by Aaron Harris
(Winner, 3rd Place, 2014)
Somewhere in the rolling hills of Rinden a small boy and a small village get more than they bargained for when an unusual traveler arrives.
Any normal story would open with some ancient myth, some fantastic tale of treasure, or some fairytale description of some far away place filled with magic and majesty. They would be peppered with titillating moments, envious treasures, tidbits of forgotten lore, or a seasoning of dark secrets about those of royal lineage or possessors of some rein of power in the world around us. But this is not that sort of story. Our backdrop is nothing so grand as a legendary city of cold, nor so plentiful as the coins in a dragon's horde. No, the setting for this tale is every bit as quaint as the story itself, but perhaps it will amuse the kind sirs and sarahs assembled here and if the utterances of this humble weaver of tales should so enchant you, perhaps also you will share a bit of coin with the same. Or perhaps not. In the state of suspense we now hang together; you know not my tale and I know not what, if any, reward I will see from the telling...
Nestled in the the pocket of nowhere, tucked in amongst gently rolling hills dotted with livestock and the shoots of planted grain sat the village of Chester. It was the kind of quiet, idyllic place that those roughed up by the passage of years dream about and that the adventurous nature of youth calls 'boring'. Some would label the people of Chester 'simple folk', when in truth the act of bringing forth reliable crops and stock from the often antagonistic world of nature is anything but simple. Still, though the young people of the village often railed outwardly against the uninteresting repetitions of village life, most of them took secret comfort in knowing with certainty the paths of their lives. A comfort they would be ashamed to admit to.
But most is not all and mixed in with the outwardly rebellious was the equally inwardly rebellious Mycah. He was the exception who truly felt fear at the idea of working the same ground his family had worked and at managing nothing more exciting than the replication of a life laid out long ago by ancestors dead generations before anyone he'd met had drawn breath. It was thus, but not only thus, that he came to accumulate the titles common to his sort; misfit, menace, miscreant. For simple people are fond of simple alliteration. It must be said that these labels were not wholly without merit, for Mycah was the boy who snuck out (and goaded the other children to do the same) after bedtime to test his courage against the local myths; the boy who crept in to the fringes of the chewing sessions and card games of the men to spy; the boy who frequented the pub to watch the adults, to hear stories, and betimes to earn some coin by running errands around the place once they had surrendered to his persistence and ceased ejecting him upon discovery. In short, he was the boy about whom the old women shook their heads and the old men chuckled in nostalgic recollection of their own youthful exuberance. As it happened he was also the one who first caught sight of the bright colors on the strange wagon coming over the horizon.
He was shooting cloud monsters with make believe arrows on Old Crone's Summit while skipping out on his daily lessons when the wagon came into view pulled by a horse that dwarfed farmer Auger's prize Ox. He shoved the dusty cuff of his shirt back and forth over his eyes, rubbing in disbelief, and looked again only to find the thing was still there like a dream come to life and even larger now as it had grown closer during his efforts. So he leaped to his feet and went scrambling towards the pub; knowing that there was nowhere else in town such a conveyance could be going.
To label his gait a sprint would be to paint it with a grace it did not deserve, but that would not restrain him when he would later share the story. It would best be called a pellmell plunge or a monkey race as his hands were as likely to hit the ground as his feet and sliding, stumbling, tumbling progress was its most reliable quality; at least until he reached more level terrain. When he got his feet beneath him he barreled across the dirt, around houses, over fences, and across streets; narrowly missing sending Miss Hatcher and her basket of fresh laundry into the patch of mud she was gingerly edging around.
"M'sorry, Miss," he blurted, breathless, "But there's the strangest wagon comin'."
"Watch it!" Miss Hatcher shouted angrily. Then, seeming to finally process his declaration she said, "Strangest? Strangers?" Her frown was unrestrained, "Mycah Sargus you must get over this unhealthy obsession with outsiders." Though she spoke as one accustomed to mistrusting anyone unfamiliar her words were already dissipating in the winds unheard for Mycah wasn't one to be dissuaded, let alone slowed, by one close call.
His urgency was successful in the end, frustratingly so as he arrived before the wagon and was forced to wait what seemed like a lifetime before the mammoth equine, even larger when up close, came pulling its burden around the corner. Its white hooves and forelock joined to its dark brown coat making it seem monochrome in contrast to its cargo. Much like the driver, a buxom, brawny blonde woman dressed as a barmaid in black and white.
She brought the wagon to a halt, hopped down, and used a gentle motion to elicit the sound of a heavy rap when she knocked upon the carriage door and spoke in some unknown tongue. Despite the garish look of the wagon with its brilliant coloration, there was the suggestion of money in its condition and the nature of the horse and driver. So it was startling, even though it shouldn't have been, when the door opened and the man who came out looked nothing like a Lord. Which is not to say that he looked like a farmer, for no farmer would wear his hair so long or be caught wearing garments of such striking rainbow hues. He swayed a bit as he descended, using as a staff an object more appropriate for stirring a mixed drink, though given its size the drinker in question would tower over normal men and for that matter normal buildings. Even ones so large as the granaries the town used to store its wheat for the winter.
When fully disembarked, the man made as if to speak, but instead turned to squint at the sky until he placed the sun. Only after he had cornered his radiant quarry did he finally begin to talk. "Good noontide, gentles. Perchance someone might indulge me in confirming that this is the proper establishment where I might find drink to quench the parched throat of a traveler?"
The folks around were in obvious shock at his arrival and the lingering impact of his appearance had left them murmuring amongst themselves. Only Mycah seemed eager for the opportunity to speak, "Yes!" His enthusiasm overwhelming his manners, not to mention his vocabulary, and causing him to cough, "I mean yes … sir?" He queried, uncertain about what titles to use and forms to follow to address the man.
The fellow of bright clothes, shadow shaven cheeks, and a girly length to his hair smiled toothily at the uncertain titling, "Van, boyo, just Van. What's your name?" He paid no heed to the gossiping tongues that surrounded him as he focused on the young man.
"Mycah, Si... Mas... Van?" He answered quickly, "Mycah Sargus."
"Well, Mycah," a coin flashed as it was extracted from a pocket and flipped to the boy, "Tell the keeper that I'd like a drink and a room if you'd be so kind and the change is yours." He looked around at the crowd and more specifically his companion, "I have a few things to finish out here first. So go on ahead."
With a nod that was more reflex than intention, and which was not nearly fast enough to complete before he'd turned towards the door, Mycah announced his agreement and scrambled into the pub. Behind him he heard the stranger begin to address his companion whose answer sounded indecipherably foreign to the boy. His efforts weren't nearly controlled in his rush, so he heard the door bang twice; once when it reached its widest and again when it jarred its way back into the frame.
"Lars! Lars! LARS!" He blurted the name out rapid fire as he jerked his head around when he saw the bar was unmanned.
A clunk of a door opening drew his attention towards the back where he saw the balding man who managed the place and an older voice demanded, "Who's blasting my name about at such a volume?" Lars calmed when he saw the familiar face, but wasn't able to say anything more before Mycah blurted out, "There's a stranger out front, says his name is Van, has a big fancy lookin' wagon, wearin' really flashy colors, has a lady with him dressed like some Lord's servant, and a horse bigger'n an ox and he says he wants a drink and a room and he gave me the coin," he shoved the coin into the air between them, "To buy the drink with."
The explosion of words brought a laugh from Lars who answered the whole with, "Take a breath, Mycah, or you'll pass out." The corners of his eyes crinkled when the look of the coin drew a squint from him.
"Yessir," Mycah accepted the instruction and took his time to calm his breathing.
Lars hurried towards the bar, the identity of the coin causing him to reach below for the higher quality stuff. The dark bottle let forth an equally dark liquid that filled the glass halfway up. "Here's the drink. Give me the pay."
Mycah darted to the bar and handed over the coin. Lars weighed it, bit it, and then counted out the change into Mycah's cupped hands. "Hey!" He barked when Mycah dumped the mass into a pocket.
"Master Van said I could keep the change!" Mycah protested only to be corrected by a voice from the doorway.
"Van, just Van. Titles are tiresome." Even the back lighting of the sun through the door wasn't enough to completely obscure the vibrant shades of the man's clothes, though it did emphasize the muscles on his beautiful companion. "I see my drink's managed to dress itself in its favorite cup, which I can appreciate from being so steeped in my own, but is it companion to a room to let for the night?"
"Yessir," Lars answered too quickly. For though not so mistrusting of strangers as the rest of the village, and a merchant reliant upon such travelers to boost his profits, he was still accustomed to the habits of his trade and a respectful address was a basic element. Thankfully his quick eye and garrulous nature allowed him to cover, "We have a fine room for tired folks like yourself, M... Mycah, show Van here to his room. You've been paid well enough to do that much for him."
Moving as he was bid, Mycah was brought still. In the moments of the exchange with Lars, somehow Van had acquired his drink without making it to the bar. Indeed, to Mycah it felt as if the man and the beverage had simultaneously flowed towards each other and come together midway between; like two sundered parts of a whole rejoining. Stunned, he made to rub a cuff across his eyes again, though it had done precious little on the previous occasion, when Lars booming voice broke him from his reverie. "The room, Mycah, the room!" Once more the boy started to obey the command when a delicate hand rose up to forestall him. The gentle gesture stilled the room while the festively bedecked stranger downed his first swallows. "Not I," he spoke when there was space to do so, "But her." He gestured towards his companion. "Anise will attend to such things."
There were no words for a moment for a mixture of reasons. For Anise' part, her reply took the form of an agreeable curtsey as eloquent as anything she might have chosen to say. The menfolk in the room were simply struck dumb by the declaration. Lars, never the kind of man to be at a loss for something to say, spoke first though his confidence faded quickly, "What kind of... a... man...." He was unable to finish the thought as the display before his eyes gave an unequivocal answer when the barmaid slung a large, metal-clasped steamer trunk over her shoulder like she might fling an empty cloak; and with the same degree of strain.
"The kind of a man whose strength can not remotely compare to hers," Van's normal voice had the impact of a shout in the silence that had descended. Again he had moved while the eyes around him were distracted, this time having found accommodation at the largest table in the room. "Thank you, Anise," his attention turned towards her accompanied by a salute of her skills that took the form of a toast, "You are as capable as always." Another coin shot from the top of his thumb to land atop the bar. "A round for the bar to honor those skills. And as many further rounds as that coin might purchase," were the last words Mycah heard as he headed out from the main room to show the way as he had been tasked.
Despite his desire to the contrary, that was the last of the matter Mycah was to witness for a time. He had dutifully discharged his escort duty only to be unceremoniously banished from the bar by Lars upon his return. All excitement aside, it had been clear to the man that the boy was being truant from his responsibilities. So Mycah was dispatched with only a curt pair of phrases begun with, "Home with you Mycah," and culminated by, "Out! Now!" Dejected by being dismissed so long before his curiosity had been sated, Mycah's early steps had been punctuated by his kicking the dirt clods on the road in rapidly halfhearted vehemence. By the time he reached the edge of town the dread of the long walk had been lost behind his own musings.
"Maybe that's the job for me, what that man Van does," Mycah's thought passed through his lips to be heard by the grass and empty air. "He's got a nice wagon and a servant, so he must do pretty well for himself." His attention caught by a broken ax handle that had been discarded thoughtlessly by the roadside, he quickly grabbed it up. His staff now in hand he pictured himself in the garments the stranger had been wearing, regarding his devilish handsomeness through his minds eye, and his gait transformed into something more posturing. "Those clothes would look better on me anyway," came his sudden and crow-startling declaration, "Such bright colors look foolish on an old guy like that. They're better on someone younger and more full of life." The surprised crows took wing, leaving Mycah to wonder why their cackling caws sounded like mocking laughter to him. This fantasy bore him safely to his destination and he had just begun to ponder why the clothing in his daydream felt so right in tenor but wrong in trim when the shout of his mother snapped him instantly back to reality. "I guess Miss Hatcher told her about the laundry," Mycah grew glum anticipating his punishment.
Fortunately for Mycah, hopeful dreams are much akin to an armor of the spirit, so even though the switch had left its marks, and generated fresh reminders every time he sat down, his will had seen him through. All through dinner, through his chores, through his scolding, and through his pretense at making ready for bed those fancies had sustained their hold on him. Fanciful image had piled on fanciful image until what had begun as a whim had evolved into a compulsion. Mycah had to see the stranger again.
So once the lights were off he squirmed out his window and made use of the escaping tricks he had accumulated over many previous nights of mischief. First he moved along the side of the house, tiptoeing his way along the wall as close as a shadow. Then he made a quick, hunched dash to the door of the barn, from there he rolled to the feed trough, and finally he crawled to the lee of the signpost. He crept from spot to spot, his heart pounding in fear of his apprehension and the punishment that would follow, until he finally reached the road. Now obscured from view, caution was discarded like a scratchy collared shirt and he flew along the wagon-rutted path. He did not slow down until the sight of the inn sent a sliver of fear along his spine; to be caught within sight of his objective would be too terrible for words.
Still once more, he craned his neck and peered around the square. The exterior of the inn was well lit tonight with all lamps conscripted for active duty. While he did not see anyone, he heard them. Not around him, but inside the inn. It shocked him, the volume of the din emanating from that familiar place. It was the kind of thing he'd only ever experienced during festival seasons or around wedding ceremonies. Though this was beyond either of those and that thought fell upon the compulsion already upon him and sent the flames even higher. He must see this scene, he knew it as surely as he breathed.
He crept up to the door, cracked the portal, and peeked inside. Shock welled up at what the interior revealed and for a moment he doubted his eyes. The scene inside was a tumult; the crowd of people present not just larger than he expected, but clearly having abandoned themselves to celebration with no holiday to justify it. He could see that some of the men from town, like Harm Freyr, Jeryl Darrons, and Cade Wells, had brought out instruments and begun to play. In front of them sour old Miss Ricks stood singing along with a look akin to bliss upon her features. Mycah had never seen her smile, let alone look anything close to this happy. He'd heard his mom say that she was a lively woman before misfortune, but he'd never been able to picture it as he looked at her during the interminably lengthy lessons he'd had to sit through when he failed to attain truancy. Instead he had always imagined her as a hag in training and known that someday her skin would turn grey and hard like iron, her nose would hook, her teeth would go jagged, and she'd begin devouring little boys and girls for sustenance.
Still, that wasn't the whole of it. Lars the barkeeper had surrendered his bar. His absence had been filled by some fellow in fine looking togs, sharply cut and as neat as the altar in church. From the colors, black and white, he assumed that the fellow was part of Master Van's retinue; "Must be he was still in the wagon when I went to get the room," Mycah mumbled to himself. Assisting him, Anise could be seen weaving adroitly amongst the mass of patrons, the tray in her hand stacked with such a weight of cups and tankards he could scarcely believe she could carry it let alone bear it with such easy grace. It was from her passage that Mycah spied Lars, looping and whirling about with Miss Hatcher. Austere Miss Hatcher who'd just that day been grouching about his fascination with strangers but now was a full participant in the event which had grown around Van's arrival. Off in another corner, Elder Samson was delivering a monologue that seemed completely different from his usual lectures about duties and responsibilities. Instead he bore the look of a drunken braggart sharing some exaggerated story of personal accomplishment. Somehow these people Mycah knew seemed to no longer be the people Mycah knew. And just as that thought came to him his gaze was caught by the laughter in a pair of eyes.
His table covered in a wild mixture of cups of various states of full, Master Van was watching him with an expression mostly amused, but partly something else. Indeed, Mycah felt now like this was not a festival or a celebration so much as the natural state of things around the stranger he had met this morning; his personal court. A stranger who, with the wink of a conspirator, crooked a finger in summons for the boy to join him. On any other night, Mycah would have shown care about opening the door; the squeal of a rusty hinge had given him away on many a previous infiltration attempt. Tonight dispatched any such concerns in the young boy, he felt certain that no one would heed the sound of the door if they even heard it at all. A thankful thing, since his curiosity could have brooked no interference with its indulgence on this unprecedented night.
He ducked, dodged, wriggled, and at some points crawled his way around and under the milling bodies of those present. From his viewpoint he bore witness so a veritable flock of gooses many of whom delivered by (or received by) people he had previously thought would stiffen and turn to salt at merely the sight of the kind of behavior they were now participating in. It was while his attention was caught upon one of these wild geese that he failed to note a dancing couples approach. He was saved by a strong tug upon his collar that jerked him from the approach, spun him up and over a pair of seated patrons, and then deposited him into the empty chair across from Van. Even though he turned about instantly, he was only able to see the back of his savior, Anise, as she continued about her rounds.
"That was a close call, my young friend. Mycah, wasn't it?" Van's words were calm and strikingly clear for someone who had imbibed as much as his table implied. "Yes, Mas..." Mycah saw the frown forming and quickly changed his answer, "Van. I'd have been cooked if not for Miss Anise," Mycah answered.
"Mas-Van? Well it's progress," Van observed with a laugh, "I often find myself in similar situations. I would be in a lot of trouble if not for Anise. I question if I show enough appreciation of that. Maybe I should learn her language and find out what she thinks."
"You can't speak to her?" Mycah questioned in reflexive shock, "How do you... Does she... How?" The questions log-jammed in his throat wrestling for primacy.
"Not at all." Van's answered in easy cheer. "We get by in our way. Though I'd suggest that our means of communication isn't nearly the pressing issue that your bedtime escapism is. Or the reason you're out past your curfew in a place meant for adults." Though the words implied a chastisement of sorts, his good humor declared it a lie. "I'll allow your foray for now, but one foot on those stairs and you'll see another banishment. I confess there are fanciful games there, but they tickle taste buds that are too mature for you."
The words of restriction caused Mycah's eyes to drift towards the stairs, but his attention was yanked immediately back to the table. "Those steps are where my indulgence ends, Mycah. One foot upon and your adventure tonight ends. But those are not the secrets you came seeking."
Mycah nodded, still curious, but aware that there was no leeway for trespass with this taboo. Instead he waved to the room at large, "Uhm... Mas... Sorry, uh, Van? What is this?"
"This is the dream," came the answer. Van idly toyed with an empty glass, "And they are all having fun."
"What do you mean? I've seen them having fun before. But even then they weren't like this. I know these people, they're not like this. What's happened? Sorcery?" Mycah's concern blazed; neon in the darkness. "I've heard the old tales about faeries and their dances. This can't be that, but is it that sort of thing?"
Van chewed the question and the head of a drink that Mycah took to be beer. "For where we are and what you've seen that's a pretty astute observation, Mycah." The compliment served as a prelude for what seemed to be an answer, "There is magic afoot, but neither of the kind nor to the degree that you think." He used a sweeping gesture with his mug to take in the room, "These are precisely the people you know, but the prism has changed."
"I don't understand," Mycah declared, "I've had dreams, they aren't like this. Well, not most of them."
Van chuckled at that, "You're too young to need this kind of dream, Mycah. This is a dream for those whose possibilities are past. Yours are all in the future.
Mycah frowned immediately, "That's not fair!" His hands thumped the top of the table. "I need dreams too! I need something for me! Something that isn't this predictable life."
An emotion Mycah did not recognize fluttered across Van's features like a breeze through the curtains. He cast his gaze to the wall to check a nonexistent clock. "We have a little time yet, I suppose. Provided you are willing to give me your word upon a single matter."
Mycah felt questions in his head that he couldn't even put words to and the thought of going home before they were answered was torturous. "I will. Well, I won't promise anything terrible."
"This isn't terrible Mycah. It is simply this. When I tell you it is time for you to go home, you will go without complaint. If you do that, I will see if I can answer your questions until then."
Mycah bit his lip, warring thoughts rattling in his head; questions of need and trust. But in the end he acquiesced, "I give you my word." With a deliberate motion he used his index finger to make a cross over his heart, opened his hand, and spit into the palm before offering it out to the older man. For his part while Van took the little display in in mock solemnity, he likewise spit into his palm and completed the childish vow. "Now we have a compact."
"I've paid my dues now," Mycah's words burst forth, "Tell me about the magic; about the dream."
Van looked around the room, examining the villagers that were the subject of their discussion. "Everyone has dreams and when you're young those dreams are arrayed out before you like an army of options. They're all possible. It's as you get older that things change. Choices, responsibilities, and experiences pile up and as they are made the paths to some possibilities are eliminated. But tonight is the exception. I have a key to open up those old, closed doors. Tonight those doors are open. Which is why this dream isn't for you. None of your doors have closed. You're too young for that."
"You say you have a key," Mycah squinted at Van's hands, his neck, his pockets. "I don't think you mean an actual key. Is that what you mean about there being some magic here? And if there's a key, there must be a lock. Where's the lock?"
Two hands waved down the flood of questions, "Choose your words carefully, Mycah, there's magic in words so you have to use them the right way. A question asked too early will get a correct answer, but the answer will be incomplete and you'll never know it." Van nodded, though, "You're correct, magic is the key. Well, my magic. As to the locks, they're all around, but certain kinds of locks are wedded to certain kinds of keys."
Excited, Mycah demanded, "Where can I get one of these keys? Can I get a copy of yours?"
"That would be a mistake," Van doused the passions on display. "If you're so desperate to get a key, any key, you'll wind up with someone else's key."
"What's wrong with that? It'll still work, won't it?"
"Yes, Mycah," Van allowed, "It will work. But it will stifle you. The difference between your key any any key is that your key fits you so it will open the doors that will take you to the places you want to go. Someone else's key or a generic key won't do that. You will be stifled, frustrated, and unhappy. You must be sure to look for your own key. To find your own key."
Mycah pondered this while Van took another drink. "I still don't understand. What do you mean by someone else's key?"
Van gave a sad smile, "There are people who have generalized, formalized, ritualized, and sterilized magic into something equal parts generic and monolithic. They've made something that works for everyone with a gift for magic, but in so doing they've had to force it into a form that has a little resonance with everyone, a lot of resonance with a few people, and a complete resonance with almost no one. That kind of magic is easy to find, ripe for the taking, and a round peg shoved into a square hole."
Defensive, Mycah countered, "But I've heard the stories about magic, I know how it works."
Parrying the declaration with a question, Van inquired, "You think you know. That is mostly because you rely on what you've heard of, but didn't you just find yourself unable to identify what was going on here?"
"I guess," pouted Mycah feeling foolish. He quickly changed the subject. "But what about the dream? What kind of dream is this? You said it was a dream for those who had closed doors?"
"Magic in words, Mycah," Van chided. "This is what you said. This is the dream that breaks open old paths and bricked over portals. Those in this dream can try out destinations they'd once longed for, but lost on the way through choices they made or the passage of time."
"So the reason why all the people I know aren't acting like the people I know is because they're acting like the people I know if the people I know had made different choices in their lives?" Mycah spilled the whole thing out, then held his head, "I think I bit my tongue."
Van's hands drifted to still another of his variously filled cups and took a sip. "That's essentially it, yes."
"So dreams are your magic? That's an awesome magic," Mycah pronounced, "I want to learn a magic like that."
"Not exactly," Van replied, "And have you already forgotten my advise from earlier? Find the choice that suits you. Be that a magic or a profession. Find your key."
"Dreams aren't exactly your magic or dreams aren't exactly awesome magic, Van?"
"Yes," Van answered, "That is a much better question Mycah. Rather than answer it I will give you this caution; dreams are less innocent than you imagine."
While he considered the ominous answer, Mycah's attention drifted back to the festivities. He was on the verge or prodding Van for a better answer when he was struck by the presence of an unfamiliar face. And then another. And another. Enough that he had difficulty tallying them. In this attempt he became aware that the band had doubled in size, the tables were all full, and the room in general was at a capacity the town just couldn't manage without calling in everyone within three day's travel. Their attire was troubling as well in both its variety and its dissimilarity to the styles he was accustomed to. One woman in particular jumped out at him with her long dark hair, her dusky skin, an athletic grace that made those around her seem wooden, and looks he would not have forgotten had he seem them before, "Van, who are all of these people?"
Even as the question and answer intermingled the door was opening to disgorge a further dose of strangers to this strange night, "More revelers in search of their mislaid dreams," Van replied, with a tone more sober than any that had come before it, "Mycah, you remember our promise. I have held up my end, now you must hold to yours. It is time. You must go home."
Mycah spun back around in his chair, prepared to implore the man, but restrained himself. He had made an agreement and he would honor it. The legs of the chair squeaked along the floor as he stood up. His eyes drooped, his shoulders sagged, and Mycah visibly deflated, but he stepped away from the table anyway, "Okay, Van. I will go home. Good night to you." He turned, prepared to work his way through the thickened crowd, but before he could scuff his way to the door (and hope for an obstruction), he again found himself airborne. Anise had appeared with her usual efficiency.
He found himself piggyback atop her shoulders where he clung, hands tightly grasped into her uniform out of instinct more than intent as her turns and gyrations spun him about. The room was a blur from which he was hard pressed to identify anything but the motion of colors until just as suddenly as he had been raised he found himself dropped, the sound of the closing door punctuating his mostly willing but entirely not self-propelled exit. He'd thought he heard Van's voice as the door was closing, "Remember, Mycah, your choices belong to you," but he was probably imagining it. He stood there for several moments debating with himself about keeping his word before electing to make his way back home and back to the bed he'd been supposed to be in.
The next day a deflated Mycah was kicking a dirty stone along the road as he made his way back to town. There had been so much going on for him to see the during the previous night, but he'd been ejected early. He mused upon the many questions that had arisen as he had walked home, when he had woken up, and as he now walked the road back to town. At least until it struck him how unusually quiet things were. Alert now, he noticed several of the fields were empty and his glances up and down the winding arteries of the roads around showed neither cart nor man of any sort. He picked up his pace, forgetting his rock as he dashed towards the inn.
The fringes of town were equally quiet, and he soon enough saw why when he reached the inn and found a good portion of the townfolk had assembled there before his arrival. "My husband didn't come home last night," he heard one woman declare only to be answered by, "The same with my eldest boy." Small and large clutches of people were gathered all around and they were eying the inn as they continued in that vein. Sons, daughters, fathers, brothers, and neighboring couples were all the subject of excited discussion for all manner of people had not come.
Mycah took action while the others were still gathering their courage. He raced to the door, flung it wide, and dashed into the shadows within. He noticed immediately that none of the usual preparations had been done; the windows were still closed, the bar was empty, there was no smell of food cooking, and there was too much silence. At least until he entered and was surrounded by a harmony of snores and groans. He took that as a sign that no one had died and minced his way through the shady carnage to open the shutters. Just as he turned to identify the injured he was interrupted by a shout from the door, "Who are these people?!"
A search was then conducted, the Elders and the able-bodied combed the inn and all of its floors; after dismissing Mycah 'for his own protection'. Unwilling to be cut out again, he secured himself an outpost across the street. Well, it was a fence post, but it would do. He was present when the inn was sealed and present as red-faced villagers stumbled out clad in shame to be greeted by equal doses of relief and censure. Which meant he was also amongst the first to realize when the trickle of people ended far too soon to account for all the missing. "I guess some people given their dreams don't choose to return to the waking world." Just as the thought passed his lips he saw the Elders file out into the sunlit street.
"There is no need to be alarmed," Elder Neville began with both hands upheld to silence the worried villagers. "We have sent out those who were found and while not everyone was found, we will divide up and search the area for them. No one should be afraid, everyone will accounted for. They can not have gone far." His words were confident, but Mycah kept his doubts. He had been there last night. He had seen the nature of that gathering. So he knew there was good reason to believe that anyone they hadn't found this morning wouldn't be found.
"It is true," Elder Neville went on, "that a great number of strangers have been found. We will question them soon, but for the now they need time to gather themselves. Since Lars is amongst the missing, we have decided that we will confine them to the inn where they will be able to take care of their needs. We are especially interested in finding the stranger who arrived yesterday, Master Van. Our search failed to find him, his driver, or his wagon so we implore you all to keep an eye out for him."
At that Mycah's interest in the inn evaporated. If Van was not there then there was no one to answer his questions as they would no sooner find Van than they would find the people who'd gone missing so he retreated home to try to puzzle out his own answers.
For the rest of that day and all of the next the front door to his home struggled under a surfeit of visitors. As upstanding members of the community his parents were naturally subjected to a procession of their neighbors. The discussions were all the same to Mycah; always urgent, tinged with fear, and full of gossip. They would talk about the disappearance of Miss Ricks and how the town had suspended its normal activities for the search. Not that it would have mattered for with so many missing there were not enough hands to support all of the duties. Many were the people who feared the town would die and were suffused with dread about the need to pack up their things and find a new home. Mycah listened through it all, taking in the words and sifting them about in his head. Van's comments had an impact on him. So now he searched his thoughts for the elements of the truth he sought.
Finally, a meeting of the town was called. There had been no sign of the missing nor of the stranger and no further clues had been uncovered. So there was nothing left to do but discuss the issue. The strangers who were left had taken to running the inn for lack of anything else to do and the Elders had been seen going in and out of it on multiple occasions. Mycah had also seen the dusky woman from that night leave the inn with two of the other strange men to go to the home of Elder Neville. He wondered at the subject of those secret discussions.
"I have called everyone here today to discuss the important matters involving our village," Elder Neville began after everyone had arrived and indeed, everyone had arrived. This event concerned every soul in town and even the town itself for there were no longer enough hands to manage the farms. There were no longer enough merchants to handle the exchange of goods or enough people, really, to things as they'd been before Van's arrival. So everyone had come to hear what was to happen to them. In this case, Mycah noted, everyone included the strangers who had been seated together as a block. Well, almost a block for the three he had seen entering Elder Neville's house instead sat at the front and off to the right. "I guess for them this was the dream they would not relinquish," Mycah said to himself.
"It has been six days since the disappearance of our family members, friends, and neighbors. As many of you have heard, we have been unable to find any indications of where they've gone and we have failed in our attempts to locate this stranger 'Van' who appeared the day before the disappearances." Here the loud rumble of restless whispers rose up to force the Elder to stop. "My friends, my friends, please quiet down. You must be quiet so that you can hear the rest of what must be said." While the citizens looked amongst each other Mycah observed it all mumbling to himself, "Van would say that he lacks a gift for words." It took several minutes before the Elder was able to settle the assemblage using a combination of protestations and gesticulations.
"I, personally, have heard from a number of you about your concerns for the village and I have heard reports of other discussions going on. We, your Elders," he gestured to the men and women seated behind him, "are aware of your concerns and as the representative of the Elders I am sorry to say that your speculations are correct. With this loss of people we have suffered the village has been deeply wounded, but I am happy to say that we have found tonic for this toxin. We have spoken with our brothers and sisters in this matter; the strangers found when the inn opened. For they, too, are lost with nowhere to go and facing an uncertain future."
The woman and the men stood up as the Elder went on, "Miss Tympest, Mister Sinvad, and Mister Squall have been chosen by their group as representatives. We have spoken amongst ourselves, they amongst themselves, and we and they together and at length we hit upon a solution." At the suggestion of a solution everyone grew truly quiet and white-knuckled hands held tight in anticipation. "We will welcome them into our village and into our community. Where people are missing, they will find a place..." An eruption burst forth at the implication of those words. Leaving aside a number of other matters, there were husbands who had lost their wives and wives who had lost their husbands so the thought of how this solution would tie up those lose ends wasn't just uncomfortable, it was downright scandalous. "Friends, friends, please!" The Elder's voice rose to be joined by the voices of the other Elders. The meeting that day lasted until long after the sun set and bore witness to passionate words from all sides.
Thus does the story of Chester come to a close and in its closure provide the solution for one source of suspense. Not so, say you? It leaves so many? You have never heard of Chester you say so what became of the village? Who was this man Van and what was he doing there? Did he ever return to the village? And what became of Mycah? I confess these are all excellent queries, but my suspense has yet to be assuaged. What of my cup and its contents? I am afraid that must be my focus now. My thoughts, you say? I think that Van spoke the truth. Words are magic and the wise man is careful to use only the right words upon the proper occasion.
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