Author’s Note: And we begin a new Volume! Lots of big things to come from Volume 5, so I hope you will all stick with me and the story. Thanks!
Volume 5 – Chapter 1
The sky was dark when he awoke, and he sat up quickly, knowing it would soon be time to start the day. As he sat, waiting for his head to stop spinning from the sudden movement, he brought a hand to his chest.
It still ached, still felt as if someone had taken a block of carved stone and set it on top of his lungs, but he believed the discomfort had lessened from the previous day. He was not better, he knew, but if he moved around and loosened up, the pain would surely be bearable.
He forced himself to rise, pounding his fists on his thighs to keep them from shaking, and moved from his corner to the center of the room. Picking up a pail by its well-worn handle, he drank deeply, before filling his pouch with the warm water for later in the day.
Before long, his thoughts drifted to the work he needed to complete, and he wondered if maybe he could finish before dark, as then he would be able to work on mending the stable door. He pulled his tunic on over his head, coughing lightly from the quick movement.
When he opened his eyes after the small fit, he saw his sister standing in front of him.
“You’re leaving,” she said. A statement. “Why are you leaving?”
The boy looked down at his sister, her black hair sticking out from her head at odd angles as she stared at him with vibrant brown eyes. He tried to smooth out her hair briefly, before giving up with a sigh.
“You know why,” he said. “He’s still sick, and there’s still work to be done.”
Nodding his head to the side, they both glanced at where their father lay at the edge of the room, his brow creased as he slept, his face beaded with sweat. He had been ill for nearly a month, and though the boy had done what he could to help him recover, the old healer had told him that it was up to his father’s body to get him better now.
So the boy let his father fight his own battle, and turned his attention towards making sure there would be food there for him when he won.
His sister, however, did not seem to like that decision.
“You’re sick too!” she cried, pointing at his hand, where a spot of blood was beginning to dry.
The boy brought his hand to his side and shook his head.
“Not as sick as papa.”
Without another word he stood, grabbing his pouch and doing his best not to trip as he approached the doorway. After he grabbed his hat, he turned, not surprised to find his sister standing in the doorway.
“I’m coming with you,” she said, pointing her chin upwards in defiance. “You need help out there.”
The boy put on his hat and kneeled down. He was smiling.
“Papa needs help, too.” His sister looked ready to argue, but he held up a finger and continued before she could. “I’m only going to be plowing today, okay? Only the little field, even, not any of the big ones. The oxen will be doing most of the work, so I’ll be okay. Just stay here and take care of him, and I’ll be home soon. Can you do that for me?”
For a moment she didn’t respond, thinking, but soon enough she nodded, her shoulders slumped.
“Only the little field, though,” she warned, adjusting his hat. “And come home in time to eat. You promise?”
“Of course,” the boy said, trying to fix her hair and, once again, abandoning the effort.
He stood and, fighting off a wave of nausea, stepped through the doorway, looking up.
The sun was rising.
He tried to make it back home, he really did, but after working until the sun sat high in the sky, ignoring the pain swelling in his chest and continuing to push, he found he couldn’t.
Instead, he now found himself kneeling on the ground, fingers digging into dry soil. He clutched his chest, gritted his teeth as he tried to force the fire out of his lungs, but it wouldn’t leave.
Dropping his hand from his chest to his side, the boy reached for the small pouch hanging from his belt, opened it, held it to his lips.
He sunk down, kicking up dust as he rolled onto his back. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he tried to breathe.
The burning continued, and the boy clutched at the earth, trying to bring himself up, wondering what he would do if he couldn’t. His papa and his sister were waiting for him. He needed to find a way to get home.
But his strength had left him now, every ounce disappearing with his breath. He closed his eyes.
He was tired, and as he drifted into darkness he found himself picturing their faces, hearing them laugh. Finally, after an eternity, he sunk into the depths.
He hoped they were okay.
He woke up–that was the most surprising part. He was awake. Somehow, everything that came after was secondary to that simple fact.
He looked around, and found himself in a landscape brighter than any he had ever encountered. In his vision colors swarmed, patches of light shimmering, swirling through his surroundings, melding together until they were so radiant he could no longer bring himself to look at them.
Where was he?
Somebody was standing in front of him now, as if his question had brought about their appearance. He was a short old man, bald but for a few patches of gray hair clinging to the top of his head, his deep brown skin standing out against his un-earthly surroundings.
Amazingly, he shone brighter than anything around him, an astounding golden light emanating from his core. The boy found that to look at the man for more than a few moments he had to focus on his eyes, dark flecks of obsidian.
“Finally awake, are you?” His eyes curved up at the edges. “Took your time.”
He fell silent, smiling, waiting for a response. After a moment, the boy was able to find his voice, drawing words from deep in his chest and forcing them to the surface.
“Where am I?”
Almost immediately, the man began to laugh, a slight, raspy sound, opening his mouth wide to reveal uneven teeth. Clutching at the ends of his cloak with one hand, he kneeled forward and held out the other. The boy accepted his help, and rose to his feet.
“That’s the question, isn’t it?” He wiped his eyes and looked up at the boy, mouth still open. “We’re in the world after, least that’s what I think of it as. Haven’t gotten much of an explanation from anyone, long as I’ve been here, but you pick things up as you go. Hope it’ll be easier for you, since I’m here to tell you what to do.”
“‘The world after?’” The boy looked around once again, taking in the array of color and light surrounding him on all sides. He brought a hand to his chest–there was no pain. “I’ve died, then?”
“Yes, you have,” the old man said with a small smile. “That’s good, though, you recognized the change quick. Not all who come here are like that.”
“My sister,” the boy began, taking a step towards the man. He had stopped listening halfway through, his eyes widening. “My papa’s sick, and my sister is too young to work the fields. What will they do?”
Without a word, the man reached out and lay a hand on the boy’s shoulder, squeezing tightly. He regarded him softly.
“Same as everyone, they’ll live. It isn’t your job to worry about how long anymore.”
“But they need me.” The boy’s vision blurred, and his face grew slightly warm. “They needed me, and I left them. They needed my help.”
He began to cry, softly at first, but soon enough his body was overtaken by small sobs as tears leaked out of his eyes. He couldn’t help it–the thought of his father, bedridden without a son, and his sister, struggling to take care of both of them without any help was too much for him to bear.
He should be there with them. Why had he not been allowed to stay?
The man never took his hand off of the boy’s shoulder, allowing him to calm down and gather himself before letting go and taking a step backwards. He looked a the boy with kind eyes.
“I know it hurts. I left people behind too, so long ago,” he said. “I’ll tell you something, though, people always surprise me with what they can survive, even after all this time.”
The man smiled now, and patted the boy roughly on the chest with the back of his hand.
“What you’ve got to focus on isn’t what you couldn’t do, but what you can,” he said. “Now, I kept you here so long to tell you a story, so will you listen?”
The boy’s voice was still weak, and he didn’t trust it. Instead, he nodded in response, not knowing what to expect from the man but knowing he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“Good,” the man said. “I’ll make it quick, don’t worry. The short of it is that I’m old, or more that I’ve been old for a very long time. I think it’s time I take a break and leave this all to someone else.”
The boy didn’t understand what he was saying, but he kept quiet.
“See, a long time ago I was just like you. I died and showed up here, and got woken up by someone I didn’t know and told that now it was my turn. She was a really serious type, all business, though I think that was just because she had been doing it from the beginning without ever stopping.
“So, she tells me: ‘The people are going to need some help getting here, kid. Will you do it?’
“Of course, I said yes, and I’ve been doing this ever since. The thing is, people are really good at getting lost. The second they die, they have no idea where to go, so someone has got to come in and help them along a little, get them going where they need to.
“That’s what I’ve been doing, but I have the feeling that I’m about done. So, now that you’re here, I want to know if you’ll take over for me.”
The man stopped talking all at once and looked at the boy expectantly, his arms behind his back. He couldn’t couldn’t think of what to say, but it was obvious by the man’s expression that he had to do something.
“You….want me to bring people here?” the boy asked, finally. “Do you think I could?”
“You’re here, aren’t you? You’ve just got to bring other people here, too, when they need it,” the old man said. “It’s not too hard, I think you could handle it. So, what do you say?”
It took the boy only a moment of thought before he responded.
“Would I be able to see my father and sister again, if I say yes?”
Just as he had at the beginning of their conversation, the man laughed. He seemed happy, happier than the boy had seen anyone in a long time.
“You should be able to see them eventually no matter what you say, really.“ He smiled. “Question is, do you want to wait for them, or help lead them here when the time comes?”
To the boy, it wasn’t much of a question.
“I’ll help them,” he said. “I’ll help anyone who needs it.”
The man didn’t look surprised.
“Good. Now, you got questions?” The boy nodded, and the old man sighed deeply. “Well, let’s get them out, and quick. I don’t have much time left here.”
“What’s my name?”
“Right to it, eh?” The man chuckled. “At least you listen well, but I don’t know your name any more than you do. That’s the one thing you’re not allowed to keep when you become like me, at least while you’re doing the job of helping people across. You’ll find a new one for yourself in time, I’m sure.”
The boy looked surprised, but didn’t let the information stop him.
“What’s your name, then?”
The man laughed louder than ever.
“I’ve got a lot of names, boy. Just call me ‘old man,’ it’s easier. Now, let’s get going, I’ve got a lot to show you and not a lot of time.”
He shuffled past the boy without another word, towards a point in the distance even brighter than their surroundings. The boy followed, a soft golden glow spreading from his chest, and as he and the old man stepped through the light and into the world, he thought of his sister, and his father, and all of the people he would need to help from now on.
Take your time, he thought. I’ll be waiting.