Chromhelm Garglehammer let out a furious roar and charged down the small hill toward the gateless entrance to the city. He didn’t realise it at the time but his eyes were closed. He half expected the guards at the gate to smack him in the back of the head with an axe, or the sentries on the towers to riddle him full of bolts before he got more than a few feet inside. But none of that happened. He began to swing his mighty battle-axe in a figure of eight, cutting down any enemy in his path, but there were none. He put his head down so as to butt his way through the ranks of soldiers protecting the King. He would use his sheer bulk to force a way through to his prize, but there were no lines of soldiers and there was no King. Chromhelm Garglehammer smashed head first into a wall and hit the ground, his tiny legs still running in the air.
After a few moments fighting nothingness with his fists he opened one eye. He was alone in one of the wide open spaces of the ruined city. Around him was scattered the remains of a large military camp, tents had been half struck, broken weapons lay in piles and food rotted in the sun, covered in hordes of horseflies.
“Where is everyone?” he said to himself risking a second open eye and getting up to his feet with some difficultly. Across Acerii there was an eerie silence punctuated only by the call of crows, Chromhelm lifted his heavy axe. “Have I won?” he said to himself.
“I doubt it,” came the voice of the God.
Chromhelm-Garglehammer spun on his heels and faced his axe toward the Apple-god, who stood more resplendent than before, just behind him.
“What trickery is this?” asked Chromhelm, his axe still raised.
“My apologies dear hero,” spoke the God like honey as he pushed Chromhelm’s axe away from his perfect face with his fingertips, “plans have altered, more advantageous opportunities have come to light.”
“So you mean to deceive me, I should have known better than to trust a God.” Chromhelm spat on the ground, a tiny shoot of an apple seed sprouted where his spittle landed.
“No deception was intended my beautiful hero, but in light of recent discoveries,” the God pointed his arm across the courtyard where several of Vortigern’s men were moving a large object covered in cow hides onto an equally large cart, “you and other plans have become redundant.”
“Re-dun-dant,” worded the Hero and he tried to grasp what was going on.
“The time of Heroes is over.”
“Oh,” said Chromhelm, his mind beginning to have some understanding of the word ‘redundant’.
“Farewell little hero, I have to travel with Vortigern to safeguard my own salvation from idleness, but I fear it is too late for the likes of you.”
The God walked away from the Hero and toward the men at the cart.
“But what will I do now?” asked Chromhelm, his axe falling to the ground with a disappointed clang.
“Find a girl, build a nice house and settle down,” the God called back. “Oh, and grow some apples, make some cider and get drunk. By the time the Gods have left this world there will be no one here to fight, Chromhelm Garglehammer, no one at all.”
The God of Apples and Apple Pickers reached the cart where he was joined by a wizard dressed in a purple cloak and pointy hat.
“Ready my Lord?” asked the wizard, who shifted uncomfortably in his new clothes, but his new master had insisted they were the thing for the new world.
“Yes,” replied the God simply.
There was flash of light, Chromhelm shielded his eyes and looked back to where the cart had been, there was nothing there, he was alone in the city; a hero without an adversary.
“Balls!” he whispered to himself.
Brian the Tithing Man was also alone in the ruined city of Acerii where his village had stood. He was a slave now and had been for the best part of a week, it was as little fun as he had expected. He had racked his brains trying to think of a way he could free the women and children. Violence wasn’t going to do it, he had nothing of value to trade for them and he could offer no service worth even one slave. He was deeply depressed; he had failed them.
He trudged up the long staircase toward the surface. One of the wizards had left a small box behind him when the shiny blue disc was being moved, Brian had been ordered to retrieve it. It wasn’t heavy but a little awkward.
“Oh why, I mean Why?” he complained loudly to himself as he slogged his way up through the dark. “We made all the sacrifices, we honoured all the Gods, even the ones we weren’t sure what they are Gods of got a festival or at least a weekend of celebration. That’s it! Maybe the Gods have gone parsnip juice total!”
He reached the surface and blinked in the light, his nostrils, glad to be rid of the scent of stagnant water, were now assaulted by the spoor of unwashed humans and pack animals by the thousands.
“There’s something wrong,” he said to himself. The smell was right but the sound and the vision was definitely wrong. There was no one about. The wolfmen, the army, the wizards, they were all gone. He walked around the remnants of the city camp; it was empty, completely empty. Acerii was free. Then it occurred to him, if the enemy were gone then the slaves were gone with them. His people, gone. Gone. Gone to who-knows-where.
He dropped the box on the ground where it smashed open to reveal two highly decorated flagons. He ignored them and walked mindlessly around the camp; he had now truly failed them.
“Halt!” came a tremendous roar from some unseen corner.
“I’m halting,” said Brian.
“You don’t look like one of Vortigern’s men,” said the voice.
“No,” answered Brian, “I don’t look like one of Vortigern’s men. I do look like a very scared slave who would like to know, I think I’d like to know, who’s about to kill him.”
“I don’t kill slaves,” said the Hero as he emerged from the shadows so as the slave could see him.
“Do you know who I am?” asked Chromhelm Garglehammer.
“No,” answered Brian.
“Are you sure?” asked the Hero with a hint of disappointment in his voice. “Take a closer look.”
Brian took a closer look; a squat man dressed in old fashioned armour, as wide in the shoulders as he was tall, topped with a helmet shaped like the one he’d once used as a chamber pot and carrying an oversized axe.
Brian had a little giggle, but then thought better of it, oversized or not it was still an axe and looked very sharp at that.
“No,” said Brian, “I’m sorry, should I know you?”
“Oh what’s the point,” said Chrom dropping his axe to the ground and waddling over to a nearby length of fallen temple column. He sat down with a thump and held his head in his hands. He began making an odd noise, “Wha wha wha,” he said into his hands, “wha wha wha wha.”
“Are you alright?” asked Brian, his curiosity getting the better of him, but not enough to drop his hands from the surrender position just yet.
“No I’m bloody not alright! Do I look alright?! I’m a hero with no one to fight or save, I’ve got a Roman helmet jammed on my head and slaves are giggling at me,” snapped Chromhelm, “Wha wha wha.”
“Why are you making that noise?” asked Brian.
“Cause Heroes can’t cry.”
“Ohhh I see,” said Brian sitting down beside him, “I want to cry too.”
“Why because you’re a slave?”
“No. Because I let my village down, the people I was supposed to be protecting and now I don’t know how to find them let alone save them.” Brian kicked a stone across the courtyard.
“What’s your name slave?” asked Chromhelm.
“Brian, Brian of Acerii. What’s yours?”
Chromhelm’s chest swelled as it always did when he was about to announce himself but with a huge exhale he lost the will to be announced, “Chromhelm Garglehammer,” he whispered.
Brian couldn’t supress a second giggle.
“Oh that’s it, laugh! I’m used to that, children following me in the streets pointing and laughing ‘look at the man in the tin can mammy’, there’s just no room in this world for a hero anymore. I’ve failed my father.” Chromhelm returned his head to his hands, “Wha wha … wha bloody wha.”
“There there,” said Brian patting him on his armoured back, “We’re both in the same situation. It’s hopeless. Even if I could find the rest of my people it would be suicide to try and rescue them.”
They both sat there for a long minute, contemplating where it had all gone wrong.
“It would be what?” asked Chromhelm finally, raising his head from his metal coated hands.
“Suicide,” repeated Brian.
“Almost certain death.” said Chromhelm his voice gaining a little volume.
“Innocent women and children in mortal danger?” said Chromhelm loudly.
“Well yes. Not that innocent actually, the children are a pain in the arse.”
“A vile enemy with hearts of pure evil and no remorse!” shouted Chromhelm.
“Yeah,” answered Brian, worried now that he had started something he was going to regret.
“I’ll do it!” screamed Chromhelm Garglehammer, now up on his stumpy legs with arms outstretched, “I’ll be your Hero, for I am Chromhelm Garglehammer!”
There was a moment of almost silence as Chromhelm’s voice echoed through the old empty city.
“Thanks,” said Brian, “but I’m afraid I don’t know where they’ve even taken them, so you see Mister Garglehammer …”
“Chrom,” said Chromhelm.
“…Chrom, a rescue is impossible.”
“Impossible for you maybe,” said Chromhelm picking up his axe, “But not for a Hero, I happen to know where they are being taken.”
“To Lord Vortigern’s Castle of Death.”
“Sounds lovely,” said Brian.
“Not really that lovely,” began Chromhelm who didn’t have a great grasp of sarcasm. “Its walls are twenty feet thick and fifty feet high, its towers are surmounted by living gargoyles, its gatehouse filled with giants, its moat stalked by trolls and its forest home to the undead. Add to that a group of wizards to protect something called the Blue Gate and I think we should be in for a bloody good death,” Chromhelm smiled broadly.
“We?!” asked a now very scared Brian.
“A hero needs a sidekick and you wouldn’t want to let your people down, now would you?” said Chromhelm leaning down so their noses were inches apart.
“No time to lose Brian of Acerii, gather up the best sword you can find and what are those things?” asked Chromhelm pointing to the flagons in the broken box.
“Just something one of the wizards left behind,” said Brian.
“Bring them, they might be of use.”
Brian did as he was told, as Chromhelm looked out over the broken city and said to himself, “Time to make you proud of me father. Redundant indeed … I don’t even know the meaning of the word.”
Far to the north of Acerii a wagon-train moved through the landscape, among its number were many soldiers and many slaves. A young boy of Acerii walked in extra-long strides, the tiredness in his legs manifesting itself in hot pain across all of his muscles. The men with the long harsh whips were not far behind, occasionally he could hear a crack and scream and this spurred him on.
“Just a few steps further, just one more mile,” he would repeat to himself after every slow torturous mile was covered. Those too weak to continue would be whipped and when they were too weak to respond to whips they were thrown onto the carts until they could walk again. He considered taking a whipping, just so he could get a rest, but the thought of the leather tearing his flesh shook him more and he strode on.
In the distance dark clouds were gathering and a thunder storm was rolling down across the northern mountains toward the wagon train. There were fewer and fewer villages along the way and only the broken teeth of old castle towers showed that man had been here at all.
The boy looked out on the empty black and wild landscape and feared he would never see the sun again.
Philip rubbed his sore jaw, he’d been hit by many a creditor before so it was not an unusual feeling.
“So you’re the help the Womble sent to me?” he asked of Fred-the-Other-Idiot.
“Womble? Sometimes Man-from-the-sky you’re really hard to understand,” replied Fred.
“Philip is my name, and I’m not from the sky, I’m from an alternative dimension or something star-trekkie like that,” said Philip. He spied the Hand sitting on all four fingers on the wall beside Fred.
“What is that thing?” he asked.
“He is the relic, the mortal remains of Denis, Patron Saint …” began Fred.
“…Of headaches,” interrupted Philip, “I got that bit. Does he give them or cure them?”
“He’s never cured mine!” added Fred.
“What happens now?” asked Philip getting to his feet and keeping a close eye on the hand.
“That’s up to him,” said Fred bending his head toward the hand, “He led me here to meet you.”
The Hand leaped down from the wall, causing Philip to jump back a little, it scrambled around the loose chippings at the bottom of the wall until it found what it was looking for. With a small sliver of flint the Hand began to scratch out a message in English on a flat pale stone.
“He’s writing a message,” said Philip, leaning closer to get a good view.
“If only any of us could read,” said Fred.
“You can read, well you are amazing, Man-from-the-sky.”
“Philip,” reiterated Philip.
Philip rolled his eyes and began to read what the Hand was writing. “The … gate … is no … longer here,” he mouthed as the Hand scratched the words, “it has … been … moved to the Castle of Death.”
Philip looked up at Fred, “Well isn’t that just wonderful!” he said sarcastically, “I bet you the Castle of Death isn’t a five star hotel.”
“There’s more picture words,” said Fred.
Philip again mouthed what the Hand was writing, “You … must …travel to the ….castle … and step …through … the gate …. Mister … Philips … and … look behind you … Mad … Manon … is going … to kill ….can’t read that … oh! It’s ‘you’, I think.”
Philip looked up at Fred, whose eyes had widened with fear.
“Oh shit!” screamed Philip as he moved just a second before Mad Manon’s sword cleaved him in two. Instead the sword hit the stone wall and rebounded off, throwing Mad Manon onto his back.
“Run!” screamed Fred-the-Other-Idiot as he gathered up the Hand and legged it, with Philip in hot pursuit.
Mad Manon cursed the air and struggled to get up from the ground. He spied the disappearing figures of two men far across the field and let out another vile curse. He threw his sword to the ground.
“I’ll follow you to the ends of the earth, to hell and beyond!” he screamed after the figures, then a sudden calm came over him and he began to fill his trousers with small rocks for the next three hours.
Madness did not make the most urgent partner for revenge.
The Postman banged on the door for the four-hundred and seventh time. On the other side, in the run-down bathroom, the door had appeared to be a small thin wooden affair that was barely clinging together but on this side the door was a solid metal thing that hurt the bottom of his fist with each slam.
After an indeterminable amount of time he gave up on the door and reverted to shouting, at first it was just mindless abuse aimed at Philip Philips, then at the world, then at James Philips and finally just mindless abuse. More un-guessable time passed and his lungs couldn’t take another barrage of swears, also his throat was closing in.
“Damn it,” in a whisper was all he could manage. ‘Tigers’, he thought, ‘what am I going to do with this tiger? By now it has eaten its way through my house and could be chewing into the neighbours. What if it eats a neighbourhood child?!’
He considered this for a moment and came to the conclusion that he didn’t really care if it ate a neighbourhood child, but on the other hand the police might, certainly the neighbours would and his promotion would be kaput!
Sliding his back down the surface of the door he felt that sinking sickening feeling again, that 27 Oakridge Drive feeling where all the life was sucked from his body by a big sucking thing sucking it.
“Bollocks,” he managed hoarsely. It was now he noticed the noise in the vast room for the first time. There was buzzings like bees singing ‘Monday Monday’ by the Mammas and Pappas out of tune, an occasional fizzing and the odd pop of something in a glass container that didn’t want to be in a glass container.
His curiosity was peaked. He palmed his way up the door and walked slowly and nervously into the chamber beyond.
On one table lay a collection of swords, randomly thrown on top of one another. The Postman reached out a fingertip and tried to touch the nearby blade but a miniature lightning bolt sprung from the point and made him cry out in momentary pain. He sucked his fingers and passed a table full of pickle jars of every size, each containing creatures he couldn’t identify or blobs with a tiny arm or leg or a blinking eye. He stopped and turned, his blood rushing in his ears; did the narrator in his head just say ‘blinking’? He did a slow double check. The eye in the jar surrounded by a purple blob winked at him this time. He moved on.
On more tables there were maps to places he didn’t know, instruments of sciences he couldn’t conceive and weapons of war he’d rather not touch. Still sucking his fingers he came across a large mirror standing in a polished wooden frame.
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall who’s the fairest of them all!” he said into his reflection absent-mindedly.
“Not you anyway,” answered the mirror.
“Right,” said the Postman rooted to the spot with fear.
“In fact, I’m no expert on beauty, but I’d say you’re quite an ugly bastard,” added the Mirror’s voice.
“Yeah, thanks,” said the Postman giving his burned fingers one last half-attempt at a suck, “I’m no oil painting I guess.”
“No,” said the Mirror.
“See ya,” said the Postman, his brain walking away but his feet still rooted.
“Actually, if you see me you’ll only see you. I’m a mirror you see!” said the Mirror, “and,” it added, “I’m not on a wall, I’m in a frame, so you’ll have to re-think your rhyming scheme.”
“Right,” answered the Postman, “will do. Something that rhymes with frame, I’ll get right on that.”
“Do,” said the Mirror, its voice positively grumpy.
“I don’t suppose you know your way out of here? I’m quite scared you see,” asked the Postman.
“Scared!” exclaimed the Mirror, “what have you got to be scared of?”
“Well a jar winked at me and a mirror is talking to me, oh and a sword electrocuted my fingers …see?”
The Postman held his fingers out to the mirror and in the mirror his reflection done the same.
“What did you expect in a room full of magic things? Don’t go poking at swords, wink back at the jar and if you don’t want to talk to me then bugger off!” The Mirror went silent.
The Postman looked around the room. Along with the popping and fizzing there was an array of unearthly glows coming off several tables and his darting eyes could detect slight movement somewhere in the depths of the chamber. He turned back to the Mirror.
“Actually I would like to talk to you,” he said.
“What would you like to talk about?” asked the Mirror in a seemingly accustomed grumpy tone.
“How to get out of here?” asked the panicky Postman.
“Me me me!” said the Mirror. “Did it ever occur to you I might have some things I’d want to talk about?”
The Postman thought about this for a second and decided to be honest.
“No. That never occurred to me. You’re a mirror. I’ve never really spoken to a mirror and expected a conversation in return.”
“Typical,” said the Mirror.
The Postman was sure it somehow managed to roll its eyes even though it didn’t have any.
“So,” began the Postman, “How do I get out of here?”
“You’re deliberately asking the object in the room with no legs and no means of propulsion how to get out of this room!” the Mirror said testily.
“Oh, sorry,” said the Postman.
“Why don’t you ask that chair over there?”
The Postman looked around; there was a rather plain chair half-tucked under a nearby desk loaded with unicorn horns. He approached it gingerly.
“Ahem, excuse Mister Chair, but err… do you happen to know the way out of here, do you?” he asked.
There was silence broken only by another loud ‘pop’ somewhere behind him.
“It’s just,” continued the Postman, “I’m in rather a hurry, there’s a tiger eating my house you see.”
The chair didn’t answer. The Postman moved back toward the mirror and saw the frustration on his face in its silver surface.
“You’re taking the piss aren’t you?” he said to the Mirror.
“Yes,” answered the Mirror.
“How about I use that chair to beat some sense into you?” said the Postman as calmly as a man could with a volcano building up inside of him.
“Come on now,” answered the Mirror, “it’s been decades since I last used that one.”
“Do you actually know how to get out of here?”
“Oh alright. How about getting that wand over there and blasting the door.”
The Postman looked around; on an adjacent table lay a short length of stick with a red tip.
“Is that it?” he pointed to it.
“Doesn’t look like much!”
“What were you expecting?” said the Mirror.
He picked up the wand and gave it a short wave with his eyes half closed. Nothing happened.
“How does it work?” he asked the Mirror.
“Simple. Point it at whatever you want to blow up and then watch it blow up,” replied the Mirror.
“Like a gun or a rocket launcher,” commented the Postman.
“If I knew what those things were I’m sure it would be” said the Mirror, as the Postman walked off toward the metal door.
He held the wand out in his hand and for a moment just stood there.
“Think about it exploding” shouted the Mirror from across the room.
The Postman shut his eyes and imagined the door shattering into ten-thousand pieces. Suddenly the door shattered (if anyone had bothered counting, it was exactly ten-thousand pieces).
The Postman shook himself.
“Wow!” he exclaimed and rushed through the door.
“He wasn’t a bad bloke,” said the Chair.
“No I guess not,” replied the Mirror.
“I think you should have told him about over using the wand though,” said the Chair.
“I’m sure he’ll work it out. He must be a wizard of some kind otherwise what would he be doing in here?” answered the Mirror.
“Yeah I guess you’re right,” said the Chair. “But he did look like a postman to me.”
“Yeah … strange that.”
* * *