Great plumes of smoke rose purposefully on the wind, bruising and blackening the heavens over Tempestria.
From his valley cottage window, Ansum Eylinder watched each great wave of smoldering blackness – great gouts of flame preceding each pregnant wave of smoke.
The sun itself seemed dim, ashamed to shed light on the ruin below.
He gripped his gnarled, arthritis-ravaged hands – ground calloused fingers into his leathery flesh. “It’s burning, Meryn,” Ansum said.
Meryn, a small waif of a woman, like a small woodland sprite somehow wrangled into housework, wandered into the room from the kitchen. Her hands were still slick and red from a pheasant she was preparing for their supper.
She paused, her aged face a latticework of crow’s feet and laugh lines, and let her gaze shift from Ansum to the ruin just beyond the valley.
Together, they watched Tempestria burning.
The great spectral tower of Lumien was wreathed in flame, its white marble charred. And yet it still stood, pointing accusingly towards God – condemning.
Ansum leaned into the window, fingers gripping the windowsill anxiously. He could hear them, down in his soul – hear every man, woman, and child screaming out in dying anguish.
He could see it then – every tongue of fire licking at the sky, attached to a great maw. Swallowing them.
His own reflection peered back at him – green, wet eyes staring. He reminded himself of a fish.
Why am I here, watching?
The Red Bard, paralyzed by time.
“You cannot go, Ansum,” he felt her say it more than heard it, “You would merely be another ash left by the pyre.”
Ansum bolted to his feet, shoving aside the stab of white-hot agony in his lower back. His body quiveringly searched for equilibrium; sought a way to stop his knees from shaking like a newly reared calf.
“All of my life, Meryn,” he wheezed, leaning against the wall. His frail frame wanted to surrender. It had betrayed him in his old age – made him near a cripple.
An old man, crippled by the decisions of the young man he used to be.
And he regretted none of it.
“All of my life,” he spat, “I SAVED them! From Dardakas to Tempestria! From Vildichi to Old Xuel! I slew the Mad Emperor, I sang a song when I put down the Plaguebeast of Fen! I did it with… these… hands!” He waved his fists before the mirror, threatening the distant tragedy.
Small, soft wet fingers brushed through the wisps of hair that remained to him. She moved like a spirit; she’d even washed the grime from her hands without him know.
“You saved many, my love. Their children’s children are indebted. But there is one place, now, you cannot lend your generosity.”
Ansum glanced at his wife. Despite the work of time, she remained lovely to him. She was still the lovely maiden he had met many, many years ago (though he could never call her a ‘maiden’ to her face; she was a lady).
“The new empress said she would raze Tempestria to the ground… She seems to be… a woman of her word.” A familiar, but distant sensation boiled in his belly. Hatred.
Ansum had killed sorcerers. He had cast demons back to the abyss. He had ended the tyranny of everything from bandit gangs to petty monarchs. He had even murdered his best friend when darkness settled inextricably in his heart.
Duty. Honor. He was the son of a priest – the Red Bard of Three Forests.
“There is no God but The God of Mercy,” Ansum recited. “My father used to say that.”
Meryn nodded, still trying gently to soothe her husband.
“That God is dead.”
Meryn’s fingers came to a halt, watching Ansum’s twitching eyebrows… watching the shadow settle on his eyes.
I was a mage, once. I could destroy the empress with a song, I could raise each stone of Tempestria and settle it back into place with a mere touch of my mandolin.
And I would die. An old man does not have a young man’s constitution to wield The Great Melody.
I pay the price now for that young man’s sacrifice.
And my father’s God plants me here, forcing me to watch. Forcing me to endure.
“There are children there, Meryn. In those flames.”
“Many may have escaped,” she responded. Ever stoic, ever cool. Meryn, who would subdue her own heart’s ache to save Ansum. Meryn, who had brought a young, blood hungry man back from the pit after he befouled his soul with the blood of vengeance.
“And many did not.”
“Do you know, burning flesh smells like pork,” he said emptily, settling back into his seat. A bag of bones rattling. “It’s why so many turn to cannibalism and madness in war. When humans smell like meat, and all you’ve eaten for weeks is moldy bread and rotting meat, and all you think is, ‘They smell like pork.’”
Meryn watched her husband. Tears ran into the fissures of his face, like small rivers.
In the distance he could see the flames reach a never level of terrible grandeur… the smoke darkening.
“They’re piling the dead. Makes it easier to burn.”
He didn’t see Meryn return to the kitchen. Merely the difficult steps as she turned her back on the carnage…
“The God of Mercy has taken a sojourn to other lands,” he whispered to himself.
And he wept.
This week’s Garage Fiction prompt was provided by Nicholas Brack…
Hurt written by Trent Reznor, performed by Johnny Cash
These weekly scenes & stories are part of an ongoing project codenamed “Garage Fiction”. Since January 2015, three writers (Nicholas Brack, Dogwood Daniels and Jinn Zhong) have committed to writing a flash fiction or scene each and every week. We post on Fridays and dissect on Mondays via podcast. Listen to the episode here:
Listen to the podcast in the player above, or subscribe via iTunes, GooglePlay or Stitcher. What the heck is “Garage Fiction”? Since January 2015, a small group of storytellers committed to writing a piece of fiction every week… and then getting on a podcast to talk about it.