CHAPTER FOUR; THE ROAMING MEMORY
Slowly but surely, life was fading from the lands. About every corner, and in every free field, the vicious fiends of darkness waited for wandering innocent hearts to come by, to seize their souls into frosty death. Few then dared to venture out, and those who did were branded "Hunters of the Dream". Scorned by the living, cast from society, seen as thieves and murderers, loathed and feared by all the living, a miserable and friendless existence.
But fate had been unkind to this Rody, long and cold and far away was the way it bore him. And looking back, many years later, far away from the weariness of the world, he realised that perhaps even before he came to Stonebridge, he was preparing to leave. But full understanding would never come to him now, far away on the golden wings of a deathless dream.
Rody pulled up a chair. Embarrassed by the loud grinding scrape the motion made against the flagstone floor, he quickly sat and waited for Mayor Heron to finish whatever business he was attending to. A serving girl came into the room, carrying a tray of tea and hot nutbread. That was a hopeful sign - it was impolite to commence dining before the master of the house, and the food would go cold quickly. Therefore the mayor shouldn't be too long now.
He waited only a few minutes, but in the quiet parlour 14314q162o it seemed the waiting would never end. The bustling discord of the upper floors of the house dissipated into the silence of the lower, and time seemed to be suspended here, hanging like a spider's thread. The pale glare of the white walls, and the over-clean carbolic smell of the parlour, were enough to interrupt even the pattern of Rody's thoughts. He was alone in mind-numbing boredom.
He had entered a trance-like state of mind by the time Mayor Rufin Heron came in, the creak of the door causing him to start and blink suddenly. Heron grinned and sat down on the opposite end of the table, pouring himself a cup of tea and taking a large slice of nutbread. He motioned for Rody to do the same.
The sweetness of the bread turned to iron in Rody's mouth, the metallic taste of doubt. He had an inkling of what was to come, as the two sat in uncomfortable silence for some minutes, until Heron stood up and said:
"Rody," the mayor sighed slowly "I think maybe you know why I called you here today?" It was more of a statement than a question.
Cold fear came creeping up Rody's neck. Yes, he knew for certain now.
"I don't know how much you've heard, sir, but I..." he trailed off. "Should I go and get ready? Get the next train out from the station?" Best to just get things over with, in circumstances like this.
A puzzled looked shadowed his face, then Mayor Heron laughed. "No! Why do you think we want you to do that? Nobody here cares about what happened to you in the past, or where you've been, Rody - you've been an invaluable help to the whole community since you arrived!"
Rody blinked and frowned as the unexpected news sank in, and he relaxed slightly, leaning back in his chair. He didn't have to go! They wanted him to stay! Every time he thought he'd finally found somewhere he settle down, someone recognised him or learned of his past history. The townsfolk had held a hushed committee, while Rody sat upstairs trying to listen. And every time, their decision had been the same, and delivered with the same forced apology - they had told him to leave quietly in the night. But not today...
"But there is one thing I wanted to talk to you about," Heron continued nervously. "All I want is to get a rough idea of how long you're planning to stay here in Stonebridge. This is a small town and, well, I wouldn't expect an adventurous soul like you to want to hang around here for too long!"
Rody smiled, both in relief and comfort. "Actually, I was thinking of maybe settling down a bit."
Heron nodded appreciatively.
"Just for a while. Then I was thinking I'd maybe travel, see the rest of Fengalonia - get the boat out to Hashwa. But maybe I'll come back one day. You, everyone here, you've made me feel welcome." A warm sensation began in Rody's stomach. For the first time he could remember, he felt wanted, like he had a home he could return to after journeying to other lands and wandering far away.
"Well, you've been a boon to Stonebridge, and it'll be a sad day for us all when you decide to leave. But I don't blame you." Heron sighed and walked to the small window in the corner of the parlour, outside of which the local urchins were being scolded for some untold misdemeanour by old widow Tarlen.
Heron chuckled to himself quietly then sighed. "Look at them, Rody. Do you think the children of the village are going to stay here when they're older? I doubt it - we're losing them, the younger generation. They're all going out to the towns now. The mountain life just isn't enough for them anymore. We're becoming a ghost town, Rody, and there's really nothing I can do about it."
Rody was unsure of what to say. "Maybe... I don't know, sir, maybe they'll want to stay here and keep to traditions, and..."
"Everything's changing now. Secretly you must think it's a little pathetic, the village clinging to all its old customs and traditions?"
"Of course not! It's just kind of sad, that everyone's leaving here. I like it here. I they knew what it was like not to have a home, they'd..." Rody trailed off again. He would have to leave soon. He stayed some while, chattering meaninglessly, then made his excuses to Heron and left.
Rody questioned that night for
the rest of days in the
In the dead of night, as Stonebridge slept, and all the lights of the houses dimmed, he slipped from his lodgings into the silent black. He could avoid being detected easily. Rody was only of middling height, younger than his nineteen years in appearance, thin yet muscular. His hair hung below his shoulders and was a nondescript sandy-blonde colour, his skin brown from long hours working in the sun, amber eyes bloodshot from troubled sleep, or a lack of it.
Rody neared the gates of Stonebridge, which were often kept unguarded, for rarely did any bandit or murderer dare to venture into the high climes of Notthil. He could leave quickly, and be halfway down the mountain by dawn.
Rody took the heavy bolt of the gates in both hands and heaved slowly, making as little noise as possible. The bolt came free and Rody pulled the great wooden door to one side, preparing to slip out, when a hand was laid upon his shoulder.
An old hand, the skin weathered and crinkled, purplish veins outstanding underneath the papery surface, nails rough and scraggly and pointed as talons. He followed with his eyes the slender black-clad arm of the hand, to the cowl-shrouded face of Widow Tarlen. From inside the hood her eyes burned brightest cold blue, pinpoints of piercing light too terrible and powerful to look into for fear of what secrets and incredible wisdom lay therein.
Rody panicked. There was nothing he could say or do at this point to help himself - he'd been caught.
A chuckle sounded from inside the dark hood. "Ah, don't yer worry, Rody I ain't gonna to take yer back."
The pang of tension that had rocketed through him dissolved, and he looked, smiling yet questioningly, at the old woman.
"I know why yer wanna leave here, and I know why yer have to. I know more than yer do," Widow Tarlen whispered, understanding, sympathy and kindness outstanding in her rasping voice.
Rody felt a sliver of familiarity then, as if he knew the old woman from somewhere. Not from the times he'd been given a task by Heron to assist her in some way, nor from the obligatory cheery early morning greetings, but from another time, another world, before and beyond the confines of Fengalonia.
Widow Tarlen let down her hood, and a seriousness took her face. "Go now Rody," she told him, the thick Arrondalian accent dropping from her voice. "Go and do what you have to, I'll be there when you're done with it.
"I don't think I understand," he muttered slowly. "What do I have to do?"
The woman cackled. "When you remember who we are, when we can go home." Then she turned and vanished back into the deathly quiet that ensnared the sleepy village.
Rody stood a moment, then proceeded to slip from the gates of Stonebridge. No echoing footfalls or startled shouts followed him. The cryptic whispered words of the old woman had chilled him, and he pondered their meaning through the night.
It was chill for the early hot season, and Rody was glad of the ankle-length grey cowhide coat Heron had given him some months previous. An easy way for the first few miles, the mountain road steepened and the gravel became looser. The way was poorly paved, and in the all-consuming darkness he stumbled often on potholes. Many times that night Rody twisted his ankle, or fell and scraped his knees.
Rody met wolves on the way down - not a pack, only a group of hungry adolescent pups out on the hunt. He heard muted yelps and the soft pad of their steps. He caught flickering shadows in dark corners. He sensed eyes following him, and quickened his pace, uneasy.
Some yards in front of him they halted on the road. Rody saw the glint of their ravenous eyes through the night, and heard the low rumbling growl that ensued from their jaws. He reached first for the knife in his boot-top, then sensing that there were more of them there than previously thought, he dropped his pack to the ground and took from it his other weapon. The weapon that decided his fate, cast him from home, made him an enemy to all.
They felt it presence, the wolves, and bolted, one after another. He heard their frightened barks and distant howls for some minutes after. Rody stood rooted to the spot, afraid of his own authority, yet relieved - he hated killing things.
The rest of his journey passed slowly. The path wound on, its gradient changing every few miles, and he had to change his walking speed to accommodate it. Occasionally he passed by a lake in the mountain side, carven into the rock face by time, and the light of the four moons would shimmer and dance upon the still velvet of the surface. Tall shadows of trees stretched far into the road, and above their feathery tops all the stars were glimmering like gems in a lace net of sapphire sky. A pleasant way it may have been, was it not for the overriding sensations of guilt and worry he felt, and the shrill shrieks of a Hupia shattering the peaceful pace of his mind and feet. A chilling sound, even to those who knew nothing of its origin, echoing for an age through the mountain passes and leaping from face to face, here, there and all about. Sometimes the call was answered, as if the monsters were massing. Then Rody's blood began to chill - was it a sin to carry what he did? The thought entered his mind every time, and every time the cries passed away - some sinner on the road was doomed tonight.
As the pale dusky blue of dawn prickled the horizon, and the sweet dampness of dew and cool early air spread through the land, Rody looked upward toward the village he had just left, distant now. He had travelled far enough for one night, his feet were blistered and sleep pulled at his weary eyes. All his body ached from fatigue and long hours. Further down the way Rody came to the banks of a mountain tarn. After drinking from the icy-crisp waters, he unrolled a thick blanket onto the smoothest rock he could find, and passed into dreamless, untroubled sleep.
The rocks were heating up when Rody awoke to the full glare of the sun in his eyes. He supposed it was about , and prepared a light meal of dried meats and nutbread. Sipping some more of the tarn water he carried on, refreshed and ready to face a new day and another journey.
Where to go now? That was a decision he had not thought to make before leaving Stonebridge. Rody realised what a fool he had been, leaving safety and warmth to go out on the road, with no sense of direction or destination. He had little provisions, and was rapidly running out of places he could go to stay without being recognised.
Rody stopped again, taking seat in the shadow of a nearby pine tree, unrolling a map of Arrondale from his pack and thinking hard. Anywhere in the realm of Notthil was out of the question. His eyes travelled south over the map, ignoring much of it, until he came to Seafarer's Cove, the port town at the very southern tip of the continent. Go there, to Sarhil, and leave Arrondale, sail to Hashwa? There was a new land, nobody would know him...
Rody shook his head. He had little money, and of what he had much would be spent on the train fare to Sarhil, and nowhere near enough would remain for a place on board ship.
Rody rolled up the map again and sighed. The station at the foot of the mountain was in sight, and already the trains were pulling in and a busy day was beginning. He had little time. Rody decided then to wait at a platform and take whichever train pulled in first, to trust fate, whatever and wherever it took him to this time.
Five days afterward, Rody's train pulled into Hollyrule Farm station. He regretted his decision somewhat. Five days aboard a cramped, cluttered train surrounded by the smell of burning, sweltering in the hot, thick air of his cabin. Stepping off the train, he was dazzled by the brightness of the sky, even though it was early evening and the sun sinking below the roof of the station building and all in sight was tinted by fiery sunset colours.
His eyes accustomed quickly to the brightness, and he left the station, disorientated and confused as he had been the day he set off. A while he sat on one of the benches that lined the station walls, getting his bearings and sorting his head out, examining the map on the wall. He was too tired from travel to make much sense of the lines and dots and names upon it.
Later, Rody set out onto the moors, following the sign that led to Hollyrule Abbey. Perhaps he could be spared a bit to eat or a bed for the night. The way was dotted with farms and homesteads, windows ruddy in the darkening day, cheery sounds of children's laughter and glasses clinking drifting into the night. Rody looked on sorrowing for a moment, before carrying on toward the Abbey.
It was a hard trek up the moors, made harder by the night - the roads here were of a similar quality to those in Notthil. At least the weather was bright. The air was warm and a scent of cut grass and meadows wafting over the path.
Amongst the darkness of the plains, Rody's eyes detected a faint pinprick of light. A camp fire, he supposed. Were they other lonely wanderers, perhaps? Maybe they had food to share... But he didn't want to intrude on anyone else's meal, especially if they were as hungry as he was.
The rocky road ran on, and inadvertently Rody found himself walking closer and closer to the fire. He heard the distant voices of those who were sitting about it. Some yards he stood from it as two figures came into view. One was slightly shorter, and had his back to Rody. The other was a girl, older in appearance, face glowing in the pale light of the licking flames. Her eyes glanced up and she saw Rody, and smiled.
"Hi! Are you heading for the Abbey?" she called.
Some part of Rody's mind told him to say no. He never gave away details of where he was going. "No," Rody replied, shaking his head. "I'm not going anywhere, really."
"Okay," the girl said slowly, motioning for him to come closer. "Just wandering around?"
Rody smiled as he walked on. He came to stand by the fire, between the girl and her companion, a small boy, some years younger than her in appearance, who looked up at the newcomer with inquisitive innocence.
"My name's Ceally Fringel," he greeted "and this is my sister, Rachel. What's yours?"
"Nice to meet you, Ceally, Rachel, I'm Rody Rooftops. Which way are the two of you headed?"
"North, visiting Galenborne," Rachel told him. "Sit down if you want. Join us - there's plenty of meat to go round!"
Rody muttered a thank you and sat down slowly, stretching his legs to ease the aches in the backs of his knees. The smell of the bone Rachel was turning over the fire seemed then like the most appetising he'd ever smelled. In the ruddy light, he took a moment to observe the two. They were a strange pair, differing entirely in looks, bearing very little family resemblance. Ceally wore a black farm worker's uniform encrusted with mud, his blonde hair plastered to his skull, thick with grease and covered in bits of hay, skin dirty and sun-roughened. Rachel however was dark-haired and white-skinned, and dressed in flowing green velvet delicately embroidered. The hem of her skirt had seen much wear and tear, and her hair could do with a wash, but regal and powerful she appeared nonetheless.
"Galenborne? That's quite a way, and quite an unusual place to go - for us anyway. What are you doing there? If you don't mind!" Rody asked, taking the cooked meat Rachel offered him with a warm glance.
Both were hesitant, and Ceally glared at the girl. Golarath was a tower deep in the forests of Galenborne, in which resided a brethren of wizards and scribes and prophets. All races and peoples were welcome to study there, though few were skilled enough to join them.
"Of course we don't," Ceally smiled quickly. "I mean, not very many humans go to the elvish kingdoms, so it's only natural you're interested, really."
"We're going to Golarath, to study." Rachel cut in. "I've been studying at Hollyrule since I was little, and Ceally learned a little bit of magic from me when I came home, so we're going to train there for a while. One day we want to join the brethren!"
Something in the rushed tones of the two, in the nervous glances they shot at each other, and in the over-detailed explanations they made, told Rody this was untrue.
"So Rody, where are you from? Why are you here?" Ceally asked hurriedly, obviously changing the subject - but it worked.
"I came down from Notthil," he replied, being careful not to be too specific. "I just got bored there, you know? I like to travel a lot, see as much of the world as I can."
Rachel nodded. "And you've got no idea where you're going now?"
"Not really - I was thinking of getting the ship out to Hashwa maybe... but I don't have the money. So I'm just wandering, really."
The conversation was going the same way, unless either party let down the barriers and told their secrets - and neither was willing to risk that for the sake of escaping uncomfortable silence. Until Ceally used his wits to divert the talk from revelation.
"Tell us a story Rachel," he suggested.
"Not Rody and the Seraph Song, please," Rody protested instantly. The moment a storyteller heard his name, they decided to honour him by telling the tale of his namesake. And he was quite bored of it.
Rachel giggled, and then shuffled until she was sitting cross-legged with her hands flat in front of her. "Alright then. I will tell you now of Unad Halanis and the White Walkers, whose tale begins in long ages before..."
And so she spoke, telling of how King Adinar of Arrondale had died without heir, and a nobleman named Yeldon had appointed himself ruler. He was a cruel man, covetous, sadistic and tyrannical. The kitchen boy Unad had run from the castle of the King Yeldon, and assembled a fellowship of five companions - Fostrad the warrior, Thioblan the scribe, Mirielle the witch, Grimmerbald the spellman and Nichara the princess. She told how they had together wandered the world and amassed an army to aid Arrondale, how they had overthrown Yeldon, and how the Halanis family had come to rule the kingdom.
"...and so Unad's line did preside over Arrondale, and they were to be wise, fair and just, beloved by all. And to this very day still does the name of Halanis bear the crown, and forever more may it do so."
Rody hailed her with light applause. Ceally snored.
"He's shattered," she whispered, grinning, affectionately tucking his blanket tight about him and smoothing his hair, then stretching her arms above her head and yawning loudly. "I'm pretty tired myself. You're welcome to rest with us tonight if you want - but I'm afraid we can't travel with you."
"It's okay," Rody assured her. "I'll keep watch tonight, and keep the fire going."
"Not a problem! This fire won't go out," she added, a barely-concealed smirk taking to her face. "And nobody will come for us!"
Unsettled slightly, Rody closed his eyes. A strange pair indeed. Still, it would've been nice to have some company - wherever he was going this time!
Lulled by the crackle of the campfire, the rhythm of the boy's snoring and the full feeling of a good meal in his belly, Rody drifted in heavy sleep, dreaming of silver sheen mists and rolling laughter and all happy things, untroubled by anything that cried in the night.
Rody awoke with the thrashing grass tickling his face and rain soaking into his skin. He opened his eyes, then closed them quickly when a single drop splashed into his eye. Groggily he sat up, rubbing his eyes, his clothing drenched and sticking to him uncomfortably. Above, grey clouds were massing and thick drops were splashing on the grass. Storm was brewing and shelter for the next few nights was a priority now.
Memories of the previous night came flooding back to him. Ceally and Rachel were nowhere to be seen, their packs taken and the last embers of the fire washed away by the rain. It was hard to believe they had ever been here, all Rody could see now was the waving grasses and the sheen of the rain curtain, he could only hear far-off animal calls and the whipping whistle of the wind. He shivered, puzzled and more frightened that he liked to admit to himself. The enigmatic words and hidden meanings behind the conversations he had held since he set off from Stonebridge had made his nerves twitch and jangle. Something was beginning, he sensed - or was it just him being paranoid again?
Quickly Rody stood shakily and slung his bag over his shoulder. It was a grim view over the rain-washed moors. Rody found the path in seconds, and followed it north, knowing wherever it took him, something would always be waiting for him on the way.