This is a work of short fiction I wrote back in 2013 for the Sojourn anthology. Thanks to the extremely-generous terms of that anthology’s publishing agreement, the full rights have reverted back to me, and so I am pleased to present this to you as part of the Christmas season. -Peter
A howling evening wind picked up fallen snow and whipped it past the two men walking quietly toward the Kelst river. One was not yet out of his twenties, but he walked with his shoulders bent and his head bowed as if he carried some ponderous, invisible burden. The other was older, his beard and hair long since turned silver, but his gait was the easy stride of a man with nothing left to prove or fear. Both were dressed in the garb of the Lantern Knight Order to which they belonged: a padded undergarment, chain armor, and a thick brown tunic and trousers. The older knight also wore a dark blue tabard with the order’s simple lantern crest and a hooded, fur-lined cloak. Neither was wearing a weapon, but the older man carried an unlit lantern, a bundle which contained another tabard matching the one he wore and a newly-forged sword in its scabbard.
“What troubles you, Kyran?” the older knight inquired. “You walk as though the weight of the mountains presses upon you. The crossing is hard, but all who became Illumae have performed it.”
Kyran, the younger knight, was quiet for a while before he spoke. “I’m not like the other Illumae, Arlin. My father wasn’t a Lantern Knight. My fondest childhood dream wasn’t to be the protector of lost travelers. I didn’t grow up in this city, watching other knights haul poor lost souls in from the cold. I am one of those lost souls.” He held up his left hand and pulled off his thick leather gauntlet, exposing a tattoo of a chain encircling a bundle of blackened tree branches. “This is called a Mark of Condemnation. The chain means that I’m an exile. The branches mean I confessed my crime. They don’t mark people with these for stealing bread, Arlin.”
Arlin reached over and took Kyran’s wrist, drawing it closer so he could examine the tattoo. “Your self-awareness does you credit, Kyran, but which part of this indicates that within an hour of entering the city, you’d stop a potential murder? Because three of us saw you do that.”
Kyran opened his mouth to speak, but made no sound.
“Do you think you’re uniquely evil, Kyran? That your sin is somehow novel or noteworthy? That despite repeated assurances to the contrary, do you think that God has decided that you are the one He’s going to make an example of?” He sighed. “Of course you do. Everyone does. No man or woman that has walked those twenty feet through the river has ever been convinced that they were worthy to do so. Why do you suppose that is?”
Kyran looked hopelessly at the older knight.
“Because every single one of them was right. Evil’s borders wind through every soul, Kyran. None of us ever manage to stand on the side we wish to for our entire life. Cross the river, Kyran. You will emerge cleaner, and then I can give you these.” He hefted the lantern and the bundle meaningfully. “This is where we part for now, Kyran. Go with God.”
Kyran watched as the older knight turned quietly and walked away. It was about half a mile from where he stood to the bank of the river. The twilight had turned still, the wind from earlier had calmed, and he was far enough outside the city that he could not hear the familiar, comforting sounds of shops being closed.
He stood for a long while in the silence, alone, then turned back toward the Kelst and started walking.
As he drew closer, his thoughts became progressively more troubled. He had traveled far, both literally and figuratively, to stand here. But now the moment had come, and despite Arlin’s words, he felt unprepared, unworthy, and very, very afraid. That fear slithered through his guts like a malicious serpent, knocking shameful memories and old guilt free of their resting places. As memories of blood and screams clawed their way to the front of his mind, he tried to keep his face passive, but he knew that some of his trembling had nothing to do with the cold. Yet the road had led here, and it could lead nowhere he wanted to go unless he continued forward.
As he approached the river, he mused that the twenty feet of rushing water he had to cross looked a lot larger than the equal distance of clean snow between him and the river bank. The Kelst was not wide here, but its steep banks made it almost eight feet deep in the middle, and the current surged past rapidly enough to pull even a strong swimmer under. The clear, clean water looked almost black in the failing light of evening, and even here on the bank, he was chilled and shivering. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so cold. How could he possibly reach the other side in a full suit of chain? His training up until this point had included theology, medicine, languages, horsemanship, woodcraft, and swordplay. It had not included swimming, not that that would have helped him here. It had been years since he’d been in deep water, and that had been in the warm, safe waters of his boyhood home, far south of this frozen place.
As he took in the place where he was to cross, a note of despair rang in his mind. There was no way. There was no possible way that he could survive the crossing. The armor would drag him down, and if he didn’t drown, he’d almost certainly freeze. His gaze fell upon the other knights gathered on the far bank. Arlin stood with Elsora and Tamaril, the two most recent inductees into the Illumae. The younger knights met his gaze from across the river with knowing looks. They had been here recently enough to remember, and they knew what he was feeling. Kyran could almost feel their eyes pulling him across the river. He couldn’t back down now, not with them standing there.
Seeing before him his own mortality and regrets as much as the faces of his fellow knights, he took a step forward. Time seemed to slow as he trod slowly across the ten feet of pure, untouched snow between him and the river’s edge. Almost as if to underscore the finality of what he was doing, a few snowflakes began to drift lazily down from the sky. Three steps to the river.
One final step of dry land. The water churned before him. He fixed his gaze on the lanterns on the far bank and took his first step into the frigid water. Raw, icy pain stabbed up his leg immediately. His vision blurred as his eyes watered and he gasped involuntarily.
Another step. His right foot howled the same dirge of protest his left had just moments before. He gritted his teeth and willed himself forward, his already-numbed feet uncertain on the rocky riverbed. This was his final punishment, it must be. Arlin’s assurances must have been a ruse to lure him here. These noble and pure knights might have accepted him as an ordinary member, but he had been a fool to think he could become one of the Illumae. His soul was far too stained to stand among their hallowed ranks. There was no way they could be expected to accept a murderer.
The water tugged at his heavy, agonized legs, seeming all too eager to be his executioner. It was getting hard to move, so numbed was he from the cold. The spray of the river was already creating an icy crust on the parts of him still above the water, and his armor felt heavier with every passing step. This was to be his final judgment, then. To perish before he could prove himself, to go before the Father of All black of soul and unclean of conscience, a failure, unfit for His presence. He would perish, and Hell awaited him. The fear that had been tearing at him gave way to crushing guilt. He deserved this, and could not deny it. He raised his numbed left hand to just below the surface and looked at the Mark of Condemnation that had been tattooed there before he had been sent away from his homeland. He looked back toward the lanterns, weeping openly now, and sucked in a last, desperate breath before he took the step that would put his head below the water’s surface. The frigid air seared his lungs.
Feeling profoundly alone, he willed the feet he could no longer feel to take one more step, and the river closed over his head, and with it, crushing darkness. His cold-ravaged lungs burned fiercely, and the water pounded in his ears. His eyes reached for the surface, searched for the lights on the far shore. He strained toward the flickering light, which may as well have been miles away. He managed one more step before the current took him. His legs slid out from under him, and his armor pulled him down like the claws of the grave itself. His last conscious thought was a prayer for forgiveness, then the world went black.
Kyran awoke, only he wasn’t on the bottom of the Kelst anymore. He was somewhere warm and still and quiet. He also wasn’t wearing armor. His eyes still closed, he flexed his fingers, clenched a couple of muscles and found he could feel them and that there was no pain. He breathed deep and inhaled warm, clean air, scented lightly with what smelled like cinnamon and cedarwood. He felt comfortable. Safe. He opened his eyes. He stood on a grassy hill beneath a clear blue sky. A gentle breeze tousled his hair, and off in the distance, he could hear laughter and singing. He was calm, contented, at peace.
Suddenly a figure of pure light stood before him, impossibly bright. It was simultaneously the size of a man, and more massive than anything he could comprehend. Its brilliance tore everything else from his eyes. Its power washed his senses away. Its purity annihilated all else from his mind, and he could only gape in awe at the raw potency of it. He could not bear to look at it, but he could not stand to look away. Strangely, though, while he suddenly felt very small, he did not feel afraid.
And then it reached for him. Strong, loving, powerful, gentle arms wrapped around him in a tender, desperate embrace and pulled Kyran close, holding him, puissant and yet kind. His guilt, his pain, his fear washed away, and the words filled his senses, overwhelming all that was left in him. My child! My precious, beloved child! How I love you! How dear you are to me!
“But,” Kyran started, “I have-”
I know what you have done, dear one. Your debt is paid. It was paid before you stepped into the river, before you sought the Lanterns, before you knew it existed. I love you. I have always loved you. I will always continue to love you. Do not fear. Do not ever fear. One day, you will return here. But today, I must send you back, for you have work yet undone. Carry My light to the lost. Let them know I love them, that I forgive them. All of it, all of them. It is all paid. Go.
Kyran coughed violently, heaving up frigid river water, and the cold came surging back. He trembled, lying on the bank of the river as the two young knights hurriedly set down their lanterns and rushed to his side. Strong, armored limbs lifted him to his feet, wrapped him in a heavy fur cloak and pulled him towards the roaring bonfire where the other knights stood. They left him there, shivering by its flames, his armor and clothes already drying from its powerful heat. No one spoke. They knew better. He had so many questions, but he no longer had any doubts. Arlin had been right; he would never again be ruled by fear. For Kyran Semnir, there was nothing left to be afraid of.
The preceding work is Copyright 2013, by Peter N. Martin.