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[Ben Lunt   2nd place]


    When Harold awoke he realized he was still asleep. He instantly recognized the strange landscape as the one he always dreamed. Trees with red boles and yellow leaves, blue grass, and a swirling green and gold sky. He'd never seen a sun here, but felt the warmth of it when in the open.
    Harold stood and looked around. He'd awakened under the same gnarled, dead tree as before. Its thick limbs were a faded pink, with a smattering of gray scaly patches.
    There was something strange, yet comforting, this time. He seemed to be able to see better. A tentative hand to his face confirmed the absence of his thick glasses, and yet he could see clearly, even at great distances. The obscure black line he'd always seen on the horizon now shone clearly as a long stone ridge rising from the distant edge of the grassy plain before him.
    For the first time, he looked down at his hands, something he'd never done before. They were big, much bigger than he remembered, and strong looking. A quick look at his body revealed a heavily built man with thick black hair on his arms and legs, and a myriad of various scars, some small, some large and ragged. He wore coarse leather sandals with thongs crisscrossed to just below the knee, and a pair of heavy leather breeches ending mid-thigh. Another heavy leather garment covered his shoulders, back and chest, ending some six inches above the waist of the breeches.
    This was a strange dream. It had never seemed so real before.
    He turned slowly around and searched the entire horizon. As far as he could tell, he was in the center of a huge, shallow valley. From the edges of a vast expanse of knee-high grass, the landscape seemed to rise in all directions. One edge of the grassland ended abruptly at the black wall of stone. To his left, it gathered in foothills and eventually grew to great red mountains. On his right, rolling slopes melted into a red and yellow forest. Behind him, low foothills ended against great jagged black peaks that rose in jumbled confusion from the ground below.
    Harold eyed the tree and wondered if he could climb it. He'd never been able to before. He'd always been too weak or slow to drag himself from the ground.
    He stepped forward and grabbed a low branch, then swung himself easily onto it. A smile curled his lips as he moved hand over hand to the highest reaches of the tree.
    From here he could see that the land above the black wall sloped gently up and away from the valley. He also saw what appeared to be a break in the forest to his right. Perhaps it was a path, or a road that led somewhere. To his left, he saw several thin columns of smoke rising from the foothills. It occurred to him that these might be campfires, or even smoking chimneys in cabins.
    He lowered himself to the ground and slowly walked toward the long black wall, wondering which way to go; toward the path into the forest, or toward the lines of smoke? Without knowing why, he turned left and started jogging toward the forest.
    He hadn't gone far when he heard hoofbeats behind him, approaching rapidly. Harold stopped and turned around, shocked to see a huge man on a snorting black horse racing toward him. The man held a heavy broadsword over his head, snarling as he closed the distance.
    "You're alive!" He roared in anger. "You're alive! I saw the lions chase you into the gap! You couldn't have survived!"
    Harold ducked and leapt backwards as the horse and rider thundered past, the wicked blade singing just over his head. For a moment, he remembered being chased by lions, but he also remembered waking up just in time.
    The snorting horse contorted and tore savagely at the ground as he turned around to charge again. Harold bent his knees and braced his feet apart, ready to spring, his arms bent and his hands curled into claws.
    "There will be no escape this time, Gandaar!"
    The attacker readied himself for another charge as the straining horse leapt toward Harold.
    As they drew near, Harold started left, then jumped right and forward as hard as he could. His timing was perfect. The trained war-horse reacted to the feint left and turned that way to put the victim on his rider's sword hand. At the same time, the riders swing came late because Harold had moved forward a great leap.
    Harold snatched at the rider's chest harness and dragged him from the racing horse, to land hard on the ground. In an instant, Harold was upon him, tearing the sword from the stunned man's grip.
    In one swift move, Harold drove the sword through the man's chest and into the ground.
    He stood and watched as the man gasped and died. The riderless horse stopped and turned around, watching impassively.
    As Harold reached for and withdrew the sword, the horse began to graze on the lush blue grass. Harold took what he wanted from the dead man. The chest harness and sheath for the sword, heavy leather wrist straps, a long dagger and sheath, and a small leather bag filled with odd looking coins.
    He walked to the horse and took the reins, then mounted it. It responded as though it had always been his horse. From the saddle, he again surveyed the options.
    "He came from this way," Harold reined the horse toward the low foothills with the columns of smoke, "let's go see what goes on there."
    Harold allowed the panting horse to walk and rest.
    They hadn't gone very far when he heard a strange voice that seemed to come from nowhere.
    "Wake up, man! Come on! Wake up!"
    "No," Harold breathed, "no more. I'm staying here."
    "Come on, man! Are you okay?"
    The voice got weaker. It came once more, but faded completely. Harold smiled and nudged the horse into a canter.
    Two Policemen squatted over the withered form of a sleeping derelict beneath a Miami boardwalk.
    "I think he's in a coma or something," one said to the other.
    "Where do these people come from," the other responded. "he looks about ninety. He might be missing from a nursing home or something. Maybe he's got Alzheimer's and wandered away. I'll call an ambulance. You stay with him. Don't move him or do anything else until the EMT's get here."
    The other nodded and stood, looking down at Harold's weathered face.
    "He's smiling," the officer grinned, "he's happy, wherever he is."

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