He opens his eyes.
He is in the field, almost waist deep in the grass.
It is a vast green plane of emptiness, a wasteland. Birds are chirping somewhere in the distance. The sun is low, on the verge of approaching evening, hiding partially behind the white clouds.
There is a certain smell in the air; the oppressing heavy feeling of something upcoming. It smells almost like ozone as if it might rain later. And maybe it does rain somewhere, but not in this part of the world.
He wanders further into the tall grass. It brushes at his clothes, tugs at the long sleeves of his white shirt. The boots are suddenly very heavy on his feet. He briefly thinks about taking them off, but then he will have to carry them, and he needs his hands to be free.
A sword on his hip is a comforting weight, but it also makes him feel exposed. As if he is an intruder, an invader into the land of innocent and harmless. A sword is like a declaration of war, an anti-white flag, an epitome of danger that he carries on his body. The world around him is serene and empty.
There is nothing to be seen in the field, but he is not fooled. He has had a few battles; he has endured several wounds. He knows when to expect an ambush. He is wary.
A dark dot appears on the horizon, first unclear and blurry, but soon growing and approaching with every second.
His heart pounds, as he squints trying to see what it is in the distance. A knight, he thinks.
But as it comes closer, he can see that the horse has no rider.
It is not saddled but approaches him at full gallop with the determination of the beast knowing its way. As if it is being guided by an unseen hand.
It slows down to a trot, as it gets even closer, and now he can appreciate the magnificent creature. It is large as a mountain and black as night. Its mane and tail fall in curly waves almost to the ground, and its hide shines with health and breeding in the lowering sun.
Its eyes are pearl white, devoid of pupils, and even if he has never seen a demon before, he can tell that is what it is.
The question is which side it is on.
It snorts and circles him with seemingly malicious air.
He draws his sword from the scabbard slowly, not wanting to provoke it.
The beast goes in circles around him, making him turn to follow its snout and eyes. It snorts and stamps its hooves, but nothing else happens.
There is still a healthy ten feet distance between them, and although it is probably not enough, it is better than nothing.
A sudden gust of wind brings thousands of whispers.
“She is coming,” they say. “She is coming.”
He looks from side to side trying to spot whatever the spirits are trying to warn him about, but he sees nothing at first.
Then he notices her.
A woman, dressed in a dark red cloak, her face completely hidden by the hood, is walking from the forest line towards him.
She is coming from the same direction he has come. It means she has been following him.
A strange thing happens as she walks through the waist deep grass. As she glides through it, bright red poppy flowers appear wherever her cloak touches the grass. As a frigate cruising through the waves, the cloaked woman is moving effortlessly through the field, turning the vast greenness of it into the sea of blood red.
The approaching figure fills his heart with much greater terror than the beast which stands behind him.
Between the demon and the witch, the choice is pretty obvious.
He turns and runs towards the horse, which snarls at him and tries to bite, instead of shying away.
It is a matter of a second to uncurl the rope from his waist and, threatening the beast with the sword, tie it around its neck in an improvised bridle. Next second he is on its back.
Surprisingly, the horse doesn’t protest much, doesn’t try to throw him off, as he turns it into the opposite direction of the approaching woman. The beast breaks into the run at the first touch of a spur.
It runs smoothly and with increasing speed. He looks over the shoulder and stares in shock, as the witch is gaining on them. She keeps moving effortlessly through the field, almost flying and leaving the sea of blood in her wake.
It seems she is not even touching the ground.
He yells and spurs the horse into a faster gallop. It whines, but goes faster, the sound of its hooves loud and clear in the stillness of the air. It seems as if the demon horse has made its mind about which side it is on.
The woman is getting closer still. The poppies start appearing everywhere, even on either side of them, even ahead. Just one or two, but they are noticeable amidst the green grass.
The demonic horse maneuvers around them without the rider even guiding it. But as it moves to avoid one of them, suddenly another poppy appears right under its hooves. It is too late to jump over it, so it gallops right through it.
Where the hooves touch the flower, there is a bright blue spark, and the horse cries in pain. It doesn’t slow down though. On the contrary, it seems to gallop even faster, if it is even possible. But more and more poppies are appearing around them, and soon avoiding them is getting almost impossible.
He leans to one side and tries to slash through offending flowers, but the sparks that appear shoot up his arm very much like a small lightning, and he almost loses balance and the grip on the sword in sudden pain.
He rightens himself and concentrates on holding tight to the rope, as the horse madly dashes from side to side.
There is a small hill that he and his unexpected ally climb, but the horse’s speed is slowly decreasing. As they reach the top, they find themselves fully surrounded by the poppies.
The demon horse rears and lets out an angry neigh. It doesn’t seem to like the situation either.
He turns around, and the woman is almost below the hill. It is the matter of minutes, if not seconds until she is at the top.
The horse rears and neighs again, almost dislodging the rider in the process. The cry is long and imploring as if it is calling someone. It stands still then, its sides heaving, foam coating its snout.
It is eerily quiet. The wind that has brought the warning is calm now. There is even no whisper of the grass as the woman is moving towards them.
Suddenly, there is a sound of flapping wings. Then there are hoarse croaks of ravens, so loud, they are almost deafening. He turns his head and sees the thousands of black birds descending on them.
He covers his head with his hands, but nothing happens. The birds do not attack them, as they all fly around them towards the cloaked figure that is still climbing the hill.
An unexpected attack of birds makes the woman stagger. The ravens descend from all sides, flapping their wings and croaking. They strike with their beaks and talons but to little effect.
She doesn't seem to be concerned, but she doesn’t move further either, temporarily halted. She raises her hands to the sky. They look like two pale twigs from a distance.
She must have said something, because the clouds darken and cover the sun completely. A roll of thunder and a heavy rain starts to fall.
The cries of ravens turn from menacing into panicking.
One by one the black birds dissolve into wisps of black smoke, that quickly disappears as ink in water. As the number of ravens is getting less and less, the woman starts moving again. She approaches slowly, sure that her victim is not going anywhere.
She is almost at the top. He still can’t see her face, but he can now see her pale arms - they are not flesh and skin, but white bones and nothing else.
“You are running from me as if I mean you harm,” says the woman in a young, melodic voice, and in spite of the distance, he can hear her very clearly.
“What do you want?” He demands.
“Something that you have. Something of mine.”
“I have nothing.”
And it is true, although something is nagging him at the back of his mind, like a memory half-forgotten.
“Oh, you do, my boy, you do. Everyone does.” She is almost at the top of the hill, and the demon horse shies away from the approaching figure.
She stops just four feet away and points with the bony finger at his chest, “Give it to me.”
There is something around his neck, he realizes. A chain and something is dangling from it. A small watch. It feels as if he has forgotten about it and only now, as if somebody pointed it out, notices it.
He looks down and fingers it. It is a small round watch with a bronze case covered with engraved swirls and turns. It ticks almost inaudibly. And it feels warm to the touch.
It is his. He doesn’t know how he knows, but he does.
“No,” he says. It is a very simple answer.
“Give it to me now!” She yells in a fury and he sees a glimpse of red, burning eyes beneath the hood.
His fingers slide over and over the cover until they land on the latch and he opens the case. Suddenly a small blue butterfly flies from it. Then another, and another, and another, until there is a whirlwind of tiny fluttery creatures.
They fly towards the witch, that tries to shoo them away, but they circle her and purposely fly under her hood.
She screams. It is an awful, horrid sound that clenches his heart and sends shivers down his whole body. The horse jolts too and dances on the spot, torn between the instinct to flee and inability to do so.
The fluttering of the small wings drowns the screaming.
The red cloak falls into the grass, as the witch’s bones shutter into dust. The poppies start withering all around them almost immediately.
In a minute there is only enormous green field around them again.
The horse under him stumbles. He jumps off its back, but it doesn’t help. The beast is exhausted and overcome with wounds from the vicious flowers. It heaves and goes down on its front knees, then falls on its side.
He feels pity toward his unexpected ally and tries to soothe the creature, rubbing its sides and neck. There is nothing to be done though, and the demonic horse breathes its last breath.
The sight of this enormous and formidable creature now dead and pitiful on the ground fills him with pain and anger. He rises and turns away.
On the other side of the hill, there is a lake, which he hasn’t noticed before. He stumbles down the slope towards it on unsteady legs.
The surface of the lake is a silver mirror, serene and beautiful. He kneels at the pebbled shore to drink from it. Just as his fingers touch its waters, the surface ripples in tiny waves. He freezes in fear, but nothing happens, so he reaches out again and scoops the water with his hand, ignoring the resonating sound that seems to rise from the lake at this deed.
The water is like a balm to his body, and quickly he feels refreshed and ready to continue his journey.
The lake’s surface is rippling again. The waves are becoming bigger and bigger until there is something like a whirlpool in the middle of its surface. From its centre appears an ugly head of a dragon. It is patina green in colour and covered in thorns and huge scales that glint like an old bronze armoury. Its eyes are big yellow moons, and its mouth is a cave full of sable like white teeth.
“What do you want?” it growls, annoyed and impatient, in a booming voice that wraps around him and vibrates through his body.
“I want to go back,” he says, as he takes the chain from his neck and holds the watch above his head for the dragon to see.
“Do you know the price of your request?”
“I do.” The words leave his mouth as if somebody else is doing the talking. His head is empty, but his tongue seems to have the mind of its own.
“And you are prepared to pay?” inquires the dragon. It has risen almost completely out of the water and now hovers over him.
The dragon throws its ugly head back and laughs. It is a rumbling sound, caught somewhere between a cough and a noise of an avalanche.
“Very well,” it says, and its voice is gleeful, as if it has just been given a generous gift. “Prepare to die then, knight.”
It opens its mouth and breathes out a stream of fire. It rushes through the air in a wave of heat and stinky breath.
Fire burns through his clothes, his muscles, and his bones. It leaves nothing in its wake. He simply disappears.
He awakes with a start. There is a moment of disorientation, when he can’t understand where is the floor and where is the ceiling, but then the world rightens itself and a kind smiling face comes into his view.
“It’s alright,” a woman says. “It is alright.”
She in her late fifties and is wearing pale pink scrubs. The washed out colours of the room and a coarse bedding under his fingers confirm that he is in the hospital.
“What,” he tries to ask, but his voice is hoarse, and he is incredibly thirsty.
The nurse must have sensed that because she is already holding a cup with a straw for him to take a few careful sips.
“You were in a car accident. You have a broken leg and two broken ribs.” She took the cup away before he could drink all of it. “You got lucky though. The car caught fire, but you don’t have a single burn on you.”
He doesn’t remember much of what happened. Jumbled images of fire and darkness, feeling of heat and impressions of riding at the top speed flash briefly through his mind.
“Now rest. I will let the doctor know that you are awake.”
The nurse leaves.
He settles back and thinks about a weird dream he had. Something is itching his skin, and he tugs a bit at the neck of his gown. His fingers brush against something else. It feels like a stray thread, but when he pulls at it, it comes loose, and it turns out to be a chain.
At the end of this chain, there is a watch. It looks old and worn. He turns it over and over in his fingers until he presses something and the case pops open.
The watch has stopped. The glass is cracked badly, but he can still see the face of it. It doesn’t have hours or minutes marked, but there a blue butterfly painted in the centre of it.
He grips the watch hard in his hand, and it feels as if it is warm and fluttering in his palm like a captured butterfly.
He doesn’t know what to make of it. He can’t remember the car accident, but he can clearly recall the demonic horse and the dragon.
His eyes wander over the room until he sees something that fills him with a sudden sense of dread.
“Nurse!” he yells in alarm.
As the woman rushes into his room, he points at the object in question with his free hand and asks in a shaky voice, “Where did those come from?”
“Oh! Your sister was here, while you were unconscious. She brought them. Aren’t they lovely? A bit early for the season, though.”
He doesn’t say anything, because, really, he doesn’t know how to explain that he is absolutely sure that he has no sister. No siblings in fact.
He refuses to say what has gotten him so agitated. He waves the nurse away and asks to see the doctor. He knows for the fact that he needs to get out of the hospital as soon as possible.
The nurse casts a doubtful glance at him but leaves again.
Clutching the broken watch in one hand, he settles uneasily back again, feeling very tired, but unable to relax at the same time. His eyes never stray from the windowsill on which there is a small vase with a bouquet of poppies.
He needs to find his sword.