03/08/2015 § Leave a comment
It is the twenty-third day of Dusk.
On a steep hillside road some ways west of the city of Havertham, a man comes to a pause under a red sky. A lone traveller, road-worn and weary, leaning on a walking staff as he takes a sip from the waterskin. He is tall with wide shoulders and long limbs, has coarse dark hair and a beard that has grown too thick for his liking. His name is Horace Marten Shaw.
To the east of him the sun is a pale and bloody fist, clinging just above the jagged peaks of the Broken Reach. Its light is the colour of blood and honey, beautiful to behold but empty of life’s warmth. His wife, it occurs to him suddenly and in passing, would have a word for that exact colour, would know how to mix it too. But he, lacking her expertise, can only liken it to wine. Red wine, cold, being poured onto the world as in libation.
Aside from the too-low, too-large sun, the sky is mostly bare. A thin, ragged sheet of clouds hangs far ahead, no birds anywhere in sight. The winds are very still, which is unusual for this time of the year, this close to the mountains. It is, he thinks, as if the mountains themselves are holding their breath.
Held breath or no, the day is very cold. He can see his own breath clear as ghost, rising, rising. And looking at it, he can’t help but feel grateful for his overcoat, an abomination of many furs and leathers that has managed to keep him from freezing so far—if barely—despite its patchwork nature.
It will only get colder as the days go on, he knows. Frost has fallen and is thickening by day, and the earth has not fared nearly as well as he. A pity and a wonder, if one can call it that, how quickly the earth fades from the bleeding sun. How seamlessly, too, with an ease that almost borders on grace, drawing unto itself and abandoning all. There are copses of bare trees all along the road like so many skeletal hands.
It is perhaps the effect of this scenery, combined with that of his travel, the timing of it, the solitariness—but he finds himself craving a smoke. It has followed him for some time now, in fact, like a stray dog one has fed one too many times. He can feel it in his blood and beneath the skin, barking, growling, whining for attention. It doesn’t seem to matter that he hasn’t touched a pipe in over a decade, that he doesn’t even own one anymore (it was, he can still recall with faded bitterness, among the first casualties of his marriage). The craving is real. As real as anything in this forsaken place can get, anyway, laid bare under a dying sun.
There are other things he craves as well. Of course there are. How can a man, any man, be denied so much for so long and not have a long and considerable list? His includes a bath, for starters, followed by a close shave and a warm bed. After these come the races at the hippodrome, and rabbit-and-pigeon skewers from street stalls afterwards, and still after, the taste of spiced khav in tearooms where poets gather and measure their verses against one another. Even the din of the crowd on market days he longs to hear again, with rabble-rousing philosophers shouting atop their crates at every passersby. And drums at city gates, tolling morrow and eve, and women, singing by the river of love, loss, and everything in between, to the beat of wooden sticks on laundry. Yes, he craves all the sights and sounds and smells of the city, pleasant or otherwise. The sheer peopleness of it all. The glory and folly of life lived among others.
He has to take great care, however, not to include his wife and two sons in that list. Such things as hearing the boys’ absurd battle-cries (“You killed my father! Now prepare to die!” “You fool! I am your father!”) as they brandish their toy swords in the atrium, or watching his wife slowly undo her hair and garments at the day’s end… Those things, he has decided on the first eve of his exile, he cannot afford to crave. The longing will break him if he does. So he has taught himself, by necessity, to bury his loved ones where his thoughts can’t easily go. To think of them only fleetingly, distantly, like old acquaintances whose faces you can’t quite remember.
Mostly the trick works, though not always. Sometime the absence of a thing is no absence at all, and often, in the small hours between sleep and wakefulness, he finds himself in tears for no apparent reason. But he keeps at it, as he must, until such time as he is home and can see and touch and hear his loved ones in the flesh.
And that time, blissfully, happily, finally, is drawing near. Dusk has brought with it the full pardon of his status as an exile. Those who sentenced him aren’t likely to have forgiven or forgotten his “offence”—they are nothing without their pride and long memory, the Old Bloods—but the city’s ancient law is clear on the matter: no man or woman sentenced to banishment, whatever the duration of that sentence, shall be denied refuge from Nightfall. He is, as of twenty-three days ago, a free man.
There is irony in that, he thinks, that Dusk could spell glad tidings, that he should be glad while the world is fading away all around him. But he is not forgetting the dying sun (could not, even if he tried), or what that means for him and his prospect of returning home: time, even as it compels him homeward, is running out on him. This is only a husk of what the world has been, what lies ahead and behind him, the very ground he stands on. And this husk, this half-world, too will vanish when the sun drowns in less than a week’s time. Night is coming to engulf the world. Surely as one lives and dies.
And with that, whatever small happiness he has allowed himself to feel is snuffed out. Night can do that to you, even just a thought of it. It is enough to make him shiver, tremble; a cold, hard bitterness at the root of his spine. He resents the feeling, though he has cause to know, better than most, that fear is the proper response. The only response. He has seen what Night does to a person.
Deliberately, Horace looks away from the reddening sky and concentrates on the road ahead. Catches a glimmer doing so, and then a long gleam, near the horizon. It is something improbable: a flock of luminous birds, sweeping low across the land, utterly unexpected, and equally beautiful. He is breathless to look upon them until, suddenly, it dawns on him: they are, they have to be, a trick of dying light on flowing water.
There is no sadness in him for the imaginary birds. The river, which can only be a tributary of Forlorn, is as sure a signpost as any. He can follow it to the main body of Forlorn, and then tread the Long Road all the way to Havertham. Which means he is truly close, now. To home, family.
He takes a deep breath, adjusts the strap of his rucksack, and starts again, trying (and failing utterly) not to think of his wife and two sons.