Friday, April 8, 2016

IGNIS DEORUM

Alfred D. Byrd


When Thudris awoke from the sleep of incubation on the steps of Healer's temple, memory of a dream burned in his head. That dream had been a dream of fire's consuming the Land — a dream in which gods in whom the Fire Undying burned had spoken to each other in his hearing. They had spoken of judgment, a sentence of death—

The dream had not been the dream that he had sought. He had slept the sacred sleep of incubation in hope of the Healer's telling him a cure for the fever that burned in his younger sister. Why Healer had given him a dream of judgment, not a dream of healing, was a mystery to him.

As if a spirit, a breath of the Fire Undying, had brushed by him, he heard a whisper in his head. Her healing would have helped her none when she died with the Land.

Thudris grasped the whisperer's logic of justice without mercy. The justice of the gods was cruel — as cruel as the justice of the humans who worshipped them. Both forms of justice would consume a girl's life as heedlessly as wildfire consumes a fallen leaf.

For his dream and for his dashed hope, he sought a destination. Lifting his gaze from the temple's steps, he looked across Earthshaker's City in the Land amid the Sea. In predawn gloom, the city was defined by fire — the fires of clay lamps in windows of houses, the fires of torches lighting the city's streets, the fires of hanging lanterns making the Palace of the Twins as bright as day, the fires of lighthouses along the shore…

Through the fire that fogged his head, Thudris recalled that the lighthouses were supposed to be calling home a fleet that the king had sent beyond the Pillars of Dawn. News, good or bad, of that fleet was overdue. The king had sent it to wage war on an upstart city-state — a war, not of justice, but of conquest. It was a war for gold to be smelted in a goldsmith's fire and cast into novel shapes, not to honor the gods, but to glorify the king and to amuse his favorites.

In Thudris's dream, the gods had spoken of that war and of that gold…

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Fired by a memory of his dream, Thudris wandered downhill from the temple's heights. The dream was a fire in his head — a fire that sought to spread to fresh fuel of other minds to which he might tell the dream. Perhaps, if its message burned through the Land's people, it would purge them of the dross of impiety and greed that the gods were judging.

He spoke of his dream to passersby on the city's torch-lit streets — to tipplers staggering home, to courtesans angling for a last customer for the night, and to men who could give no good account of their still being out, but may have been thieves or the courtesans' customers. None of the passersby let him tell his dream in full; all of them edged away from him or fled openly from him.

All took him, he guessed, for a madman. A madman might be divine, touched by the gods' Fire Undying, but was nothing with which a reasonable person wished to involve oneself.

Thudris smiled wryly to himself. If it were daytime, the good citizens might give me black beans or mush, but, just now, they will not even give me their ears.

Still, a madman was sure to draw one kind of attention. It was not long until one of the citizens who had fled from Thudris returned to him amid a flare of torches with three night watchmen, members of the king's guard, as their tunics of silver proclaimed them to be. The tallest and burliest of the three called out to him, "What to you mean by disturbing peaceful citizens going about their lawful activities?"

Thudris questioned the watchmen's description of the citizens, but welcomed a chance to tell his dream in full — to relieve the fire in his head. "This night, I have slept the sleep of incubation at the Healer's temple to learn a cure for my younger sister's fever, and the gods have sent me a dream…"

The watchmen did let Thudris tell his dream in full. When he ended his telling, however, the shortest of the watchmen, a foxy-looking man, laughed at him. "What are we going to do with this fool?" Foxy said to his colleagues. "I suggest beating the fire out of him to cure him of his folly."

The last of the watchmen, a stolid-looking man, shook his head. "Beating a madman would be cruel, brother. Let us take him home so that he may comfort his sister if he can."

Burliest stood long in silence, his lips pursed in a look of thought. "No, brothers," he said at last, "if there is any chance that the gods have sent this man a dream, you and I must take him to the king."

The fire in Thudris's head rejoiced. Soon, it would burn where it could shed the most light.

=====

With breathless haste, the watchmen, as if driven by a fire of urgency, haled Thudris to the palace. Passing through its gate and across the palace's courtyard, he caught the merest glimpse of torches lighting the first and of the hanging lanterns that turned the second into day, and of countries scantily clad but for the headbands, bracelets, pectorals, girdles, and anklets of gold — gold that made the courtiers flicker with fires of their own.

As the watchmen rushed Thudris on into an entranceway's relative gloom, he looked in memory past the flickering gold at the courtiers themselves. They looked dissipated — even worried.

They know, Thudris told himself, that the fleet is overdue. They sense the gods' displeasure with them.

He lost for a time his thought's thread as the watchmen led him on through a maze — a labyrinth — of narrow corridors dimly lit by flickering lamps at each junction. The maze, he recalled, was a recent innovation of the present king — a defense agaisnt subjects who might seek his life with a blade. The defense had been needless before the king sent a fleet to plunder a foreign land of gold. Not all had sent sons willingly with the fleet.

Without warning, Thudris emerged into a blaze of light. This, he glimpsed dimly, came from chandeliers and candelabra bearing fires redoubled by walls nearly drowned in gold. When blinking yielded him vision amid the blaze of light, he saw that he stood before a dais bearing a pair of high-backed chairs of ivory chased with gold.

The chairs held a tall, black-haired man with eyes of jet and a tall, fair-haired woman with eyes of blue — the King of the Land amid the Sea and his senior wife. Both might have been naked but for gold so profuse that it formed a mantle on each of them — a sheath of Fire Undying. Both the king and the queen wore looks as haughty and cruel as the looks of gods were said to be.

Perhaps, Thudris thought, the King and the Queen truly are of the gods' descent.

Burliest, the watchman who had resolved to bring Thudris to the palace, went to one knee before the dais. "My king, Earthshaker's son, Lord of the Land amid the Sea and of all other lands beneath the sun, I bring you one in whom the fire of prophecy burns — one who has seen a vision of the gods."

The queen laughed harshly. The king sneered at the watchman and said, "You have spoken boldly, watchman. You do recall that you will lose your life if you have misspoken, do you not?"

"I do, my king. Willingly, I risk my life for the Land's sake so that you may hear the vision."

Thudris looked at Burliest with respect. Here was an honorable man, a true patriot — a rarity in the present king's days. If the Land had only held more like Burliest, the gods might not have sent Thudris his vision.

Even the king replaced his sneer with a more guarded look for Burliest. Turning to Thudris, the king said, "Speak, prophet."

In Thudris awoke fear that his voice might fail before the king. Even as the fear awoke, it was burned away by the fire within him.

"This night, I have slept the sleep of incubation on the steps of the Healer's temple. There, I sought a cure for my younger sister's fever, but the Healer sent me instead a dream of the gods in council.

"Through an open doorway, I peered into the gods' throne room, where sat Thunderer on a throne that was higher and finer than the thrones of his eleven brothers and sisters were. In the doorway stood Messenger, who was guarding the way to his king. To the doorway came Earthshaker, ancestor of the Land's true kings. Earthshaker and Messenger spoke words that I overheard.

"'For what purpose, my brother, has Thunderer summoned the family?'

"'To pronounce judgment on your land, my brother. Once a beacon of virtue to the world, the Land amid the Sea has let its fire gutter, fouled by greed and by malice—'"

"Enough!" the queen shouted. Turning to her husband, she said, "Do you not see that this man plays on the Land's fears? He knows that the fleet is overdue."

"The fleet is indeed overdue, my lady." The king fixed Thudris with a cold gaze. "Did Messenger speak of a sign that your vision is true?"

Thudris nodded. "When Thunderer speaks his judgment, you will hear a voice from the lighthouses cry, 'The sails are torn. The fleet has returned with torn sails.' When that voice has spoken, a fire will burst from the earth, a mountain will slide into the sea, and a wave will sweep over the Land."

"Still, Thunderer has not yet spoken, has he?" When Thudris nodded again, the king went on to say, "In that case, the Land still has hope. In its honor, I shall send my personal physician home with you to treat your little sister. May it be that, in healing her, I shall heal the Land."

Gratefully, Thudris accepted the king's offer. Thudris ignored a feeling that what seemed large to him might seem small to the gods.

=====

When the watchmen led Thudris, accompanied by a physician as venerable as Healer himself, outdoors, the sun's celestial fire was flooding the palace's courtyard. By daylight, while once gold-clad courtiers lolled abed, the courtyard was a scene, not of splendor, but of squalor — a landfill of spilled drink, of wasted food, and of broken toys. The courtyard held ashes of a fire of debauchery now spent.

The physician's questioning him about his sister's fever recalled him to hope. He described sweats and chills, frenzy and lassitude, and ravings and silences. The physician listened to all with an unreadable face. On it, Thudris sought a sign that hope was justified. He found only the hope that such a face would scorn to lie to him. Whatever it might say to him, he could trust.

He was nearing his house's door and letting cheerfulness rise in him when the air around him shook with a blaring of horns, distant, but deep and powerful. For a moment, he, the watchmen, the physician, and Earthshaker's City stood in silence; then a far voice, fearful and mournful, called out, "The sails are torn. The fleet has returned with torn sails."

Again, there was silence in which Thudris knew neither what to say nor what to feel. It amazed him for the physician to break the silence with a sniff of disdain.

"I hear that those words form a sign of doom. Perhaps, they do form one. Whether they do or do not, my duty is the same: to treat your sister. Will you take me to her?"

Grimly, Thudris nodded If life must end, let it end in a quest for hope.

Again, he felt that, if the Land had held more persons of duty like the physician and Burliest, the Land would have lived on. The sign had come, however. Thunderer had spoken his judgment. Now, a fire would burst from the earth, a mountain would slide into the sea, and a wave would sweep over the Land. Already, Thudris saw in his mind's eye golden fire spilling from the mountaintop.

In Thunderer's scale of justice, a feverish girl's life counted as nothing. His judgment, Thudris felt, was cruel — as cruel as the humans whom he judged.

To see more of my writings on Atlantis, please go to:

Quest for Atlantis: Legends of a Lost continent, Jessy Marie Roberts and Alva J. Roberts, eds., Pill Hill Press

To Dream Atlantis, Alfred D. Byrd, Lulu Press

The Drowning Land: An Atlantean Alphabet Alfred D. Byrd, Kindle

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