The Colimpha

The chain begins to fall. It vanishes at once below the surface. With nothing to hold them in place, the lowest few links rattle on the glass and then slide down to the ocean floor. Each link falls further than the last, with those at the top plunging from scattered sunlight, through light blue into a deeper blue and into a deeper blue still and then into black.

Alexander stares up as each link of the chain falls into his little patch of lamplight. And then it stops. And everything stops. And there is just the Ocean. In every direction the unbroken Ocean.

The lamp shows up a circle of the seabed where the bubble rests. It is cracked and convoluted. Currents sometimes stir up billows of sand, and then they settle back on the floor and swirl down hollows and ravines.

A light appears somewhere in the sea. It illuminates bulging eyes and an array of long and terrible teeth. The light disappears into the distance again.

Alexander runs his hands along the walls of his new empire, cutting through patches of condensation until the tip of his finger becomes numb. On one side, he touches the ancient Nile, slicing green through the sands of Egypt, guarded by stern sandstone Kings. On another the deep green Hyrcanian Forests, intermingled with mist from the Caspian sea. He moves across the high plains of Persia to the wide Oxus of Margiana, then to the mountains of Gandhara, higher than even eagles and snow-leopards can survive, higher than the air itself. And then down the Indus river rushing from the mountains and spreading out across the plains, facing onto India.

The frontier of India where the world-conqueror, who dared to call himself two-horned Ammon-Ra, was lifted on the wings of griffins to view the entire World, and then turned back like a coward or a mortal man.

A shape, huge and vague and sweeping, briefly catches on the edge of the water-scattered light-sphere, and then is gone once more, dispatching ripples that make the lamp swing and flicker.

Some patches of the glass bulb glint shifting gold, the lamplight bounced back from the blackness. Alexander watches, and then as the light flashes away, he glimpses the face of the world-conqueror, the pale face that once stared down Darius the King of Kings. Strawberry-blonde curls surround soft, lilywhite cheeks. Tears start to form in his lapis lazuli eyes, and the unconquered Ocean extends forever.

The Empire

Among the fields, the stream hissed and flashed beneath the silver half-moon. Shouldering muskets and hemmed in by towering cavalry, the white-clad Empire marched between the gloomy mountains. And hushed words, bouncing from one man to the next, grew to frenzied yells in every tongue of Europe.

And now clouds cover the moon, and the night becomes intense and wraps tighter around the valley.

A soldier emerges from the dark, staggering as a drunkard and holding his entrails in his stomach. He collapses, pale and shaking, and his shallow breaths become frantic and then slow to a stop. More men throw themselves to the ground among a shower of canister shot, and then lift themselves to their feet, their perfect white uniforms now covered with mud, as they run into the distance. One stumbles on a dead horse, and then falls with blood spreading across his chest.

A block of silhouettes, screaming in strange languages, emerges, faint in the dark, lets loose a volley of gunfire, and scatters as cannon balls blast the ground before them and behind them.

Swinging a sabre back and forth, a shadowy hussar yells into a shadowy mass of bayonets. His words become indistinct amid a successive bursts of artillery from somewhere in the midnight.

A musket ball comes from behind, and he lurches backwards and falls. Limp and unconscious and caught on a stirrup, he bounces along behind his startled horse.

The Enemy is in the Dark. Unseen. Under carts and behind bushes. Disappearing. Entering. Disappearing. But always somewhere.

The ground is blue and black and grey. The white uniforms of the dead can be seen in a paler grey. Three dishevelled infantrymen wander among the twisted carcasses. They do not speak. They would not understand one another if they did, enlisted as they are in the Imperial Army of Babel. But every so often, one of them looks around to the other two, as if to make sure they aren’t looking at him, before bending down to search the pockets of a sprawling and broken comrade. And as the line begins to retreat, the three of them look round to one another for one last time, and vanish into the all-forgetting night.

The enemy tears through the ranks. Each soldier peers through to the indistinct faces of his comrades.

And there is a gunshot. A man collapses. Nothing is seen. Such is the night.

And there is Caesar. Staggering to his feet as his horse kicks mud behind its hooves and rushes into the night. His jacket is torn and down his mud-streaked, sweat-streaked forehead runs a drop of the blood of Charlemagne, a thousand years old. The silver sun of the Order of Saint Stephen hangs loosely now, just about held to his chest by  a single thread.

The Divine Augustus looks around blankly at the frontier of his Imperial domain, churned with hooves and wagon wheels and cannon balls, rows of groaning bodies and abandoned carts receding into the darkness. In a fleeting moment of quiet, the rushing river is still audible, spiralling through the night as always. And the Emperor of the Romans reaches down and feels in the dirt for something. He gives up, and stands upright once more.

He bundles his jacket to hide the marks of his ancient office, and, head down, limping, tries to find his way to the road.

The Immortal

Marshall Howe was the only person out on the dirt track through the village, as the sun began to rise over the limestone hills. People would be out in the fields, but he was the only one in the town. He wandered, drifting and then correcting his course, again and again. He had survived. He had survived and become invulnerable. He had as good as experienced Death, and through that Death had conquered Death. But what was a Conqueror of Death who could not spare others? Who left others to pay his mortal debt?

The Immortal One, who had buried the mortal, and then buried his own wife and buried his own children, took another swig of ale, and he sang, because why the fuck not.

“Come, Jack, let’s drink a pot of ale!
And I shall tell thee such a tale
Will make thine ears to ring!
Da da da da da da da da!
Da da da da da da da da!
That once I saw my king!

The rector, William Mompesson, was next along the frosty track, stepping around the frozen puddles, with bubbles trapped under the surface.

“Good morning, Mr Howe!” He said, cheerfully.

“Morning, Reverend.”

“You’re not usually up this early.”

“It’s none of your business when I get up.”

And the rector kept walking.

“All princes (be they ne’er so wise)
Da da da da with others’ eyes!
Da da da da da da!
Da da da da da interest,
In time to feather well their nest,
Providing for their fall!”

Mompesson was with the King, and his Popish wife and his Popish church services.

Next up was Thomas Stanley, the rector who’d stood up to the King and rejected his Popish new church services.

“Morning, Howe.”

“Morning, Reverend.”

“Have you seen the Reverend?”

“What, the other Reverend?”

“Yes, the other Reverend.”

“No. I mean Yes. He went that way.”

And Thomas Stanley went off in the direction Howe was pointing.

Stanley was with Parliament, and their Christmas-banning, king-killing fanatics.

And both of them had locked the whole fucking town in to infect each other and die, swollen and oozing, and for him to hastily smother them in earth.

But it was over now, and Howe, victorious over Death, kept singing.

“I marvel, Dick, that having been,
So long abroad and having seen
Where merits scarce appear,
For bashful merit only dwells
In villages and camps and cells,
Alas, it dwells not here!”

Stanley caught up with Mompesson outside the church, where he was struggling with a stiff keyhole.

“Mompesson.” the former rector nodded bluntly to his successor.

“Stanley.” The rector nodded bluntly back.

“Are you opening the Church?”

“Well, since the plague has left us, it’s safe again.”

The door creaked open, and the church was filled with the morning sun. Mompesson strode across the worn, Medieval flagstones. And then back again. And then again East and then West. Stanley lurked in the doorway.

Bess Hancock stumbled down the rocky path from Riley, on the hillside, off towards Hathersage. She tripped, on a protruding tree root, rolled across the frosty ground, stood up, and kept going. That was all she remembered how to do.

She got to the track through the village and her pace very consciously quickened. Stiff and brisk. She passed Marshall Howe, leaning on the wall in front of the King’s Head, with his head hanging over his knees.

Howe looked up, and Bess Hancock didn’t look back. But she slowed, and reentered her drifting, stumbling trance. They all knew about Bess Hancock, and that one week that she spent dragging body after stinking, death-infested body out into the field behind her house on the edge of the moors. And somehow, because God either favoured her or hated her, she was still here.

When she was well out of sight, Howe stood up, unsteadily, and looked around as if working out where he was. And he stopped in the middle of the street, blank as three children ran past him, and then he walked on, westwards.

Mompesson eventually collapsed onto a pew at the front of the church, right below the pulpit. Stanley took a few paces in. Mompesson lifted his head, and turned it towards him.

“Do you think what we did was right?” The rector said, suddenly. “Do you think we were right to convince the village to seal themselves off like that?”

“They did right to stick to it.”

“But were we right consigning them to that? 260 of them died.”

How many would have died if it had reached Sheffield, or Chesterfield, or Derby, or Nottingham? It was right. It wasn’t easy, but it was right.”

“But these were good people. You said so yourself. None of them deserved this.”

“You do not understand the mind of God, William. I don’t either.”

Stanley sat down on another pew, some distance away, silent.

On the village green, people were opening windows and doors, and embracing, with embraces that, for the first time in over a year, did not threaten to transmit agonising and hideous death.

In the church, Mompesson spoke again, to himself.

“He divideth the sea with his power, and by his understanding he smiteth through the proud. By his spirit he hath garnished the heavens; his hand hath formed the crooked serpent.”

And Stanley continued, lines from Job that each had read again and again for the last year.

“Lo, these are parts of his ways: but how little a portion is heard of him? but the thunder of his power who can understand?”

The Immortal Marshall Howe staggered into Cucklet Delf. He sat down among the rocks and the grass. And, in another part of the clearing, The Immortal Bess Hancock did the same.

The Forum

The Forum was much quieter than usual. The crowds that on any other day would have argued and jostled and hawked had fled the City, either to Veii or to the Capitoline Hill, or were barricaded in their homes, awaiting the invaders. The only sign left of what this place had been were the wheel-marks and hoof-marks that they had left in the previous days.

The only occupants of the forum now, beneath the glaring white sun-disk, filtered through a rippling, yellow, smoky sky, were a crowd of stern-faced and weathered old men, clad in the fine robes of their ancient offices.

One of the old men awoke from a sleep of a thousand rasping snores, with a dark, wet patch beginning to appear in the splendid white of his toga.

“Have the Greeks been yet?” He asked, hesitantly, looking around at his companions.

“It’s the Gauls, you old fool! It’s the ruddy Gauls we’re waiting for!” One of the men shouted from somewhere behind him.

“Oh, yes, the Gauls. I used to have a slave who was Greek.”

“Be quiet, man!” The same voice shouted again.

“I think he was called Protagoras or Pythagoras or something like that. I bought him the year Furius Medullinus was Consul.”

“What part of that do you not understand?”

“I seem to remember he was magnificent in bed.”

“What did you say?” Came another creaky voice.

“Nobody said anything to you! For Jupiter’s sake, stop spouting off all your ridiculous poppycock and balderdash! We’re supposed to be offering ourselves up for our people and our city. Show some respect.”

At that point, Gaius Flavius, formerly Priest of Mars, let out a deep and anguished moan as his bulbous and blotchy arms forced his body out of his ivory chair. His feet, red and pink and brown and gout-swollen and oozing out among the straps of his sandals, shuffled forward, one and then the next and then the first again, as the old priest winced behind a ragged, grey beard.

Somewhere in the City, there was a groan of wooden beams at last defeated, and a crash as a roof gave way to ravenous flames.

“I couldn’t do anything like that now. The last time I got it up must have been, what, 19 years ago?”

“Did you know that my father fought against Coriolanus?”

“Even then I couldn’t keep up. He was so young and energetic. He was like one of those Greek statues, you know?”

By this point, Gaius Flavius, panting like a dog with exhaustion, had made it to an empty enough patch of dirt behind everyone’s backs. He hitched up the folds of his toga and unleashed a golden torrent of steaming piss, that twisted among stones and bumps and hollows in the ground, too small to be detected by human eyes, and diverged into a shifting and meandering delta, watering every little crack in the sun-baked soil, before each tributary converged once more into a mighty river, rolling down the a wheel-rut.

He gradually made his way back to his chair, sagging under his own weight like an overladen camel.

“Is this how they felt in Veii?” said a senator on the front row.

A few of the men around him looked at him, confused or curious.

A scream, somewhere deep in the blazing city of Romulus and Remus, was abruptly cut short.

“The way their city was destroyed. The way we slaughtered and plundered and burned.”

Nobody said anything for a while after that. Even the ones who were awake.

There were faint shouts, in a strange, Barbarian tongue, rising above the snapping and blustering fires.

Aulus Cornelius Cossus, with lips shrink-wrapped over empty gums, and eyes ringed by time-worn hollows of darkness, grumbled something. The senator who had spoken continued.

“Do you think this is us getting what we were due? You know? I’m just, you know, thinking, as it were.”

Aulus spoke up this time.

“My grandson risked his life for Rome at Veii. He fought…”

The wind blew a cascade of smoke across the Forum. Aulus coughed, violently.

“He fought…”

More smoke. More coughing.

“My grandson fought bravely and…”

Aulus, his gaunt and wrinkled face becoming more impassioned with every time he was cut off by the smoke from his beloved city, seemed resolved to finish his sentence at all costs.

“He won a great victory for his people.”

“And the Gauls are winning a great victory for theirs right now.” The senator retorted.

“Do you want to say that again?” Aulus taunted him. “Nobody talks like that about my family, and about Rome, and get away with it. Nobody.”

Aulus stood up, slow and shaking, placing his fragile, bony weight on an ivory walking stick. He began to shuffle precariously in the direction of the senator who had dared to speak ill of his grandson’s daring exploits.

Another roof crumpled and collapsed with a deep growl.

About a third of the way across to where his adversary was seated, his fragile feet gave way, and his veiny legs began to buckle.

The Priest of Quirinus was quick to his feet, followed more slowly by the two ex-consuls either side of him, and, stifling laughter, he caught the flailing old Equestrian. Lucius, with some reluctance, allowed himself to be helped back into his chair.

The 82-year-old, who the citizens of Rome had elected as Consul on two separate occasions, readjusted his toga and muttered something incomprehensible and toothless.

“Did you know, my father fought against Coriolanus?”

And a lone figure stumbled into the Forum from the tangled streets. She was almost dragging herself forward, coughing up soot from burned and smoke-poisoned lungs. Her patched and threadbare tunic at one point disintegrated into blackened threads, embedded in charred flesh. Her hair, black and tangled on one side, was gone from the other, and where it had been half her face had been eaten by the flames, and was now just bare flesh, stretched across a cavernous skull, glistening pink and then the deepest charcoal-black.

She fell to the ground. She was not moving any more. Her rasping breaths slowed, and became inaudible.

A few of the patricians cautiously got to their feet and began to edge forward, as if each was waiting for the others to move first.

“When are the Greeks getting here?”

the priest of Quirinus, who had caught Aulus Cornelius Cossus when he had fallen, was first to return to his seat. The others who had stood up followed, constantly glancing to one another for reassurance that this was the proper thing to do. The Patricians were still and silent.

And through the streets around the Forum, there were Barbarian cheers, and sword-hilts rapped on the rims of resonant shields.

Svartskerry: Part 1

See also: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

“How much do you know about what happened at Svartskerry?” Abigail asked, casually stepping off the pier into the little dinghy, bobbing in the murky harbour.

“I don’t know anything except it’s meant to be haunted.” Replied Sophie, tentatively stumbling onboard and quickly sitting down.

Abigail started the engine, and the boat began to pull away.

“It’s haunted as fuck. There’s a pretty cool story behind it as well.”

“Go on.”

“You see what happened was, while the lighthouse was still working, there were two people living there, right? There was the lighthouse-keeper, and his assistant. Now the lighthouse keeper was pretty standard, right? He was just a guy who’d used to be in the Merchant Navy. But his assistant was more interesting. The thing with his assistant is nobody knows who he was. The name he was calling himself was almost certainly fake, and he never told anyone his real name. But he didn’t t in at all. He was very well-spoken, obviously educated. Going off his accent, he was English. But he barely spoke to anyone. He kept himself to himself, and nobody knows how or why he ended up out here at all, working at the lighthouse. I guess they were just desperate for people to work there and didn’t ask many questions.”

“Then what?”

The boat roared through the voe, cutting through the bluegreen-brown waves, as the village became nothing more than a series of white specks beneath the lowering clouds.

Sophie would never admit it to Abigail, but she was starting to feel seasick.

“What’s that, Sophie? You want me to slow down?” Abigail taunted, over the hum of the engine and the roar of the waves against the bow.

“No, keep going. What happened to these lighthouse-keepers?”

The boat turned round a towering, grey headland, and into the open sea. Abigail, standing proudly, feet wide apart, at the helm, with the raging sea breeze whipping cold and salty spray across her face, turned her head back towards Sophie.

“So what happened was the two of them had been working there for a couple of years right? And one winter a storm blew up. You seen the storms out here? Waves 60 feet high crashing against the lighthouse, wind so strong it’s hard to stay standing. etc. etc. So anyway, the light’s on in the lighthouse one of these stormy nights, and in the morning it just stays on. And all day into the next night and the next day, until it starts to run out of fuel. So of course the lighthouse-keepers were meant to put the light out in the morning and light it at night and keep it topped up with fuel, so now people knew something was up.
“The problem was the sea was very rough, and there was no chance of landing a boat there, so they couldn’t get anyone to the lighthouse for a few days. When the sea had calmed down a bit and they got a chance, There was nobody there.

“They looked all over the lighthouse, but they didn’t find any traces of anyone. No bodies, nothing. Sort of a Marie Celeste kind of thing. The strangest part, though, was that the boat that they’d had moored at the jetty was still there. If the boat had been gone, you could have said they left in that, but it was still there. It was still tied up to the jetty. It didn’t look like there was any way they could have left, but there they weren’t.”

The shore was now nothing more than a black stripe on the horizon, beneath the brooding clouds. Abigail laughed as the little boat lurched up and down and up and down, bounding over the choppy water. Sophie tried to bury her head in her coat in an effort to keep of the frigid wind and biting spray.

“A few lighthouse keepers came and went, but none of them could handle it. The place was abandoned in the ’30s.”

Before long, their destination came into view – a mass of black slabs of rock, rising up from the water, and a dirty-white column piercing the menacing sky. Abigail turned off the engine, and the boat just bobbed, silently, as the waves rolled around it. She stepped up to the bow and stood there, like Washington Crossing the Delaware, as she surveyed the rugged skerry, looking for a landing site.

The rocks on the near side of the island had been beaten into a precariously balanced arch, and Sophie became briefly mesmerised by the waves rising up, crashing around inside it, foam racing up into the crevices of the layered rock and then back out. In and out and up and down and in and out…

“Hey! Sophie!” Abigail shouted.

Sophie lifted up her head and looked over to where Abigail was pointing. She couldn’t help but smile as she noticed a big, blubbery seal roll over and slide and drag itself off the rocks into the dark water.

Abigail returned to the helm, and the engine sputtered back into life. She began slowly steering the boat round the skerry, eventually pulling up alongside the rusty remains of an old iron jetty.

She vaulted up onto the bent metal platform. Sophie, eager to stand on firm ground again, tried to stand up.

“Hold on a moment, will you?” Abigail reprimanded her, as she secured the boat to a post, caked in rust, and did the same at the other end.

Sophie took her hand and heaved herself up, staggering onto the uneven surface. Abigail leapt back into the boat and pulled out a carrier bag full of food, a crate of lager, two sleeping bags and a hurricane lamp, passing them up to Sophie.

Slowly and cautiously, to avoid slipping on the rocks that gleamed with rain and spray, the two adventurers scrambled up towards the windswept lighthouse.