A young and quiet boy in a village is drawn away from celebrations by strange voices.
The village was hemmed in by the trees on one side and the long shore of Vorda’s Lake on the other. Old and nameless, the village was remembered by visitors for its fortitude: a hardened gem buried in the recesses of the woods.
There was little to celebrate there. Quiet but for the weekly messenger and tradesfolk, villagers kept amongst themselves, and few poked their heads in. Life played its harsh melodies, but happy tunes were rare. This was one of them. Not a soul was left inside; all had taken to the town center, crowding around the bonfire that seemed to darken the still bright land and casts sparks in the eyes of the villagers.
But to Sartore, who watched from the far window of his bedroom, rough patches of warmth from the fire carried to him by the breeze, the crowd was a faceless mob of pretty colors. Sartore wasn’t sure why he hadn’t left yet. His parents had reminded him to when they had gone together some time ago, but there was a tinge in their voice, as if they knew. He watched them walk, their shadows reaching towards the fire with their backs to sun, and then become little more than additional bodies to him.
Sartore’s parents loved their cottage. It occupied the largest corner of the village, and outfitted it with hunting prizes of his father’s and decorations of his mother’s. It sat where the village ended, and the trees tapered off to the grassy hill. Behind the house was their own cut of the shore, and a beautiful view of the lake. Sartore had looked at it, sometimes for long stretches, but never seen it. Sartore liked the house less; it was the furthest from the heart of the village, and made his seldom appearances all the rarer. Harder to find friends from that angle, Sartore thought. But he didn’t complain.
A knock came to the front door. Sartore jumped, his feet filling with prickly heat and his heart acquiring the same skip, but he approached the door nonetheless, through the grayish brown wood and the large, empty hallway, that seemed to echo his thoughts.
At the door was a young blond boy of Sartore’s age. He was grinning before the door had opened.
“Stop trying to hide from me, you know I’ll find you,” Liam said. Sartore laughed, although a small fraction of him was hurt. “They’re starting to hand out food, and if you don’t come I’m going to take yours.”
“Hey!” Sartore whispered, trying to frown, but failing. Liam stretched his lips even further, turned, and ran. Sartore, as far as he could determine, had no choice but to follow.
It would have been obvious to anyone paying attention. The tremors of a hundred thousand hoofbeats against the earth, the many flocks of birds like one dark tapestry in the sky, or the shaking treetops in the distance. Any one of them would be cause for concern. But, buried in the voices, the music, the crackling and the food, there was no chance of finding it. Sweet aromas and fiery light had cut the rest of the world away.
Liam found the crowds more tolerable, but equally dispensable. He skirted around the town center with Sartore at his heels, collecting other kids their age as they were spotted. Although Liam spoke happily to all of them, Sartore kept his mouth shut to all but him. Otherwise he remained quiet in the back. As the hodge podge crew went door to door, waiting in line to be gifted some of the food at stands at the front of various huts, Liam would always take the lead, and Sartore would stay at the back. Sartore could hear Liam chatting with old man Carrobrim as he picked up his golden biscuit, but Carrobrim regarded Sartore with little more than a dismissive glance.
With their delicious morsels in hand, the gang curled around the side of the town, falling into a pocket of grass field, occupied by other children. Toys and wooden games had been left there by any adults who’d managed to find them. Liam pounced on one of them, a fur ball that he kicked out of reach from a baby a decade younger than him, and kicked it to Ramma. Liam righted the now crying baby and patted him on the head, then turned back to the game.
Sartore didn’t like to think about it much, but it was true: he was a bad shot. His kicks curved, flew, fell short and swung far, disobeying whatever commands he’d requested.
“Sartore still can’t play!” Trass shouted, running for another wild shot of his and kicking up a cloud of laughter in the others. Trass passed the ball back, and Sartore caught it with his bare heel.
“Hit it here,” Trass said, crouching down and putting his hands on his knees, licking his lips. Another round of giggling. Sartore furrowed his brow and looked at at Trass’s face, then tilted his head back down to the ball. Sartore wound back his leg and launched his foot into the ball. It went wide, back into the center. Even with Trass’s pounce he couldn’t catch it. Another round of laughter arose, and Liam chief among them. As Trass retrieved the ball once again, he shook his head in Sartore’s direction without looking at him, and tossed it to someone else.
The games ceased when Flachen, one of the town elders, raised his voice. Simply by rising from his chair, the crowd turned to him, as though he had already requested their attention—which they gave readily. Even the young boys stopped. Behind him was a long table draped in white silk, with silver and white plates of food atop it, covering every possible inch. Upon seeing it, his nose, and consequently his stomach, was alerted of the various smells that wafted from there.
“The harvest is ready!” Flachen shouted. All bowed their heads, and repeated him in hushed tones. “Tonight, we will eat together with our true faces to each other.” All nodded.
To Sartore, the voice was dim. While the other boys watched and listened with gleaming eyes, Sartore turned his back and looked down at the field of grass. It appeared strange to him. The grass was shining, almost; he could see the different colors in every blade. Each patch became clear, as the wind carved out different sections that caught it differently.
But past it, was the sun. The large bulb, painting the sky yellow and red. Each wave that stretched from the shore to the opposite end of the lake was colored with crescents of white over the dark, translucent blue.
Another voice spoke up, and muddled the rest. There was no reason to search for its source; Sartore knew where it was. It came from the furthest corner in the back of his head. A chill ran up from his tailbone to his spine. Everything made sense now, Sartore thought. As the rest of the world to his back receded, the world in front of him stood to attention. The whispers were inarticulate, a warbling and incoherent chant, but they were enough. When he walked towards the water, and from there to the back of his house, he followed no map, and no instructions. He felt like he was following his own footsteps a second before he made them.
Between the hill of grass and the muddy sand of the shore was a short stone wall that rose to just above his knees. He followed it its end, where it tapered off into the woods, just behind his own house. He didn’t recognize it. He sat on the stone wall, turned to the lake, and watched the sunset. When his eyes set upon the sun, the voices rose again and cleaned his mind of things.
Falchen’s voice faltered. The villagers were distracted. He could tell why: although there were no storm clouds in the sky, the sound of rolling thunder was unmistakable. It must be on the other side of the trees, Falchen thought, regaining some of his bravado. But nothing caught. More murmurs and upturned heads.
Then eyes pinned to the forest wall, over Falchen’s shoulder. He followed their eyes. The trees were being shoved apart, almost torn from the earth. And in a second, whatever force was doing so would be in the village.
Falchen saw only one figure at first. He was well ahead of the rest. He rode a dark-colored stallion with a gray streak in its hair. The man who rode it wore large, dark gray armor, with longsword drawn in his hand. Behind him, he seemed to be leading an army of infinite shadows.