It was wonderfully cool and dark. Darkness was in shapes, and there was a bright glob of light, so bright and wonderful, never moving, between the dark shapes. Cool soft things that brushed you with friendly fingers, nice happy sounds that didn’t want anything but to be dark and happy.
Wendell slowly became aware of what he was seeing. The moon was peeking through the trees, and he was lying on the grass, listening to an owl somewhere above. Then he remembered. The bridge.
He was much refreshed now, but that just made him aware that he couldn’t do anything. He thought about getting up, but there was nowhere to go. He sat up out of habit, and looked at the moon unseeingly.
The slow dawning of truth was like the tying of a horrible knot he had seen in a picture once. It was the only thing that mattered, and the only thing he could do nothing about.
But the moon didn’t move, and the trees stayed where they were. He was free. He could go anywhere, do anything he wanted. The thirst had not killed him, and he could wander down the streets and find a life anywhere, anywhere in the whole world. But the taste of freedom was a glob of staleness, and he didn‘t bother to think about what he should do.
Wendell got up and walked to another tree, then turned and looked back. He walked back to the other tree. A cool breeze came up. A faint whiff of happiness went through him, but it stung like a whip. A few weeks ago he had been happy, happier than he had ever been, in his life.
Why couldn’t it be that way again? But he didn’t want it to, it would be an even worse nightmare than the miserable knowledge he clung to. It would be a nightmare of happiness, where the terrified cries of a lost girl would be lost forever, never even reaching the ears on his silly, grinning face. He shook his head, and looked up blankly at the sky.
A bank of clouds inched across the moon, leaving behind a speckled patch of black. The stars were still beautiful tonight, even if nothing else was, so very far away that their endless light was pressed and lost in the darkness until only the purest diamonds of brightness came twinkling through.
Everything in the world was ugly and empty. But the stars were his own sorrow, beyond all reach but still right there, and even though they were so endlessly far away, still they wept with him and knew what he felt.
He didn’t know quite how it had happened. He began to speak - not singing the songs, but reciting them, rambling on, as one recites a poem, until he was almost shouting, finally giving vent to all the rotting hope inside, with the words giving meanings to his own thoughts that he didn’t even understand.
And now his voice was David’s voice, was Curdie’s voice, it was Ren Zael’s voice, and he forgot for a moment that he was just Wendell the street urchin sitting in a clump of trees looking at nothing.
But the words ran out. He stumbled over them, desperately pressing against the fear that would come, trying to think of something, anything.
He couldn’t stand to be idle any longer, just standing to stare at the motionless trees that didn’t care about anything and didn’t move. With a horrible cry he threw himself down on the ground in a heap, weeping and clutching at the dirt. He wasn’t even sure that he even believed in the gods. But he believed now, not because he believed it, but because he had to believe it.
He remembered he had heard once that Ren Zael was the son of a god, so he decided haphazardly that he would be the best one to believe in. It was a stupid decision, but nothing made sense any more and he really didn’t care.
“Ancient Father of Ren Zael, you must help me… I will always serve you always, if you will help me!! I don’t know even how to serve a god, but someday I will learn. I will give up stealing, if you will help me now!!”
He didn’t feel anything, no reply. Not even a breeze. But the words of the songs still burned on his lips, and so he kept on.
“Yes, thank you for helping me! You must be truly great indeed, to have helped Ren Zael and Curdie!”
And he laughed, the tears running down his face, spilling into his idiotically laughing mouth.
A terrible thought came to him. Did he trust this god at all? Did he believe that they would help, or was he just messing around, because nothing was left to do?? He brushed off the thought, and was silent, looking for more words. But he could remember no more. He went to the edge of the trees, and looked at the guards standing in the moonlight, not noticing him.
He thought again, “Do I trust them?” Finally he stopped and thought about it. There was no way for him to know if they existed, or if they even could hear him. Was everything just a lie then, was his life just a stupid story that was over while he was still alive? If there was no god that could help him, then it was just all a lie. Nothing he did or said anymore mattered. The whole world may as well not even exist.
He tried forcing himself to understand things, to believe that the stories of Ren Zael were true, but it didn’t work.
Everything around him was the same as it always was, there were no magic creatures to ride here, no secret powers to find in a hollow tree stump. Just him, sitting in a clump of trees, waiting for nothing.
But then, he thought, if it was all just a lie, then why did it all exist at all? But it did exist!! Why did the princess live, if she was just going to die?? Why did he live to see her, and to love her so much, if he couldn’t do anything about it?? He found himself looking at the stars again, because they at least understood him. Their light was just a little song, tiny and beautiful even though they were just a mistake.
He didn’t know what they were singing about, but he understood it more than anything he had ever heard or seen before. They were singing a song of love, a love pure enough that it kept on loving even after it didn’t even matter anymore.
They were singing a song of hope, a hope so strong that it kept on hoping even after hope itself was already gone. They were singing a song of faith, a faith so trusting that it let itself be beaten to death before it would say that the killer was unkind.
He remembered at once an old man’s voice, speaking words – “Heroes of long ago… who by some hidden way, discovered their destinies and made us remember the way things were made to be… Life can sometimes seem like a broken story, wandering, pointless, and without end. So much so that we can almost forget that it ever was a real story to begin with, and that there ever was anything good and true in it...”
Things were meant to be like the songs, he understood now, to have something good and true in it. But could they be? Or was all the hope inside him just like the singing stars, swallowed up in an endless sea of darkness? “By some hidden way…” What was that hidden way? If he could only know the hidden way that they did those things, he could do it too. But he didn’t know. Not even a clue. But he had to!
He got up from the ground, and paced between two of the trees. He laughed and clapped his hands together, defiantly against the sorrow and fear that still churned horribly within. Now he crossed his arms. He felt his hopes harden into iron within him.
Now he walked out from among the trees, and made his way near the bridge. The main guardsman came out to meet him.
“I told you to go away…” he said, his voice dangerous.
Another soldier came walking up towards them. Wendell felt the urge to get away as fast as possible, but he just stood there. He was about to speak, when the other soldier raised his spear. Wendell closed his eyes and winced.
“Let him pass, Altross. You gave him your word.”
The other soldier’s words were deadly serious, with no sign of wavering. The head soldier turned and drew his spear, facing the other. Wendell sensed a hesitation, and ran straight ahead for the bridge. The soldiers parted for him, some giving a grim smile as he passed. He didn’t look back.
There was a row of hedges on either side leading up to the castle gate. The portcullis was down, and there was a single guard standing in front.
“I’ve come to see the king!!”
His words seemed to jolt the soldier out of his stupor, who shouted up words to someone. The portcullis slowly ground open, and Wendell stepped inside hurriedly as the wide gates swung open. There was a long hallway ahead, with other hallways branching off on either side, made of massive stones covered by rich red tapestries. The floor was spread with massive red rugs. Moonlight shone through a high opening, lighting the way.
A voice called out behind him, “Intruder! Don’t let him in, you hear me? Don’t let him in!”
He never looked back, but went down the hallway to the large doors, bursting them open with two hands. There was more hallway ahead. He was already weak but he ran on, the muscles in his legs dying.
He slammed open another pair of doors, and ran onward towards a great portal, with two very officious looking soldiers in front, their spears held in an X across the door, which was emblazoned with a huge, royal emblem in the shape of a tree.
“I’ve come to see the king! You must let me in!!” he panted hoarsely. The guards looked hesitant, but stepped aside. Before they could even open the portal, Wendell had already run his shoulder into it with a horrible thud, pushing it open an inch. It finally swung inwards, and Wendell came tripping into the room. His sword clattered onto the floor before him, and he fell headlong in a heap.
He was up in a moment, and saw the king sitting ahead of him, and two guards, elaborately dressed, moving towards him, their huge spears lowered and ready. Wendell grabbed the sword and held it out before him.
The king’s voice echoed throughout the whole chamber. It was a very large chamber, with enormous tapestries hanging everywhere, all with the same red symbol on them. There were columns in two rows leading up to the throne, which sat at the top of many steps.
The soldiers looked at each other, and went back to their positions. Then Wendell looked at the king.
The king had dark, horrible circles under his eyes. He was sitting up now, his hands gripping the sides of the great throne. All his skin was pasty white, and an untamed beard sprouted from the deathly paleness. His expression was made of acid.
“What do you want?” the king spat out, his mouth chewing the words.
“I’ve come about the proclamation.”
The king burst into a fit of agonized laughter, looking around at the guards, who kept their spears pointed at Wendell.
“The procla… the proclamation!!” he squealed, and laughed some more.
Wendell didn’t know quite what to do.
“A thousand brave men in the kingdom, and this is the only one who shows up. What are you, about fifteen years of age?”
“So tell me, boy, what is your plan? Do you know, you are the very first person to even enter this throne room since the proclamation went out?”
“I am not afraid anymore, your majesty.”
The king put his head in one hand, and leaned, his dark eyes fixed on Wendell, his expression terrifying.
“I suppose if I did send you out, it would be murdering a child. But you’re the only one who showed up so I don‘t have much of a choice.”
“I can tell by your entry that you must be very brave. And that you snuck past the guards. I’ll speak to them, most likely from the other side of a guillotine.
“But,” he chuckled ruefully, “if there’s any chance, even a slight chance that you might succeed, then, well, I suppose I don’t care if you die.”
“I understand that, your majesty.”
The king looked a little ruffled.
“But what about your own life? Surely your life is not without any meaning?”
“I do not understand my life, majesty. I never have, and certainly not now. I do not know whether I have found a meaning or a purpose for life. I only know that a purpose has found me, and I must follow it, or else nothing.”
The king looked at him, a bit of the dark humor gone out of his face. He spoke more soberly.
“Those are very large words for one so small. Do not mock the things of eternity, for they rule us all, whether we know it or not.”
“The question of whether life has meaning is for those who are not faced with despair and death,” Wendell said darkly. “I only know that I must go. There is something terrible inside me, and if I do not follow it, it will never end.”
The king stared at him, his mouth flat.
“Very well. I will let you go, boy. I will send my very best men to help you search the entrance to this maze. From then you must go on alone.
“That is, unless you can persuade them to go with you!” he laughed joylessly.
“If you are to succeed, then you will become blessed above all your wildest dreams.”
The king bit off the last words like a curse. He motioned flippantly with one hand, still leaning on the other.
“Provide suitable quarters for him. Bring me the Generals.”
One of the guards came down from the steps and took Wendell’s arm in his large hand. He led him out of the throne room. After a few turns, he opened a strong wooden door with a key on his belt, and gestured for him to enter.
It was the grandest, most extravagant bedroom he had ever seen, done in reds and blues, with a great goose stuffed bed and a large window with real glass, and large bear skins covering the floor.
“Someone will bring your dinner shortly.”
With that the guard was gone. Wendell looked around. Ordinarily, he would have been delighted just to be in the castle as a guest, and to stay in such a room, but now he hardly even noticed. A great and terrible hopefulness was rising up that he hardly dared to touch.
He still hadn’t really done anything yet, but he knew now that he wasn’t completely helpless. He wasn’t as stupid as the bridge soldier had thought, after all. He paced the floor and looked out the window again and again, completely unsure of what would happen tomorrow.