The Firekeeper
 
Once, there was an empire that covered all the known world, and it was ruled by a succession of emperors, who employed hundreds of thousands of people to do the work, from the lofty prime minister to the lowliest kitchen scullions. That was how the clockwork for such a vast and intricate empire was kept running — more or less.


In those times, the emperor had a firekeeper. The emperor’s firekeeper lived on the side of the tallest mountain in the world. It was his duty to light the great fire, which was laid at the very top of the mountain, in times of unnatural darkness. That way, even when fear and night besieged the earth, the fire would guide the people until the light should return.


One day, the sky began to grow darker. A man ran up the firekeeper’s mountain and said to him, “Look at the sky! This is an evil darkness. You must light the fire at the top of the mountain!”


But the firekeeper looked at the sky and replied, “I have seen darker skies than this. We can still see. This dimness may very well pass.” He went back into his hut.


As time wore on, the darkness continued to gather. A woman ran up the mountain as if through a murky twilight.


She begged the firekeeper, “Light the great pyre! In the lowlands, it is like midnight all the time. The people are struggling. You must light the fire so we can see the way forward.”


The firekeeper again surveyed the sky, and said, “I can still see stars in the firmament. It is not dark enough to warrant lighting the greatest fire in the world. And it took a long time to gather all that wood! I don’t want to waste it. This darkness is endurable.” He returned to his house.


As the days passed, the darkness did not lift, but only deepened. A young man came stumbling up the mountain like one struck blind.


“What are you waiting for?” he asked the firekeeper. “There has never been such a darkness before. Go to the great fire and light it, or this shall be the end.”


The firekeeper looked into the sky and finally agreed that the darkness did seem serious.


“I suppose I shall light the great fire after all,” he said.


But by that point, the blackness had become as thick as fog and as dark as pitch, so that the firekeeper could not find his way to the very top of the mountain where the pyre waited. He wandered over the rocky ground for days, stumbling in the unnatural gloom. He grew tired and hungry, because he could not find his home again either.


Almost starving, the firekeeper finally encountered what seemed to be a pile of wood. He lit it, and watched as the flames began to grow, illuminating a tiny patch of the world.


“Oh, no!” the firekeeper cried, realizing his mistake. “I’ve lit my own home on fire! Now where shall I live?”


“Never mind that,” said a voice. It was the young man who had climbed the mountain to beg the firekeeper to do his duty. He had stayed on the mountain because it was too dark to return home. “You have made a little light, but you are too weak to go on. Give me the flints you carry, and I will climb to the top of the mountain.”


So the weeping firekeeper gave the flints to the young man, who ran toward the top of the mountain, desperate to reach it before the firekeeper’s hut burned to the ground. He ran faster than anyone had before, and just as the little light went out, he reached the top.


Striking the flint, the young man created sparks like stars that showered down the mountain. Then the first flames caught and the great pyre burst into a blaze almost as bright as the sun. The young man was too close to the heat, and he perished instantly, his body reduced to ashes.


All across the earth, people rejoiced as the fire returned light to the world, opposing the unnatural darkness. The old firekeeper was praised by the emperor, and awarded a medal etched with a golden flame. He retired, having done his duty, and then built a brand new house in the valley, and lived in comfort until the end of his days.


end