The sea advanced in and out on the shore, consistent and unchanging. To me it seemed, as I sat on the beach and watched it, that this very consistency mocked me, telling me how it goes on as it always has whilst I could not.
For hour after hour I sat, neither able nor willing to muster the strength of body or mind required to pick myself up and move on. I had lost everything: everything I had loved and everything I had not. It was not even that I felt miserable; I simply did not see the point of doing anything but stare at the waves. I would tell people, in the inns and on the ships where I first recounted my tale, that I had hoped to find an answer in the dancing white and blue, but I realise now that I had no such delusions. I stared only because I did not care what I did, and to change would have required some sort of effort.
After however many hours it was, though, something changed. Nothing tangible, nothing at all measurable, but it was perhaps the greatest change in my life. I do not know what caused it. Maybe it was fate, maybe the grace of God, or maybe some part of me had just got bloody sick of the sea. Whatever way, something gripped me on that sand, some new feeling: a grim determination, a small flame that refused to be dowsed, a sudden urge to fight back. I was lost, stranded alone on some God-forsaken beach with little more than the sodden clothes on my back, but for some reason I made a decision, a promise to myself: that I would never give up again.
I bent down for my revolver as I walked from the sea, which had lain discarded, unwanted, on the sand. And, with its familiar weight back in my hand, I set about finding where I was. And who was in need of some lead.
"Welcome to Port Good Faith," the sign said in faint, frayed lettering, but the fact that it was five feet from the road and half submerged in mud said more about the approaching town than the words on it did. Port Good Faith itself was splayed out before me at the bottom of the hill, and had seen better days. Docks, which once must have accommodated fleets of ships, had collapsed into the water, the stumps that remained covered with algae. I could make out a single boat still tethered there, bobbing up and down in time with the beating of the waves. There was a figure, barely visible from distance and clouded sky, slumped against the wheel; from the glint of smooth, cream-coloured forehead that I could see, he had been there a long time.
The buildings of the town had all collapsed, only the barest shadow of their former selves still showing. Mother Earth had already begun retaking her former territory, with all manner of low shrubs and even small trees sprouting from the streets and buildings. The great stone lighthouse was the only thing that remained remotely similar to how it must once have been, towering over the landscape as the last, fleeting monument to man's old dominion. Even that, though, was green with ivy, and a rough puddle of stones had formed at its base.
As I approached by the eastern road, however, I noticed another building, standing as firm and intact as if Port Good Faith were still standing firm around it. A warm glow came from inside, making its way through the cracks in the shutters and door to form soft, fractured beams on the path outside. It was two stories high, made of dark wood, and as wide as a couple of town houses. A sign stuck out over the road, creaking as it swung in the wind. It read: "The Boar's Head." An inn, then.
It seemed so entirely out of place that I was wary of it, and considered moving on. But the glow seemed inviting, and my legs were tired and my mouth dry, so I decided to compromise and listen by the door for a while. When barely a sound came from the inside, I put my hand by my gun and opened the door without allowing myself to think about it.
"Good evening, traveller," someone said, before I had had any time to take in the room. "It's good to see a man on the road these days, so it is." The warmth of the inn swallowed me whole, and I did not even think to reply. I looked around the room instead: at the roughly hewn wooden chairs and tables, the staircase by the far wall, the crackling fireplace to the left. To the right was the bar, and behind this was a man, cleaning a mug with a stained cloth.
"No need to keep your weapon so cosy, no there ain't," the man said, smiling. "I haven't got no plan o' killing you, no I ain't." I let my arm fall limp, literally and figuratively disarmed by the man's manner. He was short, fat, and balding, with his face carved in line with his smile. But in his eyes was something strange, something different to anything I had seen before or since. At first I thought it steel, but that was wrong, for steel is hard and cold, and with fire and hammer can still be broken. No, this man's eyes were far, far, stronger than steel, but somehow soft as well; he looked like he could face down the devil and all his demons, and do it with a warm smile still on his face.
"Durwin's me name, if yer were wondering," he said, the essence of a chuckle permeating his every word. "And ale's me game, I do suppose. What be your tagline, traveller?"
"I do not tell my name to strangers," I said. I learnt from my mistakes.
"Whatever you wish, whatever that be," Durwin said, turning to the rack of barrels behind him. "Come and pull up a seat whatever the way; there be a storm a' coming, and I don't suppose you'll be travelling much more tonight, no I don't." I walked towards the bar; I had also thought I'd felt the storm in the air, and did not fancy sleeping in the open.
"Here yer go, good sir," Durwin said, sliding a mug of frothing ale across the table so full that a few drops fell from the rim. "On the house, so to speak." I took a sip with great caution, and suddenly my mood brightened. I could feel the ale making its way down my throat, feel it coursing through my body. I took another sip, then a gulp, marvelling at the restoration of my aching limbs. It was a feeling like no other: the rapid, wonderful transformation from what I had become to a strength and vigour I could barely remember ever having possessed.
"What is this?" I asked, staring at my mug.
"Just a bit o' me brew," the barkeep said. "Just what I thought you needed, is all." For a while I just sat and drank, and Durwin returned to his various cups and bottles. After a while, though, he came back to my part of the bar.
"Do tell me, if you will, and I hope you will," Durwin said, "what you be doing 'round this part o' the world. Ain't nobody else 'round for miles and miles, not really." I raised my head, looking at him. Part of me wanted to tell him, to spill myself out onto his round, trustworthy face. But I withheld.
"I do not spin tales to any old fool who asks," I said. Knowledge is power, and knowledge over someone power over them. This was a lesson I had learned the hard way.
"Now, talk to me like that too much and you won't get no more ale, no you won't," Durwin said, chuckling very softly. "And don't give me any of that ol' nonsense, there ain't never been no harm done through a tale told in the Boar's Head, not in times been and not in times yet to be, so I'm sure." He looked at me with such a cheerful, innocent smile that I believed him and, despite everything, I sighed out and decided to reveal a bit.
"I fled," I said, "like the rest. I ran away with my wife and my kids, over the mountains and on to the plains. We reached the lakes, even, us and a thousand others." I stared down into my ale, and took another sip. "We heard stories, coming along the road. It had been bad when we had left, that is true, bad enough for us to run, if in the hope of return. But what we heard was something else, death on a scale worse than we could have imagined. And I suppose I just couldn't cope with the shame of leaving my country at a time like that, leaving my people to burn." I paused again, now wholly in my story.
"We got together, a whole band of us. A hundred, probably two all told, with revolvers on our hips and rifles on our backs. We rode all the way back, back into the land of the dead." I paused again, closing my eyes. "Two hundred, all told. We never had a chance." There was a long silence now, the barkeep staying where he was.
"You're hiding a lot, I see," he said eventually, "but that's fine. It be no place o' mine to wrangle out of you what best be kept locked inside." I breathed out, now actually feeling relaxed. And then the obvious question struck me.
"Why are you still here?" I asked. "How are you still here?"
"Oh, I tend to stay where I am needed," Durwin said. "Wasn't too much of a hassle, not really, not when you know how." But the other question occurred to me, the one which had been on my mind since I had started my journey, even as he spoke, and the rise of this question quelled the rising of the many others that the last answer would otherwise have provoked.
"Where are we?" I asked.
"In the Boar's Head," Durwin said, a playful smile strong on his lips.
"But where is that? Where is Port Good Faith? Last time I knew where I stood I was in Rusdinium." Durwin whistled out slowly.
"That's quite a long way away indeed, so it is," Durwin said. "I am afraid to say that you might have a mighty hard time indeed if you be wishing to get back there."
"I am not."
"Nonetheless, I don't suppose that I could say much too meaningful 'bout where we be, no I don't. Rusdinium's in another place entirely, so it is, the one you know of anyway." I stared at him for a while, trying to make sense of what he was telling me.
"Where are we?" I tried once more.
"In another place," Durwin said. "Snotumheim, they call it, though that won't mean much to you."
"No," I said, shaking my head. I tried to remember how I had ended up on the beach, but I could not. All my memory was still there, or so it seemed; I had not forgotten anything, but it just didn't seem to make any sense, like a perfectly recalled dream. Then something that Durwin had said sprung out at me. "They call it? Who are you?"
The barkeep chuckled. "Sharp ears and sharp mind, so you do have, if I see. I am merely a barkeep, trying to make his difference in times o' darkness. Trying to help, so you may say. And you are no different, no I don't think."
"I want vengeance," I said. "Not to help."
"If so, then you are a fool, I am afraid," said Durwin. "But I do not think it so, no I don't; I think you a wise man. And I think you wise enough to take some advice, so I hope." He paused for a while, looking at me. His smile, for the first time, went, and he looked at me with a stare that could pin God Himself in place. "May I talk to yer straight? Straighter than I have ever spoken to a man I have known for such a little time?"
"You may," I said, and took another sip of my ale.
"This world's in darkness," he said, keeping his stare in place, "as is yours. Darkness deeper and blacker than most I've seen, to be sure, and a darkness which is growing. You, nameless traveller, may stop it, so I believe and so I do. But first you must lay your gun down on the table, right here." He patted his hand on the surface.
For a while we just looked at each other, staring straight at the others eyes. "No," I said. If any other had asked such a thing I would have just laughed at their insolence, but not to Durwin: not to those eyes of something far stronger than steel. To him I needed to justify myself, and it was all I could manage to not give in. "There are men who must pay."
"Look," Durwin said, "I have seen many a world, many much stranger than you can imagine, but always they have three things, three things they hold most dear: the course of destiny, the might of gods and the power of the warrior: the delivering of death. Always when the darkness comes this is what they fall back on, fall back far and deep. But I tell you, the light will never return this way, for fate cares only that the story will run, gods care only that they stay in charge and death cares only for death itself. No, from these things the light will never come, cross me heart and swear on all I hold dear, and they have nothing to do with the Boar's Head and the Boar's Head has nothing to do with them, no it don't. Now put your gun on the table. Please."
"No," I said once more, almost whispering. "I shall see the blood of the men who have wronged me and my people. If I could not have that pleasure I would give up now." Durwin looked at me for a while, before breathing out a long, heavy breath.
"Well, I just hope you see the error of yer ways before it becomes too late to change them," he said, shaking his head. Then his usual smile returned in full force. "Anyway, enough of all that doom and gloom for tonight, so I say, so I do. Here, your mug looks almost spent! Give it here, I say!" So I smiled with him and gave him my mug.
The rest of that night would be swiftly forgotten, a happy blur of stories and laughing, but the start of that evening, the sight of Durwin's eyes staring as firm as the cosmos itself: that would stay with me forever, and I would ponder each and every one of his words again and again. I can only thank God that I did. Why I did not obey them then, I do not know, for I certainly saw that they were true. But then I did not seem to care. Then I cared only for the blood of the King.
I had the dream for the first time that night, sleeping in one of the upper rooms of the Boar's Head. I was in some city where all the buildings were made of smooth, grey, perfect stone, and I was wearing a long coat and huge great boots. I could hear my footsteps echoing around me as I walked, bouncing off the walls on either side.
I walked on, round a couple of bends into more tight alleyways. I knew exactly where I was going, and I never slowed my pace to check where I was or remember the way. Then I rounded a third bend, and started down another alley. Here a window opened on to the street, and I paused by it. The sound of laughter and the smell of meat poured out, and then there was a loud crash. The noise stopped for a few seconds, and then continued, louder than ever.
I turned to face the end of the street. There was the corner, the fourth and final, in front of me. I shifted my weight to make my first step towards it, feeling it pull me onwards.
Then there was a jolt, and I found myself staring at the plain roof of the Boar's Head, feeling my mind readjusting itself for reality. I told myself it was nothing, that dreams don't mean a thing. I would learn how wrong I was, in time, but for now I just fell back to sleep, to dream of trivial things not worthy of mention or relevant to this story. The road ahead was long indeed, that I had somehow gleamed despite not knowing where I was to go, and I needed rest.