“The Gatekeeper”

Copyright 2018-2020 Jack Sutter

Chapter 2:  Things of Another World

The thing was about twelve feet tall, or near enough that the effect was equally impressive.  It was a sort of grayish color, shaped very much like a man save that it’s proportions appeared off, being particularly overlarge in the shoulders, arms, and head.  It was attired in a sort of sarong made of smartly sewn sheepskin which started about halfway between the armpits and the waist and ended just above the knee in a neatly finished hemline.  Its garment was held up by a belt which carried a couple pouches and a colossal knife-like implement, and its feet were shod in reinforced hide in a manner midway between a boot and a sock.  

 

The thing prodded the recently disturbed rock with its foot, releasing yet another minor avalanche of gravel as it did so.  Looking about with an air of satisfaction, the thing snorted to itself and turned around to look down directly at Lindsey.

 

“Noice, ain’t it?”

 

Lindsey gasped with a shock of panic at the realization that the thing was aware of her.  Its manner was hardly aggressive though, and to be sure its comment was purely conversational.  Lindsey relaxed. And for the first time, she got a good look at the thing’s face. And that gave her another shock.

 

It might have been better if the thing had possessed only one eye in the middle of its head, or had fangs like a wild boar, or something else equally hideous.  But the real dreadfulness of it all was that the thing’s face was really rather ordinary, if a bit craggy and goggle eyed, with a nose that would have given a vulture modest cause for envy.  Overall, it’s face reminded Lindsey of a particular algebra professor she had been obliged to endure during highschool. Yet these reasonable features seemed exaggerated and oversized even for a creature of such height, and were likewise set upon so extraordinary a frame as to render even the most ordinary of faces a sight terrible.  The owner of this dreadful countenance appeared to be expecting from her some sort of intelligent reply, and as she cringed under the baleful gaze Lindsey felt like she were living in a nightmare. In fact, she couldn’t say for certain that she wasn’t.

 

With no reply forthcoming, the giant seemed to think that his companion was perhaps a trifle slow witted, and that further exposition was required.  He waved a massive hand in the direction of the great rockpile behind him as though he were displaying a great and sophisticated work to a small child who cannot be fully expected to understand such things.

 

“Been building it for years.  It’s a marvel, it is. That’s wot I builds it for, to be marvelous.”

 

Lindsey managed to unchoke her voice.

 

“Its very nice.”

 

“Noice is exactly wot it is!  Marvelous and noice. That’s exactly wot I builds it to be.  It’s wotcha call Art. It’s a monument, it is.”

 

“A monument?”

 

“It is.”

 

“A monument to what?”

 

“Ah, well, that’ll be a longish story, it will.  Lemme have a sitdown and I’ll tell ye.”

 

The creature seated himself with a grunt, upsetting quite a bit more gravel as he did so.  Lindsey retreated quickly and climbed atop a modest sized boulder. Whatever else this creature was, he was clearly a hazard to all and sundry of lesser size by virtue of even his most innocuous movements.

 

The creature looked Lindsey square in the eye and spoke.

 

“So.  Have ye heard of me grandfather?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Me grandfather.  Have ye heard of him?”

 

“Uh, no….I don’t think so, anyway.”

“Exactly.  Of course ye ain’t heard of him!  Big feller he was, though, a full head taller than meself.  He could lift twice his stone twenty times a day and then some.  Fought in the king’s army, he did. Smashed plenty o’ heads and such.  Did good service he did, and was given his choice o’ pillage in compensation.  Brought back bags and bags o’ sheep, and the family has been shepherds ever since.  But have ye heard of him? Nope! ‘Course not! So!”

 

The giant scrutinized Linsey closer.

 

“Who’s the king’s great great great great great great great grandfather?  Wot was his name? Betcha don’t know!”

 

“I……I don’t know.  I guess I’m kind of a foreigner.  I don’t even know who the king is.”

 

“Foreigner, eh?  Should’a known by the way ye dress.  Most girlies don’t go around in nuthin’ but their stockin’s, beggin yer pardon.  I take one look at ye and says to meself ‘that’s an odd lookin’ sorta girly. Dress all funny, and underfed too.’  Say, want some mutton? Got plenty hereabouts..”

 

“Uh…thanks…I’m a vegetarian though.”

 

“Never heard o’ the place.  Must be pretty far away. How’d ye get here?”

 

“Uh…..well…..this will probably sound crazy, but you see, I talked to this bird….”

 

“Ha!”

 

The giant threw his head backward and unleashed a torrent of barking laughter and upset yet more gravel as he rocked himself back and forth.

 

“Ha!  I should’a known it!  That bird just won’t give up, will he, eh girlie?

 

“Uh…..I guess.”

 

“Ha!  Just wastin’ his time he is.  Well, that’s no matter. So!”

 

The giant waved his arms all about him.

 

“Ye see these rocks?  Lots of ‘em broken houses they are.  Old, old, old houses. Built a long time ago.  All old and broken now. Ye know who built ‘em?”

 

“No.”

 

“Neither do I.  Nobody does. Nobody remembers nuthin’ about ‘em.  Folks who built ‘em are dead a long long long time ago, and nobody remembers.  They had themselves kings, had themselves wars, did themselves great deeds and stored themselves treasure, and who remembers?  And who cares?”

 

“Maybe archaeologists?”

 

“Never heard of him either.  But if he does care, that’s because of what?” 

 

“Well, the ruins I guess.”

 

“Exactly!  That’s the secret, ye see.  Nobody remembers ye for who ye are or what ye done, or what ye have.  Not in the end. They’ll only remember ye if ye leave somethin’ behind.  Somethin’ so big they can’t help but notice it. That’s why I’m building it, see?”

 

“The rockpile?”

 

“The monument.  Exactly! It’s not half done yet, it’s gonna be so much bigger when it is.  And after I’m long gone, my monument will still be here. And folks will see it, and wonder about who built it.  And I’ve been puttin’ stories on it, carvin’ it into some o’ the rocks, so as folks can know about me more.”

 

“What kind of stories?”

 

“Oh, stuff I done, stuff I do.  I got three hundred sheep round these parts…I think…so I put in that.  I moved a really big old boulder last week and put it on the top o’ me monument, so I put in that too.”

 

“Didn’t you ever do anything really big…heroic I guess….that you could write about on your monument?”

 

“Nope.  Ain’t gonna either.  Don’t need to. See, most folks think they’re gonna be remembered if they do heroic stuff, but they ain’t.  Not unless they got themselves a monument. But who needs to do heroic stuff when all ye need is to build yerself a monument, like I done already?  Me, I’m gonna be remembered no matter what I do, ‘cause I’m building meself a monument, see?”

 

“Uh….I guess.  You work on your monument every day then?”

 

“Yup.  Everyday for the last sixty years, one rock on top o’ the other.  It’s gratifying, it is.”

 

“Yeah….I guess it would be.”

 

“Aha!  There you are!”

 

The interruption was followed with a tremendous beating of wings and the Bird descended upon them from somewhere out of sight.  He alighted on one of the stone pillars, and after preening himself for a moment, addressed Lindsey.”

 

“So here you are!  I am pleased you decided to come.”

 

The Bird then turned his attention to the giant.

 

“So, have you reconsidered my offer, Barri?”

 

“Nope.  Still ain’t gonna do it.  Told ye already.”

 

“But think!  Reflect! Reconsider!  Surely you want to do something more with your life than tending sheep and piling rocks?”

 

“No I don’t.”

 

“But you are capable of so much!”

 

“So?”

 

“A fellow of your potential could be doing so many great things!”

 

“Ain’t gonna, though.  I got me sheep to tend and a monument to build, and that’s enough for me.”

 

“But think of how noble it would be!  Think of the service you would be rendering!”

 

“Don’t need to.  I already thought about it, and I thought it was a rotten idea.  Won’t do it and that’s that.”

 

“Oh really!  Lindsey, talk some sense into this thick witted behemoth!”

 

“Hey, I don’t even know why I’m here.  What do you want with either him or me?”

 

“Got himself a hairbrained scheme, he does.  He’s always got himself a hairbrained scheme, bothers me about ‘em all the time.”

 

“I beg your pardon, this is only the second time I’ve come to you with a proposition!”

 

“Too many already.”

 

“And here I thought I read your heart well!  You mean to say that you utterly refuse to render aid in this noble and charitable venture?”

 

“Yup.  I’m wotcha call stubborn.”

 

“One last time, I implore you!”

 

The giant arose, sending forth yet again another cascade of gravel down the side of the rockpile.  He bent low and looked the Bird squarely in the eye, and spoke.

 

“No.  Now go away.”

 

With that, the giant straightened himself and lumbered off down the hillside through the maze of rocks.  His strides were wide and he covered the distance quickly, with only a moment to briefly call back a parting remark:

 

“Tell the girly to eat some mutton and put a little fat on her.  She’ll need every bit of it if she’s thick headed enough to go with you!”

 

And Lindsey and the Bird were left in silence.  After a few moments, the Bird spoke.

 

“Well, I suppose that’s that.  Strange, though, I was so sure that I understood him.”

 

The Bird cocked an eye at Lindsey.

 

“Well, I suppose we should be getting a move on.”

 

“Yeah, about that….”

 

“We have a few more stops to make now, I’m afraid.  I had high hopes for Barri, but as he is unwilling….”

 

“….Hey now look, I’m not so sure….”

 

“…I think though that we can manage without him.  Now what was I…..”

 

“…Excuse me, mister, I think you owe me an explanation…”

 

“Goodness!  The time! We haven’t a moment to lose!  Quickly, follow me!”

 

Here the Bird vaulted into the air and began flying speedily down the slope.  About to lose sight of the only being who likely had the power to return her to her own world, Lindsey practically threw herself from the boulder she was sitting on and scrambled madly after him, half muttering an assortment of curses and personal criticisms directed at certain annoying avians.

 

The Bird stopped short and landed to examine a small patch of loose gravel.  Cocking his head thoughtfully first one way and then the other, he drove his beak between the pebbles and drew a crude square, much as he had done in Lindsey’s dorm room carpet earlier.  As he finished the shape, the pebbles within the rude outline gave way as if there were suddenly nothing beneath them, and fell downwards with a noise like a bag of marbles poured out on the ground.  With a cry of “This way, follow me!”, the Bird dove down the hole, and as Lindsey came running and panting behind she all but collapsed beside the hole, swung in her legs and dropped herself through as well.

 

Lindsey hit the ground with a shock.  All about her, the world was suddenly dark.

 

Lindsey scrambled upright and looked around.  She was surrounded by trees, and had landed in a mass of ferns in the midst of a clearing of some kind.  The Bird was nowhere in sight. Where on earth was she now?

 

It wasn’t quite a clearing.  Rather, upon looking about herself Lindsey realized that she had in fact been deposited beside a dirt road.  It was twilight, and a dim glow of golden sunlight was hugging the horizon. A moment ago at the giant’s monument it had been full daylight, but here it was nearly dawn (or dusk, Lindsey couldn’t be sure).  They must have come quite far from where they were before. Looking upwards Lindsey caught a glimpse of a patch of bright light fading away in the air above the place she had landed. There was no going back that way.

 

There was a sudden whoosh and the Bird appeared, flying in from somewhere behind her.  He swooped about her again and cried in a hush: “Quick now, keep quiet! This way!”, and glided off down the road in the direction of the sun.  Lindsey jogged in pursuit. The road came to an abrupt turn, and here the Bird alighted. Lindsey stopped just behind, and stared out at the vista before her.

 

The road dipped sharply away into a rolling valley of vibrant green trees dipped in tinges of warm gold from the sun, looking lush, soft and spongy from Lindsey’s vantage.  There was a stillness in the air, undisturbed even by the faint calls of assorted birds in the distance. Lindsey breathed heavily in the peace of the moment as her eyes drank in the richness of the world all around her.

 

“Duck!!!”

 

Lindsey was jolted out of her reverie as without warning there was a series of sharp swishes and thwacks as several arrows embedded themselves in the ground around her.

 

“Fly!  Back to the woods!”

 

Lindsey was dragged to her feet as the Bird snatched her arm in one claw and beat the air in retreat.  More arrows shot through their air behind them, and Lindsey felt a searing sting as one of them grazed her leg.  Yet with adrenaline raging through her body Lindsey ran without breaking, ran as she had never done in her life while the Bird led the way back towards the trees.

 

They had covered a couple dozen yards before the Bird veered suddenly off the road and into the trees.  Lindsey followed, tramping and stumbling through the underbrush, until suddenly the Bird shot upward to the tree tops, crying back “Hide in the brush.  I will lead them off!”

 

Lindsey collapsed amidst the ferns and pressed herself as flat to the earth as she could.  There was silence now, which went on for what seemed like an eon. Then gradually the sound of voices filtered bit by bit through the trees.

 

“Where’d it go?”

 

“Hanged if I know.  Could’ve gone anywhere.”

 

“Nothing up ahead, must of gone off the path.  It can’t have been going that fast.”

 

“It can fly, though.”

 

“Not with that boy in it’s claws.”

 

Lindsey chafed silently.  A boy

 

The voices were speaking again.

 

“We should split up, fan out into the woods.  First one to see the bird gives a shout and the rest of us come running.”

 

“Forget the bird, we’ve got a job to do.”

 

“But think of the reward!”

 

“Think of the irons the High Commissioner will have ready for us if we let Hae-jin slip away again.” 

 

“Look, there it is!”

 

“There it goes!”

 

The voices devolved into confused shouting as they were joined with sporadic thwacking noises which Lindsey guessed was the sound of arrows being shot.  The noise faded quickly as the archers ran off again somewhere in the woods, and in a few moments there was silence.

 

Lindsey remained huddled among the ferns wondering what on earth she should be doing next, cursing herself for having been so foolish as to have followed the Bird.  I mean really, she thought to herself, what sane person jumps through a hole in their floor into another dimension or something without bringing an army of navy seals with them, or a least a little bit of food and some camping gear?  It was being borne upon Lindsey that she hadn’t eaten more than a wilted salad in the last several hours, and after having been ignored all afternoon her stomach was beginning to address her with stern reproach. On top of that, her thigh was bleeding where one of the arrows had grazed her.

 

Suddenly, from behind her there came a soft cough.

 

It seemed as though Lindsey had been doing a lot spinning around in surprise that day, as she again made a rapid shift in her attention and turned around.

 

Towering over her a few feet away was a large man, tall and of massive proportions in every dimension.  He was in no way an unnatural giant, but rather one of those men of above average size who are neither particularly obese nor especially fit.  His appearance was not what Lindsey would have expected to encounter in “fairyland”, or wherever this was, for he was dressed in an old fashioned double breasted suit of blue pinstripe and wore a grey homburg hat.  His countenance was a bit swarthy, his hair a greasy black and peering from beneath bushy black brows his dark eyes were both soft and inscrutable, yet razor sharp like hard obsidian. In all, he gave Lindsey the distinct impression of a high class gangster from the age of prohibition.  With one hand, he tipped his hat politely, while in the other he held a silver handled walking stick of vaguely oriental flavor.

 

The man in the suit stood there for a moment, regarding her silently.  Then with a measured action he took a large silk handkerchief from his breast pocket, in a single movement flicking it outward with two fingers and allowing it to unfold itself as it fell away freely, and proffered it to Lindsey.

 

“To staunch the blood.”

 

Lindsey took the handkerchief.  The man in the suit then produced and opened a small dark colored bottle.

 

“Iodine.  You don’t want to get an infection; medicine in The Fairworld is not commonly equal to our modern standards.”

 

Then, the man handed Lindsey a small folding knife.

 

“For utility.  You may keep these articles.”

 

The man in the suit then tipped his hat cordially again, and began to walk in the direction of the road.  Seemingly on an afterthought, the man stopped and turned to face Lindsey once more.  

 

“A parting word of advice, Miss.  Do not trust the Bird.”

 

And the man went on his way.

 

Lindsey scrambled to her feet.

 

“Hey!  Hold on, wait a sec…ouch!”

 

Lindsey was distracted for moment by a sudden sting from her injured leg.  When she looked again an instant later, the man in the suit was gone.

 

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