They wait beyond the wall, slithering things that hide beneath the earth, waiting to feed on the hearts of men. They are the Strings.
By Lydia Trethewey
Holding the lantern stretched out before him, Aric loses himself into the nebulous dancing of its solitary flame. Mesmerising, it illuminates a faint miasma in the air. The silent wind caresses the dirty glass. Aric find this unnerving, thinks that on such a bastard night the wind should howl. There are no trees, no structures, not a living thing for it to howl through.
Aric conjures comforting pictures in his mind, a game to force each step: the dripping dampness of a summer forest, a place where the sky is covered, where the fading stars don’t reach down from an abysmally vast night. The village behind him, his mother wrapped in her purple shawls, a yellow fire crackling warmth. A time before they’d climbed up this forsaken plateau, before the forests burned. He suppresses the other image, the real one, starving people digging up decomposing corpses, fighting the worms for food.
Nobody asked him if he was ready to be a hero. Showing no emotion, his wizened mother told him to fill his boots with snow, just in case. Everybody knows what happened when a living thing presses its heat against the earth.
Aric shuts his eyes. The lantern flame remains, burnt onto the underside of his lids. He is a man, but tonight he feels so young.
His foot catches a concealed rock. As if in slow motion, Aric finds his arms flung out, the lantern spinning a fitful arc, his mouth open and emitting the only sound to pierce the empty night.
The world goes dark. Freezing fingers scrabble frantically at his throat. Aric pushes himself bodily from the snow, knees against the cold earth, but the ice is in his chest. Panicked, he rips off one glove and presses two fingers against his neck. It is wet, but whether with blood or water he cannot tell. Aric stands, and sees the dying light of the lantern not ten paces away.
If the winter weren’t the worst yet seen, he might have had a horse to ride, to lift him away from the things that creep, that slide on their bellies beneath the tainted snow. They come up through the ground, when the cold settles in and hapless animals try burrowing to safety, their warm bodies huddled against the frozen earth.
Nobody has ever seen the Strings. That’s what the villagers call them. If somebody collapsed from exhaustion outside the village wall, the Strings would slither through the exposed skin as if worldly barriers meant nothing, and feed inside the still beating heart. They only attacked outside the village wall, as if they found too much life repulsive.
Aric locates the lantern, picks it up. The flame is flickering back to life. A powdered magic, an undying fire. As he watches two holes form in the blazing tendrils, thumb sized vortexes. A pair of hollow eyes look out from in the nebulous flames, compelling him onwards, silently communicating an inarguable truth. He will survive. Aric wants to weep, though whether because he’s saved or because he’ll never reach the neighbouring village he knows not.
Slowly Aric turns to the trail of footprints stretching out behind him. Lifting his numb feet he heads back the way he came.
The familiar wall looms large.
“Aric? What are ya doin’ back so soon?” shouts a disbelieving voice from above the gate. Vara, head of the night watch, is angry.
She hurls the insult into the hollow night and disappears below.
Aric swallows and finds relief overpowering shame. The strings will leave his body when he gets inside those walls. They will not bind him to the freezing earth this night.
He rubs the skin around his throat and waits for the gate to swing open.
The silent wind brushes his cheeks.
His shadow dances lonely upon the wall.
Never before has the lantern been wrong.