The City on the Rock

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Author: AJ Cooper

This story originally appeared in Mindflights Magazine in September 2008.

Salan knew his city was dying.

Its invincible walls crumbled. Its eternal garden was wilting. Its majestic towers no longer rained brimstone on its enemies.

Why? That was the question everyone wanted the answer to. Did the gods scorn its immorality? Salan didn’t think so. The government was self-serving, but the people were good. Every man he knew loved his wife. Every child he knew loved his mother.

So why?

This was the question he pondered as he walked down Calar Street. It was late. He had been working nights as a guard, sometimes until the midnight bell. But it was the least he could do for his city.

He watched the street’s limestone villas as he walked. Most were spacious, multi-story mansions complete with gardens, stables, and grand dining halls. The stone used to build them came from the western mountains, quarried and hauled into the city by oxcart in blocks. Salan lived on this street. He was the captain of the Tower Guard, the invincible knights who guarded the city. The knights who never bled. The rocks against the tempest.

Or so it had been, long ago.

One of his men, a Tower Guard, met him beside his house. It was Darshan, a swarthy man who was second in command. “Hello, lord-captain,” he said with a smile.

“Hello,” Salan said, “What are you doing here?”

“Just heading home to the Tower. And you?” Darshan said.

“Walking to my house. Shouldn’t you be in bed?”

Darshan smiled. “I was in the park, captain, dealing with some criminals.”

“Very well.” Salan smiled back at him. “I will see you in the morning, then. Good day.”

They parted ways quickly.

~*~

He turned into a small house he called his own. It was a bit smaller than the rest, plain and unadorned. It was square in shape, white as snow, with a porch outside supported by intricate columns. A small candle, burning bright, illuminated the window. In the front was a garden his wife tended, growing saffron and spices for cooking.

He opened the cedar door, said, “I’m home!” but there was no answer.

His wife, Darmela, lay sprawled across the expensive silk sheets of their bed. As she lay there quietly, he noticed her soft black hair strewn about her back, scented with oils and perfume. His son, Dala, slept soundly in his room. He knew his son missed him.

He had tried to get him to go on the tiger hunt a week ago, but Dala hated sports and physical activity. Dala liked reading books, and studying the stars: two things Salan had no interest in. At eight years old, Salan could do few things besides shut him up in a monastery or get him an apprenticeship with a scribe. He would not be the next Tower Captain as he had hoped, and so far Darmela had been unable to bear him another child.

On their cedar table was a shiny pewter plate. On it, a tiny portion of roast mutton and some wine of Northern vintage. Both cold. Darmela had probably cooked it for him at about dusk, hoping he would return.

Salan sat down to eat, picking up his prongs and razor-sharp knife. He cut along the bone and chewed the meat, realizing how hungry he was.  He had been too overworked, too concerned, to be hungry. Physical work often masked his weariness—when he was famished in body or mind, all he had to do was go patrol or search for crime.

The wine filled his mouth with flavor.

“Salan,” Darmela said in her sleep, turning on her side. “Salan! Hold me…”

~*~

Frowning, he finished off the wine and ate the last scraps of mutton, wiping his greasy mouth with a cotton napkin. He wished he could spend more time with his family. He could, he supposed, but he was too concerned with the fate of Baradon. Darmela often said he was more concerned with the city than his family.

“Gods of the sky, heal my city,” he prayed as he had so often before. But the gods never answered. The city continued in its downward slope, and it seemed they turned a deaf ear.  In days long ago the gods blessed their city greatly, filling it with wealth from every nation in the world. Its gold stockpiles grew in such excess that they used the precious metal to create great works of art. But those days were long gone. They now used their works of gold to pay their dwindling army, to secure their borders and refurbish the invincible walls that now crumbled.

The wind whispered through the shutters. A light drizzle picked up. Wind blew and shook the stalwart cedars in Salan’s backyard.

Rising, he walked to the kitchen to wash his pewter dish.

He poured water onto it from a silver laver, forming a small pool. Then he looked inside the watery plate. And that was when it struck him.

Two luminous eyes stared into his from the waters. He could see a strange figure in the reflection, frightening him a bit. He looked deeper, taking note of a spacious rocky cave. He pondered what it could be.

“It cannot heal itself!” shrieked Darmela, still sleeping. “Only a sword can heal it, and then only a while!”

“The Pools!” Salan said, “The Nine Pools are defiled!”

Lightning cracked a mile away, ushering in a voluminous rain. It pattered hard on the rooftop.

The Nine Pools in the caverns below the city held the city’s magic within like a dam did to a river. If touched or even breathed upon, the magic would leak and gush, dissipating throughout the countryside rather than staying concentrated in one location. This was the reason for the city’s curse; the gods finally answered him.

~*~

Salan opened the door and took off at a brisk walk. He was not in armor—all he had was a small steel poniard and a cloak—and whatever had defiled the Pools needed to be fought appropriately. He needed to get his equipment.

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