Never Ever After
by Everett A Warren
In a land nearly close enough to touch – should you be one of those rare individuals who can see without seeing, hear without hearing, taste without tasting, smell without smelling, touch without touching, or know without knowing – there is a village, and that village is named The Village. (You must believe it is so, else it's nature is to fade at first at the edges, yellowing then, like an old photograph; maturing next into a crisp brownish layer, that will, at the last, crumble into a fine powdery dust made of heartaches and longing that will blow away on a butterfly's breath, taking with it an innocence and kindness and love that is scarce known in these cold, dreamless days.)
The paths that lead into The Village are many, such that those of The Village themselves do not know how many Roads will lead you to them, for they say, quite pragmatically, that it matters not how many Roads lead into The Village, for each Traveler who walks those Roads might visit by no more than one at a time. Of course, they say this easily in the knowledge that it is the way things should be, forgetting their own local history and the confusion of '42, where there came upon many paths at the same time the same Traveler, but that is another story, and that Traveler's befuddlement upon seeing several of himselves simultaneously arriving in The Village has no bearing on the tale at hand.
Time has done much to wear down the paths of The Village, time and love. For those of The Village love their homelands. They love the quaint houses that rise in sleepy, moss-draped arcs from the farmlands, meadows, and orchards. They love the gentle, rolling hillsides, from which the bounties of the land arise. They love the River, which curves drowsily across the land, many-bridged by calm, cool stone archworks, here and there to drop in a misty dream for short distances, seeming never to rush, even whilst falling.
The Inn at The Village is truly a place of joy, with many a golden mead raised in toast yet nary a bitter taste to any words afterwards spoken. The Vinyard serves only of the finest grape, and only of the ideal vintage, and they possess also an innate knowledge of the barley and the hops, and of how to blend them to create their various seasonal brews, and it must be said much of the fame of the Inn is due to the craft and skill of the Vinyard. The Smith of The Village produces the finest of implements and gadgets, and much of the Smith's work can be found in the fields, in the workshops, and in the very structures of The Village.
Truly those of The Village loved their shops and artists, for there was more of Art and Artistry about The Village than many large Cities might boast. They loved those who tended their fields and orchards, for the produce of The Village was always fresh, and never did a greengrocer have to discard his stock or even turn it to show a fairer side. They loved those who raised and cared for their animals, for the milks, eggs, and meats were never ill-flavoured, and it was known that horses from The Village were strong, swift, agile, and gentle.
It was also widely known that those of The Village loved the Forest that encircled the hills and meadows, bounded the fields and orchards, both birthed and swallowed up the River, and from which all of the Roads originated. And here, most unlikely, one found a curiousness in the manner of those of The Village, when questioned of the Forest. With few words one could determine that their love of the Forest was not like their love of their quaint, gambrel roofed houses or the pleasure they took in the gentle song of the River upon the rocks. And here, if in nothing else, perhaps there was a sense that The Village was not, to all other intents and purposes, a Paradise. The love of the Forest was not the love of beautiful places, fine foods, and fine companions.
The love of the Forest, underneath the love itself and underneath any superficial appearances, was fear. Pure fear. Unreasoning fear. Unexplainable fear. The fear of Never Ever After.
One day, once upon a time, there came into The Village a Traveler. He was whistling only slightly out of tune, and he was handsome in his way, such that the young ladies who heard his musical attempts could only smile as he passed by, a small red sack tied upon the end of his stick and a light skip – painfully out of sync with the rhythm of his melody – to his step. He was polite enough as he came, nodding here and there as he passed by a lone farmer or a knot of close friends, and although his stride said much for levity and gaiety, it also explained in great detail that he was in motion and would remain thus, and would not stop for chats or gossip until he had gotten where it was he was going to.
The blushing and giggling young ladies thought it wonderful he had such purpose, and watched him on his way. Some oldsters nodded and thought it proper that youth should have such abandon and at the same time such focus, for if a body had something to do, why that body ought to do it, and go about it in a cheerful fashion all the while. Others, there were, who felt they must, simply must, interact with this Traveler. Thus it was that he would lean to one side, skipping along all the while, and wink at the child who tried to sneak upon him from the side. Or he would, seeming not to see it, reach a hand behind him and scratch under the chin of the yapping dog. And thus it was, that several were taken aback as he stopped in his tracks, squatted low, tilted his head to the side, and began earnest conversation with one of The Village, namely the old Tom that roamed the streets day and night, fed by the charity of those of The Village and by the skill of his hunting prowess.
This conversation seemed to have some effect upon the Traveler, for, as old Tom slowly strutted off in one direction, the Traveler continued along his way, lacking the faulty melody and rhythmless skip alike. There were some that, despite all being as it was in The Village, turned a closer eye upon this Traveler, for there were some Signs now, that perhaps might not bode well. He carried himself too well, for instance. His bearing was like to royalty, or at the least the war-trained, and those of The Village had little use for kings or soldiers, death tending to hang about both with alarming regularity.
There were whispers now, talk of ears that were too sharply pointed, words passed from one to another of eyes that narrowed too much, and it was spoken of features that were too slim. The insinuations had by now surpassed the actualities of this Traveler's person, for he was far too muscular, too tall and formidable, to be thought of as slim or slender. He arrived, almost overlooked, at the Inn, his doctored description preceding him by some ten or twelve paces.
Thus they fell silent from their ruminations and wonderings, from their discussion of his nature and his being. But this silence lasted only for a moment, hardly awkward at all, for the Host, however involved he himself had been in the discussions, was, above all, a Host, and a kind and genial one at that. He worked his trade, and soon had a room let, a supper ordered, sweet golden mead provided, and a series of bows gratuitously offered.
Knowing, after several sips of mead, that he had his audience and their attention, he began without preamble.
"I have been through the Forest."
The old ones nodded sagely, for he said much as he said little. Surely, every Traveler must pass through the Forest, so there were more to his words than was apparent. Quiet answered him, such that the rustling of gray beards that came about from nodding heads could be heard quite clearly.
"I have heard of your fear."
Several thought, briefly, if it were worth it to rescind the old Tom's nightly offering, for traitors are not harboured, even in The Village.
"I say to you, then, you have nothing to fear."
If gray beards rustled, they could not be heard amongst the cacophonous voices, the clatter of arguments and points and counterpoints. In essence, they stated that those of The Village had no fear, that their fear was for those of The Village alone, that a Traveler could in no wise understand their fear, and he certainly could not face down the Never Ever After and free them from their curse, that he did not know what it was like to hear the night gaunts whispering in his ears, threatening all he held dear. No, they had no fear, for The Village was not built on fear. Certainly, a voice piped up from the back, it is not surrounded by fear. And the Forest, of course, had no fear in it for them at all. Whatsoever. And the Traveler laughed.
It was a rich, deep laugh, not unlike that commonly heard in the Inn or anywhere in The Village at any other time save this one. But this laugh did not prove contagious, and the tears drawn here and there amongst those of The Village were not tears of mirth.
"I say then, as I did before, you have everything to fear."
A child attempted to offer that he did not, in fact say that at all, but was quickly whisked from the Common Room of the Inn, and then quickly sent home from there.
The stranger smiled, his narrowed eyes glimmering, his long red hair cascading around his tall, pointed ears.
"I see no reason to introduce myself, for you know me, do you not?"
He smiled wider, now, looking upon ashen face, smelling fear as tangible as his supper, forgotten and now burning in the Kitchens. He was known to these people, and now they knew it as well.
"I bid thee, send me a Champion."
"A Champion?" they asked as one, in hushed voices.
"Aye, and if I destroy him, so shall The Village be destroyed."
There was much chaos and terror. It was apparent now to those who can't sense such things readily. It spread about the picturesque Village like a malignant cancer, feasting on quaint houses, arching bridges, and pleasant orchards. It was the shadow of that which would come.
"But we have no Champions, milord."
"We are not of fighting stock."
"We know nothing of weapons or battle."
"We live in peace, and know not of war."
To which the Traveler who was the Never Ever After answered, "I ask only for one. Find one who is. Learn of them, and quickly. You don't any longer, and you will."
And then he finished his golden mead, complimented the Host and the Inn and The Village. And for a brief moment they thought he had forgotten his threat, but the Never Ever After does not speak lightly of threats, and does not forget across spans of mortal lifetimes. And so he spoke once more, as he stood in the doorway, filling the frame with his, he said calmly and quietly that he would be in the field by the Mill, and that he would await the Champion there.
For the first time since the dawn of time, The Village erupted into true violence. Anger and hatred spread through insults and insinuations. There were foolish folk who wanted the honour, but the remainder felt they would not be well represented in them. There were those who insisted another should face their collective fear. There was everything and anything, in leaps and bounds, anything and everything except agreement.
At long last, and after coming to no common consensus, the mob (for so those of The Village, to their shame, had become) swept from the Inn, across the River, and then down to the Mill. And their noise became silence in the matter of a heartbeat, and half a beat later was shattered as a mother screamed.
The child looked up from the wall, at those of The Village. His hand stroked gently old Tom, and he rested his back against the Never Ever After. The Never Ever After tousled the boy's hair then stood and stretched. He looked at those of The Village who cowered now, lining the other side of the field but coming no closer.
Without much violence, the Never Ever After thrust the stick he carried into the ground. As one, those of The Village reacted as if they themselves had been stuck. The red cloth was untied and set down, and unfolded. As the cloth grew larger so too did the immense war axe that lay in it's center, a sword and armour also, which the Never Ever After arrayed himself with, whistling once again his song. And then, after much time, he stood before them, swinging the axe which whistled in tune with his off-key melody.
"Now then, who will it be?"
Malice dripped from his voice, staining the lush green grass to a sickly white with its acid content.
"One of you must Challenge me, or all shall die."
Not one sound, save perhaps a general murmur of a whimper, came from those of The Village. Even the mother, who had screamed before, could now utter no sound whatsoever as she watched her child approach the Never Ever After from behind.
The Never Ever After whirled.
"So then, I have my Challenger, the Champion..."
Cries and screams of anguish arose. Surely now they would be destroyed, for if none of those more capable could stand up and fight, what hope did they have in a child?
And those with children can understand this child, to some degree. The natural inquisitiveness. The mighty axe poised high, the sword held wide, one to swing down, the other across.
And so the first came down. Earth-chunks flew -- dirt, sod, rocks and pieces of rocks -- severed by the mighty axe.
"Why must we fight?"
And so the second went, sword blade slicing through the air. And then it was gone.
"Why must we destroy?"
And then the hulking giant of a man that was not a man fell to one knee.
"Why must we be destroyed?"
And the earth shook as the other armoured knee hit the ground.
"Why must we fear?"
"Because you let me." His voice was not nearly so robust. They could hear breath, coming hard and fast. He looked past the child to those of The Village. "Because they let me. They created me, to contain themselves."
Having already asked all the questions adults don't have the sense to ask, the child now showed an empathy and caring that adults always tend to underestimate. With one single kiss, and the simple admonishment not to cry, the battle was won.
Looking up into the child's face, the red haired man felt the lips upon his forehead, the pity washing his armour off in waves.
"You're not the Never Ever After. You're the Always And Forever."
And so, the Traveler realised, he was.
Whistling out of tune, and skipping out of sync, the Traveler was shown to one of the Roads (or all of them, if you would come to believe some of the stories that flitter about) by a small child and an old Tom. And if the old Tom was offered more and more nightly treats for his part in removing the fear of the Never Ever After, he never complained. And the child, with a child's wisdom, accepted the role of hero, for children know that sometimes adults are afraid to face what they create, and are even more afraid of un-creating it (un-creating is, of course, quite different than destroying, the latter being something at which adults excel). There is permanence in every moment, and that is quite enough to fill even a lifetime of memories.
And it has always been said – from that moment forward, and sometimes backward as well, for if time is a river, it floods often and its currents reverse themselves all too frequently – that those of The Village love their homelands. They love the quaint houses that rise in sleepy, moss-draped arcs from the farmlands, meadows, and orchards. They love the gentle, rolling hillsides, from which the bounties of the land arise. They love the River, which curves drowsily across the land, many-bridged by calm, cool stone archworks, here and there to drop in a misty dream for short distances, seeming never to rush, even whilst falling.
Truly those of The Village love their shops and artists, for they have in The Village more of Art and Artistry than many a large City might boast. They love dearly those who tend the fields and orchards, for the produce of The Village is always fresh, and never does a greengrocer have to discard his stock or even turn it to show a fairer side. They love those who raise and care for their animals, for the milks, eggs, and meats are never ill-flavoured, and it is known that horses from The Village are strong, swift, agile, and gentle.
But most of all, it is widely known that those of The Village love the Forest that encircles the hills and meadows, bounds the fields and orchards, both births and swallows up the River, and from which all of the Roads originate. For their love of the Forest is not like their love of their quaint, gambrel roofed houses or the pleasure they take in the gentle song of the River upon the rocks. For the Forest is, for all intents and purposes, a Paradise. The love of the Forest is akin to the love of beautiful places, fine foods, and fine companions.
The love of the Forest, underneath the love itself and underneath any superficial appearances, is life itself. Pure love. Unreasoning acceptance. Unexplainable peace. For the Forest is there, Always And Forever.
Copyright (c) 2000 Everett A Warren