This is how our world came to end: strangers.
Strangers came to Tira. Merchants, foreign nobility, travelers. They brought the sickness across borders, across the sea, to our gates, and we let them in.
If the gods intended this for us, they would have found another way. But, the point stands: if we hadn’t opened our gates, if we had been better guards of our own safety, would we have survived? Would our mothers and fathers, our sisters and brothers, still be with us? There’s a strange kind of guilt in surviving–in living with the memory of the dead.
So, it’s with a small amount of excitement and a great deal of fear that we see the carriage ahead of us on our second day out from Tiravida. When Selen comes running back, the sun bright in her dark hair, her smile wide, it takes me a moment to understand the words she’s telling me. “There’s a traveler!” she says again, gripping my arm, shaking me in her excitement. “We’re not alone anymore. There are other people. Just up the hill, there, do you see? That shadow. It’s a cart!”
I squint up at the hill. The last red fingers of sunset are stretching out across the horizon, the sun setting back behind the hills. Despite myself, I gape when I make out the shadow of a carriage underneath the branches of a grey willow tree. It’s enough to wake me from the fog I’ve been living in since Tiravida. Enough to make me forget the blood, the children, the crying.
But it’s probably just that–a shadow, a memory, a carriage abandoned when some merchant was driven off. I turn my head up to smell the air, wondering if the wind is carrying the scent of the carriage’s rotten cargo, or if the Thanes have already been through to steal whatever might have been left.
“No,” Selene insists, looping her arm through mine, made drunk with her giddiness. Her cheeks are pink and her eyes are bright and it’s hard to deny her that joy. “We saw it moving. Do you see? Look, there’s a horse there. It’s crossing over the hill. There might be a town! People, Agapios.”
It’s hard to say, but to me, that sight is more unbelievable than the face in the tree. It makes my stomach cinch, my heart jump; it makes me squeeze Selene as close as she squeezes me, for there is stability in closeness, and comfort. For I am as afraid as I am hopeful.
As we all are.
The king and his men gather in the shade of an oak tree, off the side of the road, their heads bowed in conversation. I wonder what they’ll do. For now, we’ve stopped the march. Every now and then, Sotiros or Panos or the king will look up from their conversation, squinting up at the hill. They argue over who will go, or how many. Over whether to bring weapons or to go in peace.
Over whether to abandon the carriage altogether, to trust that we will find a town instead, a place that feels safer. No one wants to take chances. Not after Tiravida, not after Tira.
But Selene is gripping my arm so hard and she is hoping, hoping, hoping for some miracle. Something that will make life make sense again. That a merchant can still wander the countryside and a person can still walk in their own kingdom, with their king, without fear.
The thought comes upon me quicker than I can react, even. I repeat it–to myself, to them.
Sotiros is the first to look up at me. “The king should go,” Mihael the once-brick-layer says, the king does not look happy with the thought. He saw his mother die of plague, his father, his older brother. His face has near turned green, and surely Mihael notices, for he changes tact. “Or if not him, then Sotiros. Or even Panos.”
“Or even Panos,” Panos says with a bitter laugh. He spits on the ground.
“We can’t send a soldier up there. That’ll put him on guard,” Selene says. “He might run.”
And so the conversation starts again, circling, circling, but all the while, Sotiros is watching me.
I’ll go. The words, again. I am a bard. We go where we want and speak to whoever we please. Everyone welcomes a bard. In a time before the plague, we were invited into every kingdom, into every castle. Folk trust us.
Or they used to. In the days I’ve only ever heard about. Are there any bards left? Do people even care? But I’m stepping forward already, and everyone has gotten quiet. “Let him go,” Sotiros says. Three little words, though he ducks his head to me as I take my lyre from my pony’s saddle bag. “Are you sure you want to?”
“Take this,” Panos says, and he has my spear again. The tip and haft have been cleaned, there’s no blood left on the thing. But I see it still, and when I reach for it my hand still shakes. I pull my hand back.
No. A bard bares no weapons. And I should rather die a bard in this hard world than walk another day with blood upon my hands. Not unless I must, and even then. I go, alone and weaponless.
“Find out who he is,” someone calls, “and where he came from.”
“And where he’s going,” another says, “and what he knows.”
“Find out if he’s seen any of these behemoths the Thane mentioned,” Panos calls, last.
Halfway up the hillside, doubt starts to gnaw at me. The carriage is moving, but slowly, and its wagon is covered. From the back I can see a single horse pulling what should be a two horse carriage, and the beast is lame and limping.
I’m ready to be disappointed when I see him: a small man with long, black hair streaked with silver tied in an intricate knot at the top of his head. His face is deeply lined and his eyes are squinting in the distance, fogged with age, but his fingers are long and strong enough to hold the reins. A sword rests across his knees, bare, but I do not let it stop me.
Sir, I call. He doesn’t turn, and so I call again. Sir! I step close enough to the carriage to touch the reins, to shake them in his hands, and that startles him as if from sleep. He jumps a little, the sword clatters into the footwell. I clutch my lyre close, my fingers brushing the strings, making it whisper.
“Bard, are you?” he asks, not seeming surprised that I should be there–that anyone should be there, which gives me hope enough to make my heart float. His voice is accented, chopped at the ends. Khateen, I think, by the shape of his brow and eyes, by the cut of his clothing. “What king?”
King Petros–No. Not anymore. King Charles, the new king.
“Mm.” He nods as if he knows, but I can see now, something in his eyes. Something lost. He looks away again, back towards the horizon. “You and your king will want to go home, now. The storm is coming.”
A storm. But the sky is clear, there isn’t a single cloud. Fall is here, and my breath is a chill cloud on the wind. Soon, it will snow. But a storm? There isn’t even wind. The questions flood through me, the ones they asked: Where did he come from? Where is he going? Is there anyone else alive?
“The behemoths are coming,” he says, as if he’s said it a hundred times before. The words are old and cold, no emotion, but they are heavy enough to make my knees shake. “I’m going south, to a little town I know of. Me and my family.” He thumbs back towards the covered carriage. “There are folk there. Some, not many. Ready to weather the storm.”
I look–I follow his gaze, but I don’t see. Whatever he’s talking about, I can’t see it.
And when I look back he’s leaving already, driving his carriage back down the hill. And as he’s turning from me, the back of the carriage turns toward me, the flap whipping open for a moment. A moment enough to see the family inside: the dried and dead corpses, the pock marked faces, the flesh that has turned more to leather than anything.
And then the flap shuts, and the carriage is leaving, and I follow him to the top of the hill. Down below, there is a little town with a wooden fence. There are homes made of waddle and daub, with thatch roofs and curls of smoke rising from chimneys.
I turn back, back towards Selene and Sotiros, Panos and the king, the others. They look on, hopeful, and I don’t know what to tell them. Hope and madness, mixed. Death and life, mingling.
A storm is coming and I think somewhere I hear a roar from the very bottom of the world.
And it sounds like: Behemoth.