A/N: Ho, ho, ho merry Christmas. See, I told you it wouldn't take long to get this up.
The reason for this is because originally, this was part of the last chapter. Both of them were going to be the same, but as I kept writting, I thought it was going to be really long. So, I decided the only thing to do was split them into two chapters. I didn't intend to do it that way, but it just happened. So, you can really consider this an early Christmas present, although let me warn you, there's not a lot of comfort and joy.
Chapter 12: A Cold Morning
The days grew short as summer relented its heated grasp to make way for autumn. The air ceased to drip with its unseen cisterns emptied of their supply of water, and it brought comforting breezes to all those who had endured the middle of the year. Despite the slight chills, Wander and Mono were glad of the change in the land, though the grasses still pricked them as they walked and stones of the shrine grew colder at night. Still, mother and son were grateful to have the summer months behind them. The days turned from gathering and hunting to preparing as they often did in this season.
Wood that went unclaimed was found and put away. Reeds were reaped to craft into simple shoes for the snowy days. Mono recalled with no fondness the early times when she was forced to walk unshod upon the frozen blankets, and she did not wish for either her or her son to live through those days anew. She had also bidden Wander to put his bow and arrows away, for their own lives depended on the lives of the land. Wander grew quickly restless without his faithful companions, and also because of his promise that he would not ride unless it was in their company.
He had kept that promise well, though he had longed to simply put his legs upon the horse and let him run. He knew he would not find himself lost. Wander could easily find his way, and the heavy hooves of Agro left good tracks. Still, for the sake of his mother, he did not give in to the untamed notions that filled his head.
The nights brought newer tasks to Wander as well. Mono had taught him to use the count of the moon and to mark each one that waxed full. He knew well how to count, but it was the lot of his mother to keep the number. Now, she began to entrust the task to him. It was a simple task, but Wander performed it nonetheless.
This night, Wander watched as the shinning eye of the full moon gazed upon him. Taking the sharpened stone in his hand, he walked to a large boulder nearby where Mono took the count for that year. He drew the stone across it, leaving a white gash in the gray face. Before he would sleep, he looked upon each mark, now nine in all. Nodding with satisfaction, he dropped the stone he held and stood to walk the short distance to where Mono slept. He lied down in the grass, looking up at the sky, and doubted sleep would come to him.
Wander placed his hands behind his head. Many days he had longed to ride again, if only to feel the wind rushing to meet him as he urged Agro onward. He did not think that any other doing would provide the same livening elation as the foolhardy races he held with only the land as his opponent. His need to rid himself of the thoughts, feelings, and cares he held for Mono seemed to fade, though he still found himself questioning them. On only some occasions these past months did he again have that very dream which prompted the uncontrolled motions. Yet on those few happenings, he found his urge to ride increased many times over.
Still, he thought well of that kiss she had given him, small as it was. It was but the kiss of a mother, but Wander could not keep himself from thinking of it as something more familiar than affection brought by a natural bond. It was a foolish thought, to be sure. He knew that quite well.
Wander continued to gaze idly up at the stars in the cloudless sky, thinking about all of these things, though he allowed his thoughts to find smaller matters as well: the changing of the leaves, the clarity of the sky, the prickling at his back. It was these thoughts that brought a smile to this face until he was compelled to close his eyes.
The next day, Wander and Mono set themselves to again filling the walls of the shrine to seal the small crevices against the coming bitter gales. A scowl appeared on Wander's face as he pressed a handful dry earth and a few brown leaves into a small crack. He looked over at Mono performing the same task with a lighter face, and the shadow upon his own darkened. He wondered if she found any pleasure at the bargain they had struck. In the deep places of his heart, he knew it was not so, and yet he pondered it still. His blood still restlessly boiled within him. He could hear the bold neigh of Agro, though he often only imagined it. A chill wind blew across his naked chest, though it still little to cool Wander. He wanted to follow the wind as it beckoned him across the land. He wished to add his wild call to the blowing air. He longed to feel it beating against his body with no purpose behind it. And yet for the sake of his promise, he could not.
"Why can't I ride him except to hunt?" Wander muttered to himself. A part of him hoped that Mono would hear it, but she did not turn to him. He had often asked that very question in the silence of the night when sleep would come not to him. He wondered that if his mother perhaps knew of the bubbling and stirring within his veins, she might release him from his word. If she knew that he did this to spare her the longing glances and to spare him the shame he felt in casting them, then she might permit him to ride again if the mood should arise.
"How could I tell her?" Wander asked the wind. "She wouldn't want to hear about it. She might even take her spear to me if I did if I frightened her." The young man brought his hand against the wall with a might blow. Perhaps some small burr lingered upon the walls that weathered the years, but Wander gasped in pain, and when he brought his hand away, a running stain of red covered his palm. "Mother," he called out, and Mono hurried to him.
She also gasped when she saw his bleeding hand, and she hurried Wander inside. She found her old gown and tore at the hem until she held two pieces, and then she quickly led her son to a clean pond. She washed his hand and dried it with one torn cloth before binding the wound with the other.
"I suppose you'll have to stop helping me seal the cracks in the shrine for now," she said. "You should not let than hand get dirty. All of these years, we have both taken care, and now this happens." If he could see into her mind, Wander would have seen the wishing of a worried mother who now longed for the world beyond their land, where things like strong wine could better clean his hand. But this hope, he could not see, though he did much fear in her ears.
"I can still help," he said, believing that she feared for the coming winter.
"No, son," Mono answered. "I can't let you put that hand in the earth. That wound must stay clean. Now, go to the shrine and wait there." And so, Wander returned to the shrine with a fresh scowl upon his face. For the rest of the day, he idly paced and fretted about what had happened. He had merely cut his hand, and it seemed such a small matter to him. When the mealtimes came, Mono would join him and fetch pieces of dried meat and a few dried fruits. In the evening, Wander sighed with the tedium of that afternoon lingering in his mind, for he was certain that his mother would keep him in the shrine.
And keep him, she did. For three days, Wander did not step food outside the shrine. He was not permitted to leave nor handle any tool or task with his wounded hand. Each day, short as they were, seemed to span several. The chill in the air seemed to grow in strength, as did the heat within Wander. It had coursed through his blood, and now it seemed to pool within his belly. He paced the floors until he was certain the soles of his feet had become stone. He found himself very much like a deer or some other poor creature caught inside one of the snares that he had often set, although his trap was not at all constricting. The presence of his mother did little to ease him.
"Your hand will be well soon enough," she would say. Often she pressed her hand against his brow only to nod with odd satisfaction a moment later. He wondered why she did this, but did not think to ask. He did noticed that her touch did not stir him as it once did, though Wander owed it to his anger at his confinement. How could he think differently of her hand when he no longer took a certain notice of her presence? Each night, Wander would lie down, thinking only of when he might leave.
On the third night, Wander gazed off to his side and into the blackness, knowing that he looked upon his mother's back. Narrowing his eyes and furrowing his brow, Wander turned to lie upon his other side.
"You won't keep me here," he said quietly. "You won't."
The fourth day came and passed, and Wander still was not bidden to leave. That day, he looked upon his hand to see a stain of dark red, far darker than running blood. It seemed black to his eyes, and he wondered if his wound had, by now, healed. He had prepared to remove the crude wrapping when Mono had intervened and stopped him.
"I will look at your wound, Wander," she had said. "When seven days have passed since then, I will look at it." Her words only aroused the frustrations of her son further, and a thought had come to him later as the afternoon waned.
"By whatever god this shrine is built to," he had said when Mono had left to return to her labors, "I will ride tonight, word or no word."
In the midst of that night, Wander rose from where he rested. His cheeks filled with heat as he considered what he was about to do. How often had Mono chided him for his disobedience? Though he had often consented to her wishes that he should not defy her, he had never once given a promise. It seemed that his word held a heavier weight than a word of ascent or even a simple nod. He wondered what might become of him if he went against her. What consequence might befall him as Mono had said? Would the gods strike him dead if he disobeyed this time? He knew not, but Wander doubted he could abide the restlessness any longer. And so, he slipped away into the night.
"It will only be a short ride," he said. "I can't be blamed for that."
When he found Agro, he mounted the great horse, hoping that his excited neighs would not wake his sleeping mother. Wander lightly kicked the animal in the side, and Agro dutifully ran. The wind again beat against his face as the rider took hold of Agro's mane. He closed his eyes to delight in the thrilling race, even as he began to count silently. When he reached a count of five, he pulled tightly on the hair, and Agro stopped. Wander then turned him, and urged him to run back towards the shrine. When they arrived, Wander slid off the horse and stroked his large nose with gratitude.
"Thank you," he told the animal with great happiness, before he slipped back to the garden and the spot that he had laid. With pleasure, he closed his eyes, thinking with gladness at what he had done. Mono would surely never know of this, and he had suffered no retribution. Wander thought himself clever for what he had done, and he soon drifted off to sleep with such notions still dancing about his head. Yet the saddened face of his mother joined in that dance as he recalled every occasion when he had disobeyed her. It was, however, one imagine in the presence of many favorable ones.
After the seven days had passed, Mono unbound Wander's hand to examine his wound. Wander cringed slightly at the sight of his palm blackened with dried blood, but Mono smiled when she saw it.
"It looks like it's healing well," she said, "and it doesn't look like there's anything wrong with it. I'd say you could probably go back to helping me."
Wander was glad to hear of it, for he now did not have to sit in the shrine, though he only eagerly awaited the ending of the waking hours when he might slip away to ride without care except for the distance. He kept a count, though it grew larger every night. The first, he had counted to five. The second, he let the count go to seven, and on the third, he only turned to return to the shrine at the count of nine.
Every time, he praised himself for again eluding the watch of his mother. And yet, for all of his successes, Wander could not shake away the shame that lingered on after the well-wishers had departed from him. He began to grow in fear of the night when he might awaken his mother, especially as the trees gave up their leaves. He knew all too well that even under unshod feet, the leaves would crunch, and he would surely be found out. As the garden became tinted with the orange and yellows of the fallen ones, Wander wondered if this night would bring about his certain undoing.
After four days, Wander stood back from the segment of the wall he had devoted his labors. The winds blew colder, and he was glad of the fur cloak his mother had made for him. Still, he would gladly face the chill head-on as he rode wildly that night. By now, his count had rose to fifteen, and he looked forward to his nightly meeting with his faithful friend. The afternoon sun shone down, and he and Mono left their work to eat.
As he sat in the shrine, Wander could not help notice Mono looking with longing in her dark eyes towards the chasm. Unable to keep his curiosity to himself, the young man spoke.
"What is you're looking for, mother?" he asked.
"Oh, it's nothing, my son," his mother replied. "I was just thinking of how much I would like a slice of bread or a piece of cheese."
Wander tilted his head with an uncertain look, for he had never heard of such things. Standing, he gestured to his weapons of choice, his loyal bow and arrows. "I don't know what those are, but I'm sure I could hunt them for you. Just tell me what they look like, and I'll start looking."
Mono could only laugh until she was forced to hold her side. "I'm afraid that you couldn't hunt for bread or cheese. No, I'm afraid you couldn't do that at all. Don't mind me, Wander. It's been so long since I've tasted either of them, and I suppose I miss that."
"If I can't hunt them, I can make them," Wander proclaimed. Mono again laughed, and though he could not see it, she thought to herself how she might explain what he would require to do so.
"I'm sure you would. But the only place you could is out there," she added, pointing towards the world beyond their own; a world that neither of them thought they would know. Mono stood and approached her son, and he likewise rose, wondering what she might want with him. To his surprise, she embraced him warmly. "I haven't told you this in such a long time, Wander," she began, "but I want you to know that you are the best son a mother could hope for. And I'm proud of you for listening to me."
At first, Wander had felt gladdened at her words. Yet, he could not help but think of the promise he had made. As her hands pulled him close, he thought he might push her away, as a bitter sensation ran in the depths of his belly before turning hard, as though he had eaten far too much. Instead of satisfaction, however, he felt a great sorrow at what he had done. When they parted, Wander could only stand, frozen, where he stood.
"What have I done?" he asked soberly when he stood again at the wall. "What have I done?"
Wander could not sleep that night, and he doubted he would find any glee in riding. And so, he only lied there in the grasses waiting for sleep to take him.
They came out of the darkness, one right after the other. Wander appeared very small, and indeed he was when he looked up at them. Around him stood a ring of giants, some resembling animals that he did not know and some he could easily recognize. Others were formed in the shapes of men. He could only discern their shapes, for they were covered in a veil of black, with only their eyes glowing brightly providing light. He counted sixteen in their number. Wander knew not who they were, but they seemed oddly familiar to his eyes. As they looked down upon him and as he felt their gazes, weighty as surely the figures were, Wander felt a sense of dread, far worse than any he had known overtake him. From among the figures, another emerged from their midst. Unlike the others, this one had eyes of a most piercing white, and it had no shape, save for a seething, shifting dark cloud. To think that this other being also looked upon him only made Wander's fear grow a hundred fold.
"Behold thy past," the figure said with no warmth in its voice. At once Wander knew it to be the strange voice that had haunted him since he was a boy. The sixteen shades began to move past their king, for that is how the bearer of that horrid voice seemed to Wander. Slowly they came near, and Wander could find no way of escape. Closer and closer they came. Wander could feel no gap, no doorway that he could run through. He could not even find his mother. They were upon him now, and Wander could do nothing but wait for the blow that was sure to come.
Wander sat straight up in utter fear. His hand fell over his heart, and pain coursed through his back as it often did. He looked around to see the stars. They flickered on as they always did. It was still in the dark hours of the night. He managed to keep a cry of terror stifled, for he was unwilling to wake Mono. He was not certain what he would tell her if he had. He was, however, certain of two things. This dream was unlike any he had ever dreamed before. He was also sure of the need to leave here, if only to bring him some enjoyment, little as he was sure it would be.
Carefully, Wander rose and made his way towards the path. He grimaced at every step he took. The fallen leaves crunched underfoot, and Wander had no intention of giving any explanation on this night. When he reached the path, Wander hastened his steps, but he did so only slightly. When he set foot in the shrine, Wander ran until he found himself outside, where Agro stood in a sleep of his own.
Gently, Wander stroked the horse's nose, until he let out a fearful whinny. Wander could not help but feel a new bond with him, even as he took a step back. Agro stood on his hind legs, and Wander, thought his friend might strike him without intent. When all of his hooves were on the ground, the young man reached out to run his hand over his nose again.
"Easy, Agro," he said softly, hoping to sooth the startled animal. "It's only me." Agro sniffed the hand upon him, and then he placed his nose against Wander's chest, before letting out another neigh, though this was of a gladdened sort. Wander ran his hand over the horse a few times more before he mounted him. He turned the horse away from the shrine and urged him forward.
Wander had no destination in mind. The only thing he knew was that he headed towards the south. At first, he kept Agro at a slow pace, and he kept his thoughts only on the dream. He recalled that voice, and he knew not what it could have meant when it spoke. He marveled with awe at the size of those sixteen shadows, and he wondered what they could signify. Though his dreams of Mono had pleased and had sickened him at the same instance, this new dream brought him fear and uncertainty.
"Does it mean something?" Wander thought aloud. "Could it mean something?" He did not know if a dream held any particular significance or if it was merely the cares of the day muddled together in sleep. Yet, he could not deny that the glowing eyes of the giants held some strange familiarity to him. He had never met the eyes of any such creature, and still it seemed to the rider that he had indeed looked into such a untamed gaze before.
Hoping to cast off his feared reflections, Wander urged Agro into a run. He cared not for his count, and he was certain he could find his way back before Mono would awaken. Besides, he had always wondered how far Agro could run. With that thought now taking the place of the unsavory considerations, Wander kicked the side of the horse again and again.
His heart thundered once more in his chest. The wind beat coolly and swiftly against his face. The rhythm of Agro's strides caused him to bob wildly about. And Wander greatly enjoyed all of it. He had not forgotten how it pleased him to ride as he now did, though it seemed as though he had only now begun. He was glad to have no need to keep a count of how far he had gone as this single race went on and on. Wander thought he would surely see more of the land beyond his small circle of it. The ground began to slope, and the rider goaded Agro on once again.
With each new beat of his heart, Wander felt the same grabbing, clawing, biting pain running across his back, but he cared little for it. If he could not say what caused it, he thought he had no need to concern himself over it. He began to think that perhaps this was the natural outcome of such enjoyment. Yes, even Mono must have felt these very same sensations, though he found it strange that delight should also bring pain. Still, he thought little of it as they came rapidly to the foot of the hill. Yet, with each step, Wander felt the pain grow worse. He could not describe it, for his mind was kept towards his merry ride. As the pair continued onward and ever faster over the protests of Agro, he thought he might cry.
When he thought he could bear it no longer, Wander, at once, found himself unseated. He felt his body lurch sharply forward and then fall slowly to the ground. In the middle of the air, he felt himself turning, until he was looking up at the night sky. He felt the earth stop him with a sudden thump, and the world seemed to grow cloudy for a moment. With a shake of his head, the fog around him seemed to lift, and Wander let out a soft moan.
A dull ache settled into his back, taking the place of the sharper pain that had now ceased. His head likewise ached, and his heart continued to beat wildly, though it soon began to settle. Aside from his back and head, Wander did not think himself hurt. He was not sure what had happened or where he had ridden. Though he could see nothing, Wander felt his heart fill with a strange, solemn feeling, as if he had intruded on a place that he should not go. At once, he thought of Agro. He could not hear the horse, for he had not let out any sound.
"Agro!" Wander called out. Only the grave silence of this strange place came in reply. Taking a few steps away, Wander cupped his hands and shouted again, "Agro!" Again, he heard nothing. Turning his steps back from where he had fallen, Wander sprinted back, thinking he might find his old friend. As he blindly raced through the grasses, he felt himself fall forward again, having tripped over, what Wander supposed was a rock. He did not land upon the earth, however. He had fallen over some object. It was large, and it felt quite recognizable against Wander's chest. It was not made of earth or stone but flesh.
"Agro," Wander said with happiness, running his hand over the horse's flank. "I'm glad I found you." He stood and looked back from where they had come. "Come on," he added. "Let's go home." Even in the darkest part of the night, Wander could tell the horse had not moved. He returned to the side of his friend and knelt. "Come on, Agro," he said, now with some concern in his voice.
He let his hand come to rest on the side of the animal. He felt no rising or falling as he expected he would. His face twisted in confusion as he moved his hand here and there upon the horse, and still he felt nothing. "You can't rest now. Please, get up," Wander bade. The horse did not move. Wander tried to stir him, but Agro remained still. Wander shrugged and laid himself down upon Agro's flank.
"It'll be dawn soon, so I guess you can rest until then. But you better be ready to run when the sun comes up." Noting the heaviness of his own eyes, Wander thought he might sleep as well.
The sun was not yet finished in its rising when Wander awoke. He yawned and rose, stretching as he did. Taking a few steps, he let his eyes face northward, and he let out a groan of displeasure. It was a cold and cloudy morning, though the sun still gave light through its veil. Wander hugged himself against the chill, but it was not only the bite of the morning that sent shivers through him. He did not look towards his return home with any eager expectation. By this time, Mono would surely have awoken, and she would find him gone. Wander was sure he would face a stern lecture, though he supposed his deeds would merit it. He supposed that he it would be best to not prolong the coming reprimand, and so he looked back to where Agro still laid.
"It's time to wake up, Agro," Wander said. The horse did not move. Wander titled his head at his stillness and ran to his friend's side. He looked into his face. Agro's eyes had remained open, and yet they seemed to gaze upon nothing. Wander dropped to his knees. He did not know how to rouse such an animal, even though he had done so the night before. He vigorously rubbed his flank, thinking it would awaken him.
"Come on, Agro," he pleaded. "You have to get up." He did not understand why the horse did not rise or why his eyes had stayed open. "Get up!" Wander shouted. His hand grew still. Agro's flank felt so cold beneath his palm. He could still feel nothing. No breath was taken, and it filled Wander with such fear. He stood sharply. "Get up!" he shouted again, now with a tear in his eye, though he knew not why he should cry.
He looked about the place he had come to spend that night. He knew he could recognize the stones scattered around. One seemed to form into a doorway, though he did not think to explore it.
"Mother will know what to do," he said, though his voice did not sound at all hopeful. He turned his feet towards the way he had come. Wander took one last look towards the unmoving Agro. "I'm sorry to leave you here," he added with a strange sadness, "but Mother will know how to wake you. Don't worry, Agro, I'll be back."
And then he started off back towards the shrine.
A/N: I told you it would be a real doozy. Believe me, I didn't want to do this. As someone who's had a similar experience with an animal friend, I really hated to do this. But I could see no other way to make the story progress. I also hated to make Wander this naive, but he really hasn't had much experience in matters of death, at least not in his new life and certainly not this sort.
Anyway, if you didn't guess, the figures in Wander's dream are the Colossi, at least the, well, shadows of the Colossi. I figured he'd still have some memory of them, even if they haven't come to the surface yet.
I'd also like to apologize in adavnce if I got the lay of the land wrong. I figured the spot Wander would end up is the place people call Grave Fields or something like that. At least that was the name the Wiki gave it. I thought it was somewhere to the south of the shrine based on the map, but again, it doesn't really help that I still haven't played the game. So, for the purists out there, please go easy on me.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this early Christmas present, although it really isn't all that merry. Still, I hope that you liked it. All of you readers have been the best gift a writer could ask for.