Featured Story • October 2015
Open this book, turn to a page, find any word and say it aloud. This is the word that will guide you on your journey from here.
At the gates to the underworld, there are three ancient guards, sentries who stand watch over the lost souls as they enter. Say this word to the first of them, the oldest, who is nothing but weathered armor and bone, and they will let you pass. The gates will shut behind you, barring your path, but take courage, and whisper your word like a lover’s caress as you venture deeper into the darkness.
After a day, or perhaps as many as three, you will reach the edge of a river, which winds its way slowly through the land of the dead. It has many names, some of which you may know, as does the man who will ferry you across it for a price. Give him the coins you have hidden in your pocket, and when he turns to take them from your hand, lean in close and speak this word into his ear. He will stare at you in shock and disbelief, but moreover in sudden recognition, and you will need to be quick to avoid the sharp edge of his blade.
You must tell him that you are not the one he seeks, and if you are to survive you must make him believe this as well. He will not want to listen, his knife thirsting for your blood, but you are quick-witted and cunning, or else you would not have ventured here—or I would have killed you—and I am sure you can think of some reason why the ferryman should spare your life.
When he does, tell him that you know where the man who killed him has been hiding. If you can remember the roads that have led you here, this will not even be a lie. Tell him that you must first visit the seven doors on the river’s farthest shore before you share this awful secret with him. He will not want to take you there—those few scant coins will not buy you so distant a passage, and there are rules, even for him—but he has been centuries dead with only vengeance to steer him, and eventually he will pole his raft against the current and take you to the seven doors.
Three of them are falsehoods, illusions set in place by long forgotten gods who abandoned that realm before the dark river even began to flow. Step from the raft and say your word aloud and you will recognize them immediately. The other four doors will glow a golden green, and if the ferryman gasps in terror at this and strands you there, do not be alarmed. It will merely save you the trouble of wresting the knife from him to slit his throat.
Two of the remaining doors will lead to certain death. You must choose one of these. The handle will be cold to the touch but turn easily in your hand, and you must step through the door before you have even a moment to reconsider. Give yourself even a moment and you will want to reconsider.
As you step through the door, you will enter a valley lit by three moons. Shout your word to this impossible sky and wait for the rain that will almost certainly fall. It, too, will be cold to the touch. Keep to the path that stretches north to the woods, the dark woods where your beloved is kept, and do not stop walking until you stumble across the roots of the forest’s oldest tree.
You will know this tree by the pattern that its roots trace upon the ground, and if the pattern seems familiar, it is because you have seen it inscribed upon the pages of my book. Do not say your word aloud again, not now, when you are so close to the end of your journey and the object of your affection. The wards that I have placed upon the tree are strong, and binding, and they will not be broken by words, or even by deeds, but only by blood.
Many travelers have turned back at this point. There is no shame in knowing the limitations of your valor. By now the noonday sun will be high above you, but it will offer you no warmth, and the shadows that are cast by the branches of the ancient tree will seem to spill across the forest floor like the outstretched hands of death itself. In such a place, fear would be recognized as wisdom.
But you are still too young for wisdom, are you not, my dear? Too young for prudence or caution to have taken root inside your heart. You would not be there in that forbidden forest, or here in my study, were wisdom one of the arrows in your quiver.
You will tell yourself that you are not afraid. You may even convince yourself that this is true.
As you stand beneath that primeval tree, which was a sapling when the universe was young, you will hear the word you’ve chosen echo in your ears. And you will hear other things as well: the call of wild beasts who hunt and haunt the forest. You must hurry, for even now those cruel and hungry creatures draw ever closer.
You must draw forth the dagger that your beloved gave you on your wedding night. Did you think I wouldn’t see it there, tucked into your belt? Even now, you imagine how its ornamental blade would look plunged into my heart. You must instead use the blade to describe a circle across the width of your own palm. Paint an unbroken line of red from the bottom of your fingers to the top of your wrist—and do it quick. The forest’s savage beasts will have already scented your blood. In the center of the circle, as best you can with the tip of the dagger, scratch the letters of the word from the pages of my book.
Throw your palm flat against the bark of the tree. Your hand will sting, then burn, as the sap mingles with your blood. Ignore your desperate instinct to pull away. There is always a price that must be paid to undo magic, and though you may grow faint and trembling, and though your flesh may wither and blacken, this pain is nothing you cannot endure. Think of your beloved. You have ventured this far to be reunited. You have followed my trail, no easy task, and you stand here now, ready to avenge the terrible wrong that I have done you both.
Ask yourself this: what wouldn’t you sacrifice to see that adoring face once again?
You were nothing but a poor peasant’s daughter when the two of you first met, destined to be married off to some half-witted farmhand who didn’t love you. Oh yes, I am an old man, and the hour is late, but I remember. Your beloved Cecily, she came from money, didn’t she, with parents who disapproved of your breeding, your commoner’s name, your sex? They would have disowned her, you know, had they only realized how far the two of you had fallen. They would have cast out their only daughter, all for her love of the likes of you.
I remember how she came to me, on the night before she lay with you. She sat across from me in this very room, and what she wanted most, she told me, was assurance. Proclamations of love mean nothing; words, however sweet, only obscure the truth that our actions might reveal. These were her words. She was desperate to know if this young woman, into whose life she had so unexpectedly fallen, did in fact truly love her.
So there it will be at last: your chance to prove you truly love her.
The bark of the tree will crack beneath your hand, then split fast down the trunk’s center like the handiwork of lightning. You will be tossed to the ground as if by a terrible wind, and you may be surprised, as you lie in the dirt nursing your wounded palm, to discover that there is no wind at all, no roll of approaching thunder, no sudden storm that has sprung up around you. The forest will have grown still and deathly silent, absent even the echo of that single word, which you will find you have now forgotten.
Among the other things you will have forgotten, I am afraid.
You will look up at the tree, now split cleanly in half, and you will see the face of your beloved Cecily, awakening from a long and unrestful slumber. The spell that bound her, for however many years you have traveled, will finally be broken, and she will be freed from the confines of the tree at long last. You will have rescued her from my clutches. You will have brought this story to its happy conclusion. But you will no longer know her. Not even when she opens her eyes and she sees you standing there and she calls your name.
That is the price that you must pay. To free her, you must sacrifice your love.
If you kill me now, as I know a part of you still aches to do, my dear, she will be trapped there forever. These directions will not help you. The word will just be a word. That is the nature of the spells that I have cast, that their usefulness to you should expire with me. But I promised your beloved to show her the truth of your nature, the depth of your love, and here now I will offer you the same. In bargain for my life, that is what I offer: a book, a word, a chance.
When she is freed, you may take your leave of the forest. I can make no guarantee about the creatures that call that place home, and you may still find you are beset by them from all sides. But, again, you are quick-witted and cunning, and so is the woman who will be traveling by your side, and I have every faith that you will reach the door, and the land of the dead, and then finally home.
Where you go from there, or not, I leave to you. Your beloved will be a stranger to you, but then, she was that once before. Perhaps you can rekindle some small spark of what was lost. More astonishing things than that have happened. Perhaps you will meet that young farmhand once again, or grow to love farming yourself, your back against the plow, your fingernails rimed with dirt. Perhaps there will be money waiting for her still, a wealth to soothe your collected sorrows. Perhaps there is more to this wide world than true love and the two of you will discover it there together.
Or perhaps you will seek me out again, this time to stop my heart for good. If you make that long journey, if you somehow find your way here once again, I will not stand in the way of your vengeance.
I will only remind you, as I do so many of the travelers that visit here, that there are many books on my shelves, and there are many words and new stories that a young woman like yourself may choose.
Fred Coppersmith is a writer and editor whose fiction has appeared in Lakeside Circus, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Andromeda Spaceways. He edits the quarterly zine Kaleidotrope and can be found in New York or on Twitter at @unrealfred.
About “Directions,” he tells us that it began, “as many stories do, with a writing prompt, although it then wandered into very strange and distant lands. If the story is about anything, it’s about the power of words (and the limits of that power), and about the sometimes cruel cost of true love.”
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