“I remember Orwen before the darkness, before Killiawn raped the land of all its goodness. People say it happened in one night, but I remember three days. Three days of hiding in my bedroom with the window shuttered. Three days of wishing to die rather than see the horror of his faces. Three days of dread. My mother had clung to my father those first two. At least, I think it was the first two. It’s difficult to remember now because the sun had stopped rising; the marker of time ceased to exist. A chill had crept under our loose-fitting door and stolen every ember of warmth that remained. That’s when I knew; I must hide them.
"I scraped at the worn oaken boards beneath my tattered bed mat, prying one loose. Then I lowered my arms and my head into the damp, musty habitat of our cottage foundation. The centipedes scampered across my hands as I thrust them into the earth, my fingernails fracturing as I dug through the rubble and rocks. Blood rushed to my head as it hung, suspended beneath the floor. I stretched both hands around the gold collar clasped around my neck and plucked the golden capsules one by one out of their pods.
"It was foretold that the day would come, the day Killiawn would return for what he believed was his. We were warned, but most didn’t heed the prophets’ call. They had continued, day after day, living as if they could keep their land and their Loves forever. We never believed that we were the generation that was to face the darkness at its worst.
"My fingers had paused at my throat as they grazed the final capsule. I had felt the light drain from my chest as I let the previous eleven fall into the earth below, my sense of loss growing with each subsequent removal. I knew what Killiawn wanted. I knew if I didn’t do it, he would. Let it be me then, I had thought. Just remember. Remember what you must do; no matter what, don’t let the emptiness reign, no matter what. I glanced down at my left forearm, where I had carved the word into my flesh: REMEMBER. Then I pressed my finger into my collar, removing the final capsule. I involuntarily exhaled; the breath of life escaped my lips like a gale rushing through an abandoned shack at the onset of a storm.
"And that was that.
"I stretched forward and planted the fine, polished sphere into the moist soil. Then I heard it. A faint growl. It started low and descended upon our house like a hurricane. The walls shook, and the floor quaked. He’s here, I had thought as I reached forward with both hands, frantically burying the fine gold pieces.
"I heard the front door creak and crash off its hinges and onto the floor. My mother screamed. I pulled my head from the darkness, replaced the floorboards, grabbed my carving dagger from under my mat, and sprinted from my cubby to the main room.
"The stench of rot came before the sight. Then the beast oozed through the doorway, both a vapor and a slime—six heads and countless arms. Not all of them seemed to belong to the creature; some hung limp at its neck as if they had been attached with mere sewing thread. He was more horrifying than I had ever imagined.
"I cowered in the doorway as I felt the remaining light drain from my chest, looking at my mother rather than the grotesque mass of amorphous body parts. She shrieked again before burying her head and her pregnant belly against my father’s chest. He wielded a fire poker as a saber. His face was alight with fury and courage. The hope I had at the sight of my warrior father was extinguished in a moment when Killiawn engulfed them both like a ravenous volcanic smoke consuming a city.
"My parents were lost. I knew that instantly. I knew at that moment that I was utterly alone. I gripped the dagger in my right hand as I rose to my full size in the creature’s sight. His heads turned towards me, some of them cocking to the side as they glared. What is he doing? I had thought. Assessing me? My threat or my value? ‘Come on, then!’ I screamed. His amoebic body swelled to fill our quaint cottage. I held my breath and waited for the stench of death to engulf me as it had my parents. I waited to be consumed. Suddenly, Killiawn’s heads twitched as if his attention had shifted. And in a moment, as fast as he had arrived, he was gone.
"I fell to the floor. I had been right. Thank the gods, I had been right. I had tasted dust as I breathed in and out deeply. The candles had gone out, as had the lamps. I lay in darkness for several moments, regaining my strength.
"Then I heard a rustle and a scrape across the floor ahead of me. Another scrape and rustle and then a groan. I ran my fingers across the raised scars on my forearm. Remember. Remember what you must do, I reminded myself. I now sensed clearly the disconnect between my thoughts and my memories. I knew that I once had a mother and father. I knew that they were people that I had once loved. But I no longer felt that bond. I no longer knew that love. Remember what you must do, the voice in my head reminded me again.
"I shuffled blindly to the cabinet near the open front door. The humid night air of summer blew in. I peered out. There were no stars. No moon. Just blackness. I ran my fingertips along the smooth cabinet top to where I knew the glazed clay jar full of matches would be. I lifted the lid and removed a match. Then I crouched down and struck it on the cold stone floor. A flare illuminated the room for a moment and then subsided to a small flame at the end of the stick.
"I walked to the table, the one that had been my grandfather’s and his grandfather’s before him. I lit the small oil lamp set in the table’s center. And then I saw them. Faces I knew. Faces I knew that I had once loved. My mother and father stood before me, alive. Yes, alive, but no longer the people that I had known. They stood, gazing at me from across the table as if I were a stranger in their home.
"I didn’t rush into their arms. I didn’t want to. And I knew why. I had known what I was sacrificing when I chose to remove the capsules. I couldn’t have anticipated what it would mean in the end, but I knew it was a sacrifice I would have to make if I were to stand any chance at all.
"As my mother and father looked upon each other, I watched as a bystander would gawk at an accident, distanced and unfeeling yet unable to look away. My mother raised her arm to my father’s golden collar. She caressed the concave settings that used to hold her Loves, each of the seven she had bestowed to him on the day of their Commitment Ceremony. They were only empty cavities now.
"My father turned towards my mother, and the fire I had seen raised in courage against Killiawn returned to my father’s eyes. But this time, it was aflame against my mother. He slapped her hand away from his neck. ‘Don’t touch me, woman!’ he had snarled. She flinched and stepped back, tripping over a fallen broom. She fell to the floor, landing on her back with a crash and a wail. She groaned and clutched her protruding pregnant belly.
"I knew in my mind that I should care. I knew in my mind that I should run to her—help. But I didn’t feel sympathy. I didn’t feel compassion. I knew that I had buried those feelings. I touched my arm again. Remember what you must do. No! I thought to myself, sternly standing against my conscience and my memories. If I go to them…If I reinsert them…he will come for me. Better to die trying than to remain an unfeeling sack of skin the remainder of your days, I argued with myself. Better to feel nothing than the pain of loss, I countered back.
"As I paced to my sleeping cubby, my mother reached for a dish near the washbasin. She gripped it and thrust it at my father. It hit his shoulder and crashed to the floor in hundreds of pieces. ‘Get out!’ she shrieked. He growled at her like a wild animal and lifted the table’s edge, tossing it onto its end before he walked out of the door and into the night.
"I bent down on all fours. I felt the small stones that had blown in with the darkness grind into my knees as I pulled the plank back again from the floor. I knew the risk of replacing a Love to my collar. And every ounce of my apathy resisted. But the voice in my head persisted nonetheless. Remember what you must do.
"I reached into the earth and felt for the capsules. One by one, I dug them out and placed them into a small leather pouch. All but one that is. The twelfth I kept out, gripped against my palm.
"I sat down on my mat and turned to peer out of the crack in the wall into the darkness of the inky night. I saw nothing but I heard screaming in the distance. Orwen had always been a peaceful place, full of laughter and joy. Killiawn had stolen the Loves—stolen the joy. I wanted to hate him. But even that, I couldn’t manage. With the Loves removed, I was only a shell. I neither wanted to return the capsule to my collar nor abandon them to the dirt once more. I wanted nothing.
"But I knew—I knew what I must do.
"So I did.
"I raised my hand to my neck, the capsule my mother had given me on my twelfth birthday pinched between my fingers. She had marked it with a symbol—a small cross, a symbol of sacrifice. A magnetic pull sucked the marble-like gold piece towards my collar, and a spark ignited inside me.
"I jumped to my feet and ran into the main room. My mother still cowered on the floor, not sad or afraid, but indignant. I knelt down beside her. ‘Mother!’ I cried. She glowered at me, a threatening look on her face that I had never known in my blissful Orwenian childhood.
"I desperately wanted to give her my Loves. I wanted her to know the light again, but that would only attract Killiawn again to her, hungry as he was to devour our light. No. It was better this way.
"But the baby—the baby would be born any day. ‘Bello’ my parents had affectionately been calling him. If Bello were to be born before the light returned to my mother’s soul, he would not live. That was for certain. Without Loves there is no life. She would not care about her newborn son. She would not rise night after night to feed him, clothe him and care for him. It had been seen in mothers before. It was rare, but it was known. Those that gave birth without light would curse their sons and daughters to death. I couldn’t let that happen. I would not let my brother be born unto death.”
Leam leaned across the table and tousled his brother’s ebony hair.
“Tell me again, brother. Tell me again how you defeated Killiawn.” Bello’s mischievous brown eyes pleaded with Leam.
“That’s enough for today, my Love. Another tale for another time. Let’s go feed the hens. The sun does rise now. And that means the chores wait for no man.” Leam smiled down at Bello, nudging him from his seat. Then they rose from their grandfather’s table and walked into the day, full golden collars glistening in the warm summer sun. The sound of villagers’ laughter echoed in the distance.