Orange light spilled down from the horizon like a dry sea. Where the waves crashed, dust was left dripping from the fields and the hills, clinging to the air and the lungs of those who passed. In that light, all was gold.
Two men, slathered in that dryness, one soaked in the weight of long furrows and the other a longer road, sat in a pool of shade, drawn together by nothing save a common thirst. A thirst for water. And a thirst for knowing.
“Strange things,” said one man knowingly, with a slow nod of his head, and a brief stroke of his dirt-blackened hand through his dust-browned beard. “Strange things have befallen these parts. I will tell you that, right off. But if you’ll be wanting more than that from me, you’ll be needing to share yourself.”
The other man nodded in response, and took a drink. He was a smaller man than that across from him, and by comparison, nearly clean. “Strange things have befallen all parts.”
“True enough,” offered the filthy plowman, as he turned his thoughtfully crooked brow towards the furrows, before him, and the road, in whose shadow he lay. “But I could have told that to myself. These ears have heard much, stranger; you’ll be needing to dig a bit deeper to find something as they don’t know much of.”
To this account, the stranger seemed willing to pursue. He leaned forward, and now that the dusty hood had been removed from his head, his details could be more easily made out. Eyes of the most severe and ravaging sort of blue shone out of his weathered face with such intensity that the bearded frowner did not at first notice the brightness of his hair or the strength of his jaw, though these came in turn. “Isn’t it amazing,” said the stranger, “That everyone seems to know the secrets that no one is allowed to tell?”
At this, the large man chuckled. “Yes, that I’ll grant you. And I suppose, though I don’t know much of you, to speak of, that secrets are the trade of a man such as you?”
“Sometimes,” replied the other.
“Then I think that we are not so different. You have your trade, and I have mine, and we both grow weary of our toil beneath the sun. We tumble into shade, now and again.”
“Indeed,” this from the traveler. “I am, I suppose, a merchant of secrets. Though I attempt to avoid being their cultivator. A friend of mine once said that all things planted in the darkness must sprout forth into the light, eventually.”
The farmer lifted his eyebrows. “A wise friend.”
“Perhaps,” said the other. “One accustomed, at least, with nature. Secrets grow in the hearts of men, as grain grows in the soil. In the darkness, they blossom. But they outgrow the darkness, in time, and they spring up.”
“And you are the dealer of such seeds?”
“I am. I carry them. And when necessary, I plant them. But more importantly, I prepare them for their bursting forth.”
“Tell me a secret, then,” said the dirty man, crossing his strong arms, and leaning back into the hill, once his throat was wetted enough, and the skin lay beside him. “And I will, perhaps, give you an answer, if it is an answer that you seek.”
The traveler laughed. “Would you give out your crops for so little?”
The farmer smiled wornly. “Very well. Tell me more about this trade, if not that. You have made me curious, and that is no small feat.”
Pointing his eyes briefly at the far edge of the sky, where a razor drew out the line between blue and gold, the stranger spoke quietly. “We are surrounded by secrets; we are all their merchants, their planters, their tenders. We are all gardeners.”
“Go on,” prodded the farmer, after a pause.
“The spring is such a secret. It comes in, quietly, planted deep beneath the leaves, when the snow falls upon them. And there, in the dark, she grows. The winter knows nothing of her until the time comes, until the darkness can no longer contain her, and she bursts forth. The greatest secret ever kept. And everyone knows it.”
With an unsettled pinch to his brows, the farmer said quietly, “Are you a poet and philosopher as well as a merchant?”
“And a traveler as well. That sword you carry, can you use that too?”
The farmer narrowed his eyes. “You are a great many things, then.”
“We are all a great many things.”
The man laughed, one long burst, and then settled back into his seat against the bank. “Very well,” he said, rubbing more dirt into his beard than it could hold, “you have dully impressed me, even if you have given me nothing to speak of. You are an educated sort, for this part of the world. Many times I have sat here and had my drink with strange men. Perhaps you are the strangest of them all.”
“I would not be surprised,” said the traveler, with a small helping of a smile that he did not seem to indulge in much.
“Whether you are or are not, I will answer a question of you, if I can.”
The question came promptly. “What do you know of the AllDragon?”
Another laugh rang into the orange sky, longer than the last, but settling no deeper than the throat. The man’s eyes were still hard. “I know what everyone knows,” he chuckled.
“How do you know it?” Asked the stranger, seeming to lean closer whether he did or not.
The man shrugged. “I suppose I heard it as a boy.”
“The story is forbidden to tell. But all men know it, don’t they? Why?”
The man looked puzzled. His frown deepened. “It is a legend. And an ancient one.”
“Yes,” the stranger smiled again, a very calculated, measured sort of smile. “One of the best kept secrets in the world. And everyone knows it.”
The farmer chuckled, and this time shook his head in amusement. “I suppose that you are right.”
“Do you believe the legends?” The stranger pursued, to which his companion sighed.
“I believe in few things. I believe that there is a force in the earth that makes the wheat to grow. And I believe that such power may be prevailed upon, by the touch of the rain and the sweat of man’s labors. Nothing more than that. And when it comes to belief, it benefits us little, in these parts. I do not believe in the legend. I have no reason to.”
“Yet,” the traveler set those eyes heavily upon him, “you believe that spring comes after the winter.”
“Yes,” the farmer muttered. “I have lived through enough winters, this last one only so recently passed as it was. I’ll ask you this, stranger: if the legend is true, and the AllDragon lives, then why hasn’t he come? Mind you, I’m not complaining. I’ve got it right, here in this dirt, lowly as it may seem to such important types as you. But there are others. Those up north, it’s their legend. Why hasn’t he come for them?”
He was relieved when the stranger lifted his gaze, and hung it back on the horizon. “Spring must wait until the right time before it can arrive. The winter becomes old; the hammer of time must be lifted, poised to fall. The arm that wields it must grow strong, for it must be strong enough to split the world in two. Spring comes in her time. She always does. Sometimes, she just needs to be awakened. Sometimes, she needs a bell-ringer.”
The farmer did not address him. He narrowed his eyes, and crossed his arms at the strange man. “You might want to be careful,” he said at long last. “People don’t talk like that around here. And oft times, they don’t take too kindly to those folks that do.”
“Careful,” said the man with a distant tone. “Yes. Careful.” His fixed stare, so intent upon the line that separated sky and earth, as though he was trying to read some hidden words, tucked into the crash of color. Eventually, he broke his eyes away, and turned his attention back to the farmer. “One question more,” he said, “and then I will be off.”
“I have heard tell,” he said, “of a young woman who lives not far from here. She is famous, in her own way; even as far away as the border.”
“Nonsense,” laughed the man. “No one is famous out here.”
“She is,” the other argued. “The story is that she found a boy in a forest, and that she took him in, though she was barely fifteen years old, and raised him by herself. The story also says that, by now, she has several such children under her care, all orphaned, none of them her own. They call her many names, and none of them right. Around here, they simply call her ‘the Virgin.’”
At these words, the visage of the farmer darkened, beneath his mask of beard and dirt. He raised a meaty hand and pointed a chipped nail. “Now you see here, stranger,” he said forcibly, “I don’t know what your business is. But if it be ill towards that angelic young creature, so help me, I’ll tear you in half with my own hands.”
“I mean her no harm,” the man said with defensive vigor. “None at all. In fact, I mean to do her as much good as I can. You know her?”
“Aye, I know of her,” he said gruffly. “Everyone around here knows of her. And a more divine creature I’m sure there cannot be. What is your business with her? I’ve a mind to know that much before I let you got a step further, you mark me!”
The stranger did not seem affected. “I am looking for someone—a secret someone, before you ask. And I have reason to believe that she could help me.”
“If that be your business only, then be about it prompt-like,” replied the farmer with the same coldness. “But you mark me. I’d kill you myself, if I thought as you’d be any harm to her. And so would the whole countryside. She’s a dearly loved thing, that child.”
“I understand you perfectly,” said the stranger, eyes passing back along the path he had so long walked. “If I carry on this road, will I find her?”
“Yes. In a small village called Eastgate, though I’ll tell you no more.”
“You have told me what I need. Thank you.” With this, he took up his water-sling and pushed himself up, onto the road again. He straightened the sword in his belt and pulled the hood back over his head, though he wore no cloak to hide the rest of him. “I thank you for your hospitality, friend,” he said.
The farmer had already risen, donned his own sling, and returned to the scene of his plow, which he lifted back up easily, and set into its furrow. “Good fortune be with you, stranger,” he declared. Then, as an afterthought, added, “I should warn you. There’ve been words spread about wild dogs in the area. They hunt about after nightfall, killing flocks up in the hills. I’ve never heard of anything like it, myself. Strange things.”
To this, the mysterious man with the dusty hood let out a long laugh, aimed at the air. He let his heavy eyes dart to the skyline, as though to pin it down, before he turned back to his brief companion. “Dogs?” he repeated, speaking through smiling lips and frowning teeth. “No. Not dogs.” And then, with a nod of farewell, he allowed the last words, “Strange things indeed, my friend. But stranger things are waiting yet. Still… spring will come. She just needs to be woken up.”
And with that, the bell-ringer turned. He eyed the road, and then he set his feet moving along it. The sinking sun draped off his shoulders like a cape, until finally its splendor faded from gold to gray. He shrugged it off, and shrouded in dust, the bell-ringer hung a hand on his sword, and let his eyes hang on the line. The sun would rise, there; soon. When the darkness could no longer contain the secret of its coming.
He filled his nostrils with night-time, and he pushed on towards Eastgate.