High above the ground the air was much cooler. The dark clouds had moved on, encouraged by a gentle breeze and the sky now was alive with that sense of ecstatic stillness that often befalls an autumn afternoon. The kind of electricity that exists in the damp morning air when the storm of the previous night has exhausted itself and the land thrills to the promise of a new day. That unspoken energy that strikes frolicking spring lambs and young foals in the early evening, bucking and bristling in the fresh, clean air, dancing expressions of life itself. That same familiar spirit that urges birds to recite entire symphonies, in the same early evening, each note harmonious and practiced, every chorus a glorious testimony to that wonderful sense of order attributed to living things.
Amidst this expectant calm, an aerial display, performed fearlessly by a pair of youthful crows, their glossy black feathers tinged yellow by the afternoon light as the sun hurried to meet the horizon. Tumbling and soaring, the birds moved in perfect collaboration, crossing one another’s paths, yet not a single wing-tip or tail feather brushed that of the other. They swooped and circled, communicating in raucous tones, yet these tones did not clash with the stillness but rather enhanced its rhythmical nature.
As if motivated by a telepathic agreement, the two descended in formation, settling on the crumbling pinnacle of a pointed turret. Very often on winter days, this turret would be isolated by layers of cloud obscuring the birds’ view of the existing structure below. But as this was the most inspiring of autumn afternoons, the crows could clearly perceive the awesome monstrosity whose central turret acted as a favorite perch. In the summertime on sunny days the songs of the cicadas were barely audible at this altitude, where the birds might rest to warm themselves and survey the land around the castle. As a lookout boy might shout ‘ahoy’ at the approach of an oncoming vessel, the crows would loudly proclaim the presence of intruders, their rasping cries instinctual attempts to ward off those who ventured near.
The ancient stone upon which the birds rested was blackened with ages of neglect. Bright green and yellow lichen fastened itself to the rough surface and around the mouths of deep cracks, once sharp edged, now worn smooth by the elements. Now and then the stone would crack off at some weakened crevice issuing a shower of orphaned stones and exposing a fresh face of bone colored rock, soon to be weathered and concealed by the wandering lichen, small clumps of grass and in patches of damp, a variety of moss common to the area.
Legend reveals that the stone was hauled from northern quarries on horse back and in laborer carts, chiseled and shaped on the quarry site prior to its transportation. Man and beast alike were often reluctant victims of the steep ravines along treacherous mountain passes in the early stages of the pilgrimage to the castle site. Parcels of the valuable stone were lost with them, sometimes delaying construction while replacements were requisitioned and the stone fetched. Centuries of verbal history have shrouded important elements of the legend in mystery. Speculation has failed to explain the nature of this epic engineering feat and the reason for the erection of the structure. Impressions of the bitter struggle to assemble this grand cathedral of turrets, parapets, tunnels and courtyards, are all that remains of what was rumored to be once, a rich allegory of courage and triumph and a majestic tribute to the genius of the ancient peoples.
Elevated atop a giant craggy spire, the highest peak amidst rugged hill country, its approach is a dangerous network of narrow confused pathways, spiraling up toward the castle slithering around rocky outcrops. The track is impeded by clinging gnarled trees whose twisting probing roots crumble the rock causing frequent landslides of plummeting earth and stone.
Having successfully conquered its hazardous access, travelers would tremble before the commanding fortress, enchanted by the mystery and sheer expanse of the castle. Standing stouthearted, its signs of superficial decay detract little from its formidable presence. Confident towers stretch eagerly, grasping for the sky. The great walls, expansive and imposing, might serve to allure the visitor rather than quell his curiosity. Yet few venture inside its bounds and those who do are never seen or heard of again.
This castle seldom greeted visitors, the local people chose to stay away. The land in its immediate vicinity was impoverished, sustaining little life. The masses dwelled on the flat lands further afield, farming people, many of them ignorant, few of them literate, their education a verbal tradition of local legend and fable. Naturally superstitious, these folk entertained no desire to explore the unknown and maintained their distance, circulating embellished tales of the ill-fated exploits of disappearing adventurers.
The few, always strangers, who were inspired by an enigmatic temptation to penetrate the castle did so with great caution. The castle’s aura of mystery entertained a dark and curious magic. The wanderer is teased and enticed, lulled and compelled. He is challenged by strange spellbinding forces to venture beyond the huge entrance gates with the promise of the satisfaction of his curiosity. Almost with relief, for there is no sense of evil foreboding, the traveler would oblige. His eager penetration of the castle’s masterful iron gates would inevitably lead to the black and miserable fate shared by his predecessors. His search would end fruitlessly. All were swallowed up by the forces of an unseen menace, a powerful unfathomable evil.
Still and silent, but for the plaintive cry of the crow, the Castle of Indecision patiently awaits.
Wayfarer International, Copyright © John & Melody Anderson, 1996 - 2002. All rights reserved.
Having completed a most delicate landing on the wooden ledge, his tiny sparrow feet strutting lightly as he paraded in the window and his little head swiveling in short jerking movements, the small brown bird was back. Most days at around this time there would be crumbs on the window ledge. Today there were none and although the lamp was lit inside there was no one seated at the large work desk on the far side of the room.
The architect was crouching before his fire, brandishing a poker. A log had dislodged itself and lay smoldering on the hearth. He had left his desk to attend to it. Diverted for a few moments, he gazed mesmerized into the swirling blaze, suddenly taken with the way in which the sprightly flames leapt and danced their fiery jig. Tiny sparks, like minute shooting stars, rocketed in every direction, the logs he had cut that morning now crackled vigorously, consumed by the ravenous flames and a warm glow lighted his face. The sinking afternoon sun cast long shadows across the floor as it streamed in his window. Its yellow light mottled as it shone through the remaining leaves of the tree outside, whose coat of red and orange was wearing thin now as autumn advanced.
Replacing the poker on its hook, the architect arose, having remedied the fallen log and stoked the fire with more wood. He walked to the window where, by now, the sparrow had abandoned his vigil and returned to his young family nested in the eaves of the architect’s modest but comfortable home. The architect was not tall but his slender frame seemed elongated as he stood fully upright in the window. The sun before him outlined the upper part of his dark silhouette with a thin gold line.
He would often stand at this window, perfectly still, staring into the distance. He would look toward the wooded hills and the mountains beyond them with a sense of bittersweet longing. For what, he did not know, but it was a feeling that was with him frequently, though his work occupied his attention much of the time. He would work late tonight, probably into the early hours of the morning, whereupon he would very likely fix himself a snack and retire to his bed alone.
Charmed by the simple beauty of the large glowing disc sinking lower over the distant mountains, the architect stood in silent communion with the spectacle of the setting sun. A frequent ritual on clear days, it proved to be a welcome interlude amidst the busy routine that typified a normal working day. He watched as the mountains devoured the last sliver of sunlight and the cloudless sky painted itself in subtle graduations of orange and blue. Darkness would come quickly now.
Not long had he re-established himself at his desk, instruments in hand, to pore over a new design, when his concentration was again disturbed. This time there was no falling log but a loud rapping on the door at the side entrance, the entrance he reserved for receiving professional inquiries relative to his architectural service.
A business call at this hour?
He laid down his dividers, his attention still focused very much on his work, slowly pushing his chair aside as he rose to his feet. He took hold of one of the lanterns on the shelf above his desk and lit it with a taper touched to the lamp he had been drawing by. He made his way through the studio door, closing it behind him to retain the warmth of the fire and down a narrow hall, now lighted by his lantern, to approach the side entrance.
With some caution the architect opened the door to his visitor, holding his lantern up in order to make out the face in the dark. It was a man dressed in traveling clothes. His ruddy features were similar to those of the plains people, rough and indistinct and somewhat ugly. His blonde shoulder length hair was lank and what teeth he had left were yellowed and crooked. But he was polite enough, bowing his head in a well-mannered gesture of greeting and the architect respected that. The stranger addressed him.
“I am come from far and wide,
to be with you tonight,
From far beyond the plains I ride...
That lantern’s awful bright!”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the architect lowered the light. It had been shining directly in the eyes of the stranger, who was now blinking and squinting as he spoke. His voice was soft and deep and though he expressed himself clearly, his speaking style and turn of phrase were those commonly favored by the people of the plains. Except that this fellow’s accent had been moderated in some way and he spoke in rhyme.
“I bring with me the witch’s seal.
It’s black, you see the crow?
And when it’s opened you’ll reveal,
that what you’re s’posed to know,”
Withdrawing a document that had been tucked into his trouser and concealed beneath his coat, he now extended it toward the architect pushing it at him so that he might take it from him. The paper which was folded twice and sealed in the traditional manner, with a pool of wax stamped with the personal seal of the correspondent, was crumpled but not torn. The architect examined the seal more closely to discern the mark attributed to the witch of the Forest of Misfortune - the symbol of the crow. ‘The witch of the Forest of Misfortune...’ his heart fluttered. He was aware of a stirring in his solar plexus. Breaking the seal, disturbed and aroused, he proceeded to unfold the paper when the messenger quickly interceded.
“No no sir, don’t do that,
I’ve not been told to wait.
‘No reply, don’t stop to chat,
and don’t you come back late!”’
Changing his expression, the courier had affected his accent and cleverly mimicked, what the architect supposed, was the voice of his employer.
“Oh?” The architect raised one eyebrow. This seemed a little out of the ordinary - but it was not the first time he had not been required to give a reply. He shrugged. “As you wish my good man.”
“My job’s done, I’m off now.
Thank-you for your time sir.
I’ll find my way back some’ow,
...’wish I knew where I were.”
The messenger was scratching his head, he seemed confused.
“It’s dark now see, it’s not the same,
I’m sure to lose my way,
I can’t tell from which way I came,
‘different when it’s day.
But now it’s dark, I just don’t know.
Oh ‘elp me if you could,
Tell me, which way I should go,
to get back to the wood.
The Forest of Misfortune,
I’ve lived there ‘alf my life.
But tonight without no moon...
Well... I fear I’m in some strife.”
The architect had some knowledge of the Forest of Misfortune and although he hadn’t been there he knew where it was. Far beyond the plains (where he speculated his strange visitor had spent his formative years), the Forest of Misfortune was said to be situated further even than the mountains he was accustomed to gazing at from the window of his work room. It seemed that the messenger’s biggest problem would be finding his way from the architect’s house to the edge of the city. Once he’d done that the rest would be easy.
“Surely you’re not thinking of riding back to the forest tonight. Perhaps I could direct you to an inn where you could rest awhile and leave in the morning?”
“Thank-you, no, I’ll be alright.
It’s kind of you to say,
I ‘ad planned to return tonight.
Per’aps you’d point the way?”
“How long do you expect your journey to be?” The architect was somewhat concerned for the messenger who had intrigued him with his peculiar rhyming ways.
“Two days I’ll ride, and two nights too,
I’d like an early start.
It’s not so bad, what can I do?
‘Takes eight by horse and cart.”
“Indeed?” The architect was not surprised. Some of the roads on that route he had heard, were quite treacherous. Taking the time to assist the courier, he issued simple, clear directions that would ensure his quickest and safest passage to the outer bounds of the city on this moonless night.
Do ‘ave a pleasant evening won’t you sir?”
The architect hung on the stranger’s words, awaiting the last two lines that would complete the rhyme. But they never came. The messenger mounted the horse he had tethered to a nearby tree, gave a shout to move the horse on its way and disappeared into the night.
“Huh!” Taken aback, the architect shook his head, grunted in quiet amazement and went inside.
A curious fascination was overwhelming the architect and although he had not yet read the letter, the fantasies and visions of witches, goblins and fairies he indulged in his youth came rushing back in a flood of nostalgia. As he walked along the hall he was excited by a sense of forbidden anticipation. It was as though, for a few moments, he was a boy again, his head filled with stories of far away places and wonderful magic.
He set the lantern down on the desk, but made no move to snuff it out or return it to the shelf as he normally would. Transfixed, he held the letter, partly opened and traced the seal of the crow with his fingertips A fearful shudder raced through him. Still standing he turned back the folds. He hesitated, something inside him wanted to stop and leave the paper unread. Something else dared him to abandon all heed, tempting him to hungrily ravish the contents of the letter like a starved animal. With several deep breaths he exerted control over his runaway urges and regained his composure. He began to read:
Most Skillful and Respected Architect
I send greetings.
Architect I see you are a man of good sense and tender heart, your kindness toward my messenger will not go unnoticed. I require such a man for my mission. You are the one to be chosen. News has reached me of your talent and your honor. I seek the best in the Land and appeal to you to accept my commission. You will be well rewarded for your efforts.
My proposal determines that you journey here, to the Forest of Misfortune armed with your instruments and your wits, to receive my instruction. Be here when next the moon is whole. I know you will come, I have seen you standing at your window.
I shall await your visitation.
- Witch by appointment to
the Forest of Misfortune -
As he read, the architect’s attention kept returning to the top of the page where the witch had mentioned his kindness to her messenger. The words of the letter seemed to run together in a river of confused characters. His eyes followed the river, but his mind was compelled to rest on her strange remark. He reached the end of the letter with the realization that he had absorbed almost nothing. Rereading the note aloud now, he encountered her final puzzling statements.
“...I know you will come, I have seen you standing at your window...” The heart that moments before palpitated within him with a vigorous sense of rhythm, stopped for a second. A blanket of cold descended over him as he stood frozen, gazing at the paper. Then gushing forth, a warm surge, welling in the pit of his stomach and moving upwards through him, brought tears to his eyes. He crushed the letter in his hand. He felt vulnerable, naked, as if his most private thoughts and feelings had been prized from him and exposed for all to behold. And yet he was profoundly touched with a sense of tender reverence for whatever or whoever it was that understood and acknowledged his deep, unfulfilled longing. A feeling that had been with him for most of his adult life.
Without thinking he turned, walked to the window and opened it, guided by a benign and unseen force. As if rehearsing a scene from a play he stood motionless, once more to cast his searching gaze into the blackness. This time he did not feel alone. He was aware that somewhere, something or someone was watching him, but he did not feel unnerved. He felt strangely calm standing at the open window with the freshness of the nocturnal autumn air breathing on his face. At that precise moment nothing mattered to him. Not his work, his home, his life even. He was, in that second, one with something great, something magical, something that, unbeknown to him, was to take him to the very heights of mortal existence. He would accept the witch’s commission and go to her at the next full moon .
Outside, the soulful cry of an owl rang out in the clear night air. Then, without a sound, the bird gracefully dove in full view of the window, hovered for a moment and vanished into the distance as quickly as it had appeared, its great wings silent as they carried the owl away.
Wayfarer International, Copyright © John & Melody Anderson, 1996 - 2002. All rights reserved.
The plains stretched out before the architect like some huge opened book, his journey along the narrow road as if to trace a path between its pages, bordered on either side by tales of a farming peoples' uncertain pact with the forces of nature. Now and then the scene would be breached by men on donkeys or a traveler with walking staff and rucksack. The city was still a realistic trek from many of the small villages on this section of road. While a few journeyed for the sake of the travel, most of those the architect greeted were the villagers themselves. These were simple folk who worked the land in pocket communities, growing whatever the land and the seasons allowed and trading in the large urban markets for provisions they were unable to supply themselves. The architect had sometimes seen them, usually a group of two or three, heaving pigs and hens from their covered carts and herding them through the marketplace for sale. Often they would be peddling fresh produce harvested from the growing fields and brought to trade for crafted goods. The bustle and noise of the city was welcome contrast from the vast nothingness of endless flatlands and those entrusted by their fellows to fetch a fair price for hard-earned wares did so with good intention. The people of the plains relied on sharing and community for survival, if a profit could not be returned from a day at market these individuals would not be chosen again to do the bargaining for the collective.
A mood of quiet reflection now bestowed its blessing upon the architect for the first time in many days. The witch's proposal had both ignited his passion for adventure and wreaked havoc in the affairs of his life. He had faired quite comfortably without the havoc or indeed the adventure for long enough now; these disruptions were complications for which the architect had little patience. Nevertheless, the persuasive allure of a challenge at a time in his life that craved inspiration was all the motivation he needed to press on in the face of such obstacles. Much appeasing, persuading, assuring and convincing had finally seen his customers satisfied that his absence would not jeopardize work in progress. However, given what little the architect knew and understood of the witch's commission, such assurances had been all too easily given. Whether the mood was reflection or relief, the architect was at last settling himself into the feel of his saddle as his horse plodded at an even pace.
The steady sound of the horse's hooves soon gave way to a more uneven disharmonious rhythm. Faintly at first and then with increasing definition, the clattering, squeaking and straining announced the imminent arrival of a wagon. It had begun as a tiny ball of dust in the distance and as it moved into full view, the architect recognized the familiar boxlike shape of a wooden cart drawn by a single horse and urged on by a youngish man and his elder companion. The load they carried was bundles of dry firewood, twigs and small branches cut to length and lashed together with strands of thin vine. The horse wheezed and snorted and jerked on its harness as the group came close to the architect, who had been forced off the road and onto the grass to make way for the approaching vehicle.
Neither the driver nor his associate called out to acknowledge the architect, barely nodding as they drove by. The noise made by the large solid wheels as they turned on wooden axles was deafening. Animal fat was a precious commodity, too precious to waste on greasing wagon wheels. Such a journey, the architect imagined, must have been an ordeal for these people. Perhaps it was understandable that they did not favor him with a cheery greeting.
With the wagon come and gone and its painful groaning now diminishing behind him, the architect returned to his thoughts, breathing deeply as he surveyed the lands on either side. Much of the flatness was broken by scatterings of scrub and low growing trees, and here and there small settlements took up along the banks of streams, where the growth was more plentiful. As he rode on, he would pass through the cropping areas where men would be ploughing with yoke and oxen. And when the breeze swirled in a certain direction, the faint aroma of smoking meat would arise from small sheds and waft though the air. Winter was all but upon them now and provision was being made for leaner times.
Presently, the architect stopped to water his horse and to rest awhile. His body had become stiff from the prolonged journey. It had been a long time since he had spent such a sustained period in the saddle. Here the stream wandered close to the road and there were signs that other travelers had taken refreshment and even camped on this site. The remains of cooking stones and old fires suggested that this was a common resting place.
The architect squatted at the water's edge and drank water from his cupped hands; it was icy cold. He bathed his face and drew his hands back through his hair. His graying beard glistened and dripped and the cool autumn air blew on his wet skin making him shudder. He rose and went back to his horse feeling renewed. Unstrapping the saddlebag he withdrew some bread and cheese and tore a piece from the loaf. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out a small folding knife to slice off a piece of the cheese. The horse had drunk from the stream and now grazed quietly on the sweet grasses. There were no horse and cart, no donkeys, no travelers and the only sounds were the gentle rippling of the water and a slight rustling of leaves in the soft breeze.
Despite this picture of contentment, the architect did not feel easy with himself and ate only a small morsel of food. Although he felt rested, the nagging of a nervous stomach still persisted and thoughts of the witch and her strange invitation continued to trouble him. As if to reassure himself, he slipped his hand inside his vest and retrieved the witch's note. Although he had done so many times, he read it again - and again he experienced the familiar rush of emotion he had come to expect when confronted with the reference to standing at the window. The remark had continued to disquiet him all the same. What mysterious powers did such a woman possess to reach deep within his soul and snatch his secrets from him?
His curiosity about the witch had led the architect to investigate Sofia and the role of witches in the Great Land and his research had turned up some interesting material. An afternoon spent in one of the great libraries had revealed a brief history of his would-be employer and alluded to the contentious civil scandal that had forced her withdrawal from polite society. There had been several references to Sofia; Witch to the Forest of Misfortune and many more general discussions on witches and their function in the lives of the people of the Great Land.
Apparently, it was widely rumored that at one time the Mystics had directly involved themselves in the earthly affairs of the land as a means of testing the principles they had devised as laws. In the early stages of this practice individuals had been assigned specific projects, one of which had been to establish a structured order or guild for the Mystics who would operate as directors of the 'Grand Experiment' (the texts became vague here and the architect could find no other references of more than a few words that would outline the nature of this experiment). Sofia, who had been a ravishing adolescent beauty at that time, had become romantically linked with a graduate in one of the lower echelons of this order. She had been proven to be a distraction to the young man who had been compelled by associates to break the relationship. According to the traditions of the time such situations were dealt with creatively and in order to restore her reputation an ultimatum was devised as a method of demonstrating her prevailing goodwill: either join the order as a student and train under her former lover in the ways of the Mystics or relinquish her freedom to experience joy and administer the Forest of Misfortune, which at that time was unpopulated. She had made the choice that would cause her the least pain and as a result, paid the ultimate price.
Hers was an onerous task, for the role of the witch in the Great Land was not envied. According to the general dissertations the architect had read, the time-honored function of witches was "to reveal impurity, point toward danger, provoke despair and sadness and to invite derision, in a manner which may draw the courage of the people and cause them to develop heart".
In another document, of questionable credence, the witch was said to carry a small black heart, worn at her waist in a leather pouch. The heart, it was written, would flicker and glow with a tiny white light; symbolic testimony to the Principles of Balance ("For the blackness does not doom all whom it touches with certain torment - it carries two possibilities - always.")
Just what to make of all this mention of Mystics, Witches and Grand Experiments or what the implications of it were, the architect was not certain, but his general impression of the witch was that she was to act as a kind of catalyst to the people by her own agreement and did so from her base in the Forest of Misfortune, Of course his reading had not quietened his sense of unease but had strengthened it. For if it was the task of the witch to provoke despair and to reveal impurity, what was her business with him?
The architect was wrenched from his musing by a sharp and sudden cackling sound emanating from a branch above. His heart skipped and he snapped his head skyward to identify the noise. A huge black bird hopped from its branch onto a lower one and made the piercing sound again. It lifted its wings slightly and settled them as it shifted its balance from one leg to the other, back and forth in a kind of rocking motion. Then it stepped from the bough and almost floated to the ground to land directly in front of the startled architect, lifting its wings once more. The massive bird's satiny black feathers shone with a blue sheen in the pale sunlight. It craned its head as it looked at him, its powerful beak was hooklike. The architect did not move, he could not move. The bird seemed to have him rooted to the spot, transfixed and motionless. He prickled with sweat in spite of the coolness of the day. His throat was suddenly dry. He was completely defenseless in the commanding presence of this strangely evil looking creature whose bead-like eyes seemed to penetrate his very being and seize his courage from him with ruthless authority. They were black eyes, shining eyes, sinister eyes; they were the chilling ebony eyes of the raven; the dark and glistening eyes of a crow.
When the architect awoke, the crow had gone and his horse was standing over him nudging him with its soft muzzle. The sun was a little lower in the sky and he was cold, shivering cold. The sweat had cooled and left his skin frozen to the touch. He brushed the horse's nose away from his face and got up pressing his arms close into his upper body, trying to stay warm. Still shuddering he looked around, confused and searching, something had happened, he was trying to recall what. Then images of the crow flashed through his mind; the raucous greeting, gleaming eyes, penetrating stare. Had he fainted? Shocked by the realization, he frantically fumbled in his vest, searching for the witch's note. It had been folded and tucked back into his pocket. He spun around, breathing hard, frightened and disorientated. What had happened? What had happened? The architect was overcome by a compelling urge to get away from this place. Something wasn't right. Something was terribly wrong. Stricken with panic and deeply disturbed, he leapt up on the horse, gave it a slap, tugged the reigns and raised the horse to a gallop as fast as he could.
Wayfarer International, Copyright © John & Melody Anderson, 1996 - 2002. All rights reserved.
Five or so minutes of galloping was enough to release the surge of fear that had taken hold of the architect and urged him to flee so desperately. The intensity had diminished although his heart thumped uncontrollably and his hands were sore from gripping the reigns so tightly. He regained his sensibility for the sake of his horse and slowed to a trot.
He was only too aware of the possible dangers of being stranded with an animal suffering from exhaustion, especially when faced with a deadline. Deadlines had been the blight of his career. They had made his work miserable on many occasions. He had often bemoaned the anguished and guilty hell of being held to ransom by those wretched deadlines. This was much to his regret for his passion for the work was true, however being forced to create under pressure made it difficult to work with a happy heart. Regardless, he was also aware that in these cases he suffered at the hands of a rod he created for his own back. The work had often been left until the last moment, a conflict he continued to struggle with. The only way to counteract this tendency had been to become ruthlessly disciplined. This too had its failings and at times he berated himself bitterly for the weakness.
The horse had been extended by the ride and was breathing hard but was not beyond continuing to carry the architect on his way as long as the pace was unchallenging. The more sedate plodding brought meaningful contrast to the panic of moments before and the architect became acutely aware of the disproportionate nature of the terror that had arisen within him, in relation to what had actually happened and the response that he might have expected in such a situation. He played the events over in his mind:
What were the inconsistencies? He had been reading the witch’s note when he had been startled by a crow. A fairly understandable reaction to the sudden appearance of the bird. The bird had confronted him, he had felt violated by the bird and the next the thing he had woken, apparently some time later, to find the note returned to his pocket.
So there were some inconsistencies, he was not about to dispute that. The note for example; it was possible that he had simply forgotten about folding the note and replacing it himself. That could have happened. What about the paralyzing fear? Well perhaps the element of surprise had engendered this response. A little drastic perhaps, but it was plausible.
He would have been asleep for quite a considerable period it seemed, given the fact that the sun was now much lower in the sky than when the crow had first appeared and due to the fact that the degree of cold affecting him could only have been the result of a long period of exposure to the air without moving about; it was Autumn after all. Well, it was not completely beyond the realms of possibility that he had become tired and had taken a nap. The journey up until that point had been quite a disruption in his life. Leaving in such a hurry and riding a horse all this way could have caused him to feel a little weary. The unconscious stress of the event could have brought on a sudden urge to sleep for a while. That could be justified.
But what of the period between the confrontation with the crow and the falling asleep? Where was the connection? Why could he not remember the crow flying away? How could he just fall asleep while being confronted by such an alarming experience? Why did it frighten him? Why did it frighten him so profoundly? These things were less easy to explain.
Not only were they difficult to explain, but the recognition of the anomaly made him agitated and brought the fear racing to the surface once more. Instantly his heartbeat quickened and he felt the heat building again, around his neck and armpits. He squirmed and lifted his arms a little to relieve the prickling sensation. The resurgence of the panic was the most disturbing inconsistency. It defied all logical and reasonable explanation. The panic was real. The knowledge of menace was real. The urge to escape the scene was real. And yet they did not seem to apply to anything real. They seemed to be completely without foundation.
As much as he needed to reconcile the conflicting elements of this equation the architect was forced to leave them unresolved, more pressing matters were at hand. The approaching darkness and where to set up camp were the immediate issues to be considered. Despite his conclusions or lack of them, leaving him decidedly uneasy, he was not about to let them dominate. The last thing he wanted was to allow his imagination to get the better of him.
His horse had withstood the hard gallop very well for an animal originally bred for moderate pace and distance and he was glad of the fact that his panic had not gripped him to the degree that he had pushed his horse to the point of fatigue. That could have been dangerous and foolish. His situation could have been very much more serious had he allowed his emotions to run away with his good sense. Even so, he was not of a mind to drive the beast more than another mile or two tonight. It would require a good rest if they were to complete their journey to the Forest of Misfortune with a strong finish. The architect was determined to arrive unruffled and with his wits about him. A sense of the irony of the thought struck him. Sofia herself had warned him of the requirement for this: “…armed with your instruments and your wits.” Did this woman know everything about him?
Up ahead in the fading light something caught the architect’s eye. A strange glow of orange emanated from amidst a cluster of dark trees a way off the road. For one absurd moment images of the crow flashed through his mind and he felt the fear. He dismissed them immediately. He was letting his imagination run wild. It was obvious that the glow was coming from a fire. The fear subsided again.
As he came closer the glow became more visible and he could hear laughing and singing. It was intensely inviting. He felt warmed by the sound of human voices and the sight of the fire. A part of him felt drawn to the gathering and a part of him felt he had no place there. When he came within sight of the group, he got down from his horse as quietly as he could and stood at a safe distance to watch them. He would probably make camp down the road a little by himself, but he was compelled to watch for just a few minutes more. He felt anonymous and furtive looking upon the gathering without their knowledge. He felt guilty.
The men were sitting around the fire roasting a brace of birds, they looked like pheasants. The smell was enough to send his mouth watering. Their red faces were softly modeled by the light of the fire. They were drinking something, something alcoholic he shouldn’t wonder given the raucous noise they had been making. There were four men. They appeared to be travelers. Travelers appeared distinctly different from the native plains people, he had learned of this first hand having observed the differences with interest as he had made his way along the road. A roar of laughter shot up from the group. The architect jumped - he had been seen! He quickly realized that this had not been the case, the men continued drinking and laughing unaware of his presence, which made the sense of the forbidden all the more urgent.
He relieved himself against a tree, keeping his gaze on the men. He turned to get back on his horse. His foot caught a tree root and he faltered, disrupting some shrubbery and breaking a branch as he stumbled to recover his balance. He cursed under his breath and hastily mounted his horse. But before he could make his escape one of the men had leapt up and come across to investigate. He was forced to reply to the man who had challenged him, and explained that he had just stopped to empty his bladder and that he would be on his way without disturbing them further. The man recognized a fellow traveler and quickly relaxed, travelers stuck together in these parts, they looked after one another. The impression of an unspoken brotherhood occurred to the architect - a kind of ‘us and them’ attitude. It was an attitude that seemed to have some merit he thought, the people of the plains were hardly forthcoming as far as he could tell.
The stranger invited the architect to join his gathering and to spend the night at their camp. They were all heading toward the city in the morning. Despite his intense longing to join the festivities the architect felt a strong compulsion to kindly decline the invitation, for what reason he didn’t really know. But as fortune would have it the man insisted and with mixed emotions, he relented.
The group welcomed him into the circle and made sure that his horse was comfortable. He warmed his hands over the fire and took in the succulent smells of the meat. Its glistening crust would crackle and spit, opening tiny blisters pouring luscious juices onto the fire, which would pop loudly as it came into contact with the fat. The men introduced themselves and the architect reciprocated. They poured him some ale and encouraged him to drink up. For awhile he was quiet as if to educate himself of the rules of their merry game, but as the ale began to take effect he found himself as raucous and outspoken as the rest of them and as the evening wore on, his head swirled with the excesses of the food and drink.
Despite a vague awareness that he might be giving an impression of himself he might otherwise choose not to give, the architect no longer cared. He was happy. He felt welcome. He felt good. And for the first time in a long time, he felt relaxed. The fear had gone and with it, his intense self-consciousness. He was engaging in conversation as well as witty and his companions met his remarks with an easy rapport. He felt unburdened and courageous. The ale had shown him a side of himself he had not known and he liked it. He liked it a lot.
The men drank and joked late into the evening and when they could hardly stand they took themselves off to their makeshift beds to sleep. The cloud that had hung in the sky for most of the day parted slightly and stars appeared, the fire had burned down to hot coals and the night was still. The sleeping figures did not stir, their keepers adventuring in other worlds. A sense of peace befell the scene. Magic was afoot.
Wayfarer International, Copyright © John & Melody Anderson, 1996 - 2002. All rights reserved.
The architect’s eyes sprang open. Something had woken him. For a moment or two his surroundings were foreign, he was frightened, the echo of a forgotten sound rang though his body in waves of vibration. He had heard something, what was it? Gone was his evening with the travelers and their ale and merrymaking. He was somewhere he didn’t recognize. He struggled to make his mind recall where he was and what he was doing there. The seconds seemed like minutes. Minutes drowned in complete amnesia. Frightening minutes. Minutes that dragged as he grappled for his memories and pulled them from the depths of his mind with sluggish efficiency. The fear turned to relief as he recalled where he was. But relief was to be fleeting. He clutched at his forehead and let out a muffled groan, recognizing a powerful throbbing. He was nauseous too and his belly ached.
‘The drink he must have taken!’ The realization dawned on him. He couldn’t remember falling asleep. In fact most of the evening was now an incoherent blur of unconnected images. Flashes of recollection entered his mind; things he had said, confessions, ambitions, dreams he had shared with the men. He immediately regretted having been so loose, so stupid. ‘How could he have said that? What had he been thinking?’ He remembered singing that ‘ridiculous song’ and was suddenly deeply ashamed of the whole experience.
He sat up and adjusted his eyes to the darkness. Muted shapes snapped into focus; his horse standing nearby, the trees lining the road, the sleeping figures of the other travelers, his cat sitting beside him. The architect stopped. What cat? He didn’t have a cat. What was a cat doing here?! The cat let out a cry. It was the most haunting, penetrating, disturbing sound the architect had ever witnessed. It was not a cry, but a shrill screeching. He jumped with fright utterly terrorized by the sound, which he now recognized as the sound that had woken him. The ‘cat’ was an owl.
An owl was perched next to his rigid body and assailed him with its unearthly summons. Then the bird stopped. Its huge round eyes blinked at the architect for a second, then it lifted itself from the ground, almost as though it hovered in the air for a moment and flew in complete silence into the darkness. Not a flutter or flapping of wings could be heard in the stillness and the architect’s mouth dropped open, he was utterly astonished at the incomprehensible intensity of what he had just experienced. He swung around to share his amazement with the others, who he had already assumed were awake and witnessing this incredible situation with him. The screeching had been ‘loud enough to wake the dead’, he thought, no one could have slept through that.
The darkened figures had not moved. A soft guttural purring rose from one of the sleeping men. The others made no sound at all. They had not been woken by the owl and did not stir. Again images of the crow flooded into the architect’s mind. This had been a similar encounter. The parallel was uncanny. What was happening to him? He could not believe that the travelers had slept through the whole thing. He thought about waking them and decided against it, the memory of his indiscretions around the camp fire embarrassed him.
He shivered and pulled his coat up around his neck. The fire had gone out hours ago, he was cold. He got up and walked around. Still no movement from his companions. He was determined to clear his mind of these disturbances, he had a long ride ahead of him in the morning, he needed to be fresh. This had been a such a strange journey and yet it had hardly begun. Already the architect had been the subject of two bizarre encounters with large birds, succumbed to the ambivalent pleasures of drink, exposed himself and his secrets in the presence of strangers and was none the wiser for any of it. What was more, he was beginning to feel decidedly uncomfortable about the whole idea of the witch’s commission. The job was acquiring a rather unsavory sense of the unknown, the mystical even (he hesitated at the thought) and he did not like it.
The architect considered the unusual nature of the events of recent days. Perhaps they could be put down to coincidence. He wanted to believe in coincidence, he wanted to desperately. But he was an intelligent man and even if he couldn’t explain just what had happened to him, he knew that it was not normal. It couldn’t be. Throughout his deliberations the architect had considered many possibilities, and had come up with a variety of explanations for the events of the journey so far. He continued however, to ignore one very real possibility. It was an explanation that became increasingly persistent in its attempts to be recognized and although the architect was conscious of the fact, he constantly denied even entertaining such thoughts. He also knew that he could not ignore the implication of it for much longer.
His journey tomorrow would take him beyond the foothills and closer than ever before to the Witch of the Forest of Misfortune. Then the realization of who she was and just what her powers were would become fully apparent. Then he would have to acknowledge that what had been happening to him was most likely connected with her. Then and only then would he have to confront the fact that the witch had an influence over him that he found both intolerable and intensely seductive. Despite its terror and its sickening ability to expose aspects of himself he preferred to keep hidden, he was driven to move towards it with only an inkling of the forces that motivated him to do it. The game had become much more serious than he had ever imagined possible and while he hated the thought of what might be required of him, the witch had something he wanted and he was not about to turn his back on it now.
Wayfarer International, Copyright © John & Melody Anderson, 1996 - 2002. All rights reserved.
The morning was overcast and when the architect awoke the other travelers had already gone. Their camp was deserted, not a sign remained of the excesses of the evening before, the men might well have never been there at all. The gentle sounds of early morning hardly broke the silence as the architect stood up and sniffed the air. Although the night had been disturbed he was unusually calm, at least for the time being. He took a moment to savor the relief.
His conflicts had not left him but the prospect of at last acknowledging the anomalies he had fought so desperately to ignore, even if he didn’t consciously recognize the fact, provided a reassurance he was grateful for. Ignorance was a dubious luxury and despite the implication that the end of this blissful indulgence seemed imminent, it promised to be a timely deliverance. He was beginning to tire of this cat and mouse game, relentlessly pursued by an uncertain truth, in danger of being devoured by its terrifying menace should he carelessly relax his caution for even a moment. He would willingly surrender to it, sanctuary lay in its powerful jaws. Only from within the bounds of that terror would he be safe. Only then could he stop running.
The architect readied himself for his day’s journey with deliberation. He was almost meditative as he packed his bedding and collected his things. How easily he had gotten used to the company of the men, he realized, now that they were gone. It seemed strange to be on his own again and yet with no trace of their ever having been there the campfire jollity could have just as soon have been a dream. But a dream it was not, the architect was certain of that.
He hoisted himself up on his horse and took up the reigns. He craned his neck toward the sky. The cloud cover seemed thick but there was no sign of rain. Casting his eye around the site, he checked to see that he had forgotten nothing and satisfied of the fact he gave his horse a gentle slap and slowly moved off to rejoin the route.
Presently the architect came upon a fork in the road. It marked the first significant change in direction so far and the architect had been expecting it. Up until now the road seemed to veer right of the mountains that stood between him and the Forest of Misfortune. To continue on this path would lead him into the very heartland of the Great Plain, through the towns and villages of the farming people. The road that veered toward the left was the road he was to take. More of a wide track than a road as such, this path would take him to the edge of the plain and up into the hills, across the mountains and into the waiting arms of the unknown. This path was less traveled and was peppered with patches of fine grass overgrowing the hard earth. Here and there the borders encroached and the path narrowed. Wild flowers dotted their colors throughout the scrubby undergrowth and the stark sticklike spindles of struggling trees posted an eerie presence upon the land. The scenery began to acquire a sense of isolation that the previous stretch had not suggested.
The ride toward the hills was uneventful and soon they embarked on the first incline. The horse slowed a little and the architect responded with a few words of gentle encouragement. The obvious contrasts of this leg of the journey, the strange countryside and the beginning of the climb into the wooded hills brought the sense of anticipation flooding back. The architect was struck by the incomprehensible realization that he was on some bizarre mission to meet with a witch. Not only a witch, but a witch he had never met, a woman who despite this, had specifically sought him out for reasons only known to her, reasons which completely mystified him. What was odd about it was that it had seemed to make enough sense to him at some point to see him suspend his business, forcing him to placate valuable clients and urging him to take a journey with almost no guarantee of any benefit to him other than the questionable assurances of somebody known only as Sofia, Witch ‘by appointment’ to the Forest of Misfortune. This was one of those realizations he had actively avoided but which now he tolerated with a growing sense of familiarity. He was still no closer to the answers to such glaring inconsistencies.
The landscape seemed to darken as the spread of trees became increasingly thick on either side of the track. The trees he had only ever seen from the vantage of his window now dwarfed him with their tall straight trunks. The architect turned to look back on how far he had come. This would be his last glimpse of the city, his home. Perhaps he would never see his home again. He didn’t know, but he was aware of the very real possibility that he might never return. ‘Funny’, he reflected, the number of times he was there in the city searching the distance for these hills and now he was here, looking back from the same hills toward the city. He was moved by the thought and suddenly felt lonely. He was a long way from home.
Wayfarer International, Copyright © John & Melody Anderson, 1996 - 2002. All rights reserved.