It’s Saturday and time for another episode of MLP’s Collaborative Story. Enjoy!
A heavy, solemn presence lay over all like a thick fog. I see, but cannot see. I hear, but cannot hear. All I can do is stare at the small pile of grey ash. Cludge…was not Cludge. He had been something more. One of the ancient ones from the last Great Age.
Tekla sobs as Barzillai helps her to her feet. He bends his face toward hers and whispers something. She sniffs and wipes her face. Her eyes come to full bore on me.
“Why didn’t you do something, priest? Why did you let him die?”
I raise my hands in defense. “There was nothing I could do!”
“What about your power? Why didn’t you use your power?”
“It’s not my power! Only the Light can give it to me. And…” I slowly drop my hands. It costs me everything to say my next words. “The power never came.”
Tekla turns away and hides her face in her hands. Barzillai stands next to her, one hand across her shoulders, the other resting on her arm.
I look around. Raibert stands in the shadows, orange pinpoints from the rising sun reflecting in his eyes. The boy Luther stands a few feet from him, barely visible.
I run a hand through my hair and turn away. Coward, weakling, fool. I thought that by becoming a priest mage of the Light, I would finally become something more, something better than Abelard St. Boniface. Instead, I find I am still the same man, with the same weaknesses.
A shadow moves to my left. I look over my shoulder and see Raibert bend over the small pile of ash. He pulls a dark, velvet pouch from within his cloak and carefully begins to sweep the ash into it. I look at Tekla and Barzillai to see what they think of this, but their backs are to us. And Luther has disappeared.
A moment longer and the ash is gone. Raibert cinches up the pouch and tucks it back into his cloak. I look away, not sure if he knows I saw him do that. Then again, what does it matter? Why does any of this matter? I feel like my soul is being sucked into a void.
“Time to go.” I look around. Raibert is standing with his arms folded. Tekla and Barillai turn. Raibert looks at the couple, but not at me. He knows. “If we want to make it to the Fortress of Gloom by nightfall, we need to leave now.”
Tekla straightens up and steps away from Barzillai. A harden expression fills her face, as though she is tucking away all feeling inside herself and leaving a steel wall in its place. “Then let’s go and finish this.”
Barzillai picks up his pack and bow. He studies his quiver for a moment. Empty.
I grit my teeth and gather my own stuff. Tekla can no longer access the Flow. Barzillai has no arrows. And I have no power. Great. Just great. A fine time to visit the Fortress of Gloom. Raibert, however, seems to know something…
Luther steps out from the trees. Had he been there all along?
I stand up and sling my pack across my back. It slams into my plate armor, which now is no longer white, but caked with blood and mud. I look down at myself and wonder briefly what Carlisle, my mentor, would think of me now. He always demanded that I keep my armor spotless, that it reflected the man within.
I follow Raibert and leave the camp behind. Tekla and Brazilla follow. Luther brings up the rear. The trees around us are ancient, with gnarled and twisted branches, black bark, and shriveled brown leaves. Large blackbirds sit high up in the branches and caw at us. Are they laughing? I glance at one and stare at its beady yellow eyes. Yes, I think so.
Leaves from years gone by crunch beneath our boots. There is a smell of decay in the air: a mixture between sulfur and rotting meat. The sky above is a dismal grey, although there are no clouds. It seems to be the natural color for a place like this, caught between day and night.
We stop midday and eat what little food we have left. Tekla leaves her food untouched and disappears into the bushes. Raibert grabs the bread and bit of meat and finishes it for her.
Then we trudge on.
The sky is just on the cusp of night when I see the wagon. It trundles along the open field we just came upon, heading straight for us. Two beige horses pull the closed wagon. Its bed reminds me of a small cottage on wheels. It has a small window with blue shutters and a tiny porch in the back. A lantern swings to and fro from the front corner, just above a small figure hunched over the bench.
The figure turns and looks at us. I cannot see the driver’s face; it is hidden inside the large cowl. Only the tiny tip of a nose and chin poke out from beneath the overly large cloak.
Raibert stops at the edge of the field. “I don’t like it.”
I stop as well. The wagon reminds me of my past, long before I ever entered into the service of the Light. A time when the St. Boniface family was known by every traveler in the country.
“It’s a gypsy wagon,” Tekla says.
Barzillai came to stand between her and me. “Maybe the gypsy has something to sell. Like arrows.”
“Probably,” I answer. “Gypsies sell almost anything.”
Raibert has already pulled out his pipe and is now tapping some koss leaf into the bowl. “I still don’t like it.”
Barzillai starts forward. “I’m going to go check.”
Tekla and I follow while Luther stays behind with Raibert. The grass swishes between our boots.
Barzillai raises his hand. “Hello there, my fine…er…gypsy.”
I cough back a laugh at Barzillai’s greeting.
The figure turns and looks at us. A shadow covers the eyes, but I can see the rest of the face. Definitely young and feminine. Did I know her?
“What do you seek?” she says.
We stop a couple feet away from the wagon.
Barzillai grabs his quiver and holds it out. “Arrows, my lady.”
“Then you are in luck, archer, for I have just recently acquired some in a trade.” The gypsy woman stands and dismounts from the wagon. She goes to the back and disappears inside.
We stand there and wait. Seconds tick by. A bug begins to thrum in the nearby trees. The sky is almost black with night. The woman emerges with a bundle of arrows in her arms, held together by twine.
Barzillai takes a step forward, his eyes on the arrows. “How much for them?”
He begins to pull out a pouch from around his neck when I say, “Fifteen.”
She turns her head toward me. I still cannot see her eyes, hidden beneath the hood. “Eighteen.”
“Sixteen.” That voice is so…familiar. Tekla and Barzillai are watching me.
Barzillai hesitates, his eyes still on me. Then he pulls out the pouch and pours the silver coins.
The gypsy holds out her hand. Her skin is pale and smooth, without a single wrinkle. Barzillai dumps the coins into her hand and takes the bundle of arrows.
“Good luck and good health, archer,” she says and tucks the silver into the folds of her cloak.
Barzillai grins. “Same to you, my lady.”
She chuckles softly and pulls herself up into the wagon. Before we can say another word, she slaps the backs of the horses with the reins and the wagon rumbles forward.
Barzillai places the arrows in his quiver. “Excellent. I feel better entering the Fortress of Gloom with a full quiver.”
“You’re lucky she had some,” Tekla says.
I’m still thinking about the young gypsy woman as we make our way back to Raibert and Luther.
Raibert taps on his pipe and puts it away. “Bought some arrows, I see.”
Barzillai holds up his quiver. “Yes. I’m ready now.”
“Good, then let’s get going. We’re already late as it is.”
The sky is now dark and speckled with a thousand stars. Funny how the sun doesn’t shine here, but the stars do. The little bits of light give me hope. Maybe the Light hasn’t abandoned me after all.