THE CELESTIAL TRAVELLER
He woke with dirt beneath his fingertips, the familiar scent of damp soil, wet earth from morning dew. The sun was blinding when he opened his one eye, but pale and low, like in winter. He’d woken up outside before, many times over the years in fact, but not for months. Confusion was his first emotion, when he opened his eye and saw the gigantic white tree reaching into the heavens above him. The leaves were red like congealing blood, the bark white, like exposed bone; he had seen enough skeletons to know. With that thought came clarity. He remembered who he was, and all the horror he had seen.
Like a jolt of pain, he recalled he was dying. Automatically, he looked down to see the wound on his stomach, the reason for his imminent demise. To his great surprise he felt no pain. He found his shirt was blood and sweat free, his hand as he scrabbled to lift it suspiciously clean. There was a clean bandage where it should have been, but no wound; his skin smooth and flawless where it should be bloody and gaping.
Out of curiosity, his hand drifted to where the scar should be, where he’d taken a bullet to the chest as a child. To his relief, the familiar puckered skin was there, the lumpy little reminder of when he’d laid in bed for weeks, in and out of a coma as he healed. Dropping his shirt, he sat up properly, taking in the unfamiliar landscape. He was on some kind of rocky hillside; mostly bare stone, but dappled with green by pockets of grass. The highest peaks bore snow, but thankfully he wasn’t lying in it.
He rose to his feet for a better look. Beyond the mountains, there was nothing for miles. No sign of a town or settlement anywhere, not even a ruin. Just miles of open countryside, stretching out as far as his eye could reach. He blinked at the unfamiliar landscape, his right eyelashes irritated by the bandage over one half of his face. For a moment, he was frozen in shock, heart thumping wildly, before he reached up to press his fingertips tentatively at the right side of his face. Breathless with hope, considering the non-existent wound on his stomach, he carefully unpeeled the bandage. He was momentarily blinded by light streaming into the eye that shouldn’t be there, his vision blurring as he saw double for a minute, before his brain readjusted to being able to input two separate streams of visual data.
Laughing in surprise, he felt the tears drip down his face. He knew then what this was. He was dead, and this beautiful, empty landscape was his afterlife. It was like no depiction of heaven or hell that he had ever seen, but then there were lots of religions and gods in the world, and he didn’t know them all. He wondered if this was proof of the divine, or just the universe sending his soul or energy into another plane of existance. From the lack of heavenly beings there to greet him, he guessed that no answers would be forthcoming any time soon.
For a lack of anything better to do, he began to pick his way down the mountainside; the tree was on a flat hilltop, with a worn-in path cutting down through the stone toward the ground. He was startled again when he turned to study the tree, in case he needed to find his way back to it, and saw that it was decorated with a huge, ugly carving of a grimacing face. Three thin streams of red sap dripped down from the frowning eyes like tears, adding to the air of menace around it. Appalled by the image, he crept closer, to study it in detail. It was hand-carved of that there was no doubt, and possibly the most hideous artwork he had ever seen. And he had seen ‘artful’ displays of the dead by some fucked up people they had kept a wide birth from, back when he was alive. Somehow, this menacing tree was worse, huge gaping maw open in a silent groan. He backed away swiftly, having taken his fill, and returned to the path leading downward. A path meant people, or so he hoped, and there was no reason to suspect he was in danger from them just yet. He would be careful though, in his approach, if he did find any houses. He would have to find somewhere to hide and observe before making any kind of contact.
His plan was throughly ruined, when he rounded a bend in the path, a section close to the face of a mountain, carefully picking his way past the loose rocks, holding onto the the cliff-face, only to find three men at the other side of the face, advancing upward. They were like warriors from a storybook, or else a particularly dedicated costume drama, with elaborate clothing in the form of roughly-sewn fur cloaks and hand-woven shirts and trousers. At least they weren’t in loin-cloths, he mused, though the shock would be the same if they were.
A renaissance fair in the afterlife seemed a bit of a strech, but he recalled a nordic afterlife he’d been told about, where warriors went when they died; Valhalla. Maybe that’s where he’d ended up, as the modern day equivalent, and these men were his guides? The theory didn’t hold up for long, as the men were clearly surprised to see him, and one drew a huge sword from his belt in response to his gaping face watching them from above.
He was too close to them to attempt an escape, which would be dangerous on the thin path, edged as it was with one long drop into a jagged crevasse. He didn’t like to risk the pain, despite his belief in his own dead state. If he were wrong it would be a horrible end. So he did the sensible thing and lifted this hands in the air, the universal sign of surrender, and prayed it would work.
The men approached him warily, the man with the sword barking out an order that was short and clipped in a language he did not recognise. He felt himself flush at his stupidity. For a moment he’d expected him to speak in English. When a confused look only garnered more angry words and a threating brandish of the sword, he figured some words in the wrong language would be better than none.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand...” He began, his voice even and his body untrembling. He’d been in far too many scarier situations than this to cower at the sight of a sword. At least these men weren’t throwing him facedown on the ground and pulling down his jeans-
He shook off the awful memory, focusing on the problem at hand.
“Who are you?” The man with the sword said, switching to English, though his accent was entirely unfamiliar. It was probably the most suprising thing of the whole strange day.
“Carl.” said Carl, gradually lowering his hands to his side.
“Where are your clansmen, Wull?” A smaller man asked. His long greasy black hair almost covered his entire face.
“Wull?” Carl repeated, confusion evident in his tone, “I don’t-”
“What is your clan name?” The man with the sword barked. He was extremely tall, with a rotund belly and arms like tree trunks. He could flatten Carl with one blow, he didn’t need a sword to do his threatening.
“Uh- Grimes.” replied Carl, taking a wild stab that a surname was what they were after. It seemed he was correct, as the men looked between one another in interest, as if to see if the others recognised the name.
“Never met no Grimes man before. Who’s the Grimes?” The man asked.
Carl looked between the three suspicious faces, bewildered. He didn’t understand the question, or how to answer it in a way that wouldn’t get him killed.
“My family is from the South.” He tried, since lies were better if they were partly true, and he was from the South; just not the South of wherever this was.
Evidently, it was the wrong thing to say.
“The South!” roared the swordsman, “You very lost, Southron cunt! You a Riverlands man, eh?”
“No clans in Riverlands.” Countered the greasy-haired man. “Only in Vale and North.”
“True.” Grunted the swordsman, “Vale then, Southron cunt?”
“Er-” said Carl. “If I say yes will you kill me?”
For a moment, there was a long silence, before the swordsman began to laugh, his big belly wobbling as he moved. He sheathed his sword, and reached up to grab Carl by the shoulder, dragging him forward until he was surrounded by the unwashed warriors.
“We take you to the Flint. The Flint will know what to do with Grimes hill-man from the Vale, sneaking onto First Flint land.”
“I didn’t mean to tresspass on your land. I was only here to see the tree.” said Carl, since he had indeed come down from the tree, and there had been no other paths around it. Clearly these men had come to see it too.
“You worship old gods at the heart tree?” asked the swordsman, looking vaguely impressed. “You maybe not such a cunt, Vale man.”
It didn’t stop the men from biding his hands with rope, though the didn’t truss up his legs and carry him, desipte being big and burly enough to do so. Still, Carl figured the old gods were a point in his favour, and resolved to remember to lie about that again, when they reached “the Flint”, whoever that might be.