So, here’s today’s Author Aerobics, and Friday Flash. The challenge today was:
The challenge: Take a stereotype, cliché, or topic that’s been done to death, and write a scene (1000 words or less) that infuses a fresh spin on things. The theme: sparkle? hah just kidding! “Thirst”
Okay, no, I didn’t write about vampires, but I think I’ve got some unique takes here on a few common fantasy tropes. It’s a little long for “Flash” fiction, at 1,788 words, but I rather fancy it anyway. So, enjoy:
Once and Future…
By: Stephen A. Watkins, Jr.
“Where are we now?” Rob tried to gain his bearings after the world stopped spinning. He was in a green, grassy field on a gray morning. The field was dotted with trees and studded with the rubble of ancient walls, the ruins of some gothic edifice. Mist swirled through the arched portals, over broken masonry, and around the tall, leafy oaks and flowering hawthorns. He glanced over at his companion, a man who looked to be in his mid-thirties or early-forties. He had a week’s growth of beard, streaked with the first hints of gray, in a thick, hooded sweater embroidered with stars and a monogram in some kind of wingding font.
“This is Glastonbury.” The man’s voice was quiet, almost reverent, as leaned on his walking stick. “We near the end of our quest.” He stepped out from the cover of the branches, striding east across open field.
Rob stifled a yawn and shouldered his canvas backpack. It was hard to believe that only a month ago he’d weighted his shoulder with college accounting textbooks. But as expensive as those had been, what he carried now was a treasure far greater. He set out after his middle-aged companion. The man seemed preternaturally gifted with ceaseless energy. Rob didn’t know how he did it. He hadn’t slept in days, and Rob figured it was something like six in the morning. Rob checked to make sure his package was secure, then jogged double-time to catch up. Ahead, his gray-clad guide disappeared into a copse of trees.
Rob found him at the bottom of a six-foot stone wall, his walking stick leaning against the mossy stone. “We are now only a kilometer from our goal. Now, I must give you your final instruction.”
Rob nodded, looking into the man’s steel-gray eyes.
“Rob MacGilly, I need your absolute trust. Do you believe I am who I say I am?”
Rob hesitated before answering. It was impossible, of course. At first, he hadn’t believed a word of the crazed man, not even when strange things started happening. It was the stuff of the sorts of movies he’d liked when he was a kid. Yes, somehow, Rob had found himself drawn into the perpetually-hooded man’s crazed schemes. And now, he’d seen too much that he couldn’t explain any other way. Rob nodded. “Yes. I believe you’re Merlin.”
“And you believe me when I tell you that you’re the direct descendent of Sir Galahad?”
Rob nodded again.
“It was prophesied long ago that Sir Galahad would attain the Grail, and in so doing he would have the means to heal the wounded King, and return peace to the land. But the prophecies were only partly true. It was not Sir Galahad that was so destined, but you, the heir of the seventy-seventh generation, who would heal the land. Now, I am going to lead you to the grave of the king, and there we will finish our quest. You will see things here that you have never seen before, but you must do exactly as I ask, or everything is for naught.”
Rob listened intently as the wizard described this final chapter in their month-long quest to retrieve the lost Grail from its forgotten resting place, where it was guarded by a ghostly maiden. Rob had survived those dangers. He was ready, now, to fulfill his destiny. When Merlin was finished, he turned the stone wall and scrambled up and over. Rob followed. On the other side was a narrow street, barely wide enough for two lanes, and a sidewalk running in front of a row of old English houses.
“I would never have been able to do that fifty years ago.” Merlin dusted himself, picked up his walking stick and settled his gray hoodie.
“Wait,” Rob looked confused, “Didn’t you leave that on the other side of the…”
Merlin glanced at him with an arched eyebrow. “A wizard never goes anywhere without his staff.” He turned and started walking down the street. “Besides, you question this when I can instantly teleport you from Spain to Glastonbury Abbey?”
“Yeah, about that,” Rob walked alongside Merlin on the deserted street. “If you can do that, why couldn’t you teleport us directly to the King’s grave? Why do we have to walk a mile to get there?”
“Because, the tomb of the King is magically protected. It may only be approached on foot.”
Rob shrugged and walked in silence. It never did any good to question the wizard. They came to a small roundabout, where the street and sidewalk widened, and continued. Here there was a metal railing running along the sidewalk. As they walked, the world began to show signs of stirring for the day. Here the buildings sat shoulder-to-shoulder: homes and shops that could have been built in the middle ages.
Merlin stopped at a bend in the road where a low, old stone wall enclosed a lush garden.
“Here.” Merlin said. “We must get our water from the Chalice Well. The water here is enchanted.” Merlin led the way into the groomed garden past the small parking lot to a gate by a ticket house.
“There’s an admission fee,” Rob pointed to the sign.
“Not for a wizard.” Merlin tapped the gate with his staff, and it came unlatched.
Rob glanced furtively at the ticket house. It was empty, this early in the morning. Merlin opened the gate and Rob followed him into the garden, under immense ancient yew trees and early spring flowers not yet opened to the day. The air rang with the gentle sounds of running water. The passed a small waterfall, the watercourse stained red, and passed through an old wrought-iron portal that proclaimed the Chalice Well. In a small, stone-lined cove, was the well, the wellhead cover, decorated with a symbol of two interlocking circles intersected by a lance, open. Merlin tapped the stone with his staff, and Rob felt an almost imperceptible rumble in the ground. From deep pockets, Merlin produced a small canteen on the end of a rope and lowered it into the well. When he pulled it up again, it was dripping.
“Come,” said Merlin, “There isn’t much time to waste.” He backtracked through the garden where two paths intersected, down a short flight of steps by the red-stained waterfall, to another ancient stone wall shadowed by ancient trees. The wall made a sharp turn, and Rob followed Merlin through a secret passage in the stone. A narrow lane lay beyond. To the east, rising above the trees, Rob could see a large, terraced hill crowned with a single stone tower. Merlin practically ran across the tiny street, through the trees, and out into an open field.
Merlin pointed to the top of the hill. “That is our destination. Glastonbury Tor – known in ancient times as the Isle of Avalon.”
“The Isle of Avalon? That’s where Arthur is buried, right? But we’re well inland.”
“In Arthur’s day much of this land was covered in fens. The Tor rose above the fens, an island in a shallow sea.”
Merlin marched across the field, up the terraced slope of the Tor. Rob huffed behind, the strenuous pace and the incline winding him. Then, without warning, Merlin stopped, striking the ground with his staff at an otherwise featureless spot on the hill. The crown of the hill was still ahead of them, the stone tower glowering over the early morning countryside. From here, Rob felt like he could see forever, square fields lined by trees making a checkerboard into the distant gray horizon, the sun only just beginning to burn away the morning haze.
“This is the place.” Merlin gazed at the ground. “Here, at the base of the foundation of an ancient fortress that has long ago been covered by time.”
Rob panted, catching his breath, as Merlin raised his staff high above him, then struck the ground with lightning speed. The earth began to rumble and quake with the strength of the blow. The ground cracked, dirt and soil falling into a cavern somewhere below. Ahead, in the hillside, an opening formed. The rumbling stopped, and Merlin directed Rob toward the opening, handing him the canteen of sacred water. “You must go alone, from here. Take this.” He produced a short wand of hawthorn branch from his pockets and, muttering quietly under his breath, the tip of the branch began to glow.
Rob knew what he had to do. He grabbed the ethereal torch and, timidly, he entered the hole in the earth. To his amazement, there was a passageway beyond lined with mortared stone. He hadn’t gone far when he came to a portal. Carved into the stone above the arched doorway was a Latin phrase:
“HIC IACET ARTHVRVS REX QVONDAM REXQVE FVTVRVS”
Rob ducked, entering the sanctuary beyond. There on a stone bier, was a skeletal corpse, little more than bone with a thin parchment of skin stretched over it, draped over with a tattered, threadbare linen. The eye sockets in the skull were empty, hair was still clinging around his head in a gross imitation of Friar Tuck. A dusty, cobwebbed crown rested on the chest of the body. Rob swallowed his disgust, and got to work. He unshouldered his pack, unzipped it, and withdrew the cup within. It was a wide stone bowl, a foot across, on a short pedestal. The inside had been lined with beaten gold and the outside encrusted with gems, but these were later additions. The simple stone bowl was the original Grail. He opened the canteen and poured the contents into the Holy Grail, then raised the lip of the bowl to the mouth of the corpse on the bier.
At first, nothing happened. And then, slowly the jaw began to move. The papery skin, moistened by the holy water from the cup, began to look fuller, though still gray. The mouth began to move.
Then, the once and future king began to stir, pushing itself up from his cold, stone resting place. The crown clattered to the floor, and Rob fell back in sudden shock. The grail rolled away from him, the few drops remaining spilling on the floor. The eyeless skull swiveled to gaze on him, the lipless jaws working.
“Gaaalllaahhhhaaaaad? Iiiish thhhaaaatt yooooouu?” A ghostly, hollow sound passed through the king’s empty throat. The corpse king rose from the bier, shambling toward Rob. Then the skull turned toward the portal, where Rob saw Merlin entering the chamber. “Mmeeerlllliiiinnn.”
Merlin genuflected to the half-dead king, dropping to one knee.
“Yes my king. I have come. And I have brought to you this young scholar. I think you will find his brains most delicious.”