By Phil AOR
First published in ORB206, Autumn 2257
The colours passed by in a blur of yellow, red and orange, and the cool autumn air rushed across Dylan’s face as he picked another gear and listened to the thunder from the open pipes of his jet black Triumph motorcycle. In another age his steed would have had iron hooves rather than rubber radials, but in essence it was all the same. As far as transport was concerned, the motorcycle, like the horse, was the natural choice of the free thinker and kept the weather-beaten traveller in close contact with the elements.
Everything had gone perfectly. A couple of mid-week days away from work was the only excuse Dylan needed for an impromptu camping trip. A tent, sleeping bag and some basic cooking utensils had been quickly strapped to the back of the bike, and the pockets of his worn leather jacket were stuffed with a few banknotes, a box of matches and a tobacco tin he’d purchased years earlier from a High Street antiques shop. He’d need nothing else except the occasional tank of fuel required to do the necessary miles in search of a good place to rest his head. And a good place he’d most certainly found.
Dylan thought back to the previous day. The trees had become more numerous as the towns were left behind. The hills had risen above the sweeping road, the rivers had become a little clearer, and although he couldn’t hear them, Dylan knew the birds were singing. This was his favourite time of year. The smell of approaching winter was in the air, the landscape was going through a seasonal change, yet there was still warmth to be had from the low lying sun. Soon the days would be too short for camping trips, and the comfort and company of the tavern would beckon, but unlike many of his friends, Dylan was not afraid of time spent alone. In fact he often craved it. Holidays spent in busy airports, on crowded beaches or in tourist towns were not for him. When work or life in general became too much, the solitude of nature beckoned, along with the open road.
Eventually he’d found the place. It was almost calling out to him as he rounded a gentle bend, crossed a small bridge and followed the dirt track which led away from the main road through a coppice of trees down to the water’s edge. The trees gave him shelter from what little traffic there was, and once near the water, he could have been a thousand miles from anywhere. As the shadowy fingers of approaching night crept silently across the land, Dylan had sat in the flickering glow of his small camp fire, savouring the lingering taste of a meal of bacon and fried bread, and took his old tobacco tin from the inside pocket of his jacket.
He traced the dents and contours of the tin with his fingers. It had seen some hard times, that was for certain. And if only it could talk… what tales it could tell! Dylan smiled at the ridiculous notion of a talking tobacco tin, whilst rolling himself a cigarette. He struck a match and watched as the first tendrils of blue smoke curled up from the tip of his roll-up. He didn’t really consider himself a smoker, but there were times such as this when he enjoyed the intimacy and relaxation which a cigarette provided. Nevertheless, it was a habit he knew he should kick, but that was something for another day. The camp fire crackled and spat forth a shower of sparks, and Dylan pulled up the collar of his jacket and relaxed back against the width of an large oak, turning his attention back to the tobacco tin. He angled it so it caught the light, and attempted to read the words engraved upon the metal for probably the hundredth time:
Léafa, Cynn, Woden
Dylan had no idea what the words meant, but knew they were not written in any modern tongue. He’d pondered the question for a time, then placed the tin back into his pocket and closed his eyes, letting the sound of the river and the warmth from the fire sink deep into his soul.
* * *
The wild-eyed stag snapped Dylan out of his reminiscent trance. There was no time to think and it was all he could do to manoeuvre the bike around the stationary and equally surprised animal. He kept the power on and counter-steered the suddenly heavy machine from one side of the road to the other, then back again so as to avoid any oncoming traffic which might be headed his way through the oncoming blind bend. The evasive action was very nearly successful, but the bend was approaching fast and the Triumph just didn’t have the ground clearance to be cranked over at such an angle. Leaves on the road added to the impossibility of staying upright, and a massive bolt of adrenaline ensured Dylan tensed up just as the exhaust pipes hit the deck.
The noise was like Armageddon. Scraping, screeching metal from the grounded motorcycle plus the wretched sound of helmet and leather on hard, cold tarmac. Dylan slid and spun; his vision registering a mixture of sky and earth, until finally he came to a bone-jarring halt amongst the roadside vegetation. His first concern was the bike, but try as he might, he couldn’t move. A wave of panic threatened to overwhelm him, and then the pain hit like a sledgehammer. His breathing turned to frightened gasps, his vision clouded, and there was darkness.
* * *
Dylan opened his eyes. Some time had elapsed, of that he was certain, for now the shadows were long. No car had passed by and no help had arrived. His mouth was dry and still he could not move, yet some nearby sound drifted to his ears. With an effort that seemed immense considering the insignificance of the action, Dylan rolled his eyes towards the source of the noise. His helmet narrowed his vision somewhat, but as he collected his scattered senses, he realised that he was lying on his side. An image formed a few feet in front of him, and just as he managed to focus, the large raven spread his wings and lifted powerfully into the air. Dylan’s last thoughts before he lapsed again into unconsciousness were of a dying man eaten by vultures.
* * *
The dreams were vivid and terrifying. The screeching sound of the Triumph sliding along the road metamorphosed into the sounds of battle. Eons of death and destruction raced through Dylan’s mind, and he struggled to contemplate its meaning. He soared aloft like an eagle, looking down first upon green pastures and forests, then upon the blood and filth of war. Warriors from all ages appeared in front of him, first with sword, then with gun. And a homestead; a lonely woman filled with fear, seated at a long wooden table, staring out of a window across barren fields, watching for a husband who she knew would never return. Onwards Dylan flew, through the clear air of mountains and then through the smog of the city. With each beat of his wings, he saw something new. Something beautiful, followed by something which scarred his very soul. Then the images became steadily worse, until he could hardly recall beauty at all; instead his every thought and vision was one of darkness and poison. Suddenly his wings stiffened in pain, and he plummeted downwards. The scorched earth raced up to meet him, a chasm opened like a giant’s mouth, and then there was nothing.
* * *
Dylan awoke. Night had fallen, and he could feel icy rain trickling across his neck. Another sound had disturbed him, and he felt grateful. There was physical pain in the moments he spent awake, but that was nothing compared to the horror of his dreams. His visor had misted up, and he struggled to make out the source of the sound. Footsteps approached, then a hazy silhouette crouching over him. A hand reached down and slowly clicked open Dylan’s visor to reveal half of a white-bearded face, deeply lined with age, but when Dylan rolled his eyes to take in a fuller view of this solitary figure, the man withdrew slightly. The brim of a hat shrouded the old man in mystery, and a sparkling eye winked at Dylan before retreating completely into the shadows.
Dylan’s throat burned with thirst, yet he managed a few questioning words. “Who are you?”
“Just a wanderer, like you,” the old timer replied.
Dylan used every ounce of strength to turn his head for a final glimpse of the stranger, but to no avail. He was quite possibly paralysed, yet before he could dwell on such thoughts, there came another sound. The sound of an approaching ambulance.
* * *
White sheets enveloped him like a shroud, and Dylan thrashed against them. Light burned into his eyes, and strong arms held him down. He fought until he could fight no more, then stopped, gasping for breath.
“Relax,” came the soothing tone of a man who sounded in complete control. “You’re a very lucky man.”
Dylan came slowly to his senses as the hands holding him down relaxed their grip. His vision cleared to reveal a doctor and the smiling face of a nurse. He was in a hospital ward, and Dylan suddenly realised that, although still in much pain, he was certainly not paralysed. The medical staff stepped back, and Dylan saw a glint of metal on the table at his bedside, and instinctively reached out for it.
“We were going to take that away until we realised you didn’t use it to keep tobacco in,” the doctor said. “You get some rest now, and with a bit of luck you’ll be home by this evening.”
Dylan watched as the doctor and nurse walked away, then took hold of the small tobacco tin. He shook it and something inside rattled. Almost without thinking he whispered the words, “Faith, Folk, Family… Odin,” as his eyes passed over the inscription, and he gently pulled off the lid. Inside was a small silver hammer pendant complete with leather thong, and all traces of tobacco had disappeared.
He slipped the gift around his neck, wincing slightly as he did so, then sank back onto the bed to consider what the future held for him. One thing was for sure: the journey which Dylan had begun on his Triumph was certain to lead further than a tank of petrol could take him.
Hail Odin, the Wanderer…