: Beyond the Ridge of Tears :
Far away, beyond the Ridge of Tears, there is a deep chasm. The worms cannot cross the chasm. They never have, at least, and that is good. It has allowed us to thrive, after so much death.
The black-haired woman showed us the way. It was on a night full of storm that she came, a night when the worms hid deep within their lairs beneath the earth, all around our settlement. The last settlement, scarcely a few hundred of us left. I was only a child, and even I knew that much. She came down the pathway out of the fields and stood before the Stone House of my father, and my father went out to her while the thunder crashed above, and the people gathered to watch. It was night, and still they gathered, for the storm was a relief. The worms would not venture out while the sun was veiled.
I watched from the window above as the woman addressed them. I could not hear everything, but I heard some. She spoke of far-off fields, and a country where the devourers could not reach us. She spoke of new life, but it came with a cost:
“You must leave behind this place and all that you have,” she said. “It is a hard journey, for you must pass beyond the Ridge of Tears. Or else, stay, and be devoured. I can give you no more hope than this: on the third day from now, a sign will come, and you must make your choice.”
My father the chief tried to address her then, but she raised her hand and stooped to whisper in his ear, and he fell silent.
“On the third day you will make your choice.”
A noise of wings flapped in the torrent, and for a moment I thought I saw the shape of a bird, crow-like, fluttering up into the darkness. But then it was gone, and the people stood silent and dripping, my father among them. I do not know all that she whispered to him, but I do know that he was a changed man after that night. There was something in his eyes. Something clearer, sharper. I first noticed it when he called the Meeting together the very next morning, once the storm had broken. He stood in front of the people—their chief—and spoke to them of what the woman had said. Many had seen her, and many wondered what her coming portended.
“We must leave this place,” he said to them. “She will show us where to go.”
Many dissented. They did not trust the word of the woman.
“How can we know that this is true?” they said, “It is certain death to cross the waste now.”
“It is certain death, but only a quicker death than we will suffer here. Our crops are burned, our livestock devoured, and the worms grow ever bolder. I know it is hard…hard to leave all this behind, but we must if we are to live on. I may dwell in the Stone House for now, but when I and my son are gone, it will be only rocks piled one upon another, and one day the worms will devour even those.”
Others spoke of the sign. “Let us wait," they said. "Let us watch for the sign. Only then must we choose. We will watch and wait.”
So the days passed. Three sunny days, and the devourers stalked the shimmering horizons, croaking and waiting for their prey to stir, playing their deathly flame over the already-burnt fields. I remember that the water-skin sprang a leak on the first day, and we were thirsty by evening. So thirsty. And yet my father did not care. His eyes were bright. He bade me gather my things from the upper room, and all our tools, and he patched the water-skin as best he could. Then we waited. Two more days of waiting, two more days of thirst, as the worms drew ever closer. Soon they would return to the settlement. Soon they would stalk the streets, and this time not even the walls of the Stone House would save us.
But then the evening of the third day came, darkness falling fast, and the people came forth from their shanties to watch, for they remembered the words of the woman, clinging to that hope as the devourers croaked in the gathering dark. My father and I stood on the path before the Stone House with our packs made ready, and many stood with us, watching, waiting…
Suddenly a cloud of sulphur swept down the pathway, and a child cried out in the crowd as a worm came bellowing out of the darkness at the edge of the settlement. There were no walls now. Nowhere to hide. Its skin was like stone, sloughing off dust and death, and its jaws were full of liquid fire.
The crowd shuddered, and many turned to flee. This would be the end of us. Was this the sign the woman had promised? There was fear in the air, and yet my father stood firm.
“The sign will come!” he yelled, and the people near him stood still once more with newfound determination. The sign will come.
The worm gave a roar as it spilled flame over the hovels nearby, and the smoking stench filled my lungs. Many fell to their knees, choking. The sign will come. Another bellow rang out from the darkness, and many more joined it. A circle of fire springing up around the settlement as the worms closed in—
—And then something changed. Something in the wind, and with one movement we turned our heads toward the north and saw the storm. The sign. Thunder broke over the scene, and the worms writhed and fled as the rain fell in sheets, and then it retreated north again. Northward, it said to us. You must make the choice.
And it was settled.
An entry for the Ambage Fortnightly Flash Fiction Contest. Theme: Settlement.
Edited by Tolkien, Dec 17 2012 - 02:23 PM.