Barnalby woke to the feel of warm water dripping on his face. He muttered dark threats as he reluctantly left his dream. It was his favorite dream, one where he found himself lord of a fabulous domain and living in a gold and jeweled castle that floated high in the clouds. Is the roof leaking? he wondered as he yawned and stretched. Then he opened his eyes and discovered that he was not in the confines of his straw bed, but outside, under a tree near the cooking pot. And as the bird on the branch above tweeted and flew away, he also realized it wasn't raining.
I've burned the gruel again! He cursed as he ran to the iron kettle and began stirring frantically. His master, Tithonus, was very persnickety when it came to breakfast. The gruel had to be hot enough to cause the skin on one's finger to turn red but not so hot the finger would blister. Too cold or too hot and the gruel would be thrown away ...usually striking Barnalby in the chest. Of course it was Barnalby's finger that was used for testing. He scooped out a ladle of gruel and poured it into a wooden bowl. Holding his breath, he dipped his finger in it ...and yelped as he pulled it away. Still, he managed a smile when he studied his injury--red but not singed. Perhaps his master would be satisfied and not complain that his breakfast was late again -- though Barnalby had little confidence that would happen. Taking a deep breath, he started toward his master's hut.
He found Tithonus sitting impatiently at the small table that was the only one in the room. "You are late again, Barby," he said with a voice that creaked like his bones. The man was ancient, his skin like parchment, his head totally hairless except for one strand that curled from the back of his head down his spine nearly to his waist. Barnalby had long since given up trying to guess the man's age, and Tithonus wouldn't volunteer it.
"Barnalby," he corrected absently and set the bowl before him. "It took longer than I expected to light the fire."
"Fell asleep again more likely," he said and grunted. "Give me your hand."
He complied reluctantly and stifled a cry of pain as Tithonus dunked his little finger in the gruel. Tithonus pulled it out and studied it briefly, then nodded. "Good, you cooked it properly. For a change."
Barnalby stood patiently by while Tithonus slurped down his meal. Barnalby always ate after his master. Today the villagers had been kind and left a full bucket of gruel. That was not always the case, and often he was forced to forage for fruit and nuts in the forest around them or not eat at all. One contented belch later, Tithonus sat back and pushed the bowl to Barnalby. "Clean these thoroughly, then return. Today you will be my scribe."
Barnalby grimaced as he made his way to the nearby well. He hated to act the secretary. Tithonus had the tendency to wander far and wide in endless ramblings about his life and the gods he claimed he knew. After a few hours, Barnalby's hand inevitably cramped, and he would only pretend to scribble on the parchment. His master never seemed to notice or care that his profoundest observations were being carried away by the uninterested wind. Which, as far as Barnalby was concerned, was the perfect place for them.
And since Tithonus wanted him back immediately, he wouldn't have time to eat breakfast, he realized as he wiped clean the simple bowl and wooden spoon. He glanced longingly at the kettle, still boiling away over the cooking fire. If only he hadn't fallen asleep! He could have eaten before he fed Tithonus, and his master would never have known. Barnalby set the utensils on a log to dry and returned reluctantly, where he found Tithonus, the parchment, quill and ink already waiting for him.
"One must understand that the gods, despite their great powers, suffer from the same weaknesses of the flesh and spirit as do mortals," his master began as soon as Barnalby assumed his position of trusted scribe. "The trials and tribulations I have suffered are absolute proof of that."
Barnalby only half listened as he took the quill and began to scribble across the parchment, often running out of ink before returning the instrument to the inkwell. But his master never seemed to notice. Most of the stories and adventures Tithonus recounted were familiar from previous dictations. Occasionally the newer versions contradicted previous ones, but Barnalby cared not a whit. Instead, as Tithonus rambled on about his life, Barnalby thought about his own. His parents had died during a spring flood, forcing him to become a ward of his village, Wadsbatt. He essentially became an indentured servant, being passed from one household to the next depending on whether the fields needed tilling, the trees felling or the grain milling. The last family had been the most pleasant, a merchant who used him to tend his store. But as had always been the case his labor became increasingly unnecessary, so he was finally shipped to another village and, eventually, to tend to Tithonus. For two years now he had been the old man's servant. Sometimes he woke up nights and thought of running away. But he had no funds and no real idea where he could run. Going back to Wadsbatt was unthinkable; they would merely bring him back or, worse, transfer him to a patron even more unappealing. All he owned was a recurring dream that alone gave him hope. Or at least amusement.
A grunt from Tithonus brought him back to the here and now. "I asked if you had heard all that?" Barnalby nodded. "Good. Then I am finished for the day. See if the villagers have brought my supper."
Barnalby let out a low whistle when he walked outside. He had been listening and occasionally scribbling for half the day, and his stomach now began demanding attention. He found the basket provided by the villagers and frowned: only enough for Tithonus. A quick glance told him the cooking fire had long gone out. But there was gruel left, even if cold. It would have to do.
Tithonus was none too pleased at the offering. "This is what they provide?" He held up an apple. "Some fruit and dried up meat? I cannot eat this! A pox upon them." Barnalby began to salivate at the thought that Tithonus would refuse the repast. Instead, the ancient man took a hearty bite from the meat and began chewing. After a moment he nodded. "At least someone in that foul backwater of a town knows how to cook.
Then he noticed Barnalby watching him. "What are you looking at, fool? Be gone with you. I'll call if I need you. As if I can't chew for myself," he muttered as Barnalby walked outside.
And discovered it had started to rain.
Barnalby sat under a tree munching on an apple. At least fruit was plentiful, although that diet quickly became boring. He had scrubbed clean the cooking pot and gathered wood for the following morning. After supper, Tithonus would invariably take a short nap, which allowed Barnalby a brief respite from his labors. Clean this, write this, find that; the days were an endless parade of demands. Someday, he vowed. Someday I will escape all this.
But not right away, he knew sadly. The village elders had made it painfully clear he would be the ward of Tithonus until they decided otherwise. Since he was stuck here like a wagon in the swamp, he saw no reason to ruminate longer about his condition. Instead he snuggled against the tree and tried to recall his recurrent dream. A giant castle with gold-covered parapets and stained-glass windows, gleaming and soaring in the clouds. As yet he had only viewed it from a distance, but it was pleasing to imagine what waited within. Handsome lords and loving princesses, jugglers and magicians and musicians providing constant amusement, servants bringing tray after tray of lavish food and drink. Someday he would leave Tithonus and this servitude, find the castle, and discover his true destiny. The dream surely had to be an omen of that.
As Barnalby closed his eyes and began to fall asleep, Tithonus stood in the doorway to his hut and watched. "Sleeping again," he muttered. "Lazy, incompetent, dimwitted." He snorted and creaked back inside. I've put up with him long enough, he thought as he sat at the only table in his hut. For years the villagers had provided him with a young assistant as trade for the services he occasionally provided. Usually, however, they had been young men with the sinew to actually perform physical labor. He ate wild onions stronger than the boy he was burdened with now. By all rights he should return the shiftless fool to the villagers who had foisted Barby upon him. But he was sure they would only return him. Or send him someone even more incompetent. If such were possible.
If only he didn't need them -- Barby or the villagers. But he was totally dependent upon their largesse. He looked up at the ceiling and imagined the clouds beyond. "Haven't you tortured me enough?" he asked, although he knew the gods would ignore him. His gaze then turned to the single shelf that ran along the east wall. On it were the mementoes of his glorious and tragic past: A golden statue of a horse given him by his former paramour, Eos. Three urns, a wine flask and a pile of scrolls. Several gold and silver goblets, a handful of rings and bracelets, all presents from the various gods with whom he had once been in favor. Just looking at his treasures brought a taste to his mouth like sour buttermilk.
One scroll caught his eye. It was the one Barby was using to record his memoirs, and he unrolled it out of curiosity. And cursed as his eyes ran along the columns of nearly unbroken scrawls. He had never told the lad he lost favor in Olympus because he farted during a banquet honoring Hera! At least he didn't think he had. His anger rose as he read the rest of the document. His breath smelled like old shoes? He once had sex with a centaur? That entry caused him pause. Had he? No, he was sure he hadn't, although not from lack of trying. When the writing devolved into gibberish, he set the scroll aside with a curse. Barby, you have outlived your usefulness, little as it is.
But how to get rid of him? It had to be done so the villagers would replace him with another more competent. He removed another scroll and set it on his table. It was a map showing all known lands as well as the named yet unexplored. This will do, he decided as he rolled it up and returned it to the pile of other scrolls. Tomorrow he would free himself of Barby for good, yet he would do it in a manner that the villagers would actually applaud.
Barnalby awoke to water dripping on his face. He opened his eyes in panic: had he fallen asleep outside again? Then he sighed in relief as he realized it was just rain coming through a hole in the roof. That feeling lasted only seconds, however. "How will I light the fire?" he asked the cat that reluctantly shared his humble quarters. It merely hissed and strolled away, tail held straight up to emphasize its disdain, as he threw on a pair of wrinkled pants and ran outside.
It's been raining all night, he realized morosely as he waded out to the small woodpile. Maybe the gruel is still warm, he thought as he ran down the path to the small clearing where the villagers always left their tribute to Tithonus. It wasn't. Worse, the cap over the wooden bucket had come loose -- perhaps with the assistance of a curious animal -- and the food inside was now cold and thinned to the consistency of soup. He'll beat me for sure, he thought as he reluctantly carried the bucket back up the hill. I know; I'll tell him that a snake leaped at me as I was coming back and in my fear and surprise I dropped the bucket and it fell over, spilling everything. Then he shook his head. Tithonus would neither believe him nor care. And he had already used that excuse once. Perhaps he'll let me choose the choice of punishment, he thought as he slogged through the ever-thickening rain. Tithonus did that occasionally, giving him the option of the cane, the switch or the belt prior to the "correction," as Tithonus referred to it. He would opt for the cane, he decided, as the application of that particular instrument exhausted the ancient one quickly.
Yet when he entered the hut, he found Tithonus already at the table eating dried figs and drinking water. And smiling. "The rain," Barnalby said and held up the bucket. "The gruel is ruined."
"No matter, Barby, no matter. Sit." Tithonus pointed at the chair across from him.
Barnalby swallowed heavily as he complied. The only time Tithonus allowed such a privilege was when he had to transcribe the old man's ramblings. But there was no parchment, quill or inkwell awaiting him. What's going on
"You've been with me, how long, now, Barby?"
He had to think about that question for a moment. "Three years, I think."
"Yes." Three years of total incompetence! Tithonus looked at his aide and smiled. "I think you are ready for this."
For another beating? he couldn't help but wonder. "For what, master?" He had to force the last word out.
"For your grand adventure!" Tithonus sat back and smiled. "You are about to begin a quest that even the gods will look down upon with admiration and respect!"
Tithonus' pronouncement -- and his obvious glee -- sent waves of sudden, unexpected joy through Barnalby. "What am I questing for?" he managed to ask after he was able to calm his racing heart.
"A feather from the fabled Quetzal bird, Barby. A most rare and precious prize indeed."
He had never heard of such an animal. He was almost certain one wasn't nearby. "Where would I find that?"
"Ah, that is the purpose of the quest! And the answer is here." With that Tithonus removed a scroll and opened it on the table between them. "This map, it will lead you on your great journey."
Barnalby studied the unfamiliar parchment. "I never knew there were so many lands," he said after a few moments. Thanks to his erratic upbringing, his formal education had been sorely lacking. The merchant had been most helpful, teaching him to read, write and count to some extent so Barnalby could work in his store. Tithonus, by contrast, had been secretive about everything save his "glorious" past.
"Which is why you must go and go now. You are what, fourteen?"
"Seventeen." I think.
"Then you are more than ready to make your own way in the world." Tithonus pointed to a land named "Palmona." "That is where you can find the Quetzal bird. It will be a difficult journey, and you must traverse oceans, jungles and unknown lands to get there. But with this map you surely will prevail."
Barnalby stared at Tithonus in surprise. "I can take this map?"
"Of course! I couldn't expect you to memorize this now, can I?"
His fingers shook as he ran them along the ancient parchment. "I, I am honored," he managed to utter. It was difficult to say even those few words as his mind and heart were in turmoil. All this time he had been planning how to escape, and Tithonus was granting him his freedom! He looked at the old man, and tears streamed down his face. "I don't know how I can thank you."
Tithonus was startled at the boy's reaction, and for just a second he felt a pang of guilt. Or perhaps, he reasoned, a bad fig. Being out of my sight will be thanks enough. "But you will need more than this, I'm afraid, if you are to succeed. Take these," he said, placing a golden goblet and several ornate necklaces on the table. "They will be valuable in any land, not like the paper script so many use now."
Barnalby's breath caught as he examined the wealth before him. He could never have imagined having such riches, and Tithonus was giving them to him! Perhaps the ancient one really did care for him! All the whippings, all the verbal and physical abuse, were now forgiven and forgotten. "You are much too kind." Even as he said it, Barnalby knew the words were inadequate.
No, at the end of my patience. Tithonus grabbed the last fig and ate it before speaking. "You must go. You can make the port of Phootz in two days if you hurry."
Barnalby swallowed as he looked at the now-empty fruit bowl. "I should wait until the rain stops. Stay until they bring your supper. Or at least prepare your lunch."
"No. You should go. Now. Travel south. You will reach Phootz sooner than if you go through the village." He pushed the map and other items across the table. "Now."
On trembling legs, Barnalby cradled his new treasures in both hands and hurried from the hut before the old man changed his mind. I wonder why he is in such a hurry? he wondered as he slogged to his much smaller abode. It was really not much more than a small room, large enough to hold a straw cot and little else. "Now how am I going to carry all this?" he asked the spider busily weaving near the doorway. He could wear nearly everything he owned: a vest, two pairs of pants, two shirts and one pair of sandals. Of the many families he had lived with over the years, only Tithonus had given him anything when he left -- or, more accurately, was abandoned. He had no knapsack, but he did have a worn blanket. Everything fit within it nicely, and now all he needed was a strong, straight branch. By the time he was ready to leave, the rain had stopped and a large rainbow stretched across the sky to the south. This can only be a good sign, he decided. Whistling, he hoisted his belongings over his shoulder and started out.
Tithonus stood in the doorway of his hut and watched in relief as Barnalby headed south. A small price to pay to be rid of you, he thought and smiled. Eventually he would have to approach the villagers again and tell them the ungrateful lad had stolen from him and fled into the night. But that could wait for a day or two. First he wanted to place a dead mule or some such in the village well.