My footfalls echo against a lonely path as I tread onward, muscles aching, bones weary. This path which was once so familiar is now so strange to me. It’s been so long, indeed, I had almost forgotten the way…it took a stranger to put me on the right road to my destination. Night is falling. The sun hangs low in the sky, which is streaked with pink and indigo – the palette of an over romantic artist if I ever saw one. It’s beautiful, in a way, but I barely notice. My feet pound against the ground, my soles burning…it’s been a long journey. One that I hope is finally nearing its end.
And then I see it, a sign by the roadside. A stone marker, runes etched upon it with a stone mason’s tool. The work of a patient and precise craftsman no doubt. I stop for a moment to read the inscription. Moss has grown on this stone, it has been here a long time…and yet I cannot profess to having ever noticed its presence despite the many times I must have surely walked by it. I lean forward with one begloved hand and brush away some of the moss that has grown, so that I can make out the markings better. It is written in the script of my homeland, the script I remember studying as a young girl with a deep reluctance, my sword hand itching, eager to be outside and with a weapon in hand, rather than a quill.
“North Castle ~ 10 Miles.”
I cannot help but smile somewhat. It is somewhat ironic, I ponder, that something so small and previously beyond my notice could now mean so much to me. Only 10 miles from home. I draw my hand away from the marker, the sight and touch of it were comforting somehow, and turn back towards the horizon. The sun is lower in the sky now, and there is a chill wind in the air. I proceed onwards, vigour renewed. Home is not far away.
I continue to press forward through the countryside, drawing my cloak around me in order to keep out the cool air of dusk. I can hear little but the own sound of my leather clad feet slapping against the stony road. Before me looms a great hill, thankfully gradual in its ascent, but for this tired traveller, it is enough. It rises from the earth like a sleeping leviathan, a beast dormant and unmoving… I pause for a moment, trying to collect my thoughts. Were I the patient sort, I would set up a camp for the night and sleep til morning before attempting to conquer the hill before me. I have never, in truth, been a patient person.
I draw a flask from my hip and unscrew the lid, taking a quick sip of its cooling contents. I had always known that I would return here to this place, I suppose, but there have been many times that I have wondered if I would ever make it back here. I have travelled the world, seen the best and the worst of humanity…and the best and worst of myself. I have been selfish and vain and self-serving…and yet there have been times when even I have surprised myself by offering the smallest of kindnesses to complete and utter strangers. Aid to those who needed it. I could sympathise, I suppose, with strangers whom I recognised with similarities to myself. Strangers, unsure of themselves, in strange lands, far from home. I wipe my lips with the back of my hand and stopper the flask once more before returning it to my hip. I look at the hill before me, and sigh a little. It is the last obstacle, I hope, of an eventful journey.
Determined, I begin my ascent, and yet I cannot help but feel a touch of apprehension about what awaits me beyond the climb. I cannot even recall the last time I set my eyes on the walls of the place I called home for so many years, but it has been a while. Not quite a decade I suppose, but still. I am not the same person that left that castle all that time ago. And perhaps that is a good thing. And I wonder how much my former home has changed. I remember my own fondness of ‘adding’ things to the castle. It had been one of my favourite past times.
“You’ll love this!” I’d announce with giddy glee, before unveiling some project I had worked on late into the night. “It’ll improve life at the castle tenfold!”
In truth, my claims were never really fulfilled, but the Lady of the Castle would smile and allow me to proceed with my little schemes. I enjoyed doing it. It gave me a sense of purpose. That place gave me something to look at and be proud of and most importantly, be a part of. I have missed that for so long.
Will some new comer have arrived and added their own changes, I wonder? Or will it be unchanged, the same as I left it all that time ago? Those proud blue and white turrets might have seen a touch of paint, perhaps, but nothing more. The great lady was never really one for change. That is what made her different from others of her ilk. That is what attracted me there at the beginning. In an age when others would switch allegiance with each new dawn, our leader flew her flag proudly and with defiance, unwavering and unchanging. Others might change, but she would not, and she would never abandon the principles that had inspired her in the beginning. Even if the place has changed its appearance, as it has before, I doubt the lady herself would have changed.
The backs of my calves are warm as I trudge upwards and onwards. I could pause for rest, but I choose not to. I am close now, close enough to feel the pull of my former home, if that makes sense. It’s only now that I realise how much I have missed it. And those that inhabited it alongside me.
Yes, indeed. What of those who occupied my home with me? For as grand as the castle itself was, it was its occupants that really made it home. During my travels, I have seen many fine castles and cities, beautiful buildings with breathtaking architecture…and yet many have seemed so faceless, so empty. After a while, many of those places, I must admit, began to look the same to me. Mayhap age has made me cynical, but it seemed as if those places had naught to offer me anymore. I got little joy from visiting, and I suppose, they gleaned little joy from playing host to me. Of course, this was not always the case, despite the many disappointments of my travels, I was still fortunate enough to meet many that I was sad to leave. But, still, I was saddest of all to leave behind those that I truly consider family, even if they were not so by blood ties. I wonder, are they still there? Are they still well? I know not. Everything could be different now, I suppose, people come and go. Like I did. Some that I knew left and never returned before I also set out on my own journey. Some that did not return were and are still deeply missed by me, and yet others could come and go with the blink of an eye, with barely a hello or goodbye. Indeed, there were those that might liven things up momentarily, either through rowdiness or uncouthness or rudeness, but thankfully they would vanish as quickly as they had arrived and leave us to resume our usual routine, as if they had never even existed. But although there were those of us who had been there right from the start, we were never afraid to welcome others into our fold, and there were those new comers that would remain and become as much a part of our home as anyone else.
As I continue to climb the tall hill before me, I can’t help but think of how I long to see them all again, even (to my great surprise!) those that might have once been an irritation to me. However, there are a few, in particular, who I especially look forward to meeting again, and I hope with all my heart they will be present to welcome me.
I am not sure how long I have been climbing for now, but my legs ache and a thin veil of sweat has settled on my brow. The sun has almost disappeared now, the sky darkening to a deeper shade of blue, stars appearing in formations of the Goddesses…I see Din high above me, the brightest star in the sky, a guiding light to all travellers the Demiari over. For a moment, I gaze upwards, the night sky fascinating to me. But it is time to move on.
By the time I reach the crest of the mound, a knot of nerves has sunk deep into the pit of my stomach, the wind stinging my eyes, making them water a little. Questions float in my mind, persistently so, filling me with dread and doubt and all manner of negative feelings that I would rather be without. What if none of my friends remain? What if I am returning to something completely different? And if my friends do remain, will they even remember me? Or will I be met with blank faces and puzzled murmurs?
And then I see it, on the horizon, standing tall and proud and as breath taking as ever. Blue turrets and white towers, gleaming in the last rays of sunlight as they vanish beyond the horizon. My heart fills with joy at the sight of it, and I smile. I descend the hill with renewed enthusiasm, fondly remembering all those I left behind. I shake my head, those weighing feelings of doubt at once dispelled by the welcoming sight of my former home. My quickened gait turns to a run as I travel down the hill, picking up speed as I go. Grit and grass fly from beneath my boots, but I don’t care. I just want to reach those gates, be inside those walls. I have gone so long without a place to call home, and now the one location I have ever regarded as such a place lies before me, as if it has always been there. I cannot imagine my life without it. I have gone for so long without it, that is true, but always at the back of my mind it has been there, the one spot of comfort in an otherwise lonely existence.
I run the rest of the way. Even when a stitch scissors up my left side, I keep going. I don’t care. The moon watches with vague amusement, I am certain, at my unnecessary dash, but I really can wait no longer. I reach the gates and find them open, as they always were, and my spirits soar just a little bit higher. Yes. This is the place I remember well. The place that welcomes all travellers, without question, without prejudice. Come as you are, stay a while, make yourself at home. A lone guard nods to me cordially, and I nod back with a grin that no doubt makes me appear a touch unhinged. I walk on, and into the courtyard, breathing deeply, it all floods back. I hear conversation behind the imposing oak doors that lead into the Great Hall, and for a moment I stop dead, just listening. Just taking it in. I close my eyes, my breathing evening out a little. And then, a hand on my shoulder nearly sets me out of my skin.
“Well hello there, a new face I see…” The voice is unfamiliar, the manner is not. I open my eyes and come face to face with a pretty young woman, with dark eyes and hair. She has the look of an actress, I think to myself, and I cannot help but return the smile she is giving to me.
“Well, not quite so new…I was here once…a long time ago.”
The girl smiles, her eyes wide with excitement.
“Oh yes? Well come, it’s getting cold out…come inside and…” she pauses with a thoughtful smile, “reintroduce yourself…”
The nerves are still there, but now, they are like butterflies, fraught with excitement. The girl leads me into the Great Hall, pushing aside the door with a graceful movement I can’t quite fathom.
There are not many in the hall, but there is enough. Some are stood in groups, chatting quietly, while I see others sitting in the corner playing a game with letters inscribed on tiles. A handsome man with dark hair and tanned skin, who was previously engaged in an animated conversation as we entered, turned and broke out into a great smile at the sight of me. I recognise him immediately, and return the smile, every shred of doubt in me instantly dispelled with just one look. He runs over to me and without even speaking, pulls me into a hug.
He exclaims my name with delight, and we step apart, others now looking over to us. I look back. I recognise many friends staring back at me, smiles on their faces, words of welcoming on their lips.
I’ve never felt so lucky. I’m so glad to be home.
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