A/N: This continues from the first part (which if you read before the nineteenth of November has been edited to house an extra scene).


Book I
Apoptosis

Chapter 2
Elder
Part 2

It was a silent and sombre crowd that left the meeting room in the last hour of sunlight. No face told of the outcome or the bitter internal struggles that had occurred within. The rest of the village had almost completed preparations of the funeral, and the men joined in for the final rites. The body, carefully washed and perfumed before hand, was carried on four shoulders to the altar prepared. Firewood was stacked up; oil was poured over the wood. The woman and children stood back and prayed silently as the men watched the last rays of sunlight disappear behind the horizon.

The last photons of light bounced off the oil before they vanished into the gloom. A single shadow stepped forward, carrying with him the small wick of a flame. All could only see his back; the face was illuminated only for the dead. Then the flame was cast onto the wood and the fire quickly spread, inhaling the oil and licking the tied bundles of wood.

Within minutes, the body was aflame as well, and the man who had cast the light, the new Elder, spoke in prayer. And the villagers followed, for that moment unrecognising and uncaring as to the identity of their new leader. They simply prayed behind the man, prayed for the old Elder that had passed and mourning him.

And then the fire dwindled as the night wore on; the gentle summer wind blew the ashes upon the dirt. The wood crumbled, the stones alone remaining upright as the flame lost its fuel and slowly died.

Only the smaller flames, the torches made of wood and fine, remained alight and illuminate. And the face at the front turned in them, washed over by a soft glow of red and orange and yellow. And the woman and children watched, the new identity sneaking in and amongst the old ties of grief.

The men went back to their families. All, except the new Elder who stood alone at the head. 'Tonight,' he began slowly, voice deep and laced with a light level of pain. 'We mourn for the loss of a very important man of our village, and our dear Elder.'

He looked over to his grandson, standing beside his new wife. Then he averted his gaze to his – until that night – colleague and fellow villager.

'We also,' he continued, 'bid farewell to another of our number.' He took a breath, watching the man standing with his wife and grandson. The old woman met his gaze; he turned away. It was not personal – never personal. For while internal struggles made their ugly faces known within a dark room to remain within, he truly had no quarrel with Karl and their grandsons were close friends. Therefore it hurt more than he wished to admit to say the next words, but duty and tradition were what wrote their village into the earth and as Elder he had sworn to uphold them all. 'Karl.' He bowed his head. 'At the next sunrise you are to leave this village and never set foot upon this land again. You may take with you whatever you wish, and carry no worry for your family.' He almost hesitated on that last word. 'They will be properly cared for.'

And that was the truth. There was no blame, nothing held against the family of the one banished. Not even the one banished carried blame in the time they now lived within; it was only the traditions of the past that held them in fear. That, and the lack of knowledge about the outside. The darkness beyond the horizon.

He, the new Elder, knew all there was to know about the village, but very little about the outside. In that sense, it was an opportunity, not a punishment, that came to those who were tried and lost. The chance to explore a world greater than what they lived within. And the price to pay for that was a home that had been built for over sixty years, and perhaps even before birth.

Perhaps he regretted his new position, for he was forever tied to it, until death.

'Tomorrow,' he said at large, eyes focused on Karl.

He nodded.

#

They returned to their little home in silence, Col trailing after his grandparents. Both were silent, walking together side by side in the single torch light. He too kept quiet; words arrived upon his lips only to die thereafter with only himself hearing them all. Part of him was shocked; his grandfather would have, in two years, have given his hand (perhaps reluctantly, or maybe his mind would have changed in the period) to a girl roughly the age he was currently at, upon a Spring Harvest night like the last. Instead, he was banished. He would be leaving the village, for no fault of his own. And he would be living the rest of his life away from the world he called his home and within a world he did not know. Alone.

And it would be just him and his grandmother. And his grandfather, alone.

It already felt odd.

'Col,' his grandmother said suddenly, stopping at the door. His grandfather entered through without them, the darkness of their empty home swallowing him whole.

Col remained outside at his grandmother's request.

'Come,' she said quietly, putting an arm around him and leading him around the house. The back sloped up a little, due to its placement at the base of a hill and the old woman now climbed that very hill. It was small – nothing remarkable – but it was a good place to talk, and during the day look out upon the village, the river and the forest behind. 'Sit.' She patted the grass at the top as she collected her own skirt and sat.

The boy sat beside her, tunic bunching above his abdomen as he draw his knees up to his chest. It was a reflexive gesture and nothing more; the night was still warm despite the lack of natural light.

'In a few minutes,' his grandmother said to him quietly, 'the new moon will be out.'

She fell silent after that and the two watched the black canvas that stretched across the sky. After a moment a sliver of white did appear before vanishing after a few seconds. If the pair hadn't been staring so diligently upwards the sight would have been lost to them, just as it was lost to all indoors.

'Col,' the old woman said slowly, once the small light had faded once more. 'You're old enough to understand what happened this afternoon.'

Col nodded.

'I –' She broke off, before beginning again. 'We are both very old. Your mother was the youngest of my children and born beyond what we thought to be child-bearing age. And she was the only one to survive...' Her voice trailled off. In the light of the torch she had taken from her husband, Col could make out a look of sorrow on her face. 'Your grandfather is a few years younger than I. You know men appear to age faster than we women do.'

The smile that appeared on her face seemed forced, but Col did not call her out on it.

'I'm very old,' his grandmother reiterted. 'Very old.

When she said nothing else, the other spoke. 'Why are you telling me this?'

'Because...' The old woman closed her eyes. 'I want you to go with your grandfather tomorrow.'

A pause. A rapid intake of breath. 'You – want –'

'Don't misunderstand,' she said. 'I love you, very much. I would keep you under my wing until you were as old as I, but that is not what is best for anyone and I know it. For it would bring me sorrow, watching a bird with clipped wings live out his life, and you who could not stretch his own wings would be sad as well. And your grandfather would be sad in his loneliness in a world that is larger than he knows in time he cannot hope to understand it in. For we have spend our entire lives in this village and are reaching the end of them. Too long to be able to adjust easily to the world outside on one's own, and I'm worried –'

She broke off again, dabbing the edges of her eyes with the cloth of her skirt.

'You're worried about Grandfather?' Col said slowly.

His grandmother nodded. 'Yes. It is not easy for an old man to adapt to anything, and you know him well. He is no fighter; a fisherman waiting for fish to hook onto his line until the end. I know this is the norm of the village, but I do not recall a fisherman ever being put forth for Elder and then losing that name without achieving it. I couldn't help but think, earlier tonight...' She raised her head to the night sky, as if searching for the long gone moon. '...if you were the one married yesterday instead of Kieran, then maybe pity might have struck the hearts of others and allowed your grandfather to watch the relationship bloom and the fruit of his labour completed. For it is the greatest accomplishment, watching your children, and then your grandchildren, marry and walk into the adult world.'

'I'm not even sure I want to marry,' was all Col could say to that. A part of him felt irrationally guilty; his coming of age was two years away, and he knew well Kieran had felt the same as him on the night of the Spring Harvest a year ago when they had watched a different union.

'Next year is supposed to be my turn,' the red-haired boy had said at the time. 'But I cannot even think of living with a woman!'

And yet he was married, to Fern whom he hadn't a year ago even given the time of day beyond what was the norm.

'Things change with time,' his grandmother said in the present, gazing at the black expanse that blanketed them both. 'But people…their essence remains the same, through and through. Their soul. Outer characteristics change, but that inner something that shapes their being remains constant. That thing we are all born with: that unexplainable core of our existence.'

Col followed that, but he failed to see where his grandmother was taking the conversation.

'And some people…' She lowered her gaze again. 'Simply aren't meant to…live in the present.' Her tone suggested she had carefully considered the wording of that last phrase, and it simply touched the edge of the blade. 'Once we marry we give birth, then we raise our children and watch them marry, and the circle of life simply goes on. That is the present. Children live in the future, watching the world and imagining the expanse that goes beyond what they see as they look up towards the sky. And then, when you're my age and you've watched life almost to its end, you live in the past and wait for things to rewind.' She sighed. 'They never will.'

The fair-haired boy was silent; the gentle summer wind ruffled the golden locks.

'But not all children grow like that,' the old woman continued. 'And it's such a shame to tie them down to the small village life. Like the wildflowers that grow all over the place when left to their own devices. You've seen how they wilt when their stems are bound. Some souls are like that too.'

'You mean…' Col's voice drifted off. 'To go and live…outside..?'

'Do you know why we call them wildflowers?'

The boy nodded. He remembered the lesson.

His grandmother repeated it anyway. 'Wildflowers do not conform to the laws that other plants obey, hence we call them "wild". Their spirits are restless; they grow in clumps near our buildings because that is the only place they can grow; their home is where we have built our own and other plants push them out of their comfort zones. But they cannot really grow; their flowers come into bloom but they look miserable and dull. The wildflowers that grow right at the edge of the village have far more life in them, and I think, if they were set loose, they would have far more life beside.'

'They're happier with their space,' Col surmised.

'Their own space,' his grandmother corrected. 'Not everything can truly bloom everywhere; the differences in the world would make no sense if that were the case. And not everybody's space is to be easily found.' She closed her eyes. 'I think your space, the time and place in which you truly belong, is far away from here.'

Guilt stirred. 'Have I done something?' Half-alarmed he stood. 'If I did, I –'

'Sit down.' The old woman did not look at him, but once he was seated again she added in a gentler tone: 'The only thing you have done is to be yourself, and none can ever truly fault you for that, whatever they say.' She paused, then began hesitantly. 'What I've been meaning to say is…I think your future lies beyond the walls of this village. We are both old, I older than your Grandfather. I will soon die. Out in the world, your Grandfather will also die; you being with him will give him strength and purpose, but the natural order of life can never be rewritten.' Sadness laced her tone as she forced her quaking voice on. 'What will you do here alone? You have little aptitude for fishing; your skill is in chasing shadows but the village does not need another Hunter, bless his soul. Your shadows will be far more substantial in the outside world.'

She opened her eyes and turned, cupping her grandson's cheek in her own wrinkled hand. 'I have lived long,' she said softly. 'I have seen many kinds of people live and die. I have seen many lively spirits of youth wink out after years of marriage. I've seen many people come and go, with eyes that go deeper than I ever could have imagined in my own youth. I've seen pools of empty space become closed with age. Col…I don't want you to become like that.' She let go, dabbing at her eyes again. 'I won't be able to watch you grow any more, but somehow I know you'll settle down and find your place in the outside world, and not in this one, so please, go with your Grandfather…' She trailed off.

'But –' Col began to protest, but a finger upon his lips stopped him.

'Hush,' she said gently. 'I know you will miss this place, being the only home you have ever known. But would I ask this of you if I thought it would make you unhappy?'

'I do not know,' Col mumbled, looking down with slight shame. He recalled the Spring Harvest preparations, inquiring as to whether his grandparents would force his hand to marry if his second coming of age came and went without him with a woman by his side. She had not said either way, and he was sure she would have followed the rule she had grown up with in the end.

'This is an opening,' his grandmother told him quietly, sensing his doubt. 'A way for you to escape, to explore the world to your heart's content and find your place within it. Or can you tell me truthfully you have a home here?'

'I do have a home here,' Col said, before a hand forced his chin upwards and his eyes to meet his grandmother's.

'Say it again,' she ordered.

'I…' He took a deep breath. 'I have a…home here.'

She smiled at him. 'You've hesitated,' she said. 'Not once, but twice. You didn't want to meet my eyes.'

Col turned his head away.

'Do you really not want to go?'

He didn't know.

'I –' He looked at her. 'You're making me choose between you!'

'Yes.' She smiled again. 'Just like, years ago, you had the choice between us and your parents, and you chose us. You chose to open those dear little eyes of yours to the world instead of surrender them to eternal darkness and fire. You chose to fight with all the strength you possessed and overcome the sickness that had struck your body and assaulted your soul. And now, you have to chose again. Where you wish to live for the rest of your life. Because while you chose between us, you're not at all. Neither of us will live long; you have a longer life, or so I hope, ahead of you than that. And you cannot stay here and care for your sick and elderly grandmother. That is the job of a girl child.'

'The girl I would have married.' But the protest was weak, and futile.

'Not for another two years. And you put too much faith upon this old body.'

Col looked at his grandmother, eyes slightly wide. 'But you don't…'

'Look ill?' The smile widened. 'No, but I feel it as I lie upon the reeds and the soft Gus blanket. The weariness that seeps into my very core. An illness that only comes once many many years of life have passed one by, and the close is coming upon them.'

The boy's eyes brimmed with tears; his grandmother pulled him to her and held him close, stroking the fair hair like he was a little bundle of joy within her arms.

'Col,' she whispered quietly in his years. 'Many people live and die without truly being alive, simply because it is safer. But you are a hunter. Please, go catch your happiness and glow like the sun. And be that sun for your Grandfather, so his soul may die in a wearied peace instead of wasting away in the shadow of his grave.'

#

The sun rose silently, coaxing its light towards the highest hill of their village. The red and orange glow seeped through the blades of grass; behind them, the dark forest rose silently into the indigo sky. Upon the hill the villagers stood: a single huddled crowd except for four that were separate from them. The new Elder was at the highest point, the first to touch the new sun as it always was. Karl stood opposite, a coarse bag housing all he had chosen to take with him. His bond mate stood a little apart, eyes glistening but without a tear staining her strained face. Col stood silently behind them both, just a little closer to his grandfather: enough to whisper his decision to the world, but also enough to reach for some final comfort from a woman he would likely never see again.

He longed to be young once more: four, maybe even three wherein he could remember little except a kaleidoscopic display of colours and the scent of burning herbs and damp sounds he still failed to place a name upon. The age wherein he could bury his face into the folds of his grandmother's skirt as she patiently educated him in the ways of the village and how he should behave, or when the thunder rolled outside and he crawled into bed with her so she could pet his hair and comfort him. Of course, he'd be out and back in his own bed soon after; at four he was making about eight trips a night before he finally fell asleep in the coolness of his own bed enveloping him.

It was a fleeting, childish thought. But it was those fleeting moments that had the most value. The stifling air however stayed his hands and cemented his feet; the village would see them off in frowns instead of the sombre silence that hung about their heads.

He had been initially surprised when nobody had raised objections to him accompanying his grandfather, even if the younger generation – the ones he, apart from his grandparents, were closer to – had looks of shock on their faces. Those quickly faded though, leaving behind nothing but a grim set look as they said their farewell in silence.

Only the Elder spoke aloud, stepping slowly forward to clasp the other man's hands. Karl accepted the gesture, his face revealing nothing. And then he turned, away from the village and looking towards the desert from where he would begin his journey towards death.

And he set off, one step followed by another without breaking the gait he set from himself. Col glanced around; his grandmother squeezed his shoulder and let go of his hand, and he set off after his grandfather with a final whisper of farewell.

The sound of a crow's harsh call swallowed those words, and he stumbled slightly before stopping on the crisp slope, looking towards the orange glow of the still rising sun.

A black streak flew across.

Several breaths were drawn: sharp, controlled. But Karl did not stop walking, and Col had to run to catch up.