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Of Roland

DAVID WALKED for many hours through the forest, trying as best he could to follow the huntress’s map. There were trails marked upon it that either had ceased to exist or had never existed in the first place. Cairns of stones that had been used for generations as primitive signposts were often obscured by long grass, were overgrown by moss, or had been demolished by passing animals or vindictive travelers, so that David was forced again and again to go back over old ground, or slash at the undergrowth with his sword in order to find the markers. From time to time he wondered if the huntress had been planning to trick him by constructing a false map, a ruse that would have left him trapped in her forest, easy prey for her once she became a centaur.

Then, suddenly, he glimpsed a thin line of white through the trees, and moments later he was standing on the edge of the forest with the road before him. David had no idea where he was. He could have been back at the dwarfs’ crossing or farther east along the road, but he didn’t care. He was just glad to be out of the woods and once again on the path that would take him to the king’s castle.

He walked on, until the dim light of this world began to fade, then sat on a rock and ate a piece of dry bread and some of the dried fruit that the dwarfs had pressed upon him, washed down with cool water from the little brook that always ran alongside the path.

He wondered what his dad and Rose were doing. He supposed that they must be very worried about him by now, but he had no idea what would happen if they looked in the sunken garden, or even if anything remained of the garden itself. He recalled the fire of the burning bomber illuminating the night sky, and the desperate roar of the plane’s engines as it descended. It must have torn the garden apart when it struck, scattering bricks and airplane parts across the lawn and setting fire to the trees beyond. Perhaps the crack in the wall through which David had escaped had collapsed in the aftermath of the crash, and the path from his world to this one was no more. There would be no way for his father to know if David had been in the garden when the plane fell, or what had become of him if he was there when it happened. He imagined men and women sifting through the remains of the plane, searching for charred bodies in the wreckage, fearful of finding one that was smaller than the rest…

Not for the first time, David worried about whether he was doing the right thing by moving farther and farther away from the doorway through which he had entered this world. If his father or others found a way through and came looking for him, then wouldn’t they arrive in the same place? The Woodsman had seemed so certain that the best thing to do was travel to the king, but the Woodsman was gone. He hadn’t been able to save himself from the wolves, and he had not been able to protect David. The boy was alone.

David glanced down the road. He couldn’t go back now. The wolves were probably still looking for him, and even if he did manage to find his way to the chasm, he would then have to seek out another bridge. There was nothing for it but to keep going in the hope that the king might be able to help him. If his father came looking for him, well, David hoped that he would keep himself safe. But just in case he or someone else came this way, David took a flat rock from beside the brook and, using a sharp stone, he carved his name upon it and an arrow pointing in the direction he was taking. Beneath it, he wrote: “To see the king.” He made a little cairn of stones by the side of the road, just like the ones used to mark the forest trails, and placed his message on top of it. It was the best that he could do.



As he was packing away the remains of his food, he saw a figure approaching on a white horse. David was tempted to hide, but he knew that if he could see the horseman, then the horseman could also see him. The figure drew nearer, and David could see that he was wearing a silver breastplate decorated with twin symbols of the sun, and he had a silver helmet upon his head. A sword hung from one side of his belt, and a bow and a quiver of arrows lay on his back: the weapons of choice in this world, it seemed. A shield, also bearing the device of the twin suns, hung from his saddle. He pulled his horse up when he was alongside David and looked down at the boy. He reminded David of the Woodsman, because there was something similar about the horseman’s face. Like the Woodsman, he looked both serious and kind.

“And where are you going, young man?” he asked David.

“I’m going to see the king,” said David.

“The king?” The horseman did not look very impressed. “What use would the king be to anyone?”

“I’m trying to return home. I was told that the king had a book, and in that book might be a way for me to get back to where I’m from.”

“And where would that be?”

“England,” said David.

“I don’t think I’ve heard that name before,” said the horseman. “I can only suppose that it is far from here. Everywhere is far from here,” he added, almost as an afterthought.

He shifted slightly on his horse and glanced around him, scanning the trees, the hills beyond them, and the road ahead and behind.

“This is no place for a boy to be walking alone,” he said.

“I came across the chasm two days ago,” said David. “There were wolves, and the man who was helping me, the Woodsman, was—”

David broke off. He didn’t want to say aloud what had become of the Woodsman. He saw again his friend falling beneath the weight of the wolf pack, and the trail of blood that led into the forest.

“You crossed the chasm?” said the horseman. “Tell me, was it you who cut the ropes?”

David tried to read the expression on the horseman’s face. He didn’t want to get into trouble, and he supposed he must have caused no end of harm by destroying the bridge. Still, he did not want to lie, and something told him that the horseman would call him on it if he did.

“I had to,” he said. “The wolves were coming. I had no choice.”

The horseman smiled. “The trolls were most unhappy,” he said. “They will have to rebuild the bridge now if they are to continue their game, and the harpies will harass them at every turn.”

David shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t feel sorry for the trolls. Forcing travelers to gamble their lives on the solution to a silly riddle wasn’t a decent way to behave. He rather hoped that the harpies decided to eat some of the trolls for dinner, although he didn’t imagine trolls would taste very nice.

“I came from the north, so your antics did not interfere with my plans,” said the horseman. “But it seems to me that a young man who manages to irritate trolls and escape from both harpies and wolves might be worth having around. I’ll make a bargain with you: I will take you to the king if you will accompany me for a time. I have a task to complete, and have need of a squire to help me along the way. It should not require more than a few days of service, and in return I will make sure that you have safe passage to the royal court.”

It didn’t seem to David as if he had very much choice in the matter. He didn’t believe that the wolves would forgive him for the deaths he had caused at the bridge, and by now they must have found another way to cross the canyon. They were probably already on his trail. He had been lucky at the bridge. He might not be so fortunate a second time. Traveling alone on this road, he was always at the mercy of those, like the huntress, who might wish to do him harm.

“I’ll go with you, then,” he said. “Thank you.”

“Good,” said the horseman. “My name is Roland.”

“And I am David. Are you a knight?”

“No, I am a soldier, nothing more.”

Roland reached down and offered David his hand. When David took it, he was instantly lifted off the ground and hoisted onto the back of Roland’s horse.

“You look tired,” said Roland, “and I can afford to spare a little dignity by sharing my horse with you.”

He tapped the horse’s flanks with his heels, and they took off at a trot.

David was not used to sitting on a horse. He found it hard to adjust to her movements, so his bottom bounced against the saddle with painful regularity. It was only when Scylla—for that was the horse’s name—broke into a gallop that he began to enjoy the experience. It was almost like floating along the road, and even with the added burden of David on her back, Scylla’s hooves ate up the ground beneath her feet. For the first time, David began to fear the wolves a little less.

 

 

They had been riding for some time when the landscape around them began to change. The grass was charred, the ground broken and churned up as though by great explosions. Trees had been cut down, the trunks sharpened to points and driven into the ground in what looked like an effort to create defenses against some enemy. There were pieces of armor scattered upon the earth, and battered shields and shattered swords. It seemed they were staring at the aftermath of a great battle, but there were no bodies that David could see, although there was blood on the ground, and the muddy pools that pitted the battlefield were more red than brown.

And in the midst of it all was something that did not belong there, something so strange that it caused Scylla to halt in her tracks and worry at the ground with one of her hooves. Even Roland stared at it with undisguised fear. Only David knew what it was.

It was a Mark V tank, a relic of the Great War. Its squat six-pounder gun still protruded from the turret on its left, but it bore no markings of any kind. In fact, it was so clean, so pristine, that it looked to David as if it had just rolled out of a factory somewhere.

“What is it?” asked Roland. “Do you know?”

“It’s a tank,” said David.

He realized that this was unlikely to make the nature of the thing any more understandable to Roland, so he added: “It’s a machine, like a big, um, covered cart in which men can travel. This”—he pointed at the six-pounder—“is a gun, a kind of cannon.”

David clambered up onto the body of the tank, using the rivets for handholds and footholds. The hatch was open. Inside he could see the system of brakes and gears by the driver’s seat, and the workings of the big Ricardo engine, but there were no men to crew it. Once again, it seemed as if it had never been used. From his perch atop the tank, David looked around and could see no sign of tracks on the muddy field. It was as if the Mark V had just appeared there from out of nowhere.

He climbed down from it, jumping the last couple of feet so that he landed on the ground with a splash. Blood and mud instantly stained his trousers, and he was reminded again that they were standing in a place where men had been injured and perhaps had died.

“What happened here?” he asked Roland.

The horseman shifted in the saddle, still uneasy in the presence of the tank.

“I do not know,” he said. “A battle of some kind, from the signs. The fight was recent. I can still smell blood on the air, but where are the bodies of the fallen? And if they were buried, then where are the graves?”

A voice spoke from behind them. It said: “You are looking in the wrong place, travelers. There are no bodies on the field. They are…elsewhere.”

Roland turned Scylla, drawing his sword as he did so. He helped David to climb up behind him. As soon as he was settled, David reached for his own small sword and pulled it from its scabbard.

The remains of an old wall, all that was left of some larger structure now long gone from the world, stood by the roadside. Upon the stones sat an old man. He was completely bald, and thick blue veins ran across his exposed scalp like rivers on a map of some barren, cold place. His eyes were crisscrossed with blood vessels, and the sockets seemed too big for them, so that the red flesh beneath his skin hung loose and exposed under each eyeball. His nose was long, and his lips were pale and dry. He wore an old brown robe, rather like a monk’s habit, that ended just above his ankles. His feet were bare, and his toenails were yellow.

“Who fought here?” asked Roland.

“I did not ask them their names,” said the old man. “They came, and they died.”

“To what purpose? They must have been fighting for some cause.”

“No doubt. I am sure that they believed their cause was the right one. She, unfortunately, did not.”

The smell from the battlefield was making David queasy, and it added to his sense that the old man was not to be trusted. Now the way he spoke of the “she” who had done this, and the manner in which he smiled at the mention of her, made it very clear to David that the men who had died here had died very badly indeed.

“And who is ‘she’?” asked Roland.

“She is the Beast, the creature that lives beneath the ruins of a tower deep in the forest. She has slept for a long time, but now she is awake once more.” The old man made a gesture toward the trees at his back. “They were the king’s men, trying to maintain control over a dying kingdom, and they paid the price. They made their stand here and were overwhelmed. They retreated to the cover of the woods behind me, dragging their dead and injured with them, and there she had her way with them.”

David cleared his throat. “How did the tank get here?” he asked. “It doesn’t belong.”

The old man grinned, revealing purple gums dotted with ruined teeth. “Perhaps the same way you did, boy,” he replied. “You don’t belong here either.”

Roland urged Scylla toward the forest, keeping his distance from the old man. Scylla was a brave horse, and after only a moment’s hesitation she did her master’s bidding.

The smell of blood and decomposition grew stronger. There was a copse of broken, stunted trees ahead, and David knew that this was the true source of the stench. Roland told David to dismount, then instructed him to keep his back against a tree and his eyes on the old man, who remained upon the little wall, watching them over his shoulder.

David knew that Roland didn’t want him to see what lay beyond the bushes, but he could not resist the urge to look as he heard the soldier parting the bushes to enter the copse. David caught a brief glimpse of bodies hanging from trees, the remains reduced to little more than bloodied bones. He quickly looked away—

And found himself staring straight into the eyes of the old man. David had no idea how he had moved so quickly and so silently from his perch on the wall, but now here he was, so close that the boy could smell his breath. It stank of sour berries. David grasped the sword tightly in his hand, but the old man did not even blink.

“You are a long way from home, boy,” he said. He raised his right hand and touched his fingers to a stray strand of David’s hair. David shook his head furiously and pushed at the old man. It was like pushing at a wall. The old man might have looked frail, but he was far stronger than David.

“Do you still hear your mother calling?” said the old man. He put his left hand to his ear as though trying to catch the sound of a voice on the air. “Da-vid,” he sang, in a high voice. “Oh, Da-vid.”

“Stop it!” said David. “You stop it now.”

“Or you’ll do what?” said the old man. “A little boy, far, far from home, crying for his dead mother. What can you do?”

“I’ll hurt you,” said David. “I mean it.”

The old man spit on the ground. The grass sizzled where the spittle landed. The liquid expanded, forming a frothy pool upon the ground.

And in the pool David saw his father, and Rose, and the baby Georgie. They were all laughing, even Georgie, who was being tossed high in the air by his father just as David had once been.

“They don’t miss you, you know,” said the old man. “They don’t miss you one little bit. They’re glad that you’re gone. You made your father feel guilty because you reminded him of your mother, but he has a new family now, and with you out of the way he no longer has to worry about you or your feelings. He has forgotten you already, just as he has forgotten your mother.”

The image in the pool changed, and David saw the bedroom his father shared with Rose. Rose and his father were standing beside the bed, kissing each other. Then, as David watched, they lay down together. David looked away. His face was stinging, and he felt a great rage rising up inside. He didn’t want to believe it, and yet the evidence was before him in a pool of steaming spittle ejected from the mouth of a poisonous old man.

“See,” said the old man. “There’s nothing for you to go back to now.”

He laughed, and David struck at him with the sword. He was not even aware that he was doing it. He was just so angry, and so sad. He had never felt so betrayed. Now it was as if control of his body had been taken over by something else, something outside himself, so that he seemed to have no will of his own. His arm rose of its own volition and slashed at the old man, tearing through his brown robe and drawing a bloody line across the skin beneath.

The old man retreated. He put his fingers to the wound on his chest. They came back red. His face began to change. It extended and assumed the shape of a half-moon, the chin curving up so sharply that it almost met the bridge of his crooked nose. Clumps of rough, black hair sprouted from his skull. He cast aside the robe, and David saw a green and gold suit, tied with an ornate gold belt, and a gold dagger that curved like the body of a snake. There was a rip in the fabric of the suit, where David’s sword had cut through the beautiful material. Last of all, a flat black disk appeared in the man’s hand. He flicked with it at the air, and it became a crooked hat, which he placed upon his head.

“You,” said David. “You were in my room.”

The Crooked Man hissed at David, and the dagger at his waist twisted and writhed as though it really were a snake. His face was contorted with fury and pain.

“I have walked through your dreams,” he said. “I know everything that you think, everything that you feel, everything that you fear. I know what a nasty, jealous, hateful child you are. And despite all that, I was still going to help you. I was going to help you find your mother, but then you cut me. Ooooh, you’re a horrid boy. I could make you very sorry, so sorry you’d wish you’d never been born, but—”

The tone of his voice suddenly changed. It became quiet and reasonable, which frightened David even more.

“I won’t, because you’ll have need of me yet. I can take you to the one you seek, and then I can get you both home. I’m the only one who really can. And I’ll just ask for one small thing in return, so small that you won’t even miss it…”

But before he could proceed, he was disturbed by the sound of Roland returning.

The Crooked Man wagged a finger in David’s face. “We’ll talk again, and perhaps you’ll be a little more appreciative when we do!”

The Crooked Man began spinning in a circle, and he spun so fast and so hard that he dug a hole in the earth and disappeared from view, leaving only the brown robe behind. His spittle had dried into the ground, and the images from David’s world could no longer be seen.

David felt Roland arrive beside him, and the two of them peered into the dark hole left by the Crooked Man.

“Who, or what, was that?” asked Roland.

“He disguised himself as the old man,” said David. “He told me that he could help me to get back home, and that he was the only one who could. I think he was the one the Woodsman spoke of. He called him a trickster.”

Roland saw the blood dripping from the blade of David’s sword.

“Did you cut him?”

“I was angry,” said David. “It happened before I could stop myself.”

Roland took the sword from David’s hands, plucked a large green leaf from a bush, and used it to clean the blade.

“You must learn to control your impulses,” he said. “A sword wants to be used. It wants to draw blood. That is why it was forged, and it has no other purpose in the world. If you do not control it, then it will control you.”

He handed the sword back to David. “Next time you see that man, don’t just cut him, kill him,” said Roland. “Whatever he may say, he means you no good.”

They walked together to where Scylla stood nibbling upon the grass.

“What did you see back there?” asked David.

“Much the same as you saw, I suspect,” said Roland. He shook his head in mild annoyance at the fact that David had disobeyed his instructions. “Whatever killed those men sucked the flesh from their bones, then left their remains hanging from trees. The forest is filled with bodies, as far as the eye can see. The ground is still wet with blood, but they injured this ‘Beast,’ or whatever it is, before they died. There is a foul substance on the ground, black and putrid, and the tips of some of their spears and swords have been melted by it. If it can be wounded, then it can be killed, but it will take more than a soldier and a boy to do it. This is none of our concern. We ride on.”

“But—” said David. He wasn’t sure what to say. It wasn’t like this in the stories. Soldiers and knights slew dragons and monsters. They weren’t afraid, and they didn’t run away from the threat of death.

Roland was already astride Scylla. His hand was outstretched, waiting for David to take it. “If you have something to say, then say it, David.”

David tried to find the right words. He did not want to offend Roland.

“These men all died, and whatever killed them is still alive, even if it is wounded,” he said. “It will kill again, won’t it? More people will die.”

“Perhaps,” said Roland.

“So shouldn’t something be done?”

“What would you suggest: that we hunt it down with one and a half swords to our names? This life is filled with threats and danger, David. We face those that we have to face, and there will be times when we must make the choice to act for a greater good, even at risk to ourselves, but we do not lay down our lives needlessly. Each of us has only one life to live, and one life to give. There is no glory in throwing it away where there is no hope. Now, come. The twilight grows thicker. We need to find a place to shelter for the night.”

David hesitated for a moment more, then took Roland’s hand and was hoisted into the saddle. He thought of all those dead men, and wondered at the kind of creature that could inflict such harm upon them. The tank still stood in the midst of the battlefield, marooned and alien. Somehow, it had found its way from his world to this one, but without a crew and apparently without even being driven.

As they left it behind, he remembered the visions in the Crooked Man’s pool of spittle, and the words that had been spoken to him: “They don’t miss you one little bit. They’re glad that you’re gone.”

It couldn’t be true, could it? And yet David had seen the way his father doted on Georgie, and the way he looked at Rose and held her hand as they walked, and he guessed at the things they did together when the bedroom door closed each night. What if he found a way to return home and they didn’t want him back? What if they really were happier without him?

But the Crooked Man had told him that he could make things right, that he could restore his mother to him and bring them both home in return for just one small favor. And David wondered what that favor might be, even as Roland spurred Scylla, urging her on.

 

 

Meanwhile, far to the west, out of sight and out of hearing, a chorus of triumphant howls rose into the air.

The wolves had found another bridge across the chasm.

 


XIX


Date: 2015-02-03; view: 815


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