1 Stories by the Fire

Disclaimer: Once again I own none of the characters you recognize in this story. They belong to Vertigo and Neil Gaiman, I'm just borrowing them for pure fun.

The night was cold. At the foot of the mountain a fire was burning, twinkling beneath the starry skies like a living gem, light and warmth spreading. In the lit circle two figures were sitting, silent and grim, sipping their watery soup and staring at the fire. None of them rose to feed it as if it was not needed. It burned strong and mocked the cold.

A traveler was approaching of eastward, trailing the mountainside grass slowly, casting a longing gaze at the fire. Half-invisible in the dark, he stopped and looked on, silent as the two men by the fire, as if he wanted very much to come and sit by them, but was either too polite or too shy to ask. He did not have the image of a much polite or shy man, hugely built and clad in the old, ragged clothes of one who knew many hardships, but still he stood aside and watched.

One of these sitting by the fire turned to gaze at the newcomer. The fire played light-shadow games on his old face. "Ho, the traveler!" he cried. "Are you cold?"

The stranger shifted his gaze to him. "Yes, I am cold," he replied quietly in a voice that, faint as it was, boomed and echoed across the plain.

The older man nodded toward the flickering fire. "It burns still, the cursed one. Come sit with us, we have plenty of warmth and soup, and stories to pass on before we die."

Hesitating for only one more moment, the stranger came and sat by the fire. The light revealed his handsome face, framed by long auburn hair, his wise brown eyes and his tattered wear. He smiled gratefully, reaching his hands forward to warm them. "Thank you. Journeymen are rare here. I don't know what I would have done if I did not happen across you."

"You would have died, I suppose," the younger of the two said abruptly, as if not noticing he spoke. He winced as his companion glared at him.

"Forgive this boy's insolence," he said by the way of apology. "We are storytelling monks, of the monastery at the mountaintop. We have hoped for someone to pass us by, so we'd have company at our time of death."

"Time of death?" the stranger inquired.

"Yes, for this fire burns on, and when it burns two hours more, we will be dead," the older man sighed, and went on explaining. "As you may not know - and indeed, most people do not - not a long while ago, the Prince of Stories - him some call Dream - died, or was changed, if you will. His older sister, Death - do not mock me, for that is what she is - mourned him greatly. In her sorrow, she went to a few mortal men, and offered them immortality, with but one thing in return - that we will gather each night and tell stories for her brother's memory, until the end of time, so that he will never be forgotten."

The stranger nodded, though he did not seem much surprised, and the older monk continued.

"But she's a sneaky one, old Death," he said with a bitter smile. "And so to assure her deal was respected, she commanded us to light a fire each night and tell the stories until it burns out. And for every hour the fire burns on and stories are not told, one of us dies.

"At most times, we are many at the monastery, and so there are stories found every night. But tonight we travel, me and my companion, and we are only two. We have no more stories to tell for tonight, and the fire burns on." He lowered his head, staring with loathing at the fire. "So you see, we both will die tonight, unless a story is found to sustain us till the fire dies first."

The stranger considered that with an oddness in his gaze. He rubbed his hands together and looked back at the seemingly infinite, empty plain.

"I'll tell you a story," he said simply.

The younger monk perked up. "What - ? But you are not of the immortal - "

"You make very dangerous assumptions, boy," the stranger answered, giving him a serious gaze, then looked back at the older monk.

"I will tell a story for the Prince's memory, until this fire burns out," he said. "I call it 'The Storybook Boy', and it is an important story. You storytellers will know.

"When this world was still young, there lived a tribe of humans near this mountain where we sit today. They were a fresh folk, new from creation, and they lived a simple life by the mountainside and grew their crops and tended their livestock. They were very simple back in these old days in that new world.

"Among this tribe lived a girl called Alida. She was very kind, and very beautiful, and she was wise as any of these new humans, and maybe a little more so, and she was very, very curious. She was a young girl, though what her exact age was I do not know.

"Alida loved the mountainside, and its brooks and grass and sand. As she was a girl and a human girl, she would travel it for days and sometimes weeks without returning to her tribe-home and look for new places and new things. In one of her travels, when she had traveled far and wide and was starting to fear that she might have lost her way, Alida saw the Storybook Boy.

"He came from the distance of a direction she had never traveled before, and looked unlike any human she has ever known. He was as young as herself, as new as the world, and he was clad in long gray robes of a kind she did not know, and a cowl hid his face. He carried a large object like which she also never seen before, but you and I would know that it was a book, and it was very thick and very new, most of the pages weren't turned yet.

"So Alida saw the Boy, and at first, she was much scared, even though he was as young as her and she was a strong girl. She wanted to run back to her tribe-home and hide, but found her legs unmoving. She stood and wondered why she was standing and what was keeping her with him, until the Boy lowered his cowl and let her see his eyes, and in that moment, they fell in love.

"Yes, people fell in love very young at this time, and Alida loved the Storybook Boy, and he had returned her love as well, like no man and woman had ever loved before or will again. Their love was so strong she was no longer afraid, and she came to him and let him kiss her even though she was never kissed before, and they took each other's hand and traveled in the mountainside together.

"Their love was perfect, flawless, like no love was or can ever be, and the world was still very new and wonderful for lovers. All day, Alida would be in her tribe-home, singing and dancing as she thought of her lover the Storybook Boy, and did her duties and played games and collected flowers, and in the evening when the stars were starting to shine, she went to the place where she first met him. And they would meet again and love each other all night, dance and travel and laugh together like two lovers who are two children. He would tell her of his realm and his beautiful garden and she listened to him and could listen forever, because she loved him like no woman would ever love a man, and he could tell very good stories.

"But with time, even though she loved him beyond thought, Alida became very curious of the Storybook Boy. She became very curious of his realm, of his garden, and most of all of his book. Sometimes she would see him open it and read from it silently, and wondered greatly, because humans didn't know what reading was back then, or writing either. They told stories and forgot them, and Alida did not like forgetting her lover's stories. And so she grew curious, until one day she told him: 'My love, you are dearer to me than life itself, and I wish not to be rude, but I truly must know what is this object you are holding, and what is it you do with it.'

'It is called a book,' the Storybook Boy replied, 'I read from it all that happens, and all there is'.

'And how, my love, does one create these things you read?' Alida asked on.

'One writes, it is called writing,' the Boy said.

"Hearing this, Alida felt a fire lit up in her, and she burned brightly in the fire of passion for learning, for she was a human girl, and knowledge was her lifeblood, as vital in her veins as real blood. And though she loved him like no woman had and would ever love a man, and though he held his book tightly and hid it from her prying eyes, she asked: 'Oh, my love, teach me this art of reading and writing, teach me and I shall know what is in your book.'

'No,' the Storybook Boy said, and his voice was grave. 'None must know what is in my book, and if you love me truly, Alida, then you will not ask again.'

"And Alida did not mean to ask again - ! But she was a human girl, and the world was still new and there was so much about it that she did not know yet. So that her mouth said the words with not her heart's but her mind's commandment: 'And if you, dear heart, love me truly, then you will teach me this art, or my soul will die in my ignorance.'

"The Storybook Boy looked at Alida, and he seemed sad, but in her passion she did not notice. And he said: 'I have known you humans for your lust for knowledge, but I never dared imagine, sweet Alida, that you would care for it more than you do for me. I will teach you, poor love, to read and to write, but you will never read my book.'

"And so the Storybook Boy passed his hand on Alida's eyes, and when it was gone she opened them and looked at his book, and the symbols that meant nothing as if grew clearer, and she saw meaning in them and story. But one word did she read, and then the Boy stood and closed his book and turned to leave her.

"'But wait!' Alida cried. 'What of our love?'

"The Storybook Boy stopped and turned. 'What of it?' he asked. 'I have offered you my love, and instead you chose to learn and know. You have made your choice, Alida, for all the human race.' And then he turned and stood thinking.

'But I did love you,' he said. 'And so this is what I will do. I will put our perfect love, Alida, in all the stories. You and yours will read and write about it and forever long for it, but you will never have it.'

"The Storybook Boy fell silent, and turned his back to her and left her there. And Alida wanted to cry, but when he passed his hand on her eyes and taught her the art of reading and writing, he took away her tears.

"And so she went back to her tribe-home, and taught all her people, who taught the whole human race, to read and to write. And the Storybook Boy took his book and left this world behind him, and never left his garden again."

The stranger finished his tale and closed his eyes.

The two monks looked at each other.

"Is that a true story?" the younger asked suddenly.

The stranger opened his eyes and looked at him. One corner of his mouth turned up in a smile. "I truly do not know," he replied.

"Sometimes," he continued abruptly, thoughtful, "it does not matter."

The older monk looked down, and his eyes went wide. "The fire! It burned out.!" His gaze shot up to meet the stranger's. "As if some outer force."

"Don't waste your time wondering about it," the stranger said, almost cheerfully, and rose to his feet, shouldering his bag again. "Thank you, my friends, for the fire, but more so for the company. I do not think I mind the cold all that much." He stopped for a moment, gazing out toward the dark horizon. "And if Death ever comes to you again, tell her the prodigal sends his regards."

And with that, the stranger left the two storytellers and wandered off into the cold night, singing quietly out of tune.

The older monk looked at his younger companion. "What was this nonsense talk about the story being true?"

The younger man shrugged, staring after the stranger. "I thought, if the story is real, people should know, people should be told, perhaps we can find that perfect love again."

The two curled up silently inside their sleeping bags and the notion hanged unanswered in the night air. And the older monk looked at the ashes left from the fire and sighed. "That is the best thing about stories told around the fire, boy," he said, "that you can be sure that people would listen."