His shoulders were heavy and he was panting. Sweat ran down his face, dust covered his members, and his hands were red, burning, paining him to no end. This was the second to last day in this pillar, and after tomorrow—which was reserved to the donations to the needy, and any kind of announcements the Shepherd might have to make—they would get back to their walk, as it had always happened, without much change, in endless repetition for time much greater than any man could count.
He let go of the crystal he was holding to, and his feet fell on the ground. The impact made him lose his balance and his vision became blurry for a while, but even if it took a few moments, he got back on his feet.
Near him, all around the pillar, people were doing the same. Some had large cargoes on their backs, others came back almost empty handed, and there were also those who had their stuff transported to the ground by one of the machines. Soon, their chatter ensued, and mothers, wifes, sons and daughters came to see their loved ones.
None of these people, though, were there to see him.
He let out a deep sigh, breathed in and out, and got ready to take everything back to his tent.
In the process though, he bumped into someone.
“O-oh, I’m sorry—”
It was a woman. She had dust and dirt in her untidy hair, and holding her hand, there was a small girl, maybe five or six years old.
There was no one else with them.
The woman shut her mouth for a while, and looked at him, in a quick succession of emotions. The kid, on the other hand, poked at his leg.
“You’re that one boy?” she said as she looked right at his face, with a helpless look in her’s
The two had been standing there, looking from afar at the pillar when he bumped into them, and their faces painted a certain sense of longing.
“You shouldn’t go around saying this, okay?” the woman said, holding the girl’s shoulder and turning away.
She didn’t ever finish what she was saying.
Now that he noticed, there were many people like them: people looking at the pillar from a distance, all after something that wasn’t there, after what should’ve been. Later that day, Nico would come to know that the next day, the Shepherd would hold a funeral for all the ones who died from the plague.
When he finally got to the tent, with fumbling steps he entered the dark place, which at that moment, had only Natta occupying it.
As always, she was lying at a corner, her back on the canvas, and her eyes lay low. In her hand, there was a half empty bottle of booze.
“You should stop drinking,” he said as he put the back basket on the ground, at the opposite side from her.
“Come on, it’s just a little bit alright?” she said, waving the bottle and pointing at his back.
He took a piece of meat from the basket and showed it to her from over his shoulder. “I would like to eat this instead of selling it for liquor, you know?”
“I won’t drink as much as I used to, okay!?”
Nico sighed as he now took something else from the basket: a small piece of scrap metal, which was basically useless.
What could he do after all?
“Is that the only one? Or did you buy any other?”
“…It’s the only one…”
Nico was taken aback for a moment.
Somehow, this made him somewhat surprised. But…
Yes, he should keep at it.
“This sounds like a lie.”
“What?! Cut down with this bullshit!”
“You’re acting weird” he sighed again.
He finally stood up, and turned towards her.
“So? Did you, or did you not?”
“Now, stop with this, dreamy boy.”
She stood up too, and walked a few steps in his direction, with a fierce look in her eyes.
“What? Scrap metal? Is that what you bring home after this? And here I thought that now you could do something…”
For a moment, he felt an urge to throw it at her, but it ended right there.
She walked past him, bumping on his shoulder on her way out. As she did this, he stood there, still, with his hands trembling.
Now, this felt more familiar.
One knock, then another.
Differently from the last time, the door was steadily opened, without him even saying his name.
“Oh, so you’re done, Nico,” Gian nonchalantly walked out and said, his posture straight, revealing what Nico now discovered to be a surprisingly tall man, and his eyes looking right into Nico’s.
He was taller than the door, so he always received people slightly bent over, but this time, he had to look down at him.
His thin, skinny body made him seem as light as a feather though, and without realizing it, his arms were slightly trembling.
“…Here. I brought some things for you,” he looked at his own hand and said as he extended his arm forward, holding a bag full of food and a few other things.
“Oh there’s no need to… but thanks nonetheless,” Gian replied, taking hold of the basket with his right hand.
Nico let go of it and Gian soon lost his balance: the basket almost fell onto the ground, hadn’t he quickly used his other hand to hold it too. Now, he could barely carry with, and the basket, visibly too heavy for him, was always nearly touching the ground.
“…Do you want a hand?”
“I-it would be nice.”
Nico took it with his left hand, and now they got it inside with ease, then leaving it right next to the entrance.
The door was left open, and light was coming into the tent. His body shed a shadow over Gray, who lay in front of him, and after the side of the bedroll opposite Nico's, Rocco and his sister sat, observing the ill man.
“…I’m back, Gray.”
Silence reigned for a moment, but even if slowly, Gray said something.
“…That’s a good thing, isn’t it?” he welcomed him with a warm, even if delicate, smile. “Did you have a good time?”
He looked down, right at him, and took a deep breath.
He had to get used to looking people right in the eye if he wanted to get somewhere.
“I brought a lot of things home, at the very least. So I guess that means yes.”
From where he was, down below on the bedroll on the ground, Gray heard Nico softly panting, as if he was trying to hide it.
“You seem tired. Get some rest.”
“Oh that’s nothing, I’m alright.”
“You don’t need to hide it…”
The air he exhaled now was almost touching Gray’s face and his shoulders moved up and down with each breath. It seemed as if he had just run a marathon.
For a moment, with his mouth slightly agape, Gray seemed like he was going to say something, but instead, he just rolled to the right on the bedroll, and directed his back at Nico.
“Well… Uh… Are you going to take him back home now?” asked Rocco.
“First I’ll try to sell some of the stuff I got at the pillar. There isn’t anyone to look after him in our tent.”
“I don’t need anyone looking after me, Nico.”
“…But it would be a good precaution.”
“What? Do you think I’m gonna die at any moment?”
Gray continued to lay there, without looking at Nico, his back directed at him. The shirt he had on was wet, full of sweat, and he was silent, waiting for a response.
“N-no… That’s not it. I…”
“What’s it then?”
Differently from the usual low and hoarse voice, Gray said this with a potent tone, in a very clear manner, and the question now lingered in the silent air.
“…I only want to make sure that nothing bad happens.”
“Isn’t this the same thing?”
Nico stood there for a moment, silent. He did not know what to say.
“I… I’ll go do my thing…” he turned back and made his way out of the tent. “Bye for now.”
Slowly, he closed the door, his arms feeling heavy, his limbs slow and lethargic.
Gray only needed to calm down a little… he would hear the voice of reason and do as he said—
The door was once again slammed open, and Rocco asked him.
“Can I go with you?”
“We’re not interested.”
And so, the door was shut in front of them.
Well, this was just the first try, there were many others with whom he could trade.
“Let’s go, Rocco.”
“Hey, can I talk with you for a second? We came here with a few things you might be interested in…”
As Nico spoke, the gaze of the man in front of him wouldn’t stop fulminating his skin, as if telling him to get out, and his small taps at the open door screamed of his impatience.
“I don’t want anything to do with people like you.”
Once more, the door was closed.
In dispirited steps, Rocco followed suit and, in silence, they got to the next door. This tent was slightly more decorated and refined, with colored stripes at its base and a well kept canvas.
“What do you want?” a voice shouted from within.
“We came to trade!” Nico shouted back.
“Who is it?” the voice asked, and in a small hole at the centre of the higher portion of the door, appeared an eye.
“Nico, son of Theo. And Rocco, son of Gian.”
A few moments of silence ensued as they waited for their response.
Then another few minutes.
And a few more…
And they never got any reply at all.
Nico let out a disappointed sigh and called Rocco once more.
Right now, there were less people out there than some time ago, as those who climbed the pillars were now mostly resting, and those who were sick and ill were taken care of inside their tents. But even if one would think this meant people could have a pleasant time outside, this couldn’t be farther from the reality, as from the faraway pile of corpses, which now reached almost two meters tall, together with the wind came the insufferable stench of dead men.
“...Don’t you think we should do something else? It doesn’t look like we will get anywhere with this…” said Rocco, who had slowed down his steps, and asked this from behind Nico.
“What?! No! We have to keep trying.”
He shouldn’t give up, right? He had to give his best if he wanted to get anywhere, otherwise things would continue like this forever.
“...Wouldn’t it be much easier to just wait for the fair tomorrow?”
“My father always tried to negotiate with people before the fair. He used to say it gives you an advantage when the time comes.”
“...Okay then!” Rocco exclaimed, smiling from ear to ear.
Nico stared blankly at him for a moment. Rocco was acting weird.
“Hm? Is there anything wrong?”
“...No. Forget about it.”
“Then let’s go!”
That was right, they should get going.
The next tent didn’t seem to be in a very good state: the canvas of the tent was tainted and the door had holes in its wood.
“Hey!” he knocked, and soon the door was slightly ajar, with a weak and skinny face looking through the small opening. “I came to trade.”
“…Who—” the man’s words were interrupted by coughs, “—who are you?”
“Nico, son of Theo, and Rocco, son of Gian.”
“Get out of here,” the man snarled, his eyes full of rage beaming within the darkness of whatever lay beyond the door. “Now.”
And so, the man closed the door.
“Nico! Let’s go!”
Weirdly enough, Rocco was acting as if nothing had happened.
To be honest, Nico didn’t want to think about it either.
Next, it was what looked like a well off man’s tent—probably the owner of one of the machines at the pillar. Colorful and ornamented, it also was lively, with multiple voices coming from inside, and was located near the top of a small hill near the pillar, making it free from the smell of corpses which overran most of the area.
“Would you be interested in trading something from the pillar?”
They heard a few steps, and soon someone replied across the door.
“What have you got in there?” it said in a demanding tone, as if he could lose interest at any moment.
Notwithstanding its seeming impatience, this was by far the best answer Nico had gotten so far. Full of excitement, he now searched the bag he carried for the best thing he had, and after picking things at random, he finally found the perfect choice.
“Besides many things, a clock.”
Clocks were the only way in which to measure time, and they weren’t very common, making it a great prestige item and a way of showing status. Not only that, but no one knew how to make them—they could only be obtained in the pillar, driving their value up. It was really the ideal choice.
“Oh, a clock… that’s interesting,” the man said and opened the door. “What’s your name, kid?”
“Nico, son of Theo, and Rocco, son of Gian,” he promptly answered.
The man narrowed his eyes for a moment and Nico could almost swear he heard him muttering “…oh, so it’s him…” from under his breath.
“Well, tell me what you want for it, then.”
Nico tried to look at the interior of the man’s tent so he could see whatever he had there, but each time he did so, his view was instructed by the man who stood at the door.
“Do you have salt?”
He had managed to put his hands in a lot of meat back in the pillar, but if he didn’t do anything they soon would rot. Salt would help him preserve it.
The man had a quick look at what he had across the tent, and asked Nico another question. “But how much?”
Truth is, he didn’t really know how much a clock was worth—he had never put his hands on one. His only choices were to either ask this to the man or just come up with a random guess based on what he had overhead the times he went to the fair, and both of these alternatives weren’t exactly very attractive.
“Enough to fill this bag,'' he answered, showing a bag which extended vertically from his shoulders to his waist.
“My sir, I fear you might be asking for too much…”
“I’m pretty sure I’ve set a pretty reasonable price.”
“Well, I suggest half that amount.”
Half? Isn’t this way too low?
“Four fifths of it.”
“Too much. The market price is usually half of what you said, my boy.”
Wait, was a clock really worth this little?
No… this guy is probably trying to trick me.
“This is too little. In the last fair it was around my price.”
“Let’s settle for three fourths then, alright? It seems like a reasonable middle ground”
...Should he trust that guy? Should he not? This seemed low for him, but again, he had no idea of how much it was actually traded on the fairs.
The man took the bag from his hands, and soon came back with the salt inside it. “Here it is.”
The door was closed in front of them.
“Let’s go, Nico!” Rocco called.
Nico followed suit, but doubts plagued his mind.
Should they really continue? They had a hard time only to find someone willing to buy a clock, imagine selling all of the other stuff…
As they reached the top of the hill, he stopped.
“I think it’s alright for us to go back now.”
Rocco halted his steps, and turned back towards him, confused.
“We should just sell the rest at the fair, it will be way easier.”
“But… Hadn’t you said it’s better to trade things before the fair?”
Truth was, this was his first time doing this. Usually, he would just go to the fair and that was it. His father really used to say that it was better to negotiate previously, but he had no idea of why nor how to do it.
“Just go with it, alright?”
“...Alright!” Rocco exclaimed with the same weird, odd smile from before. “…But where are we going then?”
“Back home…? What else is there for us to do?”
“...I” he murmured, without the smile he had just a second ago. “I don’t want to go back home right now…”
His voice was weak and quiet, as if he feared being heard, and his eyes avoided Nico’s look, as if it could burn him.
“...No reason at all.”
After saying what barely qualified as an answer, he stayed mostly quiet, in silence, except for one little murmur:
“Yes, there’s nothing wrong at all…”
“I see...” Nico sighed and then sat on the ground. “Well, in for a talk?”
Rocco nodded and sat with his back against Nico’s, both of them at that small hilltop in the limited vastness of that world of rocks and emptiness, where the wind blew through them and the bright blue pillar shed a cold, immutable light.
“Is there anything you want to talk about?” Nico asked him.
Rocco shook his head. “You decide.”
“Hm, okay… Oh, your father was acting a little weird earlier today, did something happen?”
“...Later that same day when you left Gray with us, dad started talking about finally doing something, and also said that he will have a talk with the Shepherd on our last day here. He has acted like this since.”
“He hasn't told me.”
This didn’t explain much—actually, it only made him more curious—but it was something, at the very least.
But there was something else too, something much, much more important.
“...Do you mind if I ask something?”
“How did your father end up like this? He was a pretty normal guy, seemed able to work enough to get whatever needed, and now…”
A few moments passed without him getting any answer, as Rocco silently but incessantly searched for words. How could he explain this?
“Those guys… Those friends of his…” Rocco said in a heavy tone uncharacteristic of him. “He’s always giving things to them.”
“…What do you mean?”
“Exactly what I said.”
Who would give so much to his friends that he would barely have what to eat? This doesn’t make sense.
“Is that really it? There surely must be something else. Why would he do this?”
He couldn’t see it, but more and more, Nico could feel, notice Rocco curling up, as if hiding from a monster who lay nearby.
“He says that… He says that even if we are in need, these people are passing through even worse situations.”
For a moment, Nico didn’t say anything. Instead, he wondered: would he ever do something like this to help Rocco if it meant he would barely have enough to get by—or maybe not even that much at all?
“And you do nothing? Or maybe your mother? Do you just watch this happen without doing anything?”
This was way too absurd.
“Mum… She tells me not to worry.”
“And that’s what you do?!”
Gradually, something started to move behind him. Rocco was shaking, and his trembling back rubbed against his.
“...If dad says everything is fine, it means everything is fine, right?”
Nico didn’t know what to say. Words of consolation? Of understanding? Should he tell him that everything would be alright? Or push him to do something? Would it be of help or only hurt him more?
He had been so occupied with taking care of Gray that he ignored his friend. He wished to be of help, but couldn’t do anything. Was he really so incapable?
In this silence, the wind blew away the words that had been uttered, but the weight on their hearts didn’t leave them at all.
Steps which couldn’t be overheard, a figure approaching. A man deafened by the loud noise of the wind, muddled by alcohol, blind in his confusion.
Murmurs with unknown content, uttered carelessly in sheer ignorance of a drunkard. A shadow projected over the man.
This was the time. He had long awaited this.
In fact, he should’ve done so sooner—waiting so much was a financial loss. That said, orders were to do this only when truly necessary, risks should be avoided. “As long as you don’t cause trouble” means the same as “if something goes wrong, it’s the end for you”, he has been told.
A part of him wasn’t sure of doing this. Maybe he had gotten attached, maybe it was just human nature, an intrinsic fear or deterrent. But this wouldn’t impede him, such is the nature of human greed.
The man turned and noticed him—he had hesitated too much.
The man kicked him and waved his arms, but he jumped on him and soon the man was on the ground. His mouth was forcefully covered, and the knife descended upon him. Red covered the ground, unknown to all, who lay inside their tents, sleeping in such late hours.
A ring necklace dropped on the body, and the shadow over him went away.
Oh my, what a bloody day.