When he thought of his mother, it was to remember the soft scent of her skin, the warmth of her hands, and the lulling swish of her skirts.
"Erik, love," she would say, putting aside her work--her sewing or her cooking or her carving--to come and kneel at his side. Back then, she seemed impossibly ancient, full of wisdom and all the things Erik would never know, born to the wrong gender.
She would take his hands and stop him from doing whatever it was he was doing; and those days it was taking apart everything he could get his hands on, Erik fascinated by the inner workings of things.
"Erik, love," she would say, "let's try making one instead of taking one apart," and then she would guide his fingers--so much smaller than her own--in threading braided grass around polished stones and carved bone. Together, propped on cushions and rugs, she would teach him to weave ceremonial headpieces, or to carve intricate wooden puzzles like the ones she sold at market.
And she would speak of the void.
"When you're older," she would say, "when you come of age, you will see the void for yourself. It is a sacred place; a place where our world ends and another begins. It is the barrier between this life and the next and you must never cross it. We do not breach the void. Say it, Erik."
She would set a gentle hand on his head then, fingers ruffling through his hair, Erik too young to know the fear in her eyes.
"We do not breach the void," he would parrot, and she would smile and return to her teachings.
She would teach until he grew impatient, and then she would send him away, out into the pale yellow sun to dart between the yurts and clay-baked houses, scrapes of green and gold fabric fluttering in the wind. He would venture out onto the steppe, grass tickling the soles of his bare feet and the scent of horse thick in his nose, a soothing, comforting scent. He would stay out until the sun dipped down to kiss the horizon, Erik watching the falcons swoop and dive across the grasslands, their sharp cries carrying as they chased their quarry. He would linger until he knew she would begin to worry.
He never wanted to worry his mother.
She was always waiting, seated near the entrance of their yurt upon a pallet of rugs, feet tucked beneath her skirts, lost to a sea of red and purple silk. In her hands she inevitably held her carving knife, steel kept sharp, its bone handle worn by the press of her palm. Some days she carved basalt, black shavings gathered in her lap, and some days she carved birch, the scent of wood catching his nose, cementing as nostalgia. She would smile as he slipped inside the yurt, like they were the only two in the universe, a moment of stillness before the chaos of the evening meal.
He kept those memories close, even now, a bright spot in an otherwise dark existence. When he closed his eyes, he could still hear her singing; Erik tucked away in his pallet, blankets drawn tight, his mother's voice carrying from the alcove where his sister slept, nearer their parents. She would sing of the steppe and of the horses; she would sing of great caravans of silk, and of warriors brave and true. And she would sing of the void.
Through the shimmering walls they came
Carrying gifts to name them true
An Envoy sent from across the divide
Beyond the void,
The City of the Dead.
Erik would listen to the soft cadence of her voice, letting it lull him to the edge of slumber, clinging to consciousness until she drew aside his curtain; came to kneel at his side.
"My darling, Erik," she would say, fingers carding through his hair. Even years later, in the months before her death, he would beg a story; plead until she caved with a soft sigh, fingers stilling as she drew a breath.
"Long ago, before the void, when the steppe was all around and an endless expanse of towering mountains led all the way to the sea, an old man walked amongst the tall grass."
Erik knew the story. It was one of his favourites.
"He came upon a horse, white as the mountain peaks, but this was no ordinary horse. It held the spirit of creation, the spark from which all life came. The old man did not see this and tried to tame it, for his feet were weary and he wanted rest. But one does not tame the spark of life, and so the horse cast him aside with a toss of its mane."
It was so easy to picture, his mother's voice carrying, breathing life into the old man, withered and decrepit, and into the horse, fierce and strong. He sat, as he always did, enraptured.
"The old man was a fool who saw then only a prize, not the horse's true worth. He drew his knife, blade rusted and old, and ran at the horse, intending then to slit its throat and take its meat. And the horse did despair, because the race of man was newly made and he had found them wanting. So he struck the man down, taking back then all that had been given. He took the man's language, and the man's music, and the man's art, and the man's knowledge; and he cast him into half the world, where the steppe was sparse and sandy and the mountains insurmountable, and he called forth the void.
"And all the man's people, every drop of blood that was his blood, appeared at his side. 'Beyond the void,' the horse said, speaking now with its true voice, which echoed like thunder, 'are your fertile lands. Beyond the void is your music and your language and your knowledge. Beyond the void is paradise beyond your imagining, and you are barred from it. To breach the void is forbidden. When you are worthy, we will send an Envoy.'
"And the horse disappeared, taking with it all that had defined them; all that they had lost to the old man's arrogance."
His mother would stop then, fingers again moving against his scalp, Erik wanting then to hear of the Envoy, another of his favourites, but his mother would always tut and tell him it was late; that he ought to sleep.
And Erik would sleep.
He missed those stories now, so long lost Erik could barely remember most of them. He remembered best the story of the horse, banishing Erik's people for the old man's transgression, and the story of the Envoy, stepping through the void to return their music and their art and their language. Mostly he remembered the sound of his mother's voice, low and soothing, and the feel of her fingers carding through his hair.
Their yurt never held the same life after his mother died. It grew quiet and still; sombre. Where once there was laughter and music, now there was only endless shadow. His sister grew thin and wan, his father ragged and worn. Erik closeted himself away from the press of family and friends, well-meaning but unwanted.
He kept his mother's knife in a chest beside his pallet, the blade dull with disuse, the bone handle having lost its shine. It was his prized possession, though try as he might, he could not match her skill at carving. He worked instead with the set of charcoals she'd bought for him the year before she died, traded for half a dozen wood-carved puzzles; far too expensive a gift for Erik to allow them to go to waste.
He drew her face, careful attention paid to the creases of her eyes, the lines around her mouth. He drew her hair, strand by strand; practiced again and again until he'd perfected the way it framed her face. He drew her skirts, wide and flowing, lamenting only that he could not capture their colour, his mother having earned the red of her silk.
He was not yet out of his mourning clothes when his father found the sketches. He did not comment; merely sat and stared, eyes clouding over, pain written across his features. He had loved her so.
He must have found something in them, some indication that Erik had grown, for the next day he brought Erik to the Elders' yurt, sketches clutched to his chest and his father standing at his shoulder. Wary and uncertain, and at his father's bidding, he handed the papers over, the Eldest accepting them in age-worn hands, curled nails coloured by time.
"Sit, child," she said, and Erik sat.
He knew these women, his mother having ranked amongst their apprentices. They were wise and ancient and held untold secrets, their will the will of the settlement. They passed his sketches between them, silent scrutiny filling their circle. Erik toyed with the tassel of his cushion, the felt soft between his fingers.
He knew why he was here. He was here to await their judgement, his mother buried, the Elders making the decision in her place. He did not know how they would know, but if they thought him ready, they would send him to look upon the void. And like his father before him, and his father's father before him, he would stare into the veil between worlds, cast aside his youth, and return a man.
Within their circle, his sketches made it back into the hands of the Eldest. She did not look them, instead addressing Erik's father.
"He is ready. You may take him to the void," she said, and nothing more.
He had known the moment was coming--had anticipated it since his thirteenth naming-day--but in his mind's eye he always returned to his mother's embrace, her pride as vibrant as her skirts; her smile as warm as the sun. He would go now as intended, at his father's side to cross the bridge between childhood and maturity, but with no one to celebrate his return; no one to chase aside his lingering fear.
Erik tucked his sketches beneath his arm and stood, letting his father lead him from the yurt.
"They no longer see you as a child," his father said when they were outside, pride in his voice, The still of approaching evening was falling over the settlement. In the west, the sun painted the horizon in shades of lavender, another day without rain.
"Your mother would be proud."
Erik tried to feel pride--tried to feel brave--but in that moment he felt more a child than he ever had, his mother's absence sorely felt.
His sister, when he told her, cried, tears made bitter by their mother's passing. "She should have been the one to decide," she said, and then hugged Erik fiercely, too young to accompany him; too young even to have the braids out of her hair.
"I'll draw you a picture of it when I get back," Erik said, tugging at her plaits. She would go in her own time, when the Elders deemed her ready, led by the Eldest in place of their mother. To look upon the void was not for inexperienced eyes. For the first time since leaving the Eldest's yurt, Erik felt the enormity of what was to come. He drew himself up to his full height, feeling the weight of responsibility; the heavy burden of age.
It was Ruth who helped him choose his sacrifice, and it was she stood at his side on the day of his leave-taking, taking his mother's customary place, Erik was grateful for her presence.
There was fanfare--there was always fanfare--but in place of the joy and fulfillment he'd expected, there was only the sharp reminder of loss, his earlier pride having fizzled. They mounted their horses, Erik's skittering beneath him, as though catching his apprehension. He swallowed aside his nerves; laid a calming hand on the animal's neck and forced his gaze ahead, staring past the streamers and banners. Beyond the settlement, the steppe stretched out across the horizon, swallowed then by ragged mountains. Erik no longer saw the fluttering of brightly coloured silk; no longer heard the raucous din of the crowd. He ignored the cluster of boys his own age--friends, if Erik could call them such. They elbowed each other and jeered, not yet having been granted permission for their own trips. He ignored it all and started towards the void.
Their horses picked their way through the settlement, the crowd trailing behind. Erik kept his gaze locked on the point where blue sky was swallowed by horizon, until the last of the clay houses vanished.
His father pressed them into a trot.
The thundering of hooves across the steppe drowned out the frantic beating of his heart. Erik's hands were clenched on the reins, making his horse jerky and tense. He was a skilled rider--had been since he was a child--and yet his heart wasn't in this, still shattered against his mother's burial stone.
We do not breach the void, her voice echoed in his ear, Erik remembering then her teachings; remembered, too, the songs she used to sing.
He fought to keep his horse at a steady pace.
The void, when it loomed on the horizon, stole his breath. With every song and every story he had tried to imagine what it must look like. He had seen its likeness on carvings and on paper and painted into the fabric of silk, but the images did nothing to prepare him for his first glimpse.
The steppe slopped east, turning away from the mountains, the horizon ahead no longer painted in dusty blues or vibrant greens. Instead Erik stared into a seemingly endless curtain of white, his eyes not yet making sense of what he was seeing. The void stretched in every direction, a barrier of fog that raised the hair on the back of Erik's neck.
The horses grew nervous; Erik's grip on the reins needed now, his horse twice bolting out from under him. He drew rein alongside his father, trying desperately to soothe the heaving of his mare's breast. She whinnied at him, eyes rolling, nostrils flaring in her fear.
"We must leave them here," his father said, Erik following his gaze to where a single ring had been driven into the ground, the iron coloured through with rust.
Erik dismounted and handed his father the reins.
He could see the void clearly now, but it was still like nothing he had imagined. It was as though someone had whited out half the world, his vision simply swallowed by a wall of mist, nothing else to indicate this was a place of legend; a place of lore. His father came to stand at his side.
They stood a moment and stared at the line of white, the occasional object laying in the grass, sacrifices brought by countless youths as they stood on the threshold between childhood and maturity, final ties to a life they were leaving behind. In Erik's pocket, his mother's carving knife was a heavy weight.
"Come on," his father said, stepping forward then. Erik followed a pace behind. His father drew him close enough that, had he wanted to, Erik could have stretched out his hand and touched.
He kept his arms pressed firmly to his sides and did not breach the void.
"And beyond, paradise, where the dead do rest," his father said, quoting the songs, but Erik thought only of his mother; imagined her standing on the other side, watching, a soft smile playing across her lips.
He drew his mother's knife, blade carefully shielded inside a grass braid wrapping, and turned it over in his hand. He had no idea why he'd chosen it for his sacrifice, save perhaps that it was the one thing he was loathe to part with; the one thing fitting of this ceremony. When he glanced to his father, he was wiping aside a faint trace of mist from his eyes, her passing still heavy in his heart.
"Do you think she's on the other side?" Erik asked.
"I do," his father said, staring straight ahead.
"Do you think this will reach her?"
There were no rules for this, though something flashed in his father's eyes; uncertainty and hope warring for dominance. In the end, he nodded.
"I think she would like that," he said.
Erik turned back to the void.
He did not hesitate in tossing the knife through, though it pained him to be parted from it. The knife cut into the fog, disappearing from sight, Erik waiting a long minute in hopes of hearing it land. There was nothing.
At least she will have her carving, Erik thought, and then turned away, unable to bear the wide expanse of white.
They did not linger. There was no ceremony to accompany this moment. His father remained wordless, stoic and reverent, while Erik wished for something more; some indication that something inside him had changed. It did not come.
His father led them swiftly back to their horses. Even with his back turned towards it, Erik could feel the void's pull. He thought too--though he knew it was fancy--that he could feel his mother's knife, shrouded though it was. He could almost close his eyes and point to it, the hint of steel a bright point in the back of his mind.
There was no one to greet them when they returned, a boy's leaving more important than a man's homecoming, though Erik still felt like the boy he was this morning. He had seen the void, and it had filled him with awe, had sacrificed his most treasured possession, and yet what was a wall of white in the face of his mother's passing? Try as he might, he could not push aside his grief.
A boy, no older than Erik was the first time his mother told him of the void, took their horses when they dismounted, Erik left standing outside the thick tapestry that was his door. He ducked inside and found his sister waiting, brow furrowed with worry.
"I left her her knife," Erik said, and saw then his sister's pain, though she acknowledge his sacrifice with a gentle nod of her head.
He wanted so badly to ease her sorrow, so he went to his pallet, where his charcoals and paper were kept, and spent hours sketching a veil of white, though he could not capture its scope, or its strange, ethereal beauty. It would be years before she made her own voyage.
The void crept into his dreams, Erik walking nightly into the mist, the veil between worlds damp against his cheek. He dreamed of coming through the other side, into the City of the Dead, where towering columns and intricately carved monuments rose towards a burning yellow sun. He dreamed of a steppe, stretched out beyond the city's walls, more lush and green than any he had seen. He dreamed of his mother, knife in her hand, its blade singing as it carved delicate patterns into white wood.
When he woke, his face was flushed with fever, his skin sticky and damp.
The echo of voices rang through his alcove, though try as he might he could not discern actual words. They spoke in angry whispers, sounding so very afraid. A hand, cool and dry, slid alongside his own, Erik turning then, hoping to see the soft lines of his mother's smile. Instead he found his sister, kneeling at his side, her expression coloured with worry.
"Hush," she said when he tried to speak, pressing a cool, damp cloth against his forehead. Erik's eyes fell closed, though not before he caught sight of something hovering beyond her shoulder, a battered iron tea pot, its lid floating half a hand above it. Erik fell back to sleep, certain then it was nothing more than a fever dream.
It was easier the next time he woke, his fever broken. Ruth was no longer sat at his side, Erik alone, his alcove strangely quiet. He struggled to sit, body aching and sore, and found his pallet littered with bits of metal. There were tea pots and lanterns and dented cups. There were knives and figurines and a still sheathed dagger. Bits of jewelry were scattered around his feet, and a horse's harness lay across his chest. Erik blinked; struggled from the pallet to find the floor littered with more of the same.
His father's voice came through the heavy felt curtains.
"Can you get rid of it?"
"You of all people should know better, Jakob," said the voice of the Eldest. "Edie was one of ours."
"Then there is nothing we can do," his father said, though if the Eldest gave an answer, Erik did not hear it.
He found no solace after that day, though his strength returned and his spirit renewed. He could feel the iron in the ground; could close his eyes and point due north, and when his sister looked at him, it was with fear in her eyes. She did not long hold his gaze.
His newly found ability came to him slowly, without mastery or control, Erik alone in his alcove, bits of metal scattered across his lap. He could feel the steel in the spoons--feel the iron in the kettle--and if he concentrated hard enough he could hover a spoon in the air, make it turn before him. Always in private, Erik as afraid as he was amazed.
Still, his father knew, and he wore his disappointment like a yoke, unwanted and heavy; his worry a gaping wound gone rank with infection. The people in the settlement stared and whispered, and then turned away, fearing him as much as they pitied him. The Elders merely watched, mouths pressed into thin lines, their gaze lingering overlong. Erik could not say which was worse
It was Erik who sought their council: his sister's advice--a rare moment of contact that left him aching anew, missing then the soft words of his mother, the light touch of her hand.
"Come, Erik," the Eldest said, beckoning him into her yurt, the first time she had called him by name, Erik having seen the void, no longer a child.
She bid him sit upon the carpets. Erik was quick to obey. He crossed his legs before him, gaze coming to rest on the carpet beneath him, a fire serpent eating its own tail, its scales patterned in soft yellows and browns that reminded him of the steppe in autumn.
"I know why you have come," the Eldest said, sitting before him, Erik's gaze drawn to her eyes, their colour lost to age. Her hair hung loose over her shoulders, winter-white that stood in contrast to the sun-battered brown of her skin. In her youth, she might have been beautiful, though Erik could not see past her wisdom.
"You wield powers no others possess."
Erik nodded, and when she did not speak, he narrowed his gaze at the kettle resting over her fire pit, trying then to lift it. It gave a brief shudder and then fell dormant, but the display was enough to make his point. He turned back towards her; found her expression turned grim, familiar pity re-colouring her eyes.
"Please," Erik said. "I don't want this. Can't you do something?"
"Oh, Erik," the Eldest said. "You are not alone."
She lifted a single hand, fingers gnarled and crooked, bones snapping as she turned her palm towards the ceiling. Erik watched, mystified, as a tiny grey cloud grew over her hand, the mist growing denser until he saw a spark of electricity; heard the first rumblings of thunder. Tiny drops of rain, no bigger than tears, fell into her palm.
Erik stared, wide-eyed with hope and wonder, until she closed her palm, the cloud dissipating into the room.
"It is our curse," she said, though she spoke as though reciting from a book, the words not in her heart.
"Curse?" The word hurt to hear, dread and despair pooling in his stomach. He had stood and stared into the void, felt its pull, but he wanted now only the naive thrill of boyhood he'd felt before seeing it, not the responsibility that came with age.
Instead of answering, the Eldest settled upon the cushions, arranging her skirts, red and gold, upon the carpets. They held so many layers--far more than his mother had earned. Erik was reminded of this woman's place; this woman's position.
"Long ago, in the days after the void, our people struggled to survive. They had lost everything that defined them. They knew not music or art. They knew not the tending of crops or taming of horses. They knew not the healing of sick. They were lost and broken and starving."
The Eldest paused and calmly met Erik's gaze.
"They knew only what the old man had done, for their sin was upon them and they could not forget. It was then the old man's daughters struck him down, for he had cost them paradise. The eldest daughter called forth ice, for her rage lay frozen in her breast, and she held the man in place while the youngest daughter drew the air from his lungs. And they knew that they were cursed."
Erik knew this story. His mother told it well. The Eldest told it as though it pained her.
"But when the Envoy brought back our language and our knowledge, they left the curse upon us, for we were still barred from paradise, so great was the old man's sin."
The Eldest stopped, frown tugging at her lips, as though the story was unpleasant. Erik spoke.
"But the horse promised one day the void would fall, that we would return to paradise lost, to reunite with those on the other side," he said, proud to have remembered.
The Eldest paused, a shadow crossing her face. When she spoke, her voice was heavy with reluctance.
"The void may fall, or it may forever endure. It is not our place to question the spirit's will." She glanced then over her shoulder, seeking out her altar before turning back to meet Erik's gaze. "But let us not dwell on that which cannot be changed. You can learn to master this; to keep it hidden deep within, as have I, as have others. We are not so few, you and I, and with discipline it can be controlled. Our curse can cause great harm if you do not learn to control it, but you will, this I promise.
"Come, Erik, offer thanks with me."
His mind still swam with all that she had said, but he stood and crossed to her altar; knelt before it and lit a candle, saying then the words he knew by heart. The Eldest's voice rang alongside his, crisp and authoritarian, her faith unyielding.
To our ancestors we give thanks, for persevering when they might have faltered.
To the spark of life, we give thanks, for sowing us upon this land.
To the steppe we give thanks, for offering us shelter and sustaining our herds.
And to the Envoy we give thanks, for returning that which was lost.
"And in the days to come, may we find a way beyond the void, to reunite with the dead in paradise lost," the Eldest finished, Erik ducking his head at her words, wishing then that the iron of her altar did not beckon; that he might take comfort in her words.
Instead he left her yurt with his head low, ignoring the pitying stares of those he passed, glad then that his mother had died; that his taint could no longer stain her name.
It was delicate work, the forging of arrowheads, Erik's knack for the craft earning him independence at work despite his apprentice status. There were none who did not know his affinity for metal, though with the passing of years the stares had vanished; replaced instead by tentative acceptance, the settlement tolerant if not outright friendly. He was one of theirs, but he was different.
He ran his thumb along the arrowhead's edge, razor-sharp point slicing through his flesh, leaving a trail of blood in its wake. Erik hissed; drew his thumb into his mouth and sucked at the pearl of blood welling there. The metal of the arrowhead sang to him, a seductive siren he struggled to deny. Erik set aside the finished head and chose another, sharping its point on his whetstone.
He had not his mother's skill in carving, and the steel was strong, but it was little work to etch his master's mark into the base of each head. One day, when Erik was no longer apprentice but master, he would design his own mark; would carve it into his swords and spearheads. That day was a long way off, Erik not a moon past his sixteenth naming day, his assigned trade still newly learned. Erik added the head to the pile and reached for another; found his task complete.
Logan rarely left him enough work for an afternoon, and today was no exception. Erik tidied his things, letting the billows run cold before moving to the retaining wall; leaning upon it to stare out over the green. A group of children, flushed with the innocence of youth, sat rapt with attention, hanging on the words of the Eldest. A wide silk awning sheltered them from the sun, making their circle look as dark as night, while a sacred fire burned in their centre. The Eldest spoke with arms stretched wide, her voice carrying.
"In the days following their banishment, the daughters of the old man, furious for what they had lost, stripped their father of his power. They braided his authority into plaits of grass, threaded through with gentians, tiny blue stars to represent their sorrow. From these plaits they wove stoles of power, the same ones we wear today. They were the first Elders."
The Eldest wasn't wearing her stole today, instead a wide shawl, the Edlers' stoles rarely seen outside ceremony and festivals. It did not diminish her command, her power seen in the lines of her face and the white of her hair.
Erik knew the story she told. It reminded him painfully of his mother, even all these years later. It reminded him too, of the time he sat under that same awning, colourful silk casting red light across his skin. He used to dream then of going to the void; of seeing it with his own eyes. Now he dreamed of passing through; drawn by his mother's knife.
"The first Elders' rule was strict, but kind, and though their new lands were harsh and many did die, many more survived. Their stoles were passed from mother to daughter and when the Envoy came it was they who negotiated the return of their history.
"We are their descendants and someday the daughters among you will stand to take our place. Let us pray." The Elder bowed her head. The children followed suit.
The blood they shed washes the land
In shades of scarlet flame.
Renew the steppe once desolate
Sow seeds to fertile ground.
Hands shall wither and be reborn
To daughters strong and true.
"And what of the sons," spoke a voice into Erik's ear, Erik starting then, surprised at having been spoken to. There were so few who sought his council, and none who sought his company. He did not keep friends, Erik the subject of taunting and whispers, not camaraderie and brotherhood.
He turned then, finding Graydon and William, childhood friends who'd forsaken his company soon after they'd learned of his taint.
"You should be careful, Graydon," Erik said. "You would not want an Elder to overhear you saying such things."
"They don't frighten me," Graydon said, though the tension in his shoulders gave away the lie. It was William who stepped forward then, slipping smoothly between them, speaking before Graydon could worsen his blasphemy.
"We're going to the void. We thought you might want to come."
Graydon and William were of Erik's age, not yet respected men of trade, but no longer irresponsible boys. They were past the age of mischief, or ought to have been. It would have been wise to refuse them, but Erik's life was a lonely one and he could not help the pull of inclusion. He longed for companionship.
"I have work," he still said, though there was no conviction in his tone and the billows still sat cold.
He glanced then to the children on the green, drawn by a peal of laughter. They were free from their lesson and ran carefree across the dry grass, shouts and cajoles rising from their ranks. Erik remembered then that euphoria; remembered a life free from taint. He'd counted Graydon and William amongst his friends, though he remembered now tagging along; following them as they ran across the steppe, or sitting at their side as they watched fireworks displays, giddy at the prospect of learning their secrets. He'd longed for their inclusion then, too.
"We'll need horses," he found himself saying, feeling then only the desire for approval and not the guilt of neglected tasks.
There were none to protest their leaving. To visit the void was not forbidden and they were of age. Horses were plentiful and easily acquired and when Erik started the group forward, proud at having been chosen to lead, it was with the first sense of belonging he'd felt since his mother's passing; since his curse manifested.
They rode hard and fast across the steppe, Graydon whooping and William silent; Erik wearing the barest hint of a smile. Nearer the void, the horses grew skittish, easily spooked by the rustling of the wind. Erik dismounted, his companions doing the same; walking the animals the last few paces to secure their reins inside the iron ring.
Ahead, the void loomed large and white, so much larger than Erik remembered. He stepped towards it, still drawn by its beauty; its power. He was standing before it before he realized his companions had not followed.
They still stood with the horses, frozen with fear. Erik smiled at their unease, feeling then bolstered by his bravery.
"It is perfectly safe," he called.
This close, he could smell the void; like a winter fog, tiny crystals of ice filling his lungs. Erik breathed deep, wanting the cold to fill him completely. A single step would take him through it. His body shook with desire; the pull of the beyond almost too much to bear. In that moment, he understood why so many had crossed, though their names were no longer spoken, their existence wiped from history. To cross the void was death, and yet denying its pull left him trembling with the effort.
"We must not breach the void," William answered, though he took a step forward. Graydon, refusing to be outdone, took two.
"They say the City of the Dead lies on the other side," said Graydon, "but the only way to reach it is to die on this side. They say if you try to cross while living, you'll end in limbo; a frozen steppe that stretches as far as the eye can see, and no matter what direction you choose, you always end exactly where you started."
Erik rolled his eyes. "You should listen more to the Elders' sermons and less to stories meant to frighten young children." He turned then, staring into the milky wall of white.
"They say," Graydon continued, unperturbed. He took another step forward, until he stood at Erik's side, the void looming before them. "Only someone with the taint can cross unharmed; that they may pass to the other side and back again." He glanced over then to catch Erik's gaze, Erik suddenly understanding his place in this. This was not an overture of friendship. It was not camaraderie. It was curiosity, plain and simple.
He ought to have suspected as much.
"I guess we'll never know," Erik said, turning then, wanting only to retrieve his horse and return home. He could feel the metal Graydon wore; a simple chain around his neck. Had Erik wanted to, he could have tightened it; sought retribution for the hurt Graydon had caused.
"If you're too afraid," Graydon began. Anger, a newly born thing, seized in Erik's chest; it grew into a steady flame as Graydon turned to William. "I told you he wouldn't touch it."
Erik spun back to face him. "You said nothing of touching it. You dared me to cross, and I won't. We do not breach the void."
We do not breach the void, his mother had said, when he was still a boy, her fingers gentle against his scalp.
We do not breach the void, the Elders had taught, Erik gathered around their fire.
We do not breach the void, the Eldest had said, firm command in her tone.
"We do not breach the void," Erik said again, unwavering.
Graydon was unaffected. "Touching isn't breaching, and you don't have the stones either way."
"Neither do you," Erik countered, his longing for friendship dashed.
In the years following his mother's death, Erik would cloister away inside his alcove, his father distant and distressed, his sister apprehensive and uncertain. Erik would stare at his sketches, his mother's likeness seeming then to come to life, to smile with gentle fondness as though Erik wasn't an outcast; as though she loved him no less for what he'd become.
He thought again of what it might mean to pass through the mist; thought of the whispers that said he could cross. He thought of those who'd left their settlement, vanishing without a trace. He wondered then how much of it was true; how many were tainted like him. He wondered how many survived; if they'd chosen to stay because they'd found paradise.
And then he found himself turning, the void seeming so impossibly close. Erik reached towards it, hearing then Graydon's sharp inhalation--William's anguished cry. But his hand was already moving beyond the barrier, cool mist developing texture, Erik's entire body humming as his hand breached the milky white tear, and encountered something solid and warm.
Erik glanced up sharply, gaze drawn from where his hand now rested, pressed against a wall of white. He thought only to see the swirling mist, impenetrable, and instead found himself staring into a pair of startlingly blue eyes.
He drew his hand back as though burnt, but the image remained; wide eyes staring back with shock and wonder. Erik registered then the face of a boy, no older than himself, his mouth parted as if to speak. Beyond, a desolate landscape stretched out across the horizon, rolling dunes washed in shades of tan and yellow. Tall pillars rose to meet a cloudless sky, the sun a blazing ball of intense light. Erik recoiled, stepping back. The boy's expression fell, his hand reaching out then, as if to reclaim Erik's hand; drag him through the void.
Erik turned and ran.
He heard the shouts of Graydon and William, asking what had happened--asking what he'd seen--but Erik paid them little heed. He reclaimed his horse, the animal as eager to be away as Erik. He was up and riding before Graydon and William reached his side, his horse thundering across the steppe, chased by the still lingering image of haunting blue eyes.
It was not until later, the curtains of his alcove drawn tight, that Erik convinced his racing heart to calm. He sat then, cross-legged upon his pallet, staring up at the sketches that hung on the wall. His mother's face, a dozen times over, stared back at him, as did the void, years of practice getting him no closer to capturing its mystery.
He had touched the void--we do not breach the void--and seen into the other side. Only there was no City of the Dead. No carved monuments, no white clay dais. There was only desert wasteland, the ruined remains of what might once have been a city. Erik shivered; wondered then why he had been chosen, why he had been cursed.
He wondered, too, who the boy was; what part he played in all of this. Try as he might, he could find no answer. Erik turned to his papers. He drew out a fresh sheet and a new piece of charcoal and began to draw. He drew wide, startled eyes, Erik wanting then for colour.
His master paid him in coins, though Erik occasionally requested the odd piece of metal and the use of the billows instead. If Logan thought it odd, he didn't say, instead shaking his head and retreating back to his work, not a man for idle conversation.
He treated Erik well, so long as Erik attended his tasks and didn't complain. More importantly, he didn't shy from Erik's curse, not even when Erik forgot himself and used it to coax the metal to his will.
"Not that I care or nothin', but what are you planning on doing with ‘em?" he asked once, the first time Erik requested some of the scraps.
Erik shrugged, not entirely certain, though he had a vague idea in the back of his head, the memory of his mother's wooden puzzles still lingering in his mind.
"'Suppose it's your time. Have at ‘em."
He left then, Erik sorting through the metal discarded that day--the stuff not fit for arrowheads or knives or even ornamental plates. He melted them down and then poured their liquid into the molds used for the rings on horses' harnesses. He followed the pattern exactly, twisting the metal into awkward shapes while it was still warm, and when he was done he had dozens of broken rings, warped and misshapen. He threaded them together until it was impossible to tell one from the other, and then set about trying to take them apart.
It would have been an easy task with his curse, but Erik left that aside and let his mind trace patterns where none existed. The task was not impossible, but it was difficult, Erik pleasantly content when he had accomplished it. He set about making more.
He managed four that evening, and then four the next, and then brought them to the market the following day, trading them for mineral paints in a host of vibrant colours. There were green paints and red paints and white paints and yellow, but above all there was blue, Erik unable to forget the blue of the boy's eyes.
How many times now had he seen the blue of the boy's eyes? It seemed dozens, the boy there each and every time Erik braved returning to the void. Years had passed and in that time he'd told only his father, though when his father looked, he saw only misty white, the desert landscape beyond--the broken pillars and golden dunes--hidden from his sight. He could not bring himself to tell his father what had precipitated the change. Could not admit to touching the void, the act forbidden and Erik afraid. The boy watched the exchange with an impassive gaze, seeming to see only Erik, Erik raising his hand then, the boy mimicking the gesture until they were pressed together, the electric tingle of the void their only barrier.
But, oh, how he dreamed of those eyes.
At home, tucked inside his alcove, away from prying eyes, he drew those eyes, again and again; the outer wall now covered in the image, his mother's smiling face buried beneath bright, mysterious eyes and the endless expanse of the void.
He drew those eyes now, using for the first time his new paints, though try as he might he could not capture their colour. He thought perhaps it was the void, colours made more vibrant when seen through its veil. Still he drew until his hand cramped; and then drew a little longer, the boy coming to life on paper.
It was like marking the passage of the time, Erik able to trace back along the line of pictures, seeing the boy grow old alongside him. He'd long since grown into a man and should have established his own forge, taken on his own apprentice and accepted a courtship. Instead he drew, wondering who would court him or buy his goods or work under his tutelage.
"You'd be surprised," Logan told him once when he asked, Erik polishing spear heads, the sun a hazy ball of warmth above the forge.
"How can you possibly understand? They see me and they see only my curse. I'm surprised I haven't been exiled."
There were others, Erik knew, those who had been driven out, their curse making them dangerous and those who were named only in whispers. He remembered a boy from his childhood, younger than Erik was now, apprentice to the fireworks master. Erik was too young to understand what had happened at the time, but he knew now that the boy had fled, his family dead, a blast having collapsed their yurt while they slept. An accident the Elders had said, but Erik had heard the rumours; knew the firework's master had no missing inventory.
Logan was shaking his head, expression grim. "They ain't gonna hold it against you forever," he said. "They know you ain't dangerous. And you're just gonna have to trust me on that one."
He extended his hand then, turning his palm over to curl his fingers into a loose fist. Erik watched, shock and awe warring with disbelief as the skin at Logan's knuckles parted, three points emerging. They made an awful scrapping sound, Logan's grunt suggesting the process was painful. When the points stopped moving, Erik found himself staring at protruding bone, like the claws of a cat, sharp and deadly. They came dangerously close to piercing Erik's neck.
"You ain't alone, kid," Logan said then, bones retracting as quickly as they'd come. "There's more of us than you'd think." He turned away then; went back to the forge and his work.
Erik released a shaky breath and began packing away his things.
He wondered then how many there were; how many hid from the others, and from each other. He wondered then what it would mean to embrace his curse; to use it freely without the threat of repercussion. Everywhere he went he could feel the pull of metal.
He felt its pull inside the forge, so much of it his breath quickened and his pulse raced. He felt its pull as he walked the settlement, belts and swords and arrows and tack; a thousand points inside a single step. He felt its pull as he entered his family's yurt, iron tea pots and steel utensils beckoning from their cupboards. He could even feel it in his paints; crushed minerals laced through with metal, Erik a part of every picture he painted.
He knew even the pull of his sister's jewelry, newly worn, her betrothal chain around her neck, golden ibex soon to represent her house. Erik paused, feeling then her presence, discerning her location before he stepped fully into the yurt, tapestry fluttering shut behind him. He crossed quickly to his alcove, drawing the curtain roughly aside.
"What are you doing in here?" he asked, finding his sister sitting in the middle of his pallet, fingers tracing the lines of Erik's sketches, lingering on the bright blue of the boy's eyes.
"Who is this?" she asked without turning. She was a woman now, fully grown, having taken their mother's place as apprentice to the Elders. She wore her hair free around her face, its colour an exact duplicate of their mother's.
"I asked what you were doing here," Erik demanded again. She turned to meet his eye over her shoulder.
"I came looking for you, and found these instead. Who is he? I know everyone in the settlement, but I do not recognize him."
Erik seethed, even as he tried to rein in his temper. He cared not for his sister's standing, or for her impending nuptials. He cared not for the stern lines of her face, or even her assumption that she could take their mother's place and see to his care. And he cared not that she no longer looked at him with fear but with pity.
"These are my private things; you have no right to them."
His sister remained unaffected. Her frown deepened. "Father said once that you were convinced you saw something--someone--across the void, that that's why you go so often. Is this him?"
He could tell, just by the lilt of her voice that she thought him mad--that she thought the taint had somehow corrupted his perception. He had no doubt his father thought the same, his obsession with the void unnatural. It is only a matter of time before he tries crossing, the people whispered. Erik's anger grew cold.
He took his sister by the arm, though he handled her delicately. She was to become an Elder and so demanded his respect. She came without protest, Erik pulling her from his alcove, wanting then only to be away from the prying eyes of everyone he knew. He thought, not for the first time, of leaving this place; of crossing the void. The boy, at least, did not look at him with such disdain. Instead he beckoned, like a siren, calling Erik to the other side.
Ruth wore her disappointment clearly, his mother's eyes--she had their mother's eyes--flashing with exasperation. "Put this aside, Erik. It will gain you nothing," she said as she left, shaking free of Erik's grasp.
Erik scowled, waiting until she was gone to duck back inside his alcove. He sank to his knees upon his pallet, staring then at the sketches tacked to the wall, countless dozens, all the same. In a fit of rage, he tore them from the wall.
The settlement seemed a distant thing, though Erik could hear the shouts of children and the clanging of metal on metal--Logan's forge. He thought, too, he could hear the distant melody of singing, the Elders' hymns welcoming the day. Erik stood before his yurt, newly built, and watched. There was something comforting in being so far from the others.
It was comforting, too, to stay so near his mother's burial stone, Erik having chosen the location for its proximity. To the east, a slight mound rose from the earth, covered over with grass, tinder dry with the lack of rain. At its head, a single stone marked her final resting place. Erik turned towards it; watched the sun rise above it. Beyond, a hard morning's ride led to the void, Erik feeling its pull, even from so great a distance. He turned back to his yurt and ducked inside.
It was not as large as his childhood home, though Erik had chosen to work under Logan rather than start his own forge, and he had neither a wife nor children to fill its walls. It was not as lavish, either, but he had no need for silks or cushions. A few simple carpets, scattered across the floor, a pallet in the corner and a handful of cupboards and chests were enough to see to his comfort and keep his few meager possessions.
He crossed to one of those chests now, still unpacked, and knelt beside it. Inside, he kept his charcoals and paints and loose sheets of paper. He kept, too, a single book, pages given over to his sketches. Erik sorted through them now, smiling when he caught sight of his mother's smile. His drawings of the void brought a pang of longing, years having passed since his last visit. The pull had grown too great, Erik no longer able to resist its lure; no longer able to stare into blue eyes without wanting to cross. He had nothing keeping him here, but the thought of his sister's anguish, so soon after their father's death, weighed heavily on his mind.
Erik's hand hovered over the last of his sketches, almost afraid to see them now. He thought back to the last time he'd gone--the last time he'd stared into those impossibly blue eyes.
Something seized in his chest, pain and longing and want, things he'd spent a lifetime refusing to acknowledge. He pulled out the first now, a single page, covered over in those same eyes. Erik's breath caught at the sight.
He wondered again what was keeping him here; why he didn't simply cross the divide. For so many years fear had stayed his hand. We do not breach the void. To cross the void is death. He had no interest in dying or passing into limbo, lost forever to a frozen steppe. He no longer knew what lay on the other side; if in crossing he would find the boy with the blue eyes or his mother's gentle hand. He feared finding neither.
"And when the Envoy came they were stricken deaf and dumb and blind, for one cannot descend from paradise without sacrifice," Erik quoted, finger tracing then the edge of an eye, wondering what became of the boy. Had he waited for Erik's return? Did he wonder where Erik was? Did he think of him at all?
"And when the Envoy left, it was back through the void, for they and they alone held the power to cross. For our sin was still upon us, and paradise forbidden."
He set aside the pages then, running a shaking hand through his hair, his heart weary. He'd wanted for privacy, to live his life away from the prying eyes of others, and yet he felt acutely his isolation; his loneliness. Erik stood from where he'd crouched; crossed to the entrance of the yurt, and pulled the tapestry aside, his eyes immediately drawn to black, billowing smoke.
The settlement was in flames.
The scent of it caught his nose then, burning grass and heated clay. He narrowed his gaze, seeing then smoke coming from one of the yurts, the frantic sounds of shouting and the shrill cry of horses reaching his ear.
Without thinking, Erik ran.
The steppe blurred beneath his feet, each step bringing him nearer the flames. A group of people had gathered around the burning yurt, metal buckets passing between them, but already he could tell they were too late to save the home. Erik reached out then with his curse, feeling the pull of one of the horses' troughs, a heavy thing; too heavy for three men, let alone one. He crooked a finger, guided more by need than any mastered skill, his curse too long avoided for Erik to have any control. He floated the trough towards the yurt, ignoring the startled gasps and horrified stares, and dumped the water over the flames.
It did little to quell the fire, Erik reaching for another trough, feeling then sweat bead against his lip, his jaw clenching as his outstretched hand trembled. They were out of the rainy season, short though it had been, the grassland dry and arid; a spare spark could set the entire thing ablaze, consume the entire settlement.
Overhead, as if to dispute the season, came the distant call of thunder. Erik glanced up and saw then the start of swirling clouds, unnatural. He saw, too, the Eldest, standing with her hands outstretched. Clouds formed above her, growing heavy with moisture until the first few drops of rain began to fall. Erik dumped his second trough onto the flames, but it was no longer needed, the Eldest's rain becoming a torrent, falling steady and hard until all that remained was the smoldering ruin of a yurt.
"Is anyone hurt?" she called then, allowing her hands to drop. The rain lessened in steady increments until it vanished completely; the clouds already dissipating.
"None," came the response, Erik glancing then to find the family to whom the yurt belonged. A young boy, perhaps old enough to gaze upon the void, stood clustered next to a woman, half hidden in her skirts. His gaze was down-turned, his expression chagrined. Erik felt a spike of sympathy for the boy, the fire no doubt his doing.
The Eldest nodded, sparing the boy--John, Erik thought his name--a final glance before she departed. Erik saw then familiar stares--stares from his own childhood--directed at the boy. He understood now why they called this a curse. How many, he wondered, had manifested in such a violent manner.
How many had been met with anything other than fear?
He thought again of the boy from his childhood, Alex, little younger than Erik was now, when he left. He thought of the Eldest and of Logan, respected and revered, but alone and isolated, with neither spouse nor child. He thought of all the others he knew who drew themselves apart; of the whispers that followed in their wake. He thought of those who had disappeared, their leaving unquestioned. He thought, too, of his sister with a husband who loved her and two glorious children she kept out of Erik's reach. He thought of those children and what they might become.
And then he thought of the void; thought of bright blue eyes and what lay on the other side.
The settlement was already helping to sort through the rubble; to save what could be saved. By nightfall they would have built a new yurt, not quite as grand, though solid and cool against the summer sun. Erik watched as they worked together, so perfectly coordinated the task seemed effortless. He thought then of the awkwardness that would descend should he attempt to join them, and turned to return to his yurt.
In the days that followed, no one mentioned the fire, or the boy, and when Erik saw him it was always with his head down, shying away from the stares of others. Were he a better man, Erik might have sought him out, but a lifetime of seclusion had done little to teach him social graces, Erik at a loss. Instead he took to drawing the boy's yurt, covered over in flames, and on the edge of each picture, though it made little sense, there was always a man, watching from a distance with bright, blue eyes.
Weeks later, when the boy disappeared, no one batted an eye, regardless of his age. It was only his mother's frantic worry that spurred the settlement into action, and then only a few came forward to aid in the search.
"You're coming," Logan said to him, as though Erik would refuse. It was heartening to know there were some who would not allow a boy to vanish, even knowing what he was.
They rode towards the void, strange after so many years away. He'd watched the processions each time someone came of age; stood once holding a banner, apart from the others, watching a girl of twelve ride off with her mother. He'd watched again upon their return, the girl's eyes bright with excitement; the mother's smile proud and wide. He'd ached then, remembering all the countless days he'd spent standing before the void, staring through its veil. To see it now, looming ahead, was like coming home.
"I'll follow the north line. You take the south," Logan said when they dismounted; nervous horses skittering as he secured them to the ring. Erik nodded, though there was little they could do if the boy had crossed.
He tried not to look at the void, though his gaze was inescapably drawn towards it, Erik seeing then familiar desert; familiar columns. It made his heart skip a beat, old longing surging as he stepped towards it, the pull of the beyond as powerful now as it ever was. The only thing that kept him from stepping over was its emptiness, Erik longing then for a pair of familiar eyes.
It struck him then, as he stared through the veil, that he hadn't truly appreciated the world beyond. He'd seen it only as desert wasteland, Erik too fixated on the boy with the blue eyes to notice the scale of the ruins. He saw now that it was an entire civilization. Though swallowed by desert, once it would have been magnificent. He wondered then if it belonged to his ancestors; if this was the paradise his people lost, cast onto the steppe to live upon the grass. Unbidden, he raised a hand towards it, wanting then to feel the sand beneath his feet; the hot sun above his head. Erik took a staggering step forward.
A flicker of movement caught his eye, John's name on his tongue as he searched frantically through the ruins. His gaze was immediately drawn to the man picking his way across the broken city. It was not John, Erik's breath catching when he realized who it was. The boy was no longer a boy, but a man, his expression bright and surprised when he caught sight of Erik.
Erik's heart thundered in his chest.
He stood, a hair's breadth from the void, feeling its cool mist on his face, his hand still outstretched.
He watched, numb and dazed as the man ran towards him, wide smile breaking across his face. In the distance, he heard shouting, jubilant, though he could not bring himself to turn from the void. He wanted then only to cross, to step through to the boy's side; to succumb to his siren pull. Erik took a step forward. The boy's expression fell.
He shook his head, eyes growing wide, hand coming up in a bid to stop Erik from crossing, but it was too late, the lure of the beyond no longer within his capacity to resist. He knew now why so many had succumbed to the pull of the void, the threat of death and limbo no longer sufficient enough to stay his feet; his sister's loss a distant thing compared to the force of his desire. There was only the boy, bright eyes beckoning, Erik realizing then how firmly the boy how burrowed into his heart. He cursed himself for having waited so long.
We do not breach the void, his mother had said, when he was a boy and new to such things.
We do not breach the void, the Elders had said, when he was an adolescent, weak though he thought himself strong.
We do not breach the void, his father had said, when he had reached the flush of manhood, stout and brave and unafraid.
We do not breach the void, his sister had said, seeing Erik's growing obsession in the paintings upon his walls.
A lifetime spent avoiding the void's pull, spent ignoring his heart's desire; Erik had grown weary.
"We do not breach the void," he whispered to himself, even as a wall of white enveloped him, distant shouts at his back, the boy's wide, worried gaze beckoning him forward.