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