The Next Step

Originally written in June of 2011…

Once upon a time…

That’s how these things begin, right? With a “once upon a time,” followed somewhat closely by a “happily ever after…” Well, if you want happily ever after, you’re in the wrong place. I can guarantee the once upon a time, but this tale does not end well for our protagonist.

It was a long time ago. Before television, before airplanes, and I’m pretty sure it was even before the printing press. Back when people were still superstitious and believed in all kinds of crazy things, like magic and dragons. And Shane was just a poor kid who was always down on his luck.

Shane was forced to work as a servant for the lord of the land. Lord Wells was a mean old tyrant who had ruled the countryside for several decades. No one in the land cared much for him. And rumors were spread year after year that Lord Wells’ death was imminent. Yet he never died.

Day in and day out, Shane labored for the despicable lord. Eventually, he had had enough. So, under the cover of night, Shane sneaked out of Lord Wells’ small castle and escaped into the nearby forests. Since he was a child, he had heard stories of the old woman in the tower. Now he was seeking her out.

If the stories were true about her, she had the power to change his circumstances. She had the ability to grant him a better life, with wealth and prestige, so that he would far outshine the horrible Lord Wells.

For three days he searched the wood. Finally he came to a clearing where he saw the old woman’s fabled tower. When he approached the entrance, he met the old woman sitting in the doorway. She was sewing a quilt and paid Shane no attention.

“Hello?” Shane said, wondering if the old woman’s senses were still intact.

“I know who you are and I know what it is you seek,” she said, still not looking up at the young man.

Shane was a little shocked. “How can you possibly know who I am, woman? I’ve never seen you before in my life!”

“No, Shane, but I’ve seen you.” Now she looked up and Shane involuntarily jumped back. The old woman’s face was scarred, as if she had seen a number of battles. She was missing her right eye, which was covered by a tattered black patch. “I never leave this wood, but I see everything that happens in your little town. Surely you’ve heard the stories?”

Shane could only nod his head. People in town called her a witch. No one knew her name or what she was really capable of, but they knew she had some great power. Stories of this power are what drew Shane to her. And now he had some proof that her power was real. She knew him without ever meeting him. He was astonished.

“I can grant you what you wish. Fame, power, riches, glory… all of it can be yours.” The old woman smiled a mostly toothless smile at the boy. “But, you know, it comes at a price.”

“I have no money, that’s why I’ve sought you out,” Shane said, feeling desperate. “I can work for you. I’ll do anything, just please, help me to find what I’m seeking.” He pleaded with her, hoping that she would be willing to help him.

“I wouldn’t want your money if you had it, boy!” The old woman sounded insulted that he had even considered giving her money for her services. “You will work for me. For five years, you will do as I ask. Most of your work will be in carrying me to and from the top of the tower. My bones are too old and climbing those stairs is too much work for me anymore. At the end of your five years of service, you’ll be rewarded with wealth beyond anything you can imagine.”

“I’ll do it!” Shane said, eager to reach the end of his five years before the time had even begun.

“Be careful, boy. Do not enter into this agreement lightly. If you do not fulfill your end of this bargain, you will find yourself cursed for all time. That will be the price if you betray me.” The old woman smiled again, but this time her smile was more sinister, as if something evil lurked beneath that tattered eye patch.

Shane just nodded his head again, “I’ll do it, whatever it takes, just please, promise that you’ll reward me when it’s over.”

The old woman stood on her shaky legs and leaned against an old wooden staff that had been leaning against the entrance to the tower. She reached up to the young man’s forehead and sealed their contract with a kiss. He felt as if he had been branded somehow. For a moment there was a searing pain where she kissed him, but when he reached to touch the spot, he could feel nothing. “Let’s get to work, Shane,” she said as she walked into the tower.

That was how it began for Shane. And for a long time he did as he was told without questioning the old witch. Every morning he would carry her to the top of the tower so that she could stare out at the countryside from her high window. He would bring her meals throughout the day. And, then at night, he would carry her back down the stairs to her bedroom. At first she was impressed by his willingness to help her and to work for her. But then she began to notice that his work was growing sloppy. His tone was growing resentful. She felt no need to remind him of his proper duties. She felt that the promise of a curse would be reminder enough.

But, apparently, it wasn’t. After three and a half years of servitude to the old woman, Shane had finally had enough. One morning when she asked him to carry her up the stairs, he told her he wouldn’t do it anymore. He said he felt that after more than three years, he had earned his reward.

“You made a commitment to me, boy,” the old woman said, her voice dark and angry. “You agreed to five years of service and that’s what you’ll give me.”

“I will not!” Shane screamed at the woman. “I merely traded slavery to one tyrant lord for another! I’ve still seen no guarantee on your part that the wealth you’ve promised will even appear! I’m through with you, witch!”

With that, Shane grabbed the woman’s staff and used it to trip her. She fell to the ground with a scream. Shane ran from the tower as fast as he could. He could hear the old woman cursing at him as he put distance between himself and her tower.

A week passed. Shane felt sure that he was free of the old woman’s grasp. He had escaped a life of slavery, not once, but twice. He allowed himself to find a good night’s sleep for the first time since leaving the tower. But, as his guard was down, he found himself unable to rest. He woke several times during the night with a horrible, burning pain on his forehead. He had forgotten all about the witch’s kiss until that moment.

Suddenly, Shane was very afraid. Somehow he knew that the old witch could see him. He knew that, somehow, she would find him. And he remembered the promise of a curse.

Another day passed and he spent most of it in agony. The pain in his forehead spread and he broke out in a high fever. Eventually he reached a point where he could no longer carry on. He couldn’t move. He just sat in the forest with his back against a tree, waiting for death to take him.

“I told you there would be a horrible curse if you betrayed me, Shane.”

He could hear the old woman’s voice but he couldn’t see her. He tried adjusting his yes, trying to find her, but everything was a blur.

“Yes, blindness is just a part of what’s to come for you,” she said, her voice taking on that dark and sinister tone that she reserved for the most special of occasions. “You’re coming back to the tower with me. But, from now on, you’ll climb those stairs blindly. You’ll climb those stairs infinitely Your punishment will be eternal.”

Shane heard a loud crack and suddenly was aware that his surroundings had changed. He couldn’t see, but he could feel that he was back in the tower, at the foot of the long staircase. She set him to climbing. He was on his hands and knees, moving from step to step.

So he continues. Night and day, he never stops climbing. The witch is always behind him, discouraging him, whipping him, forcing him onward. He never gains any ground. He is continually exhausted but can never find rest. He is always reaching, always climbing, always hoping that the next step will bring his freedom. But his freedom will never come.

And he lived miserably ever after.

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