Part One: Flame of Love

Thrala hid silver coins in her gloves so that should one fall out she would pretend to spy it on the ground and tell her handmaiden to fetch it for her. She did not content herself with appearing rich. She had to appear full of luck in front of the farmers and peasants. A thin smile would form at her lips when her servant held up the coin and declared that she had found yet another. Occasionally she would conspicuously throw it to a passerby, a woodcutter with a load or an old woman taking beets to the market. Most of the time she would laugh as if she were a child and say to her handmaiden, “Oh, Cloethel, I’m glad I found this one. I feel lucky today. Let’s go eat some tarts.”

She loved to walk slower in the danker portions of the village. The pumpkins always seemed more rotten and their vines more wilted near the yellow cottages in the east end. So she ambled there most often of all. She was the sweet thing to be noticed; she was the light in the dark of the nooks of the town.

Dagol had the unfortune to fall in love with Thrala. She was beautiful and rich and capricious. He was a woodcutter, poor and plain. His resolve could not be curbed, however, and he vowed that no sacrifice be too great; he will get her in his arms. Up to now his tireless efforts were exercised to prevent Thrala from marrying the rich buffoons and lords who fell in clumps over her father’s threshold each spring. All the townsfolk knew his secret, unattainable desire and enjoyed aiding him at thwarting the nobles from romance. It was a game to them, one played by the servants of the castle as well as the farmboys, butcher, baker and the candlestick maker alike. If, to show his love for Thrala, a visiting noble sent his servant to fetch a flower or a lavish cake from the town she would find a bee hiding among the petals or a worm sleeping in the custard. Thus, she remained the only unmarried daughter of the count.

Reasoning that he could do no more than thwart her marriage to others, and that his army of friends did all the work, the only thing for Dagol to do was to wander the woods and long for Thrala, alone. His own personal attempts at winning her love – although unmarred by the gags of the townfolk – were nevertheless doomed by his station in life.

One day, Dagol found a path in the woods where he wandered among the long shadows of the great chulkuluk trees and the brown and blue ferns of the forest floor. The path was drawn with white stones, mossy and wet until it terminated before a red cottage, round and sturdy. There were three chimneys, one with yellow, another with blue, and the third with purple smoke. The door, in black letters, announced ‘The Celebrated Sorcerer Bulara Cithil.’ A man who relied on luck may have wondered at the serendipity of this discovery. Dagol never stopped to wonder. His fist was already rapping the door.

A hooded man opened a large square shutter on the door and peered through.

“Yes?” he asked. Waves of pungent…something…percolated into the open air.

The eager Dagol responded, “sir, you have my humble apologies for disturbing you this day, but I wonder if you could help me. My future wife does not yet love me and I fear she never shall unless something or someone can persuade her. Push her in the right direction, so to speak.”

Bulara Cithil blinked and frowned. Dagol continued, “I mean to ask, as a celebrated sorcerer, can you persuade people in such a way?”

The sorcerer receded his head inside and closed the window. Dagol said, “No, sir, you misunderstand.” He pounded the door. Without waiting but a moment, the sound of the latch clicked and the door opened. Dagol paused, feeling foolish for having misunderstood that the sorcerer was merely preparing to open the door. He continued, “Pardon my zeal, but I will do anything to end this yearning.”

Bulara Cithil made an inviting gesture and parted the way. Inside the three fires crackled to produce the boiling of three cauldrons, no doubt the generators of the sourly taint in the air. Birds perched along beams and Dagol noticed that the walls rose up as if they were inside a great tree. The ceiling looked further away than Dagol knew it ought to be.

“I can do this for you,” the sorcerer said. “The question is whether you will bear the price.”

“I will bear the price.”

Each man, assessing the other as to be equally serious and fastidious with time as himself, quit the conversation. Bulara Cithil began to shape his spell at once.

The sorcerer asked her name and then wrote it on a small parchment. This he wrapped around a twig. Then he muttered his incantations and prepared small goblets with powders and fragments of bone or fin or leg of tiny creatures. Procuring a white candle, the sorcerer told Dagol to hold it aloft. The parchment with her name, now doused in blood and oil, was lit and held over the wick to light the candle.

“So long as this flame burns she shall love you,” said the sorcerer.

Dagol held his breath. He did not want the little fire to waver even slightly. It was entirely precious; no part of the wax or the wick or the tiny glow was wrong. All was right.

The sorcerer continued, “all that I require is the first born child of your union.”

“Good, good,” Dagol replied. “I must be going.” He quickly placed the sorcerer’s fee in his memory, but did not allow his mind to comprehend what it meant. The flame of the candle and its purpose entranced his eyes too carefully.

On the pathway home Dagol burned his fingers. They were held too close as a shield from the wind. The flame licked sharply and his reaction blew the fire out. He was still sucking on his fingers when he noticed the small wisp of smoke. Hastening to return, Dagol rapped on the door as before. Bulara Cithil smirked when he discovered the reason. Without hurry he recast the spell and told Dagol that the second born of their union would be an additional fee. Dagol replied as before, “Good, I must be going.” His memory noted that the price was identical to the first, and satisfied, his mind again took no time to analyze the actual cost.

The spell worked quicker and more effectively than Dagol expected. Thrala was waiting with her handmaiden at his cottage door. He could tell it was her by the way she held her arms. They didn’t hang down, but rested lightly upon her hips, more elegant than any other woman, with exactly the right amount of delicateness. He approached slowly, his hand contracting towards the flame until it burned. He could barely feel the pain this time.

She spoke first. It was an apology for the last time they had met when she had caused the muck and refuse of the pigpen to be tossed onto him. At the time she had feigned surprise that her naughty servants would do such a thing.

His mouth gaped. She said she could not wait to meet him and had inquired his whereabouts. She had been surprised to find that everyone in town seemed to know him.

“But why are you holding that candle in the daytime?” she then asked. “The sun is far from setting.”

Dagol said, “I just got it from the candle maker. It is of the finest wax, the purest white. It is to remind me of your goodness and beauty.” Thrala smiled. This was her lucky day, and she had not even contrived it. He had waved away her prior insults as if they were nothing. He was so charming she could not see why she hadn’t already fallen in love with him.

“Why are you here in such an astounding display of splendor?” he asked. They both knew the answer.

The courting was not entirely awkward, but it was trite and to the point. Dagol had never kissed anyone before. Thrala, to ease his worry, placed a large rose petal between their lips so that he could feel the kiss without directly touching her. By the evening large rose petals were being placed over sundry portions of their bodies.

Despite her father, the count’s protests, the marriage took place the following day. He could not understand why, after so many perfect suitors had called, she would elect this common woodcutter as her groom. He refused to look Dagol in the eye, and continues to do so to this day.

Thrala’s father had already built a lavish home for his daughter and her groom, whoever it might turn out to be. His other daughters had married and moved far away. Having no sons, he had vowed to bequeath his land and wealth to the groom of his youngest daughter. Though he regretted his vow, he did not break it. The celebration was held in this new home of Dagol and Thrala.

Among all the bustle and preparations for the feast, no one noticed the beaming Dagol quietly carrying candle after candle down into the cellar. He was smart enough to realize that his candle would die out and his wife would stop loving him. His solution had been to light dozens of candles with that original flame. He had noted the sorcerer’s words well. So long as the flame shall last, she would love him.

The days passed into weeks. Each morning he would bring more candles to the cellar, often spending hours arranging them. His hobby had been to meddle in the love lives of rich men. Now it was to gaze at his garden of lights below. Thrala thought it strange, but curious and so she loved him the more for it.

She wondered how she could have missed such an endearing man for so many years. Her luck, in one fell swoop had been rendered superfluous. She already had him, and what else could she want? She no longer blessed the town with her presence, because she no longer needed the town. In place of the town, her husband’s interests came to be her adorations as well. He only had two obsessions: herself and the candles in the cellar. So she contented herself with counting the candles and knowing when new ones came and when old ones were burnt out. It was not as exciting an activity as watching the eyes of the town watching her. But seeing Dagol, eager and bright when a new candle came from the candlemaker, expanded Thrala’s day like the parting of clouds in the great blue sky.

On their anniversary, Dagol planned a large feast for one hundred guests. Invited were all the people who had helped him so many times: the rabble and run of the town. Concerning themselves with the hard living of life, most of them had forgotten about him. But the candle maker remembered and liked him very much. Over the course of the year he had been able to afford a horse and a guilded carriage on the proceeds of Dagol’s expenditures alone.

In preparing the feast, the servants found that they did not have quite enough candles. They considered this a rather important matter. Their master seemed obsessed with candlelight and their mistress adored him for it. So they questioned both master and mistress separately on the matter. Thrala informed the head servant that seventeen candles ought to delight everyone from the center of each table. Dagol approached the question differently. The design would be left to the chef who would arrange a minimum of five candles around each dish to be served. The head servant knew that to produce both effects far more candles would be needed. The candles of the cellar were forbidden to touch or add to, let alone to procure. However, for this occasion, the head servant deemed it appropriate, noting to his fellows that the master and mistress were scarely paying attention to such a matter on this day. And so dozens of candles came from the cellar to complement those already in place above.

The count, Thrala’s father refused to celebrate with the happy couple. He was appalled at the list of guests and so forbade even his wife to attend. Dagol and Thrala danced with all the rest. The townsfolk, unused to such bounty, became sick with overfeeding. As the hours waned many collapsed in drunken stupor. The servants waited until Dagol and Thrala were fast dreaming. They took some of the candles back down to the cellar and replaced them. The head servant examined the candles and, judging them to be the same number as before, closed the cellar door and locked it as usual.

In the morning Dagol descended the purple stairs down to his gallery of candles. Like a miser counting his gold he grazed the flames with his fingertips and watched the slow drip of wax. Approaching one shelf where the thirteen tallest candles were normally arranged in threes with the thirteenth in the center, he counted only eleven. He studied the entire chamber once more and began to notice here and there little changes. Some mischief had transpired. He remounted the stairs. He demanded the head servant whether he had failed to lock the cellar door before the guests had arrived. Dagol had been a good master, having known the lowly existence of a peasant. The head servant knew this and so sheepishly told the truth of what had happened.

Dagol became frantic. Some of the candles were no longer lit by the enchanted flame. He could no more light new ones until he knew which candles he could light new ones with. His palms pressed against his forehead and his fingers clutched at his hair. He frantically worried that there remained a single candle which burned with the sacred flame. The servant, unprepared for this reaction backed away, knocking over one of the candles. Dagol seized the man’s wrist and threw him on the ground.

“I’ll do to you what you do to my candles,” he snarled. The head servant looked at the candle he had knocked over. The flame flickered, but yet remained. As if nothing had happened, Dagol carefully righted the tipped candle. The head servant drew a deep breath. He had never seen his master so upset and feared what might happen to him should a candle go out.

Dagol then shouted and ordered the servants about. He knew what had to be done to preserve Thrala’s love. It was a complicated matter, to be done fastidiously, but rapidly, before any of the candles were depleted. Three servants were sent to count the total of candles in the cellar, and not to miss a single one. Another was sent to verify that all three counters arrived at the same number. Afterwards, he was to hasten to the candle maker and order ten times as many candles as that number. Several were tasked, apart from the enumerating servants, to attach a unique number to each candle. All other servants were told to aid those others in any manner and no other chore was to be done until this supreme task be accomplished.

There were 131 candles in all. After 713 candles had been procured from the candlemaker, depleting his entire workshop, they were taken down to the cellar and a set of 131 were set apart. These were each affixed with unique numbers counted to the last. A second group of 131 was set apart until there were five sets, each with corresponding numbers attached. The number one candle of each set was to be lit only from the number one candle from the original set of the cellar. Likewise, each number of each set was to be lit only from the corresponding number of the original candles (number two lit every other number two and so forth). Each set was then carefully carried up into the house. The procession moved in silence, for no one knew just why the master had become so upset. The night before had been all revelry and boister. Now the glare of the hundreds of candles and the quiet shuffling pervaded.

For Dagol, each set of candles had become as a single candle. If a single flame became extinguished he would fret and run to the other sets to make sure that number was still lit elsewhere. When all the candles were finished he gathered everyone around. His mouth, set with grimness, explained to the array of servants that no other candles were to be lit. But that these should now become the central chore of the household, to ensure that there never occurred any number extinguished among all sets. Should this happen, he explained, ten lashes would be parcelled out to each servant. As a precaution, all the shutters were to be fastened closed and no one was permitted to open them day or night for any reason.

The candles became the sole, weird light inside the home of Dagol and Thrala.

Thrala had examined the bustle and movement of the candles and their carriers. This was the first time that the oddness of Dagol’s preoccupation worried her. It was not his grimness or the severe punishment he would exact for such an arbitrary mistake as a candle being blown out. It was that Thrala had never seen Dagol so upset about her. She knew he loved her, but she now saw that he loved the candles even more. His obsession, which had been her delight to see him happy, was now her enemy. She called her favorite, Cloethel, to her.

Thrala whispered, “Cloethel, we need to start blowing out these candles. They are too bright and they make me feel hot.”

“But, my lady, my poor behind cannot spare even one lashing.”

“This is no time for nonsense,” Thrala said softly, but imperiously. “You’re going to throw open those shutters and let the wind come in. I’m going to start over here and snuff ‘em out. And we’re going to do it now.”

Dagol was sitting down on a step that led out of an adjoining room into the hall. His hands were shaking. There came to his ears the clicking and clacking of wood. In an instant he flung himself up wildly like a dog springing for the tracked deer.

“No, what are you doing?” he roared. Cloethel, being short, was leaning halfway outside of the window to latch it along the wall. Dagol’s eruption startled her; her feet jumped off the ground. She lost the balance of her waist along the sill and fell out. There was a scream and a thump. Thrala remained bent over a few extinguished candles, scared stiff.

Dagol, not waiting a moment, said with hands raised, “What are you doing? What numbers are those?” He ran to the window, looked down to see the jumbled frame of Cloethel like a giant spider among a few flowers, then slammed the shutters closed.

Thrala felt her face heat up, she wasn’t sure if it was out of embarrassment or anger. “What am I doing? What are you doing with all this nonsense?” she spat. Her posture and visage returned to their normal delicateness, but with an added viciousness that somehow complemented, rather than detracted from her beauty. “You’re always down there with your stupid candles. I’m always up here waiting for you to see me. Candles are for seeing other things, not to be seen themselves, you know. And what am I supposed to do all day with these candles ever’where? You know I’m careless. I could burn my hand and would you care about that? I might knock one over onto the floor and then you’d be sorry. This whole house would go up in flames.” She drew a deep breath. She had forgotten about Cloethel.

Dagol had been waiting, rubbing his hands behind him. He paced back and forth, keeping his eyes on the candles that were blown out. There were fifteen in all. When Thrala paused, he interrupted, “These candles are very important to me. You won’t ever understand.” He grew calm suddenly. “I simply cannot have you blowing these out. I won’t be angry with you, my love. Head servant, head servant,” he yelled. Readressing Thrala, “We don’t have to quarrel, I’ll build a new wing to the house where you can stay. The candles won’t be a bother, they can remain here.”

“Another wing for me? This is my home. The candles can go down into the river and float out to the sea. You want me to go somewhere else, do you?” She was livid. With a graceful wave of her hand four candles tipped over and went out. Then she leant over and blew out as forcefully as she could the ones nearest her.

“Head servant!” Dagol screamed. “Oh, you’re here. Hurry, hurry bring in a full set into this room. Start with numbers sixty seven through eighty three.” These were the numbers on the table Thrala was at. Refusing to touch his wife for fear he might hurt her, Dagol clenched his fists nonetheless and stood in front of the largest display of candles.

“You’ll protect those candles all right,” she said when she saw where he stood. “But you wouldn’t protect me from them, huh? A perfect gentleman. My father was right.”

The head servant returned quickly. Behind Thrala, Dagol quickly set to relighting them. Thrala, mean as ever, turned and blew out the flickering fires just as they were born. Dagol scrambled to read the numbers, dash over to the new set the servants had brought in, and transfer the right flame to the appropriate candle. After a small bout of grunts and wicks sparkling then dying then resparking, Thrala grasped Dagol’s wrist and blew out the candle he was holding. Dagol yelped. They glared at each other.

Then Dagol realized what he saw in her face. Somehow, sometime the last real flame must have gone out. It probably occurred the night before, and the servants had merely re-lit all the candles. Why else would she be acting so strange and desperate? She must have no longer loved him. So he stopped. He stood there dumbly. Thrala continued, blowing out each candle, now one by one rather than in groups. It took some time for her to finish all the candles in the room, including the new full set that the servants had brought in. Dagol watched, forlorn. She was receding in the distance, just as perfect as ever, but smaller somehow.

When they were all out, she said, “Now let’s see about the other ones.” And then she was gone. A few moments later Dagol sat down in the darkened room, alone.

A yell penetrated from outside the window. “Madame Cloethel! She has fallen down,” someone shouted.

After she had personally blown out the hundreds of candles, permitting none to assist her, Thrala had them melted down into one big ball in the kitchen cauldron. She rolled it outside herself, huffing and puffing, and then set it down the hill towards the river. She watched it shrink slowly. It was mostly white, with spanglings of dark blue and black. A little bit of red glistened in the sun. But it was mostly white and it reminded her of a snowball rolling down the hill. Only it was one that gave off of itself rather than increased while descending a slope. It splashed and bobbed in the water. Some cattails and the tall grass of the banks hid it for a second, then it returned to view like a glob of pus. Now that it was gone, Dagol would spend his time with her like a proper husband. She felt like sunshine. She was brighter than all the candles of that blob, brighter than all the candles in the world. And Dagol would see her.

Later that night, Dagol instructed the servants to pack some clothes and a few of his personal effects into a bundle. He considered this to be his final command to a servant, knowing he would return to the quiet existence of a poor woodcutter. A tear came to his eye.

When Thrala passed him in the long hallway, unlit since there were no more candles anywhere, she could still see the bag over his shoulder by the moonlight.

“What is that?” she inquired.

He said nothing, but kissed her on the cheek.

“What are you doing?” she asked. “Are those secret candles?”

“These are my things. I’m going now.”

She could not believe it. He loved the candles so much more than her. The satchel was likely filled with more of them. He could not see the exact expression of her features. She wished he could; they were nasty and cruel. She even wondered if any beauty shone through them. Just so he could maybe get a sense of how vile she felt about him now, she grabbed his head and pressed his face slowly against hers.

In the dark, two faces cannot feel how the other looks. They can only tell how the other feels. Her skin, as ever, was soft and delicate. Their faces moved around and rolled across chins and noses. Her grimace, and the tension it brought to her muscles only told Dagol that she was cringing in sadness. She was not angry after all, he thought. She did not want to see him go!

“If you don’t want me to leave, I won’t leave,” he whispered.

“Want you to leave?” she asked.

“I know you don’t love me anymore. I understand.”

She pulled her face away. “Anymore? If you don’t want me then what can I do? I only wanted our life to be candle-less. We can find other ways to amuse ourselves.”

And then he understood. The magic wasn’t needed anymore. They were safe, complete and together. A perfect family of two.