Marlon spent the pre-dawn hours on his knees, praying. He kissed his wife, Rebecca, and their only child, James, before saddling Stalworth, then fitting himself with armour. When the council formed a year prior, only Marlon and a few of his friends kept the opinion that building a bridge across Inkar Ravine would inflict more harm than good.
They whispered these sentiments to each other in the tavern at night, paying their tab before inhibitions cut loose.
“At night, I seen all kinds of fire shooting into that yonder sky. Why do we want anything to do with that?”
“And the screams! Loud as a weeping child.”
“Those glass eyes think there’s something in it for us, and they seen the trees, boys. Trees that touch the clouds. Trees green as moss. And the way winter ripped us apart. They think our future’s ‘cross the boards of that bridge!”
The village craftsmen commissioned to the bridge earned double their wage working night and day, seven days a week, pounding steel-tipped hammers with calloused hands. Young boys, too small to touch their soles to the stirrups, gathered bits of bread and filled small buckets with water for their fathers, then watched sweat pour down their daddy’s brows, measuring the progress of toil by throwing stones off the bridge’s growing edge.
Once the bridge neared its halfway point, the council called a mandatory meeting for all healthy men and women between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five.
Rebecca hid a suckling James under her shirt as Marlon led her by the hand into the tavern. Standing room only, Marlon barged in between a group of young men and secured a spot against the back wall.
“We need to get a little closer,” Rebecca urged. “We’re not going to be able to hear anything, Darling.”
“What’s to hear?” Marlon replied, his eyes drifting between the tops of the heads of his fellow citizens.
“Please, Marlon! Don’t be like this. Not now.”
James peeked out of Rebecca’s shirt, whispering, “Mama. Mama.”
Marlon cupped his big, leathered palm on his son’s head.
He pushed the men in front of him. When they recognised Marlon, they made room, and he and Rebecca moved forward.
“Townspeople, thank you for your attendance on this momentous occasion!” Town mayor, Hamilton Levy, had a shaky voice whenever he spoke to a large group of people, and he flailed his arms about him like a puppet on a string.
“Like we had a choice,” Marlon mumbled, eyes glaring straight into the tip of Hamilton’s sharp dagger nose.
Hamilton continued. “As you know, the day of completion for our beloved bridge is fast approaching. We’ve deliberated long and hard about our best option for contacting the people beyond Inkar Ravine. I’m pleased to announce that one of you, one special individual in this room, will receive the honour of representing our people, touching hands with the foreigner, paving a course for us to follow.”
A collective gasp echoed in the room. Then, before the whispers became too numerous, Hamilton waved his hands and shouted, “Now. Now. Settle down. The best is yet to come.”
Rebecca pushed forward, tugging Marlon’s hand. Marlon cemented his feet, and then Rebecca gave him a cold stare and mouthed something he couldn’t understand. Marlon cleared through several more groups of people until he, Rebecca, and James were standing right underneath the hook of Mayor Hamilton’s nose.
“The perfect candidate will possess both intellectual and physical aptitude—a warrior who can wield his words as powerfully as his sword. We’re offering a handsome reward for the winning candidate. A bounty that will ensure prosperity for lifetimes to come.”
Gasping gave way to murmuring, then loud cheering and foot stomping.
“Here. Here!” Hamilton yelled. “Ladies and gentlemen, may I please have your attention!”
But the jeering continued, clapping, jumping, men and women pushing each other, shouting justifications for their selection.
“Silence!” Hamilton screamed. “Silence! All of you!”
But the crowd continued in wild elation.
Then, above the noise, Marlon’s baritone voice boomed. “And what guarantees do we get that they don’t chop off our heads for invading their territory?”
The room went silent. All eyes fixed on Marlon.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Hamilton said with a nervous break in his voice. “These people are not barbarians. We’ve seen their bright night skies and trees that touch the feet of god. How do you suppose beauty can mingle with horror?”
“Then why don’t you go!” Marlon sneered.
Sensing the anger in Marlon’s voice, Rebecca grabbed his hand, whispering, “Enough.”
Marlon’s strong shoulders wilted under his thick neck, and he became silent.
“We’ll begin our selection process at dawn on the shores of Tebb’s River.”
That night, once Rebecca had laid James down to sleep, she approached Marlon, who was watching the full moon paint its bright glow across the sky. “Will you go? For me. For us?”
Marlon didn’t reply until she set her soft lily-white hand on his broad forearm. “And what if I don’t come back?”
“Why are you so worried about the people on the other side? Nothing is going to happen to you. This is your time, Marlon. If not for yourself, then for James and me.”
Marlon drummed his knuckles on the pine table he’d made for Rebecca during the winter. “And the bounty? If there weren’t a bounty, would you feel the same? So convinced about the lines drawn for me in the twilight? I’ve seen how you look at the women dressed in silk. How you stare at their jeweled fingers.”
The veins on Rebecca’s throat ran up her face, protruding from the sides of her head. “There’s nothing wrong with wishing for more, Marlon. For wanting a better way of life for our son. Our son’s sons. You’ve wasted your gifts. For what? So you don’t have to face the fear of being something more. Here’s your chance! Our chance!”
Marlon kept his eyes so perfectly still on the bright moon that his cloud of vision became a hazy white. His fists tensed, and he began digging his knuckles into the wood. With folded arms Rebecca stood, watching him with her mouth wide open, her bottom lip quivering every so often.
Marlon extended his hands through the table, clicking his elbows as they locked, holding his weight to stand him up. He turned to Rebecca and pulled her into his wide-barreled chest. “I’ll go if it’s what you want. I’ll go for you and James.”
The crescent moon gave little light for Marlon’s path to the bridge. Village people accompanied him with torches, cheering in hushed tones. Mayor Hamilton placed a wreath of Marigolds around Marlon’s neck and shook his hand, saying, “May peace accompany your journey. Courage and favour, Marlon!”
The wooden beams creaked beneath Stalworth’s hooves. Marlon looked over the side of his saddle and almost tumbled as the ravine’s deep pit glared up at him with its hungry rock-faced teeth. He heard the crowd gasp as Stalworth veered, bumping his head against the railing. Marlon straightened his beast, thumping Stallworth’s ribs with his foot, sending the horse thundering across the bridge as though the wooden planks were a stretch of soft, green pasture.
Approaching the end of the bridge, Stalworth slowed to a gentle trot.
Touching his feet to the ground, Marlon bent and felt the soil, pinching the black earth, smelling it between his fingertips. He noted how the trees in front of him looked similar to the ones in his village.
Leading Stalworth, the other hand on the hilt of his sword, Marlon walked with slow, methodical steps towards the trail of smoke slithering upwards. He froze and knelt when he heard the frantic song of a morning bird overhead. Marlon removed his wreath of marigolds, hiding them in a shrub, then rose and continued towards the smoke.
The path was well worn and wide and dented with hoof prints. Marlon focused on listening for the laughs and cries of children and the blows of hammers against steel and timber, but he heard nothing. Then just as the scent of the smoke began to irritate his nostrils, a team of riders appeared from behind a cluster of trees.
“Stop where you are!” cried the middle horseman.
Marlon lowered his sword with a steady hand and began patting Stalworth. “I mean no harm,” Marlon said.
“Why are you here? Did you come alone? Across that bridge you built?”
Marlon straightened, standing tall. “It’s only me. And I have little reason to be here except that my village believes our communities may benefit each other greatly.”
The middle rider jumped off his horse. “Say more, pilgrim.”
Marlon stepped closer, looking back to his village every so often as he spoke. “We have the world’s greatest riders, perfect for straddling these fine beasts of yours.” Marlon moved his hand across the silky skin of one of the men’s horses.
“And our children eat like jackals, always unsatisfied with the food we’re able to scrounge up for them. You’d never have a surplus problem again!”
The leader turned to look at his men with a confused expression, then back at Marlon. “What makes you think we want any of that?”
Marlon was about to speak when the man held his palms to the sky. “And what makes you think we live in such prosperity?”
Marlon raised his eyes to study the trees. “We’ve seen your lights at night, and while these pines don’t seem as wonderfully green as they appear now, they glow gloriously from the other side of Inkar Ravine.”
“What lights?” The leader snarled.
“Bright fire in the sky booming like thunder,” Marlon replied.
The harsh lines on the man’s face softened, and his shoulders appeared to grow heavy like some great weight of sadness had dropped on them. “I only wish it was as you think it is.”
“How is it?” Marlon replied.
“Those lights you see are the attacks of the northern invaders.” Looking towards the north, the soldier pointed to a ridge above the tree line.
“Great explosions of fire dropping like stones, burning us alive. If we don’t find a way to stop them, they’ll be coming for your people next.”
One of the soldiers jumped off of his horse. “Giant explosions of fire falling from the sky,” he said again.
Marlon stared up into the sky as if expecting to see something. Then he slowly approached the men, narrowing his eyes on them. “If it is as you say it is, then there is only one thing left to do.”
All three of the soldiers were on their feet now. “What is it?” the middle man muttered.
Marlon turned towards the bridge, walking towards Stalworth. Hitting his horse on the hind, Marlon jumped on the beast and screamed, “Run, boy! Run!” Stalworth was halfway across the bridge before the soldiers mounted their saddles. Marlon drew his sword and cut the ropes, looking back. From the other side of Inkar Ravine, the soldiers watched the bridge crash into the rocks below, unbothered.
The crowd was still there when Marlon made it back across the bridge.
“What did you discover, Marlon” Mayor Levy screamed above the cheers.
“Savages!” Marlon replied. “Out for the blood of our children!”
Then Marlon found Rebecca and James and lifted them onto his saddle, slapping Stalworth until his beast’s trot turned into a gallop.