A child swings from a noose, his small shadow thrown wide by the setting sun.
This is the way we enter the town, down the one, winding dirt road cut through the grass of the plains. The path is so narrow that we must walk beneath the body, clotted blood still dripping from the gaping wound torn through the belly. The birds have pecked the eyes, the flies have buzzed about the skin, the mouth, the wound.
Selene, who once was so excited to meet new people, now walks with tears in her eyes–but she does not speak, does not give voice to the fear and anguish that has welled up inside of her. Instead, she reached out, and her hand is cold and trembling, her fingers curl too tight, a grip to break bones, to make sense of the world through pain.
We all do what we can.
The people here have been made hollow by the plague, by the days that followed. The bones of their cheeks stand stark against their skin made dark by the long day’s sun. They watch with eyes that suspect everything, eyes that bore through the body and into the soul to discern some meaning, some truth, and I wonder… Do we all look this way, now?
“Agapios,” the voice says, and stirs me from my musings. “Straighten your back. Hold steady.” It’s Panos speaking, and he claps me on the shoulder even as he drags me ahead, away from Selene, up between himself and Sotiros. “Don’t look so pitiful.” The words are harsh, but they’re not untrue, and they aren’t meant to cut any deeper than they do. A fine skill, Panos has. “These people are going to help us. Can you draw a map?”
Not well. But in the margins of these pages there do exist small etchings: a hill, a stone, a river that runs between them.
“This is where we were before the darkness.” Sotiros looks upon us in conversation, and though he does not touch the book–he never does–he looks close and nods once. The boy on the rope has marked the darkness in his eyes, has set his jaws, and the words come sparse and fast: “Good.”
“I don’t want help from these people,” the king spits the words too loud, for the man who guides us ahead turns back to look upon him, the people whisper.
“We need their help, my king,” Sotiros whispers the word and does not act outright but checks his step, slowing before the king as a way to draw Thomas further from the front. “They know more about this new world than we do.”
“I don’t care. They’re going to kill us. You’re a fool, you’re a fool, you’re such a–”
It’s Panos who cuffs the boy about the back of the head and as he stumbles catches him by the back of his stained tunic. There will be no more words, for the king seethes but does so in silence. He knows when he has met his match. We walk on past piles of the dead: those long since gone to rot and those younger, smaller, whose flesh has been carved with knives and tools.
And for once, the king’s people agree with him. But we go on.
Into the center of town where the road broadens out enough for us all to fit. Where a man sits upon a throne made of wood and bone wrapped together with bits of hair and rope. The man has long, black hair that’s greased and pushed back from his head and bright, blue eyes that seem to stare into forever. In his lap he has Sotiros’ helm, its steel and silver finish chased with gold a clash against the torn and tattered cloak the man wears. He strokes the helm, his fingers sliding down the brow, again and again.
“Lord,” the man who has led us in speaks up. When the man upon the throne does not respond, he tries again, “My king, the visitors are here to speak with you.”
“And what do they want?”
“Lord,” Sotiros says, and bows his head. He will not kneel. “We come in peace, seeking guidance. Your men told us that you’ve been out in these fields long, that you’ve seen folk pass through. We’re seeking news of the other kingdoms.”
“And what will you give to us in turn?” The king, at last, rises from his throne. His black, tattered robes fall down well past his heels, the trail having long since gone faded and grey from dragging. For all of that, he is an immense man, near a head taller than Panos, the tallest man of us all, and with broad shoulders and long, keen fingers. He places the helm upon his head and it casts his face in shadow, all but for the blue of his eyes, looking out.
“The helm is a gift from us, to you,” Panos says, having been the one to give it. “You won’t find its like anywhere else.”
“Gold,” the king says, and spits. The spittle dribbles from his lips, hangs, and drops into the ground at last. He laughs. “Silver. Steel. What good is it? I want to know what you bring us. Such things I can tell you! Tidings from the kingdom of Khateen, word of who rules in the east… But there is a tithe, and you must pay it.”
“A tithe?” Sotiros.
“The Behemoth has woken,” the king presses on, his eyes going distant again, out beyond the limits of the town and into a place and time of darkness that we fear to recall. “The gods are coming back to us. They demand sacrifice. Did you never wonder why the plague went on so long? How is it that you survived?”
At this, his mocking tone, his acid words, the people gathered around us laugh.
“They demand blood,” the king goes on. “A sacrifice. Only this will keep them from our hearths demanding more and more of us. And now you have come and brought some hundred lives back into their grasp, and the gods will turn their eyes upon us. You think for that you will part with this bit of metal and be done?” In a fluid motion the king draws off the helm and casts it into the dirt. “We need more.”
“We do not have much, but–” Sotiros begins.
“I am your king!” Thomas hisses, pushing his way through again, small and childish as he may be there is a fire in his eyes. “Do not disrespect my people.”
“Seize the boy,” the tall king says, and with a wave of his hand the folk of the town descend. “This boy will be our offering to the gods. Let us give him a fine death to appease even them, and then? Then we will talk, and you will know all that you need to know.”
And like that, the world erupts into perfect chaos.