The old man didn’t even live in the village; he lived alone in the dense mountain forest that rose above the small cluster of houses. There were all sorts of stories about him. Some said he was older than the village itself. But that could not be true as the village was very, very old. Older, even, than the ancient warrior statues that stood in eternal, unmoving guard on the outskirts of the village.
The village itself was a small, prosperous, out of the way place. Its location, high up in the mountains and near the source of the river that bisected it neatly, meant that it was largely self sufficient. The forest supplied game, the river fish, and the small farms scattered further down on the plains occasionally brought up their produce to the sell in the market; a ramshackle space that served as the village square.
It was, all in all, a quiet place, detached from the larger world, and peopled by an insular and secretive folk who viewed both outsiders and the dark, dense mountain forest that loomed above them with suspicion and fear. And to the villagers sight of the old man was a particularly ominous portent.
Gazing into their fireplaces at night the villagers told stories of the old man; he was the main font from which village folklore flowed. The mothers of the village dissuaded their children from mischief by telling them that “the old man is watching, always watching, and you don’t want to hear the sound of his keys”.
One thing they knew for certain was that he didn’t come from the village; his skin colour and the arrangement of his facial features were too different from theirs. It was said that there was a land in the far, far south, beyond the borders of the plains, where all men looked like him. Although that was, in general, held to be a myth.
The villagers who braved the forest and fished the river further up the mountain shuddered to hear his approach. And they always heard it for the sound of the old man approaching was the jangling of keys.
The villagers had no use for keys, as privacy was impossible in such a small place, and therefore the keys themselves seemed like strange, alien objects. And the old man carried what seemed like hundreds of them; although it must be said that no one had ever had the nerve to stand and count them. He did not carry them on a ring although the villagers, with no need for keys themselves, did not realise keys were usually grouped in this fashion. Instead he wore a worn leather belt studded with brass hooks. The belt was large and heavy enough that it needed leather braces to hold it up.
On each of the brass hooks hung one or more keys. Large keys, small keys, all made from a myriad of metals, and keys that were so oddly shaped that it was hard to imagine what kind of lock they could possibly fit in.
And wherever the old man walked the keys jangled.
The villagers said that each key was a life, and in the dialect of the village the word for “life” was the same as the word for “adventure”. They said that the old man could appear, announced only by the jangling of keys. He could appear to anyone, not just the woodcutters and hunters. Even the house-men and children were not safe from his keys.
They knew that the sound of jangling keys signaled the start of their story. These were stories that dragged people from their beds, stories that made them leave their homes and their families and their villages. These stories sent people careening across the world, headlong into untold dangers and unspeakable horrors. These stories ended with people changed, or disfigured.
These were stories from which people did not always come back.
And the fear the villagers had was that the jangling of keys meant their own story was beginning.