The Dream-Taker’s Apprentice
“How much is a dream worth?”
The ploughman pursed his lips, considering Emptor’s question.
Emptor didn’t let him find a reply. “Nothing.”
His rhetoric didn’t need an answer.
“Can it put food on your table? A new wheel on your cart? Can it stop the winter at your doorstep?”
Ham watched on as Emptor worked his magic on the ploughman. Emptor always asked the same questions. Ham knew them by heart. He knew all the dream-taker’s lines, but in his mouth they rang hollow.
“Well … no.” Again the ploughman felt he had to answer. He ran his fingers through the dirty thatch of his hair, as if seeking insight.
“My friend.” And Emptor had his thin arm across the man’s broad shoulders. “My friend, you have the right of it.” He steered the man toward the hedgerow, and the lane where the wagon waited.
“A dream can’t buy you anything.
“But this can.” And Emptor magicked a coin into being between finger and thumb, a sleight of hand that Ham had mastered in the first year of his apprenticeship. “A gold royal from King Harold’s reign. Three hundred years and seven this coin has waited for you, master plough. See it gleam. Heavy and bright. A coin like this could set beef on your platter every night for a year.”
The ploughman glanced back across the gray waste of his field. One glance and a slow nod. The sale had been made.
Ham watched the swish of Daisy’s tail. Left, right, left with the slow sequence of her haunches, a flick up to dismay the flies, and back to the left and the right. The mare pulled, and the wheels rolled through the mud to the accompaniment of a slow slurp as if an old man were sucking air over his gums.
Emptor sat beside Ham, lean and angular, no motion in him but the rising jolt of the wagon. Emptor’s carpet-bag lay between his feet, stirred from within as the dreams shifted. Ham wondered what it would feel like to have a dream stir inside his head.
The lane joined a larger road, with deeper mud and deeper ruts. Daisy drew the wagon on, through a wood now, with the elms lacing bare fingers overhead against a leaden sky. Something in the slant of the branches, in the rhythm of the trees, spoke to Ham of another time.
“I know this place,” he said.
Emptor shrugged. “It’s where you came from.”
Ham watched the trees, wide awake now. He breathed in the smell of wet leaves. It had been years since he thought of the days before his mother gave him up. She had sold her last dream, and then, almost as an afterthought, she had given him up as an apprentice. A child of eight given for a second coin, a golden royal from the treasury of old King Harold himself.
“Why did you choose me?” Ham had never thought to ask before. He had set his old life aside six years ago and seldom returned to it. The word “why” felt awkward on his tongue. He had never been one for questions or for wondering. Except when Emptor’s bag lay near. When the worn carpet rose and fell as though the dreams drew breath, then Ham might wonder and even, on occasion, find a why upon his lips.
“Why?” Emptor arched a brow. “Because when the gods made you, Ham, they left something out. You have nothing our employer needs. You’ll never be more or less than what I see.”
“I don’t understand.” But the edge of an understanding pressed sharp against him. He remembered when he had lived in the village past the woods. How early had he seen that he stood apart from the others?
Emptor shook the reins and clicked at Daisy to pick up her feet.
“You never had a dream in your life, did you, boy?” The dream-taker swung to look at Ham. “Not once.” Emptor’s stare lay like a cold hand pressed to Ham’s forehead.
Ham shook his head. As a child, he asked his mother where the people went at night, and why they didn’t let him go.
“Dangerous things, Ham, dangerous things.” Emptor nudged his carpet-bag with a toe. “I took you because I knew you would be loyal. I knew you’d never leave to follow a whim, or start to think
“Why would I do those things?” Ham realised he’d asked another question. He chewed his lip and watched the trees pass.
“No reason.” Another click of the reins and they rolled on through the mud.
They set up camp in a field not far from the edge of the woods. A field whose thin barley was so mired and so choked with bindweed that Ham thought the farmer must have upped and left before the spring. No smoke rose from the distant farmhouse, and Emptor made no move to seek permission.
A light rain fell, but Ham got a fire going with a little tinder and a heap of deadfall from the forest. He set an iron pot above the flames.
“A stew again, Ham?” Emptor called from behind the wagon. He came into view, carrying one of the uprights for the door.
The question made no sense to Ham. They had stew every night.
Emptor dug a shallow hole. He sank the wooden beam into it with a squelch. He set the second beam a yard from it and returned to the wagon for the crosspiece. Ham sliced carrots into the boiling water.
Both uprights leaned somewhat drunkenly in the wet ground, but Emptor managed to balance the crosspiece over them and complete the doorway. He took his bag from beneath the wagon seat, and the lantern from backboard.
“Come.” He beckoned. “Leave that to simmer.”
Ham followed the dream-taker through the doorway. Until you actually moved beneath the cross-piece of the door frame, you saw through the doorway what you expected to—in this case a wet field. The change when you stepped through, into the cavern, always felt like waking up. No matter where you set the door up, it led to the cavern. Ham stifled a yawn and waited for his eyes to adjust to the gloom.
Emptor called it a cavern, but Ham had never seen the walls or ceiling, just a floor of water-smoothed rock pitching and rising in hollows and troughs. Once, when Emptor had drunk too much rye-spirit, he said the cavern lay at the heart of the world. He whispered a name. Nithogg, the dragon that devours. The dragon that lies in the dark and eats the roots of the world-tree, gnawing in blackness.
They walked, following a path where feet had worn the rock smoother and deeper than the ancient waters had. The air, neither hot nor cold, raised goose bumps on Ham’s arms. To either side lay treasures, pale gold, rubies like drops of blood, coin strewn in drifts. They kept their eyes on the path. Three hundred paces and they came to the edge of the pool. The surface rippled like oil, though no wind blew. It took the lantern light and gave back the merest glimmers.
“Take this.” Emptor handed the light to Ham.
The dream-taker knelt at the pool’s edge and emptied his bag. The dreams poured out, syrup-slow, their colours and sparkle swallowed whole by dark waters.
Emptor shook the bag once, looked inside, then stood. He turned and set back along the route they had taken. Behind him the pool moved in a slow, unending churn.
On the way back to the door, Emptor paused. He knelt beside an open coffer and fished amongst the riches. He counted out five gold coins to replace those paid for dreams, and five silver coins, their wages for a week’s work.
“It’s not enough to take only what is owed, Ham,” he said. “You mustn’t even think of taking more.”
“I know,” said Ham.
They had reached the doorway when they heard the noise. A gurgling. Half animal at trough, half cut throat.
“Quick.” Emptor took Ham’s shoulders and steered him through the doorway.
A heartbeat later and they stood in the barren field, the smell of wood-smoke and stew in their nostrils.
“I never heard that before,” Ham said.
“Our employer has a thirst on him.” Emptor shivered and pushed by, bound for the fire. He took his bowl and the ladle. “So we must work harder.” He filled his bowl. “And grow richer.”
Morning found them through a low mist. Ham hitched Daisy to the wagon and they set off early on empty stomachs. Emptor gave the reins to Ham and lay back to watch the sky.
Close up, Ham saw that the farmhouse roof had fallen in, ivy growing through the windows. He had a memory of a smoking chimney, a warm glow from the open door and a drinking song booming out to the road.
They passed an empty shack a quarter mile down the lane.
“We’ll be at the village soon,” Emptor said. “We’ll see if they remember you.”
Ham didn’t think they would. Perhaps the boys that had taunted him might.
Within minutes they would be rolling into the village square, but still the fields on both sides lay untended. A sense of unease grew in Ham, centred in his stomach. Worry was a new sensation. Worry requires imagination, speculation about what might be, and such things came hard to a boy who had never dreamed.
The people had sold their dreams and something vital had gone from their lives. Roofs fell, fields lay unturned. People went through the motions of life without living it, not with the same depth and fierce need that had once driven them.
And what about me? Am I like that? An unturned field, an empty house?
Ham looked up from his unaccustomed questioning to find a man standing in the wagon’s path. He pulled the reins, but Daisy had stopped of her own accord.
“Well met, Master Ham.”
Ham didn’t recognize the stranger. He looked too tall, too powerful to be a peasant, but his drab and homespun cloak marked his station.
“Good morning,” Ham said.
Beside Ham, Emptor sat up, as if pulled on strings.
“Master Emptor.” The man nodded acknowledgement. He had thick golden hair, and a broad smile that made Ham think of daybreak.
“Ikol.” The name dropped from Emptor’s mouth like something rotten in a bite of apple pie. “Your territories are west of the Jorlheim.”
“That’s true.” Ikol’s smile didn’t falter. “But we dream-takers are many and dreamers are so few these days.”
“You have your fjords and your reavers.” Emptor’s voice kept low, underwritten by anger. “Dreams of blood and of the axe. And a high price they command.”
Ikol pursed his lips and held up his hands. “My reavers went away. In longboats, under sail and horned helm.”
“To rape and plunder,” Emptor said. “They return, too, in their boats.”
Ikol frowned. “Some return. But with gold in their pockets and new dreams.” He sketched a cross in the air. “They bring the crucifix with their pillaged goods. New shapes behind their eyes. Nithogg will not drink their dreams. They choke him.”
“These lands are mine,” Emptor said.
“Peace.” The smile broadened. “I’ve not come to fight you for them. I’m passing through.”
“Don’t let us delay you, Trickster.” Emptor’s hands loosened their grip on the seat-board and began to shade away from white. “There are wastes to the east where the old ways hold.”
“Oh, I am done taking the wyrm’s gold.” Ikol’s laugh rang out, full of angles. Ham thought it might as easily kill birds in flight as bring out blooms in autumn. “My family have discovered that vice, and they don’t approve.”
“What, then?” Emptor asked.
“Why, I’m waiting for the boy.” And Ikol levelled one long finger at Ham.
“Me?” Surprise stretched Ham’s face.
“I have something of yours.” Ikol reached into his cloak and fished out a sparkling something, the size of a cow’s eyeball. He threw it to Ham, who fumbled it to his lap. A glass sphere filled with swirling colour. Where he touched the surface, the fluid inside ran midnight blue. “I took it from you while you lay quickening in your mother’s womb.”
“That can’t be done,” Emptor said.
“It wasn’t easy, I grant you that.” Ikol shrugged. “But I can do most things if I set my mind to it.”
“What is it?” Ham could only stare at the ball. Its lights and colours seemed to cast shadows into his head.
“Your dream,” Ikol said.
“One dream?” Ham knew that most people had only a handful of dreams, dreams that returned to them time and again, shifting their focus, changing their disguise, but essentially the same, the same song sung by new mouths. However, in the years with Emptor, they had never found an untouched mind with only a single dream.
“Don’t think yourself so special, Master Ham,” Ikol said. “All the unborn have but one dream. It divides quickly in the light of day. Emptor has stolen from children. He’ll attest to the number of their dreams.”
Ham tore his gaze from the dream-ball. “Why—”
“Why did I take it? Why did I give it back? All questions now, aren’t we, Master Ham? The real question is, why would you want to keep it? A single dream is a dangerous thing. What if it’s a nightmare? What then? But I have done what I have done, and the dream is yours, and it is an ancient one, old by any reckoning, old as my father’s ravens.”
“But—“ Ham bit off the words. The dream-taker had gone. “Where?”
“Tricks,” said Emptor, and he spat upon the road. “Loki is full of them.”
“You called him Ikol . . . .”
“He doesn’t take kindly to those who call him by his name,” Emptor said. “He is the oldest of us. Some say he was the one that gave Nithogg a taste for dreams in the first place.”
Ham held the dream-ball to his face, his fingers tingling, arm trembling. All blues now, from cornflower to midnight. A cool warmth bled from it, seeping up his veins. Emptor’s pale hand closed over Ham’s and the ball was gone.
“Mine, I think.”
“I purchased you, Ham. Buy the boy, and the dream comes free.”
Ham woke. The sky above hung black, a coal-sack pierced by stars. He lay still and watched. He never woke in the night. He always lay—like a log, according to Emptor—in dreamless sleep until dawn. Ham watched the stars, and in time he released the breath he had been keeping. It rose in white mist.
Ham sat, shrugging away his weather-blanket. When you woke, you got up. That was how it worked.
He stood and made a slow turn. Emptor lay close by the wagon, his blankets shifting. The motion put Ham in mind of the dream-taker’s bag, stirred from within. The dark field whispered, stroked by the wind.
Why am I awake?
Beyond the faint embers of their fire, the uprights and crosspiece of the door still stood, rooted in the mud.
They had used the door before supper. Emptor had poured the day’s takings into the black lake. Three dreams from Ham’s village. Perhaps the last three. It was a decent take, given that so few people remained. Three dreams, poor ones at that, thin and without sparkle. With his bag emptied, Emptor had taken Ham’s dream-sphere from his sleeve and broken it upon a rock at the lake’s edge. The stuff within had run out like quick-silver, shaded in all the blues between green and indigo. It had run into the lake, sliding beneath the dark waters, leaving no trace. Leaving nothing but a faint ache in Ham’s chest. Something new.
Ham watched the door. The night wind blew and cold light fell from the stars. Not twelve hours before, he had stood before the doorway of his mother’s house. The place had been gutted by fire, left black and empty. He had not gone in. It had smelled wrong.
Ham’s feet brought him to the threshold of the three-piece wooden door. Something moved him. Perhaps a new warmth in his veins, perhaps the ache deep inside. He thought he could name that ache now. Want.
He stepped through.
Ham felt his way blind, along the smooth path his feet had learned so well. Emptor had once said that before man found fire, Nithogg’s treasure needed no protection save darkness. The cavern’s endless night carried terror enough to make any man run, and to drive mad any man that could not run. Ham walked on. Fear is a self-inflicted wound, Emptor had said. Imagination fashions the weapon.
Drawing closer to the lake, Ham began to see the faintest ghost-light rising from the water’s surface in misty coils. By the time he reached the shore, he could see the rocks glimmering on the edge of perception, limned by the lake-glow. He sat on a large flat stone, unsure why he had come.
The burned stink of his mother’s house returned to him. He saw again the blackened shell in which he had once eaten and slept. He had even laughed in those green days, never understanding it, but accepting that the laughter which fell from other lips could run its course through him and leave a buzzing in his chest.
Ham thought of Loki, stood upon the road in peasant weeds and yet somehow bigger than the day, more solid and more bright. The Trickster, that’s what Emptor had called him.
Something broke the surface of the lake. Ripples spread, ripples in the ghost-light. Ham got to his feet. Another disturbance. Closer now. And then, less than a yard from him, a hand reached out, shedding oily water. The hand slipped away.
Ham took a step back, nearly tripping. His heart pounded against his breastbone, hard enough to hurt.
A moment later, fingers where the lake lapped silent against the shore. Fingers, hands, a head, a man . . . no, a child . . . crawling from the lake, the waters streaming from its back. Like the lake, the child held its own light, as though a candle flame burned deep within wax flesh, flesh of a blue so deep as to threaten black.
“Hello,” Ham said. He had never spoken in the cavern before. Emptor cautioned against it.
The child stood, cocking its dark head to one side and watching him.
“Who are you?” Ham asked.
“You know me.” A slow smile. “I know you.”
“You’re . . . my dream?” Ham said.
The child spread its arms and inclined its head, acknowledging the truth. The gesture put Ham in mind of Loki on the road.
“What kind of dream are you?” Ham asked.
“A small one.” Again the smile. “A dream of beginnings, of seeds lying in rich earth, a dream of keys, of buried treasures, lost moments.”
“The dragon . . .” Ham looked around, although it was pointless within the cavern’s shroud of darkness. “He didn’t drink you up?”
“I swam deep,” said the dream. “I sank. I lay still in the silt of old memories. I have learned about waiting.”
“What should we do now?” Ham asked. He had no clear idea of what people did with dreams. “Shouldn’t you be taking me somewhere?”
The dream smiled. “Have I not already?”
“Wake up.” The dream’s mouth moved, but Emptor’s voice came out.
Ham felt a pain in his ribs.
“Up, I say!”
And he was blinking against the light of day. Emptor towered above him, his foot drawn back for another kick. Ham sat up, shaking confusion from his head. His blankets hung around him. The field, the wagon, the three-piece door, all in their places, throwing long shadows before the face of the risen sun.
Ham made it to his feet. “Sorry, Master Emptor.”
Emptor favoured him with a narrow look. “You’ve not slept past daybreak, not once in all the years we’ve travelled.”
“I’ll make the wagon ready.” And Ham set to his work.
“Yes?” Emptor took his eyes from the road and watched Ham.
“Who is Loki?”
“In his own lands, they call him a god. They call his sire the all-father, the father of the gods.” Emptor shook his head.
“Are his lands far from here?” Ham asked.
“It depends how you measure the distance.” Emptor shook the reins. The gesture meant “time to stop talking”.
“Is he a god?” Ham asked.
“There was only ever one god,” Emptor said. “And he left.”
“Loki vanished from the road. And he took my dream from my mother’s womb.”
“And he gave you an endless supply of questions, where before there were none. He’s no god. He’s a trickster.”
“Enough!” Another shake of the reins. Hard enough to set Daisy trotting this time.
Ham watched the trees pass by. Perhaps the lack of business had put Emptor in a bad mood. He had but one dream to show for a day’s travel and bargaining.
They camped in a forest glade, a lonely mile from nowhere, with the howl of wolves on the crisp air. Ham set traps amongst the bracken, wires to snare rabbits. He half-hoped to find them empty in the morning. He had a taste for something other than stew.
Night came and again Ham woke in the darkest hour. The doorway stood by the wagon, the black space between the timbers seeming to stare at him. He passed through as on the previous night and found his way to the lakeside.
A violet fire burned across the water’s surface, faint and on the edge of vision. Ham watched and imagined he could hear a distant gnawing, the relentless grinding of dragon teeth against the foundations of the world.
Moments passed as they do in the deepest night, without measure, drawn one after the next through the mind’s eye. Ham’s dream rose without warning, hauling itself noiselessly from the lake. It stood above him, water streaming from its back.
“You’ve grown,” Ham said.
The dream overtopped him. It might even have stood taller than Emptor, and thicker in its limbs.
“It’s in my nature to grow,” the dream said. “I swim in the deep places, and I grow.”
“Loki said you were my dream.” Ham got to his feet.
“Dreams own people.” A smile.
“In his homeland, people call Loki a god. But Emptor says he’s just a trickster.” Ham sought the dream’s eyes.
“I am not a dream about gods.” The dream put a hand to Ham’s chest. A warmth ran through him. “Go back to sleep.”
And Ham went.
A cold day passed, a day on which Emptor could find no dreams to buy. His old coins found no takers, and their silver bought little at the market, either. In the hardest of times, coin loses its meaning.
That night Ham roasted the three rabbits he had found in his snares. He spitted them over an open fire. Emptor ate bare-handed, picking meat from the bones.
“Better than stew,” Ham said.
“Better than stew.”
“Couldn’t we find something else to buy and sell? Loki said he had given it up.”
“And what might we sell if not dreams to the wyrm?” Emptor tipped a handful of clean bones into the grass. A full stomach had taken the sour edge from his voice.
Warmth rose across Ham’s chest. “Hope?”
Emptor chuckled. “Religion? It could be. There’s more than a penny in faith, and it sells in hard times.” He yawned. “I’ll sleep on it, Ham.”
That night Ham set the doorway himself. He built it whilst Emptor snored.
From the moment he entered the cavern, the silence struck him. Ham had seldom noticed the noise before, the grind and scrape that had shivered through the rock, but now he felt its absence. His mind returned to it, time and again as he walked, like the empty socket of a freshly lost tooth.
For the longest while, Ham thought the dream would not return. He waited by the silent lake, wrapped in darkness. Faces played across his imagination. People who had taken the coin from Emptor. People who they had left empty.
When the dream rose, the waters fell from its blue shoulders in rivers, crashing back to the lake and swamping the shores. It stood, larger than houses, tree-tall, ankle-deep in the depths that had once concealed it.
“Where … where is the dragon?” Ham asked.
“I choked him when he came to drink.” The dream brought huge hands together and laced the fingers.
Ham cast about, thinking to see the remains lying like a ship’s hulk along the shore.
“I ate him.”
“You did?” Ham strained wide-eyed at the darkness, still half expecting the wyrm to descend.
A rock fell into the lake. A chunk of stone larger than Emptor’s wagon. Along the left shore something coiled, writhing like a great snake. Another root began to quest along the right shore.
“We should go now,” said the dream. It reached for Ham, closing him in one great hand. A blue fire filled his mind. Everything shook.
“Ham! Ham! Wake up!” Emptor’s shout. He shook Ham again, fingers digging into both shoulders.
Ham groaned and opened his eyes to daylight. Emptor steered his face to the wagon. Beside it, where the two uprights of the door had stood, two trees had sprouted. They stood a yard apart, joined by a shared branch a man’s height from the ground.
“And look!” Emptor held the strongbox in which he kept the dragon’s gold. He flung back the lid. Where the coins had been, there were acorns and autumn leaves.
“We’ll starve!” Emptor set the box aside and held his head. “Winter is nearly here. If we don’t freeze first, we’re going to starve.”
Frost edged the rutted ground, but Ham held a fire in him. “It’s all right, Emptor.”
“You’ve got something we can sell?” Emptor spat. He didn’t raise his head.
“I have a dream.” Ham set his hand on Emptor’s narrow shoulder. “The kind you can share.” Something passed between them. Something warm.
Emptor looked up at that, and in his eyes, a new hope.
“How much is a dream worth?”
The ploughman pursed his lips, considering Emptor’s question.
Emptor didn’t let him find a reply. “Everything.”
His rhetoric didn’t need an answer.
“It can put food on your table. A new wheel on your cart. It can even stop the winter at your doorstep.”
Emptor always used the same lines. Ham knew them by heart. He knew all the dream-giver’s lines; they had come first from his own mouth.
“I ain’t much given to religion.” The ploughman ran his fingers through the dirty thatch of his hair.
“My friend.” And Emptor had his thin arm across the man’s broad shoulders. “My friend, this isn’t about gods and temples; it’s about men and hope.” He steered the man toward the hedgerow, and the lane where Ham waited in the wagon. “A dream … a dream can buy you anything.”