A company of voices, each talking loudly over one another, traveled through the stagnant night air and into the opening high atop the keep. They came to rest inside the man’s ear as he sat at his table, reading patiently by the guttering light of a candle flame. Looking towards the open window with its high stone arch, he swept his pewter colored hair behind the offended ear and tilted his head to listen.
He had envisioned this very moment each day—a hundred times a day—and yet, now that it had arrived, it was all wrong somehow. It wasn’t long enough; he needed more time. The throng of voices was nearer now, moving like a leviathan through the narrow streets of the sleeping town. Why couldn’t the whole world be like this town? he thought.
His mind—that last companion—refused to be seduced by any naïvetés that they may pass him by like a summer tempest, bound for a different runaway enshrouded in a different keep. They were here for him and him alone. With him in hand, they would be gone in an instant. Without him, they would never relent. He gently closed the book on the table in front of him.
When the voices reached the broad oak door at the lower level of the keep, their individual shouts combined to create a unified, undulating bellow. Those closest to the door began to pound on the thick barrier, their angry fists and small tools thumping, menacingly but harmlessly, far below. Heavier tools soon found their way closer to the door, and the night sky was filled with the sound of wood pounding against wood, drowning out the threatening shouts.
The man stood slowly from his table and walked to the window. Looking below, speckles of torch flames illuminated the faces of his former contemporaries in convulsions of shadow and light: bakers and bankers; doctors and dancers; priests and presidents, their castes temporary forgotten in the spirit of the hunt.
They won’t stop until they have their prize, he thought, like the hound after the hare, or the falcon in pursuit of the field mouse, their singular focus—brief as it may be—is as undeniable as the tide. He stepped away from the window and returned to his table. Papers were piled into neat stacks, the stack themselves covering nearly every inch of the surface. I could burn them all, he thought, looking over to the fire blazing in the hearth. No, that wouldn’t do any good, he thought and turned away from the table.
The keep had been built so long ago that its original purpose was forgotten. When the man first fled—making his way from crack to crevasse in the hostile landscape—it had sat empty, and the gentle townspeople had quietly looked the other way as he occupied the tower’s top floor. The lower door was strong, it had been built to deny those who would impose themselves. With its thick oak beams bound together with rolled steel fittings, the door was twice the height of a man and would accommodate a horse and cart with ease. Still, the man knew that before the sun could chase the stars to bed, the heavy door would fall.
The man crossed the single room to the little door on the far wall. The pounding on the heavy wood below echoed up the spiral stone stairwell, and he closed the door to shut it out. The upper door was a miniature facsimile of the one below and would not defend him for long, but he still felt better when its thin iron latch was locked from within.
Would they all be down there? he wondered. Maybe it would only be some of them, the more zealous, perhaps, he tested his reason. No, he knew, if one came, it’s the same as if they all come. And those that haven’t come yet, will. No one stays gone forever.
Outside, the pounding below became more urgent. Their anger for him mutated into anger for the heavy wooden barrier, and soon the shouts were of equal scorn for both the door and the man beyond. The crowd grew in numbers, with new, smaller groups of vigilantes arriving, eager to participate in the hunt.
The man walked over to a small trunk on the floor beside his bed. Removing a few items from the top, he opened the lid. Inside were the remains of the person they came for—the man they had come to bring back to their world. He reached in and pulled out a shirt and a pair of trousers. He looked at them as the candlelight splashed shadows around the small room and remembered how the coarse fabric felt on his skin.
Would they be kinder if, when they saw me, I looked like them? he wondered. He removed his soft cotton night clothes and put on the attire of those down below. It can’t hurt, he thought, tossing his night clothes onto the bed. I’ve done nothing wrong though, he thought in his own defense, I was never meant to live there—I was never meant to live with them.
Below, a new sound dominated the night and for a moment all pounding and shouting ceased. The labored groaning and creaking of crude wheels signaled the arrival of the machines. He had once built such machines. He operated them, directed their use, and designed bigger and better ones when possible. It wasn’t only fair to bring them—it was fitting. Like the Israelite army with their Ark, the machines were the gods of those wielding them below.
The man looked once more around the room. He walked back to the table and picked up one of the stacks of paper. Not these, he thought as he held them, they can’t have these. He walked over to the hearth and tossed the letters onto the burning logs. That’s it, he thought, and pulled the chair into the middle of the room, facing the door, and sat down to wait.
The loud pounding below suddenly changed in pitch. Instead of the dull thumping as before, now the wood screamed out in shrieks as the heavy oak beams began to split and splinter. Emboldened by their progress, the people chopped and hacked with renewed vigor. Soon the breaches grew longer as large swaths of the door finally surrendered, unable to endure any longer.
The man brushed his hair behind his ear again and crossed his leg over his knee. He could hear their hurried footfalls climbing the smooth, worn, stone steps. Quickly, they were at the small door at the top of the keep. They paused for a moment and one tentatively checked the handle from the other side. Finding it locked, they became incensed and clawed angrily at the flimsy wood.
Inside the room, the man stole one last glance around the world he had built for himself. He had built it alone, and he had built it away from them. While it had been all he ever wanted, it was all they had forbidden. They who knew no depravity, no sacrilege. They who built gods to sacrifice to themselves and worshipped perversions masquerading as mere indulgences. They who gorged themselves on decadence and overdosed on opulence.
And he had left—that could not be forgiven or forgotten.
The door on the far wall shuddered with exhaustion. As the latch began to bend—perilously close to coming unmoored from the wall—the man stood up. He would meet them on his feet and, whatever followed, they would at least be forced to say that about him.
The door burst inward in a shower of wood splinters and angry faces. They flooded into the room like a rogue ocean wave—undeniable and unreasonable. He could smell the smoke from the torches mixed with their sweat, and their screams drowned the world out in blinding sound as the first man reached him.
The man woke with a shock and sat upright, panting in the dark room. He waited for his breathing to return to normal before he swung his feet onto the cool stone floor. Standing, he walked over to the arched window and looked out over the sleeping town below. A dog barked from somewhere on the far edge of town and he listened to its owner yell for it to be quiet.
Somewhere, over those black hills, they’re coming, he thought as the breeze toyed with the ends of his pewter hair. It may take them a week, a year, or a decade, but they’re coming, he thought to himself and walked over to his table to light the candle.
Outside, a brown leaf—its own life a bittersweet memory to the tree—surrendered to the soft night breeze and scrapped noisily across the stone patio until it came to rest against the heavy oak beam of the door below.
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