The River’s Mask – A Flash Fiction Piece
After a very long absence owing to extensive repairs of my spaceship following a particularly nasty run-in with some space pirates over a year ago, I return to earth ready to resume observing human beings in their natural environment.
As soon as I got here, I sensed a great disturbance in the Force — it was Chuck Wendig’s beard, calling me back to write something for another of his Flash Fiction Challenges.
This story is very much influenced by one of my favourite authors, Robert Holdstock, whose own characters spend a lot of time on chthonic journeys, and who incorporates masks (and other aspects of Jungian psychology) into many of his works. Would recommend you read him for some very beautiful but dark pieces of fantasy/fiction. Also, whilst I was gone, these WordPress people changed their entire layout of… basically everything. So apologies if this looks terrible until I figure out how to fix things. HTML wizardry may be involved.
The River’s Mask
It was the first obstacle. The first trial she would face. The thought of being tested did not worry her, but the thought of failing did. So many people were counting on her. He was counting on her, even if he didn’t yet know it.
Stooping into a crouch, she opened her bag and pulled out a crude wooden mask, one she had fashioned only days earlier from the bark of an ash tree. The eyes were two dark holes through which only slivers of light could penetrate; slivers were enough. The mouth of the mask had lips, of a sort, but they remained closed, and the nose was little more than a stubby triangle. Over the face she had rubbed the ash from her last campfire, so that it was blackened as if in perpetual shadow and mourning.
The name of the mask. The sound of water tumbling over a fall and bubbling in the pool beneath. The beating drum of rain pounding against the roof of her childhood home. The whisper of the babbling spring where it gave birth to all the rivers of the world.
She slipped it over her face and tied the leather strings behind her head. Then she fastened her bag, ignoring the other masks which lay within; their time would come later. If she passed her first trial.
The minutes ticked by as she waited. The minutes became an hour, and then two. On the creaky wooden dock, she did not move. Fear and impatience were pushed away as easily as the aches in leg muscles which had been still for too long. She had waiting ten years for this; a few hours longer made little difference.
A breeze picked up, bringing with it the scent of damp wood and organic decay, accompanied by the gentle sound of the water lapping against something large. She turned her masked face and saw a figure emerge from the tenebrious mist, upon a boat which he guided with a long wooden pole.
Her heart beat rapidly as the boat approached, and she took a deep breath, to still her mind and calm her nerves. When it reached the dock, the boat stopped, and though its occupant did not move to moor it, it hung there unphased by the flow of the river. A chill caressed her skin, and she ignored that too.
“I seek passage.” Her words came out louder than she’d intended, but the river swallowed them. The shadowy figure nodded, and when it spoke, its voice was the sound of the wind rushing through the leaves of a tree on a blustery day.
“And to where do you wish to travel?”
“To the place where souls go, when they have fallen into darkness.”
“And what do you offer as payment?”
She stuck her hand into her pocket and brought out a coin clasped between her fingers. Its ancient surface was pitted and scarred, the likeness of some long-forgotten nobleman defaced by time itself. This she tossed at the figure, who caught it seemingly without moving.
He tilted his head to look at her, or she thought he did. “The customary payment is two coins.”
“I know. This is for the journey in. The second you will get after my journey out.”
He chuckled, a dry, raspy sound, and the smell of decay hit her more strongly. “Very well. You may board.”
She and her bag stepped down from the dock into the boat, her boots ringing out a hollow beat as she moved to the centre of the craft. When she was ready, she gave the figure a nod, and the boat began to move again, back up the river, carried by the flow of the current.
As she waited, she felt the scrutiny of the boat’s keeper upon her. Closing her eyes, she silently recited the words of wisdom she’d been given by the spirit-master.
You must go to him masked, otherwise he will see into your mind and learn all that he needs to about you. Whilst you’re with him, on the River, you must never remove your mask. If he engages you in conversation, tell him nothing about yourself. But do not lie; deception angers him. If he learns your name, he will claim your soul, and you shall forever be his. This is your first trial. Do not become one of the souls doomed to eternity in the River.
“What is your name?” the Ferryman asked, pulling her mind from its reverie.
“That is not your name.”
“It is how you will know me during our journey.”
“Whom do you seek in the realm of fallen souls, Sarasho?”
Behind the mask, she bit her lip, forcing herself to silence.
“A great general, perhaps? Some glorious leader of armies fallen in battle? Or a lover, somebody greatly missed during the cold, lonely nights?”
“A friend from my childhood, actually,” she replied. Then she mentally kicked herself.
“Ahh, I see.” Though she could not see his face, she had the distinct impression that he was smiling. “Tell me this friend’s name. Maybe I will remember carrying him—or her—to the Realm of Lost Souls.”
This time, she forced her lips together into a thin line. He let out a low, throaty chuckle like the sound of birds in flight.
“Very well, o’silent one! If you do not care for conversation, perhaps you would prefer entertainment. A song or two?”
Eerie voices rose up from the river, and every hair on her body stood on end. Leaning to look over one side, she saw shapes below the surface, moving along with the boat, emitting a soft light that soothed her fears away. They sang a melody of sadness and longing, wordless and beautiful as whalesong. It called to her, tugging at something inside her, something aching and desperate, and she knew that if she reached out and touched them, she would never be sad or lonely or tired or desperate ever again.
“Perhaps you would like to sing for me, Sarasho?” the Ferryman asked. “Take off your mask and sing, and I will tell you of what lies ahead for you on your journey.”
She snapped back, standing upright in the centre of the boat, and it wobbled very slightly. No. She could not give in to the music. If she took off her mask, she would fail. Failure was not an option.
“Perhaps,” she said, as a thought presented itself, “you could tell me all you know of what lies ahead, and I might consider taking off the mask after that.”
Again the chuckle. “Very well. Very well. You drive a hard bargain, but there is no harm in you knowing. Perhaps you will even succeed, and come back this way to leave the Realm, and offer me another chance at changing your mind.
“When we reach the far shore in the Realm of Lost Souls, you will find a forest with trees taller than you could ever imagine. It might seem pleasant at first, but the Lord of the Wild Hunt roams eternally in that place, his hounds eager for the chase.”
“What is it that he hunts?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
“Souls. He likes them fresh off the boat, when the smell of life still clings to them. Many souls make it through that forest; many, but not all. Perhaps this childhood friend of yours was pulled down there.”
She lifted her chin and frowned beneath the mask. “He made it through. I know he did. He is strong.”
“Then he would have arrived next at the Living Maze, which is an infinitely-changing maze of thorns and vines and all things prickly and painful. It is not a gauntlet easily run. But had he succeeded there too, he would have attempted to cross The Plain of Fire, and then come to Sky Lord’s land.”
“A mad dictator obsessed with building the tallest crystal spire in the Realm. He enslaves souls, forces them to mine crystal, to fashion it into bricks which are then used to make his spire bigger, and taller. His end goal is to pierce the Veil where he perceives it to be weakest and negate the need for my River; he does not like being reliant upon me.”
“Will he succeed?”
The Ferryman gave a soft snort. “Of course not. There is only one way into or out of the The Realm of Lost Souls. But he is mad, and there is no reasoning with a madman.”
“I see.” Her heart sank at the thought of all that lay before her. She would need more masks. “Tell me, Ferryman. If the souls here are dead, how can they be harmed by a hunter or thorns, or enslaved by a madman?”
“The dead have form, here. They may be mere souls, but here, souls are even more real than you.”
“Then… what is to stop them from attacking you? From overwhelming you and stealing your boat and taking it to escape down your river? The river seems so gentle that even a child could navigate it, and you are an unarmed Ferryman.”
He laughed, a sound that echoed across the surface of the river and sounded like an unstoppable avalanche. “Is that how you perceive the River and I, Sarasho?” He gave a shrug. “It is different, for everyone. But here, we have reached our destination. See the dock, just there? And beyond it, the border of the forest where the Wild Hunt roams without tiring.”
The boat pulled up beside the dock and she grabbed her bag and hopped off. But she did not remove the mask. If this was the only way out of the Realm, she would be forced to deal with the Ferryman again. He was still dangerous.
“Thank you for the information,” she said, and turned towards the forest.
“Sarasho.” He waited until she had turned back to face him. “I have no doubt that you will overcome every obstacle that you face. And perhaps you will be lucky, and find your childhood friend. If you do, remember one thing. Souls do not fall into darkness; they choose it. Just because you find your friend, does not mean he will want to come back with you. Sometimes it is easier for them to dwell here, in the darkness, than to return to the brightness and pain of their lives. I just hope that your friend is worth it.”
She nodded, and pulled her bag over her shoulder. It was something she shared with the Ferryman; the hope that her friend would remember the boy he had been. The hope that after all she was willing to go through, he would let her bring him back home.