The Stage, the Altar and the Coffin Kelven
Kelven sat on an old, weathered stool. The stage beneath him was of crude construction—simple, unfinished plank boards laid over a series of old, wooden crates. One mis-step and the entire thing was sure to go tumbling over. There was nothing unusual about that. He had seen plenty of rickety stages in his life, and had learned to maneuver them well enough.
At this particular moment, he was telling the story of Varahad and the Twelve Maidens. Or was it tale of the Trident Prince? He could not remember, just as he could not recall having started the story. For some reason that did not seem to matter. He had told them both so many times that he hardly had to think about it. The words rolled from his lips, allowing him to relax and enjoy familiar murmur of hushed voices and the warmth of the inn’s roaring fire.
Except that there was no fire. That was strange. He could have sworn he had seen a flame just moments before. And it was not warm at all. The air had turned so cold that every word he spoke was wrapped in the misty embrace of his own breath.
The innkeeper really should do something about this, he thought.
Kelven shrugged and looked out over the gathered crowd, just as he had been taught to do. It was always important to read the audience. They sat so still and unmoving that, at first, he thought they must have been fully enraptured with his rendition of The Girl With the Golden Hair. It was only as he looked longer and harder that he began to recognize the truth. While most of the people seated in the common room had their gazes fixed him—except for that old man in the back corner—their eyes were cold and vacant, like the unseeing stares of the dead. The longer he looked, the more gaunt their faces seemed to become. It was as though they were wasting away before his very eyes.
Without the fire, the room was nearly as dark as it was cold. The only light came in narrow spears that broke through the slats of old wooden shutters, each pulled tightly across windows that loomed a good ten feet above his head. When did the ceiling get so high? Tiny flecks of dust floated quietly through the beams of murky light, and as allowed the story to fade from his lips, an eerie stillness fell across the room.
Again, Kelven looked out at his audience. By now, the skin had wasted from their faces so completely that only their skulls remained—clean and polished, like the ivory carvings he had seen once, many years ago. Each empty and eyeless void remained fixed on him. One by one, they rose from their seats, shuffling across the floor with awkward, jerky movements. Instinctively, he stepped backward, and nearly toppled of the rear off the platform.
Somehow, he managed to catch himself and keep his footing. Leaping to the ground, Kelven fled from the skull-faces. He tripped and stumbled over chair, benches and tables that seemed to have a life of their own, appearing suddenly before him, slowing his flight. He fought against them, kicking each piece of furniture aside or pushing them over until he eventually found himself standing before an altar.
There, open before him, was the Holy Canticles—only for some reason he could not read them. The words were there, each written in a compact and tightly controlled hand, but he did not recognize the letters. It was as though they had been written in a different language entirely. The same was true of the inscriptions carved beneath each of the nine marble statues that stood in their appointed alcoves. Kelven did recognize them, and though he could not read the words, he had visited enough chapels to know exactly what they said. He could almost hear the statues speaking their own epigraphs.
Follow my way, said the Guide.
Do not lie and keep your vow, said the Teacher.
Obey my authority, said the Lord.
“Help me!” Kelven cried out to the Nine, nearly climbing over the altar in his desperation. “Please! Father, protect me!” He looked back over his shoulders, and for a moment his heart leapt in joy. His prayers had been answered. The skull-faces were no longer pursuing him. Instead, they had congregated around something else, something that was thrashing and fighting against them.
What is it?
Then he saw. It was the strange old man. Already, he had fallen to his knees. The skull-faces were reaching out to grab him. Somehow, Kelven knew that they would tear the poor man apart, limb from limb.
Shield the weak, said the Guardian.
Kelven did not even pause to think. There was no time for thought. He rushed forward, raising his sword above his head. Where did I get a sword? He crashed into the skull-faces with all the strength he could muster, slashing wildly. Every hack and thrust found its mark, cutting deep into grey, bloodless flesh. Although he fought tirelessly, for every enemy he cut down, two more appeared in its place. Soon, it was all he could see. The chapel and altar and statues were obscured by the hundreds of the skull-faces swarming around him.
Still he fought on. Surrounded on all sides, there was nothing else he could do. The only hope for escape was to cut his way through. It’s impossible. There’s just too many. I’m going to die here.
“Think of something else!” screamed a voice. Kelven glanced down to see the old man cowering beneath him. Oddly, he still had his eyes closed. Did he think if he could not see the skull-faces that they would not see him?
“What?” Kelven asked, cleaving a fleshless head from its body.
“Think of something else!” the old man screamed again. Who is he? I’m sure I’ve seen him somewhere before. “Your mother man! Tell me about your mother!”
“Mother? My… My mother’s dead.”
“Dead? Wait… no…”
Kelven turned away, pushing through the crowd of strangers who were huddled around him, all clad in their mourning black. She had been well loved, his dear mother, and well respected. Even a few of the minor Lords had shown up to the funeral of Cessandra Strall. She would have liked that. The rich courts of even the minor Lords had always been among her favourite places to perform.
Such places would seem hollow without her voice to fill them.
Kelven kept struggling through the crowd until he finally broke through and raced across the lifeless, muddy ground to the ornate, wooden coffin where his mother’s body had been carefully arranged. Tears rolled freely from his eyes as he looked down upon her peaceful face. It looked so beautiful, framed by her long locks of glossy black hair.
Wait. Black? That’s not right. Golden hair…
The woman who laid in his mother’s coffin open her eyes. Green eyes. Flameborn eyes. They locked on him, filled with fiery fury. She sat up, then pushed herself to her feet, leaping nimbly from the wooden box. Even as he backed away, he stumbled into an old man with a closed eyes and a grey beard. The woman raised her hand, pointing one long, onyx-like fingernail at Kelven.
“Murderer!” screeched the Queen.