The Walker

The walker stopped walking for the first time in about as long as he could remember. He shook his scraggly mane of dirty grey hair, bone-beads rattling, letting out a howl of triumph. In front of him, the Godstone stood at last. His quest was nearly at an end. The grueling pilgrimage had taken its toll on his body and spirit both. His erstwhile flab and pronounced gut -the mark of high living in the pampered priesthood in the Gilded City- were but distant memories. In their stead, knots of wiry muscles moved under the streaks of grime and filth caking his wrinkled skin. What once were silken robes now ratty, blood-stained tatters around his waist. His feet, once coddled in fine stockings and soft slippers, now long since naked to the ground, hardened by every last step, jagged toenails jutting out from blackened toes.

How long had it been since he first had unfurled the scroll he happened upon down in the dusty archives? When he heard the Whisper speak to his very soul for the first time? The Whisper that had given him purpose and kindled the Luminous Path before his inner vision? Oh, how the other clergymen all had laughed at him when he told them! How they had mocked his vision and jeered at his prophecies! Your scroll is gibberish, they said. Try to trick us into going on a fool’s quest with you? To what end? You’re lazy and useless. You couldn’t even find rocks in the mountains. You won’t last a week out there. Go alone. You go to your doom.

He had spurned them all, as he left his old life. He knew the path! He would show them!

At first, the long walk was an arduous burden and he was all alone in the wilderness. Still, he kept walking the Path. It shone brightly to his inner eye. Pangs of hunger would gnaw at his insides, his parching thirst would demand tribute. His legs would scream the agony of the relentless march. At these times, the Path would dim and he would feel his resolve faltering, feel himself be on the cusp of giving up, of failure. And the Whisper would return to him; an insistent, comforting sussurate, pouring will into his mind and strength into his limbs. Rekindling the Luminous Path before his inner eye. Presenting him with nourishment along the way. These windfalls are yours to drink, the Whisper would murmur. At first it was some worms, a slow turtle, a friendly dog. Easy to catch. Easy to drink. Their life’s blood quenching his maddening thirst for a while. But the thirst would return in due time, would grow stronger, more demanding. As the thirst would grow, the Whisper would provide ever more to match it; travelers, bandits. The Whisper in its infinite wisdom made his sustenance come to him. Good men, bad men, no matter. He drank them all as he walked. Their sudden terror as the truth of what they were to him dawned on them slaking the Whisper’s thirst as surely as their life’s blood slaked his own.

Through it all, the Whisper would murmur to him, would push him forward. So he walked, ever moving. Walking through day and through night, through summer and through winter, year after year. Leaving behind a trail of empty husks drained of life and blood, cast aside without a thought. Like a force of nature; he would not, could not stop. Unresting. Unrelenting.

But now, he walked no more. He stood before the Godstone in awe. For the first time, he saw it with his own two eyes, even though his vison blurred, eyes watering at the sight. Real! The Godstone was real! Just as the Whisper had told him. Just as the Luminous Path had promised. Just as he had believed so fervently all these years. Everything was true! In the depths of his soul he knew he had reached his destination at last.

Yet, he hesitated. A shadow of doubt. What was his purpose here? Why had he come all this way? What did the Godstone need him to do? Why was he chosen for this?

Then the Whisper returned in force; stronger than before. No longer a murmur, but a full voice, sibilant and sonorous. It praised him, adulated him, egged him on. Told him of all the greatness he soon would achieve, the power he would wield, the power to rule men, to have any woman for his own. More riches than he could imagine. Had the Whisper not kept all his promises? All he needed to do was have faith and reach out.

Trembling, he reached out a wizend hand to touch the Godstone. A distinct scintillation; a pleasant flash at the touch, as if sparks where bouncing up and down all over his skin. He moved his hand over the surface and revelled in the sensation, though it was difficult to follow the strange curves and angles that seemed to fold in on themselves. He closed his eyes and felt the stone. It was curiously warm. He pressed himself to the stone as much as he could, letting himself bathe in the sensation. The aches and pains of the long walk leaving his limbs, replaced by warm, fuzzy bliss.

The triumphant cry of the Whisper-Voice echoed like thunder as he felt his limbs suddenly go heavy, sharp pains all along his body where stone was touching him. Panicking, he opened his eyes to see himself slowly sinking into the stone, his flesh melding with it. He could barely move his eyes, and not move his limbs at all as he slowly was sucked in. He could feel the Awakening now, a whispering rising within the stone. He felt himself sink all the way into the stone, but yet he lived. The pain was gone, and all around he could hear the buzzing of whispers and faint voices. Voices waxing stronger, louder, too many, too fast. A choir approaching, too many to listen, too loud to hear. Like drops becoming a stream, many streams becoming a mighty river, melding together to become something far greater then each alone. The choir came rushing, breaking upon him like a sudden wave, and he fell in the ocean of voices. They surrounded him, filled him, welcomed him, absorbing him as he in turn absorbed them, becoming one with the river, adding his voice to the choir of the Godstone.

Mooncloud

Both moons were full, and seven silvery cloud-shapes swam through the empty night sky, moving against the wind. They left long, cloudy trails, undulating like snakes under the starry field, dancing silently across the vault of the heavens, back and forth, filling the sky with their misty vapours.

Beneath the dancing cloud-shapes, a lush green landscape basked in the moonlight, parted by a river running swift and strong. Across this river there was a bridge built of stone, leading to a middling town hiding behind a stone wall. From this town another cloud-snake rose to join the others in their night-time frolicking. The cloud-trails left by the moondancers persisted, gradually obscuring the stars, blotting out the moons.

#

“Looks like it’s goin’ to be rain,” Alfrod, captain of the night watch said matter of factly to his partner Vitar. “The spirits are weavin’ weather again.”

“Don’t yer know it,” Vitar answered, eyes turned upwards, fixed on the mesmerizing dance. The clouds were thickening under the dancers, dimming the moonlight perceptibly. “Them clouds are gettin’ pretty dark. Won’t be surprised if they’re bringin’ a proper storm with ‘em tonight.”

The moonlight failed at last, kept at bay by a thick black layer of cloud hanging in the sky. After a while, a bright flash followed by a heavy rumble broke the night time quiet.

“Best be gettin’ indoors,” Alfrod muttered. They shuffled into the guardhouse as the first drops of rain slammed into the battlements where the guards had been standing moments before. A second thunderclap heralded the deluge that followed.

#

“A dragon?” Lana looked at her eight year old daughter Molly with an incredulous expression as she was preparing the child for bed.

“No, a thky dragon!” the girl replied with emphasis, exaggerated lip movements showing her missing front teeth. “Thky! That meanth I turn into a dragon to danth in the thky when the moomth are filled!

“You mean when the moons are full,” eyes glittering, one hand reaching out towards the child to tickle. “And how did that happen? You were not a sky dragon today as far as I remember,” her probing fingers reached the targeted ribs, releasing fits of giggling. “You were jumping all through the puddles after the storm last night.”

“Mithter Mooncloud came and bit on my leg,” in between bouts of giggles. “He athked if I wanted to be a thkydragon like him. I thaid sure and he bit my leg.”

“Mister Mooncloud?” Suddenly serious, Lana froze. “Where did you hear that name?” staring intently at her daughter.

“I thaid! He came and bit on my leg,” She pulled up her nighty to show a scarlet, crescent-shaped mark on her lower left calf, skin broken in spots with thin stripes of dried blood form each hole, everything framed by purplish bruising. “When I wath thleeping,” Molly looked at the bitemark, pouting “It thtill hurtth a bit. Ow. ”

No! It cannot be! Monclaude?

Lana stared at the very obvious bite mark on her daughter’s calf, at loss for words. It looked days old, already scabbing over. But it had not been there the day before! But still, there it was. A bite mark. Her daughter was bitten! But by what?

“Get dressed, we need to see the doctor right away.”

#

After several minutes of insistent banging on the front door of the doctor’s house, a second story window opened. A white-fringed head poked out, not looking happy at all.

“What is all this banging about? Can’t an honest man enjoy his evening supper in peace anymore?”

“Please, Doctor Mosely, Our Molly needs your help right now! Let us in!”

“Bah. All the time it is right away with the young people of today. Nobody has ever died by waiting until morning before bothering their doctor like proper folks,” Dr Mosely muttered to himself while shuffling downstairs to get the front door.

“Now, what is wrong with young miss Molly then?” the old doctor asked out into the air as he led the pair into his waiting room.

“Molly, show your leg to the doctor.” the little girl dutifully pulled up her gown to show the mark.
“Look at it. Something has bitten my girl. What do you think did it?”

The mark had faded more in the hour since she last had seen it. Or maybe it was a trick of the light. The old doctor pulled out a short length of wood, and started prodding the scabbed-over wound with it, muttering under his breath.

“When did this …dog bite you then?” the doctor asked the girl at last. “Why have you come at this hour and not when it happened, hm?”

“Latht night. When I wath thleeping,”

“Nonsense!” The doctor snorted. “Now speak the truth, girl. This wound is several days old,” turning to Lana with a scowl. “Get your daughter to tell the truth. And why didn’t you come during office hours?”

“She did not have that mark yesterday,” Lana said, fixing the doctor with an intense stare. “I would have seen it during bathtime. This must have happened as she says. She told me a Mister Mooncloud bit her. She says she is going to turn into a dragon. Doctor, is this …Monclaude? Can he have returned?”

“Oh dear.” The doctor paled, suddenly looking much older. “Monclaude?” muttering to himself, shaking his head. “No. That cannot be. No. No. Monclaude is only a legend,” his face set with finality.

The doctor looked again at the bitemark. “But a dog must have bit her, looks like more than a week ago.” Palm to her forehead, lifting her fringe, he studied her face. “So, girl, are you feverish? Frothing at the mouth?” Then continuing without waiting for a response. “No? Then you will be fine.” The old man wrote something in one of his little books. “Here, take this note to the apothecary in the morning. He’ll make you a potion that will help for the pain. Now go home and let us all get some rest. Good night to the both of you.” The old doctor stood up and ignored their protests while ushering them out into the street in short order. The bar slammed into place with a bang, locking the door behind them as they found themselves out in the cold night air.

“But what about your fee? You can’t just…“ Lana asked, the silent door giving no answer.
“So much for the doctor,” Lana sighed, defeated. Molly was dead on her feet and sat down where she stood in the middle of the street.

“I’m thleepy,” she mumbled before closing her eyes. Lana picked the sleeping child up and carried her home.


#

The next morning Lana woke Molly up, having slept in longer than usual. “Come on, we have to go see Old Mother Brown on the outside of town. It is getting late already.”
“Who ith Old Mother Brown?”

“A wise woman. She lives in the forest.”
A quick breakfast before they dressed in their red hooded travel cloaks and left the house. Reaching the town walls, they stopped by the stables. Darrs the stable hand was tending to the horses.

“Hello Darrs, we need a pony for the day.” Lana inquired with her best smile. Darrs grinned back at her.

“Goin’ on little picnick on your own are you? Poppy is available. She’s a steady one, and should treat you well. Mind you feed her in time or she gets a bit grumpy. Have her back by sundown, or you’ll need to pay for another full day.” Coins exchanged hands, the pony was readied and the pair mounted up.

Molly sat in front of her mother, hands on the reigns and a big smile on her face. “We’re going on an adventure!”

“Off you go then, remember to feed her, there are some oats in the saddlebag. Give her those after she has grazed for a while.” Darrs smiled at Lana and watched as they rode away, disappearing out of sight towards the gate.

#

The town wall was built of grey, fitted stone much like most of the buildings within. As they neared the watchmen who were standing idle by the gate, the pair nodded and waved. Captain Alfrod was Lana’s uncle and they knew the guards well. They were waved through without stopping, just exchanging pleasantries as they rode past. The short gate tunnel was not particularily busy this late in the morning. A few farmer’s carts with more goods for the market were coming in, most of the days incoming traffic already having passed earlier to set up the market stalls at first light.

Outside the town walls, the river current ran strong with meltwater from the nearby hills, cresting white in places. They rode across the great stone bridge that spanned the rapid flow, passing another cart filled with what looked like goats-wool blankets. Probably the complete production of some outlying farm’s home industry over the winter months, hoping to be sold to get some much needed coin with which to pay the King’s taxes.

“We don’t really notice the smell of the town until we are out of it, do we?” Lana asked her daughter, who was whooping with the joy of the adventure. They had not been outside the town walls since before the winter, a very long time in her young life.

All around the town the ground was covered in the bright green of sprouting grass. The spring flowers were blooming, dotting the landscape in bright patches of yellows, whites and blues. The trees lining the roads were bursting with fresh leaves, the air full of the little clouds of fairydust the trees make when they are awakening from their winter slumber. The air was fresh with a bracing chill to it, a breeze pulling at them from the open river. Across the bridge, the road split into three. The roads continued through fields where many farmhands were out and about, doing their thing. Lana guided Poppy down the road leading to the large forest beyond the fields.

The sun was high in the sky when they left the open fields behind and entered the shadow of the forest. The road continued straight for a bit before disappearing from view between the tall treetrunks. Under the dark canopy the forest was a riot of greens. The trees reached towards the sunlight with their leafy branches at the top while the forest floor was thick with all kinds of undergrowth. Ferns and bushes battling it out all along the ground, mosses and lichen stubbornly clinging to treetrunks, tanglevines and creepers strung through the air between branches and individual trees, all creating what seemed like a solid wall of green life on either side of the road. Strange noises could be heard; calls, groans, whistles.

“We have to stay on the roads so we don’t get lost,” Lana said in a quiet voice. “Look in there, you can’t see far at all.” Subdued, the girl nodded, eyes large and apprehensive.

“How far ith it?” Molly asked in a small voice, as if afraid to disturb the forest.

“Not very,” her mother replied. “I am told there is a path that we follow to get there. We can see the path from the road.”

“But you thaid we had to thtay on the road!”

“Yes, I did. A path is just a smaller road. We’ll stay on it, you know.”

They rode on in silence, feeling the presence of the forest all around them . Now and then they passed riders coming the other way. Once they had to move off the road to let a fine coach pulled by several horses pass, escorted by grim-faced, armoured men with long spears, riding both in front and behind the coach.

“Keep your eyes down, don’t look at them” Lana told Molly. “Don’t get in their way. Just let them move past and we will be fine.” One arm around Molly, hand clutching the reigns tight, keeping Poppy still. Her other hand inside her cloak, gripping the handle of her knife.

When the coach had passed, they got on the road again. Not long after, they came to the path that crossed the road. The path looked overgrown, like it had not seen much use in a long time.

“Mummy, do we really have to?” Molly started.

“Yes. We do.” Lana guided the pony onto the path and urged her on. Poppy seemed reluctant at first, but obeyed. They rode in silence down the path for a good while, the sounds of the forest seeming to come closer and closer the further they went. At last the path opened a bit up and they came upon the overgrown ruins of an old castle.

“Mummy, I’m thcared,” Molly whimpered.

“I’m here, I’ll keep you safe. Don’t be afraid,” Lana replied before dismounting, then helping Molly down. Poppy was led to a tree with some juicy looking grass growing around it, and tethered there.

Lana held Molly by the hand, and looked all around before calling in a loud voice. “Old Mother Brown! It’s Lana Delansdaughter and Molly Lanasdaughter. We need your help!”

After a while without anything happening, she repeated the call. They moved around the area, looking, not daring to touch anything.

The ruins looked ancient. The remains of a great castle or maybe a temple. Now only a tor and a few columns stood, covered in stranglevines, almost buried in the greenery of the encroaching forest. A few carved relieffs of snake-like dragons could still be seen here and there, the remains of ancient decorations, now weathered and cracked. More ruins lay beyond the first. This place must have been magnificent, Lana thought.

They walked around the area, the bottom part of a rotunda still stood, and even had some roofing still. No, that roof was much more recent.

They approached the rotunda, and Lana peeked inside. A darkened room, dry and sparsely furnished.

“Hullo, is anybody here?”

A cough sounded out. Lana told Molly to stay put, and entered, hand on hilt beneath her cloak. “Hullo?” In the gloom beneath the roofing she could make out a cot with a formless shape on it. “Are you Old Mother Brown?” Lana approached the cot.

A cracked voice, softly “Water.” Then wracking coughs.

On the cot was an old woman. Not old. Beyond old. She looked ancient. This had to be Old Mother Brown.

“Please, water. Water,” a wizened hand, pleading. Lana looked around and saw a cup carved out of a burl. She took the cup outside to the stream running through the ruins, and filled it. Molly followed when she went back inside.

The ancient woman sipped at the cup, tentatively at first, then with more gusto as she drank some of the water, as if the liquid had filled her with new strength.

“Thank you,” she sighed at last, after having drained the cup of every last drop. She looked much more healthy than before. “You have no idea how much I needed that. The waters here are invigorating. You should have some yourself before you go.”

“Are you Old Mother Brown, the withe woman?” Molly blurted out.

“Why, yes, little girl. I am. And who might you be?”

“I’m Molly” the girl replied. “We have come to find you”

“Oh, what for? You are a little young to be wanting a potion to avoid circumstances,” she said a sour expression on her face. “Or is it you who need it?” she looked at Lana, but then had a fit of coughing. “I’m all right” she said after a while, wiping the pink stain she coughed up on an already heavily pink-stained kerchief.

“No, nothing like that,” Lana replied, red-faced, “Nothing like that at all!”

“Well, that is what all the other young women have wanted.” the crone muttered bitterly.

Lana cleared her throat. “Molly here was bitten by something last night. She talks about Mister Mooncloud and dragons. The doctor could not help us.”

“Of course the doctor could not help you,” the crone snorted. “What does he know of the real world? Come, girl, let me look at the bite.” Another chesty cough.

Molly pulled up her skirts to show a faint crescent-shaped redness on unbroken skin where the bitemark had been.
“Looks like nothing to me.”

“But, but…there was a bite mark there yesterday!” Lana protested.


“Mooncloud, you said? Look at me, girl.” Mother Brown grabbed Molly by the arm and held her in a strangely strong grip while she looked directly into her eyes, muttering under her breath. Molly whimpered. There was a tingling sensation in the air as something passed between them, “Oh, it’s Monclaude alright.”

“But how can that be? Isn’t Monclaude just a legend?” Lana protested.

“Monclaude might have become a legend, but he was also very real.” The wise woman turned to Lana. “I was there when it all happened, ages ago. Monclaude was the greatest practitioner of the forbidden arts that ever lived, the very same arts that he used to defeat the Dragons and save us all. And they condemned him for it.”

#

The war with the Dragons had rapidly gone downhill. The Dragons of the North seemed unstoppable. Powerful beasts, nearly invulnerable to our weapons, breathing fire and ruin onto the cities of humankind. The humans had nothing left to stop them, all their armies had been defeated, their gleaming cities were being scorched one by one. The surviving inhabitants fleeing southwards like a flood, finding scant refuge in other cities as the Dragons slowly descended upon them as well.

There was little hope, apart from the few wizards that had some of the forbidden knowledge. The dark arts had proven effective to stop a Dragon in the past, and now they needed to stop a whole army of them.

There was just one problem. Believed to be inherently evil, the practicioners had been shunned and persecuted by society up through the ages. Now, suddenly, they were celebrated. Seen as saviours. Many basked in the glory, and lived the high life for a while. But when the Dragons came, many of the wizards fled, taking both the golden gifts and the last hope of their city with them.

But not Igneus Monclaude. Monclaude laboured for months, preparing a mighty spell to end the threat of the Dragons once and for all. As the Dragons closed in on his city, he had the entire population chanting. They chanted words not meant for human voices, nor human ears. As the Dragons closed in, they gradually turned to mist. So also did many of the chanting people. Monclaude kept the chant going until but a single Dragon remained. The largest one. By then the city was nearly empty; most of the people had vanished, turned into thin mist, just like the Dragons. Only a handful remained to tell the tale.

Monclaude stood defiant upon the parapet, still chanting as Gaurlok the King of the Dragons descented upon him, swallowing him whole for his efforts. The witnesses reported they heard the chant continue from inside Gaurlok as the last and greatest of the Dragons also turned into mist and was gone.

#

“You make it sound like Monclaude was a hero, not a monster?” Lana looked perplexed at the Mother Brown. “But Monclaude is a terror that brings nothing but sickness and death, taking our children?”

“There is more to the story.”

#

When the kings of the remaining cities came to find out what had happened, they said Monclaude had killed all the people there with his dark arts. They said he was an evil wizard. They said the Dragons were not even real. They said the Dragons were illusions magicked to make Monclaude look powerful, to make him the new king. They said that Monclaude had been consumed by his own evil deeds.

Years passed, the humans rebuilt their cities and forgot about the Dragons. Yet strange tales were told of children disappearing in the night. Down the ages, there were tales of children with strange bitemarks, who talked about turning into Dragons, and then were gone. The name Monclaude would come up, and the legend would grow.

#

“What about Molly?” tears were streaming down Lana’s face as she held her daughter tight. “What has all of this to do with us?”

“She has been chosen. I do not believe Monclaude is dead. Nor are the Dragons, or the people. They live on as the spirit-dancers in the sky. Have you never looked up into the sky and seen the dancing clouds before a storm? Every generation, a girl is chosen to become one of them. I believe it is the price we must pay to keep the Dragons at bay.”

“Mummy?” Molly looked at her crying mother, and hugged her tight “I don’t wanna go. I don’t wanna be a thkydragon any more,”

“In a way, Monclaude is evil. It is far too much to ask of a child to choose to become a sky-dragon. They have no idea what that really means.” The old woman tried to get up, but fell back, coughing. “Please, fetch me some more of the water. I need my strength for this. I have an idea.”

Lana helped Old Mother Brown all through the evening, fetching ingredients off shelves, filling and setting a fire beneath the large black cauldron she had. The wise woman pointed and directed, wracked by coughing fits every so often, all the while studying an old tome, keeping Molly by her side. Lana did as she was asked. The following evening, as the daylight was turning to the dark blue of nightfall and the light of the full moons were shining, the old crone asked for Molly’s red hooded cloak, and pulled it over her ancient frame. “Now we go outside to the clearing, drink the potion, and chant the words.”

Lana carried the surprisingly light old woman to the appointed spot, and then moved back as she had been warned to do.

“Do not intervene! Under no circumstances are you to touch us,” the wise woman had told Lana in no uncertain terms. “Or it will be all for nought. On the life of all you hold dear, stay back until I say so!”

Lana could only watch, wringing her hands. The old woman and her daughter drank the potion, held hands and spoke strange words together. As the full moons both reached zenith and the moonbeams shone through the hole in the canopy of leaves above them to illuminate the pair, something strange happened. The old crone was gone, in her stead stood a young girl in Molly’s red hooded cloak. She looked a lot like Molly, but Lana could see it was not her. Molly was lying as if sleeping by the new girls feet. As the moonbeams lit up the new girl, she seemed to gradually disappear, to turn into mist and cloud. She turned towards Lana, smiling. “Thank you, Lana, and good bye. Take Molly indoors now, it looks like it’s going to rain.”

#

Both moons were full, and seven silvery cloud-shapes swam through the empty night sky, moving against the wind. They left long, cloudy trails, undulating like snakes under the starry field, dancing silently across the vault of the heavens, back and forth, filling the sky with their misty vapours.

Beneath the dancing cloud-shapes, a lush green landscape basked in the moonlight, parted by a river running swift and strong. From the deep forest to one side of the river, another cloud-snake rose to join the others in their night-time frolicking. The cloud-trails left by the moondancers persisted, gradually obscuring the stars, blotting out the moons.