We were young, we were merry, we were very very wise,|
And the door stood open at our feast,
When there passed us a woman with the West in her eyes,
And a man with his back to the East.
|Mary Elizabeth Coleridge|
There was a new scent in the air when Dreamchant awoke that morning -- something very faint, very distant -- so faint, in fact, that she couldn't entirely be sure if it was really there, or -- if it was there -- the manner in which she was really sensing it. It was a little thing -- nothing worth mentioning to anyone else -- the kind of feeling that one might wake up with on any number of mornings and have nothing unusual happen as a result. But still....
It was enough to prompt her to make the day's ride to the plain that bordered the forest.
It was not enough to divert Starstalker's and Heelsnapper's attention from the scent of a nearby rabbit hole when she dismounted, and the two wolves ran off to investigate.
That was when she heard the music -- music like that produced by no instrument she had ever before heard -- music like brightmetal shining in the sunlight.
She quickly, but cautiously, made her way through that area of thinning trees toward the strange music's source and saw a sight that was even stranger: two humans, a man and a woman, were riding on a large four-legged animal with which she was also unfamiliar. The man was wearing a metal doublet that seemed to rival troll craftsmanship, while his legs, arms, and head were covered by what looked like a fabric made of metal scales that left only his face uncovered; the woman was outfitted in a style not unlike several members of the Holt.
Once again, the man raised a metal instrument to his lips and sounded the music that had first attracted her. His long cape rustled in the breeze, and gem-encrusted leathers glittered like stars on the clearest of nights. He paused and looked around as if waiting for some response, then, repositioning the animal, sounded another call.
This continued for such a long time that Dreamchant became convinced that they had no intention of just going away if no one answered. Also, she couldn't shake the feeling that their call was meant specifically for her. Finally, curiosity got the better of good sense, and she stepped forward where she could be seen.
"Fair maid of the forest," the man said as he dismounted with a grand flourish of his cape and helped the woman to do likewise. "I pray thee give kind word to a humble pilgrim who has journeyed far, suffered much, braved untold terrors, and vanquished countless foes all to bring him to this moment of divine consummation when he finally might say that he has at last achieved his long sought goal. Speak, sad brow and true maid: Art thou the one who sent forth unto the world the fabled DreamCall?"
If Dreamchant had been asked to make a list of the things she would least have expected a human to say, this would certainly have been near the top of it. All she was able to do was respond with a confused, "Uh..., yes."
"Praised be all the gods," the man exclaimed as he remounted his animal with yet another splendid flourish. "I'll be off now."
The woman spoke for the first time.
"We're leaving?" she said with considerable alarm. "But we've only just arrived."
"And, in arriving, have brought to culmination this most glorious of quests. 'Tis not the attainment of one's goal that is truly important, my lady, but the Quest itself and what one learns from it. I may not tarry here while out in the wide world there are still wrongs to be righted, evil to be thwarted, maidens to rescue, and dragons to slay."
"Then I'll go with you," the woman said. The man shook his head solemnly.
"I fear not, my lady. Now the time truly has come that we should part company."
"But, I thought ... I mean ... we already went through this...," She wanted to protest, to demand, to force him to change his mind as she had done before, but something deep down inside stopped her. She suddenly knew with an absolute certainty that what Roland was saying was the truth -- that she had known it for quite some time -- and, as he continued, it was as if that long ignored voice inside her own heart was speaking through him, finally getting her to listen.
"A man's reach must always exceed his grasp, mounting on each new height in view. 'Tis not what he does that exalts him but what he strives to do. I have set my life upon cast, riding the wild winds of Fortune wherever they may lead. That is no longer the direction of thy quest, my lady."
She found herself inexplicably calm, her thoughts surprisingly clear.
"Then what is the direction of my quest?"
"Something that thou must now discover for thyself," he said, "as must we all, so that when we are laid to our final rest, the knowledge of those things that we aspired to be, but were not, shall comfort us."
She looked at the ground for a moment and then spoke softly.
"Will I ever see you again?"
The man's smile was warm and comforting.
"As the worlds go 'round, so do the courses of our lives. What has been will be again. I promise thee that."
"Where will you go?"
He looked off at the horizon and grew strangely serene as he bathed in the images that he seemed to see beyond it. It was only then that Dreamchant noticed that there was something oddly unhuman, yet even more oddly familiar about him.
"Wherever Truth is held in darkness," he said, "I'll be there. Wherever injustice is permitted to thrive, I'll be there. Wherever one man stands alone in what he believes in, I'll be there. And wherever large masses of people laugh at those who dare to dream --"
"You'll be there?" the woman finished with a forced smile.
"I'll be there," he said. And, with a final flourish, he reared his mount up onto its hind legs, sounded his horn for the last time, and galloped off with his cape billowing magnificently behind him, sparkles of sunlight dancing all over his brightmetal raiment.
The woman watched him without moving until he disappeared over the edge of the plain, giving Dreamchant some time to mentally process what she had just witnessed. The human seemed pretty harmless, but the elf was wise enough in the ways of the world to not always be trustful of such seemings. Memories of her past enabled her sense of caution to once again assert itself over her curiosity, and, with these conflicting thoughts in mind, she ever-so-subtly moved her hand toward the hilt of her sword.
The movement went not unnoticed by the woman who had also grown wise in the ways of the world since leaving home.
"That's just great!" she snapped, perhaps not so much angry with the elf as she was with something else. "I leave a perfectly good home, sleep outside in the rain -- and the snow -- get attacked, stepped on, imprisoned, set on fire, thrown off a cliff, ... abandoned...." She hesitated as she wiped an eye with her fist. "And High Ones know what else just to get here. And when I finally do get here, you pull a sword on me and try to cut my throat!"
When Dreamchant heard the words, "High Ones," coming so casually from a human, curiosity regained control. But, before she could say anything, Starstalker and Heelsnapper charged toward them -- finally having been attracted by the human's scent. Interpreting the woman's anger as a threat to their mistress, the wolves lunged at her with bared fangs. The tall woman found a branch overhead to be within an easy jump and clumsily, but efficiently, pulled herself into the tree. She immediately reached down for the elf.
"Grab my hand! Quick!" she said.
"Grab your hand?" echoed Dreamchant in amazement. She had just been given another item to add to her list. "Whatever for?"
"Those are wolves!" the woman said with obvious frustration. "You know -- dangerous wild beasts."
"So?" said Dreamchant. The woman's genuine concern for the elf's safety was quite apparent.
"Do the words, 'savage jaws rending through flesh,' mean anything to you?" said the woman, starting to become annoyed again.
"A great deal," smiled Dreamchant as Starstalker nuzzled her thigh. Heelsnapper had become more interested in a butterfly that had just flown past her nose. The woman settled back into the tree for what she was beginning to suspect might be a long time.
"Okaaaay," she said to no one in particular. "I can deal with this. I've been forced to deal with much worse lately."
Dreamchant was finally able to put her finger on several of the many things that were strange about this human.
"You speak like an elf," she said.
"Don't miss a trick, do you?" said the woman, pretending to be much more interested in determining the species of tree she was sitting in than in continuing the conversation. The elf decided to let the remark pass.
"And you're wearing elvish cloth."
"You mean this old thing? I've had it for turns." The texture of the bark was particularly fascinating.
"What's your name, human?" said Dreamchant, deciding to let that remark pass also.
"Nightfawn," the woman replied simply.
"That's an elf's name," said Dreamchant, her tone conceding that she had just lost dominance of this conversation. Nightfawn looked down at her.
"No," she said. "It's my name. My parents were undoubtedly expecting someone more delicate and graceful, not some damn fool who'd go traipsing around the world in search of the source of the DreamCall."
"That's the second time you've mentioned the DreamCall," said the elf, now beginning to wonder exactly what kind of unexpected repercussions that fateful event was going to have. "You should not have been able to hear it."
"Brilliant observation number four," said Nightfawn. She had learned during her wanderings that some elves, but no humans, possessed magical powers. "My friend heard it."
"The human with you would not have heard it either."
Nightfawn was about to make another snappy comment but decided that this was probably not the best time to have to go into a glorious tale of high adventure, harrowing escapes, noble sacrifices, and the transcendent power of love. The statement also started her thinking about Roland again.
"It was a different friend," she said after a pause. "An elf like you -- only more hospitable. She's the chief of my village, so she couldn't come. I came instead. Look, do you think you can get your ... pets ... to go away for a while?" The wolves had once again begun to show an interest in the tree and its contents. With not a little effort, Dreamchant convinced them to start back toward the Holt.
"An elf rules your people?" she asked when they were gone.
"More or less," said Nightfawn, lowering herself to the ground. "Although she's required to listen to the advice of a democratically elected committee consisting of four elves and eight humans." She smiled as she recalled the lessons she had had as a child in which she had been required to memorize that statement. Then she looked at the elf.
"Are you really the one who sent out the DreamCall?"
"Yes...," said Dreamchant, who had a pretty good idea what the next question was going to be.
"So, what happens now?" asked Nightfawn.
That was the question.
Dreamchant looked at the woman for a long time, then at the deep forest, the empty plain, and finally back at the woman again.
"I guess you come back to the Holt with me," she said.
"Okay," said Nightfawn, accepting the strangeness of this situation much more casually than the elf was. They walked in silence for several moments, and the human didn't seem to be bothered by it.
The same could certainly not be said for the elf. She was bursting with questions and found the woman's taciturn lack of curiosity to be very frustrating. Had she first met any of the other people in her acquaintance under like circumstances, they would have been eager to exchange information, but, around this one, she couldn't shake the feeling that any unnecessary conversation might be interpreted as an invasion of privacy -- although the woman had just more than amply demonstrated that she was capable of being quite articulate when she wanted to be.
"If you don't mind my asking," said Dreamchant, deciding to break the silence with as innocuous a question as possible. "What's a 'dragon'?"
"I have no idea," said Nightfawn, unaware that she was causing any discomfort. She jerked her head back toward the plain. "Neither does he. But he's determined to find one someday and slay it."
"Oh," said Dreamchant, feeling absolutely no sense of enlightenment.
There was another uncomfortable pause -- this one eventually broken by the human.
"Um..., are there a lot of wolves where we're going?"
"Afraid so," said the elf.
"Well..., I suppose it could be worse," the woman said, trying to be optimistic. "There could have been tigers there too."
Dreamchant smiled in spite of herself. She had absolutely no idea what was going to happen when they arrived at the Holt. But she was certain that it was going to be very interesting.
With acknowledgements to:
Don Miguel de Cervantes,
John Steinbeck, and
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