A quest. A maze.
I am not a hero. I did not enter the maze to solve a riddle and win the princess’ hand. I do not need magical medicine to save any loved one’s life. I did not enter to receive anything, I entered to lose it.
The maze sits on a broad plain, its grey wall extending on and on in an unending line. Legends say that the maze is shaped like a circle. I walked for three days and could not see a bend in the wall. It appears straight from both sides of the door, and extends as far as the eye can see.
The town sprang up at the door of the maze to care for those who waited to enter. It used to be that those going in led a parade through the town to the massive stone gates of the maze. Once a year the doors would open to allow those who wished to enter and each month on the full moon it was said the doors opened to let out those who had made it to the center of the maze and back.
No one had left the maze in a very long time.
Those that made it through the maze and back out returned changed. They emerged to become heroes that led the lands to peace, mages who saved cities from famine and destruction, ladies and princes so beautiful old women who had seen them would cry at the mere thought of the one glimpse she had as a child of their faces.
Now the town no longer lined up to fete the ones going in. Now the large stone doors ground their way open in silence except for a handful of old men and women who watched and waited for their loved ones to return.
It used to be that princes would ride up to the gate tossing handfuls of gold coins to the crowds. Now only me and a gangly boy sit and wait for the doors to open. The gatekeeper glances at us morning and night when he leaves his hut to check the gate before going back inside. The land has been sliding into ruins for years but it got particularly bad recently. Between the constant droughts, food shortages and the never-ending war with the land across the sea, everyone was miserable. It was said one of the king’s sons had offered to enter the maze to find a solution but the king had forbidden it.
Today at midday the gate will open, I will enter, and no one will see me leave except for a boy and a bunch of goats. The boy across from me is still asleep curled on one side. He looks like he has been rolling down the road more than walking it. He is covered in dirt and mud and his shirt is ripped along the back.
I eye the sleeping boy and weigh a stone in one hand before setting it back down with a sigh. Getting up I pick up my bag and walk to the pile of sleeping boy. Nudging him with one foot I call, “Boy, are you going to sleep till the doors open and crush you?”
He reminded me of Casper, one of the young boys from my village. At five seasons he could curl up just about anywhere and sleep. His mother would lose him daily as he slept under chairs, tables, on shelves, and in any nook he could squeeze his body into. But Casper was dead now or sold into slavery like the rest of my village. I mutter a prayer to Rute that he would embrace Casper and my family so they will no longer haunt me. Turning, I stare at the doors willing them to open.
The boy wanders over and sits a few feet from me. Looking at me from the corner of his eyes he faces the door.
“Are you going in?” he asks.
“Yes” I said adjusting my bag and sandal straps.
He sits straighter and puffs out his chest.
“Well, I am going in and to the center and back out.” he proclaims.
“Good for you.” I murmur as I stand, stretching my legs and brushing off the dirt. I adjust my head covering as the climbing sun hits me squarely in the eyes. The boy trails off as I turn away from him. He is there for a reason; I just want the press of ghosts to stop.
I had been out at the tide pools collecting mussels and sea urchins when the attack happened. By the time I returned the town was in flames and the only one there were the bodies of the men and women who had fought. I waited for days combing the ruins for someone to come or to find someone alive but there was no one. I eventually walked to a neighboring town to find it also burned and sacked. The slavers had hit several towns up and down the coast taking men, women, and children to be sold across the sea.
With a low grinding moan you could feel in your chest the doors began to open. Once the dust cleared the entrance was revealed. A short corridor of stone and packed dirt floors extended a few feet before branching into three openings. Stepping forward I walk into the entranceway. Down the left corridor there is a glint of something, maybe water. Down the right corridor there is a wind blowing bringing a green scent of plants and grasses. Down the center corridor there is nothing, just a dusty stone corridor.
The boy stepped up behind me, looking at the three choices.
“Which way are you going?” I ask.
He frowns and after a moment points to the left where the water maybe. I nod and gesture straight ahead.
“See you at the center.” I say with a small smile.
He nods, “Rute’s blessing.”, and turns to the left, disappearing after a few steps. The corridor looks exactly as it did before. There is no sign of the boy’s passage or that he was even in the corridor at all.
“Tricks and tricks.” I muttered, glancing at the other corridors.
With a sigh I head down my chosen corridor. I came here to get lost so I might as well get to it. I refuse to look back as I walk, I have a feeling the entryway will not be there anymore anyway. The stone walls that line the maze corridor are smooth and cool to the touch with a slight sparkle where the light hit it.
After what seemed like several hours, six right turns, and four lefts I came to a circular area with three corridors leading away from it. A small pool bound by a stone ledge sat in the center of the circle. I eyed the pool with distrust; all the stories of the maze spoke of the tricks the maze played on those who walked its twists and turns. Turning my back to the pool I sat down and dug through my bag looking for a piece of dried meat to chew. A strange gurgling sound drew my attention to the pool. Staying back I leaned forward till I could look into the pool. A woman’s face, shoulders, and hands waved back at me with skin so pale it was the color of bone and brown hair the color of mud. She smiled at me.
“Hello.” the voice had a strange echo to it and seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. Looking back at the pool to see her waving one hand again, I edged closer to the pool.
“Hello, was it you that said hello.” I asked.
The floating girl grinned at me again.
“Yes, I speak to all of those who wander by my pool. They always leave me angry but it gets so lonely here.”
“Why do they leave you angry?”
“They all want to know how to get to the center of the maze and I cannot tell them. I only know of my pool and those that pass by.”
“Well, I do not want to find the center of the maze, so I do not mind if you do not know. What is your name?” I ask sitting down on the ledge that circled the pool.
“I have been called many things but you may call me Syrn.”
“My name is Rueatha but everyone calls me Owl. I have some bread and dried meat.” I say pulling a cloth bundle from my bag, “If you would like some I could share?”
“Oh, no. I cannot but I would like it if you would stay and talk with me while you eat. It has been such a long time since anyone came by my pool.” she said softly.
After a while of Syrn entertaining Owl with stories of those who had passed her pool, owl packed her bag preparing to set off again.
“Syrn, does anyone ever come back to see you after they have left?”
“Oh yes, those that take the far path always return.” she said gesturing to the path to Owl’s right.
“Do those who take the other paths come back?”
“Sometimes those who take the center path but not always.”
“Thank you for talking with me Syrn. I hope you get more visitors soon.”
“Come again Owl. If you are not seeking the center perhaps we will see each other again.”
“Good bye.” Owl said. Settling her bag, she turned to the left corridor and headed on her way.
The boy stood next to the girl waiting to enter the maze. He had spent three horrible weeks traveling to make it to the maze. He had left everything behind when he left, leaving a note for his Father and brothers who had refused to allow him to enter the maze. The note had said he was going to the neighboring kingdom to ask their king for assistance since he had been denied the maze.
The first few days on the street had been the worst. He had tried to steal a piece of fruit only to be caught and robbed by the other starving street urchins. He had traded his embroidered shirt to a rag picker for a handful of coppers that had brought him some old bread and a corner of a cart to sleep in that was going toward the maze. The rest of the way to the maze had been a trudging walk throughout the day, slaking his thirst with puddles and rain water as he went. He arrived at the gates to the maze four days before the doors were to open and survived off the scraps thrown to the goats as he huddled by the wall, trying not to be seen.
He had grown up hearing the fabulous and fantastical stories of the maze and the heroes who came out of it.
Jothen the Just, who united the sundered lands and stopped a civil war, marrying a princess and later becoming a trusted advisor of the king.
Holetha the Valiant, who fought the Crothen and after the battle cried for her enemies’ dead causing a forest to spring up overnight, one tree for each who died.
Marta the Radiant, who was so beautiful princes and paupers alike had offered her everything they owned and more for her hand in marriage.
Most of the tales were said to happen centuries ago. The last known person to leave the maze was a hundred years ago and he only spoke in riddles. He lived as a beggar for the rest of his life telling riddles and odd rhymes to anyone who would stop and talk to him.
But if anytime needed a hero like they did now he did not know of it. The lands were dying from drought and floods destroyed the land when it did rain. The people starved everywhere and the price of bread was steadily rising causing riots at the royal storage yards when no grain was brought out. He doubted he would be the hero needed but maybe the maze could tell him who could save them.
Choosing his path he forced his head high, even if his mouth was too dry to answer the girl with more than a nod and a choked “Rute bless.”. A few steps down the hallway he turned around to see if the girl had followed him, only to be met with a stone wall blocking the way. With a shudder he turned back around making the sign of Rute against his breast to ward off bad luck and mischievous mazes. He felt like he had walked for miles when the hallway finally gave way to a circular room. A stone archway on either side of the room let a raging flood of water poor though the room, its water a rich blue and white with foam where it struck the wall and rebounded. A narrow stone bridge arched its way over the river getting slapped by the occasional wave and making the room boom like a drum. The entire room was soaked in water and mist from the water.
With a shiver he wished for his shoes that had been stolen his second day on the streets. Stepping into the water he gasped, the water was freezing, causing his toes to start to tingle and numb. The water was only a few inches deep near the door but was up to his waist by the time he made it to the bridge. Gripping it with a hand on either side he crouched for a moment watching a large wave hit the bridge, his head and neck barely cleared the water. If one hit while he was on the bridge he would be swept away, he paused trying to see if there was any pattern to the waves but could not see one. Not daring to wait any longer he took a deep breath and started to shuffling along the narrow bridge on his hands and knees.
He was nearly across when a massive wave slammed into the bridge. Gathering his legs under him he jumped the last few feet, hitting the waist deep pool on the other side and being caught and slammed into the far wall by the current before he managed to get his feet under him and drag himself out of the pool and to the exit.
Gasping and shivering with cold he sat stunned for a moment before stumbling out of the room on feet that were more blocks of ice then flesh and bone. The hallway split into two corridors soon after. Three right turns later he came to a circular room that was carpeted in moss and smooth stone. He rested here for a time before heading on his way. His clothes were still damp and he was exhausted from fright and cold but mainly he was hungry. He hoped he found something to eat in the maze soon or he would have gotten to the maze only to starve after a few days.
Wandering the corridors he eventually realized that the walls of the hallways had changed from smooth stone to become ragged and worn with cracks and moss growing along it. Pulling out a patch of moss, he chewed it without much enthusiasm as he walked. Two right turns and a left later he came to a wide circular room with three exits. In the center of the room growing from the solid stone floor was a pomegranate tree. Running up to it he picked a pomegranate with a laugh. About to rip it open he paused. What if the tree was a trick by the maze to poison or test him? What if he was supposed to not eat the fruit? Frowning he considered the tree and the three exits before sitting down and studying the roots and trunk of the tree. It looked just like the tree his grandmother had loved in her garden when he was small. He remembered how she had loved picking the fruit and sharing it with him. Finally he gave up and pulled the fruit open. If it was going to poison him at least he could enjoy it and would not be hungry if it did not.
After eating the pomegranate he sat waiting to see how he felt. Feeling nothing but better for the food he picked one more and took it with him when he went through the center hallway.
Owl was wondering the corridors with no destination or plan in mind when she came to another circular room. Here the floor was made of loose round pebbles and dark-colored stones like you found on the shores of rivers and lakes. The room was shrouded in a thick moving mist that blocked all view of its other walls or exits. Stepping in, the stones turned and moved out from under Owl’s feet. Stooping she picked up several, they were all round and flat, the perfect stone to skip over water or to use in a sling.
Stepping carefully she kept one hand on the wall as she circled toward the other side of the room. A deep snuffing sound made her freeze. She could see nothing but mist and every step she took let a rattling scrape of stones echo into the room. Walking a quietly as she could she continued on, staring into the mist and the center of the room. Abruptly a curtain of mist was lifted and she saw a hulking shape sitting in the center of the stone room. A massive bear sat snuffing and trying to see where she was. With a rumbling roar the bear turned and heaved itself onto its hind legs. Stumbling Owl forced herself to move all the faster around the bear, one hand on the wall searching for the opening. The bear turned and dropped to four legs charging toward her. Without thinking she began throwing the stones in her hand, scooping up more when she ran out. The stones struck the bear’s neck and back making it pause and shake its head in annoyance before again charging. Suddenly Owl’s hand found nothing behind her and she tumbled into another corridor. Scrambling up she quickly hurried down the corridor but the bear did not follow her. It was several minutes before her breathing calmed down enough for her to realize she still clutched a handful of stones from the room. With a shrug she slid them into her bag; they may come in handy later.
She walked on till the light began to fade. Picking up her pace she hoped to find an open area to sleep in before it was full dark. She really did not want to have to sleep in the corridors where someone might trip over her or have something creep up and pounce. She was pathetically grateful when the corridor gave way to a small circular space of grass and trees just as the last of the light died away.
Curling into a thick patch of grass near one wall she went to sleep. She slept so deep she missed the sunrise by several hours unless the maze was playing with her sense of time as well. Brushing off as much grass as she could, Owl stood and stretched, surveying the small grove of trees. Weaving her way between the trunks she crossed to the other end of the grove. Emerging into the bright sun she stopped before two doorways. The sleeping body of the boy lay directly between the two.