The dead foliage on the ground snapped in a rhythm of footsteps, with the sounds of the crashing waves slowly fading in the distance. The melody of the night thickened with the harmonious sounds of crickets, cicadas, and owls. I was led into a village just a few miles from the beach. At first, the moonlight illuminated the tree line just enough for me to make out shadows. I counted maybe a dozen hooded figures around me, yet none of them seemed on guard by my presence. I was somewhere in the back of the group with only two of them beside me, not really paying attention to what I was doing. I began to ponder if I should escape or not.
I looked up at the moon-lit night sky and closed my eyes for a brief second, wondering if I was being led to my death. The howling of wolves stirred me from my moment of anxiety, giving me slight goose bumps up and down my arms. The stars weren’t shining quite as bright with the torches around us, yielding just enough light to pave the way through the dense, narrow forest.
“What’s wrong? You seem worried,” the same elder woman spoke to me again from before in her stern tone. She had been walking besides me the entire way, lightly grasping my upper arm, as if she were the one being escorted. “You are not our prisoner. You are our guest.”
“So am I free to leave when I please?” I asked, testing the hospitality of my new hosts. I looked back and realized I had forgotten my belongings on the beach.
“Yes, you are free to leave at any time. You will be staying with Asmund, one of our village elders responsible for keeping us safe. And oh – where are my manners? My name is Eydis.” She chuckled to herself. “It is not often that I get to converse with people in English… Excuse me if I have an accent.”
I hadn’t even noticed an accent – she was speaking in proper English. Was she toying with me? Eydis waved at the other figure standing next to us and gestured for him to come over. She gave my arm a slight squeeze as she let go, and continued walking ahead of us. Just then, I felt the presence of a very large man, easily over six feet tall, breathing next to me. His muscular figure reminded me of my father’s. I couldn’t see any eyes but I could tell I was being examined intently.
“I am Asmund. We can make proper introductions when we get to my domain. I have taken the liberty of gathering your belongings. I will return them to you upon inspection,” the hooded figure said, speaking softly. Asmund’s voice was surprisingly young sounding. I was confused initially, especially because Eydis had said he was an elder. “But just a bit of advice – if I were you, I would hear out the council first. I doubt very much you have any other pressing business.” Even through the dim lighting, I could tell Asmund was smiling underneath that hood of his.
As we treaded through the moonlit forest on a lightly-worn path, I continued to ponder about the various possible scenarios that could explain my captors. My mind was filled with so many questions, but they had to wait. As we crossed over a hill, the entire horizon opened up to the night sky, and a bonfire was raging at the center of the valley below, where a gentle stream flowed towards the opposite side of the island. The sound of fresh water massaging sediment and pebble provoked my thirst. Small candles were lit along the paths on the interior of the village, showing just how massive it was. There must have been at least a thousand residents living within this valley.
“A funeral pyre,” Asmund motioned towards the fire sadly. “The leader of the twelve elders has passed on. She was a great woman. It looks like we made it just in time.”
I expected to see people in mourning through whatever ritual they were performing, yet all events seemed to halt right there and then as we descended from the hills into the village. The indigenous people were more intrigued by my arrival than the funeral of their elder. They all lined up on either sides of the path, at least a few hundred of them, bowing down. All wearing hoods. I could see their attire very clearly now – red robes that fell to their black boots with sewn on black hoods. A white insignia was visible on their chests – some sort of massive tree with the roots erupting from the ground, almost as if the tree was freeing itself from earth and drifting into the sky.
“You never told us your name, by the way,” Asmund whispered, bending his head down low to my ear. “Perhaps you would like to tell me so I could introduce you to my people?”
Better to use an alias, I thought to myself. “You can call me Boren,” I whispered back into Asmund’s ear. Asmund turned to look at me, nodded, and then faced the gathering crowd. Eydis raised her hand to quiet the small whispers of the crowd, and then turned around to bow as she disappeared towards the funeral pyre.
“This is Boren the Arrival. He will be staying here under my protection and care. He is an extension of myself – therefore, I expect you to treat him as you would treat me,” Asmund announced, folding his arms and making eye contact with everyone around him. He was intimidating, and surely he commanded the respect of his people. Satisfied with his answer, the crowd turned back to the funeral pyre, and began to pray in some foreign language I had never heard before, resembling German.
“Romell,” Asmund yelled at the crowd. A boy, approximately twelve years old, began running towards us, his long white hair flailing backwards. “Boren, my son Romell will escort you to my domain. I have to attend to the funeral rites.” Asmund, before disappearing into the crowd of hooded figures, called back at his son, “Romell, please be on your best behavior.” They all continued chanting in their strange language. It was especially odd that the prayer was not, for whatever reason, a coordinated effort – various words and phrases were being thrown out, as if it was a shouting contest.
I felt a tug on my arm as Romell was staring up at me. My heart almost skipped a beat when I saw his eyes. They looked exactly like my fathers, piercing my very soul. They were large and blue, but in a cold manner. He began walking away, looking back at me and gesturing with his hand to follow. I ran to catch up with him.
“I am sorry for the loss of your leader,” I said to Romell, hoping that by empathizing with him, I could probe for information. Was this my chance to escape? Where would I escape to? I had to learn more information about these people and their intentions. “What happens now?”
“What happens now? I’m not quite sure I understand such a question,” Romell frowned, shaking his head. “As for the loss of our leader, grandmother was a great woman. We do not mourn our dead though, as you probably do… We don’t see death as a finality, but a cycle. One thing must give way to make room for another. The memories of those we cherish are immortalized within our very existence. For every action we take, it is in some way, imparted upon us from the memories of the dead.” The boy’s voice quieted and he even looked happy for a moment. We were walking slowly along the candle-lit trail in between wooden cabins. No sign of life was visible in the area except for us and the fading chants of the funeral rites behind us.
“Grandmother? Your father’s mother?” I inquired. Asmund did not seem quite as distraught as one normally would be at the funeral of their own mother.
“My father’s mother? No…” Romell laughed, putting his hand on his face and shaking his head.
“Your mother’s mother?” I was getting frustrated with these vague answers, but I reminded myself I was talking to a mere child.
“Everyone’s mother,” Romell snapped, almost as if the words he were saying were completely obvious and superfluous.
Romell was certainly playing games with me at this point, as if to test my wit. How could one woman be everyone’s…mother? How ridiculous. It was then that I thought of a better line of questioning. “Romell, does Eydis have any children?” I asked, hoping to finally get some answers.
Romell was silent. It occurred to me that my line of questioning would probably be reported to Asmund, so I held my inquiries for a better time. A few minute into our walk, I noticed the stream I had spotted from the hills. I was extremely thirsty and hungry. We were about to cross over a bridge that led us to the other side of the freshly bubbling water.
“Romell, I’m going to have a quick drink,” I said while I ran over to the water. I splashed some cool water in my face and downed several handfuls. The water tasted wonderful. I turned around to see Romell simply staring at me again with his cold blue eyes.
“Mr. Boren, it’s not going to go well, but you’ll be okay,” whispered Romell, kneeling down in the grass beside the bridge. The bright funeral pyre in the distance all of a sudden went out. It seemed that the rites had been concluded. It was quite dark now, with only the residual moon reflecting off of the clear water. All of the houses near the stream were completely pitch black – everyone was probably either sleeping or at the funeral. I could smell the faint smoke in the distance. All I could hear now was the steady water slapping against the earth. I decided maybe that some light-hearted conversation would ease the tension between us.
“Romell, what’s for dinner? I am starving!” I asked, laughing slightly. All of a sudden, my laughter turned to sharp pain as I clenched my gut. It felt as if I had shards of glass stabbing out my insides. I began groaning in pain. “What is happening to me?” I screamed, writhing in agony on the bank of the stream, laying supine, unable to stand on my feet.
“It’s like I said, Mr. Boren. It’s not going to go well, but you’ll be okay,” again whispered Romell, staring at me, tilting his head slightly as if studying an odd object. “And as for dinner, well, you’re it. You’re our dinner.”