The gate to the settlement loomed before Fennix, wider in the middle than at the top or bottom. On the other side moulded legs were spread wide, the symbolism crude enough to make him blush. Going through the gates was meant to be a rebirth. He took a step backwards, shaking his head. No. This was not what he wanted.
“Get a move on or get out the way,” a voice growled behind him. Fennix turned to see an old man pulling a hand cart towards the gate. His skin was weathered, the tattoos on his face and neck faded into indistinct smudges. The sight of them made Fennix glance down at his arms. Dark, thorny shapes peeked out from beneath his coat and he tugged at the sleeves to cover them.
The gesture was not lost on the old man. His expression softened. “All sorts of animals out here. Best you get inside.”
A chill breeze blew from the north. Fennix shivered, hugged his arms tight around himself and closed his eyes. The old man was right, he wouldn’t last long outside. Probably not much less than if he went into the town.
He tried not to see his old life behind his eyelids — his wife, power, and position, all gone — and jumped as something brushed again his shoulders. When he opened his eyes again he saw the old man before him, blue eyes as faded as the tattoos. He finished settling the blanket around Fennix, then turned away to move his cart off the path and build a fire. From the depths of the cart he unpacked a crooked tripod, two chipped mugs, a pouch of dried herbs, and a spoon.
“Don’t have any honey, I’m afraid,” the old man said as he poured water into the pot. “I traded it away for some boots. Tea’s going to taste as bitter as failure, but at least it will be warm.”
Fennix listened to the water boil and thought of home. His wife would make tea after dinner, peppermint or ginger to aid digestion.
“Thank you, Nalla,” he murmured as the mug was pushed into his hands. His companion snorted and Fennix looked up, the memory shattered.
“I’m sorry, I was thinking. Nalla was — is — my wife.”
“You were right the first time, you’re dead to her now. That’s what coming out here means.”
Fennix tilted his head back to look at the clouds that scudded across the sky as if they had somewhere to be. “If I’m dead to her anyway, what difference does it make if I go through the gate?”
“The difference is whether or not you’ll be dead. Drink your tea.”
Fennix did as he was told. The old man was right, it was bitter. As bitter as the tears he’d shed when they’d come for him. As bitter as knowing that the one thing he couldn’t foresee was his own exile. He hugged the blanket tighter against the breeze.
“It’s my fault that a lot of the people here are here,” he admitted. “That was my gift, to see into other people’s lives, the things they’d do. So many people were exiled because of me. If I go in there, they’ll kill me.”
“Some might want to,” the old man agreed. “But a lot won’t. A lot of folks realise they’re better off out here.”
“How can they possibly be better off?”
“Back in the city, oh, twenty years ago now, I was a magistrate. My work was my life. Then I’d have killed you myself, but not now,” he shrugged. “Here I’m my own man. I have a wife, children, grandchildren, and the time to spend with them. Coming here was a second chance.”
The old man took the pot from the fire and threw the sludgy dregs into the undergrowth. “Seems to me you’ve got two choices: stay and die; or come with me and live. It won’t be the life you want, but it’s a start. It’s better than nothing. And maybe, if you live long enough, you’ll realise that life as a free man is better than life tied to the shell of a man that city would make you.”
“I don’t have anywhere to go.”
“Sure you do. Come with me, stay with my family. There’s not a lot of room, but what we do have you’re welcome to share.”
“Why are you helping me?”
“I make it a point to help those that need it, like I was helped.” The old man scrubbed out the mugs with a handful of grass. “Besides, my wife would never forgive me if she didn’t get a chance to thank the man who sent me to her.”
Fennix stared. The old man took the mug from his unresisting fingers.
“Me? I’m the reason you’re here?” Fennix shivered beneath the blanket.
“That’s right. I was your first, so I’m told. You were just a boy then, of course, but strong enough a talent to see that I was smuggling people back in. I’ve heard of you, over the years. How you saw things people didn’t even tell their closest companions, things that got them exiled.” He’d packed all the goods back onto the handcart, and wheeled it back onto the path. “Well?” he asked. “You coming?”
Fennix looked back down the path, back to the city he’d never see again. For an instant he remembered the pain of the tattoos, the marks of honour they’d bestowed on him when they realised how his power could be used. He’d been thirteen.
The old man, his past and his future, waited on the path. Beyond the gate, fires and lanterns flickered against the night.
“Here,” Fennix said, stepping up beside him. “Let me pull that for you.”
C.L. Holland has a Bachelors degree in English with Creative Writing, and a Masters degree in English, and was a winner of Writers of the Future for 2008. Her secret identity is that of a humble office worker. She has an ever-growing collection of books and expects them to reach critical mass any time now.