Note: No illustration on this chapter yet. The switch from the spring semester to the summer has thrown me off. I hope to have a more productive schedule soon.
The Human continued down the path, distracted and a bit disturbed. The water spirits had awoken something in the Human’s heart that had been long dormant. Temptation.
The Human thought back to a time before marriage and family. To a time when responsibilities were frightening and seemed to spell the end of freedom. Back then, the Human had been very scared. None of the proscribed paths had seemed right. Staying in the same small town forever, conforming to the roles set out had seemed both easy and terribly hard. When one is born one way, but expected to be something else, the conflict can be daunting. There had been one particular person in the village who had seemed to desire the Human. It was a hungry, possessive desire, but it had been preferable to the loneliness that had otherwise prevailed. Those around the Human had approved of this one. It had been tempting to go along with what was expected and to be desired, while not the same as being loved, was not so terrible, was it? Choosing loneliness had been terrifically hard. No one, not even the Human’s family, had understood why the Human had chosen to refuse that one. It had been the beginning of a slow pulling-away, the Human gradually withdrawing from society, and from its expectations. It had seemed the better option compared to continually disappointing the expectations of family and friends. The Human had not, at that time, understood why that life had not appealed. That understanding came later. As the Human spent more and more time alone and hidden from the world, still that one had persisted. And there was great temptation. To hide away in a mask that was pleasing to the eye. To appear to be what was expected and desired. To eventually, just maybe, to become something that could exist in the world safely and with acceptance. To leave behind one’s true self and die in order to live the life that one was meant for. That temptation had been so very strong. And now, an echo of it had returned. True, the water spirits would have likely devoured the Human, metaphorically if not literally, but it would be a pleasant end. Desired, even if not for one’s true self. And an end to pain and loneliness had its appeal. But that would mean abandoning love and the Human’s truest self. Neker and Nixe had each wanted one part of the Human’s nature, just as that one so long ago. Neither of them, nor that old suitor, could see the whole of the Human and love it for what it was. That required love. And the love that the Human had eventually found had been sweet and pure. The Human stopped in the middle of the path and turned to look at the darkening sky. This path had been so long, and so much time had passed. Were the Human’s love and family still ahead, or had they been swallowed by Oblivion? There was no way to tell. The Human took a deep breath and continued on.
After a time, the Human saw something ahead that seemed shockingly out of place. It was an old, battered cart, made of silvered wood worn smooth by time. It was at an awkward angle, with one rear wheel off the path and snagged on a tree’s root. The Human hadn’t seen anything human-made since leaving home so long ago. This cart seemed unusually solid, as well. It lacked the wispy aspect the Human’s house had had. Drawing closer, the Human saw that an old donkey was hitched to the cart, and the load the cart was carrying was a towering pile of miscellaneous objects. Pots and pans, candlesticks and irons, chairs of various styles, scroll cases, rolls of cloth, dolls and other toys were all stacked on on the other in a precarious pile that should have tumbled down at the slightest touch.
“Why hello there!” said a voice from behind the Human’s shoulder. The Human jumped, startled, and turned to face a wizened old man. His light brown face was deeply wrinkled in a pattern that spoke of many smiles.
“Oh! Hello Grandfather!” said the Human, hurriedly bowing. “I did not see you there. This is your cart, I assume?”
“Yes, it is! And it carries my livelihood. I travel place to place, repairing pots and pans, selling odds and ends, trading for interesting things and carrying news of far-flung lands. I am called Tinker, Trader, Wanderer, and Merchant. Grandfather is not a new name for me, and I find I like it, even if it is not entirely accurate,” the old man said, winking at the last with a conspiratorial nod. “So, why’re ye traveling this lonely road?”
“I am seeking my family. They passed from me and in my grief I followed them here. I hope to be reunited with them before they reach Oblivion.”
“Oblivion! Terrible place. Lousy business to be done there, no doubt. I think I saw yer family not too terribly long ago. I passed them and then, once I had gotten stuck, no thanks to my friend here,” the old man slapped the rump of the donkey, who ignored him, “they passed me in turn.”
“How long ago was this?” asked the Human, excitedly.
“Hmm. That there is a more complicated question than ye might know. Ye know where we are, don’cha?”
“The Faded Kindom, the Past,” answered the Human.
“Right, but do ye understand what that means?”
“This is where everything goes after its Moment has passed, at least that is what I was told.”
“Hm. Sounds like ye’ve been talking to that old Turtle, eh?” asked the man. The Human nodded. “Well, it’s not inaccurate, just incomplete. Ye see, the Past is both eternal and momentary. This,” he gestured to indicate the entire realm, “is both an instant and an eternity. Time doesn’t pass, and yet it passes constantly. How long have ye been walking?”
“I am unsure,” answered the Human. “It seems like a very long time, but I am not physically tired, nor am I hungry or thirsty. The sky has changed, but only by what would have been a few hours in the Present.”
“Ah, that’s the crux of it. Here, time is more like distance. Ye’ve been traveling further into the Past, as ye move towards Sunset. And yet, ye will never catch the sun, the light will fade as ye go. Where did ye enter this realm?”
“Near the Fae, if that helps. On the other side of the mountain from here, past the Turtle.”
“Ah, the Fae. Still holding ‘Court’, I assume? Blessed children,” the old man shook his head fondly. “So there, it was still fairly light, but here, it has become quite dim. Oblivion is the darkest black. So, what we have to figure is how fast yer family is traveling and how fast ye’ve been going as well…,” the old man stroked his beard thoughtfully. “How long before ye came here did yer family pass?”
“Two weeks,” answered the Human.
“Based on when they passed me, ye’re gaining on them, but not as fast as all that. Ye’ll catch them before they reach Oblivion, at this rate, but only just. Keep moving, and don’t give up. Ye’ll be in time. Now, it’s been awhile since I did any proper business. That lot,” he pointed back towards the river crossing, “only buy trinkets, when they buy at all. All they want to trade are songs. That one little green fella will do just about anything for a cucumber though,” the old man chuckled. “So, is there anything ye’d be wanting to trade? Name it, and I likely have it in my cart.”
“I have no money, though, sir,” said the Human. “I came here with nothing, and I have very little to trade.”
“Ah, but ye’re solid, and stronger than most around here. Perhaps ye can work for it! I haven’t been able to shift my cart back onto the path by myself, and if ye help me get on my way, that would be of great worth to me. I can’t earn a living standing still!”
“Well, since I don’t seem to need food or drink, and the weather never changes, I do not know what I could need,” began the Human.
“I know of something that may help ye regain yer family and avoid Oblivion,” said the old man. His voice had lost its jovial tone and was quiet and serious. The Human stood still, distrusting this sudden turn of luck.
“And all you want in exchange is to move your cart? That seems too cheap a price for so dear a prize.”
“Well, I don’t have the ability myself, ye see, but I know someone who will be able to help. It’s not far from here, and won’t put ye too far behind on reaching yer family.”
“It’s a deal, then,” said the Human.
After a good amount of straining and pushing, the two of them got the cart back on the road. The pile of goods swayed dangerously, but not a single thimble fell.
“Thank ye, my young friend,” said the old man as he climbed back into the seat at the front of the cart. “And now for my part of the bargain. Ye will see a trail leaving the side of this path up around that bend ahead. Follow it until ye find the Witch. The Witch knows a great many things about the Past, Present, and, yes, even the Future. If anyone knows how to help yer family, the Witch will. Good luck to ye, and ye have my blessing.” The old man gestured in the air and the Human felt a warmth all over. The old man shook the donkey’s reigns and the cart lurched into motion, the pile of good swaying rhythmically. It pulled ahead of the Human and rounded the curve ahead.
When the Human reached the curve, the cart was not to be seen, even though the path traveled straight for a long way. There was nowhere for it to have left the path, either, as the dense tree roots would block its path easily. The Human remembered tales of travelers who met old traders on the road, and, if they were polite and helpful, received a great blessing. Those old men were never quite what they seemed, and were sometimes even gods in disguise. Perhaps this had been such a man? In any case, the Human felt as if there had been time for a long rest, and the journey no longer seemed as daunting. Keeping an eye out for the trail the old man had mentioned, the Human set out with renewed energy.