Some townspeople thought the gates not unlucky so much as unnerving, like entering a graveyard after the sun set. Others felt comforted, as though the gates somehow guarded their town. And it was true no natural disaster had fallen on the town since time immemorial, despite the wars. When a battle raged near, its leaders would bypass the town, almost against their will.
But the gates also discouraged the rise of commerce nearby and that was only natural. It was human nature to be unnerved by the inexplicable.
And so it was the day the first gate opened. It had rained the night before, the first hard rain before the start of the long, bitter winter. The autumn harvest was almost done and the farmer grumbled about the mud as he and his sons waded through the sodden fields.
The glint of the opened gate caught the attention of the farmer’s youngest as he began to load a crate onto an awaiting wagon. At first he thought nothing of it but then he glanced up at the hill again.
He froze. The crate he hoisted dropped to the ground, glancing off his toes. Later, when he took off his boots, he would see his foot was bruised black.
But at that moment of wonder, the farmer’s youngest stared up at the hill, his mouth open, until his brother’s shout startled him into awareness again. He shouted back, pointing to the hill as he started back to the farmhouse. His brother stood for a moment, uncomprehending. Then he too began running to the farmhouse, slipping in the mud in his haste.
The first gate had opened.
The boy was dispatched to town, running as fast as he could, stumbling in his haste. By the time he arrived at the town elder’s door, he was muddy and panting, his leggings covered with grass stains and rich black soil. His pounding at the door caused a commotion but that was nothing compared to the one his message caused. At first there was no reaction—they had all lived too long in the shadow of the gates to grasp what happened. Then the Elder, followed by the farmer’s youngest, hurried out to the village commons to get a glimpse of her own.
The slippery mud outside clung to the skirts of the Elder almost instantly but it went unnoticed when she saw the gate in the distance, its arms open to the tentative sun.
The farmer’s son had the far-seeing eyes of youth and so it was he once more who saw what the other did not. “There’s something up there,” he shouted. “Do you see it? There’s something on the ground!”
Now, despite the rains, the path up to the Gates was dry. The townsfolk making the journey could see the grasses along the way look as though the torrents of the night before never touched them. More than one of the townsfolk shivered, though the cool in the air should have felt pleasing.
At last they reached the top.
The townsfolk gaped at the land around Gates Mount. No raindrops reflected off the blades of grass, no rust ate at the iron gates. They could see the town and the valley below, a mist at the edges burning off in the early sun.
Next they turned to the gates with trepidation and not a little terror in their hearts.
Three immobile forms, clearly human, were sprawled at the threshold of the open gate. The bodies were wet, yet the hill was dry; the townspeople could see the water dripping from them. The Elder walked forward and touched one. Then she gently turned it over onto its back.
She gazed at the body for a moment before motioning to the townsfolk to come forward. “Whoever they are, they are not from here,” she said. “But they are human. Two women and a man. Come see.”
The first one the Elder examined was the man, dressed in clothing the likes of which they had never seen. The Elder raised the sleeping stranger’s hand to examine the ornaments he wore—a ring of gold and a silver bracelet with a round, flat surface. She glanced up at the sun and at the bracelet. “This must be what you saw flashing,” she said to the farmer’s youngest.
The Elder heard a sharp breath. It was the farmer’s son, who edged forward, his eyes round. “The colors,” he said in wonder. “I’ve never seen such bright shades. How did the dyers get such–”
“They worked more on the cloth dyeing than on the shoemaking,” the cobbler said, pointing. “Only one’s got shoes. And I’m not so sure they are shoes.” He was right—the sleeping man and the first woman wore nothing on their feet but woolen stockings, while the second female had twisted footgarb wrapped around hers, brightly colored but made of some substance they could see through. And the stockings she wore—the Elder touched them gingerly. “So thin,” she said, wondering.
The footgarb was an equal mystery. “How does anyone walk in such?” the baker said, puzzled.
“Maybe she gets carried, like the Dragnians,” the farmer’s youngest suggested. He was partial to the bizarre stories the traveling goodsmen told about their trips around the Circles. “Maybe they are Dragnians.”
Most of the party nodded. They had all heard of the Dragnians, with their odd and exotic ways. But the Elder was practical. “Have any of you ever seen a Dragnian?”
“No,” the butcher said. “But we’ve heard the tales.”
The Elder glanced at the sleepers and sighed. “I have seen Dragnians. And these people are not. We’re taking them back to town. Yosh, Marn,” she said to the butcher and the baker, both of whom loomed over the others, “the two of you are the strongest. Pick up the man.”
“Elder, you think we should?” the baker asked, alarmed. “Maybe we’re supposed to keep them up here.”
“Maybe we are, but they look like us and if they are like us, they might sicken after being soaked,” the Elder pointed out. “And if they belong up here, I imagine we’ll find out soon.”
The three were carried into the Elder’s household. “Wrap them warmly,” she instructed her housekeeper. “In front of the fire. We’ll send a messenger to Court. But not you, Boyo,” the Elder added, glancing at the farmer’s son. “You’d find yourself in the army quicker than a hen lays eggs. Who could—” she paused.
“There’s Yellinsire,” the housekeeper pointed out, referring to the cobbler who had been in the searching party that had gone up to Gates Mount. “He should be safe enough.”
And so the cobbler—silver haired, a foot twisted and crippled from his own time in battle—went on horseback, no danger of his being conscripted off gentle Ellys. Nor was the swaybacked mare in any danger of being conscripted off to the front lines herself.
By the time Yellinsire was on his way, shaking his head in surprise at it all, the sleepers were wrapped in furs in front of the great hall fireplace. The fire was roaring, and even the kitchen help took turns peeking out to see and hear, with Poro the cook the most curious.
But neither the heat of the fire nor the smell of the roasting food being prepared made the three sleepers stir. “They’re not asleep, are they, Elder?” Boyo the farmer’s son asked, squatting for a closer look. “They don’t toss and turn, they don’t mutter. But they’re alive.”
The woman nodded as she, too, watched. “They are strangers, dropped into the heart of the Gates,” she said, as if to herself. “I will wait. Will you do the same?” she asked the townsmen who accompanied her.
“Waterfire couldn’t keep us away, Elder,” the baker exclaimed.
That said, they turned and began their vigil.
Behind closed eyelids, one of the sleepers dreamed of things both familiar and unfamiliar, of a man both loved and hated, of a time and a place that was out of place and out of time.
And she dreamed…
THE SLEEPER AWAKES, available at Ellora’s Cave