothers say it’s foolish to think or speak of those days. I think a lot of people think that, though I don’t know why. I heard someone else in our village say, good riddance to the old world, because it . . . got in one’s way, but he didn’t say how. I’ve tried to ask sometimes why people say things like that, but no one seems to understand what I’m asking. My parents don’t seem like they think it’s important.”
She sighed. Konom was about to speak, but the girl went on, a note of wistful longing in her voice. “But my mother’s parents used to tell me stories, before they died—before I knew other people thought those stories were foolish—they told me what those days were like . . .” Now her words became a bit slower, and her tone shifted to reverie. “When people were friends with the Light-walkers, and the, er, those gnome people, and, well, all sorts who helped them, protected them, taught them . . . when they could go to parts of countries in the sea or the air . . . when they had ways of growing things, and healing, and recording, that they don’t now . . .”
A little half-smile grew on Zitona’s face as she recalled these images, handed down to her long ago and cherished like precious secrets. Then, shrugging helplessly, she concluded, “Oh, anyway . . . And I know there were dark and frightening things in those days, too, but, well,” she remarked, with another simple shrug, “it seems there are frightening things all the same—like pests or illness. And I think that if I knew those good powers were there . . . if the Chari-King was there . . . it would be easier not to be afraid of anything. Of late, I’ve just been thinking about it more.”
After pondering her words a moment, Konom replied reassuringly, “You’re not a bit foolish, child. You’re right that knowing the Chari-King and the world of enchantments wouldn’t take away your troubles. But you need not feel alone either. They aren’t gone. Folk have simply forgotten how to look for them.”
Zitona’s head jerked up, keen interest on her face. “Hm? What do you mean?” Suddenly a great excitement lit in her eyes. “You’ve seen! You—you know something about the old world . . . you’ve met it, haven’t you, somewhere? You . . . the Chari-King . . . have you met him?”
Now Konom allowed himself a smile as he nodded. “Yes, my dear. I know him; I have spent all my life in his service.”
The girl jumped to her feet, her eyes fairly glowing. “Can I see him too?!”
More guests like this, Konom reflected, would have kept him a good ten years younger at least. “Yes, yes you can,” he answered warmly. “But not right away. First you must see why you were brought to this house.”
Zitona looked confused again. “I was brought?”
“Oh, all who come here are meant to, for a reason,” he explained. “This house, Domus Horoma, is a place for the lost to receive light—guidance. Your need of that has become clear enough. As soon as it’s open, you must go into the East Wing. There you may see some answers to your questions.”
Her eyes grew wide. “Then this . . . this house, right here where we are, is . . . a place of enchantment?”
“Of a sort,” Konom nodded. “That word enchantment has been ill-used in your day and your parents’ day; some folk think it means only reciting words of spells, or even some eerie thing, an abuse of power. But that’s as if one said that horsemanship only meant beating an animal. The supernatural world is the world we live in, the wholeness of this world, not simply a tool to be plied. One has to understand it, to approach it rightly.”
Seeing that Zitona looked a little puzzled, he waved aside his musings. “You’ll understand when you know the Chari-King.”
“I . . . I think I understand, sort of,” she stammered. “But . . . so this house is like something from the old days?”
“Yes, I suppose it is,” Konom shrugged. Quickly joy dawned on her face again, and she clasped her hands in wonder and excitement.
At that moment a little bell tinkled. The door of the East Wing had opened. The last guests must have come out. Konom excused himself and hastened over to them. They were a new couple, not married even a year yet and already having problems. Young folk these days!
Konom of the present skimmed through this part of the records—it wasn’t important for his purposes now. The pair seemed to have profited at least somewhat from their visit; it could be a start for them, if they remained open. He gave them such advice as he could and some herbal teas that would help keep their heads clear, then saw them off.
Then he came back to Zitona, who had remained sitting quietly in her chair. “Come with me,” he invited. She scrambled to her feet and followed him, eagerly but with a certain restraint of awe.
They crossed the kitchen and came back to the vestibule, to the door of the East Wing. “Here is where the power is centered,” Konom explained, gesturing toward the door. “Go in with your thoughts quiet and your heart open. I can’t say what you will find, but if you are attentive, I think you will discover something to help you.”
Zitona nodded silently, with wide and serious eyes.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“I think so,” she replied, speaking hardly above a whisper.
Solemnly Konom turned to the door and opened it for her, and she stepped inside. With a murmur of “Good luck,” he turned back toward the kitchen and set out to continue cleaning up.
Konom of the present skimmed slightly ahead to the moment of her return. It had not been more than ten minutes later that she came running in, her face radiant. Konom of that moment put down his dishrag and stared. Guests often took an hour or even several hours in the East Wing before they felt ready to emerge. Or, if they came out prematurely, they almost always looked confused and dissatisfied. The look on Zitona’s face was as complete a satisfaction as he had ever seen.
For several moments neither spoke. Then at length he queried, “What have you seen?”
“Oh—oh—I . . .” The girl blinked and thought for a moment, trying to gather her thoughts into an adequate description. “Well, when you opened the door, I saw a short, empty hall leading to another door, made of some kind of white wood, with a carving of deer drinking from a stream.”
Konom nodded. Everyone saw that first.
“So I went through that,” she continued, “and at first I saw just a big room, round, with stone walls, and a lot of fine couches and carpets and lamps and things. Beautiful. With a spiral stairway going up on one side. I didn’t see anything strange, but I felt that I wasn’t alone and I should watch carefully.
“Then after a while, I noticed that the light was so clear—clearer than ordinary daylight, more . . . sharp, and pure. Does that make sense? And I thought that was strange, since the sun was setting, and that was the East Wing. It should have been dark, but it wasn’t. And I couldn’t see why—the windows were all colored, so I couldn’t see out. The light was so strong, but I could see better than I ever have.
Zitona began to speak slowly and quietly, her excitement again giving way to awe. “It seemed like my eyes were growing into that different light. I began to see things in there that I hadn’t been able to see before. I saw . . . memories. Myself and my family when I was small. Things we used to do—they were there in front of me, the trees my sister and I climbed in, my father telling me stories. And I felt so sad, and I wondered why I had to see all that.
“But then I heard something from up the stairs—it sounded like someone calling my name. And I felt glad to hear it, though I don’t know why, and I hurried up. There . . . it was like nothing I’ve ever seen. I thought I’d see another room, but it was more like a garden, all green and growing—growing things—and the light looked green, like the sun shining through a tree. And in the middle was a great fountain, the brightest water I’d ever seen—so clear and shining, it almost seemed more light came out from it than went in. But after a few moments, I noticed that there were thorns and brambles in the garden too. My family were all in there, and they looked like they’d been cut on the thorns.” A thoughtful, half-troubled frown began to darken her face. “Some thorns were stuck on their clothes, and when they bumped together they’d cut each other, though not on purpose.
“It wasn’t they who were calling me. The voice was coming from the fountain. And I was eager to get to it. But to go there, I had to pass my family—they were in the middle of the path. And as I walked, they didn’t take any notice of me at all. They just kept milling about in the way they had been, and they bumped into me, and the thorns hanging from them cut me too. I wanted to shout at them to watch where they were moving, but the voice from the fountain kept calling me, so I hurried on to it.
“Once I got there, I saw a pitcher sitting next to the fountain. And right at that moment, that was when my family saw me. They scrambled over to me and fell on their knees, holding out their arms and all talking at once. I was so confused. Then somehow I understood that they needed the water of the fountain. I took the pitcher, filled it with the water, and went around and poured it on all their cuts. Each time, it washed away the blood and made the wounds shrink or fade, sometimes even disappear. And as I did it, my own cuts didn’t hurt so much. The more I went along, the happier I was.” As she spoke, the frown slowly gave way to a soft smile, like clouds slipping away before a rising sun.
“I knew I was giving them life, and somehow giving me life too. I didn’t ever want to stop. But just as I was finishing with the last of my brothers, the fountain-voice spoke to me again—not in my ears; I just understood it inside me. ‘You will indeed continue to minister thus to them,’ it said. ‘But now you have work elsewhere. Go to meet the road that runs before you.’ And I remembered I needed to get to Irgo before dark. So I came back downstairs. I saw the memories there again—only dimmer, and fading I think—but this time they didn’t make me as sad.
“As I closed the white door behind me, I saw the light shining under it dim out mostly. So I think all those things I saw are gone now.”
Another long moment of silence followed, as Konom pondered her account. Then he asked, “Do you understand what you saw?”
“I think so,” Zitona answered slowly. “I think it means that my family are suffering, and it’s true they’ve made me suffer too, and it hurts. But if I can be good to them—if I . . . forgive them . . . and give them as much love as I can . . . it’ll be good for them, and it’ll help me, too. And I can choose to do that.”
Konom smiled. “You have seen well.”
The girl beamed. “I’m so happy! I want so much to be that for them . . .” Then her brow wrinkled slightly. “But then, I’m not sure I can keep it up . . . I think I need help.”
Konom nodded. “You do. And you shall have it. You will find what you earnestly seek.”
“From the Chari-King?” she asked, smiling again.
He nodded again.
With half-shy eagerness, Zitona pressed on, “Sir, if . . . if this is what his work is like . . . can I serve him too?”
“Yes . . . you can, and I believe you shall,” Konom replied thoughtfully. “But you had best get on to Irgo now before sundown.”
“Oh, yes! How can I get there?”
“Follow the road south till it comes to a bridge; cross that and keep along the river westward. You’ll come to it soon,” he answered, gesturing these directions in the air. “Will you need a map?”
She shook her head. “I should be all right.”
He saw her out to the door, where she took up her sack of apples again. “When you’ve finished your errand, come back this way,” he instructed. “Then we can speak more of all you wish to know, and what you may do next.”
“Oh, yes, I’ll be back,” Zitona replied happily. As she stepped out, she turned and said fervently, “Konom, sir, thank you so much—for everything!”
“A pleasure to me,” he answered, half to himself, as he watched the little figure scamper off into the twilight.
After that, he had given no thought to the pots and pans until his return to the kitchen, which had not been until after dark. He had much to ponder. In recent years, he had seldom met someone who burned so for the full truth of the world. In all his years at Domus Horoma, he had never seen anyone adjust to and understand the East Wing so quickly.
Konom of the present now turned, reached out and exited the Record Book, back into the tower room, where the lamp flickered cheerily in the darkness. He had already done his pondering. He did not need to review what he had done next, before going out and staring at the sky. For the first time in many years, he himself had gone into the East Wing. At any rate, he had opened the door and stepped inside.
His few visits here had never been long, but he knew he could expect nothing to happen until his whirling thoughts had settled to a certain calm. It was perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes later that he had finally managed this, and began to notice something in the middle of the room. A figure—his own, it seemed; it faced away from him, but the form and clothing looked like his own.
Then it had turned, and the face smiling at him was the girl’s. She looked a bit older, somehow a bit wiser, but it was certainly she.
It was after this that he had gone outside. It was a weighty decision he had to make, and accepting the changes that were coming would not be easy. Yet they were coming, and something had to be done while there was still time.
Konom sat down at his desk, took his inkwell and a sheet of paper, and began to write.
My Lord, an urgent concern impels me to send you word now. You know my strength is failing, and I must soon begin to train my successor. I think I may have found one fit.