Part v: Martin
For a long time Martin walked among the fields and villages of the river lands. He picked the grain that grew, to fill his aching stomach, and took the cold waters of the river in cupped hands. He saw few on the road, occasionally a farmer at the other end of his field, and though he cried ‘hello’ to them, they did not hear him, or notice his passing.
But what did that matter, for the Erinyes were keeping their distance. The sky was pale, and thin, and the sun gave little light. But the sky was clear of those fluttering shapes, and the wind no longer blew through him. Martin was restored, for a time. He did not know whether it was his conversation with Charon, or the dream of the sailor as he slept within the strange cracked cauldron. But whatever had caused the furies to relent for now, he was content to walk on and take the respite where he could.
Sometimes, as he walked, he saw a figure on the horizon. A vast impossible figure, who bestrode the land like a giant in the sky, crossing the horizon in handful of steps, sometimes less. He was hooded, and tall, and he carried a ferryman’s pole. Martin tried not to look at him, and when he saw him travel, he huddled and hid his face, trying not to catch his eye. And whichever direction the Ferryman strode, Martin would turn about and go the other way. He had no desire to meet that strange ferryman again. Not for many days to come.
There was something that had used to bother him, he knew. Something he had been running from. Memories, he thought. But they seemed less important today. And the further they walked the less important they seemed. But still, whenever he saw Charon on the horizon, he fell to his hands and knees, and hid his face from the sky. And still, on fenceposts and house gables, the furies perched. Waiting, always waiting.
And time passed, and Martin walked, and slept, and time and distance was fluid here. But after some time, and some distance, he espied a figure upon the road. An old man, stooped and resting by the side of the road the first person he’d come across on the road. And Martin’s path took him on towards the man, and he saw no need to change that. And so he walked up until the man was within earshot
“Ho, old man”, he cried, “good day to you.” And the man looked up and Martin could see that his eyes were opaque, completely blind. And Martin froze in the sightless gaze of the man’s empty eyes.
“My name is Martin, how are you?” Martin said.
The old blind man said nothing. Then he looked up at the sky, studying it with his sightless eyes. “I am Tiresias,” he said. “Cursed with foreknowledge of events. My curse is that I am never wrong, but can change nothing. Though I can tell people what will come to pass, it helps them nought, and leaves them worse off than if I’d never spoken.”
Martin froze. He had no wish to hear such things. But the old man was relentless. He lifted his stick with his withered hand.
“I am Tiresias, both man and woman, and neither. I am Tiresias, who has been struck in the heart by the arrow of Apollo, of which no mortal or god can survive. I am Tiresias, and my oracles have led to the death of heroes and the destruction of cities. I am Tiresias who has seen all things, yet can prevent none of it from coming to pass.”
Please,” Martin spoke in a small voice. “Please do not tell me what you see.” Yet he knew he could nto stop him. This was where he had been walking to all along. This was why he was here.
The Blind man looked upon Martin’s face and spoke, “I see,” he said. “I see a land without a king.”
“I see,” the blind man said, “a land dry and empty. So dry it sucks the water from your eyes and burns it upon the furnace of the air.”
“I see a desert within that land, drier and more wasted than that it lies within. It is infinite and each man and woman who lives there lives alone, far from any other.”
“I see a hole within that dead, dead rock. And a hole within a hole.”
“No,” cried Martin. “You cannot see that. It is my dream,” he said, for he remembered it, that terrible dream that haunted him each night after the accident. The one he could never wake up from.
“I see,” the blind man replied. “A hole within a hole, though less a hole than a crack upon that broken land. And within it lies a woman, huddled close against the barren rock, trying to crawl under that pale, red rock, that dry, dead rock, but unable to pull herself in away from the elements, though there is but only one, to speak of.”
“It’s only a dream.” Martin cried. “Only a dream.”
“There are dreams,” the blind man said, “And there are dreams, and this is one of those.”
“I see,” he said again, “a land without a king, for the king suffered a grevious wound, but did not die, and so was not reborn, and the cauldron lay useless upon the hearth for its heart was broken. And the king did not die but drunk deep of the waters of forgetfulness. And so dried out and lay, desiccated and alone, shadowed and despairing. Yet did not die. And his household joined him, frozen in their places, refusing to move for fear of the cobwebs breaking.
“And nothing died and nothing lived. And all remained. And the land lay down and gave up its life to the sky, which burned it as rubbish upon the fire.”
“You’re talking of the House of Despond. I was there. But it didn’t happen like that. I woke and it was restored. A new Earl, a new land. Look at the fields, the rivers are full, the crops are ripening.”
“The House remains, both more and less than the house you saw it as. It is a part of you and will always be. For nothing in this land is not. You cannot escape it with these fantasies of restoration. You may well have been restored by the Grael yourself and were reborn. But you did not place the king within it, he was not restored. And he never shall be. Not here.”
“I didn’t know I had to.” Martin replied. “How…How can I…”
“You cannot restore the land. Not now, perhaps not ever. I cannot see what could have been, only what is and will be. And the land is dying, whatever dreams you have of it. Who has welcomed you or met your eye in this land, with its cool rivers and green fields? This place is a reflection of yourself, and yet not one will even raise their hand to you.”
And Martin looked, and the land was dying, there were no people in sight, except at a great distance with their shoulders slumped, and their backs turned to him and their faces hidden. And the path was dust and stones, and the fields brown and grey, and the crops withering where they stood. And in the sky, the sun was hidden by black shapes that circled and shook their hair at him, and stretched out their fingers, and gathered.
“I see, “the blind man continued. “I see a woman who lies in that desert within that land. Pressing her back against the rock. In a hole within a hole. Knowing, as she knows anything, that there is nothing to drink and never shall be. Knowing there is nothing to eat and there never shall be. Though hunger and thirst will be with her always. There is no water from the well, there is no bread. There is only her, and the great sucking emptiness of the desert.”
“And I see,” said the blind man, “another joining her, though the distance between them is too great to shout across, if their tongues had enough life to shout.”
Martin sank to his knees in sorrow. For that was what he had feared, each night as he dreamed and watched the woman suffering, he had feared that she was not alone.
“Another joining her, for she does not know anyplace else to go. And has no way to get there.”
“You are blind,” Martin cried. “You cannot see.”
“Yet I see as much as you.” And Martin knew he had seen it too. He remembered, seeing it every night in his dreams. It was the reason he always woke before dawn, the bedsheets wet from his sweat. The dream did not end with the woman in the hole in the earth. He always looked to the other cracked gap in the dry, dead stone. And he always saw her in there. He saw the red rock, the dry, red rock. And he saw the girl within it. He knew they were both there, and he knew he’d put them there. It was his fault. Only his.
“There must be something else, there must be more,” Martin said.
“If there must then I cannot see it. I can only see what is, not what must be. I only see what is and what will be. As you say, I am blind, and cannot see what other men see.”
And at the seer’s
words, Martin turned and ran, the road becoming stony underfoot, the fields
turning brown and ash, the crops withering and dying. And in the skies, the
furies circled, gathering once again.
Martin lifted his head to the road before him. That shifting, fanciful path. It crossed Acheron and carried him onward, losing Martin in its landscape. For as Martin travelled the country shifted behind him and at dawn the land that rose to greet the day was not the land that had been before. For Martin’s journey had stalled and seemed to go nowhere now. For a time the land was dead and dying, and then he would collapse exhausted, and wake to fields of wheat and barley, and the sound of distant rivers burbling beside soft meadows, just out of sight and reach. And yet when he rose and tried to find them they slipped away from him, and the crops soon withered once again.
Having escaped the trappings of the villages and towns behind him he now avoided those he saw and the wastelands of the House he had left made him avoid those dwellings where so few huddled and drew tight their pale beliefs and shut out the world. He saw more of these as he travelled, villages and hamlets on the hills and hiding in the valleys. Each one, he knew, with its own people and its own rituals to live their lives in the face of a truth they could not face.
So many people, huddled in small groups or sitting alone in desolate halls. And their own traditions and their own fears kept them company and shielded from the winds of Acheron. And kept them captive alongside their paralyzed minds.
What was this place, this shifting, changing mindscape of death-duties and despairs? This hateful, merciless land that caught Martin’s mind so strongly and fitted into his thoughts like fishhooks into thin flesh. He was exhausted now, too tired to think, too tired to analyse this Acheron, this impossible land that constantly shifted and slipped away from him whenever he reached for it. He struggled on; Charon’s words and his occasional presence looming above the land as he strode across it were the only landmark to his journey. The places he passed where once he would have fled within to shelter and rest up now seemed anathema to him, and he avoided their streets and crumbling walls.
The furies were waiting for him, they were thick in the sky, turning day to night, though the light still seeped in from the edges. Yet they had not descended, they were still gathering and circling, he knew not why. And he walked on, unwilling to rest and wait for them to fly upon him and lash him to the bone with their bitter vengeful words.
And the road forked and ran out into nothing and began again without sign or structure. There was no navigation and Martin sometimes would fall unconscious, exhausted, upon the side of a green hill and wake at the bottom of a rocky depression and have to spend the day struggling out to higher ground. Or once he would lose himself in the stony dry riverbanks where water had long since ceased to flow and yet a good night’s sleep would wake him to a rolling hillside of lush green grass and though the sun never shone through that unnatural sky the morning light seemed kinder and warmer and refreshing.
And sometimes Martin would look up at the skyline, that thin line of brown-green and grey-blue hazed into wavering mirage. And he would watch that figure striding across the land, that hooded man with a ferryman’s crook. For he no longer bothered to hide his face form him. And he saw that Charon was leading a line or a single man across that vast land and they would glide across Martin’s sight as though the distance was nothing and would vanish far away soon after they had appeared.
Yet Charon never came to Martin, never travelled the distance between them. He never stopped or deviated from his crisscrossing to nod or share a word of encouragement or direction to Martin. Martin was directionless, forced to traverse Acheron alone. And Charon never came to him.
And Martin wept for his journey had been long and arduous, unnumbered days and hours had drifted away with the winds that could still blew harshly when the land was dull and wasted. And though Martin could face the winds they cut at his face and drew stinging tears from his naked eyes. And he wrapped his thin clothes tighter yet the wind cut through always. Cutting deeper than his skin.
And as Martin thought of that horrible wind words rang in his head of a phrase he had heard, an old folk adage. It said, “the East wind is a lazy wind, it don’t go ‘round yer, it goes straight through yer.”, he could not rmeemebr where he’d heard it, some old woman on a documentary or show. But the words resounded and echoed through his head. And Martin turned and faced the wind and walked straight into it.
Martin pushed forward, squinting hard as dust caught his eyelashes and his hair moving thinly as the dry winds blew through it. And he stumbled on the wind dropped away, and the road opened out and became broad, a highway to the east, a great road to the far side of Acheron. A direction at last.
And as the hours slipped away a great city became seen, a metropolis upon a flat plain, spread wide and heavy upon the land, great monoliths and stone towers reached stunted to the sky and thick walls kept the winds away. A great gate stood open to the East road, and to continue to the East Martin had to go through the city. Was this the end of his journey, would he find his answers here?
It looked by its size as though many others had. Hundreds upon thousands of souls gathered and living out their days in the safety of this city, sheltered by the walls and the stones and the laws of this place. Was this the capital, Martin wondered, the far place where Charon took those lines of fortunate men and women. Or was this another lie, another Hypnos or Ankhor, another place of false notions and distractions, avoidance or ignorance.
Martin walked up to the gates and stared at the sign above the archway. And that deep engraved motto read ‘Memento Mori’ and beneath that read ‘Necropolis.’