The Shattered Dark

The sun had already set, but the last of its light still rested on the western clouds. Senin watched the cloudfire weaken and fade as he walked. The new moon shed no light and the clouds blocked the stars. It wasn't very cold but Senin shivered.

The trail was narrow, with trees and grass creeping in from both sides. Senin's tools clattered in his bag as he walked, invading the sullen silence.

He hadn't thought there was anyone else close to him on the trail, but he saw a shadow moving in the trees ahead of him. He thought he had been walking too slowly to overtake anyone, and he wondered who would be walking more slowly than him so late in the evening.

When he got closer to the traveler ahead of him, he called out. "Good evening, you there!" Better to introduce himself openly than to risk a bad reaction to a surprise.

The traveler turned around. It was a man, a little older than Senin, dressed well, and carrying only a small pack. "Hello there," he said, in unenthusiastic reply.

"I am Senin," Senin said, getting closer as the man in front of him had stopped.

"I am Chulaw," he said. "Where are you going?"

"Just getting to the next village to work," Senin said, pointing to his bag of tinker tools. "And you?"

Chulaw shrugged. "Nowhere, I hope." He smiled when he saw Senin's puzzled expression. "My father sent me to bring some messages to his partners in the capital."

"Your father?" Senin asked. "Aren't you too old to be carrying messages for your father? Don't you have your own business, or your own trade, or your own work?" He realized too late that his words were impolite.

Chulaw smiled. "You are right. What can I say? I am a ship in harbor. I am a superfluous man. I have found neither my work nor my glory."

It was too dark for Senin to see Chulaw's face and read his expression well. He decided to keep talking anyway. "Why couldn't you make it on your own?"

There was a pause. "My family is wealthy," Chulaw said. So I was always free to indulge in whatever I wished for. Wine and women and trifles. For some time I was addicted to each of those. Later I fell into the worst addiction of all."

"What addiction is the worst?"

"Comfort," he said.

Senin hadn't much experience with comfort, so he wasn't sure what an addiction to it would feel like. "If your family is wealthy, then surely they can hire other messengers?" he said. "Do they need you to carry parcels for them?"

Chulaw chuckled. "Maybe I am trying to break my addiction," he said. "Or maybe I am trying to find a place in the world."

"A place in the world? What do you mean?"

"Of course an honest worker doesn't know what I mean," he said. "You know your place. Every time you do your work, you are in your place. But I have no work, so I have no place."

"You could work," Senin said simply.

"I am working now," Chulaw replied. "But I thought that I had been born for something more. I thought that I could shake the earth and thrash the nations. I thought I could give some gift to all the world."

"Why do you need to?"

"I suppose I don't," he replied. "But everything feels empty. Let's walk. I guess we're going in the same direction anyway," he said, apparently trying to change the subject.

Senin followed behind Chulaw. They lapsed into silence. Senin thought the village must be close. But it was then that they were attacked.

Two men - a jump from the bushes - a struggle in the dark - and knives! They left Senin alone - maybe they saw his tattered clothes and assumed he had nothing, or maybe they had been laying in wait to ambush Chulaw all the time.

Senin had to choose. He could try to save this superfluous man who he barely knew. Or he could save his own skin. The robbers didn't seem to care about him, and if he could make it a few feet through the forest, they would never find him in the darkness. He wondered what the gods would have him do. He wondered what it would be like to tell the story of this night to his father.

He jumped into the fray, pulling the robbers off of Chulaw. The robbers had had enough. They took his bag and darted into the forest. Senin saw that he was too late: they had stabbed Chulaw many times and he had blood running all over him and puddling beneath him.

"Chulaw," Senin whispered, unsure of what to do or think or say. "What has happened to you..."

"Go on," Chulaw said. "They have ended my short time. It is better this way. I have experienced every pleasant thing of this world."

"No, I", Senin started. "I couldn't leave a man to die... I can't go on further anyway," Senin said. "The night is too dark."

"You need light?" Chulaw asked quietly. "Light I can give you."

He reached his trembling hand into his pocket. Senin saw him pull out some thin brown leather. It was a glove. Was he getting cold in the moment before death?

He slipped the glove loosely over his hand. Deliberately, and seeming to find strength that he hadn't had before, he pressed his forefinger to the base of the grass beside him. Senin watched closely, trying to understand what he was trying to do.

As he pushed against the grass, something changed. Senin struggled to see it in the dim light. The grass changed from a faded green to a rich dark brown. Its flat shape became round, and then started to grow bumps and flaps and tendrils. He heard a noise coming from it - a light buzzing, growing stronger each moment. The buzzing, transforming grass shattered into pieces that - flew, up and around Senin, each little piece lightening and darkening as it rose.

Fireflies! They circled Senin as they rose, their light shattering the oppressive darkness, their hum like music in the empty silence, dazzling, bright, soaring, light.

"How did you do that?" Senin asked breathlessly.

Chulaw smiled weakly. "Take the glove," he said, pulling it off and dropping it on the ground. "It makes lower things higher," he said, closing his eyes.

"You've given me light," Senin said. "How can I thank you?"

"Thank me?" the man replied, his eyes still closed. "Light is valuable," he said. "But all light creates shadows."

Senin frowned. With the new light from the fireflies, Senin could see better, and he saw just how weak the man was. "I need to take you from here, and help you!" he said.

The man shook his head. "Go on. There will be other robbers who come to find the ones you fought. Find shelter quickly. It's too late for me."

Senin hated the idea of leaving him, but he heard hoofbeats in the distance, and the fireflies' light illuminated enough blood that he knew the man must be right about his fate. Cursing himself for his cowardice, he tore himself from the man and looked ahead on the trail, thinking of where he could find shelter.

The fireflies, as if knowing the direction he needed to go, flew forward in a group. He walked towards them entranced, as if seeking out a new star. He walked forward; shadows followed behind.