To Dust you Shall Return - Lucky Christiansen

It had been three hundred and eighty-six years since 1504 CE.

Vanlow has left echoes of himself around for every one of those years. Traces of something different, something otherworldly. If followed, they would all lead back to a little pub, surrounded by poor farmhouses and thinning forests on the western side of Romania.

A tired woodcarver’s apprentice, with stringy dark hair and burnt brown eyes, had stumbled into the pub that evening, strung out from a long day shaping lumber. Noblemen had been constantly requesting the exact same fluted mantlepieces, and the lack of variety in their designs was starting to turn his creative outlet into a chore.

He had grabbed an ale from the less-than-tasteful wooden kegs in the back of the bar, sliding some of his few coins across the table and stealing away to a seat in the back. The apprentice now tiredly scanned over the bar’s patrons, idly recognizing faces and noticing absences with the detachment of a store clerk.

There was a new face among the locals tonight. A strange man, eyes concealed under a hat just a smidge too fancy to fit in with the rest of the craftsmen. He wore an old cloak, ill-fitting enough to be made for another man and piecemealed out of poor material, but the apprentice’s keen eyes could see slices of jewel-toned silk peek out from underneath the old wool. And yet, it wasn’t the concealed riches that set this man apart—there was a strange sense to him, like an odd smell or a slightly unfamiliar regional accent, that created an invisible rift between him and the other patrons.

The apprentice was drawn to him. His creative dry spell had left him antsy, curious, and worst of all, brave. The woodcarver wove his way through the tavern to the stranger, swiping another ale from the counter and offering it to the man.

The man nodded at the apprentice and gestured to the seat beside him, instead of the custom chair on the opposite side of his table. The woodcarver sat, all too aware of the difference, and took a long sip from his drink before speaking.

“What brings you out to the fringes of Romania?” the apprentice asked. “Not a great time of year for the weather.”

“Out to visit an old friend,” the stranger replied in stunted Romanian. Not Balkan, then, the apprentice thought. Still, though, he couldn’t place where the man was from.

“Anyone I know? Not many people around here.” The woodcarver’s eyes were intent on his drink, but his focus was entirely on the man beside him. 

The stranger’s smile was bittersweet. “I am afraid I have lost track of the time between my visits. He does not seem to… be here, anymore.”

The apprentice nodded. He assumed the strange man was referring to the villagers lost to the winter—there had been more this year than normal. “I’m very sorry to hear it. It’s nice to see newcomers in town, though.”

The silks rustled as the man tilted his head to watch the apprentice speak. “Yes, I see that you do not get many visitors from the outer regions. It must be strange to see the differences. Do you often think about the world outside?”

“I’ve spent a few good afternoons thinking about it, yeah.” The apprentice swirled his cup, suddenly nervous. The stranger’s gaze was intense, heavy with knowing. “Sometimes I try to save up the money to leave, but my savings never make it through the winter freeze.”

The man remained silent for a long moment. “My… old friend,” he started, his hand gripping at the woolen cloak that didn’t quite fit him, “had always spoken about leaving this place. I was not able to help him in time. But perhaps I could help you. In his honor.”

“Was he a very honorable man, then?”

“The most.”

The apprentice stilled, considering the deal for a moment. He thought about his master, still bending his back over another wooden frame, the same pattern as fifteen others this week. He thought about his meager wages, his one-room quarters, the rats and the dirt, the old lettuce soups, and the tiny ceramic savings jar hidden beneath his bed that had never been more than a quarter of the way full.

“What would I need to do?” The apprentice finally asked.

The stranger’s shoulders slumped slightly, as if he had almost been hoping that the apprentice would decline. He reached a hand under his many layers and pulled out a small paper package wrapped with twine, sliding it across the table.

“Take this tonight,” he said, “and by morning, you will have what you need to leave.”

The apprentice gingerly accepted the package, turning it around in his hands. He had never seen a piece of material so bright white, and was afraid that he would stain it irreversibly by touching it. When he looked up to thank the man, he was astounded to find himself sitting alone. It was almost as if hours had passed; the bar was winding to a close, and the apprentice was one of the last patrons left inside.

He left the pub in a daze, cradling the package in his hand as he retreated to his crowded room above the carpentry shop. He carefully unwrapped the paper to find a single pomegranate seed, as dark and deep red as a nobleman’s rubies. He swallowed it whole, too afraid to bite into it. An understanding lodged deep in his chest that if he tasted the juice inside he would never be sated with worldly food again. 

He laid down on his patchwork bed of hay and cotton, closing his eyes and breathing in the scent of the old wood room. His bravery left him then, buried in sheets and dread, waiting for the boot to drop, for a change to happen. But nothing came for hours, and eventually his exhausted eyes slid shut to the light of the rising sun, spilling like ale from under his door.

The apprentice slipped into an uneasy sleep, chased by echoes of what was and what was to come, pirouetting alongside prophecies and kissing the hands of histories.

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