Fantasy

Gatekeeper, What Toll?

By Mike Reeves-McMillan
Oct 10, 2017 · 2,492 words · 10 minutes


The dust transformed the boy into a bronze statue, freshly cast and yet to gain a patina. He trudged, limping every so often as his bare feet struck the pebbles which persistent sun had flaked from the rocks of the desert.

I took stock of my own appearance as he approached. Middle-aged, plump, unathletic. A uniform, neither new nor crisp, stained under the armpits. Symbols on the pocket, which the boy would read as "Bill". At my side, a truncheon, chipped and worn, with only remnants of polish remaining. I sat in an open-fronted booth with my feet up, smelling the alkaline dust and my own sweat.

The Gate took the form of a cave mouth in a cliff. A turnpike, made from an imperfectly-peeled tree branch nailed to a leaning post, stood in front of it, a merely symbolic barrier.

"So," I said to myself, "an easy one this time."

As the boy came closer, I made out a crown of curly hair, dark eyes full of determination, and the lean frame of a lad who’d been given more labor than food. With decent rations and the right exercise, his shoulders might yet fulfill their promise of broadness.

When he came near enough to make himself heard through the dust in his throat, he coughed some of it out and greeted me politely. "Good morning, sir. Is this the way to the Gate of Worlds?"

I let my feet thud to the ground and hauled myself upright, bending over my paunch. Indicating the Gate, I said, "There it is."

"That?" he said. "That's the Gate?"

"At the moment," I replied.

"I've heard it looks different to each traveller," he said. "That the way it looks says something about you." He regarded the rickety turnpike with a dubious expression.

"I've heard that too," I said, wondering what jongleur, cloaked wanderer, or winged messenger had told him of the Gate, and what touch of strange blood or fate enabled him to find it.

He looked at me, up and down, and I treated him to a blank look in return. He seemed to remember something, and cleared his throat again.

"Gatekeeper,” he said, “what toll?"

He’d been properly instructed, then. "The knowledge of your name," I said. "Your destination."

"Alexander," he said, and, "somewhere I can train."

"Train for what?"

"For war."

"There's war where you come from?"

"Not yet," he said, narrowing his eyes.

I saw him next emerging from lush forest. He rode at the head of a group of companions, fit and well-favoured, and he was the youngest. He had filled out, as I had predicted, but remained lean and wiry. Yet the biggest man watched him as a dog watches his master.

The smallest man, red-haired, with a sharp, cunning face, I immediately thought of as the Fox. He looked everywhere but at his leader, because danger could come from any other direction, but not, he thought, from Alexander.

The last of the party was a woman, disguised—convincingly—as a man, but she moved like a wolf. She didn’t look at Alexander either, but in a way that told me she feared to fall in love with him, and that it was already too late.

I’ve seen many stories come through the Gate, and, looking at Alexander among his companions, I feared that I knew this one.

I was a sergeant this day, younger than when I’d seen him first, and I had troops, to either side of the Gate. The Gate itself looked like a heavy iron grille set in a thick wall of grey-black stone. Beyond it lay another forest, and different, alien trees towered above the wall.

“Gatekeeper,” said Alexander, “what toll?”

"Let me speak with each of your companions alone," I replied. He considered, and nodded.

I told each of them the same thing. The Dog glared and set his jaw, clenched his fist. He would tell his master as soon as they were through the Gate. The Fox cocked his head, skeptical. The Wolf looked aside, not meeting my eye. She already knew.

"Where's old Bill?" Alexander asked, as they mounted up again.

"Not needed any more," I said. "No more than the desert, or the caves."

"I found this in those caves," said Alexander, touching a sword that swung at his side as if part of him. The hilt, bronze wrapped in leather, had no jewels or decoration. It was a sword for basic fighting, not for looking at, and the scuffed scabbard spoke of hard use.

"It's served me well," he said.

"Or you've served it," I said. "Have a safe journey."

He grinned in my face and led his companions through the Gate as my troops swung it wide.

Time passed, and travellers. I saw the jewelled lizards of Am-Skek pass by in palanquins, borne by muscular animated statues of silver and gold. I saw merchants out of Vesin on their six-legged mounts, and pilgrims from Tel in their vessels with the leaf-green sails. An old witch trudged by, and, as she passed the gate, I saw her change, become a princess attended by birds. To each of them I showed what face was appropriate to their need and their attitude at the time.

When I found myself a stern young captain commanding fifty musketeers, I anticipated Alexander.

He led a troop of lancers on tall steeds, and the youth had gone out of his face, though, by his time, I knew it had not been many years. His eyes assessed me and my troops, and he nodded to me with respect.

“I see your Fox and your Wolf,” I said to him, indicating his close companions, “but where is your Dog?”

It puzzled him only for a moment, then he gave a laugh, and, as quickly, turned serious again, his bronzed face closing.

“Dead,” he said, quietly, and, even quieter, with a catch in his throat, “my fault.”

Of course it had been his fault. Nothing happened within two days’ ride of a man like Alexander that did not have to do with him.

“Gatekeeper, what toll?” he asked, and I answered him, "Your banner." It floated above the Fox's head, a golden, many-rayed sun in a deep blue field.

He did not hesitate, but signaled that the Fox should strike the banner and give it to me--which told me that he knew the troops followed him, and not it. I swung open the tall, iron-bound oak doors of the Gate for him myself.

"Where away?" I asked him, as we watched his lancers pass through onto the plain beyond.

"There's war in Es Terin," he said. "They're paying well for troops."

"Which side?"

"It doesn't matter," he said, and mounted his beast. He bore the bronze sword still, but a flintlock pistol balanced it on his thick leather belt. The beast's nostrils flared as he guided its shaggy shoulders through the Gate.

The Wolf approached the Gate alone, except for her mount and a spare. The mud and rotting foliage of the swamp clung to her and to the beasts. She stopped before my booth.

"I have passed the Gate twice under the authority of another," she said. "May I pass a third time on my own account?"

"How did you find the gate?" I said.

"A tugging in my gut." She touched her belly gently, and I knew how she came to be there.

I regarded her. "You may pass, if you pay the toll."

She stared at me a long time before she asked, "Gatekeeper, what toll?"

"Your story," I replied.

She shrugged. "He passed through my village. I knew I must follow him, so I disguised myself and fought beside him, as his companion."

"And this?" I said, indicating her midriff. I saw that she knew I knew.

"Drunk after a victory, he called for a woman," she said. "I said I would arrange it, then put on women's clothing, veiled myself and went to him." Her mouth twisted.

"It was not as you had hoped," I said.

She shook her head. "You were right in what you told me when we first met. He is a dangerous man to follow, you said, and he will fail you."

I nodded and waved for her to pass through the Gate, bearing Alexander's child and the fate of kingdoms.

When I next saw Alexander, he rode in a motorised conveyance the color of old blood, uniformed as a general, and followed by a thousand riflemen. They marched across rolling hills covered with purple grass, and stopped before the Gate.

His Fox sat beside him, watching him closely. He had finally worked out that Alexander was the most dangerous factor in any situation.

I hailed him from the outer breastworks of the fortifications. They offered no entrance to anyone who did not have the means to cast them down, unless I willed it.

"General Alexander," I said. “I do not see your Wolf.”

“He left,” he said, in a clipped tone. “I don’t know why.”

Because she loved you, and you didn’t even pay her enough attention to penetrate her disguise, I thought. Because she was never more than a tool to you in either guise. Because she had just enough fate of her own to break free from your story. Because her leaving moved your story forward anyway.

Because she is a wolf, and not a dog.

"Where away?" I said.

"Gatekeeper," he said. "What toll?"

"That depends on your destination." Beside me on the ramparts stood troops, cannon, mortars, all I would need to stand him off. I would not have them if I did not need them.

"I go to where I came from, Colonel," he said. "Back when you were old Bill and I was a barefoot boy."

I smoothed my hand over my close-cut silver hair.

"Then the toll," I said, "is your army."

He glanced behind him, back to me. "I understood your function was to keep the Gate and let people through."

"My function," I said, "is to keep the Gate, as I see fit, and charge such tolls as I assess."

"I see." He considered, then ordered his driver to turn around, his troops to withdraw out of cannon-shot.

He camped, and began to dig trenches.

I went myself to parley with him.

"I thought you a better general," I said. "It is pointless to besiege troops who have the Gate of Worlds at their back for resupply." Even if they ate, and mine do not, though I chose not to mention that.

"This is not a siege," he said. "It's a blockade."

I looked at him, puzzled.

"It's almost the time of the Migration of the Clans of Evenholt, from what I understand," he said. "They will not be pleased to see the Gate blocked."

I nodded to him without changing my expression, returned to the walls, and sent a messenger through the Gate.

After an interval, a king joined me on the walls.

“How can I assist?” asked Kenthin, Lord of Iron.

“I require a blockade broken, and I thought of you.”

“I see,” he said. “I believe we can do business.”

“Three free passages of the Gate,” I said. “For you and your descendants.”

“Acceptable.”

He descended on the inner side and consulted with his engineers.

Two nights later—it was a place with nights, but no moons—I opened up portals in the walls, and by morning, iron shields stood close enough to Alexander’s troops that the artillery drawn up behind the shields could be brought to bear, without itself being vulnerable to rifle fire.

I did not order a bombardment, but waited for his response.

Alexander himself rode up to the walls beneath a sign of truce, and looked up to where I stood.

“Well played,” he said, his dark eyes blazing with rage kept barely in check.

"You can pay your toll," I said, “with the lives of your men, or you can leave them here alive and go on without them.”

"Allow me twenty rifles," he said. His voice and his eyes did not plead. They demanded.

"Ten."

He nodded to me, as to an equal one acknowledges, but who is not one's friend.

"I shall not forget this," he said.

"Do not," I replied, opening the wall.

The Lord of Iron watched as Alexander, his Fox, and the ten riflemen passed through.

“Why did you wish to confiscate his army?” he inquired.

“With a thousand rifles, he could conquer without effort, and would rule without legitimacy. With ten, he will have to conquer by cunning, alliance, and the unpopularity of the existing ruler. Or, he will fail.”

“I did not know you had such discretion. Or cared.”

“I, too, must pay my toll,” I said.

Years passed, and cavalcades. The Evenholt clans migrated, and migrated back. Envoys from the Court of Yance, seeking an alliance, their long crimson plumes bobbing above their heads, followed twittering tourists from the Upper Glades, and preceded explorer-scientists of Taft, who sought the legendary Islands of the Stars.

The wind howled and whistled as a boy, clad in furs, topped the snowy rise. He hesitated, seeing the Gate, and descended, his footprints erased almost as fast as he made them by the blowing snow.

"Gatekeeper," he cried above the roaring of the gale, "what toll?"

"The knowledge of your name and destination," I replied.

"Alex," he said, casting back his hood, and I noted his bronze features and his wolfish movements. "I go to seek my father, now that my mother is dead."

I nodded, and hauled open the rough wooden barricade for him.

"Thank you, Bill," he said.

The Gate lay on the edge of a desert, and, far off in the twilight, I saw an elderly man.

He trudged, favouring one leg from time to time, and his back bent with weariness, but he retained the bearing and manner of a king—a king on his way into exile. White hair and a white beard, a plain cloak flashing velvet beneath, tall leather boots, a signet ring gleaming in the last light. A sword.

"Hello, Alexander," I said.

"Hello, Bill." For once again I was the middle-aged turnpike guard.

"Gatekeeper, what toll?" he said, and I answered him, "Your sword."

His hand leaped to the hilt, paused, and withdrew, his face becoming a bronze mask. “No. Not the sword.”

“You gave me your banner, once.”

“I was much younger then. Besides, the sword has always meant more to me than the banner.”

We shared a long look. At last, I saluted him, and he returned it.

His back straightened. He turned away into the desert and the night, and marched to meet his fate.

This story originally appeared in Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores.