On the Horizon, there is no sunrise. That sheet of blackness stretches to the furthest reaches of the sky, swallowing clouds and stars as it rises. It plunges deeper into the earth than golems have ever dug. It veils the unseen rising sun, and its blackness deepens as it struggles to hide the morning light. There is no sunrise on the Horizon, but there is always morning. There are no streaking rays, no brilliant orb rising above the cliffs, but a soft, pervasive light struggles through the Darkness and illuminates the nighted world. Then the sun itself emerges high in the air, like a swimmer rising from the water, greasy rivulets of darkness sliding from it and merging back into the Ever-Night. It is then that the Horizon appears sullen, gloomy, and torpid, rebelliously swallowing every ray of fiery light that touches it.(1)»
And on the Horizon, on these mornings, fog often crawls along the ground, playing with the ankles of villagers and gathering about the trunks of trees. It stays till the sun emerges from the Darkness, stays until its short stewardship of the earth is replaced by that mighty power.
And as the fog, still young and fat, slunk about Nephra that particular day, as a tithe of morning graced the world, the residents of the area woke and began their day. Children gathered in bunches like the fog, and though they chased one another and retold stories they had heard the day before, their attention was to the east, toward the cliffs of the Horizon. The golems were coming today.
And while the rock-like golems were not mysterious creatures, they rarely spent time away from their caverns. Golems did not hate the light or the vastness of the humans’ environment, but they were not comfortable with it. One golem had likened it to the human experience of swimming—a few hours was fine, even enjoyable, but would a human like to live in the water? No. Then the golem had turned back to his cave without another word.
But today Nephra celebrated one of its many festivals. Today was the Golem Games. Some young man had coined the term several years ago. Every boy from the age of four up claimed he was that young man. The Games had begun when Bloggs, the local champion of everything, challenged his golem equivalent, Kinchu, to a wrestling match—Bloggs lost. But traditions are easily begun and rarely ended on the Horizon, and Nephra dearly loved its fairs and celebrations. For this reason, few weeks held no festival at all, and so the Elders combined the Golem Games with the annual—and much older—Dance of the Flowers.(2)»
Now, had those children who looked anxiously east known who was traveling toward them on the Cliff Road, they would have turned their attention south in an instant. The girl on the road was of no interest—she was a girl, and a strange one at that. But the other two, they were heroes.Strin Telnok came, Protector of the Horizon, whose eyes had calmed Rutsuians and whose reflexes outran the speed of renji. Stories of Strin ran from one end of the Horizon to the other, as fast as news could travel— perhaps faster—stories of Sertrims and outlaws, family grudges, mysteries, and rescues. Anywhere else in the Horizon, Strin would have been the center of attention, but this was Nephra, and Strin had an apprentice named Fred Milish.
Every Nephran child knew of Fred’s legacy of adventures when he was still “not a hero,” and every adult knew him by these same misadventures. The new stories varied wildly, incredibly, and they must, of course, all be true:
He had killed five Sertrims with his cross-staff—no!—ten Sertrims with his bare hands. He had rescued the princess Lila from the depths of the Horizon. He had passed through the Horizon itself and had entered the world of monsters and nightmares beyond. He had dueled Detwile, the elusive leader of the outlaws, and he had won … and he had spared him in his mercy, though he slaughtered the entire gang. He had been knighted by the Empress. He had become a prince and married a princess he had rescued from a deep cavern. In the imaginations of all the children (and of the men and women who still thought as children), Fred had done everything that their experience and knowledge of Horizon folklore could conceive him of doing.
So when a child, impatient to spot the first golem in the foggy dimness, glanced longingly about and saw Fred approaching, his feet swirling the thick carpet of fog set out for him, the news spread; from child to child, from child to older sibling, from sibling to parent, from parent to neighbor, with whispers and knocks, running feet and unbelieving cries, the news spread.
Boys and young men who remembered Fred surrounded him and bombarded him with questions. The girls hovered nearby. Some were quiet and curious, but more than a few tried to catch Fred’s eye with a smile or flip of the hair. The adults looked on, watching over the group like chaperones and trying not to seem interested, but they talked excitedly with one another and stared at Fred. Some of the older villagers grumbled with crossed arms and disgusted faces, but they continued to watch. A few of the Elders approached Strin, knowing that he could explain the unexpectedness of his return.
The hubbub of whispers and rumors rose to talking and joking, then to shouting and laughing, and somewhere in the crowd a young man felt excitement bubbling within him—the same young man, most likely, who had coined the term “Golem Games”—and he burst suddenly into silly, triumphant song.
Fred’s stronger than a thousand men!
Fred Milish—iron bars can he bend!
The crowd laughed at the childishness of the words, but a few joined in, echoing, and the song rang louder. Again, they sang the words, in no particular key, with no set melody, and another couplet exploded from the crowd from the shrill voice of a young girl.
Fred scared me when I was a child,
But now, I hear, he drives girls wild!
Giggles erupted in the center of the crowd. Someone began clapping, and the whole crowd joined in, bobbing up and down, half-dancing, undulating like waves. The girl was rather futilely scolded and the older villagers found themselves clapping with their children. Old, stodgy men hid smiles behind their old, stodgy beards, and gnarled, grumpy old women laughed heartily, saying that they were certainly not enjoying themselves.
But it was not for Fred that the whole of Nephra rejoiced. While he was a fine young man—in some respects, anyway—his presence had merely sparked the tinder of their imaginations. To the citizens of Nephra, who would never leave their land, nor wished to, Fred symbolized the beauty seen in foreign places, the triumph of an unattainable victory, the importance of the word “hero.” He touched them in that same place as exotic glimpses seen late at night, terrible monsters that could not be defeated but must be, the innocence in the eyes of a girl rescued, the glory of one who does not understand how great he is—all these things: the hopes, dreams, and joys of the Nephran people. Though they themselves would never leave and were content with their place in the world, they still envisioned things beyond their vision, wonder beyond their comprehension and joy beyond their understanding. As the images of legends and folklore are the blocks from which a dream is built, Fred became their architect.(3)»
And though they knew that Fred, while he had seen many things, had never truly seen or experienced all they imagined he had, he was still an adventurer and a hero, and that was enough.
Fred’s parents waded through the crowd. The song reached a crescendo, and his mother embraced him, tears in her eyes, and kissed him, as his father stood behind in that uncertain way, deciding whether he should follow his wife’s example or merely pat Fred on the back.
The song began to fade, stubbornly, into laughter and breathless discussion, and Fred knew that he was home.