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
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,
"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 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
"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.