Alden lifted his head from his pillow and looked north toward the mountains. They seemed no nearer. How long had it been? On the twenty-fifth day after he had left the ancient, abandoned trade route, the wind had snatched away the calendar a monk in Constantinople had given him. He had not been in the mood to track the days since.
He pushed the blanket aside and sat up on his bedroll, scratching his head and rubbing his chin. His rucksack carried a razor, comb, and mirror, but he had not been in the mood to use those lately, either. The stubble had not yet grown into a beard, but would, with time, if he did not shave, soon.
His empty stomach rumbled. While he still had dry bread from the day before, he preferred to see if there was anything nearby he could gather. Although he had a fishing line and hooks, he had yet to see a stream or a pond on this flat land leading to the mountains. Occasional springs or wells along the way kept him supplied with water, as did the ample debris on either side of the road.
These spoils reminded him of what was left in the wake of a rapidly retreating army. Certainly he had, in his past, been part of a force that had been routed, as well as in groups that had gathered the abandoned goods of an army in retreat. He stood to better survey the bounty surrounding him: wooden wheels (broken and whole), blankets, clothing (fine silks to rough wool), and…ah!...crockery. Plates. Utensils. That meant food.
He walked in that direction and rummaged through a pile. Yes…cheese, honey, figs…butter! He sniffed at the contents of a pottery container, dipped a finger in it, and tasted. The butter seemed unspoiled. In fact, he had not yet found rotten food in his searches. Curious, since he had not seen anyone else around. Surely if the food was fresh, those abandoning it had to be close by? He shrugged, gathered his goods, and returned to his bedroll, where he ate a hearty breakfast. The remnants he wrapped in a cloth and put in his rucksack. After folding his blanket and bedroll, and stuffing in his pillow (a welcome find early in his journey), he shouldered the sack, stepped on the road, and continued his journey.
About mid-morning, a wagon, a large open wooden box on wheels drawn by a couple of oxen, came into view, approaching him from the north. As it approached, Alden could see the driver, a strongly-built, balding man. Two childish faces peered over the side of the box. A worn-looking woman rested her back on the opposite side.
The man drew the oxen to a halt when Alden was opposite him. The children scrambled out and went exploring.
“No use going on,” the man said, without preamble. “There's nothing there.” Alden looked from the man to the mountains and back again.
“I know,” the man said. “You heard the stories about a hidden kingdom where peace reigned over all. So did I. But we've been traveling for weeks and still haven't found the place.” He inclined his head northward. “Ever notice the mountains don't seem to get any closer?”
Alden nodded. “Yes.”
“A mirage. It has to be. Finally the wife and I got fed up and turned back. We'll take up with her family in the Alps. It's not an easy life, but we'll be spared armies marching through every few years.”
A sudden, loud sound made Alden cringe and cover his ears. T
he man turned. “Just one of the young ones dropping a hammer on the road.” He threw Alden a sympathetic look. “Why not come with us? We have room.”
Alden slowly put his hands down, straightened up, and shook his head.
The man also shook his head. “You won't find anything back there, believe me. Just more road and more wreckage. Guess a lot of folks wanting peace and quiet just gave up and ran home as fast as they could, from the look of things.” “
No, travelers would keep whatever supplies they could carry. What I see are signs of an army in headlong retreat, running for their lives.”
The man sat back a little. “Yes, I heard that there was some sort of power in the land that struck fear in the hearts of invaders and kept it at peace.” He shrugged. “But I tell you, we saw nothing to make us afraid, just more of this.” He raised an arm to gesture at their surroudings.
“Godspeed, then, to you and your family.”
The man gripped the reins again. “Luck go with you, friend.”
Alden nodded and continued walking. Behind him, he heard the man shouting instructions to the children to put what they had gathered into the wagon so they could travel on.
The sun was kind and the weather held. Now that he thought of it, all the time he had been walking, there had been neither fierce heat nor bitter cold. No rain had dampened his cloak. Sometimes a wind would come up, strong enough to snatch anything he held loosely, but with grassland on either side of the road, at least he had not been pelted by sand or grit…and the wind would die down quickly.
He felt he had no choice but to plod on. After years of soldiering, the cannon fire, the report of guns, the screams…had all become unbearable. Once he obtained his last release, he had settled in a town, doing the work of a laborer, but found that any sudden loud noise unnerved him. Nightmares interrupted his sleep. Sometimes at meals he would sit at a table, mindlessly staring at a wall, unaware of any activity around him until a server or barkeep told him to leave.
One day he realized he could not go on this way. He remembered the stories traded around the campfires after a battle. A story that came up more than once was a tale of a kingdom of peace. Once, a comrade even drew out a map. While others scoffed and turned their attention to wineskins, Alden had leaned over while his comrade traced the route on a map – a long-disused route from Constantinople to the empires in the East. As a hired guard, Alden had traveled a similar route from Rome through India with merchants who bought and traded goods. His fellow soldier said he would go there once he had his release and invited Alden to go with him. Alden declined, but when he buried his friend after the next battle, he saved the map. (As soldiers do, they had made a pact that if something happened to one of them, the other could take what they wished.)
Without breaking stride, Alden turned to the mountains again. He felt he had no choice but to reach this legendary realm. His life was no good elsewhere. Even if the land was a fable, even if the supplies at the side of the road ran out, he would keep walking until the end of his life, one way or the other.
One day, in the afternoon, a fog rolled in. He stopped and looked around. He could not see much farther than an arm's reach. The road at his feet was clear, however. He walked ahead slowly, carefully, and soon heard what seemed to be the squeaking of wheels. He had not seen anyone ahead of him earlier, but perhaps he had caught up with someone?
Alden gasped, jumped, and covered his ears. When he put his hands down, he heard a male voice grumbling. Lifting his head, he saw that the fog had dispersed a little. In front of him was a small cart, leaning over to one side. The wheel had come off. A man stood over the wheel, looking down, arm gripping the side of the cart.
Alden walked over. Examining the axle, he said, “The wheel isn't broken. We should be able to put it back on. The pin just broke.”
The man sighed and faced Alden. “If we can find a pin. And the tools. And lift up the cart to put it back on. I'm afraid I don't have the strength I did in my younger days.”
“Let me see what I can do.” He looked into the cart. “Do you have anything? A staff?”
The man shook his head. “Just finished my deliveries for the day and am on my way home.”
“Let me see if there's something at the side of the road.”
“Hah. As if there are treasures there.”
“You never know.” The fog seemed to have lifted a little more and light seemed to be shining through. He took off his rucksack and set it at the side of the road before looking around. The man was right; there did not seem as much debris there as there had been before. Still, on just about any road he had ever traveled, there would be something. Scrounging, he picked up broken boards which might be pulled apart for shoring up the axle or using as pins. When his hands were full, he put the boards in the cart, and saw a long peg there, and a hammer. Thinking that the man had simply forgotten they were there, he took them, and the boards. Using some nearby rocks, and Alden's strong shoulder, the two of them managed to lift the axle, put on the wheel, and insert the peg.
When they were finished, the man dusted off his hands. “Thanks, stranger. Lucky you found that peg and the hammer.”
“Aren't they yours? I got them from the cart.”
He shook his head. “No, my cart was empty.”
“Maybe you forgot?”
“Haven't seen that hammer before.”
Alden thought maybe a family member or customer had put it in without the man knowing. In any case, it was not a matter worth arguing over. “I'll just leave it with you.” He put it in the cart. “You might need it again.”
“Thank you, friend.” He appraised Alden curiously. “You new here?”
Alden nodded. “We do get folks coming in from time to time. Here, come sit up in front with me and I'll drop you at a place where you can get room and board.”
The sun came out. Alden looked up…and up…and up.
The man followed his gaze. “Not seen mountains before, friend?”
That morning, the mountains had seemed far away as ever. Now, they appeared to be only a few miles away.
The man waited patiently as Alden collected himself.
“Oh, yes,” Alden said at last. “Much obliged. Thank you.”
The man drove to a sturdy-looking inn and drew to a halt. Alden took his rucksack and jumped off. They exchanged a friendly wave and warm farewells. Alden stepped off the road and the man traveled on.
As Alden shouldered his rucksack, he looked around. The stone streets, he saw as they had traveled, were remarkably clean. The raised walkways at the edge of the streets were also clean. They were not crowded, but not empty, either. People walked to their destinations, singly or in groups, going in and out of shop doors or pausing to look at wares through windows. Clothing varied, but most wore what Alden was familiar with through his travels: breeches and boots, shirts and coats, skirts and dresses. None paused to stare at him, which was a relief.
He pushed the door of the inn until it opened and stepped inside. Several wooden tables stood empty, with chairs pushed in around them. At his right stood a counter where five men sat. Behind the counter, a man turned to him and gestured with an arm.
“There he is, men, the next king of the realm!”
Alden turned. Had someone come in behind him? No, the door had closed and latched. He turned back to the speaker.
“Yes, you! I mean you! King of the realm!”
The men at the counter raised mugs and grinned. “To the next king of the realm!”