“Acelynn! Acelynn! It’s time to get out of bed!”
I listened to my mother’s shouts coming from the kitchen but decided to ignore them.
If I ignored the next shout I’d expect that my little brother would eventually come running in my room with his tiny feet, eager to deliver the message from my mother.
I pulled the sheet over my head.
I groaned. I know mum, it's May 1st.
A minute hadn’t passed before I heard Aden’s feet slapping on the wooden floor boards, the loose ones squeaking under his weight.
I laid as still as I could beneath the sheet. As thin as it was, I could see him almost topple over coming to a halt when he arrived in the room. As best as he could, he tipped-toed over to my bed with special effort into pointing his thumb toe as if it were the key to expert sneaking.
I held my breath so my breathing wouldn’t ruffle the sheet over my face, although I doubted he would notice.
Aden was now at my bed side, his little fingers raised like claws up to his face, but I cancelled his plans.
“I got you! Got you! Got you!” I screamed in a deep voice, springing up from beneath the sheet and lifting him in the air then plunging him beside me for the final attack.
Aden squealed first in fright and then had no option but to giggle uncontrollably when the Tickle Monster caught up with him.
“I got you! Got you! Got you!”
“Aceee! Noo! Stoppp!” Aden managed through his shallow breaths and giggles which disagreed with him.
“I told you, you’ll never get me,” I said, planting a harmless slap on his bum.
His laughter, wearing off, he delivered his not-so-funny message.
“Mum said it’s May 1st, you have to go to the Mage.”
He wasn’t a mage. He’s just an old man who reaches into a jar every month, picks out a name and then we never saw that person again.
Me? I was one who had to announce that name to the village. As I have, every month for the last five years.
The official bearer of bad news, or, as half the village calls me, Death Breath.
Mum came into the room, apron around her waist and hand on her hip.
“Acelynn. Do we have to do this every month?”
She wasn’t expecting an answer.
“Aden, go get dressed. Go look for your special outfit,” she motioned at him. “Com’on, you know where it is.”
The four-year-old reluctantly hopped off the bed and headed out the room as instructed. She gave me a look. It was the tiniest bit of worry mixed with a larger portion of ‘do what you must’.
“One hour,” she said, ushering Aden out the room and leaving behind him.
I laid back on the bed, frustrated. Why me?
‘Why me’ wasn’t the question I asked when I arrived at the home of the Mage. His name was Theseus, but not many people knew that. He lived in an old wooden house with a roof made of straw with his wife, Elga.
I let myself in and made my way to the Mage’s special room where he kept the large metal jar with handles on both sides. Sometimes it looked like a witch’s pot and I could see where the villagers had pieced together their tales.
The Mage was sitting at the table, as he always was, etched in the corner of the small room.
“Good morning, Theseus,” I greeted him, pleasantly enough.
He had asked, on my first time there, that I address him by his rightful name and I agreed. He wasn’t an outspoken man but, even in the silence we often sat in, we grew friendly with each other.
The Mage looked up from the table where he seemed to have been staring at nothing for quite some time. “Hello, Lynn.” He smiled at me but his smile seemed pained. I sat down in the chair across from him and studied his face.
“Are you okay?”
“Mmm hmmm. I’m fine.” He lifted a finger to the jar at the other end of the room. “Bring it, will you?”
I retrieved the jar which, though heavy, held nothing but 1,115 names. The total number of persons above the age of 16 in the village, written on old paper. I rested it gently on the table before him and sat down again, studying his face.
He pulled the jar closer to himself, wincing. “At a friend.”
I could hear his heavy breathing, laboured. He’d been an old man all my life, the oldest in the village. I couldn’t tell if he was breathing different today.
He was now looking at me and I at him.
“Aren’t you going to ask?” he said.
I paused for a bit. It had become our ritual that he waits until I asked before he put his hand into the jar and pulled out a name.
Reluctantly, I gave up studying his face. “Who’s next?”
He slowly reached into the jar, swishing his hand around for no more than a few seconds before pulling out one of the folded papers, discoloured and dusty from age.
As he opened the paper, Elga entered, breathlessly, stopping in the middle of the room as she noticed me.
In all my years of coming to the Mage, Elga had never interrupted the selection.
“Theseus!” she looked at me and back at him. “I told you not today.”
“It has to be today!” he shouted back, but it was more of loud whisper.
He winced and held his chest. Elga rushed to his side, stooping on one knee to meet him.
“I got the medicine from Omaa. You should go lie in bed, I’ll prepare it now.”
She looked over at me. “Theseus isn’t feeling well today. Can you return tomorrow?”
“No! It has to be today.” He whispered loudly again, leaning now on his wife for support.
I stood up. “It’s not problem, I can return tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” Elga said. She began to assist him up from the seat and I hurried over to help.
“Come…Come again…in the afternoon,” the Mage said.
Instinctively, I agreed, though I could see the disapproval on Elga’s face.
Since I first met the Mage and long before that, the selection and announcement were always done on the first day of each month.
When we had placed him in bed and Elga went hurriedly to make the tea, I returned to the room to put the jar back in place as I always would after he handed me the paper.
For the first time, I looked at two empty chairs instead of one.
I couldn’t control my mind then as it went to the month I heard the Mage say my father’s name. It was only until the words were out his mouth that he looked over at me with regret, realising who he had named.
I had felt my mouth go dry but my hands, my feet, I couldn’t feel them.
It felt like time itself stopped as my brain rejected the news.
I don’t remember what he said and how he got me to the platform, but it was the first time that the Mage had joined me, or anyone, to announce the selection.
The villagers gathered, clustered in their family groups. I saw my mother at the very front, where she always stood in support. I saw Aden, a large bulge in her belly. I saw my dad, his eyes, proud of me, although I hated myself at that moment more than words could describe.
I don’t remember saying his name, but I must have. I did.
By Order, I am ‘The Messenger’; I am the only one sanctioned to make the announcement. It has been my burden since the last Messenger passed it on to me. By Order, I could not refuse.
A year later, when the Mage named one of my best friends. My heart ached but my legs worked. I stepped on to the platform, alone, and by Oder, I did my duty.
As I left the house, I saw Elga at the Mage’s side, feeding him the tea in a spoon with a trembling hand. Even if she doubted it, I knew he was dying. My heart pounded in my chest but my legs worked.
Death Breath. They were right.
Jorey found me sitting near the wall. A 20-foot stone structure that surrounded the entire village, covered with moss. In some places it had vines with no beginning or end that grew through the cracks which formed over time.
I sat at the base, pulling handfuls of grass, listening to them snap off at their roots.
“At least it’s not your hair,” Jorey said, plopping down beside me, lying on his back, head in his palm. He was always trying to look on the bright side of things.
He looked over at me, used to my brooding. “It’s fasting this week. How do you think Em will do?”
I didn’t know what he wanted me to say.
“Good, I guess.”
He shifted his position sideways. “I think so too. I made her practice all week. She’s ready.”
“You probably shouldn’t have done that. You should’ve let her eat all she could, while she could.”
“Is that what you do?”
I stopped pulling the grass. “No.”
Emma, his little sister, is ten-years-old which meant that she was old enough to participate in fasting. It wasn’t unusual. Children her age and up to 16, must participate in mandatory fasting once every month where they go without food or water for 3 days.
It’s meant to train them for survival, against all odds, when their names are called and they must venture beyond the wall.
Before then, from ages 5 to 10, the children learnt how to build fires and shelters; how to make a weapon and dress a wound; how to tie knots and navigate the forest; how to cook and forage for food. They learnt about plants and animals. The plants they could eat and the ones that would kill them; the animals they could eat, the ones that would kill them.
I’d always wondered about the animals as no one had ever heard the screeching of a bird or the howling of a monkey or the growling of a tiger, beyond the wall.
Jorey was now on his feet, peering through the hole he had found between the cracks about a week ago, the very first time we saw the ruins.
“Is it just me or does it seem nearer.”
It’s just you Jorey.
I knew he wanted me to come look, to distract me from the announcement, but I had seen it. It was a village, just like ours, but there were no villagers. The walls were broken and there was nothing on the inside but the trees which had begun to reclaim their territory.
We had heard about the ruins. Though it was the first time we saw it, it wasn't our first glimpse of the outside. When the selection and announcement were made, the villagers all gathered at the gate and, with a parcel of food, the one chosen would leave.
It wasn't often that force was used, the villagers were mostly willing. They understood what they had to do and wanted to be the first to do it. But, for as long as even the Mage knew it, the wall’s gate had always been an exit, no entries.
On the first day of every month, you’d get glimpses of the outside. Tall, scattered trees of an old-growth forest. There was no path leading the way. Some persons would go forward in a straight line, others would run off to the left or the right, going where their mind told them was best.
They all left hoping they’d find Ashtoria. Or, as the younger generation called it, the New Lands. But it wasn’t new to the elders. The Mage was the very last of the elders from his generation. When they came to form the village he was only 12-years-old.
Before him, there were 16 other elders who help craft the scared Orders. Many died, some were chosen to venture beyond the wall but not before they passed on the history of Ashtoria, the land of our ancestors.
Long ago, we once lived without want and at peace, until the Pilgrims came. They were hungry and weak, journeying from lands which were reclaimed by the sea.
Out of kindness, we took them in. But they were a barbaric people, set in their ways, who brought hatred division to our land.
Not long after, we were quarrelling amongst ourselves, killing our own brothers. The olden elders summoned the leader of the Pilgrims and asked that they leave us be. We could no longer mix.
But the Pilgrims, who had now out-numbered us, pushed us out of Ashtoria.
Even then, Ashtoria, too, had walls. Built as high as half the length of the tallest tree and made out of iron and steel. The ancestors left the only home they knew.
Divided and disgruntled over the decision of some of the olden elders to let the barbarians in, they formed seven separate villages, built seven separate walls and started new lives.
But all the other villages were now destroyed. Except ours. The elders believed that they returned to Ashtoria, to a new generation of Pilgrims that accepted them.
And so, every month, by Order of the elders, villagers ventured beyond the wall, to find Ashtoria, to meet with a new generation of Pilgrims and convince them to let us back into the city. To show us the mercy we showed them.
Villagers first left in groups and did not return.
Soon, the elders agreed to narrow the number and to ensure that every person was trained to survive the journey in search of the city.
Still, no one who left the gates returned.
The strongest men and women who trained for years were never to be seen again.
Some said Ashtoria was so beautiful that when they found it, they could not bring themselves to leave. But how could a father never return to his children or a friend just never look back?
Others say those who never returned were weak. They didn’t train hard enough, they fell short of perfection. But how could a child only 16 or a man, 61, focus on Ashtoria when the village was all they knew?
I think we all believe what we want to believe. What’s comforting to us.
Jorey jammed my arm. “Isn’t that Elga?”
I emerged from my thoughts and saw Elga standing far off in the distance.
Reluctantly, her body language said that the Mage was ready to see me.
I was sitting at his bedside for about a minute. I couldn’t tell if he was breathing but his eyes opened when I called his name and he smiled.
“Lynn,” he said, closing his eyes again. His pale hand, coated with silver hair, reached up from the bed to take mine.
“There’s something I must tell you.”
“Who’s next?” I asked, with soft humour, trying to take a page out of Jorey’s book.
The Mage fell silent and after a while, I saw the sparkle of a tear running down his face.
“Ashtoria isn’t real.”
The Mage opened his tear-filled eyes, this time staring up at the straw roof.
“It did exist, but it no longer does. Have you never wondered why even such a beautiful and peaceful city had the need for iron walls? We were plagued, for as long as the elders could remember, by a callous creature that devoured anyone who ventured beyond the wall. Inside, we were safe. But that's why we were intrigued when the Pilgrims arrived. They were alive. They had made it to our city alive. When they turned on us and we formed our own villages, the creature returned. It slaughtered each village, one by one, but when it came to ours, we made a pact. A pact it agreed to. We would guarantee the creature a meal on the first of every month, providing that it otherwise left our people alone. There’s no Ashtoria. The Pilgrims fought amongst themselves and destroyed the city long ago. There’s only the village, our village.”
For the second time in my life, my mouth went dry. I couldn’t feel my legs or my hand, still in the Mage’s. I wanted to speak but the words were stuck.
“Lynn, today, I picked your name. But I need you to go to the platform, right now. Let the villagers know that Theseus Moralis has been chosen. You will not die today, but you must decide whether you will give them hope or you’ll let them die.”
He took his hand out of mine and slowly sat up from the bed, swinging his frail feet off the edge and on to the floor. He looked at me. “By Order, I have made you the next Selector and, if you accept, you will choose the next Messenger. I don’t expect you to forgive me. We did what we had to…to keep us alive. I will suffer for what I did, I’m sure. But you must make your choice.”
I was numb and my head was spinning. I tried to control it all, I tried to breathe.
I thought about Aden, his little feet running into my room to wake me in the mornings.
I thought about my mum, the way she understood duty over love.
I thought about my father.
I imagined the creature.
I remembered the ruins.
My heart pounded in my chest, my ears burned and eyes stung but my legs, my legs worked.