By K.M. Small
Madiya would do better on this final day of her existence. No wincing, weeping, or hiding. She would be the solemn, dutiful Lifewarden she always should have been. Beginning now.
Shadows draped over the furniture in the small Lifewarden cottage. Death hung over Madiya’s mind like that darkness, clouding all her thoughts. Except the one that chided her for sleeping through her last chance to enjoy the beams of dawn penetrating the curtains and casting beautiful patterns on the floor. But she needed no such distractions today. As she rose from her cot, a vision crashed into her.
Thirty-six years in the future, fire devoured the cottage’s wooden structure in seconds, transforming it into gray flakes. A place that held thousands of memories for generations of Lifewardens blew away in a tauntingly soft breeze.
Madiya snapped back to the present, the only change being the fading odor of smoke. What had Touched her? Another move, and the vision would replay—
Stop. She clenched her hands and skimmed her clothing. Black cloak drawn up to her chin and over her white hair, leaving only her face and a slit of her dress exposed. Glove on her left hand, with her right hand free for Touching objects and people. Socks—that must be where the breach was.
She inspected her right foot. The fabric had torn at the heel, creating a nail-sized hole. After forty-seven years with this particular sock, what else had she expected? She would have to cope with watching the Demise of everything her skin Touched unless she wanted to be seen shopping for another sock on her last day. That would be enough to incur the derision of the officials and her family.
Look at the eldest Lifewarden of the Zaman family, trembling at even the destruction of the dirt she treads on. She’s too pathetic to fight for anything.
After one hundred and nine years, Madiya should have overcome her sensitivity. If she succeeded at repairing her family’s reputation today, maybe her three younger siblings would turn their sneers into smiles before her heart ceased beating. Maybe she wouldn’t sink into her grave as the weak one.
Madiya hopped across the room on her left foot without too much difficulty, as her body hadn’t aged in appearance and vigor beyond a regular mortal in her early thirties. She steeled herself and slipped on her right sandal. An image of the leather burning flashed before her. The premonition would come true tomorrow, for nothing could escape reality.
Madiya opened the door with her gloved hand. The sun had swung up over the edge of the world in its deathless cycle, sprinkling golden rays across the cottages that clustered around ripe fields of crops. Trees with white bark sat in clumps, and red fire-leaves fluttered down that the citizens of Athsam would sweep onto stone paths to melt the snow in the winter. A carpet of the coruscant foliage wound away from Madiya’s doorstep.
Just like every other morning, a town official awaited her with a roster of assignments that would make practical use of her abilities and supposedly silence the public’s outcries against Lifestones. Did all Lifewardens harbor convictions like Madiya’s father? If so, why was society structured around their role?
Madiya couldn’t let herself ask those questions. She just hoped she would breathe her last before witnessing another person’s Demise. She might crack like her father and ruin everything.
Despite the snide curl of the official’s lips, Madiya kept her chin high. After her father condemned the work of Lifewardens on his public deathbed eight days ago, gossip and doubts had erupted, which angered the leaders and officials who employed Madiya’s family. “Fix this,” they’d demanded. “Prove yourself and your family. Or we’ll find other Lifewardens who can.” The glares of Madiya’s siblings had clearly communicated how they would remember her if she failed.
“Greetings, venerable Lifewarden.” The official bowed with customary reverence. “Here are your opportunities for the day.”
Madiya unrolled the scroll with her gloved hand. The providence leaders called the tasks “opportunities” as a persuasive tactic, yet Lifewardens needed no enticing. They ardently believed that every job, no matter how menial, was necessary. Rare anomalies such as themselves welcomed any means of fitting into society.
The official’s eyes bored into Madiya as she scanned the list. Praise the deities, it only contained two items. First, bestowing a Lifestone on an infant born yesterday at a house down the road. Madiya suppressed a grimace before it broke her composure. Second, a youth needed a new Lifestone?
She flicked an inquiring gaze at the official. Her irises, like all Lifewardens’, gleamed white with thin black lines exploding from her pupil. The official jerked back a little before speaking.
“One of the local farmers had a situation. A youth named Klien was contracted by his parents to work there. However, after last week’s…event, Klien ran off and destroyed his Lifestone. Though his Date of Birth cannot be replaced, his employer requires knowledge of his Date of Demise. Klien is at the village central when you are ready.”
“Why did he—” She pressed her mouth into a line. The answer was obvious—her father had influenced the boy—but she had to ask anyway. Be firm, commanding, and calm. “Tell me why he destroyed his Lifestone and why he is in prison.”
“He is guilty of attempting to forge a new Lifestone, though that will be forgiven so he can return to labor. The reason he gave for his actions was ‘artistic ambition.’”
Ah. The youth likely had an early Date of Demise. No artist would pour time into an apprentice bound to pass on before reaching full mastery.
The official extended a scrap of paper. “The youth sent along this plea, Lifewarden.”
Madiya squinted at the flourishing, exaggerated script.
Please don’t force another Lifestone on me. I dream of being an artist, a poet. I have ever since I can remember, but people have warned me that I’ll die too young. I don’t even know when that is because I never looked at my Lifestone. I think they’re foolish. I don’t mean to offend you, but I don’t care if no one will apprentice me. Just use your authority as a Lifewarden to get me out of here. My employer doesn’t need me. Deities! How can I be happy if I’m trapped—
The handwriting vanished as if someone had snatched the paper from Klien. A memory stabbed through Madiya, much blurrier than her visions when she Touched something. A weathered face over five hundred years old, and eyes that had seen much but strained to see more. “Child, something is wrong. The leaders insist that we bring people purpose and contentment, but do we?”
Madiya mentally shook herself. Her father had been ailing, and this youth did not understand. Death offered men and women an identity and a worthwhile trade, showing them how to thrive until darkness overtook them. That was the most vital truth anyone could possess. Klien’s Date of Demise would encourage him to engage in fulfilling work instead of pointless pursuits.
But he sounds so passionate. What if studying poetry would please him more? What if—
No. Knowledge of death would make him happy. That was the First Statute of the Lifewardens. She must cling to it to protect her siblings, to earn acceptance, to complete her own life admirably.
“Lifewarden?” The official narrowed his eyes at her. He had watched her intently all week, seeming to record every twitch on her face as she’d Touched various objects. Since Lifewardens tended to make people with normal life spans uncomfortable, a providence official accompanied them to placate outbursts, as well as monitor their progress very, very closely. Was Madiya the only one who thought that odd?
She folded the scroll and returned it. “I will come to the village central as soon as I am finished with the infant.” Without waiting for a reply, she turned and strode down the trail to her first destination.
Sliding her bare hand beneath her cloak, she avoided falling leaves and thousands of images of rot. Yet, when she imagined what would happen the moment her skin Touched a different surface, her stomach twisted. How many deaths had she forecast? And never, never did she harden. Illness, slaughter, drowning, and fire all hurt, reeking of an inherent wrongness.
“You are a Lifewarden. You do not flinch at death.” Her father’s words. Until the end.
Madiya veered left down a narrower lane, and the official caught up with her, though neither of them spoke. They both were aware that she wouldn’t be here tomorrow. She felt nothing about it—perhaps tension overrode fear, or perhaps she’d resigned herself to the inevitable.
If Klien rejected death’s bookend, how could he find his purpose? What meaning could his efforts have if he never mastered a craft? And even if he did become a poet, what good could he bring the world before he departed?
What if life is less about what one does and more about—
Madiya stifled a gasp. Praise the deities that the official couldn’t read her thoughts.
At the end of the lane, a weary cottage nestled among a copse of short trees. The yard hadn’t been cleared yet, and fire-leaves blackened the dried grass. Madiya straightened her shoulders as the official knocked on the front door. A woman with curly golden hair and a patched apron opened it. Sari, who’d receive a shoulder wound during a bandit attack in thirty-four years, then bleed to death while her husband wept over her. Though Madiya didn’t Touch the woman now, the flashback from the ritual at her birth almost blocked out her quiet greeting.
The main room of the cottage gaped with no more than a worn couch, a rickety table, and two chairs to fill it. Sari smiled and lifted a baby out of the roughly hewn crib atop the table. Joy leaked through the exhaustion on her face as she eased into a seat, adjusting the thin blankets swaddling the infant.
“His name is Tobin, after his father.”
Please let him live long. Madiya swallowed and resisted the urge to glance at the official, who had stationed himself by the door. She removed a fist-sized stone from a pouch beneath her cloak, but no vision sliced into her mind. The Lifestones were indestructible. Allegedly. How had Klien even dented his? Had one of her siblings or parents foreseen the rock’s Demise and kept it a secret?
Hush. You must concentrate on your responsibilities. Madiya set the stone on the table and poised a sharp, pen-like utensil above it. “Tobin was born yesterday?”
When Sari nodded, Madiya carefully etched the date on the Lifestone. Then she stretched her hand toward the child. Tobin slept in his mother’s arms, peace radiating from his face. Somehow that made him seem healthier and more alive. Peace and rest were of life—they were right. A faint smile curved Madiya’s lips. She Touched Tobin’s forehead.
Weeping pierced her ears, punctuated by rasping breaths. Tobin lay in the same crib that was on the table. Red splotches mottled his face, and his chest suddenly stopped moving. The wailing grew louder.
Madiya recoiled. The cottage reappeared around her, bringing Sari’s widened eyes into focus. “Lifewarden! Lifewarden, what is it?”
Madiya had been twelve years old the first time she Touched an infant and beheld an oncoming disease. “Knowledge of death leads to a satisfying life,” her parents had explained. “Do not doubt your service to the world. Let it reassure you that you have a purpose. Everyone does, and in that is happiness.”
“I…” Madiya tore her gaze from Tobin, dropping her tone to a whisper. “He will die in two days.”
For a moment, Sari stared as though not comprehending. But a Lifewarden’s visions never lied. Tears misted the mother’s eyes like a funeral shroud covering a corpse. She cradled Tobin closer to her chest as she released a soft cry.
The knot in Madiya’s chest expanded to a splitting ache. She should say something wise and consoling that reinforced how she’d saved Sari from false hopes about raising her child into a man. Madiya’s siblings managed to remain stoic while encountering death every day of their lives, and the stability of society depended on it.
Numbly, Madiya carved the Date of Demise on the Lifestone. The official was telling Sari that she didn’t need to worry about matching Tobin with a suitable trade.
“Why?” Sari’s voice cracked. “Why, Lifewarden?”
Madiya’s back prickled under the official’s scrutiny. “The knowledge of death brings happiness,” she recited mechanically. “You will love Tobin more now.”
Sari’s body shuddered with sobs. Unbidden tears veiled Madiya’s own vision. Would revoking the stone convince the mother that this was all a nightmare? Deities, Madiya just wanted a task that she wouldn’t hate herself for, one that warmed her. Yes, Sari would have mourned in two days regardless. But why hasten her torment, forcing her to fix her eyes on death like an executioner’s blade? How could someone truly live like that?
Madiya had lived. Hadn’t she?
“Child, something is wrong.”
“Lifewarden.” The official summoned her back to the present, and she pivoted sharply, tugging on the hood of her cloak so that it concealed her emotions. Outside, the scent of smoke from the fire-leaves choked her. In her mind, providence leaders, town officials, and other Lifewardens glared at her in perplexity.
She slowed beside a field. Men cut through the yellowed grass with scythes while others raked aside fire-leaves that could singe the crops. They paused to gawk at her, and a burden pressed down on her shoulders. She’d helped them, ushered them toward their callings. Deities consume her conscience if it disagreed.
Within hours, she’d experience her last vision of human death before she met her own. Endure that chore, win approval, and die. She’d demonstrate the value of the Lifestones and snuff out the skeptics. Quelling any further misgivings, she quickened her pace.
The village central’s tall, alabaster structure jutted above the rolling fields. Madiya’s funeral would take place there tomorrow. But the masses gathered around the announcement platform signaled that a spectacle had already begun.
Madiya spun toward the official. “What is going on?”
He gestured for her to continue walking. “The providence leaders are concerned about strikes and other disturbances incited by the youth who destroyed his Lifestone. The confusion must be corrected, and you can do that by publicly entreating Klien to accept a new Lifestone.”
Coldness washed over Madiya. Her father had died in the sight of any who cared to watch as evidence of the peace that the Lifestones imparted. But then he had betrayed himself—and all Lifewardens. “Child…”
No! She would accomplish the mission her father had failed. Bracing herself, she strode into the crowd. Townspeople shifted and parted like leaves whisked aside in a breeze. As she ascended the steps, her black cloak flapped in contrast to the white ones belonging to several town officials.
Her final test paced in front of the guards who lined the platform: a dark-haired boy of about sixteen dressed in ragged clothing. The fervor in his expression reminded Madiya of the men who dared to sail off to the uncharted waters in the North. They sold all their possessions but remained stalwart as they embarked. The unknown allured them like a siren’s song only they could hear.
For a heartbeat, the boy’s eyes seemed to mirror her father’s before his lids closed for the last time. Searching with unrelenting determination for something that death had not revealed.
The official who had escorted Madiya earlier stepped around her. The crowd’s murmurs subsided, so his voice carried. “Will you voluntarily receive a Lifestone, boy?”
A typical question to someone old enough to understand Lifestones. Most said yes. Some said no. The answer changed nothing, except now, with so many silently posing the same question.
Panic flared on Klien’s face—the same desperation Madiya’s father had displayed when a revelation struck him as his life slipped away. The boy clenched his hands, knuckles whitening. “Lifewarden, please. No one really needs me for work. Let me go!”
All at once, the crowd’s and the officials’ anticipation suffocated Madiya. Even the wind seemed to cease breathing. Speak to us of death, of what’s important, Lifewarden. Share the wisdom you’ve gained through decades of dwelling among us.
The First Statute. That was the only reasonable response she could muster. “Klien, all will die one day. Knowledge of that is a blessing. It instills purpose and, therefore, happiness.”
Klien staggered back. “Who are you to box in someone’s life? To dictate what they can and cannot do? You make people live in fear. It’s like an executioner holding a sword to your throat for years and counting down the moment until he swings his blade.”
Sari’s weeping echoed in a corner of Madiya’s mind, causing her voice to falter. “You will be more productive when you are conscious of how much time you have.”
“More productive?” Klein scoffed. “At what? A job I detest, that’s an ill fit for me? Meanwhile, I abandon my dreams because I won’t have enough time to fulfill them? Is that how you measure a human being’s life, Deathwarden? Tell me if your Date of Demise has inspired you to use your time better.”
Madiya’s mouth went dry. The crowd studied her, waiting like a roiling storm about to spit lightning. Why, Lifewarden? Your answer doesn’t appease us.
“You mustn’t speak so disrespectfully to a Lifewarden,” the official barked.
Cling to that authority! Madiya sucked air into her lungs, preparing to deliver more lessons from the First Statute. “Klien, death is a reality none can escape. Would you prefer to wallow in ignorance, without purpose? Do you suppose that one as young as you can grasp the source of true happiness? Accept the Lifestone. One day you will understand.”
Klien looked her directly in the eye. “One day you will understand that you spent your entire life conforming to a pattern that others set for you because you’re a coward.”
Madiya stiffened. For a century, she’d attempted to bury her stricken conscience in a grave only for it to resurrect each time she pronounced another death.
“Child, something is wrong.”
Father had sensed the despair they wrought. And so had she. People didn’t die on their Date of Demise but the instant she engraved symbols on a Lifestone.
The official shouted. Klien was trying to run, but the guards grabbed his arms. He struggled and fell to his knees. “What harm will the loss of one farmhand cause? I’ll find a way to pay my employer to break the contract. Or—or knock me out so I won’t have to hear when I’ll die. Please! I want to be free!”
Madiya’s vision blurred. Her siblings would curse her for however many centuries they lived. The town officials and providence leaders would as well. Yet, as her gaze locked on Sari’s tearstained face and the infant enfolded in her arms, honor morphed into a new shape.
“Have you no gratitude for the sacrifices Lifewardens make for you?” the official snapped, wagging a finger at Klien and then the crowd. “Have you no reverence for one gifted by the deities? Listen to her! She speaks and acts for your good!”
The official’s censure settled on Madiya last. His eyes were hard, like the other Lifewardens and officials Madiya had devoted her life to believing, obeying, and seeking to please. For duty. For happiness.
Madiya shifted her attention to Klien. Grief, desperation, and a deep, hopeful longing shimmered in his eyes. She couldn’t identify what that desire was for. But if she was a warden of life, not death, perhaps her true duty was to allow him to find it.
“Thank you, child,” she whispered.
“Lifewarden.” The official shattered the stillness. “What do you have to say to everyone?”
Madiya tucked her bare hand beneath her cloak, never to pull it out again. Strength flooded through her. She nodded first at the crowd, then the officials.
“Knowledge of death does not bring happiness. Release Klien.”
K.M. Small is a storyteller, adventurer, and phoenix rider from California. A restless imagination led her to fall in love with building worlds, creating characters, and striving to place goodness, truth, and beauty at the center of her stories. K.M. is the author of “For Felicity: A Short Story,” and she has also been published in Havok magazine, Kingdom Pen, and Project Canvas. Two of her short stories have placed as honorable mentions in Story Embers’ annual short story contest. When she’s not writing, K.M. is pursuing a liberal arts education, exploring the outdoors, painting, or attempting to corral a horde of philosophical and whimsical thoughts (with the help of her trusty phoenix, of course). You can find her at KM-Small.com.