17. Deja vu

The world was wrapped in a cloak of muffled sound as we rowed on. The starry sky slowly melted into a flourish of pastel colors as the dawn broke and melted again into blue. Still they rowed in a soothing rhythmic unison.

I knew from the sound of the boat as it passed through the water that we were getting closer to land. Sure enough, as the sky grew bluer still, I felt and heard us pass over pebbles, then sand, until we ground to a sliding halt.

The shriveled men climbed out of the rowboat and hoisted me up in the net. They lay me in a wagon lined with hay, ever so careful not to touch me. I strained my stiff body to push myself up, and I watched them stand there by the seashore as the wagon rode off. They stared at the ground, refusing to acknowledge me at all.

I stared and watched them. They grew smaller as I traveled on, but they did not move. They seemed frozen in time. I continued to watch and it seemed as they grew less clear that they began to change. The hard lines from their faces became smoother. Their humped, crooked stature seemed straighter. They seemed to grow younger with each turn of the wagon's wheel. As they disappeared into the horizon, I was sure I saw them laughing and dancing for joy as they discovered for themselves that their bodies had been transformed, as if the terrible spell that had kept them prisoners in their deformity had been shattered forever.

Sliding back and forth inside the net I turned my body to look out past the silent rider atop the horse that carried me towards my new destination. I could see the castle in the distance, and as it grew closer, it grew more familiar, so that I was sure that I had been a frequent visitor here, once upon a dream in a timeless, spaceless place.

As I strained to remember when this place had been a refuge to me, I saw the face in the window, high above in the tower staring out at me as I approached. The face, too, was familiar.

I watched as the face disappeared from the window and then reappeared at a window on the next level down. This happened again and again, and the face grew clearer until he was standing at the doorway and the wagon was pulling to a stop.

The man to whom I was to be delivered walked over slowly, and he did not look away as I stared at his dark eyes and his mustached familiarity. But his eyes did hesitate a moment in temporary uncertainty. Then they quickly regained the self-assured composure I remembered so well. He walked toward me, through the gate, and a trail of guards surrounded him on all sides.

He grew closer and I was sure I knew him, but my brain strained to make the synaptic connections necessary to trigger my memory.

"Captain Rogetto!" he roared full of welcome, surprise, anger and hesitant fear, as a prince might greet his brotherly contender for the throne. Nothing clicked in my memory.

The man hesitated, and stared into my eyes a moment before looking away. He turned back to face me, with the warmth and kindness of a doting Uncle. "Ward," he beckoned and held out his arms in a welcoming gesture.

A neurochemical burst flooded through my brain. Of course, the Voice could only belong to the Duke. A rush of dream memories washed over my consciousness filling me with a palette of emotions.

"What have they done to you?" the Duke thundered, and the guards rushed forward with their swords drawn. The driver had descended from his horse and had bowed as the Duke approached. One of the guards struck him down with a quick chop and then they approached me.

They were cloaked in dark veils of grey and black, and I could not see their faces. And yet I saw them hesitate as they stood over the wagon peering within. I could smell their fear rising in the air.

"Release him!" the Duke commanded.

The leader who had heartlessly cut down the wagon's driver thrashed at the net with his bloody sword, and it's cords fell limp around my body.

I rose to my knees and the guards stepped back. I rose and they withdrew again, cowering behind the Duke.

I climbed down from the wagon, and crossed round to the front. The horse was nuzzling the lifeless heap beneath her muzzle. I touched the driver lightly, and he stirred and looked up at me. His eyes were ablaze with wonder and fear and joy.

The guards shuddered and gripped their swords.

"Thank you my lord," the driver whispered, and he began to kiss my shoes.

"Please, stand up, er, um..."

"Melnor, my lord," the driver whispered, and he did as he was commanded. "I am forever in your service..." he added as he stood before me with his head bowed.

The Duke coughed, and I looked up to see him rubbing his hands uncomfortably at his sides. He checked my eyes with careful concentration. Finally he saw that I had remembered who he was. Wrapped up in his self-assurance, he assumed that I had remembered the brighter side of our relationship, and he stepped past the defense of his wavering guards.

His eyes soon burned with the plan of his deceit, and a smile hid the injustice of his will. "Ward, my friend," he fawned as he crept closer.

He held out his hand to me, as one does when approaching a potentially dangerous dog in the hopes that the dog will admire the bravery in the symbolic sacrifice, and out of respect will spare one's life, and even allow one to keep the limb.

The Duke rubbed my head in the customary playfulness one dotes upon a favored nephew, and I once again felt like the child I was when I knew the Duke of the Voice.

"I've missed you Ward," he hissed. "I've missed our talks. Come there is much to discuss. And there is the wedding of the Queen to prepare for, of course..."

Melnor started to follow behind me as the Duke led me to the castle gates, and the guards instinctively drew their swords.

The Duke turned angrily back with a glare, and the guards trembled as they gripped their swords and awaited his command. But as the Duke saw me watching him, his face melted into a sickly sweet smile.

"Let him follow us...for now..." he motioned to the guards, and they happily let Melnor past, and gave out a huge collective sigh. How many times can you kill a man in one day!

We continued along the path to the castle gates. The guards in front of the Gate stood aside as we approached, and they pounded their ceremonial spears on the ground in salute.

The Gates swung open and we stepped through. We walked in silent procession along the golden-arched bridge that spanned the fifty-foot drop into the mote that bubbled and boiled acidic vapors of pestilence.

A gang of crocodiles cruised beneath the bridge patrolling the waters, and when they saw the Duke approaching they rose up halfway out of the water and bowed, gnashing their teeth in unison. But then they saw me, and they broke into a splendid display of syncopated water ballet. They would have turned around and tapped danced back, as they often had just for me, once upon a time.

I clapped as I had always done, but the Duke barked an angry command, and the crocodiles snarled and fell back into the water to continue their appointed rounds.

Finally we reached the castle door, where another guard stood at attention. He stood aside as the door swung open and a red carpet unraveled. We jumped up as it rolled under our feet. The Duke grumbled more obscenities.

The Duke put his icy arm around me, and led me inside. As we walked together into the entrance hall a flood of intangible memories gushed down the winding staircase to greet me.

I was completely overwhelmed, and my senses were overloaded. My perception was becoming distorted and I could not discern memories of the past and the future from the present before me.

Slowly the present came back into focus as the Duke's grip on my shoulder tightened. I noticed the staff standing at attention before us, and their faces looked so vaguely familiar. Some of them smiled as I walked passed, but I felt uncomfortable, because my dream-memory was so hazy and unclear that it left my head whirling, and I had to struggle to keep my head focused on what was going on so that I wouldn't float away in memories that teased and taunted and begged me to partake of their feeling and emotions once again.



©: 1992-2015 Robert Alan Silverstein

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