‘Lennik! Lennik, get back here right now!’
The voice echoed through the valley, bouncing across trees and rocks and echoing around the young children.
‘Should we go back?’ A young lad with no hair muttered, as all the children stopped their play.
‘Who was that? If it’s my mum we’re fine.’ A young girl said, picking up the stick she had dropped on the ground.
‘No, I don’t think that was yours, Rot. Sounds like old Maiz.’ A boy said, trying to get comfortable in a jacket that had grown too small years ago.
The children looked around uncomfortably, all falling in with the tall figure standing at the front.
A blonde haired boy broke the silence ‘It was. Lennik, you wanna head back?’
‘Could do. But then I’d lose!’ The tall boy called Lennik smiled, picking up his own discarded stick.
‘Rot, wanna start up again?’ The bald boy, Jhaime, asked.
‘Shut up, I was almost in the lead! Daff can start us.’ The girl replied. Her name was Rot’Hilde, or Rot as she preferred. A year older than the others, she generally took charge of this small group.
‘Fine.’ The chubby lad in the leather jacket grumbled. He went to the side of the pack, and yelled, ‘From the rocks of the valley to the trees of the field, heroes, on your mark!’
Everyone put one knee on the cool, damp earth, and looked towards the forest in the distance. Daff himself slowly descended to one knee, and then called; ‘Charge!’
The children set off, Rot’Hilde immediately taking an early lead, with Lennik and Jhaime matching paces a few metres behind. Daff stumbled upon getting up, and slowly lost even more ground to the faster runners.
Lennik and Jhaime were still level, but a good few metres apart. Just as Lennik gained a brief lead, a sharp crack sounded around his arm as the other boy’s stick struck him, hard. Jhaime came up ahead of him and continued to run, as Lennik slowed to nurse his arm.
He took a few sidesteps away from the bigger boy, and then sped up, until they were once again side by side. Before Jhaime had even noticed that his advantage was lost, Lennik swung his own stick down, aiming for the other boy’s head, but barely missed and instead clubbed his shoulder. Jhaime cried out, glanced to the side he tried to increase his pace before another attempt at his unprotected head could be made.
Lennik saw Jhaime’s attempt to escape, and forced his own legs to carry him faster at the same time. Jhaime’s sprint failed, and Lennik swapped the stick to his left hand, to be closer to his opponent, before swinging it in a simple arc outward. The stick swung around, and the first time Jhaime saw the incoming weapon was as it struck him between the eyes, sending him sprawling to the ground.
Jhaime scrambled desperately to get to his feet, but the near-sighted Daff had not seen his fall, and ran directly into the prone lad. Both boys rolled to the ground in a mass of bruised limbs and vicious insults, hopelessly tangled behind the others.
Lennik forced his legs to swing faster and faster, leaping from the earth with every step as he tried to catch Rot’Hilde. The trees were close now, Lennik could see second place rising up above him, and yet his legs would carry him no faster.
Rot’Hilde was quite sure that she would win, as she usually did. Daff was no threat at all, and Jhaime and Lennik would be so caught up in each other that neither noticed her growing lead. She had heard the crash behind her, as one of them fell to a sharp blow by the other, but she didn’t care which, and how far behind they were. She was less than a minute from the great forest now; she couldn’t lose.
And so it ended, with Rot’Hilde flying into the first tree of the forest, climbing halfway up its lower branches without even slowing down. Lennik was close behind, but not close enough, and Jhaime and Daff walked dejectedly behind, still a fair distance back.
‘Damnit Rot, I thought I had you that time!’ Lennik called up to the girl in tree, as he began to climb his own.
‘You almost did, but you spent too much time on Jhaime! There’s no second place, Lennie, you only fight if it’s for first!’ The girl replied, hanging from a branch.
‘Where’s the fun in that? If I can’t hit Jhaime with a big stick, I can’t really be bothered, Rot.’ Lennik smiled, pausing his climb.
Jhaime and Daff eventually caught up, grumbling and moaning happily. Jhaime climbed his own tree with ease, and Daff took his usual place sat at the base of the closest trunk, trying to regain his breath.
‘Damn Len, could’ya try not to blind me next time? I’m not exactly gonna be much good with only one eye am I?’ Jhaime complained.
‘Wouldn’t be very heroic to lose. And I didn’t hit your eye, so stop complaining.’
‘And anyway, haven’t you heard of one-eyed Jen?’ Rot interrupted ‘She lost an eye to the Great Sword himself, and she was still the best archer in the land!’
‘Don’t be stupid!’ Puffed Daff ‘No-one could face the Great Sword and live!’
‘One-eyed Jen did.’ Rot smiled.
‘No, Daff’s right.’ Jhaime looked to be having a thought, something nobody expected ‘Nobody takes on the Swords and lives. Not even one of your heroes, Rot.’
‘No Jhaime, she’s right!’ Lennik pounced from his tree to Jhaime’s, almost sending him flying to the ground ‘Jhaime, how do you know about the Great Sword, or any of the Swords?’
‘Careful Len! I almost fell!’
‘Shut up, and answer my question.’
‘Well, Maez told me.’ He replied, unsure of why this simple question needed to be asked at all.
‘Good. And who told Maez?’ Lennik kept up his questions.
‘Well I don’t know. Probably whoever was Mother before her.’
‘Maybe, or maybe it was someone else in the tribe. Could have been anyone; everyone knows about the Swords, right?’ Rot asked, picking up on Lennik’s reasoning.
‘Well sure, I guess.’ Jhaime replied, confused as ever.
‘So how does anyone know about the Swords?’ Lennik asked, staring directly into Jhaime’s eyes with a queer seriousness the children rarely saw.
‘Uhh’ Jhaime stumbled on his words ‘I dunno. Get to the point, Len.’
‘We know about the Swords. Everyone knows about the Swords. Everyone has known about the Swords forever. It only stands that someone must have seen and met them, and come out alive! Probably a whole bunch of people, given how much everyone seems to know. Who says that Rot’s archer couldn’t have met their leader?’
Rot’Hilde and Daff looked at the duo in the tree, as silence reigned for a brief moment.
‘Huh, I guess you’re right. Doesn’t that mean people have gone beyond the valley before?’ Jhaime asked.
‘And in to the field of Swords…’ Rot murmured, her eyes focusing on some far away land she knew she’d never see.
‘Better than that!’ Daff suddenly cried, which surprised everyone out of their collective dreaming ‘Doesn’t that mean someone has gotten past them? I mean, we know about Troll Bridge as well!’
‘Hey, that makes sense. Good catch, Daff.’ Lennik considered.
‘He’s right, he’s right!’ Rot cried ‘Someone must have gone past them! Maybe that means people could have gone past the troll too! There could be whole tribes of people out there!’
Jhaime’s face soured ‘Don’t be stupid, Rot. There’s nothing out there. Just the Village, the Swords, and Troll Bridge.’
‘Just one thing past all that.’ Lennik muttered in partial agreement; ‘God.’
‘I wish Maez could tell us about the heroes.’ Said a small bald boy, whose name Lennik couldn’t quite remember.
‘Me too!’ Echoed many of the other children who sat around him.
‘Me too, kids, me too. She was my mother remember, as well as the Mother. We all miss her.’ Lennik responded, his permanent smile cracking only briefly.
‘I never met her.’ Said an especially small girl Lennik was almost certain was called Daisen.
‘You should ask Rot.’ Lennik murmered, thoughts in another place.
A set of confused faces gazed at the young man who was caring for the children.
‘Oh, sorry,’ His focus returned to the present, ‘Rot’Hilde. She spent more time with Mother than anyone, she knows all the old stories. Just don’t ask her about Peg-Legged Damien, you’ll be stuck with her all day.’
‘We want you to tell us another story!’ Cried one child, with many others soon yelling their agreement.
‘Fine, what would you like to hear? It’s not like I’ve anything better to do!’ Chuckled the young lad.
Sadly, he was right. Everyone in the village had their own roles and responsibilities, but Lennik was the child of the old Mother. That role couldn’t be passed to him, and since he had broken his knee during his teens most of his days were spent entertaining the children and others who couldn’t be of use to the people.
‘Tell us about beyond the village! Tell us about the beyond!’ Shouted the girl who was probably Daisen.
‘About the Swords!’ A small child with too much hair called out.
‘Yeah, and Troll Bridge!’ Another voice requested.
‘Ok, ok. Last story kids; against popular opinion I can’t talk all day. How about a special one, about how everything came about?’
A quiet murmuring of excitement told Lennik to begin his story.
‘Alright. Well, hundreds of years ago, there was a man…’
Hundreds of years ago, there was a man. Nothing else, just a man. An old man, sat on a creaking wooden chair in the sky.
But this poor man was very bored. He had created the stars in the sky so he would have conversation, but in their prideful glittering they made for very poor debate. So he created a field to sit in, and sheep to be his companions. He made it bigger and bigger, until it dwarfed all the other stars. But this great field grew so much that it fell from the sky and crashed into the infinite sea, where it rests now.
He was happy with his creation; and he was very pleased to be away from the boasting of the stars. But from the infinite sea sailed terrible ships of shining metal, floating impossibly above the water.
As they crashed into his creation, people who looked like men rolled out in hordes, wielding fierce metal blades to cut down this intruder to their water. The man couldn’t bring himself to kill another living person, so he fled away from the terrible Swords before they could kill him.
He fled to the tallest of hills, and surrounded it with fast rushing water and sharp stones to keep them all away.
Many of the Swords tried to swim across the rushing water, but all were flushed away and dashed against the rocks. The man wept for every man his creation slew, and his tears froze and became the snow at the top of the hill.
Unable to bear the deaths of so many, he created a bridge across the water so that the Swords could cross safely, but cursed it with a terrible trap. The first man to cross the bridge would be warped by his personality so that he became a terrible guardian of the bridge. The Troll was born that day; a terrible manifestation of man’s hatred and villainy.
Back to the very first field though; in the man’s haste, he had left his beloved chair behind. The old man remembered his chair every day, and wept a rain that fell across the lands and rotted his old chair away, until it returned to the land and began to grow anew.
From this single tree in the centre of an empty field two fruit grew. They became larger and larger, until one day one of them tore and a woman fell out.
The woman explored the field while the other fruit grew larger. In the end she heard yelling from this second fruit, and tore it open, saving the man from drowning. The woman became the first Mother of the village, and the man cut wood from the massive tree to create the buildings we live in today. No matter how much he cut from the tree, twice as much wood would always grow back, and so we had everything we could ever need.
‘Wow! That’s amazing!’ Yelled a child.
‘Wait, so I’m a fruit?’ Asked a slightly more aware teenager.
‘Or a vegetable!’ Laughed a young girl in filthy white clothes.
‘Len? Everything ok?’ Everyone turned to look behind them, to see the source of the question was none other but Rot’Hilde.
Lennik started, suddenly aware again ‘Sorry Rot. Got lost in another world there.’
‘I noticed. Come on kids, you can all help Daff’Nish pick fruit for a bit. Go on, all of you!’
The children all ran away, playing and telling stories about what they had just heard.
‘What’s up Len? You’ve got that faraway look again.’ Rot’Hilde asked gently.
‘I can’t stay like this Rot. Hobbling around and being cared for night and day.’
‘You’re important to the people. Isn’t that what you always wanted? What else are you going to do?’
‘Remember Jhaime, Rot?’ He stared into his old friend’s eyes; wondering how both of them had aged so much in just one short decade.
‘Yes, I remember. Why?’ She muttered, trying hard not to let tears fall from her eyes.
‘Maybe I should do the same.’ He said, looking away towards the fields above the village.
‘You can’t! I can’t lose you too.’ Her voice trailed off.
‘I’m no good here. Jhaime was our best cutter, but you and Maez let him leave. I want to go as well. I want to talk to God. Maybe he can give me the purpose I don’t have here.’
‘I won’t stop you, Len. I couldn’t even if I wanted to, I’m not the Mother. But we value you. I do. Please, don’t go.’
‘I think I have to, Rot. I need to.’
One final embrace, and the decision was made.
‘I need to talk to God.’
Less than a week passed between his decision to leave and the day he walked past the village fence and into the valley below.
With his cane in hand and a pack on his back, he did not move quickly. Lennik’s first day was spent traversing the fields and forest he had spent so much time playing in as a child. He remembered just a few short years ago Rot had led his little band of friends around the land making up games to play and telling stories of the heroes of old. Lennik always found it so odd that there could be so many tales of heroic deeds and legendary actions, yet there were no new heroes.
He spent the night camping in the edge of the great forest. According to the tales he had heard all his life, this was the edge of the land God had set aside for them. Beyond the forest were the hills that the Swords had overrun and claimed as their own.
Lennik was still uncertain about how he would bypass the Swords. Legend had it that they circled the great hill, leaving no safe path; and yet there were tales of the infirm travelling to God to be cured, and returning unharmed. So it must be possible, but how?
‘Ow!’ Lennik yelled out, nursing the scalded hand he had lain on the campfire as his mind had drifted to other places.
He needed rest. With no chance of using subtlety or deception to bypass the Swords, he would abandon Rot’s advice and do as Maez had once said The Limping Knight had done, walk through, and be unharmed.
Only a few more steps, and he’d crest the closest hill that bordered the Valley of the Swords, and be able to assess the situation for himself, rather than relying on the many tales he had been told.
He considered his options. His clothing and sudden appearance would not go unnoticed to an entire civilisation of warriors, so he knew he’d be spotted immediately. He considered trying to bluff, but then considered the tales he was told of the Swords strange words and odd colour. No, he’d stick to his original plan, and attempt to walk through unquestioned. Lennik knew he was likely only minutes from his own demise.
He passed the hill, and gazed down upon the great settlement.
Or at least, the lack of one.
Lennik jogged down the steep cliff, careful not to lose his balance and roll right into the heart of the valley. He couldn’t believe his eyes: before him was not a great empire, but an abandoned ruin. He came close to a few sticks, still upright in the hard ground, and touched the scrap of fabric that still clung to it. Hundreds of these were dotted along the valley, stretching right to the great expanse of blue water at the end of the world.
These remnants of small houses were not the only proof of a once-population, though. Giant blackened mounds of wood and brick suggested firepits and great pyres; and scattered across the field haphazardly were rusted blades and the cracked remnants of armour discarded upon the ground.
Lennik walked through, more confused than ever. He though at first that the Swords had all died out, or killed eachother, but then there should be skeletons, or burial mounds. Then another question struck him:
But from the infinite sea sailed terrible ships of shining metal
Where were the ships from the legend? He could see the sea before him, and yet there were not even the carcasses of ships remaining in the sand.
‘Perhaps the swords have killed eachother, and their very bones rotted to ash and their ships returned to the sea. Or perhaps they have grown bored of the land God made, and sailed away and melted back into the sea.’ He pondered as he walked.
He passed the abandoned settlement that had once belonged to the Swords in a single day, and rested in the shadow of the valley overnight. He had considered returning to the village to tell his people that their land was free, and he told himself her would, but first he had to speak to God.
Lennik walked for a full day before cresting the opposing side of the valley once belonging to the Swords, his reliance on his stick increasing with every hour as he overexerted his wounded leg.
Just as twilight stole the detail from the distance, he looked down from his viewpoint and gazed upon a long wood and rope bridge, with a small hut nearby. From his vantage point he could also see, just in the distance, the form of a building upon the hill across the bridge; the last hill before the ocean. God’s house, surely.
He made camp and spent the evening gazing upon the dark outline in the distance, until the light faded completely and his body and mind demanded he rest.
The next morning, he made a faster pace down the hill. He winced with every misplaced step and overextended stride, but he could no longer hold back the childlike excitement that had burnt in him all his life.
He knew in that moment he had always meant to come this way. Life had not been what he had planned; the friends he had known and loved so dearly had all grown up and taken their places in the village, losing the free time to sit and talk with their old wounded friend. Then Jhaime had left, to go in search of God.
‘Jhaime…’ Lennik breathlessly muttered. He wondered what had happened to his old friend. Had he walked off course, or been taken away in the great metal ships of the Swords? Had he met God, or did he come to Troll Bridge, and fail to pass the beastly once-man who was the final hurdle of the pilgrimage?
And then there was Rot. The girl who had always been like a sister to him, and would likely one day take the role his mother had once fulfilled so well. Many had expected the young friends to love and have children; a romance just like those in the old legends both of them loved so dearly. But much as they loved each other, Lennik cared for Rot as a sister, a dear girl who would once be the most important person to the village under God. Their failure to meet the elders’ expectations of love and companionship had always burnt; but their friendship remained strong throughout.
And now Lennik was alone, mere steps from the great hut that stood by the bridge. It had looked smaller when looked down upon from the hill, but as Lennik approached he realised it towered over him, a primitive construction built of unworked branches and stone.
‘The bridge may be clear, but you must always knock for the Troll. The bridge is long and it’s guardian holds a stoic vigil. He will not bear impoliteness well. Once you have knocked, he will likely just kill you anyway. But you will die with your manners intact.’
So said Lucien the Pale, another of Rot’s old legends. Famous for his ashen white skin and propensity for appearing where he should not.
Knock. Knock. Kno-
Lennik went to club his hand against the rough wooden door, but it swung open at the last second and his hand drifted harmlessly through the air and returned to his side.
‘Yes? Can I help you, traveller?’
Before him stood no Troll. An aged man in a brown cloth robe stood at the door, clutching a cloth book in one arm, and the crooked handle of the door in the other.
‘I…’ Lennik paused, uncertain ‘I seek the Troll. I need his permission to cross this bridge.’
‘Troll?! No dear boy, my name is Enrik. But I do keep watch of this passage.’ The old man chuckled at a joke Lennik did not hear.
‘I don’t understand. A Troll should guard this bridge, not a man.’
‘Well I think I do a rather good job, myself. Though I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be guarding from.’ The old man replied.
‘The Swords? Those who might harm God?’
‘Who are the Swords, dear boy?’
Lennik could not withhold his shock at this question; he felt as though he had just been asked why the Earth is flat or the sky is blue.
‘The Swords! The savage men in their metal ships! The men who tried to kill God!’ He cried.
‘Dear boy, they’ve been gone for longer than I could possibly say! My people once told legends of them, a far distant race across the sea, who died out long before you or I were even born! My, my. Which village are you from, boy?’
‘Which village? The village!’ Lennik almost yelled, confused and appalled by the torrent of information this old man shared.
‘Dear me. Yes, I think you’re right, you’d best speak to Him. Go ahead, it’s just along the path and up the hill.’
‘What? I can meet God? There is no test, no trial?’
‘Why should there be? Like I said, I am no guard, merely an old man who serves.’
‘Then will you come with me? The bridge is long, and you seem to know an awful lot for a man who simply serves.’
‘My boy, I am no pilgrim! The bridge is not mine to walk, though I fear your journey may be in vain yet.’
‘I used to deliver His food, and fulfil His requests. But He has not called on me in almost four years. I should very much like to hear from him, if you do meet him.’
‘Of course. I shall come and get you once I have spoken with Him.’ Lennik agreed.
‘He has a bell, my dear boy. Just ring it twice, and I shall cross. Good luck.’
With that, the old man slowly closed his door, and Lennik was left alone with the long walk across the bridge, and up the hill.
Lennik walked for the shortest and longest hour of his life, and reached the front door.
The house was modest, but fine. A stone wall with a wooden fence surrounded an overgrown garden, dominated by a giant metal bell, which seemed to almost hum in anticipation of it’s ringing.
Lennik knocked, and waited.
Lennik knocked, and then waited some more.
After some time, he gave up on his fruitless pounding on the sturdy door and tried the handle; a single click and the door eased open without a sound.
Before him stood a terrible scene that Lennik couldn’t, or wouldn’t, comprehend.
A man was in the centre of the hallway, suspended rather than standing. A rope noose was fitted around the man’s neck, and his skin was shrunken and ashen. The man had been dead for a long time.
Lennik bolted into action, charging to the body the remove the weight on it’s neck, before easing it slowly to the ground. It was, of course, limp and lifeless in his arms, fragile skin fracturing dryly.
‘God! Someone has killed God! How?’ He yelled in dismay.
Lennik went limp, and began to sob with the body in his arms, realising only now that the reality of the world was a far flight from the stories he had been so eager to share and tell. This sorry scene stood still for several minutes, before Lennik noticed a yellowed piece of paper on the floor by his feet.
I am sorry you have found me in this unworthy state, dear traveller. There was once a time where I would have greeted you warmly, fed you willingly and aided you unquestiongly. But that time is passed. The villages and cities my forebears created have lost touch and have one by one stopped visiting me. It is weeks since I last saw a face, barring dear Enrik.
And so I have failed. My seat as God was one of guardian and guide, and I have allowed my people to fall from grace and be led astray by fear and superstition.
But you, faithful traveller, have changed it all. Once I would have expected to teach or guide you, but on this occasion you must do without. With Enrik’s guidance, I am sure you will be as great as the Gods who have come before us both.
Ring the bell once, and you shall understand completely. For even in my folly have the faithful remained true.
Forgive me, traveller, for I am less than man.
Lennik understood. He had come to follow God’s guidance, and so he would.
He went outside, and rang the bell.
‘Yes sir, can I help you?’
‘Enrik! God is dead!’
‘No, you seem quite alive if I do say so myself.’
‘Don’t! Look!’ He yelled, his cheeks still wet from old tears.
‘The poor man lying on the floor is not the first I have served, sir. They come, they rule and they fall, either to time or to themselves. Sir, just as it has always been, now it is your time to be God.’
Lennik gazed, dumbfounded, at this strange old man.
‘No.’ he finally said.
‘Sir?’ Enrik asked, his tired eyes opening in surprise.
‘No sir. None of that. Sir is lying on the ground. God is dead. Let him sleep.’
Enrik stared, uncertain ‘Very well. What, then?’
‘Call me Lennik, that’s my name. You say you’ve served Gods, but I’m no god. Will you serve a man, Enrik?’ Lennik paced away from the old man, deeper into the large hall of God’s house.
‘I’m not sure of the difference. I will continue my work, lad.’
Lennik paused, proud of his short speech, and turned back to the old man.
‘What am I supposed to do?’