“A party?” Martin asked.
“A party, for you, tonight.” Molly smiled broadly, her eyes dancing.
“Philip said we should have one,” Bill added, “not that people gen’ly need any instruction to get merry round here.”
“For me?” Martin asked.
“Of course for you. Aint nobody else newly come here. ‘tis your welcome party.”
“There’ll be breaking the barrels open in the square.” Bill added, happily.
“And roasting a fresh pig,” Molly said.
“And cakes, and cheeses, and sweets and dancin’ and music playing all night,” Bill rattled off. It was one of the longest speeches he’d made.
“No one sleeps durin’ a party night. The streets’ll be brighter ‘n day.”
Martin smiled at their exuberance. Bill’s movements had become energised for the first time he’d seen. He moved quickly with the news, and spoke faster and with more passion than he’d thought the man’s grizzled face contained.
“Philip’s hosting it,” Molly went on. “Not that that means nothing, it’ll spill out into the square and the streets before the first dance starts.”
“An’ everyone’ll be there.”
“Even Esme?” Martin asked.
“Even Esme Bright, and all her kin. They love a party like the rest of the town. They don’t dance but mercy do they drink.”
And later, as the sun approached the horizon, and the firepits were open and dying down in the square and the pigs were dripping blood from the boughs, ready to be taken down and spitted over the blazing pits. And bunting was up and down the streets and Martin was dressing in some old yet smart clothes of Bill’s. He paused and turned to Bill and Molly.
“This town, Hypnos you said.” Martin asked.
“Aye,” Bill replied.
“Where exactly is it?”
They looked at him, pausing in their activity.
“What d’you mean?”
“Well, like what…country is it in?”
“Bless you, aint like no country. We be on the moor my dear. You remember the moor don’t you?”
“I…I don’t know. I…Before I woke up here I don’t remember much…”
“Well, how did you get here?”
Martin thought. That was strange, how did you usually get anywhere in dreams. He didn’t answer.
“We found you by the edge of the village, half out of the water.”
“The river, runs down by the edge of the town. You were half in, half out, one foot in the water, one foot on dry land. You were exhausted, weak, unable to stand by yourself. We carried you out and you passed out when we got you into town.
“Looked like you’d been on the moor for days. People get lost out there. No landmarks. Not till they see Hypnos. You must have walked here. You must have made it here but collapsed before you could find shelter. Don’t you remember nothing ‘bout that?”
Martin racked his memory, at least the bits he could. The bits that led backwards from his first wakening in this room. Those bits were vague and he didn’t dare to trace them back too far. It was darkness there. But in the darkness, hidden there were things he had been running from. Running too slowly, always too slowly.
“I was running.” He said.
“Yes. I…I think that’s…what I remember but…I don’t know what from. I don’t know what I was running to neither.”
“Aye, I was the same.” Bill replied, a shadow on his brow.
“Aye, I wasn’t born here. Few of us are. Must of been, oh, ten years back now. I pulled up here, rolling into town.”
“He was a wreck.”
“Aye, I was at that. Couldn’t stand, couldn’t speak. Molly here took me in, cause her husband…she took me in cause she was all alone. I’ve been here ever since.”
“When did you marry?” Bill looked at him.
“Marry? Why would we marry, it’s just a piece of paper? What would that matter in a dream?” And Molly smiled alongside Bill’s own bemused grin. But there, in her eyes, for a moment Martin thought he saw something else. And then was gone again. He decided it would be best not to ask those kind of questions any more.
“But this town. How did I get here? There must have been a road, a path.”
“Oh, there are, and well-signposted.” Molly said. “We’re well known in these parts.”
“You must of seen us from far off and headed to us.” Bill added.
“Or heard of us. Many travellers talk of us with fondness. Our welcoming parties are legendary.”
“And just if you be passing through, we don’t let no one leave without a fine old time.”
“Am I still in England?”
“Geography aint my strong point. I don’t know what country we in, but the land is known by another name in these parts.”
“And what’s that.”
“Why you must know it, you must of heard it as you travelled here.”
And as they said it Martin’s lips opened and he mouthed the word in synch. He did know it. It was obvious, but he couldn’t remember why.
“Acheron,” they said together.
“Acheron,” he repeated.
“Aye, it’s we just know it as the Kingdom.” Bill said.
“Not that it’s much of one. We aint never seen no King, nor heard his name neither.” Molly added.
But Martin wasn’t listening any more. He rolled the word they’d given him around his mouth. “Acheron.” And the word carried meaning with it. And understanding that came from a place in his mind he could not go. And he smiled, a wry smile of bitter understanding. And then it broke and he laughed. He laughed and they laughed with him. He felt light. He felt free.
And as he stopped laughing he realised he wanted to go outside. He wanted to see this town before the sun went down. He wanted to see this place he had come to. With a smile he bade goodbye to Molly and Bill and walked to the door. It seemed more solid than it had from his bed. A barrier to a larger world. He smiled and took a breath and stepped outside.
“A feast!” He was almost knocked over by the fat man, already drunk and red nosed. Instead of falling he was grabbed by the shoulders by the man and warm beer was breathed over him.
“A feast,” the fat man cried out with a beery laugh. He swung Martin round with delight, skipping on his unsteady feet. Martin was whirled and released as the man fell on, stepping and skipping lightly across the packed-mud street. He wore garish clothes and a heavy chain of gold about his neck. He was crying out to no one in particular though a crowd surrounded him, all equally sloshed and laughing at his antics.
“A feast for our guest. Let the hogs be slaughtered and the fires alit. Let the musicians play and let the dancers dance.” He staggered back and grabbed Martin by both shoulders, excited by his own words, completely impervious to Martin’s puzzlement and surprise. He beamed at Martin, his eyes gleaming. “Dancing!” he cried. “And acrobats. You haven’t had a feast till you’ve feasted at Hypnos Square.”
He laughed and whirled away with his party of men and women that clustered to him and scattered to spread the good cheer of the feast to come.
Martin was left standing surprised and alone outside before the house that he had awoken to. The door was just at his back, open back to the warmth and comfort of Molly and Bill, her unmarried husband. But Martin did not want to go back in. Not just yet. He was feeling brave, despite the strangeness of the man who had grabbed him and staggered off. He wanted to see this town.
He wanted to see what this place was, this town in the middle of Acheron, this waystation on the moor he had been travelling. Martin stood and turned and stared, breathing deeply the cold, earthy air as the village came into focus around him, solidifying out of a mist that wasn’t there.
Martin looked around at a street that he had never imagined before. It was nothing he recognised yet it felt safe and comforting in its familiarity. It was as though he knew it well and knew every house and street though he had never seen it before. It was a place that followed the pattern of other places, of places her felt he knew well. But it was all just impression rather than knowledge, he looked at things he didn’t know and after he had seen it he thought he could have guessed at what he would see, even if he couldn’t before he had looked.
The street was broad and made of hard packed dirt studded with boot prints and hoof prints of horses and men. The houses were set in their own plots of land, small and single storied. Thatched and beamed, old houses he thought of as a Medieval style. Short alleys ran between the houses leading out to the undelineated moor.
He could see it if he looked between the houses, the endless expanse. He didn’t look, he looked at the houses instead, and the street, safe within the bounds of human construction that bordered the road.
The street ran down, sloping gently as it did, to end with the last pair, a final guard before the road broke out, to run alone across the moors. The river was down there, the road jumping it by the means of a little wooden bridge. It was a small thin river, little more than a stream. And as Martin walked to it to look at the place he had been found he could not see it running. It seemed as still as a pond, motionless in the dying light. The only colour a handful of poppies clinging to the far bank.
The sunset glanced against it but did not make it shine. Its waters looked cold and deep despite its evident shallowness. As Martin stared into it he imagined it could be bottomless. He shivered, picturing himself as he had been found, lying, one foot drifting in the cold, thick waters of that river, one foot anchoring him to the land.
Bill had told him the name of the river, he remembered. As he had lain in bed, half paying attention as they chattered to him. They called it Lethe. He rolled the name around his tongue and whispered it to the last of the day.
“Lethe.” He knew what it meant. He felt unnerved. The place didn’t feel like a dream. Not anymore. Not after staying here for days, how long now. How long had he stayed in that room, recovering. A week? He hadn’t been counting and had slept at odd hours. They told him it was a dream, it was all a dream. He held on to this, trying hard to believe it. It was the only thing that made sense.
He couldn’t look at the river any more. He dragged his eyes away and looked up, the road running away, endless to the horizon, dipping and rising but the rolls of the moor were never steep enough to hide it from sight. Not until it vanished into its own middle, at the edge of the land, where the sun touched it and burned.
The road did not go into the sun, it came from it. The dying sun gave birth to the road to Hypnos. The last rays of that dying day burned coldly against Martin’s face and he knew, he had come from there. He had come out of the west, he had come out of the dying sun. And he knew, if he ever left he would not be going back that way.