The Traveller

I travelled the world and saw its wonders:

I walked the edge of the earth and looked down the Great Abyss,

Gaping, proud, endless, whispering words of comfort and invite, calling passers-by to stop, to come closer to the edge, to gaze therein.

But I did not stop to look.

I walked among the pillars of the sky, and I saw the giants who carved them, cared for them, kept the heavens from falling.

I felt their loneliness and their sorrow, and how all they wanted was someone to talk to.

But I did not stop to say hello.

I saw sacred inscriptions on the Pillars, Old words of High Magic that held ancient wisdom long lost to man.

But I did not stop to read them.

I journeyed the seas in infinite wonder, among the kraken and the Sea Witch which rode him, among the many souls of the restless dead which are claimed by the sea for all eternity;

And when my ship sank I walked the undersea halls with the Lord of the Sea.

I saw his treasures, more gold and silver than any man could count;

But I passed them by, and did not take any.

I walked the glass beaches and climbed the Black Mountains

And saw the Brothers at the top of the world, the great Worms that see all:

The Fire Dragon, whose breath causes summer, and the Ice Dragon, who slept because his season was not come yet,

And here I did say hello, because I did not want to be rude, not to a dragon;

But I did not stay for long.

I rode upon the backs of the Great Eagles

And did not once look down;

I walked the desert trail,

And saw it vanish behind me;

I faced the Sphinx;

I answered her riddles.

I sailed the wind; I rode the storms

I fought a Cyclops,

And outwitted the Serpent King,

And chased the moon across the sky,

And ran with the Night Hounds

And I traveled the world,

To come home.

To you.

But you were not there.

Not anymore.

All there was

Was a note

That said

You’d grown tired of waiting,

And you’d left.

The Sun, The Garden, The Wind.

The thing you notice first—if you care to notice at all, and not many do anymore—is the sun. You do not notice it because the day is hot, and you do not notice it by the absence of its effect, because the day is not cold either. No, you feel the sun on your brow, but the thing you notice is that although it is there the sun doesn’t seem to be shining with all its might. It is almost like he—if the sun can be called a he—didn’t wake up fully, almost like he spent too long shining somewhere—on a couple who would be parted forever once night fell, perhaps, and wished with all their hearts that the day might tarry a little longer—when he was supposed to be asleep, and showed up for work today only half awake.

The sun is the thing you notice first, if you care to notice anything at all.

There is a garden in front of you. It is wild and overgrown and bare in patches where the cold earth does not suffer life to take root. Perhaps the garden was tended for once; perhaps someone still comes by and waters it from time to time. Then again perhaps it has always been so: wild and resilient, teeming with life in some places and completely barren in others, just like our world itself.

Green leaves are interspersed with wilting brown. Some leaves carry both, hosting both life and death at once. It is a difficult ground, the garden, and it makes you admire the plants that have survived here in spite of everything. Makes you admire them right up to the point when you cut everything down to make way for a nice little rose garden that you’ll have to water every day, home to flowers that will bloom at dawn and perish by sunset.

A wind blows gently against your cheek, soothing and cool. It makes you wonder for a second where the wind comes from and where it is going, but it also makes you stop wondering, content to sit here and enjoy the breeze. If someone asked you, you would say it was quiet out here. But it’s not. To hear, you would have to stop moving, stop fidgeting, stop thinking, only listen.

And the first thing you would hear—if you cared to hear at all, and not many do anymore—is the voice of the wind, whispering secrets carried from far and wide into your ear as it went by, carrying secrets from here, too, to the unnamed corners of the world, carrying them to They That Were And Ever Will Be.

The wind is how the gods keep track of all that happens on Earth.

But you do not know this. All you know is that it feels good to sit here in the sun, beside the garden, here with the wind. All you know is that beyond the sound of the wind in your ears is the sound of a carpenter hammering on a block of wood; the chirp of a bird that is here now and will be gone when you look up; the creaking of the Earth as it spins around you; your own heartbeat.

Mother.

I walk alone.

The market street on which I walk was once busy, with street sellers flogging their wares loudly to busy passersby. Now it is empty. The stalls are still there, but only ghosts attend to them now. Nobody does trade here anymore. What is there to buy? The market is dead, as are many of my friends.

I just might be joining them soon.

I remember where I was when all this began. I, like so many, was a part of the huge throng that gathered before the old city temple to witness the death of the priests. The recently crowned King had found faith in a strange new god from the West, and had decreed that all servants of the old gods be put to death. One by one the priests were killed, their blood flowing down the steps of the temple. It proved to be a grave mistake.

No rain has fallen since then.

It has been a year since the last crops in the field withered and died. Famine has the city in its merciless grip. The people starve, and the king does nothing but hole himself up in his palace and pray to his cold, unfeeling god.

I keep my head down, and walk on. They are waiting for me.

I pass through the market and immediately turn left, into a narrow street. I know exactly where I’m going. After a couple of minutes I come to an unmarked door.

I take a deep breath and open it.

I emerge into an empty room. It looks like it was once a bar but it has been a long time since any drink was served here, for when famine strikes alcohol is one of the first things to go. Walking across the deserted space, I come to another, smaller door. It’s near impossible to see unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, and I open that too. There’s a flight of stairs going down to what was once the cellar of the bar. I go down and emerge into a wide, dimly lit space.

They are here.

They all turn at the sound of my arrival with wide, expectant eyes. I do not bother to count; I know there are exactly nineteen of them. Or are there more? New people are always joining us, each of them driven mercilessly before the whip of the Great Famine. The cruel hand of hunger has drawn lines on each and every one of their faces. Most of them I knew before the famine hit; all of them have changed drastically. We all have a few things in common though: We all are women, we all are mothers. Most of them, like me, are widows. And we all are bound by a secret that would condemn us if it ever got out, even in this broken world of ours.

For we all are here for one reason and one reason only.

It is here that we gather to eat our children.

I do not know exactly how this group began, but I cannot forget how I came to be a part of it. One day I was walking the street, near faint from hunger, when I came upon two women who took pity on me and brought me here. Here I was offered meat. It was not much, but it was more that I had eaten in weeks. I even had some left over to smuggle home to my seven year old son.

It was much later that I learned that I had been eating the baker’s son.

The following week, we ate the daughter of the taxman’s wife.

And on it went. Every week we cast lots to see whose child we would eat next. On weeks where rations from the Palace were enough to see us through we would not meet, but such occasions were few and far between. Deep down I was disgusted at what we were doing, but I dared not complain. After all meat was meat, and we were desperate. So I kept quiet, and went along.

Until last week, when the lot fell on me to bring my son.

My only child.

No.

The baker’s wife – a woman who was once plump and kind-faced, but is now lean and rarely smiles – speaks first. “You’re late. Come, bring the boy. Let’s have it done.”

I say nothing.

One of the other women says, “Wait. She comes alone.”

The baker’s wife turns suddenly. After a minute, she asks quietly, “Where is the boy?”

I do not answer. I do not tell them of what I have done. I do not tell them that rather than offer my son unto the altar of our fellowship, I offered my body to a palace guard for three days on end in order to smuggle my son into the palace as a slave. There he will live a hard life, a cruel life of servitude, but he will live. I do not tell them this.

But my silence is enough. They know what I have done, as only mothers can.

What happens next happens in a blur. I am seized and bound and thrown roughly to the floor. The women gather around and stare down at me. I can feel their hate. I can see the anger in their eyes at my betrayal. But I see something else there too. I see shame.

At length, one of them speaks: “What shall we do with her?”

“There is only one thing to do,” replies the butcher’s wife, drawing a knife out of nowhere.

I do not struggle. More wood is added to the fire, which roars. I can almost feel its eagerness to roast pieces of my flesh. Somebody turns me over as the butcher’s wife puts her blade to my throat…

…and slices it open.

And as the world fades to black, my last thought is: It does not hurt as much as I thought it would.