Sunday 8 May 2011
Tales of the Dreamscape - Birth Day
Everyone agreed that the omens were good. It was the seventh day of the seventh month, in the seventh cycle of the Dreamscape. A new star had appeared in the sky the night before, large, bright and purple. The dancing woman of the fountains declared that she had seen a horned dragon in the clouds. Even Coldeyes the Soothsayer, who never gave good news to anyone if he could help it, declared it to be an auspicious time for new beginnings. Everyone agreed that it was the proper time for a son to be born to the Prince of Dreams.
That the prince had a son was a quite remarkable feat for no child had yet been conceived, much less born, in the ever-shifting Dreamscape, and the Prince of Dreams never abandoned his realm. This was the first child that had gestated in dreams, grown inside the minds of many. It was a sign from the gods, many whispered to each other. And the Prince of Dreams never denied a rumour.
The birth itself had been simple and painless. The midwife, a woman who had been old since anyone knew her, declared it was as if the baby had known what was expected of him. Born without blood, without tears, without pain, truly he was the bringer of a new age.
His mother quickly tired of him. A new court intrigue reached her ears and all thoughts of the child were quickly lost in the gossip of fresh romance. The midwife nursed the baby for the first days, and told everyone she met just how hungry he was. Meanwhile, the Prince of Dreams took it upon himself to find a name for the child, wisely judging that his consort was not good with names. And then he had it:
“He shall be called Daniel,” he proclaimed one day over dinner, and so it was.
* * *
When Daniel was eight days old, he received his first visitors. Three seers from the eastern plains, at the invitation of the Prince, had journeyed far to bring gifts to the new-born child. The whole court gathered to witness this moment, for no seer had been seen for a generation. The Prince of Dreams sat on his throne of ivory, his consort beside him on a throne of horn. Both were dressed in the finest cloth of purple twilight. Soft as velvet, each piece of cloth drew the eye into its depths, until you lost yourself in waves of stars and sky. And between the two thrones, Daniel lay in a tall crib, draped in silver spider-webs.
The first mage stepped forward, and bowed low before the royal family. He was dressed in red satin robes, that flowed and twisted without beginning or end. The staff he carried was of wood, and was topped with an amber jewel in which a dragonfly lay entombed.
“I gift the child Daniel with the blessing of pleasure. His days shall be lived with full joy and delight in all he undertakes, and all who know him shall be glad. He shall eat the fruit of his dreams and be satisfied.”
The Red Seer approached the crib, and touched his hand to the baby’s forehead, suffusing the small body in a fiery glow. Then he stepped away, lowered his head and bowed once more.
“That is a most generous gift,” the Prince of Dreams said, “and we thank you for it.”
Then the second seer stepped towards the thrones, wearing a cloak of blue cotton, without seams or shape. He bowed towards the Prince and his consort, twirling a staff of volcanic glass before him.
“And I gift the child Daniel with the blessing of vision. He shall see his dreams with a clear eye and an understanding heart. The dreams of others shall be open to him and he shall see them clearly. He will feast on the visions all the days of his life.”
He reached out his black staff and touched it to the eyes of the prince, and they burnt with a pale blue flame. Then the Blue Seer bowed once more and stepped back.
“Another generous gift,” said the Prince’s consort, “and we are most grateful”.
The Green Seeress was about to step forward when a terrible thundering sound shook the room. One after another, each of the vast stained glass windows shattered, spraying the room with shards of coloured glass. The crystal chandelier clinked and clattered with great violence, before it fell from its place and broke upon the floor. The people were unable to keep their feet as the ground beneath them shuddered, and a vast crevice split the throne room. Only the Prince of Dreams remained unmoved in the face of this quake, though he looked on with no small amount of concern.
From deep inside the crevice came a dull roar, and the pungent odour of sulphur infiltrated the throne room. A thick, black miasma oozed from the hole in the ground, spreading up and out. The tendrils of smoke expanded and congealed, forming themselves into a humanoid shape, which solidified into a man.
“I see that I was not invited to these proceedings,” he noted, his voice imperious and condescending.
From his black cowl and pale blue eyes, the Prince of Dreams recognised Malevolent, the Black Seer.
“Our sincere apologies,” responded the Prince of Dreams, “but since you are here, will you not join us in our festivities?”
“Indeed I shall,” Malevolent answered with a laugh. “And I believe it is my turn to give the prince child a gift.”
He stepped towards the crib, black cloak swirling behind him, trailing into smoke.
“I gift this child with the blessing of suffering,” he began, “on his thirteenth birthday he shall prick his finger and be reborn into the Real, from whence he shall never return.”
Malevolent smiled coldly at the Prince and his consort.
“Will you not thank me for this gift?” he asked, and laughed at their shocked faces.
He turned away from the thrones and leapt into the crevice, disappearing from view. Malevolent’s laughter lingered a moment and then it too was gone. And then - silence.
“What shall be done?” the Prince’s consort cried, “our child is lost to us.”
The prince held her consolingly. None dared speak - save one.
“My prince,” the Green Seeress began, “I have not yet given the child my blessing.”
“Can you undo the evil that has been placed in his future?”
The Green Seeress shook her head sadly.
“I cannot do such a thing, the power of Malevolent is too great.”
“Then what can you do for us?”
The Green Seeress stepped towards the crib, and touched the child’s heart with her staff of living wood.
“I gift this child with the blessing of choice,” she intoned. “Pleasure and suffering, real and unreal, he shall see them truly and choose his own destiny. That is the only gift I have, and it is the greatest of all.”
* * *
The months passed, cycles came and went, and the years rolled by. The young princeling grew up in the Palace of Dreams. His days were sweet and full of colour. His nights were vast and magical, bursting with stars and the promise of adventure.
By order of His Royal Highness, all spinning wheels were removed from the royal household. Indeed, the princeling was kept away from sharp objects of all sorts. He ate his meals with a spoon and a butter knife. Jousting and swordplay were taught with rubber weapons. And of the craft of spinning the cloth of night he learnt nothing. Even to bring a sharp object into the court brought harsh penalties, and none dared risk the wrath of the Prince of Dreams. His rages were legendary and thunderous.
On the day of his thirteenth birthday, Daniel woke early, eager to see what delights the Palace would bring him. His bright, violet eyes searched his chambers and, upon discovering no presents, he swiftly rose and dressed. The bedroom, vast though it was, seemed far too small to contain all the excitement that Daniel had inside him, so he opened the door and went exploring. It was a favourite hobby of the young prince; the corridors of the Palace changed with his father’s moods and so there was always something new to find.
There was not a soul to be seen in the corridors, not a servant nor a butler. Most had not yet returned from the Real where they were forced to spend at least a few hours a night. Daniel did not understand this but he accepted it as something that other people did.
He wandered through familiar corridors and unfamiliar halls - a tiny chamber containing three colours of dust entertained him for several minutes but soon Daniel was off again. He came to a tall spiral staircase, narrow and made of melancholy thoughts. Higher than anything Daniel had ever seen in the castle, he determined to pursue it to its zenith.
Higher and higher Daniel climbed, losing none of his energy nor his enthusiasm. It was his thirteenth birthday, and the Palace almost certainly had a birthday surprise in store.
He climbed for a mile or more, and figured he was high above the Dreamscape, when suddenly he came across a large iron door. Carefully, and suddenly a bit nervous, Daniel pushed it open and peered inside.
It was not a large room, by the standards of the royal palace, though nor was it tiny. It was bare and seemed unimpressive. Straw matting covered the grey floor. A small window let in the pale dawn sun, but was placed too high for Daniel to appreciate the view of his realm. But in the centre was a woman, dressed all in black, working on some sort of mechanical contraption that Daniel had never before seen.
“What are you doing?” he asked, with all the confidence of a boy just turned thirteen.
“Why, I am spinning cloth of night, my child,” the woman said. “Come and see for yourself.”
Curiosity newly ablaze, Daniel eagerly strode forward to watch. The woman’s hands, though large, deftly manipulated the wheel, turning the thread of night, spinning it into fabric. And what fabric! Looking deep within it, Daniel glimpsed shooting stars and distant planets. A lion roared while dryads danced before an open fire. Bursts of light filled his eyes and the roar of a crowd filled his ears. He felt as if somehow, the cloth had reached out and enveloped him. Yet he was also aware of the room and the wheel.
“That is marvelous! I wish I could do that.”
“But you can,” the woman replied and she stopped her spinning. “It is easy enough to learn. And besides, it is your birthright. Come and sit here, your highness, and I will show you.”
Daniel sat on the low stool, and stared at the wooden contraption before him. Even before the woman began to explain, he could already see how it worked - it was as if he had known his whole life. Without really comprehending, he began to spin the cloth, the fabric of dreams.
“Yes, that’s right,” she whispered in his ear, “now faster, faster.”
A whirlwind of cloth poured from the spinning wheel. It was so easy. Dreams beyond count, beyond measure poured from his fingers. Why had he never been shown this before? He could make anything, remake the Dreamscape as he chose. He could…
Suddenly he stopped. An unpleasant sensation he could not name entered his finger and spread through his hand. Almost casually, Daniel looked down, and saw a speck of red.
‘Is this what blood looks like?’ he thought, and then everything went dark.
* * *
The smell was foul. Like nothing he had ever experienced. A nauseous feeling rose in the pit of Daniel’s stomach. What was this stench? He had no words to describe the odour of sweat and refuse.
When he fought his eyes open, it felt like needles were being shoved into his eyeballs. It was dark. The only light stuttered past a metal ventilator. It was pale and cold. Where was the colour and the life? Why did he feel so weak?
Daniel tried to rise to his feet but his legs seemed thin and wasted. They buckled under him. He fell back on a pile of newspapers. What was this place? But he was a Prince of Dreams, and he knew plenty about the will. Mastering his thoughts, focusing his energies, Daniel was able to rise to his feet, unsteady at first but slowly gaining confidence.
Now he could find out where he was, and how he could get back to his birth day party. The only thing he was sure of was that this was not part of the palace, and no surprise treats lay around the corner.
A sound of coughing reached his ears and he followed it. Down long dark tunnels he walked, under stone arches and rusted iron scaffolding. It was strange to Daniel’s eyes, ugly and jarring. The coughing grew louder, and a flickering orange glow seemed to emanate from up ahead. Daniel’s hope began to rise at the prospect of a warm fire.
Around the next bend was a small chamber, with a fire burning in some sort of metal barrel. The warmth was welcome indeed - Daniel realised that the unpleasant sensation that had spread throughout his body was cold. He was dressed in nothing but rags. As he neared the flames, a pleasant tingling reached his fingertips and began to suffuse his body.
“Clear off!” said a harsh voice, followed by a cough.
“You heard me, clear off! This is my fire. I ain’t sharing.”
The speaker was huddled under layers of greying, threadbare blankets, sitting in the corner of the room. Daniel could not see his face.
“But there is plenty of room,” he said, and tried to smile.
“Maybe, but maybe I don’t feel like sharing.”
The stranger leant forward, revealing a wrinkled face, like a dried fruit, and a toothless mouth. His eyes were dim and dark spots seemed to sprout all over his thin skin. For a moment, Daniel was too shocked to speak.
“What kind of creature are you?” he asked, when he found his voice.
“What? Do I know you?” The stranger asked, and fixed him with milky eyes. “Come nearer the fire so I can see you.”
Daniel inched forward, terrified yet captivated by this unearthly creature.
“You’re the princeling! My liege! I am so sorry, your majesty, I did not recognise you in the darkness.”
Daniel studied the strange face. It looked almost like a butler that served him in the palace, and brought him pomegranate juice. Could it be?
“Abdi? Is that you?”
“Yes, your majesty.”
“But - your face! What has happened to your face?”
“I have grown old, your majesty. Next year I’ll be seventy years old.”
“But I have seen you in the palace. How did you change your face?”
“Ah, well there’s a thing. In the Dreamscape I look how I feel. But this isn’t the Dreamscape, your majesty, this is London, and here I am nearly seventy. Your majesty should not be here.”
“And will I grow old?”
“I do not know, your highness. All of us grow old, at least, we grow old here, outside the Dreamscape.”
“But where is this place? What is ‘London’?”
“Why, your majesty, this is the Real World.”
With Abdi’s words ringing inside his skull, Daniel felt that everything was spinning. He could not keep his feet, and was barely aware of a falling sensation. His eyes blurred and went dark.
* * *
When Daniel awoke, he found himself once more within his royal chambers, and tried to shake off the strange taste that his dream had left in his mouth. And surely it must have been some sort of dream, for here he was in his chambers, dressed in finest silks. The sweet smell of perfume and incense filled the air. It was light, warm and it was his birthday. The vision he had had of a place called ‘London’ seemed like a distant fancy. Delightedly, he dressed in a new suit of green velvet and burst into the palace, excited and ready to celebrate his thirteenth birthday.
On his way to the morning feast, Daniel passed Abdi, dressed in his usual finery, and he thought to tell him of the strange vision he had had. But why did Abdi struggle to meet his gaze? He scurried away down the corridor, and the princeling, confused, continued to the feast.
His father, the regal Prince of Dreams, sat in state on his throne of ivory, and laughed merrily at the antics of the court jester, who was in the midst of producing white doves from his nostrils. With every sneeze came a flutter of white wings that flew away until they were lost in the clouds under the ceiling. His mother, who was going by the name of Jasmine for the moment, was dancing with a poodle, but she did not laugh. All was as normal.
When the courtiers saw the princeling enter, a hue and cry went up. After only a minute or two of hurried preparation, a fanfare was begun to announce his arrival and the occasion of his birthday. Daniel laughed long and hard, and was danced into his seat while breakfast was served.
It was during the thirteenth course, that Daniel began to feel a little strange. The twelfth course, of golden goose eggs, wild mushrooms and roast faithfulness, had been cleared away and the princeling was feeling pleasantly full. But he was certain he could make room for the legendary thirteenth course, the pinnacle of his birthday feast. Served on a platinum dish, he was presented with a caramel, chocolate mousse fudge cake, with whipped cream, mint shavings, frozen euphoria and sour cherry coulis. His mouth watered at the sight of it.
Then a tingling sensation in his finger, which had been at the back of his mind since at least the sixth course, suddenly refused to be ignored. He stopped and looked at his index finger. There was a perfect spot of crimson.
* * *
When Daniel could next open his eyes, he was not surprised to feel that strange mixture of warmth and cold. Nor was he much surprised to see the fire. But seeing Abdi there, old and wrinkled once more - that he had not expected.
“Abdi,” Daniel said, not knowing what else to say.
“What? I shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t be here. Damn these old bones of mine.” He coughed so violently that his whole body shook.
“What is the matter? Why do you make that sound?”
“I am old and sick, your majesty. You shouldn’t be seeing me like this. It isn’t right.”
“What does it mean to be ‘sick’?” He had never heard the word before.
“It means my body is giving up on me. It isn’t working like it used to.”
“Why? I don’t understand what you’re saying.” Abdi seemed to be in great pain, and Daniel was sure that it could not simply be the cough.
“I can’t tell you,” Abdi said, suddenly rising to his feet and staggering away from the flames.
“Can’t tell me what? Why?” Daniel rose as well, and took a step nearer.
“The Prince would be furious. You aren’t even supposed to be here. You should be in the palace - it’s your birthday, your thirteenth.”
“Why aren’t you in the palace? I saw you this morning.”
“I can’t tell you. It’s not right.”
“Please, you have to help me understand.”
“No, no. I’ll go back, back to the Dreamscape.”
As he spoke, Abdi fumbled in his pockets and brought out a tiny white pill. He threw it down his throat and swallowed. Almost instantly, a blissful expression spread across his pale face, smoothing the worry lines and wrinkles. He sank to the floor, as if he had fallen asleep on his feet.
Daniel dashed forward.
“Abdi. Are you alright? Abdi!” But he got no response.
What was that? Daniel searched through his pockets, and found a box full of white pills. It did not make any sense - he had to know more.
Standing, Daniel strode off into the darkness. The smell no longer bothered him quite so much, though it was still horrible and stuck at the back of his throat. The cold bit at his limbs but he continued, past heaps of rotting paper, scraps of cloth and pools of stagnant water. More than once in the darkness, he thought he saw small black creatures scurrying around. Shuddering despite himself, Daniel hurried on.
He came across others, none as old as Abdi, but all with the same blissful expression on their faces. Some he recognised but there were dozens he did not know, and none responded to his cries. They seemed pale and lost in some kind of dream.
Faster and faster he ran down the tunnels, desperate to hear a human voice, the sound of song and laughter. These sleepers were so quiet and still - it wasn’t right. He ran and ran, and before long he found himself back by the fire, looking down at Abdi, eyes moving beneath the lids. Standing over him, Daniel saw a woman.
“Hello,” he said, “who are you?”
She turned to look at him, and smiled. She was dark skinned, far darker than the others he had seen, and her eyes were warmer. Her clothes were thick and layered, though not luxurious.
“Hello,” she said, “how did you get down here?”
“Down where?” he answered.
“Down here, beneath London.”
“This ‘London’ again. I don’t know anything about that. I just found myself here. What were you doing with Abdi?”
“Are you a friend of his?” she asked.
“Sort of,” he answered, feeling that he was better off not revealing his royal status.
“I was just checking his pulse, making sure that he’s comfortable.”
“He said he was sick,” Daniel said. He thought he saw something in her eyes that he trusted, though it was an emotion he had no name for.
“Yes, I’m afraid he is. It’s the pills you see.”
“No, I don’t see. What are they?”
“The pills? Some sort of drug. Lots down here use it. Gives them all sorts of visions and dreams. Unfortunately, it is highly addictive and slowly destroys the body.”
“Is that why Abdi is here instead of the palace? Did he have to take another pill?”
Now it was the woman’s turn to look puzzled. “The palace? What palace?”
“Never mind,” Daniel said hurriedly. “Could I take one?”
She pulled back. “These things are dangerous. I wouldn’t give them to anyone, certainly not a child.”
“I am not a child!” Daniel said, growing indignant. “I am thirteen and an adult. And if I want something I will have it.”
He made a lunge at the motionless Abdi and grabbed the box of pills.
“Stop, don’t do it,” the woman cried but it was too late to stop him.
Daniel raised the pill to his mouth and swallowed it, though it tasted like chalk.
* * *
He opened his eyes once more, the familiar walls of his chambers surrounding him. But the room was busy with people rushing in and out, whispering in earnest conversations. Servants and courtiers were coming and going. Daniel sat up in bed.
“He’s awake,” someone shouted.
“Fetch the Prince,” shouted others, and the room emptied amidst shrieks and screams.
Daniel did not feel particularly unwell. Slightly weak, perhaps, and maybe a little removed, but he did not think he was ‘sick’. But how could you tell? He did not move from his large, plush bed, and wrapped himself in the thick blankets. What would his father say?
He did not have to wait long for an answer. Soon, the still of the bedroom was broken by the Prince of Dreams, who swirled through the door and seemed to dance into an armchair. He sat in silence for a moment, staring at his child with large, dark eyes.
“My son, what has happened to you?”
“I’ve been away. I went to London.”
“Malevolent!” the Prince of Dreams hissed under his breath. “That sorcerer has done you a great hurt. Let me see your finger.”
Daniel meekly held out his hand to show his father the place he had cut himself on the spinning wheel.
“How did this happen?”
“I found a woman. She showed me how to spin the cloth of night. I was really good at it but then I pricked my finger.”
“I never doubted your skill at weaving and I am sorry that I did not teach you the art myself. Perhaps if I had, Malevolent would not have been able to trick you so easily. And yet you have been to London and returned. Perhaps there is yet hope.”
“What is London, father? You have never told me about it.”
“No, I have not told you. You and I are of the Dreamscape, and we live our whole lives here, governing the realm from the Bridge of Pain to the Blissful Fields. And yet there is a world beyond the Dreamscape. A strange land to which all are subjects must go each day. This is London. They return at least once each week, to a cold, cruel world where all things are fixed. A world where people feel pain and want for food.”
“But father, I felt something there. A touch of warmth when my whole body was cold. I had never been cold before, and I did not like it, but the fire warmed me, and it felt so real.”
His father, who had never hit Daniel before, struck him in the face.
“Do not say such things! You are young; you do not understand the suffering of the Real. The Dreamscape is your inheritance. Your every wish can be yours. Do not sully it with talk of the Real.”
Daniel did not understand, and felt hot tears burn in his eyes. Before long they slid down his red cheek but he did not cry out.
“This place is your home, Daniel. You do not need anything out there. You can dwell in the Dreamscape forever, safe from the terrors of the world. But put a smile on your face. Today you come of age, and the birthday ball begins tonight.”
Without looking back, the Prince of Dreams left the bedchamber.
The dance began at eight and by that point Daniel had spent the better part of three hours making ready. But now he thought he looked splendid, dressed in the finest silver silk and red fur. It was a truly beautiful outfit. And yet, at the back of his mind a vision of Abdi old and tired niggled away.
The ballroom itself was magical. Drapes of jewel encrusted spider webs, suspended from the ceiling, made a maze of the large chamber and sparkled with inner light. The high ceiling had been dream-painted with shooting stars and constellations, tracing a slow path across the midnight blue sky. But finest of all was the walls that had been covered in the cloth of night. Looking at it filled Daniel’s mind with fantastic visions - fire and forests, bridges and castles.
The Prince of Dreams himself began the dance, a quickstep twist to an orchestra of golden horns. Daniel’s mother, still known as Jasmine, looked magnificent in a whirling gown of orange and yellow, that seemed to be almost aflame as she danced. Other lords and ladies followed the Prince’s example and danced with great abandon, laughing and singing as they went.
Only the princeling remained seated, watching the dance that no longer held much appeal for him. Somehow, he had lost his appetite for such things. Nervous and somewhat uneasy, Daniel watched the procession of dancers, and the musicians as they played on their horns.
“Come, my son,” the Prince of Dreams said, suddenly appearing beside him. “It is your birthday - you should sing, dance and make merry.”
“I don’t feel like dancing.”
“Dance,” his father barked, “I command it.”
“And here the word is law, I know. But I shall not dance. There is something wrong with this. Something wrong with everything.”
“My son. Daniel. Do not say such things. The dreamscape is everything.”
“I don’t know,” Daniel said, feeling suddenly dizzy. “I don’t know anything any more.”
As everything began to grow fade and grow dark, Daniel glimpsed the Prince of Dreams standing over him, whispering something into his ear.
* * *
The fire was still there but had burnt low. There was little light now. Stretching, getting the feel of his thin muscles once more, Daniel looked about him for Abdi.
“He’s over there,” came a female voice. “I’m afraid he’s gone. I did everything I could to make him comfortable.”
“Gone? What do you mean?”
Daniel rushed over and saw Abdi lying out on the floor. His face had been covered but he pulled the rag away. The blissful look was gone from his face.
“Abdi! Wake up. I am back.”
“I’m sorry,” the woman said, “your friend is dead.”
“Dead? But he should be back soon then. I saw Stone die in the arena but he came back the next day.”
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that,” she said, walked over to Daniel, and put an arm around his shoulders. “Abdi is dead forever. Everyone dies eventually.”
He grasped Abdi’s hand in his, willing him to wake up but it felt cold and lifeless. He realised then that she had been telling him the truth.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“My name is Esther. I’m sorry about your friend.”
“I am Daniel,” he responded. “Where are you from? Why do you come here? This place of sickness and death.”
Esther sighed and looked at the prone form of Abdi.
“I come because I want to help. Others might not think so but I know we’re all human. I don’t like to see anyone suffer.”
Daniel caught the strange look in her eyes once more, and found the word he had been searching for - love.
“I don’t understand. How can there be love amidst so much suffering? How can there be love here, in the cold, in the dirt? How can there be love where people grow old, sicken and die?”
Esther smiled, a slow, sad smile, as she looked him square in the eye.
“How can there be love anywhere else?”
* * *
After thirty days of anxiety, the Prince of Dreams announced that his son was dead. A private funeral was held, and Jasmine wept uncontrollably throughout, while the Prince of Dreams himself was expressionless. There was no viewing of the body, and no mourning, though for many months to come the weather of the dreamscape was overcast and grey. Only the Prince of Dreams knew that Daniel was not truly dead, that Malevolent’s curse had come to pass. He had tasted the sweet fruit of suffering and had chosen to be reborn into the Real.