This time, we deal with choices. The short story of the Black Weald started out as a simple scene in my mind, and turned over the course of several weeks into the answer to a question.
What was the bravest choice you ever made? What was the worst one? And, when you look back, were they really choices, or was it fate driving you to one singular outcome? Is each speck of dust predetermined in its actions, or are we all free to choose?
The Black Weald
The underground hall was not grimy, not even wet, though it shimmered and glittered the sparse lighting back at us as though it was. I’d been told that is was because of the minerals that grew here, close to the gate. The temperature began to drop as we walked further.
When it was time to put on my blindfold, my breath was visible and my feet were numb.
I hated no single thing in the world as much as I hated the blindfold.
There were two lines; one of black quilted fabric, soft, impenetrable, darker than any night I’d ever known, ran over my eyes. The other was a line of thin delicate gold that ran just slightly above my thin black eyebrows. If the blindfold was taken off without the proper handling and gloves, or even if it was subjected to a rough time on the wearer, like a fall, it would break.
Before my feet had touched the tile this morning, another Diviner’s blood had hit the floor where I stood. My eyes were searching the dark glistening ground, looking for the stains.
“It will be okay.” Bennato, the anchor, gently put on my blindfold, carefully he laid the gold line over my face. “Your bravery will earn you great rewards,” Bennato recited the motto of the Diviner. “Each time you return, you get closer to the life you want. And, you will return.” He said. I couldn’t see anymore, but I knew Bennato’s face so well that I could still clearly imagine it. His black eyes were always watery, as if on the very edge of sad. He was not old, but had shadows and lines in his round face that even the elderly usually lacked. His face was always the last thing I was allowed to see before entering the gate to the Black Weald.
But it was always the crisper voice of the King’s Minister that I heard last.
“Do you know your question?” She asked. I couldn’t ever picture anything about her but her tightly pulled back hair and green eyes that were wide- as if waiting to hear the rest of an important story.
“What is the best course of action in the matter of the West Border Dispute?”
“War. West Border War. Enough people are dead now that we can call it that.” She said. “You really should be paying more attention. Do you understand your draw?”
“I do.” I said, shaking now.
“Then say it.” She said.
“The present issue, the best course of action, and the future outcome.” Three rune questions were lucky, some were seven or more.
“You need to do better than your predecessor. We’re counting on you.” The King’s Minister sounded deflated suddenly. I wondered if it was her that had killed the other Diviner.
“If anyone can bring us answers, it’s this one.” I felt Bennato slip my medicine bag over my shoulders, then touch my shoulder briefly.
The sounds of the underground gate could be heard throughout the palace each time they were opened. But standing before them frozen and blind made the grinding of the great stone sting my ears. The noise of walking into hell was mercilessly abrasive.
And worse than that was the following silence as I walked, crossed the line of the open gates. I knew Bennato waited there for me, but could only hear my own footsteps and breath. As the Anchor, Bennato would guard the gate, would hold it open for exactly one hour and wait for my return. If the window of time passed, the Diviner would be trapped until the next draw, and I’d never met one who had survived that.
Every step was a battle. Each one took me away from safety and any remaining warmth.
The Black Weald didn’t have seasons, it had moods. It was winter right now: there were ice-tipped thorns, and I could feel snow falling. I hated my blindfold first in all the world. And the winter of the Black Weald second. It could numb your face so that you could not ask your question, it could steal the movement of your limbs so that you would never escape.
I stepped into piles of slush on the dusty ground, it hadn’t been snowing for long and that at least was fortunate. The walk to find the Black Weald could take seconds or use up most of the hour.
The noise of it was a creaking, like a hundred-year-old tree moving with great agility. All Diviners were given bladed belts that ran down the outer sides of both legs, for very often it would be a series of running jumps to climb the Black Weald, and rooting the blades into its ground would prevent a deadly fall.
I cut the heel of my foot on something sharp, and immediately stopped moving. I knelt to remove what was stuck and was surprised to find glass. It had a rounded edge, and a soft nipple shape like that of a baby’s bottle, but my foot had found the jagged side. Human things were never here, they had no place here. I put the broken thing a few feet away. If I took it with me, the King and his Minister would see it upon emptying my medicine bag, but I wanted to see for sure what it was and thought I might risk it on the way back if I had time. I hoped I wouldn’t step on it a second time, I felt blood stick my foot to the ground as I walked. I’d probably been drawn to the object and would have to be careful. Diviners were chosen by how magnetic their touch was to things that matter. Every dispensable child was tested. And any of them unlucky enough to be inhumanely lucky would find themselves in the King’s court, as a Diviner. If they refused, they were sacrificed. A job based on the near assurance of a frightful death isn’t very popular.
There were little taps. Moving little taps. Scuttling around my left. That was a new sound, and I died to not be able to remove my blindfold. It stopped suddenly.
But, I couldn’t wait for it to return…
Finally, the creaking. It was along the right hand side of the cliff, and very close. Moving slowly. Slowly was fantastic. Slowly was safe, slowly was calm. I waited for the moment when the noise and the feeling of its movement passed alongside me before jumping.
I fell for three seconds.
That was too long, it must have ducked down just before I jumped, or maybe I misheard.
My hip had been hurt. I’d landed on my left side, my bladed belts were stuck deep in its earthy flesh. I began to gently pull out each spike by lifting out my leg with my hands, each time I moved my left side a lightning bolt of soreness hit, and pain made things so slow.
The snow had stopped falling, and now it was a chilling rain. Between the wet, the cold, and the injury, I felt as though I couldn’t move anymore. I lied down on the Black Weald, who was still moving, still forcefully creaking about. This is how we die, I thought. This is how we never come back through the gate. More frightened than run down, I managed to work free the last of my spikes from the skin, and started to crawl forward, clinging to hard rocky crevices and thick moss growing over stone scales.
The Black Weald turned suddenly, rolling sideways. I drove my right leg’s bladed belt into it, but it was rolling, rolling like it wanted to knock me off. I heard thunder so loud I thought it broke everything apart.
I realized, when everything hurt at once, that it had succeeded. I’d fallen, everything surrounding my body was jagged, and I felt the wounds open and release warming blood that quickly turned cold again. The creaking had stopped, and the ambient noise was such that I knew the face of the Black Weald was upon me. Far worse, I could see a small portion of its body. I could see.
I reached for my blindfold, the golden and delicate line was snapped.
And I could see.
“Do you wait to die? Wait for them to forget they want your kind to disappear?” its voice was always a cacophony of thirty voices at least, all in the wrong pitch. It drove some diviners to choose execution rather than return to this hell and speak with the creature again, it was physically and emotionally painful to absorb even the shortest sentences. And you could not draw runes from the land without its permission. I fought back crying, but I couldn’t speak yet. Everything was focused on getting up, making sure after two falls that I could get up.
I stood, but I knew I could not run. I pulled off my blindfold, which was glued to my black hair with some blood, to stare at what was before me. A giant living snake mountain, not so unlike as I had dreamed, but far larger than I’d imagined. The Black Weald carried along the sections of its back a leafless collection of charcoal trees rising up as ominous spines. The face, not six feet from my own, was just a mask of petrified wood with two holes for the eyes, which were dripping black sludge onto the ground. Beneath that tiny mask, a mouth of ten foot teeth like razors that split open the mountain in a zipper-like fashion: A nightmare so far from anything in our world that it was unfathomable.
“Will you draw your runes?” The Black Weald did not move the nightmare mouth when it spoke. I saw with my own eyes the source of the creaking always accompanying it-the line of black trees upon its back weaved back and forth, like spines of some dark water monster in wait. It appeared to be controlled movement. Which could only mean it was manipulating the Diviner’s senses who tracked it. “Will you not draw your runes?” It asked again. “The other one already brought the same runes back, right and true. I see that, as suspected, they’ve killed her.”
“Yes.” It was all I could say.
“Draw your runes.” It said. I’d be killed. I’d be run down for having opened my eyes upon this hell. But I was being pulled. The urge to touch them was dragging my body around the dried human bones and blackened dirt. Curled inside the failed roots of a petrified tree was the rune singing for me, Thurisaz. The hammer. The warning of a monster. A representation of peril and power. I placed it inside my medicine bag, secure and facing the way I’d drawn it, inside a clasp to hold it still. I hobbled, pulled again, some distance into a pile of bones, all crushed apart, and thankfully dry, except what appeared to be a rib cage. Inside the wet red spikes was a bit of flesh, and the stone rune. I pulled it out, managing not to be sick, but thankful for the years of blindness. Even the sky, reddened and littered with stars was dizzying and violently offered to swallow anyone who stared into it. I wiped the gore from the rune’s slick face to find Fehu, but upside down. Poverty, ill luck. It meant the army of the Western border would starve us out, and we’d lose the battle. The runes were clear. I fastened Fehu in its place, the points of its normally cheery symbol hanging down and forlorn, in my bag.
With speed I didn’t know it had, and quiet I couldn’t wrap my head around, the Black Weald lowered its towering head to my face. The smell of burning metal strangled me, and I fought not to choke out of fear. My hand, braver than my thinking body, moved toward the pull, toward the fake gelatinous eye of the creature. I reached gently into the black sludge of the cavity to find something hard.
I pulled out the rune, and a thicker trail of dark slime fell out along with a few strings of blood. Once again I wiped the gore and grime off the stone. And nothing. A blank face. I did the same with the opposite side. Still nothing. I’d made a mistake. I’d made a terrible mistake. Wyrd. The empty void. The universe, or fate. The openness of the future refusing to call out any destiny at all. Even if I had not broken my blindfold, I would be killed for this reading. Warm tears finally filled up my eyes. My blood would be another stain in the glistening hallway. Or the dangerous thing that danced before me, and whose body I’d torn my cursed rune from, would add me to its boneyard.
“Wyrd. You are a very lucky one.” It said.
“I know you understand that I can’t bring this back.” I said. “And I can’t go back, I’ve broken…It doesn’t matter.” I swallowed. Bravery. Bravery in the face of death mattered. I put Wyrd in its place.
“Why did you give this to me?”
“The humans gave me something. It doesn’t belong here, doesn’t belong in perpetual night any more than I do.” The Black Weald said. “You have the option to choose how you shape your fate. You must be the one to fix or undo.” I heard the uneven rhythm again, the padding of feet. I turned, afraid of what creature could move around here unharmed.
“That can’t be. That’s not real.” I said. The child, a toddler, so like the King’s daughter, padded to me, her clothes blackened, and her dirty blanket in her teeth. She put up her arms for me to pick her up, and I did. Her face was ruddy, and dirt and blood were smeared into her golden curls, but she looked otherwise unharmed. “Why is she here?”
I unbuckled my bladed belt from my deadened left side and wrapped it around my free hand. I couldn’t kill the Black Weald. But maybe I could let the baby escape. I’d seen her, mostly through the corners of my eye, as she’d grown from a tiny curled thing into a wispy toddling one. I didn’t know her real name. Diviner’s were limited in their interaction with the everyday, especially with royalty. They’d told us, in whispers, that she refused to speak unless taken to the gate. Refused to do anything but sit and babble at the closed stone door. I’d been told just a week ago that the King’s wife had given a speech, a horrible thing about how she’d sent her youngest daughter away for treatment. This is what she must have meant.
She’d been thrown away in here to die.
“The pull of this world is part of what makes Diviners.” The Black Weald moved its dark forest, creaking so loudly it hurt my ears, but the child put her head on my shoulder and slept. I wondered how long she’d wandered here, feeling so alone and unsafe that she dared not rest. “Those who can understand are drawn here, drawn to us.”
“Us?” I whispered. A bolt of lightning broke the reddened night sky and in the distance were the great and heavy outlines of other creatures, other Black Wealds. “What is this place, really?”
“A prison.” A strong wind kicked up debris and bone around us. “We were part of the world beyond the gate. This is why they must return here for our guidance. This is why some humans are born able to help map the future for those who could not live with us. We are the Black Forests. The beginnings.” More lightning, with louder thunder and heavier rain this time. I watched the dark winding silhouettes of the Black Wealds in the distance curling up on themselves. “Only a human can open this gate. Only a human can decide. Wyrd has chosen you.”
The child was heavy, dead to the world sleeping. I sank to the ground with her in my arms as the rain hit hard. “I have no idea what you’d do to our world if-”
“It is our world.” The Black Weald said, so loud and with so many voices that it stunned me. It lowered itself to the ground as if it were bowing. The toddler’s grey eyes opened and she took one arm and wrapped it around my shoulder and began to tap. I figured out that this meant to let her go, and she put her blanket back in her teeth and ran to the Black Weald, crawling upon it like it was some toy horse. Without fear, she went to the nearest leafless black tree and sat down under it. I was frightened for her, but I realized I hadn’t been scared when she was in our world, a world where someone threw her away into what they thought was certain death. I had less logical reasons for being frightened here for her, and for myself.
What was this creature in comparison? A ghost, a seemingly kind ghost, trapped in a tomb and tapped for information we thought useful.
“Be careful,” I told the girl. I climbed up after her, ignoring the pain it caused me and minding the petrified mask and the mouth, and picked her up again. She touched my face softly, and she was shivering for enduring all the wind and rain.
“It’s too cold for us here.” I said. “Can you stop the rain?”
“No more than you can stop your tears.” It said. The creaking started from behind us, and the tree and it’s burnt black vines stretched out overhead, guarding us from the worst of it. The child was thrilled, and took to grabbing the lowest branches and swinging on them. I sat beneath her, on my right side, and dug my bladed belts into the ground to secure myself.
“Tell me what to do,” I said. “Take me to the gate and tell me what to do.”
With no answer back, it began moving slowly forward. Even slowly, the great thing covered more ground in seconds than a person could in half an hour. With new eyes I watched the landscape I’d been forced to travel my whole life, the real dangers of it. I saw the broken baby bottle I’d been drawn to, and wondered who’d given the Princess food.
Too soon, the Black Weald stopped near the cliff and the gate I’d walked through so many times before. It was closed, as I’d known it would be, having passed the time limit for Bennato to wait at the entrance. The Black Weald rested its front half on the dusty cliff with a sliding crash, I wrapped my arms around the child, but we weren’t tossed in any direction.
“All you must do is decide.”
“What will happen to us if I don’t open the gate for you?”
“Then we will continue our search for one who will.” The Black Weald said.
“You won’t kill me? What about the girl?”
“We could have already killed her. And you may stay and wait with us for the one who will decide to free us all. Humans can survive for some time beyond the gate, though you’ll find nothing you may eat here among us, and the cold poses its own danger.”
“So I must decide to let you back in, or I must wait with you, or I can return and be killed?”
“Yes. You must decide.”
I unhinged my bladed belt and walked down the Black Weald’s side while holding the girl’s tiny hand. “Can I choose to let her back inside?”
“Yes.” I knew that returning the discarded Princess meant she would likely be killed, and surely she would be if I returned or was seen with her, especially with no blindfold to protect from the Black Weald’s influence. They would claim we were bewitched, or cursed. But I needed to try and test how far the creature would bend to accommodate her life.
I unclasped the runes from my pack and took them out. The girl took Thurisaz and Fehu, clapping them together like instruments and smiling. All I had left was Wyrd. Fate. The Universe of our own making.
There wasn’t a choice. There was never a choice. It was always a matter of following fate, or perishing.
With the blank rune still in my hand, burning cold into my palm, I pressed my body against the stone gate and shoved it open so quickly that it seemed impossible.
Bennato was there, astonished, his dark eyes wet with tears. “You came back! Where is your blindfold? You can’t-” The Black Weald knocked me aside as it fought to enter our world. As it passed Bennato, I watched his skin turn a sick light blue, and he dropped lifeless to the ground. I heard loud crying, the Princess ran to me with tears running down her face. I grabbed her, and we ducked down alongside the gate. I held her face to my shoulder. More of the creatures flew into the opening, but none wore the petrified mask our Black Weald had worn.
We could hear the very human screaming. I tried to distract the child with a song about a lonely spider, and she didn’t cry, but kept her blanket alongside her face as a sign of distress. Eventually, it was quiet. Eventually she fell asleep again, and I was too terrified to move. A blue was settling into the heavy screen of stars, and it was stealing the cold from this place.
I breathed in the Princess’s hair, which though dirty, still had a baby smell to it.
I wondered how different the world would be now, under the powers of the Black Weald. I wondered if, in this remaking of the universe, we would have real choices. Something the size of a serving plate rolled over to my feet and flipped over. It was the mask. It cracked as it blinked and moved, and whispered, “Thank you.”