The rambling man was ushered away down many winding golden coroders and spiraling stairs until he felt that he must be at the heart of the strange city. What lay at the heart of a city like this? He would have thought that there would be some magnificent gem or stone that out shone all the rest, but now he guessed that it was something far more sinister. Something with a name: Barlow.
The prince had said he was to be prepared for Barlow. He wondered what that meant. When the guards took his harp away and began going through his pockets and taking anything that struck their fancy, his thoughts changed to wondering how long it would take Durwood and Cory to miss him and what they would do when they discovered him absent.
Less then half an hour later, two of the soldiers unbolted a huge double door and led the Rambling Man down a long passage to another, smaller, more heavily bolted door. This door led to another passage, with another door. As the proceeded down the dark passageways, the guard to his left holding the only light, the Rambling man sensed the soldier’s growing fear and felt it in the tightening of hands on his arms. The light quivered as they soldiers slowly unbolted a the third, thickets, most heavily secured door. Once the solid gold, 4 foot thick door was open, the soldiers pushed the Rambling Man forward and closed the door with a resounding boom followed by the sound of bolts sliding quickly into place.
The rambling man pulled himself, alone and unarmed, to his feet. His landing had been less painful than he would have expected as he found himself lying in pale white sand. He dusted off his hands on his trousers and looked around. He was in a vast, dimly lit golden cavern. There was a large, still lake in the center, lying heavily like a huge muted golden coin. The Rambling man was standing on a sort of sandy beach that went down to the shore of the lake. He couldn’t tell where the light was coming from, but it lit the room like the last light of the day might light a room where thin curtains have been drawn.
He looked back over his shoulder to find the outline of the door he had just come through. There was no sign of it. He stooped and drew a large arrow in the sand with his hands.
“Probably a pointless exercise,” he muttered to himself, “but why not?”
“Hello there!” said the voice of a boy from behind the Rambling man.
The Rambling man spun around quickly to find himself staring at a young, fair haired boy—naked, but for a dirty white loincloth. Where had he come from?
“Hello,” said the Rambling Man.
“I’m Jared,” the boy stuck out his hand towards the Rambling man, “Who are you?”
This gesture was a strange way to greet someone. The Rambling man though that they boy wanted him to do something with the hand, but he was not sure what. So, after a slight hesitation, he reached out cautiously and took the offered hand. The boy grasped his hand and shook it heartily a couple times than let it go. While this was happening, the Rambling man said, “I am called the Rambling Man.”
“The, Rambling, Man,” said the boy, amusedly counting the words out on his fingers. “That is rather a mouthful.” He circled around the Rambling Man as he spoke, and, with the heal of his foot casually brushed away the arrow the Rambling Man had just drawn in the sand. “What’s your real name?”
The Rambling Man was slightly taken aback. He was not used to people pressuring him for his birth name, and he was not prepared to share that information with this strange boy. So he just shrugged, “I haven’t used it in so long, I’m beginning to forget what it is,” he laughed slightly.
“Forget your own name? Well then, saying it more often will jog your memory.” The boy waited expectantly.
This kid was pushy, and the Rambling Man didn’t like it.
“How did you come to be here?”
Jared’s slender shoulders sagged slightly, “same as you. They just left me here.” There was a note of paranoia in his voice at those words and he glanced about him nervously.
Concern for the boy crinkled the Rambling Man’s brow. “How long have you been here?”
“I don’t know.” Jared shrugged. “Come, I’ll show you around.” The boy’s light feet scattered the fine sand as he led quickly along the beach down to the water. The Rambling man followed, suddenly feeling old in the face of the vigor of this boy’s eager youth. A little ways along the beach, there was a small rise and on the other side of the rise a small wooden rowboat boat was moored. The boy clambered in and gestured for the Rambling man to follow.
“Is it safe?” the Rambling Man asked, looking out over the still lake apprehensively.
The boy didn’t hear his question, or, more likely, pretended not to. With not a little bit of uneasiness, the Rambling Man climbed into the boat.
Dylan’s small, strong muscles swelled under his smooth pale skin as he rowed the boat out into the still lake. For a moment, the Rambling Man was thrown into a memory from his childhood, of himself and his playmate, Stan, rowing a similar boat across the clear blue water of the lake that was on Stan’s family farm. He remembered one still day when they had noticed that their laugher echoed off the water and had gleefully shouted and sung till they became hoarse.
“What are you thinking about?” Dylan’s question broke into the Rambling Man’s reminiscing and snapped him back to the present and the strange golden lake.
“But you were smiling. Was it a girl?”
There was a silence, then the boy asked, “do you want to fish?”
“There are fish in this lake?” the Rambling Man looked doubtfully over the edge of the boat in the clear water that seemed to go endlessly down into vague goldness.
“Yup.” The boy produced two fishing rods and bait.
Why did he have two rods, if he was alone?
The Rambling Man took the rod numbly. Then, after a moment, asked, “Why hasn’t Barlow, uh, taken you?”
The boy froze and stared at him for a long moment, his deep blue eyes wide and wild. “I, I don’t know. I’m always sure he will.” The boy’s voice had grown taught, his words coming out like the sound of books being snapped closed. “Soon. But he hasn’t.”
“How long have you been here?”
“I told you. I don’t know. Now can we please not talk about it?”
The Rambling Man did not respond.
“Let’s fish.” The boy’s nimble fingers snatched a squirming worm and impaled it on his hook. The moment the worm touch the water, fish began to arrive. The Random Man stared at them, his eyes unable, for a moment, to look away from the sleek silver and gold forms that circled the bait.
He glanced up at the boy, who was staring hard at him with those hard dark blue eyes. What was going on?
The boy smiled widely. A broad smile that filled the whole face but did not light the eyes. The Rambling Man shivered.
“You’re not real, are you?”
“What?” asked the boy—so innocently that the Rambling Man right away began to doubt his doubts. But he pressed on.
“You can’t be real. Where did you come from? Why do you have to fishing rods if you are alone? Where did the fish come from? Why don’t your eyes smile with your face?”
“You are a strange man,” Jared laughed. “I want to go swimming.” With that he dropped his fishing rod so that it clattered to the bottom of the boat and flung his agile body into the water in a graceful dive. The fish scattered. The Rambling Man watched as the boy swam down, down, down, until he simply faded away into the golden lake.
The Rambling Man sat alone in the rowboat and slowly set the fishing rod down.
“Barlow, he said was your name. Barlow.”