Opi’s Timely Return
Opi had changed his mind. He was going to give settling down in Dai a shot. It was a beautiful and peaceful place where he was well known and liked, and the people were stupid in a very unaggressive manner. Not like those Layun idiots who did not seem to realise that he had never tried to con anyone (who didn’t deserve it) in his life.
He had rarely travelled by night before, but when he had set off from Layun a few hours earlier his brain had apparently been too full of anger and embarrassment to realise that it was twilight already. Now, his red tinted lantern and a weak moon were his only guides up the mountain path. It was not that the path was particularly dangerous, but at night there were more than a few places where he did not trust the cliffside not to inch along until it was just under his feet. His sturdy companion, the donkey Bertha, was as unruffled as ever by this newest development.
She (and he did not really know her gender; but she always struck him as a she) had been with him for a long time now. There was one day when he had woken up, convinced that she was just a figment of imagination. How could something remain so entirely consistent in a life that was constantly shifting? He had thrown aside the sheets on his bed, scampered down the stairs of the inn and burst into the stable. And there she was, Bertha in all her dopey splendour, munching on some hay.
He’d had to replace her a few times, of course. At one time she had been a horse. Bertha’s soul was not so easily tamed that a mere switching of bodies could deter her however. He refused to believe that all of his animals could just coincidentally share her dour, apathetic disposition.
He reached a false fork in the road, where the road seemed to split off in two directions. One of the pathways led to a dead end. His mind occupied by something, Mor knows what, Opi had drifted down the false path. When the forest gave way to sky and Bertha pulled backwards, Opi realised that he had arrived at the cliff; the drop that made the dead end definitively a dead end. Pay attention, he told himself, daft old idiot.
The dark was an impish trickster at times, consorting with your mind to create shapes and paranoia and fears. Opi knew this well. It was a stunted tree, roughly human size, with two branches located at arm level. For a moment Opi had instead seen a shambling corpse lit by the moon’s blue-white gaze. ‘Gali!’ he said, stumbling backwards and upsetting Bertha. Why he thought the corpse had looked like the Dai boy Gali, he was unsure.
It was with some relief that he finally caught sight of the walls of Dai, torches mounted on them. Somewhere safe to sleep, safe from the shambling zombies of his imagination. No more fake un-dead were going to be troubling him tonight.
She appeared by the roadside suddenly, shadowy trees parting violently as she charged through the forest. A young girl on the cusp of being a woman sped onto the road, collapsing in a heap as she tried to stop, startled by the sight of him. Dark haired and pale, she was a skinny creature and her clothes were covered with bristles and spines from the forest. She was shaking.
‘Opi – I – you have to help me!’ Opi himself found that he was shaking. For a moment, when he had seen her out of the corner of his eye, he could have sworn she was someone else.
Opi looked at her and realised that this was a Responsible Adult moment. He glanced at Bertha for help, but she wasn’t giving him any hints. ‘There, there,’ he said, patting the girl’s head as if she were a dog, embarrassed. ‘What’s happened? I’ll get you back home.’ What was her name? ‘Mia.’
The girl looked back towards the forest. Opi followed her gaze. Was something chasing her? The forest was quiet. It certainly did not look there was anything, or anyone, out there. ‘Come on,’ he said to her, ‘let’s just get back to Dai. I’m sure whatever it was won’t-’
‘I have to go back,’ she said, ‘I, it, Gali.’ He shivered. Why was that name cropping up again? He was a memorable boy, possessing an unfortunate ugliness, but Opi didn’t really know much about him.
‘Mia, I’m sure that made sense to you, but, well, let’s just get you back home, okay?’ Was she hysterical? He looked back again at the forest, but nothing was happening. If she had gone insane, if she attacked him – she was young and…His stomach went cold. ‘Come on Mia, it’s too late to be wondering around outside Dai.’
She looked at him then, and he took an involuntary step backwards. ‘They killed him. The Dark Messenger. We buried him. It was – I don’t know, time seems to have gone funny since he died.’
‘We should get you back,’ said Opi. He put his hand on her shoulder in what he hoped was a comforting fashion, and tried to gently steer her to point towards the path. She resisted him. She was stronger than him, she noted. He felt withered and vulnerable. ‘Come on Mia.’
‘Are you not listening to me?’ she was meeting his gaze now. That was unsettling. Now that he found herself face to face with her, he was not sure that she had ever met his gaze like that. ‘Soldiers have killed the Dark Messenger!’
Opi frowned. ‘Mia, you’re worrying me. Of course the Dark Messenger isn’t dead, I’d have – no, that was just a story. The soldiers were trying to scare people, you shouldn’t worry about that.’
‘No,’ she said, hissing the reply, ‘I saw him die!’
There was a small man on the road behind them. He gave Opi start, having approached them silently. Opi frowned. ‘Isn’t that your friend? Heero?’
Perhaps what was most remarkable was about what happened next was Bertha’s reaction: she reacted to something. She gave a distressed whinny, and backed away. It was as emotive and vocal as she had been through any of her incarnations.
Heero stepped forward and in the moonlight it was clear that he was unwell. There was something translucent, almost watery, about his skin and his gaze was not that of someone fully conscious. He took a couple of faltering steps forwards, but the third step was too much for him. His left leg crumpled, and his arms did not respond fast enough to stop his fall. He collapsed to the ground more like an ill-made assortment of meat than a human body.
‘What?’ Opi asked, but Mia shot out an arm to silence him. She approached slowly, as if scared that her friend was going to attack her. ‘Mia, he looks sick, we need to-’
‘Please,’ she said. Again, he was taken aback by the steel in her voice. He watched on as she padded towards him as if scared to wake him. Heero was still moving, but they weren’t the movements of someone who had the strength to stand. An arm spasming; a leg trying to stand; his head lolling. Opi got the strong impression of someone not in control of their own body. Intoxication? But what kind of drug could induce that in a person?
Mia knelt down beside him and murmured something. From behind, Opi could see that she was shaking and wondered if it was as obvious to Heero. ‘I want to sleep,’ he heard Heero whisper. ‘This isn’t a good place.’
‘He’s dead,’ said Mia, ‘not just the Dark Messenger. Heero died too.’ She was talking to him, Opi realised, not Heero. ‘Gali has his powers, The Dark Messenger’s. He tried to bring Heero back.’ A chill arced slowly through Opi’s body as she spoke. There was something weirdly specific about what she said that made him – but that could not be true, could it?
In the silence that followed Opi realised that whatever else was true, Heero was at least dead now. He took a few steps forward and looked at the young lad, recoiling immediately. ‘But, he, what’s going on Mia?’
Mia was still looking at Heero. ‘Help me,’ she said quietly. Opi was not sure who she was talking to.
The silence was broken by the clumping of hooves. Bertha, having decided enough was enough, was making her way back down the mountain, away from the madness. Mia stared back into the night after her. ‘Don’t worry,’ Opi said, ‘she always comes back.’
Dai’s democratic process was not complicated or entirely democratic. People would turn up at the accountancy. People who were well known in the community or possessing a particularly loud voice would make their opinions heard. Somehow a decision would be reached, often it would not be particularly clear as to how that particular decision had been reached.
Inside the Accountancy the main hall consisted of two rows of benches opposite each other, divided by a central stage where people would stand when they were talking. It was a mostly observed tradition. You could tell by the footprints in dust as to how turbulent life had been in Dai lately. Most days it was a hauntingly empty place, floorboards waiting to creak. Most days you could find an old mouse, scurrying a weary scurry, in there and little else.
There was no one who would take charge of such meetings. The Village Elder was nominally in charge of Dai, but he was more of a war leader than anyone else. The governance of the town was more or less left to the people themselves. If the elder and his armed apprentices needed to step in they would, but it was rare for that to be required.
This was problematic during the town meetings that happened when there wasn’t already more or less a consensus. Without any central guiding force the whole thing became a war of endurance between various factions, holding out until opposition members got too hungry or tired or bored to keep arguing.
Mia wondered if this was going to be another one of them. Taltin and Hollo spotted her as she lingered by the entrance of the Accountancy. She was watching the villagers filter in, feeling guilty and tentative. How much was her fault? How much would they think all this was her fault? It was night, most people had been dragged from their beds, and most of the light was coming from inside the Accountancy. Mia had lodged herself between two of the windows, meaning that she was nigh invisible in the night. She had no idea how Taltin and Hollo had spotted her.
‘Mia,’ said Hollo, ‘is this about…?’
‘Yes,’ said Mia, ‘I’m sorry. We should have spoken sooner.’ She felt both glad and anxious to see her friends, guilty and relieved. She had been wondering if she should speak to her parents, but she did not know what she was going to say. Would her father even be here?
Gali was good with words. He should be the one doing this. ‘Is Gali coming along too?’ asked Taltin, as if he had been thinking the same thing. Maybe he had. ‘I feel bad for him most of all.’
‘I,’ said Mia, ‘he’s…’ And she realised that she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t force the words out of her mouth. She would not have been able to even in an empty room. Standing in front of her two friends? It was almost as if she was being physically restrained from speaking. ‘You see, he’s…’ She felt sick.
Was this what Gali had meant when he had talked about the message sitting in his mind? This burden she was carrying seemed physical, something sitting her throat and stopping the words from getting out. Nothing had physically happened to her, but what she had seen, what she knew, was changing the way she felt. What must it be like for Gali – no, she had been down this path before. She was not going to let herself just sit around and feel sorry for herself whilst one of her best friends was suffering.
‘We need to tell people about what happened,’ she said, ‘we-’
‘I’ve tried to tell people,’ Hollo said looking between her and Taltin, ‘haven’t you two?’ It surprised Mia that, with everything else far more important going on, she even had the energy left to be annoyed at that. Who did Hollo think she was helping by brow-bashing them? Who was the one who, admittedly at Opi’s insistence, had finally decided to tell everyone? This really was not a good time to go high horse climbing.
‘I was just scared,’ said Taltin, ‘I mean, I didn’t know what to do.’ Taltin looked suitably cowed by Hollo which annoyed Mia almost as much. Why didn’t he stand up for himself? None of them had really talked to each other since or done much to tell people. Hollo had no right lording it over them like this, she was no better than them.
‘I saw Gali up the mountain, Palos Peak,’ said Hollo, ‘two nights ago. He’s looking even worse than you two. He was acting strange. Really strange.’
‘We’re here to talk about him,’ said Mia, ‘as well as everything else.’ She did not elaborate. She would have to explain inside, and was not sure if she had it in her to go over everything that had happened twice.
Opi appeared and ushered inside before she had seen her parents. ‘Mia there you are, I couldn’t see you. You’re going need to talk to them.’ She must have given him a look, because he went on: ‘I’d like to just chair this meeting – is it called chairing here? – but I don’t know most of the story. Anyway, I’m an outsider. These people know and trust you much more than they trust me.’ Mia doubted that, but said nothing. Did Opi believe her? He seemed unwilling to commit.
Inside, she stood on the stage, following Opi, Hollo and Taltin, and it felt as if it was precarious. The stage was not high, and it was wide enough to be stable, but something about the raised position, boxed in by walls of staring eyes, felt tenuous and vulnerable. She resisted the temptation to stick her arms out as she walked to steady herself.
‘Who’s that?’ someone asked, and the reply came: ‘the ghost girl. The one who never speaks.’ She felt like a ghost at that moment, drifting unsteadily through a place which she had no right being. Why was she up here? She should just have told Opi the whole story and let him tell everyone here. That would have been better for everybody.
Opi was the first to speak, and very quickly he slid into mannerisms picked up as a street storyteller. He talked about how well he knew all the people here, how much he liked Dai. His journey here at night, and the weird things he saw, and that sense he had that there was something else going on. He went on a lot longer than necessary about Layun and the devious and lying and ugly people that lived in there, but that was a real crowd pleaser since Dai and Layun had a rivalry that was not always friendly. His voice rise and fell as he talked. Mia wandered if this was something he automatically did when talking to an audience. Maybe he was nervous.
Then he was beckoning her forward and she wasn’t moving. ‘Come on Mia, you can take over.’
It was like this: the Dark Messenger was actually dead. She and her friends had buried him on the mountainside before they had found Heero’s body. His powers, and the message, had passed onto Gali. ‘I, erm, well, I just.’
She could feel it then, something turning in the assorted people. They were tired and angry, and many of them still remembered stories of The Dark Messenger’s demise from the soldiers. She spotted her mother amongst the people watching. Her father had probably refused to come out. Angry mutters rose and they swept away her voice, like water muffling the echoes of a drowning woman.
‘Please,’ she said, ‘listen!’