Flash Fiction Month 2018, Day 11
There was once a city with wealth beyond measure. Its streets were gardens, with statues in every alcove and trees in every square. By day travellers marked the place by the mist that rose from its fountains, and by night the smoke that rose from the palace spire. The city was a lighthouse to the desert’s sea: those who passed by knew no bandits dared to stalk the roads in the places where it watched, and those who passed through knew they were sure to find cool water and a warm bed.
Though this city was home to many guards who manned towers set about its border or patrolled its roads on horseback, the king himself would often watch over the land from the palace spire. His advisers were wise and the court’s demands few, so the lord of that high palace spent his days in much the same way as the lowest of his soldiers. He did, however, have one luxury they did not: an ingenious device—a gift from an alchemist—that allowed him to view passers-by on the horizon with such clarity that they might have been walking through the gardens below.
One day, while watching over the desert, the king happened to notice a figure upon a camel, robed in garments of dust-stained linen. The sight of such a traveller was far from unusual, but this figure did not seem to be travelling at all. Observing him through the alchemist’s device, the king saw that he was indeed merely seated upon his camel, motionless in the desert. Fearing some misfortune, the king sent for a guard to ride out to meet him.
The guard did so, and the king followed his progress through the alchemist’s device. He saw how the guard raised his hand in greeting, how the traveller made no move in response. It could never be said whether words were exchanged—the alchemist’s skill did not allow the king to make out the traveller’s face—but what he saw clearly was how the guard started back, how his horse reared in surprise.
The guard returned, but would not say what had transpired. When the king took up the alchemist’s device once more, the traveller was gone.
The days that followed were uneventful, though the soldiers stationed on the roads were called back to the city in case the rider had made some threat against it. It would be more than a week before he appeared again.
This time the king sent out a troop of cavalry, but the entire force turned and fled. None would repeat what the traveller had said. Once again he returned to his balcony, took up the alchemist’s device, and found only footprints in the desert. And as the wind began to blow, even these faded away.
Further measures were taken. The fountains were shut off to conserve water in case of siege. The spire’s beacon was left unlit to hamper any night-time raid. Bread too was rationed, that the city might maintain a good store of grain. This was most unwelcome—many of the citizens made plans to leave—but the advisers entreated them to stay and serve the city in this time of trouble, as it had served them in times of plenty. Besides, they said: the king had sent his most trusted general to seek the aid of a nation to the east.
But when next the traveller appeared, the king could see plainly that this aid would never come, for this time he rode out in person with his entire army at his back. This time he saw the traveller neither as a speck in the desert nor a shape distorted by alchemic glass. This time he saw the skin desiccated beneath the robes and the dead hand tangled in the reins. And upon the finger of that hand he saw a signet ring bearing the crest of the city where he had sent his general.
For a third time, the camel carried the traveller back out into the desert, still bound to the saddle, for none could bear to cut him down. The man’s face had been set by the heat in an expression of anguish, the salt of his tears baked thick upon his skin.
The general returned, and with her report the king’s worst fears were confirmed: the city to the east was but a tomb now, the dead still lying where they had been slain.
The king called in the soldiers from the towers and bade them drag the statues from the streets. These he stacked to seal the city gates, leaving only the smallest gap where one man might hold back a legion. At the sight of this—and hearing rumours of the terror that had caused the king’s entire army to flee—the citizens wished more than ever to leave that place, but the advisers would not allow it. The city could not survive a siege with no one to support its garrison.
Days turned to weeks, weeks to months, yet still there came no sign of that terrible force that had so utterly destroyed the city to the east. And as the food and water dwindled, the rumours grew, so that the citizens became sure that what they were facing was no mere raiding party, but some unholy army against which no garrison could stand. The more time passed with no sign of any enemy, the more certain everyone became that the attack must be imminent.
But when violence swept through that place, it was not between the city and some demon army, but between the people and their garrison, and amongst themselves. Mad with fear they turned on one another, though beyond the walls not even footprints disturbed the sands.
When the king emerged from the spire of his palace to ride out into the desert, there was no one left.
And when the general arrived from the city to the west, she found the place a tomb.