This short is based on the song “The Oracles on the Delphi Express” by The Dear Hunter
The carriage rocked gently from side to side, a soothing motion once you get used to the jolts of a train running over misaligned tracks. His compartment smelt of old wood that had been varnished too heavily. The brown leather seats were worn and faded from years of use. Outside the world rushed by, wreathed in smoke from the engine ahead.
He glanced at his hands – they still had dirt under the fingernails. Perhaps he should have washed himself, but something had driven him from that place. It had been his home for so many years, yet now it was nothing but an empty shell of a life once lived.
Where would the train take him, how far would he ride it? As far as possible, he figured. His mother had never told him about The City, but he knew it would be somewhere along the line. As soon as the green of the hills and trees turned to the grey of buildings and roads, he would know he was in the right place. She had told him never to go there, never to stray too far from the small piece of land they had called their own. She had forbidden him, but now she was dead.
Time and endless work had taken its toll on his mother, yet at the end she still smiled. She always had the saddest smile.
The sound made him jump, not least because he had boarded the train without checking for a ticket desk. Reaching instinctively into his waistcoat, he mumbled his apologies. A sharp bark of a laugh caused him to look up. Stood at the sliding door to his compartment, a grin creasing her wrinkled face, was an old woman.
“Oh darling, you should have seen your face.” The woman, a shawl wrapped around her head, stepped into the carriage. “Don’t worry yourself, though, you won’t need a ticket. The inspector will forget to check this room.”
Two other figures followed the woman – one, tall, lithe and beautiful, was a girl around his age. She wore a tight dress around her midriff and a chequered scarf across her shoulders. Her face, hidden behind thick golden hair, was shadowed by a wide-brimmed straw hat. Behind the beauty shuffled a young girl – maybe four or five. The child kept her eyes on the floor, hands grasping at the young woman’s dress.
“Who-” he begun to say, before the old woman silenced him with an upheld palm.
“You don’t need to know, child. What does concern you, though, is where you are headed.”
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“The City.” Squeeked the little girl, who had hoisted herself onto the seat opposite him, in between the old woman and the beauty. “Why do you want to go to The City?”
“He’s angry,” whispered the beauty. Her lips, full and red, appeared fleetingly between strands of blonde hair. “Confused. Distraight. So many emotions for such a young soul.”
He crossed his arms, leaning back against the seat. “Look, I don’t know who you are, but please find another carriage, I’d rather be alone, I-”
“Buried your mother today.” The girl interrupted. She looked up, tears in her eyes. “So sad. She was all you had.”
He felt his heart clench within his chest.
The old woman broke the silence. “Your luck is running thin, Hunter. There is nothing but pain in The City. No matter what you do, it will find you.” She leant forward, placing a wrinkled hand onto his knee. He felt instantly warm and comfortable, as if he were sat by a roaring fire on a winter’s night. The fact the woman had said his name passed over him like the lightest breeze. “Crimson hands will brandish masqueraded words. Your innocence will shatter.”
He brushed himself free of her grasp. “What are you saying?”
“Beware the man of duality,” replied the beauty, wringing her hands. “Prose with one face and pride with the other. A theatre of sin and a palace of hypocrisy.”
“She loved you,” sobbed the little girl, cuffing tears from her pink cheeks. “She loved you so much.”
“You’re stuck, Hunter,” continued the old woman, taking the beauty’s hands in hers. “You lust for some solidity, but your cryptic history will lead you down a dark path. Trust us. Do not go to The City.”
The beauty looked up. Her hair flew from her face. His gaze was suddenly trapped by her eyes of golden brown. “She is there. A rose among thorns, a flower among swine. A mislead heiress to mystery.”
“Stop this!” The old woman grasped at the beauty, but her hands were pushed away. The beauty lurched forward, pulling him into an embrace. The old woman raked at her dress, trying to drag her back. “Stop this now!”
With a whisper as light as cascading feathers, the beauty’s lips brushed his ears. “The mimic of the matriarch, the silver queen, her embrace is your salvation.” She fell back, panting.
“Do we have to go, nana?” The little girl asked the old woman, who was recovering her composure.
“Yes, dear,” the old woman smiled.
The child smiled sadly. She hopped from her seat, and crossed to tug at his shirtsleeve. “She loved you so much” she repeated.
He looked up at the old woman, who was adjusting her shawl. “Trust us, child. Do not go to The City. Go back to the lake, go back to the river. Your luck’s running thin.”
The train burst into a tunnel, plunging the carriage into darkness. Slumping back against the dusty seat, Hunter wiped the sweat from his forehead with a sleeve. He could feel his heart beating within his chest.
“Next stop, The City!” A train guard holding a small lantern passed down the car, holding the light up to scan for passengers. He stopped outside of the door for a moment. The guard shifted his weight, sniffed, and then set off again. “That’s The City, next stop!”
Light filled the carriage again, revealing it to be as empty as when Hunter had boarded. Outside, obscured by grey-black smoke, a great city stretched. Suddenly exhausted, Hunter leant forward, elbows resting on his knees. He glanced at his fingers – the nails were spotless.