“The human being is not the lord of beings, but the shepherd of Being.”
― Martin Heidegger
“Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying.”
― Martin Luther
“The Dark Enlightenment isn’t yet greatly preoccupied with fundamental ontological arcana (although it will be eventually). Beyond radical realism, its communion in the dread rites of Gnon is bound to two leading themes: cognitive non-coercion, and the structure of history. These themes are mutually repulsive, precisely because they are so intimately twisted together. Intellectual freedom has been the torch of secular enlightenment, whilst divine providence has organized the perspective of tradition. It is scarcely possible to entertain either without tacitly commenting on the other, and in profundity, they cannot be reconciled. If the mind is free, there can be no destiny. If history has a plan, cognitive independence is illusory. No solution is even imaginable … except in Gnon.”
― Nick Land
Et in Arcadia Ego
The sound of bleating sheep echoes through the mist. The world is green and grey as the light fades, night quickly approaching. A man on horseback trundles down a hillock, passing over rocks and gorse, the animal placing its feet carefully and deliberately. Water condenses on the brim of the man’s hat, dripping off with every movement of the horse as it navigates the landscape.
The actual, physical bodies of sheep begin to solidify out of the fog, first one, then a scattered handful, before the greatness of the flock reveals itself to the man. He wanders through them as they graze, quite content to ignore him completely.
A growl breaks the silence, a low threat from behind the man. He halts and pulls his horse around. Was it behind him? The mist bounces sound in every direction.
Then, a voice from nowhere, a slight tension in its lilt. Stop right there, it says.
The man on horseback holds up, his ride whinnying and stamping at the soft earth. Looking around the man tries to pierce the mist but there is no one there. Another voice launches from hiding.
Dismount, slowly. Do that, and we’ll show ourselves.
The man obeys, swinging his leg over his horse swiftly and landing, his boots sagging into the grass. A slight squelch erupts from beneath him; he is standing on marshland.
Good. Now step away from the horse, just a little to your left.
Again, he follows the ghostly demands. He looks relaxed, no readiness for an attack in his shoulders. He swivels his head, trying to gauge where the voices are manifesting. Something moves behind him. The man turns slowly.
He is met by a young man and woman. Both of them are wearing a cape made of sticks, grass, leaves and moss, a mottled patchwork as a coat. The young man in front of him – though in reality no more than a boy, the scraggly beard giving away his age – holds a spear out in front. He holds the weapon firmly. It is well-crafted, sturdy. The woman, also young, has a bow across her back. At their feet are two dogs, lithe creatures baring their teeth in silent menace. Their black and white coats pop from the surrounding green.
Why’re you traveling through? the boy says, jabbing the spear ever-so-slightly at the stranger.
The man smiles haphazardly, as if unaware of the threat.
I am just a tradesman looking to lend out my services.
Tradesmen don’t come through here often. What’s your trade?
I deal in death.
The man’s smile falls. Next to him his steed shifts its hooves fretfully. Casually he pushes aside his coat to reveal a belt and holster, an ornate pistol resting on his hips. A chain of bullets sweeps across his chest and around his waist.
The boy starts, involuntarily takes a step backwards. The girl reaches back for her bow.
Taking advantage of their momentary distraction, the man steps forward like a wraith through the mist. He steps inside the guard of the male, pushes aside the spear. He twists on his heel and uses his momentum to jam his elbow into boy’s nose. Not hard enough to break, but just enough to cause pain and make the boy fall over himself. He drops the spear as his hands fly to his nose. Immediately the man reaches for the gun. It’s out of the holster in a moment, and pointed right at the girl’s face. She freezes, barely having time to draw her bow. The dogs haven’t moved but are still crouched, growling.
Call ‘em off, the man says to the girl. Her lips squirm.
The boy is rolling around on the ground.
You broke me damned nose.
It’s fine. Now call the dogs off.
Standdown, the girl says, the command like a word from a different language. Both animals immediately stop growling and come behind her, but their eyes are fixed on the man.
Now, let that be a lesson. Don’t draw weapons on strangers, and definitely don’t introduce yourself before you attack. You had the element of surprise. Lucky for you both, I mean no harm. I’m looking for people to trade with. Is there a village nearby?
Aye, our village is a few days travel, the girl says.
The boy speaks up. I’ve heard of traders of your ilk. Rumours mostly. Thugs who run the Burrow. What brings you so far?
The stranger sighs.
Maybe I’ve spent been too long in the Burrow. Maybe I’ve a sense of adventure. Or maybe it was just to get away. Or all of the above.
He looks at the girl in front of him who is at the end of the barrel of his gun. Her eyes scream defiance. As if embarrassed, the man quickly holsters the gun. Reaching down to the boy he holds out his gloved hand. With a look of disdain mixed with distrust, the boy takes it and is hauled to his feet. The girl loosens her grip on the bow.
That was not the best of introductions. My name is Michael. And yours are?
I am Ashe, and this is my brother, Birch.
Aye, and what are you doing out here all dressed up?
We’re shepherds and we’re dressed like this for exactly occasions like this, to hide from strangers. Truth be told, you’re the first stranger we’ve ever met and you don’t seem so bad. Apart from smashing me nose.
Ashe nudges her brother and he shuts up. Michael smiles at both of them.
A pleasure to meet you both. I mean no harm, though I could kill for a feed.
At first the two youngsters don’t react, but finally Birch’s face breaks out in a goofy grin.
Aye, we can help you there, it’s the least we can do. Ashe, I think we just spooked him. He means no harm. Let’s talk a while, it will be a change from yer usual blather. Come, this way.
Don’t mind if I do.
Michael follows Birch, who is now trudging away into the mist. All three walk towards a small outcrop of rocks. Michael whistles and his horse neighs in compliance, quickly catching up with the them.
At the rocks is a small encampment, hastily thrown together. A pair of ponies are eating grass, but they perk their heads when the large working horse walks into view. Birch bends over a pack and unveils a small smattering of edibles. Cheeses, cured meat, rich sourdough. Michael’s mouth waters at the sight. They all sit together, huddled quite close. Even the dogs draw near in the hope of catching a few thrown chunks. But before they begin, the girl and boy close their eyes, mutter under their breaths, touch their chest once, then the ground, and then point to the sky. Michael watches in bemusement, halted halfway down to reaching at the bread. Their eyes open and they begin to gorge. They eat in silence as the minutes while away.
Once the food is finished they sit back against whatever support they can find, their minds as heavy as the air around them.
A true shepherd’s feast, says Ashe
I appreciate your hospitality. I’d heard the northern tribes could be, well, difficult.
Aye, that’s true. Some of us will never trust outsiders. And with good reason. But I think of myself as a people person. I can pick the bad apples.
Nay, brother, you’d eat a poisoned apple if you was hungry enough.
The boy pushes at her, a playful shove.
Michael chuckles. So, you two are siblings. Do you have a large family?
Aye, though it’s more of an extended family. You’ll meet them soon. We’re quite proud of our home. Father says it’s a little slice of paradise.
Paradise, eh? Are there other villages in the area?
At this Birch stiffens, chewing the inside of his cheek.
There are others in these lands but none quite so accommodating as us, let me tell you.
Michael gives Birch a quizzical look but the boy ignores him. They all sit there in the mist, the food weighing down their thoughts, heavy in their bellies. After a few minutes Birch begins to snore, and not long after they are all asleep.
The light is soft when Michael’s horse nuzzles him awake, its nose pushing his hat further down his face. The crickets make their music; the mist is a heavy dew on his clothes. The sun is almost ready to crack across the sky. Nearby the sheep have settled down where they can, in little groupings to fight the cold. Michael looks to his new companions, but only the boy is still fast asleep. The girl, Ashe, is nowhere to be seen.
Michael rolls over and is on his feet. He bends forwards, backwards and sideways, his spine cracking into place. The rising sun casts a pale glow on the ground, barely enough to light the ground in front of Michael. With a deep breath, the man takes a moment to appreciate the first glimpses of the sun. He inhales and holds it there, pushing his consciousness out to the world around him, absorbing the nature as it unfurls around him, drawing its energy into himself. This ritual he repeats a few times, his horse patiently waiting. To his right he hears a bleating and gathers himself to investigate, grabbing the reins of his horse and following the sound. He moves through sheep that are willing themselves back to wakefulness through the fog of sleep. There is grass to eat.
After a little while Michael comes across Ashe. She appears to be struggling at the bottom of a dip. He leaves his horse and makes his way down to her.
Hello, behind you, he calls down to her. She looks around and gives him a nod.
Got herself trapped somehow, she says, motioning to the sheep in her arms. Michael can see a loop of rusty red wire around the sheeps right foreleg.
A trap, from another time. Who knows how long its been sitting in that grass waiting to snare some poor soul. Lucky the daft sheep didn’t impale itself. Ashe shakes her head as she works to loosen the animal from the wire.
Are there many dangers out here?
Oh aye, many. Bogs, marsh, hidden holes. Leftovers like this. And beasties. Wolves, ye ken? Snarling things in the night, though sometimes they like to come out during the day.
I’ve heard rumours of the animals this far north, though not as many rumours as about the people. Have you ever seen a wolf?
Nay, not personally. My father has, when he was a shepherd. Less of them now, apparently. Or else, they are no predators here, Gnon willing.
Michael holds up, his mind to attention. He opens his mouth as if to ask the girl to repeat herself but stops himself. There will be time enough to ask questions and right now they have more important things to worry about. Together they wrangle with the animal as it writhes in fear. Michael takes hold of the animal, holding it close and tight, as Ashe works the rusted wire off its leg. Finally, it comes off and Michael lets the sheep go, which immediately heads towards the rest of the flock.
And now you’re an honorary shepherd, she says with glee. It will take about two days to get back to the village, though you’re lucky you bumped into us when you did.
I don’t believe in luck.
Ashe looks at him, eyes squinted.
What do you believe in traveller?
Michael holds her gaze but doesn’t reply.
They wander back to where they left Birch sleeping. The boy is up now, collecting their camp satchels together and readying to move out.
I thought you’d both abandoned me, he says as they draw near, smiling without confidence. Michael ignores this and reaches down to help Birch gather the camp gear into the bags: a few pots, sleeping skins, a shepherd’s crook.
One of the flock got itself trapped down by that stream yonder, Ashe replies. It’s funny that Gnon can still throw up such obstacles from the past. Always testing us.
Michael ignores this and swings himself up on to his horse, wheeling the beast around. What are our plans today?
We’ll continue driving the flock north, towards the village. As I said, it’s only about two more days, says Ashe. Since you’re with us you could ride with us. Maybe you can circle around and catch any strays.
Michael considers. That would be very interesting. In the Burrow our animals are all in pens, they don’t have the freedom.
Birch shakes his head. Aye we respect our animals. They provide for us, so we provide for them.
Michael looks out across the marshy land, the fog lifted now. The sun is up and he peers north, up the valley. Ashe breaks off, and Birch heads in the other direction. Michael kicks his horse into a canter and decides to follow Ashe. One of the dogs follows him like an overbearing guardian, and the other goes with Birch. He decides it best to follow the dog’s actions, as it no doubt understands its masters and its mission.
In very little time Michael and Ashe discover pockets of sheep hidden in the heather, the purple flowers ululating with the wind. They come to rocky outcrops strewn on the side of hills and finds some of the woolen creatures sleeping. After a few times Ashe tells Michael to have a go at rounding them up. Having watched her intently he tries to copy what she had done, moving his horse in loops and watching for where the dog goes. The dog seems to be the real leader, crouching and circling with ease. Together they direct the herd towards the north. All day they do this, back and forth across the valley, sometimes joining up with Birch as he swings the sheep he finds down the into valley. At one point they all take lunch sitting on a lichen-covered boulder, a few sheep nearby for company, the dogs on standby and intent only on the woolly animals around them. The day stretches on and the clouds sweep overhead and the shadows dance from one side of the valley to the other. Finally, as the light begins to disappear over the top of the western hills, all three of them converge again. As Birch approaches he looks at Michael and smiles, a wide beam that shows his teeth.
It’s almost as if you’ve done this before, he says, sounding genuinely impressed. Your steed no doubt helps, big strong thing. What’s its name?
His name is Caleb. Your horses are quite small, you don’t use them for much work?
Nay, just for riding, shepherding. We use oxen to draw our carts, else we just walk. Though we don’t particularly have anywhere to go. The boy shrugs.
Ashe scans the valley. We’ll camp down here tonight, she says. It will be a cold one given the sky is clear.
They hunker down behind a precarious rock, the moss giving it a mottled hue in the dying light. Their warmest gear comes out: canvas mats and woolen clothing to insulate their bodies. Birch gets a fire going and soon its crackling, the only other sound the nearby sheep.
Funny how we can make the night so dark, Michael muses after their meal. Perfectly clear evening, could see for miles, but here we are building darkness with a flame. Fiery tendrils lick the sky, embers floating towards the moon. It’s a glorious heat and they are all enraptured by it.
Give me the warmth over the stars any time, says Birch, rubbing his hands together near the fire.
So, tell me, what can I expect when we roll into town? I hope you aren’t lulling me into another one of your traps. He laughs to himself, a single bark of noise.
Don’t you worry, friend, we aren’t killers, chuckles Ashe. Home ain’t much. Aye, there’s a few of us now, and the village is bustling with wee ones, but we keep it simple. Beautiful views, I will say that.
‘It’s up high?
Aye, on the crest of a hill. Overlooking a lake. We’re shepherds, but we also farm what we can. That’s the life out here. Never ending toil.
Ain’t much different in the Burrow. There just isn’t the sky nor the sun over you to make things better.
I can’t think what it would be like, says Ashe.
It’s a maze. A big, messy maze filled with rats like me. We scurry to and fro trying to survive – just like you – and most of us make it, but a lot don’t. That’s where I come in.
You... deal with the dead, don’t you?
During the Hubris they had things called graveyards. But we cremate the dead. Burn the bodies, ‘cause there ain’t no room for them, and no time to risk disease. Trust me, there are states of the body you never want to witness. He stares into the fire. Ashe and Birch contemplate his words, their imaginations failing to come up with anything resembling the reality.
Well, I don’t know about you two but I am spent, Michael says. He pulls his hat over his eyes. Best get some sleep given we probably have a long way to go yet.
They are all snoring within moments.
Ashe wakes up sucking air down, cold sweat like a film over her skin. The night is dark; the fire has fallen. Michael still sleeps on the other side of the embers. Breathing hard, Ashe looks over at Birch. He is looking back at her.
Something woke me, sis. There’s something out there.
Then she hears an echoing moan, the screams of dozens of sheep.
Within a moment she is up and grasping for her bow and arrow. Birch is up to with his spear in hand.
It came from this way, she says to her brother, motioning behind her. They give each other a look and skulk off into the dark, hunched over as if somehow that will make them invisible.
Ashe’s vision quickly adjusts to the dark and the lay of the land becomes apparent. The moon beams down its refracted light. A hundred metres way, movement catches Ashes eye. She freezes and reaches out for Birch, grabbing hold of his shoulder.
Over there, she says, pointing fruitlessly.
Sheep bustle past them, making noises as they go. They creep forward. Something bigger than a sheep raises itself from the grass.
Then a voice sounds out behind them, panic in its tone. Where are you? Michael yells into the gloom.
Over here, Ashe yells, hoping that is enough to draw him, and not the thing in front of them.
She hears running feet, the clomp of Michael’s boots. He pulls up next to them and has his gun out, ready. All three point their weapons in the general direction. A single mewling noise is clear now, broken by intermittent crunching.
Then two points of red light appear in the dark. Ashe’s breath stops.
What is it? Michael asks beside her.
A wolf, she says in a whisper. It’s taken a sheep, probably more than one. The thought of one of her charges pinned under that beast, its lifeblood leaking out. She has failed it.
Get behind me, Michael says. Ashe is taken aback. She was ready to step in and fight, but Michael positions himself between the wolf and the two shepherds. She see his revolver as it gleams in the moonlight, intricate carvings down its barrel, polished wood handle slotted into his grip. She hopes the beast can see it too, understand what it is facing.
The red eyes move. It starts to circle them and they can hear heavy paws pressing down on the marshy land beneath their feet. A sort of snarling emits from it, a mix of gears and growl.
What is that noise? Michael asks. It sounds like a machine from the Burrow.
Ashe grimaces. It ain’t natural. Sure, some of it is, but it’s a Leftover. They say man played Gnon out here, tried his hand at creation. This is the result.
The massive shadow continues to circle, though now Ashe detects a certain limp to the movements, as if the thing is in a broken holding pattern. She turns to Michael as he tracks it with his gun, his eyes down the sight directed straight between the two red points. Ashe and Birch are behind him now and he’s the only thing stopping the beast from crashing into them. The sheep continues to groan in the darkness.
There is the slightest shift in noise. The beast leaps towards them, the two red eyes suddenly terribly large. Ashe’s body tenses, her whole body overcome. The gun roars next to her. A blast of flame.
The thing is caught in a moment of illumination and they all see it, its mouth huge and awful, pipes and metal meshed with flesh and fur.
The gun fires again, deafening them a second time. The red lights go out and they can almost feel the energy leave the mass in front of them, as if sucked into a vacuum. The corpse crashes down in front of Ashe, its mass digging into the peaty ground. Her feet are firm and her breathing smooth, but her heart is beating like a drum. She wills herself to move away but finds her body will not listen.
The trio stand there in the silence and the dark, savouring a parcel of pure consciousness, the sudden vacuum of a neutralised threat. In that moment so close to destruction, they are awake.