Charon – 04

Chapter Four

   Martin left the river and walked back up the street. It went on for about forty houses and ended at a square. Hypnos Square, small, little more than a crossroads. The town was small he realised, only four streets branching off from the square. He walked into the square and looked to the left, to a road that ran on for a while before breaking out into the endless moor. The right was the same. No landmark outside this town. It was an oasis in a place of featureless land.

Yet, was that a kick of dust near the horizon, on the road. He saw it again, faintly marking the evidence of another traveller. A merchant perhaps, travelling this land of Acheron to peddle his wares. Or a messenger. Or another wanderer, like Martin. Or Bill. They came here, Bill had said. People lost on the moors, they ended up here. Perhaps because there was nowhere else they could see to go. Or perhaps it was just the best signposted.

   There were no farms, no gardens, no plants, no animals in Hypnos. Even the people were indoors now, even the fat man had left the streets. How did these people make a living, how did they gather their food? Where was this feat coming from? There were no signs of habitation apart from the town itself. And then he remembered it was supposed to be a dream.

But as he watched the dust on the road it came closer, drawing near the town. He thought he could make it out. The light was dimming but as it came near he saw it was a wagon, a large wagon. Pulled by a team of horses it came closer with every stride of their long legs. Their noses flared and their chests heaved deeply as they broke into a gallop on the last stretch before their journey ended.

They were bringing food, he realised later, as they came every day to bring fresh food and bright clothes and trinkets and sweetmeats at great expense. And the Squire paid for it all and let his townsfolk help themselves. To great excess. The Squire had great friends in Acheron and in the lands beyond. And he was enormously wealthy himself.

But though Martin smiled and nodded when this was explained to him he felt his stomach grow cold. The food did not just appear, it did not just come into being. It was carried over the moor by horse and wheel. What kind of dream was this?

   For now Martin just watched the wagon approach. He watched it until the sun died down and the last cold rays disappeared. The sky grew dark grey and then black. He looked up. The sky was clear but apart from the dim and frosted moon there were no other lights. There were no stars here.

   The Squire’s house was obvious in the gloom. The largest building in the square, three-storied with its timber beams carved and decorated. Its windows were glazed while most others only shuttered.

And there was another building opposite it. Almost as large though not nearly as grand. A sign hung outside, a crescent moon brightly painted on the board. It must be a tavern, Martin thought. And he heard music emanating from it. It was bright and fast, a fiddle and a flute. A clapping and a stamping and a raised sweet voice that called to him of home and warmth and love.

And he left the square to head towards that sound. He would drink tonight. He would drink until he no longer noticed the moor at the end of the road and the edge of the town. He would drink until he could sleep without dreaming. He would dance and he would drink. In a few hours the Squire’s house would open and the pigs that were even now filling the square with the scent of dripping fat and roasted pork would be carved and served. And fresh beer and old wine would be poured. And the feast would start. Martin was looking forward to it.

   Music. Music that caught him and pulled him in. Music that made his hands clap and his feet beat the time. Fiddles skipping out their tunes and an old lute thrumming out the beat. And flutes joining and violins twirling and the raised voice of young people singing and the song twisting between the music.

He remembered those tunes he thought, he remembered another pub, long ago, but only the music, no details, nothing but a dream. But it drew him in and made him dance. He joined the party first self-consciously, then with spirit, and soon he was whirling across the floor with the others, circles around circles of dancers and the music lifting and taking him out of that place, that wood-raftered tavern hall.

There was beer, strong and deep and foaming. Ales of a darkened hue that filled his belly and raised his mind to the ceiling. And he danced with a flagon in his hand, and the beer splashed out over his shirt but he didn’t care. Nothing mattered anymore. Nothing but the moment.

   It was a famous feast, tables groaning with meats and pies, with cheeses and puddings and cakes and fruit. Great barrels rolled out into the square as the night drew on.

First they entered the Squire’s Hall, a magnificent place of painted panelled walls and chandeliers and paintings on the walls and a vast open fireplace that blazed with golden fire.

Martin was drunk by then, as they all were, even the latecomers. Wine was served, Dusty bottles from the Squire’s own cellars. Rich and warm and garnet red, it was poured and drunk and poured again.

And the Squire rose at the head of the hall, his back to the fireplace and the flames danced behind him as he gave a great speech of welcome. Martin didn’t remember the words afterwards but at the time they all cheered and toasted him. And Martin stood up among them all and replied with words of his own, letting meaningless words of thanks trip off his tongue. He had no idea what he said but no one seemed to notice or care, they cheered him as he finished and toasted him again. And they toasted the Squire, and the town, and the Squire again, and themselves. And there was more dancing, and more wine.

And as they danced and drank  they poured out into the Square, the tables ringing it, a blazing firepit near the centre with the roast pig dripping spitting fat into the charcoal blaze, carved thick and rich and laid out on great steaming platters. And they feasted on its flesh and drank deep of the juices and broke off chunks of bread and cheese, and huge slabs of pie.

And they gorged themselves. And there was plenty. More food than even the town could eat for the Squire knew how to throw a party and his great wealth gave him the means to do it often. Hypnos was alive that night, and Martin danced as the band played on. And he drank as the barrels were burst and the corks popped and the bottle necks broken.

   There were dignitaries and travellers from out of town though Martin hadn’t seen them arrive. Many visitors came to Hypnos, and many stayed after, for as long as they could. Though not a large place to live, the tavern and the Hall both seemed capacious enough for a throng of strangers. Though all seemed like strangers to Martin that night.

He saw a few he recognised, in the firelit crowd. Molly was dancing with three men, being twirled round and round in a circle until they crashed and fell to the floor, laughing at their fall. Bill was embracing a young lady and disappeared soon after. And Esme Bright stood by the fire and watched it all and drank deep, her sons and family beside her making sure her glass was always full. And they watched and for the first time Martin saw that Esme had a broad smile on her face.

   There was no restraint, as the music played. No end to the tunes that were poured out, or to the wines and ales that were drained continuously. The tables still groaned, the pig carcasses still dripped hot juices. The smell of flesh and warm earth and alcohol was thick upon the cool night air. And smoke from the fire mixed with the dancing firelight and the party whirled on and on throughout the red-tinged smoke.

Yet Martin saw this and did not grow uncomfortable but comforted, the darkness and the smoke hid the moor beyond the houses. He could no longer see it between the buildings and at the end of the roads. It hid the people and made them shadows in the half-light. It hid their words and actions in the fierce and leaping music. It hid his own face from them and so they greeted him as an old friend and he greeted them the same.

They all laughed at nothing, or at suggestions of something, or at jokes they didn’t catch or anecdotes they didn’t hear. And there was nothing to fear that night. Nothing to end the moment as it stretched out and eclipsed what had been and might still be; somewhere else but not here.

   And at one point, as the party started to flag Martin, overcome by the noise and the crowds and the dancing, felt his stomach rise and his head heavy and dull and dropping. He fell out of the dance, losing his way in the darkness, stumbling to a wall where his guts spasmed and retched. He staggered away, further from the whirling noises and laughter, trying to find his thoughts, trying to stop things spinning quite so fast as he retched again and fell to his knees.

   And as his throat burned with acrid bile and he wiped the thin vomit from his lips. Martin lifted his head up from his filth and stared into a darkness so total it froze him to the spot and cleared his mind completely. Though he could not see it the moor lay full open and unbroken before him, a vast, infinite space, rolling plains to every horizon.

He felt it there, a presence that was larger than him, that would suck him in and he would be lost.

He heard the wind before he felt it, sharp, cold, whistling. It was not the cold that frightened him, not the feel of it, though that was bad, catching and pinching at his clothes and flicking them against him, rifling between his shirt and skin, no respecter of privacy or his clothes, his attempts to hide and warm his nakedness. It went through his pockets and peered down his shirt. It looked into his eyes and flicked past contemptuously at what it saw there.

It was the sound of it that was worse though, the whistling, the constant, unending noise of it that filled his ears from earlobes to eardrum. It did not stop and in its constancy it told him it would never stop. It was eternal now that it had begun. And it did not care whether he turned into it or hid his face from it or curled into a ball with his hands pressed against his ears so hard it hurt. It would rustle and whistle, that constant sussurant sound. And Martin heard it and felt it as he stared into that empty void, that darkness so total it emptied his eyes of light and sucked his eye sockets dry.

   And he pulled back from that sucking space and fled, falling and staggering back to the noise and light of the town. He stumbled back, finding his bottle where he’d let it fall by the wall and draining it, the alcohol warming him and washing the moor from his vision, to be replaced by the fire and the music and a young woman who laughed and took him by his hands and spun.

And Martin cried for more wine and drank it and the party whirled on, given new legs, and the music blazed fiercer and brighter, and another barrel was breeched, and another for luck. And Martin whirled and drank and drank and drank until the moor was gone and the wind forgotten and all was dance and dream and sight and sound.

And he laughed at nothing and cried for more. And more and more until he fell  face down to the ground, thick mud between his fingers and his teeth and laughing as he was carried up and taken in and laid upon a mattress next to his many other unconscious snoring friends. And he laughed as he fell into a deep, deep sleep, a sleep so deep he did not dream. For the first time since he’d arrived he did not dream. And he was happy.

> Chapter Five

Chapter Three <

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