A riff on the them of “The Frontier” that started off in my mind as a comedy piece on reaching the edge of the map and turned into a meditation on what happens when archetypes get tired of being archetypes. It sounds a little unwieldy, but I must have done something right, because this won last month’s Flash Fiction contest at SFF World.
“What is it, Hendell?”
The wizard waved a dismissive hand. “Be still, Finwick,” he said absently, leaning on his staff and scratching his head beneath his floppy brown hat. He heaved a sigh, the breath briefly puffing out the gray hair of his droopy mustache. The rest of their little party slowly approached behind him, the rustle of their packs and the gentle clang of their weapons and armor mixing with the quiet whisper of a breeze blowing across the ridge. Hendell furrowed his already wrinkled brow, his mind struggling to find an answer to the questions he was sure would come his way once everyone saw what he was seeing.
Where he had expected the slopes to drop into hill country and eventually descend into grassy plains stretching off into the distance, before him instead was a vast white emptiness. Not snow, not sand, but rather a great nothing, a complete and utter absence as far as he could look in any direction save that from which they’d come. All that broke the oppressive blankness was a strange sigil floating in the vacant sky, an enormous, thickly-lined disc with an ornate arrow pointing to the north. If this strange land even had a north.
“Well there’s something I never expected to be seeing, Mr. Finwick, and that’s no mistake,” Gorder said, dropping himself heavily onto a flat rock and easing the bulging pack off his back. His countrymen Kerrick and Tuppin followed suit. Dwarrow settled on the ground and began honing his axe. “Best to be prepared for some nasty business,” the dwarf muttered to no one in particular. The two men in the party, Colgrym and Berrenor, whispered gloomily to one another. Only Telantis seemed to take any joy in the sight before them, the wind blowing back his golden hair as he laughed. “Amazing, Hendell!.” the elf’s voice sparkled. “But what could it be?”
With a sigh, Hendell turned to face his eight companions. “I have been standing here well on ten minutes now, going through every bit of lore and legend I can remember. I have mused over tales from before the Dawning and from as far away as the Sunset Lands. And though I have heard hushed words of such things before, I thought them mere superstition. But now I see they were true.” He looked up at the sigil, then back to his friends. “We seem to have reached the edge of the map.”
“What?” Colgrym said, stepping forward, his hand instinctively clutching the well-worn hilt of his sword.
“Hold, my friend,” Hendell said. “Your ancestral blade will do you no good here. Whatever force shaped our world, whatever guiding hand set down the forests and the mountains and the rivers, did so only to this point, and for some reason unknown to us, simply stopped.”
“Unknown? To you?” Dwarrow grumbled uneasily. “That troubles my heart.”
“Oh, I’m wise, my dear dwarf. But I don’t know everything.”
“The world can’t just end, can it, Hendell?” Finwick asked.
“It appears it most certainly can,” Hendell said, gesturing to the empty expanse before them. “Why its creator chose to end it here, or to even end it at all, is beyond my ken.”
“So what do we do?” Tuppin blurted out. “Gallond said we had to travel east, didn’t he?”
“Yes,” the wizard agreed. “Perhaps we passed our destination without even realizing.”
“It is a trick of the Foulness,” Berrenor mused. “We should return to my city and regroup. The Library will have clues…”
“No,” Finwick said firmly.
“We’ve discussed this, Berrenor.” Colgrym’s voice brooked no response.
“So we just sit here?” Gorder said miserably.
“We go forward!” Telantis said eagerly, lightly stepping until he stood on the edge of the ridge.
“Are you daft?” Dwarrow said, rising quickly. “There’s naught there but … but naught!”
“We won’t know that unless we go see! If this is a trick of the Foulness, why should we let it stop us?”
“I don’t think that’s safe, Telantis,” Hendell insisted.
The elf grinned. “And what great deed ever came from doing what was safe?” He leaped down and vanished from sight.
Dwarrow gave a cry of dismay. “Telantis, you young fool!” he bellowed, and ran after the elf before Colgrym could reach out a hand to stop him. He, too, disappeared.
Colgrym drew his sword and strode forward with deliberate steps. “What are you doing?” Hendell said, stepping quickly in front of him.
“I”ll not leave our companions alone to whatever fate awaits them,” the big man said. “We have come too far and suffered through too much together.”
“And what of Finwick’s quest?”
“I think we should follow them, Hendell,” came Finwick’s small voice.
The wizard turned and regarded Finwick with surprise. “But what you carry…”
“Will be beyond the reach of the Foulness, at the very least.” He stared off into the nothingness. “This feels right, Hendell. Perhaps this is what Gallond intended for us to find.”
“We’ll all go at once,” Berrenor said. “I’ll see no one stay behind to change their mind should their courage fail them.”
Hendell hesitated. “All these years, I’ve mastered what was known. Be it written down on paper or passed down from ear to ear, I’ve taken knowledge as my province.” He swallowed. “And in the end, I face that which I do not know, and I am afraid.”
Finwick reached up and took the wizard’s hand. “We’ll find out together, Hendell.”
Hendell looked down and saw Finwick’s face smiling up at him, just as it had those many years ago when he’d first met him in his uncle’s tiny cottage. Now, as then, a sense of boundless hope flooded through him.
“Together,” Hendell said with nod.
The seven remaining companions joined hands. As one, they stepped forward, off the ridge, off the map, and in so doing, stepped beyond this author’s world, and his ability to chronicle their tale. Their fate is now solely up to them..