A Dreamer of Dreams
Nathaniel Rush stomped down the path, cursing his indecision. Why had he listened to Orah? Stay away from festival, she said. Too dangerous now that he’d come of age. Better to cower in his father’s cottage and hope temple magic wouldn’t find him. But he’d never run from anything before. And despite Orah’s nagging, he wasn’t about to run now.
They’d spent that afternoon on one of the last days before the leaves fell, sitting by the pond and watching the reflected colors of the trees. After her fifth try to convince him, Orah stood and planted her hands on her hips.
"Don’t go," she said.
He couldn’t help but smile. Her looks came from the Weber side of the family, with olive skin and delicate but unremarkable features, more than made up for by flaring dark eyes. The sole gift from her mother was a striking red tint to her hair. Together, they combined into a fierce beauty, especially when she was not having her way.
They’d been close for as long as he could remember, always wondering what the world must be like beyond Little Pond. But as they grew older, childhood fantasies gave way to the desire to do something important with their lives. Recently, an awkwardness had crept between them. He was now an adult and she on the threshold. He could feel the difference but was unsure what to make of it.
"Is this what you want me to do, Orah, run like a coward?"
"Not to run, but to be careful, especially with the vicar so near."
"Only one in three are taken."
"It’s not worth the risk, Nathaniel. Or have you forgotten the look of those who have been taught? The far off stare, the dreams seemingly ripped away."
Dreams ripped away. What good were dreams if they stayed unfulfilled? Since coming of age the month before, Nathaniel had brooded on one thought-life was passing him by.
Sometimes, he blamed Little Pond. Little Pond was the smallest village along the edge of the mountains, much smaller than Great Pond, which had two shops and an inn. The pond that gave his home its name was a fine spot, filled with lake trout and frogs with huge eyes, but Great Pond was triple its size with an island in the middle. It bettered Little Pond in every way.
Nothing much happened in Little Pond and so, nothing much happened in his life.
Sure, he was good at many things. He was stronger than most, though never tested in a fight. He was fast, running with the best at festival, though never finishing first. And he had a fine mind. Even Orah said he was smart, and she was the smartest in the village. When he’d been in school, he was always in the top five-sometimes in the top three-but never the best.
Nathaniel of Little Pond, good at everything, but destined to fall short of greatness.
When he was little, he imagined the darkness had been lifted not by the Temple of Light, but by a knight charging in with nothing but a sword and his own courage and strength. And though he no longer believed in knights, he still wondered what he’d do if such a moment arrived in his own life: would he charge in, believing in his own courage and strength, or run away? That, after all, was the test of greatness. While he feared that destiny, he was more afraid of a life with no chance to find out.
Now, a new worry-the teaching. Though one in three was taken to be taught, no one ever explained what happened. Like every other young person in the village, he’d grown up fearing the teaching, but a part of him hoped for it as well. At least he’d get to see Temple City, the light’s eternal fortress against the darkness. At least something different would happen.
As he neared the final bend, he could see Orah and Thomas keeping watch on the twilight shaded woods. Behind them, a bonfire glowed. Each night for the three weeks leading to festival, the mound of logs would grow, burning more brightly until the finish of the games. Then the grand fire would be lit and the feast would be served. Though tonight was just the beginning, this night’s fire was sufficient to light up the square.
Nathaniel hesitated. No sign of the vicar. No tolling of the bell. Spicy-sweet wassail still bubbled in its cauldron. And music still played.
A trio struck up a tune and Orah turned to watch. Her toe tapped, and one hand patted her thigh to the rhythm. At the fire’s edge, a girl bobbed up and down to the beat in a purple hat with three snowflakes embroidered on the brim. Nearby, young couples looked on while older adults sat on the porch of the commons. Firelight flickered across their faces as they watched.
Thomas spotted Nathaniel and called out. "Well look here. Little Natty’s come to do us honor in the village square."
Thomas had started calling him "Natty" after he’d shot up to over six feet, one of the tallest in Little Pond and a full head taller than Thomas. It happened at that age when boys’ voices change and they wonder what to do with their arms as they walk. The name had bothered Nathaniel so much he challenged Thomas to a fight, but it hadn’t worked out as intended. Thomas dropped to his knees and begged. "Please, Lord Natty, don’t hurt Thomas. Please holiness, no more yelling. Thomas is Natty’s friend."
Nathaniel had laughed despite himself and now accepted the name as a fond memory of childhood.
As he emerged from the woods, he felt more than the warmth of the bonfire. The three friends together as it should be. He’d never known life without them.
Thomas bounded toward him, but Orah held back, letting Thomas make first contact. He tugged at Nathaniel.
"Come on, I’ve been waiting for you to get our first wassail."
"I thought I’d find you with the players."
Thomas’s face sagged. It’d been all he’d talked about the past few weeks-the chance to play the flute at festival now that he was of age. But apparently the players wouldn’t dare let him take part. Music was frowned on by the Temple of Light. By rule, a group could consist of no more than a drum and two winds; other instruments, such as strings, were banned as remnants of the darkness.
"I tried," Thomas said. "But they told me to wait my turn. I’ll have to settle for wassail."
He gestured to the cauldron bubbling in front of the commons. The familiar smell filled the air-fermented apples with cinnamon and honey. Everyone claimed wassail was the best use of the harvest, but only those of age were allowed to indulge.
Nathaniel shook free. "I haven’t said hello to Orah yet."
"She can come...Oh, I forgot. She’s not of age."
Orah forced a scowl. "A couple more months and I won’t have to take that from him anymore, thank the light."
Before greeting Nathaniel, she smoothed her gray skirt so it flowed to her ankles and tugged her gray vest until it properly displayed her slender form; her clothing would change to black when she came of age. Once she was satisfied, she stepped halfway to Nathaniel and let him fill the space between them, only then allowing her fingertips to brush his arm.
"I was hoping you’d make a smarter choice," she said.
"And miss being with you and Thomas?"
"Better than taking the risk."
Thomas shoved between them. "Let’s get some wassail before the kettle runs dry."
Orah’s back stiffened. Though only two fingers taller than Thomas, she could loom over him when she wanted.
"Leave him be, Thomas. He shouldn’t stay just because you want wassail."
"I’ve always come for the celebration," Nathaniel said. "I don’t want to miss it now... just because I’ve come of age."
Orah’s eyes shifted to him and lingered. She wanted him to stay. But the practical side of her took over.
"If you’re an adult, you need to act it."
"You both worry too much," Thomas said loud enough to attract the attention of elder Robert and elder John, who were playing checkers at the far end of the porch. Thomas clasped his hands together and pleaded. "Come on, Nathaniel. I missed the music. I don’t want to miss the wassail."
Orah blocked their way. "You should think twice before starting on wassail. It’s frowned on by the vicars."
"So? They don’t like music either, but we still play."
"It’s because of the honey, Thomas. The vicar thinks it’s a frivolous food. They’re trying to help us lead a better life. And they don’t like the name either."
"Oh, I’d forgotten. The name comes from one of the old... " His eyes bulged, his voice rose. "... forbidden languages."
The two elders glanced toward them with that look of suspicion the old reserve for the young. Nathaniel waved to quiet Thomas, but he wouldn’t be silenced.
"Next they’ll ban friends meeting in threes. Come on, Nathaniel. Or are you afraid of the vicar?"
Enough. Nathaniel yanked him to the edge of the shadows cast by the fire.
"I’m not afraid of the vicar, but everyone else seems to be. Maybe we should take notice."
Orah placed a hand on their shoulders and leaned in. "Being afraid is sometimes the wiser choice."
"Not for me," Thomas said. "I’d welcome the chance to go with the vicar to Temple City, to see the tall spires and the officials standing in line to greet me. After all, they’ve never met anyone like me before."
"Well I’m quite sure of that," Orah said, "but not for the reasons going around in your big head."
"But wouldn’t you want to go to Temple City? I’m sure Nathaniel would."
Orah’s response sliced through the night air. "Nathaniel is not going to Temple City."