Boy, get out here!”
He was angry. Then again, when wasn’t the old man angry? Roland was nestled under the cobbler’s bench, annoyed that his one moment of peace in days had been interrupted. In his seven years of life, that man’s hideous screeching had become the main component of his everyday existence. What used to send him into spells of terror now simply irritated him. After all, the old man was shrinking in his aging and decrepit state, while Roland grew taller and stronger. And the old man knew this. Even at the age of eight the young boy could put the once-powerful man in his place, and they both knew it. Taking special care to put his most precious treasure back in the hiding place where he knew it would be safe, Roland answered back, “coming” before crawling out from under the bench and straightening out the rags he wore to remind him of his worthless place in the world.
“The shoes for Miss Ambrosia and her daughter. Did you finish them?” The old man asked anxiously, partially from fear of disappointing a loyal customer, but mostly from fear of taking his anger out on his protégé within earshot of passersby.
“Of course I did.” Roland answered simply, reaching under the counter to produce two carefully repaired pairs of shoes. Both pairs were a perfect conglomeration of the old man’s unsurpassed sewing skills mated with Roland’s expert cobbling skills. For all the arguments and the yelling, the old man and his apprentice were an unparalleled match when it came to the coverings on the villagers’ feet. Every tiny stitch the old man dedicated to his creations was in itself a work of art. People came from neighboring towns just to purchase a pair of the old man’s shoes, some even hoping to convince the old man to create one of his magnificent gowns or pretty little dresses to match, something he had been loath to attempt these days without the addition of a great deal of coin. The dresses and the tops of the shoes were all the handiwork of the aging shoemaker; the soles and the heels, however, were all Roland’s doing. He provided the comfort to the old man’s intricate embroidery. They were well beyond the workmanship of a common child, and yet Roland’s abilities were not those of a child his age. One he made up his mind to perfect a skill, it was perfected in no time at all.
The old man’s temper abated, he muttered a quick “thank you boy” before placing the shoes in fancy white boxes, tying those boxes with elaborate ribbons and placing them on the counter to await their owner’s reclamation. The bell above the door sounded, heralding the arrival of Miss Ambrosia and her little girl Neela. A petite girl with raven black hair and green eyes, Neela was already considered a beauty, and she had eyes for only one stubborn boy. She instantly set upon the younger of the gentlemen, asking Roland when he would be free to go to the park and if she could join him when he did. Roland gave her his regular response; nodded slightly, politely made his excuses and made his way back to the workshop, hoping to avoid any commitments that would intrude on his private stretches of quiet reflection. Reaching under the cobbler’s bench, he once more retrieved his prized possession, the only thing he owned outright: a paper-like handkerchief covered in his blood.
It was the girl who occupied his thoughts as of late. He had made her acquaintance through a chance meeting, only known her for a matter of a minute, but it was enough to put an indelible impression on his heart. That day lingered in his mind as if it happened only the day before. Long before he had found his courage, he was every harsh taskmaster’s dream; a six-year-old boy who was quick to learn, and quite eager to take whatever abuse he had coming to him in exchange for shelter from the cold. The cobbler had indeed been fortunate when this small boy turned up on his doorstep, and he worked the boy from dawn until well after dusk. This particular day Roland had been rushing to return to the cobbler’s shop after a delivery in Dream Land had taken longer than he had been allotted. In his blind haste to avoid a beating he had turned a corner without looking…and run headlong into a little girl. The both flew back in opposite directions, with Roland landing hard on the cobblestone street. As he brought himself to his knees, he took a long look at the person who had knocked him down.
It was the first person of her kind he had ever seen. She was dressed in the funniest outfit, nothing anyone he knew would have chosen to wear. Her blouse was a bright, pink color, and there was some sort of image on her shirt, an odd bird with silly words imprinted below its feet. Her blue pants looked nothing like the usual attire worn in Psitharis, though they were just as worn as his own. She had long brown hair that flew over her face as he knocked her to the ground, and as she brushed her hair back he saw her eyes; they looked sad. He recognized that sadness because he had seen it reflected in the mirror at the shop. It wasn’t a sadness that was obvious to the world, only to those who felt it keenly. He was vaguely aware of a slight pain in his head where they had made contact, but the sight of this new and unusual girl caught his attention, distracting him from the sting of his injury.
“Hey, watch it!” he had screamed, more out of shock than anything. He stood to his feet and watched the girl struggle to get to her feet and fail. Her strange appearance had arrested his train of thought, made him unaware of the fact he was being rude. Of course, the old man had only taught him to be cordial to customers anyway, and as this girl was no customer he owed her no niceties.
“You could try ‘excuse me!’” the girl retorted, looking at him crossly. She sat on her behind checking the spot on her head where she collided with him. If the discoloration above her eyebrow was any indication, she was going to have a lump the size of an egg by day’s end. She looked up, and stared in horror at the space above his eye. “Oh my gosh.” She sounded frightened. “You’re bleeding!” Roland reached up and touched the sore spot, and when he saw the blood covering his fingers for a moment his young mind was filled with panic. He couldn’t get blood on his only outfit; the old man would be irate if he did. “Let me help you. You’re hurt.” The girl was holding her head too, but she was more worried about him now. It made him take a step back. He’d never had anyone worry about him before. Many customers often threw him glances of pity, but they had never offered any acts of kindness. It was such a strange feeling, almost comforting in a way.
“No more than you.” he replied, suddenly remembering the old man and the possibility of a severe punishment awaiting him. “I’ll fix it later. I’m already late and the boss is going to beat me!” He held out his hand to help her up, and in return she put a piece of paper in his hand. Roland flipped the peculiar gift over in his hand, examining it. It was an odd piece of paper, and only when the girl pointed to her head did he know what it was for. It was a handkerchief of some sort to put on his wound. He put the tissue to his head before uttering a quick “thank you” and running away. As much as he hated being rude, he faced something far worse than an injured and irate little girl if he didn’t scurry. But why had she been nice to him, especially after he hurt her? Anyone else would have kicked at him, swung at him or dragged him back to the cobbler to demand restitution. But she didn’t. She saw him as a little boy, not an indentured servant, and she made him feel for the first moment in his life like he was human.
His steps slowed, his mind lost in endless thought. Suddenly it wasn’t so important to get back to the cobbler, to keep him out of a foul temper. It was in those last few feet back to the village Roland began to think about himself differently. All of his life he had been told he was rubbish, that the old man’s charity was the only thing that kept him alive. And since no one else had ever disputed the man’s claims, Roland had never felt the need to question what he was told. But in those last steps following that fateful meeting, after that singular act of kindness, little Roland began to see himself as more. His heart seemed to feel something other than the soulless drudgery it had experienced every day since its inception. He felt for the first time in his life a very new sensation, and it all came from a chance encounter from the girl with the faraway eyes. It was hope.
He stepped through the threshold of the shop with moments to spare. Still clutching the magic cloth to his head, he intended to return to the workshop and avoid the cobbler’s attentions for a while, at least until his head stopped bleeding; no such luck. The old man, alerted by the bells on the door, came through the curtains separating the workshop from the store, already on a warpath. Only today, young Roland didn’t want to be yelled at, and young Roland didn’t want to be hit. That girl, that one brief moment of kindness, it had given him some unknown strength, a strength he didn’t have when he thought there wasn’t a person in the world who gave a damn about him. Somebody out there, for the smallest stretch of time, showed him kindness. His life up to that point had been proven to be a lie. And he now knew he was worth a lot more than he was getting.
“Boy, you are late!” The old man screeched. “I’m going to tear into you for disobeying me! Worthless lout!” The man advanced, ready to strike Roland across the head as he always had. But small Roland stood to his full height, which met the crooked and bent man’s chest, and glared at him defiantly, still clutching the cloth to his head.
“I got here as soon as I could.” Roland stated in a cold, steady voice, completely devoid of fear. “Your deliveries are made, your customers are happy. And if you want them to stay that way I’d suggest you change your tone with the one person who does all the work around here, and we both know that’s me. I’m the one who fixes the shoes, and I’m the one who delivers them. You are old, and your hands shake. I have been nothing but faithful to you, worked for you until my fingers bled, stayed up long nights to fill the many orders you could not fill. I would rather starve on those streets than stay here another night being your apprentice. So, unless you want to lose your livelihood and the only person who keeps you from starving, I want to be treated differently. I don’t expect you to love me, but I do expect you to keep your opinions to yourself and leave me to my work. Are we clear?”
The cobbler was taken aback. The little whippet had never talked back to him before because there was always a level of fear that kept him in line. And now that fear, the only safeguard the old gentleman had to keep his charge in line, had vanished. In its place was an assured young man, far beyond his seven years of living. And he was right. If the boy left, the old man could not do all the work demanded of him. His business would fold, and he would fold along with it. And for a moment the fear had changed possessors, from child to man. It was enough to force him into a rapid retreat. Sputtering, he managed to order the boy to get busy on the ballerina’s pair of slippers before leaving the shop to squelch the panic growing within him.
It had been so long since he had seen the girl with the ordinary brown hair and the sad brown eyes, but it was a memory he looked to whenever his situation began to feel hopeless. The cobbler had long since ceased his beatings, but there was never any change in the way they felt about each other. Roland never became anything more than a common servant in the old man’s eyes, and the cobbler never became more than the roof over Roland’s head and the meager meal in his belly. It was her, that girl who kept him going, even when life spiraled into the realm of the forlorn. And this memento brought that day back with striking clarity.
Suddenly there was a commotion in the streets. Roland could hear it from the back of the shop, forcing him out of his reverie. He wandered to the front window where the cobbler was already staring through the plate glass. People were running from the entrance of the village, looking terrified, some clutching their children in their arms as if the very devil himself was chasing them. Shops were locking their doors, families were shutting their houses tight, leaving their lagging loved ones outside the door screaming to be let in. Something had them spooked; this was something he had never seen before. Things in the village were always calm. There was nothing but peace anywhere you went. Oh yes, there was the occasional skirmish between individuals, tradesmen and customers who felt they were being cheated, husbands and wives arguing over the proper way to discipline the children or the way he leered at the busty barmaid in the tavern. But this – this was new. It was terror. Something was seriously wrong.
Roland darted out the door, despite the old man’s demands for him to stay put. He ducked through the crowd, heading in the opposite direction of the mass exodus. His steps led him out of the village, away from the frightened crowds and into the forest itself. He could see a glowing light emanating from the expanse beyond the trees, where the ocean met the shore. Stealthily, young Roland made his way through the trees, away from the main roads, getting ever so close to the source of the upheaval. And as he approached the clearing and his feet began to find clear patches of sand instead of dirt, he saw something both petrifying and breathtaking at the same time. There was a massive conglomeration of ships on the horizon, and along the shoreline he saw hundreds of smaller boats being pulled aground by men in uniform. Soldiers. He had seen pictures of soldiers in books, huge men who protected kingdoms from intruders. But there had never been a soldier in Psitharis, had never been a need for an army. Yet here was a huge army coming ashore, either as protection or in an invasion; Roland didn’t know which. As the men began to assemble in organized units, all armed with sharp swords, it became pretty clear they weren’t there as friends to the people of Psitharis. Roland climbed up in one of the taller trees, watching as the hordes of soldiers proceeded into the forest, most heading toward Dream Land, but some turning his way and heading toward his own village. His first thought was to climb down and warn the old man, but there were so many soldiers, and he had no idea what they would do to one little boy all alone in the woods. Frightened out of his wits, he kept his back against the tree, staying stone still to avoid detection. And he watched for an hour as the skies darkened, and soldier after soldier after soldier made their way toward his home.
It was well past dark when the boats stopped landing on the shore and the soldiers stopped marching into the wilderness. But Roland had experienced in his hiding place a horror he didn’t realize could exist, and he knew he could never erase from his mind. As the soldiers made their way into the villages, he could hear it…the unbearable screaming. He could see flames building in the distance, as if his whole world was burning. There were terrified voices in the distance, of women and children, and sometimes of tortured men. He didn’t dare move from his hiding place, and yet he felt like a coward for staying where he was. But what could he do? This was an evil no one could possibly expect, a war they were in no way prepared to fight. He would be slaughtered if he climbed down now. As exhaustion threatened to overtake him, he focused on one final boat arriving from the huge ships in the distance. It was well-lit and ornate, much different from the boats that now littered the coast. As it approached land several soldiers with torches jumped from the boat and hauled it onto the dry earth, farther than they really needed to. As they steadied the boat, stairs were laid out for the occupants of the elaborate ferry. A female figure disembarked, followed closely by a smaller feminine shape half her size. They made their way to a litter awaiting them. Once they were situated, several soldiers hoisted the litter onto their shoulders and began the long march through Dream Land. Roland could not make out who the woman and child were or what they looked like, only that they were revered by the soldiers. It wasn’t until much later that he would find out he was the only person in Psitharis who would ever lay eyes on the girl who would claim the title of princess, along with her mother, the self-proclaimed “queen” of Psitharis.
It was early morning before Roland felt it safe enough to climb down from the tree to find out what happened to his village and the people within. He took the long way around, avoiding the entrance to the village which was heavily guarded. Roland found his way through abandoned alleyways and deserted side streets, each littered with the bodies of villagers. Several of the buildings that once stood proud against the skyline were now burnt piles of rubble, most likely burned down with the residents still inside. As he turned the corner to approach the cobbler’s shop his feet stumbled over one of the unfortunate victims of the previous night’s invasion. Neela was staring up into the sky; yet her emerald green eyes beheld none of the radiant blue of the pre-dawn sky. There was no breath to make her chest rise and fall, and one of her beautiful new slippers had been lost in the chaos, her other shoe still wrapped around a broken and twisted foot. Blood stained the entire front of her elaborate frock, and still clutching her hand was a woman whose body was lying face-down in the dirt; Neela’s mother. Roland felt a tear running down his face. Neela had always been a pest in his estimation, but never in a million years had she deserved this fate. What evil had befallen their lives that would see innocent little girls murdered and discarded this way? Roland did the only thing he could think for his fallen comrade; he closed her unblinking eyes and smoothed out her bloody dress, pulling it down so no one could see her mangled leg.
Roland made his way the remaining distance where the shop would still be standing, if it hadn’t been destroyed. To his great surprise, the cobbler’s shop was still there. Sneaking in the back door, he began the desperate search for the man who only yesterday had been the only thing he could call family. “Yedel, are you here?” Roland whispered. At first there was no response. But as he made his way toward the front of the shop and old, gnarled hand reached out from under the cobbler’s bench and grabbed him by the leg. Alarmed at first, Roland pulled against his captor until he realized it was the old man. He bent down on his knees and helped pull the old man out of the nook where he had been hiding the entire night. “Yedel, how did you survive?”
Yedel was shaking violently, tears running freely down his face. “Oh, Roland, my boy, you’re alive! I knew for certain you had been killed!” It was the first time the old man had shown concern for his young apprentice. It was an uncertain feeling for the boy. “They – they just started butchering people! If they caught someone in the street they ran a blade through them. No questions, no hesitation. They set fire to most of the buildings if they suspected people were hiding in them. They people they didn’t kill they rounded up, took them prisoner. I – I managed to dim the lamps before the soldiers reached this street. I hid in your hiding place; it was the only thing I could think to do. They searched the shop, tore everything to pieces, but they didn’t find me. It’s the only reason they passed this old shop by. My boy, they would have killed me. Would have killed you too if you had been here. They would have burned this old shop down around our ears! If they come back…if they return to find us here…” The old man began to shake.
Roland, unfamiliar with the need to calm his taskmaster, put one awkward arm around his shoulders, patting him slightly. “Everything is okay now. We have survived. We need to figure out if this is a place where we are safe. Do you know if the soldiers are gone?”
Yedel shook his head. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen any since last night. All of the people who weren’t killed were rounded up, taken away. I have no idea where they took them.”
The two unlikely allies spent an uneasy day watching through drawn shades, waiting for an army to come take them away or worse, dispatch them without a second thought. As one day stretched into two and there was no sign of either soldier or villager, Roland decided to round up as many blankets as he could in order to cover the dead. But as he wandered the empty streets of the village he noticed that all the bodies he stumbled over just the morning before had disappeared without a trace of the ordeal that had transpired. Neela and her mother were gone, and the only remnant of their lost lives was one misplaced shoe he found on the next street over. The bodies, so many that it had been impossible to count, had simply vanished. If soldiers had come in the night and taken them away Roland had no way of knowing.
After a week of hiding and foraging in the empty houses for enough food to survive, Roland noticed a welcome sight. The people were returning to the village. But something was extremely wrong. The people who used to be dressed in their finest, in brightest hues of brilliant colors, were now simply dressed in plain brown clothes. The women and girls were dressed in tan dresses that reached just below their knees. The men were attired in dirty white shirts and brown pants. Soldiers ushered them in from either side. And the boys – well, there were no boys to speak of. None of the younger males had returned, which made Roland uneasy. There were no smiles on the returning villagers, only the looks of defeat and bleakness. Everything was so wrong, and they were powerless to stop the malevolent tide that was sweeping over the once-prosperous land.
Roland and Yedel lingered one second too long at the shutters, watched through the cracks for a moment too intently. They saw two soldiers divert from the path heading directly toward the shop, obviously having spotted the briefest movement from the small slits in the shutters. They considered running, but where could they go? They were probably facing their last moments alive, and for a reason unknown to both of them they embraced; out of fear, or out of that one moment of realization just how important they really were to each other. As the door opened they prepared for whatever was coming. If they were going to die, they were going to die together as friends.
“You there.” The first soldier pointed to Yedel. Roland could feel the old man’s knees give way, forcing him to hold the old cobbler upright. “What are you two doing here? You should have been counted. That boy should be in the ranks.” Two other soldiers walked to either side of them, swords at the ready. Yedel let out an involuntary cry of fear, but Roland was the one to speak up.
“We were awaiting our orders. You see, my grandfather here is very old and very sick. We were unable to come with the others and we had no idea where to go. We are prepared to do whatever we are commanded.” His voice was calm and his demeanor was collected, but inside eight-year-old Roland was trembling. When he imagined how bad his life could possibly get, he never could have fathomed this.
“Maritz, take these two to the park. Get them processed and into their livery. Make certain the boy is evaluated. He may be of use to us.” The young soldier named Maritz held his sword to their backs, urging them through the door. He didn’t look much older than Roland, but here he was, soldier to an unknown being who had overtaken Psitharis in the span of a week. They made the hour-long trek through the forest to the side entrance of the park. There they were met with an appalling sight. There was a production line set up in the main square of the park. Children were ushered through one line as one by one they had their pictures taken in the photo booths that were once used for the amusement and delight of the park goers. As one child exited they were given a standard uniform; the brown dresses for the girls and the pants and shirt combinations for the boys. Women were lined up along the walls of one of the buildings, bent over sewing machines, patching together these uniforms with haphazard speed. Some looked like they could pass out from exhaustion, were it not for the soldiers standing behind them, waiting to do away with anyone who chose to shirk their new responsibilities.
The adults were put in a different line, also put through the same process as the children. Only at the end of the adult line was a strange looking man Roland had never seen before. He was a spectacularly creepy looking fellow, from his hook nose to his slicked back black hair. He was as thin as a skeleton, and he had the moustache one would see on the villainous puppet in the puppet theater, all twisted and curled on both ends. Most times he could be heard exclaiming as each adult passed, “Put them to the tunnels” or “put her behind a sewing machine.” He was giving them jobs, assignments they would do whether they wanted to or not. And the children faced the same examination as he walked back and forth between the tables. They would group the children in groups of ten, and as he looked over them he would announce “park attendants” or “soldier training” as he inspected the group before him. Every now and then he would pull a child or an adult for the jobs that were in lesser supply, such as “ride operator” or “vendor”. One child he designated as an “exceptional”, though Roland didn’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
When it was Roland’s turn he was shoved into the photo booth. He had entered one of these things once before, when the old man needed proof that Roland was supposed to be his apprentice and was happy in his service. Roland gave these photos the same expression he gave when Yedel had taken his picture before: emotionless and uncaring. As far as he could tell, he was going from one form of slavery to another. The question was going to be which form of servitude his new position would take. He watched as Yedel faced the skeleton man, shaking like a leaf and quite certain an old man like himself would be useless and quite disposable. But when the skeleton found out the old man was quite proficient with a needle and thread, he asked him, “Have you ever had experience in costume work?” to which Yedel replied, “But of course! I am responsible for a lot of the costumes worn by the performers in the park! The ballerina costumes, they are mine. The finest apparel in the entire kingdom, that was my forte. You’ll never find another tailor or shoemaker as brilliant as I am.”
“Give him a needle, some thread, and enough fabric to create a ballerina costume. If he succeeds, he shall be tailor. If he fails,” the skeleton man smiled an especially devious smile, “kill him and throw his body in the garbage.” Roland watched as his former tormentor was dragged away, into a building where their relationship seemed to reach its conclusion. Whether he lived or died Roland knew he would never see the old man again. As one of the soldiers thrust a uniform in his small arms, Roland moved forward, feeling neither regret nor sadness at the parting of his mentor, though the tiniest part of him in the deepest recesses of his mind hoped he succeeded and survived. He joined a group of ten other boys, all waiting to find out their fates. The gaunt man looked them all over and announced “guard training” before the soldiers began to take them away. As Roland walked past, a long, thin hand wrapped around his shoulder. “Not this one.” He pulled the frightened boy out of the line-up. Terrible thoughts ran through the boy’s head. He and Yedel had disobeyed orders, but Yedel had some usefulness. He was a small, scrawny child who only knew how to make shoes. He just knew his life was about to be forfeit. But the man had other plans for this young boy who had defied the invasion and come through it without a scratch. “There’s something about you, boy.” The thin man stated. “I’m told you managed to evade capture before. Your stealth could become an asset. You shall go to the elite guard training. There you shall learn the ways of the queen’s guard. Congratulations, my boy. Your life is going to change for the better.”
After two weeks in Roland’s new situation, he had decided that his life had not changed for the better. He went from being beaten and tortured by an old, decrepit man to being beaten and tortured by two very healthy guards, who put him and the other “fortunate” boys through endless drills and increasingly impossible exercises. They started wielding swords that were far too big, receiving harsh punishments when they were unable to lift them. They were forced to wake before the sun broke through over the horizon, and not allowed to sleep until the moon was high in the sky. And they learned the finality of disobedience after the fifth day of their training, when one of the boys, desperate to go back to his village and find his family, took a swing at one of the guards with a sword he couldn’t heft. Without a word the guard swung his sword, and the boy’s head left his body in one stroke. The body was left as a reminder to the others: disobedience meant death.
The years went by and the boys on the mountain were quickly becoming men. Most had forgotten their past lives, when the world was free and the people who now toiled below them were once their mothers and fathers. It pained Roland to see the boys forget so much, but for him forgetting was never an issue. He had just wandered from one misery to another, so pain was all he ever knew. But those boys, the boys who now mercilessly removed the heads and limbs of mannequins made to look like villagers, they seemed to have no ability to recognize the fact they were being trained to kill their own kin should the need ever arise. As Roland got older and his strength grew, he managed to find favor with the guards who trained him. He was agile, able to maneuver with relative ease over any obstacle they put in front of him. His mind was sharper than any grown soldier, and his ability to plan out hypothetical strategies often put the captains of the guard to shame.
As a teenager he finally became one of the youngest candidates for the special position the hook-nosed man originally selected him for: the queen’s elite guard. So once again he bid goodbye to one miserable situation and prepared for the next horrible destiny that fate held for him. But this new assignment, it was different. It wasn’t what one would call paradise, but compared to his childhood it was quite tolerable. As an elite guard Roland was treated to three large meals a day, a comfortable cot to sleep in, heat in the winter and cool breezes in the summer. As long as he excelled with the rigorous training that came with protecting the queen and her daughter, his was almost a life of leisure. He had yet to meet the royals, but blind loyalty was the only way one could gain intimate access to either of the tyrants that had put Psitharis into ruin, and even Roland could not fake that sort of loyalty – at least, not yet. His mind was still too attached to the past, and to a tiny remnant covered in dried blood, still folded under a bench in a village faraway.
It wasn’t until Roland reached his twenty-first year by his own reckoning that his conscience had lulled enough to accept the vows that came with complete and utter allegiance to the queen and princess. That day he accepted his new role as elite guard to the queen and came face to face with her majesty herself. The princess was not in attendance, but the queen kept her hidden away from the world. There was whispered speculation that the princess was a monster, an evil so hideous she had to be locked away. But those whispers were always kept low so they could not betray the lips of the person who voiced them. The queen stood before him, a spectacular specimen for her age. Her long blonde hair cascaded in waves over her shoulders, the icy blue in her eyes matching the long gown that trailed behind her. As he took a knee to take his oath, she stared down at him much longer than she had the other men who had stood before her.
“You are the one they call ‘Roland,’ is this correct?” She asked.
Roland took a cautious look upward. To stare at the queen for any length of time was to sign your own death warrant. “Yes, your majesty. I am Roland.” Most people who took the chance to glance at her trembled at the boldness of their actions, yet Roland gazed at her calmly, as if his life was of little significance to him. She instantly knew him to be the man she needed for a special mission, one that could take years and would require the steady nerves of a soldier just like him.
“Roland, I have a special task for you. This mission could keep the peace of our kingdom intact.” Roland grimaced at this declaration. The kingdom was only peaceful for two people; he knew all too well the turmoil suffered by the slaves below. Yet they were all slaves to this woman’s whim, were they not? “There is a traitor coming into our midst. I don’t know when to expect her, and I don’t know how she will arrive. Most likely you will find her on the same shores I made my arrival with the princess. She comes to destroy our kingdom, to take all we hold dear away from us. I need her hunted down; she needs to be brought to me, to face trial for her crimes. You will know her by her strange apparel. She will look nothing like us. When you find her, apprehend her and bring her to me. She seeks to destroy my people, the ones I hold so dear. The old and the young, man and woman. If she is allowed to make her presence known in this world, every citizen of Psitharis will be annihilated. Her appearance may be meek, but make no mistake, she is evil. For the good of your fellow man, you must succeed in this mission. It may take you years to accomplish, but for the sake of Psitharis you must succeed. Do you understand?”
Roland nodded. He couldn’t fathom a worse enemy to Psitharis than the current reigning monarch, but in his many years of training for this one mission he knew it would be fatal foolishness to gainsay the orders of the queen. He bowed in false reverence before turning to receive his full assignment from his commanding officer. The whole mission actually sounded like a vacation. He would patrol the beaches, watching for any person out of place, which would be a simple task since the beaches had long been off limits. Far too many escape attempts had made traversing the sands of the shoreline that bordered Dream Land an offense punishable by death. Yet there were still a brave few who tried, either to seek help for their dying land, or to escape it through the expected punishment of a blade through the heart. But it wouldn’t be Roland’s mission to seek out those trespassers; he had only one task at hand. Find the traitor and bring her to the queen’s justice. Food would be supplied by the passing patrols that performed the occasional task of scanning the borders of Psitharis for deserters. His shelter would be, ironically, an abandoned shop in one of the neighboring villages, one he knew all too well. And for as long as it took, perhaps days, maybe months, possibly years, he would seek out the outcast, the one who would bring doom upon an already doomed land.
The day he returned to the old cobbler’s shop so many memories came flooding back. The recollections of the immaculate wonders the old man used to perform on pieces of shoe fabric. The nightly beatings that left young Roland battered and bruised. And one almost-lost memory from so long ago. When the soldiers left him to acclimate himself to his “new” environment, instantly he tore back the curtain to the workshop in the back and crawled under the bench where he had spent most of his childhood. He searched blindly until his hand closed upon the item he was looking for. It was the magic paper handkerchief, dried and aging so badly it was falling apart. Gingerly he turned it over in his hand, the memory of the little girl so faded he could only grasp at fleeting images involving their one and only meeting. It was a reminder of days gone by, and a little girl who was probably dead by now. Yet it gave him comfort to know it was still where he had left it. Carefully, as not to destroy the artifact altogether, Roland put it back in its hiding place. And for the next couple of years he would come back to this relic of his childhood to give him the strength to persevere.
Almost two years had passed since the queen had sent him on his errand. From the moment dawn approached the shores until the sun disappeared on the other side, Roland remained vigilant, walking the miles of overcast coastline before doubling back and walking the way he came. There was nothing to be found; even those once brave enough to attempt escape seemed to have given up altogether. And yet he walked, always watching for the one who threatened all he knew. And sometimes his thoughts wandered into the dangerous realm of treason, wondering if this so-called traitor could bring any pestilence worse than what had transpired already. At night he would sleep dreamlessly, thinking of the eerie silence that permeated the village when, once upon a time, there would be the sounds of carefree voices emanating from the streets well past sunset. During the daytime the mechanisms of Dream Land were his only companion; there were no delighted screams or happy chatter coming from the park that had become a prison for the damned souls of the surrounding hamlets. It was so quiet, so calm, so…wrong.
One particular morning after a sleepless night, Roland prepared himself for the day before light had even ascended. It was any other day as far as he was concerned, but the monotonous routine coupled with the deafening silence was beginning to get to him. Sleep was becoming more difficult to achieve, his appetite had dulled as of late. But the solitude of his position had never been an issue. Being detached from the suffering of others had afforded him a level of comfort. He always left before the slaves that lived in the village were forced to begin their day, he returned long after their mandatory curfew had taken effect and they were all locked in for the night. And yet he was happier being alone. After all, to know these people would be to know their suffering. And it was one burden he didn’t want to bear. Still, one change, even a tiny one, would be a welcome diversion from the day to day.
He had already walked the shoreline once before light began to give the day its usual grey hue. There was fog all around him, which was the norm for the beach in the early part of day, so visibility was at a minimum. How he missed the sound of birds, the occasional screech of a passing gull or the splash of one of the larger fish breaking the ocean’s surface. But silence was his usual and constant companion now, and though there were no resonances of nature to break the monotony, there were also no new threats to make everyday life even worse, no omnipotent usurper come to destroy the people of Psitharis. And the existence of this mythical traitor to the crown had become somewhat of a running joke in Roland’s mind. Two years of trudging back and forth across the lifeless terrain had made Roland certain of one thing – the queen had no traitor to fear. Every shell on the beach, every darkened patch of sand, he knew them by heart, and never had there been any addition to all he surveyed. And this day was shaping up to be like every other – but then he saw it.
It was the shadowy outline of some sort of creature or plant life washed up on the beach. This was quite an abnormal occurrence, as ocean life had died out so many years ago. Perhaps he had happened upon the body of another escapee trying to find their way to freedom, only meeting death as their exodus. He hadn’t seen a runaway for a good year or so, but it was out of place enough to force him to investigate. As he drew closer and his visibility improved, he could tell it was a human form, but it was nothing similar to what he was expecting. It was a female, long brown hair framing her face in a long, flowing mane that extended on the sands. She was pale, so pale Roland thought she must be dead. But the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest told him otherwise. Her garment was exactly as the queen had described. She wore a black shirt, some strange, faraway design emblazoned on the fabric. Her pants were blue, strange but familiar somehow. This was not the uniform of the enslaved, nor was it the uniform of any soldier or guard. Yet the attire was recognizable, somewhere in the back of Roland’s mind. With a jolt of memory, Roland knew where he had spied such an outfit before in his life. It was just about sixteen years prior, when a little girl collided with him, giving him a scar he would bear all his life. Unconsciously, his hand flew up to the spot where he carried the mark of that fateful day. This girl, she looked just like that little girl in the square. But she would be as old as he, as sixteen years had passed since their first meeting. And this girl, she couldn’t be any older than sixteen or seventeen. She was so young. But it had to be her. She was the only of her kind to ever breach the borders of Psitharis. Or was she merely one of many, and this girl had followed the path her predecessor once forged?
This did not change the nature of the mission. She must be the one the queen sought. It was his duty as the queen’s elite guard to bring her to justice. And still, something in his mind rebelled against this idea. She was a girl, probably no older than that princess that hid in a tower. What harm could she have done to endanger the world he lived in? The time for reason ran out as the girl began to stir. Weapon at the ready, Roland watched to see what she would do as she regained consciousness. Her first reaction was to rub one of her eyes, which was a silly thing to do considering her hands were covered in sand. As if dumbfounded at her mistake, the girl looked down at her hand, expressing shock as she saw what irritated her eye. It was as if she didn’t know where she was. What a fascinating creature she was. For a moment, Roland forgot himself; but duty had to rise above all. Sword at the ready, Roland confronted the girl.
“Get up!” His voice was a mix of anger and frustration. He was angry that, after all this time, this little thing was the entire reason he had devoted two years of his life to his vigil of seclusion. He felt as if the queen had betrayed him. This girl was no threat to the kingdom; she was obviously incapable of managing herself. The girl looked up at Roland’s trained sword with a gaze of absolute fright, her one good eye focused on seeing who held her at bay. Yet she did not move, and Roland was unsure as to whether he should give her the ability to pull herself upright. And yet, his task was so near completion. Best to go ahead and get it over with. “You heard me. Get up…criminal.”
Before he could reach out to pull her to her feet, she vanished. Roland stumbled back, temporarily frightened by the loss of his quarry. Where did she go? Had she been a mirage of his starved and deprived mind, created in a desperate need to see another human, any human? The whole thing had him wondering if the girl had been a strange apparition he had created in his head, complete with the traces of a child he once knew. It had to be a delusion, had to be. The months of searching had finally taken its toll. But what else could he do, report a phantasm to the head of the guard? As disturbing as the momentary lapse of sanity had been, Roland’s only choice in the matter was to procced as if nothing ever happened and hope no one had seen him trying to arrest thin air. And this is what he did. His reports were all the same, as he wrote the nothings he encountered in his log. He never mentioned the ghost girl to any of the patrols who came his way. However, even though he had written the whole thing off as a trick of the mind, as a hallucination brought on by a lack of a good night’s sleep, somehow in his heart he knew. One day, he would encounter this girl again. And when he did, he was determined to finish his mission. Because perhaps in doing so he would find the answers that had plagued him all his life. Perhaps this girl was the true reason Psitharis had become such a torment. And if she was, in his mind she was an enemy that had to face her fate. Then maybe Psitharis would be free at last.