Serena could change the future.
Most days it wasn’t all that interesting. She’d see a potential future in her dreams where she’d break a pitcher or lose a button and, upon waking, simply take a different set of actions to avert the mishap. A far cry from the days of her youth when a warlord had tried to use her powers to win conquests. But Serena didn’t mind the slower pace. It was better when people’s lives didn’t rest on her ability to alter the future. She’d become accustomed to leisurely visions of village life.
But then she foresaw her son’s death.
Serena sat on the edge of her bed, the battered wood rough against her stout thighs. Bells rang in the distance as she rubbed her cheeks. She’d went through this routine of sitting on her cot and rubbing her face every morning when she was in the warlord’s employ. It helped her focus on changing the future. But she hadn’t needed to concentrate this hard for a while, and the circumstances were different. Wrinkles etched her cheeks after many years of living on the earth. Her hands had toughened from being a washwoman since her husband’s death.
And now the stakes were much more personal.
That night, a hostile warband would discover and raid their small village. Her son Terence would be at the front line of defenses, holding his own. Amid the chaos and clamor, he would face off against the warlord chief amongst glistening flames. In a rare stroke of luck, the warlord chief would slip on a pile of debris. Terence would pierce him with his sword and, by killing the warband’s leader, save the village.
But as he impaled the warlord, the warlord would tear open Terence’s stomach. Serena would stay by his side the whole night, clutching Terence’s hand as he gasped in agony. The village healer would desperately try to stitch together his internal organs, but the efforts would be to no avail. As the sun began to rise, Terence would clasp her hands in his and tell her that he loved her. That he was sorry to leave her behind. Then his soul would pass into the great beyond. And Serena would be alone.
Beams of early morning light broke through the cracks in the shutters, illuminating the small upper room. Serena inhaled. Then exhaled. Then inhaled again. She still felt dizzy. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
For years, her dreams had predicted that Terence would marry Greta, a local village girl, within the next six months. He had already fallen in love with her, and thanks to Serena’s prodding, the betrothal was fast approaching. He would propose to her late one evening in the damp fields outside the village after a cool summer’s rain. She would gasp in astonishment, then cry, then laugh, then say yes.
Serena blinked a tear out of her eye. She had always wanted a daughter.
She’d glimpsed how close her relationship to Greta would be after the marriage. She’d heard the long talks the two of them would have on life, marriage, and childrearing. She’d seen their first child—her first granddaughter. She’d felt the tears roll down her cheeks when she learned they were naming their daughter after her.
Serena leaned back in her bed. Her chest rose and fell quickly. Seeing two conflicting futures should have been impossible. The future only changed if she manipulated it. Hadn’t she been careful to uphold this future? Or had she erred? Her stomach tightened. It couldn’t be. She had been careful. But maybe Sapia, the goddess who gave her visions, had been feeding her false ones.
She had apostatized from Sapia years ago. And the priests did proclaim that heresy bore consequences. Serena had been surprised Sapia didn’t immediately withdraw the visions when she renounced her. But perhaps this was the true punishment.
Serena rubbed her cheeks. She could try warning the village. But ever since she became a heretic, the villagers had stopped listening to her. She could try telling Terence what would happen. But she had taught Terence to value honor too much. He would lay down his life for the village if needed. Alerting him would change nothing.
If only I hadn’t drilled honor into him so much… But, did she really want an honor-less son? Serena swallowed. One other option remained. If she could get him and Greta out of the village without mentioning the impending siege, she could save their lives. After all, her visions did always show them in a different city. This had confused her for a while, but now it made sense. They would live in another city because it was the only way to save Terence’s life. The only way to preserve her future.
But every future had a cost. Serena closed her eyes. Without Terence, the village would be overrun. Houses razed. Goods stolen. Men, women, and children would die.
Serena exhaled slowly as she rubbed her face. Why did it have to be her? Why did the cost have to be so high? She only wished to save her son. Was this an act of the thirteenth god?
“Adolsin,” Serena whispered. “Why have you forced me into this position?”
Serena first read the codes of Adolsin when one of his few followers in the village visited her shortly after her husband’s death. The codes had been inscribed in a torn and ragged book. But the realization that Adolsin loved his followers, rather than merely tolerating or using them, had captured her. After a long period of questioning whether or not this deity existed, she finally relented and accepted him. She had felt such peace upon accepting him as her deity that, in response, she swore to be honorable. Faithful. Humble. Ready to sacrifice her interests for the good of others. Just like his code asked of her. Adolsin promised to bless those who followed him faithfully.
But now following Adolsin would cost the death of her son.
Scenes from her visions flashed before her eyes. The sheepish grin spreading across Terence’s face every time he saw his wife. The journey to the nearby waterfall, when they would sit for hours in contented silence. The beautiful weight of her granddaughter against her chest…
Serena’s hands felt cold against her cheeks. It wasn’t just her son she would lose. It had been hard enough when her husband died ten years ago. But now she would be truly alone.
A forgotten, widowed washwoman in the back country of Morshan.
Serena slowly lowered her hands from her face and stood. She would tell Terence she wanted to go to the festival in the nearby town to buy items from the large market that she couldn’t obtain in their little village. She would encourage him to bring Greta along. She wouldn’t need to ask twice. They would be absent when the warband attacked.
And the future would be changed.
Serena slowly exhaled. If she did this, blood would be on her hands. No one else in the world would know. But when they returned from the festival, she would see the dead bodies, and she would know, carrying the guilt with her forever.
Serena quivered, and she almost fell back onto her bed. But if she didn’t do it, an entire future would be erased. Years of promised dreams would never come to pass. She’d never see Terence and Greta’s joy-filled eyes at their wedding. Never see Greta’s stomach swell with her first child. Never see her granddaughter’s chubby hands and freckled face.
Her eyes stung. No matter what her deity wanted, life was meant to have a greater purpose than washing clothes. She wanted to care for a young couple. Advise a daughter-in-law. Raise a granddaughter. Invest in people.
Serena tied a sash about her waist and fumbled around for her sandals before finding them next to the chipped dresser. She shoved her feet into them and gazed at the back of the polished steel plate to see her reflection. She brushed several strands of hair from her face and wiped her eyes. She hadn’t cried yet. She could still present herself in public.
She stepped out of her bedroom and descended the stairs, the wood creaking under her feet. Terence would have already left to handle his duties at the cobbler’s. His apprenticeship would be over in a couple months and he could run his own shop. He would start at this new town they were moving to.
Serena crossed the small kitchen, stirring dust beneath her feet. They were still saving up for a wooden floor. Not that there was any point in buying a wooden floor now. The house would likely be burned to the ground by the following day.
She pushed open the door. The twittering of birds filled the air. A couple children raced by her, pursuing a bouncing ball. Serena’s stomach churned, and she staggered, tears blurring her vision. But she steadied herself and waited until the lump faded from her throat.
As she headed down the street, the smoke from a nearby blacksmith trickled into her nostrils. Will the whole village smell like this after tonight?
She shook her head. She couldn’t think about that. Besides, the village wasn’t guaranteed to suffer. She hadn’t seen for sure how that future would unfold without Terence. The battle would be harder. The villagers would probably lose. But perhaps someone else would take his place and kill the warlord.
A young married couple strolled ahead of her. Serena couldn’t hear their conversation, but she observed the way the man leaned over to whisper in his wife’s ear. The way she wrapped her arm around his waist. The way their bodies moved together—the awkward pace of two people learning how to walk together. Will that be Terence and Greta in a couple months?
She emerged in the center of town. The sign for the cobbler’s shop swayed in the wind ahead of her, just visible beyond the top of the village well. A young mother sat by the well, an infant in her lap. The child was reaching its tiny fingers toward the mother’s face and trying to grab her lip, an expression of delight on his face. The mother smiled and bent her head to satisfy the child’s explorative urges. The child grasped her lip. The mother laughed.
Something snapped inside Serena. Her knees buckled. She sank to the ground beside the well and stared at the broken cobblestones, blinking back a wetness she couldn’t suppress anymore.
“I … I only want to save my family,” Serena whispered to Adolsin. “Is that so wrong of me?” But could she let the children playing in the streets, the couple in the throes of youthful love, and the mother playing with her child suffer the tragedy she dreaded for her family?
Tears trickled down Serena’s cheeks. It was wrong. It was wrong to take her son and leave the villagers to be slaughtered. But how could she endure life without her family?
A couple passed her on the street. Both avoided eye contact with her. No one knew what to do with a heretic.
Especially a weeping heretic.
Serena slumped against the stones of the well. She could hear the mother nearby still playing with her child. No matter how much Serena longed to protect her family, what kind of person would she be if she were willing to sacrifice the lives of so many villagers for…
For her happiness.
Serena’s shoulders shuddered. This loss would be more painful than the bereavement of her husband. Because this time she had beheld the future she would never get to experience. And she was worshiping a god who claimed to care for the lives of his followers.
None of the twelve gods cared. They would honor the skilled few who sought them with blessings. But otherwise, they paid no attention to humans. Sapia hadn’t cared when Serena’s husband died. That was why she had abandoned her for a heretical god who promised to personally care for his followers.
But the problem with Adolsin was that he was personal. He did care about those who followed him. And it turned out that Adolsin was a cruel god. He wasn’t content for people to follow him with lukewarm interest. In his code, he demanded everything from his followers.
She hadn’t understood what that meant at the time. She was simply happy to have someone to console her after her husband’s death. And he had comforted her when she prayed to him. Or at least she thought he did. Maybe it had just been her imagination. Because then her plight became harder. Adolsin’s code had forced her to publicly profess her belief in him, which caused her to lose her job as adviser to the town mayor. Adolsin’s code had forced her to apologize to community members she had uttered cruel words to. Even though they spewed crueler words at her.
And now, his code was forcing her to give up her future family. Sapia wouldn’t have cared. Sapia would have let her sacrifice the community for her son without batting an eye.
But not only did Adolsin demand this, he could have prevented this. He was a deity, right? He could smite the warband down with lightning if he desired. If the code was correct, he would be aware of this situation. He could stop it. Yet, he left this choice with her. Because he demanded everything from his followers. He demanded they empty themselves to be the people he wanted them to be.
Apparently, that required the destruction of her family.
Serena trembled. “Why couldn’t you have left me alone? What good does it do you for my son to die?”
She received no response. Not that she expected any. Adolsin declared that he liked to test his people’s devotion to him. Perhaps she should have studied the code more thoroughly before swearing to follow him.
Serena wasn’t sure she loved Adolsin anymore. It was hard to love a deity who continually took without giving in return.
Yet, the real question was not whether she loved Adolsin, but if she would obey his code.
Serena closed her eyes. The future that awaited her would be exacting. Not only would she be grieving the loss of her son, but she would be haunted by the future she was missing. The day of her son’s wedding. The day Greta would announce her pregnancy. The day Serena would become a grandmother. And countless other joyful occasions. She had seen her future three years in advance. It would take an eternity to get over that.
But … those weren’t the only scenes she’d witness. She would see children playing in the streets. Marriages blossoming into deeper and deeper love. A whole community living and flourishing. Apart from the few villagers who followed Adolsin, most might not form a connection with her. They might continue to brand her as a heretic, awkwardly interact with her, and restrict her to washing clothes for a living.
But every day she would see their happiness. Even if no one else knew, she would forever carry the knowledge that she’d saved their lives.
Serena wiped her eyes. She had much to accomplish on her last day with her son. She’d cook her best meal, and she’d invite Greta to join them that night. They’d enjoy one last meal together while hopes of a future family were still running through their minds. Serena would do what she could to leave them with pleasant final memories together.
And then she would prepare for the inevitable heartbreak.
Serena stood and blinked away the last tears from her eyes. She’d have plenty of time to cry later. But now she had to seize her remaining time.
The mother was walking away from the square with her child. The child glanced over his mother’s shoulder, and a smile appeared on his face as he looked at Serena.
Serena smiled softly. She hoped she would see the child again.
She’d need something to remind her she’d made the right choice when the darker days arrived.