THE JOURNEY

A SANTHARIAN NOVELLA

 
The Tales of Monsonius   
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Introduction. With "The Journey" the famous Manthrian poet Monsonius created a highly influential short story that would reverberate many centuries in the future. And this even though Monsonius kept working on this rather short piece of literature until his death, never satisfied with the result. Only with Chyrán of Caelum this fascinating kind of incongruous, yet beautiful image-laden story-telling would find a new master, serving as inspiration for his famous poetic novel "The Ring".

Unlike other stories the extraordinary tale of the "Journey" is unique in the way this captivating text progresses and manages to hold one's interest by constantly changing perspectives. In the "Journey" we follow the invitation of an unknown person and are led to dive into a world full of mysteries, oddities, images and visions. Where nothing is what it is supposed to be, the reader soon gets lost and more and more entangled in questions, drawn into a dreamlike kaleidoscope of events that seem to lead even further away from the ultimate goal of finding that unknown someone. But will the journey ever end? And who's waiting on the other end of what might just be a dream? Or is it?

 

e very moment I put down that quill a tale is about to get written. Who knows where it will begin? Who can say where it might take someone? And who is going to be invited for the dance? But that’s how it all must begin, how it always will begin, that tale: Mine, and someone else’s.”
-- Unknown

I

Monsonius

View picture in full size Picture description. Manthria's most famous poet, Monsonius. Image drawn by Bard Judith.

I found myself in the midst of the forest, sitting at the foot of a gigantic tree. The drizzle that had surprised me a while ago was about to stop already and the air felt cool, wet and refreshing. I took a deep breath.

Having travelled for several hours I now enjoyed a few quiet moments and looked up from where I sat, my eyes admiring the tree’s reach for the skies. At the ground a good portion of the urban’s large roots enwrapped the outer rim of the hill on which the tree itself towered majestically. So there I sat and ate my apple, maybe a stone’s throw away from the trunk in front of the mound, in a small naturally formed niche. It was formed by the urban’s enormous sturdy roots, just as if they were meant to invite anyone who passed by to take a rest. And so I had done.

I held the piece of paper still in my hand. It wouldn’t let go. Unfolding it yet again my eyes skimmed over the lines written on it in resolute handwriting:

“Dear friend!

If you read this message I’m glad, for I know you have received it, and this is what matters most. The moment you are reading these lines I’ve headed off already towards the woods, where I hope you will meet me.

You know how to get there when consulting the map, which I provided with this note. I don’t want you to get lost. If you follow these instructions you’ll find me waiting at the lodge near the pond at the forest’s heart, don’t tarry. However, see that you arrive today if at all possible, before Sundrown, but nevertheless if you’re late, I’ll be waiting, do not worry. I confide in you to arrive, whenever that may be, my hopes are on you. Please, don’t forget about me, as this note should be proof enough that I haven’t forgotten about you either!”


It was signed with “An old friend” and had the present date scribbled next to the signature, suggesting urgency. Finally, the very last line caught my attention - it was written in tiny letters, which for some reason must have escaped me the last dozen times I had read the note: “If you have troubles finding the place – although I’ve marked it so well for you on the attached map –, please ask for further directions at the inn, trust me, you won’t be able to miss that one.”

I pulled the map out of my backpack and glanced over what looked like an ancient parchment, tried to connect what I saw on it with my surroundings. I remembered having passed a small straw-thatched cottage a while back and hints of a swamp on the east side. An arrow here, a landmark there, what could be that difficult? – However, the Injèrá, as the elves referred to the sun, was already drowning behind the treetops in the distance, making my decision on how to continue a rather pressing matter. Blinded by the dying fire on the sky I raised a hand above my eyes to make out what was on the other side of that clearing which lay straight ahead of me like a blooming mysterious passage into the unknown.
 

But... – what?

It was as if there were joyous sounds emerging from somewhere behind those trees on the other side, no, not just sounds, there was – indeed! – there it was again: music! If my ears could be trusted it were fiddles I heard playing softly, and every now and then pregnant vibrations of a harp, or of something that sounded like one, were carried along by the evening breeze. There was singing, well, humming at least; could be a woman, maybe a child, and certainly it was a gay tune, a lullaby of sorts maybe. I couldn’t quite pin it down, yet there was something.

The inn! I thought. It must be that inn mentioned in the letter!

And as I stepped forward – yes, would you believe it? – for a fleeting moment I thought to even spot shapes and figures out there! Tiny figures they were: people – children, hobbits, Brownies? – prancing in circles, laughing, dancing, singing, dancing, laughing, prancing in circles… Oh yes, tiny figures they were: people – children, hobbits, who knows, Brownies? Yet when I removed the shade my hand had offered me to better observe the spectacle against the light of the dying sun, it all... abruptly disappeared.

I made a step forward and saw everything getting swallowed by the darkness that crept out of the underbrush in the fading day, stifling the brightness and merriment I thought to have picked up between the blinks of an eye. Had it just been my imagination? However, it was as if those trees cast fresh shadows the very moment I advanced, and while the trunks, boughs and leaves right in front of me stood still, the shadows kept on swaying like those figures I thought to have seen before. I stood there, transfixed, until the ghostly stir ceased again and everything was calm.

It was then that the wind really picked up, so that I could feel its touch and hear its howling. Trees and shadows were now rocking at the same time as they used to, and the breeze’s chilly touch reminded me of pursuing what I’ve come here for. Confused, I blinked into the darkening sky.

I moved on, crossed the clearing. There was no time to lose.

Rambling, mumbling to myself, stumbling, tumbling I was, all the way drawn towards the short-lived shadows I had believed to see dancing, prancing, commencing something I wouldn’t know to describe. But the shadows dissolved now more and more into blurry masses, then into one single gigantic black maw as I came nearer. And with the shadows turning into utter darkness my hopes that they’d lead me somewhere, that I was to join their merriment, dwindled.

But there – lo and behold! – there it was! As soon as I reached the other side of the clearing I saw a small path winding itself through the tense forest! The path, I was confident, matched exactly the one shown on the map I had just looked at. It had to! Without thinking twice, I took it, joyous to have come across what I was looking for, forgetting about the fascinating figures, the strange episode. All of a sudden I was prancing, laughing, dancing, humming to myself.

Eventually I got swallowed by the darkness that crept out of the underbrush in the fading day, leaving a clearing behind where new shadows appeared once more to sway in the wind for a while – until they stood still again, and everything and everyone turned silent.

I cannot be sure how long I followed that path, I truly cannot: that path, through the dense forest, in which I had set all my hopes to get me to the pond in time.

I peered at the tree next to me, gazed at it questioningly, yet it looked just like the one several heartbeats back when I had started out entering this part of the forest. As I looked down now, and with every step I took, I noticed that the path I had started on was dissipating in front of me in the gloom. Dusk had begun to take over, sneakily veiling my surroundings, dyeing it in shades that made a tree indistinguishable from an onlooking watcher.

I stopped, swirled around, mystified. There was a tree, another tree, another, and yet another one; and then that other one which stood just to the next; and next to it stood I.

I cannot be sure how long I followed that path, I truly cannot.

“Too long,” the tree next to me replied.

“Way too long...” A deep voice came from a gnarled exemplar behind me and it bowed down for a greeting, its treetop interlocking noisily with one if its counterparts above me. The tree extended its creaking boughs towards me.

Doubting my senses, I left the path that was none, and ran. I ran as fast as I could, no matter where I might end up, trying to escape that haunting voice. But there were more. Those voices that felt like discussing this late traveler’s unfortunate destiny, the traveler’s, who had got astray with no idea where salvation might lie. Incessant were their murmurs, they muttered and babbled, and what had started as a whispered remark here and there soon became louder, so that eventually the whole forest was rustling with chatter as if a furious storm was inciting every single tree that blocked its course.

“That one’s lost, you know, I picked up from one of my wooden companions as I sought my way out of the forest, encountering tree upon tree. “Yes, yes, that’s for sure, no doubt about that,” another one answered, and creaked as he nodded. “What you don’t say,” said the other. “Not the first one at that, I tell you!”

And I ran and ran, but the murmurs wouldn’t cease.

“How could that have happened? Didn’t that one even have a map?” asked still another one as I darted away, away from them, all of them, to get rid of them, just to get out, out and away. “And so confidently these steps were walking amongst us, so sure and guided! What determination! And that one hasn’t even found the inn!” the one next to me croaked woodenly in a mockery of laughter as I finally hit the ground, exhausted. “Not even the inn, just imagine!”

“Oh dear, not even that!” one of the trees produced with an especially eerie hollow groan.

“And yet, here you are again,” the tree continued, still standing next to me, looking familiar somehow. He was talking to me! “What do you run from? There’s nobody here except you! And haven’t I told you already that you’ve followed your path too long?”

I turned around, hearing branches creak close by. The gnarled tree that I had heard speaking first was there as well, I recognized it without a doubt... As if I hadn’t moved at all! Its booming voice decided to finally offer me a profound wisdom the forest called its own: “Calm down, friend. Don’t act like any other mortal lost out here with the habits they enjoy so much: walking, running, well, just call it ‘going from one place to the other’.” Contempt oozed from the gnarled tree’s somber voice. “But no matter how you call it - it is all the same: searching. Yet you cannot become one of us if you always keep moving, you know.”

An odor of wet, brittle timber reached my senses, accompanied by a loud, wooden groan, and then there was this sensation of roots snaking around my legs and body. I felt a firm, inescapable grip upon my ankle.

“Aren’t we getting weary, my good friend?” I heard a voice so close as though it came from deep inside of me, as convincing as a lullaby. “Aren’t you tired of the constant bustling, longing for a quiet, leafy rustling? Aren’t your bones now stiff and numb, so glad to join us wooden chums? Rest is best, we say, put down a root, it’ll do you good!”

I looked down to my feet, where the boughs had grabbed me, had painfully wrapped around my legs. But I didn’t feel the wet clayey touch anymore on my skin, all I could see was bark falling off my thighs as if it had always grown there. And it was then that I finally closed my eyes.


II

I awoke in the dead of night. What I understood was that I was sitting somewhere, embraced by mighty gnarled hands, holding me in their tight grip. As I sat, I found that I was unable to move in the entangled web of wooden claws, but neither did I wish to for some reason. Lowering my gaze, I discovered that I was wearing a dark gown, which went straight down to my ankle. It appeared to be grey, but then again, it might have been earth colored as well, as the half-darkness made it difficult to discern any shades. Yet the intricate embroidery around the hems glittered brightly, so I assumed that it must have been golden. Undoubtedly I was barefoot.

The cold wind was leafing wildly through my long silver hair and I had to brush back a strand to see what was there in front of me. I felt that this was what I was supposed to do, that something beckoned me from the distance. There it was – indeed – there it was again: That faint, recurring motion far off that seemed to breathe through the calmness of the underbrush, like a call from the other side, but there was no one shouting. My grip on the gnarled staff I held in my hand became tighter.

There was something, someone; lying on the ground, helpless, a hand reaching out at me from afar. The figure was engulfed by a dozen dispersed trees, huddled around him were boughs and roots, and whoever the figure was, it was shaking in the night’s piercing, chilly breeze. Yet a wide clearing stretched between us, with wafts of thick, damp mist drifting slowly over the tall grasses, enwrapping a boulder here and there, curling around a stump, a late traveler.

Yes, now I saw it with certainty – there was a traveler over there on the other side. Barely able to move, but with the determination to do so, I stretched my arm in the direction of the stranger. Tried to shout, but my voice failed me. I looked around. I was freezing. The trees and trees that stood behind the invisible line where the clearing ended and the forest began were staring at me, yet they remained as they were: unmoving, silent, watching. Once more I tried to clamber to my feet, but couldn’t; the cold earth seemed to have a firm, painful grip on me. Only with my eyes I succeeded in traversing the clearing and reach the stranger, who must have got aware of my misery. Yet whoever it was, the figure didn’t give any indication of getting up from the gnarled seat and approach me. Neither could I even tell whether it was man or woman: The stranger wore a long gown and was sitting in front of a small hill, on a structure that appeared to resemble a wooden throne, made out of gnarled roots. And there was long silver hair dancing in the wind, and a gaze that had been peering at me already for quite some time.

Finally, I managed to crank my neck further, noticing that it was a massive tree in front of which the figure was sitting. Truly it was magnificent. So huge was the tree, and so shining white, it even became more radiant and glorious the higher it rose. The lean trunk held hundreds and hundreds of sturdy, far reaching boughs, and on each one of them thousands of tiny, incredibly thin twigs stretched all over the night’s sky. They were like the intricate veins of a leaf, however the tree was reaching out into the infinity of what lay beyond, glowing brighter than any stars ever could, the further up they grew. I had to avert my eyes after a while as it all appeared so brilliant, and I lost tree and stranger for a moment when I looked away. Yet I sensed somehow that the sight helped to make my strength return.

But then, when I attempted once more to move my ice-cold bones, get up and approach the stranger, I had a weird sensation. I could have sworn that there was a shadow peeling off of me, even though there were barely shadows cast in the middle of the night’s scarce moonlight. But what I perceived was a silhouette of myself, or a shadow of a person that passed through me, a figure that became one with the fog which was rolling over the clearing, a shape that merged into it. Calmly, silently, the specter moved forward while I stayed back, cradled by gnarled hands, as a silent watcher. Whatever it was, it floated without a sound, without touching the earth, or so it appeared, the light of the moon’s crescent illuminating the eerie scene of a swimmer wading away from me through a sea of mist. Holding my breath, I looked on, following its course, but then the shape stopped in the middle of the clearing, and waited. An owl's hoot sounded in the distance.

I looked at the other side where I had seen the stranger, stranded on the shore of the misty ocean between us. However, there was no one there anymore on the other side: Yet a presence all of a sudden could be felt in the midst of the clearing, a human shape, fog swirling around it.

I got up from my throne, calling to the stranger in the haze to join me. An owl hooted close by, loud and clear.

The piercing windy sough finally made me stop. I couldn’t say where it originated from, but when I heard it realization came that I was standing in the mist covered clearing, like a dinghy drifting in the wide open sea. There were strange wooden creaking and groaning noises for a moment far off, then everything turned quiet again. I looked around. Not a single other soul was out there. The stranger had gone and I was all alone. Only the crescent of the moon kept me company.

Wearily I pulled my coat tighter and dragged myself to the other side of the clearing. I was exhausted, beaten and prayed for a spot to find shelter from my suffering. Upon arriving at the other side I found a naturally formed niche. It was made out of an urban’s enormous sturdy roots, just as if they were meant to invite anyone who passed by to take a rest. And so I did.

An abandoned walking stick lay next to the roots, I noticed; someone must have forgotten it there. I bent down to grab it, maybe just to have something to hold on to. At least it reminded me of other travelers, who might share my fate at this very moment. An owl’s wings were flapping somewhere close by as I finally sat down. I spotted something too above me, or so I thought, but it quickly disappeared in the darkness.

“I’ll never find it...” were the last words I heard someone mumble. As I dozed off I wondered who had spoken them.


III

Morning had broken with the tender calls of the forest’s birds, doing their share to awaken my aching bones. The sun fell on my face, bathing it with warmth and a sense of bliss, and a calm breeze swept over my sleepy features. I sat up and turned my head towards the blazing light out there, enjoying its caress for a few further moments before I finally opened my eyes to look around.

The room was small, but cozy. At the end of the bed stood a chair with my clothes on it, next to it a wooden trunk. To my left, next to the door, was a long dresser with the usual utensils you expect from that kind of furniture – an assortment of combs, a wash-bowl, a few untouched towels next to it, a mirror of course on top, and, interestingly, an hourglass. I looked at the latter for a while, still half asleep, as it seemed to be such an unusual item to be found in a bedroom. I admired its three-legged stand and especially the beautiful carvings of the three wooden columns surrounding the fragile glass structure, showing dancing figures, intertwined in what appeared to be boughs, leaves and flowers. Only after a while of staring at the hourglass I noticed again what had intrigued me instantly when my eye had fallen on it: It was running. The trickle was slow, yet incessant, hardly recognizable, tiny grains of sand sinking down from the upper bulb through the narrow tube in the middle, constantly adding to the heap at the bottom. Right now there was only very little sand left at the top bulb.

I got up, dipped my hands in the wash-bowl and rubbed my face with the water before I got dressed. For a while I just stood there at the open window, enjoying the view of the forest below. I took in the soft breeze that smelled of grasses full of dew, of wood, flowers, herbs and berries, and with its idyllic aroma the air brought long forgotten memories.

Then I caught someone in the corner of my eye: A person was walking along the well-trodden path that went by the cottage. I stayed at the window a while longer and watched, recognizing that the person was actually a lady. She was holding an umbrella in one hand, protecting her fair skin from the intense fires of the Injèrá, and an apple in the other. As she became aware of me observing her, she paused and turned halfway around in my direction.

Actually, I was a little embarrassed when it happened, caught off-guard while watching a perfect stranger, but the lady just smiled and waved at me enthusiastically with the hand in which she held the fruit. Surprised by the friendly reaction I smiled back and lifted my hand to greet her as well. However, she didn’t say anything, rather turned away the next instant and continued her walk until she was out of sight, swallowed by the trees.

Eventually I disappeared as well. I grabbed my map from the nightstand and headed downstairs.

“Good morning,” the innkeeper greeted. “I hope you had a good night’s sleep?”

“To be honest, I’m not sure,” I answered. “I tend to have vivid dreams from time to time, and I guess tonight was no exception.”

“Well, this is not unusual for late travelers around these woods, or so I’ve heard. The night is wicked. It is alive with every kind of lore and legend.” The innkeeper moved his head around in a peculiar way, eyeing me for a bit from all sides. While appearing somewhat odd in his own way, he was a friendly looking fellow with a broad moustache, receding hairline and a twinkle in his eye. “Not at all unusual for late travelers,” he repeated. “And you didn’t arrive that early either, I think.”

“Did I? I cannot remember anymore what exactly happened yesterday. But at least I have managed to get here.”

“Well, well, so you say,” the man replied, rubbing his chin. “Just make sure to watch your memories. Signs and portents, omens and visions are abundant around these woods, and all unveils itself if you just open your eyes. At least that’s the hearsay. Signs and portents! Not that I believe in any of them. All that talk might just as well be hogwash.”

“You make me curious... What exactly is it about these woods?” I inquired with interest.

“So you say you wander around here and haven’t got a clue?” The innkeeper laughed heartily.

Before he continued he brought some breakfast at the table where I’ve sat down. The old man laid out bread, cheese, some apples, juice and milk.

Then he pulled up a chair and began to explain: “Some say, parts of the woods are enchanted and tell the most wondrous things they supposedly witness. Seeing strange phenomena and stuff, talking to people that possibly can’t be there, experiencing adventures they don’t even believe themselves when they tell others. And they claim to have meandered at paths that clearly don’t exist around here – or not anymore. I of all people should know!”

His voice turned ominous. “Others would call the woods outright haunted. Ah, there’s many a tale, half of them haven’t got a grain of truth in them, I bet. Of whispers, of watchers I’ve heard, waiting near the moor and of wisps that try to lure you there, make you stumble into their trap. The woods are alive some say: Giant spiders lurk in the deeper recesses; there are ghosts and gobbleswaps – beings that pretend to be what they aren’t. If they devour you they become what you’ve been, see with your eyes, live with your body and feast on your soul, only to put up the same charade for the next victim they chance upon...”

The innkeeper rolled his eyes in disbelief. “Well, you’ll never come out the same way you’ve entered the woods, so much I do believe. But there are no such things as ghosts and gobbleswaps, I tell you. It must be all only in the people’s minds. Once someone gets enwrapped with talk about such tales, it doesn’t take long until they claim to have seen things of their own, yet it all just springs from their imagination, that’s what I say!”

He shook his head. “Anyway: What are you up if you don’t know anything about this place at all?”

“I’ve come to visit an old friend,” I assured the innkeeper and took a good mouthful of the bread and a sip of milk. “Maybe you can help me,” I added, pulling out my map and putting it on the table. “I’m supposed to find this pond and a lodge close to it, but I guess that didn’t quite work out as planned yesterday. Maybe you can give me directions.”

“Ah, I see.” The innkeeper glanced at the map. “Well, you’ve nearly made it anyway already. What you’re looking for is straight ahead that way, more or less.” He got up, went to the window and pointed at the well-trodden path where I had seen the lady walk earlier.

“That’s it? That simple?” I asked, following the line that marked the path on my map with a finger. Indeed, now that I looked at it again, I found it led right to my destination. Sure, there were some turns, but it seemed impossible to miss the pond now. “Ah, maybe that lady with the umbrella was also heading for the pond?” I suggested. “You know, the one that just passed by here a little while ago... – One of your guests by chance?”

“Lady? Umbrella? Guest?” The innkeeper looked confused.

“Well, yes, there was a lady out there when I got up and looked outside. She was walking along that very same path you just mentioned. I assumed she spent the night here as well.”

The innkeeper shrugged. “Can’t help you there, friend, but no lady was here tonight. – Ah...” He smirked. “Now I understand! Is that the one you might be looking for?”

“It cannot be her,” I replied. “She’s not a friend of mine; at least I didn’t recognize her from the distance.” I considered it a moment. “But don’t worry about it, I was just curious,” I then said. I finished my breakfast and pushed the bread basket back to the innkeeper.

“Say, do you have many visitors here in the midst of the woods at all? It’s a fairly remote place after all.”

“Every night, my friend,” the innkeeper answered. “Every night at least one. Though you’ve been the only guest last night. Yesterday we had a gentleman around though, the day before a poet of sorts, but that’s about it for this week. And about your lady: ‘t would be pretty unusual for a lady with or without umbrella to take a stroll around these parts,” the old man argued. “As you said yourself: We’re pretty far away from town, so unless you’re supposed to be here you aren’t.”

Having finished my business here I got up. “Well, be it as it may – thanks for the food and help at any rate. I need to be off then. And maybe I’ll even chance upon that lady and get to the bottom of her mystery.”

“You do that,” the innkeeper said and smiled as I stood up.

A while later I was out in the open, walking that well-trodden path that would finally bring me to my goal. I looked back at the inn, a straw-thatched cottage that stood in the midst of a small clearing, engulfed by trees on all sides. The multitude of paths that led to it from various directions surprised me: there were small, winding paths amidst dense trees, other paths were straight, yet leading through the underbrush, some were broader than others, some hardly detectable if you weren’t looking for them. I was on my way on one of them, finally leaving the inn behind.

Enjoying the walk and the scenery I was hoping for the pond to appear behind every tiny mound I climbed with fervor, after each bend I followed, yet after an hour or two of walking I still had no luck with arriving anywhere. Already I began to silently curse to myself, wondering why I hadn’t asked the innkeeper how far it would actually take me to get to the pond. The certainty that I would eventually arrive didn’t seem to be that much of a prospect while walking.

Here and there I came along trails that crossed mine, yet my well-trodden path just went straight on, so I didn’t pay any attention to other options that offered themselves. So I continued, wherever the monotony of my pace dictated me to go.

Until I reached a crossing. Someone was standing there, whistling – and waiting.

“And Trum-Baroll again with you, my friend,” the dwarf said. A broad smirk spread over his face, despite the red beard he was sporting. “Better twice than not at all.”

“Blessings from the Twelve to you as well,” I replied. “Good to meet someone else in the middle of this forest maze. I already feared to be the only one passing through.”

“I’m not walking, but standing,” the dwarf objected. “Though I catch your drift, traveler.”

“But may I ask why you said ‘again’?” I wanted to know.

“Again?” The dwarf raised an eyebrow.

“Yes, when you greeted me. You said ‘again’ and ‘Better twice than not at all’ if I remember correctly.”

“Ah, that, of course! Well, because this time it’s for real, I admit that,” the dwarf said. “Finally!”

I looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“Now, now, we’ve met before, haven’t we?” the little fellow claimed. “You told me so yourself, back then! Though I had no idea what you were talking about...”

“Have we? Have I? When? Are you fooling me?” The questions blurted out of me, one after the other, demanding answers. I brightened up a little as a thought crossed my mind: “Ah, I understand now… You might not per chance be the one who wrote that note and wanted to talk to me for some reason? Are you the one living in the lodge near the pond?” I pondered aloud. “Maybe I just cannot remember who you are right now? Would you be so kind as to refresh my memory?”

I pulled out the piece of paper from my backpack and handed it over to the dwarf.

But he just shook his head. “May the Stonefathers’ iron gaze strike me if I know what you’re talking about! No offense, but you’re thinking too much, my friend. No, I haven’t written any note that I’m aware of, nor do I live in a lodge by the pond. Strange concept, dwarves living at lodges by some pond!” The dwarf remarked with disdain.

Then he began telling his weird tale. “But in order to refresh your memory: See, first you went along and jumped at me just a while ago, here on this very spot. Told me that you knew me, yet you couldn’t explain. I gave you some fruit as you seemed a bit confused, and admittedly, I still don’t see much of an improvement since then.” He stroked his beard, lost in thought. “Now that I think about it: Back then you said that you knew me, yet I didn’t. Now I say that I know you, yet you don’t. So let’s just call it even, then, fine?”

He wrinkled his nose. “And to make that perfectly clear: Regardless how many times you might run into me, at some point we should both remember that we’ve met before. At least I do now, and if you do as well next time, we might already be two. – Want some fruit?”

I protested. “I... I haven’t met you before!”

“Don’t get me started on all that again,” the dwarf snapped. “We’ve been through that already. – Fruit?”

“I...”

“Now take this fruit, as I know that you’ve enjoyed it the last time you came around. So if you enjoyed it back then, why wouldn’t you now? – Unless you’re full already, that is.”

I didn’t know for a moment what to say. So I just thanked the dwarf and took his apple. But then I just had to outright confront him with a strange thought that started plaguing me. “Just one thing: You know, I’ve been talking to the innkeeper back there, who told me that some people claim strange things are transpiring in this forest.”

“Like what?” the dwarf said, a bit vexed that I was still around and kept on pestering him.

“Well, like this,” I suggested. “People meeting others that aren’t really there, sort of. And the way you’re talking, I don’t know if you’re for real or if I’m just imagining you. I’m walking and walking for hours, it’s as if I’m going in circles… After all I still haven’t found what I’m looking for, you know? So maybe there really is something magical to these woods!”

“Interesting point you make,” the dwarf replied. “I ought to consider it. Also interesting: telling me! After having stood on this spot for so long, seeing you pass by again and again and explaining to me that you possibly can’t be there, and you weren’t there the first time we met either, I wonder if there isn’t some truth in what you say. And the one I’ve been waiting for still not arriving and all, you know. – One question, though, friend, er... stranger... or whatever...”

“Yes?”

“See that apple in your hand, my dear apparition?”

“Er… Uhm… Yes? What about it?”

“It’s not speaking to you, is it? – Then take it with you and perhaps question it later. One never knows when it might start talking,” the dwarf rasped. “And if it doesn’t start talking...” He leaned forward and whispered his last words: “Eat it!” And with that he shoved me further.

“Er... And about the pond?” I asked looking back. I still had to know, weird dwarf or not. “Is it...”

“Yeah, yeah, it’s right ahead, just go on,” the dwarf answered. “It’s there, it’s there, it’s always been there. And as you tend to come across people and things, sometimes twice, I’m sure you will manage to get there as well, at least once.” He made a motion with his hand to be off and so I finally went on, ate my apple and left this most unusual encounter behind.

As I plodded along I wondered what it all meant. Truth be told, with the unsatisfying encounter my desperation had risen. Again. At least I had got some fruit out of it.

Suddenly the trees cleared. One by one my steady companions dropped away left and right with every step I took, letting bright blue sky and the warm caressing fire of the Injèrá through. Full of expectation I could almost smell the water ahead and felt delighted that after such a long exhausting walk I would finally be there where I was supposed to be. I stepped out of the forest and...

Yes, there she was, standing in the middle of a meadow.

I saw that she had turned her umbrella by now into a walking stick and was strolling through the tall grasses and flowers, bending down here and there to smell the aroma of the various plants. So we had the same goal I assumed and looked forward to the company. I planned already to ask her where she had come from and what she was doing all alone deep down in the forest. Well, and what am I? I thought, amusing myself.

Thus I entered the meadow. Yet, the more I approached, the more it dawned on me that the figure wasn’t a lady at all strolling through the grasses, or rather standing in midst the grasses, right now. No, it was a young man with his back turned to me, and what I thought at first to be an umbrella was in fact nothing but an ordinary walking stick. Nevertheless, I continued on towards the figure - maybe he had written the note to get me here. But as he seemed not to notice me, I called out to him.

My voice drowned.

It was swept away in the sudden forceful gale that stormed over the meadow with a roar, bending bushes and branches, swirling leaves as if let loose from somewhere behind me. I ducked and turned around to locate the source. The stranger I had been following did exactly the same.

Yet the next instant everything was calm again. The wind died as fast as it had hit us. Not a single blade of grass was moving as I found myself squatting between all those many different kinds of flowers that grew around me, knee-high, nearly covering me now altogether, squatting as I was. And then there was that sound of wood hitting stone, a muffled single thud close by. I spun around, then stood up.

The man was gone. He seemed to have vanished into thin air, as if taken by the wind.

I went to the spot where I had seen him last and discovered a rock placed in the midst of the grass, hardly visible as it was almost overgrown. The upper side was flat, slightly tilted and a cane with a silver pommel leaned next to it. There were also runes engraved on the surface of the stone which looked elvish to me, but I couldn’t be sure.

I knelt down near what I thought must be a tombstone and touched the rock, letting my fingers move over the indented letters. The stone felt warm in the sunlight. A soft breeze sprang up and the sea of grasses took on to sway around me as if drunken, touched again by the wind. All those colorful flowers and grasses that made up the meadow, the yellows, blues and reds, the oranges and purples were driven by the same motion, taken by an invisible hand that rocked them there and back again, there and back, on that circling, dizzying, beautiful journey. Like waves far out in the endless ocean so did everything dance in the morning sun, and I watched, lost in thought, my hand on the warm stone in front of me. There and back again, there and back.

“Who might you have been?” I asked, looking at the rock. But I was unable to decipher the runes, and the wind wouldn’t answer either.

I was torn out of my reverie when a faint singsong mingled with the soft soughing of the wind. At first it seemed indistinguishable as I didn’t quite recognize its presence, but then it turned into something of its own, something alive, distinct from the sounds around me, sounds made by the wind, like the swaying of the grass. Yes, as a gust picked up again, I heard something or someone howling with it. Almost terrified I looked up when I became aware of a loud voice mimicking the swell of the wind and then reverberating with it as it ebbed away again: With the last breath of the wind the voice also lost its strength.

I grabbed the cane next to the stone, more as a weapon than anything else, unsure what to expect. I looked up.

The elf stood just a stone’s throw away from me. He was so close that I gasped when I spotted him. Wearing a simple grey cowl and a rope tied around his waist, he stood there with his arms opened wide as if to greet the wind. His long white hair that framed his delicate features danced in the breeze to which he was singing. He had his eyes closed, and only when the wind ceased completely, he opened them to look at me.

“Have no fear, friend,” he said with a soothing calmness.

What... Who... Why...? I thought. I don’t know if what I was muttering under my breath was the same thing that occupied my mind, though. I was staring at the elf, stumped how he had got there without me noticing.

“I read in your eyes that you want to know what I’m here for, how I happened to be here and who I am,” the elf said.

Still perched next to the stone I nodded, unable to move.

“I’m here to pray. To be with the Goddess, to prepare. To listen to and understand that what moves everything else, to accompany the wind, so that I’ll be with him once he’s not with me anymore.” As the wind had gone, he let his arms sink down, hiding them under his wide cowl. “And I’ve come to meet you,” the elf finished.

“You know me?” I asked flatly. “How come that I don’t recognize you then? Were you the one who sent me that message to come to the pond?”

“Of course I know you. The wind knows everyone,” the elf replied. “But I see no pond here – do you? I also wouldn’t know where that place you speak of might be found. I fear that I also haven’t sent any message.” His hair began to drift again in the breeze as the wind picked up once more, and the grasses continued to sway around me like the waves out in the open sea.

“Then why are you here to meet me?” I interjected, my voice taut. “You said you’ve come because of me. How could this be?”

“Yet why is it that you want to know this answer so badly? Couldn’t I ask exactly the same? And would you know an answer to that?” the elf returned the question. “It was meant that we meet, and thus I’m here, and so are you.”

“I... I...” I didn’t know what to make of him, tried to order my thoughts. “What are these God forsaken woods anyway?” I finally burst out. “And how can you pray at this place? It must be doomed! I don’t get anywhere, and you tell me there is no such place I’m looking for. I doubt that someone is even out there for me! There’s no one here!”

The elf remained calm. “But you and I are here, aren’t we? Then there’s somebody here.”

“Well, of course I’m here!” I threw at him in my anger. “That’s the whole point! I shouldn’t be here in the first place.”

“Then who wrote this message you mentioned?” the elf asked.

“I... I don’t know! And you... you appear out of nothing, just like the one I’ve been following all of a sudden was just… gone. How... how... is that even possible? – Are you a ghost?” I looked at the tombstone with the elvish runes on it. “Are you... the one buried down there? Am I dead as well, so that I can speak to you now? What is happening?”

The elf laughed. “What answer might a mortal find on what life and death really mean if one’s just that, a mortal? I trust the wind knows more though, and he’s willing to share. But you look very alive to me, if you must know, wandering that far out in the woods, pursuing noble goals of which you don’t know where they’ll lead you. You might be late, but not late enough. – Ah, you’ve dreamed well, I guess, otherwise you wouldn’t be talking to me right now.”

“What...? Is it all a dream then?” I fired back. “Did you just say that I’ve been dreaming all along? Am I dreaming that I’m standing here in front of you, talking about... dreams?”

“You dream as much as I do,” the elf said.

“It must be as I cannot understand... Strange things happen in these woods, and dreams aren’t any better!”

The elf smirked. “Strange things happen everywhere if strange things find the mind to see them. Imagine a tired traveler who doesn’t make it home. Wouldn’t he dream that he actually rests in a warm cozy place, while he’s still out there in the cold? Wouldn’t that one imagine the most wondrous things? That someone might even dream about things everyone takes for granted, like getting up the next morning… Maybe the dream would be about continuing the journey and reach the goal the traveler set out for?”

I pondered his words, a certain uneasiness taking hold of me.

“What the one calls a dream another one calls real, so what advice could I give if I don’t know which side you’re on?” the elf said. “And would someone from the other side understand someone reaching out from the yonder shore? Ask any elf and she might say that it’s all a dream, so I guess you’ve found someone partial to that way of thinking. The Goddess always dreams, but there are some who believe that Her Dream must be real and you might happen to be one of those.”

I looked around, anxiety mounting. “If it were all a dream: Could I just open my eyes and the dream would be over?”

“If this is what you really want, I guess you could,” the elf nodded. “At least it’s worth a try – unless you’re dreaming within a dream. Or in case it’s all not exactly as it seems.” A wry, knowing smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “However, should you wake up, well, you might not learn those things you so desperately want to know: like about that stone you’ve found, or about who I am. But you could try to wake up, of course. Just open your eyes and simply forget, just like everything you dreamed last night.”

I hesitated. “You might give me those answers first,” I then decided.

“Which ones?”

“Those you just mentioned. Tell me about that stone: let me know if it is a tombstone, and who is buried here, if it is. And I’d like to know who you are.”

“Nothing easier than that,” the elf replied. “To answer your first question, just read the runes you find on the rock and you will get what you desire.”

“But I cannot decipher Styrásh...” I objected.

“Maybe these aren’t runes after all,” the elf said. “I would know. Have a look again. Maybe it’s a tombstone neither. It could as well be just a landmark, a stone to mark a path.”

“There is no path here in the middle of a meadow,” I argued, but then re-checked the letters on the stone. Two words had been engraved. They were ancient Styrásh runes; now that the elf denied it, I was even surer. And the more I looked at them, the more certain I became that I couldn’t understand them. I wondered however why there weren’t any numbers or at least runes that might represent numbers though, no birth, no death dates. There were just two words. Maybe it indeed wasn’t a tomb stone. Whatever it was, I couldn’t find the answer the elf had promised.

I looked up and was about to say something.

But the elf just smiled and motioned not to give up. “Look again,” he repeated. “Sometimes you have to keep looking to see.”

The runes remained unchanged, secretive. Yet there was one in the very center that had the shape of an X with lines at the top and the bottom. For some reason they reminded me of something. I pondered for a while until I finally remembered where I had seen the shape: only recently.

And I remembered how I had got up to touch it.

I admired its three-legged stand and especially the beautiful carvings of the three wooden columns surrounding the fragile glass structure, showing dancing figures, intertwined in what appeared to be boughs, leaves and flowers. Only after a while of staring at the hourglass I noticed again what had intrigued me instantly when my eye had fallen on it: It was running. The trickle was slow, yet incessant, hardly recognizable, tiny grains of sand sinking down from the upper bulb through the narrow tube in the middle, constantly adding to the heap at the bottom. Right now there was only very little sand left at the top bulb.

I wondered for a while how long it would take the sand to pour from top to bottom, and how it got started in the first place. Finally, I grabbed it, weighed it in my hands. For a moment I was watching my trusted image in the mirror above the dresser, observing myself how I held the unusual item, contemplating. After a while I spotted the image turning the hourglass on its head and putting it down again. A glint sparkled in the figure’s eye.

But there was no time to tarry, I had to be off. I had to get dressed, take my map from the nightstand and head downstairs.

 

III

The forest was calm. Almost eerily calm. I found myself walking on a well-trodden path that led through dense rows of trees, a sight I had got used to by now. In fact, the scenery looked overly familiar somehow, the mounds I came across, the bends I left behind me, the trees nearby. It was as if I had already been there not too long ago.

Every now and again I came along trails that crossed mine, yet the well-trodden path just went straight on, so I didn’t pay any attention to other options that offered themselves. So I continued. Until I reached a crossing where someone was standing, whistling – and waiting.

“And Trum-Baroll with you, my friend,” the dwarf said.

“Blessings from the Twelve,” I answered the greeting, recognizing the weird dwarf and his long red beard immediately. “So I run into you again! While I can’t say that I’m happy to have ended up at the very same spot, for some reason it just happened.”

The dwarf eyed me suspiciously. “Aha, so it did? Spoke Come-Along... See, I don’t mind having company while I’m waiting, but preferably with those that haven’t lost their marbles.”
“Don’t you recognize me?” I said, vexed.

“Sure, sure,” the dwarf said. “If we’re old friends, just tell me my name and I’ll remember. It’s sort of a password thing, you know.”

“I... I...” I stuttered. “Actually I didn’t ask you about that back then. We, well... It’s just that I’ve come along here and we talked for a while about...”

“Yes?” the dwarf stroked his beard. “I’m listening...”

“About...” I hesitated, recalling the dwarf’s words back then, suggesting that he had seen me before. And I remembered that I hadn’t recognized him. Now the tables had turned and while I wanted to explain, I couldn’t. The stubborn dwarf wouldn’t believe me!

“So?”

“I...” I struggled.

“I have some waiting business to do,” the dwarf reminded me, impatience speaking out of him. “I’m expecting someone and someone might be here any moment now, so get on with it or leave me to my task as I’ll leave you to yours.”

“But, well...” Words failed me.

“See, fellow, let’s forget about this. Let’s say I didn’t even see you coming. Nor rambling. – Here, have some fruit instead,” the dwarf said and handed me an apple. “You might need it, wherever you choose to be heading.”

I took it absent-mindedly. There was no point in asking the dwarf about the way to the pond, he already had shown it to me once, and I ended up on the very spot again. Perhaps I ought to ask the dwarf about his name, I considered. Maybe tell him mine, and we’d both stand a good chance to recognize each other should we happen to meet again. That sounded like a good plan for a change.

As I was still lost in thought, muttering, stuttering under my breath, I saw the dwarf looking up at me in a peculiar way.

“On the other hand,” he said. “I have to admit... I mean, now that you brought it up... Maybe you are indeed... Yes, it could be... Hey!” he rasped, then poked my hip. “Hey, you sleeping?” Finally, he tugged my coat. “Hey!”

“I... I...” It was the last thing I can remember about the dwarf.

I opened my eyes.


II

 A light voice floated through the air.

I must have been dozing, but it was a voice that brought me back. It repeated its simple message in a steady rhythm, and every time it resounded, I imagined something I couldn’t quite pinpoint drifting, swirling above me. Like a feather the short sound was dancing, gliding, sinking, and picking up after a while with renewed strength. It was like the chiming of a bell, seemed otherworldly, ethereal. As my doze wore away I tried to decipher what the voice was saying. And eventually, I understood.

I was startled, suddenly wide awake: The voice was calling my name.

I found myself in the midst of the forest, sitting at the foot of a gigantic tree.

A half-eaten apple lay next to me, along with the map and the letter I had brought with me. As awoke I looked up for a moment, my eyes admiring the tree’s reach for the skies. At the ground a good portion of the urban’s large roots enwrapped the outer rim of the hill on which the tree itself towered majestically. So there I sat and ate my apple, maybe a stone’s throw away from the trunk in front of the mound, in a small naturally formed niche. It was formed by the urban’s enormous sturdy roots, just as if they were meant to invite anyone who passed by to take a rest. And so I had done.

But I had rested enough. I grabbed letter and map and got up to be on my way. The voice was still echoing through the forest, calling my name.

There was a clearing a distance ahead, trees in the far distance. Somehow things looked different all of a sudden, though I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Maybe it was the light, as I couldn’t figure out whether it was dusk or dawn. There was neither sun nor moon hanging over the treetops, everything was bathed in a weird shimmer of twilight. And there was a strong scent of flowers, wood and… tranquility… I had never before experienced in such intensity. Aye, tranquility indeed: there was no sound to be heard. Not anymore. I stepped into the clearing.

There she was. My ears hadn’t deceived me.

A little girl squatted there putting a bouquet together in the middle of the meadow. A soft wind played with the colorful flowers and long grasses, swayed the yellows, blues and reds, the oranges and purples, all those flowers around the girl, and they made her long silver-grey hair dance with them. She had adorned her head with a wreath of twigs and petals, and it made her look like a little princess wearing a tiara.

“What are you doing here?” I asked as I approached, wondering.

The girl looked up at me, a broad smile on her face. “I’m picking flowers!” she told me. She laughed at what she must have considered a rather silly question. Dimples formed in her cheeks, her bright eyes glinted back at me in amusement.

The Journey

View picture in full size Picture description. Illustration of Monsonius' most famous tale by Masterbard Judith of Bardavos. Image drawn by Bard Judith.

“Might you tell me your name then, little one?”

“I don’t have a name,” the girl said and smiled while she finished her bouquet with a lovely cerubell. “Not yet,” she added.

I didn’t know what to say for a moment. “You don’t have a name?” I couldn’t believe it.

“Have you got one?” she snapped back as if it were the most natural question in the world to ask.

“Of course I’ve got one!” I replied. “How couldn’t I? You just called me by it! In fact, you woke me up!” I felt my forehead wrinkling a bit. She was playing a game with me!

“I haven’t woken nobody up!” the girl was steadfast in her denial. She frowned back at me. “I’ve only been picking flowers! Told you!”

I looked around, but didn’t see anybody else who could have called me. There were standing stones in the meadow here and there that peeked out of the knee-high grass, barely noticeable at first glance. On all of them were runes. Letting my eyes wander from stone to stone I discovered that they surrounded the both of us, forming a perfect circle.

I hunkered down to talk with the girl face to face. “Say, you didn’t hear anybody else call me either? – Because I heard someone, I’m sure about that. So you must have as well.”

“No, just saw you wake up and wondered if it’s you,” the girl replied drily.

“If it’s me? What are you trying to say?”

“But it’s you alright,” the girl nodded, very confident now. “Here: You’ve lost that!” She bent down to pick up something hidden in the high grass and put it in my hands.

“It’s not mine!” I protested as I found myself holding... a cane with the silver pommel. “Someone has…”

“And you’ve got a map!” she continued. “I knew it the moment you sat down, looked at it and ate your apple. But I thought you ought to rest first before you journey on.”

“Thanks for that, but you still haven’t answered my question!” I insisted, a bit annoyed. “What is it you want from me? Are you lost? Do you need someone to help you find your way back? Then you’re lucky that you found me, indeed.” I tried to appear confident. “But look, I have to tell you that I strayed from the path myself, and all I care about right now is getting out again. Well, maybe we can find back together, though I fear I don’t trust this map.”

“Oh!” the girl blurted out and jumped up. “It’s nice that you want to be my friend! But don’t you worry, I’m not lost. But if you want I’ll get you where you are supposed to be. I’m here to guide you!” And with that she darted off through the meadow.

“What?” Taken aback by the turn of events I remained rooted to the spot.

The girl turned around after a while and waved back at me with her bouquet. “Come!” she called and continued running away from me.

“Who sent you?” Standing up I now shouted after her. But she was already too far away.

For a moment I was undecided. I didn’t know her and what she was up to, whether she spoke the truth or not, what to believe and what not in these woods. There are ghosts and gobbleswaps in these woods – beings that pretend to be what they aren’t, I remembered the words of the innkeeper.

But I saw my feet start to follow the girl, to run as she more and more disappeared in the distance. And the more my eyes seemed to lose her, the faster I ran.

The girl was heading straight towards the other end of the meadow, running nimbly through the knee-high grass, so that I had difficulties catching up. An array of trees was looking on from either side, standing like sentinels, watching the scene in silence. I also became aware of smoke rising above some of the treetops nearby, and then I spotted a straw-thatched cottage tucked behind a batch of trees.

I wanted to call the girl’s name, but realized that she hadn’t told me.

“We have to...” I began, pointing towards the smoke. “You cannot...” But I didn’t finish my sentences, seeing her more and more escape my eyes.

“Wait!” I yelled at the top of my voice, hoping to make her aware of the cottage. Someone must have been looking for her! But every “Wait!” I threw at her she answered with an even more incited “Come!” and I had no other choice than to follow.

Every now and then I glanced back over my shoulder. After a while the smoke from the cottage was barely recognizable anymore. Then it was gone.

The forest around me changed, turned dark and murky. Mist, thick and damp, emerged between the trees and rolled over parts of the underbrush, wrapping itself spookily around the stumps found here and there. The trees, which had kept their distance from the clearing for a while, now seemed to close in on us. I ran and ran and at some point I understood that I wasn’t running through a clearing anymore, but through a broader passageway winding through the woods. From most of the trees I passed hung vines and creepers, and the crooked way these trunks grew out of the ground, it appeared as though they were crippled by the burden they had to carry. Everything was dark and foreboding. The ground had become moist and mossy, even the air felt wet and heavy. Odd sounds of croaking toads and chirping insects accompanied me.

I had arrived in the forest’s swamps.

I stopped for a moment to catch my breath. As I stood, the girl also paused in the distance, waving back at me.

The path now led through a large area dominated by bleak water, some of it greyish, some black as tar. I hadn’t really noticed how far I had entered the bog, only when I came to a standstill I realized how deep I was into it already. Suddenly the fog curling over the ground seemed to conceal unknown dangers: pools of ooze to sink into, greasy roots to slip on, and whatever path I had been following became impossible to recognize. Dead trees emerged like the hands of gigantic skeletons from the murky depths to my left and right, rotted plants floated on the surface, some of them appeared to wrap around objects, maybe they were even corpses – or at least that’s what my imagination made out of them.

I looked down to my feet and saw that the ground I had been walking on was nothing but a strip anymore. I couldn’t keep up with the girl, had to change my pace.

“Take care!” I shouted. “Don’t rush through these swamps! You might trip and drown! Wait for me! Wait!”

The sound of the girl’s snicker reached my ears, though I only faintly saw her bright skirt bobbing and down in the distance.

“How beautiful it is!” the words of her soft voice rang out. She had come to a halt now, but it wasn’t enough to catch up with her. Off and away she was again.

As I reached the spot where the girl had been standing before, I discovered a gigantic spider’s web spanning the vast space between two dead trees. Several similar sights presented themselves close by: threads glittering, arrays of water drops clinging to them. The nets looked strong like ropes.

In the increasing darkness I sensed something moving. I could have sworn a shadowy figure had emerged from the waters near one of the islets. Another noise close made me think that the same thing happened on the other side of the path. Something stirred behind the scarce, half-drowned trees over there, crawled along with me. A few steps further I became more and more convinced of it.

It was hopeless. I couldn’t see the girl anymore. For a moment I had even forgotten about her.

“Where are you?” I shouted, but got no reply.

I repeated my call. Again and again.

Silence.

Every few steps I called out for her, but if there was an answer at all it lay in the monotonous gurgling sounds with which the swamp used to converse with me. The faster the day waned, the more disquieting the sounds became. The phantoms, existing or not, didn’t move in on me though, and they stayed quiet, looming far off.

I had started to run again. My steps beat the ground, hard and unforgiving, driven by desperation, ignited by my anger. I began murmuring, accusing, condemning myself of having lost the girl without even getting to know her. I had lost her and my only hope. Yes, I mumbled, stumbled, tumbled. But my footsteps and my calls echoed again and again unheard through the vastness of the swamp. Night was falling rapidly now.

“Where are you?” I wheezed. “Where are you?”

When I was at the brink of giving up, I saw a soft light. It flickered and blinked far, far out there. The glowing something was floating above the waters, crossed the swamp, like the girl’s soft voice did once, I thought, the girl’s soft voice that had awakened me from my dream.

For a while I observed the strange phenomenon. The light was a soft blue at first, but it pulsated, slowly gaining in intensity, only to faint again abruptly, almost disappearing as a whole. Yet after a while the process was repeated; only the light’s color had changed to an orange, then it turned green, violet. The light moved all the time, it glided, snuck around, as if it didn’t care in which direction it was heading. Often, from one moment to the next, it sped up, shot ahead, slowed down again. After a couple of times alternating between slowing down speeding up and changing colors, the light came to a sudden halt.

I waited for the apparition to move again, but it just remained there. Was it waiting? For a move from my side? Was it aware of me? The light seemed to hover up and down at the same spot, all the time pulsating, gaining and losing intensity, changing colors, as if signaling.

I moved closer, making sure that my cane touched safe ground before I made a step. But each step was difficult, as darkness had engulfed me entirely by now and I was anxious that a sinister presence might jump at me any moment and drag me into the unknown depths of the swamp – as it might have done already with that poor girl. The cloak of the night was icy and I was freezing to my bones. That light however promised warmth. Maybe it was my last anchor too, and I didn’t care where it came from. I had to find out what it was.

At last I arrived at the apparition. It turned out to be a glowing sphere, no larger than a palmspan or two. It had shifted to a shining bright white by now, and its pulsating beat was gone. As I stepped into the sphere’s circle of light I understood that everything else outside had already drowned in the gloom like a past memory. There was no way back anymore.

The orb seemed inviting, warm and patient in its wondrous, unwavering way, a companion that bathed everything in its brilliant existence. I felt secure in its reach. Not that I could reach it though, as it was hovering above me, yet had unveiled only a small area of my surroundings, as if this was all there was. And to my amazement once I had got used to it, I discovered that there was a man-made structure on the far side of this little white world I found myself in: a hut. While it appeared to be small and ramshackle, it seemed heaven sent. Even an old oil lamp was hanging next to the door, and so I stepped closer and took the lamp from the hook.

The next instant everything turned pitch-black.

My little white world had ceased to exist. Again, I was bewildered. Nothing in this forest appeared to be the way I was used to. I tried to feel my way in utter darkness towards the hut and already feared that it was gone as well.

But it wasn’t.

All of a sudden the lamp lit up, and there I was again: Someone standing in front of a ramshackle hut. It seemed to beckon a late night visitor to enter. I let my hand run along the wooden handle, then pushed the door open...

Quickly I stepped in, turned around, and bolted the door. No dark creatures were invited.

There was nobody inside. The space the abode offered was scarce; it barely provided room for a single person. At least there was a table, a single chair next to it, a brittle shelf with a few jars on it, and a bed. That was all there was to it. Apparently none of these things had been used for quite some time. Cobwebs hung in every corner, and there was no one to keep me company except a broom leaning at the end of the bed, which I discovered after having a closer look, along with a torn pair of shoes, and a footstool.

For a while I searched the whole hut to find anything helpful, edible or even mildly interesting to get me through the night. The jars contained some unidentifiable substances; dust had conquered the territory under the bed. But there was really nothing else, and the cobwebs didn’t look menacing enough either to make me worry.

Well, except for that book. I almost missed it under a thick layer of dust. Yet it lay open already on the table as if waiting for a reader.

I finally leaned my cane against the boards and sat down to examine the tome. There was no title on it on the leather binding – not at the front, nor at its spine –, or the letters were beyond recognition. What I soon learned too was that the pages demanded to be treated with care, old and worn and yellowed by age as they were. Any moment I feared them to crumble in my hands. But well, the book was the only thing I had got, so I leafed through it a bit. Eventually I began to read, starting at a passage from the already open page.

And as I read I stumbled upon some oddly familiar lines, which went like this:

I

The jars contained some unidentifiable substances; dust had conquered the territory under the bed. But there was really nothing else, and the cobwebs didn’t look menacing enough either to make me worry.
 

The Ramshackle Hute

View picture in full size Picture description. The ramshackle hut in the middle of the swamp... Image drawn by BKiani.

For a while I searched the whole hut to find anything helpful, edible or even mildly interesting to get me through the night. Cobwebs hung in every corner, and there was no one to keep me company except a broom leaning at the end of the bed, which I discovered after having a closer look, along with a torn pair of shoes, and a footstool. Apparently none of these things had been used for quite some time. At least there was a table, a single chair next to it, a brittle shelf with a few jars on it, and a bed. That was all there was to it. The space the abode offered was scarce; it barely provided room for a single person. There was nobody inside.

I finally leaned my cane against the boards and sat down. I sat for a while, staring at the wooden wall, where the flickering of my lamp cast unsteady shadows.

But there was something else on the wall I was gazing at, I realized now. A single picture was attached to it, and I was excited to have made a new discovery in my lonesome abode, something to feast my eyes on: It was a painting of a ship, though it seemed to... well, I couldn’t see it clearly, or there was something depicted on the painting that couldn’t possibly be there, it was one of those things. So I took my lamp and got up to look at it more closely.

Indeed, it was the image of a huge ship. The dramatic scene showed the bow jutting high up in the air as if the vessel was battling a major storm, the sails at least were billowing in the wind – but it was the rest of the picture that made me wonder. There were no signs whatsoever of any storm aside from the billowed sails. In fact, the ship wasn’t out at high sea at all. Its hull was sitting on top of a gigantic gnarled tree, in the midst of a landscape that could be described as bogy at best. There was no movement suggested in this part of the picture: The trees, the brush, all stood still, contradicting the upper half of the canvas.

I drew closer to scan the painting in more detail and perhaps find a person on board. Yes, there was someone, there was...

...suddenly a loud rumble. And not only that, an ear-piercing scratching noise followed soon after.

The ground began moving, the walls shaking.

I staggered back.

The picture fell to the floor with a noisy thud. Which is where I soon found myself as well, struggling to grasp the lamp and prevent it from smashing and set everything on fire.

The rumbling and scratching, the shaking and moving, the jerking and jolting went on for a while, as if it were never to end. But it did eventually, and everything turned quiet again as sudden as it had begun.

I clambered to my feet, helped by my cane, and then, while I was nursing my bruises, spotted… the trapdoor! The square clearly set itself apart from the rest of the wooden floor, and there was a ring attached to it.

I moved over to inspect it. Still I felt dizzy to the point of nausea and had difficulties keeping my balance, but all that didn’t prevent me from grabbing that ring and pull the trapdoor open with all the strength I could muster.

A couple of wooden stairs were revealed, leading further down into the darkness beneath. I took my lamp and descended.

There was a long corridor down there. I had expected a damp basement and maybe a loamy floor at best, but my steps made hollow, wooden sounds upon walking: Not only was I treading on boards, there was empty space underneath too. Even the walls to my side and the ceiling were constructed of sturdy planks.

As I walked along I sensed that the ground was still moving, and I had to cling to a pole every few steps in order to remain upright. However, after a while I understood that the floor was actually rocking: Rhythmically it went back and forth. Strange creaking and groaning noises accompanied me on my walk, as if the wood were shifting, and other strange noises reached me from above, like a furious wind fighting with heavy cloth.

There were footsteps beat on floorboards, and someone shouted in heavy sailor’s slang “Man o’er board!” Further busy boots hitting the wooden floor joined in, repeating the message over and over again. And yet, the further I progressed in the corridor and the more often the shout was repeated it seemed to transform into something else. I wasn’t sure anymore if the voices didn’t actually say “Man on board!”

The corridor ended with a door, bolted with a wooden bar, and two steps leading up to it. Tingling with anticipation I lifted the bar and opened the door. A spacious room dipped in half-light greeted me on the other side. As I entered the gentle rocking of the floor ceased from one moment to the other.

I found myself in some sort of study, furnished with marvelous antique pieces – little creatures like drakelets, snakes and butterflies were carved into the frames of a large wardrobe, intertwined with mysterious vines, flowers and grasses. There was a cloth stand with a robe and a hat on it, wooden trunks here and there, and above all bookcases with tomes and scrolls all over the place. Several maps were decorating on the walls. A fireplace made out of brick dominated one side of the room.

I extinguished my lamp as I discovered there was a window on the other side to which I felt drawn. Wherever I had ended up in and however it had happened, it was daylight that shone through that window on the carpeted floor! As I moved towards it I saw that a bright and sunny day was waiting outside. Yet, it wasn’t a window after all I realized a few steps further, rather there was a doorway leading out into the open.

Stepping out I walked onto a wooden pier that led into a quiet pond ahead. The waters were encircled on all other sides by trees and covered with haze in the distance. Faint outlines of mountains stretched over the treetops. The Injèrá was already way above the horizon and made the water on the pond glitter as if touched by divine dust that had just fallen out of the skies.

For a moment I stood there on the pier, gazing into the water, watching the sun dance around my own reflection. The pond, it came to me. I have finally arrived...

“The Twelve with you!” a soft voice spoke from behind me. “It’s rare to have company out here, I must say, but I’m glad that you’ve made it. Welcome!”

I spun around and saw a man sitting at a desk in the corner of the room I had stepped out of, watching me through the doorway as I stood on the pier. He had a quill in his right hand and a bottle of ink placed next to him, hidden a bit among all the parchments that piled up on the desk. He bowed to me, but remained seated.

“And the Twelve with you,” I returned the greeting, outwardly calm, yet anxious as I failed to recognize his voice. I stepped back into the room towards the man.

“Did you come by boat?” the stranger asked. “The morning is cool, but at least the waters are calm, aren’t they?”

“Yes, I mean… No, I didn’t arrive by… I…” I couldn’t finish. I wasn’t sure anymore.

“Well, however you came, have a seat, my friend!” the young man said, and I obliged. “A beautiful day, isn’t it? Too bad it’s ending already… One might wish to gaze forever into these waters, don’t you think so too? – Have you heard? If you look long and hard into the lake it will come to life in form of someone you wish it to be. At least so the lore goes...” He seemed to be talking more to himself than to me.

I looked at the young man while he briefly returned to his sheets. He silently read a line again, letting his hand hover a moment above the parchment as if contemplating what to write next, giving me the time to watch him intently.

“…to watch him intently,” I heard him whisper as he wrote.

I must admit that I didn’t recognize him. This was strange, given the fact that I – through the most wondrous ways and means – had finally arrived at that lodge next to the pond, just as the letter had wanted me to. Yet here I was, looking at the face of someone I had never seen before. The man appeared to be young; his hair was long and flowing. Somehow he made a bit of a sad and melancholic impression, yet he also was contemplative, calm, collected. Finally, he finished writing the sentence he had begun, and then his attention returned to me.

“Sorry, just had to get that one down,” the stranger said, then let his quill rest on the parchment. He looked at me. “But I’m not the one you expected to meet?” he asked.

“You might just be right about that,” I answered, nodding.

“Was it someone else you intended to meet out here? Or did you just get lost? Any particular reason why you’ve made such a long trip to reach my humble abode?”

“Well,” I said, a bit disappointed. “I hoped that I’d get an answer from you.”

“So? And why is that?” the man asked back, looking a bit bewildered himself.

“There is this letter I received, which told me to find someone at a lodge out here. I’ve even got a map!” I pulled the map out to prove it. “But even though I actually found this place now, more by accident though I fear, I guess you might as well say that I’m just as lost, as I wouldn’t know how to get back anymore.”

“Let me see.” The young man took the map. “You are right, it is a map to this place, at least I think so. It’s not easy to read, but nevertheless, it led you here, so you managed somehow to follow the directions. I guess the map served its purpose.” He took the letter, read it attentively, though he only shook his head when he was through. “But this I’ve never written, which is odd. The one who must have sent you that note had to know this place. He must have brought you here for a reason.”

I considered his words for a while.

“Yet, alas, there’s nobody here...” the man regretted.

“Well, you and I are here, aren’t we? Then there’s somebody here, right?” I chuckled, if only for myself. “And that’s at least a start…” I sighed. “Say, what are you doing here anyway, out in the woods, far away from everything?”

“Guess it’s obvious, isn’t it?” the young man said and pointed at his desk. “I’m a writer, a poet if you want. I feel inspired by this wonderful place, which is the reason why I sought it out.”

“You must be the one the innkeeper mentioned,” I recalled.

“Yes, indeed, I guess I am,” the poet said. “So I see you’ve come around quite a bit in these woods yourself!” He smiled. “Actually, if you want to know, I’m right now working on a tale that takes place just within these woods – a fascinating scenery for sure to go for a little walk, to let one’s eyes wander, the mind roam, the senses feel, a place to experience the known or the unknown and observe how they both converse with each other.”

He indicated a shelf full of books. “There are stories about these woods, ah, you might have heard the one or the other. Of the magic that is at work here: the dark, the light, even the colorful kind if you so want, you name it. It all provides a splendid backdrop for the tale I’m writing. I guess I’ll call it ‘The Journey’.”

The poet took his quill in his hand, and, absorbed in thought, dipped it into the ink bottle, in order to retrace a few letters on his parchment. “See, it is a story about someone who gets lost in the midst of a magical place like this, or thinks so. But how can one get lost? Doesn’t everyone always end up somewhere, I have to ask? Who can tell where one is supposed to end up if one doesn’t know exactly where one’s heading? And our traveler might not be that lucky. But each step just leads exactly to where one’s supposed to be.”

The poet leaned back. “Getting lost... well, that lies in the eye of the beholder, I would say. And the woods for sure hold deep secrets, but though they might not be the same for everyone, they challenge us to be seen. Other eyes might look at the same things differently. Some eyes need to look again and again to see just once. Well, but isn’t it ‘Open your eyes!’ that you hear people say to those who already have their eyes open, but cannot see? Yet others suggest not to look too closely and instead shut their eyes to see behind things...”

The poet shuffled together some of his parchments. “But who might be the judge? Who can discern right from wrong? Even the most magical place cannot tell one how to look at it, and regardless how often one walks into such a place, one might always see something different.” He put parchment after parchment in various drawers while he continued talking. “What the traveler in my tale might see, well, I cannot say. That it will get him closer to what he’s destined for, that’s for sure. And if the dance has to start again, so be it, the magic of the woods always glows.”

He finished sorting his papers. “Rest assured however that while within the woods the possibilities are endless, there’s always a way out, that one way out, at least in my tale. Then again, even if one gets out: What is inside and what is outside when the world around us is magical every way you look at it?”

The poet, after having finished his little speech, looked at me with genuine interest. “So what have you seen? Maybe I can make it part of my tale?”

“It’s... it’s... difficult to say,” I stammered, not knowing what to mention. Or where to begin. One of those.

The young man nodded. “I see. Well, you haven’t found yet what you’ve been looking for, I give you that. And as you said before: You also don’t know how to get out again, so I think the magic of these woods might look dampened to you. ¬– At any rate: There’s at least that one way out I know of, and it might just work for you as well – if you’re interested. It’s easier to value what you’ve been through when you leave it behind and can look back.”

“A way out? As I guess I’ll hardly meet the one I’m supposed to meet here, I could as well need some directions for finding my way back,” I concluded.

The poet laughed. “Well, you never quite get what you might expect around here, so be careful what you wish for. But I can try to give you some advice: See, you got in somehow, so your best bet is to get out the same way again, it’s as simple as that. Incidentally, hat’s part of the tale I’m telling as well.”

“That doesn’t sound very convincing,” I objected. “I don’t even know where I am!”

“What a strange observation,” the poet said. “You’re here with me, of course. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you tell me that yourself? You’re here with me. Reading.”

I froze for a moment.

“Remember when you arrived in the hut a while ago?” the poet explained. “How you searched around and finally sat down? How you became aware of that book lying on the table, right in front of you? Remember how you began reading, and, well, what can I say? You still haven’t stopped...”


I jumped up.

My heart was racing; I was breathing rapidly, looked around and found myself standing near a table, the dusty book still lying innocently on it. Yes, there was no doubt: I recognized the ramshackle hut; it was unchanged, as real as it could be. But so the encounter with the poet had appeared. Cold sweat dripped from my brow. The flickering of the oil lamp still cast unsteady shadows on the opposite wall as if to convey a hidden message I was unable to grasp.

I grabbed the lamp, illuminated every corner of the hut with it as I had done before. As if in fever I searched the wall, determined to uncover that picture with the unsettling scene on it, the entrance to this fascinating location I had visited. But there was no such picture.

Getting on my knees I looked for a trapdoor of any kind, moved rags, furniture and broom, grabbed the cane I had found to knock on every single board in the hope of discovering a hollow spot – nothing. I got up again, exhausted.

Despair had me in its firm grip again. I sat down, thinking. My lamp was still there like an old friend, quietly flickering on the table, casting unsteady shadows on the wall opposite of me. And it was still waiting, that book. In its calm way of just being there it reminded me that I had been foolish in trying to find a way out of here by searching walls or floorboards. A shiver ran down my spine as I realized that all I was supposed to do was read on.

So I picked up the book once more and continued where I had left oft:


I found myself reading again. I was just a few words in when something else caught my attention, as if by magic. In the corner of my eye I noticed the trapdoor. It was still open.

Within moments I saw myself up again with the lamp in hand, descending down the stairs, leaving the picture behind I had been searching for so desperately a moment before, which was now lying on the floor again. Noisily I pelted down the wooden corridor, ignoring the rocking and creaking that accompanied me, didn’t listen anymore to the shouts from above, whatever they said. I darted towards that door which would lead me into the poet’s chamber, determined that nothing and nobody would stop me to get the answers I needed. As I reached the door with the wooden bar, I paused for a moment, caught my breath. The bolt was already removed, just as I had left it, and so I entered.

The curtains were drawn now and the room was very dark, except for a dim light source that stood on the desk of the poet, an oil lamp, just like the one I had come with myself. The poet was still there, writing in the scarce light, dipping his quill again and again in the bottle of ink next to him, finishing a sentence or two before pausing.

He turned around, stood up and said: “Thank you for waiting!”

I was about to say something, only to become aware of a silhouette of a figure that had been standing next to the desk all along. The poet had obviously addressed that person and hadn’t noticed my presence at all.

I tensed and made a step further back, hid deeper in the shadows. With a mixture of gnawing unease and keen interest I observed what they might have to discuss.

“The Twelve with you!” the poet said. “It’s rare to have company out here, I must say. But I’m glad that you’ve managed to come all the way here.”

“Well, it seems I had at least one valid reason to undertake such a hazardous journey”, the second person replied. “I’ve found something precious that is yours and can now return it to its rightful owner.” The stranger pulled something out from under the cloak. I tried to catch a glimpse of what it was, but failed.

The poet made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “Oh, there are further valid reasons, I’m sure – you might have yet to become aware of them...” I saw him smile as he seemed to take the item he had received in his hand. “But indeed, it’s not easy to get as far as this place, so imagine my joy that someone delivers something to me that I thought I had lost forever.”

“Don’t mention it,” the stranger answered. “It’s been my pleasure. The only thing I’m worrying about however is how I’ll find back from this remote place.”

The poet chuckled. “Yes, I guess with your wish you are not alone... – But I think I can give you something in return, which will prove to you that the journey was not in vain for you either.” With that he took something from his desk and handed it to the stranger. “This is all you need, my friend, it’s the key that brought you into these woods, and it will get you out of them. Take it. Use it. You’re welcome.”

I thought the time had come now to reveal myself to the poet and the one he was talking to – and find out about this special item myself. I had to.

But the when I wanted to step out of the shadows, I heard the poet address the stranger again: “But excuse me, my friend, we’ve had company for a while...” With that he stepped forward and approached me directly.

Be it as it may, I thought and emerged from the shadows as well.

The stranger too turned around to face me.

Overcome with curiosity my eyes immediately fell on the item in the stranger’s hand, which the poet had called ‘a key’. But it didn’t look like a key at all: It was a quill.


I found myself back in the hut, once again sitting at the table. The flickering of the oil lamp hadn’t ceased to cast unsteady shadows on the wall. I was still sweating, my heart beating. The trapdoor was gone, and so was the picture on the wall. Everything else in the room was in slight disarray, stemming from my futile attempts to find a way where there wasn’t any.

Yet I sensed that something was different now. Something was missing. Looking around I noticed that the cane was gone – the cane, which had still been leaning at the wall next to me just a few moments ago. I remembered how I had put it there after using its silver pommel to knock on the floor boards. But with the desperate attempt to search for the trapdoor, the cane seemed to have gone too.

Ignoring the odd circumstance, I eagerly returned to the book. In avid anticipation I leafed a few pages further in order to see what this magical tome might still have in store for me.
But all the following pages were... empty. Just empty. I turned page after page right until the end, and then went back again: Nothing. Not a single word was written there. The book was more than halfway filled with blank pages. Finally, split between anguish and hope I returned to the page I had just been reading and let my eyes wander to the line where I had left of:


“Still reading?” the poet asked and looked at me as I came out of the shadows.

“As you can see, yes I am indeed,” I replied. I looked around, but the stranger was gone now. It was just me and the poet now. “Who was it that you just met? What is this all about?” I demanded.

“I hoped that I’d get an answer from you,” the young man said and smiled benignly as he repeated the words I had said to him when we had first met. “Alas, you need to leave the woods first to get to an answer I fear, and I won’t be able to follow you there, so you see my dilemma. Can’t say I didn’t try to help you. – However, feel free to pay a visit any time, it’s been a pleasure to have accompanied you on your journey!” Then he turned around and sat down again on his desk, searching for a new quill between his many parchments. Finally, he was lucky and returned to writing as if I wasn’t there anymore.

I approached him and looked over his shoulder. What could possibly be that important to write down now and ignore my questions? I read:

I pulled the book closer and turned the page, eager to see how it would all end.

But there were only a few words left that concluded the tale. The ones I am reading just now. And as I finish reading them I look up, and wonder...
 


The Journey

 

"The Journey", composed and performed by Vladeptus
Original Title "Fate Takes Your Hand" (Candyman Tribute)
Format: MP3, Length: 4:27.

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 Date of last edit 20th Molten Ice 1671 a.S.

Novella written by by Artimidor Federkiel View Profile