An elderly man stood on top of Folsby Hill. Rain lashed his grey cloak, and the thrashing, screaming wind threatened to carry his wide-brimmed hat at least halfway back to Thirlton. Beside him, a youngster in his early teens. Tall for his age, with the same skinny build.
The pair raised their arms and conducted the sun to the horizon, as if directing a giant elemental orchestra. Usually, the old man went straight home. Tonight, he paused. Seventy years, three weeks, and two days since his grandfather brought him, this would be his last time on the hill. On their way, he told the young man what to expect.
Old Varley’s eyes failed years ago. People said he brought it upon himself, climbing Folsby day in, day out, and staring directly into the sun. Relative to nightfall, he left at the same hour each day, reliant now on memory alone to guide him along the uneven and potentially treacherous path.
He was ten when his own grandfather died. Father found him. The old man was still warm, and the rocking chair he built when he retired had barely stopped moving. For thirty years, he had spent his days rocking gently, watching the hands of the old clock turning, counting the minutes to sundown.
He heard mother open the door across the hall to see what was keeping her husband. Nothing he ever heard compared to the sound she made upon realising Grandfather was not the only one taken that day.
He must have known, of course. Why else would he have taken his grandson up the hill instead of Father the day before? After lowering the sun together, Grandfather handed over his cloak and staff, and they returned home in silence.
Back in the present, the current Old Varley, or Blind Varley, as people called him now, knew his time was over. After diligently undertaking the ritual handed down by his ancestors, he was ready for his next adventure.
“Is it gone, Benjamin?” he asked. He could hear that the boy had stopped waving his hands, hoping to catch a handful of rain or a cool breeze. He remembered doing the same.
“Yes, Grandfather, it’s dark now”.
He draped the cloak over his grandson’s shoulders and handed him the staff.
“But Grandfather”, Ben protested. “You need your stick to walk. And you’ll catch your death, just like Mother says”.
The old man shook his head, raised his finger to his lips, and walked resolutely into the wind. The boy followed. Never again did Old Varley speak to another living soul.
On clear, dry evenings, he often drew an audience. Many came to mock. He ignored them. Not a single one appreciated the effort required to draw the sun to rest. For the first thousand times or more, he felt like he was wrestling a flock of giant tethered birds back to earth against their will.
Or so he imagined.
In time, he and nature reached an uncomfortable truce. Now, he made the exercise look simple, flexing his fingers, bending his wrists, gesturing down towards the valley and river below. Some days were easier than others.
Their home, originally an inn on the main road through the town, dated from the late sixteenth century. On a foggy November evening in 1685, a coach carrying Thomas Varley stopped for the night. Originally bound for London, he decided this was the place for him and stayed for good. No one ever uncovered anything of his past, or where the chest of silver coins he used to buy out the owner came from. Not even his wife believed he came by it honestly.
He was not a likeable man, and trade suffered for it, at least until he persuaded his most popular barmaid to marry him. After that, he busied himself elsewhere while she worked to restore goodwill among the locals.
They had three sons in short order. The youngest drew his first breath at the very moment the old wizard died. And that, according to those who knew him, was when Thomas Varley went mad.
The local watchmen arrested Alfin at his table. Wary of his reputation, they bound him with sufficient rope to rig a fair-sized merchant vessel and dragged him away to see the magistrate.
He thought he had arrived unnoticed at the inn, arranging accommodation and ordering his meal without attracting attention. After so long, who would recognise him? Some said he left Thirlton twenty years before, others that it was closer to a few hundred. The truth probably lay somewhere in between. Those at surrounding tables kicked themselves afterwards. Not one of them would have refused the reward for information leading to his capture.
Emily Varley went to find her husband, but he wasn’t in any of his usual places. Shortly after the watch led Alfin away, he returned from a walk, looking uncharacteristically cheerful. Not even the shock of learning that his respectable establishment had, just minutes earlier, provided the stage for the arrest of a notorious outlaw sullied his mood. For the first and only time, he called for drinks on the house. He even stayed for as long as it took to pour a pint of their second-best ale down his greedy throat.
Emily’s labour was well underway when he stomped downstairs, grabbed his coat and went to watch the town set fire to the Wizard. As the flames caught the condemned man’s cloak, Varley felt a hand upon his shoulder and gentle breath across his cheek. Then came a voice, so weak it could only have come from a dying man.
“Thomas Varley”, it said. “I know what you have done. Meet me on top of Folsby, just before sundown”.
Varley never took orders from anyone. He didn’t intend to start now. He turned, but there was no one there.
There followed a slight hiss on the breeze, like air being sucked into a vacuum. Then nothing. He looked and saw the Wizard’s body collapse onto its pyre. The day’s entertainment over, Varley went straight home.
A newborn baby cried as he climbed the stairs. It was alive then. He’d better get to the bar. There was nothing like an execution to drum up a thirst among the townsfolk. There hadn’t been many lately.
The inn filled quickly and stayed busy until closing time. As daylight faded, Varley remembered the mysterious voice, but drove it from his thoughts. Dead wizards, pah. Stuff and nonsense. He was just tired, or possibly too sober. He’d see to the second when the bar quietened later. The first would fix itself by morning.
At a quarter-past seven, the door crashed open and Ned the blacksmith rushed in.
“Thomas, come quickly!”
“What is it, man?”
“It’s your Stella. She slipped her chain and is having a go at everyone on the high road. Looks like she’s caught the devil. We’d better fetch her before she does somebody a mischief”.
Drat that hound! He left Cook and Lizzie minding the bar and tore outside. Passers-by directed the men down the road. They heard barking and found Stella cornered by two boys near the churchyard.
“It’s not like her, Thomas. Something must have spooked her”.
“I’ll spook her when I get my... Come here, you!”
The dog had other plans. Varley pushed the boys aside, and Stella seized her chance to escape. The man ran behind and found her on top of Folsby Hill, tilting her head as if to ask why it took him so long.
Breathless, he perched on a boulder. Stella shuffled over to join him and put her head on his lap. A gust of wind caught him by surprise, though not as much as the voice from nowhere.
“Mr Varley, I’m glad you came. I thought you might forget”.
“Where are you? Who are you, and what do you want?”
“I’m over here”.
On a nearby rock sat Alfin. “Make yourself comfortable, this may take a while”.
The landlord spat loudly onto the ground. “I don’t believe in you, I watched you die”.
“I fear that is true, sir. The consequences of your actions present me with a problem”.
Varley tried to rise, but found himself stuck to the rock as if by an excess of Isaac Newton’s recently discovered gravity. “What’s it to do with me?”
“Had you left well alone, it would have been nothing. Your greed destroyed my body before I finished my work. Unfortunately, this remains critical for every living being, even in places explorers haven’t discovered yet. Since you caused my misfortune, you will take my place. On a positive note, it is likely to be the only useful thing you ever do”.
“I’d rather die”.
“That’s unfortunate, since I know to the hour how much longer you have left. I won’t spoil it for you, but most will envy your longevity. When your time is over, I will visit again and nominate your heir”.
Alfin stood and raised his arms towards the sun. “Stand up and join me”, he said.
Before Varley could find the words to protest, his body rose of its own volition.
“You will hear and remember the words of power in your mind, though your tongue may never speak them. Were you a wizard, you could perform the rite anywhere. Since you are not, and don’t have the wherewithal or intelligence to become one, I condemn you to return here daily for the rest of your life”.
“What am I to do?”
“For centuries, men have imagined a machine capable of perpetual motion. Unfortunately, they have failed to understand that not even the heavens operate on such a principle. They require celestial perturbation, Thomas Varley, a task which now falls to you. I have enough strength to get through the ritual once more. From tomorrow, until your last night on earth, you will be here alone. And, on that day, you will feel no relief, only pity for the destiny you have wreaked upon your successors”.
Then Varley heard the strange chant begin, softly at first, growing louder until it filled his head.
The sun expanded and filled almost the entirety of space, though only he and the Wizard would ever see the effect. It grew until its edge stopped just short of where they stood, then shot chains of lava toward their open palms. Varley screamed with agony as his flesh melted under the heat. Sputtering and howling into their faces, the vast golden orb kicked back while they held tight and heaved it on its way. Suddenly, apparently cowed, it snapped back to its customary form. Varley watched it vanish behind the trees below as the searing pain in his hands subsided and disappeared.
He turned to speak again, but found himself alone, apart from Stella. She lay on the grass, waiting for her master to pay her attention.
“This is your fault, you stupid hound!”. He grabbed her collar and reached for a heavy stone. He raised it high, but the weapon crumbled in his hand. A second did the same, then a third. Throughout his life until then, his instincts drew him to cruelty and violence. Now the Wizard had taken even that from him.
Thomas was ninety-six when Alfin, true to his word, returned in the night to relieve him of his duties. He had already outlived his wife, three sons and all but two of his grandchildren. The Wizard told him to take the youngest boy with him the next day, perform the ritual, relinquish his cloak and staff and return in silence. Then he would allow him to die.
Tonight, it would happen again, as it had seventeen times before. Some tried to escape by sending their grandsons away, yet always, eventually, one found his way back and never escaped the Wizard’s vengeful eye.
Thirlton has never forgotten Jeremiah Varley. He lived to a hundred and sixteen. People travelled from all over the country to learn his secret.
All he could point to was his daily evening walk.
Everyone had forgotten that he sent his expectant wife away while in his twenties. He gave her enough money to keep herself and their child in comfort for the rest of their lives, and instructions never to return, nor allow anyone to know of his whereabouts.
Almost ninety years later, a cruel twist of fate led Morton Varley to the bosom of a travelling American circus, which set up in town for three nights on its way to the capital.
A friendly man with a flowing white beard stopped by while they ate, and asked whether Morton thought he might be a relative of the oldest living man in England. He and his young son went for tea the next afternoon and discovered, to their delight and Jeremiah’s secret horror, that they were. Herbert Varley asked if he could stay with Grandpa and go to school in town like the other boys. The old man, faced with the choice between condemning his great-great-grandson to the life he had endured and dragging his broken body uphill for, perhaps, another hundred years, knew Alfin had won at last.
Morton gave his blessing, and Herbert stayed. Three weeks later, he, too, found himself on the top of Folsby. The Wizard promised Jeremiah to take care of the boy until he could fend for himself, and the cycle began anew.
On the first day of the rest of his life, Benjamin Varley set out early to climb the hill. Unlike yesterday, the weather was warm and dry.
Ben was a voracious reader, an unashamed dreamer, and wished for many things in life. Above all, he wanted to travel. When he was five, his father gave him a globe, which was several times larger than his head. Until he learned to read, and often after, he studied the coloured countries and continents to send himself to sleep.
Last summer, bored and curious, he set about investigating his ancestry. An inquiry at the reference library yielded more documents than expected, and he spent most of his school holiday there. To his delight, he uncovered a rich seam of eccentricity which ran, apparently unbroken, from the first of the Thirlton Varleys until the death of Queen Victoria, whereupon the records ran dry. Fortunately, he knew Grandfather had continued the family tradition.
At the top of the hill, he placed grandfather’s cloak and staff on the ground and sat on the same rock Thomas chose three centuries earlier. He listened for movement, but heard only birds summoning one another home for the night.
“Come out, you old fraud!” he called. “I know you’re there”.
Then he waited. Silence.
“Come on. We need to talk. This stops now”.
A voice on the breeze seemed to reply.
“Well, a young man with spirit at last. How long have I waited for you?”
“I’m here”. The light shimmered in front of the young man as Alfin took form.
“You’re losing your power”.
He thought he saw a wry smile beneath the Wizard’s hat.
“What makes you think that, Benjamin Varley?”
“You made Thomas struggle against the weight all his life, and the three who followed, while Herbert only suffered for six years. You gave up on grandfather after less than three”.
“You cannot know that. I removed their power to speak of it”.
“The old workaround. They learned to write”.
Alfin scowled. “You should be careful. I can make things very difficult for you”.
“I’ll gamble your strength gives out before mine”.
The Wizard rubbed his beard thoughtfully. “My apprentices are usually younger than you. I was remiss in letting your grandfather carry on longer than intended. He had such character, though. I may even miss him”.
“Don’t you think we’ve suffered enough?”
“But it’s such fun. And healthy exercise for you”.
Ben smiled. Alfin wondered why.
“Young man, I don’t know what you think you mean, but you certainly haven’t”.
“You’re wrong. You missed it”.
Ben pointed at the skyline.
“The sun went down while we talked. Without help from me. Or you. It’s over. I’m going”.
Alfin leapt from his rock, his face a picture of horror, and rushed to the edge. He stared across the countryside as the sun’s last rays disappeared. The young man started for home.
Ben took no notice and carried on walking.
“Hear me out, young man!”
“This had better be good. I’ve got three-hundred years of catching up on behalf of my family to do”.
“I like you, Benjamin. I’ve watched you grow, and like you very much. And, though I hate to admit it, you are entirely correct. I owe you, and your predecessors, an apology. Long ago, I knew one day I would need to correct my injustice towards all but Thomas”.
He returned to his rock.
“I have a proposal. If I offer you more power than you can imagine, can you promise not to abuse it? Even though I failed, and did just that myself?”
“Meet me each night for three years and I will teach you all I know. You are right. I am tired. My power wanes. Afterwards, I will rest while you live in peace. Many, many years from now, when you decide you are weary of life, you will summon me. As the spirit departs your body, mine will move in. I will watch over your health and wellbeing, and ensure it has a good home to retire to”
“And if I refuse?”
“Then what remains of me will die. Will you consider and meet me here tomorrow with your answer?”
Benjamin Varley had already decided. He looked once more at the Wizard and then, without another word, walked away.