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A Burdened Life

Here's a short story I wrote a few years ago, let me know what you think. :)

A Burdened Life

The darkness blinded him as he came in from the bright glare of the noon sun. He smelled the mustiness of the cave and heard the distant echo of running water as his eyes slowly adjusted. A stream, a well, or was it simply the trickle of water condensing on the stalagmites amplified through all the tunnels and recesses of this mountain shrine? Hah, a shrine. What god would wish his followers to dedicate such a remote, inaccessible, and distinctly dank pit like this for a shrine? What god, and what nd him was now the Owl to Rheanan for his wise eyes. Not knowing their real names, he thought Mole and Owl better suited them than Acolyte One and Acolyte Two.

Mole had been proceeding with a calm, almost meditative pace. They twisted downward in and out of passageways in a maze that seemed to go on forever. It took hours, or maybe it took minutes. Time had no meaning down here. No sunlight and no sounds but the echo of three men’s footsteps. And then, so faint that he could hardly make it out, was the resonant sound of many voices raised in a chant of solemn praise that bounced off the rough, stone walls.

So that was how the acolytes were able to find their way through the caves with no light! They just followed the sound of the chanting. Wait, that couldn’t be right. The echo of the chanting was coming from all around him. He could have spent forever down here following that chorus and never locating anything but a cold, frustrated death. The cave walls seemed to close in on him then. He could almost feel the oppressive weight of the mountain above him crush his spirits as he thought of that lonely ending. Rheanan shivered, fiercely hoping that Owl had not seen his brief moment of weakness.

But then how did they negotiate the caves? Rheanan started paying closer attention to his surroundings, trying to ferret out the clue that would solve this mystery. Soon enough, the trio came upon another cave opening off to the right of their path. As Mole passed by the entrance, he raised his right hand to lightly graze the left side of the opening. Mole touched the wall so casually and so briefly that it was no wonder Rheanan had not noticed it until now. Mimicking the gesture, Rheanan’s fingertips brushed against the wall. There, that was it! There were markings on the wall! Invisible to sight, the markings on the wall could only be found by touch. It was ingenious, really, and explained a great deal of what he had seen up to this point! Why Mole and Owl didn’t need lanterns, their calm, unerring path, and even the lack of a guard at the temple’s, albeit hidden, entrance.

Just then, Mole veered sharply to the right, seeming to disappear into the rock itself. Rheanan was slow to follow and in doing so seemed to lose him in the sharp twists and turns of this new passageway. A sharp pang of fear caught at the back of his throat and sped up his heartbeat.

Damn! Blindness again! But this time it was the intense pain of leaving the darkness for the light. Paralyzed and all too aware of his current vulnerability, Rheanan impatiently waited for his eyes to adjust while he furiously blinked. He forced his jaw and fists to unclench while the features of the room slowly came into focus. The source was apparent: a huge bonfire rising out of a large golden bowl reached desperately for the high ceilings of the antechamber. And there, kneeling before the massive marble slab supporting both the fire and the golden bowl, was a crouched figure in fine but simple brown robes. Mole and Owl had already moved to stand on either side of the inferno after a quick genuflection of their own.

Realizing he had finally been brought to the person who would give him answers Rheanan barely managed to keep his impulses in check. Respectfully, but impatiently, he waited. And waited. He waited despite the needles piercing his foot from standing too long; the increasingly uncomfortable warmth from the fire. Just as he was about to curse and sit down to massage his feet, the priest rose to his knees, bowed once more to the altar and then finally stood, his back still to Rheanan. Soundlessly, the two acolytes came forward, Mole bending down to dust off the priests robes and Owl handing him a glass of water. Water? Where had he gotten the water when none of them had been carrying water sacks?

Oh- his view was partially obscured by the fire but there was a small stream running down the back wall to create a little fountain at the base. It would seem that a little stream of water had broken through the rock wall halfway up only to drain away through a crack in the stone floor. The mere sight of the water reminded Rheanan of his own thirst. As if sensing his need, Owl walked over and handed him the now refilled cup. Gratefully, he gulped down the water while he wondered how a place so damp could make his throat feel so dry.

No sooner had he lowered the cup from his lips than he found himself staring into the deep eyes and kindly face of the Head Priest. There was no doubt in his mind that it was who this man was.

Questions came flooding into his mind, but before he could give them voice, the old man spoke.
“Your journey has just begun. What you are and who you are will be left behind the second you leave these caves. I see all the questions about to spring forth from your lips but there is no time. All you need to know to continue your journey I will reveal to you now. All that you want to know will be revealed over time. Now, don’t give me that cynical look. Pretension and mysticism aside, you must not be delayed any further. We had a hard time finding you and our need grows by the day. The Queen is dying and the land suffers with her. Surely you have noticed the changes? Even though you are only a wanderer through our land you must feel the rot and decay as you have traveled. You haven’t felt well since you crossed the border.”

“I think I’ll take your shocked look for a yes,” the Priest continued. “What you do here today will change all that, if you accept the burden willingly and without regret for the life you leave behind.”

“Burden? But surely I can’t…” Rheanan started to say.

“Wait, don’t speak yet.” The old man sighed as he rubbed his eyes and temples. Exhaustion was etched into every wrinkle on his face. The years weighed heavily on him. Was it years, or just an immense sense of responsibility?

The Priest continued, “You are not yet aware of what we are asking of you. Gods, can we sit down? My back is not as flexible as it used to be.”

To his surprise the High Priest achingly lowered himself to the floor while Mole slid a cushion underneath him. Owl handed Rheanan one too. Rheanan swiftly sat down, cautious but eager to hear what the priest had to say. Meanwhile, his cynical side urged him to demand he be led from this place, this horrible cave, into the light so he could continue about his life. What need he of another burden? He had enough of them already. Trying to stay alive was more than enough of a burden. Why would he take on another one to simply help these fanatics who all but kidnapped him to get him here? Zealots! The less time he spent around them the better. Who has time to worry about the afterlife when survival took all your energy?

Rheanan’s logic had just about talked himself into leaving when the venerable Priest spoke again.
“Give me just a little more of your time, good sir, for though I know you are impatient to go, so am I impatient to see you go. Though I hope to see you leave with our hopes cradled in you hands and not our sorrow in your ears. Let me explain.”

The Priest settled himself more comfortably and started speaking as if telling a story he had committed to memory long ago. “Our country, as you should know from your own travels, is neither a powerful nor a poor one. Our natural boundaries, like this mountain range, provide us protection from dangers without. However, for a long time we had no protection from the dangers within. Corruption, greed, and apathy by the ruling class caused much suffering to the land and its people. We, being the followers of Vikan, tried to create a government in which corruption and abuse would not exist. Vikan is our country’s patron deity, he of the eternal flame, so we were given this great burden.”

The priest looked behind him for a moment, as if he was gaining strength from the flames and then continued,“I see that cynical eyebrow raised in scorn for our idealism. We soon learned the folly of our quest. No matter the ruler, the government, the laws, the social reforms- none of these would be free of corruption. It wasn’t possible. Now, now, that snide smirk of yours does not become you. What are you, eighteen, nineteen? Surely you are too young to be so mocking. We realized the error of our quest and set about to find another way. The answer came to us in the guise of a simple traveler. He had been eking out a meager existence for many years ever since he was abandoned as a child. Survival was all that mattered to him; it was all that he could worry about. A harsh, cynical boy he was, only fourteen years old, with aged eyes that had seen too much hardship in the world. But that day, those priest’s saw in him our country’s salvation. What if our leaders could feel that desperate need for survival, not just for themselves but also for a whole country and its people? Corruption, greed and apathy would still exist in the government, but it could be checked by a ruler guided by such a basic instinct as survival.”

Owl handed the High Priest a glass of water. Rheanan, too stunned to say anything, waited quietly for him to finish. Thoughts and emotions chased each other through his brain so fast he couldn’t even make sense of them.

“I see the astonishment in your eyes. I know that the boy’s story is similar to your own. I also know you feel that need, that fear, that will to survive. It is the only thing you really have in your life, since it is the only thing you have been able to have. That is why what I am asking of you is as hard for me to do as it was for those priests in the past. In order to save our land, those priests had to ask that boy the unthinkable. They needed to link his life to the country. They needed to link its very essence, its people, everything to his soul. They asked him to no longer survive just for himself, but for us all.”

“The spell works like a geas." The Preist explained. "The need to look out for the welfare of the whole country dominates the ruler’s actions and decisions. Not anyone can be expected to take on this kind of burden. The process for finding a worthy candidate is a long one. Maybe someday I will be able to bore you with the tale.”

“Let me say this plainly. We need you. If you agree to this burden you will rule over our nation. You will feel our nation’s pain as keenly as our nation will feel yours. It will be mutual survival, almost mutual enslavement. This is not an easy thing to ask; you must think on it but hopefully not for too long. If you agree to accept this burden simply walk to the fire and put both of your forearms into the flames. If you accept this with all your conviction, the fire will mark you with Vikan’s approval. Now, I will stop my chatter and let you decide.” With that final word the High Priest then folded his arms in his lap and closed his eyes in meditation.

For a long time Rheanan just sat there staring at the old man; shock, disbelief and anger fighting to take control. Several times his mouth opened, but the questions died on his lips. His thoughts ranged from doubt to fear, from anger to hope. It was too much. With a ragged sigh he tossed his head back, stared at the high ceiling and pressed his hands to the floor to support himself. The cold floor reminded him of loneliness, of the fear he felt while traveling through the caves. The fear, his fear of death, of dying cold and alone after struggling so hard just to stay alive.

He suddenly saw the futility of it all. Why should he try so hard? He was going to die. No amount of will power would change that. Why should he care anymore? Dying cold and alone was the best he could ever hope for. His head fell forward into his waiting hands, but the tears would not come. He had not been able to cry for years; why did he think he would start now, when he finally came to accept his own mortality?

What was that? There it is again. Is he …… yes! The head priest was snoring! Rheanan looked up to see the old priest’s head lolling on his chest as his snoring grew louder. Mole, with embarrassment all over his face, came forward to gently shake the High Priest awake.

With a jerk, the High Priest woke up, muttering to himself. “Sorry about that, young man. You see, I was praying for quite a while before you got here, and I had meetings before that, not to mention the morning service. But never mind all that. Needless to say, I’m not as young as I once was. Please excuse my disturbance.”

Rheanan was torn between laughter and disbelief. Laughter won. His gut let out great big laughs that filled the chamber and echoed out into the caves beyond. However, the laughter soon turned to tears, and the tears soon turned into sobs. Fat drops fell from his eyes and rolled down his checks, moistening the ground.

In a sudden rush, Rheanan got up and ran to the fire, pushing his shirtsleeves up as he went. Alarmed, Mole and Owl tried to stop him, but were too slow. Thrusting his forearms into the fire, he prayed with all his heart that he would be accepted. Even though he felt the heat from the flames throughout his body, the fire did not burn or consume him. Moments that felt like hours passed before he pulled his arms out of the fire and collapsed onto the stone floor.

The acolytes gingerly helped him to his feet and turned him to face the High Priest. “What made you do it? What caused you to take on this burden?”

There, blazing on his forearms, were two tattoos shaped like the rising flame. Rheanan smiled. “I cared. For some reason, I found that I cared not only what happens to me, but also what will happen to you and your whole country if I just walked away. My biggest fear has always been that I would die alone, unremembered and with nothing to justify my continued struggle to live.”

Relief shined in the eyes of the High Priest as he clasped Rheanan into a quick hug. “Go swiftly, for the Queen will die soon. You need to cement your bond with the land on your way to the capital. I am pleased that you will leave her with our hopes in your heart. Be strong and true to your will. Would you like the acoltyes to accompany you out of the tunnels?”

“No, I think I can find my own way now. I can feel the earth reaching out to me.” Rheanan replied, his eyes becoming distant as he listened to voices only he could hear.

Without hesitation or a backward glance, King Rheanan, ruler of all of Heritzan, made his way back through the caves. He never once needed to wait for his eyes to adjust to the light, or to run his hands along the wall to find his way out.

http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/

Formatting..

Have you considered reformatting the piece? When I first looked at it I hesitated on reading it because it looked kind of intimidating. Perhaps adding some spaces, and clearly delineating where characters are speaking from descriptive parts,if possible. I know when I read a story, having it visually pleasing goes a long way in terms of the ease of reading...Good start tho..

good point

I'll take care of that. :)

S'good, I suppose.

Not much of a fantasy reader, so take it with a shaker of salt.

How did the Acolytes contact Rheanan? What is there about him
that makes the priest think "Yep, that's our guy."? What's the
deal with the Queen. Why does the priest start calling the Acolytes
by Owl & Mole?

Seems a fair set up, but I think I wanted to know more about Rheanan
before we jumped into this. It'd be nice to get a feel for this world
that he's going to be fighting for.

Nice Kung-Fu reference @ the end, though. Now you've got David
Carradine stuck in my head.

every wall collapses, given enough time.

you got questions, i got answers :)

Thanks for your comment. In regards to your questions, because this was a short story I wanted to avoid going into to much background on aspects of the world that would detract away from the main point of the story. I was trying to hint with the part about the first king that they were looking for someone who was desperately concerned about staying alive and was the type of person who would and could take on the type of burden they needed them to.

The part with the Queen is that because the Queen was dying and she was linked to the land, the land was dying as well. That was why they were so desperate to get a new ruler.

In the beginning I also mentioned why he called them Owl and Mole. He didn't know their names so he gave them those names based on their looks and behavior respectively.

I'm glad that the story made you want to know more about the world, I take that as a good sign. If I did decide to turn this into a longer story I would certainly go into much more detail about the world and everything else.

Is there anything else you were curious about or any ideas for improvement?

Yep.

I'm a sucker for set-up & characterization. I guess I'm looking for more of a feel of your
protagonist- who is he BEFORE he walks into that dark place? What brought him there?

In any case, I saw that he refers to the acolytes as Owl & Mole, but I don't believe he mentions
this fact to the priest. Could be that the priest is psychic, but that's not made totally clear.

It seems like you have a fun playground in your head. Let go & see where it takes you.

every wall collapses, given enough time.

good catch

I didn't realize that the priest also refers to them as owl and mole at the end until after I posted. I need to correct that because he should not know. Thanks!