The sun blazed high overhead, and its white-hot light burned his skin. A faint breath of wind danced past him, ruffling his shaggy black hair and the tail of his short tunic. Raised up on the breeze was a whispering rustle. Curious at the sound, he opened his eyes to the blinding light and found he was standing in the middle of an endless corn field.
A feeling of dread washed over him, prickling the hair at the nape of his neck, making his heart flutter and his breath come in sharp gasps. He stumbled forward, his fear driving his long, lopping strides. Faster and faster he sprinted between the towering walls of golden stalks until his lungs burned and his muscles convulsed and sweat poured down his face. He pushed his little body to the brink, and still his fear pursued him.
A misstep and his thin cloth shoes slipped in the damp soil. He pitched forward, clenching his knee as pain sliced through him. He landed hard on the soft earth and a putrid odor filled his nostrils. In his mind he could see the bugs and worms clawing their way through their tunnels, feasting on the flesh of birds and beasts that fell there. He closed his eyes tight and tried to remain as still as a stone, but his heart pounded against the wall of his chest with an echoing thunk. The carrion bugs swarmed up from the ground, enveloping him. Beetles and maggots by the thousands covered him completely, ripping holes in his clothes to get to the tender flesh underneath, burrowing into his ears and nose and eyes.
He screamed and flailed, shook and slapped, running, crashing blindly through the cornstalks. The earth opened wide before him, a gaping maw with boulder teeth and a bottomless gullet, and down he fell, down and down into the deep dark, down to the center of the world. He landed in a pool, a sloppy sopping mix of death and dung and fetid water. Too thick to swim, too wet to stand, he foundered and sputtered and finally surrendered, accepting his end with mouthfuls and lungfuls of mire and muck. Slowly, excruciatingly slowly he sank until his face was the only part of him not entombed. There, lurking just out of view, hiding in the shadows, his haunting terror waited, watching, and with a ghastly creaking whisper, spoke.
“Saer! Wake up, dear boy!”
Saer woke with a gasp. Toc leaned over him, one hand holding a sputtering candle, the other gently shaking Saer’s shoulder.
“There you are, child. You were having a nightmare.” The young man straightened. He smiled a sleepy grin and absently trailed his hand through his mussed hair, causing it to stand out in all directions. Saer wanted to smile at the sight, but the panic of the rapidly fading dream was still too close. He sat up and put a hand to his chest, willing his heart to stop thumping wildly and his breathing to slow, and was surprised to find his nightshirt soaked through with sweat.
“It looks as though you’ve had a terrible fright. Come, let’s get you changed into some dry clothes.” Toc stood, and Saer took a hesitant glance around the room. The dormitory stretched before him, obscured by the dim twilight. His nine roommates were snoring softly in their beds. Saer was careful not to wake them as he obediently followed Toc to the washroom.
The young man stooped over the taps that emptied into a small copper basin, and soon the bright room was warm and damp with steam.
“A quick bath to warm you up, then back to bed, yes?” Toc smiled gently at the boy, and Saer nodded slowly. “Good. I will see to your linens, then. Or do you need me to stay and help you?”
Saer shook his head quickly, an adamant no. A shy blush crept up his cheeks.
“Then I will leave you to it, and check on you when I have your bed ready.”
Saer nodded and waited for him to leave the room before undressing and stepping into the bath. He sat very still, his eyes darting about the well-lit white stone room, and let the warmth of the water soak into his chilled bones.
In a short while there was a tap at the door, and Saer squeaked with a startled gasp. Toc stepped into the room with Saer’s spare nightshirt and a clean towel in his hand.
“Here are your things. When you are finished, I have your bed all ready for you.” Toc backed out of the room as quickly as he had entered. Saer rubbed a cloth over his skin, washing away the dream and the sweat, and stepped from the bath. His olive skin glowed pink from the heat of the water and contrasted sharply with the white stone and the light color of his shirt. He dressed quickly and stepped into the hall where Toc was waiting for him. He didn’t say a word to the boy, but held his hand out in an ‘after you’ gesture. He followed Saer down the length of the quiet room, and stood by while he climbed into bed. He pulled the fresh quilt up to Saer’s chest and tucked it tight around him.
“Sleep well, my child.” He smiled down at the boy and turned to leave.
“Wait.” Saer reached up and caught the young man’s hand. “Please sit with me.”
Toc quickly hid his shock behind a warm smile. He sat down once more on the edge of the bed, held Saer’s small hand in his, and watched over him as he slowly drifted off to sleep.