His small, fraying rucksack bounced from side to side as he hurried down the long, twisted laneway. He was late, and since he hadn't seen her in such a long time, nervous too. What if I don't recognize her, he thought to himself with another exasperated exhale. Nonsense. He turned again as the spires of the castle began to come into sight under the brightness of the near-full moon shining above. It is beautiful.
They had agreed to meet nearly four hours before, but hitchhiking across the barren countryside had proved to be more difficult than he expected. He'd jumped from one horse-drawn carriage to the next, hoping for someone, anyone, to take him to the once-prolific city of Hyadaddara, now little more than a dying fishing village, with no success. Eventually, he had had to walk most of the thirty miles between his last stop, Gionopokolis, and here. He trod on, knowing if he took even a momentary pause, he may not have the willpower to continue. When he reached the castle's front door, a massive block of oak and iron, he lifted the giant iron knocker and let it swing a single time.
The ensuing silence hung like a velvet curtain in front of a drama on opening night. And then the door swung open.
"Hellooooooo!" they shouted in unison, the two of them wrapping their arms around him in an overly-friendly embrace. "You must be Godric! We've been waiting for you!"
He looked shocked, yet amused. The two women standing in front of him beamed as he forced a smile and momentarily forgot a day's worth of hunger. They introduced themselves.
"Charlotte," said the first one, a slight twang in her voice revealing her foreign roots. Her wide, bright smile seemed to outshine the moon, he thought, as he tried to unfuss his hair without them noticing. Charlotte held his hand just slightly longer than necessary as they shook, a gesture imperceptible to the other young lady but apparent to Godric. He smiled genuinely.
The other woman introduced herself as Katya. She was equally as stunning as Charlotte, and seemed to carry a mysterious air about her. She flashed a quick smile, knelt down to help Godric with his bags, and the three of them went inside. The door closed with a soft shudder behind them.
Despite its elaborate architecture, the interior of the castle itself was decorated quite modestly. Only a few pieces of art lined its many hallways, and there was no clutter to be found anywhere. It was clean and homey, just as Godric would've adorned it. He chuckled lightly to himself as they turned to enter the dining room.
She sat at the dining room table, a full spread of untouched delicious fare in front of her, when they came in. "Godric!" she shouted, sounding happily alarmed as one does when surprised. "It's so nice to see you!" She threw her arms wide as she circled around the table and clutched him in a warm embrace, just as Charlotte and Katya had moments before. Memories he hadn't thought of in years came flowing back to him.
When he was just a young boy growing up a few miles outside of Hyadaddara, he had convinced a merchant to bring him into the city. At that time, Hyadaddara was much more than the isolated village it is today; it was the largest city this side of Constantinople. And when he caught a glimpse of the city for the first time that day, it confirmed a belief he had held for as long as he could remember: the world holds a lot more than you think. He knew from that moment that he would never return home, and he never did.
Later that afternoon, while he was scrounging for food, he met a girl, also twelve years old at the time, and they became friends. She lived in Hyadaddara, she told him, and had just begun working as a fish cleaner at her father's fishery on the far shore. Her name was Sia, and she invited him to come with her to the fishery the next day to see how it all worked. Fascinated, Godric agreed, and as the sun rose the next day the two of them met under the old crooked tree behind the latrines.
Despite only working there for a month, Sia showed him everything about how the fishery worked; where the fish were kept, how eggs were incubated and protected against harsh weather, the elaborate cleaning and packing process, and she even introduced him to some of the managers working there. At the end of the day, sensing his excitement, Sia said she could get him a job there if he wanted - she'd just need to run it by her father that evening and he could start the next day. Godric was overwhelmed.
It's true that he had been wide-eyed the entire time Sia was showing him around; having grown up in such a tiny village, Godric had never been exposed to such a large operation. He loved how all of the operations worked together, how the fish were moved from one place to another seamlessly, how he could see exactly how many fish were packed at the end of the day and, from that, see how much money was made in a day. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, and for exactly those reasons, he knew he could not accept the job.
"Sia, I love everything about this place, but it would be naïve for me to think that the first thing I love will be the best thing for me. I need to go out and see more of the world, and once I have, that's when I will return and share my stories with you. I will write to you when the time is right. Goodbye, Sia."
And with that, he turned and left.
He returned the embrace, those fresh memories of Sia on loop inside his head. A lot had changed since they stood outside the fishery that day. She was Queen now, he had learned a few years ago, having married Damascus, the democratically-appointed King of Hyadaddara. Sia had taken the initiative to learn every component of the fishery as a young girl, and as a result, she rose quickly through the ranks. She completely took over her father's fishery by the age of 19, and even as Queen she remained in charge, fuelling the only remaining successful industry in Hyadaddara. Her fishery was the town's last remaining lifeblood, and she knew it. She had lost the disheveled look she bore so proudly when they last saw each other at the age of twelve; she radiated with a simplistic beauty now.
"You look exactly as I thought you would, Godric," she said smartly. "Please, take a seat and let's eat. Then, you can tell us your stories." So the four of them sat and they ate. And he told them.
He told them of foreign fare and foreign lands, of sleeping undercover for protection and under the stars for pleasure; he told them of meeting children who had dreamed of it all and wise elders who had done it all. But mostly, he told them of builders, of thinkers, of divergents, of creators. And when he paused to eat, they asked questions intently and pressed him for more. He continued until he was finished and exhausted, and when they finally slept it was under the warmth of the soft rays of the morning sun.
Godric awoke the next afternoon to the sound of the castle's front door crashing open. He ran downstairs in a fright, only to be greeted by the King himself, Damascus. Damascus stood tall as Godric approached, his frame strong as an ox but his demeanour lighter than a playful rabbit's. He gripped Godric's hand with both of his, and with a sincere look in his eye, said, "Welcome home." Godric knew that he meant it.
The next few days went by in a blur. One evening over dinner, Godric asked Damascus why he spent so little time here in his own kingdom. "My people are strong," he responded effortlessly, "But the neighbouring districts need me more. They don't have the resources we have, and they are under siege. War, disease, and much more plagues them every day. It's my duty to help them."
Godric challenged him. "But everywhere you're going is outside of your boundaries. You have everything you need to live a life of incredible comfort here - why not just do that? Wouldn't you be happy here?"
Damascus looked at him sternly. "Godric," he said slowly, as if taking care to pronounce every syllable, "Every person has gifts. Mine are my courage and that I care. I care about people because they are people, not because they live within my walls. Everyone deserves a fair chance to live in peace and happiness, and I'm determined to give them that chance. I'm willing to put myself on the line for it."
And then it all made sense. Godric, through all of his travels, had had so many experiences that it was telling his unique stories that was his gift. Damascus was exactly who these neighbouring villages needed, so despite the fact that he could easily turn a blind eye to it, he used his gift of courage and put himself in danger to care for them. Thinking more, Godric realized that all throughout his stay, Charlotte had shared her gift of unbridled generosity and love with him. Katya, after their many long discussions, showed him how to achieve more depth and insight through introspection, a gift she had been honing for many years. And Sia, his long-lost friend of yore, shared her gift of connecting people and being an overly gracious host. He was lucky to have spent such quality time with such gifted people.
But once he realized that, Godric said his goodbyes once more. He had shared as much as he could there in Hyadaddara, and he needed to move on and continue sharing his gift elsewhere. He offered one final story in exchange for his stay, and set about on his way. His next stop was unknown, but he was sure of one thing: wherever it is, he'll have a new set of stories to recount from his unforgettable stay in Hyadaddara.