This Week’s Prompt: 67. An impression—city in peril—dead city—equestrian statue—men in closed room—clattering of hooves heard from outside—marvel disclosed on looking out—doubtful ending. [“DISSIPATION?” by Dan McCoy]
The Prior Research:The Dread Horsemen
The days of clattering horseman outside the walls were the sort of days that cannot last forever. Raids either break upon the walls, or settle down as a moat of flesh before receding into the hills. Or so I had always thought, for the great hills of Dimov had never broken before. Now, I slipped through the streets, dressed in a stolen set of servant’s clothes as the smoke of the city settled away. Past the proud statue of Saint Alorium on his mighty steed and beneath the strong spear pointing at the setting sun with defiance I slipped, towards a small secret door at the side of the grand temple I had used in my younger years. While a more through army may have found it by now, I suspected that the city guard and the temple authorities employed greater scrutiny then the stragglers of hillmen on their red steeds.
The door is still locked, but the familiar triage of serpents circle the knocking place. I rapped softly, hoping some member of our esteemed order still has survived. Clattering hooves went by, not far off, with none of the enthusiasm of the richer raiders. No, vultures now circled the city, the greatest of the host already sedate with it’s gluttonous feast. I was quiet, holding my breath, until at last the door opened and a pair of heavy hands pulled me inside.
My rescuer was, by account of his clothes, a smith. He had the heavy apron, the gloves, and the tired eyes. Not far into our hidden lodge was a younger man in tattered green and black robes, with a gold chain capped with an emerald, amulets and robes of the old scribes, who shut the door behind me and resealed it’s locks. Ah, to be back in a passage of celebration at the end of Dimov.
“Were you seen?” My new host asks, looking over my shoulder as the last lock clicks.
“No riders were outside, so beyond the unseen eye, our hiding hole is safe.” I said, nodding.
“Safe? In this age? No, no we are not safe. We are merely alive.” The man of learning said, turning back around and looking about. “And maybe not long. One entrance of spies is sealed, but who knows what rats and roaches have snuck in through the windows and frames.”
I blinked a bit at the man of lore. The smith shrugged.
“You must forgive Raam. A scholar does not outlive his university with his mind entirely intact.”The smith said, leading me along through the barricaded basement and past a table overturned. “But there is an enlightenment to his madness. We must secure ourselves, lest a spy of the hillsmen has slipped in. My name’s Dominic.”
“Darius. What convinces you such spies are among us?” I asked, letting the false name roll off my tongue.
“Walls do not fall to horses. Good walls do not fall to spears. Dimov’s walls did not fall to boulders. They did not fall. They had to be opened. And so there are spies, there are eyes of the hills among us, from those lost heaths.” Raam said, moving along after securing the door ahead.
The smith explained that, while they would simply hide in the lodge, the lodge lacked rations forever. Far greater stores were in the old offices above us. The three of us each took some lumber and tools of the smith—his old hammer and a few nails he had kept hand for repairs—in case we needed to board them up. The church kept stores frequently, and while the hillmen had yet to pierce them—being fearful of the great statues outside no doubt—we could make use of them with impunity. Not to mention oil to burn for warmth at night.
“Three entrances, right?” I asked, pointing in the directions. “West, East, North.”
“Should be. The glass is still there.” Dominic said, pointing at the gallivanting images of saints ascending from the depths and the glittering form of Saint Alorium with his serpent slaying spear. The three of us went to work. Raam’s garb belied his strength: he carried more than his share of the pew. It was while we were lifting one to the door that I noticed strange caluses on his hands.
But that aside, we got the three doors secured, piles of pews against their doors. The stores themselves were smaller than we hoped. Still, we made do with the bread we had, gathered beneath the stained glass in case the raiders looked within and spotted us.
“Raam, I must admit, I’ve not seen a man with such might beneath their robes.” I said smiling. “Was the house of scrolls your second trade?”
“Hm? Scrolls? You want to know of scrolls? Scrolls are weighty, especially in gold. Work, hard work, can lift the burdens and chains invisible that wrap around the neck and anchor the arms.” Raam replied.
“It is like apprentice fees at the forge. You have to work some time to pay them off, although I did not know hard labor was a good trade for earning a good deal of money.” Dominic said, taking a bite from the bread.
“You’d be surprised. I’ve not known a footmen who knew so much of scribes, so small people, rummaging about around bloated corpse royal.” Raam said slowly. “Flies and maggots all of them.”
“Well I never–” I began, standing with my voice raised, silenced by Dominic’s hand. He pointed to his ear. Outside, there was the clatter of hooves. Dominic removed his apron to smother the fire as I darted to peek out the window. There were five of them on horse back, quivers at their side and lances in hand as they road around the statue, searching with torches in the moon light.
“Silent, silent.” Raam whispered, crouching behind a pew. I nodded, slumping beneath the window so as to be unseen.
“How many?” Dominic asked from his hiding spot. I held up an open palm. The five horses circled again, the rotating torchlight flickering through the stained glass, illuminating each preserved scene in sequence, the wall opposite showing a silent play of saints, rising from birth and falling on the spears and swords of the hillmen of old.
At last the circling stopped, and a few clattered off. I peeked over the edge, and saw one of the hillmen in his leather armor. In his hand was a bucket, with a dark pitch inside. In his other hand was a torn standard of the guard, wrapped into a mop of many colors. With a word to the other rider that remained, he dipped the standard in the pitch. Then he rode about, and slammed the stained glass with his spear, coating the colors in darkness. The other rider did the same, and one by one the saints along the side were subsumed by the waves of darkness.
“Darkness, darkness gathered by eyes…” Raam whispered, crawling about. “We’ve been discovered. They’ve discovered us now, because of you, you treason!” He hissed pointing at me.
“Me, treason? You’re the one pretending at being a scholar! How can we trust a man of letters who couldn’t make a summer living as a scrivener or scribe?” I hissed back, jabbing a finger.
“I was within when the city was taken! Only you and Dominic without! One of you, one of you let them in! Lead them here!” He muttered standing up tall now as the pitch covered half the windows. We had boarded ourselves in, and the fire at the doors would be more than enough to smoke us out.
“If I was the spy, would I have stayed with you! Why? To die in this house of God in paupers outfit?” I asked, almost shouting. We were doomed, we were doomed.
“Spies betray for a hundred reasons! Perhaps you wanted death, or sought penance! Zealot or despair alike!”
It was then that we realized Dominic was gone. We stared across at each other, the embers dying low. Outside, we heard clearly now, a hundred horsemen or more. Even through the pitch we saw the low light of torches gathered.
“The front door.” I said slowly, turning about. “We might be able to force our way through there.”
“And die to their lances?”
“We die in fire or we die to a hundred spears, which will be faster?” I ask, rushing over to the door and pulling a pew down. The west entrance begins to crackle as smoke flows in. The back two glass windows crack with heat before shattering, scattering downward like a rain of multi-colored arrows. As we pulled aside the pews to make room, the wind rushed in. While the wind was cooling, and bought us time from the smoke, me and Raam heard carried on it the cheers and shouting of thousands of horsemen, come for the final demolition.
And then, as the final window shattered, as the fire spread from the eastern and western doors down towards us, we heard great hoof beats and sudden panic. Shouting and roaring of battle as at last we pushed open the front door, to make our feverish escape.
St. Alorium stood on his twenty-foot tall steed, his spear bright and bleeding. Around him the hillmen roared as he stared with his maned helm, his eyes like glimmering stars. Fire behind us, death before us, me and Raam stood trapped at the threshold transfixed. The saint raised his spear and the slaughter began in earnest.
This story was tricky to write–I almost started it over again a few times, but ran out of time. The statue coming to life seemed obvious if effective. The paranoia needs I think more time to actually develop, and more leads. At the moment it’s a bit arbitrary. And I think this is about half the story. The opening is strong, but more middle tension between the survivors over fear of spies or the looters outside is necessary.
Next time, we go more explicitly psychological, and visit a concept as old as modern horror genre itself–the mind of a killer.
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