Beyond the Horizon
"If I had to marry someone I would marry you." Erik's voice is tinged with dark sadness as he speaks these words into the dead of the night. We are standing in front of the great stone doors of Erik's vast house.
"We could get married, you know, if that's what you want to do." My reply is soft and secretive, and only a bit chiding.
"You know that's not what I want, Cassie."
"I know. You're my best friend. And I don't want anything to get in the way of that. Not even romance."
"Thanks, Cassie. I wish there was something I could give you, to show you how much you mean to me."
"Just your presence beside me is enough." We can barely see each other in the darkness that envelops us like a cloak. We can only see the soft silhouettes of each other. We can only hear each other's barely audible voices. We can only feel each other's hands as we cling on to each other.
There is too much danger here, right now, all around us. Even though Erik's parents are fast asleep. Even though my parents are five houses over. Even though we will not get caught. Far too much is at stake here. We have to be quiet.
"I love you," Erik whispers to me, his breath close to my ear. "I love you. But I'm not in love with you."
"I'm not in love with you either. But I need you." My voice is barely there. Yet it is more real, more tangible, more concrete than most things I've heard in my life.
"I'll be there for you as much as I can be," Erik whispers to me. "I'll try to help you with anything I can. If you ever need anyone, if you ever need anything, you can come to me."
"You can come to me as well."
"I love you."
"I love you too. You know, we still have a chance. We can back out now if you want to. We can go back to your room. Go sleep in your bed. Go back to pretending to be lovers. And if - when - your parents want us to make kids, I can just go get them from someone else and pretend they're yours. We can even raise them together."
"That would be sweet, Cassie. It really would. But you know we can't. You know we have obligations." There's something faintly wistful in Erik's voice. But more than that, there is something intensely loving. Not loving only towards me. Loving towards the whole world.
"You're right, Erik. We have to save the world." There is something softly determined in my words. There is something hotly smouldering.
"Do you want to do it, Cassie?" I can feel threads of fear laced through the way he said that. Not fear for himself. Fear for me. But I won't let him let that fear get the best of him. We have to do what we have to do.
"Erik. We have to. Do you want the empire to die or not?"
"I do. Cassie, believe me, I do. More than life itself. More than my life. But I can't help but wonder. Is your life worth it?"
"I'll be the one who decides if my life is worth it or not. Not you. And of course it's worth it. It has to be. You know just as well as I do how-" my voice breaks just a bit a I gather my thoughts and collect myself, "you know how so, so many people are suffering. All over the Karnos. You can't put my life, my cushy, privileged life where I've had whatever I wanted as long as I fit into my role, you can't put that over the lives of so many people who are actually suffering."
"I know. I know. I can't. We can't. We have to think of everyone. Of the future. Of the big picture. I'm just scared."
"That's understandable. It perfectly is. But think of it this way. I'll be with you, for as long as I can be. When we die we will die together. Or very nearly together. And we will die fighting."
"It's funny," Erik brings our hands up towards his chest, "my parents alway taught me to be brave. They said I might have to fight in a war one day. They never realized I was a coward at heart. And they never thought I'd listen to them, technically, but in this way."
"You're not a coward, Erik."
"But I'm so scared."
"But you're powering through the fear. You're getting through it. And you're standing up."
"You're so much braver than me though."
"Maybe that's out of spite. The girl is always supposed to play the part of the damsel in distress, the maiden who needs saving. And I'm tired of that. I don't want to be that. I'm not that."
"We're both of us people that our society doesn't want us to be."
"You're right. But maybe that's why we can see through society's lies."
"Maybe. Anyways, we should get going. It's almost one am."
We ease open the door, ever so slowly so as not to make any sounds that could possibly alert Erik's parents. Finally, there is a sliver of opening large enough for us to squeeze through. Without our coats on, we slip into the frigid air of the night, across the threshold and into the world. We make sure to softly, gently ease the door closed behind us.
All around us there are houses with their windows curtained and closed against the cold. There are glowing strings of light illuminating the streets in neat rows. There are fake plants softly glowing neon in the darkness. It's eerie. But we do not notice it.
Hand in hand, we walk shivering down the the large streets, cars sweeping silently by us, glowing neon. Anyone would think that we're a pair of young lovers, out for a nighttime tryst, and that lie gives us protection as we make our way toward the dark woods that loom thickly over the town.
The town's residents hate the woods. They keep talking about how they need to be cut down. But somehow no-one seems to be able to find the courage to start the sawers running. The Forest still stands. It still glares down anyone who dares to get too close to it. It is still there, silent and loud and lively and serene and brave against everything the town is and is not.
Even two decades ago there would be no question as to whether to cut down the forest or not. Even two decades ago trees were felled and grasses were burned and permafrost was thawed in order to tame the wild lands, in order to make the empire more conquered.
But now, now people are afraid. There is still the same destructive hatred in their hearts towards all things wild and free. But a fear has settled there. The type of fear they cannot name, cannot place.
I think they finally feel the empire crumbling away underneath them.
"I think that now it's finally time."
"Finally time for what?" Erik asks as we approach the dense, treed northern border of the town.
"Time to finally break free of all that's been forced on us and to step into all we must do." My voice shows wonder in it as I gaze up at the darkened trees.
"I feel much braver here than I do at my house," Erik comments.
"I think, it's because out here no-one knows us. No-one sees us."
"Let's go. Before we change our minds."
"We won't change our minds." I grasp his freezing hand tighter into my own as I walk into the shadowed tree cover.
It's darker in here. But it's a mesmerizing sort of darkness. Soothing and secretive and protective. Alive with more stories than I'll ever be able to name. Covering us like a cloak, sheltering us like a blanket. I have never seen such darkness before. Not truly.
And I have never felt such emotions. I feel ... I cannot describe how I feel. Just that ...
"I have a sense of purpose the likes of which I've never had before," I speak into the blackness.
"It does feel like we're going towards something," Erik agrees, solemn and wondering and serious. "It feels like we're going towards our destiny. Towards everything we were meant to be. Everything we were meant to do. Now if we can only take it into our hands and lift it up."
"That's right. It feel like ... like life is about to start. Like everything before this has only been a pale shadow of life. And now we're real. Now we're who we're meant to be. Now we're who we are."
"Everything feels so incredibly real right now. Like I've been living underwater most of my life and I'm just now coming up to the surface." Erik's voice has a sort of steady, determined, liberated quality that I have never heard it have before.
I shiver as the cold, life-giving, breath-stealing, exhilarating wind brushes over my chest and stomach and sides. I shiver, and part of me wants to get out of the cold. Part of me wants to melt into it and become one with it.
"I heard that you never truly start living until you have something to die for. I heard it in a speech, made by a woman from long, long ago. She kind of looked like the Princess of the South, but her eyes were so different. So different. She said that life is only life when you have something to die for. Maybe this is what it is."
"You're right, Cassie. That might definitely be what it is. Because if you don't have a purpose, something greater than your life, to give yourself to, then what is life anyways?"
"I feel like I have a purpose now, here with you, here with the world stretching out in front of us. I feel so free here in the darkness, my feet sinking into the soft snow."
"It feels like no-one sees us, doesn't it? It feels like no-one will see us. Like no-one can see us."
"You're right. But the darkness around us sees us. The trees that tower into the sky see us. The softness of the snow sees us, and the coldness of the wind."
"It's good that those things see us. I want to be seen by them. They ... they truly see what I am meant to be, not what society wants me to be."
"I see you, Erik. And I always will see you, even if we are millions of miles away from each other."
"And I will always see you too. You're such a vital part of my heart, of my soul, of my life."
"And you are of mine. I don't know who I would be if I hadn't met you. I don't know what I would have become."
"I know who I would be. Another steel-eyed, iron-hearted soldier of the empire, hungry for blood and praise and domination. I would have hated the person who I became."
"I would have probably had children with a man I didn't love and lived in a big house filled with artificiality and technology. I would have gone to parties and meetings and parades. And I would have loved my life. And I would have hated it."
"Thank you. For saving me."
"I don't deserve the thanks. Your uncle does. He saved us both."
"Dear uncle," I can hear the prayer ringing softly in his voice, "thank you for teaching us. Thank you for fighting for your people. Sorry that my family took you away from your people. Thank you for your sacrifice. And thank you for leaving behind that diary, where you wrote far too much and not nearly enough. May our own sacrifices be worthy in your eyes. And may we be able to meet you one day."
"Dear Erik's uncle," I echo, "thank you for fighting despite, or because of, all the injustice that had been brought upon you. Thank you for fighting for an end to all the injustices. And please, please may we end all the suffering once and for all. Or eventually, if that is how you want us to do it. If that is how we must do it."
"Uncle, please show us the way. And may we keep your secrets. May nobody know what you don't want them to know."
"Yes, Erik's uncle. Please may your enemies eyes continue to see what you put in front of them to see and may your true intentions hide behind. May you continue to weave your way through time like a spider weaving webs and may you continue to entangle all who seek to destroy the equality shared between the people."
"May you guide our path and show us what you want us to see, as you have been doing so far. May you guide the path of every young person subjugated by the empire or pushed towards subjugating others."
"And may our blood on the ground water the seeds of the new world."
We walk in silence, the sounds of the wind through the trees and the owls in the air and the crunching of the snow under our sneakered feet. It's silent. It's loud. It's immersing us into the night, into the forest, as if we were always meant to be there. As if we belong. It feels ethereal.
"It feels like a different world." My tone is subtly awestruck.
"It does. It's so different from the town, from the cities, from civilization."
"Civilization." My voice is derisive. "I have never heard such garbage in my life. All the gold and glitz and glamour. All the aesthetics and pleasure and entertainment. And there's nothing in it that has any ... any ethereality to it. Nothing soulful. Nothing spontaneous. Nothing real."
"Is the darkness of this forest real?"
"It's so real that it overwhelms me. So real that I cannot contain it all, that I feel like if I spend another second here, take another step, I will become the wind itself and all I will know is the winter and the cold."
"Is that a good thing?"
"It's an amazing thing. You have no idea how good it is."
"I think I would become the darkness. If you become the cold, I will become the dark. And together we will be a winter night in the forest."
"Erik, that's so beautiful."
"We're running away. What could be more beautiful? We're giving everything up, giving it to the cause. Everything we have, everything we are, everything we have ever been. Everything we will ever be. We are putting all of that on the altar of revolution. And we are forging a new future, a new state of being for ourselves."
Our fingers are frozen together now. Sharing their measly warmth. I feel as though if I touch anything it will turn to ice. My hands tingle and burn and ache painful and all of that pushes me on.
"I feel as though I've turned to ice."
"Is that a good thing, Cassie?"
"Yes, yes it is. What I wouldn't do to give up my mortal body."
"A lot of people would be very disappointed if you did. They think you're the most beautiful girl in town."
"And do you think that, Erik?"
"Of course I don't. The truth is you look average. The town just wants a homecoming princess they can rally around and they picked you because you're blonde and stuff."
"Thank you." I laugh, and the mirthful sound of it dances through the boughs all around me.
"And am I a dashingly handsome young adventurer?"
"Well, to some girls you are. Maybe even to most girls. But I'm not one of those girls. You're my Erik to me, sweet and unattractive and dependable." In truth Erik didn't look bad, with his light brown, slightly golden skin and his dark curls and his strong jawline. He just wasn't the type of guy I was into. Though I can understand all the talk there is about him. But still, there are boys that are actually hot and he is not one of them.
"Our parents would be scandalized to hear us say these things." We both laugh but a twinge of bitterness wells up in me.
"I hope I never have to see my parents again," I declare out into the winter around us.
"I hope I never have to see mine either," Erik echoes like a promise. And there's something determined about it. Something solemn. Something solid.
"Will you miss anyone?"
"I thought I'd miss my mother. But I won't. She has all her own dark secrets she'd been hiding. From everyone. From me. I couldn't look at her once I found out."
"Yeah, you told me. Your mother's family was like my father's. Egotistical. Cruel. Self-righteous."
"My father's was too. They were just farther away from all the horrific action."
"My mother tried to escape once, when she was younger. But everything she did pulled her right back to where she started. She wasn't brave enough, wasn't strong enough. She couldn't do what she ended up having to."
"It really was. But I heard that she met the first one."
"The first one. Wow. That must be really incredible. What did she think of her?"
"What did my mother think?"
"She thought the girl was angsty and rebellious and too edgy for her own good. Mother obviously couldn't see what she saw. Or we wouldn't really be here, now would we?"
"You're right. But who cares what parents think? We are our own people and we have to be our own people. We cannot let some misplaced sense of loyalty hold us back from who we're meant to be. Who the woods around us want us to be."
"These woods around us. They're so demanding, are they not?" I smile jokingly. "They're freezing us down to the bone and yet still they want us to give them more, to give them more, to give them more. I like it though. It makes me feel like I am wanted. It makes me feel like I have something to give. Like maybe my soul isn't rotten beyond hope after all. And like, you know, like I have a mission. A mission that is important. A mission that I can give myself to. And I do. We both do."
"You help me see clearly. Thank you. When I first found that diary, I was besides myself trying to decode it. I was going insane. I never could have done it if you hadn't helped me."
"Hey give yourself some credit. You did a lot too. We both did it together."
"Yes. We worked together. Everything important happens together."
"We're at the river."
In the darkness it stretches out before us, glinting softly slightly less dark than the night around us. We can't see the river, not really. But we can feel it. Feel its coldness, its freshness, its openness. We can feel the rushing water as it flows frigid underneath the ice.
"So, it's iced over, how are we supposed to do the blood sacrifice?" There is something hoping and something hopeless in Erik's voice.
"We just have to do it over the ice. A river's a river. And river water is river water." I will not hurt this river. Not at all. I will be kind to it. Just as it is kind to all who look to it as a symbol of hope.
Holding hands, both hands this time, Erik and I kneel beside the river. Right along its edge. Right where the bank ends and the ice begins.
Erik takes his knife out of his pocket. It's a pen-knife really. Meant more for cutting papers than for cutting people. But it's a thing that won't be easily missed. Unlike the both of us, us who will be missed so dearly.
Good, I think, let it cause them pain.
We open our palms over the river. My heart thuds in my chest. This is the moment of reckoning. The moment of ends. The moment of beginnings. The moment we have been waiting for for all of these long months of grade ten.
"You ready?" Erik asks gently. But there's something sharp to it nonetheless. Not directed at me, but rather at the world in general.
"Yes. I am. Are you?"
"As ready as I'll ever be."
I grit my teeth and focus the entirety of my energy on holding back my screams as he slices through my palm. My other hand clutches his tight. Then it's his turn. And he won't be able to hold onto my hand as I use it to cut deeply into his palm, the knife coated in both of our warm blood.
We hold our bleeding hands over the ice of the river, bleeding onto it. Our blood is warm. But it freezes along with the ice as it hits the river. Heat becoming coldness. Liquid becoming solid. Living becoming dead. Teenagers becoming freedom fighters.
We begin the sing, voices low and singing together, in a clumsy harmony.
"Oh maiden far
With raven hair
Come take us to
Dwell with you
With raven hair
Lead us to lands
That need our hands
With raven hair
Teach us to fight
For all life's rights."
Our hushed voices melt into the forest. They mingle in the forest, intertwining themselves into all its nighttime sounds, as if they were meant to be part of the forest all along. As if they belong. As if they are one with the woods all around us and as if the woods themselves are joining into our harmony.
My heart is taught with tension. With excitement. With anxiety. With perseverance. With determination. There is a small part of me that is still worried that we might get caught. But we cannot get caught now. We have come too far. We have done too much. We have witnessed and experienced and been part of too much.
We keep on singing until there is a soft glow from across the river, coming in from the west. The glow becomes stronger and stronger, until we can see clearly a sled pulled by nothing at all speeding up to us. It's a simple wooden thing with a curved front curling up from the ground. It's big enough to fit four people. But it's amazing in its own way.
What's more amazing is the teenaged girl pulling the sled. She cannot be more than fourteen years old. I would put her at thirteen years though. Perhaps even twelve. Her hair is dark and falls straight down her back, and her skin is as pale as the snow around us. As pale as bone. She stands silent and still and solemn. And she wears a blood-red flowing robe that hangs loosely about her, with a large hood she doesn't put up.
"Are you the first?" I ask her. And we all know what I mean. Is she the first one to willingly leave the physical plane in order to go dwell in the Green Place. The one who asked to join the army of the Singing People, who offered them information stolen from the top leaders of the empire. The one who carries seeking young souls over so that we may go join the army as well.
So that we may train to bring down the empire, when it's time.
"Yes." Her voice is like ice and fire and air and water all at the same time. I'm surprised by how young she sounds. So young yet so mature.
"My name is Erik, and this is Cassie." He moves to kneel and I do the same.
"I am Ariella. Do you seek to join me?"
"We do," we both reply together.
"And how should I know that you are sincere warriors and revolutionaries, not mere children looking for adventure?"
"We have given you a sacrifice of our own blood," Erik begins, "poured out into the river so it can feed the lands."
"And we have made a promise to one who has sacrificed his life for your cause," I speak, "a promise that we would prove ourselves worthy to him by sacrificing ourselves to his cause."
"It will not be easy, the war. Are you sure you want to fight?" Ariella states these facts calmly.
"We know it will be hard," I tell her, "but we are willing to do anything. Anything to bring the empire down."
"And will you change your mind, once the battle begins and the blood flows?" Her words are calmly inquisitive.
"We have already shed our blood," Erik reminds her, "and we will do it again. However much is needed to bring change."
"And are you ready to leave your lives, your futures, and the entire mortal plane behind in order to join us?"
"We are," Erik and I answer together.
"Then I see that you are truly sincere. Get onto my sled. We will ride westwards until we cross over the horizon"
She then takes us over the ice, along the river, wind blowing through her robes and through our hair, making our teeth chatter. We have done it. We have finally done it. We have been brave. We have freed ourselves. And we will free the world.
I feel, more than anything, like my spirit is awake. Like my spirit exists. Like it hasn't existed for so long, like it was kept somewhere far away from me, but now I am fully able to access it and to access all the love and the hatred and the depths of feeling that comes with it. That comes with being real.
Erik is behind me, holding onto me as the sled speeds on and on. Ariella is in front of me, and I am hanging onto her ghostly form, that is both tangible and intangible at the same time. I wonder if Erik and I will become as ghostly as she is once we go beyond the horizon.
The woods spread out all around us as the horizon moves closer and closer, and with it so does our end. And so does our beginning.
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