Waters kept flooding in, ebbing out, sometimes strong and other times not. High tides brought in surging, white capped waves to batter the shoreline, breaking against large, glistening rocks that littered the shore in heaps, streaked by soot black lichens. Seawater everywhere churned, frothing like some wood witch's brew, spewing up shell fragments, reeds, driftwood like bones, and a foam that bubbled, crackled…almost hissing. The turmoil he could tolerate, but the still waters that followed left Sandor unsettled rather than comforted.
Since his arrival, drifting in on a flooding tide, a life of solitude continued. He was kept sequestered on a wilder tract of island inside a squat, stone hut scare large enough to house him. Here he was looked after, and here he howled, blinded by agony when the brother had no choice but to reset the bone yet again. Here he had passed out against a bed of straw as the brother cut away flesh turned black and fetid despite careful attention. When Sandor regained his wits, the brother packed on a thick fibrous and muddy paste of knitbone against his thigh that dried hard as plaster. He was given chase-devil to drink and instead of the sweet sleep he had begged for, but it was wine that every part of him craved. And nothing could satisfy the thirst.
Day and night tangled into one another, while outside Sandor's walls the sea roared, breaking though the quiet inside, invading sleep and haunting dreams. He woke battered, worn, and feeling the cornered beast. Each clumsy movement he made filled him with dread. Dread for the next day and each day after. He touched the hardened plaster about his thigh, and stared at it resentfully.
What have I done to myself, he thought darkly, always darkly as he went over his past. There was too much to go through, and little distraction.
Elder Brother, The words sat uncomfortably on his mind. Embarrassment mingled with mortification, Sandor came away feeling betrayed after he discovered that the Brother, was in fact an Elder. A lie by omission, he had simmered and stewed. He saved you, another voice inside reminded him, ungrateful dog. What has your own blood given you?
Nothing, he reasoned, but couldn't get comfortable with a man who had seen him so vulnerable, pathetic, and at his worst. What was friendship anyways? People come and bugger off in life. Best not to get attached.
Each morning oat porridge and a green apple were brought for Sandor to breakfast on by an old man with gristled skin and a clouded eye. Each shuffling movement he made had Sandor half expecting the old man to keel over. Of all the buggering places it'll happen here alone with me. His lip curled up at the thought and he took a bite out of his apple, tasting more tart than sweet.
The old man defied Sandor's doubts and continued to live on, shuffling outdoors to empty out a chamber pot and later returning with kindling clutched awkwardly in arm. Sandor watched him work, noticing with a keen eye that the old man kept his left hand hidden. As the wisp of old man stooped low and fed kindling into the fire Sandor spied his deformity and averted his eyes down at the dirt floor. The man's hand had been mutilated and what that remained was a gross mockery of skin, bone, and withered muscle. It made even his stomach clenched with disgust.
'You, what happened to your hand?" Sandor dared ask. Somewhere in the man's face, the fog of age lifted and Sandor caught sight of a look of defiance. An echo of strength in the man's broken shoulders as he squared them. Sandor could almost hear bones creak, and rattle into place in their bony graves.
Broken. Just like…me.
The old man said nothing, but made sure to draw his sleeve down and tucked the remains of his hand from sight. He shuffled across the room without another look, quietly shutting the door behind him. And once more Sandor was left alone.
In truth he was a quarantined animal and every shadow that darkened his doorway was unwelcome, unwanted, and left him feeling like a grotesque curiosity. You're not the only beaten dog around here, the voice inside whispered again.
Sandor traced the swirls in the cracked daub of the domed ceiling with his eyes until they grew heavy from boredom. Next to his pallet on a stool lay a hymnal and he reached for it. Sandor leafed through the pages out of boredom even though he could not read music. He tried to decipher the ornate calligraphy, but the letters swam before his eyes and each page appeared done by a different hand. He gave up and dropped the book face down on the stool, now dying of boredom and shut his eyes.
Some time later when he opened his eyes, greeted by the sight of crutches leaning up against the wall next to the door. Next to where his feet hung his pallet, robes sat folded. He stared at the brown coarse weave for a moment, grunted his displeasure and tried rolling onto his side but the tug of his scabbing wounds stopped him mid-motion. I am to be one of them, part of their fold.
So he donned the robe and put up the hood and felt nearly the equal. But I'll utter no gods forsaken vow.
Sandor held the crutches awkwardly; the scent of resin and sap clung to the freshly sanded wood. He struggled to his feet slowly, leaning his weight onto the arm rests. They chaffed and his coarse robes bunched up uncomfortably beneath his arms. He took a step anyhow. It did not matter, it was nothing compared to all the rest he had suffered. It was a small price for a taste of freedom.
The first steps outdoors make him dizzy. The light nearly blinded him and made his eyes throb and woke a headache. Despite this he pressed on, circling the hut like a beast finally free of its cage. Sandor was eager to get his bearings on these new surroundings. The ground felt sturdy beneath his feet as he moved with caution, moving ungainly with the crutches. A thatch of birch surrounded, bark peeling, slashed black and grey along the length of the trunks.
By the time he returned, his supper waited on a small wooden table. Today snapper and boiled turnips, the next day after a thick stew of crab, potatoes, and carrots. He ate with relish; the salty wind rolling off the bay roused his hunger. They were simple meals, no need to hide taste with heavy sauces and spices. Sandor left the trencher without a scrap, mopping up the last morsels with his bread and drank from a clay jug, tasting the nothingness of water, but couldn't help but frown. He had grown tired of the hot teas he was made to drink; tired of the sluggishness that would fall over him and dull his senses.
Sandor made his mind up to find Stranger and resolved to follow the trail until it led him to someone who would point the way. He came upon the Elder Brother hiking up a crossroads in the trail, leading another monk, this one a ruddy-faced young man, and pointed him eastward towards a terraced field. Sandor stiffened, not knowing whether to continue hobbling onwards or to wait.
The Elder Brother gave a wave and made towards Sandor. The Elder Brother motioned for Sandor to follow him, and kept a slow pace, "How are you finding it?"
"Quiet." Sandor answered, hesitating a moment and added, "Dull."
"A bed of hay's softer than the hard ground."
"And your leg?"
Sandor shifted his weight from his good leg onto the crutches," Tolerable."
They approached a flat slab of rock overlooking a steep sloping shore; the Elder Brother helped Sandor sit and settled next to him. One of the countless gulls circling overhead swept down and landed on the murky shore with a flurry of its wings, dancing around and pecking at a fish that flopped on the mud.
"Will you stay?" the brother asked, watching the gull snap up and struggle to keep hold of the wriggling fish. A snap of its beak and the fish's dull grey head hung from a tendril of flesh.
"I like my head on my neck. Where else now can I enjoy such luxury?" Sandor smirked; his scars tugged his lips, and watched the seagull too. He knows what fate awaits a deserter…that's what I am. "Are your men scared . . . do they whisper of a monster prowling their woods?" Sandor asked, purposefully making his voice harsh and grating. The bird finally took off with its prize gripped firmly in its hooked beak. The tendril broke over the water and the head tumbled into the waves. All at once the other gulls dove towards the water, squawking.
"Your head is full of songs," replied the Elder Brother, stealing the wind from Sandor's words." They are my brothers, not my men." Words as firm as they were protective.
" And what have you told your brothers then?"
"Those that need know, you are a man who slayed a great beast. To the others, you are a new brother, everything else they need not be concerned with..."
"And you say that my head is full of songs." Sandor scoffed, and really looked at him full on. The man looked ridiculous in his tonsure, nowhere near balding. When he looked in the Elder Brother's wind burnt face and tried to read his expression, the only hint in his heavy jaw set with resolve. Sandor pitied this Elder Brother, "If you are not more careful, kindness will be your downfall."
"You are not the first to say so, but for many it is strength. Thus far it has served others well enough. I suppose one's luck does run out… and I've had enough lives for a cat to be envious." Somewhere in the treetops, a chirruping broke into a song that wove through the air. Both men to looked up.
"Even on n island, strange guests turn up. Unfamiliar animals find their way here, birds blown off course by a storm as they try to fly where ever they mean to go. They wind up here for a brief time and sing their songs before setting off again. They reminded of my insignificance, how small I truly am in a world that sustains so many creatures and how little I know." The Elder Brother brought up his hand, shading his eyes as the sun descended down towards the horizon.
Wonderful! A philosopher too. Sandor thought sourly.
The brother gave him a searching look. "Who set you adrift?"
Realization dawned on Sandor like an ice cold wave, mortification rolled over him. He grasped for his crutches and stood up, not looking back as he limped off, leaving the Elder Brother behind. He wished he had more dignity... that he wasn't at the mercy of such an ass. What does he know? He asked himself bitterly and swore under his breath. What did he coax out of me in my fevers? What does he know?!
He hobbled on and away, anger coursing through his veins. The waters along the east slowly began to pull away and the tide receded, revealing mudflats shimmering like gold, copper, casting half a hundred hues in the light of the setting sun. As the moon rose to its seat in the sky, the waters drawn towards it just as the howls of wolves in the distance. Sandor limped back to his little stone hut before it was too dark. That night he laid awake for some time. Sleep did not come easy.
It never had before but those occasions had always been remedied by ale or wine. He missed the drunk off of wine more than ever. It was easier not to think that way and drift into a dreamless sleep void of memories. He was without those comforts now. Sleep, damn it, cursing at himself as the sweet scent of hay filled his nose. He waited and waited, listening to the fire crackle until sleep finally came.
That night he dreamt of the untamed wilderness the brother had led him through. Sinking sands and swamps choked with algae blooms overflowed their banks where fallen cypress trees floated, half-submerged like drowned giants overtaken by green moss. Rushes teemed with mayflies; the air reeked of their rot. The brother kept ahead, never looking back and kept quiet but for a crackling noise underfoot.
Sandor felt a hundred eyes intent upon him as he followed a twisting path between graves that gaped open, wide and deep. Overhead the sky was cloudless, starless, lacking even the moon to look down on him. Sandor searched the void overhead, realization and the radiating gloom of his surroundings overtook him then, replacing hope with hopelessness.
The brother stood before him, but the face beneath the hood was not one he recognized. The features rippled and changed, as if looking through tears. But there were no tears and the specter cast him into a yawning pit, he saw the hole plain enough. "This grave is yours alone, it whispered in a hundred voices, and there was no mercy in the constant darkness of its eyes, only malice glittered and gleamed as it backed away, disappearing from sight.
Unnatural movement along the walls, and recoiled when he grazed his fingers along the dirt walls, writhing with plump, dirt crusted worms. He struggled to his feet, trying scramble up the walls of the tomb. There was no steady footing and the earth fell away as he slipped deeper down into a hungry darkness, filling his nose with the telling smell of decay, a sickening sweet scent with a tail end of foulness.
He clawed at the dirt, feeling it split the nails at his finger tips. All around him bodies heaped, dead and broken, stiff and cold. Emaciated fingers prodded and pinched; grabbed hold and pulled him down as he struggled to free himself up from the pestilent sea. Why are you the one left to live? Their mouths did not move but they spoke all the same. A discordant choir of voices, thin like the wind rattling through hollow reeds. They spoke, they whispered, and hated.
Hair and meat sloughed off into his hands as he shoved and pushed, but there was always more crowding him; and always heavier. Half-clotted blood poured from between his fingers and terrifyingly their mouths fell open to drink as the congealed mess ran down, smearing across the chaotic tangle of poorly bound flesh and bone. Why you, they groaned and moaned hateful. Deeper down beneath them something else howled mournfully. Why not us ...us...US -
Sandor woke with a start, drenched in cold sweat with blankets clenched in his hands. Outside the wind howled, and some branch scrabbled at the outside of the hut. It's a storm, he reassured himself not entirely convinced though. He leaned back against the damp fragrant straw but hesitated to close his eyes, afraid to see those faces. Sandor laid awake the rest of the night, unable to forget the feeling of coarse dirt beneath bloodied fingernails; and in the morning he hobbled outdoors, eager to escape.
Down the slick, stony trail. Down, down, down past the birch trees until he found his way to a trail that lead to the docks where a ferry was roped and anchored down. Sandor was out of breath from the effort, sweating like some laboring beast of burden.
He spotted bobbed up in down in the water after he found a seat on a rock and rested the crutches at his side. Up and down bobbed the mass, gently rocked by the motion of waves. A flash of white knocking against a dock post, with dull thuds. A small crab scuttled by Sandor's foot and diverted his attention for a moment. He strained his eyes to see better and made out five fingers. Layers of tattered clothes, feet, and hair swirling in the water. He swallowed a yell, swallowed his voice. And there was nothing else but the rush of water and the drowned form rocking gently in the water.
He sat that for some time, until hurried footsteps approached from behind. Sandor heard the shuffling steps break into a run, and a flurry of brown fly past him and splashed into the water.
"HELP!" the young man cried, shattering his vow of silence. He ran to the water's edge and waded in, robes billowing out in the water. The man grasped the body by an arm and tugged it ashore. Three other robed men came running. The tallest one stopped, surveyed the scene and ran back inland. Moments later he reappeared with Elder Brother, who ran to the body. He knelt in the mud, took a look and murmured something, and gathered up the body. As they moved past Sandor, he glimpsed the face and sat back oddly calm, strangely collected.
The boy in the woods.
That very night a new face joined his tormentors and stole away his rest. Sandor awoke, now too terrified to sleep, and remained awake that night, cursing himself. His mouth parched and no amount of water would satisfy. With half the mind to limp his way and search for wine or what ever he could get his hands on.
Damn the man who tries to stop me or gets in my way!
When he reached the door and flung it open it was darker outside than any night had the right to be. Too dark. He cursed out loud, damning the gods, and cursed the howling wind that screamed past his ears.
In the distance he heard the clamor of bells. Bells pealing, clashing in no ordinary tolling, clangor sound. The bells rolled on and on, frantic a sobbing from rusty throats. And then nothing.
Nothing. A quiet that sent a shiver down his back, that made his skin prickle. A haze of red and gold rippled violently against the night sky across the northern horizon to where he stood. I can not stay. Sandor wandered, stumbling blindly in the dark, limping painfully, awkwardly. Stranger, I must find Stranger and fucking leave! Hell has come for me!
But somehow he found himself back at his hut, hobbled to a low chair and sat. Sandor eyed the hymnal, he could make a crude light out of several torn pages. He picked it up and grasped for a sheet, and tore a page out and then another. The candle cast a light that was dim, but it was bright enough to dance across the words on a page he was about to worry.
Gentle mother, font of mercy
A trickle slipped down the side of his face; he tasted the salt of tears upon his lips.
And that satisfied.