The Seventh Tale - Nation
Simon P. Clark
The waves were cold, and fierce, and loud. The water was grey and thick with foam, and with each crash upon the shore, each judder of the storm, the world grew darker and salt filled the air. The children stood on the beach, their toes curled in the sand, and they shivered and sniffed and clung to each other.
'This,' said Crow, throwing his arms wide and smiling, 'is danger. This is power. You should fear the storm, young ones. Do you understand?'
They nodded. Pebble winced at the lightning. Moss looked up at the old man, angry and scared. He glowered and held his sister closer.
'Are you cold?' shouted Crow. 'Are you frightened and wet and shivering? Are you?'
'Yes!' said Moss. 'Yes! We want to go home!'
Crow looked down at him, his skin shining with droplets of water, the gold bands on his wrists clanking and ringing.
'Ohh?' he said. 'You want to go home? And miss the storm?'
'I don't like it,' said Pebble. Another wave thundered into the rocks, sending spray across the beach. The air tasted of metal and salt.
‘You don’t have to like it, child!’ said Crow, and he folded his arms. ‘This isn’t about comfort. You know what this is about?’
‘Please,’ said Moss, ‘can’t we –‘
‘No, we can’t,’ said Crow. He laughed and turned his face to the sky, spreading his arms wide. ‘Roar, thunder!’ he shouted. ‘Break me, you coward!’
Pebble squeezed her brother’s hand. ‘I want to go home,’ she said. ‘I don’t like it, Moss.’
‘The reason you’re here,’ said Crow, ‘is to learn about danger.’
The rain was getting worse. The air crackled and hissed. The sea was endless and black.
‘What danger?’ said Moss. ‘What danger?’
He pulled Pebble closer again, moving his feet to brace himself.
Crow lowered his head, his voice almost impossible to make out.
‘The danger of the book,’ he said, and he nodded his head, just once.
Pebble and Moss looked at each other.
‘Oh,’ said Moss. His stomach felt cold.
Pebble’s eyes were wide and scared. ‘How did you know?’ she said, looking down at her feet, looking up at the old man. ‘How did you know we saw it?’
‘Not quite as smart as you think you are, eh?’ he said. ‘You were seen, that’s all that matters. But now, what to do with you? What to do with two children who broke into the temple and tried to read the book?’
Another wave hit the rocks below, and Pebble flinched, and Moss swore. Crow’s eyes wrinkled as he smiled.
‘Let me tell you about the danger,’ he said, and he turned away from the water.
Our people, said Crow, and his voice was deep, and his eyes were bright, have fought many battles. We are strong, and have stood against beast and man, against hot and cold, against night and day. We have grown to be a mighty nation – and for this, we have our enemies. Nothing attracts power like power, children. Remember that. Nothing will bring down the fires of death faster than the first sparks of life.
Our greatest leader, as you know, was Mountain. He was strong and wise and kind, and he conquered all he fought. Soon, all men bowed to him, but that was not enough. He hunted and rode and claimed the land, and soon all beasts bowed to him, too. That was not enough. Fearful of his power, the demons tried to break him, but he was fast and clever and wicked, and soon they, too, bowed to him. Fearful, now, of this mortal man, the wind spirits fought him, but he was patient and cruel, and they fell beneath his feet. Oh, are you surprised? That spirits themselves would bow to a man? You should be. That’s how great he was. He boasted of his prowess to the four winds, and perhaps that was his folly. Because when he did that – when he shouted out his victories and his strength – he caught the attention of something far worse than a demon or a spirit. Something far older. Something far meaner.
‘What?’ said Pebble. She’d stepped forward, craning her neck to hear his words through the wind.
‘Peb,’ said Moss, and he pulled her back.
‘What was it?’ she said.
Crow smiled a very strange smile.
We called him Shadow, he said, but he was much more than that. Darkness, maybe, would have been a good name. Not Death, but something ... something near that. He was a trickster and a child and he was bored and hungry, and he came to Mountain looking for fun, for he’d heard what Mountain could do, and how proud he was, and how strong. Well, finally, Mountain had met his match, and he knew it, even if he would not admit it. Battles were fought. Games were played. Mountain could not crush Shadow, as he had done with men and beasts. He found he could not trick him, as had the demons. He could not fool him like the spirits. For the first time, Mountain came across something he could not tame or kill or flee from. And so, he was forced to do something that was, to him, much worse.
Thunder echoed across the waves. Crow turned to the storm and scoffed.
‘Wind’s moving away,’ he said.
‘So the worst is over,’ said Moss.
The old man sighed and closed his eyes again.
Mountain and Shadow came to an agreement, he said. It was not a truce, but it was ... an understanding. Mountain reasoned with Shadow, begging him to leave our nation untouched from the horrors the creature no doubt could unleash, if he happened to want to. Shadow agreed. Things of such power, though, do not agree to anything without getting something for themselves. In this case, Shadow asked for just one thing. “Give me the curious,” he said.
“The curious?’ asked Mountain. “How can I give you this?”
“I will give you a book,” said Shadow, “a book of terrible things. You will keep it hidden and secret, forbidden from all kings, all priests, all warriors. You will keep it, nonetheless, and carry it with you wherever you go.”
“And what is this book?” asked Mountain.
“The book,” said Shadow, “is a light, and it will call to all the curious, and they, in turn, will be mine.”
Moss and Pebble looked at each other. Their hair, cut to their shoulder, was stuck to their faces, their clothes damp through, and they shivered in the cold.
‘The book –‘ said Pebble, but Moss kicked her, and she winced.
‘Go on,’ said Moss, looking up at Crow. ‘How’s this end? What did Shadow say?’
The rain was lighter now. The gold on the old man’s wrists jangled and shone in the few rays of light.
And so Mountain agreed, he said, to take a book from Shadow, and hide it from the people, and tell no one, and to wait. This is the secret of the book - that sometimes it calls people, all by itself, and they’ve not been told about it, they’ve not been warned. They just find it. They dream it. They ask questions. They are the curious.
‘We did that,’ said Pebble. ‘That’s us. The curious!’
‘Shut up,’ said Moss.
‘But it is! Ain’t that right, Crow? You mean us! We’re the ones who hunted it out, even when no one else would come, even when they said it wasn’t even a real thing.’
‘Shut up,’ said Moss. He narrowed his eyes. There was something in the sky, dark and wrong. It was getting bigger.
Crow sighed and lowered his head. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes, Pebble. You did that. You’re the curious. But did you listen? Do you know what that makes you?’
‘We have to go,’ said Moss. He grabbed his sister’s hand, but she didn’t move. Her skin was cold.
‘Do we get given to the Shadow?’ she said.
Crow didn’t look at them. The thing in the sky was bigger now, moving faster. In swirls of smoke, like ink spreading through the rain, it twisted and boiled and writhed, and it had wings, and teeth.
‘Run,’ said Moss, his throat tight. ‘Pebble, Run. Run!’
‘No use,’ said Crow. ‘No use. The curious go to Shadow. That is the purpose of the book. That is the cost of our nation’s life. And you read the book. You did that. Oh, children...’
‘Moss!’ said Pebble. She stumbled on the rock, her eyes fixed on the storm, on the water, on the black thing that swam through the air.
‘This is the danger of the book,’ said Crow, and he was crying now, tears of frustration and anger. ‘This is how it has to be. I wish it hadn’t been you, though. Why did you have to look for that damn book? What was it in you that made you do it? Always the curious, always he comes for them...’
‘Come on!’ spat Moss, and he grabbed his sister’s hand, pulling her behind him. They were blinded by the salt, slipping on the rocks. The air roared and growled. Above them, the dark shape moved and grew, and it watched them, and it waited.
On the rocks, Crow shouted to the storm, and then he turned, moving slowly, making his way back to the temple, and to the book, and to the nation.
Nation, Eren Tales © Simon P. Clark 2014. All rights reserved.
Photography © Brandon Rechten 2014. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission
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