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Once, not so long ago...
When there were many who still remembered all the names of the oldest places, in a land that lay between the marshes and the sea, there lived a father and his son. Once their family had been much larger—but first had come conscription, and with it war. And still on swift wings had followed sickness and infirmity, and the son had found himself alone in the village that had once been his home, nursing his aged and mourning father to full health.
It was a time when the sun rarely chose to set in the heavy grey sky, and the son had felt many times uncertain of his future. All whom he loved, and all who had loved him had passed from this world to the next, and it felt as if his father might slip from his grasp at any moment. Weeping and making no secret of his tears, the son passed the village well, now empty and thick only with moss. His tears fell into the well—
And he felt something tiny and sharp sink into the skin of his ankle.
Several hours later, the father managed to rise from the bed where he rested, leaning heavily on his cane as he strode into the empty village streets—streets that had been filled with laughter and conversation in years that seemed so brief and bygone—and somehow he knew his son would be by the well. His step quickened as quickly as it could as he hobbled along the paved streets; but he could hear the heavy breathing, smell the fresh vomit on the ground.
Father and son exchanged looks—but while the father saw his son, the glassy look in the youth's eyes reflected nothing at all, save the dull grey of the clouds above - and the harsh beauty of the sun. But there was still life in the boy, clinging desperately for reasons that the father could not imagine. It took him the better part of an hour to return his son to the bed he had used only moments before, but he managed it. And though he knew nothing of medicine, he knew what needed to be done.
Beyond the gates of the empty village, there was a wild land where no folk lived. It was a land that was both sacred and profane, and to enter it for too long was to invite the attention of things as capricious as they were ancient. In days even older, they had left gifts of honey and the milk of mares; but the village had left no gifts recently, and now there was no village left to give.
Still, when he had been young himself, the father had fallen deathly ill. His mother had said nothing, but walked into the shadowed land, its overgrown plants swallowing her whole. Though he had not seen her again, he had recovered—and the village had mourned.
The father wiped the sweat off his only living son's brow.
He stared at the boy, wondering what his wife would have done.
Wondering if he should have made the journey long ago.
Fighting a terrible fear and a desire to leave the dying village far behind with what little strength he had.
... And, with grim determination, he took his axe and his cane, a loaf of hard rye bread and a skein of water, and walked into the forest canopy that held the village in its grasp of lush and vibrant decay.
Above, the sky was a vibrant blue. The sun refused to budge, and he could see it even through the sea of branches that seemed to stretch in every direction—blocking his sight, ripping his clothes, piercing his flesh with their tiny barbs.
He moved slowly, carefully, afraid that he might fall into the muddy slurry that coated the forest floor and find himself unable to rise, carried slowly and inevitably into the great bogs as he struggled in vain. He was aware of the weight of his years—and wary of the constant feeling of being watched.
"Brother Voron, Brother Voron, why don't you come and say hello? It has been a long time since we spoke, you and I."
The words were hoarse, and half out of his mouth when a flutter of brittle blue-black feathers blocked his vision.
Perched on a broken branch, Brother Voron tucked his wings behind his back and clucked his beak in distaste. Leaping from branch to branch, he continued to make notes of disapproval before he finally spoke.
"You'll barely do. You'll barely do at all. You're all skin, all bones, no fat on you. You're lucky it is I who found you first, kind and humble as I am. My sister would have tied you between two pine trees, letting your belly ripen before cutting you into morsels!... Why have you come here, and come now? Surely you don't expect anything from me?"
Hopping on one leg and ruffling his feathers, Brother Voron watched the old man, watched him watch the sky, looking at it as if hoping for some relief from the quiet and uncompromising sun. But none came, and the old man gave a sad little nod of his head.
"Oh, Brother Voron, I had never intended to come here. But my son is too young to bury, and all the rest of us lie in dirt. I am too old to bury him now, and I can not bear to see him die before me. So I came here to beg your help, kind and clever Brother Voron; I knew you would understand my sorrow."
Brother Voron was not fond of flattery, but something in his avian eyes softened—then grew harsh, and mischievous.
"Is that so, old man? That is tragic, truly so. But you see, I cannot help you since we are all dying here as well. Well, there is one who can still help you, but I feel I would need something to reach an understanding with you since we have not spoken in so long..."
Silently, the old man threw his water skein to the ground. Brother Voron flew to it in a fury, drinking all the water before a minute had passed. The two stared at each other for some time, and then the old man broke his bread into halves, and one half into crumbs, and sprinkled those on the ground.
Moments later, both halves were gone—and still, Brother Voron remained quiet.
The axe stung as it cut his flesh, old and rusty from the disuse following his infirmity and age. But it hurt no more than Brother Voron as his beak nursed the cut as a fine wine, drinking freely of the old man's opened vein. And with one final, satisfied sigh, the forest brother flew to his perch, his reply seeming to echo from all directions at once as it filled the grove with its cacophony.
"You should find Lady Pauka. She will tell you what you need to do!"
Too exhausted to say anything, the old man nodded his thanks, struggling to bandage his bad arm with lichen and moss.
Hours passed, and the sun finally began to recede - almost at once plunging the forest into a soothing darkness. There was no time to stop or rest, of course; his vision had long since grown hazy, and the old man wondered what might happen should he take a moment to shut his eyes...
So he pressed on, pressed on through the ground that was as soft as air and covered with tiny green plants that seemed to watch him as he moved past. The stinging in his arm had long since subsided, and perhaps the pain had actually made it easier to ignore the ravages of age and time elsewhere—everywhere else.
Besides, he knew the Lady Pauka ruled much of this land, or at least watched it carefully; for here, no birds sung nor animals watched him. Only the lowest of plants and brambles remained, leaving the entire area as rich in idleness as the village he had left.
And it was perched upon one of these brambles that he finally met the Lady, who was watching him with her many curious eyes. She was also watching the marsh, and the trees, and the sky. For the Lady watched many things, all at once; such was her way.
"Oh, I had not expected you."
She chittered, and it was an obvious lie. But he had expected that much and tried to remember if you bowed in such an occasion. He tried—and felt a vine swing under his leg—knocking him into the muck that permeated the bog.
Struggling and too terrified to scream, he flailed: his arm, his entire body refusing to answer as the muck pulled him deeper. As he had imagined, he could feel the remnants of so many visitors before, little more then husks, stewing against his skin. His clothes grew damp, and the water itched unpleasantly—and all he could see was the faintest view above it, the sun finally having hidden itself from sight.
And behind him, he could hear the Lady scuttling closer, curious.
"Why ever did you do that?"
She asked, and it was not really a question. She moved to his right and to his left, but never once came into view. Though she was tiny, and in his fear and exhaustion, he could not say for certain.
"Oh, kind and gracious Lady: my son is all I have left, for my kin have died one by one; and I have come here in the hopes that might tell me what is to be done to save him, at least. Sweet Brother Voron told me that you would deign to help me; but I am too old to greet you well."
He heard, rather then saw, the Lady's mandibles grinding against one another in amusement and frustration.
"So I see. Brother Voron is always so kind, sending me the first traveler to walk these lands alone in so many months. But you must know that nothing is done for free, and I resent my services being offered to you by one such as he."
He felt, rather than saw, the Lady's many legs as they slid under his shirt and left tiny wounds in his back - barely enough to feel, and yet itching all the more as water and mud sunk into his pores.
"Oh, wise and gentle Lady. I know this, and am willing to give to you whatever you ask of me."
Resignation was all he had left, and she knew this—for she stopped, tiny feet so eloquent against his neck that he wondered if perhaps they might sever it, and let it roll peacefully into the swamp.
"... I will admit to being sad that none have come here in so long, and equally so that your poor son has such a weak-willed father; for (I wonder), why you did not seek me out for your wife, or your other children? For I know you had several children, and you let them die rather than visit me..."
She paused, enjoying herself. The water was almost up to his eyes, and he closed them—then felt something soft and yet brittle pry them open, with a great deal of effort.
"So we shall have a little game of riddles. I shall ask you three questions, and if you answer me honestly each time, you shall receive my help. And should you lie, I will liquify an eye as the swamp is; and so I shall eat your eye. And should you lie thrice, I shall rest in between where your eyes were, and whisper to you the answers you seek. I admire both honesty and lies, after all; so do one, or the other, I care not which. Simply do not dally between the two. Now then, why did you really come here?"
He swallowed, hard. Bracken and water filled his lungs.
"I came here to save my son."
The Lady shivered, and sighed in disappointment that barely hid her excitement.
"So it will be lies, then!"
He did not know how long he remained prone amongst the swamp. But the Lady had grown disappointed, for his first answer was a lie, and the other two answers honest. Afterwards, he had asked permission to keep his right eye shut, and she had so kindly obliged.
"It is a miserable thing that you rest your hopes with me, for it takes all the responsibility that by right should be yours and makes it mine, yet I will grant your wishes since I empathize with you to some extent." She was looking at the sun again; perhaps they all were.
Of course, the sun was hidden—by the branches, and the sky, and the world. Perhaps tomorrow, it would not return.
"You may rest here for as long as you like, and you will find that you may even see those you lost. But soon will come a time when you and I will no longer be. For with this, no one else will come here, and no one else will care. Do you know this?"
And he nodded, and it was so. And the swamp pulled the old man into it, and he was free to stare at the sun as his worries melted away. The bracken no longer itched, and the plants welcomed him like old friends. Above, the spider watched his body go still with impassive eyes.
The village was not quite as she remembered it; for it was more orderly, and even as small as she was, it felt as if there was no room. Tall buildings with tall roofs and tall steeples dominated the skyline, though it was easy enough to find the old man's house, decrepit as it was. Inside, his son grasped at the ceiling, at something beyond his sight that made him smile.
It was almost a pity, really.
But the spider went to his ear and whispered the secret words—old words—and the youth awoke from a long and pleasant dream, one where his family remained around him. The world was much changed, and as his eyes dilated with the light, he realized—first with disbelief and then with horror—that now his father, too, was gone. And with a howl, he tore at his hair and sobbed uncontrollably.
But the room was empty, save a spider in the corner of the window. And in a sudden moment of rage, the son brought his hand crashing down upon it as it stared with many eyes, in resignation all its own. He felt a moment of regret. But it was, after all, merely a spider.
Without his father, there was nothing holding him to this place. The son stepped out into the cold air, feeling suddenly alive. He spent a moment near a cluster of six stones, deep in thought, then added another, though it had no bars nor engravings. But he did not dare go out into the swamp where fresh footprints still led, and instead a grim determination entered into his mind.
And with a smile as the sun rose above, a false sun dawned amidst the swamp, warm fire dancing merrily from bough to bough. And for the first time he could remember, the young man felt free, free from responsibility and care. And with a joyous heart and song upon his lips, he left the ruins of the village and the smoke behind him. And the vines swallowed up the desolation as he left, and of it there was nothing more, and nothing more remained.