The falling leaves danced like butterflies in the late summer breeze, tumbling and twisting around the young man as he sat in contemplation. He appeared not to notice, his eyes focussed on the letter clutched in his right hand. He was charged with delivering this letter to Eringard, although at this moment in time he couldn’t say with certainty who or what Eringard was. He knew though that this road would eventually lead him there, and he would ask for directions as and when the opportunity arose. He stowed the letter away in the inside pocket of his jacket, then rummaged in his backpack for his water flask and the half loaf of bread. As he ate his simple meal, he looked out over the countryside which rolled away before him. From this vantage point at the edge of the forest he could see the small town, hazy in the distance. The trees whispered around him, reminding him that it was already midday, and that he should carry on if he wanted to arrive before the evening. He packed his bag and stood up, brushing down his brown corduroy trousers and straightening his jacket. Shouldering his pack, he left the shade of the beech trees and continued along the wide chalk path which led down the hill.
He felt the warmth of the sun on his face as he walked, enjoying the quietness of the afternoon, broken only be the low hum of insects and the occasional call of the cuckoo somewhere in the distance. Nature seemed to shimmer in the glow of late summer. He passed lazy meadows and gurgling brooks, before the landscape announced signs of human industry – fencing and hedgerows alongside the path, an old water trough in the corner of a field and a small herd of grazing cows who ignored him as he walked past. The meadows changed to seas of wheat and barley, and now he heard voices, labourers working in the fields gathering in the harvest. Rounding a bend in the road, he looked over the low hedge and saw men reaping the wheat with long, sweeping strokes of their scythes. An old reaper was near the corner of the field by the road, so the young man slowed his pace when he reached the gate. Leaning on the gatepost for a rest, for he was also weary from the long march, he called out to the man, enquiring the way Eringard. The reaper paused, straightening up to stretch, but gave no answer at first. He turned then to the young man, who caught his breath when he met the gaze of reaper’s intense green eyes.
“All roads lead to Eringard,” replied the old man after many moments had passed, then turned back to his work without sparing the young man any more attention.
Surprised by the finality of this reply, the young man remained for a short moment, but when it became apparent that no other information would be forthcoming, he thanked the old reaper and continued on his way.
As he approached the town, the open landscape of fields changed to a narrow world of impoverished habitation. Rough buildings sprang up on either side of the lane, scarcely deserving of the name of home, so shabby and derelict as they were in appearance. Rough brick abodes with sloping tin roofs stood side by side, thin and meagre scraps of cloth hung from washing lines strung between the buildings. He heard the screams and cries of children playing in the overgrown gardens, and now and then he caught sight of a small face or pair of eyes observing him through a hole in a fence or from behind the glass of a small window.
As he left the outskirts of the town behind, the roads became wider and of better quality, the buildings larger and grander. Cobblestones replaced the dirt of the track, and the sounds of industry and life crowded upon his senses. Friends greeted each other on the street, or called to each other from open windows. Musicians busked on street corners, nodding in thanks to the passers-by who would throw a penny or two into the cap beside them. He turned a street corner and came to the market square, a large open courtyard filled to overflowing with stalls, tents and awnings of all possible shapes, sizes and colours. The market was thronged with people browsing from stall to stall, or hurrying through the crowd to reach a specific destination. Butchers, cobblers, fruit sellers, tinkerers, fish mongers, cloth merchants, cheese makers, bakers and all manner of hardware and scrap merchants vied for attention by shouting louder then their neighbours, creating a tumult of sound which threatened to overwhelm the young man as he gazed in wonder at the maze of stalls.
His task momentarily forgotten, he walked through the market taking in the unfamiliar sights and sounds. As he passed by one stall, his attention was captured by a familiar phrase, one that he had only just recently heard and weighed on his mind, which was probably why he heard it over all the other noise. All roads lead to Eringard. He looked around in that direction, uncertain as to whether he had heard correctly. As he turned, a woman in a crowd some yards away looked up and caught his gaze, and he found himself once again held momentarily captive by intense green eyes. He broke eye contact and turned away, hurrying into the crowd. As he walked, he imagined he could still feel the woman’s gaze on his back, and so it was with relief that he turned the corner, slowing his pace. It was of course coincidence, but why then did he feel so unsettled?
His senses now heightened, he tried to make his way out of the market, but the narrowness of the stalls confused him, and he had no orientation as to the correct way to turn. Amidst a burst of raucous laughter to his left he again heard the phrase, and yet again further on as a furtive whisper between two companions. Panicked now, he pushed headlong through the crowds, unconcerned that he was bringing attention to himself. In a wider space he caught sight of a building he had seen on the opposite side of the market to where he had first entered, and he headed now in this direction. A few moments later he burst out of the market, the crowds seeming to disperse and fade into shadows and alleyways, until he was alone again on the high street leading out of town.
He followed the street, paying little attention to his surroundings, his thoughts turning again and again to his experience in the market. All roads lead to Eringard. What was the significance of this phrase, and why had he heard it so often? It was late afternoon, and the sun was quickening its journey towards the horizon. Ancient oak trees now lined the road, throwing the way into shadow. The air was beginning to chill, so the young man picked up his pace, looking around for any signpost or marker which could direct him to his destination. The road had become a rough track, and curved now to the right. Around the curve a rough wall began, the stones crumbling and covered in moss. He hurried onwards, following the wall around until he came to a wide entrance protected by wrought iron gates, suspended between two high stone gateposts. He came to an abrupt stop and stared in disbelief at the sight before him.
A large raven crouched like a living statue on one gatepost observing him, but that wasn’t what had caught the young man’s attention. Looking through the entranceway, he saw a path leading to a large manor house set back deep in overgrown grounds, covered in ivy and exhibiting an air of abandonment. He knew this house, he was sure of it, but only because he had seen it in a dream, and he now felt a strong sense of déjà vu as he approached the entranceway. The raven let out a loud caw, but in his mind he again heard the phrase, as though it was speaking to him directly. On the gatepost he saw a rusty metal plaque, Eringard Manor. Withdrawing the letter again from his inside pocket, he saw that it was addressed to Lord Eringard, Eringard Manor, although he could have sworn that a different address was imprinted on the envelope when he last observed it.
Replacing the letter, he pushed on the gates expecting to meet resistance, but instead they swung open. He walked through and along the path towards the house, feeling the eyes of the raven boring into him the whole time. The bushes and trees in the garden had grown wild, and hidden in the undergrowth he saw statues, once white but now grey and covered in moss. Surely no-one could still live here? He stepped up to the front door and pulled on the bell-chain hanging to one side. A faint tinkling sounded from inside the house, but otherwise there was no response. After waiting a few moments he tried the door handle, and to his surprise the door swung open. He flinched as a pigeon fluttered out of the door over his head, but when nothing else happened, he stepped into the house.
He found himself in a large hallway, a staircase leading up on the left. A beam of sunlight shone down from an upper window, illuminating the thick dust in the atmosphere. Only the cooing of more pigeons and the flapping of unseen wings broke the silence. His sense of déjà vu and unease increased as he found himself drawn towards the staircase, as though pulled by some invisible cord. It seemed now as though he was walking through treacle, his legs felt so heavy he could hardly lift them, and he had to drag himself one step after the other up the staircase. Without warning his foot drove straight through the stair, and to his dismay there was now a void underneath him. Unable to pull back, he found himself tumbling into the void, dragged deeper and deeper into darkness until it eventually swallowed him whole.
He awoke with a start and found himself in his study, sitting in his favourite leather armchair. The afternoon sun was streaming through the window, illuminating the dust motes suspended in the air and lighting up the bookcase on the opposite wall. Relief swept through him as he felt the familiar solidness of the chair. Looking down, he saw that he still had the letter to Lord Eringard clutched in his hand, and on the small table next to him lay the photograph of the manor. Chuckling to himself, he picked up the photograph and turned it over. There on the back was the greeting from his old friend. He had been looking at it before he dozed off, and it must have somehow followed him into his dream. Looking at his pocket watch, he realised that he still had time to take the letter to the post office. Jumping up, he put on his coat and made his way down the old wooden staircase to the front door. He was momentarily blinded as he stepped out from the dark corridor into the bright afternoon, little motes of light swirling around his vision as he shielded his eyes against the sun. The post office wasn’t far so he ambled along the street, enjoying the afternoon air but still half caught up in his strange dream. Crossing the road he entered the post office, the little bell jingling a chime to announce a new customer. Stepping up to the counter, he presented the letter, then searched for his wallet to make the payment. Looking up, his mind reeled as he met the clerk’s intense green eyes, twinkling with amusement. “All roads lead to Eringard” she said, but he scarcely heard her. He was already drifting away as his world crumbled around him.
He jerked awake to a metallic knocking on his door and a shout from outside. He groaned, hauling himself to a sitting position on his low bed, and rubbed his face in his hands. The cold grey morning light from a small window lent faint illumination to his cell, but brought no cheer to the small room. He closed his eyes, willing himself back into his dream. It had been intense last night, and he chased after the faint ghosts as they slipped away from him. All roads lead to Eringard. That was true he thought with a bitter smile, and now that he was here there was no return.