Gylan Winters stepped outside of his house near the perimeter of his village in northern Byhamsea. It was a fair day, as it always was in this region of the kingdom, and Gylan was heading out into the apple orchard behind his house for a day’s work. A soft breeze blew as he wandered down the path that led from his front door round back into the orchard. As he passed one of the windows on his house, he tapped at the glass and waved at his wife, who jumped and then laughed, waving back.
Grinning to himself, Gylan continued down the path. Now he had to keep his ears open—lately, some of the local kids had been climbing over the fence and into his orchard, stealing apples. He supposed overall, a few apples here and there didn’t make a big difference, but it was the principle of the matter. They were his apples that he grew, and if those kids wanted some then perhaps they should learn to grow their own.
He made a quick stop in the shed to grab a basket and some scissors for picking before walking the rest of the way into the orchard. He opened the gate, latching it firmly behind him, and then turned to look at his trees. The wind moved, and the leaves all flickered like spinning coins, the heavy fruit at the ends of the branches bouncing up and down. He stood for a moment, shutting his eyes, and breathing in the smell of his orchard. Dirt, grass, and fruit. He held his breath a moment so he could listen to the leaves brush against each other again. Then he took in a long, deep, meditative breath and let his shoulders role back and relax. Surely there was nothing—nothing—in all of Byhamsea like his orchard.
A snapping twig. A giggle, and a quick “Hush!”
Gylan’s eyes snapped opened, flitted about his orchard, and then landed somewhere near the fence on his left, where three kids had just dropped down over the fence. They were straightening up, surveying the orchard. The one who had just hushed the others swung his head slowly in one direction, and then the other until his eyes locked with Gylan’s.
Gylan’s eyes narrowed.
The kid shouted, “Run!” to his friends, and quickly clambered back up over the fence. Gylan flung down his basket and scissors, giving chase. The smallest of the three, and the last to climb up over the fence, paused at the top to look behind him. He made a face at Gylan before reaching towards one of the branches and plucking an apple, sticking it in his mouth before dropping down onto the other side of the fence.
“You give that back, you brats!” Gylan shouted. Without even thinking about the gate, he hauled himself up over the fence where the kids had gone. They were a ways away already, he realized as he landed. They were young and spritely, much unlike him. But he pursued anyway, righting himself as quickly as he could and then taking off after them.
Perhaps the three kids had energy, but Gylan’s size gave him a fair advantage. He followed them through his neighbour’s field, filled with wheat, all the way to the highway on the other side. The kids darted across quickly, but Gylan was stopped by a carriage coming towards town. He huffed in frustration as it passed—he had been so close to them—and then continued towards the woods where the kids were headed.
Some logical part of Gylan knew that he’d never catch the kids in the woods. It would be only too easy for the three of them to dart about among the trees, cajoling at him until he was either lost or tired or both, and made his way back across the highway, through his neighbour’s field, and home to his wife. Certainly he would be disappointed, but his wife would comfort him and remind him that there were thousands more apples in the orchard besides the one the kids had taken, as she always did. And then he would nod, go back out into his orchard, and pick the apples as he had intended to, and that evening he and his wife would have pork with applesauce and spend the evening reading together.
This is almost exactly what would have happened. What should have happened. Instead, as Gylan followed the thieves deeper into the woods, he came to a small stream. The kids had mostly jumped over it (one was too short and only made it part of the way, and currently had the bottom part of one pant leg soaked), and were continuing onward. Gylan, without pausing, made to do the same, only his foot caught on a log that he didn’t see, so focused he was on the kids. He cried out, falling forward in a tangle of arms and legs into the water. He tried to catch himself, but his hands slipped in the mud, and his head hit a rock in the water harder than it had ever hit anything before.
Gylan didn’t move.
The goddess Nem sat with her chin in her hand, bored as her brothers and sisters bickered among themselves. Once again, they were arguing over territory, as they always did. They didn’t appear to have any topics they were interested in. At least, not anymore.
She was sitting on a marble bench, staring into a marble basin, in which silvery water swirled as she stirred it with her finger. After each swirl, an image materialized, and then dissolved as her finger came into contact. The basin was one of several in the Great Hall. This one was located off to the side of the room. In the centre of the Great Hall was the table at which the other gods were seated. Or rather, where half of them were seated. The other half had risen angrily from their marble chairs, pointing accusingly at others across the marble table.
“If you say one more time,” Ithrel snarled at Deiu, “That you shall have all the golden fields while I get only half of the Sea of Benevolence, then I’ll—”
“If you’d just let me finish,” Deiu interrupted, pulling his hand away from scratching his beard to form a fist, “Then you’d know that—”
“Well, and what about me?” cried Celye. “The Sea of Benevolence is supposed to belong to me! What business do you have handing it off to other people?”
Nem sighed and returned her attention to the basin. Perhaps it was a bit odd, she thought, that a goddess of vengeance wouldn’t want to take part in an argument like this. And she conceded, perhaps it was. Certainly, when things had first started getting tense in the Immortal Plane she’d been interested. Normally she only got to watch the humans on the Mortal Plane have fun like this, and she was never allowed to do anything on that Plane. How boring.
When everyone on the Immortal Plane had started wanting each others’ land—well that had been fun. For a while. For the first few centuries. Now it was dull. The same argument every time, the same feelings hurt, the same scornful words shouted across a table at each other. Frankly, it was all a bit repetitive for Nem’s tastes. And she was starting to feel a little cramped up here on the Immortal Plane. Everywhere she went, someone was sabotaging someone’s something-or-other, while someone else stole something important, while someone else still shared nasty words about one of the other gods to another, then later on would say something cruel about them. It was exhausting to have this around every corner. Maybe this sort of thing was meant to be Nem’s territory. But there really was something to be said for having some peace and quiet.
Nem may be the goddess of vengeance, but this was not vengeance. This was pettiness.
The doors to the Great Hall opened, and Nem turned to see her sister Ars, who always carried an aura of quiet dignity about her. Ars stood in the entry for a moment, taking in the scene before her. Then she sighed heavily and walked towards the table, glancing at Nem as she did.
Nem had always liked Ars. Sure, Ars was a little too impartial at times, and was always the first to scold Nem when she thought Nem had gone too far, but she was also the only one of her siblings who really listened to Nem. And she appreciated that.
Presently, Ars was taking a seat in her chair, looking back at Nem just as Deiu was saying, “I really don’t think I ought to be held responsible for your failure to keep your flock of geese alive, Ebril,” to which Ebril responded, “It’s a tad difficult to keep your geese alive when somebody keeps poisoning their food!”
Ars rolled her eyes. Nem responded with a smirk, and turned back to the basin. Images of the Mortal Plane swirled in front of her again as the stirred languidly. She was restless. And tired of listening to her siblings argue all the time over things that didn’t matter. And not even Ars could make her feel better. She wished there was something, anything she could do to get away from all this.
Something in the basin caught her attention. A man, maybe in his late thirties or early forties, was chasing three kids through a field. He was yelling—the kids had stolen something. Interested, Nem sat up straighter as she stared into the basin. Finally, something exciting.
The man pursued the kids through the field, across a road and into the woods. Usually, Nem found chase scenes to be rather boring, and preferred the sneaking around behind others’ backs before anything else. But surely, considering everything, this was better than nothing. She watched as the man weaved through the trees, not as expertly or nimbly as the kids, but with an intensity that kept Nem watching. And then, about to cross the river, the man fell, hit his head, and died.
Or at least, was in the process of dying.
Disappointed, Nem frowned at the basin. Why did everything fun have to end so anticlimactically?
Then she had another thought.
Maybe it didn’t.
“I don’t want to hear another word about your ambrosia stores, Ithrel!” shouted one of the gods.
Nem put a finger on her chin. The gods had all had to make a pact hundreds of years ago. They were not to interfere with the Mortal Plane anymore—there had been a big to do with a war and one of the Mortals forcing the gods to the Immortal Plane. Since then, there had been an agreement between the Mortal and Immortal Planes, that neither would interfere with the other.
“I wish all of you would think reasonably for a moment.”
But things certainly were getting a bit too snug up here, in the Immortal Plane. They were all getting restless.
“Oh, shut up, Ars.”
Maybe if only one of them went down, it would be all right. Just for a little while. Just to get some fresh, Mortal air.
“Don’t change the subject, Ebril!”
And if anyone got to go, Nem decided, it should be the one who was the most affected by all this arguing. The one who needed to get out of here to most. And, coincidentally, the one who had come up with the idea in the first place.
“You owe me sixty geese, Deiu,” Ebril snarled.
Yes, Nem thought. If anybody got to visit the Mortal Plane again, then it ought to be her. Without another though, she focused all her attention on the fallen man in the basin. He wasn’t what she’d have picked herself, of course, but he would do nicely, she was sure. She raised her hand, already relishing the feeling of passing through to another plane—
“Nem, what are you doing?” Ars’s voice only just penetrated her ears.
And then Nem snapped her fingers, and vanished.