It occurred on a day when I was deep in thought about those three Treksmen who had been in line behind Yanni. Bil-Lyew, Zafrast, and Obasi. Why had they had been able to witness Yanni’s death and quit this dread journey before it was too late while I had not? Why had I stood immediately before Yanni and not immediately after? I had been the very last Treksman to get through the Pledge and be chained to this doomed venture.
“This was always to be your fate,” I whispered to yourself. “Perhaps all of us walking here were chosen. But you, Graye, you were chosen especially.”
Why, though? I was of absolutely no consequence. Did I have a special part to play? That seemed unlikely. There was nothing that I was likely to do which my companions were any less likely to do themselves. Perhaps I was guilty of some special sin that I had forgotten and had to be punished for?
Of course, I had sinned, I do not deny as much, but more than Bil-Lyew? More than Zafrast? Certainly I couldn’t have sinned more than Obasi had!
“It doesn’t matter,” I sighed to myself. “Who are you to question the turning of the wheel? Your fate awaits you at Graymore and that’s all there is to it.”
“No, your fate is with me,” a silky voice called out. I looked up and looked about, unable to see any who it was that had spoken.
“Who’s there?” I asked.
“See me,” the voice came back, soft but earnest, and definitely female.
My mind imagined a person to which such a voice might belong, and all at once I saw the very likeness before me, standing just off the side of the road. She was incredibly pale, with a tall and thin face, perhaps the most beautiful and enchanting I had ever seen. Her hair was deepest black, and I could not tell how long it was, for its color perfectly blended in with her clothing, which swathed around her tightly, all the way to the top of her neck.
“What are you?” I asked the phantom. I felt an intense desire to understand her, for everything about her was a complete enigma to me. The more I stared upon her, the more unsure of anything else I seemed to be. All the world slipped out of my periphery and there was only her, but even she was still somewhat out of my focus.
“I am the fate that has been chosen for you.”
“To love you?”
“Or to fall to me. Whichever you would choose.”
Both sounded rapturous to me.
“But what of Graymore Coventry?” I asked. “It has already claimed me. I cannot turn away from it or I will die like Yanni.”
“Die to me. I may yet rennervate you. Thus you will give full due to your pledge, and yet achieve a second fate.”
“Die to you?”
“Yes, give yourself over.” Her eyes flashed brightly and she seemed to draw nearer, though she didn’t walk a single step towards me. She did raise her hands, though, and as she did the wide sleeves fell back and laid bare her ivory arms. Carved marble they seemed to me, and one of them was raised to caress, the other to strike. All my heart thumped with desire to drop to my knees, lean against her bosom, and feel which one she would lay upon me.
The more I spoke with more, the more I focused on her, the more she seemed to take definition, the more real she seemed to be. I felt like she could be entirely real if I wanted. I just had to believe wholly in her and she would be.
One of my last fingertips left the handle of the wagon, and my heart thumped painfully.
I looked down to my side. Now only the two small fingers on my right hand remained touching the wood. I had been letting go without even realizing it. Of course a Treksman can let go of his handle as the need permits, but the Job knew our hearts, knew that I was not just letting go as a matter of course. I was letting go to abandon my station, and it was about to claim my life for that betrayal.
“See me!” the woman exhaled sharply. My eyes snapped to her and I saw the utmost ferocity in her eyes. But what was that ferocity? Was it anger for my hesitation, or desperation that I give my love to her? The uncertainty of her seared my heart with greatest desire.
My eyes shot back to my hand, where now only the smallest finger remaining to task.
“What are you?” I interrupted her.
“All that you desire, all that you fear.” I mouthed the words with her even as she said them.
“The two are one and the same” the voice continued, but now I became aware that it was my voice speaking. My voice and someone else’s. But not the woman’s. Another woman’s. Another woman that was yet unseen.
I was just as confused at this realization as you might imagine, but strange as those words are to write and strange as they were to feel, somehow I knew they were true. I realized that there had been some sort of trance, one that had linked me with another person that I could not see, and by our unison this phantom woman that I did perceive was given voice and thought.
I felt a sensation like waking up, the gray of my periphery began to be washed again in color, and I saw anew my caravan and my companions. All the seven who had been conscious with me had all come to a halt. Four of them were staring off in their own trances and muttering their own nonsenses. The other three lay dead.
There wasn’t a single mark upon them, each had fallen just outside the reach of their wagon handles, no doubt having forsaken them in just the same manner that I had been about to.
Out of the corner of my eye I could still see the strange woman, but she was far less defined than before. Indeed with every passing moment where I did not believe in her, she seemed to be become more and more unmade.
“What do you mean?” Boril’s voice rang out, and my eyes snapped to him, three wagons ahead of me. He, too, was staring off into nothingness, and his tone was shrill and vehement, like he was trying to hide his fear. “If my own hand is not my own, then what would it be?!” He mouthed an answer to that, I did not hear what, but his eyes went wide at the message that it conveyed.
“No!” Boril said disbelievingly, and looked down at his hand, which appeared absolutely ordinary to me. But his face contorted in horror and he flexed his fingers in an erratic, painful-looking way. “Get it off! Get it off!” he shrieked, fumbling with his other hand for the cutlass at his side. And as he did so I saw that his hand was beginning to shift. It was starting to turn black, with the hairs on its back standing on end and elongating, and the fingers starting to move with the scuttling rhythm of spider-legs.
“Boril! No!” I shouted, rushing forward and catching the arm that held the cutlass, just as he raised it to to chop off his own limb…or whatever he had been bewitched into thinking it had become.
Bewitched! I thought. That’s it.
Boril struggled against my grip and I heaved backwards, pulling him to the ground with me, continuing to wrestle his arm and shouting at him that his hand was perfectly fine. It took a great deal of shouting for him to hear me over whatever voice echoed in his head, but at last he seemed to see that what I told him was so. For the more I told him that his arm was fine, the more he seemed to doubt whatever he had seen previously, and the more his hand truly came back to its ordinary form. Once he stilled himself I let go, and sprang to my feet, eyes glancing about madly for our foe.
“Where are you witch!” I demanded. “I do not believe in your spells anymore!”
Two arms, thin and bony, wrapped themselves around my neck from behind. There was a surprising strength to them, and they pulled me firmly against the shoulders of a lithe and wiry woman.
“To live without belief is to live without air,” she hissed as her forearms contracted against my throat and began to choke the life out of me.
“Boril–” I gasped, reaching my fingers out to him. But to my dismay he was once again staring at some unseen phantom, once more caught up in his delusions.
The witch tightened her grip further, and the blood was cut off from my head. I was getting dizzy, and starting to lose my focus.
“Fool,” she simpered sweetly. “You do not have to believe me to still be under my power. You might have had anything you wanted in your final moments, your ignorance gave you every possibility. But now you know, and so you die, powerless. You ought to have believed.”
Darkness was crowding around my eyes, and I was about to concede to my fate…but then, I realized that this was most certainly not my fate. My fate was to go to Graymore Coventry and there lose my soul.
The witch was wrong. I believed all too strongly.
With the last of my strength I flung my fist backwards. With my fingers having grown numb it was not difficult to convince myself that they held steel. And having convinced myself of that, it became true.
I heard a terrible shriek. It seemed distant and faint, and then rushed forward at tremendous speed until it echoed right beside me. At the same time the pressure on my neck laxed and I gulped down cold air.
Behind me the witch writhed in her death agonies. Only a few moments more and her last grip on life broke, and with it all traces of her bewitchments dispersed. Even the knife I had conjured by her own magicks to stab her.
“Get up, Boril,” I wheezed out. He was still kneeling on the ground, snapping his neck about in every direction, faced painted with utter confusion.
Of the eight of us who had been keeping watch, three had died before I came to my senses, and another one during my fight with the witch. Only four of us remained, and we of course had to wake all the others. This path was too treacherous, and though it was an agony to remain awake, we could not dare proceed with partial strength. We must all press forward together, dejected as we were.
We were thirty then.
It seemed a wise choice at the time, but it brought us to the worst adversary we had faced yet: our own broken hearts. For though I had felt dejected during all the time I had kept watch with the seven others, we had been few enough that I scarcely caught sight of their faces. Now, though, at every turn of the road, at every lifting of a wagon wheel out of a rut, at every stop to setup camp…at each of these moments I was required to stare into their gaunt and hopeless visages. And then what despair I had started to feel in myself was only pressed deeper.
For when one is full of sorrow alone, one might yet take comfort in the thought that there is still light and good elsewhere in the world. But when all one sees is the same bleakness in others, it becomes easy to believe that this is how it is everywhere, and forever will be.
If I could have believed that my memories of laughing children and playful men and charming women were true, that they were not but dreams, then I would have been encouraged in the burden I had to bear. Then I might have told myself that the innocent parts of the world were still able to live and laugh and love because I bore the trial for them. I would have thought to myself that there was a certain taxing of darkness that had to weigh on the world, and if enough martyrs took it on them then the rest of the world would still be free to feel the joy, and I would feel a quiet pride in facilitating that.
Instead, these encouraging theories were squashed out by the darkness that crammed in from my fellows. Our bleakness seemed too infinite to believe that it did not reach into every corner of the universe. Each one of us silently took our heartache and heaped it upon each other, multiplying our woes again and again, until it became exponential, and each new day was a hundredfold more painful to bear than the last.
I would rather be consigned to my doom alone than to have been put in this company of the damned.
Bahnu was the first to give in to the despair totally. One day he simply let go of his handle, took four steps off of the road, and then died for abandoning his contract. He didn’t say a word through the whole process. He just left.
The next day Ra-Toew and Sinfarro walked away. Not together, each at different hours and in different directions.
The next day was three more. The next it was four.
We were twenty then.
Regular practice is for the caravan to return with all of their empty wagons at the end of their journey. But we now lacked enough hands to push them all, and so the unpacked vehicles were left behind, a pile of empty vessels, laid out haphazardly beneath the cold sun.
On Monday I discussed the way that a story reflects the thoughts and feelings of its writer. The more that I’ve written stories on this blog, the more I’ve realized how difficult it is to write a lie.
You can project anything in a statement on social media, you can say the words when looking another person in the face, you can pretend something in any of the usual forms of communication. But, as I say, it is a very difficult thing to tell a story that you don’t believe in.
For even if you force yourself to write dialogue and themes that state the lie, you still betray yourself by how hollow your work will feel. Those that are perceptive will read it and say “your heart clearly wasn’t in this.”
I don’t believe that this is exclusive to writing stories, either. I believe it applies to all of creativity. The thing we make cannot come alive unless it is true to us. Just try to play a rousing ballad on the guitar while inside your heart yearns for a a tragic melody on violin. The right notes might be played, but they just won’t resonate.
Publishing this piece was fairly unsettling for me then, because it is quite true to my own recent experiences. The themes of despair and hopelessness are ones drawn from a very personal space.
For this and other reasons, I have wondered if I ought to have made this blog private. But whether I should have or not, the fact is that now I have already become comfortable with sharing myself in this way. I feel that those who care enough to read my work have earned the right to know me sincerely.
I am well aware that I don’t talk about myself personally on here very much. While other blogs detail their homes, their families, their day-to-day experiences, I share myself in a different way. You may not always know what is going on in my life, but you do see what is playing out in my heart. This blog is really just a personal journal, only one that logs its daily entries through story.