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Short Story: The Wanderer
Some journeys take forever.
Not because of the distances travelled or the forces that hinder the traveller. God knows the distances have been long and the hindrances formidable. Some journeys take forever because you travel backwards into the cavernous pits of your memory.
As I rode down the winding canyon, my eyes taking in the weathered rock face and the circling eagles, I knew this journey was more than just riding towards a destination.
Dusk was gathering on the horizon. The shadows lengthened in the rock face, casting strange shapes and lurking possibilities. The wind that had been warm all along became colder now. The canyons were dangerous to traverse at night as predators and restless spirits thrive on lost travellers.
My horse was tired; puffs of steam clouded his breath. My body ached from the long journey and my mind ached from wandering thoughts.
I looked for a place to rest for the night. There was a clearing ahead, clustered with bushes and a sparse area of grass. A large tree stood braving the forceful wind that battered the rock face . I could hear the trickle of a mountain stream.
This would do.
I swung down from Kathrian and he neighed in approval. I eased the harness off and led him to the stream. I drank to my fill at the stream and splashed some water on my face. Kathrian wandered off to sample the wild grass by the rock face.
I rested the harness on the ground and undid my cape.
My possessions were few apart from the clothes I wore: my Muren sword, a leather water gourd and my Syrillan stringed instrument. I picked the latter up and ran my hands over its sensuous carvings. I plucked a few strings and a somnolent melody emerged. They say the Syrillan picked up the player’s inner thoughts and changed its melody according to the moods.
The Syrils were masters of their craft. I picked this one up during the war. The elderly woodcrafter who made it was meticulous. I remembered his slow stride and shaking hands. The gnarled old joints of his fingers that looked like wood themselves. I used to marvel how his hands never shook when he worked on the wood. He fashioned the Syrillan with utmost affection as if it was an infant; stringing it with care and asking me to play it till the music was flawless.
I spread my cape on the ground and sat down, leaning on the cold rock. I kept the sword at arm’s length.
Night insects trilled all around making up their own music. There was a scent of wildflowers in the air. The rock people who dwelled on the other side of this mountain never ventured into the canyons at night. They believed that dead souls loiter here when the moon is out. I have seen my share of dead souls. Their mournful singing had inspired some of my own songs.
I did not light a fire. I never did. I did not have the need for one.
I fingered the rough scar in the shape of a ring on my left shoulder. A reminder of magic and death. The seal of Arturus. Few people knew its meaning. Fewer survived the knowledge.
I knew it kept the dead souls from wandering closer for they feared the seal and the ones who possess its power. They were wise.
My sleep was restless through the night. Spirits circled at a distance, wisps of mist rising from the ground. Some dared to venture closer, mist coalescing into menacing shapes that withdrew in a flash, sensing danger. Their haunting melodies soothed me to sleep.
Ancient memories emerged from the ocean of my mind. I saw her face in my dreams. She called me again, as she has been calling me since the dreams began. I am coming , I whispered to her, I am on my way .
The village was engulfed in the early morning haze as I rode Kathrian down the mountain. Tiny huts and stone buildings scattered around farms. Much had changed, but then it has been fifty years since I left. Malnourished cows grazed on balding pastures looked up with rheumy eyes. Few stray dogs ran yapping as I rode the trail into the village. There were not many people about. I looked for the innkeeper’s sign.
The village had lost its magic in my absence. The farms looked abandoned; the once lively road was deserted. Some houses were shut and most buildings looked dilapidated. An ancient face leered at me from an open window. I could see few scrawny horses chewing on strands of hay .
I rode past a familiar place.
The blacksmith’s yard was empty and the remains of a long dead fire had scorched the ground. There was a wooden bench and a rusty anvil and a hammer lay half buried in the rubble. Wild creepers clung to the cracked walls. For a moment I saw the fires burning and I stood in front of the anvil, swinging that massive hammer. I saw Barian sitting in the corner, chewing on devil-weed.
“Gently lad, swing gently. Brute strength alone never fashioned a sword. It’s the skill that matters” he roared, spitting weed-juice on the ground. I could see his hard jaw and bulging muscles gleaming with sweat in the firelight. The eyes were kinder. I had been his apprentice long ago.
The image vanished back into the recesses of my mind.
I saw the inn down the end of the road. It was still the same. The rattling wooden sign was faded with years of winds and rain. “The Traveller’s Arms”.
I dismounted outside and tied Kathrian to the hitching post. I gathered my belongings and stepped into the dark interior.
Into the past.
The cobbled floor was cracked in places. Dirty wooden benches bore sword marks. Probably from drunken soldiers having a brawl. The boar’s head still glared down at me from above the inner entrance. It looked moth eaten and one of its tusks had broken off. A smell of ale and sweat, wood smoke and old leather pervaded my nostrils. I stood there, looking around for a bell as the innkeeper walked in from the cavernous passageway. He looked taken aback for an instant. He was older than I imagined he would be, wispy grey hair in a halo around his balding head. His beard was peppery and the blue eyes under the bushy eyebrows were inquisitive.
“ Ah. A traveller. I have not seen strangers here for a long time.” His voice was gravelly.
“I need a place to rest tonight.”
“Young man, have you come from afar?” He pointed his hands in the general direction of the east.
I smiled inwardly. Soren was as old as I. But my appearance had not changed much since my encounter with the forces that ruled my destiny. Cursed to eternity. To think some spent their lifetimes searching for what I have. They do not know the costs.
“I have.” I tossed a few coins on the table. “That should take care of the expense. I seek food and shelter. Is there someone who could stable my horse and give him some water and oats?”
He didn’t answer. His slowly picked the coins up and his face lit up. “These are gold. These are from Syrill. Are you a minstrel? I notice you are carrying that lyre.”
“Innkeeper, I seek food, not questions.”
He stepped back as if I hit him. “Forgive my insolence. I shall show you to your lodgings. We haven’t had visitors for a while. Things haven’t been good around here for years.”
“I can see that.”
He led me through wooden stairs into a smelly room. I looked at the bed as my body yearned for its soft comfort.
“I shall sleep now. Wake me up at midday. I hope there will be some food?”
“Yes sire. I will ask Kara to make you a meal. She is a good cook. She’ll tend to your horse now.”
I shut the door as he left and sank wearily in the bed. I felt bad I hadn’t said a friendly word to Soren. I had been warned not to upset the villagers, not to go stampeding through my past.
In my dream she was nearer. You are close. Her voice rustled like autumn leaves.
I woke up with a start, my right hand gripping the sword. Raucous shouts could be heard from downstairs. Sweat sheened my forehead. I eased the sword down by the bedside. Some instincts never go away. They have saved my life many times.
It was dark; an oil lamp cast its flickering light around the room. A bowl of water stood on the table. I must have slept late. I had hoped to rise at mid-day.
I cleansed myself and drew my cape around me, hiding the mark on my left shoulder. It was better not to arouse the villagers’ curiosity.
As I stepped down the dark stairway, I walked right into her. She jumped back like a startled doe.
“Pardon me, sire. I didn’t see you.” She hunched against the wall.
“I have fed your horse. He is a marvellous animal. I’ve brushed his coat and watered him.”
“I am grateful.”
“Grandfather wanted me to wake you up at mid-day but you looked tired and were fast asleep.” She was a pale lass with flame red hair.
“No harm done” She must be Kara. The ragged clothes couldn’t mar her beauty. She stood there staring at me, as I walked past her. Sounds of revelry became louder.
A hush fell around the room when I stepped in. Three peasants sat around the scarred table with mugs of ale. A dwarf stood chewing on a piece of meat. There were others scattered around the room. Their faces haggard with the poverty that plagued the outerlands since the war.
Soren was drawing ale from the cask.
I walked up to him, conscious of beady eyes following my trail.
“ Ale, sire?”
“That would be nice.”
He drew me one. I drank the frothy liquid in a swift gulp. I motioned him closer.
“I need to know about someone who lived here a while back. May be still living here.”
He raised his bushy eyebrows.
“Her name is Rose. She was the blacksmith’s daughter.”
One of the peasants stirred in his seat. “ Let it be made known we do not like strangers. Let alone strangers asking questions.” He shook a thick fist in the air.
The others hushed him.
The Innkeeper drew another ale for me. His eyes avoided my gaze. “The Blacksmith’s family left here long ago.”
“ Now why do I not believe you?” I said, my voice hardening.
“Young lad, you are not from around here. Why do you seek this woman?” He was annoyed.
“For reasons of my own. Just tell me where she could be found.”
“She died,” said the dwarf approaching my side. Bits of meat clung to his voluminous lips, “She died long ago. She had the black-pox.”
I swung around to face him. “Does she have any family here?”
The dwarf laughed. “She was an old woman. Her husband perished in the canyons. She had no children. She was mad.”
One of the peasants stood up, belching. “Lad. You ask too many questions. I suggest you find your way back to where you came from. Leave us in peace. We have had our share of cursed strangers.”
Their dislike of strangers was something I’ve seen everywhere since the Syrillan war. The war drove people to starvation. Markets closed. Able young men rode off leaving women and children, the old and the crippled, to fend for themselves. Disease and famine ruled the land for the past fifty years. Heartless thieves pillaged and murdered helpless villagers. I’ve seen more than my share of hatred and venom during my travels. Superstitions were rife. Often with reason. The war had unleashed strange forces in the land.
Strange forces like me.
I could see in their conspiratorial looks that they were hiding something. I didn’t want to use force. I’d sworn never to raise my sword against common men. Moreover I didn’t want to lose my only trail to finding Rose. I could feel her presence. She was here somewhere, my dreams don’t lie.
I finished my drink and wandered outside. The moon was up casting pale shadows amongst the ruins of the village. A distant hound’s tortured howl pierced the night’s silence.
These were the very roads where I had played with my friends. The part of the village where I grew up had long since disappeared to rubble. The few houses left looked uninhabited. I could see light through some closed doors. I wished I hadn’t slept through the day. I could’ve asked some of the villagers about Rose. I did not know if they would have favoured me with answers.
I ventured near the Blacksmith’s yard. Fragments of the past flitted past empty windows. I saw her face in the moonlight, silvery tears brimming in her eyes.
Do you have to go? she had asked. They speak of the devil and wizardry in the war. I do not want to lose you.
I had laughed at her fears. I have to go, Rose. I can feel it in my blood. They need men to defend the land. Evil forces should never be let to overcome our land.
I felt her moist face on my chest. Promise me you’ll come back for me.
I had kissed her tearstained face. I will, Rose. I will.
I was back now, fifty years too late. I never meant to return.
I thought I had forgotten. I had not.
After my encounter with Arturus, my life had changed. Fifteen years of my life spent chasing phantoms. When I realised the war would continue forever, I left. The few who possessed the seal of Arturus splintered. We drifted to various corners, confused with what was happening to us. Unable to grasp the extent of our powers, unable to face the changes around us. The only way to survive was to drift, to wander.
Never to the same place twice. The danger of being burnt at the stake. Frozen in a time of our own while all around us people changed. We became myths and legends. We became hushed stories told around communal fires. We became phantoms ourselves.
I shook out of my reverie when I saw a solitary lamp coming towards me.
It was Kara. She looked flushed. “I can help you.” She whispered. I pulled her into the yard away from prying eyes. “What do you mean?”
“I know where the old woman is.” She was carrying a small sack of food and a water gourd.
“Why do they refuse to tell me?” I said, waving towards the Inn.
“Nobody is meant to go to the caverns. The place is cursed, or so they say. I think they are afraid of her. She used to work as the village nurse since her husband died. She tended to my father when he was stricken by the pox. She spoke of things the villagers never heard of. She spoke of dreams of faraway lands, of the war. She spoke of phantoms.” Kara shivered.
“How do you know where she dwells?”
“She is ill. She has the black-pox. The villagers made her move out. She couldn’t go anywhere, she has nobody here. She caught the illness from tending to the sick whom nobody else would tend to. I think she is dying. I carry her food and water when I can, but I never go in. If anyone knew they would cast me out too.”
“Will you lead me there now?”
She nodded. We slipped out through the back yard and I let her lead the way. We walked past a dying vineyard and stunted tress. Distant roars of predators echoed down the mountains. She was a feisty one, this Kara. Only the brave or the foolish ventured out this time of the night alone and unarmed.
“Why do you seek this woman?” she asked me in hushed tones.
“I promised her I’d come back.”
“Oh you know her?”
Should I risk telling her the truth? Will she understand? Will she even believe if I told her?
“I know her.”
“I didn’t know she had any other family” Kara spoke as we climbed a rocky path.
I am not family. I wanted to say. I was her lover.
We saw the cave as we climbed the small hill. The entrance was overgrown with shrubs.
“This is where I leave the food.” Kara pointed to a small rock table near the entrance. “I have never seen her in the last year. I do not think she ever ventures out. I do not even know if she is alive. For all I know the food and water could be stolen by anybody.”
I stood outside feeling the chill wind on my face. My heart was heavy. I wanted to turn around and go back. I wanted to keep the memories of her as they have been. I did not need new ones. I did not need painful ones.
“Are you…are you going in?” Kara looked afraid. “Can I come in too?”
“No Kara. You stay here. I need to see her alone.” My voice was grim, my chest tight.
“But the pox… Is it safe for you to…?”
I nodded as I took the sack from her. “You may go back now.”
“I prefer to stay here.” She crossed her arms in defiance.
“I do not know how long I will be. It is safer if you go back. Your Grandfather will be looking for you.”
“I wouldn’t worry about him, he is getting drunk with the peasants.”
I gathered a few dry twigs and branches and fashioned a torch. I lit it with Kara’s lamp and handed the lamp back to her. “Stay here. Shout if you need me.”
I stepped into the cave, the rancid smell of bats and dampness invading my nostrils. The torch cast long shadows on the interior. The floor was strewn with dry leaves and twigs.
I had a strange feeling in my head and my heart pounded as if threatening to explode. I never felt this way facing up to enemies in battlefield. Yet…
I saw a dim light ahead. The narrow cave expanded into a larger cavern. A howling wind blew through a small hole on the rock face. I saw a tallow candle on a hollow in the walls, its flame barely lighting the cavern. Ghostly shadows danced on the rocks.
I moved my torch closer. I could feel her presence.
I saw what looked like a bundle of rags. Then she moved as I went closer.
I saw her closed lids; their long lashes now gray. The hair was matted, face sunken in a bitter parody of what had once been. The skeletal arms hugging her chest, her body covered in a ragged woollen blanket. I could hear the harsh sibilance of her breathing.
I knelt down and impaled the torch onto a crack in the wall.
I sat down on the cold rock and touched her face.
The dry lips cracked open. Eyelids stayed closed.
“You came.” Her voice was a distant whisper.
“You called.” I choked.
I picked the gourd in one hand and gently eased her head on to my lap. I gave her some water, most of which trickled down the side. She opened her eyes. They hadn’t changed. They were still luminous, their blue orbs specked with floating gold. A tired smile crept on her face. I picked her hand and treasured it in mine.
“You are beautiful,” she said smiling. “You are more beautiful than I remember.”
“You are too.”
“Liar. Flattery will get you nowhere.”
I felt hot tears trickling down my cheeks. A golden droplet landed on her forehead.
She caressed my face with her hand. She pulled me closer, searching my eyes with hers. “I knew you would come. I called you in my dreams. I knew you wouldn’t have changed. I could see what you saw; I could feel what you felt. You kept talking to me in my sleep. It was like we were linked across eternity.”
She coughed. Rough, dry sounds racked her chest.
“I couldn’t keep my promise.”
“But you have. This is all I wanted. Now I can leave. In your arms.”
“I can help you to live.”
I bent down and kissed her lips.
She slowly shook her head. “I have had my fill. I want to go now. I know you could help me with that. I have heard what they say of the chosen ones.”
She caressed my face and wiped my tears away. “Show me the seal.”
I undid my cape and uncovered my shoulder. She looked at it and smiled. Her fingers traced its callused scar. “What will you do with eternity?”
“That’s the question I have been asking myself all these years.”
“You were always the restless one. You have the thirst in you. You travel on Destiny’s shoulder.”
She coughed some more. Pain twisted her face into a grimace.
“Help me,” she whispered. “Please.”
I held her close, rocking her gently. I called upon Arturus and felt my seal glow as if on fire. Warm blood coursed through my veins.
“Goodbye, my love,” I whispered into her ear. I knew what I had to do. I couldn’t refuse her.
“Good bye,” She muttered and I looked into those blue eyes one last time.
I bent down, my head throbbing with ancient chants. I pursed my lips and kissed her, taking her breath into my lungs. She sighed. A wisp of thin smoke rose from her lips and entered mine. I felt her go limp. The luminous specks in her eye went still. I drew out her final breath and felt her mingle in my blood. There she will stay forever.
Stepping outside the cave carrying her across my arms, wrapped in my cape, I froze as I saw them huddled in a group. I saw Kara struggling in the old man’s arms.
“We asked you to go away. Not meddle with the caverns.” One of the peasants stepped forward, his eyes glazed from the ale.
Soren spoke through gritted teeth. “Leave her in the cave. She will bring the cursed pox upon us.”
Kara sprang from his grip and ran towards me.
“Yes Kara. She is dead.”
One of the peasants was struggling to hold Kathrian who was snorting with anger. My harness and belongings were on his back.
“We do not want you to come back into the village. Ride away now.”
I laid her down on the earth and drew my sword. Moonlight reflected onto their worried faces. “She deserves a funeral. She deserves more than what you did to her. You wouldn’t grant her peace in life. Grant her the dignity in death.” I walked forward. “If anyone disagrees they shall have to face my sword.”
They slowly moved away. Fear and loathing were spitting from their eyes.
They stood around in a crowd, watching my every move. I started collecting twigs and dead branches. Kara knelt down and helped me. We stacked the wood around Rose.
I pulled Kara to my side. “This girl is harmless. She doesn’t have the pox. Harm her in any manner and I shall return to seek vengeance.”
I took the lamp from Kara’s shaking hands and lit the pyre.
Flames licked the frail form. Little twigs snapped and exploded showering the air with sparks. Mournful whisperings came floating down the mountain canyons. The dead souls were seeking a companion. I moved my sword in a sign. This one is mine, I whispered to them.
I walked up to Kathrian and unslung the Syrillan. I caressed its strings. Music melted into the wind.
The melody of the dead souls.
I sang softly, as flames rose up into the night sky. The huddled crowd watched and listened in silence.
Like the flitting shadow
Of the journeying eagle
A solitary cloud
On the golden sky
Fast and slow
Fleeing and lingering
On life’s tortuous moments.
The world flees
My soul lingers
Disjointed, not keeping up
With the passage of time.
Savouring the moments
Or reliving the nightmares
A lazy wanderer.”
I rode away as the flames were dying. I did not know where this would lead me. I only knew I wouldn’t stay there for long.
Some journeys take forever. Forever is all I have.