Dreamknot
by Claudio Silvano


Once there lived a man who believed himself to be a free man. His name was Jonathan, and he lived just a short walk from the outskirts of an inconspicuous little hamlet that went by the name of Far Elm.

Jonathan was a simple man with simple needs. He felled trees and made simple furniture. These two sources of livelihood ensured that there was always bread on his table, and it helped him to remain what he believed himself to be: a free man, one unfettered by any care, need or constraint; for when the king's men came at harvest, he always managed to find enough to pay his dues.

But if Jonathan had enough, he never had more. Therefore he lead a simple life of heavy toil and measured sleep which allowed no room for idleness and little enough for comfort, and Jonathan never wondered if life should be any more or less than he experienced it to be.

On market days he would push his cart to the village square before first light to claim a place as close as possible to the well. The gaining of this position often increased his trade to almost double, and on this particular day he reached the square even earlier for he knew that trade would be good. A wandering troupe of entertainers had just arrived from the High Court at Navarre, and rumour had it that they had been handsomely rewarded for their theatre and were eager to spend and make merry. Not that they harboured any unrealised lusts for Far Elm and what it had to offer, far from it; but scores of leagues of wilderness stretched between the king's court and the rich coastal towns in the west and Far Elm, the only hamlet to boast an inn along the way, was a welcome reprieve for the weary wayfarers.

Now, Jonathan was not a complete fool: he knew well enough that a bunch of minstrels would never glance twice at his wares, but he knew well enough what the needs of the villagers were, and if they made profit from this visit it would not be long before they came to him wanting to buy what they previously could not afford.

He had thought about it compulsively the previous evening while he ate supper in front of his cooking fire. For he perceived in this event an opportunity to gain more than was usual. If he did, he in turn might be able to afford some little luxury that until now had been beyond his means to obtain.

Rayner, the miller, had been working his stone around with a dangerous split in the squared log for at least two moons. He should have changed it long before, but instead of calling Jonathan he had run to that Selina woman for a pentacle to ward the beam from further splitting. And then there was Otho the innkeep, surely he would like to replace most of his tables and benches which, by all accounts, were close to collapse from the work of borers. Otho was the one man  in Far Elm who stood to profit the most from this visit.

All this and more he had taken into account as by the light of a lantern had loaded his wain in preparation of an early rise.

 

****

 

When he reached the village the next morning, he saw that the square was already aglow with activity. Suddenly fearful that he was too late, that all the good spots had been taken, he pushed on hurriedly and emerged into the lighted space panting for breath but filled with relief at the sight before him.

A single light from an oil lamp flooded the flagging with golden light and long shadows that grew wide as they receded towards the low earthen walls of the houses. These were still barred and mostly dark, their dark thatched roofs lost in the surrounding night.

Only bald Christoph had got there before him, and he was still unloading his black work: plough blades and axes made with Jonathan's handles, shoes for horses, pots and hooks, plough blades and nails. As he pushed his cart past him Jonathan glanced at his friend's gelding with longing. "Ah, you're a lucky man to have a horse to help take the load off your back. What would I give for a horse! I ask you, what did you give for yours?"

"My blood, brother," said the other with a wide grin, his dark moustache as always startling on a face otherwise bereft of hair. "But at least your hands are not ruined like mine. Tell me Jon, do maidens still call on you for your touch?" He did a spontaneous barefoot dance on the stone then, and chanted, "His touch is silky sweet, sweet as milk his feet..."

Jonathan laughed despite his embarrassment. "Christoph you idiot," he said, "you will wake the roosters with your jests. And besides, you might find a troth-ring on your fingers yet, I hear there are lasses aplenty travelling with these theatre folk, and people say they are easy givers, wanting more for strong shoulders than for slender hands in their lovers!"

"Ah yes," a new voice spoke from the night behind them. "But they'll be looking for looks first!  Looks as like to please princesses, for these lasses have had a taste of courtly life and covet the pleasures of appearances more than all else, or so I'm told."

The large form of Otho emerged from the shadows to join them. The taverner was a big, round man whose reddish skin was always shiny with sweat, even in winter. As he approached, Jonathan saw him glistening with it already. Beads of it ran profusely down his forehead, gathered on his lip. His shirt was soaked in it. Though the poor man could not help his condition,
Jonathan, though he liked the man, had nevertheless often felt somewhat mistrustful of him because of it, as if it betrayed something about his character that would otherwise have remained hidden. Jonathan often imagined the sweat dripping into the food Otho cooked and into the ale he brewed. A disgusting prospect.

"Ah," Otho continued, happily waving his arms to embrace the whole square in their sweep.  "There is to be a great feast here tonight! With songs, merriment, food and ale. Aye, especially food and ale! And, one of the actors told me, a free play for the villagers. Oh, praise to God for such mercy, tonight we will make rich. A feast the likes of which not even my grandmother can remember!"

Jonathan feigned a wolfish grin and winked at Christoph."Ah, but have you enough pallets and benches for this flood of guests? You must not be seen to fall short of this occasion or else someone might start to think that there is a need for two inns in Far Elm."

Otho looked at Jonathan in wide eyed alarm which soon transformed into mock ire. "Usurer!" he hissed. "With the prices you charge for your bits of wood you'd think they were made of gold. No wonder I have scarcely enough for my guests. Ah, well, I promise you this: if my inn fills and I have need for more trestles I shall come and see you." Then in a slightly more serious tone he added. "You do have enough for me should the need arise?"

"More than enough," bragged Jonathan. "Eight trestles here and more to be got from my shop if need be. Four benches, if yours can't hold the weight, and five more that are ready to assemble.  Fear not, Master Otho, I have not forgotten you."

The taverner grunted. "I will see you two later. When you close shop you must come to the feast or you'll regret it for as long as you live."

As he ambled off, a cackle of voices arose from the far side of the square and a party of women bearing baskets laden with cloths and fabrics began to pour in.

"You had best hurry and claim your spot before someone else does," suggested Christoph.

Jonathan pushed his cart alongside Christoph's, on the west side of the well. There he displayed his wares, taking care to leave plenty of room for those who sought to fetch water and yet still be near enough to give them the opportunity to inspect his goods. The good folk of Far Elm streamed to the well in a steady flow throughout the day, and they would not take kindly to being overly hindered in this task. Jonathan lusted after their coins, not their curses.

As had become his habit, he first of all walked over to the well and looked inside. It was still too dark to see anything, but Jonathan knew that the water level was down, which was hardly surprising given that the drought had not yet broken.

The well was of wide construction and circled by a short retaining wall about three feet in both height and breadth. Upon this wall four pulleys that swivelled on thick wooden arms had been mounted to facilitate the drawing of water. The well was, of course, a source of life-sustaining water, but in times past it had also been a source of death. The villagers still murmured about the shepherd Georg's drowning in it after a drunken brawl. A nameless traveler had been caught and hung for the deed. And more recently Wilma, the thatcher's wife, had lost her twin daughters in broad daylight when they both inexplicably fell in and drowned before anyone could throw a rope in and pull them out. It was said that the grief had robbed her of her mind, and who could blame her, the poor thing.

Further back still there was the time - was it over a hundred years past? - when the waters of the well had been poisoned and several villagers had become so ill that some even lost their lives before a cobbler, whose name Jonathan could never remember, had been caught red handed pouring some poisonous distillment or other into the well in the wee hours of the night.

A far off sound of bells shook Jonathan from his revelry. They announced that the matin prayers had started at the abbey, and Jonathan automatically glanced to the east where the first pallid glow of dawn had crested the horizon.

 

****

 

People started coming very early.

At dawn a sizeable number of villagers were already out, talking to each other, clustering at the periphery of the square, looking in. Not daring yet to approach the stalls in case someone talked them into spending their meagre coins on a trifle. Packs of children soon formed and took to running excitedly amongst the traders, attracting abuse and light-hearted curses from the older folk who were trying to maintain a stifled semblance of indifferent composure, uncertain as to how they should behave at such an unusual gathering.

By mid-morning the artists that had arrived the previous evening were joined by the remainder of their troupe, and they all took to the streets in various groups, each one followed by a small throng of squealing children.

Jonathan's trade had been insignificant until then, but this hardly bothered him, since it was usually so. Folk followed their fancy for a while, but in the end they often settled for more sensible things.

He was still sitting on his bench, absently enjoying the rest from the actual working of timber, when a shadow fell across him. He looked up at its source and a woman met his glance. Not an ordinary woman, for the quilted garment reinforced with leather that she wore could be nothing but a gambeson, the garment warriors wear beneath their armour. Her belt, too, was strong and buckled, wide enough to support a scabbard. Despite the actual absence of any weapons, her trade was clearly displayed for all who had eyes and used them.

"How much?" she asked pointing at one of Christoph's more elaborate knives, one that lay alongside Jonathan's own wares.

Her expression was as hard as granite; no smile softened her angular features. A very short crop of raven-black hair framed her face. A clear, high brow mellowed the green fire in her eyes slightly. Her lips, generous in their fullness, were nevertheless marred by what was quite probably a permanent angry set. The sharpness of her chin hinted at stubbornness as well as strength.

Jonathan felt a furious presence smoulder behind her gaze. "That is... those are not mine," he stuttered.

He always felt out of his depth with women, especially attractive ones. Part of him hoped she would move on quickly while a more daring side wished she would linger and talk. She fixed him with an intense look, then turning towards Christoph, she asked him. "Yours?"

Jonathan didn't even hear his friend's reply. Freed by the intensity of her gaze, he was able to look at her more directly without risking offence. Her limbs were lean and strong and her posture as straight as a sapling's. She was nearly as tall as Christoph. He watched their interaction, mesmerised by what he saw.

Most people who did not know Christoph squirmed a little beneath the fey intensity of his dark eyes, but not she. The woman's manner was reminiscent of someone addressing a valet or a servant; and the amazing thing was that Christoph, for all his height and brawn, suddenly responded by looking more like an overgrown boy than a respected blacksmith.

When their trade was done, she turned to look at Jonathan once more, holding her new blade before her, like a warning. "My mistress wishes to see you," she announced.

"Me?" Jonathan knew she was mistaken.

"Yes, I asked myself that too," she replied with a sardonic tilt of her eyebrow. "But she always has good reason. Can you come now?" Then seeing the hesitation rise in his eyes she added:  "There will be good coin in it for you if you do." And with these words her lips stretched into a wry smile that no one could have mistaken for an attempt at friendliness.

He turned to plead with Christoph but the smith was already nodding his head.

"Ah, go," his friend said in feigned disgust. "I'll watch your things, if you're not too long, that is."

"Charge more, not less," Jonathan warned as he moved to follow the warrior. "I'll be back soon."

"Watch your hands," he heard the smith mutter as they moved away, but Jonathan was too preoccupied to respond to his jest.

The woman led him out of Far Elm by the main road but soon left it to climb up a nearby hill.  Jonathan, accustomed to much walking in his daily activities, followed her without too much trouble, yet after a time he found himself panting like a dog on a hot day, such was the length and speed of her stride.

He studied her form as they went. Her gait was far from feminine, she moved at a pace that was honed for fast, decisive action. She followed no path as she climbed but picked her way through the trees and over outcrops of rock effortlessly and lightly, like a deer. He stumbled after her as best he could.

As they gained the hill's crest, Jonathan glimpsed beyond a copse of elms, two pavilions of gold and blue stripes. They had been erected beneath the canopy of a great oak. Another warrior, a man this one, stood outside the entrance of the nearest tent. He was facing away from them, leaning on a long spear - he seemed lost in the moment, watching sparse rays of sunlight dance as they winked in and out of existence at the whim of a breeze that ruffled the leaves overhead. He
turned slowly as they approached and acknowledged Jonathan's companion with a nod. His skin was so dark as to be almost black. Jonathan had heard of the dark folk, of course, but this was the first time he had seen one.

As they past him, the man's eyes locked with Jonathan's briefly: they were the same green as the woman's. No words were exchanged. The dark man raised the flap, and Jonathan and his escort were admitted inside.

Jonathan, who up to this point had been content to amble behind his guide with growing curiosity but without too much apprehension, suddenly found himself struggling for air. In the fraction of time it took for his eyes to adjust to the dimness inside the tent he was seized by a sudden panic, and for an instant he felt an urge to just turn around and run.

A woman sat on a carved rosewood chair. Her eyes were closed and her pale hands lay, palms up, in her lap. She looked no older than thirty summers, yet her complexion was waxen, as if she were ill. Her lips were full, and yet they too seemed pale, drained of blood. Jonathan glanced at his escort for a hint of what was to happen, but the other stood back, to one side of the entrance, her full attention was on the woman in the chair. She acted as if Jonathan had ceased to exist.

The pavilion was sparsely adorned. A colourful tapestry of whirling dancers was spread over the grass. Beside the ornate chair there was a spent bronze brazier and a small table strewn with sheets of parchment, three quills of different sizes and an inkwell. Two wooden chests reinforced with bronze harboured secrets in one corner.

"So, you are the one we seek," the woman said.

He looked at her. Her eyes were the palest blue, like the sky just before dawn. Having nothing to say, he said nothing; he just looked at her with puzzlement displayed openly in his face.

She smiled at him and nodded, knowingly. "I see, you have not been told," she shook her head. She looked vaguely exasperated. "It is so like Rahel to just grab what she wants without asking."

The lady looked at Rahel without rancour, the warrior's stance shifted uneasily under her mistress' gaze.

"So I shall ask you then," she continued, her eyes returning to rest on Jonathan, "would you consider doing some work for me?"

Work, he thought, feeling considerable relief. That I can do. "I would be glad to, my lady," he said with a self-conscious bow. "If I can be of any use. What manner of work do you need?"

"A wheel on our carriage has shattered, I was told that you might be able to repair it."

Jonathan hesitated and the lady cocked her head to one side.

"We would pay you well," she added. "Better than in your wildest dreams."

"I would really like to help," he offered, promptly. "Although, to be truthful, a proper wheelwright should suit your needs better...only there isn't one within a day's ride of here."

The lady nodded again, her eyes laughing. "So we have discovered, and a fortunate situation this is for you, my friend." She stretched and arched her back a little as if it pained her before relaxing back into the chair's embrace. "You will need to see the damage, of course. I would like it repaired as soon as possible for we have... certain engagements to honour and I would rather not be stranded here for longer than is necessary. When can you start?"

Jonathan scarcely hesitated. The chair he had promised Josef could wait another week.

"Why, tomorrow morning," he said and then, remembering himself, he added, "...my lady."

"Wonderful! We are agreed then, and we should seal our agreement." The lady turned to the warrior-woman. "Fetch some wine for our guest, Rahel" she instructed. "We have been inattentive to his needs." As Rahel left to comply the lady elaborated: "You must be thirsty after the walk from the village and the climb up here."

Jonathan thought that some water would have quenched his thirst more effectively than wine but said nothing.

The silence between them grew as they waited. Jonathan shifted his weight to offset his discomfort. He kept his eyes on the door as if Rahel's return would release him in some way.

"Are you a happy man, Jonathan?"

His head snapped back to the woman in the chair. His mind groped for a reply. Happy? With the work he was being offered? They had not even discussed payment...

"With your life," she clarified. "And with where it's taking you?"

He mouthed a reply but no sound came out of him. At last he stammered, "I...have everything… I need."

The lady cocked her head, her eyebrows arched into a questioning look. "Do you?" she asked, sounding somewhat incredulous. "And there is nothing more that you want? Nothing that you long for?"

Jonathan snorted past his embarrassment. "Aye, I'd like a horse for one. And a wife if there was one to be found..." his voice faded into a mutter and he dropped his gaze. "But if I didn't get nothing else I'd still be content with my lot."

"With your lot? And what exactly is that, Jonathan?"

Jonathan looked longingly at the entrance and the woods beyond. No one ever asked him anything about himself. He felt an intense discomfort.

"I'm not asking these things to torment you, Jonathan," said the lady as if she knew exactly how he was feeling. "I'm asking you because I know that things can change. But first you must want change, and even before that you must know what you want changed."

Jonathan was sure he did not know what she was talking about. He felt awkward and shifted his stance again, though the awkwardness remained.

The tent flap parted and Rahel entered carrying a small wooden tray that held a single goblet.  This she offered to Jonathan. He felt that something in her manner suggested disapproval, maybe even contempt. He took the goblet and mumbled his gratitude, then stopped and stared at the object he held: the goblet was made of pure gold. He turned it in his hands, marveling at the
exquisite workmanship, at the four blue stones evenly inlaid in the stem, at the intricate whorls around the chalice itself. The wine within was liquid ruby.

"Drink, Jonathan," the lady said, encouragingly.

Tentative, he took a small sip. The wine slipped down his throat like ambrosia. It was ambrosia for all he knew. Never had he tasted a wine so rich, or more pleasing. "Beautiful," he said, still looking at the goblet. "Delicious." He looked at both women as a broad grin stretched across his face. "If our taverner could taste this wine, I wager he would pour his own out for the pigs."

"He does," said Rahel, and winced under the quiet stare of her mistress.There was a short silence.

"Rahel is a worthy warrior and she has a good heart," she commented. "But she has not yet learned to filter her words through her heart. They come out like wild birds, seeking thoughtless freedom at all cost. I must ask you to forgive her. She will learn as she grows old and her present powers wane. Compassion and understanding will come to her in the ripeness of age."

Jonathan knew that he had missed something, so he offered a feeble smile that, he hoped, would not betray his ignorance.

"I will give you a flask of this wine, Jonathan, if you will have it," the Lady offered. "When your work is finished and come to collect your wages, I will give it to you, but this wine is not for your friend, the innkeeper, nor for anyone else in this village. It is for you alone."

Jonathan sensed, more than understood, that this was a precious boon, he shifted his weight and bowed low. "I am grateful..."

"It is a dangerous gift, Jonathan, one that you may have no wish to accept. It is like..." she paused looking deep into his eyes, into his soul. "...like freedom. One small taste, and you might feel that you want more; but like a small taste of freedom only serves to show you how bound you truly are, so it is with this wine. You will be free again to choose, when the time comes."

Jonathan looked at the goblet and was startled to find it already empty. He felt a tug in his heart then, an inexplicable sense of loss. He even felt tears starting to well up behind his eyes, and it took an effort to quash the feeling and ebb the tide threatening to overwhelm him. Embarrassed, he tried to disguise what had just happened, blinked rapidly and looked again around the pavilion like a trapped animal. "I... must see the wheel to know what I must get... what repairs I must make," he blurted out.

"Rahel will take you the see damage now, Jonathan," the lady reassured him as if nothing strange had passed between them, as if she was completely unaware of his discomfort. "Then she will escort you back to the village where you can resume your trade. Once you have inspected the wheel, let Rahel know how long it will take to mend or if a new one must be made. She will also give you an advance to cover initial costs."

She looked at Jonathan with a quizzical expression. He wondered if she was questioning his ability to do the work. Then her gaze softened somewhat and she gave him a slight smile. "Fare well, Jonathan," she said. "Well met."

In response he bowed low and was ushered from the pavilion.
 

****

 

Rahel led Jonathan down the hill to the place where the carriage had come to grief. The day was turning out to be quite warm, and he soon he found himself sweating liberally in the unusual heat.

The warrior leapt down the slope quite a way ahead. He just followed her without much thought for anything but the strange meeting he had just had, and the riddles that seemed to lurk in the words the lady had spoken. Then he saw the carriage far below him.

It was a beautifully crafted thing, adorned with deep blue panels and gilded decorations. It had been traveling along a little used track and, from the lean of it, Jonathan concluded that its front wheel must have struck a rock hidden by the grass and buckled sideways. Lucky for the occupants that it had four wheels, or else it would certainly have toppled and rolled.

The last thirty yards were quite steep and slippery and Jonathan negotiated them with care, now looking at the ground, now at the carriage ahead. He leapt down a short retaining wall that was disintegrating with age and lack of maintenance, and landed beside Rahel.

"Well there it is," she said, needlessly. "What do you think?"

Jonathan inspected the front wheel. Only the solid hub was salvageable, the rest of it was a ruin of shattered spokes and twisted iron. It occurred to him that the carriage must have been traveling at a considerable speed judging by the amount of damage it had sustained. That or else the wheel had been weakened in some previous mishap. He inspected the rear wheel on the same side and  found signs of splintering and severe strain in the timbers there as well. He stood at last, shaking his head.

"It will take a handful of strong men to lift this enough to remove the wheel," he answered. "Both wheels on this side are damaged. I will need to take them with me." He glanced at Rahel. "That alone will take a day, I will need to pay the men something, of course." He walked around the carriage as he talked, confident now that he was on familiar ground. "The rest of the work, remaking the broken spokes and the wheel itself, forging a new rim, maybe even replacing the hub... I don't know, as much as ten days at the most. Definitely not more than ten days, maybe even less. I will have to see." He glanced at the warrior then, just to check see how the news sat with her. To his surprise she was smiling quite openly.

"You know your trade, woodsman," she said with a nod. "Lady Catherine will be pleased that you don't underestimate the work before you. She despises little more than false promises, believe me."

Lady Catherine. Until that moment it had not occurred to him that he had not known his employer's name.

Rahel raised her chin in a defiant way, her eyes narrowed slightly."Also don't bother hiring anyone tomorrow, we will take care of the lifting of the carriage." She pulled a small leather bag from her pouch, tossed it to him. "Get yourself a horse for your cart, be here at dawn. Do as the lady asks, and you will fare well out of this incident."

With that Rahel turned and walked away, towards the village. It was a few moments before he realized that she meant for him to follow. He hurried after her to catch up. She escorted him as far as the first houses of Far Elm then stopped.

"Till the morrow, then," she said and turning without waiting for his response, walked away.

He watched her go until she disappeared into the trees.

Jonathan stood there, looking wistfully at the woods. What a strange day this had been, he could barely wait to tell Christoph all about it...Christoph! Suddenly he realized how far the sun had moved across the sky, how late it must be. How could this be? He was sure that the whole encounter had taken no longer than an hour, maybe two at the most and yet the sun's position
could not possibly lie: it was late afternoon! No wonder he had felt so hot on the way down.  Impossible as it seemed to him, the day was almost gone! So he ran, all the way back to the square.

When he reached it, he was completely breathless. He stopped, panting heavily, to lean against a wall and looked around for Christoph. The square was mostly empty. Most of the traders had packed their wares, a few had left hired helpers behind to ward their goods. The blacksmith was standing by his stall, virtually where he had left him. He was talking animatedly with Ottilia, the miller's wife. He was so engrossed in the conversation that he didn't notice Jonathan stroll up.

Jonathan gave his display a glance and saw without much concern that very little had been sold.  Panting heavily he sat down on the stone lip of the well. He listened to his friend haggle over the price of mending a leaking kettle. But soon enough his thoughts wandered back to Rahel and her mistress, and to the colourful pavilion in the woods and the lingering memory of the blood-red wine.

His gaze dropped into the darkness of the well. Far beneath him a still, black circle of water reflected a perfect patch of lilac sky. He moistened his lips, gone dry after the run. He could swear that the wine's taste was still with him. It had left him with a memory so strong that as he remembered it, he was almost able to feel the presence of the lady, almost smell the perfumed
tent, and almost touch on something just beneath the surface of his awareness - Christoph's voice startled him out of his revelry.

"Jonathan! You retarded goat!" he boomed.

Jonathan snapped his head up to see Christoph approach him whilst angrily pulling loose the tongs that held his apron in place. He jumped to his feet at once.

"Christoph, I-" he began to explain, but the other cut him off. His eyes scowled at him furiously.

"Where in Hel have you been all day?" he ranted, spittle flying in the air. "I have a mind to beat sense into that brain of yours with my bare hands."

He looked at Jonathan as if he were gauging the merits of following through with the threat.

Jonathan opened his mouth to speak but did not get past an intake of breath.

"Aah!" Christoph spat disgustedly. "What's the use, I ask you? Oak is oak, as they say, beat it as you will, it will not learn to become any other! But do you know how long you were gone? I have been stuck here unable to move since you left, is that any way to treat friends? Not to mention the play I am now missing because of your... ah, of what use! Of what use, I ask?"

Christoph snarled his disgust, as only he knew how, raised both hands to heaven as if to pray, then threw them both down, dismissing Jonathan as if he was not worthy of so much angst. Jonathan who had withstood the barrage blinking and mouthing stillborn retorts, now tried to pacify his friend and explain.

"Christoph! Listen..." he started. But the other, who was already walking away, stopped and turned.

"No!" he snapped. "You listen. Now you can mind my stall!"  was all he said. He turned and walked off making a show of muttering and shaking his head.

Jonathan stared at the place where his friend had disappeared for some time. Then with a sigh he sat back down on the wall of the well, a lonely figure in an empty square.

With nothing else to do but wait, his gaze soon fell back into the depths of the well. The black waters within were still now, the circle of sky was sharply mirrored below. The air within the well seemed to hum with stillness and a deep, beckoning silence.

An eerie silence filled the square and Jonathan imagined that he was alone in a place abandoned by humanity.

As he stared down into the deep waters he became aware of an unpleasant odour. He screwed up his face at it even as he sniffed harder, trying to identify its source. There wasn't even a trace of a breeze to stir the air, so it was unlikely to be drifting in from somewhere else, it could only be coming from the well.

Concerned that the water had become tainted somehow he searched the surface closely. Maybe a dead animal...

As he searched, the light faded as if a cloud had drifted across the sun. It made it harder to see. He would have looked up at the sky then, except that he found himself unable to summon up enough will to move. His thoughts became sluggish. It was as if he was drunk or in that weird place between wakefulness and asleep.

The smell became a stench: old urine, faeces and worst yet, like something dead...something very dead. Jonathan felt himself slide further into a thing he really did not wish to experience, yet was quite unable to stop.

All his energy had deserted him. He was overcome by a resignation that smacked of despair. The whole bright world had been reduced to one long, ill-defined, narrow and dark place. Dank stone. Mould. Slime under hands and feet...and something restricting these? Something heavy, like...irons? Shackles? It was dark, he could not see. But even if it had been light he knew that he did not have the will to look, to find out.

And just as it had started, the experience faded, began to release him. Whatever cloud had covered over the sun, it moved on and with its passing and the return of the light Jonathan's faculties reawakened as well. He became aware of birdsong and distant laughter and a cool breeze caressed his face.

Dazed, disturbed and unable to make any sense of what had just happened, Jonathan lifted his head up and looked at the late afternoon sky. The blue of its dome hinted of turquoise and Jonathan's eyes filled with tears. He cried silently like a disconsolate child and could not have said why to save his life.

Jonathan had never been a religious man, but he was superstitious. After his strange experience by the well all the things he had heard about spirits and demons and divine punishments came back to torment him and tease his apprehension into a dread. So he moved well away from the well, sat himself near Christoph's gelding. At least here the animal's flank hid the offending structure, and this alleviated his discomfort somewhat. Sitting there, he soon realised just how tired he really was, and this despite the fact that the day had been far from strenuous. The experience had felt to him like an omen or a warning, but now that he thought about it was probably just the tiredness and the day's strange events playing tricks on him and soon he began to doubt that it had ever happened. In this way he dismissed the occurrence, though he avoided going near the well for the rest of his wait.

One boon did come his way while he waited. Otho came to him with one of his sons and purchased two benches and a heavy trestle table, payed for them with three coins of silver and a deep scowl. Jonathan lent a hand to move them into the inn.

As they worked he tried to speak with Otho, but the taverner was too preoccupied to concentrate on anything else and kept interrupting Jonathan to remind himself or his son of preparations they still had to make.

The inn had already attracted some patrons. One little group of brightly dressed strangers clustered at one table, eating. Others sat alone or in pairs, sipping some of the tavern's finest. One, sitting in a corner away from all the others, had skin as dark as the night.

Jonathan recognized the warrior that had been posted outside lady Catherine's pavilion earlier.The man sat holding a large mug in both hands, his eyes were glazed, lost in some revelry. They came into focus as he became aware of Jonathan looking at him; a thin smile touched his lips.

"Ho, carpenter, come and sit with me," he said and waved a huge arm towards the kitchens. "Two more ales over here!" he called out, his voice booming among the rafters.

Jonathan who had started to shake his head, thought better of it when the other scowled. He sat on the bench across from the man.

"I cannot stay long," Jonathan warned. "I have two stalls to keep watch on outside."

The warrior nodded. "In that case let us take our drinks out into the open air," he suggested. "That way you can drink and watch your property, both."

When the ales arrived, they carried them out and sat in the late afternoon light. One of Otho's daughters was already lighting the oil lamps with a long wick. The sky was a perfect dome of turquoise.

"You are a good man, carpenter," the warrior said, with conviction. "I can tell! I've met enough scoundrels in my life that I can now recognize them by their smell! Don't let me keep you from your duties, drink your ale and then go back to your stall, if you must. I for one have had enough of work for a while. My name is Raoul."

Jonathan introduced himself in turn.

Raoul's eyes shone, and Jonathan wondered briefly how long he had been sitting here drinking. He was once more fascinated by the colour of the man's eyes:  green as Rahel's, yet set to shine like gemstones against the black of his skin.

Raoul noticed Jonathan's look: his lips parted to display a smile full of bright teeth. "You have never seen a black man before," he stated casually.

Jonathan shook his head. "You must come from a very distant place," he commented. "Never has another like you walked into Far Elm, not in living memory at least."

Raoul's smile broadened. "There are not many of my kin in this part of the world," he agreed. "Though there are some advantages to being unusual. It attracts people with unusual appetites."

Jonathan absently mused that a man like Raoul could probably dispatch most disadvantages with relative ease. But something else was claiming his attention now, he sipped his ale and moistened his lips as he tried to find the right way of expressing what he was thinking. He must have taken too long for Raoul saved him the trouble by asking:

"What's on your mind, carpenter?"

He played with his mug of ale, adding circles to the already stained bench top before looking up into the warrior's startling eyes. "This afternoon..." he started to say, then stopped short. The other looked at him questioningly, waiting for him to go on. "I...have been thinking about it, and I think something unusual happened," he said, finally.

"At our camp?" asked Raoul. "Or later on?"

"At the camp," he clarified. Then after a moment of confusion he added:  "Both."

Raoul nodded thoughtfully and sipped from his mug. He licked his lips clear of foam. "What do you think happened, then?"

Jonathan couldn't help but notice his choice of words. He hadn't even spoken of anything yet, and already he was feeling dismissed, disbelieved. Raoul smiled encouragingly. Jonathan groped for something tangible to speak of but found precious little. Except for one thing.

"The wine, I think," he proclaimed. "that goblet of wine did something to me. I mean, I wasn't drunk or anything like that. It was just that the very first sip I took...I don't know, the only way I can describe it is that it took something from me. It gave me a feeling I have never ever felt before. That was why I missed it so much when it was gone." He hesitated for a moment, then added:  "Who is Lady Catherine?"

The true question emerged unexpectedly, with more undertones than he had intended.

Raoul's eyebrows arched in surprise. His eyes even sobered a little as his attention became sharply more present. "Lady Catherine?" he asked needlessly. "She is a noble-born woman from Lachnar, far to the north of here. But take care, carpenter. You tread on the edge of subjects I have no leave to speak of. If you wish to know more about the lady and of her purposes and designs, then you will have to speak to her directly. I am just her servant. I do not presume to question her nor to answer others' questions about her."

Jonathan saw the truth of Raoul's words clearly displayed in the man's eyes. He remembered to breathe then, the breath that he released sounded like a sigh.

"On the other hand," continued the dark skinned warrior. "Of the wine I can say this: it is a precious gift. Not merely because of its palate, which is in any case exceptional, but for the power that is imbued within its essence. Its power is an alchemy of the spirit. I have sipped of that wine but once, my friend, and I have been in Lady Catherine's employ ever since. I await the day when she will deem it fit to offer me more. Her offer of a full flask of it to you therefore seems preposterous to me. I truly envy your good fortune."

Raoul eyes did not stray from Jonathan's as he drained the remainder of his ale. The empty mug descended on the bench with a thud. The warrior's eyes shone bright, but Jonathan could not say whether they burned with passion or with intoxication. He wondered once more just how much weight he should place upon the man's words.

"How long have you been protecting the Lady Catherine?" he asked then, choosing to tread on safer ground without moving too far from his line of inquiry.

Raoul snorted. "Lady Catherine needs as much protection as a storm cloud," he explained. "Do not underestimate her."

"But...she looked quite frail to me..." Jonathan started to counter.

"That is only because you don't know her yet," suggested Raoul. "But that will change soon enough."

Jonathan was sure he did not like the sound of that. Noticing his expression, Raoul reassured him brusquely. "Do not fear, carpenter!" he said. "You can only benefit from this."

But Jonathan had had enough of riddles. "What do you and Rahel do then, if the lady needs no protection?" he pressed on ignoring the other's comment. "Why does she bother to employ you?"

"Many good reasons," replied Raoul. "For one it would not look right for a lady such as herself to be traveling alone. Also the mere sight of warriors keeps people from cultivating unsavoury schemes. And besides, there are many other tasks that need to be taken care of. Tasks clearly not suited for a woman of her rank."

That made sense, Jonathan thought. Though the ability of the lady to look after herself did not.

"In any case," Raoul continued. "To answer your earlier question, I have served her for just over three years." He twisted his body around on the bench and leaned to rest his back against the tavern wall.

"What about the other warrior?" Jonathan asked. "The woman?"

"Rahel? I don't know, she was with the lady when I joined them."

"And she has not spoken to you of her past in three whole years?" Jonathan was incredulous.

"You don't know Rahel, my friend," the other retorted with a leer. "She is more determined than a clam; her pearls are not easily extracted."

The simile was lost on Jonathan, as he had never seen the sea and had no idea what a clam was. But he got the gist of Raoul's meaning.

"How did it come about then?" he pressed. "Your working for Lady Catherine," he added after a moment.

Raoul stared at him blankly and did not speak. After a while Jonathan became sure he was not going to, that he must have crossed an invisible boundary or that with his question he had violated the other's sensitivity. But then the warrior swung a leg over the bench and leaned further back against the wall. He raised his arms and braced the back of his head with his palms. His eyes took on a distant look as they were now seeing another world.

"I had just come back from the Meridional wars," he mused. "It had very been tough, especially the last battle. I had lost many mates. I was wounded. And though victory was ours in the end and I had survived unmaimed, I was bone tired, worn out. I needed healing. So I returned to my town and went to my lover's home, but when I arrived there I found strangers living in her house. No one knew what had become of her, but I suspected them; I started to believe that they knew
but would not tell me. I behaved badly. Feeling lost, I went to a nearby inn and stayed there and fretted. I got drunk one night and went back to her old house with demands and threats. I drew a sword and wounded a man, don't even know who. The soldiers came then, someone must have called them, and after a struggle I was knocked out. I ended up in the stockade for a time. When I came out again, I was even sicker, in body as well as in spirit now. I roamed around like a beggar. I used up all my money, sold my armour and my sword. Became just another town drunk. That was when the lady Catherine found me."

Raoul looked up at the sky. The darkness had claimed most of its dome by now. A lone star shone bright in the west.

"She walked up to where I was dozing in the sun, near the market where I scavenged for scraps of food at day's end. She just stood there with her shadow across my face until I became aware of her presence and squinted up at her with a curse poised upon my lips. She was very beautiful that day. She asked me for my name then she asked me if I was a soldier. If I wanted work. I swear that if anyone else had asked me that I would have told them to go to Hel. But with her the words
simply would not come out. So I said yes. She paid for me to get cleaned up, got me changed and
fitted and by next day I barely recognised myself." Raoul looked directly at Jonathan, showing
him with his eyes the depth of his loyalty. "I have been in her service since that day."

More people had filed into the square as he had talked. Most made for the tavern and disappeared inside, only to emerge soon afterwards with mugs of drink and platters of food. Soon all the seats were taken and newcomers took to sitting on the ground in tight, noisy circles.

Raoul straightened and stretched languidly. "In any case carpenter, that was a long time ago," he said in a tone that suggested he was done talking of such things. "All of my life prior to being in lady Catherine's employ has faded to a distant memory, as if it all happened to someone else long ago. Let us put aside all this nonsense now and enjoy the present moment..." He looked about at the people that surrounded them. "Tell me, carpenter," he said shortly. "Who is that lass sitting over there, the one in the red dress."

Jonathan turned. The woman Raoul was enquiring after had long gold hair and sat with two men at a table near the tavern entrance. Her dress was vivid red, brighter than blood. Her long hair danced around her face like yellow flame. As Jonathan watched, she laughed at something one of the men had said. She flashed perfectly white teeth as she threw back her head.

"I do not know her," he confessed, turning back to look at Raoul. "She is not from near here. I would say that she has come with the actors."

Raoul nodded and smiled a slight, knowing smile. "It doesn't matter," he commented, picking up his mug and checking its contents. "When I finish this I will find a way of introducing myself."

They sat in silence. Raoul's eyes strayed repeatedly towards the woman in red, his impatience becoming apparent. Soon afterwards, he emptied his mug with one long draught and stood up. "Drink up, carpenter," he said, amiably. "You must return to your toil, and I to mine."

He winked at Jonathan, mischief in his eyes. As he walked passed he placed a hand on Jonathan's shoulder and squeezed briefly before moving away, towards the lady with yellow hair.

Jonathan turned to watch him go. Raoul ambled leisurely towards the tavern entrance. As he passed by the woman's table, he lifted a hand casually as if to caress the sign that hung just above the door. As his hand dropped he turned to wave to Jonathan with the other, and winked as his descending hand sent a jug of wine spilling across the bench.

The men leapt to their feet with irate cries, the woman just sat and looked at the intruder with a neutral expression.

Raoul immediately apologised for his clumsiness, but not profusely. His booming voice called out for three fresh jugs and a bucket to wipe the table. He ignored the woman completely, always addressing the two men. Soon he was asked to share a drink, since he had purchased much more than was necessary. He accepted this with a gracious bow and sat down opposite the lady, whom he only now acknowledged with a courteous nod.

Jonathan shook his head and smiled, he finished his own drink, stood and walked back towards the stalls. He felt even more tired than he had earlier; undoubtedly the result of all the ale. He ambled over to his cart, pushed a trestle out of the way and lay down upon it with a deep sigh. He might as well take this opportunity to have a quick snooze.

He closed his eyes and almost instantly slipped into a deep stream of sleep.

He came to with a start, not knowing for a moment where he was. In that instant he felt something slip away from him. What was it? Even as he tried to focus on it, it fled irretrievably into a distant void, leaving behind a taste of disquiet, of something not being quite right.

Disoriented, he squinted at his surroundings. The sky was dark. The play was clearly over for many were now pouring back into the square, jesting and laughing; reminding one another of what they had just seen, reveling in the freshness of its memory.

He watched them as they reclaimed their stalls, resumed their wandering and haggling. Torches and lanterns were lit so that the whole square assumed a carnival atmosphere that was usually only experienced once a year, for St. Andrea's Feast.

Christoph too came back, laughing with the others. He walked straight up to Jonathan, his expression sobering a little as he saw his friend and remembered their recent quarrel.

"I will make it up to you," said Jonathan, trying to pre-empt him.

The blacksmith walked past him, making a show of inspecting at his wares. "Ah, forget it Jon, it's already made up," he waved a hand dismissively; the tone of his voice was a little weary. "The play was boring. I don't understand what all the commotion is about. A few students come through from some court and everyone thinks that they are gods or such-like. For all the trade it's brought us..."

"I will make it up to you," repeated Jonathan, and as he spoke he remembered the coins in his pouch. How could he have forgotten? He found the small leather bag at the bottom of his sack; so small it was that he had not really held it to much account.

He wanted no unsettled matters with Christoph. The blacksmith was his only friend in the whole world. He opened the bag and rolled three gold florins rolled into his hand. Christoph walked over then and gawked at the coins in Jonathan's palm.

"Mother of the saviour!" the smith whispered, disbelief brimming in his eyes. "Whom have you killed?"

The coins gleamed and shimmered like enchanted gold; they looked to both men like a king's ransom.

Jonathan moved his lips but no sound emerged. "She just said to get a horse," he whispered at last.

"Oh, of course," offered Christoph, "now you can buy her three or maybe even four."

Jonathan shook his head. "No, you don't understand, I thought she had meant for me to hire one...just for the day."

He looked around the square and noticed at least three sets of eyes looking in their direction with interest. His fingers closed around the gold. "We will talk of this later," he said, casting a nod towards the throng of people around them.

Jonathan picked up the planks of a tabletop, slipped them between two small food cupboards and a chair. "Do you know anyone with a horse to sell?" he asked the smith in a quiet voice.

"I'll sell you mine for three gold," offered Christoph, hopefully.

"Keep your voice down!" he chided his friend. "I really don't want this spread to the four quarters."

"Ah, you worry too much," mocked Christoph. "Everyone is far too concerned with their own to worry about ours."

Three gold! What was he meant to do? Buy a horse? Or hire one for the day and give back the change? Why had she given him so much? Everyone knew a horse was worth no more than one florin at most. Perhaps things were different in the coastal towns. Maybe horses were valued more and fetched a higher price in such places

He felt tired, more tired than he had felt in months, everyone it seemed was in a mood for celebrating. Not that his own mood had soured, but there had been enough surprises for one day, he longed to lie in his bed, for the deep repose of sleep. He resumed packing his cart, but the three pieces of gold drew his thoughts like moths to a flame.

I will buy a horse and give back what I don't spend. I will tell her that she gave me too much, he resolved.

When he finished loading he walked over to Christoph. "Will you take your cart home and then come back here?" he asked.

"No," said the other, throwing his black-work onto the tray. "Rayner showed me a barn where I can stable both cart and horse." He looked at Jonathan with a hint of a grin. "We could both leave our carts there, and then come back here for the feast, what say you?"

Jonathan wanted to say no, he deeply longed for sleep, but found he couldn't. He just did not know how to say no to Christoph. "That's a good idea," he said sheepishly instead.

They left the square together.

With their carts secured and Christoph's gelding stabled, they were at last free to make their way back to the square. The feast well on its way. In their absence a bonfire had been prepared and was even now being lit. Children were running around excitedly, poking at the nascent flames with long sticks or throwing twigs and other small pieces of fuel into it.

Night was spreading fast now, like ink in water. A swollen moon had risen. Clouds streamed past her, born on a steady breeze that was blowing in from the south, cooling the air and bringing relief from the day's heat and, it seemed to Jonathan, something much worse than that: change. Change had arrived and would not be denied.

In that instant Jonathan sensed that the world he had known was somehow slipping through his fingers, vanishing before his eyes. As he took in the ominously racing clouds, he cringed inwardly, shying away from the awareness that even now was stirring inside him.

I will never be the same again. The thought startled him so that he allowed himself to come to a stop, eyes fixed on the moon and the dark vault of the sky.

"Stop your dreaming, Jon," Christoph's words drew him away from the mood that had claimed him. With an effort he pulled his gaze free and looked fondly at his friend. Christoph cut a swathe through the throng and Jonathan fell in behind him.

Christoph was right of course: this was no time for brooding, it was a time for liveliness and celebration. Jonathan had never seen so many men and women that he knew all gathered together in one space. The entire population of Far Elm and most of those who lived within twenty miles were present; there were also some people, beside the artists, whom he had never set eyes on before this day.

There must be nigh on two hundred people here tonight, he thought.

Otho emerged from his hall excited, but also flustered, for the number of patrons that clustered around his inn were undoubtedly stretching the poor man's resourcefulness to the limit. Even so, he could not pass by the opportunity to attract more.

"Fare to please your lordships delicate taste," he announced. "Fresh game, swine, ale and wine until we run dry, and then there is always mead, for those of you who are brave."

"Or utterly foolish," someone yelled out, adding to the general mirth of the crowd.

Otho ignored the cacophony of voices around him and continued, shouting even louder. "But most important of all, something special, evening meals with the freshest produce of the land, can be had for a steal: only five small coppers will fetch you a sumptuous meal the likes of which only travelers to distant places will tell you of."

Having secured his audience's attention, he crossed his arms over his sodden shirt and produced a sly look for everyone's benefit. "Of course, if you prefer, you can go home and eat what you are want to eat every night, maize or corn meal or some such concoction to fill your belly and condemn your senses to an uninspiring death. Come to Otho's I say! Eat venison, pig, and hare. All garnished with delicious roast potatoes, tomatoes so fat and red you'd think they were flesh..."

Otho, whose voice had started to crack under the strain, was overwhelmed then into silence as several voices from all around pressed him with varying retorts, the main one being a call for him to give up his attempt at oratory and return indoors to what he knew best.

The crowd milled around the square following attractions as they presented themselves. A fire dancer twirled flames dangerously around her body. A juggler tossed and caught six lit torches. Actors did improvised skits filled with humorous twists.

For Jonathan the evening became a confused whirlwind of images, sensations and sounds. He wandered in their midst like a lost child. Unable to keep his focus on any one thing, he wandered from one attraction to the next until everything blurred, until he could not tell where one thing ended and another began.

Once, after he asked for a goblet of wine, the hand that offered it to him reminded him of the red ambrosia he had tasted in the lady's pavilion. The illusion was shattered when he sipped the red liquid, and thought for a moment that he had been given vinegar by mistake. Nevertheless he forced himself to drink and drink, until the night became remote and dream-like.

He lost sight of Christoph when the latter was invited to dance by one of the actresses. Jonathan watched him whirl, careening crazily around the bonfire, and laughed until his jaw ached.

He wandered on, unsteady on his feet.

He caught a glimpse of the black man leaving the square with a woman. A scarf hid her hair, but Jonathan knew it was yellow as flame. He walked away from the square. Enough ale, enough wine. It was time to go home.

He turned to look once more at the square. The bonfire had burnt low, someone was tossing a log onto it and a myriad of sparks spiraled high into the night sky. The fat moon was now soaring high above the roofs, adding its cool light to the world.

He wiped his eyes clear of sudden tears and turned to find his cart and go home. Home to his bed: to rest and sleep.

And to sweet dreams.

 

****

 

He woke suddenly to a cry of pain.

He opened his eyes in fear, and it was quite some time before he remembered where he was. He had dreamt again.

For a moment, upon waking, he had confused the two: had thought the dream to be real. And the real to be a nightmare. Oh how he wished that it were so. But he could not afford the luxury of dreaming, for it made the reality of his life unendurable. The stench of urine and excrement and festering wounds made breathing hard enough. But a far worse smell lingered here, that of decaying flesh, that of death. He squinted down the long dark room. Out of the gloom he could
just make out the shapes of some of the others. They were no more than shadows, just like him. How many were there? He had stopped bothering to count. The dead were eventually removed and new ones were brought in. What did it matter?

He no longer cared how much time had passed. Most often he could not conceive of a time before this: a time when things had been different. Maybe that had been a dream, too. Maybe there had been no before.

He peered at his companions though he could not really see them clearly. He knew that, like him, they were shackled with short lengths of chain to loops of iron fastened to the long stonewall. He tried moving his legs a little to ease the numb ache that had settled there. He was rewarded with instant pain.

Pain is always the reward here, he thought, and tried to move no more. Despite his resolve not to indulge, his mind wondered back to the dream. In it he had been a free man. It had felt wonderful, but what had it achieved? It had made him painfully aware of his squalor. Though he could not really see himself, either in the eternal twilight of his cage, he knew well enough what he and his companions looked like: all filthy and decrepit, covered in disgusting rags that were
rotting on their backs.

He closed his eyes.

Sleep, if only I could go back to sleep, I would not notice for a while. Maybe I would dream again...

The rattling of chains grew distant. The cries of pain receded just a little.

What would I dream?

I would dream...

A new noise startled him.

He looked about anxiously as a murmur of terror arose amongst his fellow prisoners. A hooded figure was walking down the long cell. As it walked past, the shadows of his companions in torment shrunk away, closer to the wall, closer to their fetters, whimpering.

The hooded one reached him. It looked like death had finally caught him. He looked up with the anticipation of impending release. Instead, a small and delicate hand emerged from the dark folds of the cloak.

It offered him a goblet filled with ruby red wine.

 

****

 

With a hoarse cry of terror Jonathan sprang up.

Darkness.

Silence, but for the labouring of his heart.

He searched his surroundings like some terrified, trapped animal.

He was lying on a blanket of wool. He was at home. He was unharmed.

Thank be to God, it was just a nightmare! And what a nightmare! It had seemed so real that while he dreamt his true existence had vanished utterly, as if it had never been. Only the mind numbing pain still felt real enough, but this suffering he could easily endure for he had imposed it upon
himself.

Jonathan was not a man prone to drinking. He felt as if an axe had become somehow lodged in his head. He forced himself to sit up. Painfully and slowly, he pulled himself out of bed and groped around for the pail. He found it on the floor, under the table. Clutching it firmly he stumbled his way out into the night.

The moon was low in the trees; dawn was still a few hours away. Cicadas drilled at his brain sadistically loud. He staggered over to the trough with the intention of drinking, but tripped as he approached it and fell headlong into it. His arms flailed wildly splashing at the water, seeking a handhold and. He swallowed a good deal of it before he was able to right himself. Then, cursing he pulled himself up and just sat there, catching his breath.

The water felt good, it cooled and nourished his body with vitality. As he sat there with his eyes closed it began to dispel the pall of his nightmare, and made him feel human again. He opened his eyes and looked at his hut, blue in the moonlight. The shadows of the surrounding trees crowded all around. The choir of cicadas no longer pained him. And suddenly he laughed.

He roared with laughter at his life, at the impervious moon and the sky, and at the sullen trees. He laughed at himself until he cried and his sore head threatened to burst open his skull. He pulled himself out of the trough at length and filled the pail with water. He drank long and deep until his throat, parched by wine and ale, was able to swallow again. Then he went back
inside to prepare himself for the day.

 

****

 

The sun was just rising over the eastern plains when Jonathan reached the disabled carriage. He had hired a horse from Rayner and had paid dearly for the privilege, but had no other choice since he had not had the time to look to buy one. The annoyance he had felt at the miller's opportunism soon left him. The luxury of riding on his cart for once instead of pushing it was not one to be missed, even though the last few miles along the disused track had tossed him this way and that.

He pulled on the reins and dropped to the ground. He had expected to see Rahel again this morning, instead he was slightly disappointed when Raoul, emerged from behind the carriage.

"Greetings carpenter!" the warrior said, cheerfully enough.

"Good morning," he answered, more distantly than he had intended, his eyes fixed on the carriage. Somehow, during the night, the vehicle had been righted and braced with thick logs. Both wheels on the damaged side were completely clear of the ground.

He thought better than to comment, grabbed his tools instead and went to work. Raoul watched him silently for a while.

"By the looks of you I would say that you are nursing a hangover, my friend," he said with a sympathetic smile. "Maybe you do not drink as often as you should!"

Jonathan grinned at the man but made no reply. His head was still hurting, and his stomach had not yet decided whether it would let him keep his breakfast or not. He was in no mood for conversation. Nor was he in any sort of mood to endure the bragging as to the other's romantic conquests. He kept his focus to the work before him.

It was a simple matter to remove the pegs that held the wheels in place and, within a short time, he was loading, with Raoul's help, both wheels onto his cart. He was tying some rope over his load when one of the carriage doors opened and a young woman leaned out. She was younger than Rahel, perhaps she was twenty summers, maybe even less. There was something familiar in her, but Jonathan could not quite place it. He bowed curtly.

The girl smiled sweetly and held Jonathan's eyes alertly as she descended the steps that led from the carriage. She walked up to him with a sway in her hips that seemed like an invitation.

Jonathan tensed instantly. Something was afoot, something that he didn't understand and, therefore, something that frightened him. He turned away and started fastening his rope with carefully deliberate movements. "Jonathan?"

He could not avoid this: he turned to look. The young woman took his face in her hands and kissed him. Jonathan did not pull away; he just went limp, as if all of his strength had deserted him.

Her kiss was long. Elegant, more than passionate, free from infatuation or lust. Her ice-blue eyes were open, locked fast into his which displayed a confused mixture of alarm and fear and yearning and arousal. When she released him, the black warrior was right behind her, his face an expressionless mask.

"Was the money enough?" she asked him, as if she was not really changing reality. Jonathan, his mouth still full of the taste of her, covered his face with his hands.

"Lady," he said eventually, dropping his hands, "I do not even know you."

The girl walked around him. Raoul looked on silently.

"Oh," she said with genuine surprise in her eyes. "You do not know me?"

Then turning to the warrior she repeated: "He does not know me, Raoul. Do you think it was the wine we gave him yesterday, or the wine he consumed last night?"

Raoul smiled slightly but made no response. She kept weaving a playful path between them, around them, her eyes on Jonathan, brushing him with her fingertips whenever she was close enough. "Do you want to 'know' me, Jonathan?"

Unaccustomed anger welled up inside him suddenly, flushing his face with colour. The words escaped from his lips before he could restrain them. "Do you people want to employ me," he said through clenched teeth. "Or do you just want to mock me?" His anger erupted as he said the word 'mock', it exploded with a sound like thunder in his voice and lightening in his eyes. "I am an honest man, and a simple man. I am a carpenter, do not ask me for what I cannot give?"

The young woman smiled. "It seems that we have stirred some life into him after all, Raoul."

The warrior's face remained an inscrutable mask.

"But no one has asked anything of you, Jonathan, carpenter, honest man, simple man," the lady came right up close to him in an instant, eyes open wide, 'reading' him, he thought. Almost as an afterthought she added softy:  "Do not be afraid." It was not the words, but the way she said them that reached him. She had purposefully spoken too softly for Raoul to hear.

He looked at her, cautiously, and as he did so, he recalled the nightmare. He felt the fear surge inside him, like a fist closing around his heart. She was looking in his eyes as it came, and he knew that she had 'seen' it.

She dropped her gaze first, her lashes falling slightly as if she were studying his mouth, was contemplating kissing him again. Then she turned away, but in such a calm and dignified way that he was left clutching at nothing. She faced the breeze as she spoke.

"Dreams are strange things, Jonathan," she said. "They can teach us what we need to learn. They can show us what is hidden. They can deceive us or they can enlighten us." She turned to look at him. "It all depends on what you want," she concluded. She held his eyes for a while. "You may go now, if you wish," she said at length, and her tone had acquired a business-like quality. "Or you may stay longer, your choice. Either way I will send Rahel or Raoul, to see how you are
progressing with the repairs from time to time."

Feeling dismissed, he bowed without a word, turned, and carried the tools back to his cart. He checked that all was secure, and rode away without daring to even glance back.

 

****

 

"They are a strange people, all of them," he said as Christoph spread the coals evenly around the iron rim. Jonathan swept the flat ground nearby clear of pebbles and laid the new wheel down flat. The hub fitted comfortably in the hole he had prepared for it. He walked around the wooden
rim on hands and knees, cheek brushing the dirt, to make sure that there was no unevenness in its lay.

"Who do you think this young woman was, then?" asked the blacksmith as he fanned the coals into flame. "The lady's daughter?"

Jonathan looked at him and brushed dirt from his face. "She must be, she did look a little like her and yet I do not know... even the guards they employ are strange. Totally different: she very white, him black as night, and yet with the same green in their eyes?" He shivered, as if repulsed.

"Are you ready?" asked Christoph.

Jonathan nodded.

They used two pairs of tongs each to lift the rim from the embers and lower it around the wheel. It fit almost perfectly, with only a small gap to spare. "Best fit I've ever seen," commented Christoph. "Now the water, quick."

They poured the water rapidly and evenly over the whole rim, which hissed noisily and let off a cloud of steam. The assembled wheel creaked and groaned a little as its components fitted more snugly into each other driven by the pressure of the contracting metal.

"Done!" said Christoph, and Jonathan examined the finished wheel with evident satisfaction.

"Wondrous work!" he exclaimed. "As good as any wheelwright could have done, if I do say so myself."

Moving assuredly the two men prepared the bed of coals for the next rim.

"It seems to me," started Christoph with a grim voice, "that all foreign people are mad. Every stranger I have met has shown signs of it. Pay them no heed, Jon, just take their coin and let them be. Don't get tangled with them, if you meddle in their affairs there may be a heavy price to pay. Just leave them be, lest you become as mad as they."

Jonathan looked at his friend. Christoph was surely right. Why let mad people make a fool out of you? Better to stick with those you know. And yet, even while he thought in this way to himself, he felt uncertain. He could taste the aftertaste of a lie.

Had Jonathan been a less simple man, he might have tried to voice the concerns that plagued him. He might have noted that, commonly, there is no intent in madness, and that, what he had perceived from the mysterious woman in the carriage was, in fact, nothing short of intent. But even though he sensed this as clearly as the warmth of sunlight on his skin, he was incapable of finding words to describe what he felt, so he turned his attention to the work before him with renewed focus, and only the scowl on his face spoke of that which he could not express.

The faint echo of the nones bell was still ringing in the still, distant air when they loaded the two finished wheels onto Jonathan's new wain.

They had not spoken much to each other since finishing the first wheel, and the silence now hung heavily between them as Jonathan prepared to leave.

"Are you taking them there now, Jon?" asked Christoph as Jonathan counted silver coins from his pouch.

"No," he answered, glancing at the sun. "It would be dark before I got there. And in any case, I am two whole days ahead of time, they should be well pleased with that."

Christoph nodded, took the money without counting it and looked long and thoughtfully at his friend. "Jon," he said, and hesitated. "I would not be pleased if something happened to you, you know that? In fact, I would be greatly displeased."

Jonathan looked at him, startled. Then seeing him standing there holding the money he grinned.

"Is your trade that poor, then?" he joked and dodged.

Christoph still managed to leave a bruise on his arm.

 

****

 

Christoph's shop was a way out of Far Elm, towards the south east, and Jonathan had to go past the village on his way home. He had no actual need to go into the village itself, but he had promised himself a pint or two of Otho's best, as a reward for a job well done.

As he rode through he felt like a king riding on his chariot and responded with magnanimous condescension to all who greeted him. He pulled on the reins outside the tavern, tethered the horse to a post and went inside.

It was dark. Jonathan squinted around for a few moments, and then took a seat between the spent hearth and the bench where Margherita was busy stowing crockery into a cupboard. "Where's Otho, then?" he asked, mainly to let her know he was there.

"He's gone down to the river, to Martin's," she said, without looking at him. "Said he'll be back by dusk."

Margherita was a woman who had worked all the youthful plumpness out of herself. There had been a time when Jonathan had taken quite a fancy to her, even though she was a married woman with a fair few years more than he. But now she was little more than a bundle of long old bones that probably rattled when she turned over in her sleep.

She stood with a sigh and wiped her face in her apron. "Ah, 'tis you, Jonathan. He'll be vexed, I'll wager! He wanted to speak with you." She brushed the hair out of her eyes, he noticed they were tired, a little bagged and dark as if she had not had enough sleep. "Will you wait for him? He shall not be long now."

Jonathan scratched his head. "If he's back before I leave, but I want to be home before dark tonight," he answered. "I'm still not used to having a horse, and I don't want to chance riding it in the dark." He moved to the window and looked out, as if to see if the taverner was coming back. "Anyway," he continued, "if I don't see him today, I'll see him in the morrow, you tell him so. I'll be passing this way before midday and that's a promise."

"I'll tell him," she replied. "He'll be pleased to hear that. Now sit yourself down and I'll bring you your ale."

She brought him a mug along with a plate of bread, cheese, olives and some slices of cold meat, and then went back to work in the kitchen. He was just taking a long draught from the mug when a voice nearby spoke to him."Thirsty again, carpenter?"

Jonathan put his mug down and turned.

Raoul's eyes shone bright as beacons from the shadowed corner where he sat. Jonathan withstood the penetrating gaze for a moment then drained his mug. The simple knowledge that his work for Lady Catherine was finished lent him an uncharacteristic feeling of confidence. "Will you have a drink on me?" he asked and burped loudly.

"Aye," said the other, standing and moving over to take a closer seat. Jonathan fetched two fresh mugs.

The black man thanked him and sipped his ale tentatively. "How much longer for the wheels?" he asked, as if he was really quite disinterested in the answer.

"No longer," Jonathan felt a twinge of annoyance creep into his voice. He gestured with his head towards the door. "They are outside, on the cart."

Raoul arched his eyebrows. "Very good," he commented, "I will escort you to our camp, then. Lady Catherine will be pleased with your swift work."

Jonathan shook his head. "It's too late now," he said. "It will be dark before we get half way there. I will be at the carriage at first light."

Raoul looked down at the table and was silent for a while, his fingers tracing mindless patterns on the bench-top.

"I will not be able to come with you in the morning," he said after a bit, and this time did not avert his eyes from Jonathan's.

"No matter," Jonathan said with a smile. "I know the way."

The door behind them opened and Otho walked in, looked around and spotting Jonathan made straight for him. "Ho! Jon, I saw your cart outside..." Then, seeing Raoul sitting beside him, he stopped short. A hint of a shadow clouding his eyes. "A word with you, Jon?" he said, sombrely.

Jonathan followed him back into the kitchen. Margherita and their four children were bustling around, preparing supper. The smell of fresh bread mingled with that of roasted rabbit and onions and rosemary. The fire made the room hot and steamy.

Otho gestured for Jonathan to sit down at a bench, he put a small glass down on the table in front of him which he promptly filled with wine."Jon," he said, "the priest    Malachi was here today asking after you."

"Asking after me?" repeated Jonathan uncomprehendingly. "What on earth for?" The abbey never had any need for his skills, nor for that matter, for anyone else's skills either since the brethren had all the skills that were needed amongst their own.

Otho leaned closer, his blue eyes squinting at Jonathan with subterfuge. "He wanted to talk to you about those people up the hill." As he said this he nodded towards the place where Raoul sat in the main hall. "He warned me to tell you to beware of them. He called them "fell and godless creatures" and said something about them meddling in forbidden arts. He told me to say to you that you were to accept no work nor money from them; I didn't tell him that you already had."

Jonathan gaped at the taverner's words. But even as a part of him was incredulous another leapt at this new explanation that was being presented to him. That they were strange people he had no doubt, though he had not thought of them as sorcerers. And yet... he rubbed his forehead vigorously with the palm of his hand.

"He wouldn't have come to warn me if he didn't know something already..." Jonathan speculated. "The way gossip spreads in this village it might as well be spread to the four winds by as many criers!" He tried not to show it to the taverner, but he was worried. He had no time for the church. And he especially had no time for Malachi.

Not that he'd ever had any dealings with the priest before, but he had known of a few who had and they had not fared well from the encounter. Jonathan was not one given to using pentacles or such like, but neither was he one to condemn those who chose to use such devices to the eternal fires of hell. Or to earthly flames either, for that matter.

"Meddlesome crow of a priest," Jonathan cursed bunching his hands into fists. The priest's audacity had not escaped him: Jonathan was not even a member of Malachi's flock, and yet the priest presumed to tell Jonathan what he could or could not do.

"I don't like this, Otho," he announced, stating what would have been quite obvious to any onlooker. "If these people are as dangerous as Malachi says, why not send for the king's army and have them imprisoned? Why bother me with the concerns of his faith?"

Otho shrugged. "Maybe he has already sent for them," he offered. "Maybe Malachi was just giving you a warning for your own good..."

Jonathan scowled at the untouched wine on the bench in front of him.

"What will you do Jon?" Otho refilled the glass before him and peered into the carpenter's eyes. "By the Holy Trinity and all that is sacred, I do not envy you..."

Jonathan waved him into silence with a curt gesture, remembering in his mind's eye the strange young woman that had kissed him, the goblet of red wine like ambrosia, the fear he had felt by the well. And then there was the nightmare, was that not warning enough?

"By Hel! I have no need for this!" he bellowed and standing up suddenly brought his fist down hard on the bench, spilling wine in all directions. All activity in the kitchen ceased and the taverner, his wife and the children all stood frozen as Jonathan stormed from the room. He emerged into the hall brimming with rage.

But the place where he had sat with Raoul was empty. The two empty mugs sat overturned on the bench and they seemed like a mockery to him.

 

****

 

He tossed and tried to turn, but couldn't. Something would not yield, try as he may, it just would not budge. He muttered some obscenities at it and yanked hard. This more than anything brought him out of the dream. The sharp bite of metal into the old wounds of his ankles left him gasping for breath.

He had dreamt again.

He tried to remember, but even as he tried to hold on, the dream receded from him, swift as a hawk. In seconds it was gone as if it had never been. He groaned and opened his eyes. The light never changed much down here. The only way he could tell that it must be dark outside was by the lit oil lamp hanging by the stairs at the end of the dungeon.

He looked now and saw a cloaked and hooded figure stood at the foot of the stairs. He remembered her. Though he could not see her face, he knew who she must be. She had been in his dream too. She had offered him sweet wine. What was she doing here? Even as he asked himself that question, the figure moved. A slender hand unhooked the lamp from its nail and
turned to look in his direction. Her free hand gestured for him to follow.

How could he do so when he was fettered?

He looked down at his legs.

He could not see the shackles it was so dark, but something made him reach down, perhaps just a need to rub the pain out of them, and as he did so he discovered that the pins that held them fast had been removed.

Removed?

He looked up sharply down the length of the cell, but the cloaked woman had turned and was already walking slowly up the stairs. A sense of urgency seized him then. He unclasped the fetters around his ankles, he freed his wrists also and stood up.

He fell down immediately.

Another attempt produced the same result, only this time he landed so badly his face collided with the stone producing a sickening sound. Warm blood flooded from his battered nose. Lying there he saw the empty goblet lying on the floor not far from his face.

The dream! What if... he looked to the stairs just in time to see the robed apparition disappear.

What if it was real?

He suppressed an urge to cry out. Instead, gritting his teeth, tears of pain and frustration blinding his eyes, he stood and shook and trembled like a new-born calf. Slowly he found the courage to try to walk again and took the first few steps. He did so tentatively, with a great deal of anxiety and considerable pain.

Twice he stumbled before reaching the stairs. Each time it produced a murmur like disapproval from his fellow prisoners, but he ignored them and persevered doggedly towards the illusion of freedom, for he knew that his could be nothing more than an illusion. His weakened condition meant that he could not escape far, even if he did get out of this dungeon. He could not fight, not even to defend himself, even if he had the skills and a weapon, of which he had neither. But
despite these thoughts he continued to take step after agonizing step, for in his heart a new conviction had blossomed: better die under a cruel blade than to continue to exist in this way.

As he nurtured these thoughts, he reached the stairs. He looked up. There was nothing there, but he caught a glimpse of a light moving away, fading. He followed as fast as he could. It moved ahead of him, elusive as freedom and he chased it along a seemingly endless maze of dark passages and stairs, never getting any closer, never quite losing sight of it. It seemed to him that he had become lost in a nightmare of immense proportions.

Just when he thought he had reached the limit of his endurance, he entered a doorway and found himself face to face with the cloaked light-bearer. Her hood had fallen back and he was startled to be looking not at a human face, but at a mask: a face of gold that gazed at him with indifference and dispassion.

Without a word the woman pointed towards a curtain.

Hesitant, he went towards it, and as he did, the light faded. He did not turn to see if his guide was still with him, instead he moved forward with grim determination. As he reached the curtain, the light behind him failed completely. He gripped the rough fabric in his hands and blindly felt his way through the folds for a breach and found it. He moved the heavy drapes aside and found himself looking down into a small circular room illumined by candles, the air thick with the smell of beeswax and frankincense. A dozen monks stood in a circle around a small stone table in the middle of the chamber. They were praying: a ceaseless litany that rose and echoed, hollow amongst the rafters.

One of the monks was the priest Malachi. He held a short sword with a hilt of gold, fashioned and shaped like a crucifix. The blade was thinly drawn and tapered to a point, like the blade of a stiletto. He offered the weapon to his brothers who kissed or touched it as they saw fit before returning it to him.

The chanting became more focused and more intense.

A distraught girl-child was brought in; the monk who carried her held her in a way that indicated loathing, disgust. She had been gagged, and her face was turning blue. It was clear that she was choking in her distress.

Jonathan in sudden dread made to call out, to implore them to stop and free the child, but no sound came from his mouth. It was as if his world and that which he now looked upon were so vastly far apart that no sound could bridge the gap.

The monk placed the girl, naked, on the cold stone altar. Four hands each gripped one limb tightly and held her against her feeble writhing. Father Malachi clasped his hands as if in prayer around the sword's pommel and raised the weapon high above his head.

It fell with a hiss.

 

****

 

Dawn found Jonathan riding his cart like a man possessed, wandering towards his doom. He had no notion of what outcome awaited his actions, he knew only that he could not avoid this any longer. He had woken from his hideous dream fearing for his sanity; he had run out into the cold night naked, like a wild beast. He had run heedless of obstacles and of danger for what had seemed a timeless span, and in the end he had collapsed, spent and numb, in a hollow near the
exposed roots of large fig.

When he returned home, the east was lighting fast. He was cut, scratched and bruised from the many collisions with trees and unseen branches, his head throbbed with pain, and still the images of the dream persisted in his mind like ugly and cruel scars.

When he reached the old road he drew rein and just sat for a while, peering into the dark wood, peering at what lay ahead. Nothing came to him, no new revelation or insight, no clue as to what
might happen. So at last he took a breath, and knotting his jaw, drove his cart ever so slowly along the track, through the aloof indifference of the old trees.

No one was waiting for him by the stranded carriage. As he approached he felt a tingling feeling run down his back, like the brush of a feather.

He waited for a while, sitting and holding the reins as if ready to dart off at the first hint of any danger, but nothing stirred in the stillness of morning.

With a curse he leaped from the cart and started unloading his work. The wheels were heavy. He had expected Raoul's help in unloading them, nevertheless they were soon off his cart and leaning against the side of the carriage.

Still no one had appeared.

"Ho!" he yelled to the forest. "I'm here."

Bird chatter and the breeze-rustled leaves answered him.

"Your wheels are ready!"

Nothing.

He shrugged. He wanted nothing more from these people in any case. They could have their god-forsaken wheels and leave him alone.

He wanted to leave then, but something held him. He should at least try the wheels on the cart, see to it that they fit and worked properly. Even as he thought this he started to curse, for deep within, in some uncluttered and inaccessible corner of his mind he wanted to see them. He wanted to vent his frustration and fury. Wanted to release his fear.

Was it fear of them or fear of the effect they were having on him? If they were sorcerers, he knew that he was already dammed, there could be no salvation for him but to burn at the stake. But in another corner of his awareness, in some small dark and distant place, he feared what they were somehow opening up for him more than he feared death itself. And it was not them that slew children in his dreams.

These things he felt, but he did not linger on them. He did not turn his awareness toward them so that they might be drawn out into the light to be weighed for their true merit. With an anguish that threatened to choke him, he proceeded to fasten the wheels to the carriage, axle to hub, bolts into holes; so that his work may speed these demons that unsettled peoples' souls to perdition elsewhere, not here, not with him!

He was finishing the second wheel when the door of the carriage creaked open with a sound that was simultaneously mirrored in his mind by another door opening onto nameless terror.

Jonathan froze so completely he couldn't even move his eyes towards the dark crack that had appeared in the side of the carriage. A moment later the tiniest voice spoke. The sound was so incongruent with the fear he felt that he had trouble working out whether he was hearing it or imagining it.

"Oh," the little voice said, "you woke me up."

The spell was broken. He looked up then and the little girl that rubbed her eyes at him from the carriage entrance seemed as unreal as a unicorn. She finished her rubbing and smiled a quick, confident smile as she descended the steps and came to stand beside him.

He looked at her and thought her to be not a day older than six. She might have been the girl of his nightmare. For all he knew, she was.

She inspected his work with curiosity. "You have nearly finished," she said, innocently gazing up
at him. "And I have something to give you when you do!"

Once again she graced him with a smile filled with enthusiastic anticipation and disappeared back inside.

When she emerged a few moments later, she was carrying a small velvet bag the colour of emerald.  She opened it.

The first thing she removed was a purse which she passed to him as if it was of no importance. Its weight however spoke loudly enough to Jonathan. Next she produced a wine skin, which she offered to him with awe in her large blue eyes, blue as the pre-dawn sky.

"Do you want this?" she asked shyly, innocently. "It is yours if you want it."

He accepted the skin from her.

"This is the most important thing, you know?" warned the girl. "You must never share it with anyone else!"

Her caution was delivered so intently and with such presence that Jonathan would have smiled if only he could remember how.

Last of all she drew out for him a long knife, almost identical to the one he had seen in his dream, save for the crucifix shaped handle which, in this blade, resembled the branches of an ornate tree instead.

Jonathan frowned as she offered the weapon to him. "I don't need this," he said softly, not wanting to hurt her feelings but determined nevertheless in his refusal to allow dream and reality to run into one another in this way. He would not have it, no matter what the cost.

She looked at him, her mouth open in surprise. "Oh, but you must take it," she said. Her eyes implored him to be reasonable. "You are going to need it, where you are going." She shook her head a little as she spoke, as if his refusal was unthinkable, an incomprehensible thing.

"Where I am going, I will not need this," he said evenly, but with irrefutable finality.

The little girl's eyes widened with sudden horror and she let out an ear piercing scream that shocked Jonathan with its incongruity as well as with its intensity. He noticed then that she wasn't even looking at him, she was looking past...behind him. Something took over his mind and his heart in that moment. His hand reached for the knife even as he started to turn...

started to turn...

 

****

 

...he turned for he had heard a noise behind him. And as he did so he, found a blade in his hand. Good, he thought, and smiled at the fresh memory of the girl in his vision. Simultaneously, he saw the guard coming towards him with a leer as his hand reached for the sword hanging at his side. It was obvious the guard hadn't seen the knife, didn't expect him to be armed. He was just coming up the stairs for an easy kill, he could see it in the man's eyes, in the way he looked at him. You have made a big mistake, peasant, said those eyes filled with scorn and blood lust. And his hand unclipped the strap that secured his sword and drew his weapon from its sheath, slowly, savouring the process, looking for the fear to materialise in his quarry's eyes.

But Jonathan felt no fear. Something spoke to him, and he followed the instructions calmly and lucidly. He faced the guard and moved towards him without hesitation. As he reached him the guard raised his weapon to strike.

Jonathan raised his left arm in turn, as if to deflect the blow bare handed. Yet simultaneously his right hand spun up and around and the knife plunged hilt deep into the man's abdomen. Three times, in rapid succession.

The man's sword clanged down the steps, as his hand went to cover the wounds as if he thought he could staunch the gushing of blood. His right hand, descending, clutched at Jonathan's shoulder for support. But his eyes glazed almost immediately and he slid to the ground without a whisper.

Jonathan waited breathlessly for a time, straining to hear sounds of alarm or pursuit. He heard nothing. So he dragged the man's body down the stairs to where he had seen a door. He opened it cautiously: the room was dark and empty. He pulled the dead man's body in after him.

As quickly as he could he stripped both the corpse and himself and discarded his prison rags. His new clothes were drenched in blood and hung rather loosely from his famished frame but they would have to serve until he found something better, but later! For now he must get out of here.

"See?"

See what? He thought, and once again turned.

An old crone stood nearby, leaning on a stick as if without it she might simply collapse into a pile of dusty bones. Jonathan searched the area with his eyes. The little girl was nowhere in sight. He looked at the crone, at her alert ice-blue eyes. "Who are you?" he asked at last, not knowing what else to say.

The crone cackled a little. "That is of no importance. What matters more here is to know who you are," she croaked and her eyes filled with gleeful tears, and a little bit of spittle ran down her cracked lip, onto her hairy chin. "Do you know?" she asked.

And when Jonathan looked at her uncomprehendingly she laughed some more, with what sounded to him like insane joy.

"Look here," he said, taking a step towards her. "I have no patience left for these games of yours, whatever you are. What do you want with me? Are you sorcerers? Is it my soul you want? Who are you? Answer me!"

His voice had risen to a shout. He took hold of the old woman's shoulders and shook her roughly, but she persisted with her insane laugh as if she had not heard a word of what he asked.

"He wants to know who we are!" exclaimed the old woman with exhilaration. "Shall we tell him then, dearies? Do we tell him?"

Just then a new voice spoke, though not in answer to the woman's questions. "Release her, carpenter," a woman's voice ordered.

He snapped his head around to look at Rahel.

"Oh, so are you going to answer me then?" he glared at her as if daring her to act upon the threat that he had perceived coming from her since the moment they met.

Rahel looked back steadily. "Just release her," she repeated.

Jonathan was about to comply and react, both, when the hag he still on to spoke. "It is all right, Rahel," said a very familiar voice. "He means no harm."

Jonathan turned back to look at the old woman. Found he was clutching the lady Catherine instead. His fingers unclamped from her shoulders. He took a step backwards. "Who are you?" he repeated, though much softer than before.

Lady Catherine smiled at him with genuine warmth pouring from her eyes. For a while she just looked at him and did not answer. He had almost forgotten what he had asked her by the time she spoke. "I am she who is denied in your world," she said at last.

Jonathan gaped at her. Her tone had acquired a startling new quality: it was like being spoken to by the sky or the ocean, there was such vastness in its depths. It was this that he responded to now. For her actual words made no sense to him, and yet he knew at last that what he was hearing was the truth.

"I am she who sits at the loom of time and spins," continued the lady.

The air shimmered around them.

"I am the weaver of all things."

The sunlight seemed to bend around her face setting it ablaze with a radiance that had nothing to do with anything mundane or explainable. Jonathan drank of that light and hungered for more. "I roam through the worlds, and I open the eyes of those whom I touch."

Jonathan's jaw hung slack.

"I am the power that is hidden," said the lady. "I am she who reclaims her own," she explained. And then after an intake of breath that seemed to him to have more to do with the birth of the sun and the stars than with anything else she said:  "I am." And exhaled.

****

Jonathan rode home slowly, his mind empty, still. At peace. As he rode he remembered questions that he had never actually voiced and the answers she had never given him. Somehow the knowledge that had passed between them had not required the use of sound.

How could that be?

Yet he did not linger on it because he knew that any answer to that question did not really matter. They had spent a timeless span in a place outside of space and there all things had been said, even the unsaid. The fact that he could not contain it did not bother him at all.

Fragments swam past him, and he watched them pass, like birds darting in and out of one's awareness.

What of Malachi and the slain girl? He might have asked.

The answer, he knew, was that he had simply been shown what the priest had done to himself. And what he taught others to do. Foul murder of one's soul.

The carriage had been repaired, and that was important. His work was complete, now all that remained was one last thing. When he reached home he untethered the mare allowing her to roam nearby and graze. He himself was not hungry.

He fetched the wine skin the girl had given him and poured a generous dose into a small bowl. He set it down on the table and sat opposite, looking at it gathering light onto itself like an unlikely gemstone, casting it back at him with a haunting, incarnadine glow.

After a while he took the bowl in both hands and drained all the wine in a single swallow that left his throat glowing like a hearth. He stood up then and turned to go outside. He didn't even make it to the door.

 

****

 

Nothing had changed, he was still by the stairs, still clutching the blade that had appeared in his hand. Yet for some reason that he could no longer quite remember he felt stronger than ever. Wearing his newly acquired disguise, he went back to where he had killed the guard and retrieved the dead man's sword. He replaced this in its scabbard and tucked the knife into the belt. He straightened himself and tried to walk without limping too obviously.

He walked past the guardhouse unchallenged and emerged into the open air and the starlit night.

The first light of dawn found him a fair distance from the town. Hidden by foliage he watched as a peasant loaded his wain with hay and drove off down the road. He was then able to steal into the man's sty where he broke fast with the pigs on boiled acorns and old cabbage leaves and half gnarled cobs of corn.

The best fare he had tasted in eons.

Only a few hours later, a gaunt man wearing the uniform of the garrison wandered off the main road that led to the fortress of Valcaud and into the wildwoods of Grevildor Forest.

Never to be seen again.

 

****

 

Jonathan was planing a bench when the carriage pulled up on the road near his house. He wiped his face and shoulders free of sweat with a cloth and went out to greet them.

Rahel nodded at him from her chestnut mount, in her usual curt way.

"Ho, carpenter," called out Raoul cheerfully from the drivers seat. "How fare you?"

"Never better," said Jonathan with a broad grin.

The carriage door opened and he walked up to it. Lady Catherine smiled with laughter in her eyes. He bowed, but there was no formality in the act.

"What has changed?" she asked him, without any preamble.

Jonathan looked around himself. "Nothing," he said. "Everything," he added in the same breath. His eyes glowed, alive and present.

She nodded serenely and looked around at his house and the surrounding trees. "You have some questions?" she asked.

He grinned, unsurprised. "Aye," he said. "Which is the real world?"

He had been thinking about little else for a few days now.

"Neither," she answered. "The nightmare was just a dream, and the other, this world where you are but a simple carpenter, is the longing for things to be other than they are within the dream."

He laughed out loud at that. "So why am I still here?" he asked, with true mirth.

"Habit, I suspect," she answered him with arched eyebrows and a gently mocking smirk upon her lips. Then more seriously she added: "Because you want to. How are your dreams?"

"Much better, thank you," he answered gladly. "Filled with forests these days, and glades and beauty."

They were silent for a little while, she enjoying his lightness. He, basking in her light.

"Remember," she said softly. "To be truly free Jonathan, all you have to do is to wake up."

He nodded, looking serenely into her eyes.

"Where will you go now?" he asked, half knowing her answer but asking anyway.

"To others who need a drop of my wine," she confirmed his knowing.

"Are there many?" he pried.

She looked up at the heavens and shook her head. "You would not believe!"

He laughed. "I will see you then," he said as she prepared to close the door.

"Farewell, Jonathan," she spoke the words as if they held all the meaning in the world. "Well met."

The door closed and the carriage pulled away down the road raising a trail of dust.

Raoul waved.

Rahel didn't even look back.

"Well met indeed, lady," Jonathan said and walked back to his workshop where he resumed planing his piece of wood.

THE END

 

2004 by Claudio Silvano. I was born in a place known as Trieste where Italian, Croatian, Austrian, and Slavonic cultures mingle and clash. At age two I was abducted by my parents and teleported to Sydney, Australia. They did it again when I was nine and whizzed me back there. Since then it's become a habit, and now I do it to myself every decade or so. For the last five months I have lived in sunny (43 degrees as I write) Adelaide, South Australia with my beloved wife Sa.  Dreamknot is my first published novella.