The Path Of Dreams
The icy wind blew for several cycles of the moon at this time of the season. It was born in the far north, nurtured between the costal glacier and the polar glacier until it grew strong enough to roam upon its own. From there it crawled across the frozen wastes of the Uporan Steppes, tasting the lives of the tribes that dwelt there, and moving on. The mountain chain of the central continent deflected the wind, twisting it around the tip to be drawn down across the grassy plains of Ciaharr - home to farmers, small villages, and the occasional traveller. There was no moisture in this great expanse of land, and the wind remained bitter, pursuing its intractable goal of touching everything with frozen fingers. From the plains it slashed down the Ardican estuary, the easiest way for the wind to travel unhindered. After the estuary, it was anybody’s guess as to where the wind went. It seemed to spend itself amongst the island chain of Qua’Clira, amidst a mass of storms caused by the clash of frigid, polar air with the moist sea breezes.
On the plains of Ciaharr, a man stood shivering, bound captive by several others. He was of medium build, with hair that had greyed before its time, and many days of unshaved stubble on his wind-battered face. He was dressed in a tunic and hose of good brown country leather, clothes that were common amongst the villagers in the region. His half-boots were of good thick leather with cloth sewn inside to protect his ailing feet from bunions, inexpensive to most but precious to him. These clothes he had worn for so very long now. His only other possessions were a bottle of drink, and a knife, both taken by the man who now glared at him. His captor wore a face he wished he had never chanced upon. The man staring at him was much bigger than he, dressed from head to toe in black, and sporting long dark hair, and a complexion equally as dark. The only contrast was his icy-white skin. The rest of the group were likewise attired. His captor measured him without comment, an eagle’s predatory gaze at a rabbit that could do no more than struggle weakly against the iron clasps of the men that held him. He refused to whimper. He wouldn’t even give them even that much. “I know you for what you are. Murderers and cowards to a man. You will not get anything from me, no matter the cost.” He should never have been in this position, and would never give a sign that he was almost dead from starvation.
The stranger chuckled, amused at this show of defiance. “You have a lot of spirit in you, I’ll give you that. In the end it will make no difference. You are still going to die.”
Cursing inwardly, he considered the events that had led him into folly, and regretted them as quickly.
In his life he had been called ‘miller’ by everybody, for that had been his trade, but the name used by his wife had been Vero. In his younger days, he was always strong, full of life and surrounded by friends and family. He had been successful, and merchants travelled from far and wide to buy his flour. He had given away as much as he had sold though, the tenets of the Old Law stating that no person was above any other when it came to helping your fellow man. For this too he had known fame as Vero, a man who could be trusted, and had a very generous heart. He had enjoyed nothing more in life than a nice tankard of frosty ale at the end of the day, and the company of his wife and children. His life had been complete; at least it had until just over a season ago. A season was twelve turnings of the Moon in the countryside. They preferred to live by the natural methods as befitted their lifestyles. The farmlands of the central plains relied on weather and good soil for their incomes, and not the gold that was so important to city folk, who had adopted the term ‘Month’ in defiance of the Old Law. Twelve moons had passed since he had been shocked into a flight of numbing terror over the grasslands of Ciaharr. He had been on a trip to a nearby farmstead, bartering and dispensing his flour for other farm goods that his mill and his family had needed. It had been a successful trip, the flour netting him cheeses, sides of meat, and staples that would last his family for a long while. His flour in return would make bread and all manner of baked goods that would provide a little bit of cheer and a lot of sustenance. He had given almost as much away to the workers of the farm. If flour could be construed as a gift, then the farm workers treated it as such.
In the early morning he had returned to his village and mill full of good cheer and looking forward to seeing his family, as the round trip had taken him several days. “Soon, boy. Soon we will get you into the stable and you can have a nice well-earned rest.” Vero had spoken gently to his horse, his old travelling companion. The horse, who had never had a name, nickered back eagerly, and got a reassuring pat to the neck as a result.
“There, you see? Home awaits us both.” He looked with a smile at his mill on the skyline, the sails rotating in the chill breeze. It was always the last thing he saw upon leaving, always the first sight that appeared on his return. The cart rumbled up the rutted track to the village, the wheels creaking and grinding over the stones knocked loose by many previous trips. He remembered staring at his only home from on his cart, and thinking something was amiss. The village normally radiated daily noises, even this early in the morning, but there was absolute silence. No hammers of the blacksmiths at the forge, no children playing in the streets. Just the creaking of his cart and the blowing of the wind. Even the air around him seemed oppressively silent. The houses nearby were lifeless with doors and windows shut, and many had the drapes pulled behind them as if they were shutting out something. “This is most unusual. Not a soul awake,” he observed to his horse. “Ah well, perhaps they are still abed. It is rather early.” Vero passed, apparently unnoticed. This was unusual, for he never made this journey without a friendly face popping up to wish him well. He did not expect it of course, but his neighbours were practically family. The cart trundled over the recently repaired bridge in front of the mill, and the light of the sun became hidden by the squat tower that was the working part of his business. He entered the yard, climbing wearily down from the cart to look for his two sons to help him with his wares. The horse snorted as he walked past, and he laid a hand on his old friend’s nose. “We will get to the source of this soon enough, old boy.”
The horse snorted back, less than impressed by being left attached to the cart. Vero grinned at the indifference and turned to the house. Something was odd, or maybe he was just bemused by the quiet in his tired state. He wanted nothing more now than sleep.
Entering the house behind the mill, he noticed that the quiet extended even to here. “I’m home, love,” he called. “Come help me lads!”
The only reply was the creak of the wind in the sails of the mill. His house had never been empty. Never. Curious now, and a little worried, he moved quickly through his demesne. It had not been disturbed. Everything was in its proper place. The beds lay untouched, the
kitchen clean and tidy, a sign of his wife’s sure touch. “Carlyon?” Vero shouted the name of his wife, not able to understand where she would have gone. The mystery deepened. His only answer was that the playful family of his could be hiding in the mill itself. With a smile to reassure himself, he went outside, around to the mill. His pride and joy had recently been whitewashed, and had earned it the name ‘The Ivory Tower’ from the rest of the village. It meant everything to him, as was clear to anybody that saw it. He entered through the sturdy oak door in the yard, and climbed the spiral stairs up to where the meal was ground to flour. He noted that the machinery needed greasing,
and promised himself to complete the task as soon as he had had some rest and could get a hold of some decent rendered fat.
“Jo, Bess, are you two fools in here?” Vero demanded, growing rather irate at the lack of anybody to greet him after his long trip. He threw the door open, and was met by carnage. His face dropped, and he fell gasping to his knees. The stale metallic odour was ripe, and burst past him down the stairs. He would never forget that stench. Death had visited him in the vilest of ways. Tears streamed from his eyes, and a racked sob came from deep within as he beheld his wife and two sons. Stakes had been nailed to the woodwork, and his family thrust upon them. Stunned, he stared unseeing around the grinding room. With a detached look, as if he was not in his body, he had looked around at the blood pooled between the wooden floorboards and on the benches at the side of the room. The metallic reek violated him to his very core. What made it most unreal was the sunshine glowing softly in from the window, as if beams of light were trying to comfort his family, or to free their souls for the next life. He dared not look at their faces. He knew well enough the warm smiles and looks of contentment his family used to give him, and he did not want to see the inhuman masks of agony they now wore. His legs felt like quivering stumps of jelly; he propped himself up using the banister of the stairway, and left the room, pausing long enough to close the door. His mouth hanging open, and his head shaking slightly in uttermost denial, he made it to the bottom of the stairs before he fainted.
He remembered coming to, and going out into the light. He had thanked the Seven Gods that it was still in fact day. He was so scared, so overcome with grief, that he could not have bared to have gone anywhere in the dark. His village was not big by any standard, and it did not take him long to search it. It was the same in every building. The doors had been shut but not locked, and everyone had been butchered in grotesque mockery of a night twenty seasons before, almost a generation in the past. His friends, and his relatives, all skewered like boars in the woods. He had quickly given up any hope of finding anyone alive. By the end, he had but to open a door and taste the metallic reek of blood on the air, and he never even bothered going any farther. He had trudged back through the village in a daze. It was surreal to be the only person alive. In the end he had just gotten back in his cart, driven it out of the yard, and onto the road heading east. He kept riding for several days at least, though he lost count. All he knew was the care of his horse, and that he had to keep going. Something evil had happened to all that he had known and loved, something from a nightmare. He could not even face the direction he had come from, let alone consider going back. With tears streaming down his numbed cheeks he faced the north wind, begging it to wash him clean of the memories that plagued him. At length he came to a crossroads, and found the wood nearby that had been his home ever since. He made do with what he had, storing spirits and food, water and provisions for the horse in a rude shelter deep in the wood, out of the continual breeze. That was when he had discovered the stumps. Coincidence or not, the discovery shook him to his core. The number of stumps in the woodland glade were just about the same as the people in his village. The thought, the very implication that the place he had decided to make his refuge could be the same place that they took the stakes from was too much for him. Confused, and unable to strike out at the invisible foe that had destroyed his life, he began to drink. Vero had had a winter’s worth of brandy to last his family through the cold moons ahead, but he managed to drain it down to nothing in almost the course of just one passing. The numbness was not pleasant, but it was a far cry from the hideous memories that attempted to rise to the surface like a bubble in water. In the end they could not be contained. He woke one day to discover that his horse had been taken, but even that fact failed to rouse him from misery. The only word he could utter for a long time was “Why?” and he uttered it seldom.
He wandered the forest for days on end, eating when he could, using the herb-lore that had been his pride to keep himself alive. Then the strangers had come. A group of them, wizards and warriors all, asked him about his woods and about the area. He had helped them. He felt somewhat more like himself for a while. The human contact reminded him that although he had lost a lot, he was still alive. At least he had felt more alive after he recovered from the blinding hangover, a direct result of what one of the wizards had given him – spiced brandy, some fancy name. He reasoned that although he could never go back there again, at least he could divert anybody else from going there too. He prayed that they would not find the village, that the tomb of his past would go undisturbed. He should have known better really, and not said anything to them. Vero would make it his mission to start again, and to prevent anybody from desecrating the tomb of his friends and family. His mood reflected the bleak skies above him, and the forbidding wind around him. He had come back out to this point every day to persuade travellers to go aside, to take another path. Any path but this one. His warnings of doom and death were enough for many of the dark-haired travellers that seemed to be abroad, but not for the men he stared at now. They had come out of the East, as had many of the others, but instead of heeding his warnings they had laughed at them, and grabbed him.
“So you are the miller who escaped, are you?” demanded one huge man with a scar down one cheek and a variety of weapons. “Tell us of those you have spoken to from here. Who has passed you?”
Suspicion overcame his grief and distress. “What do you mean, the miller who escaped?” The man loomed closer, and he could smell the acrid stink of strong drink on his breath. He wondered if this was what he smelled like, and felt an instant of guilt; His wife would never have forgiven him if she had seen him like this. He vowed that he would never be in such a state again.
“Was there a group, with guildsmen and thin warriors?” the man pressed.
Suspicion dawned into realisation as the miller comprehended who these
people were. “You. You killed my Carlyon, my Jo and Bess, my friends.” Animal rage overcame him as he attempted to break free and exact his vengeance upon the man closest to him. He lashed out with a foot and caught the man square between the legs, but he was so weak and undernourished that he managed only a moment of this fight back. The killers regained control of him, and the man he had kicked stood and punched him solidly in the stomach. Vero would have doubled over. Instead he retched, and spat blood in the face of the man, his only method of defiance. It made him feel better for a moment, until the brute wiped his face and delivered a backhand blow that would have felled him had he not been gripped by the other two.
“Come on, be done with it,” called a voice from behind, someone sitting up on a horse. “He won’t tell you a thing, not now he knows who we are.”
“He has that much right. I would die before I tell you a thing, you filth.”
Vero the miller glared right at the man he was facing, who surprised him with a response of utter dispassion. He shrugged and turned away. “So be it, let us go. We can learn nothing more.”