Hugh’s father was burned on a pyre without Hugh present. He was given the services of a hero, not an enemy of war.
Hugh didn’t eat or drink anything for days. He just stayed in bed, the sheets wrapped tight around him, staring at the wall, the ceiling, the headboard, sometimes just burying his face in his pillow and crying.
The twins came in and tried to talk to him
“There was nothing else you could do,” said the dwarf.
“You saved the city,” said the giant.
Hugh simply lay motionless.
Theora stopped by and left a pitcher of water next to his bed.
“I know how it feels to lose a father,” she said. “It will get better with time. Try to eat or drink something.”
Theoson dropped in and kicked him once, then again and again, never getting Hugh to acknowledge him.
“Get up you lazy wretch,” he said. “You can’t just lie around feeling sorry for yourself forever.”
Zeke came over, then Herbert, and even Walker on the third day, who pleaded with Hugh to eat or drink something. Zeke told him how he understood that it would take time for him to get over his loss. Herbert reminded Hugh of the loss of his son in the very same war, reminding him that it will not be in vain. Walker stayed the longest, making promises of a monument, offers material goods and visceral pleasures.
Everyone left food and drink for him, and by the third day, some of it (the fish in particular) had turned so rank that Hugh couldn’t stand the smell of it anymore, so he got up and took a walk.
He had intended to walk to the woods, but once he was there, he couldn’t find any place worth stopping, so he just kept going. He trudged over rotting logs, rustling through several inches of fallen leaves.
After walking all day, he emerged from the forest and found himself at a stream shortly after nightfall. He followed it up, crossing hills which got increasingly steeper, until morning was breaking and he had reached the foot of a tall peak.
He sat down and slept against a boulder for a time, and when he woke up, he made his way to the top of the mountain. During his entire climb, he felt an impending sense of finality. He believed this might be one of the last things he ever did.
From the top, he slowly looked in every direction. One way had more mountains, another had a distant lake. Another was the way he had come from, with a stream and off, in the distance, the woods near Polity. Still another direction had farms in tight, neatly trimmed rows, which seemed to flow over the hilly countryside like wet hair that had been freshly combed.
Hugh gazed all around him, and the only thing he could think was: what did it matter? He wished he was home on his island. He wished he had never left. He wished the old man had never shown up on his quiet shore. He wished he could curl up in a ball so tight that he just disappeared into nothing.
He was tired, but not the kind of tired one feels after climbing a mountain. His muscles did not ache, his joints were not tight from exerted effort, his fingers were not sore. Rather, his very being felt worn out, like he had aged centuries overnight. He felt exhausted to his very being, and he wished he was still in bed.
He sat on a rock and look out towards Polity, but all he could see was mist hanging over the distant trees. He closed his eye, and images of his dying father flashed in his mind. He saw the sword come down. He teared up and his nose became instantly stuffy. He shook his head and screamed.
“Do you have to mourn so loudly?”
Hugh stood and whirled around to see Grandmama standing behind him.
“Where did you come from?” asked Hugh.
She chuckled. “Oh… if only you knew the true implications of that question… but, for the purposes of this little meeting, I have come because I was needed.”
“You’re going to kill yourself,” she said.
Hugh looked down at his feet.
“Don’t be ashamed,” she said as she hobbled closer to him. She brought her cane to his chin and raised it up to look him square in his face. “We all lose heart, from time to time.”
“You’re like the others,” said Hugh.
“How do you mean?” she asked.
“Everyone seems to think they know what I’m going through.”
She shrugged. “We’ve all lost someone we loved in this war.”
“And how many of them killed their father by their own hand?”
She smiled. “I would hope you were the only one.”
“I know about the prophecy,” she said. “I’m not sure it’s very powerful if you kill yourself to make it come true.”
“Who said I’m going to kill myself?”
She winked. “Some things you don’t have to tell Grandmama; she just knows. You should at least have something to drink before you end your life. You don’t want to lay dying with a parched throat, do you?”
She turned and began walking away, motioning for him to follow. They came to a stream that forked off in the distance. Hugh bent down and took a drink of the cool, crisp water.
“This is a rather famous stream. It has many names, but what you call it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that it is a tool of the divas.” She pointed to the fork. “One side drains calmly into the river Lys, which will take you right back to Polity. The other… well… won’t.”
“Oh? And where does it lead?”
“No one knows, exactly,” she replied. “There are those who say it flows directly into the frozen caverns of Hel. Others say it’s just a deep sinkhole, but this much is known: nothing that tumbles over the cliff edge is ever seen again.”
Hugh stared at the fork. “Which way is which?”
“It’s best if you don’t know.”
Hugh looked back at Grandmama. “Can I talk to my mother and father one more time?”
“I could perform another blood ritual and you could communicate with your mother… but she doesn’t want to speak with you. She isn’t disappointed in you, so don’t worry. Rather, I think she doesn’t like me, or at least she doesn’t like what I stand for. I could summon her again, but I know what she would say: she just wants you to be good. I can never allow you to talk to your father, though.”
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I don’t make the rules, I only follow them. As soon as she heard, Theora came to me to try to bring peace to your pain… but when we tried to conjure up your father’s shade, he was nowhere to be found. I could not find him anywhere in the halls of the dead. It was almost as if he had never died, like he was still alive somewhere else.”
Hugh stood silently.
“Your mother, on the other hand, suggested I meet you here, a spot where many have left their future open to the Fates by floating down the stream and allowing themselves to be carried to their destiny.”
“This was her idea?” asked Hugh.
“No, she merely said this was where I would find you. Perhaps this is what she wanted, but if you were my son, I would not have you risking your life and throwing it to the whim of the divas. They have a tendency to be merciless towards those who test them. I would never tempt immortal beings who suffer from boredom. They have a tendency to favor… let us call them ‘dramatic outcomes.’”
“So, if I just allow the water to carry me away, I put my fate in the hands of the divas?”
She shrugged. “Well, that or random chance, if you believe in such a thing. Who’s to say, really?”
“You aren’t even sure?”
“How can we be sure of anything in this world?” she asked. “I know what has been told to me, and they know what they were told. Maybe someone along the line just made it all up. Maybe all that we ‘know’ are stories from the mind of some creative poet, or a lunatic.”
Hugh frowned and furrowed his brow. He walked over to the edge of the water and watched it rippling by.
“I cannot offer you certainty, that much I know,” she said. “If I were you, I would make my own decision. Go back to Polity and keep fighting, or flee with those you love and find a place to live the rest of your days in peace. If you have a death wish, then fling yourself from a cliff. In my view, what you do is not as important as your fate being in your own hands.”
Grandmama continued. “Most people are like you. They would just as soon have the world make their decisions for them. That’s fine, I can understand the impulse to allow others to make the hard choices, but that isn’t for me. My profession, whether you see me as a witch or a shaman, is one which is defined by my desire for control. If I were the sort of person who let the world define me, I would never have sought the powers I have.
“Why, I am so accustomed to making my own decisions that people from all over come to me to make their decisions for them. They seek my advice because they are unaccustomed to judging for themselves what they ought to do. It’s… sad, really.”
“I suppose there’s a feeling that it absolves one of the responsibility when it comes to the consequences,” said Hugh.
Grandmama tsk-tsk-tsked him. “No, quite the opposite, my child. If you choose to let others choose for you, you have still made a choice. No one is guilty of the decisions we make except ourselves. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you can begin working out who you want to be, and how you must go about becoming that person.”
“I’m ready to make decisions for myself,” he said.
“Of course you are,” she replied. “You have been making them all along, even when you decided to go along with what others told you. And you may find that what others suggest is right, so there’s no shame in agreeing. What is important is that you always maintain the ability to say, ‘No.’”
Hugh knelt down before the water. “You would advise me against going with the flow, then?”
“I believe you would be a fool to do so,” she replied.
“You have presented me with a conundrum, then,” he said. “If I follow your advice and do not enter the stream, I am doing what you suggested. If I ignore your advice… I am still undeniably putting my destiny in the hands of the Fates.”
Grandmama smiled. “You’re a bright one. You must realize there is another option.”
Hugh blinked a few times, then looked at the fork.
He turned back to Grandmama. “If I am never heard from again, can you relay a message for me?”
“Of course,” she said, nodding.
“Tell Theora that the twins should return home. I would also rest easier in the next life if I knew she went with them.”
“I will tell her, though I cannot promise they will heed your words,” she said.
Hugh walked into the water and began swimming towards the left fork.
To be continued…