Hephaestus the Cripple

As Aerin emerged from between the stone pillars of the library towards the main square filled with the hustle and bustle of every day life in the city she swore she heard the faintest of calls. She stopped in her tracks and turned towards the direction she thought it had come from and listened intently. Nothing. Perhaps the sound had been merely caused by the whirling wind. It was unusual to hear shouting as such, bar the traditional city announcements in the square, for raised voices were, in general, frowned upon in Ilus. The guards were always quick to act in these circumstances for fear of uprising. Any family feuds were settled behind closed door.

The call came again. It seemed to Aerin to be the faintest of calls carried, not from within the city but from beyond the city wall to her ear by the cool southerly breeze. Outside the wall! She could not hear what was shouted she only knew that it struck fear into her very soul, so much so that she was momentarily pinned to the soil on which she stood. And she was not alone. The central plaza had ground to a halt. If a pin were to have dropped, it would have been heard. The shouting grew louder and louder, closer and closer the source traveled until eventually the sound was not simply an unintelligible noise but crisp formed words. “All d e a d” it said.

All in the square stood quietly to listen. Aerin picked up her feet and began to run with a brisk step towards the gates of the city to see what, or more correctly whom had broken the peace so vociferously. “All d e a d” said the voice again, shaking with exhaustion and fear. As Aerin arrived at the giant cold metal gates guarding the city she could see beyond. “Beyond!” Aerin thought. The guards had opened them and betwixt the two doors stood an unassuming man hunched over a stick. The gap created was slim, barely enough for the cripple to pass. Aerin ran to the nearest house and scrambled up the wall by a rusty pipe, easing herself onto its flat roof. “I must see more” said Aerin to herself. From her vantage point Aerin caught a glimpse of a faint dirt track heading north and a few trees on the horizon. A row of armored guards quickly descended from the wall and surrounded the man as he stumbled wearily into the city. Quickly the gates to the world shut. The way was blocked once more.

There on the steps to the city stood a crippled man bent over a thick wooden staff. His head was bowed low under his hood but his free arm was stretched upwards, hand wildly posed almost as if to tear down the very sun itself to plunge Ilus into darkness. No one had ever attempted to enter the city from outside, “how was it possible?” Aerin thought. “All d e a d” the cripple repeated. The guards stood tall, their spotless gold armor shimmering in the sun. They quickly pushed the cripple through before them and dragged the giant bolt back across the gate. Two guards then took the cripple by the arms and lead him into the city. A crowd quickly gathered to watch proceedings, whispering to each other “who is the stranger?” As they moved forward the cripple scuffed the ground with his damaged leg which dragged a little behind him. The guards and the crippled figure seemed worlds apart yet they stood side by side. Soon a large enough crowd gathered that Aerin could barely see the tip of the cripple’s staff through the throng. The cripple did not say a word, presumably by the guards’ request, until he reached the main square and stood before the government buildings, then he was silent no longer. The cripple proclaimed, or rather shouted, in a bellowing voice that echoed with unimaginable loss and darkness:

“I HAVE SEEN. I HAVE SEEN THE CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT! THEY HAVE COME, DARKNESS HAS COME! ALL ARE PERISHED UPON THE HILL OF EREA! DEATH WALKS IN ILLYRIA AND IT WILL WALK WITHIN THESE CITY WALLS!… IT HAS BEEN FORESEEN! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES! NIGHT HAS COME! FLEE, FLEE THE DARKNESS! YOU MUST HELP ME! HELP YOURSELVES. SAVE THE CITY- YOU MUST LISTEN!”

The cripple’s face seemed bleached by fear yet still he stood strong and proud. A silence fell upon the city that shook Aerin’s sole. There was not a word spoken for what seemed an eternity as if all were unwilling to break the spell that had been cast by the cripple’s words. Then one voice struck up, an uneasy laugh that broke the silence like a wave breaking onto jagged rock “HA”. Then another, then another. They all began to laugh, that is all bar the cripple… and Aerin. Soon the laughter turned to chatter, then shouts until food and other such things began to be thrown by children at the cripple. Some even shouted “What rubbish! What a madman! This city will never fall? Where is this land Illryia?” Aerin, her heart thumping against her ribcage, pushed anxiously to the front of the crowd and studied the cripple closely. He seemed saddened by what he saw but made no attempt to run away or avoid the food or retort against the barbarous words that were thrown at him.

Aerin pitied the cripple, He seemed only to have presented a warning to the city and deserved no such taunts. Eventually the noble Aetates Provectus arrived waving their hands to quieten the rabble upon a high balcony from a viewing platform. They must have been watching proceedings and waiting for an ideal moment. The most senior of the elders, Caeco stood upon the highest step of the platform and started to address the crowd. His purple cloak blew behind him and his thin lips were hid behind a wispy beard. His words were carefully precise and gave little of explanation. “Peace, children of Ilus. This man is ill- do not mock the ill. No harm can come upon us of the City! No creature would dare try to breach our walls. These walls have stood since the dawn of time! They will not fall! There are no such worries, be at peace citizens. This man will be escorted to the dungeons of the tower for I fear for his own safety and sanity and shall receive our medical help.”

This satisfied the crowds. They stopped throwing their food and muttering their words.  “This is the direct cause of going beyond the walls. Children of Ilus be warned!” said Caeco. He smiled, pleased with this concise conclusion. He beckoned more guards to break up the crowd whilst finishing his short speech with “Please leave the gate area. No more talk is needed upon these matters…all is well.” He abruptly turned upon his heel and disappeared behind a dark reddish curtain into the government house once more. “Gone in a moment” thought Aerin.
Another two elders beckoned two more guards to escort the cripple down to some steps to beneath the government building. “Typical” said Aerin underneath her breath. It seemed that the guards were leading the cripple to Ilus’ underused dungeons. “So much for words” she thought, and leaped down from the house’s roof, her feet causing a small cloud of dust to rise as she unsettled the earth on impact. The dungeons were a place for soddled men who had drunk too much brewed hops at the annual Eudaimonia festival or those very few who were caught stealing not for hapless fearful strangers. Aerin was sad to see the cripple leave for she had a deep desire to learn more from him and was concerned that there lay something more sinister behind Caeco’s offer of medical assistance. She had never liked the old man and had found him curt and pompous in the past but now found his words to be clinical. She started immediately to think of a way to visit the stranger in his new damp and dark home beneath the City. “Damn them all!” thought Aerin pulling her dark cloak once more over her curly hair, frowning as she remembered the spiteful ignorant words of citizens and Aetates Provectus alike. She hurried home, deep in contemplation. “I WILL see him again” Aerin thought determinedly.

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