The 30th Day of Ripening Season, 342 years After Mourning
The wind that blows through the plague-ridden streets of Aramas carries more than death—it carries defeat. I have walked under its yoke for far too long. It circles the city, caressing the stone walls like a jealous lover, refusing to leave. Yet as I stepped through the tall grass outside the city gates, a wave of renewal washed over me, despite the dead goats along the riverbank. Rotting carcasses are easier to ignore, I discovered, when they are not piled up in mounds. While the sun baked away the agony I have stubbornly cleaved to my soul, the ghost of remembrance danced around me and I almost remembered a time, not so long ago, when I walked these paths for meditation and enlightenment—when death was nothing more than a distant and unwelcome guest.
Both children needed the fresh air, as much as it can be called fresh. Death lingers among the goats, the squirrels, the swine and even the fish, but it is only a hint, easily forgotten amid the vast expanse of the land. We followed the river north, stopping only to gather berries. Noreen and Barly, content with the slow pace of an old man, walked the tired steps of the hopeless. Children should skip and chase each other with the innocence of those who only know the soft caress of their mother’s hands and have not yet been touched by the harsh, skeletal fingers of life.
But perhaps all is not lost. The color in their cheeks has brightened. Their steps, while not yet full of gaiety, are lighter now than they were when we left the temple three days ago.
There is hope. I know this. I have heard it in the call of a lone lark. I have seen it in Noreen, who though she remains silent, smiled for the first time while a pair of butterflies flitted around her head like summer sprites. A smile without fear. A smile without pain. I turned and wiped my face before she saw the moisture on my cheeks.
After walking for most of the morning, we found an abandoned farm . . . and more. Thieves had already emptied the house of whatever physical treasures the previous family hid, and most of the food. They missed the three children hiding under the floorboards.
Wait—someone knocks . . .