By Stephen Taylor
Photo by Jonas Jaeken on Unsplash
It’s raining up top. The drip drip dripping down the walls is making pools on the stone and concrete floor. Somewhere up there it’s daylight, but beneath the clouds and beneath the ground we live.
Some were born in this pit, scraping for survival from their very first day. And some have fallen far, so very very far, to be here now.
We rarely fight down here. We often weep. Huddle together for warmth around a single fire on cold days like this. Sharing our scraps and our firewood and what’s left of our souls. The caverns we call home were built aeons ago by great architects. I can appreciate the gothic design with its arches and carvings on my more lucid days, it becomes overwhelming and dark on most others. These people barely even recognize the structures around them, they are weighed down with rags and burdens of the desperate: eyes on the ground looking for scraps or vermin. But I, I still catch myself looking up, occasionally even through the grates at surface level to see the sky again. But today the upper world is filled with rain that seeps into our holy ground. The sacred place of our survival. The poorest of the poor. The most wretched of the wretched. Cast out of sight even from those who live just above. No-one wants to remember us. I know I don’t.
I join the group assembling by the fire lit in the barrel. Around twenty of us clutching at our rags and standing shoulder to shoulder staring at the flames. How the colours are able to dance when surrounded by such misery and darkness is a blessing and a miracle. The sound of wood burning beats like music for the flames above them. We all listen and watch.
One man looks to me and asks for a story. Sometimes I like to tell tales and help our people feel better, but this time he’s asking for something different. He points to the roof, though he does not look lest his eyes lie to him; he wants a story from up there to warm our imaginations. I warn him those stories are different, and the endings not always happy. He persists with pleading eyes and so I nod and close mine, enduring the pain of memory to bring light to this darkest place.
Above the ground and above the clouds, above the mountains and above the soaring eagles, where the stars sleep in Heaven there was a beautiful child. Her name was Elizabeth, and she was an angel from birth.
Blonde hair and bright blue eyes filled with the wonder of life itself. An angel given to mankind from the gods. A playful and delightful soul that would dance in fields of soft grass by ocean cliffs, laughing and twirling with her doting father in the sea breeze. He adored her and showered her with love and affection, giving everything in his power to give. Beautiful dresses and fine jewellery that would make the most glorious of beings envious of their craftsmanship. He fancied himself the wind she loved to dance in, as he would watch her laugh and play in its affectionate freedom. She lived in a peaceful and beautiful place surrounded by love, and her heart filled with innocent joy.
The colours of such a world, oh! If you could only experience the vibrancy of light that would fill your eyes and ignite your soul! A joyous world of greens and blues, pinks and reds and violets and flowers of such scents as to bring life to the most burdened heart! But this world was not one without its secrets, or its darkness. As the father came to know.
The Lords of that land heard of the daughter’s beauty. They had sought her father’s help before, as he was a genius with technologies. He had refused, knowing they wanted him to create a weapon of great destructive power, but now they came to him with threats.
They took his daughter and imprisoned her. They threatened to harm her unless he did as they wished and create the weapon they demanded from him. To save Elizabeth’s life, he had no choice but to acquiesce.
And so he laboured for his daughter’s freedom under the watchful eye of his slave-drivers. They kept her in a stone cell with no windows or bed, chained to the wall by her ankle, unable to move but a few yards. They fed her vermin and scraps of bread, just enough to keep her alive and motivate her father to work for them.
It took the father five years to finish the work, and the Lords congratulated themselves as they released his daughter to him. She carried vacant eyes in her malnourished body, too weak to stand on her own and unable to speak. Her father wept and carried his sweet child home.
Spending the next months feeding her and nurturing her back to health, the father had hope she would return to him, but Elizabeth was lost to the cell she had been caged in. She had seen the bitterness and brutality of the world and it crushed her. Vacant eyes now stared into the distance, and she would not speak nor utter a sound. As soon as she gained the strength to walk he took her to the fields where they used to dance, but she stood motionless in her finery: unable to see the world around her for the horrors that played out in her mind. The father took her to the ocean’s edge and pointed out to her from the cliffs the beauty of the horizon. The light reflected upon her crystal gaze and seemed to imbue her spirit with life. As the gentle ocean breeze pushed against her dress her eyes widened and her mouth opened. Elizabeth shook herself from her father’s arm and sprinted forward, leaping over the edge with arms spread wide as if to soar on the wind blowing beneath her. The father could only watch his beloved daughter disappear from sight. He ran to the cliff’s edge to see her body on the distant rocks below.
Broken with sorrow and rage the father returned to the Lords with fury, but they cast him from their presence with mockery and insults. He went to the streets to cry out his misfortune and suffering for all who would hear. The Lords brought him back in, as they did not wish to be tarnished by his testimony. They cast off his refinement and honours, they took his home and belongings, they wanted to kill him, but he fled far from their sight. Without his angel to lift him he fell to the deepest parts of the earth, and when he finally landed he saw only suffering.
Now when the father remembers his dear Elizabeth, she dances and sings in the wind, looking at him with loving eyes. She dances in the darkness. She dances in the flames. She dances in his heart. She laughs and spins and twirls in the heavens, a gift to the stars from whence she came. He longs to see her again. If only the wind had lifted her as it once promised.
I look back to my companions around the fire who stare vacantly, confused with my telling. I am not surprised. They have known only this place. How could they grasp the story they have been told? To know beauty and have it torn from your grasp is a much worse fate than having never known it. They are innocent of pleasure and ignorant of hope, therefore they are protected from such sorrow.
I close my eyes and re-centre myself. Enough of that. Who wants to hear a fun story? Yes? Well, let me tell you the tale of the mouse who crawled through the ceiling grate one night…
Glory And Darkness
By Stephen Taylor
He felt the pull again. Tugging at him from afar. Discomfort of a persistent child waking their parent from deprived sleep. He tried to ignore it, knowing that wouldn’t work. Just a few more moments of peace, please. What could they have need of this time?
But the pulling did not cease, it only became stronger; and Ashfa The Unbroken slowly blinked his eyes open in the void.
The darkness where he rested—weightless and without worry or pain—filled his soul with longing and resentment. Could they not find a way without him? How many more times? What could he bring they did not already have? Anger began to fill his soul at the rude awakening, as the tugging became a force that gripped him, pulling him from his resting place. The peaceful darkness became a blur in the distance, as Ashfa fell backwards into the world.
History rolled past, and ancient memories came to life. Born into a tribe of wanderers, he was a god among men. Powerful and invulnerable, all his enemies fell. He carved out a mighty empire and instilled his warrior spirit into his people-the Ashfateim. The glory of his throne filled all who saw him with awe. He was worshipped, but he was without purpose. Ashfa longed for the glory of victory in battle.
With the whole world conquered, it was time for his first sleep. Using arcane magics his priests sent him into the void, where he would rest, waiting for the call to conquer once again. Only a sacrifice of truly noble spirit would be sufficient to bring the weight of his soul back. And nobility was prized far less than victory.
Time after time Ashfa was summoned; time after time he fought. His wars transcended the swords and clubs of his home country, spreading through the centuries and among the stars. Mighty starships laid waste to civilisations, until even foreign dimensions had fear of his name. He rose to glory then darkness, glory then darkness, as the Ashfateim became the most powerful empire in the known realms, and The Unbroken the most powerful being of all.
But it had been millenia since his last sleep began, and the dreams of conquest had burdened his soul with grief. When all is conquered, what is left? What great feats are there still to do? What does war beget a nation? Glory, a kingdom?
This time as Ashfa was summoned, he was not the same man.
Careening into colours and the physical realm, a mighty tear and a scream as the sacrifice flew by, headed to the darkness he so longed to inhabit.
Ashfa collided into reality with such force a pillar of light shot into the clouds, turning night into day. The impact, mostly absorbed by the incarnate magic of the ground spiral, sent a shockwave knocking the spectating summoners to their backs, and uprooting trees at the edge of the clearing all around.
Ashfa stood slowly, coated in the blood of sacrifice, brilliant light illuminating his powerful silhouette. A woman with strong and noble spirit was given for his arrival. The weight of his spirit may even last months with this blood. That notion did nothing to stay his anger.
With great strides Ashfa wasted no time. Now fully incarnate, his massive frame reached the chief priest and lifted him from the floor, “Why do you summon me? Why awaken me now? What desperate need so grips our people, that you would trade such a beautiful life for my war-filled soul?”
“Great Lord,” the priest croaked in terror, averting his eyes from the blinding light. His acolytes and spectators dared not stand, “We are fallen to just this world, and our enemies have come to destroy us.”
“Fools…you are all fools!” Ashfa tossed the man like a stone to water, “As long as you have need of me, you shall never have peace. When you seek me, do you not seek only war?” The priest opened his mouth to protest, but The Unbroken cut him off before he could begin, “Do not try and sell me your nobility, as if such a thing would ever have a cost. You are desperate because you have always wanted war. You are desperate because that is the only path you know. The path I did send you down.” Ashfa gave a sorrowful pause, “You should have outgrown me by now.”
“Great Lord Ashfa, what is greater than conquest? What is greater than victory?”
Staring through the fallen man, thinking of the sacrifice, The Unbroken spoke with quiet regret, “She was. Once again nobility is cast out for the hope that I will kill…You have only killed yourselves.”
He turned from the spiral and headed toward the forest, as the priest struggled to stand, “Great Ashfa! We have summoned you to fight for us!”
“Yours the power to summon, mine the decision to fight.”
Ashfa strode, dressed only in the blood of nobility, light slowly fading from the spiral behind him. The great man disappeared into the ancient landscape, and all became darkness once again.
Photo by Robert Lukeman on Unsplash
By Stephen Taylor
A shoddy tavern sat quietly in the waning sunlight, rain starting to pour on the mud street outside. The few regular patrons-peasants and farmers-were this night joined by a group of six men: travellers in from the road, sitting at table, and in the mood to get drunk. They were a couple of pints in when another stranger walked into the dimly lit room.
It had only started raining a few minutes previous, and the man had not been prepared for it. He shook off his riding jacket and readjusted his sword; it had been knocked askew from sprinting to shelter after tying his horse at the stable out back. Unlike the rest of the clientele, this new customer reeked of wealth. Tailored cloth and gilded sword upon a tall and well set man, looking to be in his mid-twenties. A little thin from not having manual labour, but he bore himself steady enough to the bar.
The waiting barmaid looked him up and down, “You lost, love?”
“No, I’m afraid not, my dear.” He smiled back, “I had hoped to make it to the city proper by sundown, but this sudden storm has forced my hand. I’m afraid I must dull your tavern tonight, and ask if you have fitting accommodation for a man to sleep.”
“If you’ve got coin, I can make somethin’ work.”
Nodding his head, the wealthy young man lifted a coin purse from his belt and produced a gold piece, setting it on the bar. The barmaid looked to it and then back up at him, “I ain’t got no change for that, love.”
“That’s okay, I’ll have a few drinks and a place to sleep. The rest can be a tip.” He smiled again as his eyes scanned for a menu, “What do you have on tap this evening?”
She looked at him sideways and raised an eyebrow, “We’ve got beer.”
“Excellent, I’ll have one of those.”
With no barstools to sit on, the young man received his pint and turned to lean his back upon the counter. With a curious eye he looked upon his newly discovered accommodations. Three older men sat together around a table, discussing farming and occasionally shooting him a suspicious glance, two younger men sat laughing and talking about girls, and a group of six gruff-looking travellers were at a table to his left. These men seemed to be chatting amongst themselves quite urgently.
Catching the eye of one of them, the young man raised his pint and and chin in friendly greeting. To which the man smiled back and beckoned him over.
Obliging the polite invitation, the young man walked to their table, “Grab a seat and join us, mate.” The gruff voice of their leader came from a weather-worn and smiling face, “Eh lads, move over so he can sit down.” The three men made space between them on the bench so he could sit with his back to the window, across from the smiling man, “What’s yer name, son?”
“Nice to meet you, sir. My name is Halcyon.”
Giving a short chuckle he responded, “I ain’t no sir, that’s for sure. Me name’s Harry, we’re fresh off the trail like yourself. We came to enjoy a few pints and have a few games, din’t we lads?” The lads all mutter in differing forms of agreement, “Awwww, now don’t you mind them. They just ain’t used to being around the classes such as yerself. But I reckons yer just like us, deep down: you likes a good pint and a good game, dontcha…Halcyon, wasn’t it?”
“Sounds like a fun time, Harry.” The young man smiled enthusiastically.
“Great! What did I tell yer lads? We’ll be laughing and joking and piss drunk before you know it! Alright! Here’s the game: you ever played Knives before lad?”
“I can’t say that I have, but it sounds exciting.” Young Halcyon, having quickly finished his pint, raised his stein for a refill.
The barmaid sauntered over and poured his second as Harry explained the rules, “Right! So, each of us buys into the round. One piece each. Then we each put our knife into the centre of the table. Then we all sit with palms on the table and wait for the cue. The leader calls what the cue’s gonna be. Then, when the cue happens, everyone grabs a knife. If you grab one knife, yer through to the next round, if you grab two knives then someone else is out. If you don’t get a knife, yer out. If yer out, you take your knife with you, but you lose yer buy in. Then the next round starts, the previous round’s leader gets to choose who’s gonna be leader next. If you run out of coin to buy in, you’re out. If yer the last one in, you win the pot! Clear?”
“Sounds clear to me! Except one thing: what’s the ‘cue’?”
“Oh you’ll pick up on that in no time, but it’s easier to experience than explain. You in?”
“Absolutely!” Halcyon excitedly pulled a gold coin from his money purse and placed it on the table, the rest put copper down, “Sorry lad, we ain’t as wealthy as you are.” The young man shrugged it off, waving that it was okay.
“Right, knives in.”
A group of very simple, but effective looking blades were joined in the middle of the table by a hand crafted and engraved work of art, “Bloody hell, lad. Alright. Hands on the table.” Everyone obediently put their hands on the table and waited for the cue, “The cue is…” Looking outside, Harry spied a couple more farmers headed their way, “…next time the door latch opens.”
Halcyon and his three bench-mates had to crane their necks to spy the door latch, the other three had a clear view. The young man could see how giving the cue was a significant advantage. There was utter silence at the table as all attention focused on one thing. Hands twitching in nervous excitement, it seemed like hours of waiting. But when the latch moved, the table became a sudden blur of hands and steel. Halcyon beamed in excitement and victory, as he had managed to snag a knife from the centre of the table. Harry and the man to his right had each managed to grab two, meaning, “Rick and Boren! Yer out!” Harry’s voice boomed with laughter and excitement, as the men grabbed their knives and stood grumbling at either end of the table.
“Well, look at you, rich boy! You got one! Good fer you! Alright, round two! Get yer coins in. Right, now yer knives. Hands on the table. Kyger, you lead this round.”
“Alright,” Kyger was sat next to Halcyon and looked around to decide what his cue was going to be. The two new farmers had joined the other young men, but it was only a few seconds before one of them got up and went to the bar. Seeing he was getting a bit friendly with the barmaid, Kyger made his choice, “When the girl swears.”
There were nods all around, then utter silence from the table as they paid acute attention, “Now c’mon Susan! I heard you didn’t mind givin’ a little…y’know…”
Hands on her hips, Susan frowned back, “Give a little what exactly?”
“Y’know…make a young man happy…”
“Now you look here you little shi…”
The table exploded with movement. This time only Harry managed to grab two knives, but once again Halcyon had made it through the round: a surprised and elated look on his face.
“Well done lad! Yer a natural! Kyger, you called the cue and yer still out!” Harry laughed, “Get yer arse off the bench!”
Kyger begrudgingly got up and started wrapping his hand where he had cut it trying to grab a knife, he gave a look over to Susan and smiled, “Maybe I can help her out with her language.”
“Later, Kyger; focus on the task at hand.” Harry pulled the man’s attention back to the group. With one man standing at either end of the table, Kyger positioned himself behind Halcyon to watch the rest of the game. Harry continued, “Alright! Round three! Coins in. Knives in. Hands on the table. Kyger, who’s up?”
“You are boss.”
“Okay, the cue is…when Kyger finishes his bandage.”
The final four watched carefully as Kyger milked every moment, slowly tying the wrap around his hand. Then suddenly and very dramatically, he lifted his arm to shout, “Go!”
There was a blur, and this time both Harry and Halcyon came away with two knives each. Harry laughed in pure joy, “Way to go, lad! Just the two of us now!” The other two picked up their knives and stood behind Halcyon, who was now feeling a little surrounded. Harry sat across from the young man, there was one man to his right, one to his left, and three behind him.
“Right,” Harry continued, “Round four! Put yer coin in lad. Now yer knife. Hands on the table. And, it looks like you get to lead this round,” he smiled confidently..
Halcyon looked at Harry’s knife and then back to the man, “That looks military issue, are you soldiers?”
“Not any more lad,” he smiled up to his comrades, “We’re what you’d call…retired.”
“Interesting,” Halcyon looked around the tavern, “The cue is…” He looked straight at Harry, “When one of us blinks.”
Harry and Halcyon locked stares: Harry with sly confidence, Halcyon with fixed determination, “Retired, huh? Are you sure you aren’t deserters?”
Harry broke eye contact to look up at his men, who began reaching for their swords. But Halcyon, swift as lightning, grabbed both knives and thrust them into the opposite sides of Harry’s neck. He then kicked the bench into the knees of those behind him, while throwing both knives into the hearts of the men standing at either end of the table.
Halcyon spun clockwise as he drew his sword, cutting two throats before the men had even released their blades. The final opponent parried, but was easily countered, and Halcyon’s finely crafted steel thrust through the man’s chest to the hilt.
Pointing down, he allowed the body to slide onto the floor with a thud.
Six men lay dead around the table. The tavern in shock stared at him, too scared to move lest they gain his attention.
Halcyon pulled a cloth from his pouch and cleaned his sword before returning it to its sheath. Walking over to the dead man on his right, he retrieved his knife and gave it the same treatment. Then he went to each of the bodies and relieved them of their money purses as he began to speak, “My name is Halcyon Demitrius, and none of you have anything to fear of me: I am an agent of the King. Two months ago these men did desert the royal army at the eastern front, and have since been raping and pillaging their way across the Kingdom. As you can imagine, this sort of despicable behaviour is very much frowned upon.”
Now with six money purses on the table, Halcyon unfolded a large leather and cloth square, and lifted Harry’s head up to slide the square under it. Looking around at the six bodies, he found what he was looking for, “I have been tracking them for weeks, and finally caught up to them here.” He lifted a weighty looking sword from one of the men and carried it over to Harry, raising it above his head, “They were murderers, rapists, cowards, and enemies of the crown.” With a grunt he brought the blade down and separated Harry’s head from his shoulders. The sword stuck into the wood of the table, “The world is a safer and more peaceful place because of what happened here tonight.”
Halcyon wrapped the head in the leather cloth bag, then lifted it and the six money purses over to Susan’s terrified form. Halcyon smiled pleasantly, “Please put the bodies in the stable and cover them. Men will come for them later this evening.” He dropped one of the money purses on the bar, “For your troubles.”
Halcyon Demitrius walked out of the tavern, and disappeared into the evening.
Photo by Felix Mittermeier from Pexels