A lone figure trudged along atop a barren moor, soaked to the skin by the heavy sleet that poured down giving the world a grey and unreal appearance. Cold fingers of ice water tricked down onto his skin while the soaked material of his coat, once royal blue but now a stained and soiled shade of mud, leeched the warmth from his chest leaving a dull aching cold.
His arm clutched at the side of his slim figure, the pale skin of his fingers and palm had turned brown with congealed blood.
He couldn't move it anymore, the blood was beginning to scab over, to remove his hand would reopen the wound… and he couldn't afford to lose any more blood.
His coat was torn and dirty, and speckled in places with dark droplets of fresh blood. Leather cylinders with metal edges swung from his side, chinking as he walked. His footsteps began to crunch as he reached a gravel path, he stopped and looked up a flash of distant lightning briefly illuminating the deep gash across his forehead that had stained and matted the fringe of his brown hair with the color of sanguine. His tired grey eyes rested on the rotten signpost, which had lost half the name board which now lay in the gravel and mud of the roadside.
Wincing with pain and effort he bent his legs until he could reach the other part of the sign. Picking it up with the hand that wasn't holding his side; He strained to read the faded carved letters through the gloom. Giving up he placed it on the ground and wiped sand over it, the faded marks catching and holding the dirt, highlighting the words. He stood, too quickly; the sudden effort overcame him with a wave of dizziness he fell forward into the dirt still clutching his side.
He was so tired, so cold. He rose again unsteadily and grabbed the rotten signpost for support, snapping it off at the base. Using the broken post to take the weight off his wounded side he began to walk.
The cold and wind waned, its soft keen coaxing the last vestiges of warmth from his body.
With nothing but the next painful step in mind he limped on, until eventually he reached a thick clump of trees that seemed to have grown tangled and huddled together for company.
Their trunks and canopy a green and brown bastion against the rolling gray of the featureless landscape. He stopped, dropping the post and feeling the dry rough bark of one tree with his hand.
Slowly he turned to face the way he came as the sleet started again; obscuring the miles he'd worked so hard to cover. He slumped against the rough surface of the tree's trunk, telling himself it would be just until the rain stopped, that he was only staying for a little while.
The minutes stretched on and his resolve weakened until by the time the rain stopped and the light of the sun sent shafts of gold through the thick foliage, he was in a deep sleep.
14 hours earlier.
The very same man was walking down a dirt track, brown and dusty in the spring heat.
His body was clean head to toe and while his coat was heavy with trail dust there wasn't a tear or rip to be seen. His slow stride ate up the distance as the miles of trail fell behind him, but soon he noticed that the trail was slanting down and growing steeper. Cobbles irregular and smooth with ware began to cover the path 'till the trees grew sparser and he saw the township. Nestled in the end of the valley and hacked out of the soft limestone cliffs, it lorded over the area, giving the place a feel of order. He began to feel that the day would be a good one; which was the second most erroneous thought anyone in the world had had that day, first and third place going to the same forgetful and rather unfortunate chemist several thousand miles away.* Smoke curled from a few chimneys atop the tile roofs poking above the wall.
Below the wall curving around its base as its ice cold waters ran straight from the mountaintops the Further River wound is way through the valley meadows.
Its deceptively calm look betrayed nothing of its fury during the spring melt floods when the entire valley could become a lake. The walls and iron gates of the city kept the water at bay; the inhabitants had been rich enough to buy provisions for these months since the river used to yield an incredible quantity of gold. While he pondered this, he was unable to observe the dark figure who crept from behind and gave him a blow to the head that knocked him out as suddenly as the light from a snuffed candle.
*The chemist in question had the two thoughts not five minutes apart, the first being "Here's the sugar, must have left it on the work bench yesterday." The second was "Ugh tastes funny this. I bet something's wrong with the tea leaves, I'll buy the other kind tomorrow." He would never find out how very wrong he was on both counts.
He awoke with a start as his head was dunked in a pail of water and as he began to struggle he was pulled out and thrown to the floor spluttering. By his hand rich red carpeting with gold trim covered a flagstone floor, and looking up he realized that he was in the town's hall. It was practically empty and most the furnishings had been piled on one side, the sheer amount of space made the few men that were there look bigger and more menacing.
Sitting on a particularly large seat behind these men a final person yawned Boredly, he looked as though the very existence of the man pushing himself from the floor dripping water from his face was a mind bogglingly dull concept. His entire face had taken on a grayish pallor and when he spoke it sounded as though he could have made a first in the Olympic 100 meter drawl. 'Wellwhathavewe here, somekind of wanderingman ofthe scholarly persuasion. Whatare youdoing inmylittle valley?"
He spoke at different speeds saying words in a rush as though they'd run away if they stayed on his tongue too long, his voice though was heavy and accented as he spoke in his unique, erratic yet oily and unctuous manner.
The man paused before he answered as if uncertain of his captors intentions, "Just passing through." he said uncertainly "Happened to be going this way that's all"
The man lounging on the chair smiled, it wasn't a happy smile. "Well if that's all then Bernadine here willmerelywound you andleave you for the covers*… orkillyou if youprefer it as I hear the pack's here are particularly vicious."
*Like bears only shaggier, they hunt in packs and are amazingly deft in constructing elegant bed's of leaves and wood; Unfortunately this species is almost extinct due to hunting by the ornamental furniture industry. The beds are highly cover-ted and often so intricate that men mistake them for the real thing, and are often killed by the irate covers when they return to find a stranger hogging all the sheets.
Editing note:(I should probably trash this and change it to wolves)
The man tapped his foot, his arms folded "well" he asked "Why are you here if this place is deserted, come on I am a dead man I cant tell. Is it gold from the river? A mine? Spices? Narcotics? Spite? When your men … waylaid me I was merely admiring the view. Why are you so protective?"
To his surprise the man got up and walked down to him "Well you were carrying so much scholarly equipment that you might appreciate this." For the first time in the conversation his voice sounded animated and certain, gone was the erratic speed of his earlier speech. " You see, or rather you don't, neither view matters in any-case, I was a scholar for some years and was so interested in how words form in a society. I decided to follow the origin of a particular one." He walked as he spoke until he reached a wooden shelf in the corner.
From its dusty recesses he extracted a yellowing tome flipping it open with ease and speaking all the while.
"I found that many have their bases in actual events and the word I was looking at was windfall, a Windfall as you would know being a fortuitous event or circumstance bringing wealth or similarly positive fortune to a person or in this case persons. The history of this town also come into this as I happened across a record which stated there was a small village here before people panned in the river, and that the town was built years before the gold rush. What does that suggest to you?" he asked, pointing out the relevant section of the book.
The traveler said blankly "They knew about the gold but weren't telling or they had been hording the gold. Or perhaps a windfall."
"Hah, Not far off from the truth my identity deficient man. This town had received an IMMENSE quantity of wealth before they discovered the river. Windfall as you so astutely put it. And when I looked deeper I found that the most extra-ordinary thing happened here. The mountains up there have their peaks full of gold-bearing rock and in the middle the millennia have filled the central plains with enough finely ground sand to make a desert. A small trickle falls into the melt-water rivers but the rest stays up there being ground finer and finer. All those years ago a terrible terrible storm brewed up just after the spring flood had taken the snow off the century's of sand and dust, much of it gold. Now this was dry wind and it blew right through the mountains and down into this valley with practically ALL of the accumulated residue; turning it into a sandstorm of impure gold dust. And the next day the village came out from shelter to find the entire valley with a thick coat of glitter. Much had fallen into the flood mud's but tons of the impure sand was harvested. It is not just the past that I am interested in, I need capital and the best way to pay is in gold. Also I have found that the conditions are now just right for a second storm to brew almost fourteen hundred years down the track. There won't be as much of course because of the reduced time for erosion but I plan to grab all the dust this time and make it into a real windfall."
The traveler was slightly stunned by the speech but managed to recover enough to ask "How are you going to do it? Strain the storm through a sieve?" He had meant it to be a jocular statement but the scholar merely arched his eyebrows and said "Exactly, top marks. It's just like panning for gold but my river is slower to reach me and the pay comes all at once. Look out of the door behind you, you can't see the end of the valley but we've got the opening covered by a fine mesh that will capture the gold particles but for the most part let the wind through….. It will be beautiful…. " and stopped staring at some private vision with an expression of rapture. The traveler realized the man had stopped hesitating and his speech was solid, this man believed in what he was saying.
"So that's the windfall, a golden storm" He tried to buy time. "What about the people who lived here?" The mans expression of rapture broke and he turned his eyes dark. "They were persuaded to leave, and that is all the time I can give you" He stopped talking as a man ran from the sidelines to try and stab the traveler in the back.
Unfortunately for the assailant, his target had been expecting this and thrust his elbow in the attackers face, breaking his nose. The would-be attacker dropped his sword and tried to staunch the bloody flow, the traveler grabbed the back of his head and slammed his palm forward remorselessly; the impact caused the broken bone of the nose to be driven into the man's brain, killing him instantly.
He picked up the mans weapon as the second man came at him and blocked with one hand, caught his attackers arm with the other and swiftly bent his sword arm to deliver a blow to the temple with the pommel that left the man limp in his arms. He threw the limp body aside with a grunt as he waited for the remaining men to attack.
There was a metallic noise behind him and his face became a mask of pain as something cut into his side. He let out a gasp and flipping his sword in hand thrust it backwards in a act of desperation, but the wild blow met no resistance and the force of his blow caused him to fall backwards clutching his side.
His head bounced on the cold flagstone floor, his side burned and filled his eyes and his mind with a cold blackness that began to steal the feeling from his body like a spreading poison.
His eyes began to blur as he saw the scholar of the group standing over him with a thin blade jutting from below his palm, covered in dripping red, but then there was nothing but the cold grip of unconsciousness.
A keening pain shot through the blackness that had soaked into his mind cutting through the shroud of unconsciousness and handing him back hours worth of hurt from the cut in his side with interest. His mind took stock of the situation, somehow he was alive; it didn't matter how or why but he was and the important thing now was staying that way.
And that meant not showing his new found vitality until he was certain of the situation. He was being carried, by two men. Minutes of silent agony went by as they manhandled him up a slope.
Suddenly there was a dip as a man in front slipped over and let his feet fall to the ground. The other man let go of his arms and with this newfound freedom the former captive grabbed his belt knife and stabbed the man over head in the stomach; Before looking down at the other man who was on the ground nursing where a low branch had knocked his forehead.
His side screaming in protest he sprang to his feet and grabbed the man round the throat and slammed his head against the tree until he stopped struggling.
Gasping slightly he searched their body's and tore strips of cloth from their clothes to wrap round his side where the now semi-congealed blood had stained his clothes red black.
The loss of blood had left him slightly lightheaded but on their bodies he found his affects and reclaimed them, feeling better once their reassuring weight was round his shoulders.
He walked on till reaching a path he climbed upwards away from the valley, the ever-present pain in his side protesting at this treatment.
With one hand he kept pressure on the blood soaked bandages, and managed to hold on until he reached the top of the valley and came out onto the bleak moor as it began to sleet. He walked on, found the sign and used the rotting wood as a crutch.
From there he stopped to rest in the forest waiting for the rain to stop before he went on, promising himself that he wouldn't die here alone and cold.
His tale might have ended there, lying peacefully on the ground till nothing but dust remained and even that was scattered by the four winds to cover all but the very corners of the world.
But fate is not without a sense of humor. For along the road came a string of wagons, carting goods along the continent bound for the very place that the man had just been forced out of.
A shaggy canine of mixed breed ran alongside the leading carts of the group, but suddenly as they neared the forest broke off into the woods and began to insistently bark until someone came out and checked what all the fuss was about.
He called out to the others and they carried the wounded man onto one of the larger wagons, where a couple of people attempted to treat the wounds the best they could.
With the man they found the signpost which he had removed and realized they had taken a wrong turning.
But instead of going back it was agreed they'd take the longer route that took them past the mouth of the valley of their destination and then down to the larger town in the grassy downlands. They could drop off the man there and return to the valley back the way they came.
All they were doing was getting to the town a few days late; it wouldn't make much of a difference they reasoned.
The difference turned out to be one of life and death, for when they reached the end of the valley the spring floods had started and freakishly run so high that they had swamped the town walls leaving nothing but a few rooftops to show where the settlement had been.
It was luck they agreed, that this man had waylaid them just as the flood swamped the town like that.
A couple of them found the several thousand square feet of wire and canvas mesh secured in place over the narrow gap of the exit.
The paths and roads that the caravan usually would have taken across the plains were now to dangerous to traverse so it was decided to set up camp and bring their wares down to the plains when the post-flood shortages would be rife.
The man woke with a dull throb coming from his side, for a moment he thought it was time to leave the forest until he realized he was on mat, not grass and the leaf-mould warming him was a cotton blanket.
There was a cup of broth sitting beside him and unable to remember the last time he'd eaten, he needed no more encouragement and guzzled it greedily.
There was a cough from the door-way and he looked over slightly embarrassed at his lapse in self control. A large man dressed in the leathers of the master of a caravan train spoke jovially "Its nice to see that you're up at last, while we are grateful for the service you did in waylaying us, such hospitality as we offered would not last forever."
The man was confused "Waylaid? How? Oh the signpost. I couldn't tell it's importance under all that rot." His own speech was rough and soft, breathing still hurt and he didn't want to over-strain his side.
"It has been there for four or so generations, so you could say that. It was the only indicator for our caravan and we really should have replaced it sooner. It is of no consequence now, the valley is beginning to clear as the silt of the spring floods spreads over the plains." He glanced at the traveler oddly.
"By the way would you happen to know why a foraging party found a mesh of wire and stretched canvas over the front of this valley? We were considering removing it for material as such windfalls do not happen often."
The traveler forced himself to get up and smiled at the trader "…Windfall. Odd choice of words" He gave a short laugh "I suggest you leave it for now and check again after the wind blows through. I can assure you that this piece of advice is…" He smiled inwardly. "Golden."
"Wind blows through? Is there to be a storm?" he received an emphatic nod.
Looking down he realized he was clad only in bandages. "My clothes please?"
"On the table over there, my daughter mended the tear and washed it; I'm surprised you lived much less moved with a wound like that."
"I had motivation, and now I should be going" The traveler began to dress, leaving the caravan master dismayed "What, I'd thought you'd be a bed for three days more!"
Wincing at the complaints from his healing side, the injured man began to button up the long tailed coat; fingering the course thread now stitching the tear. It was scarlet, he raised an eyebrow and the caravan master responded to the unsaid question almost apologetically "It was what we had on hand."
He nodded "It's fine." He winced "I don't think I was quite as well as I thought."
The caravan master smiled a little. "You can stay as long as you wish, you'll have to work of course." The merchant had recognized the type of man his injured guest was,
The type that would never accept charity openly, but rather felt that every deed should be repaid in kind.
The plump figure of the trader exited the caravan.
The traveler slumped back, his mouth curled up in a little smile. He could settle down a while longer. Just a little longer.
In the valley, the water's began to recede; sinking into the ground and rushing through the channels built to divert the flow around the cloth which covered the narrow gap cut by the mountain river.
The wind began to pick up.
On the roof of the town's bell tower, the scholar shivered. He didn't expect this.
His men had been celebrating, drunk out of their minds when the water had risen over the walls. The water had receded while he slept…. But the walls kept the rest of the town under water. He couldn't see it, but he knew somewhere above in the mountains, a storm was approaching. When it came, he'd either be blow from the roof or suffocate by inhaling the golden sand carried on the wind.
His mouth twitched with morbid amusement.
He'd been looking for the origin of one phrase and it seemed he'd found several. Not to bite of more than you can chew, the higher you climb, the harder the fall, best laid plans and putting all your eggs in one basket while counting them before they hatched.
He stood, holding the spire in one hand, gazing across both the still dark water below him and the raging flood of the melt-water in front. In the distance, summer lightning crackled and he saw another cloud rolling down the mountain. This one, brown and Grey, glittered where the moonlight-light caught it through the densely packed clouds.....
The sight made him laugh, unafraid of the fate that would befall him, as he was struck by the bitter irony of the situation.
He'd wanted gold. Well, gold he was going to get.