The Swimmer Part 3

Time to make up for the break Here is part 3 of The Swimmer. 

Link to part 1 and part 2.

This takes place in The Children of the Pantheon’s world. The first story, which is not directly connected to this, is Between Two Cities

The Swimmer (Part 3)

Jon floundered in mid-air, screaming. He tipped his feet forward, hunting for the ground with his toes. He scratched the soft soil with the tips of his toenails before rising farther. Like a swimmer slowly surfacing. He flung out his limbs. The trunk of the tree was a good two feet out of reach. He watched it sink. Jon rose belly down, felt the skin on his back being tugged upwards, the hairs on his spine tearing as if a God had grasped him with countless tiny fingers to pull him upwards, towards judgement. Jon stuttered “By…THE….hallowed names…thine kingdom come….WILL….Oh Gods…OH GODS!”  He climbed higher, mumbling a prayer, spittle raining out of his mouth. His sacrilegious writing stick and whittling stone eight feet below now.

A low branch bent against the small of his back. Jon felt it, uncomprehending, he thought the pressure on him was some kind of punishment. The wood began to crack and Jon finally threw his hands around his back, failing to grab hold of the branch. It bent farther upwards. He grazed his knuckles against it. The branch snapped and he continued to rise. As it fell he grabbed hold of it, waved it pointlessly.  Jon tried to turn his head, couldn’t enough to see if there were any more branches in reach.  He’d memorized the number of crenelations on the tower, the number of trees across the horizon, the shapes of the distant mountains but he’d not once tried to sketch the tree under which he took shade.  Jon had no idea how many branches he had left, passed another branch on the right, moaned “Noooo…” when it was out of reach. He was blinded by a flurry of leaves. Instinctively he brushed at his face. When the leaves finally stopped scratching at his cheeks it was too late. He had just about passed the peak of the tree. One final branch remained. His fingers clawed at empty air.

The Rock, The Shard, The Root. Jon dove. He flipped his legs upwards, head downwards, arms stroking the air. He kicked at the air, imagining water. For a moment he seemed to go lower, perhaps, perhaps not; it did not matter, he had successfully aligned himself feet up in the air, head down, closing the gap between him and the branch. He grabbed hold of it. Continued to rise, held onto the thick branch like a rope. It felt secure, as long as the Gods did not pull him any harder. Jon closed his eyes and started to pull himself down, hand over hand. He pretended he was climbing upwards. Three pulls and was nearly at the trunk. That was when he dropped.

His eyes shot open in that sickening moment. The branch between his hands tore a long graze down his palms, his his inner forearms. He grabbed hold and kicked at empty air, the sky and ground reasserting themselves. He mumbled “I’m so sorry.” towards the Gods who tossed him up and down as they pleased. They must have been watching, it did not matter that they were not overhead. They must have watched him scratching in the dirt for the last month, waiting with mounting apprehension for the moment to punish him. Jon dared to measure how far he was from the ground. A short fall if he prepared himself, but to risk it? He could try climbing down, had never climbed, not since Kulk did. No one climbed since Kulk did.

Jon let go.

Landed on his ankle sideways.

He stumbled, cursed: “Nononono…” Sat down on the ground and rubbed at his foot, pushing into his shin as if to squeeze the pain right out of it. He lay back. Underneath the changing, red-tinged sky the clouds blurred and broke as he allowed himself to sob. Then came the ragged breathing and the thundering panic in his chest. He got up and limped towards the river. He left the stick where it lay.

The swim back was the hardest he’d ever done. With one aching, twisted foot, he kicked, propelled not by the spark he’d felt only a few hours before, but by sheer unbridled desperation. He made it into the tunnel and almost opened his mouth to the water when the image of little Kulk’s empty sockets invaded that scrambling darkness. On the otherside Jon found The Shards in the river bed and scattered them with one careless, slapping hand. Finally he shoved off the bottom and emerged upwards. It was an effort just to tread water. He pulled himself along the wall till he reached a bank, dared not to look towards the fountain and past it to the others, back to the city and those plump childrens who slept in soft beds who had his friends whipped and his skin burned just because, just because of what- the Gods maybe. As if by not looking they would not be there. He noticed then that he had not cleaned his palms. The soil remained printed upon them. He looked and saw past the fountain. Two tiny islands of flesh floated on the water, impervious and oblivious.

Jon washed his hands thoroughly, eviscerating the dirt underneath his finger nails. Spotless, he limped back along the bank. When he was close enough to the others he slopped back into the water. The children finished playing. Their whoops and chortles faded into the late afternoon whilst Jon watched from the shore. When they had gone inside Marat came and demanded Jon change and follow, that there was work to be done by men and they needed boys to carry their tools. Jon lagged behind and Marat noticed immediately.

There were still two hours of sunlight left.

Jon did not scream until the seventh lash. With his hands tied above his head and the laughs of the children behind, Jon gritted his teeth against the stake he was tied to. His bound fingers scraped against the wood, tracing the same abominable pattern, over and over and over again, shuddering during a lash. He rubbed his thumb- one invisible, pointless act of defiance; he rubbed his thumb into the stake. It kept him from screaming. He had to focus. Each time the whip fell he’d sweep his thumb the way he swept that stick to make that sacrilegious, glowing rune. If the Gods were watching let them, they could not do to him anything worse than what men had. The final lash was held back my Marat, just long enough for Jon to loosen, for his mucles to relax. That suprise was the cruelest and drew a scream. Marat’s satisfaction could be heard then in his repetitive warning to the waiting slaves behind Jon.

He left Jon there till dusk. The slashes on his twelve-year old back wept. The red sun dispelled the drops of river water that clung to his exposed skin. Jon continued to trace that symbol invisibly in the air with his wiggling fingers, even after he could no longer feel them. He traced that symbol till it was as well known to him as the number of crenellations on that crumbling wall.

That night he slept on his stomach.

The next day he was assigned to the nave. Work fit for cripples, the sick, and women. Work that was out of the sun. When he walked into the temple the first thing he was told, by a crone behind a table at the far end was: “Gah, it’s too bright out there. Close the door slave.” He did and in that silence could only hear the sound of scratching, scratching, coming from the feather that danced above real paper. The priestess may or may not have smiled at Jon, but Jon did smile back. He limped forward till he was able to fix his eye on the purple liquid within the crystal by her side. She followed his gaze.

“It’s ink boy.”

Jon discarded his smile immediately, looking anywhere but at the ink bottle and the pile of paper beside it, focusing particularly on the old crone and her feeble movements. “It’s for writing boy. Symbols. Holy runes. Do you have any idea what I am talking about?”

“No.”

“Well. Let me teach you how to make my blasted tea then.”

Jon listened intently to the priestesses intricate instructions. He had never focused so hard on something then he had on making that tea. He summoned all he had learnt about being a scraping, pathetic, obsequious servant, watched her closely to anticipate the sundry needs she requested of him. When during the evening she said: “You will be here at dawn.” Jon had to hold back tears.

That night he slept on his stomach, tracing the symbol on the straw till he fell asleep.

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The Swimmer (part 2)

It’s like 3 AM and I’m completely shattered. So sadly this bit is short but it does continue the story. The next part tomorrow.
 
The Swimmer part 2
 
He started by sketching the crenelations of the walls. He didn’t have to look up to know exactly how many there were. When he reached the wall’s collapsed section he began to outline the wooden replacement- one rectangle, streaked with diagonals to denote the woodgrain. As he slashed the last diagonal the crenelations unraveled at the same rate at which he drew them, disappearing like a tugged out thread. Jon stopped to watch his walls disappear. He blew on the soil whilst the lines disappeared, as if it were him, rather than the Gods that undid his work. Then he smoothed brown soil onto his hands, so he could wash them in the river later. He dirtied himself on purpose so that the pleasure he took at the end of the ritual would be heightened, crested with just a dab of fear; if they carefully examined his nails they might wonder how the dirt got under after swimming. 
 
Jon traced the crenelations again. He skipped the wooden addition this time, drawing the wall as it had once been, no missing teeth, he had to sweep his body around to make space for more of the wall. twenty, fifty, ninety crenelations before they began to disappear. He could see them disappearing in the corner of his eye. He continued, drawing faster than the Gods could erase, till he’d swept a circle around himself- decided it was a birds perspective, started adding the curve of the river, the island in the pool, the slab of the keep, dots for trees and the outline of a flower, carefully drawn where Lady Misha’s garden was. The wall disappeared, left the city undefended. Jon focused, had finished the careful details of the stigma when the rest was obliterated. He had a moment to observe the flower in full before the garden return to bare soil. Jon panted out of concentration. He smiled, chuckled to himself.
 
He started again.
 
A race against the Gods. A warmup. He spent the next quarter of an hour improving his speed, flexing his hands and arms. This was better than doing just simple shapes, this was so much more fun; to sketch what he saw, as quickly as he could- the trees, an imagined bird, sometimes the clouds though his neck hurt from nodding up and down and up as he tried to capture the moving sky.
 
Finally he was ready.
 
He sketched abstract symbols that looked lke nothing. A sweep here, a curve there, random lines in the middle. The only rule was that he had stop right before they began to disappear. Then he had to weight and start all over again. Once, when he was younger he could have sworn he saw, during the festival of the Warlord’s fall, a tender scribe a symbol upon a broken down fishing boat. He painted it by flinging shots of white frlom an iron-banded bucket onto the hull. He restarted several times until he got it right, and around the symbol the broken wood re-knitted together. Jon went into the hollow and found the small box. He withdrew from inside the shards of paper, the marks on them meaningless to him as he was illiterate. He placed it on the dirt and drew around it, trying out variations that seemed similar to that hold memory. He’d spent so much time going through the permutations. Had tried to remember more clearly, to sift and interrogate his memories hoping to discard the impostors.
 
As usual nothing happened. Till in his frustration Jon drew a new sign. When it finished it seemed to shine. Then Jon floated off the ground, terrified.

cont tomorrow

Fantasy story excerpt: The Swimmer (Part 1)

Also set in the same world as Between Two Cities. This takes place three generations later. Too sleepy to edit, will tomorrow.

The Swimmer

The foreman had been ill for so long that the lashes on Jon’s back hadn’t just scabbed over, they had fallen off. According to the chalk on the Jubal tree he’d grown an entire foot. He made harpoons of the sticks at the bottom of the pool, threw them at the other children under the water where they couldn’t see, watched them sink, useless. The red sun hovered almost directly overhead and it was a clear, blue day, no Gods above or anywhere above the walled off horizon. Jon moved farther away from the children with each of their splashes, a receding wave, he tried to laugh in time to the others jokes. “JON! WHERE YOU GOING?”

“I want to swim to the fountain and back, maybe thirty times. Anyone else want to come?”

The chubby scions of House Kobar shook water from their heads, frowned and made disgusting sounds. Hak turned to the others and put two fingers together, as if holding a pen, then rotated them near his cheek. The others laughed. “Have a good swim slave.” Hak called.

Jon smiled and waved back: “Thanks!” He said. Jon held his polite smile till his back was turned, let it deepen as he thrust forward. His gratitude always confused them and Jon loved to confuse them. Between strokes, each time his head emerged he examined his whipchord limbs, honed over the last year with these lengths, these exercises done purely to disguise the truth. It was worth it. Jon swam around the corner of the wall to where the fountain stood on it’s tiny island. He treaded water and imagined the moss retreating from the white marble, the figure above, long since crumbled, being rebuilt, and as Marca had claimed, water spouting from the top to pour like rain over the surrounding pool. Jon hadn’t believed him. “Can no one fix it?”

Marca had said: “Willar Wall-builder could have, but we went blind, then died, and taught no on how to.”

“That’s pretty stupid. So it’s gone then?”

“All things pass Jon. Nothing lasts but the stories we tell.”

“That’s not true Marca.” Marca who died, a week later, when he took little Sook up onto the walls and failed to catch her as she fell. Jon kept his head beneath the water that day, for as long as he could, so as to muffle Marca’s distant screams. Jon touched the edge of the island with his feet, grabbed a toeful of moss for luck, then pushed off towards the wall. The wall was patchwork at best now, potent stretches of stones with staggered parts of mish mashed wood, scaffolds and clumsily stacked rocks for where it had begun to crumble. He swam to the wall, behind which he could hear the sounds of the various water falls, where the water flowed under and through the grates and into the river. He touched the wall with his hand, treading water, feeling the rumble of the rivers flow. He closed his eyes and savored the quiet. He swam back to the fountain. From here he could just about see the heads of Teek and Pan, they lay back on their backs, hands on the mounds of their bellys, floating. If they weren’t getting splashed that menat Hak had gone home. They will go to the bank and play their strategy games for at least an hour and by then Jon could be back. He swam one more length to the fountain and back to the wall, then he dove.

He felt his way along the wall, upside down, trying not to panic, he found The Root, then lower down The Rock and finally The Shards in the sand and careful not to cut himself, angled forward, one broad stroke and then there, the grate, two hands on two bars, like in his cell, except he had shrunk, the space between the bars was wide enough, and he thrust through, clawed along the dirt tunnel, his lungs less strained this time, shoved through and then up towards the muted torch of the sun then air, and gasping, and sweetness. The river tugged him down stream. He let it.

Till he found himself at the bank. The familiar tree. In the hollow at it’s base he retrieved the stick he’d found, whittled with the sharp stone kept next to it. For the next few hours he drew in the soil, hoping for something to happen.

cont tomorrow.