For the last time, he checked his own pack, the pack on his horse, his horse and even his armour and sword. Everything was ready but him.
“You will be just fine, my dear,” his wife cooed to him, kissing him gently on his lips, “Don’t worry about it, it will all turn out just fine and you will get the answer you have been searching for.”
He smiled at her and kissed back deeply. She tasted faintly of cherries and he knew that he would miss her the most.
He turned and patted his horse. The horse was a fine beast; large, black and excellently trained. The second finest from their stables. His wife had the finest, though he had not yet told her so. He probably never would, as the knowledge of this made him feel good and he did not want her to feel bad about it.
He checked his sword, clicked a stirrup in and swung up onto his horse. He took the reins firmly before turning back to look at her one last time.
“When I return from my quest, my love,” he said, blowing her a kiss, “I will know. I love you and will love you even more by then.”
The original rations had finished and the quaint, cottaged countryside had long since been left behind. He had overnighted in a couple of dirty inns in small villages and paid by coin, but, mostly, he had slept in barns and the common-rooms of farms along the way and paid poor peasants with tales of his knighthood and news from the other towns.
Eventually, these farms had run out and he had had to find soft, grassy fields to sleep in under the twinkling stars.
And then, eventually, the soft, grassy fields had run out too. The countryside had gotten wilder, the bushes thicker and the shadows darker. The nights still displayed the bejeweled-cosmos overhead but soft rustles, strange howls and even stranger, more scary sounds now penetrated the darkest hours.
He missed his wife and thoughts of her alone kept him going and got him through those nights. She would appear in his dreams, lying beside him. He would hold her as she kissed his cheek gently before awakening at first light beside his horse, his one hand absentmindedly patting her and the other around his sword-handle.
And then he left the countryside behind altogether as the land sloped upwards. At first, this slope was slow but soon he was climbing cliffs by his fingernails.
He had had to leave his horse behind. He had taken off all her straps and watched as she trotting back the way they came. He hoped she reached somewhere safe and someone took good care of her. Perhaps she would even make it back to their stables and his wife?
The thought had almost made him cry but–hours later hanging by his fingertips with certain death far below him–the feeling was expunged from his mind.
He had a quest and it was bigger than him.
The wind was icy and unforgiving atop the mountain. It cut through his clothing and chilled to the bone while it howled by him screaming in his ears.
In fact, he was sure he could actually hear it howling. Faintly but audibly, he was sure that he could hear the screams of things unnameable on that wind.
Perhaps it was the ice demons that haunted these peaks or even the darker things that hid in the cracks and shadows of this world? Perhaps it came from outer space as the sky at this heigh no longer held day or night, but only a purplish hue akin to twilight?
He gritted his teeth, warmed only by the thought of his wife, and plodded on and up the highest peak that held the entrance to the deepest dungeon.
As he descended into the gaping maw of the dungeon, the howling oblivion of the wind receded and was replaced by a cold, creeping darkness.
This ancient dungeon had been cut into the solid rock in another age before the land has broken asunder and the mountains had raised it up high. But it remained a dungeon and lay unbroken with old magic wrought into its cold iron cells that still held its original prisoners.
Most were long dead or mad with isolation but right at the bottom in the last cell there resided the Witch Queen. Cold and immortal, she alone held the answers of the past and all possible futures.
Quieter and quieter, the darkness built up around him as he inched cautiously deeper into the dungeon. The spluttering torch he held cast flickering, haunting shadows around him while its small light barely penetrated the ancient darkness held within those old tunnels.
He passed by iron door after iron door. Most held silence behind them, some rattled with howls, growls or babbling and one–which he stopped at before gritting his teeth and forcing himself forward–had a soft, beautiful singing in some ancient, sad language. The ethereal song made him think of his wife and his heart ached to hold her again and kiss her again and tell her how much he loved her!
He passed by so many ancient iron doors but not a single one was open. Whoever had built this dungeon had intended it to last as a prison for eternity.
And then, right at the bottom of the dungeon amongst the very roots of that mountain, he reached a final, twisted iron door with warped, forgotten runes covering its vast, bleak and impenetrable surface.
He paused, unsure what to do when a soft, rustling voice spoke up from the other side of it:
“Good knight, you have travelled far to asssk me a question but before you do ssso you must know what the price of the answer isss. I will answer you truthfully and in full but only if you promise me one sssingle act. At some time in the future I will asssk of you to do sssomething for me, good knight, and you will not refussse.“
The soft, rustling voice on the other side of that door fell quiet. It felt expectant while the darkness and brooding silence of that place suddenly felt like it was pressing down on him.
“I will only agree to this,” he spoke up, his voice shaking slightly but he forced out the words, “if the act that you ask of me does not breach my honour. If you agree to this, then we have a deal?”
Once again, there was silence from the other side of the iron door, but then, softly–like rustling leaves down a midnight path–the voice said a single word.
“Right,” he said, feeling more confident, “Then I want to know what my purpose in life is? If I have one single important task to perform that will garner the most good in this world, then what is it?”
There was a sound like the cold wind through a dying orchard and he realized that the voice on the other side of the iron door was laughing quietly. The hair on the back of his neck rose and he forced down the black, bitter primal fear swelling up in his stomach.
“Your purpossse, good knight,” the voice whispered almost gleefully, “isss to love your wife. She will bear you three sonsss and their descendantsss will make the world a better place.“
He felt stunned! No grand quests nor perilous charges. No dragons to slay or maidens to save. Just love the person that he already loved with all his heart!
He had left his purpose back home and his heart ached to see her again. To hold her and to kiss her cherry lips and whisper of his love in her ear.
But the voice did not stop speaking.
“Now, good knight, the sssingle task that I require from you will not break your preciousss code of honour. Right now your trusssty stead is trotting back to your old estate where your wife will find it and tend to it–at first hopefully but eventually asssuming the worst.“
“What-what do you mean?” He said, starting at the thought, a sinking feeling growing in the pit of his stomach, “What do you wish of me? What is the act that you ask of me?”
“For my payment, I wisssh of you this single act:” the voice rose, its rustling becoming gleeful and wicked, “Good knight, you are never to return home to your wife!“
She pulled the cloak tighter around her and suppressed a shiver. This time of year the Northern wind blew down from the far mountains, carrying its cold across the land. The leaves in their orchard were turning all shades of the sunset as the days grew shorter and the nights longer.
And there, amidst the warm hues of the orchard, her husband’s trusty steed came trotting back onto their property.
Her heart rose at the sight, and then fell as she was struck by the realization that her husband was not on the horse. Choking back a tear, she rushed out to the beast–
At that moment, a great gust of the Northern wind blew through the orchard. Its icy touch sent the leaves rustling incessantly and–she could swear–it sounded almost like someone was quietly laughing at her.