The stories say that the rivers of Eurfrynlend flow with gold. As an adult I know while such a land may be prosperous, may even have gold, no place truly has such quantities, but when I was a boy I believed it, and my greatest desire was to cross the Great Mountains and find that magical land of abundant wealth. It was what influenced me to become an explorer, and though I grew to realize that no rivers literally flow with gold, I never lost that dream of adventure.
No one has crossed the Great Mountains in a thousand years, if ever, so I started off exploring other, somewhat more accessible places. Though I saw many wondrous things, my ventures always failed in the fiscal sense. And so at the age of twenty-nine, I found myself about to be thrown into debtor’s prison.
I, naturally, had reservations about spending my life in a cell. I considered suicide, but decided I quite like being alive, and anyhow, there were still places I had never seen. But, as I had nothing much to lose, being bankrupt and never having settled down long enough to start a family, I decided there was no reason I should not die at least attempting to follow my dream.
So it was that I set off across that impassible range with little more than the clothes on my back, a few simple tools, and a pack of trail food. There was no way I could make it, of course. Fully prepared expeditions, with mules loaded with food and supplies, had failed. Had I not decided that it would be preferable to die traversing those peaks than in a prison cell, I would never have had the courage.
I will not speak much of the crossing, but to say that it was horrible and difficult and wondrous, and it is a miracle I survived with all but a few toes intact. I cannot begin to describe the sensation I felt when I realized that I had crossed the Great Mountains, that I had succeeded in doing what no man had done for over a thousand years, had succeeded in fulfilling the great dream I’ve had since childhood.
And then it began to snow gold.
At first, I did not realize what it was. I thought it was simply snow, and even when I saw the color, the gleam of it, thought it was simply snow colored by some particle. It felt like snow, cold and soft, and when I caught a flake on my tongue it melted into the purest, sweetest water I have ever tasted.
But when I gathered up a handful of the flakes, they were pure gold. I am an explorer and a man of the world, and I know gold when I see it. It was not colored snow, or fool’s gold, or any other element in this world. This was pure gold.
So of course, I thought that I had not succeeded, that I had died up in those mountains and this was my afterlife, that I had been thrown into prison and gone quite mad, even that I had dreamed the whole thing. But I do not think that is true. This was as real as every moment of my life before hand, if quite a bit stranger.
I grabbed handfuls of the stuff and flung it in the air, held it, smelled it, tasted it, rolled in it. I would be rich, not just able to pay off my debts, but rich; I would be famous, known throughout history as the man who discovered Eurfrynlend!
It was not quite like normal gold. It retained many of the properties of snow. It fell in flakes, no two alike, and it melted in even the moderate warmth of my cupped hands. I was sure that, when it was summer in this strange place, the rivers flowed with it as the stories say. Yet it was gold.
I was so enraptured by it that I did not notice the woman. She was but a few yards away from me, and coming closer. Though the hood of her thick violet cloak shaded her face, she was clearly beautiful.
“You act as if you have never seen snow before,” she said, amused. I did not think to wonder that we spoke the same language, though her words were accented.
“I’ve never seen one such as this,” I told her. “I come from across the Great Mountains.”
“So there truly are people there,” she said in wonderment. “There are stories, but no one believes them. Welcome to Eurfrynlend. I am Melaenia.”
I introduced myself, and began to question her about her land. To my astonishment, she saw nothing special about the gold that is their water but its life sustaining properties, no different than the water at home, and, when I pressed, its beauty.
“But don’t you understand its value?” I asked her.
“Yes, it keeps us alive,” she answered, but did not understand what I meant.
She invited me into her home to continue our conversation. It was a small house, made of wood, not much different than our houses at home. She gave me dinner, a soup of vegetables in that amazing gold water, and we talked for hours, of her country and of mine, of my story, of hers (she was twenty, and had had a rather uneventful childhood in a happy family and recently moved out to live on her own and study botany in a nearby university). She told me of her family, her friends, her world, which did not seem so different than my own.
We talked of our hopes and dreams, and it was then that I mentioned that when I returned home with news of this place and even a small amount of their gold, I would be rich.
“And we will be dead,” she told me matter-of-factly. She cut me off when I started to protest. “No one has come over those mountains in a thousand years, it is true. But if they know that we have what you say is an abundance of riches, they will. You managed, and if others have reason enough, they will as well. They will want it all and they will slaughter us. I know human nature, and I do not believe it is any different on your side of the mountains.”
I was shocked, but I felt no disbelief. It had never occurred to me before, but now that it had I knew it for the truth. I had not thought the stories were true, had not thought of people living across the mountains, had not even truly believed I would make it. I meant no harm to these people. And yet…. This was more gold than kings dreamed of, and it could be mine. And it was not only the gold I wanted. I would be forever known as a great explorer. That was what I had always wanted out of life, and it could be mine. But at what cost.
“I need to think on this,” I told Melaenia.
She nodded solemnly. “Take your time, but do think on it.”
I promised I would. It was late, by then, and I was tired from the last leg of my journey, from the succession of sleepless nights before, from the day’s great discoveries. I asked Melaenia if she would permit me to stay the night, assuring her that I would be a model of propriety and sleep on her couch.
“Are you sure about that?” she asked me with a flirtatious smile.
I suddenly found that I was not really so tired.
I stayed there for more than a night. I found that this land was not so different from my own, though I do not think drinking gold could ever seem mundane to me. I met people who were not much different than anyone I’d ever known, though they had far more respect for me, seeing me as a great explorer from a far away land. And then there was Melaenia, who was like no one I had ever known. I don’t know when I realized that I was in love with her. I do know it was after I’d decided that she was right, that I could not bring gold and my story to my land and invaders to this one.
So I had no reason to return to my own birthplace. And if perhaps I hadn’t any more reasons to stay in this golden land, I was determined to make some.
And I do know that it was just a little more than two years after I arrived in Eurfrynlend that Melaenia and I were married, on the banks of a river of flowing gold. And as a honeymoon, we decided to explore the far reaches of the continent, for Melaenia’s heart is that of an explorer as well.
Yes, I could have been rich and famous. But I regret nothing.