Passing Traveler

Howls broke the silence of midnight. The forests shivered uneasily at the eery baying, then returned again to sleep. A village called Crowshead awoke. The dozen or so cottages began to light one by one with soft candlelight.

     Sitting up in her bed, a young woman felt instinctively for the empty space beside her. There was no warm body to comfort her, not anymore. She arose from the blankets and furs, dressed in coarse linen garments that had been used far too many times and washed too little. She crossed her arms tightly as she went outside into the cold, autumn morning. Several others were coming out of their homes as well, anticipating an ill-omen from the wolf’s calls. Amongst the small group was Boran; a burly man with strong arms and a full, brown beard, he acted as head of the village. 

    With a tinge of sympathy in his eyes, he approached the petite woman. “You’re up rather early, Madame Summers,” he said politely.

    "A midnight's howls awakens those into their long hours, starts their hearts with a jolt, and bodes ill of the occult," she recited.
    
“S’pose that's they way they say it. Are you afraid of the occult, then?” he asked, folding his arms and looking out across the stirring villagers, feeling more than a little cynical about their superstition. “You think every time a wolf decides to point its nose to the moon and make some noise, it means someone of ill spirit is passin’ through town?”
    “My husband William was a warlock,” the widow said, ignoring the last question. “It’s not the occult I fear, but the stranger that comes with it,” she said.
    Boran looked up at the dark sky in sadness. A crescent moon dipped beneath clouds. “It would take a journey through hell and back to forget Will,” he sighed.
    “You think I don’t know that?” she snapped. “You don’t have to tell me who my husband was.” Her mouth tightened as the sorrow transmuted to bitterness. The moment the words left her, she regretted even daring to speak.
    “I’m sorry,” Boran said all too politely.
    “No ... Boran. I didn’t mean it.”
    “I know ... Best see what the others think of this omen.” He walked away with his thumbs tucked under his belt. 

    

    A thick cloud of fog was passing through the village surrounded by forestry. It was so thick that the villagers could almost see the mist pass in and out of their lungs. In the farthest reaches of the horizon, there was a sun yearning to pass above the roots of the trees, and the earliest rays of light were illuminating the base of mountains. But to the Crowshead villagers, there was only fog; fog, and darkness.

    “Not much use standing out here catching cold,” one villager remarked to the rest of the curious onlookers. He adjusted the belt that sagged about his waist. A cheaply forged iron dagger hung limply from it. “If there is a stranger passing through, either he’ll keep on traveling or ask for help.”

    “It’s the dead of morning,” Boran said. “He’ll be exhausted, if this 'stranger' arrives to begin with.” 

    The man stepped closer to Boran and lowered his voice. His small, dark eyes darted from side to side as he leaned close and, in a hushed voice, said, “I wouldn’t be so sure. There’s strange folk in the Moonish Lands. It’s not the same in the Runelands, or even the Withering Plains. But here ... there’s people who aren’t wearied by human exhaustion. People that aren’t people, Boran.”

    Boran considered the paranoia of this man for a moment ... one moment. The villager had only recently joined Crowshead, he himself being a wearied traveler on the road. The head villager narrowed his eyes at the scrawny man in speculation. “Are you afraid of a common warlock, Fickle?” he asked with a grin playing on his lips.

    Fickle backed away towards his cottage with his hand on the hilt of his dagger. “You’ll see,” he said as he opened the door. “You’ll see,” he repeated ominously as the latch locked it tight.

    Boran chuckled at the drama. “Seems my villagers are ‘bout as scared as the common house cat,” he murmured to himself.

 

    Beyond the village was the rhythmic clopping of a black horse as it ambled on the fog-laden road. The armor upon the horse’s head and sides was wrought iron, scratched and dented. Leaning heavily on the beast was a rider, his iron garment only in scraps. The rest had been stripped off, or shattered asunder. An air of confusion and death surrounded the rider. His undergarments were ragged, unrecognizable, black strips--much like a phantom. The rider’s face was covered by a mask of frayed and torn edges, wafting in the wind. Where there was no dirt on his gear, there was blood. And where there was an opening in his cloth that revealed flesh, there was a fresh, bloodless wound. 

    Every step was accompanied by the slapping of his sword on the saddle, and the rhythmic thud of the battered shield hanging over a dark cape that used to flow at the heels, but now only met the small of his back. A humble, shattered ruby studded the hilt of his sword. 

    The only light of the rider was in his green eyes. They glinted like emeralds but they, too, were cracked--dented.

He was nearing his destination now, searching for something. No, someone? He could not tell; his exhaustion hindered his memory.

    Some silhouettes caught the rider’s eyes. He looked from under his blood-matted, tangled hair, and saw a village. A sigh of relief escaped him. Perhaps I've found what I was looking for.

 

    Storm clouds haunted the skies.

    “Gods, the omen is true,” a man muttered, leaning on his door. He jolted out of his drowsiness and pointed across the road. “A traveler, on a horse! He’s coming this way!” 

    The man’s son was hiding behind his legs. Upon seeing the outline of the sword on the traveler, he shouted, “An adventurer!” with excitement.

    Boran squinted into the fog. They were right. He cursed under his breath, knowing his skepticism would never hold true after this.

    With less optimism, another villager offered his opinion. “He’s wearing only black. Must be a warlock,” he said as he slammed the door of his cottage and locked it. 

    “Face it. He’s a thief,” one said. Several others followed into their cottages after the last remark. Only Boran, and a few curious stragglers remained. But of those few, they kept their hands resting on the handles of their doors uneasily. The widow had returned to her bed.

    Boran stepped into the middle of the road.

    The rider peered into the fog and saw Boran’s large silhouette. After passing the first pair of cottages, he straightened his back and held the reigns a little tighter. A sensation of vague familiarity passed over him as his eyes swept over the village. He looked about the cottages with a glimmer of hope.    

    Boran felt the horse cast steam onto his face that smelled of old, molded leather. “What’s your business, traveler?” he asked.

    The rider was silent for a long while. “I ... I don’t know,” he finally said, not meeting his eyes. 

    Boran noticed the blood splashes on the the his horse and clothing. A mixture of sympathy and alarm passed over him. Perhaps this knight had simply wandered too far from a battle after eating and sleeping too little. “Is it rest you want?” he asked.

    The rider stuttered through several answers slowly, never deciding which one to choose, then regained himself. His eyes passed through phases of recognition and total deliriousness. “Yes,” he finally said. “My thanks to you.”

    “We can give it to you, lad,” Boran said, the sympathy now overriding suspicion. “But you’ll have to surrender your sword there. Can you do that?”    

    There was no immediate response. The rider looked over at Boran with eyes that sagged in weariness. A dark shade of violet and sage colored the bags beneath them. His gazed passed over the flickering windows of Crowshead, then over at some of the villagers.

    “Hey, lad. I asked you a question." 

    The rider cleared his throat and slipped off his horse, stumbling to the ground awkwardly. When he steadied himself, he unbuckled his sword and handed it to Boran, who eyed the blade nervously.

    “Apologies traveler,” he said. “We’re the skittish type.”

    The rider nodded absentmindedly, gazing over the broad-shouldered man to peer at the cottages. He could feel himself searching for something, but didn’t know what. There was only the strange sensation that, if his eyes could see it, he would remember why he was there in the first place.

    “You looking for something?” Boran asked, beginning to feel the paranoia rise. “There’s nothing to steal ‘round here.”

    “I’m no thief,” the rider said curtly. His voice was young, but as dark as the memories behind his eyes. Something pure was beneath the darkness of his flesh, a goodness that Boran sensed was not fully emphasized. 

    Whimpers were muffled from the widow’s cottage walls. Her face was pressed against the glass of her window. “Gods, haven’t you tormented me enough?” she asked with tears in her eyes.    

    “What in the name of the gods are you looking for, boy?” Boran asked as he looked up from examining the sword. He straightened his back and looked down at the rider with intensity.

    “Nothing,” the stranger said. A longing filled his eyes.

    “Look, stranger. I’m not one to be scared easily. But I can’t have you here for the night if you’re hiding behind that mask, hiding your true intentions."

    The traveler was reminded of something. “I can’t remove it,” he said with finality. 

    “What’d you do, murder someone?” Boran asked, prodding the devious stranger’s chest.

    The stranger growled, “I’m no murderer.”

    The widow tore her eyes away from the tall, gaunt rider and fell to the floor with hands over her weeping eyes. “No more,” she pleaded the gods.

    “Take it off or I’ll send you on your way.” Boran’s nose was nearly touching the stranger’s now. He reeked of mildew. 

    “I can’t let you see my face,” the rider said.     

    “Fine. Go then and don’t turn back. We don’t want shady folk like you here.” Boran tossed the sword back to the rider. 

    He wrapped the sword about his waist in defeat. “I’ve fought through all my demons only to be stopped by a piece of cloth,” he grumbled to himself. He was beyond weariness or even exhaustion; rather a state of blurred moments that could not be recalled accurately. Sleep haunted every movement of his eyes but would not befall him. The rider was cursed, quite literally.

    Gripping his saddle, the dark stranger prepared to lift his beaten body onto the horse. He looked up at the, suddenly remembering an echo of his agreement with the gods. “ ‘At sunrise you’ll return, whether or not having seen your love,’ ” he quoted.

    A door slamming forced the stranger’s attention away from his horse.

    “Will!” shouted the widow.    

    The rider stopped. He turned and looked at the woman, frozen still outside her cottage. Her hands were clenched as if enduring some pain. When their eyes met, the rest of their surroundings fell to complete darkness.

    “Katherine,” the rider stuttered, so lowly even he could hardly hear it. His purpose returned to him with a sudden clarity. He remembered why he returned. Will staggered toward her, then faster, dragging his feet while the decaying muscles in his legs failed him. 

    “William,” she mumbled again in disbelief. She began sprinting towards him. Katherine rushed into Will’s arms. She wept into his cold, dead shoulder and smelt death clinging to him with every gasp between the sobs. Will could not cry. He only held his love tighter, on one knee, as he had the day he proposed to her.

    The widow reluctantly loosened her grip on her husband, only to look into his eyes. They still gleamed after death with the same color of affection.

    “I’m so s-s-sorry,” he apologized. 

    Unable to speak, she shook her head and refused it. “No,” was all she could force out between trembling lips. Then, hesitantly, she reached up towards the cloth covering his face. 

    He grabbed her wrists with icy hands. “You can’t see me this way. I came here to see you, Katherine."

    “I don’t care what devil or apparition you are. Even if you are a trick of the gods. You're here, finally. At least let me see you.”

    “Please,” Will said.

    Katherine didn’t listen. It was unbearable. She clutched the cloth and tore it away from him. The ragged, dyed linen fell to the dirt like old parchment. 

    Will’s cheeks were gaunt and pale. Where there used to be fullness there was a only an indentation matching the color of the bags under his eyes. His lips were thin and colorless. The corpse turned away from his love, ashamed of his undead features. “I’m so sorry,” he said again.

    Katherine was frozen once more at the realism of it all. When the shock thawed, she turned his face toward hers with a gently finger. Reluctantly, he met her eyes. There was no familiar blush on his cheeks when their eyes met. Only an absence of blood; the face of a corpse, and the silent heart of a ghoul.

    “You’re here,” she said simply with a smile pushing through the tears on her cheeks. “Why would I care now, in this moment, for anything but that?” She caressed his cold cheek tenderly, not disgusted by the walking corpse of her husband, rather comforted by the nightmare.

    Will looked back into her eyes with the same immortal faith that she would always bring joy to his heart, whether it beat or not. “I can’t stay for long,” Will whispered as if it was a secret, seeing the light of the sun creeping from beneath the horizon.

    Another tear was spent, and fell from Katherine’s eyelash. It was brushed from her lips by a skeletal finger. “I know,” she said, her voice just as low. “Will I ever see you again?” she asked.

    “Yes, very soon,” he smiled. “But for me it won’t be a long, long time.”

    “And you think half a lifetime without you is short in this world?” She laughed bitterly.

    Will chuckled; the rasp of a skeleton.

    “Can you return once more?” she asked, holding back the sobs in her chest.

    “This was my only chance,” Will explained with disdain towards the gods.

    “What did you have to do to see me?” she asked as her hand traced the outline of cuts and scars covering Will’s body. They had not been there when he was alive.

    He daren't relive what he'd already gone through, or what he would go through again in order to wait for her. He simply ran his hand over her arm, and brushed a lock of hair from her eyes. “For a moment alone with you, it was nothing.”

    Katherine fell into his arms once more, weeping tears that had already been shed. Then she jolted from that position with a sudden hopefulness. “Why don’t I join you?” she asked.

    Will’s face became dark. “No!” he said immediately. “What’s the use of death, if it does not teach you to live? If anyone dares to lay a finger on you, I will haunt them. Don't make me haunt you!" he laughed.

    She could not choke out a response, so she merely nodded at him, let the bitter grin stretch her lips. Yet another tear slipped off her cheek. When Will reached up to brush it off, she blinked.

    He was gone again. No warning, only silence. Just as the first time. A single ray of sunshine shone in front of the widow, shining through a patch in the clouds, burning a hole in the fog.

    The black horse was swept away by a single gust of wind, nothing but black ashes, now. Her husband’s outline reduced to a dusty, black charcoal like his mount. Katherine could sob no longer, only stare at the torn bandana. She reached out to it in hope, but when her finger made contact, it too disintegrated. 

    Katherine looked around her. Boran and several other villagers had congregated around her and Will. She didn’t notice them until now.

    “A journey through Hell and back to forget him,” Boran mumbled in shock at the empty space where the husband was moments before. He couldn’t fathom the pain the rider faced to see his love.      

    “It’s good he kept his sword,” a villager murmured. "I assume he's going back again?"