The Forgotten Path

Submitted by Mark S to Contest #6 in response to: Write a story about a road trip taking place 300 years from now.... view prompt

        When I was a boy, my mother told me how men would soar through the skies, and sail across the seas. But these unnatural acts angered god, who sought to punish man’s arrogance. He brought the seas to boil, melting men’s ships, and threw the skies into violent storms, to tear off men’s wings.

Pen scratching interweaved with a crackling fire, as Elroy wrote in his leather bound journal.

              “What are you writing?”

              Elroy paused, and shifted his attention to the man who sat across the camp fire. A cold gust of wind rustled the trees around them, and sent a shiver down his spine.

              “It’s just you and me out here.” He continued. “You could be a little more friendly to an innocent man.”

              “Stop talking to me.” Elroy restrained his response.

              “Are you sketching me perhaps?”

              Elroy pushed his words to the back of his mind, and continued to write. Reuben grimaced, and glanced at his ankles, bound with pair of iron cuffs. His wrists bound behind his back with thick rope.

              “Pity your fellow guards died earlier today.” Elroy paused, but didn’t look up. “If one fewer guard were killed, perhaps you could have had someone to take night shifts with.” He smirked.

              “My trial was set for a week from now, do you think you can get me to the capital on foot before then?”

              “Shut up.” Elroy slammed his journal shut.

              “I am innocent, so we should be able to enjoy this trip together.”

              Elroy stayed silent gritting his teeth, and tightening his grip.

Firewood cracked again, as crickets chirped their twilight tune. Reuben leaned against a cold rock, resting his head in the humble glow of the fire. His eyelids hung down, leaving his eyes half open. Captivity had taken its toll on him, his body weak, and his mind exhausted. He saw Elroy open his journal again, before his eyes shut.

Cold air bit at his face, until he could ignore it no longer. His eyes creaked open, exposed to a low blue hum hanging in the air. Before he could think, Elroy yanked him to his feet. His vision was hazy, so he shut his eyes and shook his head. This time when he opened his eyes, he noticed the shackles around his ankles had been removed.

“Walk.”

Elroy had the point of a sword pressed between his shoulder blades. He nodded, with a lazy grumble. Step by step, the duo walked down a winding path through the forest. By the time morning rolled into midday, they stood at the edge of the forest. The path continuing though the tree line, into a blighted barren wasteland. 

“The forgotten path?” Reuben’s brow cocked. “Are you sure?” his voice humming with concern.

“Keep walking”

Reuben complied, and stepped out from the canopy. Each step forward shrunk the tree line behind them.

“I have never been down this path before. It may take longer than a week to get to the capital, maybe we should stick to the main roads.” He glanced over his shoulder.

Elroy’s guard cap hugged his head neatly.

“It would be much wiser to do so. Other guards will come searching, once they hear about an escape.”

“So will the people who attempted to free you.”

“How do you know they were trying to free me? The caravan had other prisoners in it.”

Elroy tightened his grip.

“See! All I have ever been is compliant. Yet you continue to treat, an innocent man, like a guilty murderer. Look at how sullen I’ve become. Months in that cell have made me so pale, and sickly.” He hung his head back as he complained. “Republicans like you should take responsibility once the court proves I’m innocent.”

Elroy kept his focus on their pace.

“Do you know why they even call this the forgotten path?” he asked. Elroy ignored him. “Because the people who take this path, go missing, and are forgotten! Or is it that no one takes this path so people forget it exists? Either way, we can still turn…” He attempted to face Elroy, who promptly smacked his arm with the flat side of his sword.

“What a dedicated Republican guard you are.”

The sun passed the highest point, and sunk to the west. Above them, a violent gale of dark clouds gathered, lit by streaks of lighting. Loose ends of their clothing wiped in the air. Wind from the vortex howled and whistled, as if it were a beast protecting territory. Reuben ignored it, but Elroy traced the swirling clouds with his eyes. After several loud moments, the gale passed. Disappearing into the orange and purple horizon. 

Evening came, and Elroy made their camp in a deep ditch. Reuben starred into the night sky, and fell asleep while counting stars. In the dying red glow of their campfire, he opened his journal, and scratched at a fresh page with his pen.

God realized his wrath blinded him, making his actions rash. He could not undo the destruction he wrought, but he could leave final judgement in the hands of men. He asked an innocent man to take responsibility for the devastation. And for whatever punishment men would give to him, so to would he deliver upon men.

Reuben rolled in his sleep, and Elroy snapped his journal shut. He grabbed the hilt of his sword, only to see Reuben’s laying on his side. Still, he pulled his sword from its scabbard, and rested its flat edge on his thighs. The night was silent, no crickets, no cracking wood, and no wind. He sat, staring at a vulnerable Reuben, until the sun crept back over the horizon.

Days came and went without a word, as the two walked the forgotten path. Only the rattle of Elroy’s chain mail, and occasional gusts of wind interrupted the silence. On the fourth day, when the sun was highest in the sky. Reuben stopped in his tracks.

“Look at that.”

Elroy leaned to the right, until his gaze fell upon a strange object. They followed along the path, until they reached a slope. A small cloud of dust trailed behind them, as they entered the object’s shadow. A thin tower of rusted metal rose into the sky, Elroy’s eyes traced its shape.

“It’s a wing.” He said.

Reuben cocked his head.

“What kind of a bird has a wing like that?”

“No bird, but it might be something men used to fly.”

“Men can’t fly.”

“They did, hundreds of years ago.”

“What idiot told you that?”

Elroy’s eyes shifted in their sockets, he glared at Reuben who failed to notice his heated stare.

“I am done talking to you about this.”

“This is a once in a lifetime discovery.” Elroy struck Reuben twice with the side of his sword. “Back to our lovely journey.”

              Reuben made his way towards the slope. As he climbed, Elroy looked back. For a moment his eyes traced up the wing to the blue sky above, and he imagined how someone would use it to fly, before his gaze returned to a struggling Reuben.

Their rests grew in frequency under constant exposure. The fifth night was spent in total darkness. All of the stars had been swallowed by pitch black night. Elroy gripped his journal in one hand, and the hilt of his sword. He focused on what he could hear, listening for the rustle of cloth. How could I have used up all of the tinder. He thought, as he ran his thumb up and down the leather spine of his journal.

“I need to piss.” Reuben’s voice crept into his mind.

“Be quick about it.”

“So cruel. How is an innocent man supposed to relieve himself, when his hands and legs are bound?”

“You will figure something out” Elroy faced the direction of Reuben’s voice. “And you are not innocent.”

“I was framed, and when you deliver me to the court, it will be proven. I will walk free, and you can sneer to your hearts content.”

“Stop it!” Elroy stood, gripping his journal with a white knuckle grip. “You can lie to the judge, to the jury, and to your executioner, but not to me!”

“I am not lying.” He enunciated each word with impatience.

“Yes you are.” Elroy returned in kind.

“And what makes you say that?”

“I was there” He paused, and Reuben bit his lower lip. “When you murdered my parents. I remember your icy tune as clearly as my parents whimpers for mercy. I remember every guttural sound from that night. I can recall it vividly, it drowns out their voices from my memories. Every day they become harder to hear, as if they are shrinking in to the horizon, and I can’t stop myself from walking away.”

Silence hung in the air as his words trailed off.

“Did you see my face?”

“I didn’t see anything until it was over.”

Reuben chuckled.

“Then it could have been a man who sounded like me.”

“And if I had seen you, you would lie again. ‘It may have been a man who only looked like me.’”

“I still need to…”

“You want me to walk over there in the pitch black? You are mad to think I would fall for something like that. Piss yourself for all I care.” Reuben heard dirt being crushed, and chain mail rustling.

The night dragged on, until the sun of the sixth day rose. In the hazy blue morning, the two men stared at each other. Thick bags hung under their eyes. When Elroy stood, so did Reuben, and the two walked at arm’s length onto the path. Barren mountains rolled beside them, while their shadows swept over cracks in the cold dead earth.

Reuben hung his head low as he stumbled down the path, his long black hair hid his face, and swayed with every step.

              “You’re going to kill me out here.” Reuben’s eyes met Elroy’s. “That’s why we took this path.”

              Elroy pushed him along, as the words left his lips. He stumbled, almost falling, but he caught himself before his face met dirt.

              “I don’t want to die.” His voice soft.

              Elroy’s skin crawled.

              “Please don’t kill me.” Reuben whimpered. “I don’t want to be killed. Please.”

              Elroy stopped in place, widening his eyes.

              “How dare you mock her.”

              “What?” Reuben kept his head hung low, his eyes moved to examining Elroy’s distraught face.

              “Right now, you’re using my mother’s words, her last words.”

              “I just don’t want to die. Anyone would beg like this!”

              Waves of hatred crashed against Elroy’s mind, contorting his expression. He thrust his hand forward, striking Reuben’s upper arm, and knocking him to the ground. He crashed into the soil, a small cloud of dust formed around him. Reuben rolled onto his back and began to laugh.

              “I guess you are going to murder me, you have a lot in common with that man who murdered your parents.” Elroy pushed the sharp edge of the blade against his face.

              “Shut your damn mouth.”

              “What do I have to do to prove my innocence?” Reuben’s lips grazed the edge of the blade.

               Elroy grabbed his restraints and yanked him back to his feet. Bloody scrapes formed on his chin, and right cheek, contrasting with his pale skin.

              “Move, I am sick of hearing your venom.”

              Reuben’s begging rattled inside Elroy’s mind. His words infected his memories, mixing his voice with his mother’s. He panicked as the voice of his mother began to slip away in his mind. He concentrated, holding onto the fragment of her, desperately holding on to a memory.

              A gorge cut through the barren earth. Elroy looked over the edge, as the sun sunk low in the sky. He could see jagged rocks at the base. The path continued on to a thin cliff edge. Wide enough only for a man to stand with his face toward the gorge and his back against the cliff face. He gestured to the cliff.

              Reuben leaned toward the gorge, then slinked back, shaking his head.

              “No, I will fall. There is no way.”

              “Move.” Elroy cracked him with his sword again.

              Reuben leaned his back against the cold auburn stone, and took a step on to the edge. He shuffled his feet, each stride taken with extreme caution. Elroy followed close behind. Wind blew over them, howling as the air currents swirled around them.

              Above them, black clouds spun into a black vortex. Lighting pulsated like veins in the clouds. Cold wind bit at the duo as they approached the center of the pass.

              A swift gust robbed Reuben of his footing. His weight shifted, and his balance was lost. He saw the base of the gorge, and its jagged granite teeth. Elroy watched as he fell forward.

              He imagined what it would be like, to see his parent’s murderer broken and shattered on the stones below him. He lunged forward, unsatisfied with imaginings. He grabbed a fistful of Reuben's red tunic, and pulled with all his strength, slamming his back against the face of the cliff. He shoved his shoulder.

              “Move!” He shouted, as gusts of wind fought to drown out his voice.

              Loose stones tumbled down the cliff face, as the duo rushed across. One after the other they leapt over boulders and threw themselves to the other end of the gorge.

              Reuben writhed on the ground, whimpering with exhaustion. While Elroy leaned against a large boulder, glaring down his nose.

              “Get up!” Elroy shouts drowning in the whirling wind.

              He struggled to his knees, grinding his forehead into the dry dirt.

              “Admit it! Admit you tortured and murdered my parents, and I will put an end to your suffering!” Elroy paced back and forth on weak legs, grinding the point of his sword into the dirt.

              Grains of dirt dug into Reuben’s forehead. He threw himself back, using what little strength he had. His head hung back, and he glared at Elroy from the corners of his eyes.

              “I regret…” he paused, and glanced up at the turbulent winds. “Nothing.”

              Elroy seized the moment, and with a surge of primal hatred, he swung his blade over his head. His steel blade bit into Reuben's neck, cutting into his chest. He shrieked in pain, before losing consciousness. His body fell limp in to the dirt, and blood rushed from the open wound.

              The wind around them slowed, as the vortex drifted away.

              Night crept over the barren land, and Elroy found a small ditch. He fell into it, losing control over his muscles. His heavy eyelids slammed shut. That night, the dirt he slept on felt more warm and comfortable than any bed he had slept in before. Yet, a pit in his stomach grew.

              The following morning, Elroy entered the capital. He confessed to murdering the captive Reuben Hale, the suspect of over one hundred murders across the Republic.

              His belongings were collected and cataloged. His bloodstained sword, chain mail, cap, and journal. Every page of his journal was read, and examined. Elroy’s superiors pieced together his motivation, and sentenced him to the same fate as all murderer’s. Death by hanging. 

              The innocent man god chose was mocked, and set free. Not a soul believed him.

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