Simon pushed his vendor’s cart down the muddy lane toward his small hut. Simon was the only one who used the narrow alley between two larger houses, as his hut sealed the alley, preventing other traffic. Often he had considered fetching some flagstones and paving the dirt lane, but it always seemed easier to just push the cart through the mud — just one more compromise in a life of compromises. Once at the end, he slipped the cart alongside the wall, pushing a small stone under one wheel to hold it in place. Only then did he stop for a moment, looking up at the glowing arrowhead newly appeared in the night sky. Apprehension clenched his stomach as he noted that it was brighter tonight than yesterday. It was almost a mene before he moved again.
With his cart safely parked beside his house, Simon carefully lit his small lamp and stepped inside his hut. He surveyed the contents of his home with an appraising eye. A lifetime of possessions were arrayed before him. Over the years the lesser used items had slowly migrated to the rear of the hut, where they now stood in silent witness to his many travels. The story of his life lay there, to anyone who could read it.
Among the clutter, a few things stood out. Toward the front was his seaman’s chest, now mostly used for holding clothes. Beside it was his fishing gear and rods. In the front left corner was a narrow but sturdy table, its simple wooden surface marred with innumerable cuts from years of slicing, dicing, filleting, mincing, paring and otherwise preparing food for cooking. On a shelf above it were his carefully sealed jars of spices and herbs: all ingredients for his stew. Hanging on the right wall was his hammock, stowed for the day. Beside it was an oilskin-covered window. Below it was a shelf, with his tools and utensils, along with his inkpot, pen, and a solitary scroll.
Simon picked his way over to that shelf and set his lamp down. He picked up the scroll and carefully unrolled it. The first thing that appeared was a series of notes, written in the graceful script of a captain long dead. The notes were actually a manifest: an inventory of goods acquired and prices paid. As Simon unrolled the scroll further, a map appeared, the original use of the scroll. Finely colored and quite accurate, it was a survey of a port further south. Simon stared at it for a long time, expressions flickering across his face as memories flowed through his mind. When he finally continued unrolling, he saw another cargo manifest, this time in his own hand. He frowned, eyes watering ever so slightly.
Simon squinted as he tried to read the manifest. He held the scroll closer to the lamp, but still his aging eyes could not quite make out the characters in the flickering light. Sighing, he turned and held up the scroll in the dim light coming through the window. That yielded no better results. Again he sighed, slowly lowering the scroll. For a time he stared out the window at the dark. He then returned to the lamp on the shelf.
Simon unrolled the rest of the scroll. He didn’t need to be able to read the scroll to know what was there. Old notes from meetings long ago gave way to more recent records of transactions and accounts from his life in Dargon. Simon noticed that as the entries became more recent the letters grew larger, and easier to read. Names like Aardvard Factotum and Levy Barel made appearances, as the entries became less businesslike and more philosophical. When he had finished reading the last entry, Simon continued unfurling the scroll until the end. There remained perhaps a handsbreadth of empty space at the end, and the entire backside could be used; the scroll was still quite valuable. He had occasionally considered selling it, along with another item he no longer had much need of.
Simon reached for that item now. It was a clay cylinder with a simple lid that sat on the shelf beside the inkpot. Simon lifted and opened it. He removed a small leather sack from the jar, then upended the jar and shook something out onto his hand. It was a flat, brass cylinder with a glass cover. Inside was a thin iron needle, balanced on a pivot. As Simon turned the cylinder about, the needle pointed in the same direction, heedless of the movement. Simon carefully set the device on the shelf and waited while the needle settled into position, pointing just a bit off the sailor’s star.
Simon turned back to the window and looked up. He stood for a long time, watching as clouds alternately hid and revealed the ghastly, glowing vision filling the heavens. Unlike the magic, navigating needle, the heavenly visitor was oriented toward the setting sun. Simon wondered if that was mere coincidence or if it hid a deeper, more sinister meaning. He returned once more to the shelf. He carefully considered the scroll, turning it over in his hand and feeling the texture of the material, as if weighing it. He then picked up his pen and opened the inkpot. Dipping the pen in the pot, he began to make a list of items in the shack. Beside each one he appended a name.
He hadn’t gotten far when a clatter outside drew him to the door. A figure was huddled against the wall near the mouth of the alley.
“Who’s there?” Simon called. A gasp answered.
“Oh, Simon, you frightened me,” came the reply. Simon seized the lamp and strode down the alley. The dim light revealed the face of Dralyn Kepson, a guardsman. Relief almost hid the fright on the man’s face.
“I … I dropped my sword,” he stammered, scrabbling on the ground for the lost item. Simon wasn’t surprised; new guardsmen often used his alleyway to relieve themselves until they realized it was occupied. He noted, however, that Dralyn’s belt was still fastened, and his scabbard was in place, but empty. The sword had not fallen, but had been dropped.
“Why did you draw your sword?” Simon asked. He cast about for any nasty characters, but the street was deserted.
“Um, … uh, nothing, nothing, just checking its edge. It was hanging uncomfortable, anyway.” Dralyn’s breath was laden, however, and Simon felt that there was more to the story.
“Have you … eaten … this watch?” Simon asked, knowing the penalty for drinking on duty.
“We’re not supposed …” Dralyn started, but Simon took him by the arm and steered him down the alley.
“Koren never minds you carrying a bite with you as you walk,” Simon explained to the young man. “Besides, I’ve had problems with rats lately — I need you to watch while I empty my cart.”
“Rats, yes, rats. I’ll watch while you … while you work.” Dralyn held up his newly retrieved blade, mud smearing the edge.
Simon opened up his cart again. He cast an appraising eye at the tipsy guard, then deliberately reached for a hefty portion of his infamous sun-sweet stew. He handed a round of bread with the wicked mess to the young man, who, unaware, took a large and hasty bite. Simon smiled and began shuffling things about in his cart, never really moving anything.
“How has the watch been?” he asked.
“It’s quieter now. Folks have mostly … ” The reply trailed off as tears sprang from the poor fellow’s eyes and sweat beaded on his face. Simon watched, struggling to keep a straight face. The odor of the stew would mask anything else, and sweating would purge the alcohol from Dralyn’s blood. The pain was a small price to pay for insurance against the devastation of being discovered drunk on duty.
“Damn, Simon!” Dralyn finally choked out. “What did you give me?”
“Something to keep you awake,” he explained. “Can’t have you nodding off while on duty, can we?”
Dralyn looked askance at Simon, but took another bite nonetheless. Simon unconsciously glanced up at the fell light overhead as he waited for the guard to swallow. Simon didn’t wonder why the man had been drinking. After two days under the baleful stare of the celestial monster the inns were running low on beer, wine, cider, anything that might bring a moment’s escape. The townsfolk were running scared, and Simon didn’t blame them. Scores had left, although from what Simon had heard, the awful vision was the same everywhere. The temples were filled with supplicants, and there had even been looting in the bad parts of town.
“Don’t look at it!” hissed Dralyn suddenly, drawing Simon back down. The young man’s eyes were wide, and fear had crowded back in.
“They say it will steal your soul if you look at it too long.” Dralyn cast a fearful but brief glance upward and made a magic sign to ward off evil. Simon marveled — he knew the young guard slightly, and had always been impressed at his rationality. Simon could see now that it had been merely a thin shell, easily shattered by the strangeness of the real world. Simon had seen many amazing sights lately — the whole town was affected by the celestial visitor. It was driving people to do strange things — drink, fights, flight, even to take stock of their lives, Simon reflected ruefully.
“Who says that?” Simon finally replied.
“Roji said that the priest said it last time he was at temple,” Dralyn explained. “He says that it,” he made a furtive gesture upward, “is sent by the gods to punish the evil and steal the souls of the weak.”
Simon studied the man a moment. “Are you weak, Dralyn?”
Dralyn stopped for a moment, staring at Simon, as if suddenly aware that the stew vendor could read his inner being. After a moment he waved the stew at Simon.
“Why did you give me the real hot stuff? It nearly killed me.”
Simon frowned. “What do they do with guards who drink on duty?”
“No one cares,” Dralyn muttered, “not anymore. Nothing matters anymore. Some of the priests are saying that all of Dargon will be destroyed unless something is done,” Dralyn continued.
“What needs to be done, Dralyn?”
“The Duke needs to make a sacrifice,” Dralyn explained. “We’re all going to die unless he does something.” Perhaps it was the stew, perhaps it was the drink, perhaps it was something else, but tears were running down Dralyn’s cheeks from his wide eyes.
“Why? What kind of sacrifice?”
“I don’t know!” Anger was starting to leak into Dralyn’s voice. “All I know is that he needs to do something and he’s not! We can’t stop it — only he can!”
Simon reached inside his cart and took out a set of wooden rods bound together with cord and fabric. He let drop all but one, and the contraption opened out into a small, folding stool. He offered the stool to the guard, who took it, and then Simon sat himself down on the stoop.
“Dralyn, do you ever go to a temple?”
“Sometimes.” The guard took another, careful bite of the stew, chewing attentively.
“When was the last time you went to a temple?”
“Mmmmm, maybe a year,” came the crumbly reply.
“Did you ever hear of the story of Tred and the kellis-weed plant?”
“Well, Tred was walking through the garden, looking to pick some gourds. He picked a whole armful, more than he could really carry, actually. On his way back, he stumbled over a kellis-weed, and spilled all the gourds — every one was smashed. He went back to his house, and said to his wife ‘The kellis-plant needs to be uprooted, because it has destroyed all the gourds.’”
Dralyn paused halfway through a bite of stew, looking at Simon. “That’s supposed to mean something, isn’t it?”
“What do you think it means?”
Dralyn continued to eat. Simon shifted his weight on the cold steps, glancing up at the unwanted sign.
“Dralyn, did you ever think you were going to die?”
Dralyn considered, chewing. “During the war, I thought I was dead a couple of times.”
“You know, we only have so many days. Some say that our days are counted out for us at our birth. Others say we live longer or shorter depending on what we do and who we are. What do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
“Let’s say we only have so many days to live. We don’t know how many days there are, so we have to live just as if there were an uncertain amount, right?”
“Ummmmm, yeah, I suppose.”
“Some say that everything we will do is decided for us before we are born. Do you think that’s true?”
“Mmmmm,” he swallowed his bite, “mmm, no, I don’t think so. I think we all decide what we will do. Didn’t Stevene say that?”
“Why Dralyn, I didn’t know you were a Stevenic.”
“I’m not,” he replied defensively, holding his food at a careless angle. “But he did say that, didn’t he?”
“Hmmmm. Actually, no. But that’s beside the point. Let’s say for the moment that all our decisions are made for us already. We aren’t told what they are, so we have to live our lives as if we were making them, right?”
“Uh, … sure. Yeah. That’s right.”
Simon stared at the guard. A glimmer of understanding came into the man’s eyes.
“So if we live or die is up to us, is what you’re saying,” he commented, unheeding of the stew leaking out of his bread and into his boot.
“Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but even if our decisions are determined ahead of time, as far as we’re concerned, we still have to make them.”
“Hmmmm. And so you’re saying, as far as our lives go, we still have to live them, even if someone else is really in control, right?”
“Wouldn’t you think so?”
Dralyn nodded, rolling up the rest of the empty bread and stuffing it in his mouth. He arose, a thin trail of stew oozing out the top of his boot. “I need to be back on patrol. Thanks … thanks for the stew.” He nodded sagely. Simon could see the rational man was back again.
“Have a good evening, guardsman. Be careful who you talk to tonight — I don’t want to have to bury you in the morning.”
They both glanced upward.
“You won’t,” Dralyn answered, and plodded back toward the mouth of the alley. He paused a moment, shaking his boot and trying to scratch himself through it, then headed out into the night.
Simon resealed his cart and returned to his hut. He looked over the scroll, sitting on the shelf beside the magic needle. He took the device and shook it gently, but each time the needle returned to the same heading. Simon had bought it toward the end of his sailing career, but hadn’t used it much: he fairly well knew where he was going. He set it down, took up the pen again, and continued to lay out his life on the scroll for the future.