From the author: Alfred Lord Tennyson said about the completion of an epic quest in his poem, "Ulysses," "How dull it is to pause, to make an end, To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!" We often enjoy tales of a wanderer's adventures, but what is their life like afterwards? How does the hero find solace?
So close to the road’s end, the traveler couldn’t remember the beginning. The trail climbed the mountain, and all he could do was to lean into the slope, one hand resting on his sword’s grip, the other hooked behind the leather strap that held all his belongings on his back. His thighs burned, but he’d climbed so many mountains, walked so many miles, he knew how far he could go before rest. Every day presented more miles. Every day the horizon changed but remained as unreachable. Still, he walked.
The fingers of his sword hand stuck together. He raised them absently to his mouth and licked the wolf’s blood. Sweat flavored it, and dust. The wolf itself lay dead in the leaves at the trail’s foot. Of course, it was another legendary wolf he’d been warned about at the last inn. “Beware the Darkwood Killer,” said the innkeeper, a young man with stout arms and no hint of a beard. “A hundred men have tried their luck. Don’t go that path,” he’d said.
“Only a hundred?” said the traveler. He finished his meal, thanked the innkeeper for the courtesy, then continued on.
How many wolves had fallen in the past years? How many years had it been? The traveler didn’t know. When wolves didn’t guard the way, other barriers arose: Bridges hid trolls. Ghosts haunted castles. Beautiful princesses with hearts of black hemlock waited in court. Caves held dragons. Rivers flowed and gurgled and whispered seductively in the moonlight, waiting for him to bend for an instant to listen. Roads possessed plans of their own, changing their turns, and they led him down evil ways. Or magicians cast spells.
The traveler sighed. One more step planted in front of the other. One more climbing effort up the mountain. Would a corrupted king wait at its top? Or a giant? Or a minor god?
A biting wind dropped from the heights. He pulled his cloak closer about his shoulders, and on the distant peaks, grey snow merged with grey clouds. Already he’d passed beyond the grain fields and vegetable gardens below, all the mundane farmers and villagers who hardly waved at his passing.
If they knew his name, they would crowd the way before him because his stories traveled much faster than he did, sometimes so changed he hardly recognized himself in them. “Tell us about the witches at Coverst Crest,” one would say. “Did you really quell the beast of Fordham
Falls?” another might ask. “Can I see your sword?” a child with quivering lip would say. The fathers pointed him out to their sons or hid their eager daughters behind them. Other men, valorous men, nodded or raised an open palm when he passed. Gates opened. Lanterns lit. Musicians played. They pushed close for the stories. If they knew his name.
He’d grown tired of turning around, but he stopped for a moment to look down the climbing trail. Trees bent in the wind below. Smoke hustled away from the distant chimneys. Parts of the path peeked through the forest until fog hid it all. Where he’d been didn’t matter anymore, except that sometimes the enemies came from his back. He shivered. Every step today seemed haunted with recognition. That tree! That red thrust of rock, bare on the hill! That small pond with trees leaning in just so! Perhaps he’d traveled so far that nothing new existed. Everything had crossed his path, and the world held no more surprises. Still, he walked on, because that was what he did, the traveler, pushing onward toward the heights.
To his left, scraggly brush that rattled against the wind gave way to ragged granite teeth and a rising slope to black bluffs. To his right, the mountain dropped sharply to a tiny stream cascading from one rock to the next. He thought about mountain creatures: bad tempered long horned sheep who blocked the way, or shag-shouldered bears rearing on hind legs, their claws as sharp as nightmares, or mountain men who’d become more mountain than men with fingers that broke stone.
His hand tightened on the sword’s hilt as he glanced from side to side. The old feeling, the familiar one tingled along his arms’ coarse hair. Something waited or stalked or crouched somewhere on the path ahead. An ambush. An attack. A trap. Or was that it at all? The air had a tinge to it he recognized. The sun slanting through the clouds walked across the distant peaks in a strangely reminiscent way. But he moved forward. Whatever waited still waited, and the road’s tyranny continued. He had to press on, although he couldn’t remember exactly what it was that had started him on the quest, what long-ago undertaking took him from his home. Whatever the deed was, he’d accomplished it. That was clear. But what was it? Every act since had been to return home. Why had he left?
He shook his head. No, he couldn’t recall. Had there been a stronghold long ago that was his own? The memory hardly seemed there. Tall walls that stood against the morning mists? A gate? He pictured an intricately bricked arch and solid columns, a sandy path between. And there was music.
But what was that? A memory? A dream? A wish?
The trail curved around the mountain’s shoulder. His boots ground gravel into the dirt. His breath came heavily and measured. These were things he could sense much more than troubling whispers of nearly lost times. Believe in the road, he thought. Believe in the next heartbeat. The mind should be empty, like a bowl. Empty and aware, or the enemies will catch me in my distraction. All reflex.
Something flicked by the corner of his eye. With a snarl, he snapped his sword around, felt the slight contact, then stood at guard, balanced on the balls of his feet, hands away from his sides. The mountain’s pulse, it seemed, seized for a moment, but nothing else stirred within his sight. The trail curled away as before. A gust of wind hurried over scant grass, bending it down, whistling through his ears, carrying the dry scent of pine before it calmed.
Finally, he looked at his feet. A small grey bird lay in the dust, cleft into two parts, a splash of blood across one extended wing, a scattering of feathers quivering in the air, a bent claw extended and clenching up as if to grasp a branch. Just a bird. But the feeling that a trial waited ahead didn’t leave him. If anything, the feeling grew stronger like a thickening in the air. He wiped the blade clean, left it unsheathed, and then stalked forward, each cautious stride revealing a fragment more of the unknown path. The top of a tree peeked over the hill, then gradually, branch by branch, revealed itself until the whole tree stood rooted to the mountainside. As always, landscape unfolded before him, slowly, oh so slowly, his sword tip arcing before him like a steel finger with each step, until from around the hill his trek revealed a man standing astride the trail a stone’s throw away.
The traveler continued toward him. The man’s shield showed use, and his sword’s grip was worn and practical, not decorative. He wore no helmet, though--his face showed no lines, and his dark hair reminded the traveler of his own before age had grayed it. The man’s arms were crossed on his chest, well away from his weapons.
“Well met, stranger,” said the traveler, lowering his sword.
“I expected you long ago.” The man’s voice carried clearly. “We’ve waited.”
Nothing moved in the trees ahead, and they were too far away for even a skilled archer to reach him. No rock or bush close by seemed big enough to hide an accomplice, and the traveler couldn’t smell horses or men in the wind. Still, he stepped off the trail so he would be above the stranger as he approached. Even in a sword fight, height gives an advantage.
The traveler sheathed his blade. “I am expected?” He looked again at the trees and the trail’s shape. Once again, the feeling that he’d been on this road before struck him.
“Long expected. Long missed.” The younger man’s gaze was steady. His posture was poised, too, competent and prepared.
For a moment, they faced each other without speaking. The traveler puzzled the comment. At last, he said, “Missed by who?”
“My mother,” said the young man, “and me.” For an instant, an intervening cloud blocked the beams of sun that had dressed the mountains behind the man, then it shifted again, and a shaft of light lit a mountain peak as if it were on fire. “I’ve never known you, father,” the young man said.
The traveler sighed. Of course, he could see it now in the young man’s face, the curve of his cheek, his mother’s eyes. When the traveler had left so long ago, there had been a baby. He recalled now, dimly, a last embrace, a kiss on a baby’s head, before shouldering his pack and setting out from his home. He looked past the young man, his son, and remembered that the path would curve one more time. His holdings would open out before him then. The small fields of hardy, mountain produce. The farmer’s huts, and, behind them, his stronghold, rising out of the mountain’s native stone, like a rock formation.
“I am sorry for my long travels,” he said. “Lead me home.”
After the curve, the trail spilled into a long and narrow valley, much as the traveler recalled, although it seemed there were fewer huts, and the buildings were more aged. Weather stained their wood walls. The thatching sagged on the roofs.
A farmer paused in his digging as they passed, his face a blank page. The traveler nodded in his direction, but the farmer had already returned to his work.
The stronghold, though, stood even stauncher than he had envisioned. From the high parapet two flags snapped briskly in a wind that didn’t touch him as he approached the stone archway. The traveler’s hand brushed against the smooth wall, so solid and cool against his knuckles, and he suddenly remembered running past this wall when he was a boy. He shrugged his shoulders in bewilderment. A boy? It had been so long since his life had been anything except the road and the weary walk.
Beyond the arch, through the thick battlements, a courtyard opened before them, and where the sky wrapped from horizon to horizon before, now the walls dominated, relegating the sky to a much smaller square overhead. Grey stone. Sturdy buildings marked with decorated wooden doors. A closed in smell that brought back a hundred new memories. Wood smoke. Stabled animals. Wet hay.
Across the courtyard, a well appointed elderly woman, flanked by two spearmen waited for them at the foot of the broad stairs that led up to the Great House. As he approached, he could see that she knew him. Her posture, already balanced, became even more regal, but she trembled slightly, and ventured a step toward him that she immediately took back.
He stopped before her. In the brief instant before she spoke, he saw within her lined features the young woman he’d left so many years ago.
“Husband,” she said.
Their embrace was long. The traveler smelled the remembered perfume, the sweet underscent of her skin. Her tears dampened his face, and for a moment, all the years dropped away. They were young again and courting, when she had teased him from horseback, outracing his own horse on the windy forest trails she knew so well; when she beckoned him to sit at streamside, and they talked long and earnestly about their lives to come; and when she danced in the Great House hall, far surpassing the other women who once vied for his attentions. For the moment of the embrace, the world became her, and he realized the dampness on his face was his own tears too.
So he did not object when the servants took his sword to hang above the Great House fireplace, or gave him new, fine clothes to replace the road-worn ones. Nor did he object to the welcome home feast where his grown son toasted to his good health and then returned the ruler’s scepter, or when his wife led him up the stairs they had walked so many years before to the wedding chamber. It seemed he floated, now, so much weight had disappeared.
But much later, when the only sounds in the Great House were the skittering of mice and the familiar pulsing throb in his ears, the traveler roused himself from the bed and padded barefoot to the open window overlooking the courtyard. A full moon showed brightly on the well-swept walk from the archway entrance. Quartz or mica flecks in the stone caught the light so that the path looked more like a river than a road. It flowed from the entrance, through the courtyard, and then emptied into the darkness of the stronghold’s backdoor, a little used exit barely wide enough for a man and the belongings on his back. He stared at the shadowed door for a long time, the evening breeze washing over his nakedness until goose bumps roughened his skin. The light seemed to gravitate to that spot as if the courtyard were tilted. What was it that drew his gaze there? Behind him, the bed, so much softer than most he had slept in in his journeys, beckoned. His wife, still the young woman in her heart, still in love with the young man in his, slumbered deeply there, waiting for him even now.
But there was the mysterious door.
He leaned against the window’s sill so he could see it better. Moon light touched his hands and face. Then, he remembered. He pictured it: his hand reaching out, unlatching the heavy bolt, all those years ago. His quest began there where the road led him from enigma to revelation, and from danger to triumph, over and over again. That’s where he had started, his wife’s last caress fresh on his lips, his sword untested and keen in its sheath.
Who was that young man then? The traveler felt that he knew of him, but he didn’t know him, just as he knew of the son who had spoke so loudly for him at the dinner that evening, but he did not know him, not like a father should know a son. Nor did he know the woman in the bed. Not really. She was like a story told to him about another woman, another man’s wife. A romance he learned about. Not his.
He shivered. Was the stronghold even a part of him?
A hazy cloud passed in front of the moon, dimming the courtyard, so it almost disappeared, but the road seemed to glisten just as brightly.
The woman coughed in the shadows behind him as she rolled in her sleep. The traveler flinched. He didn’t recognize her breathing. The stone sill beneath his hand felt rough-edged and unfamiliar. He rose on the balls of his feet. His hands drifted away from the window and floated at his sides, relaxed, ready to defend him. Without thinking, he moved away from the silhouetting window and into the room’s darkest corner. There, he watched. Did the ornate arras that covered the far wall move, just a little? Could there be someone behind it? Quiet as the moonlight, he moved from one corner to the next, until he stood at the tapestry. It lay nearly flat against the wall, barely room for a sword to fit behind it, much less an assassin, but his heart still pumped as if he’d run a long race, and his mouth felt dry.
The woman in the bed stirred again. Her white hair wisped across the bed’s covers, all light shadows and dark shadows. He crept around the room’s door and into the hallway beyond where his foot encountered a pile of soft cloth, his old travel clothes. The shirt pulled on easily, as did the pants and much-patched boots.
No less quiet than before, the traveler stalked down the stairs. The lay of the stronghold seemed less familiar every step he took. The shape of a chandelier surprised him. An unfamiliar draft caught him unawares. With some difficulty, he found his way to the Great House fireplace and retrieved his sword. When he held it, its weight pushed him down just enough that he felt he was touching the earth again. He remembered the quick flick of his wrist earlier and the bird cleft in two, and he smiled sadly at the thought. For good or ill, the sword was a part of him. Not like this strange fortress that reeked of memories and people who did not know him.
He moved now with purpose, across the Great Hall to the throne room where he found the scepter on the high seat where he’d left it. Like a ghost, passing through one dancing-dust moonbeam at a window and into the next, he wandered until he found his son’s living quarters, marked by a sign above the door. The traveler leaned the scepter against the polished wood. It looked better there than in his hand.
Minutes later, he stood at the small door he had seen from the wedding chamber window. The latch lifted just as heavy as he remembered, and when the door swung open, the trail glowed like the brilliant face of the moon overhead. He shifted the sword into a more comfortable position and began walking.
Trees passed, and so did rock and hillock and a thrushy dell. Finally, the road returned to the climb he had started earlier that day. Before him, the not so distant peaks caught the moon light in their teeth and did not tremble, nor did he. The path led to them and through them and passed beyond. He leaned into the ascent, his thighs burning familiarly.
So close now to the road’s beginning, so comfortable in the long strides that would eat the miles, so aware of his legs moving him forward, always forward on his comfortable journey into the unknown, he realized the road had no end, and he was content.
This story originally appeared in Realms of Fantasy.