"...look into the seeds of time, And say which grain will grow and which will not..."
Macbeth (Act l, Scene 3)
Under cover of darkness, Leonardo crept through Vinci's narrow streets, keeping to the shadows. A hunting quiver crammed with brushes, vials of pigment, and pieces of rolled canvas rode high on his back. His father's cloth valise hung from his shoulder. Tools of his trade and a change of clothes were all he could gather in his haste to flee.
As he edged past the humble dwellings of the village, muffled voices penetrated closed doors. His breath caught in his throat when he heard his name. He could imagine what they were saying. News of the allegations and pending trial had traveled fast. Young ladies who once fancied his presence now shunned him. Even his favorite wine merchant met him with an accusing eye while patrons huddled in conversation privy only to their ears. Soon he would be rid of them.
Lighted windows illuminated the shallow ditch that paralleled the main road. This cesspool of daily life reeked with the stench of human waste, a putrid smell that hung in the air like a fetid veil. Leonardo picked up his pace, anxious to reach the Tuscan hills ripe with the scent of rosemary and evergreen shrubs. Perhaps there he would find solace from those who chose to believe him guilty.
Near the edge of town, lights from a tavern painted yellow streaks across the rutted surface. Raucous laughter gave way to boisterous shouts.
"Take it back or you'll pay with your life," a man threatened.
"What? That your mother's a whore?"
Glass shattered. The door burst open. A brawl spilled into the street.
Fists flew. Arms and legs intertwined like a mass of snakes in mating season. Tossed from the melee, a sprite of a man undercut Leonardo, knocking him to the ground.
"Get off!" Leonard pushed the ruffian aside and scrambled to his feet.
The man squinted at Leonardo through a half-closed eye. "Look who we have here, boys," he said, raising his voice to be heard.
The fighting stopped, and all eyes turned to Leonardo.
A short, dumpy man with a peg leg wobbled closer. "Well, I'll be damned. He's the one I told you about, the artist who fornicates with men."
"Is that right?" a gruff voice bellowed.
"No," Leonardo said, brushing the dirt from his tunic, "the governors cleared me of all charges."
"And how much did it cost to bribe them?" a tall, skinny man said, bringing a roar of laughter.
The man with the swollen eye thrust his face within inches of Leonardo. "I've heard people like you don't change, but I know how to stop you." He turned to others. "Anyone here got a knife?"
Unbridled rage, coupled with the desire to survive, shot through Leonardo. His hand moved toward his own knife, sheathed beneath his tunic. But no, he didn't want murder on his conscience. Heat surged to his face, and the hair on his arms stood on end. With clenched fists, he crouched--a rogue wolf ready to fight.
"I won't die, not at your filthy hands," he snarled in defiance.
Hoisting the scrawny excuse of a man over his head, he tossed him into the group, knocking them backwards. In a flash, Leonardo bolted into an alley. His long legs churned like windmills, faster and faster, keeping pace with his racing heart. Rounding a corner, he shimmied behind barrels stacked in front of a store. The rough spines of the slats raked his forearms. He slunk low and swallowed the pain as his attackers rushed past.
"Find him! I'll cut that bastard good."
No doubt he would, Leonardo thought. Perspiration seeped into his eyes. Despite what felt like liquid fire, he didn't flinch, didn't even breathe until the thundering footsteps faded in the distance. When he was sure they were out of sight, he eased from his hiding place and raced in the opposite direction. No one followed.
He skulked forward with great trepidation. Near the end of the alley, the street appeared empty so he stepped from the shadows into the open road. A smirk curled at the corners of his mouth. "At least I saved my manhood," he muttered.
Two men sprang from a darkened alcove. Claw-like hands grabbed his arms.
"What'd you say?" one of the man said in a surly voice.
Before he could answer, a fist slammed into Leonardo's eye. Another split his lip. He spat blood and strained with all his might to wrench free from his captor's grip.
"Hold him," a voice shouted as the rest of the men surrounded him.
Whump! A board cracked across his back. Air whooshed from his lungs. He gulped, struggling for a breath. Fire rippled down his shoulder as teeth sank into his flesh. Someone in the tortuous mob twisted his fingers, so much so, he feared he might never hold a brush again.
His pleas fell on deaf ears. The men threw him to the ground, drove their hard-sole scarpe into his ribs, stomped his legs and arms. With each blow, vile remarks painted him the monster he wasn't.
Outnumbered, Leonardo could do nothing but cover his head with his hands.
"See if he carries any money," someone shouted over the fracas.
"What's in his quiver?" another one yelled.
Leonardo held fast to the straps.
"Turn loose, you filthy pig." The peg-legged man yanked hard.
Leonardo winched as the narrow leather strap of the quiver cut into his shoulder.
Hands pried at his fingers. Then, for a reason Leonardo could not fathom, the assault stopped. The angry shouts turned to screams of fear, and they tripped over him in their haste to get away...from what?
As the night swallowed up their fearful cries, an eerie silence settled on the now desolate street. Leonardo lifted his head, wanting to see what had frightened them, and what now might beseech him. He wiped his eyes. Then he wiped them again, unable to make sense of what he saw--something not of this earth --a green mist that glowed and pulsated. The diaphanous phantom with white-hot embers for eyes drifted toward him. Waves of heat scorched Leonardo's face, singed his hair, and sucked the moisture from his mouth. The smell soured his stomach. He heaved but nothing came forth, not even enough saliva to moisten his parched lips.
The creature floated inches above the ground. Arms, twice the length of any man, unfurled and waved like dancing cobras within inches of Leonardo's face. Fingers turned into needle-sharp fangs, ready to strike. Instead, with an upward movement and without touching, the hands drew Leonardo to his feet.
Surely, the Devil had come to claim his soul.
"I'm innocent. I don't deserve to die," Leonardo cried.
A cavernous pit, where one would expect a nose and mouth, opened wider and wider. And a thunderous voice rumbled from the inky void.
"Nor shall you."
Leonardo's legs wobbled and threatened to buckle. "Then be gone, lest you frighten me to death."
Snake-like arms slithered back into their sockets, and his eyes of fire cooled to an icy blue. The gaping mouth shrank to a small oval, and the voice became a whisper.
"I chose that form to make the others flee. Perhaps you would prefer I looked like this...or this," the creature said, changing from one horrific shape into another.
First, a dwarf's body with a bulbous head and a forehead embedded with six roving eyes. Wet, slimy tentacles dangled from a clam-like nose, while saber-like arms slashed the air. Next he appeared as a headless, lumbering shape, draped in black. On the end of each finger, snake eyes searched in all directions. A roar erupted, and the cloak parted. Protruding from the chest, a shark's mouth gnashed its layers of razor sharp teeth.
"Aiee," Leonard screamed. "You are the devil."
Without answering, the creature evolved into a human shape, one pleasing to the eye. Brown hair curled about the man's ears, and dark eyes no longer threatened. He wore a long white tunic, and his voice rippled like a soothing melody.
"I am not the Devil, nor do I mean you harm."
"Then let me go."
"I cannot. You are a chosen one."
"Chosen for what, if not to die?"
"The time for new ideas, a rebirth, is at hand. You, Leonardo, will serve as a vessel for such change--the catalyst, the innovator who will transform this world of darkness into an age of enlightenment. The seeds of the future await you."
"You talk madness. Who are you?"
"I am known as the Old One."
"Well, Old One, I want no part of you."
Leonardo turned to run, but the muscles in his legs cramped, and he dropped to his knees. A sharp pain stabbed his chest. The beating had left him battered and helpless.
The Old One drew near and placed his hands on either side of Leonardo's face. Warmth spread throughout Leonardo's body. The muscles in his legs relaxed, and the knife-like pain in his ribs subsided.
"What manner of magic is this?"
The Old One smiled.
"Do you not seek refuge from those who believe you guilty, those who would humiliate you?" he asked.
"How do you know this?"
"I am a weaver of time. Do as I ask, and I will give you refuge. For two years hence, there will be no record of you or any of your works."
"That's impossible. Where can I go that no one will know?"
"Not where, but when."
The Old One stretched out his arms. Light, as if from a thousand suns, engulfed them.
"I can't see," Leonardo shouted. "What have you done?"
Little-by-little, the light dimmed. The houses and shops were no longer visible, nor could he feel the earth beneath his feet. Leonardo found himself in an oval room surrounded with silver walls. With a wave of the Old One's hand, one wall disappeared, revealing the blackness of space.
Afraid of falling into that dark abyss, Leonardo reached for his strange companion, only to watch his hand pass through the Old One's body. He jerked back and clutched himself, wary of his own reality.
"What are you?"
"What I am doesn't matter, only that you complete your mission. Another world awaits you. I will give you a glimpse of the future. When you return, and you will, you will remember only enough to ignite your genius. Do not be afraid. I will keep you safe."
Outside the open portal, stars streaked past, faster and faster, until they appeared as lines of light. Surely he rode in a vehicle made by a god. When the Old One pulled a fist to his chest, all motion ceased. The streaks of light faded, and night gave way to day.
Leonardo gawked at the landscape beneath him. Odd shaped buildings climbed skyward to dizzying heights. Ships without masts plied a wide muddy river that twisted and turned through the heart of an enormous city. Strange covered carts without horses sped through a maze of roads.
"Your adventure begins," the Old One said. "I bid you farewell."
Before Leonardo could draw his next breath, the Old One and the silver room vanished.
"No! How will I--"
Leonardo's lips continued to move, but he could not hear his words. He plunged headfirst toward the earth.
The wind screamed past so fast it sucked the air from his lungs and threatened to rip his eyes from their sockets. He strained and squeezed his eyelids shut but couldn't close his mouth. His cheeks flapped like a flag at the mercy of a storm.
"You lied! I'm going to die!"