As a diversion from the decidedly bad news we’re hearing lately, and as a way to add something fun, I’m going to offer a novella here to read. It’s a mashup of genres, which I thought would be interesting: What if a tower from Middle Earth survived into the age of the American west?
It was the shadow the plowman first noticed. It crossed along the furrows as he wiped his brow. The man on the horse looked down on him, a smile on his face.
“Might I ask you a question?” The man on the horse turned his head in the direction of the tower that loomed in the distance beyond the black wall. “Are the King’s descendants still heir to this land?”
The plowman stared up at the man. “Ain’t no kings round here,” he said as he stuffed the rag back in his britches. “Man named Fenton owns this valley, runs cattle. Me and a few others work the fields.”
“The world changes, does it not?” The rider got off his horse and approached the plowman. He was tall, standing a head above him, with sharp gray eyes and a black beard streaked with white. His clothes were those of a gentleman, tailored from tan cottons and his boots, a fine brown leather. His hat, a coachman, was the same color as his clothes.
“I reckon,” answered the plowman. “And who might you be, stranger?”
“You need a name?” The stranger smiled to himself. “Yes, I suppose there has to be one. Call me Mathias. I’ve come to like that name,” he said.
“Ain’t that your name?”
“I’ve had many names, names that would have no meaning in these times. And you, my good man, what name do you go by?”
“Amos Bryant is what they call me.” Bryant moved closer to the stranger who was stroking the mane of his horse. “Ain’t never seen a horse like this. Looks like one of them racers, only bigger.”
The horse was indeed tall, and strong; his muscled shoulders and haunches rippled beneath his chestnut coat.
“He is a descendant of an ancient breed of war horses. They are legend for their speed, strength, and stamina. He and I have been together for more years than I can remember.” Mathias produced a red apple from his coat and fed it to the horse. “His name is Cyrus…” The horse lowered his head to look over the plowman. “He has a keen sense of men. Those he likes he is quite patient towards, but if not, beware his kick.” Mathias chuckled to himself.
Bryant stepped back, not sure what to do. Mathias took note of the man’s uncertainty and offered Bryant an opportunity to approach the horse, motioning for the man to come forward. Bryant carefully moved back towards the horse, his hand shaking as reached out. Cyrus watched the plowman as he reached high and ran his fingers along the stallion’s mane.
“You see, he’s quite tame.” Mathias said.
Bryant nodded before slowly retreating and adjusted the frayed straw hat angled on his boney head. “So, what brings you this way, stranger?”
Mathias looked over his left shoulder and hooked his thumb. He gave Cyrus another apple. “The tower. I wanted to see if it still stood.”
“There?” Bryant turned towards the tower looming in the distance. “Ain’t nobody goes in there, mister.”
“Can’t get in. Couple of Fenton’s boys tried a few years back, but it was no good.” Bryant hitched his thumbs in the waist of his britches. “You know that place?”
Mathias took Cyrus’ reins. “I do, though too much time has passed since I was last within its walls. Would you care to join me?”
Bryant looked around to make sure no one was watching before nodding. Pastor Jenkins had admonished him and the others at church from seeking out the tower’s mysteries, but curiosity is a hard itch not to scratch.
Slowly they walked down the path leading to the tower gate.
The tower itself stood more than a hundred and fifty feet tall, surrounded by a wall a hundred feet from the tower’s center. The circular wall was thirty feet high and twenty-five feet wide. A thick gate of gray wood, dressed in ornamental detail, held the outside world at bay. The tower stone was smooth and unbroken, black, with slight flecks of gray that shone in the light of both sun and stars. The gate showed no sign of decay. The grain was still tight and hard. Above the gate, on either side, stood statutes of men in armor looking out into the distance.
Mathias ran his hand along the stone and wood at the entrance to the tower. Bryant, following his lead, did the same.
“As it ever was,” Mathias said to himself. “And what do you know of the tower, Amos?”
Amos Bryant rubbed his head. “Not much other than it’s been here for longer than anyone can remember. Even the injuns don’t know and they been here long before the rest of us.” He turned to Mathias. “You know, mister?”
Mathias considered Bryant before speaking. “The tower was built at the end of the second age with two others, long before the age of ice changed the world. Would it surprise you to know this tower is more than ten thousand years old?”
“Ten thousand?” Bryant looked between Mathias and the tower gate.
“And yet it appears as resplendent as it did the day it was finished. Amazing isn’t it?” Mathias ran his fingers along the metalwork adorning the gate. It depicted armored solders encircling a lone figure swinging a sword. “It did not fall or break as stonework so often does, but then only the three were built with…” He stopped and stroked his beard. “With…” He smiled at Bryant. “I seem to have forgotten the name the dwarves gave the stone, only that it was mined from deep within their mountains and that they gave it grudgingly… it was quite rare.”
Mathias nodded knowingly. “A rather miserly people. They dismantled the northern towers as the ice spread and returned them to their kingdoms under the mountains. Now, who knows if any of that still exists? So much has changed. Those mountains used to come right to the edge of the tower walls.” He pointed towards the mountains in the distance. “And the forest stood at the door, thick with time and memory.” He sighed. “They too are long gone.”
“Dwarves was real?” Bryant’s brows arched as he put his own hand on the gate.
“As real as you or I,” Mathias assured him. “And the woodland elves built the gate, which like them was meant to last forever.”
“Elves,” Mathias said, his eyes sparkling at the memory. “Perhaps we should see if the gate still opens.”
They moved back, away from the imposing gate. Amos Bryant stood behind Mathias, who spread his arms, his hands palms up.
“Temios un te seuae,” Mathias intoned in a quiet voice.
The gate groaned as it began to open, moving outward at a stately pace until the road to the tower was clear before them. Mathias led Cyrus through the gate with Bryant hesitantly following. The road, made of the same stone as the tower, led them to the tower door.
Within the circular walls, large white oaks, equidistant from one another, ringed the tower. Footpaths twisted around the oaks; wildflowers carpeted the ground.
“Quite lovely, is it not, Amos?”
“You’d never know it was once ruined,” Mathias told him, “sundered by a wizard turned to evil, but good has its ways and the gardens were replanted as you can see.”
They walked along the road to the tower. Mathias looked up at the tower as it loomed above them, Bryant looked side to side and behind, as if they were being followed or watched. Halfway to the tower, a statue of an armored rider, tall upon a horse, his sword pointed forward, loomed over them. Bryant stood in awe, having never seen such statues before.
“The King Theotus,” Mathias said, “defender of the realm, destroyer of the dark lord. The greatest of the ancient kings.”
Bryant, still staring up, said nothing as they walked past the statue.
The tower door was the gate in miniature, with depictions of wizards holding staffs across their chests. Stone guards, ten feet high, stood on either side of the door. Mathias drew his staff from the saddle on Cyrus’ back and allowed the horse to wander off towards a pond. He placed his hand on the door and it soundlessly opened.
Within the tower, it was dark with the stale air of millennia. Mathias grimaced and lifted his staff. With a swift motion down, he struck the floor. The shutters upon the windows flew open, bathing the cavernous room in sunlight.
“Much better, don’t you think?” he asked of the plowman.
Awestruck, Bryant pondered Mathias. “How d’you do that?” His eyes grew wide. “Magic?”
“Something like that,” Mathias said, smiling.
Terror crossed the face of Amos Bryant and his legs gave, sprawling him upon the hard floor of the tower. “Sorcery! Deviltry! Just like the preacher said!” he cried. Finding his strength, he bolted for the door.
Mathias watched him bound towards the great gate in the distance and disappear beyond. He shook his head. “Men, they never change,” he said, as he motioned to the great gate with his staff and watched it close. “Fearful of all they don’t understand.”
Mathias continued into the tower.
The tower comprised three floors. The great hall made up the main floor. There, assemblies and councils were held. A fireplace large enough to walk through dominated the center of the room, its chimney rising to and through the floors above. The wizard’s chair, set in front of the fireplace, festooned with carvings of the five wizards sent by the Gods of the Realm to assist in the war against the dark lord, looked over the others set in a semi-circle facing it. The fireplace separated the assembly hall from the dining hall. Staircases, set into the outer walls on opposing sides of the tower, led to the second floor, where the sleeping quarters and the scullery were to be found. Above that, on the third floor, was the wizard’s room, and from there, the stairs led to the lookout, from which the mountain pass and the great valley could be seen.
Mathias slowly wandered the great hall, his steps echoing throughout. The memory of faces came to him. Voices called out, voices he recalled from a long distant past, exhorted the assembled to rise and defeat the danger at hand. To fight! Men and elves, dwarves and wizards, standing and shouting, their swords thrust in the air of the great hall; the sound of trumpets and the rush to war.
With great care, he approached the wizard’s chair, with its ornate carvings of the faces he vaguely remembered, and placed his hand on the graystone that was his. Five graystones for the five wizards were set in the headrest, each with its own signature markings. His was of stars crossing the sky. Mathias thought that appropriate. He sat in the chair, but only for a moment, feeling oddly out of place.
Up the winding staircase, past the bedchambers, cookery and dumbwaiters, Mathias made his way to the wizard’s room. It was, in truth, the only place within the tower he had any interest in beyond memory. It was where he spent much of his time on Earth, where he divined his place in the physical world, and where he held council with those in league against the dark lord.
To his amazement, the room had not changed since he last stood within it.
Just off the center, next to the fireplace, was a large table upon which were books and parchments, lanterns, and trinkets collected over some two thousand years. Gifts. Mementos. Along the circular walls were shelves littered with books of all kinds: history, legend, myth, sorcery and spells, the genealogy of the peoples who once populated these lands. These were his books, meant to inform the future for those so interested.
He shook his head at that.
Open on the table was a heavy book with a thick spine and engravings of crossed swords carved into the leather binding chronicling the Great War and the defeat of the dark lord. Mathias passed his hand along the contours of the book, and ran his fingers across the lettering, which he did not remember. He opened another book, this one in elvish, and had the same reaction: he did not remember the language or what was written down.
He had been warned of this. Time out of mind, the voices told him.
At the northern window lay the sphere. Set on a wooden stand, the orb of black onyx was quiet. Dark. The temptation to reconnect to the voices that sent him, to tell them of what he found, drew him closer. It began to glow as he moved towards it.
“Same as it ever was,” he said aloud.
He stepped back, deciding to wait. There was no rush to inform them.
He walked around the room, touching this and that, seeking the memories to which they were a part. Some came to him, but many did not. They had warned him, before he set out, that memory fades. He found himself, oddly, struggling with what he had long expected, but they had also warned of the remove that physical form creates. He had forgotten that, too. Now, as he stood in the place his mind so wanted to recall, he realized much of his memory was gone. He marveled at that.
The last stop was up the tallest staircase, for the wizard’s room had the highest ceiling at fifty feet, where the walls narrowed and the chimneystack split into fourths and traversed to the four points of the compass. It led to the lookout where clear eyes could see a hundred miles or more into the valley and to the only path accessible through the great mountain of Thail.
Only the mountain had receded along with the woods. The ice had cut it hard. The valley had changed from verdant hills into a great field of grasses, stretching out into the distance. Smoke from a small town wisped to the south.
Mathias sat in the center and crossed his legs, waiting. It wasn’t long before a cloud of dust and a cluster of horsemen could be seen heading towards the tower.
©2020 David William Pearce