Beyond the Fog – Chapter One

Joseph Larison

“You coming?”

Deeply engrossed in thought, I continued tending to my bow, which by now was in dire need of a new string. It was gifted to me by my father, who used it to hunt small game during the early days. The wood was beginning to show signs of aging, with the stain fading and wood starting to splinter. 

I was pulled from my thoughts by a tap on my shoulder. “Aiden, are you coming or not?” the voice repeated.

I turned around to see the face of Flint. He, whose name indicated a sort of rigidness that couldn’t be further from the truth, was facing me looking a bit impatient. He was rounded, with large glasses that rested atop his button-like nose. He wore a scarf and denim jacket that poorly suited the warm weather. Flint has been my best friend since before I can remember, and despite his jolly disposition, he’s pulled me out of more scrapes that I care to admit. I smiled and greeted him with a nod, “I just need another minute-” 

“Aiden,” he interrupted, “we haven’t got another minute, your sister’s ceremony begins in a few minutes. Gather your things and let’s go.” 

“Aliece?” I questioned, “I thought that wasn’t until tonight.” My thoughts drifted to that morning, as I began to recall the conversation I’d had with my mother telling me that the ceremony was this evening. Flint opened his mouth to correct me but I stopped him. I grabbed my satchel and we ran out of the woodshed that juts out of the main house. 

 “Of course, I wouldn’t miss it,” I said confidently, as if this was all going according to plan: that I had intended to cut it so close to being late to likely the most important milestone in my sister’s life. I followed my friend down the beaten path that flowed between our cabins. 

Our village was by no means large, but it housed a few dozen cabins, dotted throughout the landscape, with one large central structure where the ceremony was being held. It was one of the only two-storied buildings in the whole village, with a strong center beam that ran across the length of the building. It had a thatch roof that peaked high above the door in the center, and with sturdy wooden walls and a cobblestone base, it was easily the most well constructed cabin in the whole village. It was built during the early days by our grandparents. Flint, as he always does, broke the silence.

“So, are you nervous?”

Defensively, I answered his question with one of my own, “What have I got to be nervous about?”

“You know,” he paused, considering if he should persist with this line of questioning, “your sister’s night in the fog. It’s a big deal, you know. Dangerous too. They don’t always come back.” His last words fell off, a dark contrast against his normally cheery constitution. Recalling my father’s night in the fog, I don’t respond, letting my silence be his answer. Flint, realizing his mistake, added, “but I’m sure Aliece will be just fine.”

We sneak inside and I take a seat by my mother and Aliece, who is adorned in the same dress my mother wore to her ceremony, with a few additional hems that show the years past. She had her hair in a ponytail and a hide bag slung around her shoulder, much like my own. 

“Just in time kiddo,” she whispered with a slightly somber tone in her voice. 

“Actually, I was thinking of skipping out early if you don’t mind,” I reply sarcastically. 

She giggled halfheartedly and a smile forced its way onto her face, “Thanks, I needed that. But hey, don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.” A feeling in my gut told me otherwise, but I ignored it. I had to be strong. It was now that I was needed most by my family. Aliece looked nervous. Her knee bounced up and down rapidly, with no sense of time or rhythm, and she pushed a lock of hair behind her ear. I realized the silence only compounded her anxiousness, so I spoke, deciding to give her advice rather than comfort her. 

“Keep your fire lit. If all else fails, keep your fire lit. You’ll be alright.”

“I know I know, but,” She stopped. Looking up from our conversation, we saw a hunched man with a kind smile staring at the two of us. He looked around 70, with bushy eyebrows and wrinkles surrounding his cheeks and eyes. He leaned over and his smile disappeared, replaced by an eerie warning.

“Beware the lights child. The lights mark your damnation,” cautioned the man. My sister, confused and more terrified than ever, started to question the man but was cut off by the man, “Now it is time. Now we feast.”

“But wait, who are you?” my sister questioned. Instead of an anwer, the man merely repeated, “Now it is time. Now we feast.”

I was beyond puzzled. The village contained only a few over a hundred people, and it was impossible to find a face you didn’t recognize. I tried to follow the figure with my eyes, but he was lost in the shuffle of people to the large dinner table.

We began the banquette. The eldest in our village, Maul, sat at the head of the table. Maul was someone who you could tell was a tall, powerful man in his youth, but the years had stripped away his strength and replaced it with wisdom. He seldom spoke, but when he did he compelled merely with the tone of his voice. At his right was my sister, and at his left was another girl, Bree, who was also coming of age. Bree had stringy blonde hair and eyes that sank deep in their sockets. Her composure was weak and she was visibly trembling. Food was passed from person to person as each got their desired portions. Knocking over her cup while reaching for a bread roll, Bree shrieked and buried her face in her shaky hands. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry,” she whimpered through bony fingers. Maul reached over and touched her shoulder as men and women exchanged whispers. The rest of the meal was eaten in silence. 

Through great effort, Maul stood and said raspily, “And now we begin the telling of the coming of the first night in the fog.” The fire of the candles danced in his eyes and across the lower portion of his wrinkled face. He pulled a battered book made of parchment and a hide leather backing from under the table and sat it down with a thud. The room grew deafeningly quiet, the only sound coming from the cracking of the fire from the nearby hearth. Maul began to recount from memory, reading from the book when details grew hazy. 

“Time. It passes quickly when you’ve lived as many lives as we have. We knew not our own names. This village, these houses, these people, did not always stand as proudly as they do on this day,” spoke Maul, almost lyrical in his phrasing. “We were frightened, confused. We made shelters in the first weeks, began to sow crops, and created a home for ourselves. We created our own identities, built our own characters, as the lives of the people we once were seem as foggy as a dream. It was then when I turned 18 that things began to change. The fog grew closer, our rivers dried up, and our crops began to die. The fog demanded a trial. When we went into the fog for answers, many were lost. Many to madness and others to hopelessness. But when we returned, the rivers ran and the fog receded,” he paused, briefly closing his eyes before his thunderous reply.

“It was then that we knew. The fog demanded a trial,” Maul spoke, this time with a conviction only heard in his voice when talking of the ones lost. He continued, “And we thank you, Aliece Williams, and you, Bree Davis, for your bravery.” Men and women around the table bowed their heads. A low murmuring spread through the crowd as they wondered when was the appropriate time to stand. The first few brave souls began to shuffle out of their chairs and make their way to the edge of town and the rest followed. Flint waited at the door and waved at Aliece. 

“Hey!” said Aliece, refusing to remove her hands from her pockets. Flint joined us as we passed the door and we followed a few paces behind the main group. Firelight from torches illuminated the cobbled path. 

“So,” Flint began, taking a moment to ponder his next words, “I’ll see you when you get back.” His words come out casually, as if to reassure Aliece of her return. You could see a visible exhale in her chest as some of her nervousness subsided due to someone finally speaking to her as if she wasn’t dying. It helped very little to comfort me however, as the pit in my stomach grew larger as we approached the edge of the village. I had to preoccupy my mind with something, but all my mind could fixate on was the ghostly warning of the old man. Beware the lights he said. What could he have meant? Was he just telling her to keep her fire lit or was there something I was missing? There was no longer time to ponder these unanswerable questions, as we arrived at the edge of town. 

I looked up to see the rest of our village standing in an open half circle surrounding Bree, who was still quivering like the top of a tree on a windy day. She was waiting to be joined by Aliece, who reluctantly took a few steps in the direction of the crescent moon of bodies. As she passed in front of me I instinctively grabbed her elbow. She turned around, teary eyed, yet with will unbroken. I mouthed, “Be careful, I love you.

With that, she nodded and stood to join Bree in the center. Mother and I made our way to our place in the semicircle. She clasped firmly on my arm to hold herself from collapsing with worry. 

Maul, cane in hand, walked unsteadily over to the pair of girls. He stood before them, catching each in the eye and studying their stance. Bree was in tears, partly because of the sheer panic of the situation at hand, and partly, I thought, because she knew. She knew none of us thought she would make it out, she knew we thought her weak, and she knew we were probably right. The old man then turned his head to face my sister. Aliece was uneasy, uncomfortably shifting back and forth on her heels, but she held the old man’s gaze. It was more out of principle than raw will, but Aliece did her best to at least appear confident. Of course I knew. I’d known her for too long and too well to not know that underneath that defiant facade, she felt like she was buried alive. 

When he finally spoke it echoed out in the quiet of the evening. “Your people call upon you to do what all inevitably must, but it is up to you,” he pointed at Aliece, then Bree, “to uphold this calling. Do you accept?” he bellowed, allowing a space to fall between his last three words. Bree opened her mouth to speak but no words came out. The eyes of Maul fell on Aliece. 

“I accept,” she stammered. 

“And your bravery is commended my child,” Maul whispered with benevolence. He looked back at Bree, who had begun to take a few steps back. A few men stepped out of the formation and stepped behind her as if to suggest there was no other option other than acceptance. 

There had been others. Ones that refused the trial of the fog. Each time the streams once again went dry and the fog crept further into the bounds of the village. Each time they were either dragged into the fog or they finally submitted to the trial. The fog demanded a trial. 

And so, when Bree began to make a face like she might run, Maul stepped forward and sternly told her, “Child, you must.” 

“I- I can’t! You know I’ll die out there!” she pleaded.

“I know no such thing!” Maul shouted dismissively. His raspy words rang out in the empty of our surroundings. The rest of the crowd was silent, completely absorbed in the scene unfolding in front of them. He turned his back to Bree, taking a few steps away in the process. In his age the effort of raising his voice rendered him winded. He spun his head to the side without turning to face her. Almost as if he were speaking to the fog itself rather than Bree, Maul looked at the wall of mist in front of him and said, “You will go or we will take you. There is no other way.” With no will to fight remaining, Bree hesitantly complied. 

“I- I accept.”

The semicircle then split in the center to make room for the three, led by Maul to the edge of the fog. My sister shot me a look with panicked eyes. I nodded in acknowledgement, but I knew I couldn’t help her beyond that anymore. The sides of the rows of people converged and reformed the arc, this time facing the fog.

I watched as the three walked to the very edge of the fog. It felt alive. It towered over them and consumed the landscape. The fog rolled and twisted, turning in on itself and outward at the same time.  As far as we knew, it had always been there, surrounding this valley long before any of our elders woke here. But then again, none of them remembered anything before. Some blame the mist, others claim the elders know more than they tell us, but most just accept that it’s just the way it is. 

I felt the numbing comfort of a tear rolling down my cheek as Maul began some speech about the importance of the tradition or something. I could only half listen. Introspection consumed my thoughts as I thought what might happen if Aliece never returned. I felt as though I might choke on the stiffly cool evening air, and the lump in my throat had grown to such size as to feel like I was trying to swallow a still beating heart. I blinked the tears from my eyes and returned my attention to the three standing at the edge of sheer nothingness. 

Maul was wrapping up his well wishings and exchanges of gratitude, as he closed by embracing their hands with his own, nodding, and slowly making his way down to join the rest of us. 

Aliece and Bree teetered on the brink of the unknown. Kindly as she was, Aliece grabbed the hand of Bree, and they took their first steps into the fog. They turned to look at each other and then back at the group watching anxiously from the safety of the village. Turning back into the grey-white blanket that was the fog, they slowly faded from view.