A Woeful Melody
I open my eyes and I’m sitting on a cot. Three more identical cots are spaced out evenly in the room, all of them empty. I’m dressed in a brown robe and I feel slightly groggy. I try to remember how I got here, or even where I am, but nothing is forthcoming. My name is Diqan. I am a bookkeeper for the church library. I’ve lived alone in a small wooden hut next to the church ever since my house burned down and my family died.
The memories flood back to me all at once. Nothing to explain how I got stuck in the infirmary though. I stand up, slightly unsteady on my feet. After regaining my balance, I walk to the one door and open it. A long corridor stretches in front of me, and no one is around. There are no doors in the hallway, nor any windows. I’ve only been to the church infirmary once before, so I’m unsure where to go. I walk down the hallway, my tiredness beginning to fade. As I round a corner, I almost bump into an old man. He has thinning white hair, and wears the same brown robe as me, although his hangs shapelessly off his thin frame, his face is gaunt. He wears a hollowed expression, and when he sees me, his skin pales. I don’t say anything as we stare at each other. Following him, is a guard who, seeing the man’s immobilization, places a hand on his shoulder. The man flinches, and looks away from me. They continue down the hallway, towards the infirmary. Why was he accompanied by a guard? I wonder to myself as I start walking again. He didn’t seem like a threatening person. There was a kindness in his dull gray eyes. I shake it off. I’m sure there was a reason for it. Eventually, the hallway leads into the congregation room. I sigh, relieved to know where I am now. People are walking in and out the door, always pausing to bow at the altar. I scan the throng of people looking….for who? Why do I feel like I should be searching for someone? I’m frozen in place, prodding at the hole in my memory.
“Diqan! It’s great to see you up and about again!” I turn to the joyful voice. It’s Tern, a jovial man that works in the kitchen. He smiles widely at me, and I return in kind, though half-heartedly as I’m still disoriented.
“Good to see you too, Tern. How do you do?” I ask politely.
“Pleasant as always. Thanks to our Patron Saint Lorianna!” He declares loudly.
“That’s good to hear.” I say, this time whole-heartedly.
“But, how about you. I heard that you fell gravely ill.” He lowers his voice, his smile fading slightly.
“I’m...okay.” I finally manage, thinking of how hazy my memories are.
“I’m sure Tef will be glad to hear.” Tef? My head starts to ache, and I raise one hand to massage my temple.
“Are you okay?” Tern puts a hand on my shoulder, looking concerned. After half a minute, the pain fades.
“I’m alright now.” I say as I stand up straight and blink the stars from my eyes. “But Tern...who is Tef?” Instantly, Tern’s eyes widen, and his eyes dart around the room. Why is he so paranoid all of a sudden?
“He..uh... works in the infirmary and was worried that you might not wake up.” Tern’s smile returns, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. I consider asking him to tell me the truth, but decide against it. For some reason, he’s scared to mention anything in the main room. I’ll just have to ask him in private sometime.
“Oh okay. Well, he’d be glad to know that I feel almost fully recovered now.” I grin, hoping to set him at ease again. His smile softens to a more genuine one.
“Well, I should get going now,” he says and extends his hand for me to shake. “It’s just about time to start making lunch.” I grasp his hand, immediately noticing how clammy it is.
“Okay, maybe I’ll stop by the kitchen sometime.” I say jokingly.
“Just be careful, I might have to put you to work.” We laugh, and part ways. I’m left with a sour feeling in my stomach. Who is Tef? Why did Tern look terrified when I asked him?
The thoughts swirl around my mind, but again, no answers are forthcoming. It feels like my life has become one giant puzzle, but with the most important pieces lost.
I know that the only source of information I might have is Tern, and I won’t be able to see him until at least dinnertime, so for now I head to the church archives, content to distract myself with my books until then.
I stand in line, my head bowed as the Head Priest leads the prayer. For some reason, today it strikes me how absurd we must look: all of us wearing identical brown robes, hoods up, hands tented in the traditional prayer stance. Why does this seem so different now? I can only think that it must have because of the reaction that Tern had. He was scared of the church…..but, why?
Once the prayer is finished, the line begins to move slowly forward. When I get to the front of the line, I pick up my tray of soup and bread. Behind the counter, I see Tern dishing out the same portion of soup into every bowl for the trays. I catch his eye, and mouth “Talk to you later.” His usual grin is plastered on his face, and he nods in affirmation.
The dining hall is a fairly large room, as it has to seat all the church attendants, except the highest ranking of officials and the Grand Amon. There are wooden tables with matching wooden benches, set out in evenly spaced rows. Although the hall is almost full, it’s completely silent, except for the sound of spoons sliding on wooden trays. Mealtimes are supposed to be times of reverence, where you reflect on how blessed you are to have food and a safe place to eat it. I never enjoy mealtime. The abrupt quietness always seems forced and unnatural.
I eat my meal quickly and place the tray into a bucket, for whoever got cleaning duty today. I walk around the edge of the hall, towards the kitchen. Just as I get to the door, Tern comes out and almost knocks into me. His face is a mask of joy, but something about his eyes disturbs me. He gestures to the hall door, and we exit. I wait a minute or two before I speak, to make sure my voice won’t carry back to the dining hall.
“I’d like to ask you a couple questions, Tern.” I say. His eyes dart around the hallway, and seeing that no one is around, his plastered grin fades into a perfunctory curling of the lips.
“Diqan, what would your master say to your questions?”
“That I should simply be glad to be safe, thanks to our Patron Saint Loriana.” The words come instantly, though I can’t recall who I got them from. “Wait, what master? I’ve never had a master.” Tern smiles sadly.
“I really wish I could help you Diqan, but that might cost me my life.” What the hell is he talking about? Why would his life be in danger?
“Tern, you aren’t making any sense. What do you mean? Who would threaten your life?” I realize that as we’ve been talking, he’s led us to his room. He walks inside without saying a word, and I follow, determined to get some kind of answer to one of my questions. His room is plain and simple in design. There is a cot, a wooden chair, and a wood desk. “Tern, come on, we’ve been friends ever since I came here. I deserve at least a response.” He opens the drawer in the desk and pulls out a small container, and some kind of metal tube.
“You’re right, you are my friend, which is why I’m not answering you. The less you know, the more innocent you are. And trust me, that’s more than you can say about a lot of us.” He opens the container and measures a small amount of something granule on the desk. He looks me in the eyes. “Diqan, you’re a great kid, but you need to stop asking so many questions. You’ll never be happy that way.” I don’t say anything, perturbed by his words. He leans down with the metal tube and sucks in the substance through his nose. He coughs violently for a second or two, and when he looks at me again his eyes are cloudy. His grin is too wide for his face. I turn and walk to the door.
“See you later, Tern.” I say, opening the door.
“Bye, Diqan! Have a blessed day!” Tern answers cheerily.
Leaving Tern’s room, I stumble my way back down to the library, baffled by what I just witnessed. I remember when I would go to the back alleys and forest clearings that the homeless occupy. I would bring whatever food I could get to them, though I can’t for the life of me remember where most of it came from. Every time I went, there were always a couple of people with the same clouded eyes that Tern just had. I was told on one of the trips that is was from inhaling a potent derivative of rivenwood moss. Every person that had an addiction to the stuff would end up dead sooner rather than later, and while they were alive, they were simply shells of their former selves. All the moving pieces were in place, but the emotions that create each individual were superseded by ecstasy, at least until the high wore off. Then, the only thing the person would feel is despair over losing that unnatural feeling. It was awful to watch. People would tear their hair out, or slit their wrists during their withdrawals. Nobody could come near because the person might lash out at them instead. No matter if it was brother, sister, mother, father, or lover.
How long has Tern been on this drug? I do my best to drown my thoughts in work. I’m copying church documents, to ensure that there’s multiple copies for the records. As I’m writing, I have a nagging thought. If these are all the records of every citizen, then maybe I could find out who my mother and father were. Or who Tef is? The fact that I hadn’t thought of it before is astounding. I stand up and head to the shelves lined with parchment. Most of the citizens’ documents are in good shape, and alphabetized by last name. I scan the files, then stop abruptly. “I don’t even know my name.” I say aloud. I sit down heavily. I don’t know what Tef’s last name is. I don’t know what my last name is. Tern is on a drug that will kill him, and I can’t get any answers to my questions. I go back to work, my hands and eyes moving automatically, and my mind elsewhere. The day passes quickly this way, and even with my attention diverted I am fortunate not to make any mistakes.
I walk down the stone steps for a long time before reaching the archives at the bottom. It’s a large room with a low ceiling. Wooden bookcases that reach up to the ceiling line the edges of the room. I walk along the edge of the back wall to my desk, scattered with various books and parchments. I sit down and unceremoniously begin working. Time passes quickly, as my mind becomes a mess of copied words, half understood. Soon, the day is almost over, and I finish copying the last passage of the final book for the day and close the cover with a thud. I lean back in my seat, stretching out the kinks in my back, and release an explosive sigh. I close my eyes, reveling in the break for a few minutes.
I just have to put this book away, then I can go for a walk. Despite everything going on today, a faint smile touches my lips at the thought and I get up. Picking up a lantern and the book, I head to a less well lit section of the library. Here, the shadows are long and the shelves are covered in dust from years of disuse. I follow the shelves down three rows, and over four columns to find the spot I pulled the book from. After replacing it, I stand up and am about to turn away when something catches my eye. In the darkest corner of the room, I can barely make out a narrow door frame set into the wall. It sits in the gap between two shelves.
Where does this lead? I wonder. I’ve never noticed it before. I walk over to it and hesitate in front. Is it off limits? Is that why I was never told about it? My curiosity gets the better of me and I try the knob. It sticks, so I turn it harder, when finally it clicks open. Pulling on the door, it doesn’t make a sound. It’s well oiled. Through the door is a long stone hallway, lit poorly by widely spaced lanterns. Halfway down, set into a small alcove is a set of armor, reflecting light from the lanterns. I close the door behind me and start down the hallway. There are two doors, one set across from the armor display, and another at the far end of the hall. There are no other adornments, not even the crest of Loriana. I make it to the first door, and stare at the wood. Should I go in? Aren’t I trespassing right now? If I get caught in an unauthorized area, the least I’ll get is no rations for a week... I might even get a belting. The thought makes my throat tighten. It’s rare that someone is belted, but I’ve seen it happen-once, a kid my age had somehow ended up on the Grand Amon’s floor. He had bruises for weeks after, and wasn’t able to look anyone in the eyes for a long time.
Now that I think about it, what was his name? I haven’t seen him in a while. I shake my head. No, focus. If I open this door, then I’m truly trespassing. Maybe if I just leave now and forget that I ever found this place I’ll be fine? I turn to head back, when I hear the sound of someone attempting to turn the door’s lock. My breathing turns shallow and I look around wildly, thinking quickly about what to do. I try the door in front of me and it opens easily. I duck inside and quietly shut it behind me. The room is completely black, and I sit in silence, as I hear the door at the end of the hallway come open. Following it are two men’s voices. One is clearly a superior.
“You dunce. You must have left the door unlocked from last time.”
“I’m sorry, sir.” The first voice is harsh, while the second voice is quiet and submissive. I hear a sigh. “I’ll let you off this time. Just remember that if someone else were to find out about that screw up, it could cost you more than a beating.”
“Yes sir. Thank you sir.” They walk in silence, then. Their footsteps muffled through the door. I don’t hear anything for a while, when suddenly one of them pounds on the door.
“How do you like the stay, friend? You gonna tell us anything soon?” It’s the leader of the two speaking again. At first I worry he knows I’m here, then I discover the truth. Someone else is in the room. I listen closely and hear a quiet wheezing breath coming from the back of the room. When the person doesn’t respond, the man angrily curses under his breath, and continues down the hallway. I wait a few minutes, until I hear the sound of the other door open and close, before letting out a deep breath. I feel along the wall blindly until I find a lantern hanging. Turning the knob, the crystal inside begins to shine at the lowest setting. My eyes slowly adjust to the dim light, and the first thing I see is puddles of dried blood on the floor. I bite the inside of my cheek, and my heart beats wildly as I trace the marks back to the source. A man, gaunt and unnaturally thin is bound to a standing block of wood by his wrists and ankles. He is only clothed in a loincloth of wool. The rest of his emaciated body is crisscrossed with lacerations. There is dried blood caked to his body, and the smell of the room assaults me. How I didn’t notice the overpowering stench before is nothing short of a miracle. The man’s head hangs low, and his stark white hair forms a halo. He doesn’t react to the light. I lean closer to look at his face.
The whites of his eyes strike a sharp contrast to the blackness of his overly enlarged pupils. I stumble back and stifle a cry of alarm.
“Why do you keep coming? Again and again and again.” He laughs. A sound high pitched and inhuman. A nightmarish sound that makes me uneasy. “I won’t change my mind.” His voice is rising. “It’s pointless, Pointless, POINTLESS, POINT…” His voice cracks into a coughing fit. When he speaks again, it’s a whisper.
“pointless...i’m sorry i’m so sorry i tried to protect you i swear i tried but i was taken away from you...i loved you like my own son...please forgive me diqan…...please forgive me….” I watch the scene play out with horror, which only grows at the mention of my name. I stumble back a few more steps from the man.
Surely he can’t mean me, right? I don’t know this man. I’m sure of it. Even still, something about the timbre in his voice, though it’s frail, seems to remind me of something. My head begins to pound and I rub my temples. No. Why am I attaching so much value to an old man’s ramblings? Actually, an even better question is why is he here, and who would do such horrible things to him? And who is he talking about then? I don’t know anyone else who shares my name. I stare at him a couple moments longer, but nothing more is forthcoming from him except incomprehensible muttering.
I replace the lantern, shut it off, then feel along the wall until I reach the door. Placing my ear to the wood, I strain to hear anything. After a few moments, the only sound is my breathing and the old man’s steady stream of delusional whispering.
Should I risk it? The man I saw earlier insinuated something worse than a week without rations and a beating. If they learn that I’ve been here, I can only imagine what they’ll do to me. My hands are trembling against the door. I place my forehead on the wood and take a deep breath to try and calm myself. It’s met with limited success as my hands don’t quit shaking and I gag from the stench in the room.
There isn’t another choice though. Delaying doesn’t do anything, except increase the likelihood that those men come back through and lock the door on their way out. Slowly, and as quietly as possible, I open the door a crack, slip out, then shut it behind me. My eyes are glued to the far end of the hallway. My ears straining to hear the smallest sounds, although my heart beats so loudly I can hear it in my head. Swallowing my fear I stride down the hall towards the archives. I reach the door and turn the knob when I hear a sound that makes me pause. The door on the far end is being opened. Time slows and for a few moments, I feel the fear in my stomach like a boulder, anchoring me in place. Then, at the sound of a voice, the boulder is washed away by a rush of adrenaline that carries me into action. I open the door, slam it shut behind me and sprint through the archives, and up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Luckily, it’s after work shifts, and before dinner, so the halls are clear. I burst outside and keep running until I get to my house. It’s only once I’m inside, door shut and windows shuttered, that I stop to breath. I fall onto my back in bed, gasping for air. I feel the adrenaline wearing off, and my mind is a mess of panic and disgust.
Why would anyone torture that old man? Is that why Tern was paranoid about talking before? I stare at the ceiling and my breathing eventually calms. What is happening in the church? Can I even trust anyone to tell them? It’s a somber thought because even though my memories of the church are short, it’s the only home I have.The bell tolls three times, signaling dinner. I hesitate. If I don’t go it might seem suspicious, but if I do go, will I be able to mask my feelings? The bell rings again and I get up slowly. My legs are weak beneath me, but I force them to be steady.