Freebie Mondays: Ashes in the Attic

Freebie Mondays: Ashes in the Attic

Way back in college, I took one singular writing class. We had to put together three different short stories. The singular goal was to say something about the human condition. I have already shared the other two stories I wrote for that class elsewhere on the sight. My final story was A Glimpse of God. My favorite story was Blood for the Dead. Here, at last, is my first attempt.

Of the three stories, this is my least favorite, probably because it was the safest feeling of the three, and it doesn’t feature a character I really care about. But I still think it’s a cool story. So please enjoy it!
. . .

Captain Threver Elmzrod trudged the last few feet up the icy hill and came to rest at its peak, peering at the city below. He allowed his eyes to wander, taking in the city of Shynis. Its once proud facade had been shattered. The shining, white-washed buildings which usually greeted weary travelers were pockmarked with holes and ugly black scars where they had been raked by flames. Where shingled roofs should have stood in ranks, there were instead patches of blue-grey sky, framed by jagged outcroppings of rock. Tendrils of smoke spiraled from several quarters of the ruined city, lazily seeking the sky.

Threver turned his face away from the sad sight. Some of the fires plundering the city of Shynis had already burned themselves out. They had come too late. Another city had fallen to the vile barbarian armies without their swords to stem the flow.

He caught movement on the edge of his vision and turned to face the direction from which he’d come. The contingent of men whom he served as leader were catching up, climbing the steep slope more slowly to conserve their energy. Sadly, there seemed little on which they could exert those saved energies now. They would be lucky to find any barbarians left in the city.

With a wave, he called his men to a halt. They complied almost as one, a few shuffling quickly back to their proper places to ensure every line was perfectly straight. Their captain surveyed them with pride. In full uniform, it was almost impossible to tell the men apart; their only distinguishing features the individual dints in their armor. Each man wore a long, faded red tunic and dark grey wool leggings. Over top the drab clothing they wore their armor, steel breast plates and shoulder guards, dulled from years of wear. At their waists were identical leather belts, and on every man’s left hip rested his sword, sharpened and eager for battle. On every head rested a steel helmet with shaped flaps to protect the cheeks and the backs of their necks. Threver wore a similar uniform. Its only distinguishing features were the blood red cape that nearly brushed the grass at his feet and the crest etched into his breast plate to signify his rank.

The captain wasted no time. He delivered the sad news swiftly, moving on to his orders before the men had time to linger on the regretful loss of Shynis. They would see the devastation for themselves soon enough.

“We must go down to the city!” he declared. “We must discover any enemy soldiers who remain in the city’s ruins. If possible, we must determine their next destination, so that we may arrive before another such tragedy occurs!”

It didn’t take long to get his men moving again. They made their way down the other side of the hill and spread out among the ruined streets, weaving through the city blocks and around piles of rubble that lay in their path. They went in groups of three or four, trying to cover the vast area as quickly as possible. If any barbarians still lurked within the city ruins, they would have to be swift in sniffing them out, before they slid into the forests beyond and made good their escape.

Threver, however, walked alone through the charred ruins, confident in his abilities, certain he could defend himself should unexpected danger arise. He kept alert, eyes searching the shadows cast by the empty buildings. When the ample footsteps of his men faded in the distance, only the sound of the wind whistling through the open alleyways kept him company. It saddened him to realize a beautiful, bustling retreat had been reduced to this ghost town. There were no signs of life. Even the footprints left in the snow to testify to the struggle were almost completely concealed by a heavy blanket of ash. His own footsteps seemed to echo back to him. It was easy to forget his men were only a few blocks away, conducting the same search and perhaps finding the same results: a great deal of nothing.

He walked down several streets and found them much the same. He was turning a corner when his keen eyes caught sight of something off; a splash of white where there should have been an unbroken coat of ash over the snow. Immediately he was on guard, searching for the source of the single pair of footprints. Ears alert, straining to hear even the faintest sound, Threver knelt over the pattern in the snow to better examine the prints. It was immediately apparent they didn’t belong to any of his men. Aside from the fact that they were all traveling in groups, the tread did not match their boots.

Almost the moment he turned his head to see where the trail lead, his straining ears caught the small scrape of stone striking stone. It was followed by the rasp of a sword being drawn free of its sheath.

Captain Threver Elmzrod was left with mere moments to react. There was no time for thought or he likely would have lost his head. He threw thought to the whistling winds and allowed instinct to rule instead. His sword slid free of its sheath so quickly it almost seemed a living creature leaping into his hands of its own free will. He gathered his strength into his legs, coiled like a cat waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. His heart pounded in his chest and the blood rushed behind his ears. For a moment there was calm of the sort that only appears just before a storm.

Then he caught sight of his foe. The man leapt free of a pile of rubble and dove forward, his blade aimed for Threver’s chest. The captain reacted in kind, springing forward to meet the attack, brandishing his blade to deflect the oncoming blow. He felt the impact as the blades collided. For a moment, the fierce glare of his opponent was very close to his face. Then, as one, they pushed each other away, giving ground in order to regain their bearings.

There was no reprieve. Threver’s foe seemed as unwilling to flee the encounter as he. Scowling at each other with matching hostility, each swept forward at almost the same moment. Threver’s opponent was a split second faster, and the captain had to dive left to avoid the deadly arc of the other man’s blade. He recovered quickly and jabbed at his enemy’s exposed abdomen. The barbarian dodged, displaying the same level of skill possessed by Threver, but he wasn’t quite fast enough. The blade caught the soft flesh of his side, just above the hip, where no armor protected his body. Threver’s blade came away stained with the blood of his enemy. There was a splash of crimson against the grey of the churned up snow and ash.

The barbarian howled angrily and charged again. The wound wasn’t severe enough to disable him. He dove forward, driving his blade at Threver’s chest, hatred in his eyes. Threver brought his blade around, intent on deflecting the blow. The moment came for their swords to meet…

Trevor!” The voice drifted up the stairs, muffled by the distance it had to travel to reach his ears.

Captain Threver Elmzrod’s sword never clashed dramatically with that of his opponent. His barbarian foe returned to his true form. There was no grizzled man in brown furs with long, ratted hair. He had faded back into the wooden doll stand his mother once used to display dresses she wished to sell. The face of a cartoonish barbarian had been fastened to the neck of the stand with several pieces of scotch tape. The face wasn’t glaring or even angry. Instead it displayed a toothy grin. He hadn’t been able to find a better picture.

His sword, no longer fine, sharp steel, returned to cheap plastic, bent in several places from being bashed too hard against the solid surfaces he used to simulate his imaginary foes. His helmet was a dull metal cooking pot, so dented from a trip down the stairs his mother had decided it was no longer useful. His cape was a ratty old towel, tied loosely around his neck and left to drape over his shoulders.

No longer a captain and no longer a man, seven year old Trevor let his plastic sword point droop until it dragged on the wooden floor.

“Aww mom!” he called back down the stairs. His voice was the usual mix of disappointment and annoyance at the interruption of his imaginary war. Somehow his mother always managed to call for him just when things were getting exciting.

“Lunch is ready!” his mother’s voice drifted back up the stairs.

Trevor released a rather forlorn sigh. He was completely torn now between his epic battle with the barbarian and whatever delicious meal his mother had prepared for him this fine afternoon. His mother’s cooking had to be the best cooking on the entire face of the earth. He liked it even better than when they got to go out to restaurants and have their food brought to them by strangers dressed up in uniforms. His mother always seemed to know exactly what it was he craved.

He offered no immediate answer to his mother’s summons. Instead his eyes scanned the small attic once more. This was his favorite playground. The ruined city was just blocks and boxes. The ashes nothing more than a fine sheet of dust his mother could never seem to get rid of. She was always displeased with him for dragging it back down into the rest of the house, but he just couldn’t give up his favorite room.

Up here, with just the single circular window and the bare wooden wall frames, there seemed to be a sort of magic the rest of the house lacked. There was no pastel paint to please the eyes, no plush carpet to pad his feet. When he was away from all the finely painted walls with their photographs of family that lived far away, and the desks, chairs and beds that littered all the floor space everywhere else, he could step into a world entirely of his own creation. So long as there was no definite structure, no defined purpose assigned to the unfinished space, Trevor could impose his will to make it his own. In the same way his sister plastered posters of her favorite band all over the game room and rearranged the furniture to suit her needs – though the room was meant to belong to both of them – Trevor could let his fantasies take over. With some effort, the boxes could be arranged any way he chose. He’d even found some old, forgotten knickknacks his parents had packed away that made excellent additions to the fictional towns he constructed.

So long as he had the attic, Trevor didn’t need a silly old game room. He didn’t need the organized structure that seemed so important to the rest of the world. It was most important at school where he was expected to sit quietly and read from his text books, where he could see history but could not touch it. When it was time to write math problems, Trevor was always getting in trouble. He preferred to look out the window and imagine what it would be like if he was on a journey through outer space. Or out in the school yard climbing the trees. That always got him into trouble too. Don’t climb the trees! Don’t go further than the end of the street! In the attic there was no one to tell him no.

At home it was no different; he was always too young: too young to be in the game room when his sister had friends over, too young to understand about girls, too young to figure out what the news anchors were really talking about. In the attic he was never too young.

To anyone else the attic would have seemed nothing more than a mess at the moment. His building blocks were scattered across the floor to represent the rubble from last night’s storming of the great city Aldast, the barbarian stronghold. Captain Threver Elmzrod had led the invasion, which had resulted in the vengeful sacking of Shynis by the angered barbarian horde. The previous night’s destruction easily served  as this morning’s similarly devastated city. He’d had a great deal of fun toppling the imaginary buildings, scattering the blocks and tossing empty boxes across the room. It had kicked up so much noise, his mother had made him take his bath early. But it had been worth it.

“Trevor!” his mother’s voice called sharply this time. He jumped as his thoughts were forced to return to the present. “It’s going to get cold!”

Trevor sighed again. He would have to abandon his struggle against the barbarian, perhaps even leave it unfinished.

“Coming!” he called back, offering the response promptly to avoid his mother’s wrath when he did finally make his way downstairs.

Moving quickly now, he dropped his plastic sword and removed the dented metal pot from his head. He laid it beside the top step where it would be easy to retrieve when he returned, and fumbled to untie his tattered cape. The towel was tossed haphazardly inside the pot. Then he hurried down the rickety wooden staircase, taking special care not to trip and tumble head over heels into the upstairs hallway like his mother always warned would happen if he ran on the stairs.

His mind was already bursting with ideas for the afternoon. He could gather up his blocks and create a vast temple. The Temple of Banad, where Captain Threver Elmzroad would have his epic rematch against his barbarian foe. The battle would take place on the grand temple stairs. The barbarian horde would run rampant through the city attempting to burn it to the ground, but Captain Threver would lead his men into the city in the nick of time, triumphantly swelling the ranks of the heroic army. There would be a party! There would be drinking and parades! Captain Threver Elmzrod would become the most celebrated hero ever to have lived! He bet no one ever ordered the captain to clean his room the way his mother was always nagging him. It would likely take him all afternoon to arrange the attic in preparation.

For now, however, his lunch awaited his arrival and he intended to have it while it was still warm.

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