The Path

Far out over the highlands, and across the moors, where civilized men scarcely roam, and the ones who do return with wild tales of strange spirits and even stranger happenings, out in the far reaches of the wilderness where pagan deities still hold nature in their thrall, there is path. A lonesome, desolate path, once perhaps a road, its stones since ground to pebbles, the pebbles into dust. It slithers through hill and wooded dell, half-choked by the tangled, unkempt whiskers of vegetation growing across its face and shaded along its reach by the gnarled, outstretched limbs of the ancients. Trees, whose life has long since seeped back into the ground beneath their roots, still stand, stiff and twisted by the passing years. Their branches are now cracked, their once rich foliage long-since strewn on the ground, where it has decayed and become the earth from which younger, hungrier life sprouts and dies in its own time. Even in the claustrophobic entanglement of their countless neighbors, these brittle giants exude an aura of aloneness. Their arthritic hands reach out desperately for the touch of another. At first just the tips of their fingers brush up against each other, but slowly, inexorably, they creep closer to each other. As the seasons dwindle and run together, these hands find their way into one another, fingers becoming entwined with their imperfect counterparts. Lifetimes pass in the span of this embrace. The rising sun no longer drapes his golden rays across the leaves of verdant lovers, casting cool shade across a mighty road, as was his wont in days of old. In this age, when the sun shines upon the path at all, the shadows formed take the shapes of solitude and longing. They cling to the weary traveler, and whisper in the wind, hinting at the secrets lying dormant inside each petrified heart. Secrets not fit for men to learn, locked away for eternity in coffins that no mortal hand crafted.

Down the path two men walked side-by-side, the rising sun behind them casting exaggerated shadows across their footsteps.  One shadow was longer than the other, although its owner was really the shorter of the two men.  It was the pointed brown capotain, sitting low on his head that made the illusion. Even pulled almost to his eyebrows, it added at forearm’s length to his height. The base of its vertical cone was circled by a thick but irregularly shaped brim, bent in various places so as to protect his ears and neck from the elements, but turned up in the front so as not restrict his vision. Had it been new the capotain on the shorter man’s head would still not have been something to envy. As it was, the true state of it was somewhere well beyond careworn, its cone was bent, its fibers coming loose. Only the greasy black hair spiking out from beneath the capotain seemed to keep it from coming loose in the overgrowth that crowded the path, but by some miracle, the hat staid in place.

As ragged as was the homespun appearance of the man’s capotain, it was undoubtedly the most well-kept and attractive part of his ensemble. Beneath the oddly shaped hat fell a heavy, wool cloak, completely without form, except for the hood, which he wore tucked up beneath the capotain.  In addition, an over-sized scarf was wrapped about his neck, and bunched over the lower part of his face, obscuring all but his eyes. Cold malevolent things, peering from the shadow like a lurking adder.  The cloak, once brown, but now faded and stained, covered him effectively from his neck to his battered sheepskin boots. There were many loose threads and holes in the cloak, but none big enough to reveal the state of the man beneath it. As he plodded along brambles, briers and dead leaf fragments collected on the surface of his rough-spun garment. From time to time he would reach one of his hands out from beneath the cloak and pick one or two pieces from its surface, as if this futile gesture would somehow protect his garment from further degradation.

Whenever he would stop, his companion would stop as well, and wait for him to resume his progress. In this place, full of stillness and far removed from the creation of civilized gods, both men look alarmingly out of place. The contrast between the men and their surroundings was a strange thing to behold.

Though perhaps not as strange as the contrast between the men themselves. While the shorter of the two men was shabby in appearance, the taller man was clearly of a superior stock. His hat, unlike that of his companion, retained its intended size and shape. It was a brimmed hat as well, but not as tall and flat on top, of the style of the cavaliers, with one side of the brim pinned up. Its grey felt, and the ostrich plume stuck jauntily in its leather band, looked as if they had just come off of the shelf. His double-shouldered cloak, gray on crimson, was unfastened all the way up to the lace color, as if to further show off the elegance of his attire. The jerkin beneath boasted innumerable brass buttons into rows running from top to bottom, and was crossed by a belt with a no less impressive buckle in front. Lower down the elegantly dressed man wore hose, in the old style, with brightly colored, vertical stripes diving into collared boots that were turned down at the knee. These boots were polished to shine like glass in the sun, despite being dyed to the color of pitch. They were turned down just enough to still reveal a few more brass buttons gleaming at their front seems, as if to complete the look. All in all, the man gave the appearance of a sophisticated gentleman, fresh from the tailor.

It was not just his clothing that gave the taller man his aura of prestige. He carried himself in a regal manner, with long even strides that never seemed to falter. His poorly dressed companion seemed to catch his foot at every turn, and was stooped and hunched as he scrambled to keep pace. The same foliage that gave him such difficulty seemed to give the finely dressed man little trouble at all. True, there were some branches he had to duck beneath, but even in doing this he seemed hold his head high and none of the forest debris seemed to accumulate on his attire. It remained as unperturbed as the tranquil expression displayed on his noble face.

As the companions walked, the terrain started to transition from the flatter more densely wooded areas they had been traveling through, into grassy hills which rolled endlessly into the distance, increasing in magnitude as they went. The path here was more rocky, and the dead trees became more sparse, allowing even more of the pale sunlight to illuminate the scene. At its zenith, the great eye peered down the endless expanse of the path. Across its countless miles only the two figures moved: One shabby, one neat, crawling along like ants to a destination known only to one of them.

The going became rougher. The path here mostly trailed through the valleys between the hills but there were still great rises and drops, with steep pitches and shifting rock on its surface. Once the shabby man slipped, fell, and scraped his knee. He cursed, in an ancient tongue, the first words either man had said since they had begun their journey. The elegant man stopped and offered him a hand, inquiring as he did if they should take a break. The shabby man shook his head and refused the helping hand, rising to his feet on his own. The elegant man said not a word as he turned and continued down the path. He could not sense it, but from behind two eyes pierced him with an evil glare.

The day wore on as they walked, each in his own way. Though the day was not hot, the pair had crossed many miles wearing heavy clothing. More than once a bottle of water was produced from the folds of the finer cloak, and after taking his drink, the tall man would attempt to pass it to his shabby companion. Each time it was refused. After the third attempt, he merely shrugged and put the bottle back in its place, but for the first time that day, the look on his face changed, ever so briefly, from peacefulness to puzzlement.

The path dipped beneath a brook at one point, which had to be crossed by jumping from stone to stone. Although the water was running it was murky and gave off a foul odor. Absorbed in finding a suitable way to cross, the elegant man did not notice the shabby man stop at the brook’s edge and crouch down. From somewhere in his wretched cloak he produced a small wooden bottle of his own and filled it from the brook, drank it down, and filled it again. All the while his eyes remained fixed on the elegant man. There was no mistaking the hatred in them.

Onward they walked, the path sometimes more an illusion than a discernible track. As the sunlight over the hills changed angle and developed all the colors of dusk, the elegant man and the shabby man both agreed to find a suitable spot for the evening while there was still some light. As desolate as the path was during the day, it was terrifying to be out upon at night.

They found a suitable boulder, twice the height of a man and with a flat face. In front of this they scooped out an indentation in the earth and ringed it with rocks. The scenery here was greener but they were still able to scrounge a suitable quantity of dry wood to keep them through the night. Spark was set to the kindling and soon a fire roared in the cold night air, keeping at bay both the chill and the heavy sense of unease that settled over the path at night like a damp blanket. With their tasks complete the men sat before the fruit of the effort, their backs to the boulder, and knees pulled up towards their chests.

Full night had set rapidly and both men were eager for the day to come. The elegant man took a small pouch from his belt, removed some bread and meat. A meager fare it was for one so finely arrayed, with naught but water to wash it down. But for the hungry traveler, a feast it must have seemed. He looked towards his companion as he ate, as if making a consideration. But the shabby man appeared to be sleeping. His face was buried in a mound of wool with a pointed cap for a summit. The elegant man finished his meal, put the remains back in the sack, and set it on the ground between the two. Then he again tucked up his knees, pulled his hat over his eyes, and fell fast asleep.

Around midnight hunger awoke the shabby man and he stirred. Lifting his head slightly he peered about, taking stock of his surroundings, the state of the fire, and his sleeping companion. His gaze stopped when it landed on the sack. Stealthily he slid his hand out and snagged it, pulling it back carefully so as not to wake the sleeper. When he had it, he retrieved some of the bread inside, and gnawed it hungrily.  He consumed a sizable portion in a few quick bites. There was more, and he was still hungry, but he returned it and set the sack back where it had been. After that he stoked the fire and added some fuel to keep it burning. With one more devilish look at the elegant man, he returned to his own sleeping posture, and was still.

He awoke only for the briefest of instants. A fraction of a clock’s tick, time enough only to feel his face being seized and head smashed back against the boulder at his back. Then the jarring pain and unyielding pressure of metal piercing his throat, just above the collarbone, and travelling down into his torso. His breath caught and wheezed out as the blade sliced through tissue and organs. Then it was gone. The hot blood that once fueled him welled up in the empty space left behind, and cooled as it began to pool inside of that which had once been a man.

When the sun broke over the hills, the fire was down to embers. The elegant man stretched out his legs in front of him, and reached his hands into the crisp morning air. He rose slowly, taking his time to limber up for the day’s trek.  Bags had formed beneath his eyes from the rough night’s sleep and his chin was stubbled, but already the benign expression he had worn the previous day had begun to work its way onto his features. He picked up the sack that lay between him and his shabby companion and surveyed its contents. Reaching into the sack, he pulled out what was left of the bread, its one side chewed upon as if by an animal. He pondered it for a moment. Then he smirked.  It was a look so unlike the one he normally wore that the transition can only be compared to a mask being pulled over his face. But there was no living soul to be shocked by this change, and as quickly as that inhuman smirk appeared, it was gone. Carelessly, the elegant man tossed the gnawed-on loaf on the ground next to where the shabby man still sat, propped against the rock. Then he turned and made his way back to the path

Rain began to fall gently across the hills. Smoke billowed from the hissing embers. Blood mixed with the falling water and seeped into the earth.

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