Rory had been having these dreams, see? He was in a high place and someone who he couldn’t make out was trying to push him off the edge. He was fighting back, of course, but he was being forced backwards, centimetre by centimetre. Then the dream ended with a scream. His.
He told his fiancee.
“Wow! That’s amazing! What does it mean?”
“Too many cheese sandwiches? That ale I had at lunchtime? I thought it tasted funny.”
“No, no. It’s a Sign!”
“Yes, a Sign. You must go and see a Dream Reader!”
He was doubtful. “A dream reader? Don’t they cost money?”
She sighed. “What about your Destiny? Isn’t knowing your Destiny worth fifty dollars?”
He could hear the capital letters in her words.
“Fifty bucks, Ellie? No, no, no! We’re saving to get married remember!”
She sulked. She was very good at it, and after two days, he’d had enough.
“OK, OK! Where’s the nearest Dream Reader live?”
“Um, three days north of here, I think. In a place called Northwood, I believe. It’s in the North. Near a wood. I think.”
Rory sighed, kissed his fiancee, and set off to the north. After twenty metres or so, he turned to wave, but she’d already gone back inside her Mum’s house. He sighed again and headed onward.
Rory was approaching the hamlet of Norrskog. He was not happy. He’d already visited the hamlets of Nortwood and Northwode. They were both surrounded by woods, but neither had a resident who was a Dream Reader. Just for luck, he’d visited Northpool too. But it had no Dream Reader either.
As he approached the hamlet he saw a young boy sitting on the parapet of a bridge over a stream.
“Is this Norrskog?” he asked.
“Might be,” the boy helpfully replied.
Rory sighed and walked on. He was becoming an accomplished sigher.
“It’s from the Northern dialect, you know,” said the boy. “’Norr’ means ‘north’ and ‘skog’ means ‘forest’.”
Rory turned. “Forest? As in a very large wood?”
“Yeah. You got it.”
Rory debated pushing the kid into the river.
“Does it have a Dream Reader, by any chance?”
“Yeah. Old man Williamson.”
Rory didn’t feel like celebrating.
“How do I find him, please?”
The boy held out his hand. Rory once again had a vision of the kid tumbling into the stream, but he just dropped a small coin into the boy’s hand.
The boy looked at it with a sneer, but still pocketed it. “He’s got a place in the village," he said. "You can’t miss it. It’s got a big sign that says ‘Dream Reader’, and a small sign that says ‘Dreams read here! Cheap!’, and an even smaller sign that says ‘Find out what that bothersome dream really means. Also, lawns mowed and hedges trimmed. Special low rates. Just ask.’”
“I can’t miss it. Right.”
Rory turned and walked into the hamlet, and sure enough he couldn’t miss it. The big sign probably kept the house in semi-darkness for most of the day, and apart from the words, there was a huge badly drawn cartoon of a young lady, who was not wearing very much, apparently falling out of bed. A line of Z’s filled a balloon coming from her mouth. At the bottom there was a line of objects embedded in clouds, which puzzled Rory for an instant, but then he realized that these were supposed to be her dreams. A pile of coins? Some jewelry? A man with spikes on his head? Oh, that was a Prince with a lopsided crown. Something with four legs. A camel? A dog? A horse? He gave up. At the end of the line, a crude drawing of a house.
The second sign stumped Rory, but he finally worked out that it showed a man with long hair and beard holding out his hands to the sides, palms up. The circles around his head were, what, rainbows? Emanations of power? He walked past the smallest sign, which just had a few dollar signs at the bottom, as if the sign writer had run out of ideas, and knocked on the door.
“The mower is broken and I can’t mow any lawns at pres….”
The voice tailed off. It belonged to an old man who bore a surprising resemblance to the man pictured on the sign, with his hair sticking out in all directions and his grey and white beard bristling and tangled.
“Oh. I thought you were George. What can I do for you, son?”
“Are you the Dream Reader?”
“Yes, yes, come on in.”
Rory followed the man into the cottage. It appeared have just a single room, with a ladder to a loft where the Dream Reader evidently slept. The room was piled high with papers, boxes, what looked like machine parts, bits of broken furniture, articles of clothing, furniture, and things Rory couldn’t identify. Even some children’s toys. A saddle, upside down, topped a pile of horse tackle. The table was covered in dirty plates, dishes and takeaway boxes, more machine parts and other miscellaneous items. A moose’s head hung from one wall, with a deflated balloon dangling from one antler. The moose looked surprised.
“Coffee?” the Dream Reader asked, rooting around on the table and coming up with two mugs which he peered at with suspicion.
“Uh, no thanks,” said Rory.
“You’re probably right,” said the Dream Reader putting the cups back down. A pile of pizza boxes slid off the table. “So you want your dreams read, son?”
“Yes, please,” said Rory.
“Sixty dollars?” said the Dream Reader.
“I was told fifty!”
“Close enough,” said the Dream Reader in haste. “So, tell me your dream, son.”
He swept two chairs clear by shoving everything onto the floor and Rory gingerly sat down. He described his dream and the Dream Reader listened intently, making encouraging noises.
“Falling dream, quite common. Doesn’t mean anything by itself. What were you wearing?”
Rory was surprised. “Erm, some sort of uniform, I think. Long boots, cape, some sort of hat. I’ve never worn a cape in my life!”
“Any sounds? Scents?”
“No. Wait! A dog barking!”
“Large or small?”
“Small, I think. Yeah, yappy. Not deep like a big dog.”
Rory shook his head.
“OK, payment up front, please, son. Thank you! Well, like I said falling dreams are ten a penny. They just show that you’re anxious or worried about something. A wedding maybe?”
“How did you… Oh, a guess.”
“Yeah, just a guess. Lads usually don’t worry much about dreams, but the lasses do. The boots, cape and hat, though. They show that you are going on a quest!”
The Dream Reader moved his hands randomly, in what Rory guessed was meant to be an arcane gesture.
“Yeah, but I can’t read what the quest is.”
“Oh, really. And the dog?”
“You’re probably going to meet a dog somewhere.”
“Is it significant?”
“Dunno, son. Perhaps. I don’t predict the future. That’s a seer’s job. I just read dreams.”
“So, that’s all I get for my fifty bucks, is it? I’m going on a quest. Don’t know what it might be. I may or may not meet a dog, which may or may not be significant.”
“OK, OK! Don’t get shirty, son. Here, I’ll give you a discount. Here’s one of your five dollar notes back. But you’re officially a ‘Man on a Quest’ now. If you need to know more, I suggest that you consult a seer. I know a good one, down south, in a place called ‘South Pool’, or ‘South Lake' or something like that.”
Rory stood up. There had been something sticky on his chair. “How far is it to this seer’s place?”
“Walking? About two to three weeks travel, I’d guess. Good luck.”
The Dream Reader followed Rory to the door and watched him head off to the south. The boy from the bridge came in the back door.
“Has he gone, Gramps?”
“Yeah. My guess is that he will end up at your Great Uncle Seth’s, down in Lac du Sud. He’s definitely going on a quest, though. I could tell that much.”
“You always say that.” He sniffed. “Gramps, it reeks in here! You really should clean it up a bit.”
“Soon, soon. Did you bring the pizza?”
“Yeah.” The boy was about to put the box on the table. He hesitated. “Money first, Gramps.”
The Dream Reader sighed and paid his grandson from the money that Rory had given him.
Rory walked home. He passed through Northpool. He trudged past Northwode and bypassed Nortwood completely. He was mesmerized for a moment or two by a sign to North Hedgeley, which he avoided by going through East Hedgeley. He made better time going home, taking only two days.
The next morning he went round to his fiancee’s house. She wouldn’t let him in.
“The thing is, Rory… Well, you were away so long…”
“Five days,” said Rory.
‘Well, I went out with this other boy, see, and well, we’re engaged. Sorry. I hope that we can still be friends. Here’s your ring back. Are you mad at me?”
“No, no. I’m not mad. Do you want to know what the Dream Reader told me?”
“Yeah! Of course! What did he say?”
“He said that I’m on a quest. He suggested that I go and visit a seer down south.”
“Really! That’s amazing. Are you going?”
Rory had been undecided until then. “Yeah, I might as well, seeing as I’m not going to get married.”
She laughed. “I’m glad you can joke about it.”
“Yeah,” said Rory, who hadn’t been joking of course.
“By the way, Rory, I’m getting married soon, real soon. It’s a secret, but I’m going to have a baby! Isn’t it exciting?”
Rory was one hundred per cent certain that the baby could not be his.
“Congratulations,” he said. “I’ll probably be away when you get married, so, my best wishes for you and … Who is it, by the way.”
“You’re so nice, Rory. Thanks! It’s Marty.”
Rory kissed her on the cheek and left. Marty? She had said that she hated him! That he was up himself and bossy with it.
He wondered how he felt. Well, miffed, of course. She’d made a fool out of him. But he didn’t feel upset, really, and he was experiencing quite a sense of relief. He went to the bank, but their joint wedding account was empty. He’d expected it, so he cleared out his own account, put the cash in his money belt and headed home.
“Mum, I’m just off on a quest. I’ll send you a postcard.”
“That’s great dear. Look after yourself.”
He gave his Mum a kiss and headed off down the Great South Road. She’d tell his Dad when he got home.