I sit across from the thing, my face still damp. I‘m still not accepting what’s happened. Any minute now, Ben’s going to shake me awake, and we’ll go down to the sea and skip stones across its surface. Maybe now I’ll finally be able to beat his record. It’s unlikely, I know, but miracles can happen. Any time now, Ben, wake me up, Ben....
He’s not going to wake me, is he? How can you wake someone who is already awake? That means Father is still ill, that me and Ben went on this stupid quest to save him, and that...
At that moment, I burst out crying, the realisation alive in me.
I suppose I should start from the beginning. The beginning is usually a good starting position, even for an idiot like me who reads letters upside down. There’s a word for that, but it’s a pain to spell.
I’m getting distracted. Like always.
The story started the day before, as I was kneeling in front of a grave stone. The grave stone was my mother’s. She had only recently died, but it felt like an eternity ago. You know what I mean? It feels so long ago that it feels like a story someone told you. Well, here’s the story.
A 9 year-old boy and his mother go to have a picnic in the middle of the sea in a boat borrowed from a neighbour. They are having a wonderful time, ignoring the rain, until the weather starts to get incredibly stormy. The waves start moving about, and just like that, the boy’s mother get’s thrown out of the boat. Now the boy is desperate to save his mother, naturally, so he tries to grab her hand. She’s calling his name, and her hand slips from his grasp. She goes under the waves, and it’s here that the boy is faced with two choices. He either dives in to try and rescue his mother, like any good, brave person would. Or he stays in the boat because he’s a fucking coward who doesn’t want to die.
I knelt in front of the gravestone, mournful and still not ready to forgive myself. Suddenly, the air felt cold around me. I looked up, and saw an ethereal figure in front of me. The first thing I thought was that my mother had come for me, but then I realised. I’d heard of things called “hallucinations”, where people saw or heard things that weren’t really there. I realised I must be having one due to the guilt and sorrow inside me.
“Stan,” the hallucination said. “Don’t blame yourself about what happened. Everyone has a time and place to die. Mine was then and there. Don’t be sad. I’m happy now.” Then, it left. I stood up, feeling even guiltier. My own subconscious had taken my mother’s image and used it to try to ease my suffering. I didn’t deserve kindness, or pity. I had let my mother drown, the same woman who would have torn a wolf apart to save me, and then I had the nerve to hallucinate her image to ease my guilt? At that moment hatred, black and acid-like, ran through my veins.
My attention was drawn from my own darkened thoughts by someone shouting my name.
“Stanley, come at once!” My brother sounded panicked. “We have to get Father to Doctor Smith.” As I walked towards them, I saw Ben lowering my father into the wheel-barrow that belonged to our neighbour.
Once we got Father to Doctor Smith’s the Doctor told us that there didn’t seem to be anything physically wrong with our father.
“So, what’s wrong Doctor?” Ben asked.
Doctor Smith looked grim as he told us. “I’m afraid your father seems to be suffering from a horrific form of cluster headache. Whereas all others seem to leave the patient for periods of time, according to my studies, this one appears to be constant, and even more painful. Worse still, if it isn’t cured soon, your fathers brain will simply shut down from the strain placed on it.”
I looked down at my father, who was soaked from sweat. Later on, when I asked him what it felt like, he said it was like having a rusting, white hot poker inserted behind his eye. To this day, I have no idea how he didn’t die from it.
“So how are you going to cure our father, Doctor Smith?” I asked him. It was the first thing I’d said since entering the doctor’s office, and he seemed to have forgotten I was there.
“Well, there is no definite way to cure him. However, there is a legend of a tree which houses water that has been said to cure every known ailment. The legend says that the tree was once a man who did a deal with a demon so that he could cure his daughter of an ailment that was slowly turning her into wood. The demon transferred the ailment into the man, which eventually turned him into a tree. The legend says that the daughter cried into the tree, and her tears had magical properties.”
“Wow. Do you really believe it, Doctor Smith?” I asked him.
“I do not know. However, I do know that there are more phenomenon’s in our world than people know about. Now then,” he said, reaching for a scroll, “this should lead you to the tree. And of course, you’ll need a container to hold the water in.” He handed both items to Ben, who safely stowed them away in a pocket. “Now I suggest you both go, right away. At my calculations, we only have about two days before your fathers condition becomes too much for him to bear.” And so, we left.
It was quite a trek. We had many experiences getting to the mountain on which the tree supposedly lay. During the journey, we discovered things about ourselves that we hadn’t known. I discovered bravery within myself that simply hadn’t existed earlier, as well as a crippling fear of water as a result of my mother’s death. We also encountered a few characters along the way, some friendly, some not so friendly. There was one who was most unpleasant, but the time to tell you about this person is not yet here.
One of the most disturbing moments came after we had gone through a huge cave, and rescued a troll’s wife from captivity. We had woken up at our campfire during the night, and continued on through a forest filled with wolves. We managed to evade them at first, but had to go down a separate path at one point. As we approached a tree, we saw a man standing on a branch with a rope around his neck. He jumped off the branch, and hung there, convulsing terribly. Ben climbed up the tree and untied the noose, but it was too late. I tried to comfort Ben, but I could tell he blamed himself for not acting quicker. As we turned to leave, there was the feeling of someone there with us, invisible but present.
I still don’t know to this day who the man was, but I’ve never forgotten him.
Shortly after this we came to another path. As we walked further on, a pair of yellow eyes suddenly appeared in front of us. A long, low growling emanated from the direction of them. Quick as a flash Ben and I ran, me slightly ahead. I came to the edge of a cliff and stumbled, nearly falling into the raging river below. Ben pulled me back, and then looked down. We both made a quick decision. Grabbing each other’s hands, we jumped off the cliff into the river. A brief, terrifying feeling of falling was followed by the even more horrifying feeling of being taken away by the river. I floundered, started to go under the water. “How appropriate I should drown,” I thought. But then a hand of iron gripped my arm, pulled me.
Ben managed to get us towards dry land, where we lay for several minutes to regain our breath. Then we continued on.
It was when we were climbing the edge of a huge boulder that I fell again. The rock I was gripping gave way and I fell down into the river, then down a water fall. I managed to land on a rock with a huge branch that crossed a perilous gap across to where Ben now stood, looking panic-stricken.
“Stan, you have to climb across the branch!” he called across to me, the fear evident in his voice. I grabbed it, lowered myself down. Soon I was only hanging on with my hands and grim determination. I had barely moved, however, when the branch swung towards Ben’s cliff. I could feel the whole thing tearing free from its grip onto the cliff Ben was standing on, before it abruptly stopped, and rose slightly. I looked up.
My brother was standing, holding his end of the branch, which was now completely free from the cliff. If he let go, I would fall straight into the water below. He started pulling the branch up. Then I saw them. What I had taken for branches and creepers growing on the side of the cliff were coming towards me, slowly. What’s more they looked like hands. Inch by inch, they crept closer, tauntingly slowly.
“Ben!” I screamed. “Don’t lift me up! There are hands on the cliff-side, and they’re trying to get me!” Ben stopped, and then started moving to the side, slowly, the strain of carrying the branch and me slowing him down. I climbed down to avoid any of the creepers. Looking down, I saw I was a safe distance from the one’s below. I looked up, and could see there were none above me. I started the climb up the branch.
Suddenly, a hand shot out of the cliff, grabbed the branch, and yanked downwards. The branch came out of my brother’s hands, and I fell into the ravenous current below. I must have screamed, because I remember I swallowed some water. As I sank beneath the water, everything started to go dark. I was vaguely aware of a shape emerging through the gloom of the water. Then, oblivion.
I woke up to see my brothers face in mine. I coughed so much I thought my lungs were going to be coughed up. I got up, and Ben and I went on our way. As we walked, I wondered why my brother didn’t seem more relieved. I soon forgot the thought, however, when we saw the giant hand. We both looked at each other, confused, but before we could make any sort of decision about what to do, we found ourselves being lifted in the air. The hand carried us over to a rock, and what I saw on that rock haunts me to this day.
It was my mother, tall as a cliff. She had carried us onto the rock. Her face was resting on the rock, and beneath her other hand lay a familiar, bearded figure. I stroked my mother’s face wonderingly; unsure of what was going on. Her hand rose, and underneath it lay my father, unmoving. I may have gone towards him, but at that moment, I was grabbed from behind, and thrown to the floor. Ben jumped on me and started punching me, over and over, in the face. Then he grabbed me, started throttling me. When he spoke, my mother’s voice came out of his throat.
“Why did you let me die?”
Everything started going black, and at this moment I knew this was it, I was doomed, and no-one could save me.
Then I suddenly woke up. My brother was kneeling over me, calling my name. It was daybreak. It had been night-time before. How long had I been out?
I got to my knees, and looked at my brother. Something broke inside me. I grabbed him round the waist, buried my face against his chest. We didn’t stop hugging for over a minute.
We spent the next few hours making our way through the forest, before managing to make our way to the ruins of an old castle. We managed to get there by using a pair of artificial wings created by a strange inventor. That flight was the most exhilarating experience of my entire life, and I felt disappointed that it was over afterwards, despite the fact we almost died. Then we had to climb all the way up to the entrance of the castle, which had been clearly built for a giant.
Once inside, we were met by a pitiful sight. There was a terribly injured griffin in a cage, and he was calling out pitifully. Once we got the cage off of him, Ben asked if the griffin knew where the tree was.
“Yes, I do,” the griffin replied. “I’ll take you as far as I can now. Climb on.” We did as the griffin asked, and no sooner were we on than he took off. It was terrifying, flying so high up on a bird that seemed to enjoy danger. He dived, spun, and flipped in the air, laughing gleefully the whole time.
When the griffin got us as far as he could, he landed smoothly on the ground. As we climbed off, he asked Ben what his name was. Upon being told, he said, “Well Benny, I thank you and your brother here for allowing me one final chance to spread my wings before I die.” Upon saying this, he collapsed onto his side, and left us.
Ben picked up a feather, and stared at it mournfully. To this day, I do not know what he was thinking of. After a moment of staring at it, he gloomily cast it aside, and continued on the journey without a word.
After about half an hour of walking, we heard noises coming from further on up the hill. As we got closer, we could hear what sounded like a large group of people, but we could not tell what they were saying. The closer we got though, the more ominous it sounded. As we got to the edge of the cliff, we could see a large gathering of what appeared to be soldiers in a small, walled off courtyard. There was a man at the front, clearly leading the ceremony. Everyone was repeating what he said. But what drew our attention the most was the young lady, about the same age as Ben, who was tied up at the front of the courtyard. That was when we realised. It was some kind of religious procession, and they were sacrificing this young woman. This left us with something of an issue. Were we to risk not only our lives, but our father’s life, in order to rescue a strange woman who we knew nothing about? Or were we to abandon her to these people, let them sacrifice her to whatever force they called God? I wished to do the latter-as I said before, I’m a fucking coward-but Ben would have none of that. “How can we, in good conscience, leave someone to die like that?” he said to me.
“Do you really want to risk Father’s life? If we fail here, if we get captured and sacrificed, then who will save Father?” I asked him, almost challenging him to come up with a noble answer.
Ben, being Ben, did. “How would you feel if your daughter was captured, and was going to be sacrificed? Would you not drop everything to go and save her?” He was going red in the face. I could tell he had to restrain himself from not shouting and giving away our position. “Now that young lady there is a man’s daughter. Are you seriously telling me you could just leave someone’s daughter to get killed?”
I waited several seconds, thinking over what had just been said. This was someone’s daughter. Could I really leave someone’s little girl to be sacrificed to some demonic entity? The answer came to me quickly.
“No, I couldn’t,” I said.
“OK. Come on then,” Ben said, already setting off to rescue her.
“But Ben, I have to ask... How are we going to rescue her?”
Ben stopped in his tracks. “Ah. I hadn’t considered that.”
“Well don’t you think it’s a good time to start considering it? They’re about to sacrifice her,” I said.
Ben cast about looking for some way to disguise ourselves. It didn’t take him long to find the solution to our problem.
We ran, the young woman ahead of us. We passed through a bit of water, and took the opportunity to wash the disguise off of ourselves.
“That was the most disgusting experience of my life, Ben,” I spluttered, as blood washed off my clothes.
“Well I’m sorry, Stan, but it was the only way we could get in and rescue her,” Ben said, the exasperation evident in his voice. “We had to look like their god in order to get in without arousing suspicion. As it happens, their god was drenched in the blood of its victims.”
“Why was there blood running in the river, Ben?” I asked.
“There must have been a battle recently,” Ben replied gravely.
“Hey boys, hate to break up this lovely chat, but could we please focus on getting out of here?” The young woman who we rescued seemed more irritated rather than thankful.
“Sure, sorry,” Ben replied, always the gentleman. “May I ask your name?”
“It’s Melina,” the young woman replied, without looking back. “And what was your name?”
“Don’t ask, it always takes him a long time to answer,” I replied. Ben looked at me with a note of amusement on his face, before replying, “It’s Ben. There, are you happy now Stan?”
“Oh yeah. Being chased by a group of demon worshippers, following a woman they were attempting to sacrifice, and this is the one time you don’t go into a long winded discussion about your identity? Of course I’m happy,” I replied.
“Will you two shut up and run? We’re nearly at the boat,” Melina shouted, sounding half furious and 3 quarters bemused.
The boat journey was interesting. The area which we were now in was freezing cold, and full of ice sheets. I had never seen anything like it, and I was freezing because, as was customary with boys up to the age of 15, my trousers stopped about 2/3rds of the way down my legs, and my shirt was sleeveless. I had boots on which covered most of my shins, but it was cold nonetheless. Ben, however, seemed at home in the snow. Not once did he complain of the cold; in fact, I don’t think I even saw him shiver.
Melina, however, was a strange specimen. When we asked her why the soldiers wished to sacrifice her, she claimed she didn’t know. However, I suspected that she did know. I’m not sure what it was, maybe it was a look in her eyes, but I just knew that she knew more than she let on. I tried whispering my suspicions to Ben on the boat, but, if he heard me, he didn’t let on.
Upon arriving on land, we were greeted by a truly bizarre sight. It appeared that there had been a war of some kind, but at some point, the temperature must have dropped dramatically. Everyone was frozen in place, all the weapons still in place. The people were still in the act of fighting, meaning that the temperature drop must have been instantaneous. Everything was so perfectly preserved, it was impossible to tell how old everything here was. It could have happened the day before, it could have happened a thousand years previously. There was just no way of telling.
It was just as we were exploring the village that we heard a great crashing and banging, like some great creature was walking about. We hid, and waited to see what it was. When we didn’t see anything else, we stepped out.
There was a huge set of human-shaped footprints in the snow, easily the size of the rowing boat we’d come in. We all strove to be on our guard from that moment on.
It was just as we were entering an old cottage that we heard the monster approaching. We shut the door and peeked out the window.
There was nothing there, except for more footprints. We opened the door to get a closer look at them, when suddenly, another set materialized out of nowhere. Then another. Then another. That was when it dawned upon us.
The monster was there, but unnoticed by our eyes. And it knew where we were.
Before we could do anything, the whole house (except the floor) was lifted in the air, before being hurled away. The monster made a noise unlike any I’d ever heard before, or have since. That was when we ran. We raced over the bridge in front of us, terrified, the monster’s hot breath melting the snow in front of us. All I knew was that the monster was getting closer, and closer, and closer, and closer.
As we got over the bridge, it started to crumble due to the weight of the creature behind us. Just as we got over the bridge, it collapsed into the valley far, far below.
“Has it gone then?” Melina asked.
“It must have. Your saw how loud the crash was when it hit the bottom of the valley,” I replied.
“We don’t know that,” Ben said, causing my heart to skip a beat. “That may have just been the bridge.”
With that reply, we left immediately, uncertain of what had happened to the creature, but unwilling to find out.
After walking for about an hour, Melina suddenly turned and hugged Ben. Ben was taken aback. At this point we just assumed that Melina was incapable of human emotion, so this came as quite a shock to me and Ben.
“What’s this for?” Ben said, intrigued.
“For... Everything. For saving my life,” Melina said, her head buried in Ben’s chest. “I never asked you. What are you two doing out here?”
“We’re attempting to find the tree that can cure all ailments, both physical and mental,” Ben replied, not quite sure what to do with the young lady attached to him, though he seemed to be enjoying it.
“Oh, right. What would you say if I told you I knew of a shortcut?” Melina said slyly.
“If you know of any way to shorten our journey, we would appreciate it greatly,” Ben said, sounding very grateful.
“It’s right through this cave, Ben,” Melina said, removing herself from him.
“Ben, are you sure about this? I don’t trust her,” I said without thinking.
“Stan, she’s a perfectly lovely woman. What is there not to trust?” Ben hissed. Behind him, Melina looked at me, mockingly.
I didn’t want to say anything. I had always found it difficult to trust strangers. So, despite the nagging feeling of doubt, I followed Ben into the cave, with Melina bringing up the rear.
It was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in my life.
When we got to the end of the cave, we saw it was a dead-end. We turned around to face Melina, ask her just what was going on.
Melina was jerking around on the floor. We crowded round her, asking what was wrong.
“Nothing is wrong, you fools,” she replied, her voice warped. Then, she shed her human disguise, and showed her true form.
It was the form of a nightmare. That was about when I passed out.
I don’t want to talk much about what happened next. It still haunts my dreams, in the darkest recesses of my mind. All that I am willing to divulge is that Ben and I defeated her together. But before you go assuming everything went fine, know this now. It didn’t.
Just as Ben delivered the coup-de-grace, she pierced him cleanly through the stomach. At that moment, everything ceased to exist for me. All that mattered to me was that my big brother was injured, and I had to help him. I dragged him to his feet, and slung his arm around my shoulder. He could just about support himself, but I could tell he was weakening fast. We struggled to the exit of the creature’s lair. We walked onwards.
The tree was in site.
“Hey Ben, look, we’re here,” I said.
“Good,” he said. Then he collapsed on the ground.
“Ben, hey Ben, stay with me,” I said, shaking uncontrollably.
He steadied himself against one of the tree’s roots, leaned back on it. “Leave me here, Stan. You need to get the water for Father,” Ben said weakly.
“No Ben, I won’t leave you here, you’re coming with me,” I sobbed.
“Stanley, I won’t be able to get up that tree in this state. I’ll be here when you get back,” he said, getting quieter with each word.
“I can’t leave you here, Ben,” I said, weeping.
“DO IT!” Ben snapped. “Do it for Father. I’ll be here when you return.”
I realised there was no point in arguing, so I went.
When I got back down from the tree, water bottle full, Ben was lying on the ground. I ran over to him, tried to shake him awake.
Ben wouldn't wake up.
I gave him some of the water. Surely that would revive him.
Ben wouldn't wake up.
I gave him some more water, desperately calling his name.
Ben wouldn't wake up.
At this point, the full extent of my sorrow burst forth from me. I had never felt so much pain in my life as I did that day, knowing that Ben wouldn’t ever wake up.
As I sit in front of the thing that was once my brother but is now a lifeless husk, I realise I’m going to have to bury him. The last thing I remember was turning around, and seeing Ben standing up. His body is behind him, and this is when I realise I've not been hallucinating my mother’s ghost. Ben’s spirit say’s one thing to me.
“I told you I’d be here when you got back.”
I don’t know when I realised he’d left mid-hug, and I was just clasping air.
I don’t remember burying Ben, and that’s good. Who wants to remember burying their brother?
I don’t quite remember how I got home. I remember being home, and hearing the call of another griffin. I remember swimming, being surprised by that. I was being helped, I remember that much. I remember getting to the doctor’s surgery, my father drinking the water. I remember losing consciousness on the floor.
A few days later, I was skimming stones across the sea. It wasn’t the same without Ben, though, and I soon lost interest. I wandered, not sure where I was going, until I found myself in the garden of our house. There was another grave stone next to my mother’s. I found my father standing there, without emotion. Then, without warning, he collapsed on the ground, crying uncontrollably. I patted him on the back, tried to comfort him. It was awkward though, and I stopped. I stood motionless, like the honorary guard outside the important buildings.
Somewhere behind me, a griffin called, and my heart ached.