“Pardon my intrusion, but could I trouble you for an Awakener’s hat? I’ve lost mine.”
The hatter glanced up from his bench, hands stained purple as he worked the warm, damp felt into shape. The stranger’s clean-shaven face and midnight robe marked him as a Master, a gifted servant of the people. His age could be no more than thirty-five.
“You may trouble me,” the hatter replied. “But I must finish the shaping on this hat while the fibers are warm.”
“I will wait,” the Master replied.
“Then share my bench,” the hatter offered, and the Master took the offered space. They sat for a time without speaking, and the Master’s eyes marked the dancing of the tree-shadows across the grass that the nearby sheep had nibbled nearly to the earth.
“An Awakener’s hat, you say?” the hatter said. “I thought I recognized you. You are one of the twins. Merev the Awakener, isn’t it?”
The stranger paused a moment before answering. “Yes.”
“And your brother is Genner the Sleep-giver?”
“Yes. He is following by about a day’s journey. He had some business that required him to linger in the last village.”
After a brief pause, the hatter asked, “Have you heard ought of Vayik the Awakener? He did not arrive at his usual stop.”
“No.” Merev’s jaw clenched. “He has disappeared too?”
The hatter nodded. “Seven Awakeners disappeared of late. Perhaps they have retired?”
Merev shook his head. “To become a master is to become a servant of all, and to remain available for such service at all times. No master can excuse himself from public service unannounced, without risking his honor and reputation.”
“Navir’s Bane! The alternative is a mystery that bears an ill odor.”
“It does indeed.”
“You should have a companion on the road, sir. I do not wish you to disappear as well.”
“My staff is my companion.”
“I hope so, for your sake, master. Now, let me see about your hat.”
Some time later, Merev emerged from the village with a pointed, broad-brimmed hat that bore in gold stitching the symbol of the Awakeners: an eye, like the sun, rising between two mountain peaks. The road meandered around the undulations of the landscape and beneath the green canopies of the young forests, laced at the edges with flowers of white and sunshine yellow.
Merev came to a village at evening, but skirted it cautiously, as though anxious not to be seen. In the deep of the night, when even the fireflies ceased their dance, Merev made his camp against a mossy cliff and rekindled the travelers’ fire he found there. For a time he listened to the sighs of the night wind, then rolled to his side, set his hat by his head, and did not move again.
The next day, he traveled onward, avoiding the villages and the other travelers on the road. Again, he slept under the stars, his slumbers deep and undisturbed.
On the third night, as he lay beneath the branches of an old willow, the crackles of soft footsteps surrounded him, and a toe prodded his midriff.
“Master,” said a low voice. “We have need of you.”
Merev blinked for a few moments, then rolled to his knees and gazed up, descrying the shapes of men by the remaining glow of the coals.
“All of you have need of me?” Merev asked.
“Our lord has need of you,” one said at last.
So that was how it was done: as a request for service. Merev rose, tripped in the dark, and recovered.
“Must we travel without light?” he asked.
“Your lord is a secretive man.”
“You could say so, master.”
They traveled in silence through the night, into the grayness of the early dawn, in which a pale light painted the landscape in shades of gray. Merev saw that they had now entered the craggy hills of the upperland, and the way became steep and narrow. For several days, they traveled as the way became rockier and more treacherous.
His companions—captors?—walked as though without fatigue. They had not the lilting walk of seamen nor the bulky thighs and calves of mountain men, and their clothing was the same as any villager’s: roomy trousers fitted into strong boots, loose shirts under leather vests. They were mysteries to Merev, their nature obscure and their purpose hidden. They spoke only when spoken to, and then only briefly. They did not stop for food or drink, but passed a gourd of water to the Awakener.
On the second night since their invitation to Merev, as the lone scout watched over the sleepers, Merev rose swiftly from sleep to consciousness, with none of the intermediary stages of waking. His eyes roved the hills, alert to another presence. The scout straightened, tense, then slumped to the ground in a deep slumber. The others drowsed.
The crunch of footsteps on gravel announced the arrival of a newcomer, who wore a robe of the same midnight hue.
“You’re loud,” Merev said.
“They’ll sleep until we wish them to,” the newcomer replied, throwing back his hood to reveal a face identical to Merev’s. “The power of a Sleep-giver.”
“I thought I told you to keep some distance away.”
“And I have. But I’m bored.”
“This isn’t a game.”
“Never said it was.” The newcomer crouched and examined his brother’s face, his grin fading. “The note in the hat: it was clever. It is not every day you see an Awakener’s hat by the side of the road and find a message in its band, nor fibers of blue on every bush toward the east.” After a brief silence, the young man added, “I don’t like this plan of yours.”
“I like it far better than your plan.”
“They haven’t hurt you, at least. But I still wonder: What do they need an Awakener for?”
“You’ve noticed our direction. I fear...”
“What do you fear?”
Merev shook his head, troubled. “It is an old tale. Something I learned when I studied at Avenhelm.”
“I know little, only that many generations ago, Navir, a master of Awakening, lived in these parts. He craved respect from men, and in the seeking, he was changed, and parts of his mind that were better left sleeping began to awaken and gather strength.”
“Ah! I think I know somewhat of this story. If I remember rightly, he began to awaken the darkness that is within the minds of all, and to feed upon it. He was too powerful to kill outright, but he was cursed by the council of masters and bound within the waters of a hidden mountain pool.”
Merev nodded. “Navir’s Bane, in which Navir himself was his own bane.”
Their eyes flitted over the profiles of the dark peaks and they shuddered. “Is that your fear?” the newcomer asked. “That the cursed one is seeking to awake?”
“That is my fear.”
The twin sighed. “I would so much rather we were casting healing sleep upon sick children and bringing the strength of wakefulness to old men.”
“So would I.” Merev shifted and his voice carried urgency. “You must stay well-hidden, even wearing the Sleep-giver’s hat. If you’re discovered, it will be the worse for both of us and we may never learn their purpose.”
“You are not the only one capable of caution, brother.”
“I need your strength. Don’t fail me.”
His twin bowed his head. At last, rising, he turned until the moonlight fell full on his angular features. “I won’t fail you.”
Then he was gone.
The next day, the men ascended a narrow defile, where the mossy cliffs rose on either side of them, sentinels of a bygone age when water had coursed down the place where they now walked, on its journey toward the sea.
At last Merev saw it just above him: the narrow vertical cleft in stone from which a light of various colors flickered. His companions did not falter, and soon ushered him inside.
When his eyes adjusted to the dimness, Merev recognized a pool of clear water, in which lights glimmered briefly in one place before reappearing in another place in a different color. At the center of the pool lay a man just under the surface of the water, his long hair rippled in the water, his face warped by each movement. He seemed to sleep.
Sitting by the side of the water, eyes downcast into the pool, were seven Awakeners, as though in a trance. Merev restrained his greetings and seated himself with them, waiting. Then words arrived, as though a voice spoke directly to his mind.
My body sleeps but may be awakened, if the power is enough. Come, seven Awakeners! You have drunk of the uranth from your gourds, and your minds have been opened to all that I may tell you. Awaken me, and in the power of your strength, I shall gain a body again and feed upon the minds of many.
Merev’s fingers gripped his knees, but he waited. The air charged with an aliveness that swept through Merev like the first giddy thrill of spring. The virtue that gave old men strength to walk and the sick the power to recover swept a great wind over the waters, sending a quiver through the depths.
Then a swift chill followed the wakefulness, a cool, soothing touch that spoke of rest and slumber. The power crumbled, and the pool roiled.
There is a Sleep-giver here! But I have called only Awakeners.
The pool seemed to breathe a black mist like foul breath. The Awakeners turned toward one of their number—toward Merev.
“Help us,” whispered one. “Sleep-giver, help us. He can command our power of Awakening at will.”
The petitioned man smiled a little, though sweat beaded on his brow as though he strained against a mighty force.
“Uranth has no power over a Sleep-giver,” he said. “And it is easy to wear another man’s hat. Navir, I am Genner the Sleep-giver.”
As he spoke, the men who had fetched him slumped to the ground as though suddenly deflated of energy.
The pool trembled. It is a small matter to cast sleep upon the men whose minds I have already hollowed. But it is another matter to cast sleep upon six Master Awakeners.
“I have not come for the Awakeners,” Genner replied. “I have come for you.”
You are a mere man, master though you may be. Can you withstand what I am?
As the voice whispered to Genner’s consciousness, he felt an awakening in his own soul. Doors locked within his mind were opened, flooding him with specters of darkness. Genner leaned forward, hands upon the ground, and gasped.
I am every thought restrained, every desire quenched, every impulse bound. Why bind yourself? Be free.
Genner spoke through clenched teeth. “It is not freedom to follow every whim of your mind. It is slavery. We are meant to be more than we are, and only in the seeking of that truth are we free.”
Yet there is power in limitlessness.
“And its end is death,” Genner replied. “Some things are meant to sleep forever.”
The muscles of his shoulders contracted and, within Genner’s mind, sleep poured over the awakened shadows of his thoughts, and they fell like sleeping men. He gasped as though he had risen from the depths of water and gained the surface.
Your enemy is within your mind. You may cast that enemy to sleep, but I can awaken it again. It is not enough.
“Unless,” said Genner, “I have a means to awaken the virtues that bind me.”
You are not an Awakener.
“No. But I am of the same flesh as one who is.”
At that moment, power rippled through his mind, and it seemed as though bright beings rose within it, with swords of flame and eyes like suns. A newcomer approached the pool, his hood thrown back. Merev the Awakener.
“We will see,” he said. “What a ‘bound’ Awakener may do.”
The voice snarled. Yes, we will see.
The Awakeners groaned and the eyelids of the sleeping man fluttered as the power of Awakening swept the chamber. Genner bent his head and gave himself up, unleashing sleep upon the minds around him, like the sky releases rain upon the earth. Merev knelt by his brother, hand white-knuckled upon his brother’s shoulder, communicating the strength of wakefulness through his touch.
“Sleep-giver, help us!” one of the Awakeners gasped. “He cannot force us to harm you, but we cannot restrain the Awakening that he grasps from us.”
“Awaken yourselves then!” Merev the Awakener snapped, his taut veins rising blue beneath his skin. “Awaken what you know to be true.”
The mind cannot sleep forever.
“Unless,” said Genner the Sleep-giver through clenched teeth. “The old mind is put to death—a sleep of forever—and a new mind is forged.”
The voice laughed a laugh that chilled. To kill me, your brother would have to give all his life’s strength to amplify your power, and then you would have to give yours. You would never commit your brother to death.
Merev’s bowed head dripped with sweat. “Genner, you know what I will say.”
Then a voice spoke, or perhaps two identical voices spoke simultaneously.
“We have already committed ourselves.”
The eyes of the submerged man flew open and a silent scream ripped through the cavern like a blast of wind. The ground quaked and rattled, and stones fell into the pool. The Awakeners sprang to their feet as though unleashed, and dashed from the cavern, tripping in haste.
A tide of wakefulness swept over them, dancing madly with macabre shapes of forbidden desires and unrestrained will. But on its heels, black like an avenger, came sleep that renewed the mind, evaporating the hellish dance and bringing peace.
The Awakeners slept.
They say the Awakeners slept for a hundred years, awaking like new men. Even now, the spell of sleep lies heavily upon the place where the rock walls fell and the pool now reflects the sky. There some say that they can see the two brothers in the waters, both seemingly asleep, with arms around each other. Those who sleep in that place dream dreams in which strengths and virtues long buried awake like memories remembered, and shades and vices melt like terrors forgotten. When the sleepers awake, the dreams have become true, and the Awakening of the new mind remains forever.