The journeyer was still a young man when he embarked on his search for the all-powerful witch Cerile.
He was bent and gray-haired a lifetime later when he found a map to her home in the tomb of the forgotten kings.
The map directed him halfway across the world, over the Souleater mountains, through the Curtains of Night, past the scars of the Eternal War, and across a great grassy plain, to the outskirts of Cerile’s Desert.
The desert was an ocean of luminescent white sand, which even in the dead of night still radiated the killing heat it swallowed during the day. He knew at once that it could broil the blood in his veins before he traveled even half the distance to the horizon. It even warned him: “Turn back, journeyer. I am as sharp as broken glass, and as hot as open flame. I am filled with soft shifting places that can open up and swallow you without warning. I can drive you mad and leave you to wander in circles until your strength sinks into the earth. And when you die of thirst, as you surely shall if you attempt to pass, I can ride the winds to flay the skin from your burnt and blistered bones.”
He proceeded across the dunes, stumbling as his feet sank ankle-deep into the sand, gasping as the furnace heat turned his breath to a dry rasp, but hesitating not at all, merely continuing his march toward the destiny that could mean either death or Cerile.
When the desert saw it couldn’t stop him, the ground burst open in a million places, pierced by a great forest that, with the speed known only by miracles, shot up to scrape the sky. The trees were all hundreds of arm-lengths across, the spaces between them so narrow that even an uncommonly thin man would have had to hold his breath to pass. It was a maze that could exhaust him utterly before he traveled even halfway to the horizon. It even warned him: “Turn back, journeyer. I am as dark as the night itself, and as threatening as your worst dreams. I am rich with thorns sharp enough to rip the skin from your arms. And if you die lost and alone, as you surely shall if you attempt to pass, I can dig roots into your flesh and grow more trees on your bones.”
He entered the woods anyway, crying out as thorns drew blood from his arms and legs, gasping as the trees drew close and threatened to imprison him, but hesitating not at all: merely continuing to march west, toward the destiny that could mean either death or Cerile.
When the forest saw that it couldn’t stop him, then the trees all around him merely withered away, and the ground ahead of him rose up, like a thing on hinges, to form a right angle with the ground at his feet. The resulting wall stretched from one horizon to the other, rising straight up into the sky to disappear ominously in the clouds. He knew at once that he did not have the skill or the strength to climb even halfway to the unseen summit. It even warned him: “Turn back, journeyer. I am as smooth as glass and as treacherous as an enemy. I am poor with handholds and impossible to climb. And if you fall, as you surely will if you attempt to pass, then the ground where I stand will be the resting place of your shattered corpse.”
He proceeded to climb anyway; moaning as his arms and legs turned to lead from exhaustion, gasping as the temperature around him turned chilly and then frigid, but hesitating not at all: merely continuing to climb upward, toward the destiny that could mean either death or Cerile.
When the cliff saw that it couldn’t stop him, then warm winds came and gently lifted him into the sky, over the top of the wall, and down into a lush green valley on the other side, where a frail, white-haired old woman sat beside a still and mirrored pond.
The winds deposited him on his feet on the opposite side of the pond, allowing him to see himself in the water: how he was bent, and stooped, and white-haired, and old, with skin the texture of leather, and eyes that had suffered too much for too long.
He looked away from his reflection, and faced the crone across the water. “You are Cerile?”
“I am,” she croaked, in a voice ancient and filled with dust.
“I have heard of you,” he said, with the last of his battered strength. “How you have mastered all the secrets of the heavens and the earth, and can make the world itself do your bidding. How you’ve hidden yourself in this place at the edge of the world, and sworn to grant the fondest wish of any soul clever and brave enough to find you. I have spent my entire life journeying here, Cerile, just to ask this of you. I wish — ”
The old woman shushed him, softly but emphatically, and painfully pulled herself to her feet; her bent back forcing her to face the ground as she spoke to him again. “Never mind your wish. Meet me in the water, journeyer.”
And with that she doffed her clothes and lowered her withered, emaciated frame into the water, disturbing its mirrored surface not at all. By the time she was knee-deep, her white hair darkened, turning raven black; by the time she was hip-deep, the wrinkles in her face had smoothed out, becoming perfect, unblemished skin; by the time she was shoulder-deep, her rheumy, unfocused eyes had unclouded, revealing a shade of green as brilliant and as beautiful as the most precious emerald.
By then, of course, the journeyer had also descended naked into the magical pond, to feel the weight of years lifted from his flesh; to feel his weathered skin smooth out, growing strong and supple again; to feel his spine grow straight and his eyes grow clear and his shoulders grow broad, as they had been before he started his quest, more years ago than he could count.
When they met, at the deepest part of the pond, she surprised him with an embrace.
“I am Cerile,” she said. “I have been awaiting your arrival for longer than you can possibly know.”
He couldn’t speak. He knew only that she was right, that he had known her for an age far beyond the limited reach of his memory, that they had loved each other once, and would now love each other again.
They kissed, and she led him from the water, to a small cottage that had not been standing on the spot a heartbeat before. There were fine clothes waiting for him, to replace those torn to rags by his long journey. There was a feast, too, to fill the yawning void in his belly. There were other wonders, too, things that could only exist in the home of a miracle-worker like Cerile: things he had not the wit to name, that glittered and whirred in odd corners, spinning soft music unlike any he had ever heard. He would have been dazzled by them had Cerile not also been there, to dazzle him even more.
But still, something gnawed at him.
It wasn’t the wish, which seemed such a trivial little thing, now, a trifle not even worth mentioning, because Cerile in her love gave him everything any man could possibly want . . . and yet, yes, damn him, it was the wish, the miracle he’d waited his entire life to see, and had marched across kingdoms to find.
It had something to do with all those oceans he’d crossed, all those monsters he’d fought, all the winters he’d endured.
It was pride.
He stayed with her for a year and a day, in that little valley where the days themselves seemed written for them, where the gardens changed colors daily to fit their moods, and the stars danced whimsical little jigs to accompany the musical way she laughed at night. Even troubled as he was, he knew a happiness that he hadn’t known for a long time, maybe not ever, certainly not for as far back as his limited memory recorded: not since sometime before the day, a lifetime before, when he’d found himself a stranger in a small fishing village, wholly unable to remember who he was or how he’d come to that place.
Then, late one night, at the end of their year together, he awoke tormented by the strange restlessness in his heart, and rose from their bed to walk alone by the edge of her private fountain of youth. The water had always reflected the stars, every other night he’d looked upon it; it had always seemed to contain an entirely self-contained universe, as filled with endless possibility as the one where he and Cerile lived and walked and breathed. But tonight, though there were plenty of stars in the sky, none were reflected on the pond surface. The water showed only a dark, inky blackness that reflected not possibility but the cold finality of a prison.
Cerile’s beautiful voice rang out from somewhere in the darkness that suddenly surrounded him. “What is wrong, my love?”
“I was thinking,” he said, without turning to face her. “That I journeyed all this distance and spent all this time here and never got around to asking you to grant my Wish.”
“Is there any point?” she asked — and for the first time since he arrived, he heard in a voice an unsettling note of despair. “What could you possibly wish for that would be of any value to you here? Health? Strength? Eternal youth and beauty? You already have that, here. Love? Happiness? I’ve given you those, too. Riches? Power? Stay here and you can have as much of either as any man could possibly want.”
“I know,” he said. “They were all things I once thought I’d wish for when I found you. You gave them to me without waiting for me to wish for them. But my Wish is still hanging over my head, demanding to be used.”
“You don’t have to listen to it.”
“I do. It’s the only thing I own that I earned myself, that I can truly say you didn’t give me. And if I don’t use it, then everything I’ve done means nothing.”
“Why don’t you just wish that you can be content to always stay here with me, and love me forever, as I’ll love you forever?”
He turned and faced her, seeing her forlorn and lost by the door of their cottage, wanting her more than everything he’d ever wanted before, feeling his own heart break at the knowledge that he’d caused the sorrow welling in her eyes. And for the first time he understood that they’d endured this moment hundreds or even thousands of times before, for as long as the sun had been a fire in the sky.
He said, “I’m sorry. I can’t wish for that. I wish for the one thing I lost when I came here. A purpose. Something to struggle for. A reason to deserve everything you give me, whenever I manage to find my way back.”
She granted his Wish, then fell to her knees and sobbed: not the tears of an omnipotent creature who controlled the earth and the stars, and could have had everything she ever wanted, but the tears of a lonely little girl who couldn’t.
When she rose again, she approached the waters of eternal youth, and sat down beside them, knowing that she wouldn’t feel their touch again until the inevitable day, still a lifetime away, when he would, all too briefly, return to her.
Someday, she swore, she’d make him so happy that he’d never Wish to leave.
Until then —
The journeyer was still a young man when he embarked on his search for the all-powerful witch Cerile.
He was bent and gray-haired a lifetime later when he found a map to her home in the tomb of the forgotten kings . . .