He knew someone was screaming. He pressed his hands hard against his ears to block out that agonizing sound. That was when the pain in his eyes pulled them back to his face. He battled with himself as those two intensities cries for attention until the world went black. The following morning, he was told by the princess that the source of that wretched sound was his own voice.
The piercing sound was gone, but another unwanted noise took its place. The princess cried for hours, endlessly apologizing for what happened. By protecting her from an intruder, his eyes received the splash of poison meant for her. The physician told him how lucky he was that it hit his eyes instead of his mouth or an open wound, for he could have died from it. His sight was the price exchanged for living on. The king assured him he would always have a place in their home, whether he could work or not, as his reward for protecting the princess. The princess showered him with kind words and admiration whenever she could. He heard the sadness in her more than anything, and the pity in everyone else's.
He accepted it, and moved on.
When the physician allowed it, he removed the bandages and opened his eyes. He expected a world of darkness, but found instead a mix of light and shadow. The contrast was enough for him to somewhat distinguish forms apart, after a bit of trial and error. He was grateful to retain that much, though a part of him was saddened that he would never see the princess's face again. He came to memorize the shape of her body in that shadowy form.
His parents soon came to see him. His father was one of the king's knights, as he himself was planned to be. With his sight as it was, that dream ended.
His mother cried and hugged him. "My poor son. What have they done to you? Can you not see me at all?"
He felt her body against his, and watched the shadows move in front of him. He studied that vague shape and listened carefully to her voice. He did his best to reach out for her face. After a little fumbling, he managed to touch her cheek. "I am sorry, Mother. I cannot see your face any longer."
She cried into his chest.
Another shadow approached him. "Thorn, do you wish to come home? You don't have to stay here. I know that you...cannot continue down the path we hoped for you, but your mother and I can take care of you at home. You're our son, always, and we will always protect you."
He listened to the sound of his father's voice. In it, he noticed things he didn't before about it. How deep and strong it was, and how he shifted it when he spoke softly. The sound filled him with warm. He contemplated leaving with them, and spending his days peacefully with his family, but there was something that gave him a greater warmth.
"I thank you, Father, but I want to stay here for a while longer. I'll return home after the princess marries." Thorn said.
He wished he could see what faces his parents were making at him, but he knew them well enough to guess.
His father said to him, "I see. Well, when you're ready, send us a messenger and we'll bring you home. Take this. It belonged to your grandfather. It should help you."
His father pressed something wooden into his hand. Thorn felt over it. He realized it was his grandfather's old walking stick. He bowed in the general direction of his parents. "Thank you."
His parents stayed with him for the week, and returned home. As the weeks went on, the sympathy granted to him by those within the castle walls diminished, and the whispers and snickering replaced the kind offerings of help once extended to him. He expected as much, and carried on. There was one who's kindness did not fade, and none else mattered to him.
Climbing the stairs was becoming easier for him. Forty-four steps. He'd never bothered counting them before, but his feet memorized their measurements and texture to a detail he never imagined, as did his hands of the walls he often used as reference in ascending to the top of the tower. Before he knew it, his mind mapped out the path for him. His hands, feet, and walking stick revealed the world his eyes could only guess from the shadow puppets the sun gifted him. The texture of the wooden door, he took comfort in finding it. He pressed the side of his face against the door. The cold, grainy feeling put him at ease.
"Princess Rampion, may I come in? It's me, Thorn." He said.
The door opened away from him. A familiar silhouette stood before him.
"Come in, Thorn. I'm so glad you came." Princess Rampion held his hand and led him inside the room. "It's beautiful today. The weather is so nice."
"Yes, the wind felt good on my skin. It's been cold for so long. The warmth was well welcomed." Thorn felt around for the chair he usually sat in. Princess Rampion had moved it by the window so they could enjoy the sea down below together. Though he could no longer see it, he heard the waves and birds perfectly, the wind still danced upon his skin, and the taste of the air lingered long on his tongue. "It smells like it's going to rain."
"It does, doesn't it? The sky is greying. Perhaps, tonight." The princess sighed. "I wish it wouldn't. The lightning is beautiful on the sea, but when a storm is overhead, my tower haunts me with how it shakes and howls."
"I am sorry, Princess. Perhaps you could ask your father to move you to a different room, one closer to the ground." Thorn suggested.
"Father has already denied me that request. Actually, you may not be able to visit me any longer. Father intends to have the entrance to the stairwell sealed." Rampion's voice became soft like the gale that warmed the room.
Thorn reached out to find her hand. When he found it, he held it tightly. "Why would he do something like that? Why would he imprison his own daughter in her bedroom?"
"For my hair." The princess said. "It's because of my hair that you are blind. He intends to keep me in here until he can find me a suitable husband, one who will not take me prisoner and use me for my hair."
The princess was born inheriting her mother's legacy, hair stronger than any thread woven by human hands. When the queen was alive, she regularly grew out here hair, then cut it every few years to be used by the kingdom for special garments and ropes. She was the prize at an archery contest the king, then a prince, won. Though their marriage was arranged from something so arbitrary, the queen loved the kingdom as she had always deeply wanted to live by the sea and she loved her daughter even more. Her gift to the kingdom was appreciated by the knights and other nobility who wore garments made from her beautiful, golden hair. As to how the queen had come to possess such a gift, no one knew. Some suspected her true father was a fairy, as her hair also grew at an unnatural pace, and she looked like neither of her parents.
When Princess Rampion and Thorn were both five, the queen was kidnapped by a king who wished to keep her as a slave. Under imprisonment, the queen used her beautiful hair with strength like iron to hang herself. The king who stole her returned her body for a proper funeral, and paid her husband in gold for his crime. Since then, the king was overprotective of his daughter and let no one cut her hair, for fear more goods being made from it would entice others to come and steal her for themselves. Her father had it braided into several complex patterns to conceal its true length. With all the braids, it still dragged a foot behind her body when she walked. In spite of the king's efforts, the princess was nearly kidnapped many times, as all could see her unusually long and shining gold hair. The rumor that the queen's daughter inherited her mother's magic spread far and wide. The day Thorn lost his sight, the man who broke in came hoping to blind the princess so that she would be easier to kidnap.
"I'll speak to your father about this. I'll attempt to persuade him against this." Thorn said.
"Will you really? Thank you. He never listens to anything I have to say." Thorn heard the princess get up from the chair across from his. Her footsteps told him she was moving closer. Heat rose in his face as he anticipated the weight of her body on his lap. She sat down with her dress pulled up and wrapped her arms around his neck. "Thorn, won't you stay with me during the storm? I feel so much safer when you're here."
Her body was one area he did not need to learn. From many dark nights, he had already traced and memorized every inch of her form. He put his hands on her hips. "I'll stay as long as you want."
When the storm rolled through an hour later, the princess cuddled close against him under the sheets of her bed. Her hair, now a tangled mess, draped over the both of them. He held tightly to her and listened to the soft rumbling of thunder and rain.
"I am sorry I can't serve you as a knight. I wish I could see your face once more." He played with the orange-yellow seashell necklace she always wore. He gave her the bright shell when they were children, and she strung a chain through it to wear. It was their secret kept in plain sight. The king never once suspected him of seeing her, and they always knew their love would be at its end when the princess was married off. He sometimes fantasized about running away with her, but he knew better than that. Their romance would end soon, and he would keep their secret with him tucked away in his heart.
"You lost your sight for me. You are far more noble than any knight in my father's court." She kissed him and caressed his cheek. "No matter who I marry, my heart will always long for you."
Her sweet words, he hoped, would fade in time, when they would no longer be in each other's lives. He hoped for her a kind husband and beautiful children, in a warm place by another sea where she could watch the waves with the family she would live out her days with. He couldn't share that with her, but for now, they were together and that was enough for him.
The following morning, Thorn approached the king about the princess's wishes.
"Your majesty, I heard something strange from Princess Rampion. She told me you intend to lock her away in her tower until she marries." Thorn said.
"Yes, that is true. It is for her own good. Those monsters out there who seek to steal her from me are getting more ruthless. I can't take any risks. This is what must be done." Thorn heard the king close the door.
He was alarmed by the king's behavior. The king was growing more paranoid. Thorn cleared his throat and said, "My king, if I may suggest, allow me to visit the princess as well. She needs company, and we have always gotten on well. The princess is terrified of the loneliness she will have to endure."
The king scoffed at Thorn's words. "She has servants I send to her. She does not need you."
"Servants are not the same as a companion, your majesty. She will need more than that to be happy."
The king raised his voice. "I can send a noblewoman to her. I will not leave my unwed daughter alone for hours with a young man, even a blind one."
"My king, I assure you, I would never force myself on your daughter. She is most dear to me, and I will do whatever she asks of me." Thorn sensed the king's growing agitation and tried to calm him. "My king, you've known me all my life. You've trusted me to be alone with her before now. What has changed?"
"Once she is locked away, it will be harder for someone else to come in. Right now, many can easily come to her room. If you were to try and seduce her, you wouldn't do that when a maidservant may come in at any time. More than that, that is not all that concerns me. If you helped someone steal her..."
"I lost my sight to keep her here. Why would I steal her away?" Thorn couldn't believe what the king was suggesting. The king had become even more paranoid than he thought.
"I suppose you are right. She does enjoy your company. However, worthless as you are as a man now, if you were to ever take her, I will have you killed." The king warned him.
"My body is hers to control. I will not seduce her." Thorn chose his words carefully. He would not lie to the king. He would not seduce the princess. After all, she was the one who seduced him and requested his touch. So long as he never asked for anything directly, he would not be lying to the king.
"Very well. You may see her during the day. I expect you to leave her tower by sunset. If you stay the night, I will assume you've seduced her, and I will kill you."
"Yes, your majesty." Thorn bowed to the king.
The king sealed up the doorway to the princess's tower later in the day. Those who would be allowed in the tower from then on were given special instructions on how to get inside. The princess's iron strong hair would be left unbraided and hung down over a hook outside the window. They were to call out to the princess, and recite to her their name and purpose for coming up. For Thorn, he was to tell her he came to keep her company through her lonely ordeal. When she let her long hair down for him to climb, he carried his walking stick on his back by attaching a strip of leather to it. Once inside, the passion between them kept them in each other's arms. If the king was taking such measures, he would likely marry the princess off soon, Thorn assumed. Every moment could be their last embrace.
Three months into the king's plan, the princess became sickly. She assured Thorn she would be fine, but Thorn noticed something felt off about her body. Another month passed by, and he noticed her stomach was a little bigger than before. He said nothing of it, thinking he might be mistaken and she would be offended.
One morning after he climbed up the tower, the princess remained quiet for several hours.
Thorn cuddled with her on the bed. He kissed her on the neck. "Is something wrong, Princess?"
"Do you not feel it?" She took his hand and slid it over her growing belly.
"You're pregnant?" He asked.
She turned over and buried her face in his chest. "What should I do? Father will be furious."
"Can you hide it under your dress? I don't know what we can do, but perhaps we can come up with some kind of plan." He kissed her forehead and placed his hand on her stomach again. He was filled with fear and excitement. Fear for his life and their future, and excitement for the child's birth. Having caused such a situation, the opportunity to do something far more reckless and romantic might be possible. He hoped this unexpected event might gift them the opportunity to escape the confines of the roles they were handed at birth.
"I must leave, but I can't get down from the tower." Rampion whispered. Through the shell necklace around her neck, now pressed between them, he could hear her heartbeat. An erratic rhythm of rapid beats sang from within her.
He petted the back of her head. "Shh. We'll find a way. I could bring a rope up here, and we can both climb down that."
"How will I hide my hair? I can't cut it myself. Father has the special shears to cut it with hidden away in his room. My hair's too strong to be cut by most blades. You'd have to steal them or have new ones made in secret." He felt her shoulders shaking in his arms. "Why did I have to be born like this? I wish I could shave it all off and burn every last strand. Why must I be cursed like this?"
"I could have a pair made in secret. I have enough money. We'll cut your hair and escape in the night." He reassured her, then kissed her again. "Whatever you wish, I will grant it."
That night, he sent a messenger out to someone he knew could get him the shears he needed. He might be able to get his dream. He could live out his life with the princess as his wife, as they both wished. They could raise their children together. He didn't know how they'd get by, but they'd find a way, he told himself.
In the morning, the king ordered him to not visit the princess for the day. He was told to stay in his room, as were all her servants. Thorn heard whispers in the hall that someone was spreading word around about trying to have another pair of the special shears made.
Fear set in, and anger. He'd paid the man a good amount for both the shears and keeping quiet. The man wasn't one particularly loyal to the king. Locking up the princess in her tower was not a popular move with the public either, as the princess used to make many public appearances and did extensive work with the nuns to feed and clothe the orphans in the towns around the kingdom. He heard talks amongst some of the servants about "stealing" the princess for themselves to rescue her from her father. Thorn reasoned with himself that perhaps the man thought he had ill intentions for the princess and was seeking to protect her. If that was the case, he could not blame the man.
He sat quietly in his room for hours, listening to every little word spoken in the hall. If he could not come up with an excuse for his actions, he would likely be killed. Thorn's father's status wouldn't save him, as he was now thought of as less in the public's eye for his condition, and his father lived too far away to get there in time before an execution to make a plea for his life. Given the king's current level of paranoia, he doubted anyone could stop the man if he wanted someone dead.
At noon, he was called to come before the king for a private discussion in the great hall. Two guards escorted him there. He heard them lock the doors once they were inside. The room was unnervingly silent. He knew the king was before him, and the guards were at his side, but he could not pick up on anyone else being in the room.
"Thorn, come here." The king ordered him. Anger seeped deep into his words.
"Yes, your majesty. What is wrong?" Thorn bowed.
"I will ask you this, and you must answer me truthfully, as you serve me and my kingdom before anyone else." The king's loud voice echoed in the nearly empty great hall. "In all the time you have guarded my daughter, day in and day out, has any man besides you entered that tower?"
"No, your highness. I am the only man who sees the princess." Thorn said. He realized all too quickly the real reason why the king had brought him forward, and accepted there was no escaping it. "I accept full responsibility for what I have done."
"Then you do not deny it. I trusted you and gave you luxuries one of your weakness deserves not of because you protected her, and yet, you betray me. What do you have to say for yourself?"
"I am as guilty as you say, for I love your daughter more than anyone and I serve her before you." Thorn raised his head. "I fulfilled her desires born from the loneliness you caused her by locking her away."
"I will not allow my daughter's children to be bastards of some blind fool, nor will I accept what you have done. The princess will serve a year of solitude in the tower as punishment while I find a proper man to marry her to, and you...prepare yourself. Execution awaits you at dawn, and any child she bears from you will follow." The king's hatred could be felt across the long room.
Thorn responded with his own anger and hate. "My king, I regret nothing but once thinking you were a good man. A man who shackles his own child is monstrous, and one murders his daughter's child is worse than a devil."
"Today, then. You have an hour to prepare yourself. Take him to the dungeon until then." The king commanded.
Guards grabbed Thorn and placed heavy shackles on his wrists. He was led to the dungeon. Thorn was not allowed use of his walking stick, and the area of the castle was one he rarely went to. He stumbled along to his cell. The guards smacked him for each misstep.
There, in that cold place, he waited out his final hour in silence. His mind overflowed with tormenting thoughts. He regretted loving the princess, for the suffering their relationship would cause her. He regretted not running away with her sooner. He regretted not asking her about her stomach sooner. A thousand more regrets entered his mind before fear returned to him.
He was going to die in less than an hour.
His twenty years, here they would end abruptly for his passion and indulging the princess's. The family he dreamed of having the previous night would never be. The king intended to kill his child. By having his secret relationship with the princess, he'd sentenced his own child to death. The princess he'd cursed to a worse fate. An infant dying does not know life. A mother having her child stolen and handed over to Death in infancy, and under unnatural terms for one man's anger, was a much worse fate that what awaited the child. That pain would carry with her long after he and the child were gone. He cried in his cell, hoping the child would be a stillborn and returned to the other side or that the princess might miscarriage, so as to save the little one from being murdered by the angry grandfather waiting for the birth. Then, he cursed himself for thinking such a thing.
The room grew ever colder the longer he contemplated death. The king didn't specify how he intended to have Thorn killed. Would it be by noose? A blade to the neck? Tortured before a crowd? Where, he wondered, would the king's rage take him? He considered killing himself in the cell before his execution, but he had nothing to end himself with, and the guards would stop him if he tried.
He was going to die. What then?
He wasn't a particularly religious man. Would he be going to hell? What horror awaited him on the other side? Was there anything waiting at all?
The hour went by both too slowly and too quickly.
At the end of the hour, they led him to the cliff side near the princess's tower. The king had her servants force her to watch as the king had his men prod Thorn with spears towards the cliff edge. His feet warned him of the edge, but the sharp blades stabbing into his skin kept him from moving away. He tried to endure the pain, and it was not the pain that did him in. The edge was not sturdy. Rocks shifted under his feet, and within an instant, he slipped over the edge. The fall, though only seconds long, stretched out across the length of a day in his mind as those above grew smaller and smaller. Then pain, and nothing at all.
It was then that his sight returned to him. He looked up at the top of the cliff. The king was looking back down at him. He stood up and climbed back up the cliff, but as he climbed, everyone walked away. He called out to them. No one responded. Thorn glanced back down at the bottom of the cliff and saw himself lying lifeless in a broken mess of red. He let go of the cliff and did not fall. Then, he willed himself to fly.
He followed the king back through the castle. The king barked orders at the men to bring him the tallest ladder in the castle, as the princess refused to let her hair down, and place it up against the side of the tower. He climbed up it to see Rampion, and Thorn followed behind him.
Rampion was in tears, hiding on the side of her bed not visible from the window. Her father approached her from the other side. He grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her up.
She struggled to free herself from his grasp. "Why?! Why?! Why do you hate me?!"
"You whore! How could you do this?! I've spent all this time testing so many men to find a perfect husband for you who will treat you right and not use you for your hair, and you go and let some blind snake have his way with you?" The king slapped her across the face. "When that child is born, I'll ensure he's buried the same day. I won't let anyone know of this foolishness of yours. The public will never know you were with child. They will know of Thorn the blind fool as one who attempted to kidnap you and nothing more."
"Father, please, no...You can't take him from me and the baby too..." The princess cried and begged her father. "Please, let a servant raise the child. Please, please, you can't kill my child!"
"It is because of you that I must. Blame yourself for your wickedness." The king pushed her to the ground.
Thorn threw punches at the king, but without a physical body, he accomplished nothing in his rage. The king climbed down the long ladder and had it carried away. Rampion cried herself to sleep, and Thorn stood watch, unable to offer her any comfort.
He watched her every day, and never stopped calling out to her. She passed through him and his voice reached no one but himself. Her belly grew bigger with each passing month. When it was almost time, the king finally opened up the doorway at the bottom of the tower and let her out temporarily. She was moved into a heavily guarded room where the physician and midwives would have easier access to her. The princess lay in bed most of the day, quietly crying for the child about to enter the world.
Thorn sat on her bed and kept watch over her. He persisted in his calling, hoping one day she might hear his voice.
At midnight, the first one was born, and within a few minutes, the second. Twins, one boy and one girl, each with beautiful, golden hair like their mother. The king scooped them up before the midwives could finish cleaning up the girl and handed them off to a knight with a bag of gold.
"Get rid of them." The king ordered.
The knight nodded his head and left the castle. Thorn followed him.
A great rage surged through him, one greater than he'd ever known before. He didn't know how he did it, but he made himself visible to the knight. The knight stopped his horse in the middle of the forest.
"You there," he said. "Out of the way. I need to get through."
"You will not hurt my children." Thorn said.
"Excuse me?" The knight reached for his sword. "Who are you?"
Thorn rose himself a few feet in the air and floated closer to the knight. "You know who I am."
The knight's eyes widened in fear. His hand shook, unable to draw his weapon. "Thorn...I...the king ordered me to..."
"You hurt them, and I will ruin you." Thorn concentrated and made the branches of the trees rattle.
"Please, forgive me! I was only following orders! I'll do with them whatever you wish, but you know I cannot return them to their mother. He'd kill them if he saw them in the castle." The knight cowered before him.
"Take them to the nuns. They will know who their mother is, and they will keep them safe." He told the knight.
The knight nodded and changed course. Thorn followed behind the man to make sure he followed through. The knight came across three nuns walking by the shore. He told them he found the children abandoned in the woods and could not care for them himself. The three women took the children. At that, Thorn was satisfied with their fate and returned to the castle to see the princess.
She lay in bed, weak and empty. Her face was stained with tears, but she remained quiet. Thorn lay beside her, his rage filling him up again.
He wanted to kill the king.
Thorn kissed his lover and went to find the king. Halfway to the king's bedroom, someone stood in his way. An old man with a long beard, who's face was hidden underneath a heavy, black cloak approached him. He carried a large scythe in his hand. At his side, a wolf made of earth, water, and fire sat staring directly at Thorn. The wolf had tiny horns on the top of its head. The old man didn't need to say who he was. Thorn knew.
The old man raised his scythe. He said, in a deep voice, "Poor thing. You are at the crossroads. If your anger grows any greater, you will become a demon spirit."
"A demon?" Thorn asked.
"If you kill the old man, your soul will change to something wicked." The old man walked closer to him.
"Have you come to take me? Where have you been? I've been alone here for months!" Thorn yelled at him.
"Ghosts lingering are harder to claim than those who patiently wait in their body. Why did you not stay put until I arrive, lost one?" The old man asked him.
Thorn had nothing to say in response. "Must I go now?"
"You are a ghost. I can return another time if you are not ready to move on yet. That choice is yours. But I will strike you down if you become a demon." The old man turned around and started to walk away.
Thorn followed behind him. "Wait! If I went with you, where would I go?"
"To the place where souls rest."
"What exactly are you? Are you alive or dead? A god? A demon?" Thorn struggled to keep up with the old man and his wolf-beast. The old man appeared to be barely moving, and yet Thorn lagged behind him as he ran to catch him.
"I am not dead, for I was never alive. This is a form I am borrowing to walk among you."
Thorn looked down at his hands. He could touch nothing, and it angered him. He told the old man his wish. "I don't want to move on. Can I not return to life?"
"There are few who possess the ability to return the dead to life. I cannot grant you such a wish." The old man straightened his back momentarily, then crouched back down. The man was so old Thorn swore he could see the outline of the man's spine through his cloak. The old man turned back to face Thorn. "But if you wish to continue on rather than resting, there are those who would take you as a servant."
"Would you take me as a servant?" Thorn asked.
The old man shook his head. "Not with that rage you're carrying. Are you staying here to haunt or are you coming?"
Thorn turned his nose up at the idea of letting go of his anger. "Should I not hate and despise the king? I see no reason I shouldn't."
"He will carry his weight in the end, as guilt or by denying himself peace in pursuit of deeper disturbance. I am no judge. I am a guide, nothing more. A servant who denies anyone a proper escort will be one I cut down." The old man turned away from him again. He moved on in his slow pace, somehow getting far ahead of Thorn.
Thorn ran to catch him.
"So, you are coming with me," said the old man.
"Yes. Show me your way. I am not ready to rest." Thorn swallowed his anger for the moment and followed him.
The land around them seemed to move away as they walked. It was only a matter of minutes before he recognized nothing around them. All around, everything changed. With each step, he questioned what he had done. His nerves got the better of him and he went to ask the old man where they were headed. Before he could open his mouth, the old man stopped and so did the land.
Ahead of them was a sea he did not know. On the horizon, he saw a small island surrounded by mist. The old man and his wolf-beast walked over the waves. Thorn willed himself to float and followed behind them. At this strange sea, the sky was nearly as black as night and the sea swirled around in shades of dark grey and a near glowing green. Thorn could see nothing below the surface of the waves. Though he was dead, what may lie waiting below the water terrified him. He kept close to the old man.
When they reached the island, Thorn got a better look at what was beyond the mist. Nothing grew on the island, not a single blade of grass nor bush or tree. The rocky island had little beach. Most of the island was a giant mountain that went up higher than any he'd ever encountered. A storm rotated around the top of the mountain. Green lightning struck down at it once every few minutes. Up that desolate mountain, that was where the old man led him. It was too late to turn back, Thorn told himself. He continued on.
"What is this place? Is it in the realm of the living or the dead?" Thorn asked as they ascended the mountain.
"It is at the boundary, half in both." The old man said.
Thorn saw nothing living on the the island, but in the distance he heard howls and barks. The sounds were coming from all around him. "I hear dogs, or wolves...?"
"Those are my servants, like this one here...they are the lost souls who are full of too much self-hatred, guilt, and longing to move on." The old man said. He pointed at the wolf-beast beside him with the bottom of his scythe.
"What do you mean?" Thorn asked.
"When someone dies, their spirit may stay and wait for someone to take them to the other side, but those who died in intense pain may become ghosts. Some stay attached to a person or a place, some roam freely in agony, and those who are in pain they placed upon themselves--they turn into beasts. Most become hounds or wolves, forming a shell around their soul out of earth, rain, and fire. A few, the most willful, become cats, and cast moonbeams and sun rays, and all manner of shadow play upon themselves to make a new body." The old man explained. He led Thorn to a cave halfway up the mountain. "It is those individuals, the beasts born from such feelings that serve me. They guide other souls to their resting place to cleanse themselves of their pain. Once they have satisfied their self-inflicted pain, they too move on. Death is common, and I am only one. Most are ferried over by them. When it comes to demons and difficult spirits, they summon me for help."
"Where do they take them?" Thorn looked around the cave. It was as barren as everything else on the island. The old man told him the island was in between the realm of the living and the dead, but he did not see how anything could ever live here.
"I'll show you in time. If you really wish to serve me, you will come to know it well. For now, let us review the candles. Come." The old man stopped at a fork in the cave. He went to the left, waving for Thorn to follow him. They walked together deep into the mountain until reaching a massive opening. The large space was filled, row after row, with candles of varying sizes. Some were large with bright flames, others were small and flickering out. Thorn was in awe at the sight. The old man put his scythe down near the opening they came through. He said, "This is the room of candles. When I am not escorting souls, this is where I spend much of my time."
"Are these...representative of individual lives?" Thorn stared at a massive one near the center of the room. He wondered what sort of person would need one so big.
"Yes, each contains the life path of a soul and all of their memories. If you feel the flames, you can see it." The old man held his hand over one of the dimming flames for a moment, then stepped aside. "Now, you do it."
Thorn did exactly what he saw the old man do. He expected to see something. All he saw was a flickering candle. "I don't see anything."
"That's because you're looking with your eyes." The old man placed his gloved hands on Thorn's face and shut his eyes. Thorn was alarmed that he could be touched by the old man. No one else could touch his body since he died. The old man's bony fingers were ice cold. "Close your eyes and focus on the heat of the flame. There, you will find what you need to see."
Thorn tried again. He held his hand over the flame and focused on the warmth flowing into him. Images appeared in his mind. He saw an old woman hobbling with a rotting cane through her son's home. She sat by a fire and stirred a stew in an old cauldron. She held tightly to her chest and breathed heavily. Her son came to her and told her to rest while the son's wife took over at the cauldron. "I can see it now..."
"There is much that is hidden by your eyes." The old man warned him. "That is why I got rid of mine."
Thorn opened his eyes. He looked at where the old man's face should be, but a strange shadow hung over it and prevented him from seeing anything more than the old man's long beard hanging down. "You are blind?"
"Blind in the physical sense. I can see greatly without my eyes." The old man put his bony hand on Thorn and led him to another candle. "Look here at this candle. It will go out any second now. Read what you can from it before then. You'll come with me while I escort them. Then, when we return here, you will give me your answer on whether you wish to stay or be escorted yourself."
Thorn placed his hand over the small flame. He told the old man everything he saw. "A human woman. She is to die from complications of giving birth. She is alone, crawling towards the old road to beg someone to take her child."
"Her child's flame is the one beside hers." The old man pointed to a very small candle to the right of the one Thorn looked into.
Thorn was saddened by its size. "It is so small and fragile."
"Yes. Fate is a strange one. Each soul is born with a set number of paths, but no matter which path he takes, this little one can never live a long life. The number of years may be altered, but this child will die before turning five." The old man said.
"That's horrible. Can't you stop it?" Thorn put his hands near the small flame and felt its warmth. He did not close his eyes, for he did not want to see the child's possible fate. He only sought out the heat from the small flame. His heart ached at how little his hands could feel.
"That is not my purpose. All life ends. My purpose is not to delay the inevitable, but to gentle escort them home when the time comes. No matter the life, I am not here to judge nor to rescue. I am only an escort. My purpose is to lead in peace." The old man warned him once more about the anger filling up inside of Thorn. "If thoughts of vengeful justice is what you had in mind, then you are still on the path to becoming a demon. I will strike you down if I must."
"Strike me down...?"
The old man pointed to the scythe near the opening. "This scythe, humans love to paint me carrying it to collect, but that is not its purpose. I cut down those who stand in my way of escorting the lost. Demons and other malevolent spirits, that is what this is for."
Thorn went over to the scythe. He saw something on the blade's edge, but it was in a language he could not read. "What does this say?"
"It is an oath, one I made to a friend when I rid myself of my eyes." The old man picked up the scythe. "What it says is not for you to know. Let us go. It is time."
The old man took him down a different path out. They went farther underground and took an exit that led them out into a forest. Thorn recognized it as the place he saw in the candle. The old man did not look in the candle before they left, but he knew exactly where to go. The woman Thorn saw was lying on the ground face down. She was two feet from the road. Her baby was beside her and unmoving. Thorn sat down beside the child. The little boy was barely breathing.
He thought about how the old man told him the baby would not live to five. What path, he wondered, could his mother have possibly taken that would have rid the child of all the other options on the day the baby was born?
"Can't we do anything for the baby?" Thorn tried to touch the child, but his hand went right through.
"No, leave the child be." The old man told him.
"What is the point of a child being born simply to die young?" He put his face in his hands.
"That is beyond you and I. It seems we will be taking the child too tonight." The old man petted his wolf-beast. To the beast, he said, "Go and ready the boy, my old friend, while I tend to the mother. Ghost, watch me. If you wish to be my servant, this will be your job too."
Thorn looked up. The wolf-beast's form shifted to that of a shadowy man. The shadow man and the old man each sat beside their intended person. Each placed one hand on the body of the dead and pulled upward. The child and the woman's spirits were lifted out of their bodies. Their bodies shimmered with a beautiful radiance Thorn's own soul did not possess. The woman looked at the old man, then at her child. The shadow man carried the infant's soul to his mother. She held the baby close to her and tugged at the old man's cloak.
"Come, child. I will keep you safe." The old man said to her. He rose up and tapped the earth with the end of his scythe. To the right of the old man, a river appeared. The river was a bright, glowing blue. The lights of stars reflected in it where no reflection should have been. Thorn was fixated on it. He wanted to touch it. The old man said to him, "Do not touch what I have not told you to touch."
The shadow man got in the boat. The old man placed his hand on the infant, then on the mother. Their bodies were covered in white shrouds. He helped them into the boat.
"Come, child," the old man said to Thorn. Thorn walked over to the boat. For him, the old man placed both of his cold hands on Thorn's face, covering his eyes again. When Thorn opened his eyes, he was dressed in the same black cloak as the old man. "This will allow you to come back up the river."
Thorn got in the boat and sat beside the old man. The woman sat with her baby near the shadow man, who ferried them down the river. The forest disappeared all too quickly into another barren land. The night sky and the river mirrored each other perfectly.
"What is this?" Thorn asked.
"The river of eternity." The old man said.
No one spoke again for a long time. Thorn quietly watched everything. He couldn't resist temptation and placed his hand in the water. When he pulled it back out, the glowing blue river stained him. He noticed when he leaned against the boat, he did not pass through either. Thorn wondered if it was because of where they were or if he had a physical form again. He decided he would wait until they reached their destination before asking.
The deserted, barren land alongside the river was replaced with a vibrant green field filled with amaranths. The shadow man stopped the boat along a little spot where the flowers were patchy. The old man rose up and got out of the boat.
He helped the woman out. "Come, miss. We've reached home."
"Is my mother there?" She asked.
"Yes, child, and your sister too. One of my other servants brought her across three years ago." He walked with her a ways into the field before letting go of her hand. "Your lover will join you here soon too."
"I see," she said.
"This is where we part ways, Miss. You will find your family soon." He put his hand on her shoulder.
"Thank you." She bowed to him and walked away.
The old man got back in the boat, and the shadow man ferried them back up the river.
"What is that place?" Thorn asked.
"It is where most go. The heartless and wicked cannot go there until they learn to change. Most, I strike down in time, for they become demons and torment both the living and the recently deceased." The old man told him. "If you choose to move on, this is where you will reside."
"It's a lovely place, but is there more than this field?" Thorn leaned over the side of the boat.
"You miss the sea, child? There is more out there. It is a whole new world for you to explore. There are vast seas beyond the land you see now. I told you. Your eyes cloud your mind with expectations. It prevents you from seeing more." The old man dipped his scythe into the river and pulled it back up. The glowing blue seeped into the blade and lit up the engraving on it before fading.
"What was that?" Thorn asked.
"Don't worry yourself over it. I'm merely letting a friend know I am keeping my promise." The old man wiped the blade off with the edge of his cloak. "You have a question sitting in your mind, and you have for most of the trip. Your body, yes, you have a physical body again. I granted you one for now to do my work, but you are not visible to most living mortals when you wear that cloak."
"Does that mean those who are immortal can see me with it on?" He asked.
"Of course. They do not fear death, so they do not blind themselves to our presence." The old man saw what Thorn wanted to ask him next and answered him before he could. "No, child, you will not lose your physical body when you take off that cloak. Only I can revoke it from you, for I gave it to you. If you choose not to serve me, I will be taking it and the cloak back."
The long, glowing river took them into another cave. Once they were out of the boat, the shadow man returned to his form of a wolf. The old man tapped the ground with his scythe again, and the river vanished. The old man led them upward through a series of tunnels. Somehow, they ended up back at the room of candles. Thorn couldn't believe it. The mountain the room of candles was in resisted on an island surrounded by a raging sea. How did they come to be there by ferrying down a river? He thought about asking the old man, but chose to keep that question for another day.
The old man put his scythe back down. He checked over a dying candle. "We've returned. Have you made your decision, child?"
"Yes, I have. I wish to serve you, Master." Thorn bowed to the old man. To show his devotion, he ripped out his eyes and presented them to his master.
"Foolish thing." The old man took them and created a scythe from them. He handed it to Thorn. From his cloak, he cut a piece of cloth for Thorn to wear as a blindfold. "Here, wear this. You'll frighten those you're escorting if they see a spectre with no eyes."
Thorn bowed deeper. He put the scythe down on the ground and wrapped the blindfold around his head. "Thank you, Master."
"You have finally let go of your rage." The old man said.
Thorn took hold of his scythe and stood up. "Yes. I wish to bring people peace, those who lived long and those who barely lived at all."
"From today on, you are my apprentice. You will do exactly as I tell you. When you are ready, I will allow you to begin collecting souls and take on a companion beast as I have, but you must never disobey me. Do you swear it?" The old man asked.
Thorn bowed again. "I accept."
Many days went on, and Thorn traveled constantly. The old man never slept, never rested. He was always moving on in his tired pace. One day, when they were in the room of candles, Thorn's hand brushed against something that shouldn't be there. He found a ribbon that smelled of roses resting on a rock.
"Where did this come from?" He asked.
The old man sighed. "Oh, that is probably something my other apprentice brought here from one of his many affairs."
"You have another apprentice? Where is he?" Thorn asked.
"That gale is never anywhere for more than a fleeting moment. He is the scent of a rose at dusk before a storm. You likely won't see him often, for he belongs nowhere, even more than you and I." The old man sat down on a rock.
"What does that mean?" Thorn sat down near him.
"He is ruled by his heart, and he is quite alive." The old man leaned against his scythe. Thorn could tell by the slight cracking sound the old man's scythe always made when he did that. "My other apprentice still breathes, unlike you and I. He was born mortal, but gifted immortality by one of his countless lovers. He was once known as Conrí, the golden-haired wolf of Fionúir."
"Fionúir. I've never heard of that place." Thorn said.
"It does not exist anymore." The old man shook his head, thinking on his other apprentice. "He is a difficult apprentice, being alive and having his feet set between both the realm of the living and the dead, but he understands the impermanence of this as well as I do. He's escorted many of his lovers and his children, as well as the men who unknowingly raised the children he left behind when the wind changed. His first escort was a human lover of his, and the first beast to stay beside him was the very son he had with her. In time, that soul healed and he escorted him over as well. These days, he seems to choose feline beasts as his companions. Quite peculiar, as the cat ones are much rarer than the hounds and wolves."
"He sounds like an interesting man. I'd like to talk with him one day. This place is rather...lonely." Thorn confessed what he'd been keeping hidden from the old man.
"Ah, are you finally regretting your decision? I can take you down the river right now, if you'd like." The old man used his scythe as a balance to help himself stand up.
"No, I do not wish to rest yet. My soul is too restless."
"You are as foolish as he is." The old man said and tended to his flames.
A month from then, Thorn happened to cross paths with the other apprentice. The old man left him behind for a particularly difficult individual. He was told to practice reading the flames while the old man was away. Conrí returned to read the flames shortly after the old man left.
"So, has he taken another? Or are you some other manner of being?" The other apprentice called out to him.
Thorn was startled at first to hear an unfamiliar voice. He answered the man. "I am Thorn, apprentice to the old man who dwells on this mountain."
"Then he has taken you in. I am Conrí, his other apprentice. Some whisper of me as the wolf in the woods, but I have no fangs. How long have you been here?" Conrí asked.
Thorn sensed Conrí standing close beside him. "Not long."
Conrí put his hands on Thorn's face and touched the blindfold. "Did he take your sight? I can sense you are dead, though you have a physical form. If you had any injuries, they should be gone."
"I cast it aside myself." Feeling the warmth of human touch sent a rush through him. He forgot what living beings felt like.
"That may be for the best. There is much I wish I could unsee." Conrí said.
A meow echoed in the room.
"Oh, is that your beast? The master said you've been taking felines as companions lately." Thorn said.
"Yes. Their souls are a bit more willful than the wolves and dogs I've known."
"The master said you have been gone a long time from your last trip. Did something happen?" Thorn felt the cat rub against his leg. He reached down to pet it.
"Ah, well, I met a lonely queen on my way back, and I spent some time with her, but then I remembered myself and left. I'm sure I'll see her again. Fate is cruel to me, and always ensures it's me over the old man that sees them on their deathbed." Conrí laughed at himself, but there was a sadness hidden in him.
Thorn rubbed the cat's soft fur. It put its front paws on his leg and meowed again. He picked up the cat. "Why do you keep pursuing mortals? Why not love someone from the other half of the living realm, those who live as centuries pass?"
"I've loved them too, but my heart cannot stay with them. I become empty with anyone I stay with for long, except one. But we are both very busy, and we don't get to see each other very often." Conrí explained, but Thorn didn't understand him any better.
"Then you are unfaithful as well. You are a strange man." Thorn said.
"Oh, no, we are both free to take other lovers. That's simply how we are." Conrí laughed again.
"Who is your lover that is too busy to see you?" Thorn felt the cat headbutt his chin. It purred loud enough that both his ears heard it and his hands felt it.
"My lover serves as the opposing force of my existence, taking the role from his retired father. He breaths life into being, and I take it away. You may meet one day. Wherever life goes, there is death, and death is followed by life."
"Life is brought by a man then?" Thorn asked.
"That is half correct. He created the form, but the energy he needs to do that comes from another, a woman I also was once lovers with." Conrí took the cat from Thorn's arms. "She seems to like you."
"You have...loved many." Thorn commented. He laughed awkwardly.
Conrí leaned in close to his face. Thorn felt the heat from his body. He was a little jealous of his condition. Conrí whispered in his ear. "Are you interested in that love?"
Thorn turned his face away from Conrí, embarrassed and taken aback that he was being asked such a thing. "Ah, no, I have no desire toward men."
"Well, it was worth a shot. This place is so cold." Conrí casually changed the subject. "Have you escorted anyone on your own yet?"
"No, not yet. He says I will be ready for it soon."
"Guard your heart well. He will test your resolve when the day comes." Conrí moved away from him. "I must be going again."
"Another flame to attend to?" Thorn asked.
"Yes, but not the kind you're speaking of. I wish you luck." With those words, they parted ways.
Thorn laughed under his breath. "Oh, how lucky, to have an immortal life."
He put his hands to his face. They were cold as ice, like the old man's. He tried to recall what it felt like to touch the princess, how hot her body was against his. Frustrated by his memories, he then attempted to forget them by immersing himself in reading the candles.
The old man returned a while after Conrí left. Somehow, he knew his other apprentice had stopped by. He said, "He's gone off again already."
"What did you think of him?" The old man joined him beside the candles.
"I have never met anyone like him. He seems lonely." Thorn said nothing of his mild jealousy. His soul grew restless again.
"He is very much so." The old man sighed deeply. "The chains he carries are heavier than mountains. He would be better off joining his other half and leaving me to work alone, just as you should. You're both foolish. I can't wait for the day you both leave me alone."
"Are we that much of a burden to you?" Thorn asked.
"No, it is that no one should bare this burden but me. I wish every soul on this mountain would leave me in time, and rest in peace." The old man's weariness chilled the cave.
Thorn wished that Conrí hadn't left so soon. He would have given anything for another moment of fleeting warmth. He did not see Conrí again in the months after that. His only companions were the old man and the beasts on the mountain, always howling of their own agony and regret.
Thorn joined the old man to bring back many lost souls. He practiced reading the candles with his mind whenever the old man left him alone in the cave. The world was filled with more tragedy than he ever imagined. When he was alone in the cave, he often thought back on when he was alive and the happy memories he had. There was nothing he could do now to return to them. His life was done. His only options now were to stay with the old man and give some other soul peace, or take the boat down the river. The old man told him of others who may take him as a servant, but they all dealt with matters of the realm of death. Even though he was always in the company of death, in this role, he was still allowed to venture into the realm of the living.
Sometimes the old man, returning from one of his long trips, would say to him, "You won't last anywhere near as long as Conrí. I can see it. That's good. You'll rest soon."
He denied the old man's words. His spirit was too restless to think of going out to the fields down the river.
Finally, the day came that it was his turn to guide someone. The old man brought him over to a dying candle, as usual. He said to him. "You are ready now. The next soul, that will be yours to escort."
"Who is this one?" Thorn asked.
"A lonely princess, who mourns her lost children and lover, trapped in a prison she cannot escape from. Her father refused to marry her off nor let her go anywhere. Tonight, she will jump in hopes of joining her lover's soul." The old man informed him. "This desperation, you must be careful of it. She may trap herself in her agony at that spot, or she may become a demon spirit out of anger. If you're lucky, she will gladly move on with you. I will take you there and observe."
"I see. I will observe her candle before we go." Thorn went to place his hand over her flame.
The old man grabbed Thorn's hand with his cold, bony fingers and pulled him away from the flame. "No, this time, I would like you to go without looking at her life. I've told you enough. This is part of the test."
Thorn nodded. "Yes, Master."
The old man led him to a seaside kingdom. The sound of the waves flooded his mind with happy memories. He pushed them aside, not wanting to think back on that time.
"She is before you." The old man told him.
Thorn used his scythe as a walking stick to find her body. He knelt down and picked up her cold body. His hands remembered her form and her scent pierced his heart with a thousand needles. Her long hair was sprawled out all around him, soft as silk and strong as iron. Tears stained her cheeks as he kissed her forehead.
He whispered, "I'm home. I've come to take you far away, as I promised."
"Thorn, don't linger on it. You must have a kind heart, but you cannot be lost in it." The old man said.
"I know." Thorn pressed his hand to her heart and pulled her soul from her body. The yellow-orange seashell necklace rubbed against his skin as he did.
"Thorn." Her beautiful voice hurt him deeper than anything else.
"Princess..." He sensed out her spirit's energy with his mind to reach for her.
Her hands met with his face. His hood was pulled off of him. She asked, "What are you doing here? Have you come to lead me to the other side?"
"That is my purpose now. I am his apprentice." Thorn said to her.
"You...are you Death?" Rampion asked.
The old man did not answer her. He spoke to Thorn instead. "Take her to the boat. You mustn't linger long on anyone."
"Yes, Master." He held Rampion's hand and kissed it. "Forgive me, but I cannot stay with you in this realm either. I will take you where you need to go. That is all I can offer you."
"Wait! Old man...you gave him this position, didn't you? How can I serve you as well? I don't wish to move on to anywhere that isn't by his side." The princess spoke without fear to the spectre before her.
"There is a way, but you cannot maintain that human form of yours. He is lacking a companion to help him ferry the boat and protect the spirits from demons." The old man's cold presence drew closer to them. "You see my wolf-beast here? You may take that role for him. When you are on the boat or freeing a soul, you can assume a human form, but beyond that, you must take the shape of a beast and live as a beast."
"I accept." The princess said. "Transform me anyway you wish. I have but one desire, to be with my beloved."
"Only you can transform yourself. Surrender that form, and you may share in his isolation." The old man walked away from them. "I will leave the rest to you. As you know, I am a busy man. Someone else is calling me, and that wayward breeze is lost somewhere again."
"Yes, Master." Thorn said. As he listened to the old man's heavy steps, he lost track of the princess's energy. She was silent to him. All he heard were the sea waves behind him. When he realized he couldn't sense her, he called out. "Princess? Where are you?"
A small, furry creature rubbed against his arm. He was startled, then smiled. He reached for the creature to determine its form. He did not find a dog or a wolf, but something more elegant. A slim, short-haired cat with long whiskers made its way into his lap. He could not see the cat's golden fur nor the seashell shaped, orange-yellow mark on its back, but he didn't need to.
He whispered to her. "Are you sure about this? I'll take you to where you belong when you've grown tired of me and this."
The cat nuzzled against his hand and purred. He accepted it, and they moved on.