The cards knew he was coming. The cards warned Folu.
Day in, day out, sun up, sun down. Light peeks through the holes on the roof, stretches in long, narrow rays between stained glass. Ivy and clover grow quietly, tangled between the rotting planks of the lectern. When it rains, a puddle as big as a pond forms on the floor. Folu hops over it and gets deeper into the cathedral, where it’s warmer, cosier. A rug to sleep, a cooking pot, a gourd.
Folu walks to the river every day to bring fresh water. Then, after foraging all morning, Folu returns to the cathedral with nettles and dandelion in spring, raspberries and white mushrooms in autumn. Summer is long and food is plenty. But winter looks grim because Folu can’t catch game. The days are still warm with wheat and bran, but the chill is creeping in from the broken windows. Leaves turn orange; now they’re falling fast. Soon it will be winter. Finding mushrooms takes time. Can’t think of winter now. Think of today’s food.
The little pot sits on the little fire. Dinner is cooked. Sometimes one day’s leftovers are two more days’ dinner. Then Folu lights a candle, for there are still so many in the cathedral’s wooden boxes, sits on the rug and looks at the cards ‘till midnight.
The cards are the only language Folu ever bothered to learn. Mother used to read them. Day in, day out, Mother read the cards and knew things before they happened. She saw the deaths of her children; she saw the Grey Men coming to the Village with their piercing knives, saw them killing her kin, taking them away to foreign lands. Mother saw other things too, things she would never talk about. She must have seen something about Folu too.
“My little chicken,” she’d say, squeezing Folu between her plump, soft arms. “You’re like Mother. The cards chose you.”
When Mother’s other children went out to play or work in the fields with their fathers and aunts, Folu stayed inside the cottage, like Mother. Mother never set a foot outside. Even when the Grey Men came to take her, she stayed there, on her mat, doing her last reading. Then she brought the deck together again, wrapped it in its cloth and put it underneath the obsidian stone where she always kept it. Folu came back to find her, but only the cards were there—Mother’s last gift. Crying, Folu took them and walked away, never returning home again.
The cathedral is silent, comforting, like Mother’s lap. Folu can read the cards all day and night without rest, sometimes with no food or even water. Day in, day out, Folu knows what happens in lands near and far from the cathedral. Thirty-six cards is all it takes: the Lion, the Dog, the Tower, the Key. Thirty-six cards, thirty-six letters in an alphabet. The combinations are endless, the meanings infinite. If one can’t read the alphabet, then the symbols mean nothing. But Folu can read them or, perhaps, the cards can read Folu. The cards read the world then whisper its secrets.
The Village—still plundered, wrapped in death. At the City, not far from here—more ships coming in, carrying Grey Men. The Man in the Mountain House—he’s given up, his Woman taken away. The North—starving. Rebellion in the South. Sometimes, the cards speak of Mother. How she is in another world now, waiting for Folu. Sleep in peace tonight. Mother is not with those who suffer, not anymore. Mother is waiting.
Sun up, sun down, then like a dried twig the world snaps: the Knight falls on the floor. Folu stares at the man on the horse, the man on the half-faded card with the torn edges. The moment it touches the floor it is no longer a living thing; its voice is stolen away. Now it’s just a picture of a Knight on paper. Day in, day out, the Knight card shows up again and again, shows up every time Folu touches the cards. Blank, Folu reshuffles them and reads one more time until the Knight comes and ruins everything. Autumn is nearly gone and Folu can’t read the cards; the cards won’t speak. Sun up, sun down, the days get colder, the nights get longer. Folu is mute. The little candles light little fires, but their numbers are diminishing. Firewood is getting scarce. A little fire keeps the corner of the cathedral warm, but it too, is slowly dwindling away, too small a fire, too small. Too cold to read the cards, too cold.
Folu now dreams of the Knight again and again dreams of the little fire and its flickering tongues. Knight and fire become one and Folu, startled, jumps out of the shroud of sleep. The ancient door creaks open. Someone is coming in. Someone found Folu out. The Grey Men are coming to take Folu and there’s nowhere to go. Too cold, too tired, too hungry. Shrink, play dead. The Grey Men won’t notice; the Grey Men will go away. The cards gave no warning. Folu forgot how to read them. Nothing matters anymore.
Through the dream, the Knight appears inside the flame, more alive than ever. His golden curls glisten, reflecting the fire; his eyes are two pieces of stained glass. The Knight is here. The Knight has come to take Folu away.
“Are you hurt?”
Folu doesn’t understand. He is big, covered in thick clothes that shine like well-polished pans and pots. Only then, Folu knows. The cards were right. The Knight has come. The cards tried to speak, but their voices didn’t get through.
“Are you cold? Here, you can have my cloak.”
The Knight unclasps the blanket that’s hanging from his back and covers Folu with it. Like Mother’s kiss, it falls on shivering knees and elbows, making them warm again. Folu grabs it greedily, turns it into a cocoon. Long, larval dreams follow and life and sleep are not too different.
The Knight comes and goes into the dream, rekindles the fire, makes it stronger, brighter. It smells of Mother’s cooking, heavy with thyme and rosemary. Tummy growls. A bowl of soup. A smell so strong the food jumps from dream into senses.
“Eat,” Folu repeats, without understanding the meaning of the sounds.
The Knight stirs the soup in the little pot—Folu’s pot. The soup is hot, tastes like rabbit caught in early winter, its summer fat still on. It’s gone in an instant.
“Food,” Folu repeats and returns the empty bowl. The Knight smiles; two dimples light up on each side of his smile. Why is he smiling? He must be thinking Folu is a fool. What does he want? He’s a Grey Man and Grey Men took Mother away. Folu shoots him an angry glance but won’t take the bowl back. The second serving is gone even faster than the first one.
“Food?” the Knight says again, his mocking smile pasted on his face. His horse is grazing on the grass that sprouts from between the cracks on the cathedral’s floor. It’s shining in the moonlight, covered in the same thick clothes the Knight had when he came in, clothes that make it look like a pot of cast iron. From the Knight’s shoulders only a thin tunic hangs loose, all his metallic clothing set aside, as if he’s mocking Folu’s cold, mocking Folu all the time. But the fire is warm and its light is like the morning star and the broth as filling as Mother’s embrace. Soon, sleep comes again, strange dreams and sweat, then Folu wakes up and although it’s still winter, the terrible chill is gone.
But the Knight has stayed along with winter; the Knight is still here. He comes in carrying firewood and game, doing all the things Folu can’t do. Has he got nothing else to do, no other place to stay? Foolish Knight. Folu hates him.
“What’s your name?”
Folu ignores him.
“I’m Eric.” He points at himself. “Eric. You?” He points at Folu.
Gratitude wins. “Folu.” Now, ignore again. Back to the cards.
Folu has forgotten how to read them, but something is stirring—maybe it’s because of the good food and sleep. The symbols start dancing again, even if only a little. The Lion, the Knight, the Sun. The Knight is finally here. The cards knew he was coming. The cards warned Folu. He came to ruin everything, with his warm blanket and bright fire and hot soup. The Sun. The Knight has brought the Sun. The Sun burns. The Grey Men’s Sun burnt Mother. Folu will never forget.
Day in day out, the Knight hunts fresh game every day, shares it with Folu. His skinning is bad, so bad that Folu has to take over.
“No,” Folu says in the language of the Knight. Folu knows that word, has heard it often. That word is the Scythe.
His eyebrows lift, his mouth is a gaping hole of astonishment. He stays quiet, watching and learning. His knife is good. Knife. Good. Sharp. The Scythe.
“You like the knife?” he asks and Folu, strangely, understands. Undecided, Folu holds it, bloody, admiring its edge. “I give it to you. It’s a gift.”
“Gift,” Folu repeats. Gift. The Flowers.
Folu wipes it clean, puts it back in its sheath and hands it to him.
“No. Gift,” he says, smiling, two dimples lighting on each side of his smile. He pushes it back towards Folu.
“No. Gift,” Folu repeats. The Scythe. The Flowers. Folu understands.
Sun up, sun down, and in the evening after their bellies are full with the last fat rabbit of the season, Folu takes out the cards. Slowly the Knight shifts, glances towards them. Like a mouse, he sneaks in closer, looking at the cards curiously.
“Can you read the cards for me?”
Folu knows what he means. Everyone thinks the cards are there to tell them something—as if they cared! Annoyed, Folu deals the cards for him anyway. One after the other, they tell a story: The Knight. The Child. The Lion. The Coffin. The Ship. The Cross.
Terror. A second ago the words were muffled, the images distorted. Now everything has clear outlines: the lines of fear. And what Folu sees, at last, would rather be forgotten forever.
“Well?” the Knight asks impatiently, stupid smile pasted on his face. Folu turns to meet his cool, grey-blue eyes. Stupid man. Why did he come here? He is danger. Folu reads it in the cards: the Knight will ruin everything.
“Go!” Folu shouts in the Knight’s face so suddenly he cowers like a dog. “Go!” Folu yells and protectively collects the cards and retreats in the sleeping nook that is Folu’s and Folu’s alone.
The Knight doesn’t ask again about the cards.
Day in, day out, snow covers the woods, frost gathers on the riverbank. One day Folu is happy with the Knight’s cooking and his grey-blue blue eyes and the next day Folu is grumpy he’s still here, an intruder that has no better task to do. Sometimes, Folu dreams of the cards that were dealt that day, the cards that were so terrifying. The Knight is a problem, a nuisance. He must go.
At night, Folu often looks at the knife-present, its cool steel glimmering in the moonlight. The Knight is fast asleep. He is a Grey Man and Grey Men took Mother away. He might take Folu away too. What if a knife is plunged between his ribs? With these thoughts, Folu puts the knife back in its sheath every night and goes to sleep. In spring, Folu thinks. In spring, when food is plenty and he won’t be needed to hunt game. In spring, he’ll die.
Day in, day out, spring comes and with it come the Grey Men. Eric wakes Folu in the night, his grip so tight it hurts.
“They’re coming,” he says, “they’re coming to get me.” The Knight. The Child. The Lion. The Coffin. The Ship. The Cross. What a fool you’ve been, Folu.
“No!” Screaming, Folu pushes him away, seeking the knife.
His grip doesn’t loosen. “I’m a traitor, they’re coming to get me,” he says but Folu doesn’t know what the words mean, Folu only knows what the cards mean. The cards speak of ruin. The Knight’s eyes are bright, shining in the darkness like embers. There is madness in his eyes; those are the eyes of a wild beast.
“Come with me.”
Folu freezes under his clutch.
“Come with me,” he says again and this time Folu pushes him away.
“No! No! No! No! No!” Hiding inside the blanket, Folu tries to shut the world away. Again, the Knight’s hands feel hot on Folu’s skin, Folu’s mouth. His grasp is tight, but it’s not meant to hurt, not meant to bruise.
“Be quiet. They’ll hear us. Come with me now or they’ll kill you.” He means every word. He isn’t asking questions. He’s keeping Folu’s mouth shut. He’s a Grey Man and has more Grey Men following his trail. He brought them here. Foolish man!
“Come with me,” he goes on, “and I can take you to the West Sea. From there we can go anywhere you like. We can see places far away, down the tropics. We can run away, live only hunting game in the wilds. Come with me Folu. Now. There’s no later. You have to come now.”
His hand on Folu’s mouth loosens, allowing an answer. Folu has relaxed, the Knight’s voice strangely soothing. There is only one word between Folu’s lips.
“They’ll kill you if they find you.” The Scythe. The Coffin. Folu understands.
There’s a bang on the door, wood against wood, voices, a sudden rupture. The smell of sulphur is in the air. The Lion. The Coffin. The shadows in the cathedral grow longer; lit torches and fire wait outside. The Knight’s horse is neighing, nervous and afraid inside the door, the light of the flame reflected on its steely mane. The Ship. The Cross.
“No,” Folu repeats and the Knight loosens his grip until he lets go completely. Another bang on the door. He takes Folu in his arms, small like a rabbit, and Folu struggles again. He’s taking Folu away, just like they did with Mother. The Grey Man is taking Folu away.
“Stay here. Don’t move. I’ll make them go away. If you want to live, don’t move.”
He puts Folu in the cupboard that smells of beeswax and vellum. Folu is watching him from the slit in the wood as he goes forward, as he walks past the horse that is now wrapped in ivy too, like everything else, past the puddle on the floor, past the rotting chairs, watching him as he stands in the middle of the cathedral, arms wide as if in a plea to the skies.
The door bursts open; the Grey Men are holding fire. The Knight simply stands there, talks in his language. Then another bang and the Knight is on his knees. He falls on the floor and they take him away, take his horse away. The Grey Men take the Knight away.
Day in, day out, sun up, sun down, Folu lives on nettle and watercress and bitter dandelion buds and leaves. Spring turns into summer; the grass on the cathedral’s floor has grown so tall it’s become hard to walk through. Autumn comes with apples and soon chestnuts too. Folu prepares for winter. Folu now knows how to catch game, how to lay traps and get fat rabbits in them. The Knight’s knife will skin them. The knife-gift. Winter will be cold. Must think of winter now. Gather firewood. Cover with the blanket to keep it dry.
When the day ends and the sun heads to its resting place, Folu lays out the cards. What happens in the City, who rules beyond the Sea: everything is in the cards. The mother with the sick child and the craftsman with a debt. The butcher with the unfaithful wife and the old woman who has no one—just like Folu. But Folu doesn’t care. Everything is in the cards. The cards are company.
Folu draws three cards.
The Knight. The first card is the Knight. And then? The Child. The Knight, the Child. And then?
The last card is the Heart, glowing, covered in vines and wild flowers. But Folu can draw another one. Folu will then see where the Knight is, what he’s doing. But Folu doesn’t want to. The Knight, the Child, the Heart. If the cards wish to say more, Folu doesn’t listen. There are things to be done, dry wood to be collected. Folu sleeps. There’s nothing more the cards can tell.
Some things one knows already.