The next day, when we awoke, we briefly discussed how if the theories of these people were correct, then this was to be the last normal day of our lives. One full, ordinary day, and then, on the next, everything would change.
And as I have suggested before, it wasn’t as though we us doubted the theories of these people. Even before they had disclosed their plot, we had already felt the gist of it. Felt it when we were still back at Peyrock plantation and read our charter. Felt it every step of our journey. Felt it when we saw the void and stepped within these strange walls.
If the locals here had tried to keep the purpose for summoning us a secret, still we would have requested to stay in the Coventry for a few days. And if they had denied that, we would have taken camp just without the walls. For we would have felt the electricity in the air, would have sensed the cloud of doom, would have felt our lives rushing to meet their apex. It would have been like when a great beast stalks you, and you do not perceive it by your eyes or ears, yet you can feel that it is there.
So what were we to do with one final day in the world as we knew it? Each of us felt it was only right to spend the moment apart from one other. Let each man go and find his own private shrine, his own method of solace, his own way to connect to life and bid it farewell. We had never truly parted ways the day prior, after diverging we had then converged right back together at the Slab Altar. This time each path would truly be our own.
When I left I did not know what I was looking for. I wandered the streets aimlessly, trying to find something that would call to me, something that would feel right in my soul. I say I wandered aimlessly, but there was one intentionality: I tried to follow the most barren streets that I could. Each road was more desolate than the prior, and so I meant to slip further and further into my solitude.
Presently I wasn’t walking across roads at all, for I was beyond any structure that required them. My way opened into an open field, dotted here and there by clumps of fine, gray grass. I was coming quite near to the walls, at a section that I had not seen previously. To my surprise, the walls on either side of me sloped steeply down into nothing, leaving a wide and intentional opening in the place’s fortifications. Perhaps these walls were not for protection? But for what, then?
Mulling that over I passed through the portal and continue with the field as it gently sloped up to a small crest, upon which stood a solitary tree. I had seen a few of these trees as we journeyed here. They were very sparse, interrupting the otherwise unbroken landscape perhaps once every square mile. Each of them appeared to be dead, entirely blackened in their branches and featuring absolutely no leaves whatsoever. Their limbs stood out naked and at irregular angles, giving the illusion of a creature frozen in pain.
Slowly I crept up to it. It seemed so delicate that I felt if I made too much noise it might just wither into dust and blow away. Presently I stepped into its shadow, and as I did so I discovered a most strange phenomenon. Most prominent in that shadow was the outline of the tree and its branches, just as one would expect, but then there was also a sort of soft haze–a partial shadow–in between the sections cast by the branches, and this half-shadow answered to no form of the tree that I could see. Nor was it stationary, rather it sort of shimmered and overlapped, growing thicker at some places and thinner at others, like smoke that billows into itself and apart again.
With a frown I stared up at the spaces between the branches of the tree, and presently came to see that there was a haze between them as well. Was it a heat haze? Perhaps the branches of this tree focused the sun’s radiation in some way?
I extended my hand, reached into the haze, and felt something so slight that I almost missed it entirely. It felt as if I was pressing my fingers through a curtain that only half-existed. I pinched my fingers together and it was like holding the finest paper imaginable, one so frail that it remained in my grasp for only a moment, then disintegrated into nothingness.
“It is leaves,” I said. “Leaves that are thinner than anything I know…. So the tree is alive.”
I smiled and scanned over it with my eyes. I gazed over tortured limbs, knobbly joints, bark as black as onyx, and a woman’s face right beneath my outstretched arm: youthful, beautiful, and staring back at me in utter amusement.
“Oh!” I cried in surprise.
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly, but was unable to suppress her laugh. “I didn’t mean to frighten you, I really thought you would have noticed me before!”
“You–you’ve been standing there this whole time?” I asked in disbelief, clutching at my heart.
“The whole time,” she nodded. “To tell you the truth, you were so enraptured in this tree, and so oblivious to me, that I was half wondering if I hadn’t turned invisible, or become a ghost!”
“You thought you had become a ghost?”
“Well…of course not really. But you must know how it is, when you get so lost in your fancies that they almost seem to be real?”
“But why didn’t you say something?”
“I wanted to see what would happen,” she shrugged playfully. “I half expected you were going to turn and walk away without seeing me at all. Then I would have known for sure that I was a ghost!”
My heart was still racing, but the more she spoke, the more I couldn’t help but be soothed by her soft and fervent voice. Her eyes had a tremendous earnestness to them, and I could tell she was never far from seeing hidden wonders in the world, beauty in things that others would consider mundane. Thus I couldn’t help but release my frustration, and instead felt an intense desire to know this young woman better.
“Who are you?” I finally asked.
“Mira. And who are you?”
“My name is Graye. I’m one of–”
“You’re one of those boys from so far away. You came in the caravan that delivered the scrying sticks to us. Of course, I know.”
“And you’re–you’re a member of the Coventry.”
“Naturally. Specifically I am of the seventh house, given the charge of caretaking for all the other houses.”
“Oh, I don’t know anything about that.”
“The Coventry is composed of seven great houses, and each one has a different responsibility. The first house is the Priests of Oolant, who actually perform all of our ceremonies. The second house is the Scribes, who keep careful ledgers of every action and cycle-fulfillment. The third is the Researchers. The fourth is the Rememberers. The fifth is the Populaters. The sixth is the Growers. And we, of the seventh, are the Caretakers.”
“I see,” and inwardly I thought that surely each house was numbered according to its importance, hence why the first house was reserved for the priests. What a pity it must be for her to be of the seventh.
“No, that isn’t true at all!” Mira piped up. “I know the greater world can be petty and rank one group of people over another, but really things are not like that here. We Caretakers are considered just as essential in our role as the priests.”
“What?” I said defensively. “I didn’t say otherwise!”
Her eyes narrowed. I tried to hold the gaze, but finally my eyes turned down to my feet. “Do you know everything of my mind?” I asked bashfully.
“Only what you wear on the surface….
“Like clothing,” I said at the exact same moment as her. I smiled at that, but of course she was very familiar with such things, being a native of this place.
“Is anyone ever able to know another’s mind any deeper?” I asked.
“Yes, individuals can grow quite intimate with one another’s mind.”
“And…have you ever?”
“That is considered a rude question,” she said, but smirked playfully as she did so.
I looked away bashfully, and then felt all the more bashful for knowing that she could still sense my mind. She didn’t appear offended in the least.
“So…do you enjoy being a caretaker?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
“I do. I find it very satisfying. Obviously there are pleasantries to some of the other houses that we do not enjoy. But if one enjoys the work of caring for the old and sick, for keeping things clean and orderly, for fixing and building anew, then one can be happy. And I do. I find it very satisfying.”
“What pleasantries are afforded to the other houses?”
“Well, the Researchers get to explore and discover, of course. And everyone envies the Scribes for being the the voice of information. The Populaters…well I’m sure you can imagine what for them.”
I wasn’t sure, and I cocked my eyebrow in confusion. Then I saw how she blushed and I didn’t need a shared-mind to understand why.
“Oh!” I exclaimed. “The artificially inflated populations, yes I see! Back home they–well they tell stories about that.” Privately I thought to myself that I was quite glad Mira did not belong to the House of Populaters. But of course it was not a private thought, and before I could hide it Mira smiled coyly.
It was a very awkward, very vulnerable place to be. I had the sense that Mira was more attuned to understanding the mind than any of the others I had met in this land, and that meant feeling perpetually exposed in ways that I was naturally uncomfortable with. Yet in spite of all that, I didn’t want to go. I was enjoying her presence, and I hoped that she did not regret being in mine.
“It’s alright. I like talking to you,” she offered sweetly.
She shrugged. “I just do. Why do you like being with me?”
“You’re very sincere…and beautiful.”
“Well, you seem to know yourself quite well, don’t you? Most people are not so aware of themselves, and why they want what they do.”
“I suppose I’m too much in wonder of other things to properly understand myself. They tell me I’m a daydreamer.”
“What were you doing here under the tree before I came?”
“Yes, but what of?”
“The completing of the cycle, and all that happens next?”
“No, I care very little about that.”
“You what?! But what could matter more?”
She shrugged. “Nothing. Yet I just don’t care. It has everything to do with the world, but nothing to do with me.”
I furrowed my brow and she glanced away.
“I know that’s a strange thing to say, but it just doesn’t. I far prefer, for example, talking with you than thinking about that. That has to do with me.”
“Then what were you thinking about of tomorrow, if not of the cycle?”
“Oh, just of my day, my comings and goings, the little things that I must do.”
For the first time she sounded just like everyone else, talking about things that were only surface-deep, and clearly concealing something else.
“Please,” she said softly. “Could we speak about us?”
I nodded slowly, and let my unsaid questions dissipate.
“Tell me, then, what does it mean to be a Graye?”
“Well,” I said, “I am from a small hamlet called Omayo. I was born in the third year of the worst famine that region has ever known. I was the seventh child, but I never knew of my brothers and sisters. All of them died before I was aware of anything.”
“Was there an eighth?”
“No. I was alone.”
“So…you were one of seven, and alone.”
“And when you entered our village you were one of seven of forty, and yet just as alone.”
“There were forty treksmen assigned to this campaign, were there not?”
“Yes, but one of them died before we left, and three more refused to accompany us.”
“Perhaps they were not with you on the road, but I assure you that they have each wandered this quest in their own ways. We are all called, and even if we try to run from the calling, we inadvertently fulfill it. The one who died before the journey even began, that was what he was called to do.”
“You know him?”
“I sense him through you.”
“So I and my companions who survived? We did so because that was our fate?”
“At that point, yes. But your fates do diverge. I knew it from when I first watched you arrive. As I said, you entered with seven, but already you were marked alone.”
“Marked for what?”
“The same for which you were marked among your seven siblings: to be the only one to survive.”
“My companions…are going to die?”
“A great many of us are about to die. Almost all. Surely you have felt that? Everyone here can feel that. It is so sure that it may as well have already occurred.”
“But not me,” I breathed.
“You know it. I can tell. You have always known that you were marked to be a survivor. Though you did not know what lay before you on the road, you always knew that your fate was beyond it. To what, you do not know. There is a saying here, that one is not known until they are all known. Meaning you have told me where you came from, and normally I would say that is insufficient until you can also tell me where you are going. But in your case, matters are different, aren’t they? For you are endless.”
“And, if endless…” I began slowly.
“Then there is nowhere to which I can belong.” We said it in unison.
On Monday I spoke about introducing a character at the end of a tale, and how they can still feel significant to the story by making them an extension of arcs that are already in play. That was the approach I took with Mira, allowing her to be the voice of the themes that have permeated the story ever since it began. The hope is that even though her name is new, she will feel like someone we have already known for a long while.
But this was not the only trick I tried to utilize to make her stick in the reader’s mind. I made a special effort to write her in a flirtatious, fun, and dreamy manner. Romance has not been an element of the story thus far, and hopefully this unique conversation will make the moment all the more impactful on the reader.
I’d like to examine this more with my next post. On Monday we will review the idea of creating a memorable character, and then we will continue with our story on Thursday.