Paris lay still, and the noises persisted.
When he first heard the sounds, his back had been to the road. As the volume of the sounds grew louder, and the rhythm remained steady, Paris knew that his realm of dreams had not seeped into his wasteland reality. He shifted, and twisted in his bedroll, to a position where he could peak at the road from under his blanket cocoon. The illumination provided by the pale moon was considerable, and he squinted his eyes towards the place he believed the sounds came from, but despite his intense scrutiny, he was unable to determine the source of the noises that had roused him from his sleep.
Chunk-chunk, Chunk-chunk. Chunk-chunk, Chunk-chunk. Chunk-chunk, Chunk-chunk.
The regular, measured, sounds persisted. Paris continued to peer into the moon-accented darkness. After staring for what felt like an eternity, Paris began to feel as if in a trance. He found himself drifting into thoughts of the evening walks that he used to take, his restless mind refusing him sleep, when he would pace along the deserted streets of the city, breathing in the cool night air, until he would stop at dark pool accented by the statue of a beautiful woman, where he would take a few moments to soak in the ivory orb floating in the lightly undulating, black mirror.
A firefly, flickering back and forth in the night, disrupted his daze. He brought his right hand from under the blanket and rubbed his left eye, then his right. The firefly still flitted about in the distance.
A sudden gust of wind whipped at his covering, and in the distance, the firefly quivered.
Paris readjusted his blanket while maintaining his focus on the glow that gradually, increased in size.
Chunk-chunk, Chunk-chunk. CHUnk-CHunk, CHUnk-CHunk. CHUNk-CHUNk, CHUNK-CHUNK.
The rhythmic sounds grew louder, the blurry firefly came into view, and revealed its true self, that of a medium-sized, obsidian, metal, lantern. It bobbed at the end of a limp, arc of wood, above, and in front of two cloaked figures, just above the rumps of two weary looking horses.
The glow from the lantern cast soft, warm, illumination in a small circle, allowing Paris a peek at a shadowy, blurry space behind the front seat of the bundled figures, revealing what appeared to be, a well loaded, flat, wooden, wagon.
Chunk-chunk. Chunk-chunk. Chunk-chunk.
The sounds of the wagon wheels, grinding against dirt and stone, ceased their rhythmic nature, and slowed in their frequency.
Paris bundled up, intending to make himself as scarce a target as he could manage for a solo traveler, camped just off a main thoroughfare, that was running through a wasteland.
The wagon stopped with the quick jerk of reins, and the sharp whinny of a horse that quickly disappeared into the sterile night.
Aided by the illumination of the lantern, Paris saw the driver hand the reins to the second, cloaked figure, to his left on the bench of the wagon. He held up his right hand, palm facing his travel company, then turned, and hopped down from his seat.
The stranger landed with a soft thud, particles of dust gliding upwards like gnats towards the light of the lantern.
With the light of the lantern at the strangers back, Paris found it challenging to view the facial features of the man, or woman, that approached him. The stranger’s garb was baggy, hiding his, or her, physique, though Paris believed the approaching individual was one of medium build, having a slow, but confident gait. Paris hoped, that the stranger was not threatening.
Seeing that this midnight interloper strode directly towards him, Paris twisted from a sideways-laying position, to that of a seated one, deftly curling his blanket around him like a cape. He leaned forward, planted his left hand to steady himself, then planted his feet, and rose to greet the person who disturbed his sleep.
“Hail, traveler,” the stranger said in a soft, warm voice, as he reached to his head, tugged back the overhanging section of his hood, then pulled back a swath of cloth, that was wrapped across the lower half of his face. With these gestures, he revealed dark, sad, wise, along with a small, slightly crooked nose, thin lips, healthy, rosy cheeks, and a dark brown, scraggly, beard, flecked with silver.
Paris pulled the blanket closer to his body, and addressed the man.
“Greetings stranger. It is deep into the night, is it not? Yet you, and your companion are still pushing your horses. Should you have not found rest many miles ago?”
“We fancy making our path after nightfall, when it is most cool. Those that charge into the sun have the most difficult of journeys.”
“I, having no lantern, have little choice but to abide by the illuminations of the day, and, consequently, am now suffering the wanderings of those immune to the cycle of the sun.”
“I, we, noticed you from a distance, and knew that we might rouse you from sleep this calm evening. In fact, it was our intention, though not one wrought with maliciousness. The road is very long, friend, and you are on foot.”
“I have made it thus far on foot.”
“How far is that?”
“I haven’t counted steps, have you counted the rising and falling of the sun since your outset?”
“I mean no offense traveler. But this is a very long road, with little to offer the ill-prepared traveler, be it sustenance or companionship.”
“You have disturbed me in the midst of my respite, is it to offer one of these as recompense?”
Over the shoulder of the stranger, one of the horses snorted. Paris saw the horses pounding on the ground with their hooves, and shifting. The wagon creaked with is sudden, horizontal relocation. Something that sounds all at once like wind, mumbling, and whispering, emanates from the person on the wagon, and the animals calm.
“No traveler, we offer both.”
“We have been navigators of this broad serpent for many years. We have seen many lonesome, weary travelers. We woke you, only to help. We can provide you shelter, food, and salve from the rigors of the trail.”
“How did you manage to find me?”
“We saw an odd formation to the side of the trail.”
“We could, and would have driven on through the night, but we saw an anomaly in the dirt, and decided to stop.”
“What now? Where will us three go in the middle of the night?”
“We intended to travel for several more hours through this cool, calm night. You are welcome to a spot in the wagon; we will shift things to provide you a space. When the dawn breaks, we will arrange our tent, and make camp. Then we will tether our horses, and underneath this canopy, we may all find nourishment, and rest.”
“That is all?” Paris questioned.
“It is that simple.”
“Shall I be awake with you for the next few hours? I am accustomed to sleeping when the moon is high. As such, I am currently quite weary.
“You may do as you see fit.”
His resolve weakened by disturbed slumber and weariness, Paris acquiesced.
“Very well, I accept your philanthropy. But I have one more question before we embark together. Do you do this with no expectation of remuneration? Do you pick up strangers in the wilderness, offer them shelter, sustenance, and transportation, and require nothing in return?”
“Oh no traveler, everything has a cost.”
“I have very little, what may I offer you in payment?”
“You must tell us a story.”