Authors: M. Lee Holmes
Shadows of Men
M. Lee Holmes
These embers of life did spark,
A flash, a memory of past,
What deeds were shown, of mortal soul,
Immortal toil of fires did parch,
And darkness entombed the desperate pith,
The remains; shadow of black.
iktor Felson moved through the empty corridor like a ghost, silent and swiftly, avoiding any contact with the cold, damp walls of stone that surrounded him. His step was strong with purpose- each booted foot pressing heavily into the stones beneath, causing the sound of his footsteps to echo off the walls. His face was frozen with the look of sternness he had become known for- the small wrinkles beneath his eyes twitched with each blink and his bearded lips were pursed tightly, forcing his nostrils to flare with every breath. His long white beard flowed down to his chest and swung with the rapid movement of his arms. The leathers he wore, though tattered from age, had been cleaned with pride to an almost sparkling perfection.
Many years it had been since Viktor first traversed the dark hallways of the castle, and yet, on this particular day, he felt like a stranger lost in a foul, unfamiliar maze. He had been certain of where he was going in the beginning, but now he was not so sure. The hallway seemed to have grown in length tenfold and never gave the promise of an end. Each sconce he passed cast its ominous glow upon the wall, creating shadows that danced and twirled and seemed to follow him as he moved on.
The sword that clung to Viktor’s side began to hum a low tune in his ears and he felt the unmistakable vibration of the blade pulsing against his leg. He placed his right hand to the hilt as he walked and could feel the sword’s anxious pulses through his thick leather gloves.
Then the name rang in his ears as though someone had shouted it to him. He stopped and placed his palms to the sides of his head and closed his eyes.
He tried to block out the sound- the sound he knew only his ears could hear- but there was no escaping the sword’s angry cries.
I will not call upon that name!
Viktor opened his eyes and turned his gaze to the hilt of his sword, glowering at the blade that had been his companion for nearly two centuries. The sword, he knew, heard his defiant plea but continued to shout the name.
“You are wrong.” He said aloud. Viktor grasped the hilt tightly to silence the sword and only when the blade was still did he continue on.
Upon finally reaching the end of the drafty corridor, Viktor sighed a breath of relief and turned the corner to find that the hall leading to the great hall was well lit and full of familiar faces and strangers alike. He walked through them slowly, smiling and nodding in greeting as they took notice of him, shuffling to the side to allow him passage. As he pressed his way gently through the crowd, he kept his hand placed firmly upon the hilt of his sword, a habit he had acquired many years ago out of fear of someone stealing the blade from his belt.
Soft whispers could be heard as he moved through the dense crowd- their watchful eyes followed his steps as they spoke in quiet undertones to their companions. Viktor told himself the whispers were nothing to be concerned over- the people were merely commenting on being in the High Protector’s presence, but his senses were telling him otherwise. He knew the purpose of their whisperings and saw their carefully placed hands to block his view of their lips so he could not read their words. He understood perfectly well when he saw the faces of the companions whose ears had just been filled with propaganda and suddenly, he wished for the empty, quiet solitude of the corridor he had just been so glad to be rid of.
Viktor wished he could hate them for their condemnatory stares, but he could not discount the fact that he, perhaps, deserved their scrutiny. It was, after all, his fault they were once again forced to gather in this hallway- to stand by and watch as he was about to condemn another innocent. He knew their hearts were approaching the moment when they could not bear witness to this failed ceremony any longer.
And what shall happen to me this time should the test claim another?
His eyes flicked upward, catching the harsh gaze of a stranger- a woman, whose wrinkled face and pursed lips revealed the curse that rested in her thoughts- and he realized this would be his last chance.
Even the King is at his wit’s end.
And even though Viktor understood the anger of the people, he also knew it was misplaced. Viktor was only doing as the power of the sword urged, which is nothing more than what was expected of him. He would perform one-hundred failed tests if the sword deemed it necessary.
The name came again suddenly, shrill and louder than before. Viktor almost cried out as the name rang through his ears. He stopped walking and stood in the center of the corridor like a man who had lost his way. His eyes darted back and forth, towards the end of the corridor and back at the people who surrounded him.
Enough with that name!
He directed his thoughts towards the blade at his side as it began to buzz.
I shall not yield!
Ignoring the maddening buzzing, Viktor pressed on and at the end of the hallway, the vibrations of the stroppy sword ceased. Viktor closed his eyes for a brief moment, thanking whatever Gods could be in existence that it had ended its tireless pleading. When he reopened his eyes, his gaze was met with the fierce stares of the King’s guards. Viktor nodded to them, signaling that he was ready to enter the great hall where he knew the King sat in waiting and the guards wasted no time in stepping to the side and pushing the large, wooden doors open wide enough for him to enter.
A deep and slow breath seeped in through the open space between Viktor’s lips and it was this breath that gave him the courage to carry on. His feet began to move forward all on their own, forcing Viktor through the doors whether he wished to or not.
Please let this be the one.
He pleaded silently to the sword as the great hall opened up before him.
Do not let this test fail.
The great hall was the largest room in the entire castle. During times of celebration, the room could be filled with more than a thousand bodies. Viktor was glad to see only half that had come today. Tables long enough to have sat them all with room to spare lined the walls, pushed to the side so that those who had come to watch could stand. It was considered disrespectful to sit during this occasion. Before him stood the thrones- two large, oak chairs carved with the intricacies that had been the style during the Old Age; men with sword and shield, atop fat horses riding to meet their enemies. And occupying these thrones were King Darrion Elyas and Queen Evelina Hest Elyas. The King’s round face and gentle eyes were a warm, familiar sight to Viktor. The Queen, however, glowered down at him in anger. Her long, auburn hair was pulled back and tucked neatly underneath her silver crown and her gown of deep crimson accentuated the flush of her cheeks. Viktor could see her harsh gaze through the silhouette caused by the large hearth burning behind the thrones.
Many people from all over the realm had come to bear witness to the events that were about to unfold. They had lined up row-by-row, allowing only a small path for Viktor to move through. Some were leaning against the four large pillars that held the ceiling aloft. Behind them, the smaller hearths were lit as well, not to mention all the sconces and candelabras, making the room as bright as it possibly could be. The light even stretched all the way to touch the high ceiling. It was brighter than Viktor had ever seen it before, giving the room the small illusion of cheerfulness.
There was a stiff silence that filled the air as Viktor stood before the thrones- a thick cloud of uncertainty being carried across the room to him on the gazes of watchful eyes. The silence was heavy and rested upon his shoulders, pushing his stature into a bend and filling his heart with dread. Usually, such an occasion would be cause for celebration but not on this day- not on the third attempt. In the past there had been only one failure and
High Protector had paid a heavy price for his mistake. Viktor knew the only reason he was not locked away in the rat infested dungeons was because of the King. King Darrion Elyas was too kind-hearted and held Viktor in too high of a regard to allow him to suffer such a fate. But as he studied the faces of the spectators, he knew the people of the realm were not as understanding as the King and would throw him in the abyss of the darkness below without hesitation.
But Viktor also knew there was no going back. He could not simply ignore the fact that his time had come to an end and the sword needed to be passed on. He could feel the weight of his unnaturally long life bearing down on him like a cart-full of stone. Each step he took sent a new wave of pain sprouting up his spine. His bones ached and cracked as he struggled on, objecting to his obstinate desire to simply live. His heart beat furiously inside his chest and never slowed its rapid pace. He could hear it at all times- like thunder clasping inside his ears. And his breath had become short and labored, such as it sometimes does with old age. The pain this produced was not something to be ignored- it had finally begun to hinder his ability to carry on with the day and more times than not he stayed in his bed, buried underneath the soft feather blankets, willing the pain to dissolve. Finally, after a week spent in his chamber fighting the desire to sleep and not wake, Viktor knew the time had come.
And then the name came to him.
It had at first come like a soft whisper, forming in the back of his mind and dissipating just as quickly. When he first heard the name, the image of a face appeared. It was a face he had seen before- one that had been etched into his memory and he could never figure out why until the day the sword whispered it to him. He ignored the sword, however, and begged it to give him another name. The new name was but a mere thought- a random vestige of a man that could have very easily been anyone. Viktor took this new name as a sign from the sword and promptly acted upon it, only to be disappointed in the end.
Then the first name came back to him. The sword did not whisper it this time; this time it would be heard. The sword practically screamed the name at him but he still begged it to choose someone else.
Again, there was a slight hint of someone who might be suitable and again Viktor acted upon it, though he was much more hesitant with this one. But even though he had higher hopes that the sword would comply, he was let down once more.
The cries and shouts of anger from the spectators on that day still sent shivers up his spine.
And how much will it haunt me if I should fail again today?
He briefly considered telling the court he had made a mistake and give in to the sword’s commands. The thought quickly fled- he had never yielded before and he would not start now.
Viktor bowed his head to the King and Queen and slowly got to his knees, ignoring the cracking and aching of his old bones as he did so. As Viktor knelt, the butterflies that flew about his empty stomach went into a frenzy. He knew what it was that had so suddenly filled him with dread- it was this room that taunted him. Amongst the worn and moth-eaten tapestries and melting candle wax dripping aimlessly to the floor, Viktor felt the ghosts of his past failures were lurking there, hidden in the shadows, watching his every move with intensity, ready to pounce at any moment his attention was not sharp. He wondered briefly if they waited for their new brother to join them- if perhaps they knew that this test would fail as well, adding to their need for revenge. He could not bring himself to look upon the dark corners of the great hall so he kept his eyes focused upon the King.