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It was a frightful night indeed to be alone. So a group had gathered to spend time and a pint with one another. The fiddler had come to the end of a round of tunes and I couldn’t refill mugs fast enough.
“Here, here!” rang the cheers as all the glasses in the house were raised.
The tavern warmed my soul with frosting drinks and a ravenous fire against the chill of the night. For far too many days and nights, the rain had thundered down onto the tin roofs of the town. The winter was nearly over, but her fury was not quite finished. Everyone was settling into the glow of the candlelight, eager for the frightful storm to pass. Next year’s harvest depended on the sun rising and warming the earth again.
The heavy door banged open and the gusts of wind set the lights flickering. The shadow of a hooded stranger stood illuminated against the bursts of lightning. After a tremendous thunderclap boom, the stranger slammed the door shut with an equally loud boom and limped inside the tavern.
Almost all of the conversations in the tavern had dimmed as the newcomer entered. All eyes turned to face the stranger.
“Oi! Who are you, then?” a drunken fisherman bellowed across the room.
The stranger slowly lifted his hands and removed the hook from his head. A universal gasp was heard throughout the tavern. I had never before seen a man as bloodied or as torn.
“Just a scratch, I assure you,” came the stranger’s tired voice, “but I could do with a bucket of water to wash, if it’s not too much trouble.”
“That we can do, lad,” beamed the barkeeper, eager to settle down his patron’s uneasiness. He then handed me a pail from behind the bar. “Now go fill this for the nice man. Don’t let the water be too cold or you’ll catch your death.”
The fiddler began a fast tune and a deep-cheasted woman sang in earnest, the merry men helping her through the chorus.
“Right this way, sir.” I led the stranger to the back of the room to the passageway that led to the kitchen.
He seemed alright until we had made it to the darkened passageway. Here it seemed that the last of his strength had given out and he collapsed to the ground. I put down the bucket and dragged him the last few steps to the kitchen. The stranger was unconscious for about twenty minutes which gave Cook and me enough time to clean up his wounds.
“Wha-!” cried the startled stranger as he came to.
“Now hush, child,” Cook tried to calm him down. “You’ll rip open your stitches.”
Almost on cue, the stranger curled up on the table, gripping his shoulder. His eyes darted from Cook to me, as if trying to remember how he had wound up in the kitchen. At last his gaze settled on the stove, where pots sat boiling cheerfully. Obligingly, I ladled him out a bowl of stew. After finishing off a second helping, he turned to face us, as we stared attentively to his every move, regarding him more like a curious creature rather than an ordinary man. Finally he opened his mouth and spoke.
“Where on God’s good earth have I ended up?”
Taken slightly aback by his language, we responded.
He groaned, either from pain or from the location we told him. “Do you have a phone that I can use?”
“Yessir, we have a phone, but as for a phone line, we do not. Surely you’ve witnessed that wicked storm outside firsthand. No flimsy phone wire can withstand that, y'know? The train passes through in a few days if you’d like to hitch a ride out.”
“Seems like I’ll be here for a while then.”
“We have rooms upstairs if you’ll be needing a place to stay.”
His mouth flickered into what may have been a small smile. “That would be mighty kind of you.”
Cook told him that room four was available for his use and hurried back to her bubbling pots.
I had to interrupt. Questions about the mysterious stranger inside my head wanted answers. “How did you end up here, anyway?”
He and Cook turned to me. “I crashed. My aeroplane crashed because of the storm. I think I used up all my luck surviving that crash alive.”
“An aeroplane?” My face must have been positively glowing. “You have an aeroplane?”
“Well, I certainly had one.” he said wearily. “Now it’s nothing more than scrap. I’ll miss her dearly.”
He took a figurine from his pocket and held it out to me. “This is an elephant, a great beast that roams the golden plains of Africa.”
I held the thing in my hand, turning it over, feeling the contours of the carved stone. “You’ve been all the way to Africa?”
“Yes,” he said, “I’ve traveled a greater part of the globe. An aeroplane can take a person to places where they can see all kinds of strange things. Remarkable places and people, unlike anywhere else on the planet.”
The man took a deep breath, and readjusted his position on the chair “I’m a traveler, an explorer of new places and people, if you will. I’m an investigator of the exotic, a hunter of the ‘never-before-seen.’ But in all due respect, don’t think of my job as being filled with as much prowess that those titles seem to give it. I just see things that others might regard as ordinary or unimportant. I give use and purpose to people of the civilized world with things from other places. I like to think of myself as an inventor of sorts.”
He seemed to have perked up a bit at the mention of his travels. I noticed he looked different now, less waif-life, and a little more vibrant. The wonders a warm fire can bring to a man’s soul.
He yawned, but I still wanted to know more. “What happened in Africa?” I asked.
The explorer’s face softened. “Africa? Every man and his dog has been to Africa. I’ve got a better tale to tell you, my little one. But just remember: one story, then off to bed for me.”
I eagerly folded my hands in my lap, glad at the thought that I wouldn’t have to lug any more heavy mugs for at least a little while longer and he began to tell his story.
“I was once a younger man, eager to see the world. Nothing to hold be back, with just a small rucksack of worldly belongings. Not a care in the world. My travels had led me to the small country of Benten, on the border of Slovakia and Austria. It was a small little kingdom, isolated high in the snow-covered mountains. There wasn’t much there besides a few scattered towns and a long tradition of butter production. I had been staying in a little inn in the largest of the towns for a few weeks, trying to find a treasure. I had hired a local man named Hans to be my guide and interpreter during my visit. Hans was not much for conversing and most of my time was spent following the tall blond throughout the ruins of the one great Carlisle Castle. There seemed to be some kind of ghost story associated with the place and I was determined to see if it was indeed guarding something of value that I could use.’
“I walked the silent labyrinth of walls, an early snow silencing every footfall. I wandered from hall to hall, touching the inscribed with carvings that had somehow survived the centuries. I traveled deeper into the ruins, when a flash of red flickered to my left. I went towards it, amazed at what I saw. In the facing wall, someone had painted graffiti under the wall’s carving in bright red paint.’
“The trouble with hearts is that they are too easily broken.” Hans had come up behind me without making a sound. His deep, rumbling voice made me nearly jump out of my skin.
“Pardon?” I uttered, completely confused.
“There is a legend of a ghost-woman who haunts this place at night,” started Hans carefully, thinking over each word. “The mad-woman queen of Carlisle Castle. The queen went insane, thinking the king wanted to kill her. She was hung after attempting to poison the king. Some people say they can still hear her dying scream echoing off the walls at night.”
“Not interested in phantoms, I went over to examine the carving. A man was depicted on a throne, its golden sheen peeling. The rock had crumbled, showing a hidden alcove behind the relief. I peered in, but I couldn’t see through the gloom. With Hans’ and my strength combined, we were able to tear away a large section so we could enter.’
“Inside was a golden nirvana that had been hidden away from the world’s eyes for centuries. Both of our eyes were as wide as the large golden coins stacked across the floor. Delighted at my discovery and eager to return home, I packed as much of the treasure as I dared in my plane and flew off the next morning. The storm you can hear wailing outside caused me to crash in this town and here I am today.”
“But what about all the treasure? Is it still in your plane?” I asked.
The man looked away. “There’s nothing left of it. My plane crashed into that lake. It has sunk to the bottom along with my golden dreams. All I have left is that little elephant statue I showed you before.”
“But you said you got it in Africa,” I protested.
“Africa, was it then? I seemed to have misled you before. The king was also a great traveler of the world, just like me. He’d been to Africa and brought back treasures to adorn his castle with. From the research I’ve done so far, it seems that his queen was a native African as well.”
“Delightful story, mister, but I must ask for my serving girl back. There’s cleaning to be done.” Cook said, punctuating the magic bubble that the stranger’s story had weaved. “And off to bed with you, those injuries need rest to heal.”
And so I went on with my life. The strange man must have left before I awoke the next morning because I never saw him again. A few months later I received a letter in the mail. It wasn’t signed with a name, but with a symbol of some kind. It was an invitation of some sort to a new exhibition in the Capital- “The Lost Treasure of the Golden Elephant.”