Casus Bella – Part Four

casusbella

Someone threw me a sword. I caught it, to my own surprise, and tested its balance with a few swift practice swings. Satisfied, I stowed it in my scabbard.

“Slim chance,” Knight-Captain Meister countered Shinvar’s prediction. He did so with a dry sort of smile, like a crack in a drought-parched cliff.  “I would give us a slim chance. Not that I doubt your assessment, but allow me to err on the side of optimism.”

“There’s not much room to err here, Captain. And precious little for optimism.” Shinvar bit a small portion of her upper lip. She shifted aside for a group of knights carrying pails of pitch to the barricade. Watched them splash the black soup over the jumbled pile. The miscellaneous debris of a once-busy town had only one purpose now. The purchase of time. “We should withdraw to the hills. The Mountain Hamlets and the mines where Orin hails from.” My name became a pearl, spoken by her. Gone too soon in the current of words, I had no idea what spell her voice had worked on the two ordinary syllables. “We’ll last a lot longer defending those tunnels and I know the paths and trails. There’s every opportunity for flanking. Small raiding parties could inflict – ”

“Shinvar, what do you suppose I have planned? Exactly that.” More men brought buckets to the barrier, adding to its viscous black coat. “But we will first make our enemy pay dear for every yard of street they take.”

“Fair enough, but what are we going to buy with the delay? With those lives?”

“Friends, Shinvar.” Meister’s clenched teeth lent the word unusual grimness. “Allies. Reinforcements and, ultimately, victory. I’ll pay not one life for anything less.”

“Where is that help coming from?”

Where indeed? The Orkans held or collapsed the bridges to the North and East. Behind the town all other points of the compass met the Ursine Massif, the rugged and inflexible spine of this continent.

“The Elves,” said Meister.

Shinvar tilted her head and arched an eyebrow. Even some of the bustling work parties pricked their ears as they continued to attend the barricade. And I all but blurted my disbelief. Though I reined it in, a small measure escaped in a cough.

Meister speared me with a glance.

“Beg your pardon, Captain, sir.” I cleared my throat, in hopes of dredging up more of my voice from where it had retreated. “But I have been garrisoned here some while. The locals speak volumes of the scorn the Elves have for this town. They wish nothing to do with this sore on the toe of their mountains.”

The peaks and high caverns belonged to them and they saw the mines as an invasion and this town as an unsightly scar on their commanding view of the world. So it was said. Over and over, with much contempt, in the taverns and in the barracks.

“Nevertheless, they will change their tune when they see an Orkan horde on their doorstep.”

“We can’t know that.” Shinvar bit more of her lip. She shook her head. “There’s a reason the rest of the Elves left us to our own devices. Mountain Elves are even keener on keeping themselves to themselves.”

Knight-Captain Meister nodded. “Which is why I’m sending you to persuade them.”

“What? No. I’m needed here!”

“I’ll not deny you would make a difference here. But you will make a greater difference up there.” Meister thrust out an arm, pointing to the peaks looking down upon our rooftops. “Down here is battle after battle. Up there is the key to the war.”

In my opinion, this woman could make all the difference, wherever she was deployed. She could win battles or wars singlehanded, I had no doubt. It was strange to see doubt and consternation furrowing a brow such as hers.

“Sir, I do not – ”

“It does not matter what you do or do not believe. But you go. You ride now. Take the lad with you. And you ride up that mountain trail and you make them believe. Thank you. That will be all, Shinvar. Good luck and may your Huntress guide you!”

Meister spun away, launched into a tirade of orders for the knights and work crews. Shinvar stood with her mouth open and was a short while closing it. She turned and swept up into her saddle. From on high on horseback, she nodded to me.

I returned the nod. Then donned my helm and mounted my steed.

A shout turned our heads to the factory roof. Where a half-dozen archers edged forward like a group of perched starlings. Their leader signalled, making a cutting gesture down towards the street. We saw nothing, of course, past the barricade. But we heard.

Boots drummed the cobbles. Boots and hooves, the beat of leather and metal on stone. The percussion section of an angry orchestra. Building to an ominous symphony.

Then in came the choral.

Growl and grumble, gnash and snort. Wild, hungry noises with an appetite for blood.

Shinvar looked to the rooftops. She looked through the barricade. Looked to all the places she would rather be.

Then spurred her horse away from them all.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Casus Bella – Part Three

casusbella

We ducked, she and I, one after the other as we rode through the doorway into the adjoining section of the factory.

Fewer personnel filled out this stretch of the building. I glanced a touch nervously at the high girdered ceiling, which rattled at the sound of another crashing fireball outside. But the missile had punished another roof other than the one above our heads. A good job, as Shinvar eschewed a helmet altogether and mine had already taken enough of a battering in my inglorious fall.

While the large space where we had entered had the general disposition of a warehouse, this section housed an idle assembly line, where the remains of steam tractors were abandoned in various stages of incompletion. Machines intended for the mines and quarries which fed this town’s voracious appetite for minerals in its normal course of daily operations. Before the enemy had marched upon its unwalled outskirts in their rabblesome hordes. In what other cities would call peacetime. While this town could never claim such a state, its streets and buildings ever-grinding with the noise of industry.

Strange, in some respects, to be fighting off the brutal, bestial chaos outside in hopes of restoring the town to its customary mechanical din.

We steered our horses left, halfway along the assembly line and through another double gate. Back out into the street. A cobbled courtyard inside the barricade.

Knights and militiamen hauled more crates, shelving and assorted large bric-a-brac from the neighbouring factories and piled them onto the barrier or stacked them to further shore up the base of the wall.

Knight-Captain Meister directed teams hither and thither to wherever more materials looked most-needed. I only identified him by the fountainous plume sprouting from the helmet he carried under his arm.

He was a man with cheekbones and jaw of steel, as though he wore a second helm under his skin. The metal of which grew through pores and lines, emerging as a beard of silver-and-white wire wool. His eyes were coal-hearted furnaces in which fresh swords could be forged.

Shinvar dismounted, landing in front of him as though she had floated down from the clouds rather than the saddle of her golden steed. I slid less gracefully from my own horse and positioned myself as her humble shadow.

“Their first wave broke apart, but they’re already regrouping,” she reported. We could all hear them out there, the grumbling flood surging over the first barricade and amassing far down the street. “And the next wave is moving up on the outer defences.”

“And who’s this you’ve brought us?” Captain Meister nodded in my direction, with gritted teeth and clenched eyes.

Shinvar turned her head to look at me.

Amber. Her eyes were amber. Like honey. Memory had cheated me. There was no blue. They must have captured the light of the sky. That, or the blow of the road against my back had dazed me more than I had thought.

“I’ve no idea,” she said – and smiled. “He was out there in the thick of it though. Thought we could find a use for him.”

Meister laughed like he was coughing up stones. “That we can. What’s your name, man? Let’s have that can off your head so we can look at you.”

Shinvar.

My senses stalled, just as they had done in battle, with the wind knocked out of me. Willing time to slow, my gaze drank in every detail. As though affronted – ashamed – at their error over eye colour, they wanted to pause the world and carefully note every facet of this woman.

Hair of autumns and summers mingled, complexion a blend of coffee and brown sugar, soft features underlined by a firm jaw, the strongest support for her broad and subtly whimsical smiles. Her armour bore the cameo emblem of the Huntress, ivory-skinned silhouette of a female archer. The Order was one I had heard of in bold tales – but such fictions did an injustice if all the Order’s knights were of this woman’s calibre.

She was young too. Too young for war. Then again, were not we all.

“Come on. We’ve not got all day, man. At least show us you’re no Orkan spy under there.”

I blinked. Spell broken, I raised my helmet and then tucked it under my arm, after the Knight-Captain’s fashion.

“Man?” Meister snorted. “Boy, more like. What’s your name, soldier?”

“Freigard, sir. Orin Friegard. I’m with the Mountain Hamlets garrison. They transferred us all down to bolster the forces here.”

“Aye, I’m aware of the strategic deployments, lad. Since I ordered most of them. Any that I didn’t are why everything’s going to hell.” He laughed again but if there was humour in the sound it was arid. “Never mind. Where’s your weapon?”

My hand flicked to the empty scabbard. “Lost, sir.”

Meister shouted to the general company. “Get this soldier a sword! I’ll not have anybody dying unarmed. Not on my watch. Now,” he added, easing down into quieter tones, “you’ve seen enough, Shinvar, to paint me a picture. Can we hold here?”

“Not a chance.”

Such warmth in her beauty. But her honesty turned me cold.

 

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Casus Bella – Part Two

casusbella

At some point I must have stood. Because her hand grasped mine and she hauled me up into the saddle behind her.

This warrioress steered her steed into another dancing circle, while I held onto her armoured waist and while she sliced at milling enemies with her sword. She cut a path for us through the mêlée, then spurred her horse through, driving the press of fighters apart with kicks and sweeping arcs of her graceful blade.

Answering weapons slashed at us, but she was quick to fend them off. Parries met every one, fleeting kisses of blade on blade on the move. And if any attacks stalled us at all, then they only purchased themselves a riposte for their pains. Every flash of sunlight on her sword heralded another fallen foe. Orkans crashed to the cobblestones, carpeting the avenue with their blood and bulk.

She spurred her mount over them, clear of the battle-crush, but she was not done. She spun the horse about, slid her blade home in its scabbard. Then her bow slipped from shoulder to hands and she plucked arrow after arrow from her quiver. Sent them – swoosh, swoosh, swoosh! – like solid gusts of wind – there, there, there! – biting into the thrashing clashing throng.

Feather-tailed branches sprouted in Orkan necks and eyes and treasonous gaps in their armour. They dropped and piled atop their already-dead comrades.

Knights fought in a thinning maelstrom of bodies. They staggered and battled over a building mound of studded-and-spiked-leather-clad corpses. And she – my rescuer – called to them.

“Fall back! To the second barricade!”

A sound of music and power, her shout was fearsome and glorious. The blare of heaven’s bugle.

And she shot two, three, four, six more down. Freed more knights from the fight. Dazed, exhausted, grim-set faces and battered helmet visors turned this way and that as the warriors withdrew, beating back a sparser rabble of enemies.

Two Orkans converged on a lone straggler, axes hungry. Two arrows flew and found their marks. The straggler-knight straggled no more. He hurdled the fallen and raced to catch up with his retreating friends. Those on horse scooped up a passenger.

Then we turned again. To gallop down the road.

Hooves thundered on cobbles beneath us. Rattled my teeth. And I held tighter to her waist. Steel plate and chain denied my arms any sense of the muscle and strength and warmth to which I clung. I might have been some seashell clinging to a cold rock against a crashing tide. In any case, this woman’s strength lay deeper than muscle. I had seen a measure of it, a dram, in her eyes. A shard of heart that had worked its way to the surface in her gaze.

And here, anchored to her, braced in a saddle with only her back before me and her hair flying in my face, I could not recall the exact colour of her eyes. There had been some blue. But had there not been some emerald too?

Memory teased. I closed my eyes, squinted to trap her portrait. But my senses had been hazed and the picture was a blur. Whoever the artist, he or she had used soft brushstrokes.

I opened my eyes to the rush of buildings on either side.

Steel mills and smelting works and manufactories. Drab and soulless brick, structures given to industry. Edifices with the downcast facades of slaves, the grime of their labours smoked into their hides. And now many burned and smoked and broke under the onslaught of other engines. The siege machines of the Orkans had grown more sporadic, slinging only the occasional missile now that their armies had advanced into the town. A fireball caved in another factory roof and ploughed in through the tiles to gut the production line with flame. Unsightly chimneys trembled in fear of something uglier.

And we raced on past.

And I looked ahead to the second barricade. Another wall of furnishings and toppled coaches and wagons. And there – waiting for me, it seemed – was my steed.

The animal stamped about in confusion and frustration, its flight barred by this junk-pile wall.

And my rescuer, my warrioress, she pulled her mount in beside mine and handed me over. I transferred easily enough into the vacant saddle and grabbed the reins. All the while glancing around for a proper view – a reminder – of the woman who had saved me.

But she rode by. Trotted to the gates of a factory abutting this side of the barrier.

“Let us through!” she called. “We’re short on time!”

The gates parted and we rode on into the factory. A scattered flood of more cavalry and retreating infantry followed us. As they all pressed in, more men and women began dragging crates and shelves and anything they could move to shore up the gates. As the last few swept in, so the gates were slammed and barred and the boxes and barrels and fixtures were pushed into place.

“Shinvar!” some sour-stoned voice grated. “Captain Meister needs to see you!”

And my warrioress guided her steed left, riding for the door at the end of the factory floor. And I spurred my horse to catch up with her. And I was myself spurred too. Because now I knew her name.

Shinvar.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

Casus Bella – Part One

casusbella

My steed reared and I crashed from the saddle. Slammed into the ground.

Sky reeled. Stars danced in the daylight. I dry-heaved air from my lungs and gut. Empty and dazed, I lay broken on the lip of the crater left by the fireball. While my horse galloped, screaming, away along the cobbled avenue.

My skull turned to wool, muffling the din of battle. The roar in my ears was all blood. A clamour that drowned out everything. Everything but fear.

Adrenalin or dread or something coursed through my veins. The world breathed in time with me and I had no breath. Time slowed. And I watched from a mile away, but deep in the heart of the day’s chaos.

Orkans poured over the barricade. An armoured flood of seething, spitting ugly surged over the wall of toppled wagons, iron bedframes, wardrobes, tables and every other scrap of furniture we’d managed to cram across the street. Swinging battle-axes and gnashing tusks, they fell upon the crush of knights and horses and infantry awaiting them this side of the jumble-sale wall.

Spears jabbed. Swords slashed. Axes hacked. A forest of steel thrashed in a murderous gale-force wind. A storm of weapons and armour, scarred polish and grim faces among the men, filth and rust and animal fangs on the side of the attacking army.

My right hand slapped the ground, flailing, groping for the hilt that had been wrapped in my gauntlet only three heartbeats before. Maybe more. My heart should have galloped as fast as my fleeing horse but its sound was lost like all others.

Boots and greaves trampled the ground all around me, kicking other fallen bodies. Stamping over them.

My hand closed around something that might have been a sword-hilt. The heaving sea of armour swept over and around me in strangely distant silence.

I yelled, deaf to my own voice. I pulled the sword toward me, relieved to find a blade attached to the hilt and pommel. And I swung the weapon, chopping at fat and grimy Orkan calves. Felled one foe, who stumbled a pace or two on bleeding legs. Then crashed forward on his rust-plated belly perhaps three yards from me. Another obstacle thrown under the feet of the battling horde.

A brutal leather boot, adorned with spikes, stamped down hard on my arm. Pinned at the elbow, I could feel the blood stopped up in my veins.

I held my grip on my sword, uselessly stranded though it was on the far side of the blockage. And I looked up at my oppressor.

A vicious, blubber-jowled Orkan, with a taste for spikes all over his armour and a face as leathery as his cladding, that looked to have been kicked about a field as a football in some off-duty sport between his comrades.

Behind him and above, a fireball ploughed like a comet into one of the tall factory chimneys that flanked this street. Cast from an enemy catapult, it may as well have rained down from whatever passed for Orkan heaven, as it graced this warrior with a brief halo of flame. Before the pulverised chimney pelted the factory roof with crumbled bricks.

The Orkan shifted his stance. Planted his boot on my sword-hand. Until my fingers had no choice but to relinquish the weapon.

He grunted. A laugh like gargled brimstone.

And I realised my hearing had returned. First this hellish, guttural sound from this bestial throat. Then the rest: the clash and clang and all the shouts so raw they must have raked men’s throats. And I wished for the deafness and stillness again. Breath was back in my lungs just when I had no further use for it.

The Orkan hefted his axe, raised the pitted and pocked blade high. Where its rust drank up the daylight like blood soaks up courage. And he swung it down, two-handed.

It bit at my heart.

Snagged in the plate.

The Orkan growled and wrested it free, snatched it from the crevasse he’d dug in the metal. No blood oozed from the crack. Though the bruise of the blow throbbed inside my armour.

I struggled, tugged at my arm. The axe-blade sailed high again. Swung down. Bashed a dent in another patch of chest-plate. Hammered my ribs. The Orkan raised the axe, hissing drool between his tusks. Pig-eyes fit to pop. Mad.

Then there she appeared.

Behind and above him, like the flaming halo he’d worn so fleetingly before. Only closer.

High on a glorious golden horse, she shone. There was the gleam of her chain and plate where it wasn’t spattered with blood. The radiance in her complexion, sun-browned skin sheening with perspiration. Most of all in her eyes. It was a cold light just then, but it was all I could see.

The flash of her sword, scything with ease, was a passing distraction. Until a shower of Orkan blood, like red tar, sprayed across my vision and the spike-armoured body keeled over. And she may have delivered it a kick to make sure it fell clear of me, but I was only vaguely aware. Of anything.

Except her guiding her horse in an expert dance. And her leaning in her saddle and a strong arm reaching down to me.

Saved by the belle.

 

 

[To Be Continued…]

 

 

THE END

Prophesarium – Conclusion

hanginggardens

And lo! The Saviour shall be sore afraid. And the people shall know him by his fear. For he shall be a solitary figure wandering the wasteland aftermath of the battle. He shall roam the chaos and destruction with wonderment and terror and bewilderment fixed upon his pale befreckled face. For the sight of the Seawyrm and the Sandwyrm shall be new unto him.

Falcon flicked a dozen more pages, skimming the text. More of the same.

He gave up in disgust and stepped away from the book.

It was an accurate account, as far as it went, of his time in Xandria. Only in overblown language as elaborate as the illustrations that bordered each page. And the writer had made far more of the protagonist than Falcon had ever made of himself.

“I’m nothing like that,” he told the Vizir, who stood hovering behind him like some hummingbird expectant of nectar. He’d be disappointed. “That’s the reason I came here. Because I’m not a damned bit like that.”

“Then you came here seeking change. A new path. A fresh chapter.”

“Yes. Something like that – but – ” Falcon waved at the book on the lectern as though a simple gesture might have the power to dismiss it from sight. No such luck. “Not like that. Nothing like it says in your damned bible. I’m no saviour. No hero.”

“None of us are. Until we are.”

“What? What kind of rubbish is that? Did you write this book? All this rot?”

“No, sir. I did not.” The Vizir hurried to the lectern to lay a protective hand on the open pages, as though covering the book’s ears against profanity and blasphemy. “This rot, as you call it, is one of the Great Prophesies Of Magracorus. The writings are more ancient than Xandria herself.”

“Wait, you’re saying some guy wrote this way back, however many centuries ago?”

“Millennia. It is impossible to say how long ago exactly.”

“But how could he possibly have foreseen – ?”

The Vizir shrugged. “Impossible to say. That is the nature of prophesy.”

Falcon wanted to kick over the lectern. If only the Vizir would budge out of the way. And the Prophesarium guards were still present, in any case. Impassive observers to Falcon’s general displeasure. They probably wouldn’t remain so passive if he expressed it the way he wanted.

“You don’t get it. Your prophet – yeah, maybe he saw stuff. Foresaw, whatever. But he didn’t see me. He didn’t see inside me.” Falcon laughed. “‘Named for a bird of prey.’ Sure. Falcon. Know where I got that from?”

The Vizir shook his head.

“Foul Ken they used to call me. Foul Ken Moskirk. Because of the smell. Never could do much about that. Moskirk with a ‘k’, by the way. It’s with a ‘q-u-e’ now. Sounded fancier in my head. Foul Ken. Useful moniker on the streets. They used to say they could smell me coming. But they said it with dread, you know. Never a joke when it was me coming to shake them down or administer a harsh lesson because they’d upset the boss. Defaulted on payments or stepped out of line some other way. The why didn’t matter. All that counted was what they were in for.”

He wandered back from memory lane, leaving more than a few bruised and battered bodies behind him on the cobbles. He met the Vizir’s distant smile. A smile from a foreign land and a past that wasn’t foreign enough.

“That, right there,” he said, “is a sketchy portrait of your precious Saviour. That’s the hero your people have all been waiting for.”

“None of us know what potential lies within us,” countered the Vizir. “Not with any certainty. You came to Xandria in search of something, my son. Something new inside yourself.”

“Kind of.” Falcon nodded. “But not really. I’m looking for a change, yeah. But on the outside. Just a chance to do something different. Yeah, to make amends some. But mainly just to move on, forget. Eventually. A job. That’s all I want. No grand redemption. And definitely – definitely – not fighting dragons.”

“I see.” The Vizir rose slowly from his protective stance over the book. Calm as a stagnant pond on a breezeless day.

“Do you?” said Falcon.

“Well, I can’t say I’m ecstatic about it, but it’s not as if you’re the first ever Saviour to disappoint.”

Falcon coughed. “Excuse me?”

“However, if it is a job you have come looking for, there I believe we may be able to help you.” He crossed the dais to his desk and plucked a scroll from among the charts and documents. “The work is quiet and not terribly challenging, but the Prophesarium is vast and I grow no younger. I could use an assistant.”

He held out the scroll.

“Here. Take this to the Seventh Archive.”

“The Seventh – ?”

The Vizir nodded and thrust the scroll forward, obliging Falcon to take it.

“Yes. The discards,” he said.

*

Discards.

Prophesies that didn’t quite bear fruit.

And lo! thought Falcon. The ‘Saviour’ finally figured it out. Truth dawned. Let there be light.

The Prophesarium was a house of hopes. Some of them didn’t work out. A lot like lives really. Potential in every single one. People had advantages over prophesies, mind. Experience and hindsight. Falcon knew his potential, knew how far he could travel from his ‘Foul Ken’ past. And he was just about there. This would do.

He filed the scroll in one of the countless pigeonholes.

Then wandered back to the Vizir. Job done. Except there was another task to replace it: the Vizir immediately sent him off to fetch another scroll.

“I will transcribe its text into the Great Book. Recorded onto the leaves of pathyrus the prophesy will spread to the consciousness of the people of Xandria. Thus, one hope takes the place of another in the hearts of men and women.”

“Which one?” asked Falcon. And his gaze roamed the endless honeycomb of shelves and all the millions of prophesies.

“Any one you like,” said the Vizir.

And waved Falcon on his way.

 

 

SAF 2016

Prophesarium – Part Seven

hanginggardens

Guards awaited on the pier. A half-dozen of them in colourful robes and golden chain shirts, they stood as pole-straight as their curiously hooked spears.

Falcon moved a hand over the hilt of his sword. But instead of poking weapons at him, the guards bowed.

“The Vizir expects you,” one informed him.

“Well, all right then”

Falcon relaxed and fell into step with his escort as they marched along the pier. This Vizir had to be the bloke in charge. ‘Vizir’suggested visions and visibility, so fingers crossed it was a man who saw things, a man who knew things. The man with all the answers for Falcon.

The soldiers tramped in ceremonial fashion, accompanying Falcon through a trellised archway several elephants wide and woven with some sort of climbing rose, an exquisite tangle of glorious blood-red blooms, thorns like the guards’ spear-tips and a calming perfume. The scent, though, had the opposite effect on Falcon, putting him immediately on the alert, fearful of some attempt to dull his senses.

He passed down several paths flanked by verdure under a cathedral-greenhouse ceiling strung with overflowing hanging baskets, suspended on impossibly fine flaxen ropes. Then on through more archways into a hall that stretched from one forever to another.

As though the heavens had been housed on earth and converted into a library. An infinite honeycomb of shelves spread left and right and up and up for countless storeys – or stories, perhaps. The shelves were caged behind a scaffold of ladders and steps, some of which were mounted on small wheels. And protruding ever so slightly from each cubby, the ends of rolled scrolls were visible, one parchment to each of the millions of pigeon-holes. And central to this hall of worship to the written word was a circular dais, home to a single enormous volume, opened on a proud lectern. And a monumental desk, at which a dusty-robed and cowled figure sat, a beard of snow and charcoal spilling from under his hood to trail over an assortment of papers and charts spread before him.

He looked up, revealing an aquiline nose and deep dark eyes beneath densely thatched eyebrows. The guards stood apart and invited Falcon forward.

Falcon approached the dais. And the man, presumably the Vizir, rose slowly to walk around his desk. He stood before Falcon, marginally shorter despite his position on the highest step of the dais. His hands were clasped and his head tilted at a humbled angle.

“Saviour. Welcome to the Prophesarium. What questions you have shall be fed and watered and nourished with whatever answers I can provide.”

“Right,” said Falcon. And he wondered where to start.

*

And he shall walk among us as an ordinary traveller, armed but dangerous to none save for noses. And he shall be known by his hair the colour of a freshly uprooted carrot and the pallor of his visage and the freckles upon his cheeks as of a handful of desert cast at a face sticky with perspiration.

And he shall not know himself to be our Saviour. For heroes are not born straight from the womb, but in moments  – sometimes in a single moment – later in life.

*

Saviour. Yes, that had seemed the perfect point to start and Falcon had even turned the word into a question. To the extent that he had no need to say any more. And the Vizir had simply taken him by the sleeve and tugged him along, up onto the dais to stand before the lectern and read the beautifully embellished passage on the open page of the Great Book.

This text, Falcon realised, was meant to serve as his answer. He read it again.

“This isn’t me.”

“You deny that you are he?” The Vizir touched a fingertip to certain choice phrases in the scripture. “‘Hair the colour of a freshly uprooted carrot.’ ‘Freckles upon his cheeks.’” And he flipped the page back to the previous one. “‘A foreign smell.’”

“Well, yeah. Those all apply to me, but – ”

“And what, pray, is your name?”

“Falcon, but – ”

“‘And the smell shall be named after a great hunter’,” intoned the Vizir. “‘A bird of prey, who shall fly into our midst from a distant land.’”

Falcon nodded. Dipped his head in defeat.

Maybe it was him. But they had him all wrong.

 

 

[To Be Concluded…]

Prophesarium – Part Six

hanginggardens

And he shall cross the water to the Prophesarium. And there he shall learn. And through learning ascend to take his place as our Saviour.

And the seas shall be calm and he shall feel seasick. Yea, though his stomach shall be like unto a house plagued with mice: full of scampering and with gnawed foundations.

For he shall fear what he is yet to learn of himself. For even heroes fear the unknown and to the true hero the greatest unknown is his own heroism.

*

The boat dipped and bobbed on gentle undulations of blue. The sail fluttered in the occasional energetic gust, as though the wind was having a day off and doing only just enough to keep the maritime traffic moving in the bay. The surface was a blanket sequined with sunlight.

Picturesque. A picture that told a thousand words or more – and wove them into one big fat lie. Nothing had happened here. No great disaster. No homes and lives ruined. The city carried on as normal out here past the shorefront.

This was the district, Falcon reasoned, on which Xandria’s reputation for beauty and majesty was built. This was the area that inspired artists and storytellers. And this was the part where her wealthiest and most august citizens resided.

The opulence had him leaning over the side.

Although he had to own up to a pre-existing unease, there before his disgust, before he had stepped on board. Before he had chartered the boat.

Hired for nothing, of course. Apart from the guards barring his exit from the city, the natives remained eager as ever to please him. Extending him every courtesy and hospitality even in the midst of their misery. Somehow that made him more ill than all the grandeur of the islands slipping by either side of the sailboat.

Hand on the tiller, the boatman smiled and pointed at the graceful parade of pyramids and palaces, temples and libraries, observatories and museums. He named them for nobody Falcon had ever heard of. Ancient individuals who might’ve been gods or kings, figure divine or merely historical. Grand as they sounded and grand as their namesake structures were, the sights became a slow stream, running into each other just as the channels between islands formed the arteries of one single bay.

“There stands the Royal Palace of the Great Cloepatra, Our Queen, Our Majesty.”

Falcon wondered at the greatness and majesty of a queen who could reside in her ivory tower while her people suffered disaster.

Her tower was not literally ivory, as it would have required more elephants than the continent could muster. But the stone that made up the smooth slopes of her pyramid had a pale tusk-like complexion. The structure was truncated, a plateau on top, with shimmering rivers running down the middle of each face, between enormous tiles inlaid with golden hieroglyphics relating some tale too epic to be read in the single passage of a slow boat. Giant statues  of Gyptian gods stood guard all around the pyramid’s base amid a garden of palms.

The boatman steered a wide course around the island and Falcon wondered if there was some sort of exclusion zone enforced. Then he understood as he observed a trireme the size of a whale, her hull ornamented with carved hieroglyphs and trimmed with gold, pulled out from the docks on the other side of the island. Her three rows of oars dug deep in perfect synchronisation, propelling her rhythmically out into the channel. The current she stirred rocked Falcon’s hired sailboat.

“Our great Queen, she goes to the people! To visit them in their time of need!”

Okay, thought Falcon, so she wasn’t the aloof and uncaring monarch he had imagined her to be. But he doubted she would mingle properly with the rabble or dirty her sandals amongst the mud and ruin.

“What about the Prophesarium? How much longer – ?”

“There!” The boatman pointed and grinned. “There she stands! The Prophesarium Of Xandria!”

Falcon felt inclined to ask if there were any other prophesariums anywhere in the world. But the sight of the building silenced the cynic in him.

Here was a pyramid of tiers. Garden terraces stepped up and up and up to a peak crowned with a gold and blue globe. Marble and variegated mosaic walls decked with rich greenery and blossoming shrubs. Every tier a fountain of plant life and colour. More beautiful than the Palace of Cloepatra and Falcon wondered that her Majesty tolerated such a structure as so close a neighbour.

Still, here he hoped to find answers.

And if there was truth to be discovered somewhere within this great edifice, well, that was more important than any monarch.

 

[To Be Continued…]