As the world woke up around them, Seth made sure Cole knew to watch his footing.
“You need to watch where you step. If you can avoid stepping on sticks or crunching leaves then do it.” He whispered.
Cole nodded and kept his eyes to the ground, his vision slowly adapting to the darkness under the canopy of wood. His only sense of direction was the backs of Seth’s feet leading the way.
When they finally reached their resting spot, Seth pulled Cole down to a kneeling position. He gestured to his brother to watch for movement in the clearing between the trees. Minutes passed, and then an hour. It was hard for Cole to stay still for such a long period of time. He entertained himself by watching the birds wake and the squirrels crawl out of their nests. He’d watched a mother bird leave and return to her nest three times. Her babies chirped to welcome her at each return.
As his gaze focused on the tops of the trees and the windblown leaves, Seth nudged his shoulder. He pointed out towards the clearing where a rabbit sat. The thing had braved the morning and ventured into the clearing where the greenest grass grew. Seth side-eyed Cole as his brother eased back the bowstring. Cole raised it up to chest level, staring down the arrow until his eyes met the tip. His eyes followed the cylindrical weapon until he saw the head of the animal just above the end of the arrow. He released the string and the rabbit fell.
A grin eased itself on to the two brothers’ faces without a sound. Seth stood up reflexively as the rabbit inched its way to death in the clearing of the woods.
“Shoot like that every time and you and mother will never go hungry,” He said as he gripped Cole’s shoulder.
They went hunting every morning for the next two weeks and every morning Cole had hit his mark. Some days it was a deer. Some it was a hog. In the evenings, Seth watched as Cole chopped wood for the fire that would cook that day’s kill. And his eyes rolled up from their lids at the table when Cole enjoyed his hard work.
One night, Cole’s enjoyment fell silent when a word was breathed into existence.
“Mother,” Seth said.
She answered with a lifting of her head.
“I will be leaving in the morning.”
“To go where? It is still a month before the Sword returns from their deployment.”
“I know,” He said as he spooned the squirrel stew. “I aim to wish upon The Shape for good fortune.”
Cole’s eyes rose from his plate in anticipation of his mother’s response.
“The Shape?” She swallowed. “You’ve heard the stories.” It was not a question. She had told her sons the stories of The Shape in The Windbreak.
“I’ve heard them. Yes.” He’d heard the stories spoken from his mother in the darkness of his bedroom. He’d heard the many other names that The Shape was called as well. A man in the tavern called it The Merchant. He’d heard the town crier’s shout of a thing called The Twelve-faced Sphere far beyond Dune’s Groove. He’d heard that it takes something from you. That you may not return the same man.
“Then why do you choose to go? You know the potential sacrifice.”
“I do, but I also know what it means to join the Sword without a blessing.”
Heather begrudgingly fed herself more food and shook her head as if to tell the tears ‘not right now’. “Will you go alone?”
“I will, but in two weeks time I will return. We will have time together before I leave, as a family.”
Seth stood at the edge of the sternum of which his birthplace was named. A giant, dagger-shaped plateau that jutted out from some unmapped continent of raised ground. A body of cliffs that stretched past the horizon. He had only ventured down the winding path to the foot of his home once before with his father James. He remembered miles of farmlands that thrived in the shade of the dagger cliffs, but as he looked down now he was blinded by the reflections of the sun on the surface of wheat and corn.
It was half a day’s journey to the bottom of the plateau that held Sternum. Once in that dry and sandy land from which he was raised, he was now engulfed in a sea of farmland and greenery. He stopped for lunch at the edge of a stream where he sat on a blackened stone. It was midday, but the sun had already dipped behind Sternum. The sweat on Seth’s brow was cooled by the descending wind from that place.
He pulled out a beaten steak from his sack. It was wrapped in a sorrel leaf for flavor and freshness. Its apple peel-like texture gave the tender meat a sour crunch. It wasn’t his favorite meal, but it made for easy packing and kept fresh.
As his feet rested, the trickle of the water put him in a trance. He thought about the journey ahead. The being that awaited him in The Windbreak. He had never been that far West. He had only seen the tip of Dune’s Groove peak over the horizon and the Dual Plains were past that. He thought about his brother and the lessons that he had taught him. He could only hope they were enough.
Fish gathered at the edge of the stream like tamed dogs at supper time. He tore a piece of the thick sour leaf and flicked it into the water. The dried leaves of the crops behind him shuffled in the wind reminding him that it was time to move on. It would be another half day’s walk to the nearest inn.
Seth could see just as well at night thanks to the full moon that rose over him, but the man at the lip of the woods was shrouded in shade. It wasn’t until Seth heard a faint giggle that he noticed the man. He approached the crouched man who was leaned up against a great pine tree, his wrists resting on his knees.
“Are you okay?” Seth kept his distance, but the man did not answer. Seth took a step closer to see what the man was holding, but there was nothing. The man had been cut at the wrists. His hands dismembered. There was no blood and the man did not seem to be in pain. He was entranced by something that was not there.
“Sir,” He spoke again. “Do you need some help?”
Seth took another step closer and heard the man mumbling.
“I laid my hands upon him, now the world is not so dim…I laid my hands upon him, now the world is not so dim…I laid my hands upo…,” The man raised his head and finally noticed Seth. With a yelp, the man stood and scurried into the blackness of the forest leaving a wake of rustling leaves behind him.
Seth stood at the edge of the wood confused by the phrase the man spoke before the light of the Cropsrim Inn redirected his thoughts to comfort. He could ponder on the words later in bed, he thought.
“Excuse me,” Seth said to the innkeeper. “There was a man outside. I don’t think he was in his right mind.”
“A man? What man?” The woman said.
“He was scrawny and had a scruffy beard and he had…no hands.”
“That sounds like the beggar, Cyble, but Cyble has hands. Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. He was spouting nonsense when I approached him.”
“The night is playing tricks on you, son. The violet moon is known to do such a thing. It gleams off the red sand of the great plateau and douses this land below in a haze. I’d not worry much about it.”
“I’ve felt the strangeness myself. Best to keep indoors ‘til it sets. Speaking of which, are you here for a room?”
Seth’s eyes danced across the counter as his mind followed every path of his thoughts before the man interrupted. “Y…Yes. A room. I’ll only be staying for one night.”
The innkeeper took his coin and gave him a key to a room at the end of the hall. Seth peaked out the window to see the pink moon outside. Its size spooked him and he closed the curtain. Maybe the man was plagued by this violent moon, he thought. But I saw the sliced wrists as well. No hands. The violent moon must have dazed me as well, then. Too much daydreaming at the streams.
He laid down in the bed. His hips and feet reminding him of each and every step he had taken that day. The slopes and flatlands all the same. He drifted into a shallow sleep until the pink hue crept around the edge of the window and reminded him of the man, Cybel. He wondered if he was still babbling somewhere in those dark woods. What was it that he said? …hands upon him, now the world is not so dim.
Seth fell asleep that night not so different from Cybel as he repeated the words over and over in his head like counting sheep. He’d hoped by the end of the next night he would be in the shade of a different moon under the wave of Dune’s Groove.