October 7th, 2020
The Moat Hotel - A ManA voice boomed from the far end of the corridor, where a man was standing in front of a set of large wooden doors, flanked by strange climbing plants that curled unnaturally into the gloom, as though an invisible sun was drawing them upwards. They could have been mistaken for plastic or ornamental, had they not been bearing fruit of such rich and glorious colour, in various shades of ripening, that no artisan could have crafted, in hues that could hardly be imagined. ‘Michael, sweetheart!’ The man swept down the corridor towards them. To one side was a narrow glass-topped table on which stood a silver dish pilled high with glistening maroon fruit from which, as the man passed, he plucked the top most and popped it into his mouth with a grin. Two steps later, without missing a beat he delicately drew from within his mouth a vivd green stem, twisted into a knot, and let it fall into a small jar on another table on the opposite side. Finally, just as he was reaching the two who stood bemused in the entranceway, he tilted and turned his head, spitting from his heavily painted lips a stone which flew through the air in a perfect arc, landing, miraculously silently in a wicker basket hung halfway up the wall. It was the most elegant, effortless act Mike had ever seen, yet he believed it could have been the first time it was attempted, such was the palpable confidence that flowed from the figure who stood, arms wide in welcome, a pearly grin that he shared with the newcomers. Across his body he wore flowing silks that were twisted and shaped around his shoulders so that they fell about his chest with a serene grace, flowing as he moved, and coming to rest as he stilled. His feet were bare, his legs wrapped in the same silks and strung with a cord of thick Byzantium rope, laced with flecks of gold, each end tied in a heavy knot that hung swinging by his side. His forearms were neatly covered in a sandy cloth that looked at once strong and functional like leather, but also soft, a set of cashmere braces that seemed to almost glow in the light of the lamps that lined the hall. Most remarkable of all though were his eyes, which positively burned with an energy that had washed down the corridor alongside him, and which now they all bathed in, drenched in the vitality of the man who now spoke. ‘Welcome, Michael,’ as though he were long lost family, returning after decades of wild and dangerous adventures. Mike wasn’t sure if he should offer his hand, give the man a hug or throw himself to his knees in respect. He resolved to just stand and fidget with the flap of his coat pocket. Out of the corner of his eye he could see his friend standing with his mouth wide open, a look of half wonder, half fear in his eyes. ‘This is Ollie— Oliver,’ he almost shouted, jerking the other out of his stupor. The man looked at the oddly bemused boy and raised his thick eyebrows, his face lighting up with a wondrous intrigue. ‘Hi. Sorry. Hello— It’s— It’s a pleasure to meet you.’ ‘The pleasure is mine,’ he said with a strange cocking of the head, and the others believed him, so eager and exciting was the light in his eyes. ‘Sweet Michael, you are very welcome here. Let us begin at once. Laura, whose voice you have already heard, will guide you to where you can recuperate.’ The boys stammered their thanks as the man gestured a sweeping arm to a door in the hallway which they hadn’t noticed before. There stood a woman of about their age, mutably dressed. The embodiment of calm she barely moved, save her eyes which studied first one, then the other, looking deeply into them, and, Mike assumed, reading their every thought as though it were scrawled across their clammy brows. Their obvious discomfort under the woman’s gaze seemed to entertain their host who laughed, broadly and with weight, like sonorous drums. ‘Come.’ She made to walk on through the side door at which she had appeared. They looked, sheepish. ‘Is everything alright?’ she asked. ‘Yes—Yes, Fine,’ Mike stuttered, and Oliver mumbled the same. ‘This way then.’ They followed, stumbling to catch up with the woman who was rapidly pacing away. From the main hall they found themselves in a similarly decorated corridor, with rows of lamps on each wall, and the same thick carpet under foot. As they were making their way along Mike looked back over his shoulder, just in time to see the double doors behind them closing, the man who had greeted them visible just for a moment between the crack of the doors before they shut with a soft click. The sound of the room beyond, which Mike hadn’t noticed until it was gone, went out like a blanket thrown over a noisy fan. He shivered, turning back to Oliver who was a few steps ahead, trotting behind the woman who was leading them on. There had been a shift in the man’s face, the grin was still there, the broad open face, the glistening eyes, but the energy was different, there was something underneath the veneer of graciousness that had only appeared as the door closed. It wasn’t there, he thought, I only saw him for a second. He shook himself and frowned, but before the doors closed, I must have… In his mind he trailed off, as the face of the woman, Laura, came behind his eyes. There was something unusual there too, in the rigidity of her walk, the curtness of her speech, the way she had reacted to their moment’s hesitation. He shook himself for the second time and stepped in behind Oliver. When they were alone, he thought, he’d ask if he’d seen anything, he’d ask if the lovely smell was coming from — He opened his eyes, startled. What had just happened? He looked at the wall as it passed by, the light from the lamps glowing and dimming as he passed. The smell of the lights glowed and — He opened his eyes. Oliver ahead of him, he wanted to reach out and grab hold of him but he couldn’t seem to find the strength. The woman, Laura, was ahead, her hair bobbing gently up and down.
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