William stared blankly at his feet, twiddling his thumbs. He sniffed and eyed a worm on the dirt beside his sneakers, wriggling gleefully between the blades of grass. He wondered what life would be like, living as a worm. Carefree. Worriless. Just spending all day squishing through the soil, soaking up the moisture. Was it true that when you split a worm in half, it made two new worms? Maybe that was how they controlled the worm population. How many worms could you make if you kept splitting the same two pairs? What if-
A sharp ‘ahem’ sounded from behind William. With a jolt, he turned to see the man behind him displaying a stern expression, indicating to the fact that the queue had moved, and he had not moved along with it. William mumbled a quiet apology and trudged another pace up the stone steps. The heavens cracked with thunder, and the wind blew a strong chill across his shoulders, as if the Gods themselves were scorning him for being such an inconvenience.
He frowned and glanced towards the sky. To the left, the sun beamed brightly, surrounded by nothing but clear, blue skies. To the right, a great swirl of storm clouds rose from the horizon, sinking back down beneath the glow of the moon. For a moment, he could’ve sworn that the two celestial beings winked at him, sharing a brief smile before their faces shimmered into nothingness.
At the front of the queue, William saw two figures, a man and a woman, leaving the Tarot Tent. Their faces were wrought with grief, and they held each other with shaking hands, tears dripping down their faces. Alas, their grip could only last but a mere few seconds, and the pair were catapulted in opposite directions, the man zooming headlong into the cold, desolate face of the moon, and the woman flying upwards into the warm embrace of the sun. A deep, humourless laugh echoed through the air as their bodies disappeared into the upper atmosphere, becoming nothing more but blips in the skyline.
The queue shuffled forward, and William made sure that he moved along with it. Behind him, it stretched on for miles, a slither of bodies twisting across the land, like a serpent in the grass. He could see people still siphoning towards its tail, merging from a shapeless mass of bodies into single file, one by one, each person ordered neatly in front of the other. He could barely remember the day he had joined. It had been so long, everything before was simply a blur in his memory, a jumbled collection of times, dates, years, experiences. He had forgotten what it was like to not have someone standing behind him, their breath hot on his neck, their eyes burning a hole in the back of his head. How long would it be until everyone on Earth had their turn? Decades, centuries, even?
A rough jangling noise rose from behind William, snapping him out of his daydream. A red-faced man with a huge backpack was trekking up the side of the hill, stopping every few seconds to catch his breath. In one hand, he held a beige suitcase, and in the other, he held his striped fedora to his head. He turned to the queue and unzipped his trouser pocket, pulling out a curved ornament.
“Luck charms! Getch’a luck charms!” the man bellowed. “Good karma guarantee! 100% satisfactory! No refunds…”
He stopped to catch his breath once more, nearly slipping on the grass. A well-trimmed moustache sat above his upper lip, and his face was aged and wrinkled. It was the face of a man who was far too old for such a physically demanding activity. Nevertheless, he soldiered on, waving his little statue around for the queue to see, as they bit their lips in contemplation.
“I’ll take one!” a voice rose from the line. The man rushed over, and soon, dozens were clamouring for the little wooden figures, their fistfuls of cash falling neatly into his suitcase as he distributed the ‘charms’.
“How about you, good sir?” the man spoke as he approached William’s spot in the line. “Are you feeling lucky today?”
William sighed and stared off into the distance, avoiding the man’s greedy eyes.
“N-no. I’m alright, thank you. Keeping my fingers crossed, ha-ha!” He smiled weakly as the man turned back towards the rest of the queue.
“Sorry folks, I’m all out,” he shouted. A general groan rose from the empty-handed customers. “Maybe in the next life, eh?” He chuckled as he made his way back down the hill, swinging his suitcase by his side.
A few minutes passed. The line’s attention was captured by a sudden whoosh of air overhead. An ecstatic-looking man in a whitish robe was whisking down the hill on a cloud, leaving a trail of fog in his wake. Halfway down the hill, he leaped from the cloud, and with a tap of his wand, vanished into thin air. The queue collectively grumbled in jealousy. The Magician was arguably one of the greatest cards to receive, after all.
William stepped forward once again, and the top of the Tarot Tent came into view. Its purple exterior flapped softly in the breeze, and his heart rose to his throat as he realised just how close he was to his judgment. Was he ready? His confidence had before been so unwavering, yet now, when he was just moments away…
William felt a hand on his back, and he nearly lost his balance as a slender, red-haired woman pushed him aside, quickly scaling the steps as she shoved the last few people out of her way.
“Hey, you can’t just cut in like that!” someone shouted. The rest of the line gave an agreeable cry, and the woman scowled as she glanced upon the queue victoriously.
“You snooze, you lose, assholes!”
She turned and fled into the Tarot Tent. In just a few seconds, she had emerged from the peak of the hill, engulfed in flames, gargling an ear-splitting scream. She begged the queue for water, ranting and raving hysterically as the fire licked across her flesh, dripping the skin from her bones. No-one would even cast a look in her direction. In her panic, she tripped, and began to tumble down the incline. By the time she had reached the bottom, all that was left of her was a pile of bones and ashes. William gulped and wiped the sweat off his forehead. Only three more people to go.
William felt his breath quickening. He fidgeted more and more, tapping his foot, shaking his hand, scraping at his nails with the chip in his front tooth. It seemed as if the pressure wasn’t just getting to him. The sound of grinding teeth could be heard from a few spaces behind him, coupled with a calming tune being hummed by an elderly woman. The slightest noise created a moderate disturbance among the rest of the line, whether it was the bleating of sheep from a nearby field or the crack of a storm miles away. Still, no-one spoke. No-one muttered a word of conversation. It was strange, William remembered how talkative people had been at the very back of the queue, making friends with each other and singing songs of goodwill and commenting on every little thing that happened at the tent. As time went on, it seemed people had just…stopped.
There was a sudden flash of light, and William squinted at a man outside the Tarot Tent spinning at an indescribable speed, generating a rush of wind that threatened to pull him from his place in the queue. A moment of panic gripped the crowd, and the tension threatened to break the line’s structure. With another flare of energy, the man shot upwards into the sky like a rocket, joining the billions of other stars in the sky.
Another fate, another step closer. It was funny, William thought, the way the line slithered upwards whenever the next person’s turn was due, like the crest of a wave on the shore.
The entirety of the tent was visible now. It was the closest view William ever gotten. The purple cloth draped across its frame was worn and ragged, torn in some places and loose in others. Two dark curtains obscured the entrance, concealing whatever mysteries lay hidden inside. It was smaller up close then it seemed from afar. From a first glance, you would never be able to tell that it had been the sole decider of millions of people’s lives, and the sole decider for millions of people to come.
William’s armpits were dampening. His shoes felt tighter, and his fingertips were numb and tingly. Surely, he must be overreacting. Not all the fates were bad, right?
He leaned over the side of the queue to see for himself. The next fate would be a good one, he assured himself, something like The Lovers.
A middle-aged woman trudged out from between the curtains, clamping her mouth shut with her hand. Her thin, pale figure reminded William of a school librarian or a canteen worker, someone whose innocence was surely proven. Her wandering stare met his and William saw a spark of evil ignite in her soul, a burst of pure black smoke behind the eyes, emitting an energy the likes of which he had never felt before. The woman smiled, but only slightly, the creases of her lips bending upwards before the ground swallowed her whole, leaving nothing behind except for the cross she wore around her neck.
William began to hyperventilate. His mind screamed at him to leave the queue, to get as far away from the tent as possible, but he refused to give in. His legs wobbled tremendously, threatening to give way at any moment. He clenched his fists and shut his eyes. “You’ll be okay. You’ll be okay. You’ll be okay,” he whispered to himself. His heartbeat thudded in his ears like a marching band.
In went the next person, holding the trinket he had bought from the salesman. William gasped and turned back towards the line. Through all his worrying, he had barely stopped to comprehend it: he was at the front of the queue. After so much waiting, he was finally there. He almost wished he could live in the moment forever, staring dumbfounded at the queue before him, until he heard a rustling from the tent curtains.
The man stumbled dozily from between the flaps, a jester hat atop his head and a knapsack swung over his shoulder. He twitched, his jaw slack and his mouth lazily hanging open. He looked dirtier than before, two errant flies buzzing around his ears.
“Are…are you alright?” William felt inclined to ask.
He cocked his head and babbled a sentence of nonsense words, turning and walking down the hill before William could utter a word of reply.
William pondered on the man’s fate for only a moment longer, before he came to a horrifying realisation. It was his turn. His body screeched to a halt, yet a strange force compelled him forwards, against almost every fibre in his body. Strangely, the power showed not the slightest hint of malevolence, rather, the opposite. The closer he moved towards the tent, the more at ease William began to feel. The blood rushed back into his head, and he let out his last whimper of protest as he slipped between the velvet screen.
William dropped to his knees, taking a gulp of air so big, he almost choked on it. He spluttered and dry-heaved onto the wooden flooring, a slither of white vapour escaping his mouth, parting along with the rest of his nausea.
“My, the Ether’s not been too kind to this one,” a nearby voice spoke. It was craggy and old, even croaky on some words.
“The Ether?” William questioned, letting out his final coughs.
“The Void. The Abyss. The reality, or rather, the unreality that separates this place from the world you have arrived from. Simply put, it is the portal through which you have travelled to come here. It treats its occupants rather unfairly, favouring some and disliking others on a rather random basis. Much like people do, I suppose. Do not fret, the return journey tends to be much easier once you have experienced the Ether for the first time. You have spent far longer in there then you would ever wish to know. Best to leave those memories forgotten, eh?”
William reached out and pressed a hand against the sealed curtains.
“Now, now, let’s not get too hasty. No-one leaves this realm until I will it so. You can try if you wish, but I must warn you that those curtains, right now, right here, in this place, they are not just curtains anymore. They are a closed gateway, and no mortal instrument can hope to break them. Not that it looks like you are in any particular condition to try.”
With a long exhale, William pulled himself off the ground. Inside, the tent was…moderately underwhelming. It hid no secret dimensions nor glittering diamonds as William had often meditated on during his time in the queue. The air held a certain mystical aura about it, but otherwise, there were no particularly special qualities. The fabric of the tent was the same tattered purple as the outside, with fairy lights haphazardly strung up around the ceiling. Wax dripped from burning candelabras along the edges of the tent, casting dancing shadows along the tent walls. It was warm, comfortable enough to relax in but not enough to lose sharpness of one’s senses.
“There, that’s better. Stretch out your back, get some air down your throat,” the voice continued. “My, you look disappointed. You expected a much grander venue then this, no? Most do, I suppose. It’s a tragedy that so many these days have lost the ability to appreciate the humbler things in life. But I won’t ramble. Now come, child, my eyesight has grown worse over these last few millennia and I wish to see you.”
William walked towards the voice, feeling as if he was taking his first steps since he was born.
It was a hideous being, sat at an old table with its withered arms lying idle on the surface, flaking off skin. It was vaguely humanoid, but more skeleton-like, with dusty, grey hair that piled at the floor behind its seat, and curled nails that twisted into spirals at the ends of its fingers. Its ribcage bulged against the tightly wound skin on its chest, threatening to burst free at any moment, and its eyes were sunk deep into its head, little more than black marbles set against the brittle bone.
“Ah, you are young. A boy of no more than…” It sniffed the air, wrinkling its dried-out nose. “Eighteen or nineteen, correct? I can feel the light in your eyes, unmarred by the world’s wrath. Tell me, why have you come here so early in your life? Are you running from somewhere, someone, perhaps? Or are you running from a life that you never had in the first place, hmm?”
“How old are you?” William blurted out, immediately slapping his mouth closed with his palm. “Gosh, I-I’m sorry I didn’t mean to cause offense-”
“Ha! Your courtesy is much appreciated. It’s been a while since I have had such a polite guest. Speaking of which, where are my manners? You may refer to me as The Teller. And, as for my age? I lost count many years ago. Besides, it is of no importance, I assure you. This meeting is about you. And you are, as I understand…”
The Teller pulled out a huge list from under his table, mumbling to himself as he sorted through the names.
“William. I’m glad to see you’ve kept your proper position in line. Unlike that red-headed girl from before. If it was my place to say, I would tell you she got exactly what was coming to her.”
William frowned. “But you are the one who decides people’s fates, right?”
The Teller shook its head.
“I am not the one who judge your path, William. It is the universe that sets your fate. I am merely the vessel through which that outcome flows. That is why I am called the Teller.”
An awkward pause cut the conversation as William stopped to process what he was hearing.
“We…we aren’t on a time crunch here, are we?” William asked, scratching his neck. “I mean, isn’t there everyone else behind me that needs to go soon as well?”
“Time is a human construct; it has no meaning in this place. A year in this realm could equal 30 seconds in the world you know, if I wanted it to be.”
The Teller sighed.
“Many people simply want their fortunes over and done with, no chitchat, no questions asked. Just in, out and off they go. When the fortune is rushed, it is…not as special, you know? That is why it is so refreshing to be able to speak with someone who takes their time. So please, take your time, William. Do you have any questions before we begin the reading?”
William turned and rubbed his hand against his chin. Here he was, with the opportunity to have any of the millions of questions that had gnawed at the back of his mind for so long in the queue answered, and he couldn’t think of a single one. His brain buzzed like a beehive; each thought lost in a cascade of activity. He managed to fish out one singular query from the mess in his mind and pushed it onto his tongue.
“The people who never leave the tent, the ones who go in, with the next person going in before they leave, what happens to them? Where do they go?” William asked, resting his head on his palm.
The Teller nodded.
It leaned down to the lowest part of the table, its bones cracking with every small movement it made. Out of a drawer it pulled a set of glass globes, and William leaned in closer to see the contents.
In the leftmost globe was a slender building, ablaze and tortured by lightning strikes. People jumped from the tallest windows, their bodies breaking onto the rocks below, only to re-appear back in the tower moments later, suffocating in smoke. Another bolt of lightning struck, and the entire structure crumbled, crushing the rest of the inhabitants, only for the nightmare to start straight back up again as the building quickly rebuilt itself.
The next globe housed, at first glance, an ordinary forest of leafless oak trees. William looked up to the Teller in confusion, who gestured back towards the globe, imploring him to look deeper.
Upon further inspection, William saw that each tree held a single body, tied upside-down with bags over their heads. The bodies writhed and squirmed against their restraints, and he could just about hear the communal screams of millions of voices crying out into the air at once.
William shuddered and moved to the third globe. A never-ending parade of chariots were marching down a busy city street, cheered on by a crowd of energetic spectators. Roses and jewellery were thrown at the processions, as music played and people partied in the alleyways, spraying bottles of champagne.
Inside the final globe was the mouth of a huge cave.
“Give them a moment, they’ll come out soon,” the Teller croaked.
Soon enough, a flurry of people began to trickle out of the cave entrance. Their bodies were sub-human, lesser evolved, as it seemed, and they were clothed in primitive, shabby attire, made from plant leaves and patches of wool. They stared up at William’s huge eyes with trepidation, some hiding away their young behind their hunched frames, baring their teeth.
Beneath each globe, William saw a distinctive label.
“THE HANGED MEN”
“I believe that satisfies your question, does it not?” the Teller spoke.
“Yes,” William replied. “Please, tell me my fortune.”
A puff of smoke blew across the table, clouding William’s vision. The smoke cleared to reveal the full tarot set held within the Teller’s bony hands. The cards flicked between the creature’s fingers effortlessly, some being discarded off to the side, the number slowly dropping, 12 cards, then 11, then, 10, then 9…
“Yes, yes, I feel it coming. Your fate, it is soon to arrive. Be still, now.”
The Teller squinted at the deck as it poured through the last remaining cards. William could barely watch, peeking at the cards through his fingers.
One left. The Teller slid the card into his palm and glanced down at its inscription.
“Now there’s one I haven’t seen in a while…”
“What? What is it?!” William half-shouted. The suspense was close to killing him.
The Teller flipped the card on the table. Card IV, The Emperor.
“Wh…what?” William whispered in shock. He backed away from the table, rubbing his hands along the side of his face.
“Do not fight your fate, William, it will do you no good. You have received a very special gift.”
“A gift? I am no emperor. I’m…I’m a coward. I was terrified of coming here, from the very moment I joined that queue, and now you’re telling me I’m going to be an emperor? I’m not fit to lead a flock of sheep, let alone an empire!”
“The Universe has decided your fate, William.”
“The Universe is wrong!” William exploded.
“The Universe is never wrong!” the Teller responded, in a much harsher tone. “You have come here for one thing and one thing only, to know your fate, and now your fate has been given to you.”
“…what happens now?”
“You will forget all this. You will forget any notion of who I am, or where you are, and each and every one of your old memories will be washed away. I am sorry, William, but there is no turning back now.”
“This…this isn’t fair.”
“It is not your place to decide your own fate, William, you know that as much as I do.”
William leapt to the curtains, clawing his nails against their surface. They felt as hard as rock.
“Let me out! Please! Somebody help me!”
The Teller frowned.
“It was nice meeting you, William. I wish you well.”
It began chanting, a bizarre, incomprehensible language that William could not understand. He leapt from corner to corner punching the tent until his knuckles wore red, snapping the candelabras and ripping down the fairy lights. A great sphere of blackness rose from the Teller’s hands, increasing in size as the chanting became faster and faster, drowning out William’s screams for help, the Teller’s shrivelled eyes turning a deep purple.
The sphere launched itself at William. He vanished as it came into contact with his cowering body, one last scream echoing through the tent before he was gone.
The Teller coughed, breathing deeply.
“Poor kid…” it mumbled to itself, clearing its throat.
“And that concludes the chapter on Early British History!”
The class groaned a sigh of relief. Miss Alderson never made learning about monarchies fun. She smiled at the front of the classroom, endlessly pleased with herself, while the bored students sat around twiddling their pencils and passing notes that her elderly eyes failed to see.
“Now before we move on to the next chapter, let’s recap a few key points from this one first!”
The class groaned once more.
“Question 1: Through which log was the Battle of Hastings documented?”
“The Bayeux Tapestry,” the students replied.
“Question 2: What famous battle occurred during 1066?”
“The Battle of Hastings,” the students replied once more.
“Question 3: Who won this battle?”
The class was silent for a few seconds, until the nerdy girl at the front desk shot up her hand.
“William,” the girl answered. “William the Conqueror.”
Written by Cornconic