I remember when I was a child. Strange, the things one thinks about as they are dying.
I catch the doorframe of the castle gate with a painful gasp. Each breath burns in my chest as poison races through my veins. I clench one bloody fist against my ribs. It’s only a shallow cut, but it’s enough when poison is involved.
I was here once when I was wee thing. Little Kensen, lost in the halls. I don’t remember these halls though, only the mirrors. The whispers. My father’s voice.
The great doors hang askew. The place looks abandoned. That’s the point, I assume, though I have to wonder if the rebel leaders ever considered the possibility of the castle falling in on their own heads.
If I’ve thought of it, I’m sure they have. I’m only a messenger, after all. The second son of an unimportant cloth-trader; a fool who abandoned his trade and the possibility of his own shop to run messages that could save his people.
At least I thought they’d save people when I joined. Instead, they merely held reports of movements, food, and the half-drunk scribblings of spies. Until today.
Today, they are important. Today they could save the nation.
I stumble across the threshold.
The castle looks worse from inside, but it won’t collapse. Not today. Today I have a message.
It seemed bigger when I was here last. People lived it in then, before it burned and rebels took over what was left.
Of course, I was only waist-high then. I thought it the grandest thing in the world.
“H-hello?” My voice wakens skittering echoes and fades away. Nothing.
It was louder. More colorful. Dozens of traders streaming in for the great festival. All the laughter and music.
Where are the rebels? I grit my teeth and stagger across the courtyard. The breeze rustles in the corners, stirring dry leaves. They seem to whisper my name, calling me to sleep.
Not yet. Please, not yet.
One step at a time. Don’t worry about the end. Whatever happens, take one step at a time.
The words belong to this place, somehow. They whispered in my sleep for years. Each step has led here. Back to where it started.
Back to when I lost my way, trying to explore. The found me, asleep in the room of mirrors. I never remembered how I got there. I remembered the words though.
‘One step at a time.
Don’t worry about the end.’
I loved those words.
I didn’t… I didn’t realize I heard them first inside these walls.
I throw my shoulder against a creaking door, almost collapsing as it gives way. “H-hello. Someone?” My voice fades.
The rebels have to be here. They must. The king’s troops are finally moving. They’ll override us by dusk tomorrow if we don’t flee. Or attack.
One step at a time. One step.
They aren’t in any of the halls. There’s no sign of life in any of the smaller chambers.
“Please…” I choke on the word as I clutch the doorframe to the dusty kitchen. The room blurs through tears. The rebels were fighting since before I was born. Of course, they’re not sitting around in the broken shadows of a ruined castle. There’s probably caverns. Or something. They’re somewhere.
Shouldn’t they have sentries though? Someone to watch, or… or…
I stumble on.
One step at a time.
One step at…
The narrow passage twists away, growing darker.
I-I was here once. I know this passage. It leads…
It leads to nothing. A dead-end.
It’s where they found me, asleep after I tried to go exploring. A-A cupboard or something.
One step. Keep moving.
My fingers feel for the knob of the door. There’s nothing beyond it, but I can’t stop. I have no strength to turn. It’s right, somehow. It’s where I should be.
One step at a time.
I open the door.
The air glitters with soft light and the walls…the walls are of mirrors.
I’ve been here. I saw this.
I take a trembling step into the room, one arm still wrapped against my chest. Rifts, I look horrible. Lank hair is matted to my bloodstained cheeks. Blood smears my hands and more stains my tunic. My skin is too pale, my eyes too bright. I stagger and catch myself against a smooth surface. A mirror, somehow, though the room seems to spread beyond it, vaster and deeper than anything this castle holds.
A mirror, yet slowly it clears away until I see nothing but blankness. No…not quite blankness. The light shifts. Somewhere a door sighs open. Bare feet patter along the ground, too light and quick to belong to a rebel.
I lift my head, but words die on my lips. A child steps into my line of sight. A child in the mirror.
I’d found a room of mirrors. It looked bigger than the whole world.
The child stops and lifts his head. Loose brown hair falls back to reveal large brown eyes. My eyes. I stare. In the faint reflection of the glass, I see myself as I am now. Except I look different. The blood is gone, as are the signs of battle. I can feel them still; I see them when I look at myself. But the glass wipes them away. I look…
I look like the one I’d seen.
The room of mirrors was empty. I saw myself. I’d never seen myself before. I took a step closer, but I vanished. The mirror showed nothing. Then it showed a man on one knee. He watched me. And when I looked at him, he smiled.
I barely breathe as the child takes a step nearer. Then another. He’s on the other side of the mirror now. I lift a wavering hand. Blood smears against glass, but he can’t see it. He lifts a small hand, pressing it against mine. His lips are parted, his eyes staring.
Such young eyes. They don’t know what they’ll see. Where they’ll go. They didn’t know the horrors they will take part in.
“One step at a time,” I whisper the words. “Don’t worry about the end. Whatever happens, take one step at a time, Kensen.”
My eyes start to slip. As if through a haze, I see the child—see myself smile. Slowly he slips to the ground, sound asleep. They’ll find him here in a few hours. He won’t remember. He won’t remember until he reaches these halls again.
I sag against the mirror. One step at a time.
I struggle to rise but find myself falling. The mirror gives way, crashing in splinters on all sides. As if from the bottom of a well, I hear voices. Footsteps. Men; rebels. I see their faces, hovering in and out of view. They are talking to me.
I can’t speak, I can barely breathe. With numb fingers, I pull the message from my pouch.
Someone snatches it. Others are searching out my wound, but it’s too late. Shadows close about my mind and I let out a soft sigh.
I let the words fade around me.
Don’t worry about the end.
I’ll not worry about the end ever again.
I’ve reached it, now.
One step at a time.
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